The Private Sector, the Most Powerful in Cuba / Iván García

Private snack bar. Taken from On Cuba Magazine.

Ivan Garcia, 17 November 2017 — While several business owners from the island connected to the internet in the lobby of the EB Miami hotel a stone’s throw from the international airport, and others drank beer at nine dollars at the bar, a Cuban dissident lawyer who spent more than a decade in Puerto Rico and a former political prisoner of Fidel Castro’s regime were trying to understand the new social dynamic that exists in Cuba.

The diverse group of participants in the Cuba Internet Freedom event, organized by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) that took place over three days at the Miami Ad School in the picturesque Wynwood neighborhood, included software and app developers, independent economic analysts, owners of small food service businesses and the gay director of a digital magazine for Cuban gamers. continue reading

Of course there were also political activists such as Eliecer Ávila, Rosa Maria Payá, Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina and Ailer González, along with audiovisual producers and independent journalists who are openly anti-Castro. But it was the group of Cuban entrepreneurs, young people very well prepared, unprejudiced and with an approach focused more on economics than politics, who generated mixed feelings not only among a segment of the historical exile that suffered severe repression first hand — shootings of relatives or friends and many years in prison — but also among some of today’s opponents from the island, convinced that the formula to overthrow the regime of the Castro brothers is street marches or writing the word “Plebiscite” on the ballots for the election of delegates to the People’s Power Assemblies.

Passionate debates, sometimes risqué, or with the usual accusations of calling any person who criticizes the opposition or thinks differently an agent of State Security, rather than promoting dialogue, raised the wall of intransigence. Yaima Pardo, a talented independent documentary maker left a bad taste in the mouths of the exile sector that labeled him as ‘apolitical’ although it did not accuse him to his face of being part of the olive-green autocracy.

“The mere fact of coming and participating in forums considered counterrevolutionary by the government is an important step. We do not have to think like the dissidence. I recognize the pain of a segment of exile, but those were other times. My goal is to live in a society where freedom of expression is not a crime. We all want the same thing, a better homeland, but they are always attacking those of us with different opinions,” said the documentary maker.

Yodalys Sánchez, co-owner with her uncle of the paladar (private restaurant) Doña Carmela, next to the San Carlos fortress of La Cabaña, prefers to talk about how complex it is to succeed in business matters in Cuba.

“I have thirty workers and our sales are going very well. We have grown based on creativity despite the harassment of state institutions. In Cuba everything is difficult: from getting the food and condiments, to preparing the daily menu, to having to pay unsustainable taxes. Of course I am interested in a better future for my country, but what I do not like is that there are Cubans both from Miami and from the island, who believe that to demonstrate something, we have to make public statements against the government. That’s not my job,” Yodalys said.

Probably the frustration of the historical exile, compatriots who arrived in Miami with a suitcase and an empty wallet who thought, after having their properties or businesses confiscated, that their time in exile would be brief, find their discernment clouded. Emotion can overcome good sense. But they did not emigrate because of economic problems. They were practically ordered to leave their homeland, in many cases after having been political prisoners and having their lives in danger.

But Cuba today differs a lot from that of the first years of the Castro revolution. Yes, it is true, it is still governed by a regime that curtails the essential rights of any modern democracy. But the fall of Soviet communism, combined with international pressure from Western countries, an increase in internal dissidence and the existence of an incipient free press, has forced them to yield in the economic arena.

It is still too little. There are too many controls and restrictions on small private businesses making a lot of money, something aberrant: like asking the fourth batter to just tap the ball.

Even in the political terrain there is a retreat. They beat the Ladies in White and barricade opponents of the UNPACU in the eastern region or illegally prohibit dissidents from running as candidates for district delegates, but the firing squads have been replaced by brief arrests and ordinary people are losing their fear and, even in the open street, freely criticize the state of affairs in Cuba.

In this complex panorama, more than two hundred Cuban journalists without gags write for media and websites based in Florida, Madrid or Havana. And on the island there are so many dissident groups and independent initiatives of all kinds that no one can keep track of them all. Twenty years ago, none of that was possible without going to prison.

In a dictatorship, its weakness or retreat is measured by those small victories achieved in the midst of intense repression. And yes, today Castroism is more fragile than two decades ago. It has less social control and thanks to the internet it can no longer control information at its own whim. Everywhere, Caribbean totalitarianism is taking on water.

In my opinion, it is not the dissidence that is going to lead the regime to come to an agreement with its people and open the gates. It will be private entrepreneurs and their demands which will lead to the desired change.

It is hard to believe that within the ranks of the opposition and exile, who always brandished the weapon of private enterprise, they now judge with reservations the most thriving sector. Along with the invasive marabú weed, it is one of the few things that thrives on the Island.

Travel and Immigration Reforms Will Bring More Hard Currency to Cuba / Iván García

Photo taken from Martí Noticias

Ivan Garcia, 2 November 2017 — Twice a week, Mayté, a bank employee, usually talks with and sees her daughter through an internet app that she uses from a park in western Havana. The travel and immigration rules that the Cuba authorities will begin to apply as of 1 January 2018, still won’t allow professionals like Mayté’s daughter, who abandoned her posting in a foreign countries, to visit Cuba.

“The new measures don’t repeal the rules that prevent doctors and professionals who abandon their missions abroad to return before eight years have passed. Right now, everything is the same. They [the regime] have an urgent need to find money, so they are implementing these new travel and immigration reforms,” says Mayté, after talking with her daughter in Miami through the IMO app. continue reading

An immigration official, who requested anonymity, said that “there will be gradual changes in travel and immigration regulations, both for Cubans living in the country, and Cubans living abroad.”

Martí News wanted to know if future reforms would cancel the prohibition that prevents professionals, categorized as deserters, from traveling to Cuba before they have been away eight years, and when the extensive blacklist prohibiting opponents of the regime living abroad from visiting their homeland would be eliminated.

“The policy that after two years certain rights are lost will change in the short term,” says the official, referring to the current policy that requires Cubans who remain out of the country for more than 24 months to get special permission to return.

“Also the prohibition of professionals who defected from different missions,” he adds, “and a provision that allows doctors who once decided to leave, to return to the country is in force. But the issue of belligerent Cubans who seek to change our political system is different. That remains a matter of national security. Although for humanitarian situations they have authorized their entry into the country. The State is interested in maintaining a fluid relationship with its emigrants. And all possible openings will be made in that sense,” the official explained.

“Then in the near future will Cuban emigrants be able to hold public jobs?” I ask him.

“Right now I don’t know. But I repeat, the government wants better relations with the emigrants, especially with anyone who is non-confrontational,” he responds.

Eduardo, an economist, says that the new measures “are aimed at capturing as much fresh currency as possible. In the middle of the current economic recession, which has all the signs of becoming a deep crisis due to the 40 percent decrease in oil imports from Venezuela, and with Russia and China apparently unwilling to get involved in the unproductive local economy, as happened in past decades, there is no doubt that the government needs to open new ways to raise more dollars and euros. Family remittances, retail trade in convertible pesos and tourism for Cubans settled in other countries, is a business that moves millions. With these travel measures, and others that could come, such as facilitating the creation of small and medium businesses run by Cubans living abroad, the economic situation could take a favorable turn. As long as they do it in an impartial, independent and reliable legal framework.”

Carlos, a sociologist, doubts that these travel and immigration regulations are the first of a later set of economic reforms focused on private entrepreneurs or stimulating future business with Cuban emigrés.

“I don’t believe it. Those provisions are to improve the flow of liquidity in the state coffers. Until proven otherwise, the regime has always watched with concern the authorization of busineses by Cubans who, among other reasons, left because they disagreed with the socialist system. The current Investment Law does not prohibit Cubans living in other nations from doing business in Cuba, but in practice the state does not open the door for them. In times of uncertainty, with a worsening economic crisis and the backtracking in relations with the United States, the rapprochement with the exile would help to move the country forward. But there is a caste of conservatives within the government who do not approve of this approach. Look at the handbrake they put on people working for themselves. The objective of these travel and immigration reforms is purely financial,” the sociologist explains.

Luisa, the mother of a Havana baseball player who plays in the minor leagues in the United States, believes that “the government should repeal all the laws that prevent Cuban players, doctors and other professionals who stayed during a mission or sporting event from traveling back to Cuba. Bad, good or regular, they are Cuban and they have families here. If they could come freely, and not wait for eight years to pass, if they could open businesses and in the case of the players, compete for the national team, that would contribute to maintaining better relations with an emigration has been vilified. They have branded those who left as scum, traitors, worms.”

Yasmany, the father of two children living in Miami, says that with the recently announced measures “the government is not doing any favors to the Cuban emigrants. It is a right that is contemplated in international laws. If they approve it now, it’s simply because they need money.”

Gloria, a lawyer, states that “it is a legal aberration that Cubans have to get a special stamp on their passport in order to travel to their own country. All that is absurd. The convenient thing would be that they can come and go without legal obstacles on the part of the state. Also that they can establish businesses in their homeland, occupy political positions or live one season abroad and another on the island. In recent years, the government has made progress in the area of travel and immigration, but it is opening spaces little by little.”

Many people consulted agree that, in the same way that Havana is the capital of all Cubans, Cuba is the home of all Cubans, wherever they live and however they think. And no one should have the right to regulate their freedom to travel or to settle in their native city when they can or want to.

But the regime has another point of view. That is why it governs the island as if it were its property.

Translated by Jim

How Cubans Remember the Missile Crisis / Iván García

Headline in a newspaper of the time: End of the Crisis

Ivan Garcia, 30 October 2017 — The leaden sky presaging rain did not stop Hector, 79, from roasting chicken breasts and a snapper over charcoal. In his house in Víbora Park in the Arroyo Naranjo neighborhood in the south of Havana, the atmosphere was festive. His brother Humberto, who has lived in Canada for 20 years, was visiting Cuba with his children and grandchildren.

On the patio, the adults shared beers and nostalgia, while they listened to the Spanish group Nino Bravo on the stereo. In the living room the youngest members of the family were dancing and singing Despacito, by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. continue reading

It was just after one o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, October 22nd. At that hour, Humberto turned on a small battery radio and started listening to the news. The announcer recalled that 55 years ago, John F. Kennedy addressed a 17-minute televised message to the American people and publicly announced that a naval blockade would be established against Cuba.

Humberto experienced those two weeks of uncertainty on the Island. After a brief silence, he recounts his personal experience. “I was 24 years old and I had just graduated in civil engineering. Like most Cubans, I supported Fidel Castro. I enrolled voluntarily in the militias. I passed a quick course on antiaircraft artillery and they sent a group of us to an area of Pinar del Río that today belongs to the municipality of San Luis. Later I would find out that very close to our unit they had deployed Soviet nuclear missiles,” recalls Humberto and adds:

“In Cuba we did not have the slightest idea what a nuclear conflict was. We were uninformed, there were no shelters or the necessary supplies. There was no awareness of what an atomic war represented. In a night watch, on October 22, 1962, the battalion chief told us about Kennedy’s speech and Khrushchev’s decision not to stop the ships traveling to Cuba. ‘War is a matter of days away,’ the boss told us. Among the troops it was thought that it would be a kind of safari to hunt Yankees. Morale was sky high after the Bay of Pigs. Someone said: ‘Comrades, this conflict is different. There will be no winners or losers, we are all going to die.’ That was when I realized the seriousness of the situation.”

The former political prisoner and journalist Pedro Corzo, now living in Miami, in 1962 was already an opponent of Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“I lived in San Diego del Valle, a town in the old province of Las Villas. I had not been imprisoned yet, but there is ample evidence that the dictatorship planted dynamite around the entire perimeter of the Model Prison and other prisons where the political prisoners were, and as events unfolded, they were ready to blow them up. In the village there was a strong movement of Russian troops and weapons. At that time, opponents never thought that it was nuclear missiles. When the armaments passed through San Diego del Valle, the army told us to go inside, close the windows and not look out.”

In October of 1962, Tania Quintero was about to turn 20 years old. “What I remember most about those days is that ordinary Cubans did not know what was happening and mocked the Soviets, ‘Russians’ became a disparaging term. I think that was when they started calling them ‘bolos’ — bowling pins — because they were so crude,” says the current independent journalist, who since November 2003 has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee.

According to Tania, “The feelings of the Cuban leaders were adopted by the population. The people didn’t want the Americans to get a foot in the door and wanted them to let the Soviets install the rockets on the island. You’d hear people say, ’Why did you bring [the weapons] then? They are assholes if they allow them to send them back.’ It seemed like they were talking about conventional weapons and not missiles. They called Khrushchev ‘Nikita Nipone’ (someone who neither removes the rockets or leaves them in place.) That’s how simple and superficial things were to ordinary people. The chill came later, when we knew what was at stake, in Cuba and in the world. Fidel Castro never spoke clearly to the people and told us that we were on the verge of a holocaust.

“We didn’t know and didn’t see and so we weren’t terrified, despite the huge military mobilization that was visible all over the Havana and especially along the Malecon, with the soldiers behind sandbags and the ‘four-mouths’ (anti-aircraft batteries) ready to shoot if ‘a little enemy plane’ tried to get close.”

Alberto, a retired former military officer, never thought that Cuba would be wiped off the map in the event of a nuclear conflict with the United States. “The perception that I had and that was shared by the vast majority of the population, was of the Cuban military dominance. We believed that the USSR’s armament was superior and that the Soviets would have a secret weapon that would prevent a Yankee attack. We did not know that the correlation of forces in nuclear missiles was one to eight in favor of the Americans. Neither television, radio nor the ICAIC news reported on the dangerous situation we were in. Despite the fact that only 17 years had passed since the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with thousands of deaths and irreversible damages to the survivors. In Cuba, I believe that by Fidel’s direction, people were not told about the harmful effects of a nuclear mushroom cloud. The only thing that Fidel cared about was going down in history. We were manipulated, we were naive. In the same situation the North Koreans are in today. ”

Magdalena, a housewife, was born in December 1962 and says that her parents had told her about the October Crisis. “But I came to know that we were on the verge of a third world war, when in 2001 I saw the film Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner. It was hard for me to believe that what was narrated on the screen really happened and I realized that in 1962 my parents lacked information and did not know the magnitude of the situation created between Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union. Luckily, the ‘bolos’ took their rockets out of the country. ”

After the fall of the Soviet empire, some secret archives were opened to the public, among them the letters exchanged by Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. In one of the missives the Caribbean autocrat urges the president of the Soviet Union to launch the first strike. But the official media hide and barely analyze that epistolary exchange that reveals the irresponsibility of Fidel Castro and puts into question his gift as a statesman.

Fifty-five years after the Missile Crisis, many young Cubans are unaware of the real context of the events and the reckless spirit of their rulers, who summoned the people to immolate themselves.

Dayán, a third year high school student, in a mechanical tone, explains what he knows about that stage, according to what he learned in class: “After the Bay of Pigs, there were plans by the United States and the CIA to invade Cuba. That is why the USSR decided to place nuclear weapons in our territory, as a deterrent force. The Revolutionary Government did not agree. What they wanted was a commitment from the Soviets, that in case of aggression against Cuba it would be considered an aggression against the USSR. When Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, what bothered Fidel most was that the Russians did not use him to negotiate a better solution. In other words, in return, withdraw the rockets, close the Guantanamo Naval Base and confirm the commitment of the United States not to invade Cuba.”

The official story about the Missile Crisis only relates the part that reflects well on the regime. It is silent about the rest.  Or tries to forget it.

What Remains of Che in Cuba / Iván García

Che T-Shirts in Santa Clara, Cuba, among other souvenirs. Taken from the blog Flora the Explorer.

Iván García, 9 October 2017 — Inside a Miami house devoid of grand architectural pretensions is a museum devoted to Brigade 2506. It commemorates the Cuban troops who came from the United States to confront the island’s militias and armed forces at the Bay of Pigs.

On several wooden panels hung on the walls are hundreds of photos of combatants in who fell in armed confrontation against the communist system imposed by the Castro brothers in those years. continue reading

With any luck, you might run into Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA agent who on October 8, 1967 captured the Argentinian guerilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia.

Rodríguez, an elderly man who maintains a military posture despite physical ailments, has on countless occasions recounted an episode that demystifies the image of the illustrious hero that Cuba’s dictators wants to promote.

No one, not even his adversaries, question Che’s courage. But on that cold morning Guevara was forced to surrender after being ambushed by the Bolivian army.

The man who captured him reports that at the time Che was wounded, dressed in rags and in possession of an unused firearm. He was also very disappointed to have lost contact with Havana. Rodriguez remembers that he still had bullets in his pistol and that upon surrender he told his captors, “I am worth more alive than dead.” That is what Felix Rodriguez also believed.

But orders from superior officers were to execute him and to bury his body in a section of runway at the Vallegrande airport. This fact is overlooked in official accounts by the Castro government. They prefer to emphasize his heroism and guerrilla leadership.

Che Guevara’s life has become an imprecise myth. In Cuba his death is commemorated on October 8 though he actually died in a hail of gunfire a day later. John Lee Anderson, who has researched the life of Guevara, claims that the date of birth — June 14, 1928 — is false, that he was actually born a month earlier in the Argentinian city of Rosario.

After gaining immortality by winning the last, decisive battle of the Cuban revolution in Santa Clara, Guevara’s exploits in the field of combat were reduced to a string of failures. Because conditions in the Congo and Bolivia were not conducive to guerrilla warfare, skirmishes there turned into bloodbaths.

He did not distinguish himself in the field of economics either. After Guevara was appointed head of the national bank and Minister of Industry, he tried to graft his concept of the “New Man” onto the normal commercial, wage and financial rules by which a country is governed. The results were routinely bad.

His enemies accuse him of murder. While he was the commander of La Cabaña Fortress, he signed five hundred summary death sentences  A dedicated Communist, he always came off as a sullen, inflexible guy during his time in the Sierra Maestra, though one who was highly cultured. He personally recruited a number of subversive guerrillas.

His disregard for material possessions, his austerity and his personal integrity were probably his most striking personal qualities. And above all he risked his own neck to validate his “truths.”

Along with Fidel Castro, Guevara is today one of the patron saints of the revolution, which has now evolved into the perfect dictatorship. From childhood, Cubans are inculcated in the almost religious cult of Che.

“I remember in pre-school they told us stories about Che and his friendship with Camilo [Cienfuegos] and Fidel. Then you enter primary school and every morning they make you repeat the slogan ’Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.’ This systematic indoctrination has left a mark on many people,” recalls Octavio, a civil engineer.

Ada, an educator, argues that the way the life and work of Che Guevara has been advertised and marketed is “simply atrocious.” She adds, ” They create conditioned reflexes that end up beatifying figures of the revolution. But when you reach adulthood, you recognize them as being the ones guilty for the national disaster. The same thing happens with Che. His mistakes as [economics] minister are minimized while the government’s advertising campaign emphasizes his abilities as a leader. Among young people in the western world he is a more iconic figure than Lenin or Mao and this has made him into a political marketing tool. People with no attachments to Communist ideology, such as Madonna or Mike Tyson, get tattooed with his likeness. His face is printed on T-shirts and luxury wristwatches. Major brands have used his image in publicity campaigns.”

In a mansion in Guanabo, a town to the east of the capital famous for its beach, lives one of Cuba’s best tattoo artists. I asked if Che’s image still sold well.

“It’s one of the top sellers, not just among foreigners but among Cubans as well,” he says. “What has always struck me is how many freaks, sex fiends, liberals and lovers of capitalism pick his image for a tattoo because Che was the antithesis of all that. You don’t often see officials from the Young Communist League or the Communist Party coming here for tattoos even though they are his most loyal followers. Perhaps it’s because of the pain, or the cost. Every tattoo costs from twenty-five to fifty convertible pesos,” says the Havana tattoo artist.

If anyone has profited off Che’s visage it is his family in Cuba. Under the pretext of promoting her father’s work, Aleida Guevara has created a foundation in his name whose trademark yields good economic dividends.

Let’s call him Ruben. He is a person intimately familiar with the Che Guevara Foundation’s scams. “The fat lady (Aleida) does not miss a thing,” he says. “Two years ago a left-wing South American publisher released a book on Che’s ideas and Aleida sued them, demanding payment. Che would have been very honest but his Cuban descendants are litigious. They like money more than sweet coconut.”

Daniel, a fan of Harley Davidson motorcycles, recalls, “At a time when there were very few people in Cuba who cared about Harleys, some of us formed a club which met on weekends. After going through a lot of red tape, we organized a Harley festival in Varadero which riders from other countries would attend. But when Che’s two sons, Camilo and Ernestico, got wind of it, they took over. They partnered with Gaviota, opened a bar in Varadero which charged in hard currency, rented out brand new Harleys and charged $2,500 to $3,000 to tour the entire island. They have falsified history; the motorcycle Che used on this tour through South America was a Norton 500.

Ernesto Guevara works better as a business venture than an ideology. At the time of his detention, he told his captor, Felix Rodriguez, that he was worth more alive than dead. He was not mistaken.

Cuba and Its Perennial Shortages / Iván García

Diario Las Américas

14ymedio biggerIvan Garcia, 17 October 2017 — Chest pains, migraines and inflamed feet alerted Oneida’s family that the 82-year-old with a long history of diabetes and cancer was not well.

Her children rushed her to the emergency room at Miguel Enriquez Hospital, in the Luyano neighborhood in south Havana, where their mother was admitted to intermediate intensive care.

The team of specialists who attended Oneida asked if the family had relatives or friends abroad who could buy medicines unavailable in the country, because after two months without the required treatments the lady was experiencing imbalances in her body. continue reading

“This time she was saved from death, but if she continues not taking the required medications, the story may be different,” said one of the doctors who attended my mother,” says Ernesto, Oneida’s son. “For four months now, three of the medicines the old woman takes are missing from pharmacies and hospital supplies. I have no relatives abroad. I’m working with the church people to try to get it. My mother, moreover, must follow a strict diet and because of the scarcity of food, it is very complicated. ”

Diario Las Américas asked Yanisbel, the administrator of a pharmacy in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populous in the capital, how many medicines are missing and whether it was known when the public health authorities think they might remedy the deficit.

“I run a main pharmacy and there are about 162 drugs missing. Some have been missing for a year. Others arrive at intervals and in small quantities. Essential medicines, such as salbutamol sprays for asthmatics or Enalapril for hypertensives, didn’t come in for three months. A group of 40 to 50 medications ranging from antihistamines to those intended for diabetics for circulatory problems, which are distributed through a card to patients who must take them consistently, haven’t been available for months,” she says.

Eugenia, a retiree, spent about eight months without treating an eruption on her arms, legs and back for lack of Clobetasol lotion. “In the end, I had to spend almost 10 chavitos (CUC – Cuban convertible pesos) from the money my niece sent me and buy it at the international pharmacy in the Habana Libre Hotel. She recently sent me several tubes of Clobetazol and the rash went away. Many medicines are gone and you can’t even find them under the table.”

The underground market, where there is generally a better supply than in the state retail network, doesn’t have the medications either.

“The reason is simple. If there are no medicines in the Public Health warehouses, you will not find medicines on the street. All medicines sold [under the table] come from hospitals and state stores. A few of us live off those sales. But for almost a year the shortage of medicines has ‘kept us quiet’,” says a  worker at a drug store.

The absence of medications is not attributable to Hurricane Irma. “Several Chinese suppliers who sold us the raw material have stopped the imports because of repeated defaults on the payments. That is the fundamental reason our pharmaceutical industry has entered into crisis,” says an official of the Reinaldo Gutiérrez Laboratory.

But shortages go beyond medicines. If you make a tour of the country’s shops and markets you will notice the absence of essential foods in the Cuban diet.

In a small foreign exchange establishment located on Calzada de Diez Octubre at Lagueruela, the shelves are packed with three products: vegetable oil, rum and mayonnaise imported from the United States. In the meat fridge, there are only pork burgers, at 0.70 CUC each.

“Before Irma there was already a shortage, but after the hurricane passed, shortages became more acute. Now we are lacking ground meat, chicken, sausages, canned sardines, spaghetti and soda crackers, among others. At one meeting they told us that these products were destined for the victims of the cyclone, as if the rest of us Cubans don’t have mouths,” says a clerk.

Yamila, a 55-year-old engineer, told me that she visited “all the markets of Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Vedado to buy food and all I could buy was two packs of chicken and one of beef liver. They had toilet paper for sale in La Época, on Galiano Street, and the lines were tremendous. It looked like they were giving out visas to the United States.”

With the extraordinary capacity of government officials to evade reality, Diario Las Americas spoke with a manager of TRD Caribe, the network of stores run by GAESA, the military emporium that controls 80 percent of Cuba’s hard currency businesses, the causes of shortages and their possible solution.

The man cleared his throat a couple of times, answered a phone call on his cell phone and then started to answer. “First we have to take into account that Irma was not an ordinary hurricane. It affected 13 of the 16 Cuban provinces, almost the whole country,” he says, opening his eyes. After a pause he adds:

“Having said this, then we must take into account that a certain existing shortage is attributable to the transfer of products to areas most affected or to hoarding by unscrupulous people who are then dedicated to resell it.” 

“But the shortage has been going on for over a year. And toilet paper, which is sold exclusively in hard currency, is not essential for families who lost their homes. Or is it because Hurricane Irma affected several warehouses of tourism supplies, they were forced to transfer toilet paper to the hotels?” I ask him.

“There is no such shortage, and if it exists it is occasional. It happens that with the increase of private businesses, demand exceeds supply. As for toilet paper there was a problem in its production for lack of imported raw material. But the ship is already in port and in a few months the deficit will be overcome. It has nothing to do with tourism,” said the official with an optimistic speech.

Two Cubas coexist. That of the official narrative that the country has the winds in its sails, and the real one, where the price of food is high, many medicines scarce, and the substitute for toilet paper is usually torn pages of the newspaper Granma.

Interview with Julio Ferrer Tamayo, Independent Cuban Lawyer / Iván García

Julio Ferrer Tamayo, independent Cuban lawyer (Photo: Ivan Garcia)

Ivan Garcia,25 September 2017 — If you want to go to the house of the 58-year-old dissident lawyer, Julio Ferrer Tamayo, the busy Esquina de Tejas, which is ten minutes by car from central Havana, can do as a reference point. Four important city streets meet at the famous corner; Monte, Infanta, Calzadas de Cerro, and Diez de Octubre.

Walking through a dirty, broken-tiled entrance way, after going past San Joaquin and Romay, you get to a tiny house, whose door opens out to Monte Street, and that is where Ferrer lives. He receives me in black shorts and a blue sweater. His home is  hot, and has an upstairs addition which serves as a bedroom and bathroom. In the little living room is a sofa and two armchairs with ochre coloured covers. There is a music centre and an old television on a display cabinet.

After being in jail for eleven months for reasons I will explain in a minute, Julio Ferrer was freed on August 25th. He’s a free man. Or at least, in theory. Six days later, on Thursday morning, August 31st, he received some good news. “In a judgement, a tribunal determined that my wife should be declared innocent. I don’t think they will let her out quickly, but I hope that before the end of the year she will be able to be back home”, says Ferrer. continue reading

Since July 31st, 2012, five years and one month ago, the lawyer Marienys Pavó Oñate has been sleeping in a grey prisoner’s uniform in a women’s prison to the east of the capital. “The process rigged up by the legal system against her and me was cobbled together with false evidence. They set up a witch-hunt against me because in 2009 I joined some independent lawyers’ associations”, Ferrer told me in a slow and deliberate tone.

His disagreements with the government started long before that. A native of Santiago de Cuba, 937 km east of Havana, Julio was brought up by his parents with the maxim that your dignity is non-negotiable.

Like most Cubans, he applauded anyone who spoke about prosperity and sovereignty. But he always formed his own opinions. After he qualified as a lawyer, he saw at first hand the corrupt legal practices in Cuba.

He became one of the most respected judges and a well-regarded lawyer in a totalitarian regime, where the body of law which regulates a society is just words in the air.

“Until 1993 I was a judge in the Guanabacoa Municipal Tribunal. When I took up the appointment, there were dozens of cases filed away, and other irregularities which, with the help of the team working with me, I managed to bring up to date. I have always observed a cardinal principle: respect the rule of law — promote just decisions with guaranteed procedures, and ensure that the different institutions, be they the District Attorney or the law enforcement agencies, correctly document every accusation. But, very often, those in charge of administering justice fail to comply with this precept. There are diverse reasons for this non-compliance”, explains Ferrer, “from poor work, to the most dangerous case: falsifying evidence in order to convict an innocent person”.

He cites as an example “the case of someone  who was remanded in custody, and the Tribunal didn’t even have the documentation. This person should have been set free immediately. In order to justify this arbitrary application of the law, they constructed a false case, even including a fake entry in the register of decisions

In his opinion, “Tribunals in Cuba are not autonomous. The system of justice is driven by the whims of the government and the police authorities. There are subtle coercive mechanisms whereby a judge submits to the desires of the municipal or provincial party organisation or the police. In the La Tutelar festival, which, on August 15th, is celebrated in honour of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the patron saint of Guanabacoa, the police referred to the Tribunal a truck full of people detained for supposed criminal activities, in the hope that we would make a speedy decision and throw them in jail. As the judge, seeing them violating criminal procedures, I set them free. For this, I was viewed with disapproval in the Ministry of the Interior, the Public Attorney’s office and the Communist Party”.

In Cuba, if you grant yourself autonomy, you pay a price. There is an invisible frontier, and nobody knows just how far you can go and how far is too far. And the lawyer Julio Ferrer crossed the line.

Ferrer recalls that “I had dossiers on people who were sanctioned and, because of various irregularities, were absolved and had to be given back their property. I remember the case of a bogus front company, managed by the Council of State, which openly flouted all the applicable legislation. An employee died because of an accident at work, and the Public Prosecutor accused an electrician as the supposedly guilty party. After studying all the documentation, I requested that the Director of the company and the Head of Human Resources appear before me as the accused, in order to clarify what happened. None other than José Luis Toledo Santander, who was then the Provincial Public Prosecutor and the Dean of the Law Faculty, and now heads up the Commision of Constitutional Affairs and National Assembly of Popular Power lawyers, came to my office to try to persuade me. When I wasn’t convinced, he simply voided the decision”.

Julio’s close friends told him about the animosity felt by the political and police authorities against him in the Guanabacoa Municipality of Havana. They had their eyes on him.

“Long before I became a dissident, I was identified as a ’problem’. They tried to buy me off in different ways but I stood my ground. Most of the judges and prosecutors who handled cases of interest to the state collaborate with State Security, and I never could accept that. In 1993 I decided to stop my activities as a judge and I started work as a lawyer in a collective law office. They never found me doing anything dirty. I was the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. I always kept up my studies, improving myself and keeping up-to-date. I specialised in criminal, administrative and military law. But I was a nuisance”, Ferrer confesses.

Then came the moment for scores to be settled. It happened in 2009 when he first joined the Cuban Legal Association, and then Cubalex, two organisations considered illegal by the government. That’s when the crusade began against the marriage of the two lawyers, Julio Ferrer Tamayo and Marienys Pavó Oñate. Cubalex, a  consultancy run by Laritza Diversant, was compulsorily dissolved by the State Security on September 23, 2016.

Anyone who disobeys Castroism knows that one of the special services’ favourite strategies to make an opponent cave in is to use their family. And Marienys, Ferrer’s wife, was the first victim. “They accused her of bribery and alleged falsification of the documents of her own house. Then later they sentenced her to nine years detention for fraud. And lastly, on a joint basis the sentence was fixed at seven years. It is all an invention. Her case cannot bear the most minimal legal analysis. What’s more, the prison governor has asked for different documentation from the tribunals and the response has been silence. My wife is a hostage. It’s a strategy to break me down”.

Julio himself has been accused by the government of various crimes. But in the end the authorities let him go free. “When, on September 23rd, they arbitrarily held me in the Cubalex offices, no-one, in five police units, wanted to take me, because of the obvious irregularities of the case. The whole process is a farce”, which is the word Ferrer uses to refer to the political police and the Cuban legal system.

Julio Ferrer completed eleven months of detention in Prison 1580, located in  San Miguel del Padrón, southeast of Havana. “Who pays for those judicial errors?” I ask him. There is in Cuba a norm for compensation after any arbitrary legal action. But it never happens, least of all with someone who is considered to be an enemy of the Revolution”, replies the independent lawyer, who still maintains his unequal dispute with the despotic state.

“I am going to present an action in the tribunals against chancellor Bruno Rodríguez for the falsehoods and calumnies presented against me in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva” says Ferrer.

“Who gains from this lawsuit? Don’t you know that Cuba is an authentic dictatorship?” I ask him. “Having a knowledge of the relevant laws puts you at an advantage. Not even the government complies with its own legislation. In this peaceful confrontation, we are demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the system. The weapon which can give us victory is having better legal knowledge than the government functionaries”, he replies.

Night starts to fall in El Pilar, the working class district in El Cerro where the untiring dissident lawyer lives. In the background you can hear the racket from a room near his home and a reggaeton at full volume.

Julio Ferrer turns on his old television. He wants to watch the National Series baseball game. Then he phones Carla, his daughter, and they chat for a while. Some day in October or November he hopes that his wife will knock on the door.

In the medium term, the Ferrer-Pavó partners will probably emigrate to the United States as political refugees. They don’t see any other way out.  They have suffered brutal harassment by the government. And in Cuba you find yourself in no mans land.

Translated by GH

What Cubans Say About the Partial Closure of the US Embassy / Iván García

Cuban Custodian of the US Embassy in Havana directs a citizen who may not know that the diplomatic headquarters is partially closed since September 29, 2017 and will not issue visas indefinitely. Taken from Sputnik Mundo.

Ivan Garcia, 6 October 2017 — On Friday, 29 September, a light intermittent drizzle and overcast sky lent a mournful touch to the area around the United States Embassy in Havana.

The six-story building with tinted glass and stone-clad facade, where every morning hundreds of people line up for consular appointments and dozens of dissidents wait to connect to the internet for free, seemed abandoned.

A few cars with diplomatic plates were parked in a side street very close to the main entrance of the embassy. Hurricane Irma’s furious winds and flooding from the sea caused damage to the building and and visa interviews had been postponed. continue reading

But the food service businesses and those dedicated to filling out visa forms were still at work. Pedro, 78, residing in a nearby building, works advising those who travel to the United States.

He charges the equivalent of $23 USD for shooting photos, filling out the visa application form and then sending it online to the consular office. On Friday afternoon, when it was learned that the Trump administration would indefinitely suspend the issuing of visas, Pedro was in his living room helping Daniel, a client with plans to fly to the United States before the end of the year. “I hope that the sea will recede and the embassy will return to serving Cubans who emigrate under the family reunification program. So far nothing has been said that these agreements have been broken,” says Daniel trying to be optimistic.

Pedro, owner of the small ’legal’ business, is not as optimistic. “I sense that this diplomatic war has just begun. Behind it is the intent to end the 20,000 annual visas that, under an agreement with Bill Clinton, they began to issue beginning in 1994. Anyone who is knowledgeable knows that Trump and the Clintons are political enemies. Trump has gotten it into his blond head to bury the entire legacy of Obama. The guy is worse than a hurricane. I support my family thanks to this work. If the embassy closes, I will have to find something else to do.”

Several private cafes and food outlets were deserted. “Ninety percent of our clients are the people who are doing immigration paperwork with the embassy. If the Yumas now decide to close it, I will have to turn in my business license,” says David, owner of a paladar (private restaurant) near Rivero Funeral Home.

In the park on Linea Street at the corner of L Streed, near the Camilo Cienfuegos Clinic for foreigners, several people connected to the internet via the wifi available in the park openly expressed their concern. “Good grief. It’s always the same: . It always happens the same: the American government gets into with those people and it’s the ordinary Cuba who always loses,” said a loud Havanan, holding his smartphone in front of his face while chatting with a relative in Florida.

Danay, a high school student, after speaking with the father through the IMO application, told Martí Noticia his impressions. “My mom and I wanted to emigrate to the United States this past July. But my dad, who has lived in New Jersey for fifteen years, told me to wait until the end of the year, so when I get there I can start college. And now look at the bomb that Trump just dropped. ”

Since the immigration agreements agreed upon by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro in 1994, nearly half a million Cubans have been able to emigrate in an orderly, legal and secure manner to the United States under the family reunification program.

After this temporary suspension, Cubans with plans to emigrate or visit their family in the North, began to generate unfounded rumors. “This was coming. Trump is the most anti-immigrant president in US history. Using the acoustic attacks as an excuse, they want to do away with 20,000 visas a year. Cuba was the only country in the world that had that privilege. First it was Obama, repealing the wet foot/dry foot policy. Now Trump. You will see that in the end they end up overturning the Cuban Adjustment Act. But even more to blame than Trump, are the Cuban-American members of congress who claim to defend the interests of the people on the island, but always end up fucking over the Cubans,” says Julian, self-employed.

For lack of detailed information, Cubans do not understand why the US government decided to temporarily close the embassy. The story of the acoustic attacks on a score of US officials reads like a script by John Le Carré.

“If the Russian weapons used by the Cuban armed forces are more than forty years old, where the hell is G-2 [State Security] is going to get an ultra modern sonic weapon. Nor do I believe the version that North Korea or Russia mounted that operation without involving the ’apparatus’ [State Security]. Nothing works here, but State Security has it all under control. That story is longer or parts of it are missing, things that have not been told,” says Livio, a retiree.

In a survey of 23 people (neighbors, friends, acquaintances and relatives), 12 responded that they believed the regime of Raúl Castro was not behind these acoustic aggressions, due to lack of technology; 6 said that if “Trump has taken these measures, it is because it’s some kind of trick,” and 5 said they did not know anything about it.

In the opposition, opinions are diverse. Manuel Cuesta Morúa, an academic, believes that “the Trump government has been quick to withdraw half of its diplomatic staff.”

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist, believes that “it is a sovereign decision of the United States government, because the embassy is part of its territory.” The veteran opponent thinks that “this decision will affect air flights, trips of Americans to Cuba and the entrance of dollars into the coffers of the regime”. And she points out that the regime’s response could be more repression. “I was going to travel to the United States and the Cuban authorities did not let me.”

The opponent and former political prisoner Angel Moya, husband of Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, agrees with Roque “that the United States has every right to protect its diplomatic officers who were subjected to a sonic attack,” he said, and added, “The Cuban population is very uninformed. Official sources have not reported that some Canadian officials were also affected. The reaction of the regime can manifest itself in several ways. One of them would be to repress even more regime opponents who are supporters of the Trump government.”

According to Juan González Febles, director of the weekly Primavera Digital, “The first beneficiary of the closure of the embassy is the regime. Now independent journalists and human rights activists cannot connect to the internet for free at the US embassy. It has also changed the situation for those who qualify for the family reunification program. A considerable part of Cubans, at some point, are planning to emigrate to the United States. Those 20,000 visas were an escape valve. With this measure, the most conservative wings of the dictatorship and exile won. And of course, the regime’s response will be to increase repression against the opposition.”

If they agree on anything, the dissidents interviewed agree that the decision to partially close the embassy is the first move of a strategy that could bring consequences in the political and repressive environment within Cuba.

The honeymoon between the Palace of the Revolution and the White House extended for two years. With the arrival of unpredictable Trump, analysts hoped that getting involved in the Cuban issue was not in his interest. But the reality has been different.

The US president has set out to reverse Obama’s policies. And Cuba was an important piece in that legacy. The feeling is that we are living the first chapter of a story that promises to be more extensive.

A battle in the style of Donald Trump. And waiting for the olive-green response from Raul Castro.

The Cold War Returns to Cuba / Iván García

Lining up in front of the US embassy in Havana. See note below.

Ivan Garcia, 3 October 2017 — “The worst thing after a hurricane is that the food is lost,” says high school teacher Liana, 37, after making the rounds of several farmer’s markets and stores in the old part of Havana.

“There are no eggs in the whole city, not even a package of hotdogs. More then 100 medications are missing from the pharmacies, and to top it off, Trump orders the closure of the embassy. Those of us who have plans to emigrate to the United States, we see Cuba as a mousetrap,” she says, summarizing her frustrations.

It seems that a lot of time has passed since that historic afternoon of 17 December 2014, when both nations emerged from the trenches they dug during the Cold War. continue reading

At supersonic speed, people went from the greatest optimism to the deepest indifference. The Castro autocracy, with its pathological fear of authentic reforms that would favor the people, did not undertake structural changes in the economy, nor did they accept Washington’s gifts to private entrepreneurs.

The military junta that rules Cuba did not disconnect the chip of confrontation and was convinced that Barack Obama’s strategy was to annihilate with white gloves the ineffective communist system.

The White House’s new strategy had more friends than enemies. Although a segment of Cuban exile and local dissidence considered that Obama gave much in exchange for nothing. That on the island a dictatorship still prevailed and the repression against those who think differently was increased.

“Cuba does not have to change, Cuba has already changed with Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959,” said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. Raul Castro’s game was to buy time and accept from the United States only those businesses that favored the capitalist corporations of the State. Zero deals with Google, “because they affect our digital sovereignty.”

Private workers can not be allowed to receive Yankee credits, because if they get rich, they can endanger the state of affairs. Authorize ferries? No way, because then Cubans living in the United States would enter Cuba with more than 200 pounds of stuff and the “hard currency collection stores” (as they are officially named), with prices at the level of Qatar, wouldn’t be able to sell so much as a single screw.

The regime only accepts cash. The strategy is to spend dollars on the island and benefit the olive-green (military) business network that runs all the businesses that generate hard currency.

If Raul Castro had been reasonable and taken advantage of the opportunities offered by Obama, the electoral victory of Trump would not have caught him with his pants down. He misplayed his cards. He thought he would continue floating in the cloud of the gatopardismo* with the imminent triumph of Hillary Clinton.

But Trump, the unpredictable New York tycoon, surprised both Tyrians and Trojans. And now, the regime of Castro II is forced to play on the defensive. With nothing to grab on to.

Russia, is no longer the Soviet Union. China is communist only in theory: in practice it wants business in exchange for money. Venezuela is on fire. And in America First by Donald Trump, Cuba does not offer profitability.

Trump, a leader who uses Twitter as a hunting rifle, a priori is winning the game against Castro. And, incidentally,he kills two birds with one stone.

He is pleased with the conservative wing of the Cuban exile and puts a stop to the immigration blackmail of his late brother, who in 1994 forced Bill Clinton to sign an agreement with Cuba for 20,000 annual visas in exchange for curbing the illegal exodus of the rafters.

The Cuban people, as always, are the losers. It is true that it is a sovereign decision of the United States to protect its officials. But the plot of “Ear-gate” sounds like a lousy Cold War espionage movie.

There are too many unanswered questions. Aurelio, 28, who was hoping to emigrate to Miami under the family reunification agreement, feels that the Trump government has betrayed him.

“We Cubans are alone. I really did not imagine that Marco Rubio and the Cuban-American members of congress were going to forsake those who were legally immigrating. An agreement is an agreement. I hope Trump will reconsider, “says Aurelio.

I doubt it. Because Trump sees that Clinton agreement, like Obama’s legacy, as a bad agreement. The US president believes he can make a better deal.

Cubans on the Island are hostages of a military autocracy that will not unleash the country’s internal productive forces, puts the brakes on private work on a large scale and transforms citizens into zombies.

He is also a hostage of the most conservative wing of the Cuban exile, who from their seats in the Capitol, as a weapon of pressure to overthrow Castroism, utilize a set of prohibitions that affect Cubans on the island who must drink their coffee without milk, while six decades of history has verified that these pressures have not contributed to bringing democracy to the country.

They are constantly shooting themselves in the foot. Neither the Obama formula nor Trump’s prescription will prevent the repression of dissent. In a rapture of civility, Raul Castro will not bet on democracy.

The pressure cooker theory will not work by remote control. Cubans are more likely to throw themselves into the sea on anything that floats, than they are to go out into the streets to shout freedom. Dictatorships have complex dynamics. Congenital inefficiency corrodes them like cancer. They fall by their own weight.

The dream of the hardline exile, of an indignant sea of people taking the Palace of the Revolution by storm, while on the other side of the puddle the professional political agitators celebrate with champagne, is just that, a dream.

Most ordinary Cubans are tired of everything. Since they have no vocation to martyrdom, they choose to emigrate. And watch from Miami, in colors and high definition, the longed for “riots in the streets of Havana.”

Cubans can be accused of being cowards. But not fools.

Photo note: Every day, from Monday to Friday, a line similar to the one in the photo forms as Cubans line up for consular procedures related to temporary trips for personal reasons or work in the United States or be permanently reunited with their families. But from the measures taken on September 29 by the US State Department, for an indefinite time the granting of visas is stopped and the current number of US diplomats and officials accredited in Cuba will be reduced by 60 percent. To those drastic measures is added an alert so that citizens of the United States will not travel to the Island. The new tightness or cold war on this occasion was motivated by alleged acoustic attacks that between 2016 and 2017 have damaged the hearing of and caused other health problems for US and Canadian diplomats in Havana. Although the United States is investigating what has happened and has not formally accused Cuba of being behind the mysterious sonic aggressions, nor has it shown any evidence, it decided to take measures that will affect the families of the almost two million Cubans living on the other side and, in general, to the march of relations between Cuba and the United States, reestablished on December 17, 2014 (Tania Quintero).

*Translator’s note: “Gatopardismo” is a term that means “changing everything so that nothing changes.” The term comes from the novel “Gattopardo” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

What if Hurricane María had gone through Cuba? / Iván García

Photo: By Yariel Valdés González in Caibarié, a fishing village to the north of Villa Clara province, which suffered greatly in the path of Irma. Taken by Periodismo de Barrio

Ivan Garcia, 22 September 2017 — In that bit of Havana between Calle Línea and Avenida del Malecón, people are still taking out mattresses, clothes, furniture, and other things damaged by the sea which was driven inland by the powerful Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, and leaving them to air in the sun.

In any park, house in multiple occupation, or corner in Vedado, with a network of buildings and grand old houses with designs ranging from Art Deco and Neo-Classical to reinforced concrete, built before Fidel Castro changed architecture into the clunky and the vulgar, their residents tell stories with typical Cuban exaggeration. continue reading

“I am telling you that when the water got into the garage in my building, the cars were floating. It felt as if someone was tapping on the wall of my room, and it was the cars, which were drifting about like crazy spinning tops,” I am assured by Ignacio a 76-year-old pensioner, standing in a queue to get a portion of yellow rice with hot dogs for 5 pesos (20 cents USD).

In various kiosks improvised by the state to help people affected by Irma’s blast, they sell packets of crackers for 25 pesos, tins of sardines for 28 pesos and guava sticks for 17.

“People with money don’t buy that food, because here we now have electric light and gas in the street. This kind of “grub” is for the poorest people, who, both before and after the hurricane, lived without a cent to their name. The government doesn’t begin to understand that families who have no money, and there are lots of them, cannot buy stuff, even if they sell it cheap. They should give this food away without charge. It’s not our fault we are poor,” says Luis Manuel, a man with calloused hands who collects empty drink and beer cans and then sells them as a raw material.

Not everyone living in El Vedado is upper crust, earning lots of money and being sent dollars from family on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Just like Miramar and other middle class districts in Havana before 1959, El Vedado has been marginalised, many houses are in danger of collapsing, and lots of elegant residences have been transformed into slum tenements with hundreds of families living in dodgy conditions.

The patio of the big old house where the poet Dulce María Loynaz lived, in 14th Street between Línea and  Calzada, has been converted into a plot with innumerable pigstys made of wood and panels thrown up in a hurry.

Round and about the US embassy, where the hurricane mercilessly attacked the building, there are clusters of residential areas and basements of buildings converted into apartments which have been flooded up to the ceiling by sea water.

Magda, a single mother with three children, who sells cleaning products, clothing and memory cards on the side, brought to Havana in suitcases by “mules,” believes she is dogged by misfortune.

“I don’t know why, but destiny is treating me cruelly. I fight to take care of my kids, I am an honest person, I don’t rob or blame anybody. I have bad luck, like I was born under a bad sign.  I have spent fifty years  trying to live the way God wants and trying to get out of being poor. And there’s no way.  And now the government comes down from the clouds with the news that it’s going to sell building materials at half price. They’re either fools or they’re playing the fool. Can’t they understand that people aren’t living badly because they’re masochists? It’s because the money we have coming in isn’t enough to live any better. For people like me, with the roof falling down around our heads, the only way to repair your house is if the state covers all the cost,” says an angry Magda.

Up and down the country there is a frank discussion concerning what kind of strategy there should be about building materials needed to deal with natural disasters. Some think there should be affordable insurance policies, others that designers and civil engineers should come up with houses which are more hurricane-resistant.

“It’s a viscious circle. Every year the government sells you panels and poor quality building materials, and the following year, when a new hurricane comes along, the wind destroys your roof or your house again. What do they make corrugated iron roofs for? You don’t need to be a genius to see that hurricanes always affect the poorest people. None of the houses in Siboney or Miramar, where the elegant people live, suffered any upheavals from Irma,” says Eulogio, who lives on a plot in El Vedado.

Two weeks after the Irma bombshell destroyed thousands of houses, schools, hotels, crops, poultry farms and state institutions in its path, the people living in the areas most affected are at breaking point.

A fisherman living in Isabela de Sagua, 331 kms east of the capital, who is passing through Havana, says “Hurricane Irma practically wiped my village off the map. 90% of the houses were partly damaged or completely destroyed. It will be years before we can recover from it. If Hurricane María had gone through Cuba, we would have needed Jesus to come here after it and pray for us.”

Fifty-eight years after Hurricane Fidel Castro established communism in the island, burying freedom of the press, opposition parties, and converting democracy into empty words, hurricanes are the enemy to be defeated. They affect Cuba, the Caribbean and the United States; the number one enemy of the Castro brothers. Each time they are stronger and more destructive. Human ingenuity, which was able to put a man on the moon, create the internet and eradicate fatal diseases, hasn’t found an effective way to reduce their damage.

As long as the olive-green autocracy goes on distributing panels and materials which are only good for repairing minor damage, and while they go on building fewer than eight thousand solid houses a year, the fury of the hurricanes will carry on devastating the towns in their path. And, as always, the people most affected will be the poor.

Translated by GH

Cuban Hurricane Victims Demand Cuts in Prices and Customs Fees / Iván García

Photo by Julio Batista for ’The slow death of Centro Habana’, a report by Elaine Díaz published on September 14, 2017 in Barrio Journalism.

Ivan Garcia, 18 September 2017 — TV Cuba is different. In the news, we see mechanical shovels collecting debris, brigades of electrical linemen repairing the posts blown down by the powerful hurricane and optimistic citizens who “trust that the revolution will not leave them helpless.”

Real Cuba is something else. Garbage collection is done at a snail’s pace. More than a few towns in the interior of the country will be a month without electricity and the service of drinking water is deficient.

After noon on Wednesday, September 13, in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suárez, hundreds of people started a street protest because of lack of electricity and water. Residents threw rotted food in the street, demanded repairs for their homes and asked the authorities for better government management. continue reading

Let’s call him Eduardo. He participated in the spontaneous street demonstration and believes that “the government should greatly reduce prices in foreign currency stores, for the sale of construction materials and also reduce the high customs tariffs on parcels sent by our relatives from abroad.”

Irma destroyed the roof of Eduardo’s precarious room in a tenement on Calzada Diez de Octubre and the rain destroyed his mattress, television and an electric rice cooker, his personal belongings.

“The materials that the government is selling to those with damaged homes is subsidized but only at 10 or 15 percent. You have to be physically disabled or a pensioner who is solely dependent on your pension, for the authorities to pay in full. Even with the price cuts, cement, aggregates and tiles are too expensive for those who work for the state, because we earn miserable wages,” says Eduardo.

As of six days after Hurricane Irma, the coastal Havana neighborhoods of Playa, Plaza, Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Habana del Este, where the sea flooded into the city up to three feet deep, still lack electrical service and drinking water.

Germán, a resident of the poor neighborhood of San Leopoldo, is a guy with a short fuse who, when speaking, gestures with his hands and uses bursts of swear words.” Man, if this is not resolved, I swear I’m going to throw the furniture down the street and I’ll shout slogans against the government. This is a wreck. The light and water guys tell you one lie after another and my patience is already running out.”

Diario Las Américas asked about twenty men and women who suffered damages due to Hurricane Irma, their opinions about how to better manage the disaster.

Carla resides in Cojimar and lost her house: “The first thing is that the high officials of the government show their faces and explain without half measures or their official gobbledygook the real state of the situation. They should listen to what people think. And people want them to lower the inflated prices of food and goods in the stores. They want their relatives living abroad to be able to send them, without customs fees in hard currency, sheets, towels, mattresses, appliances … Also, deliver extra quotas of food and construction materials, free of charge, to those who suffered damages.”

A Civil Defense official who preferred anonymity claims that “the ideal would be for the State to offer free food and construction materials to the population. But in Cuba the economy is in the dumps. The budget for hurricane and natural disaster impacts is limited. While the United States has billions of dollars when natural catastrophes occur, the Cuban government has a few million pesos.”

According to official figures, in case of natural disasters, the state budget has a reserve of 200 million pesos, about 8 million dollars at the current exchange rate.

Jorge, an economist, believes that “this budget is not enough to even get started in the case of this hurricane. Although officially unreported, the total amount of damages left by Irma in the national territory could amount to billions of dollars. Of the 16 provinces in Cuba, four (Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus) were directly affected and in others it also it wreaked havoc. Almost half of the 169 municipalities in the country suffered with more or less intensity the consequences of the hurricane on the island.”

In the opinion of the economist, “it would be reasonable to apply price reductions immediately in all hard currency stores and not only for food that for lack of electricity could be spoiled, as some stores in Havana have just done, where they lowered the price of many of their refrigerated products by 70%.

“Likewise, a broad expansion of articles allowed to be imported by Cuban travelers as well as those sent by Cubans residing abroad to their relatives in Cuba. Other problems to be resolved in the medium term are to create insurance companies that can compensate for damages caused by natural disasters and to underground the electrical networks in big cities. And of course, build more robust homes, capable of withstanding the onslaught of a cyclone.”

In Cuba, there is only one insurance company, ESEN, but it only provides coverage to state-owned companies and agricultural cooperatives (although on its website it reports that it also insures cars and other private properties).

But ordinary Cubans don’t know how it works. In addition to cumbersome procedures to obtain bank credits, these are only allowed up to twenty thousand pesos (800 dollars). And because of inflation and high cost of living on the Island, that amount is not enough to put on a new roof, let alone repair hurricane-damaged doors and windows.

In several neighborhoods of Havana and in the rest of Cuba there have been public demonstrations brought about by the government’s mismanagement after Irma. “What happened in Santos Suárez expanded like gunpowder all over the country. People from other places will also try it. They know that there will be no legal sanctions [for the demonstratorss] and that electricity and water will be promptly restored,” affirms a neighbor of the Vibora neighborhood, which borders Santos Suárez where the initial demonstrations took place.

In several areas of Havana, along with tree trunks and branches, especially in corners, all kinds of waste has accumulated, where rodents and cockroaches swarm, not to mention flies and mosquitoes.

“Five or six times a day I call the Communal Service and no one picks up the phone. If they do not clean the city, an epidemic could break out at any moment. In the newspaper Granma, a doctor from the provincial department of hygiene and epidemiology said that “sanitizing the city is a responsibility of every citizen.”

It seems that she does not know that for that type of cleaning they need equipment and gloves. And the brooms and dustpans that people have to clean their homes aren’t enough for that,” explains Sara, a resident of Lawton.

Cubans feel like they have reached their limit. That the regime does not listen to people and is indifferent to their complaints. Then they decide to scream their irritation in the public street. They feel that they have nothing to lose anymore.

Cuba: The Day After / Iván García

The state in which the old Hotel Cosmopolita de Camajuaní  has been left by hurricane Irma in Villa Clara a province 290 km east of Havana, going by the Autopista Nacional. Built in 1918, the hotel was included in the tourism development plan to liven up the hotel trade in Villa Clara. Taken from “Los límites de la alucinación”, a report by Lianet Fleites in Periodismo de Barrio, September 12th 2017.

Iván García,13 September 2017 — On Friday September 9th, Omar, 55 years old, set up two speakers in his house,  located in an inside corridor off San Lázaro Street, in Lawton, in the south of Havana, just like he does almost every weekend, and, at 6 in the evening he started to open some bottles of cheap rum for his neighbours and friends. Any event is a good excuse for a celebration.  Omar and his family live with the money they make working, and what his family send him from time to time from Miami. They eat what they can come by and they don’t worry about the future.

When Omar found out that Hurricane Irma’s high winds were going to hit the island, he rang the electric company and the public services, to get them to cut the medium sized palm tree in the patio of his house. “I have been having this fight for a year now, especially when a hurricane is approaching. They always argue about it. They told me they would come right away, or, if not, they would send a team in a few hours. But it’s all hassle and lies. Look at what’s happened”, he says and indicates the concrete roof of his house, destroyed when the palm tree fell on it early in the morning of Sunday, September 10th. continue reading

There are stories like Omar’s all over Havana. Luis, a medical centre nurse in La Vibora had to work Sunday morning, just when Irma devastated the city with its surges of wind and rain.

“Before, the Luis de la Puente Uceda medical centre-hospital was located in a substantial building with all the necessary sanitary conditions and medical equipment. Then they decided to set up in the building a limited access surgery centre, principally for dealing with foreigners, and moved the medical centre to a less than ideal leaky ramshackle old house”, Luis explains. And he remembers what an ordeal it was.

“It was raining more inside than outside. With many of the windows broken, there were bits of wood, tin cans and leaves blowing in. The old electricity generator which wasn’t properly maintained, cut out from time to time, leaving the medical centre in darkness. When I knocked off at seven in the morning, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t windy and hardly raining any more, I had to walk home over 4 miles because some brilliant person had decided to suspend the city transport”.

Nearly 72 hours after Irma had passed Havana, Public Services, which is responsible for waste collection, had not done that over wide areas of Diez de Octubre, the most densely populated part of the capital. “Here we hadn’t seen any sign of the electric company vehicles or those of the water or public services. The streets were full of bushes and smashed up stuff left by the storm and people had piled it up wherever. That discussion by the government about which teams would collect the vegetation and the rubbish and that they had already started recovering the situation in the city was just for the television”, says a neighbour.

Although the strong winds lost their intensity as they approached Havana and did not greatly affect the capital and Artemisa province, since September 9th many Havana neighbourhoods are suffering power cuts and have no drinking water. “It was known that the areas worst affected by the hurricane were the coastal districts of Playa, Plaza, Havana Central, Old Havana, and East Havana. It looks like the authorities devoted all their resources to those areas and forgot the rest of us existed, complained Migdalia, a resident of La Cuevita, a poor area in San Miguel del Padrón.

The sea flooded over the coastal areas covering the streets 2,000 feet inland. “They looked like overflowing rivers. The water covered El Vedado, Central Havana and Old Havana. As most of the families living in these areas were evacuated, and in spite of the fact that the police and the civil defence said they would be protected, the looters had a field day. Several foreign currency outlets and shops in Miramar, Vedado and Central Havana were looted”, explained an agent deployed to keep order in important locations.

But the worst disasters of Hurricane Irma occurred in the central provinces of Cuba bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Sayli Sosa, journalist for the Invasor daily, from Ciego de Ávila, visited La Cayeria north of Ciego de Ávila. There, on the morning of Saturday, September 9th, the eye of the Category 5  hurricane touched land.  Irma was merciless in the tourist spots on the keys, which geographically belong to Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila  and Villa Clara. The ten workers who stayed in Hotel Meliá Cayo because of their duties sheltered themselves in a safe place, but admitted they had the greatest fright of their lives. “It was Dante-esque”, they said.

Sosa also went over to the town of Bolivia in Ciego de Avila, where he talked to Eusebio, a septuagenarian, who told him he was not afraid of hurricanes. The neighbours took shelter in the only house in the neighbourhood capable of coping with angry Irma. But pigheaded Eusebio wanted to stay put and when things got nasty he couldn’t get out. At three in the morning the deafening wind crashed through the cracks in the palmwood boarding of his house and the damp balsa wool material of the roof whistled horribly. He thought that the roof ridge was going to collapse and he got under the kitchen counter. The partly constructed grey reinforced concrete counter was what saved his life.

We have seen photos and videos and have heard descriptions of Irma’s cruelty in the tourist places in Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santamaria, but we don’t have figures for the damage caused. In August 2016, I was staying at the Memories Flamenco Beach Resort Hotel, situated in Cayo Coco, Jardines del Rey archipelago in the north of  Ciego de Avila. While I was there I wrote two chronicles. In one of them, called Cayo Coco, a commercial centre  for the Cuban capitalist military, I said: “As with 70% of the tourist facilities in Cuba, the Memories Flamenco Hotel is managed by the Gaviota S.A. commercial operation, a business which set up in 1989 under the auspices of Fidel Castro, with the pretext of testing the profitability of the incipient tourism business”.

A few months after the main tourist season (November to April), the olive-green people lavished loads of money and resources to fix up the hotels damaged in Cayería norte, in record time. ” Most of the ETECSA linesmen and those from the electric company was sent to the keys. They are a priority, although there aren’t any tourists there as they were evacuated to Veradero. But those hotels are an important part of the hard currency earning money box”, explains a telecoms engineer.

Not too far away from the key is a very different situation. From Yaguajay, in Sancti Spiritus, a province 220 miles east of Havana, Sergio, who lives there describes over the phone that “the desolation is terrible, as if the fat madman of North Korea had fired one of his missiles. Eight out of every ten houses had their roofs damaged or their walls fell down. Nearly sixty were flattened, with just the foundations left”.

It’s not very different in Esmeralda, Camagüey.  In Adelante, the local newspaper, the journalist Enrique Atiénzar  says that Irma dealt brutally with Esmeralda. In Moscú, the damage was severe. Of the over 200 houses, mostly rustic, only ten survived the over 125 mile per hour winds. Lyam, 12 years old, doesn’t enjoy a hurricane going past, but says that 16 neighbours were sheltered in his grandmother’s house. The next day, Lyam’s grandmother sat down in the doorway and started to cry. “Not for me, but for the neighbours”.

In Cuba the real headache for the man in the street comes in the days following a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane going by. You can just imagine what it’s like when it’s a hurricane like Irma, touching land in Cayería norte as a Category 5, then dropped to a 4 and then a 3 and then on the way to Florida went back up to a 4.

In the length and breadth of the island, thousands of families are living in shelters, having lost their homes because of a hurricane or other natural disaster. Some wait for twenty years for the state to provide them with a home. Others wait for help buying materials so they can repair their houses by themselves.

Omar, living in Lawton, knows very well what it’s like waiting for the government to help. “My house could fall down at any time”, he says with a sad face. For a Habanero, who likes salsa music, Olga Guillot boleros, and knocking back a few cheap rums with his friends, it hasn’t been much of a party lately.

Photo: The state in which the old Hotel Cosmopolita de Camajuaní  has been left by hurricane Irma in Villa Clara a province 290 km east of Havana, going by the Autopista Nacional. Built in 1918, the hotel was included in the tourism development plan to liven up the hotel trade in Villa Clara. Taken from “Los límites de la alucinación”, a report by Lianet Fleites in Periodismo de Barrio, September 12th 2017.

Translated by GH

Cuba’s School Year: Fewer Teachers, More Expenses for Parents / Iván García

Otmaro Rodríguez, On Cuba Magazine.0

Iván García,5 September 2017 — In addition to packing several blouses, underwear and a pair of worn-out jeans the night before travelling to Havana, twenty-six-year-old Magda brought along three homemade cheeses and four kilograms of ground roast coffee.

She plans on selling the cheese and coffee. For six years Madga has been teacher at a high school in Havana. During summer vacations she helps her parents work the land on a small rural plantation in Villa Clara province. Or she sells slices of guava and clusters of garlic on the National Highway to make some extra money.

During the nine months of the Cuban school year, Magda lives in an old warehouse converted into a shelter for teachers from other provinces who work in the capital.

“The housing conditions are horrible. The food is wretched and sometimes there is no water. My salary as a teacher comes to 475 pesos (about twenty dollars), which I spend on pizzas in privately owned cafes. The mothers of some of my friends bring them lunch, an afternoon snack or add money to their cell phone accounts. We don’t earn much as teachers and the working conditions are not the best. That’s why almost no one wants to be a teacher,” says Magda.

A career in education, an essential component in the formation of future generations, has been devalued in Cuba. A teacher’s social status is low and assistance from the state, which finances one-hundred percent of education in the country, leaves much to be desired.

Marlon, a professor in a college prepatory school, notes, “Before the beginning of every school year, there is meeting after meeting demanding higher quality in the classroom, more commitment, more politicial-ideological tasks to counter student’s apathy towards the revolutionary process. But no government official talks about raising teachers’ salaries.”

Seven-hundred thousand students will enroll in primary, secondary, technical, pre-university and university courses  during the 2017/2018 school year but the shortage of teachers continues.

“It’s not as bad as it was ten years ago when Havana, for example, had a shortage of eleven thousand professors. These days, fifteen percent of of teaching postions throughout the island go unfilled. In order to make up for the shortfall in teachers, university students and graduates in technical fields, foreign languages and philology are being recruited. However, it’s getting increasingly difficult to fill those positions one hundred percent,” says an education official.

“And we have other problems,” adds the official. “The educational system has been screaming for changes to bring things up to date. A large portion of the content is out of date. Difficulties remain with the laboratories and textbooks need to be updated.”

Diario de las Americas asked him when primary, secondary and pre-university schools would get internet access. “Not this year,” he replied. “Every semester they postpone installing the internet and replacing old computers with new devices such as tablets. Sometimes the official press reports that it will happen soon, but in reality there is no guarantee. Only universities have internet connections, although the screen time for each student is limited. Everybody else will have to wait,” he replies.

The internet is not a luxury. It is an indispensable tool in every branch of educaton and in human knowlege. The Cuban regime is more interested in making money off of the internet than in making it widely available.

“Young people arrive at university with barely any knowledge of new technologies other than Facebook and Instagram. The internet is essential in any 21st century economic field. Our students are at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in Latin America,” notes a computer sciences professor.

With the start of the new school year, family expenses include afternoon snacks and as much as 15 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $15 USD) a month for a tutor to compensate for the poor education their children receive.

“For a while now, it starts by buying uniforms on the black market for 5 CUC. That does not include money for notebooks, backpacks or shoes, also in hard currency. Last week I spent 135 chavitos (CUC) for a backpack, a pair of tennis shoes, a water bottle and two dozen notebooks,” explains Dunia, the mother of a ninth grader.

“Lunches and afternoon snacks are a headache. There are five days in a week and the school year lasts nine months. Families make ham and cheese sandwiches and give their kids juice or canned sodas if they can. But for most people, just making sure your children get bread with oil and garlic, and guachipupa (a homemade beverage made with sugar and fruit) is like crossing Niagara Falls on a bicycle,” says Nora, a grandmother who brings a noontime lunch to her granddaughter, a high school student.

This school year, the facades of almost all Havana schools got a cheap coat of paint. “But inside everything is still shabby and the restrooms are disgusting,” says Saray, mother of two children in the third and sixth grades. “To maintain hygiene, parents bring detergent and buy fans because the heat in the classrooms is intolerable.”

Like other teachers at the end of their daily shifts, Magda returns to her hostel, grabs the cheeses she made and the coffee she brought from her home province, and goes out to sell them in the neighborhood. “I also sell mobile phones and clothes from overseas. And I paint fingernails at people’s homes. I always say that I have two jobs: a professor in the morning and a street peddler in the afternoon,” she confesses with a forced smile.

When night falls, others such as Miguel, a physical education teacher, puts on a tight dress, high heels and a wig. With a feminine wave of his hand, he says, “I am a teacher by necessity but a transvestite by vocation.”

Cuban Universities Need Autonomy / Iván García

University of Havana. It was established 5 January 1728 by Dominican friars. It is the oldest higher education institution in Cuba, and one of the first in America. Taken from Cubanet.

Iván García, 30 August 2017 — Since his wife died two years ago, Manuel hasn’t been eating properly. At night, he sits in front of an obsolete cathode ray tube television, and usually watches the news or the baseball while he drinks some fourth-rate rum bought from a convenience store.

His big old house with high ceilings needs rather more than just a lick of paint. In the living room, the worn-out furniture is long overdue for replacement. Books, periodicals and magazines overflow four shelves on the wall. In a corridor there are various cardboard boxes full of textbooks and bibliographies about electronics and computing.

He says he’s 65, but looks ten years older. His sparse beard needs a barber to do something with it, and his greasy hair urgently needs a wash with anti-dandruff shampoo.  He has been unhappy since God took his wife away. continue reading

His uncared-for appearance makes him look like a tramp or an incurable alcoholic. But Manuel is a professor of electronics. He has a masters and a doctorate and has written a couple of specialised books, “which probably not many people have read”, Manuel says with a frank smile.

His miserable basic monthly salary of  740 Cuban pesos, equivalent to 30 dollars, doesn’t go very far. “I also get 80 pesos a month for my masters, 150 for the doctorate and 100 pesos extra for over 20 years’ service as a teacher. A thousand and seventy pesos in total, which is 43 Cuban convertible pesos at the present rate of exchange (roughly 43 USD). It’s enough to eat once a day, pay the electricity, water, gas and the phone. If I have anything left over, I buy books”.

With the same honesty he confesses, “They don’t pay me not even one convertible peso bonus. In this age of knowledge, with out-of date laboratories and shortages in the basic materials for study, university professors continue imparting knowledge to future generations out of vocational dedication more than anything.”

Manuel could offer private classes and get extra money. “Many of us do it, but I don’t. Because it’s prohibited and it’s unethical. A teacher giving an exam should not charge for passing his students. It’s a type of concealed fraud which they do in Cuba.  Those classes benefit students with well-to-do parents. The most studious and capable are the ones who should graduate. University is for the best of them. In technical courses like telecommunications, those who don’t have ability quit their studies in the first or second year because the classes are difficult”.

In his opinion, “Cuban universities have lost their quality, but their faculty staff continue to be the best qualified in the national education system. It isn’t like that in primary or secondary schools where, with certain exceptions, teachers now are not very good. That becomes evident later; when students get to university, they have all sorts of weaknesses, some of them basic, like they don’t know how to spell”.

David, a student of industrial engineering, thinks “there are good, middling and bad teachers, just as in any area of work. But, when compared to pre-university, secondary and primary, the university professor has preserved his standing. The government should allocate a bigger budget to equipping the universities. It’s unforgivable that courses like computing or electronics have second generation computers and that the connection time to the internet is limited like the bread in your ration book.”

Diana, a philosophy graduate, has pleasant memories of her teachers. “They were very professional and very knowledgeable about the subjects they were teaching. But when they entered the classroom some of them made you sad, with their old clothes, and their worn-out shoes with broken soles”.

José Manuel,  a working professor, believes “that higher education has lost a lot of its quality. What is happening is that in comparison with the dreadful state of teaching in the other educational levels, the universities see themselves as being on a different dimension. Thirty years ago, the University of Havana, the one in Santa Clara, and the old CUJAE, which is now the José Antonio Echevarría Tech., were among the best higher education institutions in Latin America. Now we are hardly in the top 250”.

Martí News talked to some university professors about the deterioration in the quality of higher education and what could be done to improve it. Rody, an algebra professor, got straight to the point:

“The reduction is due to the poor salaries. Every time there is a meeting with officials with the Ministry of Higher Education, they ask for more commitment and blah blah blah, but never a word about a pay increase or motivation for teaching staff. Apart from putting salaries up, they could incentivise the best professors by offering them personal grooming products and food as well as houses and cars. The government should provide subsidised holidays for outstanding teachers with accommodation in tourist resorts. They do it for the military, why can’t they do it for all teachers, not just those in university?”

Sara, a history teacher, thinks that “Cuban universities need autonomy, and not to be controlled by the government. Let educators have their correct place in society. We have to get away from this inverted pyramid in Cuba. Manual trades are important and necessary, but, everywhere in the world, people with university qualifications earn more than unskilled workers”.

Talking about autonomy, in 2012, the professor and academic Dimas Castellanos published an article in Diario de Cuba in which he ended up emphasising: “With the loss of its autonomy, the Cuban university ceased to be a strong point of civil society. In order for it to be that, the changes taking place in the economy have to be accompanied by changes in liberties and rights, among which university autonomy is an unavoidable necessity if it is to be relevant.

Carlos, an ex-professor of sociology, emphasises: “Because of miserable salaries and low social status, a lot of university professors are chasing scholarships and collaborations with overseas universities. And, if successful, definitely more than a few of them are deciding to emigrate. The Cuban academic world is poverty-stricken. The most talented professors, if they have their own opinions, and are not crushed by the system, may pay for it by being expelled from the centre, isolated and disparaged. There are more than enough examples. That was the case with the dissident Félix Bonne Carcassés, who died at the beginning of the year, a university professor with an excellent academic career. Or the recent case of the economist Omar Everleny Pérez, thrown out by the government from his job as an investigator”.

It’s not unusual in the island to find university professors driving taxis or renting their houses out to tourists and in that way adding a bit to their meagre finances. Others trawl the internet searching for scholarships or academic events outside the country to participate in. “Whichever doctorate, or simply taking part in a special panel outside the country, helps you earn a few dollars or euros which, when you get back, you can use to repair your house and buy food for your family”, explains an academic who spends half the year travelling to countries in different continents.

One possible way to update yourself, widen your knowledge and exchange experiences, especially following the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, would be if Cuban university professors could get internships or establish themselves as speakers at American universities.

It would be like winning first prize in the lottery.

Translated by GH

Private Taxi Drivers: The Government Always Looks for a Way to Fuck Us Over / Iván García

Taxis in Havana. Source: El Nuevo Herald

Ivan Garcia, 26 August 2017 — Shortly after five in the morning, before walking a quarter-mile to the house of the owner of a Ford with a 1948 chassis, Reinerio, 56, wolfed down his egg sandwich and the usual strong breakfast coffee.

The owner of the Ford rents it for 600 Cuban pesos a day (about 27 dollars) and Reinerio drives it for twelve hours through the poorly maintained streets of Havana.

The car was made in the Detroit factories with the scraps of World War II armaments. In Cuba the old American cars are known as almendrones (after their “almond” shapes) and have featured on magazine covers and been the object of comments by foreign politicians who advocate economic reforms on the island. continue reading

But you can ask any owner of these last century jalopies what they have had to invent to keep them rolling. Scarcities engender creativity. Thanks to the talents of the local mechanics, the Fords, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Chryslers and other brands of 60 or 70 years ago today serve as taxis in the noisy, dirty and dilapidated Cuban capital, which, despite state neglect, resists losing its charm.

More than a few drivers have crafted nicknames for their vehicles. “I call my Ford ‘The UN,’ because it has pieces from at least fifteen countries,” says Sergio, the owner of the car he rents to Reinerio.

“I have two cars and a jeep that I rent as taxis. For the cars, with five seats, I charge 600 Cuban pesos daily from Monday to Saturday, Sunday is for the driver. If he wants to work that day, the profit is his. The jeep, with ten seats, I rent it for one thousand Cuban pesos a day. I only have three drivers, people I trust. They decide how many hours they want to work. The fuel is bought by them,” says Sergio.

Reiner checks the engine, fuel and oil before getting behind the wheel. The interior of the car is upholstered in black with white trim. Glued to the front windshield is an American flag and a plastic crucifix. When he arrives at the Calzada de Diez de Octubre, he begins to pick up passengers. It is time to turn on the audio equipment, almost always with an unbearable reggaeton at full volume.

“I try not to kill myself at work. There are good days and bad days. On average, driving twelve hours a day, I get 600 Cuban pesos of profit. But any botero (literally ’boatman’ as taxi drivers are called), be it the owner of the car or someone who rents it, knows that you have to have a reserve for when the car breaks down or you need to buy tires or spare parts. In my case, those expenses are split half-and-half half with Sergio, the owner,” says Reinerio.

Before becoming a private taxi driver, Reierio drove a ‘guagüita*’ in a state company. His monthly salary was 300 Cuban pesos (less than 14 dollars). “Today, with the money I earn, my family has breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as clothing and personal hygiene. Once a year I rent a week in an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero or one of the cayos. Do you think that’s a luxury? Compadre, that’s the most normal thing in the world in any country where you break your back working,” says Reinerio.

When asked about the new measures that the State intends to implement toward private taxi drivers in Havana, getting them to join transport cooperatives through the incentives of selling the fuel at subsidized prices and spare parts (if any) at a 20 percent discount, Reinerio responds angrily:

“Nine out of ten taxi drivers will not join a cooperative. Man, this government has never been good. This is a way to control you. They are afraid of us. The taxi drivers have been surveyed and most have put their foot down and we will continue to charge the rates we understand. I prefer to buy fuel in the CUPET (state network) and operate the routes and set the prices that I consider convenient. This idea of selling parts at a 20 percent discount is a bad joke. In foreign currency stores parts are sold at prices that are taxed at 300 percent, and unless it’s an emergency, taxi drivers buy the parts and tires from people who bring them from abroad and sell them much more cheaply than the state does.”

Private work has never been looked on favorably by the the Castro brothers’ autocracy. Economic independence, the possibility of saving money and not being affiliated with a union — which is more like a foreman than a union — transforms the man or woman who up to that moment has been obedient, indoctrinated and dependent on a state salary to eat, clothe and entertain themselves, into a free human being.

That autonomy is a worry to the olive -green regime. The majority of the 900 thousand Cubans who were able to be tourists in their own country and the more than 700 thousand who traveled abroad in 2016, and with their efforts paid for a cruise or a stay in Punta Cana, they are private workers.

Of course, it is a myth that they earn money hand over fist. Impossible, with huge taxes and the audits of the police court. But the more than 560 thousand self-employed perceive that they live better by depending on themselves.

Their salaries are triple the state salaries and they do not have to attend the tedious meetings of state workplaces to celebrate the 91st birthday of the late Fidel Castro or sign a pamphlet in support of the dictatorial Constituent Assembly convened by the insufferable Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

“Better that I never work for the State any more. If they want to remove the private taxis, they will have to take off the mask, and not try to make up more stories or camouflage mechanisms whose goal is to control us. The government always looks for a way to fuck us over,” says Reinerio, while maneuvering over the potholes in Calzada de Diez de Octubre.

The dozen taxi drivers consulted for Diario Las Americas suspect that the government intends to put them out of business using as a pretext the illegal purchase of parts and fuel from a state agency and for allegedly violating the rules of private employment, declaring income lower than what they receive.

“This government has not lasted 60 years on a whim. They have good memories and they haven’t forgotten the strike the taxi drivers wanted to hold and our not giving in to their demands,” says Reinerio.

Now, the drivers fear, the regime is coming for them.

Translator’s note: The word for bus in Cuba in guagua (of disputed origin); guagüita is a diminutive of that term.

Private Businesses in Cuba Sound the Alarm / Iván García

Photo:CiberCuba

Iván García, 18 August 2017 — While slicing pork and a half-dozen chicken breasts into cutlets, which he then weighs on a digital scale, the owner of a cafe in Havana’s south side that serves light meals and sandwiches gets a call on his cell phone.

“Hey. Listen, partner, have you got any beef? Or fish?” he asks as sits down, nodding his head as he listens to the answer on the other end of the line.

Two hours later, a driver in a truck with government license plates drops off, without undue discretion, several boxes of frozen chickens and smoked pork loin. The merchandise is carried to a freezer in the kitchen of house where the cafe is located. continue reading

Let’s call the owner Antonio, a man with a strong build and decades of experience in the precarious world of private sector employment. “In the 1970s,” he explains, “I was a manager at a state-owned restaurant. Later, I was in the handicraft ’business,’ selling leather sandals in Cathedral Square. After that, I was had a stall in a privately-run farmer’s market. Then, when self-employment became legal in 1993, I opened a cafe. I have lived long enough to know how the state works. They give you rope but, just at the right time, they grab the other end of it and you get screwed.”

For Antonio, Cuba is not a normal country. “Ideally, there would be a well-supplied wholesale market and taxes would be reasonable. But that’s not the case. ONAT (the National Office of Tax Administration) lets you sell beef, fish and shellfish. But where are people supposed to get it? The retail price of a kilogram of beef is 12 CUC and getting shrimp or lobster from a state-run establishment is impossible. A big portion of a private food service’s inventory is purchased under the table, usually from state-owned companies or tourist resorts. I don’t see anything wrong with them trying to get their house in order. But in order to set everything straight, the government first has to accept that, by not creating wholesale markets, it hasn’t met its obligations,” he says.

He pauses to give instructions to his employees: “Hey, this juice is watery. When you season the meat, don’t be stingy. Why is the rice and beans dish taking so long?” Drinking coffee from an aluminum mug, he continues:

“The problem is that these people (the regime) have lied so many times that when they presumably do tell the truth, they lack credibility. I don’t believe that this restructuring of self-employment is being done in good faith. As long as taxes are high, people who make more than 20,000 (Cuban) pesos a month (about $750 USD) will be subject to a 50% tax rate, businesses will keep two sets of books and income will be underreported. As as long as there is scarcity and food is hard to get, there will be schemes to get it. That’s not going to stop anybody. The government has never wanted people to make money. That’s why there are so many controls and restrictions,” he says.

The new measures, which temporarily put a halt to licenses for the most profitable private businesses, has set off alarm bells among the island’s private sector businesspeople. The decree was published in the Official Gazette on August 5 but passed on July 18 at the closing session of the National Assembly.

José, an architect who offers interior design services to owners of private businesses, believes, “The government has always treated private business owners as though they were criminal suspects. The Cuban state is programmed to direct and control its citizens’ lives, all the way from their salaries, recreation and housing to what they eat. Don’t forget that many of the bigwigs who launched the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, closed private-sector farmers’ markets in the 1980s and decelerated self-employment in the 1990s, still govern the country. A guy with money is more likely to have his own opinions and not rely on the state to feed his family. In the end it boils down to an ideological conflict, especially when they hear American presidents expressing support for private business. They see us as Trojan horses who will strangle the socialist system.”

The economist Omar Everleny believes that the government should come up with a list of unauthorized jobs and should favor professionals who could also open businesses, which would add value to the private sector.

Diana, a former ONAT official, says, “It’s the government, with its inconsistent policies, that is encouraging rule bending and illegality. Their only concern is how to collect the most money while punishing those they think violate their precepts. They forget that in any social contract there are rights and responsibilities. They demand their rights but ignore their responsibilities.”

Carlos, a sociologist, believes, “Almost 60 years of revolutionary government have shown that, the more things are prohibited, the more the door opens to clandestine businesses. In 2011, they ordered the closure of 3D cinemas and private clothing stores. These businesses continue to operate but do so illegally. In fact, by the time the regime decided to legalize self-employment, some businesses had been operating illegally for years.”

Yosvany, a professor of political science, believes, “Cuba’s aging leaders carry intransigence in their DNA. If one segment of the population starts to make money, no matter how small that segment is, they see it as a threat to the power they’ve held since 1959. In China and Vietnam the communist party shrewdly allied themselves with entrepreneurs and the new rich. But in Cuba they view them as public enemies.”

Oscar, the owner of a rental property, says, “The government has exaggerated the success of private businesses. Of the 201 authorized jobs, they stopped issuing licenses to about twenty. But if these business are up and running, and their owners know how to manage well, they can make a profit. That’s not the case with button stampers, palm tree trimmers and other jobs where they make just enough to survive.”

The widespread perception among several private sector workers interviewed by Martí Noticias is that the new rules of the game as drafted by the government will halt the advancement of private initiative on the island.

The military dictatorship has never hidden its disdain for so-called cuentapropismo.* That is why it prohibits the accumulation of capital and resorts to decrees to hinder private enterprises from prospering.

If anyone did not understand this, it was because they refused to do so.

 

*Translator’s note: A term unique to Cuba that was coined by the government to avoid using a more generic and politically fraught term like self-employment