Obama and Castro Are Playing in Different Leagues / Ivan Garcia

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde. Thought bubble: "Mommy, will it be like the black man wants?"

Events are moving quickly. At least that is what Nivaldo, a private taxi driver who owns an outdated Moskovich car from the Soviet era, thinks. “Don’t slam the door or it will come loose,” he tells the passengers he drives from Playa to Brotherhood Park in the heart of Havana.

Nivaldo and a large segment of the Cuban population are trying to follow the latest news on emigration and the negotiations taking place in Havana’s main convention center.

“This (the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States) has been tremendous,” he says. “Before December 17 the United States was the evil empire and the cause of every malady afflicting the country. The first thing to  change was the tone of news coverage. It’s a healthy development that two women are leading the negotiations. Political machismo has caused a lot of harm in Cuba. People are tired of all the testosterone and the testicle-driven rhetoric.”

Nivaldo continues talking as he stops to pick up a passenger. “I don’t know if this new situation will bring immediate improvements in the lives of average Cubans or not. I hope so. I work twelve to fourteen hours a day to support my family and save money to celebrate my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. If things change, maybe I can get rid of this jalopy and buy a new Ford. The question that many on the street are asking is how and in what way will the government implement a series of measures that benefit people,” he says as he raises the radio volume to hear the evening news.

Average Cubans are following events with excessive expectations while some express a die-hard optimism.

Rogelio, an umbrella repairman, is eating a hamburger at a McDonald’s with long lines. “When the embargo is lifted,” he says, “stores will be well-stocked with quality merchandise. I hope the government allows direct imports by the self-employed and the banking system offers more generous credit terms. Stores will allow customers to pay in installments like in any modern society.”

Others are more cautious. “Yes, it’s all well and good to be able to buy rice, chicken and smart phones from the United States, but by necessity the Cuban system must change. There is too much centralization and control, which stifles the economic independence of small private businesses. Then there are the issues of low salaries and the dual currency. How much will the average citizen be able to pay for a home internet connection or an American-made computer?” asks Rosario, an automated systems engineer.

A large segment of the Cuban dissident community considers the strategy adopted by President Obama to be misguided.

At a 2:00 PM press conference announcement on January 23, the prominent opposition figure Antonio Rodiles and a sizable group of dissidents express disapproval of the White House’s recent moves. “I would like to know where they are getting their information,” he says. “I am afraid they have become disoriented. They are betting on a continuation of the Castro regime and are concerned with national security.

“They have undertaken these negotiations without input from the island’s opposition. I don’t see why a regime with a history of political rights violations should change. Obama has given up a lot and gotten very little in return. If the international community does not insist that Cuba ratify United Nation Human Rights Conventions, there will be no change in the status quo. This will translate into the arrests of activists and some opposition figures could end up back in prison.”

There are notable differences in outlook between dissidents and ordinary Cubans. The average person on the street thinks it was time to bring an end to the ongoing political chess game between the two countries.

Cuban citizens believe the new direction in U.S. foreign policy makes perfect sense and pokes through the tired pretexts used by the country’s military overlords to justify the economic catastrophe and ideological madhouse they created fifty-six years ago.

But there is one thing that “black coffee” Cubans and some members of the opposition have in common: each is looking out for its own interests. And the regime knows this. It hopes to perpetuate the system by changing its methods.

President Barack Obama and General Raul Castro are clearly playing in different leagues.

Ivan Garcia

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde.

24 January 2015

New U.S. Measures on Cuba Not Featured in the Island’s Headlines / Ivan Garcia

cuba-mujer-bandera-FM-620x330On December 17 Noemi and her coworkers at the telecommunications company ETECSA were surprised to hear their boss hastily reading “the day’s top news story” to their entire workforce in a tone of voice that was intended to sound solemn.

“Comrades, after the conclusion of agreements with President Obama, three of the five heroic Cuban prisoners unjustly incarcerated by the Empire are today en route back to their homeland. They are returning as was promised by our undefeated Comandante,” he said the business manager, barely taking a breath.

At noon later that day all the employees gathered around an ancient Chinese television to listen to the speech by General Raul Castro and to hear the news about the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States after fifty-four years. Continue reading

Miami: The Havana That Could Not Be / Ivan Garcia

miami_aerial_view_f-620x330As the plane begins its descent towards Miami on a flight from San Diego, the first thing a resident of Cuba notices is the incredible number of lights that at this hour, five-thirty in the morning, can be seen from plane.

As big US cities go, Miami is one of the smallest in terms of land mass. Its 35.78 square miles accommodates more than 400,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country, comparable to New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

This is no small thing. It has been only 501 years since the morning of April 1513 when Juan Ponce de Leon set foot on a Florida beach and claimed this entire swath of land and its adjacent keys for the kingdom of Spain.

That is not long period of a time for a city. Rome has been around for millennia, while Babylon, Egypt and Jerusalem were architectural marvels long before Miami, or even the thirteen colonies, first appeared on a map.

This is the wonder of the United States. Along with its magnificent constitution, democratic system, and economic and military might, this society’s greatest strength is its ability to reinvent itself and assimilate cultural differences. Continue reading

Raul Castro’s Pyrrhic Victory / Ivan Garcia

Photo: From the internet

After the jubilation over the arrival in Cuba of the three spies imprisoned in the US comes to an end, when the campaign of tributes in the official media is over and the lights installed on the stands for government agents to hear the people’s applause are turned off, the government of Raúl Castro will have to draw up plans for the future.

An unknown future. The US trade and financial embargo has yet to face a real legislative battle in Congress. But, on President Obama’s orders, the Cuban state is now able to buy US goods from overseas-based companies and make telecommunication deals to allow ordinary Cubans to connect to the Internet at a reasonable cost.

One way or another, the regime’s state-owned companies, when they had money available, always bought merchandise in the US. If you look around the hard currency shops, you will see domestic appliances made in the USA, Californian apples and Coca Cola soft drinks.

Henceforth, buying “Yankee” products will be simpler. Cuba could buy hundreds of GM buses to improve the dismal urban public transport. Continue reading

Fidel Castro, the Starring Actor / Ivan Garcia

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When Norge, a nightclub manager, heard from a friend who has internet at home about the international media frenzy regarding the alleged death of the bearded Fidel Castro, the news caused him mixed feelings.

“For the world, the great headline could be Fidel’s death. But for Cubans, the day after his death will add an unbearable burden of the personality cult and constant evocations in the press. Can you imagine?

“A minimum of one month of national mourning, long lines at the Jose Marti Memorial in the Plaza of the Revolution to sign the condolence book, and special programs all day on national TV and radio. Continue reading

Obama’s new policy toward Cuba could mark the end of the olive-green autocracy / Ivan Garcia

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I understand the discontent of an important sector of Cubans in exile and within the internal dissidence.

On 17 November, just one month before the momentous diplomatic turn of events between Cuba and the United States, I was charring in Brickell, Miami, with a gentleman who explained to me his reasons for hating the Castro brothers. That day, a fine rain fell over Miami. The bitter cold wasn’t the welcome one expects to receive in that thriving city of the sun.

The man had lost a lot. In 1959, his father was shot after a summary trial in the La Cabaña Fortress by order of Ernesto Che Guevara. His “crime,” had been being a police officer under Batista.

“He hadn’t committed any crime. He did not torture any member of the 26th of July Movement. He was shot only for political revenge and the hatred of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. Later they shot my uncle who was raised in the Escambray. And many friends and relatives were imprisoned, in subhuman conditions, just for thinking differently,” he recalled with tears in his eyes. Continue reading

2015 could be a different year for Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Havana Street

Although Yaumara, a psychologist, spent three nights in line at the food fair in the municipality of 10 de Octubre, to see if she could buy a small turkey for 170 Cuban pesos (eight dollars) for her end of year dinner, she expects great things from 2015

Amid the bustle of street vendors, portable canvas stalls selling pork sandwiches, toilet paper or paint, surrounded by rusted shelves with sweet potatoes, yuca and other tubers, and a floor of red earth, Yaumara does not lose faith in her ability to buy a turkey and to celebrate the New Year with her family.

“If we didn’t have this market, I couldn’t buy a turkey. In the hard currency stores a frozen turkey costs between 42 and 55 CUC (44 and 60 dollars), which represents two and a half months of my wages. I’m optimistic, I think things are going to change for the better in 2015. It can’t get any worse.” Continue reading

Adios, San Diego / Ivan Garcia

san-diego-de-noche-f-620x330The San Diego international Airport is not as excessive as that of Miami or New York. Everything is fast. When you check in they welcome you with friendly service and an attempt at fractured Spanish: Bienvenido a San Diego!

If you arrive on a weekend you notice the nightlife in the center and the old part of the district. On weekdays San Diego is a quiet town. Nothing like Miami, where the bars, the casino on Indian territory, and the discotheques spill over the beach area.

Around 10 at night the streets of San Diego’s suburbs are desolate. The bars close at that time. Near the Holiday Inn Hotel a liquor store sells beer, rum and Scotch. The owner is Iraqi. Continue reading

Economic Crisis in Venezuela Leads to a Black Market Among Travelers / Ivan Garcia

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It is 7:30 PM in a commercial shopping district in San Diego, Califormia. Four Venezuelan tourists approach Spanish-speaking customers browsing among tablets, smart phones, flat-screen TVs and laptops with a business proposition.

“If you are going to buy something with cash, please let me pay for it with my credit card and you can give me the money instead. The thing is that in my country, Venezuela, getting hard currency is very complicated,” says a young woman in a slow, deliberate voice.

Venezuelans can find such “swiping-the-card” transactions difficult in a country like the United States where people rarely make large purchases with cash. But on this particular warm autumn night, one Venezuelan is lucky.

A group of Latin American journalists who were attending a workshop in San Diego did some bartering. To understand the official exchange rates and the black market for US dollars in Venezuela requires a quick doctorate in economics.

According to these Venezuelan tourists there are three different exchange rates. The official one is for necessities but varies when it comes to dollars for travel or for purchasing raw materials used in products the government considers luxuries.

In the treacherous streets of Caracas the US dollar trades at a different rate of exchange on the black market. These different types of exchange have contributed to runaway inflation of almost 61% and an uncontrollable rise in prices for staple foods such as powdered milk powder and cornmeal.

Venezuelan tourists describe how an Apple laptop is two and a half times more expensive in Venezuela than in any other country in the world due to the devaluation of the national currency, the bolivar.

Because of the economic crisis, business seizures and rules governing fixed prices, many people — especially those in the middle class — have been forced to turn to the informal economy to weather the storm.

The young Venezuelan woman, a mother with a young daughter, told me that despite having both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, she takes advantage of trips abroad to “swipe the card,” or to buy merchandise on credit to resell in Caracas.

“We’re becoming nothing more than peddlers thanks to Maduro and the way he blindly copies Cuba’s inefficient socioeconomic system and its controls,” she says.

Another Venezuelan bought two Sony Play Station 3 video games. “One is for my kids; the other is to sell. I have to take advantage of the $1,800 I got at the official exchange rate. If I can lay my hands on a few hundred dollars, I can exchange them for 110 “bolos” (bolivars) when I get back to Venezuela. And with the money from the sale of the video game, I’ll probably be able to have decent Christmas dinner.”

Whether it be California, Florida or Havana, the unstoppable economic crisis has turned many Venezuelans into brokers. In central Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall Venezuelans can often be seen “swiping the card.”

Transactions involve buying a freezer, television or furniture for a client and paying for the purchase with a credit card. Later the client reimburses the credit card holder with cash in the form of convertible pesos.

They often have an angle. Joel (not his real name), a medical student, notes that “for purchases of several hundred CUCs (convertible pesos), we offer a 15% to 20% discount. Cubans, who are nobody’s fools, agree to this. Then with those convertible pesos, we buy dollars on the black market at 95 or 96 cents per CUC. Back in Venezuela, those dollars we got through transactions or the official currency exchange, we sell on the black market. It is a windfall. This way I can support my family without any problem.”

Maura, a Venezuelan on a visit to Cuba, is getting ready for her wedding to a Cuban. She wanders the markets where things are priced in Cuban pesos and buys large quantities of bath soap and detergent.

“In Havana a bar of soap costs five to six Cuban pesos, around twenty cents to the dollar at the official exchange rate. I have already bought eighty bars of soap to resell in my country.

Liudmila, a resident of Caracas’ violent Petare neighborhood, took advantage of a training trip to the island to purchase over-the-counter and prescription medications through a Venezuelan friend who is a medical student in Cuba.

“It’s the only way I have to get medications for my relatives,” she says. “For me it’s profitable because I get dollars at a favorable exchange rate since I am here on an official visit. Life is hard for everyone.”

Iván García

Photo: Increasing numbers of Venezuelans, both government supporters and opponents, travel to Havana to acquire dollars, “swipe the card” or buy merchandise intended for sale on the black market. Ríete del Gobierno. http://www.rietedelgobierno.net

Press Workshop in San Diego / Ivan Garcia

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In early October, when I was invited to a workshop on investigative journalism at a university in San Diego, the first thing I did was search the internet for background information on those courses.

I knew that the speakers were superior.  It’s not every day that an independent Cuban journalist has the opportunity to dialogue with reporters from the US of high caliber, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners.

I confess that I had an attack of skepticism when I saw the schedule for the workshop.  The presentations dealt with the border conflict between Mexico and the United States, new technological tools for investigative journalism, and how to approach reporting on health and the environment in a creative and entertaining way. Continue reading

Cuba, Waiting for the “Yumas*” / Ivan Garcia

Photo source: Cubanet

Dreaming does not cost anything. Lisván, a self-employed taxi driver who spends twelve hours a day behind the wheel of an old American car from the 1940s surrounded by the piercing smell of gasoline and cigar smoke, is in theory one of those people counting on the government and anti-embargo American businessmen to finally improve the perilous diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

Right now, under a tropical midday sun, the young man is analyzing how small businesspeople and private-sector workers might benefit from the new measures President Obama has outlined and a possible lifting of the economic and trade embargo.

Lisván believes that if the government authorized automobile imports and provided access to credit from US banks, he could replace his outdated, run-down car and partner with other drivers to create a freight and taxi service made up of gleaming General Motors vehicles. Continue reading

Cuba and the United States Conclude the Cold War / Ivan Garcia

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The morning of December 17 had not heralded anything new for Silvio, who is 43 years old. The previous night, after crawling a kilometer and half tied to a stone of considerable proportions along a narrow carriageway road to the Sanctuary of San Lazaro, south of Havana, to fulfill a religious vow and to pray for the health of his wife, his sons and his ailing mother, he thought that his quota of emotions was already exhausted.

“Imagine, all night under a cold damp, praying to St. Lazarus. I arrived home at dawn. About 10 o’clock in the morning I called a cousin who lives in Hialeah [Florida] and he tells me that they had made a swap between the three imprisoned Cuban agents in the United States, for Alan Gross and a spy in the CIA who had been 20 years in a Cuban prison.

“Then at noon, President Raúl Castro in a televised message announces that the relations between the two countries, the financial flow, and communications will resume, in addition to the release of the agents. It was a surprise. It suddenly appears that Americans are no longer enemies,” says Silvio while waiting for a taxi.

Undoubtedly, the news of the day in Havana, and on the island, has been that the United States and Cuba have ended its own particular Cold War. Continue reading