Getting Dressed in Cuba / Iván García

Clothes made in Cuba on display in a state store. (Cubanet)

Ivan Garcia, 15 May 2017 — The plastic drawers holding garments for men and women give off the usual scent of things that have have been in storage for a long time. We are in a government-run store that sells used clothing on the Calzada de Monte, a busy thoroughfare lined with state-owned retail establishments, privately owned coffee shops and people clandestinely selling cheap Chinese-made merchandise.

At the back of the store, three plastic drawers of second-hand clothing lie scattered on the floor. A variety of pants and shirts hang from racks flanked by two mirrors with blackened edges.

The place is stifling. Sweat runs down the faces of employees, who try to relieve the heat by fanning themselves with covers of old magazines and pieces of cardboard. continue reading

A shirt with a dirty collar and no label costs eighty pesos, almost four dollars. It is to thrift shops and flee markets like these that people with low-incomes — typically state workers paid in the local currency and those who do not receive remittances from overseas — come to shop.

“All the used clothing here is imported. The Ministry of Domestic Trade cleans them but then the customers dirty them. They’re clothes that people from other countries have sold or donated to thrift stores. This lot came from Canada. There were better items for sale but they’re already gone. What’s left over is the stuff nobody wants,” says the manager.

Yamil, a thirty-four-year-old primary school custodian often buys second-hand clothing. “My salary of 300 pesos (the equivalent of thirteen dollars) doesn’t go far. I would like to dress more fashionably but my buying options are limited to used clothes. Occasionally, a friend will give me pants or a shirt. And a relative living in the US sends me cheap stuff, which I give to my kids,” he says.

The biggest problem in Cuba today is putting food on the table. Not everyone can afford breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maintaining a high-quality diet consumes 80% of a typical family’s income. Sometimes more. Even if you have enough money, you cannot always find the foods you want or need.

Dressing children is a huge headache. Old people, the biggest losers of Raul Castro’s timid economic reforms, also face struggles. Just ask Eusebio, an octogenarian retiree who sells magazines on Calzada del Cerro.

“At least it’s almost never cold here. Otherwise, we’d be a pile of stiffs. Most of us wear clothes that are twenty or more years old. Those with families overseas manage to do alright. So do people with children who are snappy dressers or managers with foreign companies. But the rest of us are out of luck. The worst is when shoes wear out. I use shoes that my newspaper customers give me. If they didn’t, I would be walking around in flip-flops,” says Eusebio.

A standard monthly salary of twenty-six dollars makes it impossible for the average Cuban to buy clothes. Families with children who do not receive overseas remittances have to hope for a miracle, especially if they have more than one child.

“Buying clothes and shoes is a nightmare,” says Daniel, a civil engineer. “Society is divided into those who have options and those who don’t. Students whose parents are well-off wear brand label shoes to school. Everyone else has to make-do with low-quality shoes. Other kids ridicule them. They made fun of my son because of the tennis shoes I bought him. I try to encourage him and tell him to study hard so that he’ll have a career after he graduates. But he says, ’Dad, professionals here are worse off than someone who works at a produce market.’ It’s a mess.”

In Cuba, stores cater to different markets. Those whose merchandise is priced in Cuban pesos (CUP) usually offer standard or poor quality clothing. Most stores, however, sell items of higher quality, which are priced in hard currency in the form of convertible pesos (CUC) and carry import duties of 240%.

TRD Caribe — one of a chain of businesses owned by GAESA, a conglomerate run by the Cuban military, which controls 80% of the Cuban economy — offers clothing purchased in bulk from wholesale markets in Panama Canal Zone or cheap garments acquired from China.

The prices are predatory. Jeans of mediocre quality go for between twenty and thirty CUC. “The quality of shoes and clothing is really bad. It’s a bunch of junk that they treat as though it were of the highest quality,” says a woman looking through a box of rubber flip-flops at a shop on Acosta Avenue in southern Havana’s Tenth of October neighborhood.

At one of the Palco stores or the well-known boutiques located in hotels or shopping malls, better quality goods can be found but at sky-high prices.

A pair of Converse sneakers at the boutique in the Hotel Saratoga, where the king of Morocco recently stayed, costs the equivalent of ninety dollars. A pair of Gap jeans goes for more than one-hundred twenty.

“Only musicians, hookers, owners of successful private businesses or people who get a lot of money from overseas can afford to shop in those boutiques. Everyone else is screwed,” say Luisa, a bank employee.

At the Mango store in the shopping mall of the Comodoro hotel, which is run by a daughter-in-law of the late dictator Fidel Castro, a pair of denim shorts can cost as much as ninety dollars.

For Cubans trying to dress fashionably, the underground market provides the best options. “Most people buy small items from individuals. They have better prices and a wider selection than state-run stores. They also let you pay in installments,” says Sheila, a college-prep student.

The government has prohibited sales of clothing by privately owned stores since late 2013. But almost all private businesses take advantage of the revolving door that operates between what is legal and what is not, a mechanism that operates with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Thousands of people on the island and abroad are engaged in the garment trade. Merchandise is usually purchased in Panama, Peru or Russia. In some cases it is acquired by catalogue. But whether shopping in state-owned or private businesses, getting dressed in Cuba is an expense that is five times the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

If you ask a Cuban what he sort of present he wants, he will give you one of three answers: a smart phone, a pair of comfortable shoes or a ticket out of the country.

 

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit / Iván García

An old building in Old Havana is the view you get from one of the boutiques in the Hotel Gran Manzana Kempinski. Taken from the article The New Luxury Hotels in Cuba try to attract a swarm of tourists, by Ali McConnon, published in the New York Times in Spanish on May 10, 2017, with photos by Lissette Poole.

Iván García, 11 May 2017 — Scarcely a block away from the majestic Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski, whose inauguration is expected next June 2nd, next to the Payret cinema, a state-owned cafeteria sells an acidic and insipid hamburger with bread for the equivalent of 50 centavos. Workers in the neighbourhood and beggars who survive on asking foreigners for change, form a small queue to buy the inedible hamburger.

The hotel, built by Kempinski, a company started in Berlin in 1897, stands in the place of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first shopping mall on the island, at Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana. Opened in 1910, throughout its history, the Manzana de Gómez housed everything from offices, lawyers’ chambers and commercial consultants to businesses, cafes and restaurants and other enterprises. continue reading

Very near to Manzana Kempinski, the first five star hotel there, will be the Cuban parliament, still a work in progress, which will have as its headquarters the old National Capitol, a smaller scale replica of the Congress in Washington.

The splendid hotel, owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military corporation, and managed by the Kepinski organisation, can boast of having the old Centro Asturiano, now the home of the Fine Arts Museum’s private collections, the Havana Gran Teatro and the Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Plaza and Parque Central hotels as neighbours.

Apart from the recently-built Parque Central Hotel, the other three hotels are situated in 19th century or Republican era buildings, and are among the most beautiful in the city. In the centre of these architectural jewels we find Havana Park, presided over by the statue of the national hero, José Martí.

In those four hotels, you will find shops selling exclusively in convertible pesos (CUC), a strong currency created by Fidel Castro for the purpose of buying high quality capitalist goods.

Incidentally, they pay their employees in the Cuban Pesos (CUP), or national currency. In the tourism, telecoms and civil aviation sectors, their employees only earn 10-35 CUC as commission.

The chavito, as the Cubans term the CUC, is a revolving door which controls the territory between the socialist botch-ups, shortages and third rate services and the good or excellent products invoiced by the “class enemies”, as the Marxist theory has it, which supports the olive green bunch which has been governing the island since 1959.

21st century Cuba is an absurd puzzle. Those in charge talk about defending the poor, go on about social justice and prosperous sustainable socialism, but the working class and retired people are worse off.

The regime is incapable of starting up stocked markets, putting up good quality apartment blocks, reasonably priced hotels where a workman could stay or even maintaining houses, streets and sidewalks in and around the neighborhoods of the capital. But it invests a good part of the gross domestic product in attracting foreign currency.

José, a private taxi driver, thinks that it’s good to have millions of tourists pouring millions of dollars into the state’s cash register. “But, the cash should then be reinvested in improving the country. From the ’80’s on, the government has bet on tourism. And how much money has come over all those years? And in which productive sectors has it been invested?” asks the driver of a clapped-out Soviet-era Moskovitch.

Government officials should tell us. But they don’t. In Cuba, supposedly public money is managed in the utmost secrecy. Nobody knows where the foreign currency earned by the state actually ends up and the officials look uncomfortable when you ask them to explain about offshore Panamanian or Swiss bank accounts.

In this social experiment, which brings together the worst of socialism imported from the USSR with the most repugnant aspects of African style capitalist monopoly, in the ruined streets of Havana, they allow Rapid and Furious to be filmed, they tidy up the Paseo del Prado for a Chanel parade or open a Qatar style hotel like the Manzana Kampinski, in an area surrounded by filth, where there is no water and families have only one meal a day to eat.

In a car dealer in Primelles on the corner of Via Blanca, in El Cerro, they sell cars at insulting prices. The hoods of the cars are covered in dust and a used car costs between $15-40,000. A Peugeot 508, at $300k, is dearer than a Lamborghini.

For the authorities, the excessive prices are a “revolutionary tax”, and with this money they have said they will defray the cost of buying city buses. It’s a joke: they have hardly sold more than about forty second-hand cars in three years and public transport goes from bad to worse.

For Danay, a secondary school teacher, it isn’t the government opening hotels and luxury shops that annoys her, “What pisses me off is that everything is unreal. How can they sell stuff that no-one could afford even if they worked for 500 years? Is it some kind of macabre joke, and an insult to all Cuban workers?” Danay asks herself, while she hangs around the shopping centre in the Hotel Kempinski.

In the wide reinforced concrete passageways, what you normally see there is amazing. With his girl friend embracing him, Ronald, a university student, smiles sarcastically as he looks in a jewelry shop window at some emeralds going for more than 24k convertible pesos. “In another shop, a Canon camera costs 7,500 CUC. It’s mad.” And he adds:

“In other countries they sell expensive items, but they also have items for more affordable prices. Who the hell could buy that in Cuba, my friend? Apart from those people (in the government), the Cuban major league baseball players who get paid millions of dollars, and the people who have emigrated and earn lots of money in the United States. I don’t think tourists are going to buy things they can get more cheaply in their own countries. If at any time I had any doubts about the essential truth about this government, I can see it here: we are living in a divided society. Capitalism for the people up there, and socialism and poverty for us lot down here”.

Security guards dressed in grey uniforms, with earphones in their ears and surly-looking faces, have a go at anyone taking photos or connecting to the internet via wifi. People complain “If they don’t let you take photos or connect to the internet, then they are not letting Cubans come in”, says an irritated woman.

In the middle of the ground floor of what is now the Hotel Kempinski, which used to be the Manzana de Gómez mall, in 1965 a bronze effigy of Julio Antonio Mella, the student leaders and founder of the first Communist party in 1925, was unveiled. The  sculpture has disappeared from there.

“In the middle of all this luxurious capitalism, there is no place for Mella’s statue”, comments a man looking at the window displays with his granddaughter. Or probably the government felt embarrassed by it.

Iván García

Note: About the Mella bust, in an article entitled Not forgotten or dead, published 6th May in the Juventud Rebelde magazine, the journalist Ciro Bianchi Ross wrote: “I have often asked myself what was the point of the Mella bust which they put in the middle of the Manzana de Gómez mall and then removed seven years ago, before the old building started to be transformed into a luxury hotel, and which seems to bother people now. Mella had nothing in common with that building. The Manzana de Gómez had no connection with his life or his political journey. Apart from the fact that from an artistic point of view it didn’t look like anything”.

Translated by GH

Independent Journalism Seeks to Revive Press Freedom / Iván García

Photo: MartiNoticias

Iván García, 3 May 2017 — Let’s step back in time. One morning in 1985, Yndamiro Restano Díaz, a thirty-seven-year-old journalist with Radio Rebelde, took out an old Underwood and wrote a clandestine broadsheet entitled “Nueva Cuba.” After distributing the single-page, handmade newspaper up and down the street, one copy ended up pinned to a wall in the Coppelia ice cream parlor in the heart of Havana’s Vedado district.

His intention was not to criticize the autocratic regime of Fidel Castro. No, it was simply an act of rebellion by a reporter who believed that information was a public right. In his writing, Yndamiro tried to point out the dire consequences that institutional contradictions were having on the country’s economy. continue reading

He was arrested and questioned at Villa Marista, a jail run by the political police in southern Havana. Later that year he was arrested again, this time for having given an interview to the New York Times. That is when his troubles began. He was fired from Radio Rebelde and branded with a scarlet letter by Special Services. Without realizing it, Yndamiro Restano had laid the foundations for today’s independent journalism in Cuba.

Cuba was emerging from overwhelmingly bleak five-year period in which censorship was having an almost sickening effect. The winds of glasnost and perestroika were blowing from Gorbachev’s USSR. Some intellectuals and academicians such as the late Felix Bonne Carcasses decided the time was right for more democratic openness in society and the media. Havana was a hotbed of liberal thought.

Journalist Tania Díaz Castro along with young activists Rita Fleitas, Omar López Montenegro, Estela Jiménez and former political prisoner Reinaldo Bragado established the group Pro Arte Libre. According to the writer Rogelio Fabio Hurtado, Cuba’s independent press was born out of the first dissident organization, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, led by Ricardo Boffill Pagés and the organization’s vice-president Rolando Cartaya, a former journalist at Juventud Rebelde. In a 2011 article published in Martí Noticias, Cartaya recalled, “When we arrived at dawn at his house in Guanabacoa’s Mañana district, Bofill had already produced half a dozen original essays and eight carbon copies of each for distribution to foreign press agencies and embassies.”

No longer able to work as a journalist, by 1987 Yndamiro Restano was making a living cleaning windows at a Havana hospital. He would later be fired from that job after giving an interview to the BBC. Frustrated by not being able to freely express himself in a society mired in duplicity and fear, he joined the unauthorized Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation created by Elizardo Sánchez.

Along with other journalists fired from newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television news programs who were eager to publish their own articles without censorship, Restano decided in 2011 to form an organization that would allow reporters condemned to silence to work together. Thus was born the Cuban Association of Independent Journalists, the first union of freelance correspondents.

In 1991 — a date which coincided with the beginning of the Special Period, an economic crisis lasting twenty-six years — the Havana poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela founded Criterio Alternativo which, among causes, championed freedom of expression. In an effort to crack open the government’s iron-fisted control of the nation, Maria Elena herself, along with Roberto Luque Escalona, Raúl Rivero Castaneda, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo, Manuel Diaz Martinez, Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Manolo Granados and Jorge A. Pomar Montalvo and others signed the Charter of Ten, which demanded changes to Castro’s status quo.

On September 23, 1995, Raúl Rivero — probably Cuba’s most important living poet — founded Cuba Press in the living room of his home in La Victoria, a neighborhood in central Havana. The agency was an attempt to practice a different kind of professional journalism, one which reported on issues ignored by state-run media.

Now living in exile in Miami, Rivero notes, “I believe in the validity and strength of truly independent journalism, which made its name by reporting on economic crises, repression, lack of freedom and by looking for ways to revive the best aspects of the republican-era press.” He adds, “There was never an attempt to write anti-government propaganda like that of the regime. They were pieces whose aim was to paint a coherent portrait of reality. The articles with bylines were never written so some boss could enjoy a good breakfast. They were written to provide an honest opinion and a starting point for debate on important issues. That is why, as I found out, Cuba Press was formed at the end of the last century.”

Cuba Press brought together half a dozen official journalists who had been fired from their jobs. Tania Quintero, now a political refugee who has lived in Switzerland since 2003, was one of them.* Once a week, Quintero boarded a crowded bus to deliver two or three articles to Raul Rivero, whose third-floor apartment was a kind of impromptu editing room, with no shortage of dissertations on every topic. An old Remington typewriter stood vigil as the poet’s wife, Blanca Reyes, served coffee.

The budding independent journalism movement had more ambitions than resources. Reporters wrote out articles in longhand or relied on obsolete typewriters using whatever sheets of paper they could find. Stories were filed by reading them aloud over phone lines; the internet was still the stuff of science fiction. The political police often confiscated tape recorders and cameras, the tools then in use, and well as any money they found on detainees. They earned little money but enjoyed the solidarity of their colleagues, who made loans to each other that they knew would never be repaid.

Those who headed other alternative news agencies also had to deal with harassment, arrest and material deprivation. That was the case of Jorge Olivera Castillo, a former video editor at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television who wound up being one of the founders of Havana Press.

Twenty-two years later, Olivera recalls, “Havana Press began life on May 1, 1995. A small group led by the journalist Rafael Solano, who had worked at Radio Rebelde, was given the task of starting this initiative under difficult conditions. After working for four years as a reporter, I took over as the agency’s director in 1999 and worked in that position until March 2003, when I was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in prison during the Black Spring.”

Faced with adversity, the former directors of Havana Press — Rafael Solano, Julio Martinez and Joaquín Torres — were forced to go into exile. “More than two decades after this movement began, it is worth noting its importance to the pro-democracy struggle and its ability to survive in spite of obstacles. Those initial efforts paved the way for the gradual evolution of initiatives with similar aims,” observes Olivera.

For the former prisoner of conscience, “independent journalism remains one of the fundamental pillars in the struggle for a transition to democracy. It has held this position since the 1990s, when it emerged and gained strength due to the work of dozens of people, some of whom had worked for official media outlets and others who learned to practice the trade with remarkable skill.” This is because independent journalism began with people who had worked in technical fields or in universities but had no journalistic experience or training. They are self-taught or took self-improvement courses either in Cuba or abroad, carved a path for themselves and are now authorities their field. They include the likes of Luis Cino, Juan González Febles and Miriam Celaya.

Radio Martí was and still is the sounding board for the independent press and opposition activists. The broadcaster reports on the regime’s ongoing violations of freedom of expression, its intrigues, its delaying tactics and its attempts to feign democracy with propaganda that rivals that of North Korea.

In a 2014 article for Diario de Cuba, José Rivero García — a former journalist for Trabajadores (Workers) and one of the founders of Cuba Press — wrote, “It is worth remembering that this seed sprouted long before cell phones, Twitter, Facebook or basic computers. The number of independent journalists has multiplied thanks to technology and communication initiatives over which the Castro regime has no control.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Even without the benefit of proper tools, a handful of men and women have managed in recent years to create independent publications such as Primavera Digital, Convivencia or 14ymedio.

Currently, there are some two-hundred colleagues working outside the confines of the state-run media in Havana and other provinces, writing, photographing, creating videos and making audio recordings. But they still face risks and are subject to threats. At any given moment they could be detained or have their equipment confiscated by State Security. Their articles, exposés, chronicles, interviews and opinion pieces can be found on Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Martí Noticias, Cubaencuentro and other digital publications, including blogs and webpages.

In almost lockstep with the openly confrontational anti-Castro press there is an alternative world of bloggers and former state-employed journalists. They practice their profession as freelancers and hold differing positions and points of view. Among the best known are Elaine Díaz from Periodismo de Barrio, Fernando Rasvberg from Carta de Cuba and Harold Cárdenas from La Joven Cuba, all of whom are subject to harassment and the tyranny of the authorities.

Reports issued by organizations that defend press freedom in countries throughout the world rank Cuba among the lowest. The regime claims that there have been no extrajudicial executions on the island and that no journalists have been killed. There is no need. It has been killing off the free press in other ways since January 1959.

Since its beginnings more than two decades ago, Cuba’s independent press has sought to revive freedom of the press and freedom of expression. And slowly it has been succeeding. In spite of harassment and repression.

 *Translator’s note: Tania Quintero is the author’s mother.

The Cuban Regime is an Enemy to the Freedom of Expression / Iván García

Police quash a protect of the Ladies in White. Taken by the Newspaper of the Americas

Ivan Garcia, 10 May 2017 — When he is particularly bored, after flicking through the eight channels that there are on the island, 56 year old civil engineer Josuan watches the national news some nights with a smirk only to later write a critical analysis on the state press’s awful performance.

“The Cuban press is disgusting. The news channels and local newspapers are a compendium of good news that exalts the supposed achievements and conceals the deficiencies. It is journalism that does not reflect what ordinary people want. They manipulate absolutely everything, that or they disguise and hide information. Venezuela is the best example. The protests in capitalist countries are in order to defend social conquests and they are suppressed by the police’s heavy-handedness. Venezuela’s news is lead by terrorists and fascists that want to give Maduro’s state a blow and never mention police brutality. For this reason, people who want to be well-informed go to illegal cable channels or read foreign press on the internet”, expresses Josuan. continue reading

To date, Cuba’s state journalism is a tribute to the absurd. Cantinflas falls short; a choir of trained scribes and ventriloquists manage in their thick opinion pieces to defend a system that is incapable of guaranteeing decent housing for many families, sufficient food and a living wage.

Freedom of expression is quashed on the island by the government’s propaganda. It all started when Fidel Castro abolished the private and republican press shortly after his arrival into power in 1959.

It buried honest and different exchanges from other political ideals and schools of thought. The control of the press, the banning of other parties and of carrying out strikes to demand greater salaries cut off a great number of rights that any modern society is entitled to. It transformed Cuba into the perfect dictatorship.

An executive machine that repressed or silenced people to dissident voices with the threat of several years imprisonment. The government became the owner of newspapers, magazines, television channels, radio programmes and publishing houses.

Fidel Castro’s model can be summarised in one of his own statements: “Inside the Revolution, everything, outside the Revolution, nothing.” Fear silenced the average citizen.

Histrionics and simulation became a mask, used by the populace for convenience, to elect people’s delegates who do not actually solve anything, to applaud an ideology that is not theirs and to appear loyal to the regime by using language that is full of slogans.

Although the majority of Cubans may pretend to be integrated with the army of zombies, observing the game while comfortably seated in the grandstands, factors such as the continuous economic crisis, daily shortages and a future caught up in interrogation have been catalysts to wake them up from their drowsiness.

In the absence of free press where the people are able to express their discontent, waiting in the queue for their potatoes or in the back of old private taxis people have expressed critical opinions, some being openly anti-government.

We got to know two Miguel Antonios. One is a young director of a department producing lactose free products just outside of La Habana who projects an image of being a Revolutionary cadre. The other is a private entrepreneur who arrives at his home frustrated before the many obstacles and challenges to business autonomy.

“The system for businesses in Cuba is a disaster. It has to be completely abolished and authentic businesses that are private and cooperative with actual independence must be created. This is a problem. We ought to build a new country that is more democratic and functional, that rewards talent and creativity. But I fear that with this current government it is impossible. The only place where Cubans can express their freedom is in their homes. Outside of our homes we swallow our tongues”, businessman Miguel Antonio emphasizes.

At the end of the 1980s there were surges in an independent press that, without censorship and with alternative perspectives, described the reality of the nation. This allowed little cracks to open in the monolithic control of the flow of information that the state exerts.

About 200 journalists with no desires to be martyrs write for alternative digital media outlets. Some of them with notable quality bet on modern capitalism or true socialism and agree to do so by following democratic rules. In one corner of the ring, we can find those who openly consider themselves to be anti-Castro. In the other corner are those with a more impartial view who recognise the social policies of the revolution and condemn the United States’ meddling in the funding of the dissidence.

Nothing is black or white. There are nuances. This is the case with the Periodismo de Barrio (Journalism of the Neighbourhood, a Cuban newspaper) and their superb chronicals on poor communities in the depths of Cuba. Also the relaxed digital magazine El Estornudo (The Sneeze), or La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba), websites which opt for a democratic neo-communism. But all of them with no exceptions are censored by the regime.

People like Frank, a refrigerator mechanic, consider that “a free press that is not biased is necessary amid so much corruption, governmental secretism that does not consider the people and Cubans’ need to see themselves reflected in the media, not as a caricature, but to see their reality.”

Freedom of expression is not in its prime. According to Reporters without Borders, Cuba is the worst country in the Americas with regards to the freedom of press. In Mexico, organised crime and the government’s indifference coupled with the deficiency of democratic jurisprudence has made it impossible to investigate the deaths of various journalists in the last ten years. Venezuela currently is an open dossier on understanding how autocratic doctrines work and their congenital disrespect for the freedom of expression and democracy.

Even the United States, the supposed guardian of liberties, is finding itself confronted by its unpredictable president Donald Trump who has classified the media as ’enemies of the people’. Of course, Cuba is worse.

 

Eating Steak and Fries is a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García

Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.

Iván García, 2 May 2017 — On an afternoon like any other, an underground seller of beef, living in the southeast of Havana, bought flank steaks wholesale from a slaughterer, to then sell them to private restaurants and neighbours who could afford them.

He filleted the chops and started to offer them for the equivalent of three dollars a pound. “They flew off the shelf. By night time I didn’t have an ounce of it left. If  any red meat comes my way, I can sell it immediately. The thing is, Cubans like to eat a good piece of steak with fries, washed down with a glass of orange juice. But, my friend, that dish has become an extravagant luxury in Cuba,” says the vendor, who knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of the Havana black market.

Even though a pound of beef costs three days’ of a professional’s salary, you don’t always find it in the profitable black market. continue reading

In the island there is a network of butchers, slaughterers and sellers which makes sufficient money selling beef. “Everything starts when someone spots a bullock or a cow not properly protected in some odd corner in the Cuban countryside. That’s when they start to plan how get it to end up as stew (kill it) and transport it to Havana, which is where they can sell it for the best price. They can get between 1,300 and 1,600 chavitos (CUCs) for a 1,000 pound bull, and the slaughterer, the transporter and the sellers get a few kilos of meat free”, according to a cattle slaughterer, a native of the central region of the country.

And he explains that they will just as happily kill a calf, a grown up cow, or a horse, “whatever has four legs and moves, gets what’s coming to it. Of course, a slaughterer who knows what he’s doing takes care not to kill a cow which is sick or has brucellosis, because if the police catch you, along with the twenty years the District Attorney goes for on account of killing a cow, he adds another five or six on top for endangering public health.

In 2013, the Granma newspaper reported that more than 18,400 cattle were dying of hunger or disease in the province of Villa de Clara. In April 2014, the Communist party organ highlighted that something over 3,300 cows died in the first three months of that year in the province of Holguin, and another 69,000 were found to be under-nourished. The authorities blamed the drought and, according to Granma, 35 thousand head of cattle were receiving water from water tank trucks in order to alleviate the effects of the months without rain.

According to Damián, an ex-employee of a sugar mill, who now survives selling home-made cheese on the Autopista Nacional, “what has happened to the cattle here is irresponsible and those officials should be behind bars. But they carry on like that, carrying their Party card and talking annoying rubbish”.

Mario, a private farmer, says, jokingly, that “Cuba is an unusual mixture of Marxism and Hinduism. Seems like a religious prohibition on eating beef, which is what Cubans like to eat. Although the leaders carry on eating it — just look at their faces and stomachs; they look as if they are going to explode. If you gave them a blood test, their haemoglobin would be around a thousand”.

During the time of the autocrat Fidel Castro, when people wore Jiqui jeans, Yumuri check shirts and very poor quality shoes, all made locally, the old ration book which, in March 2017, had been in use for 55 years, authorised half a pound of beef every nine days for people born in the country.

“Then the cycle was lengthened to once a fortnight, then once a month, until it was quietly disappearing from the Cuban menu. Along with many other things like milk, fresh fish, prawns, oranges and mandarines”, recalls a butcher, who made plenty of money selling beef “on the side” for four pesos a pound in the ’80’s. In the 21st century he survives making money from selling soup thickened with soya.

In the last week of February, some “good news” was announced. Because of poor agricultural output, the state started to sell potatoes through ration books again.

“It’s one step forward, one step back. Five years ago potatoes were rationed. Until one fine day, the bright sparks in the government decided that, along with beans, they should be sold by the pound. So that, everyone was fucked, with potatoes becoming a sumptuary good. If you wanted to eat potato puree or fries, you had to wait in a queue for four hours and put up with fights and swearing just to buy a bag of ten potatoes for 25 pesos. And now that it is rationed once more, the news channel tells you that they will sell you 14 pounds a head, two in the first month, and six after that. But in my farmers’ market they don’t give you a pound any more. Five miserable spuds and you have to take it or leave it”, says Gisela, a housewife.

If you fancy a natural orange juice, get your wallet ready. “Green oranges with hardly any juice cost three pesos, if you can actually find any. A bag of oranges costs between 140 and 200 pesos, half the monthly minimum wage.  I keep asking myself why it is that in countries with a Marxist government, or a socialist one, as invented by Chavez in Venezuela, getting food has to be such torture”, says Alberto, a construction worker.

In Cuba, you can’t eat what you want, only what turns up.

Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.

Translated by GH

If Venezuela Goes to Hell, Will Things Look Bad for Cuba? / Iván García

Protester in Venezuela

Ivan Garcia, 28 April 2017 — Soot covers the unpainted facades of buildings on Tenth of October Boulevard. Old American cars from the 1950s, rebuilt with modern diesel engines and now privately operated as taxis, transit across asphalt, leaving behind a trail of black smoke and the unpleasant odor of gasoline.

The noonday sun glimmers in the opaque windows of old clothing stores, which have been converted into low-quality jewelry and handicraft shops.

Tenth of October is one of Havana’s main arteries. Formerly known as Jesus of the Mountain, the boulevard immortalized by the poet Eliseo Diego is now a walkway of pedestrians carrying plastic bags past makeshift booths set up in the covered entryways of people’s houses. Vendors sell old books, photos of Fidel and Kim Il Sung, and knickknacks that are not longer fashionable. continue reading

Seated at a stool outside his butcher shop, Rey Angel reads a headline in the newspaper Granma. He has not worked in days. “There have been no deliveries of chicken or ground soy,” he says. He kills time reading boring articles by the nation’s press and watching women walk by.

Right now, news from Venezuela is a high priority for the average Cuban. “It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror. You don’t like to read stories about shortages and misfortunes similar to your own, although ours don’t come with street protests or repression and killings by the police,” says the butcher.

“But we have to follow the news from Venezuela,” he adds. “If it all goes to hell there, things won’t look good for us. There will be another ’Special Period.” The government is trying not to alarm people but according to the official press, the country produces only 50% of the crude it needs. The question then is: Where the hell are we going to get the money for the other 50% Venezuela gives us.”

The longstanding economic, social and political crisis in Venezuela also impacts Cuba, a republic that has been unable to control its own destiny. Hungry for power, Fidel Castro hijacked the country, making political commitments in exchange for a blank check from the Kremlin and later oil and credit guarantees from Hugo Chavez.

Like a baby, Cuba is still crawling. It won’t stand up and walk on its own two feet. “Whom should we blame for these disastrous policies?” asks a university professor before answering his own question.

“If we are honest, the answer is Fidel Castro,” he says. “Cuba a total disaster, except supposedly in the realm of sovereignty and independence. But these days we are more dependent than ever. In order to survive, we must depend on tourism, on the export of doctors who work under slave-like conditions and on remittances sent home by Cubans from overseas.”

Although Cuba’s government-run press and Telesur — a media company founded with petrodollars from Hugo Chavez — is trying to cover up the causes of the situation in Venezuela, to ignore other points of view and to manipulate the narrative of the Venezuelan opposition, people on the island can now compare their reporting with other sources of information.

“Whether it’s through the internet, an illegal antenna or family members returning from medical missions in Venezuela, people know that not everything reported in the national media is true. It’s not just the middle class that supports the opposition, as the state press would have us believe. If that were the case, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie would number in the millions. Maduro’s days are numbered. When another political party occupies the presidential palace, when the oil agreement and the exchange of doctors are over, the Cuban economy will experience a crisis , a period of recession the likes of which it has not seen for twenty-eight years. And even worse, all the turmoil in Venezuela coincides with Raul Castro’s stepping down from power” notes an academic.

Among the late Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro’s longterm goals was the eventual unification of their two countries,” says a former diplomat. “ALBA* was just a first step. They hoped to later create a common currency: the sucre. In the halls of power it was jokingly referred to as ‘Cubazuela’. In their minds Castro and Chavez thought they would rule forever. They didn’t foresee themselves dying or anticipate the current catastrophe. In spite of all Maduro’s authoritarianism, there are still democratic institutions which could reverse the situation. But in Cuba? When Venezuela crashes, we’ll be up the creek without a paddle. We can perhaps count on rhetorical support from Bolivia and Ecuador but no one is going to write us a blank check or extend us credit. We will then will have to figure out where we are going and how to get there. If some future politicians manage to figure out a path forward, we’ll have to erect a monument to them.”

Hyperinflation, polarization and the socio-political crisis in Venezuela are all impacting the Cuban economy. In the summer of 2016 Raul Castro announced fuel cuts for the public sector, causing numerous government programs which do not generate hard currency to grind to a halt.

As people die and mass protest marches take place in Venezuela, officials and presidential advisers at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana are devising contingency plans to deal with the eventual collapse of the Chavez movement. It could take months, maybe a year or two, but it will happen.

*Translator’s note: Acronym for Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, an organization founded by Cuba and Venezuela and currently made up of eleven socialist and social democratic member states. 

State Security Summons for Ivan Garcia / Ivan Garcia

State Security summons for Ivan Garcia

Ivan Garcia, 5 April 2017 — He says his name is Alejandro. A thin, timid mulatto, dressed in light-blue jeans, a pullover sweater with Prussian-blue collar, and low-cut black sneakers. In one hand is a dark briefcase.

He speaks quietly and deliberately. He looks like a recent graduate of the Cuban counterintelligence school. According to the summons, he is a first lieutenant.

The interview location is the Aguilera police station in the Lawton neighborhood, off Porvenir Avenue. By now the procedure is habitual. State Security routinely summons dissidents and unmuzzled journalists to police precincts. continue reading

Although he didn’t tell me the reason for the summons, it probably has to do with my latest news reports about the upcoming implementation of the 3G network, and a report on the state of opinion of workers and residents in Old Havana about the administration of the military company GAESA in businesses run by Eusebio Leal, the City Historian.

Of course, the citations serve to try to gather information and to threaten the interviewee. It’s nothing new for me. In March 1991 I spent two weeks in a cell at Villa Marista, headquarters of the Department of Security (DSE). They accused me of “enemy propaganda,” but I wasn’t prosecuted.

Later, during several hours or days, in cells of the 10th Unit, at Avenida de Acosta and October 10th Street. Then various summonses from the political police in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In October 2008, a 12-hour detention at the Zanja and Lealtad Unit, Central Havana. And in August 2010, a summons from Counterintelligence in a special unit of the armed forces, in Rancho Boyeros.

The novelty in this case is that before citing me directly, as they have now done, they cited several friends in the neighborhood to gather information about me, intimidating them with the accusation that they provided me information or that they violated certain laws, and ultimately asked them to collaborate with the special services.

This technique was used by the Soviet KGB and the East German STASI. According to the procedure, the ideal is that there are two or more informants in each neighborhood and a counterintelligence officer for every 50,000 inhabitants.

The main lines of operational work of the Counterintelligence at the moment are directed by Alejandro Castro Espín, the only son of Raúl, the president appointed by his brother Fidel.

Since forever, the Castro brothers have designed the strategies to follow and authorized every step taken by State Security. They don’t act alone.

In the current context, with the crisis in Venezuela that has cut oil supplies to the island by 40%, the economic recession worsened by the oil deficit, the arrival in the White House of a guy as unpredictable as Donald Trump, who has threatened to repeal the agreements made with Barack Obama since 17 December 2014, and the hypothetical change in government in February of 2018, has set off alarms among the olive green executive and the secret services.

The arrests have increased. The physical violence towards the Ladies in White has not stopped. And the harassment, threats and confiscation of the equipment of free journalists is multiplied.

In the case of the alternative press, they don’t care that they have different ideological positions. They repress equally an anti-Castro journalist like Henry Constantin, a neo-communist blogger like Harold Cardenas, or a foreign journalist with family in Cuba like Fernando Ravsberg.

For political opponents, the repression has also increased. The most controversial are beaten and injured. To those who bet on inserting themselves legally into legal mechanisms, like Candidates for Change and Otro18 (Another 2018), they are also repressed.

There is no ideological distinction. Liberal thinking wihout authorization from the military junta is punished. Tomorrow it’s my turn to be ’interviewed’ by the counterintelligence officials.

I promise to keep you informed.

How Cuban State Security Intimidates Potential Informants / Iván García

“DSE” clearly identifies this car as State Security.

Iván García,9 April 2017 — They did not put a Makarov pistol to his head or torture him with electric prods. Let’s call him Josué. (The names in his article have been changed). He is a guy who wears American-made jeans, listens to jazz by Winton Marsalis on his iPhone 7 and is a diehard fan of LeBron James.

He used to work at a gasoline station. One day earned the equivalent of fifty dollars, enough to have some beers at a Havana bar with his buddies. “One of my friends was an opponent of the regime and two were independent journalists,” says Josué. “That wasn’t a problem for me. I had known them for years and they were decent, trustworthy people. We talked politics but, when we just hanging out, we usually talked about sports or our daily lives,” says Josué. continue reading

One morning two officials from the Department of State Security (DSE), dressed as civilians and riding motorcycles, showed up at his door. “They wanted to ’have a friendly chat’ with me. They asked if I would collaborate with them, if I would pass on information about my dissident friends. When I refused, they threatened to charge me with embezzling state funds.”

“’We know you are stealing gasoline,’ they said. ’Either you work for us or we’ll press charges.’ At first, I went along with it but only passed along false information or said that my friends didn’t tell me anything about their work activities. Then they suggested I infiltrate the dissident movement. I refused. In the end I quit my job at the gas station. So now they hassle me constantly and come up with any excuse to arrest and detain me at the police station,” say Josué.

For Sheila, an engineer, the modus operandi is familiar: “First, they tried to blackmail me, accusing me of having an extra-marital affair with a dissident. When I told them, ’Go ahead; do it,’ they changed tactics and said they were going to charge me with harassment of foreigners and prostitution because I have a European boyfriend.”

One of the objectives of Cuban special services is to “short-circuit” the connections that so many of the regime’s opponents, such as independent journalists, have with official sources. “They are in a panic over the possibility that dissidents and independent journalists are building bridges and establishing networks of trust with employees and officials at important state institutions. That’s why they are trying to poison the relationships dissidents and journalists have with relatives, friends and neighbors,” claims an academic who has received warnings from the DSE.

According to this academic, “The DSE will use whatever weapon it can to achieve its goals. These include blackmail, psychological pressure, a person’s commitment to the party and the Revolution, and threats of imprisonment for criminal activity, which is not uncommon given that some potential informants work in the financial or service sector and often make money by defrauding the government. State Security does not need to torture its informants. A system of duplicity, widespread corruption and fear of reprisal are enough to accomplish the objective: to isolate the opponent from his circle of friends.”

Yusdel, an unlicensed bodyshop repairman, recalls how one day an agent from State Security told him, “If you want to keep your business, you have to inform on your stepfather,” a human rights activist. “They’re pigs,” says Yusdel. “It doesn’t matter to them if you betray one of your relatives. If you refuse, you are besieged by the police.”

For Carlos jail is a second home. “Once, when I was a serving time at Combinado del Este prison, a guard asked me to intimidate another inmate, who was a dissident. ’Punch him, do whatever it takes. Nothing will happen to you.’ In exchange for this, they were going to give me weekend passes. I said I wouldn’t do it. But there are common criminals who are all too willing to do this shit,” says Carlos.

The pressure to become a “snitch” is greater when a government opponent or an alternative journalist is inexperienced. Because the dissident community is made up of groups of pacifists and because it operates openly, it is easy for counterintelligence to infiltrate it and blackmail dissidents, who can easily break down or crack under psychological pressure.

With eighteen years’ experience in the free press, a colleague who has known fake independent journalists such as the late Nestor Baguer and Carlos Serpa Maceira says that ultimately they became informants “because of pressure exerted on them by State Security.”

A professor of history who has been subjected to bullying by an agent believes, “The revolutionary/counterrevolutionary rhetoric was inspiring in the first few years after Fidel Castro came to power, when those who supported the revolutionary process were in the majority. Now, those who collaborate do not do it out of loyalty or ideology. They do it out of fear. And that makes them vulnerable and unreliable citizens. Not to mention that the professionalism of the current DSE officers leaves much to be desired. Some agents seem marginal and very intellectually unstable.”

To achieve its objective, Cuban counterintelligence resorts to extortion of would-be informants. And in the case of the opposition, to physical violence. If you have any doubts, just ask the Ladies in White.

Cuban Counterintelligence Plays Hardball with Journalists / Iván García

Headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior in Revolution Square. From Paseos por la Habana.

Ivan Garcia, 17 April 2017 — Money is no object. When it comes to thwarting, harassing and repressing intellectuals or journalists, there are always enough funds in military’s coffers to write a blank check.

Solid numbers are hard to come by but, according to conservative estimates, Cuba’s special services and armed forces account for roughly 35% of the nation’s paltry GDP.

There is never a shortage of fuel, guesthouses, vacation homes, medical clinics or surveillance equipment for monitoring alleged counterrevolutionaries. continue reading

It is mistakenly believed that the top priority of the Special Services is the fragmented domestic opposition, which can never turn out more than a few followers for any public gathering. Meanwhile, the brave fighters at the barricades are kept in line by punches, karate chops and detention in damp, filthy jail cells.

The real danger for the government, and for counterintelligence as well, are high-level officials. “They are like laboratory guinea pigs, always under observation. Their phone calls, internet traffic, contacts with foreigners, sexual preferences and personal tastes are monitored. They cannot escape electronic surveillance even in the bathroom,” says a former intelligence officer with experience listening in.

As in the German film The Lives of Others, people with meaningful positions in government, the armed forces, international trade and the foreign ministry are under tight scrutiny. The next most heavily monitored group of individuals — more closely monitored even than dissidents — are those in the world of arts and letters and the sciences.

“The method for dealing with outspoken opposition figures is to intimidate them, pressuring them with physical and psychological abuse, or simply incarcerating them. We know how they think. But individuals such as writers, musicians, scientists, researchers and government-employed journalists are like a knife with two edges. Many are silent dissidents. They often lead double lives. In assemblies, government offices and newsrooms they appear to be loyal to the system. At home they are budding counterrevolutionaries,” observes the former intelligence officer.

According to this source, agents are well-trained. “They focus on managers, officials and employees of important state institutions. Recent graduates of the Higher Institute of the Ministry of the Interior are assigned to dissidents and independent journalists. They are more adept at using physical and verbal violence than intellectual arguments.”

In my twenty-years working as an independent journalist, State Security has summoned me for questioning five or six times. On other occasions the interviews were more casual. A guy would park his motorcycle outside my building or near my house, as though he were a friend, and calmly chat with me or my mother, Tania Quintero, who now lives in Switzerland as a political refugee and who was also an independent journalist.

He said his name was Jesús Águila. A blond, Caucasian young man, he had the air of an Eton graduate. When he became annoying, as when he would call or visit us to discuss our case or would harass my sister at work, Tania would threaten him with a ceramic mug and he would flee the scene.

One afternoon in the late 1990s I was questioned at a police station by a high-ranking, rather refined official. Then, on an unbearably hot morning in 2010, I was questioned at a branch of Special Troops near the Reloj Club on Boyeros Avenue by officials from Military Counterintelligence.

The site where I was interviewed was an interrogation cubicle located in a holding area for inmates. I had written a couple of articles for the Americas edition of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo on meddling by senior military officers in businesses and corporations. According to my interrogators, the Cuban armed forces did not like the image these articles created of military institutions. In a hollow threat, they told me that I could charged with violating a law — I do not remember which one — against disrespecting the “glorious and undefeated revolutionary armed forces.”

But ultimately it only amounted to intimidation. For six years they did not bother me. They denied me access whenever I tried to cover something at which operatives from State Security were present but they never detained me. Then, three weeks ago, they questioned a few of my friends whom they suspected of being sources for my articles.

I wrote one piece in which I said that, if they wanted to know anything about me, they could call me in for questioning. Apparently, they read it because on April 4 they summoned me to appear the next day at a police station in Havana’s Lawton district.

There I encountered two pleasant, mixed-race and educated young men. I cannot say much else about them. I told them that what is needed — once and for all and by everyone — is open dialogue, to acknowledge the opposition and to try to find a solution to the national disaster that is Cuba today by following the path of democracy. While the officers did not promise tolerance, they did remain silent.

Three days later, one saw the flip side of the coin. As had happened for ninety-seven Sundays, a mob dressed in civilian clothes was incited by State Security to stage a verbal lynching of the Ladies in White House near the police station in Lawton where I had been questioned.

From January to March of 2017 the political police made 1,392 arrests and in some cases confiscated work materials and money from independent journalists and human rights activists.

They harass people with little rhyme or reason. A group of reporters from Periodismo del Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), an online journal which focuses on environmental issues and vulnerable communities, or a neo-Communist blogger like Harold Cardenas are as likely to be targeted as an overtly anti-Castro figure like Henry Constantin, regional vice-president of the Inter-American Press Society.

With ten months to go before Raul Castro hangs up his gloves, the Special Services’ game plan is poised to undergo a 180-degree turnaround. Using its contacts, it could establish a channel of communication between dissidents and the government, which could serve as a first step towards the ultimate legal resolution of Cuba’s political problems.

But I fear that democracy is not one of the Cuban regime’s top priorities.

The Fidel Castro Fair / Iván García

By Elio Delgado, from the Havana Times

Iván García , 21 February 2017 — The wood charcoal embers are slowly browning half a dozen kebabs with vegetables, pineapples and pieces of pork, while, on a shelf, the flies are hovering around the steamed corn cobs.

From very early in the morning, Jesús, a chubby mulatto with calloused hands, gets on with cooking chicken, pork fillets and sautéed rice, to sell later in his small mobile shop positioned in a large car park, at the main entrance to the International Book Fair in Havana.

A line of kiosks with aluminium tubes and coloured canvas tops offer local favourites, like bread with suckling pig, ham and cheese sandwiches, jellies, mineral water and canned drinks. continue reading

“My kiosk specialises in dishes from San Miguel de Padrón.  But the truth is that in this particular fair, sales are sluggish. Mainly because the organisers prohibited the sale of alcohol. You can forget about books and all that intellectual shit, you have to give Cubans beer and reguetón if you want them to feel happy – the rest is secondary”, says Jesús.

Thursday February 16th started off rainy in Havana. Idelfonso, a self-employed clown, looks up at the overcast sky and mutters, “if it starts raining again, they’ll have to take the circus and its tent away, because no-one will bring their kids in bad weather. This fair has been pretty bad for us. No-one has any money, and those who do prefer to spend it on books and food”, he says, in his bear get-up.

In different parts of the car park, private businesses rent out inflatable toys for fifteen pesos for the kids to bounce about for thirty minutes, and five pesos for a quick ride on a horse.

“Many families don’t come to buy books. They would rather their kids enjoyed themselves playing with the equipment. There are hardly any amusement parks in the capital”, says Rita, who deals with charging for the horses.

Families and groups of friends lay towels out on the grass and picnic on a hill from where you get a unique view of the city across the bay.

Gerard, a young man with tattooed forearms, feels uncomfortable. He tells his wife to go off with the kid to play with the inflatable toys while he complains about the lack of any beer.

“These people are really party poopers. Whose idea was it to stop selling lager and nips of rum? I can’t imagine it was because of Fidel Castro’s death, as the bloke has been pushing up daisies for over two months now”, moans Gerard, knocking back a lemonade as a temporary solution to the matter.

Dora and Germán come from El Cotorro, in south west Havana, with two enormous bags to buy “fifteen or twenty boxes of drink. We have a cafe and we buy stuff here for ten pesos and then we sell them there for twenty. If we have time, we buy a few books for our grandchildren”.

The Book Fair always was a good excuse for thousands of Habaneros to amuse themselves. Kids skipping classes looking over displays of foreign books, inveterate bookworms, pseudo intellectuals who take the opportunity to come over as writers, the peripheral catwalk of hustlers and pickpockets selling tourists fake Cohíba cigars made in shacks in deepest Havana.

But this time the organisers decided to put a stop to “sideshows which have nothing to do with reading”, says Idalia, a Editora Abril bookseller, who adds:

“The fair has been turned into a mess. Like a strip club. Hustlers who came to pull foreigners and people with money who have never read a book and were downing beers ’til closing time. The number of people coming here has definitely fallen, as nearly two million people came here two years ago. Now the numbers have fallen to less than half” says Idalia, who, in exchange for offering her opinions for Martí Noticias, asks me to buy some books.

“The thing is, we get commission on our sales. And we aren’t selling much”, she emphasises. From the books on display, I choose the biography of  Raúl Castro written by Nikolai Leonov, an ex high-up in the KGB and personal friend of the Carribean autocrat.

The book, which looks good, costs 30 pesos, equivalent to three times the daily minimum wage in Cuba. According to the official press, it is the best selling book of the year.  Idalia thinks differently.

“You can put any rubbish you like on paper. They give the book, just like they did with Fidel’s, as gifts to lots of people who attend events, and then they record them as sales. And, being prioritised by the printers, they have gigantic print-runs, and are on sale in all the bookshops in the country. But, I haven’t seen too much enthusiasm among Cuban readers for Raúl’s biography. Foreign lefties certainly do buy books dedicated to Fidel”, she tells me.

Although the present Book Fair is dedicated to Canada and the tedious state official Armando Hart Dávalos, the dead Fidel Castro is the prime actor.

There is no lack of sets of Fidel Castro’s speeches on the local publishers’ stands, a revised edition of History will Absolve Me and cartoon books eulogising the dictator from Birán.

“God help us! Fidel everywhere”, says a lady walking through the Mexican pavilion looking for a diary she has promised her granddaughter. The foreign publishers are the busiest, in spite of the high foreign currency prices.

They also sell pirate Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar teeshirts, as well as a collection of Barcelona and Real Madrid posters. A Mexican bookseller tells us that “We take advantage of the fact that Cubans like football, and so we push this merchandise”.

At midday St Charles Fort looks just like an informal flea market. A few serious readers sit down, leaning against the ancient cannons which protect the fort, in order to read George Orwell’s 1984 or a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

The less serious fill up nylon bags with books on spritual advice or magazines about fashion and cooking. Then they form a little queue at the exit from La Cabaña, to get the bus going to the centre of Havana.

Few visitors know the dark history of the fort, an ancient prison and location of hundreds of firing squads for Castro opponents. The thing is that in Cuba the disinformation, fear of knowing the truth, and amnesia help people live apathetic and apolitical lives.

Translated by GH

Cuba: Risk of Health Crisis Due to Lack of Potable Water / Iván García

Trinidad residents carrying their water in buckets from the tanker truck. Source: Giselle Morales’ blog.

Ivan Garcia, 21 April 2017 — There is a slightly damp and cold breeze when Antonio, after drinking a rather bitter sip of coffee, with his wooden cart with rusty steel wheels, moves to a water spout in Manglar Street, very close to an old Sports field in the overpopulated neighborhood of La Victoria, in the heart of Havana.

A couple of cylindrical metallic tanks that can carry 55 gallons of water each are attached to the truck. At seven o’clock in the morning, when the city listens as a symphonized tune, a trail of alarm clocks, and Havanans get ready to go to work or school, Antonio unloads dozens of buckets to several customers in the neighborhood of San Leopoldo. continue reading

“Two years ago, for filling a 55-gallon tank, I charged 50 Cuban pesos (equivalent to two dollars) but now, because of the drought which is causing some scarcity, the price has risen to 60 pesos for each tank,” Antonio explains, while lunching on a serving of congrí rice, pork steak and cole slaw and cucumber in a private restaurant.

After five o’clock in the afternoon he goes back to the capital’s neighborhood to sell the water. In one day he can earn 500 pesos, about 20 dollars. “In addition to earning money, I keep in shape,” he says, and shows his trained biceps after almost twenty years carrying buckets of water.

In Havana there are more than 170,000 units that do not receive drinking water in their homes. Some of them due to breaks in the pipes and others because with aluminum sheets and pieces of cardboard and veneers they have raised frightening shacks without bathrooms and lacking the most basic conditions for human life.

According to an official of the state-run Aguas de La Habana, “these people are supposed to receive water in (state) tanker trucks. But because of the lack of gasoline, the drought that affects the country or simply corruption, the ‘pipers’ sell water to those who can pay, and thousands of families do not receive water in a timely manner.”

In Cuba, plagued with a dysfunctional government  and low productivity that generates scarcity, anything can become a business. Why not water.

From aguateros, like Antonio, who travel through the cracked streets of the old part of Havana selling water, to the tanker trucks of the state companies that also profit from the precious liquid.

“A full tank at this time costs between 25 and 30 pesos Cuban convertible pesos (about 25-30 dollars US). And demand outstrips supply. The buyers are business owners who have restaurants or rent out lodging, those who have swimming pools in their homes and in buildings where there is water shortage and people have a source of hard currency,” says the driver of a tanker truck.

The problem of the water supply in the capital is longstanding. For lack of a coherent hydraulic policy, the regime has been overwhelmed by something that is as essential as water.

With a population that exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, Havana continues to have as its main source of supply the old Albear aqueduct, a masterpiece of industrial engineering that began to be built in 1858 and was inaugurated in 1893, for a city of 600,000 people.

When Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, and after the October 1963 passage of Hurricane Flora, which left more than a thousand dead in the eastern part of the island, hundreds of dams and reservoirs of water were built that multiplied the country’s water storage capacity by a factor of five.

In 1987 the construction of the El Gato aqueduct began in the southeastern part of Havana. But because of lack of maintenance of the aqueduct and sewer networks, more than half of the water that was distributed was lost by leaks and ruptures of the pipes.

In the midst of the current drought, which plagues 81% of the country and is considered the worst that Cuba has suffered in the last hundred years, authorities that manage water resources have tightened measures to prevent water being wasted.

Manuel Manso, Aguas de La Habana’s ombudsman, explained that an inspector squad of 108 workers is trying to interact more directly with consumers, whether business or residential. One of the provisions is the application of fines, with 870 already having been imposed on private companies, in amounts of up to one thousand Cuban pesos (about 42 dollars).

Although the regime has invested nearly 9 million dollars in the rehabilitation of 550 miles of water networks in the capital, the effort appears to be inadequate.

“The company repairs a section, but then the water pressure damages another section that has not yet been repaired. Also, the quality of the repairs is not always good. And the technological obsolescence and timespans between maintenance complicate things. It’s like ‘plowing the sea,’ (a complete waste of effort),” says an engineer.

A health and epidemiology specialist is worried that “the water deficit in the residential sector could have an impact on the emergence of new outbreaks of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, carriers of dengue fever, chikungunya and other deadly diseases. Plus there is the proliferation of rats and cockroaches. Water scarcity, poor cleanliness in streets and public spaces, and the irresponsibility of citizens who dump garbage on any street corner have made Havana one of the dirtiest cities in Latin America.”

If the drought persists, along with poor hygiene in the city and problems with water supply, which cause families to store water in inappropriate containers without adequate protection, the arrival of summer could bring the breeding ground for a huge epidemic of mosquito-borne diseases.

“Every year we run the same danger, for not carrying out the necessary preventative work and the lack of hygiene in the city,” said one official. And walking on the edge of a cliff always carries risks.

The worst has not yet come. But the conditions are given.

Note: Although this article is limited to Havana, the water shortage due to drought has long been affecting all provinces.

For Ordinary Cubans, Democracy Isn’t a Priority / Iván García

Eliécer Ávila. Taken from Gaceta de La Habana.

Iván García, 19 April 2017 — When evening falls, Yainier and a group of friends who live in El Canal, a neighborhood in the Cerro municipality, 20 minutes by car from the center of Havana, grab a table by the door of an old bodega, and between swigs of rum and Reggaeton, they play dominoes well into the dawn.

They are six unemployed youths who live by whatever “falls off the back of a truck.” They also sell clothing imported from Russia or Panama, joints of Creole marijuana and toothpaste robbed the night before from a local factory. continue reading

They note down the domino scores they accumulate in a school notebook. The duo that gets to 100 points earns 20 pesos, the equivalent of one dollar, and if they really kick ass, they can earn double that amount.

The winners buy more rum, and between laughter and chatting, they kill time in a country where the hours seem to have 120 minutes. No one has a plan for the future.

In the seven or eight hours they pass playing, they usually talk about women, football or black-market businesses. Politics is not a subject of conversation.

The dissident, Eliécer Ávila, lives a few blocks away from where they’re playing dominoes. He’s an engineer and the leader of Somos Más (We Are More), an organization that supports democracy, free elections and free speech.

Probably Ávila is the most well-known dissident among Cubans who drink their morning coffee without milk. His debate in 2008 with Ricardo Alarcón, then the president of the one-note national parliament, was a success on the Island. The concerns of the young computer engineer and Alarcón’s incoherent answers circulated clandestinely on flash drives.

Eliécer, together with Antonio Rodiles, Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Julio Aleaga Pesant, figure among the most well-prepared dissidents in Cuba. Born in 1985 in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, Ávila has leadership qualities and good speaking skills.

His project goes over the heads of people in the neighborhood, like the six domino players, who are indifferent to the reality of their country. How to achieve anything is a problem to solve for a repressed local opposition, which up to now has no power to convoke a meeting. Without going farther, in the slum area of Canal, where most inhabitants are black and deathly poor, almost no one is interested in demanding inalienable rights in any modern society.

One of those neighbors is Raisán, a mulatto with discolored skin, who religiously pays his dues to the Cuban Workers Center, the only labor organization that’s authorized on the Island. However, he recognizes that the Center, which supposedly ensures his salary and labor demands, doesn’t even attempt to manage them.

“Brother, this has to change. You can’t live on a salary of 400 Cuban pesos — around 17 dollars — while it costs 10 times that to eat or dress yourself,” says Raisán, after making a list of the daily hardships that the government never solves.

There’s a dichotomy in Cuba. Ask any Cuban his assessment of the performance of the State organizations and you can publish several tomes of complaints. People are tired of political rhetoric. The citizens want better services, salaries and living conditions. But they don’t have the legal tools to carry out their propositions.

Creating a movement or party that looks out for their interests, changing the political dynamic and demanding the democratization of society, continue to be taboo subjects. Although the dissidence requests these rights, it still hasn’t managed to gain the confidence of the beleagured citizens, for whom the priority is to find food and money sufficient to allow them to repair their houses, among other needs.

State Security, the political police, short-circuits any initiative that tries to insert the opposition inside the population. And certainly it’s the fear, typical of a tyrannical regime that has more severe laws for dissenting than for certain common crimes. Fear is a powerful wall of containment that repels nonconformists.

Cuban society continues being excessively simulated. It always was. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, after the assault on the Presidential Palace by the Revolutionary Directorate, March 13, 1957, the authorities called for an act of reconciliation with the dictator, and in spite of the rain, 250,000 residents of Havana responded in a spontaneous manner.

The same thing happened in 1959, after Fidel Castro took power. In silence, without protesting, Cubans saw how Castro knocked out democracy, dismantled the legal judicial machinery, buried the free press, eliminated private businesses and governed the country like a vulgar autocrat.

The answer to discontent always was to emigrate. A considerable segment of the citizenry didn’t support – nor do they support – those who bet on peacefully reclaiming their rights, inserting themselves into politics and denouncing the frequent attacks on human rights.

People prefer to look away or continue coming to the game, seated in the stands.

To get Cubans to understand that the best solution to their complaints is democracy, free elections and a coherent and independent judicial framework, which supports small and medium-sized businesses, until now has been a subject that stopped with the internal opposition. Which has tried, but without success.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Is Raul Castro in Hibernation Mode? / Iván García

Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel. From ABC Color, newspaper in Paraguay.

Ivan Garcia, 11 April 2017 — Right now the most closely guarded secret in Cuba is the protocols for succession of the nation’s president, army general Raul Castro, after his retirement in February 2018.

I will tell you what is rumored among some officials close to the tight-lipped team of advisers and influential relatives in the Council of State.

A well-informed source claims, “The man is desperate to retire. He wants to spend more time with his children and grandchildren and travel around the world. He’s really going to retire. And it seems to me that he will probably pass his job on to the first party secretary. He has always preferred to be in the background.” continue reading

A technocrat with connections to powerful elites states, “The succession is not happening at the best time but Raul is serious when he says he is leaving. I have it on good authority that Miguel Diaz-Canel and his wife Lis Cuesta, around whom the media has been creating a presidential image in recent months, are studying English in depth and preparing to lead the country.”

A former personal security officials says, “Resources have been put at Diaz-Canel’s disposal, the kind of communication technology and logistical support that a president would have.”

Meanwhile, as the official media has been inundating us with reports of  economic successes and the alleged loyalty of the population to Raul Castro and his deceased brother, the countdown to the succession continues.

There is only a little more than ten months until D-Day. At midnight on February 24 the republic will presumably be governed by a civilian president without the last name Castro.

One of the sources consulted for this article believes that “after his own retirement, Raul will force the retirement of several longtime revolutionary officials such as Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdes.* His son Alejandro, who is a colonel in the Ministry of the Interior, will retain a certain degree of power while his daughter Mariela will continue promoting an image of tolerance towards homosexuality but will no longer hold any really significant positions.

“The power behind the throne will be the military. Everything has been arranged. There will be major economic changes. If the purchasing power of the population does not increase, consumer spending will be encouraged while the monetary and intellectual capital of the exile community will be tapped.

“If not, Cuba will never get out of the swamp. Political exhaustion and systemic failures have created conditions conducive to the emergence of an acute social crisis whose outcome no one can predict. That is why there will be changes.”

In Cuba, where the state press’s greatest strengths are saying nothing and masking daily reality, rumors within the halls of power carry more credibility than the official news.

Raul Castro is a perpetual schemer. Let the analyst or journalist who foresaw the secret negotiations with the United States and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations on December 17, 2014 raise his hand.

Prognosticating in such a secretive country can be disastrous but there have been some signals. During the the monotone National Assembly’s 2015 legislative session a gradual rollback of Raul’s reforms began. And Marino Murillo, the czar of these reforms, disappeared from official photos.

In response to the Venezuelan crisis, which led to cuts of 40% in fuel imports, the economic initiatives promoted by Raul Castro came to an abrupt halt.

Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 was the final straw. The regime’s most conservative factions began changing the rules of the game.

While lacking the charisma or stature of his brother, Castro II has proved to be more effective at putting together negotiating teams and has had greater successes in foreign policy. They include reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States without having to make many concessions in return, acting as mediator in the meeting in Havana between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, facilitating the peace agreement in Colombia and securing the cancellation of a considerable portion of the nation’s financial debt.

His agricultural reforms have failed. People are still waiting for that glass of milk he promised them in a speech given in Camaguey on July 26, 2007. On that day Raul Castro said, “We have to erase from our minds this limit of seven years (the age at which Cuban children are no longer entitled to receive a certain ration of milk). We are taking it from seven to fifty. We have to produce enough so that everyone who wants it can have a glass of milk.”

The Foreign Investment Law has not been able to attract the roughly 2.5 billion dollars expected annually. The sugar harvest and food production have not gotten off the ground, requiring the regime to import more than two billion dollars worth of food every year.

Except for tourism, the profitable foreign medical assistance program and other international missions, and remittances from overseas, all other exports and economic initiatives have decreased or not shown sufficient growth.

Vital industrial sectors are not profitable and its equipment is obsolete. Problems in housing, transportation and public service shortages are overwhelming. The price of home internet service is outrageous. Official silence has surrounded recent restrictions on the sale of gasoline** while public speculation about a return to the “Special Period” has not been discussed by the executive branch.

Raul Castro barely appears in the public anymore. Aside from attending Fidel’s funeral in November 2016, presiding over parliament last December and sporadic appearances at the Summits of the Caribbean and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, his presence is almost imperceptible.

He is governing in hibernation mode, on automatic pilot. There is no word on currency reform. The vaunted Economic Guidelines, only 21% of which have been carried out, seem to be dead in the water.

According to a former journalist who now lives in Miami and who dealt closely with Raul in the late 1980s, his seemingly erratic behavior could be interpreted in several ways.

“Raul is not doctrinaire like his brother. Nor does he leave tasks half done like Fidel used to do. I supposed he has his hands full preparing Diaz-Canal so he can finish the job and implement good, effective reforms. I think Diaz-Canal will play an important role in Cub’s future. Reporters should start lining up their canons now,” says the former journalist.

The sense on the street is that the island is going to hell. The outlook does not look good. The future is a question mark. The pathways to emigration are closing. And the average person’s salary remains a bad joke.

The optimists, who are in the minority, are praying the general has an emergency plan in his desk drawer. The pessimists, who are in the majority, believe that life in Cuba will go on as it has, whether under Raul, Diaz-Canal or any other members of the Communist praetorian guard.

 *Translator’s note: Vice-president of the Council of State and governmental vice-president respectively.

** Though no public announcement has been made, as of April 1 sales of so-called “special gasoline” have been restricted to tourists with rental cars. 

This Is How Cuba Threatens, Intimidates, Controls and Punishes Its Own Citizens

Text reads: OFFICIAL CITATION

To citizen Ivan Garcia Quintero, resident of 12 Carmen Street, Apt 3, between San Lazaro and Calzada 10 de Octubre. Your presence is required at the 10 de October PNR (People’s Revolutionary Police) [station] on 2 April 2017 at 10:00 PM with the objective of an Interview.

You are warned that if you don’t appear we will use all the legal resources [obscured by stamp] … you will be fined up to 50 pesos or you will be criminally processed for the crime of disobedience to the authorities.

Note that the name signing the citation is a first name only: 1st Lt. ‘Alejandro’

Exercising Independent Journalism In Cuba Is A State Crime / Iván García

Sol García Basulto and Henry Constantín Ferreiro, independent journalists from Camagüey, accused of “usurpation of legal capacity.” Taken from Martí Noticias.

Iván García, 30 March 2017 — Fear has the habit of first knocking on your door. On any night, in a work center or a house, an official of State Security can give a citizen an official citation with an intimidating look.

It could be your sister, a close relative, childhood friends or a neighbor. The strategy is always the same. The assassination of the dissident journalist’s reputation by combining half-truths with treacherous lies.

They play all their cards. From one’s commitment to the Revolution to blackmail and social isolation. continue reading

Since I began a relationship with my wife, a telecommunications engineer, her professional career has been stalled. They control her email and the contents of her work through a magnifying glass. The same thing happens with friends who collaborate on my journalistic notes. It’s an insolent and arbitrary harassment.

The political policy officials in Cuba know they have an all-reaching power. They perform, Olympically, the violation of their own laws of autocracy.

An official of the National Revolutionary Police told me about the problems the State Security agents cause among their staff instructors. “They consider themselves to be above good and evil. They come into the unit and mobilize personnel and resources to detain or repress someone in the opposition. Or they take over an office without even asking permission. They’re a bunch of thugs.”

If you want to know the methods they use to create tensions among families and friends and to cause marital problems, I recommend that you see the documentary on political prisoners in Cuba, Avatares de la familia, made by Palenque Visión and recently premiered in Miami.

When someone gets involved in peaceful dissidence or exercises independent journalism, the family pays the price. If it’s not enough to create concern when a mother, father, spouse or son isn’t going to sleep at home one night; the treacherous State Security tries to dynamite intimate relations with accusations of marital infidelity.

The Regime surely washes its hand like Pontius Pilate when it declares, in international forums, that the Island doesn’t assassinate the opposition or independent journalists. But the fabrication of files with false proof is also a punishable crime.

The beatings of dissident women on public streets or in front of their children have increased. The occupation of work teams and the harassment of independent journalists have become a habitual practice of the political police.

Creed, religion or ideology doesn’t matter. It’s the same repression for neo-communist bloggers like Harold Cárdenas (El Toque Cuba), foreign correspondents like Fernando Rasvberg (Cartas Desde Cuba) or pure reporters like Elaine Díaz, who founded a digital newspaper (Periodismo de Barrio), which covers the country’s vulnerable communities.

For Raúl Castro’s government, disagreeing is a symptom of insubordination and the first step toward dissidence. In the midst of the 21st century, the olive-green State  affirms its right to give permission about what should be written or expressed. Anyone who doesn’t fulfill this precept is a criminal outside the law. Of course, for the openly anti-Castro journalists, the repression is more ferocious.

In the spring of 2003, 14 years ago, Fidel Castro ordered the incarceration of 75 peaceful opponents, 27 of which were independent journalists, among them the poet Raúl Rivero, whose “weapon” was a stack of ballpoint pens, an Olivetti Lettera typewriter and a collection of literature from universal writers.

Some colleagues who write without State permission and with different doctrines believe that the subject of the dissidence in Cuba — although it is packed with problems, divided but real — is hidden by the ideological police, and that those who support the status quo, the cultural policies and ideological thought on the Island, are rewarded.

Recent facts show that the mantle of intolerance, which at times resembles fascist behavior, has no borders. They insult Rasvberg with crude swearwords and detained Elaine and several of her colleagues from Periodismo de Barro when they tried to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, just as they systematically harass the independent journalist from Camagagüey, Henry Constantín Ferreiro, who has been the regional Vice President of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa for some months.

I know Henry personally. He’s a quiet guy, unaffected and creative, and right now the authorities are trying to accuse him of “usurpation of legal capacity,” the same as his colleague, Sol García Basulto. His “crime” is to exercise independent journalism and direct a magazine without State sponsorship.

We Cuban journalists should show solidarity with each other when the State tries to roll over us and shut us up. It doesn’t matter what each of us thinks. We all have the right to freely express our opinions.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King: You don’t have to love me, I only ask that you don’t lynch me.

 

Translated by Regina Anavy