Cuba: Money Is Better in Dollars / Ivan Garcia

dolares1-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 6 April 2015 — Without being an expert in economic matters or the Wall Street currency market, Erasmo likes to trust his instincts. For fourteen years he has been engaged in buying and selling dollars and euros.

Also convertible pesos. In the doorway of his house, within walking distance of a state-run currency exchange (CADECA), he offers his services in a lowered voice to the people standing in line to buy or sell CUCs.

“Privately buying or selling currency is illegal in Cuba. The police have already sent me a warning letter and I have paid two fines of 1,200 Cuban pesos (about 50 dollars) for transacting currency exchanges.”

His modus operandi is simple. Like the state, he buys the CUC for 24 pesos and resells it for 25. But for international currencies, such as the dollar or the euro, he pays a better price than the state banks.

“I’m starting to see Cuban residents of the U.S. who are visiting the island, wanting to exchange five or six thousand dollars. The state pays 0.87 CUC for every dollar. I offer 0.94 CUC for bills up to twenty dollars. On large bills of 50 and 100 dollars I pay 0.95. And I have clients who I will buy from at one-for-one,” said Erasmo.

The olive-green regime has mounted exchange operations remote from the framework of world prices. Cuba, despite its third-world economy and infrastructure, by official decree pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar by its own free will.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the Cuban peso was valued on par with the dollar. But economic planning and nationalization of businesses dramatically reduced the production of goods and wealth.

The State used artificial exchange rates and prohibited the possession of hard currency. Cuban law carried punishments of up to five years’ imprisonment for persons possessing foreign currency or engaging in currency exchange.

In street slang, “jinetear” [jockeying]—a word that used to be used for prostitution—was applied to people prowling hotels and resorts to buy dollars, paying a better price than that offered at the official exchange.

“During the mid-80s, I went every day to La Rampa, in Vedado, to “jockey” greenbacks. The government bought dollars one-for-one. We jineteros paid four or five pesos. We invested the profits in buying clothes and food from foreign students or residents who bought them at stores selling for U.S. dollars, to which we Cubans were prohibited access,” says Juan Carlos, who has been conducting clandestine foreign exchange for more than thirty years.

In 1993, with the legalization of the U.S. dollar, hyperinflation soared in the country. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the USSR, Cuba plunged into an era of poverty.

Oxen replaced tractors, and one hot meal a day was a family event. Food prices soared and the dollar reached a value of 150 Cuban pesos.

By the late 90s, the storm subsided and the US dollar stabilized at 24 pesos. Throughout the island hundreds of CADECAS opened, allowing people to buy or sell dollars.

In 2005, following a banking scandal in the Swiss bank UBS, which was fined one hundred million dollars by OFAC, in order to replace old dollars in a five-billion-dollar account in the name of the Cuban regime, Fidel Castro decreed a tax of 20% on the currency of the United States, his archenemy.

Illegal moneychangers like Erasmo began to sell the dollar at a better price. “The thousands of Cuban doctors and professionals working in Ecuador, Venezuela, and South Africa bought them one by one. They invested those dollars to buy duty-free goods, mobile phones, or plasma televisions which they then resold at three times their purchase price.”

In 2011, General Raúl Castro fixed the exchange rate for the dollar at 87 cents. “On the black market we’re always two or three steps ahead when it comes to the monetary policies of the government. It’s simple: we’re on the street and are guided by supply and demand. The state only knows how to govern with monopolies and decrees, not with the market,” Erasmo says.

That diluted exchange rate hurt more than 700,000 Cubans living in the U.S. who visited their homeland in 2014. “They’ve built a casino. Between one thing and another, I spent nearly seven thousand dollars. Their assessment siphoned off $910. They’re bandits,” says Santiago, a Havanan who lives in New York.

Augusto, an economist, suggests to people that they save whatever foreign exchange they get in dollars. “It is advisable, especially right now with the fall of the euro and the resurgence of the dollar. According to my calculations, when the currency in Cuba is unified, the dollar will shoot up. It won’t reach 120 pesos as in the 90s, but it will trade at three times what the banks pay, because inflation can become dangerous in the future, for the lack of takeoff in production of goods and food. If the government wants to increase tourism from the U.S. it should eliminate the arbitrary 13% tax.”

Since the summer of 2013, the military autocracy has declared its intention to unify the currency. Periodic rumors cause Cubans-without-milk-for-coffee to cover their backs for a possible devaluation of the convertible peso, changing their savings into dollars.

The Castro regime has ensured that, for the moment, the savings of citizens will not be affected. But the instinct of guys like Erasmo says that the money saved under the mattress is best held in dollars. Just in case.

Obama Bolsters His Popularity in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

A Cuban boy playing in the street in central Havana. From El Nuevo Herald.

Ivan Garcia, 14 April 2015 — While a marathon of presidential speeches takes place at Panama City’s Atlapa convention center, back in Cuba the real civil society — the one about which many talk but to which few listen — is biting its nails in front of the television, watching the Cuban baseball playoffs between the Tigers from Ciego de Avila and the Pirates from Isla de la Juventud.

Yordan, a steel worker from the outskirts of Havana, was one of them. It was while sitting down to play dominoes and drink rum with neighborhood friends one night that he learned about the meeting between Obama and Castro.

Suddenly in the role of armchair analysts, they speculated a bit about what a future partnership with the U.S. might hold.

“Listen, in spite of fifty-five years of being bombarded by negative press about the Yankees, most Cubans who decide to emigrate choose to go to the Yuma*. In Cuba everyone goes wild for American brands. Those old, worn-out theories and that stuff about annexation have nothing to do with what you see. Relatives and friends come back fatter and better dressed. They take you out for a beer, they show you photos of their cars and later they send you a tablet or smart phone. That is more powerful than any propaganda,” says Yordan, ebullient after downing half a liter of cheap rum. Continue reading

Summit of the Americas: Inconsequential to the Average Cuban / Ivan Garcia

Source: Cubanet

Ivan Garcia, 9 April 2015 — After the Sunday hangover drinking beer with various friends, Jose Pablo reluctantly tends to his stall where he sells pirated CDs with Hollywood films and Mexican and Colombian narco-novelas. At his stand you can find 2015 Oscar winners and in a worn black backpack, a collection of national and foreign pornography.

Jose Pablo is a talkative type. But when you ask him what benefits the upcoming Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama April 10-11, would bring, with a sneer he responds, “Nothing. All these summits, be they Latin American, or CELAC, are more of the same. Speeches full of promises that in the end resolve nothing. It’s all rhetoric. It is an unnecessary waste of money. Continue reading

Cuba-USA: Enthusiasm Has Been Waning / Ivan Garcia

habana-bicitaxi2-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 28 March 2015 – It feels like a lot of time has gone by since noon on December 17 when Rogelio Horta’s family sat dumbfounded in front of the television listening to Raul Castro announce that Cuba and the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations.

Everything seemed perfect. There would be improved telecommunications and internet. Self-employed workers and cooperatives would have access to credit. If differences between the two countries were patched up, the economic situation would improve. But as time passed, people’s expectations changed,” admits Rogelio, the owner of a cafe southwest of Havana.

Three months after the newsflash, the feeling among average Cubans is that the new developments will not significantly change their lives. Continue reading

Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Fotos-y-Videos-para-Quinces-bachecubano-620-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 28 February 2015 — Fourteen-year-old Yanisbel has one hot meal a day and the roof of her house leaks but her mother and grandparents have been saving for a decade to stage a traditional quinceañera, a celebration of her fifteenth birthday.

“All the women in my family celebrated their fifteenth birthdays,” says her mother. “My daughter should too. Maybe we won’t be able to throw a blow-out party. We don’t have relatives in government or in Miami but at least we’ll have photos taken, buy her three new outfits and throw a little party for her school friends.”

Yanisbel’s grandparents sell prepared lunches and milk caramels. They keep some of their earnings in a ceramic jar. “Fifteenth birthday parties get more expensive every day. An album of one photo session and a video is going to cost us 200 CUC. Then there are the costs for the dress, the buffet and beverages for the party. More than 600 chavitos (convertible pesos) in total,” her grandfather explains. “That’s the equivalent of five-years’ worth of pension for a retired person.” Continue reading

Five Years of the Blog “From Havana” / Ivan Garcia

Ivan Garcia, 8 March 2015 — When I decided to write a blog, at the end of December 2008, my pretensions were minimal.

I had decided to take a break in order to dedicate my time to my daughter, Melany, who was then two years old. Although I wasn’t writing, mentally I continued to be focused on journalism. Those were difficult times. Repression from the hard liners of State Security was at its highest point.

In March 2003, a choleric Fidel Castro had ordered the imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents. Among them, 27 free journalists. Independent journalism was going through its worst phase. Continue reading

Cuba: Potatoes from the Ration Book (When Available) / Ivan Garcia

policia-controlando-cola-de-papas-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2015 — The dirty, dilapidated produce market — its floor covered with red dirt and its shelving rusty — in Cerro’s crowded El Pilar neighborhood is ten minutes by car from the center of Havana. Sandra, a housewife, has spent two nights in line here waiting for potatoes.

“At three in the afternoon the truck arrived. It took an hour to unload them and, when they went on sale, the line was a block long. The commotion was incredible. The police had to come to restore order. There was a ton of people in line and I ended up not being able to buy potatoes. The manager and his employees kept a lot of bags for themselves to sell on the side,” Sandra says, who was able to buy twenty pounds of potatoes two days later after spending another night in line.

Neither American comedian Conan O’Brien’s show in Havana nor the selfies of Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell with the local playboys nor the predicaments of President Nicolas Maduro have kept the average Cuban from attending to her pressing daily needs. Continue reading

The Ladies in White Should Change Their Political Profile / Ivan Garcia

damas-de-blanco-por-la-quinta-avenida-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 March 2015 — During the hot summer of 2013 I remember Blanca Reyes, wife of the poet and journalist Raul Rivero, writing letters to the pope in the Vatican, to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, reminding them that Fidel Castro had sentenced Rivero to twenty years behind bars for writing without approval.

Reyes was speaking on behalf her husband and seventy-four other prisoners of conscience detained in March 2003. I saw up close the suffering of these women. At mid-morning, armed with baskets of food and toiletries, they traveled hundreds of kilometers to visit their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in jail.

They were also prisoners of the system. Later they decided to organize. They were like a clan. Laura Pollán was a natural leader who began acting Continue reading

The Conversations and Aspirations of Many Cuban Students / Ivan Garcia

cuba-estudiantes-de-secundaria-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 13 March 2015 — For a group of sixth grade students at the elementary school named after Juan Oscar Alvarado — a 19-year-old underground fighter, assassinated in 1958 in a house in the Sevillano neighborhood where they hid arms — located in that peaceful Havana neighborhood, their plans for the future are far from Cuba.

For them, the country is a disposable object to be thrown out when it is no longer useful. During recess, at ten in the morning, several girls gathered in the school’s courtyard to have a snack.

While snacking, they chat idly about fashion, material aspirations and what happened in the day’s Brazilian soap opera. Although dressed in their ugly uniforms with burgundy skirts and white shirts, designed by a distasteful dressmaker, when you look at their feet you see Nikes, Adidas, New Balance, Converse or Reebok. Continue reading

Radio Marti: The Voice of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

programa-cuba-al-dia-de-radio-marti-_mn-620x330

Iván García, 24 February 2015 — One summer during a stay in Camaguey — a province 340 miles east of Havana — the owner of a house where I was staying listened from early morning to Radio Marti, a network created in 1985 under the administration of Ronald Reagan with the goal of providing Cubans with information uncensored or manipulated by the Castro government.

The woman told me that since 1985 she has been listening to radio soap operas, news and a morning program geared to a rural audience. When I travelled to other provinces, nearly all the people with whom I spoke said they got their information from or followed big league baseball on Radio Marti, which is probably heard more in the countryside than Continue reading

With Raul Castro, Are the Poor Poorer? / Ivan Garcia

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Iván García, 26 February 2015 — José lives with his wife and five kids, crammed into a nine by twelve foot space with a wooden platform, in a shack in Santos Suárez, a slum south of Havana.

The tenement is a precarious spot where the electric cables hang from the roof,  water runs down the narrow central passage from the plumbing leaks, and a disgusting smell of sewage hangs in your nose for hours.

That shack forms part of a group of ramshackle settlements where more than 90 thousand Havanans live, according to Joel, a housing official in the 10 de Octubre municipality.

There are worse places. On the outskirts of the capital, shantytowns are spreading like the invasive marabou weed. There are more than 50 of them. Houses made of sections of aluminium and cardboard, without any sanitation Continue reading

Seven Hours with Jorge Luis Piloto in Miami / Ivan Garcia

Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Iván García, 4 February 2015 — For the prolific and noteworthy Cuban composer, Jorge Luis Piloto Alsar, born in the winter of 1955 in Cárdenas in the town of Matanzas, some 145 kilometers north of Havana, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his songs would achieve international fame.

Let’s get into the time machine. An ordinary day in the ’70’s. Culturally speaking, Cuba was going through a rough period. Writers, poets and composers are being administered by the state, following Fidel Castro’s decree.

The cinema, novels, la guaracha, and sound must highlight the exploits of the revolution. The government controls all of it. In your profile, you have to indicate how many marches you have been on and how much voluntary work you have participated in, if you want to pass the summer in a house on the beach, have a Russian fridge Continue reading