I’M VOTING NO, a Campaign Attempting to Make History in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Source: CubaTV.

Iván García, 14 January 2019 — “That cold morning of February 15, 1976,” recalls Sergio, a retired worker, “I was one of the first to vote in the referendum that was held to ratify the drafts of the Constitution and the Law of Constitutional Passage. I believed blindly in Fidel Castro and neither I nor anyone else considered voting NO. The internet didn’t exist, access to information was limited, and we Cubans would sign whatever blank paper the government gave us.”

Forty-two years later, some things have changed. Sergio no longer supports the government, because he assures that it hasn’t done a good job in its obligations in the economic and social spheres. “The money from my retirement and the salaries of my three children are barely enough to eat, and for that reason I go out to drive an almendrón [old American car used as a taxi] that a neighbor rents me, so I can try to get a few extra pesos. I’m going to vote NO for several reasons. The main one, I don’t want to validate a government that in six decades has been incapable of guaranteeing food for the people or offering quality public services.” continue reading

Sergio is not a dissident. Neither is José Manuel, a computer specialist. “When the government proposed a new Constitution, my gang of friends, almost all of them intellectuals, musicians, and designers, showed interest in studying it and comparing it with the previous one, from 1976. We were in favor of Article 68, on gay marriage. They were intending to vote Yes and I was thinking of abstaining, in order to not go against the gays. But when they withdrew 68, I moved from abstention to voting NO.

“I don’t care if this Constitution is better than that of ’76. If they haven’t fulfilled the obligations of the previous one, what will obligate them to fulfill those of this one? So, with Article 68 gone, it’s clear to me that it’s no longer about choosing between two Constitutions, but about a referendum of support for the government. I don’t want socialism to fall, but I do believe that the government deserves a good whack on the head,” he says and adds:

“Eliminating Article 68 not only changed my position, but also that of my friends and many people. A few days ago I took a survey at a family party. There were 20 people between 25 and 50 years old. I expected half and half approval for the Constitution, but the result surprised me: 16 responded that they were going to vote NO and 4 still hadn’t decided. I told them that for the first time I was noticing an agreement between ’the worms [derogatory term for Cuban exiles and opposition] and the intellectuals.’

“It’s an unprecedented situation: Díaz-Canel, the current president, didn’t storm the Moncada Barracks, he didn’t sail on the Granma, and he didn’t go up to the Sierra Maestra with the guerrillas, he doesn’t have the same legitimacy of the Castro brothers. He’s just one of us. The people don’t see him as a sacred being, and that is noticeable in the nerve with which the government is criticized on social media, by people who live in Cuba and don’t belong to the dissidence.

“Whatever intentions he has, Díaz-Canel is closely watched. I believe that the government should be worried about what will happen on February 24. I think that the result will be 60-70% in favor and between 30-40% against. Although in the end the government will win with the usual 90%. Cuba is crazy like that.”

The Constitution of 1976 was ratified by 97.7% of Cubans. “I was born in 1959 and in 1976 I was 17. I was studying at a technological institute and was openly gay. It was the first time I voted in my life. I was scared shitless, but when I was alone in front of the ballot paper I put down a giant NO. If at that time, when everyone supported the Revolution, I was capable of voting against, now that people are lying in the middle of the street, I’m also going to vote NO. I’m tired of so many lies and promises. I don’t want socialism at all,” confesses Adolfo, a private hairdresser.

Rolando, an accountant, sees the February 24 referendum “as another pantomime by the leaders, to try to legitimize not only the future to which they want us to bow, but also, as always, to confuse and entangle the world with a false democracy that in Cuba has never existed. I no longer remember the last time I went to vote, I got tired of so much show a long time ago. When I used to go I would annul the ballot, but this time I’m planning to go and vote NO,” he says and adds:

“I would like to be surprised and for them to say that the percentage of approval was 80 or less, but that would be a reality that I believe they are not prepared to admit. They neutralized the greatest danger that they had by withdrawing the famous Article 68, they knew that they would have a large protest vote, because of that article and to demand the Direct Vote [to elect the president] that, incidentally, were both debated at the assembly in my neighborhood.

“One lady mentioned that in numerous countries people voted to elect their president, and she too wanted to elect our own. Due process of law was also debated, that citizens have the right to an attorney from the very moment of their arrest and until the lawyer is present, not to be obligated to make a statement, as is seen in movies.”

The political indifference among ordinary Cubans, those who breakfast on coffee without milk, is tremendous. On corners, in lines at shops, or inside shared taxis, there are people who speak frankly about their voting intentions. In the neighborhood where Rolando lives, in the west of Havana, “people prefer not to have an opinion, apathy is significant, although some say that they won’t go to vote. I try to convince my friends of how dangerous and irresponsible it is, at this stage, to play the government’s game, how the best thing is to go and vote NO. Even if afterward they falsify the results.”

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that “the government has attempted to raise a curtain of smoke, legally modernizing the future Constitution by introducing Habeas Corpus and recognizing private work, but it keeps the disrespect toward those who think differently. It’s abnormal to sustain a dysfunctional system for life. In one of the articles of the new Constitution the use of arms is authorized if someone intends to change the system. Accepting that Constitution is jeopardizing the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Julio Aleaga, an independent journalist and spokesman for Candidates for Change, points out that “the best strategy is voting NO. The regime isn’t prepared to execute a massive fraud. Any citizen, in agreement with their own regulations, can observe the vote count after the referendum. We are preparing dozens of activists to perform that function on February 24. Voting NO is a better proposal than not going to vote. Abstention or leaving the ballot blank doesn’t specify what was the intention of that person’s vote. A NO has a marked political intention. If we follow the voting trends of past elections, now, when we have alternative journalists, independent artists, private workers, and citizens upset with the performance of the regime, I’m convinced that the vote for NO will be notable.”

Juan González Febles, director of the weekly Primavera Digital [Digital Spring], supports the group of opponents whose strategy is not going to vote. “It’s the State that counts the votes and whenever we are talking about dictatorships, it’s not going to hold an election to lose. If the Neocastro regime senses that it could lose, there will be a widespread fraud. If those who opt to vote NO lose, as will surely happen, they will have no other choice but to recognize their defeat. Then they will be legitimizing an autocracy.”

Reinaldo Escobar, editor-in-chief of the newspaper 14ymedio, is in favor of NO. “A miracle would have to occur for that proposal to win by majority. But I believe that it’s worth trying,” he emphasizes. In a recent article, Escobar writes that “the suspicion of a possible fraud has a demobilizing effect among the promoters of NO. The most effective antidotes to cancel out this paralyzing pessimism are assuming that possibility as a reasonable risk or trusting that fraud won’t be committed.”

With fewer than forty days from February 24, when the popular referendum that would approve the new Constitution of the Republic will take place, the regime, which according to its own electoral laws prohibits carrying out advertising campaigns, “in the next weeks, in high schools, universities, and work places discussions will be held with the objective of encouraging the people to vote YES,” assures a party official.

The battle is set. The government wants to cover up its inefficiency with the worn out anti-imperialist discourse and insulting those who think differently. The activists for NO, without public spaces to discuss their arguments, seek that the greatest number of Cubans over age 16 join a political process where votes are as powerful as any weapon. Adding people is the premise. Change is only possible if the citizenry mobilizes.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

Dissidents and Independent Journalists, Voice of the Cuban Public / Ivan Garcia

Trying to take a private taxi on the corner of 10 de Octubre and Dolores, Havana. Image by Juan Suárez taken from Havana Times.

Iván García, 21 January 2019 — In the summer of 2008, behind a pigpen, in a miserable improvised wooden hovel in El Calvario, a town south of Havana, a 28-year-old attorney made a speech about the importance of the Cuban regime ratifying the International Treaty on Civil and Political Rights and the International Treaty on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966.

A passionate lawyer, Laritza Diversent explained that since Minister of Foreign Relations Felipe Pérez Roque had signed these documents at UN Headquarters in New York, Cuba was obligated to ratify them and, thus, must comply and establish civil and political rights that would pave the way towards a future democracy.

Laritza had three powerful factors working against her: she was a woman, black, and poor. Moreover, she was the mother of a 10-year-old son. It was a feat that she had graduated as a lawyer, given such difficulties. The campaign she started was supported by various opposition groups. The dictatorship, in its arrogance, refused to ratify these treaties. continue reading

Independent lawyers like Laritza Diversent and Julio Ferrer did not desist in denouncing the arbitrariness of the legal apparatus, and opened an office, Cubalex, dedicated to advising hundreds of people whose rights the government transgressed. Diversent carved a successful path within the dissident movement in Cuba.

With immense patience, she prepared several workshops on legal information aimed at members of the opposition, activists and independent journalists. She participated in international forums denouncing the abuses of Castroism. Always documenting every abuse. In her testimonies she dismantled the veneer of apparent democracy that the island government likes to show off. And showed reality as it is. A hard and pure dictatorship.

Her legal knowledge made her a formidable enemy for the olive green special services of the autocracy. One morning in 2016 they dismantled the Cubalex legal advice office, imprisoned the lawyer Julio Ferrer and opened a punitive file on Laritza. The only door that remained open was that of exile. Currently she resides in Pennsylvania, but like many exiles, she continues to sleep with Cuba under her pillow. She is very active in social networks and thanks to new technologies, advises, from the distance, whoever asks her for help.

Lawyers like Laritza, Julio Ferrer and René Gómez Manzano, among others, have demonstrated the authentic apartheid erected by the Castro brothers against their people. Like the decree Law 217 of 1997, which prevents Cubans born in the eastern region from living in Havana. Or the regime’s violations of its own Constitution.

It is true that the peaceful opposition is divided and has not been able to reach ordinary people. But its capacity to denounce has influenced the brief economic reforms promoted by the regime of Raúl Castro.

Until 2008, no journalist of the official media, minister, nor reputed intellectual, publicly recognized that Cubans were second class citizens and could not stay in tourist centers, legally sell or buy a house or travel abroad without so many immigration controls. It was the members of the opposition and free journalists who always demanded those and other deeper openings in the economic, social and political fields.

Today, it is the opposition that demands a new Constitution, a Law of Laws that protects all currents of thought and recognizes political diversity, not the false Magna Carta that the government will implement in 2019.

It is the dissident movement that asks for greater economic freedom for private entrepreneurs, to repeal the absurd regulations that limit wealth, when what is at issue is to combat the poverty that increases every year in the country. It is they who demand democracy, tripartition of powers, freedom of expression, of the press and culture, and university autonomy.

If there is a revolutionary and progressive entity in Cuba, it is the opposition and the independent press.

We independent journalists are the ones who recount the transportation problems, the shortage of food, the hardships of retirees, the aspirations of the population, without makeup nor political slogans.

Nothing escapes us. In blogs and alternative sites is where you can read the stories of those who have no voice, be it an elderly person, a prostitute, a family without resources, a vulnerable community or a web of corruption.

In silence and without recognition, we continue writing. It seems as if no one listens to us. But the rulers are taking note. Fearing loss of power, they do not accept most of the requests, suggestions, or complaints. It is precisely the antagonistic forces that the regime has as a reference in order to know the state of opinion in the streets.

The state scribes spread the directives that come from above. They are part of the trained chorus that applauds a regime that sooner or later will have no choice but to initiate a democratic opening.

Translated by: Michael S Brown

Internet in Cuba: "The Cubans Abroad Pay For It" / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Taken from Infobae

Iván García, 10 December 2018 — Internet for free in Cuba? Well, the devil is in the details. If you talk to Joel, an urban bus driver, you will know that the problem is not just that you have to recharge your mobile phone account with 7 CUC (roughly $7 US), if you want to have at least 600 MB available to surf the internet.

“The biggest drawback is that my cell phone is from the dark ages and it does not pick up the 3G signal. Then I will have to connect by 2G, which takes a century to establish the connection. And buying a phone for myself is no less than 200 CUC,” says Joel, who drives an articulated Chinese-made Yutong bus on the P-10 route. continue reading

Like Joel, “between a million and a half and two million people will not be able to access the new service quickly because they can not connect to 3G, and because 2G does not guarantee a quality connection,” says Deisy, an engineer for ETECSA, the State communications company.

Several students talk about the opening of the Internet on mobile phones in a small stairway at the entrance to René O’Reine High School, in the neighborhood of La Víbora, south of Havana. Andro asks “how long does the 600 MB (the cheapest package) last and is it possible to download audiovisuals?” Melissa replies that her “mom works at ETECSA and they give her 5 gigabytes and if she downloads applications or music videos, it is used up in ten days.”

Two years ago, to Nélida, a housewife, the Internet sounded like science fiction. “But my son who resides in Miami sent me an iPhone 8 that when connected is a cannon. I take care of it like a treasure. Three times a week I talk to my two children, my son who lives in Miami and my daughter in Spain. Sometimes we go as a whole family with folding chairs and a blanket to park ourselves in the grass of the park, as if we were at a picnic.

“They are the ones who recharge my cell phone with 40 CUC per month and also with a 40 CUC the card to surf the internet. I do not know how many gigs I will consume monthly, I suppose that ETECSA designs those services to be so expensive because the Cubans who live abroad pay for it.”

Deisy, the ETECSA engineer, agrees with the Havana housewife: “It is true that part of the services offered by the company, such as mobile telephone service, internet browsing and now data internet, are sold at prices that a worker [in Cuba] cannot afford on their salary. These services can be paid for by self-employed people and people who have relatives and friends abroad.

“However, right now in Cuba there are more than five million mobile lines and between three and four million citizens frequently connect to the Internet. It is very expensive, but Cubans or their relatives abroad pay for these services and ETECSA takes advantage of the mother-lode and increases its profits. Internet is a necessity.”

Luis Carlos, a university student, believes that “the news is not that there is internet for mobile phones in Cuba. The news is the high prices. Any specialist or professional who systematically uses internet for their work spends more than 4 gigabytes that cost 30 CUC, the average monthly salary here. It is a shame that the government talks about their working on behalf of the people and in order to the demands of the poorest.

“ETECSA long ago stopped being a company that prioritizes social services to the most humble. Like any capitalist company, what they are looking for is profits. And at what prices. They want to sell you internet as if it were a luxury item. The Internet is not just for talking with friends and reading the foreign press. The Internet is economy, business and commerce.”

In their statements, Mayra Arevich and Tania Velázquez, president of ETECSA and vice president of marketing for the company, justify the high prices because “the company is spending important resources to modernize the infrastructure that provides Internet services. And that equipment is paid for in dollars.”

Natasha, a waitress in the restaurant of a five-star hotel, does not agree with this assessment from ETECSA officials. “If we had to award a prize to the three most unpopular state agencies in Cuba, without a doubt, ETECSA and the Ministries of Internal Trade and Transport would take the trophy. It’s a shame to make that statement on television. Some 80 percent of the convertible pesos that circulate in the country are backed by the exchange of foreign currencies. If that’s not the case where do they come from, because only a small portion of workers get a bonus of between 10 and 35 CUC on their waters. That is a very small amount of money not backed by hard currency. For that reason and for many other things, ordinary people are fed up with the government and its leaders.”

Eddy, a high school teacher, believes that “the government has to take off the mask. Once and for all let them say that this is state capitalism, because it works as such. Those who are most favored are those who do not work and families that receive dollars from the former ’worms’*. Cuba is a country that is upside down. The professionals, intellectuals and workers live worse than street vendors and private food sellers. The Internet is a business for ETECSA. Why don’t they put internet in elementary, secondary and high schools and in the homes of teachers?”

An ETECSA specialist acknowledges that “ordinary people are right. ETECSA works poorly and the prices are sky high. But in the end, as disciplined soldiers, people contract for a mobile line and open an internet account. According to a study, from the opening of data internet it is expected that, within two years, 7 or 8 million users will have mobile accounts, since from their cellphones they will be able to access innumerable services, from browsing online to paying for electricity.”

ETECSA, having no competition, leaves Cubans without options. Take it or leave it. It’s that simple

*Translator’s note: Fidel Castro and his regime coined the use of the term “gusanos” or “worms” for Cubans who left the country. These former “worms” are now supporting their country with their remittances to family still in Cuba.

Cuba, The Revolution That Never Ends / Ivan Garcia

Photo by Juan Suárez, taken from Havana Times.

Iván García, 9 January 2019 — Already the roasted pig begins to smell and the kitchen is all hustle and bustle. In the background, against the wishes the younger ones who are asking to dance reggaeton with Chocolate MC singing Bajanda, the Brazilian Roberto Carlos is heard performing Details.

The men drink rum in the patio and play dominoes, slapping their tiles down on a wooden board. Rosalía, a housewife of 78, acts as an orchestra director giving orders and ensuring that the kids don’t steal the sweets and pieces of pork from the oven.

“You have to give the yucca more time, mi’ja. These sour oranges are shit, they barely have juice,” she tells one of her daughters-in-law. Behind her, the children zoom like airplanes, eating cracklings or spoonfuls of the cold tuna salad that rests on a kitchen shelf. continue reading

“This December 24, remember Rosalia, my three children, five grandchildren and their wives slept at home with us. December is the happiest month of the year. The whole family gathers to eat, dance and drink rum until dawn. On the upcoming 31st, the giant party will be even bigger, because two of my sisters are coming from the United States join us.”

Like all Cubans, Rosalía complains about the daily hardships, the long lines and high prices of food. “Forget what comes out in the [TV] Noticiero and [newspaper] Granma. The cane is “three pieces.” Thank God that my children have good jobs and my family in the United States sends me some dollars. The government has no solution to our problems. Sixty years with the same deficit as always. If this revolution lasts a hundred years, those who are saved will be crazy,” she says with a smile.

Niurka, a nurse, does not expect anything new for 2019. “The same old same old. Lines, shortages and the price of food through the roof. In sixty years we have healthcare for all, but the truth is that we lead an existence full of scarcities and discomforts. When there is bread, there are no eggs. Or vice versa. Or both are missing,” she complains while waiting at the stop for the P-6 bus to take her to her home in Reparto Eléctrico, south of Havana.

I asked eleven Cubans born after Fidel Castro’s coming to power about their impressions of the event and how the extravagant tropical socialism affects their daily lives.

Eight agree that every year that passes they live worse. Three have managed to prosper thanks to their work in the private sector. The list of positive facts is short. Education, public health, access to culture and sports and “a Civil Defense that works when there are cyclones; Cuba is one of the countries where fewer people die,” said one of the respondents.

The inventory of negative situations is wide. The eleven people categorize the public services from regular to lousy and agree that getting food is the most serious of the problems. And they consider the housing shortage and the low salaries that condemn Cubans to live precariously, along with the lack of a future, as oppressive.

Jimmy, a high school student, believes that “the good things of the system such as education and healthcare have lost quality. The government has stayed connected with these achievements and does not look at the number of unresolved problems. Sixty years later, poverty is still present in a high segment of the population, salaries are not enough to live with dignity and state services are very bad. I believe that there will be another revolution or the system we have will be changed.”

Pepe, a private taxi driver, is convinced that “Cuba’s biggest problems are of an economic and social nature, although politically there could be more democracy. But if there is something I’m sure about it is that the system is the one that does not work, compadre.”

The ruling caste thinks differently. They draw up plans for 2030 and in the future Constitution they have mortgaged the future, condemning the Cuban people to carry on for life with the inefficient socialist system.

Diego, 78, confesses that “until recently I trusted that the government could solve our difficulties. I recognize the harmful effects of the Yankee blockade, but it is inadmissible that in sixty years the State has not been able to guarantee a decent salary and enough food. Many of those who govern have spent sixty years living off “the story” and telling lies. Asking people for more sacrifice, after what we have gone through, sounds like a mockery.”

Clara, a teacher at a primary school, has heard that if the production does not grow, “the country could enter a new Special Period. And Cubans know what that implies.”

A Communist Party militant, who opts for anonymity, does not believe that “we can go back to those hard years with blackouts of twelve hours a day and great scarcity of food. There are situations such as shortages, because there will be a reduction of 400 million dollars for the purchase of supplies in hard currency stores. But it is planned to guarantee what is a priority. The government knows that if the blackouts start, many people could throw themselves in the street. The most probable thing is that in the short term, economic matters will precipitate changes.”

Six decades after Fidel Castro took office at gunpoint, most of his promises have been broken. From access to a home, decent salaries, to being self-sufficient in food production.

In his extensive speeches, the comandante en jefe repeated that Cuba was going to produce so much beef, milk and cheese that the country would become a nation that exported those products.

Sixty years later, Antonio, sitting at the entrance of a tenement in Centro Habana, while collecting the bets of his customers who play la bolita, a sort of illegal lottery that is practiced on the island, smiles sarcastically recalling those times. “Now nobody wants to remember the pile of lies that the bearded man blew at us. There were always two Cubas. The one belonging to the officials, where they had everything, and the one belonging to the people where there was nothing.”

When you ask n ordinary Cuban ask how long he believes the process initiated by Fidel Castro in 1959 can last, he chooses to shrug his shoulders and repeat hackneyed phrases sculpted by citizen indifference, such as, “no one can stand it, but nor can anyone knock it down.”

If a miracle does not happen, in 2059 one hundred years of the Castro regime will be celebrated. A number so round it is terrifying.

Will There Be a New ‘Special Period’ in Cuba? / Ivan Garcia

Lines like this, to buy bread in Santa Clara, have been seen throughout the island. Because they have more inhabitants, the longest lines are those in Havana. And not only to buy bread, also eggs and pork, among other products with shortages and with higher and higher prices. Image by Laura Rodríguez taken from Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 20 December 2018 — Even in the best stage of Fidel Castro’s Revolution there was always something missing. In the 1980s, thanks to the blank check circulating from Moscow, the ration book distributed half a pound of beef per person, drinking a glass of milk was not a luxury and jams, juices and wines and other products from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Albania and other socialist countries of Eastern Europe were sold on shelves in the parallel market.

The daily life of the people was tied to the olive-green State up to levels that bordered on delirium. A house on the beach, a black-and-white television or a simple alarm clock was bought as a bonus for an outstanding worker awarded by the union.

Celebrating Christmas, listening to American music or wearing cowboy-style Levi’s were symptoms of ideological diversionism. The regime was never able to manage an efficient transport service on the iland, or sell quality footwear or build with good taste. continue reading

There have been stages worse than others. But it always returned to the starting point: inefficiency, low harvests, shortage of food and long lines to acquire them. Castroist socialism was noted for being more political than economic. Now, not having generous sponsors, such as the former USSR and the Venezuelan wallet of Hugo Chávez, Cubans live in a perpetual economic crisis.

Alina, a retired teacher, says that in the environment she perceives a new ‘Special Period‘. “There is nothing in the hard currency stores. I can make a list of things that are in short supply. The government has dismantled the sales posts that were in all neighborhoods and due to the transportation crisis, it is more difficult to go to Centro Habana, Vedado or Miramar to buy food, clothing and toiletries. And in the markets in national currency forget it. By medical prescription I must take yogurt and yogurt bags only arrive by the few on Tuesdays.”

Diego, an economist, considers that although there are similarities, the situation is different. “The economic crisis that took place after the [failed] Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest in 1970 was a typical case of inflation. The population had money, but the stores were empty and prices skyrocketed. In the decade of 1980s the economy stabilized, but in 1990s, when we could no longer count on the subsidies from the European socialist camp, the country was led to the ’Special Period’. It has been the most difficult stage in these 60 years. Today the Cuban economy is bad. When you check the different production indices, you notice that the majority decreases or hardly grows. Growth in the food sector does not meet demand. The fall is so dramatic that these small growths are like a drop of water in the ocean,” he says and predicts:

“It is probable that in 2019, if the government does not carry out urgent and large-scale economic transformations, we will reach a scenario of deeper economic crisis. A large segment of workers, who receive only symbolic salaries would be even more affected, as would be retirees. Those who have access to  hard currency or own prosperous private businesses may not be so affected. That crisis is around the corner and can be tackled with proactive measures of an economic nature, although always some sector will be affected.”

Yoandry, a musician, thinks that “you do not have to be an economist to see that next year it will be a bad one. Brother, they are missing essential products for the poorest. From bread and rice for free to medicines. Add to that the prices of root vegetables, pork and vegetables have grown between 10 and 20 percent compared to five years ago. And salaries do not grow along with that silent inflation that Cubans are experiencing.”

Diana, an engineer, confesses that “I do not want to relive the nightmare of the Special Period, but that possibility is latent. The shortages in hard currency stores and in national currency stores are alarming. The prices of articles increase every year. Even on the black market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get quality fish, shrimp or beef. And there is no longer anywhere to escape. Obama threw out the wet foot/dry foot policy and people who decide to emigrate can only try their luck in Uruguay, Chile or another South American country.”

Leydis, a graduate in art history, parked her diploma in a drawer and decided to try her luck as a mule. “I was a girl during the Special Period, but I remember the blackouts and they started selling Chinese bicycles. If the government does not change its economic policy, it will be very hard years, so it should stop tightening the screws on the self-employed, who are the only ones who grow up in Cuba and, in addition, are our main clients, who buy from us the bulk of the little things that the mules bring.”

José Antonio, unemployed, says that in the country there is a large number of people who, like him, have to live off ‘invention’. “To find me some pesos, I go to the stonemason, I carry debris, and I go to the dump on Calle 100 to find among the trash things that I sell later. However bad the thing gets, the poor adapt to the situation. If a new economic crisis erupts, at least I will not be the worst off. Those who suffer are the rich, those who live in good houses and eat breakfast and lunch every day.”

In a portico near the Plaza Roja of la Víbora, south of Havana, José Antonio expects to earn twenty or thirty Cuban pesos from the sale of objects found in the trash. Breathe a little fresh air, from a dirty backpack he takes out a plastic bottle and a stew of distilled alcohol, the drink of the forgotten.

For many in Cuba, including José Antonio, the Special Period has never ended. And again ordinary Cubans will not be able to celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas and the arrival of a New Year (which in 2019 coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Castro Revolution) as they wish, with enough money and food to enjoy it with family and friends.

Cuba 2018: Neo-Castroism and an Economy in Hibernation / Ivan Garcia

Juan Suárez from the Havana Times.

Ivan Garcia, 3 January 2018 — There is no better country in which to find a surrealist atmosphere than Cuba. In October of 2017, when the hurricane winds of Irma ruined whatever was in their way, a photo that went around the world explained the political nonsense and citizens’ indifference.

The waters of the Atlantic Ocean jumped the wall of the Havanan seawall and in association with the Macondian* downpours flooded the poor neighborhoods of the capital such as Colón, San Leopoldo, Jesús María, Belén and Los Sitios.

Havana collapsed, people ransacked the hard currency markets and at a table in the middle of a street flooded with dirty water, four imperturbable men played dominoes and drank rum, while a part of the island collapsed. That photograph is so similar to our reality that it’s scary. continue reading

Two months after the passage of the cyclone, in January 2018, in an imitation of elections, the 168 municipal assemblies, by sheer citizen resignation, elected 605 candidates** for deputies to the Cuban parliament.

On April 19, the National Assembly of Peoples Power chose the future president. Abroad, the news was that the new ruler did not have the surname Castro. But, to our disgrace, the day after being proclaimed, Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez promised more Castroism, economic planning and ironclad state control in every part of civic life.

That morning, after being proclaimed president, Díaz-Canel, somewhat embarrassed and shy, read the worst speech in memory from an elected president. “I promise nothing,” summed up in his disastrous presidential strategy. And he declared himself a fervent follower of Fidel Castro and “compañero Raúl.” More transparent and sincere he could not be.

Born in Placetas, Villa Clara, on April 20, 1960, Díaz-Canel never sold himself as a reformer or a high-caliber statesman. In any case, he is a figurehead. A guy without complexes, he says that every morning he receives advice from his political manager, Raúl Castro. He is a pragmatic politician. He is very familiar with how the ship sinks.

But trained by the old Fidelist school of resisting until the last breath. He will not proclaim major economic and political changes if the people do not demand it. Castroism is not an ideology, it is not even a political theory. It is a brotherhood of officials, soldiers and bureaucrats who benefit most if they renounce democracy.

If Castroism has not worked in 60 years, the neo-Castroism or late Castroism represented by Diaz-Canel is very unlikely to work. Castro I’s style of government was characterized by his inability to decentrally administer public service, produce food, economically develop the nation and bring prosperity to the citizens. But if something stood out it was in the management of diplomacy, in social control and the repression of opponents.

In the first eight months, Díaz-Canel was in exploration mode. He showed up at the place where a passenger plane crashed in Havana and visited the Batabanó municipality after a storm caused flooding. He often dissects the dissimilar structural problems of the peculiar Cuban system and his only promise, which sounds like a bluff, has been to ensure that in ten years he will solve the housing deficit in the country. We will have to wait and see.

For ordinary people, Diaz-Canel is opaque and his speeches are boring. On his tours of different cities and municipalities of the Island he shows himself as an indistinct bettor on the populism that used to be carried out by Fidel Castro.

In present-day Cuba, investments in public infrastructure are minimal. If anything, money is spent on improving water networks and a cheap coat of paint in hospitals. The construction of children’s centers, new health and educational centers is not planned. Transportation is chaos.

It is difficult for an institution administered by the State to have a passing grade. What works best in Cuba comes from the private sector. Restaurants, bars, hairdressers. But since the summer of 2017, the regime has reversed the reforms of self-employment. Why? A municipal party official we will call Óscar offers the answer.

“Self-employment was always seen as something conjunctural. If economic reforms were implemented in 2010 and self-employment expanded, it was for the simple reason that the State needed to get one and a half million people off the employment rolls. But only half a million left. It was thought that with the fiscal siege and the control of the inspectors, private work would not grow too much. But it was shown that when working for his or her own benefit, the individual is able to overcome any barrier. Self-employment has managed to overcome the shortages and lack of a wholesale market with creativity, circumventing tax rules and importing under the table. Today nobody dines in a state restaurant, they go to a paladar (private restaurant). And in other sectors they also offer strong competition to the State,” says the source and he concludes:

“Obama’s political strategy of importing and granting credits to self-employed people has intimidated the government. If that sector continued to grow at the stroke of dollars, in a short time it could cause economic changes of greater depth, and even political. The State sees them as a Trojan Horse. An enemy rather than a friend. Thousands of professionals have left their careers to become private entrepreneurs, which worries the government and that is why it seeks greater control over self-employment.”

The Cuba of 2018 was pure gatopardismo***. Make changes, without anything changing. The economy is still in recession. The optimistic television presenters announce productive growth that never lands on the table of Cuban families. Food prices rose between 10 and 25 percent. Hard currency markets are more undersupplied than ever. Recent statements by Alejandro Gil, Minister of Economy and Planning, suggest that there is no possibility of reversing the situation in 2019.

Between October and November, Miguel Diaz-Canel and his wife Lis Cuesta, on official visits, toured China, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos with a brief stopover in London. Nobody opened their wallets. Putin coiled himself in the same position: invest ten percent of debt forgiven to Cuba in the railroad and power plants and sell arms. China prefers to wait. He sees no short-term return. Publicly he offers the discourse from his fellow travelers, although the money is still at home. North Korea and Laos were ideological visits. Vietnam pushes him to the market economy, but Castroism thinks about it.

The olive-green autocracy desperately seeks foreign investment. In October 2018, Cubadebate reported that the Mariel Special Development Zone attracted 474 million dollars, the largest amount of investment in five years. Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group, estimates that this figure is five times lower than the investments of the mules that travel to buy goods from Russia, Haiti, Mexico or Panama, which they then sell on the Cuban black market.

It is evident that the Havana regime lives in another dimension. Díaz-Canel wants to promote electronic government and create computerized mechanisms so that the population can exchange with state officials and manage their problems with immediacy. He announced the opening of a government website and a channel on You Tube. And he asked that all ministers open accounts on Twitter and be active on social networks.

“In what country does ‘Canelo’ live? One hour of internet in any wifi zone costs one convertible peso and mobile internet data, the cheapest available, costs seven CUC. He believes that people will spend a third of their monthly salary to chat with ministers and officials who resolve nothing. It’s ridiculous. If you want to interrelate with the people, let the ministers get out of their cars and without warning, walk around the streets and learn about the problems of the people. Let them get down and dirty with the people, not that staging they put on when a leader visits a place,” says Camila, a university student.

The worst thing about the Cuba of 2018 is not the shortage of bread and eggs, or that the price of pork rises steadily or how difficult it is to buy milk powder in hard currency stores. No. What scares people the most is the lack of a future. There are no solutions in sight.

If you travel through the poor and mostly black neighborhood of Los Sitios, in the heart of Havana, you will hear full-fledged reguetón blasting through the phones and observe the habitual passivity of Cubans who specialize in the art of waiting. There, between houses in danger of collapse and street hawkers, Yosvany Sierra Hernández, alias Chocolate MC, was born, an aggressive and defiant reguetonero who, despite the bans and prohibitions of the Ministry of Culture and state media, is heard openly throughout the Island.

Without spending a dime on advertising, Chocolate is more popular than Miguel Díaz-Canel. It’s the Cuba that nobody understands.

Translator’s notes:
*A reference to the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels.
**There were 605 names on the ballots for the 605 positions.
***”Everything changes so that everything remains the same.” See “The Leopard,” a novel by Lampedusa

Self-Employed Cubans Ready to Defend Their Rights / Ivan Garcia

Arrendado ‘Self-Employed’ Market. Photo: 14ymedio

Iván García, 3 December 2018 — A 1950s General Motors truck with an American body and a powerful Italian Iveco six-cylinder inline engine parks in front of a house in a neighborhood west of Havana. Several men begin unloading sheets of drywall, bags of joint compound and galvanized steel beams.

Twice a week Jesús orders a large quantity of supplies for his business erecting lightweight structures, which are currently all the rage in Cuba. He directs three work crews that install shelves, closets and ceilings in restaurants and privately owned tourist lodgings. His clients include hundreds of people who build or renovate their own homes by themselves.

Although a large closet with several sections can cost the equivalent of $900 — fifteen times the monthly salary of a typical medical specialist — Jesús reports that the demand far exceeds the supply. And he adds that he has plans to expand his business. continue reading

“Raw materials are the main problem,” he says. “Since they aren’t sold in hard currency stores, you have to buy them under the table. Supplies come from state construction projects, like luxury hotels and hospital renovations. The government wants us to do things legally, and most self-employed people like me want to do that also, but it doesn’t want to set up wholesale markets where we can buy what we need at reasonable prices, without having to import everything. We could get everything we need from Miami, which is closer to Havana than Santa Clara. It would make more sense for the state to license ferry boats instead of cruise ships. Can you imagine how many things the average person needs that those boats could bring in?”

In the opinion of Nicolás, an economist, when Raúl Castro began his timid economic reforms, “he did it keeping in mind the million and a half people projected to be unemployed after cuts to the public sector, which were necessary to reduce the bloated bureaucracy. But the wave of dismissals was suspended due to political considerations and only half a million workers lost their jobs. Private sector workers have always been problematic for the government. It accepts them but it doesn’t like them.”

He adds, “From the beginning self-employed workers have been burdened with roadblocks and impediments, such as prohibitions on business expansion and capital accumulation. They also could not access wholesale markets or rely on an independent, transparent legal system. Self-employment is recognized in the new constitution but the rules of the game are capricious and subject to the whims of authorities.

“These vague policies have created distorted business practices, from having to keep two sets of books and tax evasion to purchasing of raw materials on the black market. If the state wants an orderly system, it should expand the private sector, create wholesale markets and allow supplies to be imported. If there is one thing the government should be aware of it is that private entrepreneurs are not going to give up their businesses despite the constant obstacles. If they are not allowed to do it legally, they will do it — as always happens in Cuba — under the table.”

Alberto, the owner of a café that specializes in Creole food, says, “Coming up with a daily menu is a headache because everything basically revolves around pork or chicken. But since the state can’t satisfy the demand, prices for meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit periodically go up. Boneless pork costs between 55 and 60 [Cuban] pesos per pound. Managers of cafés and state-run restaurants sell us beer for 27 to 28 convertible pesos [CUCs] a box and pocket three or four CUCS from each box. As a result there are no domestically produced beers or malt beverages available anywhere in Havana.”

On December 7 new measures governing the private sector were announced. “When the local office of ONAT [the internal revenue agency which oversees private employment] met with business owners, it was all lies and deceit. If they want self-employment to function properly and legally, they have to lay the foundations,” says Alberto.

Ask any Cuban entrepreneur his or her opinion about the new guidelines the regime will soon adopt and the response will likely be highly critical, both of those rules and of President Miguel-Díaz Canel in particular.

I spoke to sixteen owners of food service, hospitality, construction and transport businesses. Twelve of them believe the new regulations are a smokescreen to mask the government’s true intentions: to strangle the private sector economically with a series of restrictions.

Four of the owners said that if the government makes things difficult for them, they will surrender their business licenses. “Then I will have to figure out how to support myself,” says Joan, a café owner. “The government likes to hamstring the average Cuban. If things get hard, I will emigrate or start a clandestine business. But I’m not going to die of hunger.”

“They’re scared of us. They think we set a bad example for society because we’re able to make money and prosper in spite of the American blockade and the shortages. The money we make allows us to be independent. We don’t rely on the state to improve the quality of life for ourselves, our families and others,” says Luisa, a self-employed hair stylist.

Camila rents out bedrooms in her home and has “given up trying to understand the government’s stupidities. Díaz-Canel is a puppet. In all the time he has been in office, he has never once met with self-employed workers. He is all about the State, about government control. It’s a policy that hasn’t worked for sixty years and is never going to work. Sometimes I think there are CIA agents working inside the government. Why are they so scared we might make money?”

If any group of people is especially unhappy it is independent taxi drivers. As of October 8 private transport workers in Havana are subject to a new set of rules, but almost all of them reject these provisions and vehemently criticize them.

Edel, a taxi driver in his forties, is convinced the state wants to control people’s money. “We have to open an account and declare eighty percent of the money we invest and earn,” he says. “The only thing they have achieved is that, out of the 14,000 freelance taxi drivers in Havana, only five or six thousand are working. A lot of drivers have told me they won’t go to work on December 7. They’ll go on strike.”

In an effort to assert their rights, a group of private sector workers has created an association, PEMEMCUB (Spanish initials for Small and Medium Size Businesspeople of Cuba), which they hope will offer them protection from the whims of the state. “PEMEMCUB was founded with the goal of gaining national and international recognition as an organization which defends the rights of Cuban entrepreneurs,” says board member Antonio Font Carreño in a recently published interview with CubaNet.

There has not yet been a response from the Ministry of Justice to their efforts and PEMEMCUB has so far not been able to register as a legally recognized organization. Nevertheless, Jesús, the owner of a lightweight assembly business, is convinced of the need to “unite to confront unfair attacks and government regulations. We are not a small group. All together there are more than a million co-operative and individual workers among us. That is 25% of the Cuban of the labor force.”

Their strategy is to scream as loud as possible until the regime listens. They have no other option.

Díaz-Canel’s Wife Is a Ghost in Cuba / Iván García

Miguel Díaz-Canel and his wife, Lis Cuesta, arriving in Laos on November 10, 2018. (Granma newspaper)

Iván García, 19 November 2018  — In its most extreme forms Marxism is an explosive cocktail of ideological fanaticism, macho stupidity and freehand populism. A lethal combination of the worst kind of religious dogmatism and Mafia-style clan loyalty.

Fidel Castro’s forty seven-year rule of Cuba was marked by Olympic-sized violations of the basic principles of a modern democracy. He treated his first wife, Mirtha Díaz-Balart, like one of those porcelain vases that you put on of a table. He learned this from his father, Angel Castro, a crude and ignorant peasant from Galicia who came to the island to wage war against pro-independence forces and who later settled in the east of the country where he established a successful agricultural operation. Angel saw women as housewives and semen depositories. continue reading

In many ways Fidel is not much different from his father. He ruled the country like the family farm back in Birán and believed he had the right to possess any attractive blonde who he crossed his path. More than anything, he thought of himself as a warrior. As the founder of the first socialist state in the Americas, ninety miles from “the empire,” everyone had to fall to their feet before him. For men this meant carrying out his orders. For women it meant spreading their legs when he was sexually aroused.

One would have to look to the macho origins of the 1959 revolution to understand the absence of Lis Cuesta, the wife of President Díaz-Canel, in the state-run media. Raúl Castro, brother of the deceased dictator and himself later president, had the advantage of being a family guy. His marriage was a public one. And he spent his Sundays having lunch with friends, serving them spit-roasted pork leg and orange juice laced with vodka.

Although women gained social, economic and institutional status, their rise represented more of a tactical political move than evidence of real independence. Most of the regime’s heayweights had lovers on the side. It was considered to be in good taste and a sign of manliness, especially if she was a singer rather than a journalist.

Díaz-Canel knows firsthand how the levers of power work. No one can accuse him of being the typical macho type. A farm boy, he was born fifty-seven years ago in the Falcón district of Placetas in Villa Clara province. He is of another generation. When he held the post of first party secretary in Holguín province, he had no qualms about divorcing his wife and marrying Lis Cuesta Peraza, then a well-known teacher and cultural promoter.

A former Holguín resident who now lives in Havana recalls that “Díaz-Canel didn’t do as good a job in Holguín as he did in Villa Clara, but he always walked hand-in-hand with Lis, who was not as heavy as she is now.” A former official who knew Cuesta in Holguín claims she is affable and talkative, and likes to dance and drink beer, like any Cuban. “I don’t know why the press ignores her,” he notes, “as though she were a kitchen rag. She is a competent woman. Her husband should demand that the media give her more coverage.”

Susana, a university student likes “the way Díaz-Canel’s wife looks. She is not embarrassed to have a tatoo on her back. She’s attractive and wears brand-name clothes. But she should lose some weight. She should take advantage of her position and install a gym in her house.”

“The way the national media marginalizes the wife of the nation’s president is inexplicable,” says Jorge, a political science graduate. “On television we see her at his side on various overseas trips but the news anchor never mentions her. Because of political prejudices Cuba has eliminated the role of first lady, but they ought to at least say she is his wife.”

A government journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “There are no specific guidelines for how to classify Lis Cuesta. Six months ago a television anchor referred to her as the first lady and was reprimanded. They have tripped over themselves trying to describe her. It’s enough to simply say she is Díaz-Canel’s wife. Cubans who don’t follow politics don’t even know her name. The assumption is that, in a country that prides inself on the family being the building block of society, subjects like this must be treated tactfully.”

Lucía, a textile designer, wishes the government and the press would report on Lis Cuesta and stop acting as though she were invisible. “The first lady should have an active role, like in other Latin American countries,” she says. “Lis has good taste in clothes, is well-groomed and doesn’t wear too much makeup. But if she had an image consultant, she would come off better. She lacks spontaneity and her smile is forced. And both she and her husband should lose weight.”

Norge, an attorney, says, “I do not understand why — at a time when women are increasingly in the international spotlight, we are in the midst of the #MeToo whirlwind and women are strongly represented in United States Congress — our press ignores the wife of the current president. It shows a lack of respect for Lis Cuesta and for Cuban women.”

In all of Miguel Díaz-Canel’s foreign tours — to France, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Loas and a layover stop in London — the television anchor never mentioned Lis Cuesta when she appears on screen. It is as though she were a ghost.

Cuba Keeps Betting On the Past and Fidel Castro / Iván García

Old Havana. Selling photos to tourists of Fidel Castro and the writer Ernest Hemingway. Taken from Al Día

Iván García, 29 November 2018 — A group of Swiss tourists walk through the gray marble corridor of the old Havana Yacht Club, in the Flores district, west of the capitol building, while the guide shows them old black and white photos hanging on the wall of what once was a meeting place for the most illustrious of the Cuban bourgeoisie.

In perfect German, the guide tells them the anecdote that the club was so elitist that ’even the dictator Fulgencio Batista was not allowed to enter’. After having lunch in a restaurant next to the beach, the Swiss continue with an itinerary designed exclusively to emphasize the recovery of the Cuban republic.

Nostalgia and the past is for sale in any hotel, bar or restaurant in Havana’s tourist circuit. Sloppy’s Joe bar, next to the Hotel Sevilla, has a collection of photos of a city that was once cosmopolitan, and it has even invented a drink that evokes the American actor Errol Flynn, a regular patron of the place. continue reading

Foreign visitors are struck by the architectural diversity of Havana, which despite the state’s neglect, the soot and the ruins of its facades, still shows its former opulence.

Let’s call him Joel, the  architect of Eusebio Leal’s project aimed at rescuing areas of Old Havana, who recognizes that “the intention is to highlight old customs among tourists and foreign visitors and underscore the splendor of a memorable city that had an incredible nightlife.” And he adds:

“It starts with the music, continues with the tradition of making cigars by hand, the viewing and riding in cars from the 1950s, and highlights the lifestyle and architecture of the time. I suppose that is because Havana, after the Revolution, has little to contribute from the architectural point of view. Many works built after 1959 are marked by clumsiness and horrible designs. They should be demolished.”

A year before the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, the government of handpicked president Miguel Díaz-Canel has implemented a broad plan to remodel some areas of the city. “Especially those that the yumas [Cuban slang for Americans] tour,” says René, who lives in a rooming house in the marginal neighborhood of Colón, across the street from where the majestic Iberostar Grand Packard luxury hotel at Prado and Cárcel has just opened.

The other Havana, that of Mantilla, Atarés and La Cuevita, three neighborhoods of the many that in the capital cry out for a thorough repair, have their houses fixed with a coat of emulsified paint while their principal streets have to settle for a thin layer of asphalt.

Diana, a housewife, prays every night that the roof does not fall on her. Twenty years ago her large ramshackle house was declared uninhabitable by housing officials. “But where am I going to go, mi’jo. The State shelters are dens of inequity. The neighbors have written letters to all levels of the government. But they do not solve anything. It is evident that the Cuba shown on television only functions in the news broadcasts”.

Alcides, custodian of a highschool, sarcastically describes Díaz-Canel’s management and tourism. “There are good Diaz, bad Diaz and Diaz-Canel. This is something that no one can fix. For thirty years they have bet on tourism and the annoying story that it will be the engine that will bring development to the country. But nobody in the city sees a penny of the tourist money. Raúl Castro and ’Canelo’ are only interested in investing in works that provide money to military companies. Now they come up with the story of solving the housing problem in ten years. A lie. If they have not solved it in sixty years, they will not solve it in a decade. Pretending holds up everything.”

For Norge, a Political Science graduate, the “current economic and political structures do not work. The government is incapable of managing public services with a minimum of efficiency. What people ask for is change. But the regime is committed to papering reality with false promises. Not counting on a politician of stature, the strategy is to bet on the symbolism of Fidel Castro. Since they do not have new ideas, they choose to rehash his speeches.”

Two years after the death of the autocrat, the main culprit of the disaster that is now Cuba, the regime tries to sell smoke and mirrors. There is no Plan B. What’s left is to market nostalgia and the past on the back of Fidel Castro’s corpse, a communist and staunch enemy of capitalism. Paradoxes of destiny.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

Panama, the New Eldorado for Cubans / Iván García

Store in Panama, a country where it is estimated that in 2017 Cubans spent around $100 million dollars in purchases. Taken from On Cuba News

Iván García, 12 November 2018 — Life always offers you an opportunity. When the father of Hector, a 31-year-old industrial engineer, died that afternoon in May 2015 in Miami, his family in Cuba began suffering material shortages.

“The old man would wire 300 or 400 dollars every month and he would send us clothes and appliances through mules*. The wages of my mother, my wife and mine together amounted to $80. With the money that my father sent, we were able to repair the house and feed ourselves better. When he died, we asked ourselves what do we do now? We could sit idly by or plan some business to get ahead. We opted for the latter”, Hector recalls.

The first thing he did was invest $1,700 that his father had sent to buy a motorbike and then determine how he could import smartphones, flat-screen TVs and name brand clothing from Panama or Mexico. continue reading

“Not having a US visa, I opted for the Mexican and the Panamanian ones. With the first purchases I made, including the cost of airfare, lodging, food and customs taxes in Cuba and Panama, I earned $350. I resigned my job and I dedicated myself to ‘muling’,” says Hector.

The migratory regulation approved in the winter of 2013 by the regime of Raul Castro opened a range of initiatives for a broad segment of Cubans. According to official statistics, more than half a million people travel abroad each year. Between 70 and 80 thousand of those travelers dedicate themselves to regularly importing goods into Cuba. It is a buoyant business. All they need is a legal framework. The current status is an authentic legal limbo.

Ana, who travels to Cancun and the Colon Duty Free Zone in Panama 10 times a year, explains the particulars. “The State allows us to travel and import only personal items once a year. All the people who dedicate ourselves to muling transgress the regulatory norms in Cuba. We have triumphed thanks to the inability of the government to supply goods at affordable prices. Look, most of the time we buy in retail markets abroad, sometimes in places as distant as Moscow, we pay the customs duties and even so we sell everything at lower prices than the State, with more variety and quality.”

A recent study by the consulting firm The Havana Consulting Group concludes “that Cuban entrepreneurs took out of their country around $2.39 billion in 2017, more than nine times the foreign capital invested in the Mariel Special Development Zone that year and a figure similar to what the communist government says it needs to revitalize the island’s economy.”

The study details how these funds are distributed: $426 million for airfare, $472 million for lodging, transportation and food, $1.08 billion for purchases and between $52 and $58 million for the agencies that pack and then take care of the logistics to send the goods to Cuba.

That amount of money would place it as the fourth largest national industry behind the export of medical services, family remittances and tourism. Economically it benefits those who are engaged in the movement of goods and also a growing percentage of avid local buyers.

Nicolás, an economist, believes that “due to the lack of wholesale markets, extremely high sales prices and poor quality of the products offered in state stores, I calculate that three to four million Cubans buy items from the mules directly or through e-commerce portals like Revolico. To this must be added the mules that sell wholesale to intermediaries who then market the merchandise at a higher price and, in a new development: sell on installments plans, a mechanism that does not exist in state stores.”

A notable segment of private entrepreneurs order their merchandise from the mules. “I bought the tableware, cutlery, lights and bar equipment from an acquaintance who regularly travels to Panama. The State does not have any institution that offers these services to the self-employed,” says Osmany, owner of a bar south of the capital.

Every year, individuals who import pacotillas (miscellaneous items highly valued in Cuba due to their scarcity) are more creative. Carla, a university student, says that there are people “who sell clothes, toiletries and hair products purchased directly from Amazon.” Perhaps that is the case with Liana, a mule with five years of experience that “thanks to the boom in these sales, I took advantage of the fact that I have a multiple entry visa to the United States; I opened a bank account and I can use a credit card that allows me to buy goods from Amazon and other digital sites and afterwards sell them in Cuba.”

Leonel, also dedicated to the mule business, thinks that “it is a good measure the government of Panama took in granting that travel card valid for thirty days. My concern is that the government considers us illegal. And it tries to stop us with high tariffs and prohibitions that prevent importing large quantities of merchandise. But beginning with that measure, and knowing that thousands of Cubans import products from Panama, they can decree criminal sanctions or high fines for those of us who are dedicated to muling.”

According to diplomatic sources located in Havana, Mexico soon plans to expedite visa procedures. In 2017, El Financiero wrote about the boom of Cuban tourists in Mexico: “The number of registered travelers with the nationality of that Caribbean country totaled 100,251 in 2016. Armando Bojórquez, president of the Confederation of Tourist Organizations of Latin America, explained that they are seeing many Cubans engaged in tourism to shop, in Mexico there are good products and international brands that can be bought in Mexican pesos and that helps.”

Odalys, who has specialized in importing athletic clothing and footwear from Cancun, is of the opinion that “these measures can help curb the growing wave of corruption that exists to obtain a visa at the consulates of Mexico and Panama. Just to get an appointment you have to pay $300 or $400 dollars to an intermediary.”

The inability of the olive green autocracy to raise those billions of dollars that escape abroad is notorious. In Cubadebate, an official website, a commentator with the pseudonym of Liborio Bobo de Abela complained:

“How many millions does the Cuban economy lose because of the blindness of the decision makers? Could not CIMEX, TRD, etc., with more reasonable prices capture the foreign currencies that flow to the Panamanian economy? Can it be that it is cheaper to buy from those who mule from Panama due to the nonsensical 240% tax in the foreign currency stores and an obsolete and absurd pricing policy. Is our economy in a position to disregard this enormous potential? Today it is practically more profitable to buy anything in any place (Haiti included), paying for the passage, the visa, lodging, food and the customs tax than buying in the stores here. Has anyone among so many illustrious brains thought about these issues”, the commentator argued.

Everything seems to indicate that no “illustrious brain” has thought about these issues.

*Translator’s note: Cuban slang for those that travel overseas to buy goods scarce and/or expensive in Cuba to then resell upon returning to the Island.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

May Rains Brought More “Drama” to Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Source: Juventud Rebelde

Ivan Garcia, 4 June 2018 — When it started raining on May 2, Eliseo and his wife had already covered the leaks in the roof of tiles with silicone, wooden planks and pieces of plastic. On the deck, outside, they sprayed waterproof paint and reinforced the iron beams on the roof that run through the house, so they do not collapse.

Eliseo and his wife reside in a low-lying area of Old Havana, bordering a railway line, very close to the old Cuatro Caminos Market, and which usually floods any time there is a downpour of moderate intensity.

“Since I have had the use of reason, the authorities have been saying they are going to drain the area and build comfortable buildings. It is a tale. In addition to flooding immediately with any storm, 80 percent of the houses are in poor condition. continue reading

Every year, when the hurricane season arrives (from June 1 to November 30) or it rains hard, the roof of one or several houses always collapses or the walls collapse. The only thing the government does is evacuate you to a safe place. Then, when calm returns, they sell you a couple of mattresses and an electric rice cooker. People have to pay for the repairs of the houses themselves. Those who can’t, because they are subsidized by the State, have been waiting for a lot of years for a new house to be offered to them or for building materials,” says Eliseo, as he checks the walls,

Around here, families establish their own security protocols before a storm hits. “When the rains get worse, my two children go to sleep in the safest part of the house. This time the effects were minor. The roof lasted, only five or six tiles were broken,” says Eliseo, who works as a port stevedore.

Almost four weeks of constant rain in the capital caused more than 200 partial or complete building collapses in the municipalities of Habana Vieja, Plaza and Centro Habana.

“When the sun came out it was worse. In the last seven days there have been around 120 collapsed roofs or walls. Luckily, there was no need to mourn the wounded or the dead. And luckily the rains in Havana were not as intense as in other provinces such as Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus,” says a municipal housing official.

Martí Noticias asked the official if, among the strategies of the new government there is a plan to improve the drainage in the low zones and to build houses for the thousands of Havanans living in precarious conditions and extreme poverty.

“There is talk of increasing the construction of houses. According to the government, in a decade this problem could be solved, at least in Havana. But we will have to see. Between the Yankees’ blockade and that of the Cubans themselves, along with the corruption and bureaucracy, I doubt that the deficit of a million houses can be built,” the official believes.

The problem of housing is a long-standing issue in Cuba. Fidel Castro planned different strategies. From creating brigades of builders with people who had never used a mason’s trowel to promising to build 100,000 homes per year.

The aesthetics and poor quality of most of these constructions meant that even many families residing in houses built three decades ago now need a new dwelling. This is the case for Esther, a primary school teacher, who lives in a ramshackle building built in the late 1980s in a neighborhood in Vedado.

“It was about ten o’clock at night when a piece of the ceiling fell in. Fortunately, my daughter was watching television. It’s not the only problem. Years ago, the neighbors of the building have clogs, and roof and window leaks. Some of the stair steps have collapsed and to climb to the fifth floor, where I live, you have to be an acrobat. And that’s not the fault of the blockade or bad weather,” says Esther.

On May 27, persistent rains also caused he collapse of a part of a building located at the corner of Muralla and Aguiar streets, in Old Havana. “That building had been declared uninhabitable years ago. After 6:00 in the evening, part of the roof collapsed, causing damage to other rooms. The racket was horrible, but no one was injured or killed,” says Barbara, a neighbor of the property.

The intense rains of the subtropical storm Alberto caused 7 deaths and left two missing in Cuba (see note at the end). The greatest damage occurred in the central provinces, especially in Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus.

Thousands of hectares of rice, tobacco, fruit trees and crops were spoiled. “Enjoy bananas and pineapple now, because with the losses in Ciego de Ávila, they will be missing from the market for a while,” predicts Omar, a truck driver who transports agricultural products from the center of the island to the capital.

In the town of Ovas, Pinar del Río, 170 kilometers west of Havana, the rains were also very intense. Ovid, owner of a small farm, believes that “a lot of the responsibility for the loss of the crops belongs to the farmers. It was known that the rainy season was coming and the crops needed to be harvested ahead of time, and then the fields plowed.

But the lands that belong to the state belong to no one and no one cares that the crops are spoiled. Four drops of water fall and people stop working. If they owned the land, that wouldn’t happen.”

At present, Cubans are concerned about the prices of agricultural products will continue to rise in the markets because of Albert. “If there is a drought it is bad, if it rains a lot, it’s bad too. Let’s see how much the prices go up, any bad weather causes things to get even more expensive,” complains Irma, a housewife.

Cuba, a nation that imports everything from toothbrushes to sewing threads, is always exposed to hurricanes, external political situations or the rise or fall of oil prices in the international market. This time it was defeated by the intense rains of a tropical storm.

Note: On June 1, Civil Defense issued the names and locations of the seven deceased persons and the two who remained missing.

Alejandro Enrique Cumbrera Pérez, a native of Bayamo, Granma, disappeared in the Arimao River, Manicaragua, Villa Clara, and Ricardo Perdomo González, disappeared in Chambas, Ciego de Ávila. 

The deceased, all of whom died from drowning, are: Daikel Palacios Martínez, 29, from Herradura, Consolación del Sur, Pinar del Río; Eduardo Ramos González, 35, from Sandino, Pinar del Río; Noel Aranda Guerra, 58, from the Batey Crane Nueva, Primero de Enero, Ciego de Ávila; Jailen Venegas Meneses, 26, from Batey Limones Palmeros, Majagua, Ciego de Ávila; Quintiliano Meregildo Simo Ortega, 77, from Manuel Piti Fajardo, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritu; Rosbel López Ríos, 27, from Cayos Las Vacas, Remedios, Villa Clara; and Ramón Cabrera García, 56, in the Cruceros de los Álvarez reservoir, Colón, Matanzas.

Cubana de Aviacian in the Crosshairs / Ivan Garcia

Cubana de Aviación airplane at the Havana airport. Taken from Tico Times.

Iván García, 1 June 2018 — Although the chances of an accident are one in a thousand, Rigoberto González and his wife refused to travel by plane in the state-owned company Cubana de Aviación to Santiago de Cuba, 957 kilometers east of Havana, and opted to travel on an interprovincial highway to the eastern city.

“With the thunder storm, I prefer to travel on a ground ball, by land, rather than a flyball. The impression on the street is that the old planes of Cubana de Aviación are flying coffins. The flight is relatively cheap, around 200 Cuban pesos — the equivalent of 9 dollars — and the trip lasts one hour. But as a result of the last plane crash, through social networks and the foreign press, I learned that the problem goes beyond outdated airplanes and a shortage of spare parts. Besides bad work, it is said that there is corruption and negligence,” Rigoberto says. continue reading

The fatal accident, which occurred on May 18 in Havana, coincided with the rise of the Internet on the island. If previously the regime of Fidel Castro, thanks to the tight control of the entire state press, could manipulate local public opinion at will, now Facebook, Twitter, social networks, blogs, alternative sites and international media, have opened a considerable gap in the wall of disinformation designed by the olive green autocracy, which no longer holds water.

Newspapers from Florida such as Diario Las Américas and El Nuevo Herald, and websites like Martí Noticias, have published about the irregularities of the turbulent company Global Air. Information published in the Mexican press, which has included reports of pilots and inspectors of Cubana de Aviación warning not to lease Global Air. These reviews have had an impact on the Island.

Authorities of civil aviation in Guyana, Honduras and Chile, had already banned the Boeing 727-200 from flying in their territory in Havana. The official Cuban press has not published a line on this.

Germán, a barber, believes that “it is incongruous, that with all the news on the Internet about that company, that the Cuban press does not reflect it. I suspect that there is some complicity between the officials of Cubana de Aviación and Global Air. If they had difficulties once in 2010 in Santa Clara, and has had a series of problems in other countries, it is inexplicable that our authorities have hired them again. ”

Sara, a bank employee, points out that “the Institute of Civil Aeronautics has been having problems for some time, including cases of corruption, such as that of its president, General Rogelio Acevedo, dismissed in 2010 and rumored to have stolen millions of dollars. To this is added the bad service, delays in the flight schedules and an old-fashioned aerial fleet with no replacement parts. It amazes me that they have not shut down. This tragic accident could have been avoided if its leaders had been more responsible.”

Four Cubana de Aviación accidents happened on the island in the last 16 years (March 2002, October 2010, November 2010 and May 2018) with a total of 203 deaths, in a company that operates a handful of international and domestic flights that merits a serious and deep investigation.

“In Cuba, corruption is tolerated. Six or seven years ago, several operators of the Sol y Son tourism company, with the complicity of Civil Aviation officials, implemented an under the table import business from Mexico. The poor maintenance of the airplanes and the contracting with airlines that offer bribes to corrupt Cuban officials, is added to terrible service at the airports. They break a flat screen TV and don’t compensate travelers for stealing their suitcases. Recently, due to delays in a flight, almost a hundred Canadian tourists were stranded in Cayo Coco,” says a former airport worker.

According to an official of the Civil Aeronautics of Cuba, “the state press has not published the information and rumors circulating about Global Air and its apparent deficiencies, pending the conclusion of the investigation of international experts. The Cuban authorities are also conducting a thorough examination. You have to be patient and not say things that can not be proven.”

A segment of ordinary Cubans consider that the new hand-picked president Miguel Diaz-Canel should pound his fist on the table and, if it exists, reveal the alleged corrupt framework and the deficiencies of the sector.

“He has to prove that he is not a simple puppet and clean up the shit in a decisive way. If he does, it would increase its popularity,” says Pablo, a hospital custodian.

“Nothing is going to change as long as things do not change in Cuba. Cubana de Aviación is the reflection of the system we have, which does not work. Neither Díaz-Canel nor Mandrake the Magician can reverse that reality, as long as the system does not change,” emphasizes Damián, a taxi driver, who suggests “forming a joint venture airline with Canada or any developed nation in Europe. And to close Cubana de Aviación, an unsafe company, that does not meet with its schedules and provides bad service.”

There are more than a few in Cuba who think the same as the Havana taxi driver.

"If the Price of Food Keeps Going Up in Cuba…" / Ivan Garcia

Agromercado at 19th and B, Vedado, Havana. Taken from Havana Times

Ivan Garcia, 7 June 2018 — Despite the cloudy sky, the rains and the fact that the sun has been hidden for two weeks, the flow of people into the private farm market at 19th and B in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood does not diminish.

The market, painted green and yellow, with neat stalls and corny drawings of fruit, vegetables and pork legs on the walls, is probably one of the few places in Havana where you can buy oranges and grapefruit, citrus fruits that, at least in the capital, appear to be heading to extinction.

Or delicacies like strawberries, soursops, canistels, mangoes, pineapples, fruits and vegetables out of season and strings of gigantic onions. Also, shavings of guayos and shelled or ground peanuts. continue reading

The bananas do not have black spots and the guavas are not bruised or semi-rotten. The pork loin is fresh, as are the rams’ legs and the rabbit. Luisa, a chubby brunette with feet swollen by diabetes, who lives in a tenement on Calle 17, calls the market “the museum.”

Mi’jo, you come here to look, not to buy. This market is for millionaires. Five years ago, in Havana, a pound of unroasted peanuts cost 7 to 8 pesos. Now it costs 17 or 20 pesos and is almost never available. Here at 19th and B they always have them, at 18 pesos. I sell roasted peanuts on the street and it is not a business to buy peanuts at that price to sell them by the paper cone for a peso. That’s why you see very few people selling peanuts now. It occurred to me to make plastic bags and sell them for 5 Cuban pesos or 25 cents in chavitos (0.25 cuc). Foreigners who rent in this area pay me 0.50 cents and that’s how I get by.”

But it is not only peanuts that have doubled its price in the last five years.

“It’s all foods,” says Alberto, a retired engineer. And he offers details: “Except for sweet potatoes and yucca, to which we should build a monument, the prices of the rest of the agricultural and meat products have skyrocketed, and even at those very expensive prices you can’t find them. In 2013, a pound of pork loin was 35 pesos and now it costs 50. If you want to eat tomatoes out of season you must pay 20 pesos a pound. Two pounds of clean shrimp costs 10 CUC. And the pound of fish like hogfish, needlefish or emperorfish isn’t less than 2.50 CUC. I have my two children in the United States and each one sends me $200 per month. And all the money goes into food, maintaining the house and paying for electricity, because I have two air conditioners and the bill is around one thousand (Cuban) pesos a month.”

The official press, benevolent to the point of indolence, in its news and newspapers usually smothers Cubans with crop statistics and pork production records.

According to the regime’s media, in 2017 more than 190 thousand tons of pork were produced and by 2018, 250 thousand tons are forecast.

Eugenia, who cleans the floor in a polyclinic and earns a monthly salary equivalent to $19, packs pork liver for her children’s lunch because it is cheaper than meat, and asks: “Where is the trick? The list doesn’t line up with the cost. On television they say that the production of almost everything increases, but the truth is that prices do not stop rising. If the prices of food continue to rise, we will have to snack on the money, because in this country they sell to everybody very dearly: private individuals, state food markets and foreign currency stores. ”

Putting four plates of food on the table in Cuba is a titanic task.

Deborah, a dietitian, explains that “the quality of food leaves much to be desired. We eat too much flour and foods that provide very little nutrients. People have to eat what they have, not what they want. Dieting is very difficult, due to the high prices and because in the markets they do not sell specific foods for those who need or want to diet. That statistic that 40% of the population is overweight or obese is deceptive. Even families with fat wallets do not eat well. There are leaders who are fat because they eat a lot, not because they eat healthily. ”

Carlos, a sociologist, points out that “80% of the household budget is spent on food. Those who earn little buy the cheapest and most harmful, such as carbohydrates and fats. Those who earn more, eat more, but not always with quality. Above fruits and vegetables, meat is prioritized, especially pork, the most abundant. Fish is barely eaten. The fundamental proteins eaten by Cubans come from pork, eggs and chicken.”

Relative to the prices of ten years ago, all food has gone up between 15 and 40 percent.

“This means, says Sergio, an economist, that if we add the price increases in other products, and look at the purchasing capacity of 100 dollars in the year 2000, in 2018 it is equivalent to 55 or 60 dollars. Families that receive remittances need more money to buy the same amount of food they bought 18 years ago. That is one of the reasons, among others, why the sending of dollars from the United States increases. And to this we add that they are sending their relatives money not only to feed themselves, but also to pay for their cell phone and internet, and sending them medicines that are scarce in the Island.”

Olga, a high school math teacher, hopes that newly appointed president Miguel Diaz-Canel “does something to solve the food issue. I have seen that he is talking to people in neighborhoods and workplaces. It is good that he has gotten out of the office and is watching and listening, but so far he has not said what he is going to do to make it so Cubans live better.”

And in Cuba, people usually spend several hours scouring markets and stores in search of food. Sometimes they have the money but there isn’t any of what they are looking for. Or there is, but they do not have money or they do not have enough.

Cubans want prosperity to be something more than a slogan of the regime.

Accounts of the Aerial Disaster in Havana / Ivan Garcia

Curious onlookers near the site of the accident (Reuters, from Diario de Cuba).

Iván García,22 May 2018 — Forty-eight hours after the tragic plane crash, the area where the Boeing 727-200 went down — the airliner had been leased by Cubana de Aviación from the Mexican company Global Air — is still cordoned off with yellow ribbon as dozens of crime scene specialists and civil aeronautics experts are examining the area.

Some of the investigators wear khaki pants or fatigues and white labcoats, a sign that they are from the military. Others are dressed in civilian clothes. Access routes to the railroad tracks and field where the disaster happened are guarded by two patrol cars. continue reading

Three farm houses commandeered by investigators provide storage for possible evidence and serve as a makeshift command center. It is not difficult to find people who want to tell their version of the story.

Luis Antonio, a native of Las Tunas who has lived for five years in the village of Mulgoba, points out that he has already done three interviews: “One for Univisión, one for a Chinese news agency and one for [Spanish news agency] EFE.”

“I work at a nursery relatively close to the scene of the accident,” he says. “It was noon, so people were going to lunch. I grabbed my lunch box, which had onion omelette, white rice, pea soup and boiled sweet potato. I sat down under a tree to eat. All of a sudden I heard a loud noise. When I stopped and looked up at the sky” — he points to a field to his left — “I saw the plane passing over the trees. It was giving off black smoke and rocking from side to side like a broken toy. I lost sight of it right before it crashed. It hit the ground about two hundred meters from where I was eating. I felt a blast of heat and heard a huge roar. I started running. I thought that thing was going to explode.”

The first ones to arrive at the site were locals who live along the road that connects Boyero Avenue with the town of Calabazar as well as workers, technical school and pre-university students on their way to class, and passers-by waiting at a bus stop a stone’s throw from the domestic terminal of José Martí International Airport.

“It was a carnival atmosphere, though there was a group of people who did take it seriously and acted responsibly. Others were holding mobile phones and filming everything. It was like they were going to a party. I stayed at the bus stop because I knew from the police show on television that the scene of accident must be preserved,” says Marta, a housewife who lives near the airport and was waiting for the P12 bus to Central Havana.

On the day of the crash dozens of homemade cell phone videos were already circulating on social media and among Havana residents. Catering to a morbid curiousity befitting a serial killer, videos with raw scenes of dismembered or burned bodies were being shared on IMO and Bluetooth devices.

A young woman seated at an outdoor café on Boyeros Avenue shows a video in which a man tries to steal a wallet from a victim who was on the flight to Holguín. “He was taking advantage of the chaos. The guy was trying to steal suitcases and money. A policeman who had just arrived to help the accident victims was the one who arrested the thief,” she says while explaining the video.

The first images broadcast on national television, whose minute-by-minute coverage was unusually extensive, and others like them circulating on social media show dozens of people contaminating the crash site.

Pedro, a custodian at an auto repair shop relatively close to the crash site, observes, “The police response was slow. The people who were trying to help the ones still alive weren’t knowledgeable about first aid so they didn’t handle the wounded properly. The ones who arrived the fastest were the firefighters, who have their own base at the airport. Then two ambulances came but I don’t think the first responders were prepared for this type of accident. If they had taken the injured to Calixto García instead of National Hospital, which isn’t fully equipped, perhaps another life could have been saved.”

What is powerfully striking in the case of traffic accidents, building collapses and destruction caused by hurricanes is that there are citizens whose first response is to record the events with their cell phones rather than help the victims.

Leidis, a primary school teacher, recalls, “Two or three years ago, a young woman was hit by a train near the Café Colón in Arroyo Naranjo. Instead of helping her, many of the people gathered around her were filming. Recently, a man had a heart attack in the street and a huge crowd formed around him, not to help but to shoot photos and make videos.”

The plane crash on Friday, May 18 in Havana poses new questions about the dreadful service provided by Cubana de Aviación, which is considered one of the worst airlines in the world.

Oscar, a former pilot for Cubana de Aviación, believes, “The company should call it quits and shut down. For years Cubana has not had the necessary stockpile of spare parts. If people knew how often pilots and maintenance crew have to improvise, they would not get on those flights.”

“It’s not just a matter of modernizing the fleet. It’s about having an adequate logistical base,” he says. “Some accidents, like the one in Sancti Spiritus eight years ago and the one this time, have happened with rented planes. There is something suspicious about these rentals that I hope this investigation will shine a light on. No one knows why or how officials at Civil Aeronautics contracts with airlines that almost no one has heard of. Rumors are that money is being paid under the table.

The fact is these are companies with very limited resources and outdated airplanes. We found out through an interview with a pilot who worked for this Mexican airline that they were flying with punctured tires and defective radar. One of our pilots reported on social media that seven years ago this same company had problems on a flight to Santa Clara. He filed his report but it was as though nothing had happened.”

Cubana de Aviación has been under scrutiny for some time. One or two days before the accident involving the Boeing 737-200, First Vice-President Salvador Valdés Mesa held a working meeting with officials of the Institute of Civil Aeronautics.

Delays are routine on domestic flights. Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, a dissident activist and director of the independent media company Palenque Visión, recalls that on one occasion “the flight to Holguín was delayed by more than fourteen hours.”

Dania, who often travels by plane to the eastern provinces, notes, “When you fly on Cubana, you have to say a prayer before you take off. Those planes are scary. In addition to delays and abuse from employees, they don’t clean the planes. A few months ago, I was returning from Guántanamo on an AN-158 and had a seat near the wing. I could see through the window that some screws had come loose. I told the purser and he tried to reassure me by telling me, jokingly, not to worry, that fortunately they had extras in the plane. I hope this accident causes some heads to roll.”

The incident occured a month after Miguel Díaz-Canel became president. We will have to wait and see if the new president, in addition to focusing on the filth in Havana, focuses his attention on conditions at this erratic state-owned company, which is also in need of a thorough cleaning. Or he could just cover up Cubana de Aviación’s garbage with a blanket of silence, as has happened so far.

How Cubans Get the News / Ivan Garcia

Source: Diarios Las Américas

Iván García, 28 May 2018 — In the faded kiosk, hanging on a piece of string, is the Granma newspaper from two days ago, a  Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth) also outdated, and a Bohemian magazine for the month of April.

A thin lady with heavy-frame glasses, unties a bundle of the Communist Party organ and while counting newspapers, she runs her dry fingers across her lips. Separating a handful of copies, she puts them under a broken shelf. With an impossible slowness, she starts selling the Granma newspaper to a dozen old pensioners, who earn a few pesos by reselling newspapers in the streets of Havana.

“Every day I buy 60 or 70 newspapers at twenty cents. Each day I sell 40 to 50 Granmas at one Cuban peso. Those that I have left, I also sell them. It does not matter if they are old, because people use them to wrap the garbage, for toilet paper, or to clean their windows,”  “says Rufino, 75, a former railway employee who receives a pension equivalent to $10 a month and tries to make it to the end of the month by selling newspapers and handmade candies. continue reading

Every day, he walks an average of seven to eight kilometers selling Granma. Rufio scans the paper and then calls out a headline. “When a fat skewer (someone important) dies I sell a lot. Also when a report about corruption or the government dictates new measures. In general, those who buy the press most in Havana are people from 30 to 40 years old. Younger people pass on the newspaper. ”

When you ask Marlen, an engineer of 48, engineer, which media he prefer, he smiles before answering. “The ones I usually read the most are the three national ones (Granma, Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores), which more or less say the same thing and are quite boring, because the way of writing is not very pleasant. The Cuban press is too politicized, lacks research papers, critical articles and chronicles about the real life of Cubans. The same happens with the television news. The best program is Carta sobre la mesa, the Caribbean Channel and some things on the Havana Channel. In short: our press goes from bad to worse.”

When he is able, Marlen is informed through the Univision news or Channel 51, through the illegal cable antenna. Or on Facebook, where they sometimes disseminate materials appearing in openly anti-Castro media such as Cubanet, Diario de Cuba and Martí Noticias, among others.

Daniel, 34, with a degree in social communication, believes that “the range of information available to Cubans is permeated by the lack of rigor of political analysis, bias and lack of objectivity. It does not show all the information, only a part,” he points out and mentions two cases:

“The editorial line is crazy. During the Summit of the Americas, you read that the Cuban delegates left or protested the attendance of ’mercenaries’, but they did not put the news in context, they did not clarify what it was about. Who were the ’mercenaries’ and what did they expose? A few days ago, Granma published that they will not allow parallel Art Biennials. In passing, they mentioned the 00 Biennial, but without explaining what the Biennial was about and why it would be prohibited. It is a string of hollow words, lacking an analysis that convinces. And from time to time they sneak in fake news. ”

If information is power, then Sheila, 17, a junior in high school, has none. Sitting at the entrance of the old Secondary Education Institute of La Víbora, with a bit of pride she says “I don’t waste my time reading the Cuban newspapers. Nor books that sell in bookstores. If anything, I read a novel by Paulo Coelho brought from outside.”

She learns what is happening in Cuba and the world with evident delay. “Sometimes I know something through social networks or when my dad who lives in Miami calls. I do not think I miss anything important. The Brazilian and Colombian telenovelas, salsa music, reggaeton and fashion magazines are mine. The rest I don’t care about.”

No one believes the words of the late Fidel Castro, who claimed that the Cuban people were the most educated and with the highest political level in the world, which continues to be repeated by official propaganda.

“That statement is not true. Government officials and State Security officials are more indoctrinated than informed. The information that is offered in Cuba is extremely slanted. By not selling the foreign press, and with the high price of the Internet and the censorship of numerous digital pages critical of the regime, citizens have a very limited ability to evaluate the information they read or listen to,” underlines Carlos, 62, a sociologist.

Lídice, 37 and with a degree in history, believes “that by not being able to access a greater number and variety of sources of information and different points of view, the quality of the debate and analysis is impoverished. In the national and provincial media you do not find a single opinion piece that openly criticizes the president or the measures he takes. However, criticism of all kinds proliferates on the street. The independent or alternative press makes criticisms, but has little readership within the country. The majority of Cuban journalists who write on their own on foreign sites are not known. Very few, for example, found out that Julio Batista won the King of Spain Journalism Award. Some unofficial reports reach the population thanks to social networks, not because you can access these websites.”

This notorious information deficit means that in Cuba the right to freedom of information, opinion and expression contemplated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a business. From the rent of the illegal antenna to the purchase of magazines and newspapers that come in on planes and that airport workers clandestinely sell in foreign currency.

Emma, 51, a teacher who periodically visits the United States for family matters, recalls “that the bulletins and summaries compiled by the former United States Interests Section, today the Embassy, with news about Cuba that came from the foreign press and independent journalists, and that people obtained free when they went there for an immigration process, circulated as samizdat throughout the country. Now, with the reduction in the diplomatic staff, not only the consular officials disappeared, but also those bulletins.”

A director of radio programs believes that “the best tool to hear the news from Cuba that the official press does not broadcast, is the radio, as long as you have a short-wave device. Television is the perfect medium, which attracts more users, but is blocked by the State, except in international hotels. With the illegal antenna and the ’packet’, better information could be obtained. But those who design these programs, in order to avoid problems with the police, barely include news of a political nature. Newspapers such as The New York Times in Spanish or El País in Spain, can be read in any park with Wi-Fi, which costs a convertible peso the time of connection and Cubans prioritize communications with their relatives abroad. If you want to be well informed in Cuba, you just have to dedicate time. Or money, in the case of the internet.”

According to a brief survey of a dozen people of both sexes between the ages of 18 and 78, the online sites that citizens access most, through proxies or Facebook, are Diario de Cuba, El Nuevo Herald, Diario Las Américas, Martí Noticias, Carta desde Cuba, 14ymedio, El Estornudo and OnCuba Magazine.

Cubans often hear about the news from their relatives living abraod. “I heard about Fidel’s death from my brother who called me from Miami, because I can barely see the television here,” confesses Manuel, 45, a taxi driver.

The control of the olive green autocracy over information and state media is less severe than two decades ago. Currently, the mobile phone has become a valuable communication tool in Cuba. And Granma newspaper has been left to wrap the garbage. Or as a substitute for toilet paper.