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

Protester in Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Security Summons for Ivan Garcia / Ivan Garcia

State Security summons for Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise to keep you informed.

How Cuban State Security Intimidates Potential Informants / Iván García

“DSE” clearly identifies this car as State Security.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban Counterintelligence Plays Hardball with Journalists / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fidel Castro Fair / Iván García

By Elio Delgado, from the Havana Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliécer Ávila. Taken from Gaceta de La Habana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Regina Anavy

Is Raul Castro in Hibernation Mode? / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text reads: OFFICIAL CITATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Translated by Regina Anavy

Volunteer Blood Donors Ignore The Cuban Regime’s Business Dealings / Iván García

Mobile blood bank in Santiago de Cuba, Take from Changenewstoday.

Iván García, 6 March 2017 — A sloppy piece of cardboard painted with a crayon announces the sale of a discolored house in the neighborhood of La Vibora, 30 minutes by car south of Havana.

If Amanda, the owner, who is raving poor, manages to sell the house for the equivalent of 40,000 dollars, she intends to buy two small apartments, one for her daughter and the other for her son.

The house urgently needs substantial repairs. But Amanda’s family doesn’t have the money needed to undertake the work. Frank, 36, her son, is the custodian of a secondary school and earns a monthly salary of 365 Cuban pesos, around 17 dollars, and to help support the family, he’s a blood donor. continue reading

The Cuban regime doesn’t pay for these donations. Frank, who gives blood up to two times a month, should receive some 10 pounds of meat, a half-kilo of fish and three pounds of chicken.

“There are always delays. It’s a pain. In every municipality there’s a warehouse assigned to distribute this food to the blood donors. But it never happens. And what is worse, the government doesn’t reinstate you. For example, you never receive fish. Several of us donors sent a letter to the Ministry of Public Health complaining about the lack of supplies, but we’ve never received an answer,” complains Frank.

The material insecurity in Cuba is brutal. A growing number of families have furniture in their homes that is half a century old, or more. They lack modern appliances and must make their clothing and shoes last forever.

But the biggest problem is food, which devours between 80 and 90 percent of the average salary, which, according to official data, is the equivalent of 26 dollars a month.

Odalys, a nurse in a blood bank, says that “most volunteer donors give blood in order to take some food home. There are also people who occasionally give blood in order to receive a little snack of ham and cheese and a soft drink.”

The CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) are paramilitary organizations, created as embryos of support for special services, to collect commodities. They also conduct night patrols to expose dissidents and those suspected of “illicit enrichment,” an aberrant judicial heading applied by the Castro government to any person who improves his quality of life.

Also, the CDRs have campaigns for blood donations. A resident of Lawton, the president of a CDR, affirms that “every time there are fewer people who want to donate blood. The CDRs have become a mess. They’re only busy snitching on the dissidents. They haven’t done night duty for some time on my block, much less organized recreational activities.”

Danaisis, who’s been a doctor for three years, recognizes that “even in the large hospitals in Havana, where there are dozens of surgical interventions every day, they don’t have sufficient plasma in their blood banks. When a patient has to have an operation, family members must donate blood. Or buy it from people at 20 dollars a donation.”

Like Frank and the rest of blood donors in the 10 de Octubre municipality, the nurse, Odalys, and the doctor, Danaisis, don’t know that the State exports, annually, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of human blood derivatives.

According to María Welau, the executive director of the Cuba Archive project, in an article published June 4, 2016, in Diario de Cuba, “For decades, the Cuban State has coordinated a multimillion dollar business, based on the commerce of blood extracted from its citizens, who ignore this trafficking and don’t receive any remuneration for their donations. Already in the middle of the 1960s, reports indicate that Cuba sold blood to Vietnam and Canada. In 1995, Cuba exported blood worth 30.1 million US dollars, and this commerce represented its fifth export product, surpassed only by sugar, nickel, shellfish and cigars.”

Werlau provides figures. “These exports don’t appear in the official statistics of the Cuban Government, published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), but data from the world commerce indicate that in the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, Cuba exported 622.5 million dollars worth of human blood derivatives — which gives an average of 31 million dollars a year — under the category of Uniform Classification for International Commerce (SITC 3002), for human blood components (plasma, etc.) and medical products derived from plasma (PDMP is the acronym in English).

Cuba: Exports of human or animal blood prepared for therapeutic uses (in dollars)

In this article, the Cuba Archive Director denounces the fact that “the largest amount of these exports has been allocated to countries whose authoritarian governments are political allies of Cuba, probably to state entities that apply less strict criteria and have the same ethical standards (Iran, Russia, Vietnam, Algeria until 2003; then to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador).

“According to Cuban Government reports, 93 percent of all units of human blood collected are broken into their components, which permits a much more lucrative business than if only plasma is sold, and facilitates the production of derivatives of high value, like interferon, human albumin, immunoglobulins, clotting factors, toxins, vaccinations and other pharmaceutical products. This export commerce gives Cuba a considerable advantage over its competitors, because it saves the usual cost represented by payments to the doors, whose blood is the raw material of the business.”

Exporting plasma, whether animal or human, isn’t a crime. What’s despicable is the lack of transparency of Raúl Castro’s regime. Or that Cubans like Frank have to give blood in exchange for a handful of meat and a few pounds of chicken. Food that the State doesn’t deliver most of the time.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Cuban Regime Survives by Fear / Iván García

Black berets with dogs patrolling the center of Havana. Taken from the Red Cubana de Comunicadores Comunitarios.

Iván García, 21 March 2017 — In the slum of Lawton, south of Havana, the need for housing has converted an old collective residence with narrow passageways into a bunkhouse. With dividers made from cardboard or bricks recovered from demolished buildings, “apartments” have appeared where a dozen families reside, living on the razor’s edge.

Among the blasting Reggaeton music and illegal businesses, cane alcohol, stolen the night before from a state distillery, is sold and later used in the preparation of home-made rum; or clothing with pirated labels, bought in bulk from stalls in Colón, a stone’s throw from the Panama Canal. A while back, when cattle were slaughtered in the Lawton or Virgen del Camino slaughterhouses, you could get beef at the wholesale price.

These overpopulated townships in the capital are cradles of prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling. Lawton, like no other neighborhood in Havana, is the “model” for marginalization and crime. People live from robbing state institutions, selling junk or whatever falls from a truck. continue reading

But don’t talk to them about political reforms, ask them to endorse a dissident party or protest about the brutal beatings that the political police give a few blocks away to the Ladies in White, who every Sunday speak about political prisoners and democracy in Cuba.

Let’s call him Miguel, a guy who earns money selling marijuana, psychotropic substances or cambolo, a lethal mix of cocaine with a small dose of bicarbonate. He’s been in prison almost a third of his life. He had plans to emigrate to the United States but interrupted them after Obama’s repeal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.

Miguel has few topics of conversation. Women, sports, under-the-table businesses. His life is a fixed portrait: alcohol, sex and “flying,” with reddened eyes from smoking marijuana.

When you ask his opinion about the dissident movement and the continued repression against the Ladies in White, he coughs slightly, scratches his chin, and says: “Man, get off that channel. Those women are crazy. This government of sons of bitches that we have, you aren’t going to bring it down with marches or speeches. If they don’t grab a gun, the security forces will always kick them down. They’re brave, but it’s not going to change this shitty country.”

Most of the neighbors in the converted bunkhouse think the same way. They’re capable of jumping the fence of a State factory to rob two gallons of alcohol, but don’t talk to them about politics, human rights or freedom of expression.

Mi amor, who wants to get into trouble? The police have gone nuts with the businesses and prostitution. But when you go down the path of human rights, you’re in trouble for life,” comments Denia, a matron.

She prefers to speak about her business. From a black bag she brings out her Huawei telephone and shows several photos of half-nude girls while chanting out the price. “Look how much money. Over there, whoever wants can beat them up,” says Denia, referring to the Ladies in White.

Generally, with a few exceptions, the citizens of the Republic of Cuba have become immune or prefer to opt for amnesia when the subjects of dissidence, freedom and democracy are brought up.

“There are several reasons. Pathological fear, which certainly infuses authoritarian societies like the Cuban one. You must add to that the fact that the Government media has known very well how to sell the story of an opposition that is minimal, divided and corrupt, interested only in American dollars,” affirms Carlos, a sociologist.

Also, the dissidence is operating on an uneven playing field. It doesn’t have hours of radio or television coverage to spread its political programs. The repression has obligated hundreds of political opponents to leave the country. And State Security has infiltrated moles in almost all the dissident groups.

“The special services efficiently short-circuit the relation of the neighbors of the barrio and the people who support the dissidence. How do you overcome that abyss? By expanding bridges to the interior of the Island. I believe the opposition is more focused on political crusades toward the exterior. The other is to amplify what the majority of Cubans want to hear: There isn’t food; to buy a change of clothing costs a three months’ salary; the terrible transport service; the water shortage….There is a long list of subjects the dissidents can exploit,” says Enrique.

I perceive that around 80 percent of the population has important common ground with the local opposition. The timid economic openings and repeals of absurd regulations were always claimed by the dissidence, from greater autonomy for private work, foreign travel or being tourists in their own country.

According to some dissidents, many neighbors approach them to say hello and delve into the motives for their detentions after a brutal verbal lynching or a beating. But there aren’t enough.

Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, the leader of the Alianza Democrática Oriental (Eastern Democratic Alliance) and director of Palenque Visión (Palenque Vision), felt frustrated when street protests demanding rights for everybody were taking place, and people were only watching from the curb of a sidewalk.

“One night I was in the hospital’s emergency room, since my son had a high fever, and I initiated a protest because of the poor medical attention. Several patients were in the same situation. But no one raised their voice when the patrols arrived and the political police detained me by force. That night I realized that I had to change my method to reach ordinary Cubans. Perhaps the independent press is a more effective way,” Lobaina told me several months ago in Guantánamo.

Although independent journalists reflect that other Cuba that the autocracy pretends to ignore, their notes, reports or complaints have a limited reach because of the lack of Internet service and the precariousness of their daily lives.

For the majority of citizens, democracy, human rights and freedom of expression are not synonymous with a plate of food, but with repression. How to awaken a Cuban from indifference is a good question for a debate.

Translated by Regina Anavy

“We’ve Been Investigating Ivan Garcia for Five Years” / Iván García

Ivan Garcia (l.) and Raul Rivero (r.) in a Miami cafeteria on September 17, 2016

Iván García Quintero, Havana, 19 March 2017 — When the summons arrived for an interview with a police official, the girl’s puzzled family thought it was a mistake.

Let’s call them Kenia, Pedro, and Camila. They are neighbors of mine and prefer to remain anonymous.

Kenia was summoned to a police station on Finlay street, in the Sevillano District, near the State Security barracks known as Villa Marista.

“When I arrived, the man started harassing and threatening me, saying that I hung around with foreigners. Then he wanted to get information about Ivan García, ’a known counterrevolutionary that we’ve been investigating for five years.’ He wanted to know details about his private life, about where he got the money to repair his house. He also asked my opinion about his work as an independent journalist. At one point he described him as a ’terrorist’ and said that both he and his mother were ’conspirators.’ continue reading

“I was in a state of shock. I told him that he is a friend of mine and my family, and that if what he said is true, why didn’t he arrest him. The officer who interviewed me— young, hostile, and with a military haircut — replied that for now they had no evidence, but they were contacting people like me to collaborate with them and give them more information. I refused to be an informant,” says Kenya.

They were more direct with Pedro. “They accused me of giving confidential information to Ivan Garcia. I told them that I had been retired for four years. They threatened to open a file on me for collaborating on some of the news stories written by Ivan. At the end of the meeting, they warned me to be careful not to say anything to Ivan, because ’he might get off scot-free, but you, Pedro, old as you are, you could die in jail.’”

Without providing any evidence, they issued Camila a warning for harassing tourists and prostitution. “I didn’t sign it. But they told me that if I keep associating with Ivan I will be prosecuted for prostitution. I was accused of pimping and, together with Ivan, of controlling several prostitutes who, in return for money, offered information about their work. All that is a scandalous lie. Out of fear, I promised to delete Ivan’s phone from my contact list. ”

All three were warned that they would soon be summoned again. I told them that when they were, to let me know so I could go with them. If you want to know about me, cite me; it is despicable to intimidate innocent people.

In March 1991, four years before I began writing as an independent journalist at Cuba Press, I was detained for two weeks in a cell at Villa Marista, the headquarters of the State Security Department. They accused me of “enemy propaganda.” I was never tried, but beginning in 1991, for whatever reason, I was detained.

Then there was a period of less harassment until October 22, 2008, when at the intersection of Prado and Teniente Rey, a Colombian colleague handed me some books sent by Ernesto McCausland, a prestigious Colombian journalist, writer, and filmmaker (deceased in 2012). The Colombian and I were arrested by the police and placed in a patrol car. He was released immediately, but they took me to the station at Zanja and Lealtad and kept me in solitary confinement for 11 hours. I recounted this in State of Siege.

Two years later, August 2010, brought the first harassment by Military Counterintelligence. I was then writing for El Mundo.es/América, which published three denunciations, the first titled Citación oficial. Three years later, I would again be harassed by the secret police. On February 18, 2013, Diario Las Américas published, on its front page, “Las Américas Journalist harassed by the Cuban government.” Continuing evidence of this remains posted on the blogsite Desde La Habana.

State Security knows where to find me. They have my phone number and the address where I live. I wait for them.

 Translated by Tomás A.

Cuba: To Live As Third Class Citizens / Iván García

A Cuban market. Photo Credit: Libre Mercado

Iván García, 17 March 2017 — On a wooden shelf are displayed two bottles of liquid detergent, a dozen packs of Populares cigarettes, a packet of coffee, and, on a hastily-drawn poster, a quotation from the deceased Fidel Castro.

Past 10:30 am, the hot bodega [in this case a store where rationed items are sold] is like a steam oven. Luisa, the saleswoman, seated on a plastic chair, tries to start up a rusty residential fan. In the background can be heard the baritone voice of an announcer narrating a soap opera scene.

In the bodega’s storeroom, stacked in random heaps, are 10 or 12 bags of rice, a half-empty container of vegetable oil, and several bags of powdered milk that the State provides exclusively for children younger than 7 years of age and for individuals who possess medical documentation of having cancer or some other grave illness. continue reading

Sitting on the stoop at the store’s entrance, two dirty guys knock back mouthfuls of rum from a small jug while a stray dog, old and ragged, urinates on the door. The monotony of the surreal panorama is broken when the saleswoman hurls a piece of hose at the dog to frighten it away.

After a while, customers begin arriving, nylon bags dangling from their forearms and ration books in their hands.

To all who were born in Cuba, the regime sells 7 pounds of rice, 20 ounces of black beans, a pouch of coffee blended with peas, a half-pound of vegetable oil, and 1 pound of chicken per month–and on a daily basis one bread roll, almost always poorly made.

This subsidized market basket, if consumed in small portions at lunch or dinner, will probably last 10 or 12 days. After that, for the remainder of the month, people are on their own. Housewives and mothers who, after getting home from work, must turn on the stove should be given prizes for creativity.

To feed a family requires 90 percent of the household income. Those who make a low salary (which is the majority of the population) have no choice but to purchase average to low-quality merchandise offered by the State. Those who receive remittances from family or friends abroad in hard currency can purchase higher-quality products.

The ration book, which was implemented in March 1962, is the reason that thousands of Cubans have not died of hunger. Although what they eat remains a mystery.

Luisa the saleswoman says that “for four months now, the rice we get at the bodega is dreadful. Nobody can eat it. Not even the best cook could make it better. It sticks, forming a sludge, and it tastes like hell. And don’t even mention the beans. They’ve been taken from the state reserves, where they’ve been stored for ages. They have a terrible smell. And you could try cooking them for four or five hours and they still wouldn’t soften. This is rice and beans that pigs would not eat.”

But Diego and María, a couple of pensioners who between the two of them take in the equivalent of 25 dollars a month, cannot afford the luxury of discarding the subsidized rice.

“I mix it with the rice that’s sold at 4 Cuban pesos per pound; it’s pretty good, and this way we can eat it. If you live in Cuba you can’t be picky. You have to eat what they give you, or what you can find,” María emphasizes.

If you go around inside any state-run cafeteria, you will note that hygienic standards are nonexistent: stacks of cold-cut sandwiches, fritters or portions of fried fish on aluminum trays surrounded by a chorus of flies.

The elderly, those great losers in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms, tend to eat foods of low nutritional value and worse preparation, just to lessen their hunger.

There is a chain of state-run dining halls on the Island that serve lunch and dinner to more than a half-million people who are in extreme poverty.

One of these facilities can be found in the old bar Diana, located on the busy and dirty Calzada Diez de Octubre street. The rations cost 1 Cuban peso. According to a Social Security roster provided to the administrator, about 100 Havana residents–almost all low-income elderly people–are served there daily.

At two steel tables covered with cheap cloths, three women and four men, holding their old metal bowls, await the day’s rations. “The food isn’t worth mentioning. A bit of rice, often hard, watery beans, and a croquette or a boiled egg. Sometimes they give you a little piece of chicken,” says Eusebio, a retired railway engineer who lives by himself.

A dozen people interviewed complain more about their bad luck, about having no money and being dirt-poor, than about the bad cooking. “Yes, it’s bad, but at least in these dining rooms we can count on getting lunch and dinner,” notes Gladys, a single mother of four daughters who receives Social Security.

A staff member admits that “it’s very difficult to cook well without seasonings and condiments. Nor do we get vegetables and fruits. On top of that, the administrator and the cooks make off with the oil and the chicken when we get them.”

In Cuba, what is bad, unpleasant and incorrect goes beyond food preparation. You can find it in the dirty stands that hold vegetables and fruits, in the sale of unwrapped goods, or the adulteration of standards for making sausages and weighing them appropriately at the point of sale.

“It shows a lack of respect towards the population. Anything that you buy in Cuban pesos is of horrible quality. It’s the same for clothing, hardware items or household items. In general, what is sold to the people is shit. Look at these bags of watery yogurt,” Mildred points out while standing in line at a state store to buy whipped yogurt at 15 Cuban pesos per bag.

Even when purchases are made with convertible pesos*, it is hard in Cuba to buy items of assured quality.

But Cubans, who must eat, dress and enjoy their leisure time by paying for it with the national currency– the Cuban peso–must make do with devalued merchandise. They are third-class citizens in their own country.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos, worth about 4 cents US, and Cuban Convertible pesos, each worth 25 Cuban pesos, or about one dollar US. It has been a longstanding, but as yet unfulfilled, promise of the government to move to a single currency.

Cuba: Renting Out Medical Specialists / Iván García

Cuban doctors who deserted in Venezuela have settled in Colombia, where they have undertaken numerous protests. Some of them managed to get to the United States. Taken by Martí News

Ivan Garcia, 4 March 2017 — Twenty years later, Nivaldo (names changed), 43, an orthopedist, still remembers the hot morning when his parents said goodbye to him in the old train station in a small village in the depths of Cuba.

The economy of his native village, with narrow streets of cracked asphalt and the small of cane juice, revolved around the sugar mill and the usual thing was that grandfathers, fathers and grandsons worked in the sugar industry.

It was a sugar mill town like many others. Squat brick houses half plastered, a handful of white wood houses, guarded by five or six grungy prefabricated buildings, built after Fidel Castro’s Revolution.

The present and future of the village was to drink alcohol distilled from cane, playing baseball on scrub ground and taming some lost mare around some stinking green creek. continue reading

But Nivaldo wasn’t a cane cutter nor a worker at the mill. He graduated as a doctor on a rainy night in 1997 and after completing his social service in a mountainous area of Santiago de Cuba, specialized in orthopedics.

When he stepped in Havana for the first time, like almost all the country people, he took a photo at the base of the Capitol, and used a finger to count the number of floors in the Habana Libre Hotel or the Fosca Building.

“My dream was to be a doctor. Have a family and live according to my professional status. I’m a specialist, I have a marvelous family, but in order to maintain it I do things I’m not proud of.”

“I have been on international missions in South Africa, Pakistan and Venezuela. Not out of conviction but simply to earn money and repair and furnish my house. In Cuba it’s hard to find a doctor who hasn’t violated the Hippocratic oath, and accepted gifts or money to maintain his family. In the countries where I have worked, I’ve seen patients under the table who have paid me. In Cuba I have groups of patients who’ve given me gifts, a box of beer that costs sixty Cuban convertible pesos, according to the seriousness of their suffering.”

On the Castro brother’s island a lot of things don’t work. You can wait an hour and a half to get from one part of town to another because the chaos that is public transport.

From the time you get up in the morning the problems accumulate. There’s no water in the tank. There’s no money to buy a pair of shoes for the kids. Or you have to eat whatever there is, not what you need or desire.

Let’s not even talk about other things, also important for human beings, like freedom of expression, the right to join a party other than the communist party, or to elect the president of the Republic.

But healthcare, universal coverage, was the pride of the autocrat Fidel Castro. It worked well as long as the former USSR was sending checks worth millions and connected a pipeline of petroleum coming from the Caucasus.

Later with the fall of Soviet Communism the deficit came. Ruined hospitals, nurses looking like police agents and missing medical specialists. The Raul Castro regime tried to keep the the flagship of the Revolution afloat, but it was taking on water everywhere.

The first ones who become fed up are the doctors. If not all of them, at least a broad segment. The causes vary, but the keys are the low salaries and the lack of recognition for their work.

Migdalia, a dermatologist points out that “for six years I earned 700 Cuban pesos — about 35 dollars — and the salary was barely enough for me to buy fruits and vegetables at the market. Now I get 1,600 Cuban pesos — almost 75 dollars — and it’s not enough either. So I accept patients who give me bread and ham, or a piece of clothing, or money in cash, and I give them personalized attention.”

Joel, an allergist, wonders why, if what the international media says is true and the government gets between 7 and 8 billion dollars from the sale of medical services, “they don’t pay us salaries consistent with the inflation in the country. I was in Venezuela two years. The neighbors gave me food and gave me gifts of clothing and things. Rather than a doctor, I looked like a merchant buying stuff to sell when I came back. I got to Cuba, after three years on a mission, between business and the money I saved I had some four thousand dollars, not even enough to rebuild my house. Now I’m chasing a mission in Trinidad and Tobago or Qatar, but to get it you have to pay some official at the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) some 400 or 500 bucks for them to put you on the list. For these reasons, among others, many doctors decide to emigrate.”

If we credit the statistics, a little more than three thousand doctors have deserted in the last seven years. Venezuela is a destination that puts their lives at risk. The delirious criminality in the South American country has provoked, according to a statistic from 2010, the deaths of 67 Cuban health professionals.

The lack of high-quality specialists makes it difficult to care for patients in Cuba. Daniel has been looking for an ear specialist for six months to diagnose and treat a problem.

“They only treat you as am emergency in a hospital if you’re dying. Diseases and symptoms that require lab tests, exams with equipment such as cat scans or x-rays. can only be obtained quickly by paying with money or gifts. Preventive medicine on the island is in crisis,” Daniel affirms.

Twice a month, Marta pays 10 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to the dentist who sees her daughter. “It’s the only way to get high quality care. If you don’t pay, and try to work through the system, they don’t fix your mouth or they do it badly.”

Aida, who works for a bank, waited almost a year to get an appointment with an allergist. “Her appointment at the polyclinic was once a month. But she never went. With two little bites of ham, two soft drinks and 5 CUC I was able to get an allergist to see me. Then, if they see that you have resources, then they stretch out the attention to get more money out of you. Some doctors have become hucksters. It’s painful.”

When you go to appointments at hospitals, you see that the majority of patients are bringing gifts for the doctor. But it can be a gift in kind. Though many prefer cash.