Cuba and the United States Return to the Trenches / Iván García

Propaganda billboard reads, “Messrs. Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear!” Source: Cartas desde Cuba

Iván García, 19 June 2017 — For both countries it amounts to a remake of the Cold War, this time in version 2.0. It will take time to determine the scope of the contest or if the new diplomatic battle will involve only bluffs, idle threats and blank bullets.

With an unpredictable buffoon like Donald Trump and a conspiratorial autocrat like Raul Castro, anything could happen.

The dispute between Cuba and the United States is like an old love story, one peppered with resentments, disagreements and open admiration for the latter’s opportunities and consumerist lifestyle. continue reading

Beginning in January 1959, the dispute between Havana and Washington took on an ideological tone when a bearded Fidel Castro opted for communism right under Uncle Sam’s nose. The country allied itself with the former Soviet Union and had the political audacity to confiscate the properties of U.S. companies and to aim nuclear weapons at Miami and New York.

Successive American administrations, from Eisenhower to George Bush Jr., responded with an embargo, international isolation and subversion in an attempt to overthrow the Castro dictatorship.

Times changed but objectives remained the same. Castro’s Cuba, ruled by a totalitarian regime which does not respect human rights and represses those who think differently, is not the kind of partner with which the White House likes to do business.

But the art of politics allows for double standards. For various reasons, Persian Gulf monarchies and Asian countries such as China and Vietnam — countries which have leap-frogged over democracy like Olympic athletes and are also heavy-handed in their use of power — are allies of the United States or have been granted most favored nation status by the U.S. Congress.

To the United States, Cuba — a capricious and arrogant dictatorship inflicting harm on universally held values — is different. Washington is correct in theory but not in its solution.

Fifty-five years of diplomatic, economic and financial warfare combined with a more or less subtle form of subversion, support for dissidents, the free flow of information, private businesses and an internet free of censorship have not produced results.

The communist regime is still in place. What to do? Remain politically blind and declare war on an impoverished neighbor or to try to coexist peacefully?

Washington’s biggest problem is that there is no effective mechanism for overturning dictatorial or hostile governments by remote control. The White House repeatedly shoots itself in the foot.

The embargo is more effective as a publicity tool for the Castro regime than it is for the United States. This is because the military junta, which controls 90% of the island’s economy, can still trade with the rest of the world.

The very global nature of modern economies limits the effectiveness of a total embargo. In the case of Cuba, the embargo has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. Hard currency stores on the island sell “Made in the USA” household appliances, American cigarettes and the ubiquitous Coca Cola.

There are those who have advocated taking a hard line when it comes to the Cuban regime. In practice, their theories have not proved effective, though they would argue that Obama’s approach has not worked either.

They have a point. The nature of a dictatorship is such that it is not going to collapse when faced with a Trojan Horse. But as its leaders start to panic, doubts begin to set in among party officials as support grows among a large segment of the population. And what is most important for American interests is to win further approval from the international community for its geopolitical management.

Obama’s speech in Havana, in which he spoke of democratic values while directly addressing a group of wrinkled Caribbean strongmen, was more effective than a neutron bomb.

There are many Cubans who recognize that the root of their problems — from a disastrous economy to socialized poverty, daily shortages and a future without hope — lies in the Palace of the Revolution.

Hitting the dictatorship in its pocketbook has not worked. In Cuba, as Trump knows all too well, every business and corporation which deals in hard currency belongs to the government.

And all the money that comes into the country in the form of remittances ends up, in one form or another, in the state treasury. Sanctions only affect the people. I am convinced that, if Cuba’s autocrats lack for anything, it is more digits in their secret bank accounts.

Like other politicians and some members of Congress, Donald Trump is only looking at the Cuban landscape superficially.

The United States can spend millions to support Cuban dissidents (though 96% of the money goes to anti-Castro organizations based in Florida), launch international campaigns and impose million-dollar fines on various foreign banks to punish them for doing business with the Caribbean dictatorship, but they overlook one thing: the regime’s opponents — local figures who would presumably be leaders of any prolonged, peaceful battle for democracy on the island — are failing.

The reasons vary. They range from intense repression to the opposition’s proverbial inability to turn out even five-hundred people for a rally in a public square.

I understand the frustration of my compatriots in the diaspora. I too have suffered. I have not seen my mother, my sister or my niece in the fourteen years since the Black Spring in 2003 forced them to leave for Switzerland.

Various strategies have been tried yet the island’s autocrats still have not given up. They are not going to change of their own free will. They will retreat to the trenches, their natural habitat, where they can maneuver more easily. And they will have the perfect pretext for portraying themselves as victims.

As is already well known, the real blockade is the one the government imposes on its citizens through laws and regulations that hinder them from accumulating capital, accessing foreign sources of credit and importing goods legally.

The regime has created anachronistic obstacles to the free importation of goods from abroad by imposing absurd tariffs and restrictions.

But Cubans want a real democracy, not a caricature. We have to understand that we must find the solutions to our problems ourselves.

Cuba is a matter for Cubans, wherever they happen to reside. All that’s lacking is for we ourselves to believe it.

Cubans Feel Like Hostages to Both Castro and Trump / Iván García

Photo Montage Credit: Cubanos Por El Mundo

Ivan Garcia, 19 June 2017 — “Impotence.” This is the word that a performer in the Guiñol Theater (located in the basement of the FOCSA building in Havana’s Vedado district) uses when asked her opinion of the new Trump Doctrine regarding Cuba.

On a day of African heat, a group of eight waits to navigate the Internet in a hall administered by the state-run telecommunications monopoly ETECSA. The performer exchanges opinions with the others regarding the event of the week: the repeal by Donald Trump’s administration of Obama’s policy of détente. continue reading

On the street, for those Cubans who earn only token salaries, breakfast on coffee alone and complain constantly about the inefficiency of public services and the government’s inability to improve the quality of life, political machination is just an annoyance.

Human Rights, democracy and political liberties all sound good, but they are not understood in their full context. At least, this is what can be deduced from the opinions expressed by the people waiting in line. Some make clear that they are speaking from their personal perspective, that they watched Trump on Telesur but have yet to read the measures for themselves.

For lack of time, and the propaganda fatigue brought on by the barrage from the official press–which has caused many compatriots to decide to not keep up with news reports but instead take shelter in social-media gossip–the group waiting to go online is shooting to kill in all directions.

“Everybody talks about ’the people,’ about the ’dissidents,’ about the Cuban American congressmen over there, about the government over here, but nobody has hit on the formula for us to derive benefits from a particular policy. Obama tried, but the gerontocracy that rules us did not allow private business owners to get ahead. I feel like a hostage, to Castro and to Trump. A puppet,” the performer confesses.

One lady, a loquacious and chain-smoking housewife, asks, in a tone of disgust, “What have the people gained from Obama’s policy? Nothing.” And she explains to herself, “Those people (the government) don’t want to change. They will not give up,” she says ironically, “the honey of power. Trump is a crazy man, a clown. The guy is a pill. His speech was pure theater. It’s all cheap politicking. And in the middle of it all, we Cubans are–and will remain–screwed. Nobody can change this [regime], and nobody can take it down, either.”

A self-employed worker affirms that he does not see a solution to Cubans’ problems because “we haven’t had the balls to confront the arbitrariness of the government. To hold on and and get screwed, that’s our fate. With all his yammering, the only thing Trump will achieve is that the ’revolutionary reaffirmation’ marches will start up again, condemning ’yankee interference.’ You can already see that coming.”

At a park in Old Havana there are no optimists to be found, either. On the contrary. “Damn, brother, I thought that The One was going to put back the Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot law. The only way this shit’s going to be resolved is letting people leave Cuba. You think that over here the folks are going to sign up with the Ladies in White to get beaten up? No, man, people will mind their own business, getting by under the table and trying to scrape together a few pesos. There is no way that Cubans will take to the streets. Unless it’s to get in line at foreign consulates, or if Gente de Zona put on a free concert,” declares a young man in the Parque del Curita, waiting for the P-12 line to Santiago de las Vegas.

Almost 60 years since the protracted and sterile political arm-wrestling between the various US administrations and the Castro brothers, a broad segment of the citizenry sees itself caught in a no-man’s land–in a futile battle for which nobody, not the Cuban rulers nor the US, has asked their permission. They think also that political naiveté has always reigned supreme in the White House, given the oft-repeated intentions to export democratic values to a fraternity of autocrats with the mentality of gangsters and neighborhood troublemakers.

“It is a narrative replete with personal ambitions, pseudo-patriotic elation and cheap nationalism, which has served only to consolidate a history of sovereign and intransigent rulers who never allowed North American interference. It’s fine for a tale, but this politics of confrontation on both sides has left only one winner: the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro. The rest of us have been the losers. Those who were not in agreement with the Revolution or who wanted to emigrate were called ‘gusanos‘ [worms]. Families were split up and kept from having contact with relatives in the US. The result of all this is what we see today: a great number of Cubans who cannot tolerate those who think differently from them, many who want to emigrate, women who don’t want to have children in their homeland and, in general, a great indifference on the part of citizens towards the problems of their country,” explains a Havana sociologist.

The official reaction has been restrained. For now. A functionary with the Communist Party assures me that “the government is not going to wage a frontal campaign to discredit Trump. Yes, of course, the various institutions of the State will mobilize to demonstrate that the government has it all under control. But Trump’s speech was more noise than substance. Except for the matter of US citizens’ travel to Cuba, which undoubtedly will affect the national economy, the rest [of the Obama-era policies] remains in place, because the military-run businesses are only two hotels.

The owner of a paladar [private restaurant] in Havana believes that “if the yumas [Cuban slang for Americans] stop coming there will be effects on the private sector, because almost all of them stay in private homes, travel around the city in convertible almendrones [classic cars], and eat lunch and dinner in private paladares.”

The news was not good for Cubans who had plans to emigrate to the US. “Many dreamers thought that Trump was a cool guy and would reinstate the Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot policy. I was not expecting as much, but I thought at least that the Cuban-American congressmen would influence Trump’s allowing the exceptional granting of visas to Cubans stuck in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, and reactivating the asylum for Cuban medical workers who have deserted their missions,” said a engineer who dreams of resettling in Miami.

The perception right now among Cubans on the street is that they are back to a familiar scenario. One of trenches. Replete with anti-imperialist rhetoric and zero tolerance for liberal thought of any stripe. The scenario most favorable for the hierarchs who dress in olive green.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Cuban Republic: Buried by Official Decree / Iván García

Photo of Tomás Estrada Palma by Remezcla. During his exile in Tegucigalpa, Estrada Palma met a Honduran woman, Genoveva Guardiola, whom he married in May of 1881. The marriage produced seven children: José Manuel, Tomás, Andrés, Carlos, Maria de la Candelaria, Mariana de la Luz and Rafael.

Iván García, 24 May 2017 — May 20 of this year with mark the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Republic of Cuba. In the Throne Room of the Palace of the Captains General, a building which now serves as the City Museum, Tomás Estrada Palma — born in Bayamo in 1835, died in Santiago de Cuba in 1908 — would go down in history as the first popularly elected president of the republic.

With heat bouncing on the asphalt so intensely that even stray dogs seek shelter under covered walkways, I go out to inquire about the May 20 anniversary.

Four pre-university students in their blue uniforms have skipped class to go to Córdoba Park, a free wifi zone in the 10 de Octubre district. They want to check out their Facebook wall, chat with relatives in Miami and read the latest soccer blog from the Spanish newspaper Marca. continue reading

Though the heat is stifling, the young men do not even notice it. They are eating ice cream cones, joking, gesturing and shouting at each other. Striking up a conversation with them is easy. They are seventeen-years-old and all four of them say that they hope to go to college when they finish high school. When I ask them if they know on what date the Republic of Cuba was founded, they hesitate and look at each other, trying to come up with a correct answer.

“January 1, right?” two of them respond simultaneously.

“You guys are so dumb,” says another, mocking his cohorts. “Independence day is 10 October, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves.”

Another justifies his ignorance with the excuse that he does not like history. “That subject is a drag. You mechanically learn to answer exam questions like that, but the next day no one remembers the dates or what they commemorate.”

A man selling popcorn, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, sums it up by saying, “There are a lot of opinions on this topic. Whether it was January 1 or October 10. But I think it was 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the island.”

It seems only academicians, professors, students of history and well-informed citizens can explain the significance of May 20, 1902 in the context of national history. Most Cubans are unaware of it. Keep in mind that around 70% of the current population was born after 1959.

For people over the age of sixty-five like Giraldo — from his wheelchair he asks people walking along the side streets of the nursing home where he lives for cigarettes and money — the date brings back fond memories.

“It was the most important day of the year,” he says. “The tradition was to debut a new pair of shoes and a change of clothes. Cuban flags were hung from balconies. I would go with my parents and brothers to Puerto Avenue. In Central Park there were public concerts by the municipal band. The atmosphere was festive. But this government erased it all from popular memory. Now the dates that are celebrated are those that suit them.”

While Cubans living in Miami enthusiastically celebrate May 20, in Cuba it is a day like any other. That is how the military regime wants it.

Dictatorships have a habit of manipulating events. Just as the official narrative would have us believe that José Martí was an admirer of Marxist theories, so too does a military confrontation take on aspects of science fiction. This is what happened in 1983 in Granada. According to the Castros’ version of events, during the invasion of the country by U.S. forces, a group of Cuban workers sacrificed themselves while clutching the Grenadian flag.

For Cuba’s ruling military junta, the past is something to be erased. Economic, urban infrastructure and productivity gains achieved in the more than half century that the republic existed do not matter.

In an article published in Cubanet, independent journalist Gladys Linares recalls that in 1902, as a result of the war for independence, “agriculture, livestock and manufacturing were in a disastrous state. In a gesture of great sensitivity, Estrada Palma’s first action was to pay members of the Liberation Army and to pay off the war bonds issued by the Republic in Arms. To do this, he secured a loan from an American lender, Speyer Bank, for $35 million at 5% interest, which had already been repaid by 1943.”

For its part, EcuRed, the Cuban government’s version of wikipedia, states that “Estrada Palma was noted for being extremely thrifty during his presidency (1902-1906). In 1905 the Cuban treasury held the astonishing sum of 24,817,148 pesos and 96 centavos, of which the loan accounted for only 3.5 million pesos. The accumulation of so much money compelled Estrada Palma to invest in public works. The government allotted 300,000 pesos to be used in every province for the construction of roads and highways as well as more than 400,000 for their upkeep and repair.

The state-run press labels this period with the derogatory term “pseudo-republic” or “hamstrung republic.”

“They have done everything imaginable to obviate or destroy it. From producing television programs such as “San Nicolás del Peladero,” which ridiculed the venal politicians of the time, to minimizing the advances in material well-being achieved by various sectors of society. But when you review economic statistics from the period 1902 to 1958, you realize that, despite imperfections, there was more growth,” says a retired historian.

He adds, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The Republic of Cuba was founded on May 20, 1902. In the future, setting ideology aside, May 20 should be included in the schedule of national holidays and should be celebrated once again. Everything began on that day.”

That remains to be seen. For the moment, new (and not so new) generations are unaware of the significance of May 20.

This ignorance, a willful act of forgetting, is part of the late Fidel Castro’s strategy of building a nation from the ground up, burying its customs and values, rewriting history to suit his aims. And he succeeded.

Being Rich Is Banned in Cuba / Iván García

Source: El Universal de Colombia

Ivan Garcia, 8 June 2017 — The die is cast. At the special session of the National Assembly of People’s Power held on May 31 and June 1 at the Palace of Conventions, delegates have, as expected, approved the economic plan for 2016 to 2021 and a national plan for economic and social development for 2030.

Were it not so serious, it would seem like a sketch from the late night American comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” especially since the parliamentary debates were more farcical than rational.

Numerous “discussions” were televised. Not even Pánfilo — an elderly character created by the famous Cuban comedian Luis Silva and a man obsessed with his ration book — generates as many contradictions and absurdities. continue reading

Committees made up of so-called peoples’ representatives held debates, attempted to change one word in a paragraph, tweaked a concept and championed trivialities in order to justify two days of meetings in an air-conditioned facility where attendees were provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner along with breaks for coffee and mineral water.

Mercenaries of a different kind. No parliamentarian asked the recently reappointed economics and planning minister, Marino Murillo, to specify just how much capital one would be allowed to accumulate in Cuba. In other words, how rich could one be?

A few official reports offer some clues. The regime is already preparing a series of measures aimed at limiting or restricting the prosperity of citizens and small business owners.

Lucio, an economist, believes that, “in addition to legal restrictions, they will issue repressive rulings and adopt tax provisions to curtail wealth. Those who accumulate certain sums of money that the government considers excessive will be subject to a severe fiscal knife. In the worst cases, they will face forfeiture or criminal sanctions. I see no other way to curtail the accumulation of capital.”

There is a dreadful incongruity to the new legislative stew. While the island’s ruling military junta grants approval and legal status to private businesses, it also uses a range of prohibitions to limit their growth and to prevent them from prospering or making money.

The island’s chieftains are paralyzed by fear that the state will lose its control over society.

They are worried that, as successful mid-size businesses grow, they will move large sums of money that could exceed a million dollars and create supply chains that will benefit society.

Or that the owner of a restaurant will open two or three branches, expanding within the same city or into other provinces, and acquire a million dollars or more in funding through bank loans or other sources.

Of course, if a private businessman plays his cards right, he will do well, even earning annual profits in the six figures. That is the basis of national economic growth. As long as they respect the law and pay their taxes, bring on successful private business ventures!

But the government has a specific strategy. The only companies that may accumulate millions of dollars and enter into joint-ventures with foreign firms are state-owned enterprises. In other words, GAESA-style military-run conglomerates or others of the same ilk. It is the state playing with capitalism.

I did not hear any voices in the boring, monotone Cuban parliament asking for explanations or details about how Gaviota and Rafin’s multi-million dollar earnings would ultimately be used.*

By 2020 Gaviota will operate 50,000 hotel rooms as well as marinas, golf courses and stores. Within the next ten years the military-run conglomerate will become the largest hotel group in the Americas yet the whereabouts of its revenues are unknown.

Rafin, which according to sources is an acronym for Raúl and Fidel Investments, is an opaque corporation in a country with a planned economy that has never stated publicly what its sources of capital are.

This mysterious company bought Telecom Italia’s stake in a joint venture with the Cuban government that was intended to modernize the state-owned telecommunications monopoly ETECSA. Rafin is now the sole owner of ETECSA.

What is it doing with its multi-million dollar profits? Are parliamentary deputies not concerned that ETECSA has not created a social fund to benefit primary, secondary and pre-university schools, whose makeshift computer labs lack internet access?

Furthermore, they did not complain about the high prices ETECSA charges for its mobile phone, wifi and internet services, a subject much discussed in online discussions sponsored by official media outlets and about which readers have expressed their frustration. Or about the alarming prices for goods sold at hard currency retail stores. Or, even more scandalous, the prices of cars on display in large, well-lit showrooms.

Nor did any parliamentarians demand that state-run companies lower the prices of household appliances, televisions and smartphones at places like the Samsung store on 3rd Avenue and 70th Street in Miramar in western Havana, where a Galaxy S7 edge costs the equivalent of $1,300 and a seventy-inch 4K television goes for around $5,000.

The fact that the state is planning the lives of its citizens through 2030 seems like science fiction when no one knows how we will make it even to year’s end. The average Cuban pays no attention to parliamentary debates or to party politics.

People often look the other way. Apathy, dissimulation and indifference to national affairs pave the way for regime’s excesses.

Workers attend labor union meetings where, without giving them any thought, they approve economic proposals they do not want and do not understand. And in their neighborhoods and districts, they vote mechanically for candidates to the National Assembly who solve nothing. Cuba has become a nation of domesticated zombies.

Everyone complains quietly at home to his or her family members, neighbors and friends. But in workplaces and schools, they feign loyalty to the government, especially when it comes time to have a document approved or to vote in sterile elections. We have gotten what we deserve.

Deng Xiaoping, a diehard communist and father of China’s economic reforms, understood that making money was neither shameful nor a crime. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white. What matters is if catches mice,” he said in 1960. In Cuba’s dictatorship, the cat wears olive green battle fatigues.

*Translator’s note: Gaviota operates a chain of tourist hotels throughout the island and offers other tourism related services. According to Bloomberg, Rafin SA “operates as a diversified financial services company.” In 2011 it bought Telecom Italia’s 27% stake in the Cuban state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA for $706 million.

Where is Socialism in Cuba? / Iván García

Looking for a living in the trash

Ivan Garcia, 20 May 2107 — A downpour in May hits the corrugated metal roof hard. Water filters in through several holes into the house of Mireya, a blind, half-deaf seventy-one-year-old woman. She relies on pieces of black rubber to cover and protect her most precious possessions: an obsolete Chinese television with cathode ray tubes and a foam mattress on her bed.

“Every time it rains, it’s the same old story. Water comes in through every crevice. On a day I least expect it, the roof will collapse and bury me under it. That’s really not what I want,” says Mireya. Frustrated, she no longer remembers how many times she has asked for Social Security subsidies to pay for construction materials to repair her ramshackle shed.

“They drag their feet or they turn me down. They say my two sons should be the ones to do it. They send money but they’re not doing well either. Cuba stopped being a socialist society that gave help to those in need a long time ago. We old people are the ones who are worse off. The state does almost nothing to help the poorest people,” says the old woman. continue reading

A retired schoolteacher, Mireya receives a monthly pension of 225 pesos, the equivalent of ten dollars. It all goes to pay the light, gas and water bills and to buy a handful of vegetables at the farmer’s market.

To survive, she sells magazines and plastic bags on the street. “If I walk two blocks, my feet swell. I am being treated for it but sometimes I don’t have the money to buy the medication. And if I do manage to come up with the money, the pharmacy tells me they’re out of it, that there’s a shortage. If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” Mireya says in disgust.

Sergio, a retired metalworker, recalls that “in the early years of the revolution, if you produced good results at work, you could get a home. They would give you a week’s vacation in a house on the beach. Medical care was good. And though food was always rationed, you had a balanced diet. What we have in Cuba today is capitalism in disguise. The old slogan about socialism or death is only for poor people and fools. Those with hard currency have access higher quality products. Managers live just as well as any capitalist business owner.”

“In the Nordic countries and Switzerland, workers who earn the minimum wage and who, by those countries’ standards, are living in poverty, receive government assistance,” notes a sociologist who have been studying social welfare programs for five years. His research is based on interviews with Cubans living in developed countries. “When a Cuban retires in the United States, he receives about $740 a month in aid plus $170 dollars in food stamps, even if he has never worked in the country. Additionally, he receives free medical and psychiatric care if needed. And he can still work part-time. If he earns less than two thousand dollars, he does not have to pay income tax,” he observes.

“Cuba ceased being a socialist society long ago. Being a poor third-world country, the best it can offer is universal health care and free education, but the quality of those has deteriorated substantially. Costa Rica and Guyana, nations to which we should compare ourselves, also offer these free services but they are of better quality,” adds the sociologist.

Adalberto, a Cuban living in Washington, is currently visiting the island. Due to diabetes and the onset of Alzheimer’s he had to retire at age fifty-six. “I receive various medical benefits and, because I worked for thirty years, a monthly pension of $2,400. I don’t have a life full of luxury but have I have the essentials and can help my family in Havana. Let me tell you, real socialism is over there, in the U.S.,” he says.

The quality of life in Cuba has fallen markedly. Salaries are among the lowest in the world. The costs of food and other basic commodities are high. Allegedly socialist businesses such as the telecommunications monopoly ETECSA charge extremely high prices for internet and mobile phone service. Most Cubans cannot afford to vacation in their own country due to the high price of hotel rooms. The military controls 80% of the nation’s economy and engages in the worst form state-sponsored capitalism imaginable, taxing sales of goods by as much as 240%.

Cuban socialism can only be found in speeches by the military bourgeoisie. The Castro regime has discreetly and without fanfare abandoned the slogan “a revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble.” Instead, it now manages luxury hotels like the Kempinski Manzana, where a watch can cost four thousand dollars and a week’s stay in Varadero is the equivalent of a year and a half’s salary for the average worker.

What are the humble left with? A ration of seven pounds of rice and five pounds of sugar, twenty ounces of dried beans, one small bread roll per day and half a kilogram of chicken per month.

Health care and education are seemingly free (which is possible because salaries are so low). With any luck, one can hope for a stay at a campsite during summer vacation season. But little else.

Cuba: From Worse to Impossible (and We Haven’t Hit Bottom Yet) / Iván García

Beggar sleeping. See details of picture below.

Ivan Garcia, 3 June 2017 — In coming days when the administration of the unpredictable Donald Trump, following four months of review, announces its Cuba policy, it could be that Obama’s guidelines are retained save for touch-ups of a few items such as doing business with military enterprises that directly benefit the dictatorship.

Good news for the regime would be that the White House were to maintain the status quo.

To appease the internal dissident movement and a segment of the historic exile community that supported his election bid, Trump will demand respect for human rights, economic liberty and freedom of expression, and blah, blah, blah.

But the Castroite autocracy will counterattack with plausible and powerful arguments. continue reading

And it will point a finger at the Trump administration, which accuses his own country’s press of being his worst enemy and which makes multi-million-dollar deals with the Saudi monarchy, a government that violates innumerable human rights and reduces women to mere objects. All of which makes it not the best moral paragon to speak of freedoms.

During the Obama era–my god, how the regime misses him–Castroism did not allow small private businesses to access credit nor import products from the US.

The Cuban government’s strategy is simple. They want to do business with the powerful Norte, all comers, but with state–or military–run concerns as the sole partners.

If Trump maintains the scenario unfolded by Obama, i.e., academic, cultural, business and political exchanges between both nations, Raúl Castro will probably make his move and grant greater autonomy to small private businesses on the Island so as to placate the New York real estate mogul.

Not a few small private entrepreneurs, perhaps the most successful ones, are children or relatives of the olive-green caste, and they head up successful enterprises such as the Star Bien paladar (private restaurant), or the Fantasy discotheque.

If the panorama does not change, the regime will continue its diplomatic and academic offensive, utilizing its agents of influence in the US to continue efforts to bring down the embargo, or at least weaken it until it becomes a useless shell.

For the olive green autocracy, the plan to counteract that “damn obsession of US elites with democracy and liberties” involves conducting sterile negotiations that only buy time.

The Palace of the Revolution wants to change, but only in the style of China or Vietnam. It does not understand how those two communist countries can partner with the US while Cuba cannot. Castroite strategy is headed in that direction.

There are two subliminal messages coming from the military junta that governs the Island.

First: With an authoritarian government of social control in place, political stability is assured and there is no risk of a migratory avalanche or of the Island becoming a base of operations for Mexican drug cartels.

Second: Were there to be a change that provoked the people to take to the streets, the Island could become a failed state.

Trump, who is not known for his democratic qualities and has the discernment of an adolescent, could take the bait and do an about-face. “After all,” he might think, “if we’re partners with the monarchies in the Gulf, we continue to buy oil from the detestable Maduro government, and I want to make a deal with Putin, what difference if I play a little tongue hockey with Raúl Castro or his successor?”

But Trump is an uncontrollable reptile. And Cuba is not a center of world power, and it has a small market and laughable consumer power. Thus it could be that Trump will play the moralist and make demands that not even he himself lives up to, just to satisfy the Cuban-American political bloc in Miami.

Whatever happens, Trump has begun shooting tracer bullets. His announcement of a drastic $20 million cut in funding for dissident projects favors the Havana regime.

It is likely that this was not Trump’s intention. But remember that he is not a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is a man in his third age with the mind of a primary school student.

With all that the Island autocracy is going through–reductions in petroleum from Venezuela and a crisis that could annihilate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, leaving Cuba bereft of an important economic support; Russia supplied a shipment of fuel but is asking where will the money come from next time; and a Raúl Castro who is supposedly destined to surrender power–for the military mandarins the scene that is coming into view at the moment is the worst possible.

Don’t worry about the repression. Hard-core dissidents will never want for punches and slaps. But in a country at its breaking point, any spark can give rise to a conflagration of incalculable proportions.

Right now, the average salary in Cuba is 27 dollars per month, but to live decently requires 15 times that amount. And Havana, the capital of the Republic, has gone for a week without water.

Food prices are through the roof. Public transit has gone from bad to worse. And, as if we were living in Zurich, Samsung has opened on the west side of the city a store (more like a museum) where a 4K Smart TV goes for $4,000, and a Samsung 7 Edge costs $1,300, double its price in New York.

Havanans, mouths agape, go to gaze and take selfies with their cheap mobiles. This is the snapshot of Cuba. A mirage. And all during a stagnant economic crisis dating back 27 years which few venture to guess when it will end.

While we thought we were in bad shape, the reality is that we could be worse off. And nobody knows when we will hit bottom.

Iván García

Photo: In the entryway of the Plaza Hotel, in the heart of the capital, a beggar uses a nylon bag containing her belongings as a “pillow.” To the side is an empty cigar box collecting coins from passersby. This image is part of The Black Beggars of Havana, a photo essay by Juan Antonio Madrazo published in Cubanet.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

The Cuban Government, Complicit in Corruption and Peddling Favours / Iván García

Cuban bodega (ration store). From AvaxNews.

Iván García, 26 MAY 2017 — Ideology is no longer the most important consideration if you want to get an administrative position in Cuba’s chaotic business and commercial network. They only ask you to do two things: fake support for the autocracy and show loyalty to government business.

If you have both these qualities, they will remove any common offences from your work record. Nor is it a problem if you frequently beat your wife or drink more rum than you should.

Human qualities are no longer a priority if you want to have a job in a company management team or join the ranks of the Communist Party. continue reading

Let’s call him Armando. He has always worked in internal trade. “It’s all been run down. Starting with the beginning of the Revolution. In the food and internal trade sector, the biggest wastes of space have occupied key positions. The employment culture is asphyxiating, like being in a prison. Money, extortion, nepotism and witchcraft are more important that professional qualifications and personal qualities”.

After letting his life go down the drain, what with getting into trouble, involving knives, robberies, public disorder, Armando decided to get himself back on track when his son was born. “I spent most of my youth and adolescence in the clink. With a family to support, I have to look at things differently. I have no family in the States who could get me out of here. I had to learn how to play the system. With the help of a friend, after paying him 300 chavitos (CUC), I got a bodega [ration store] for my wife and managed to include myself in the staff as an assistant to the storekeeper”.

After a year and a half, his wife started the process of joining the party. “She knows nothing about politics, but in Cuba having a red card opens doors for you. My next goal is to ’buy’ a bodega just for me.”

According to Armando, for 400 CUC you can get a bodega with lots of customers. “The more people buy things in your store, the more options you have to make money. In six months or a year, depending on your contacts with truck drivers and people running warehouses, you can recoup your investment”.

Although the neighbourhood bodegas have seen a reduction in the distribution of goods being issued through the ration books, various storekeepers have said that, in spite of that, they are still making money.

“It’s not like thirty years ago, when we had 25 different products delivered to the bodegas. You don’t get rich, but you can support your family. You can do two things: cheat on weighing, and buy foreign made things and sell them on to owners of private businesses or direct to customers”, admits a storekeeper with forty years’ experience.

If there is a robbery in a state-owned food centre or bodega, the boss or storekeeper has to meet the loss. “A little while ago, they stole several boxes of cigars and bags of coffee. I didn’t even report it. I paid about 4 thousand pesos for the loss and coughed up nearly another 200 CUC have new bars fitted and improvements to the security of the premises”, said a storekeeper

An official dealing with these things emphasises that, “When a robbery occurs, the first suspect is the storekeeper. It’s an unwritten law of business. If you get robbed, you should pay up and shut up, because police investigations usually uncover more serious problems”.

Naturally, in high-turnover food stores and markets you pay weekly bribes to the municipal managers. The manager of a state pizzeria explains: “The amounts vary with sales level. The more you sell, the more you have to send upstairs. At weekends I send an envelope with 1,500 Cuban pesos and 40 CUC to the municipal director, as I sell in both currencies”.

This hidden support network, of mafia-like construction, at the same time as it offers excellent profit on the back of State merchandise, also generates a de facto commitment to the government.

“It’s what happens in any important government activity. Whether it’s tourism, commerce, or import-export. The money comes from embezzlement, irregular financial dealings and corrupt practices. One way or another, the present system feeds us. It all comes together, as a kind of marriage of convenience. I let you do your thing, as long as you let me do mine”, is a sociologist’s opinion.

Raúl Castro has tried to sort things out, and designated Gladys Bejerano as Controller General of the Republic. “Successes have been partial. They get rid of one focus of corruption but leave others or change the way they work. If you were to arrange a thorough clean up of the network of government-run businesses, the system would break down. Because, like the bloodsuckers, they feed off other peoples’ blood”, explains an ex-director of food services.

Essentially, what is left of socialism in Cuba is a pact. In its attempt to survive, Castroism violates Marxist principles and, in place of loyalty, accepts that Catholics, Santeria priests and masons can enter the Communist Party.

In the business sector there is a different idea. Embezzlement in return for applause. In that way, not much is being stolen – kind of.

Translated by GH

Cubans Want More Severe Laws for Criminals / Iván García

Cuban prison. Taken from the blog of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta.

Iván García, 6 May 2017 — Some people in Cuba, not just a minority, want blood. And more severe laws for criminals.

While the Catholic Church and different international institutions are advocating a crusade to eliminate the death penalty on the Island, there are people who, for many reasons, think firing squads should be reactivated.

If you ask Gisela about the subject, her eyes fill hopelessly with tears. At one time this woman, who is pushing 50, was a brilliant nurse. She formed a model family together with her spouse, an ex-official of a foreign business. They lived in a well-cared-for apartment in Reparto Sevillano, in the south of Havana. continue reading

But the night of December 14, 2010, their marriage took a dramatic turn. “They killed our only son. He was only 15. He was with some friends in El Vedado. A gang assaulted him to take his clothes. Before running away, they stabbed him twice in a lung. After his death, our life changed and got worse. I always wonder, if God exists, where he was that night,” says Gisela.

After the loss of their son, the marriage dissolved. She became a habitual alcoholic. They sold their car and later exchanged their apartment for a smaller one. The money was spent on rum and psychotropics.

Gisela divorced the father of her deceased son, and they put him in a psychiatric hospital. When you ask her opinion about the death penalty or more severe laws for certain crimes, she answers without subtlety: “Whoever kills a person ought to be executed. Look at my case. The criminal who killed my son got 20 years in prison, and for good conduct he served only six and is now back on the street. It’s not fair.”

Those who have lost a family member or friends of violent crime victims are more susceptible and hope for the return of executioners and a State that decrees death.

In Cuba, the crime rate is notably low. Although official statistics are unknown, the Island is a safe place. But gangs of juvenile delinquents and home robberies have increased.

Since 2005, the Cuban Government has had a moratorium on the death penalty. The last convict executed was called “Crazy Victor” in the world of the marginal underground, and he was a sinewy mestizo almost 6’6″ tall, with an assassin’s soul.

At the end of the ’90s, he killed an old woman inside her house in the neighborhood of La Vibora. The day of his arrest he had a shoot-out with police in the style of an American action film.

In the spring of 2004, the Council of State ratified the death penalty for Victor, which was carried out in the adjacent courtyard at the Combinado del Este, a maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital.

Fidel and Raúl Castro have not held back from pulling the trigger. From the very beginning of January 1, 1959, they used the death penalty to eliminate their recalcitrant enemies and even peaceful dissidents. A lawyer, now retired, relates:

“When an objective academic study is done, without political passion, the exact number of Cubans that the government of Fidel Castro has executed will be known. On principle, they eliminated criminals from Batista’s police and army. Several of these trials were real Roman circuses, televised to the whole country, without the proper judicial guarantees. They took advantage of the situation to deliver justice in order to liquidate the enemies of the revolution.

“In one step, the laws sanctioned the death penalty for betrayal of the country by soldiers, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. Or the execution of 19 people in an air base in Holguín in 1963, most of them war pilots. Fidel, Raúl and Che signed quite a few death penalties. The figures vary, according to the sources. Some say that 500 were executed; others, 3,000 or more.

“Dissident jurists consider these to be crimes of the State, because they were established offenses that didn’t necessarily call for capital punishment. But the Government claimed it was being persecuted by Yankee imperialism.”

In 2003, after a summary trial, three young black men, residents of Centro Havana, were executed for trying to hijack a boat to leave the country, which they weren’t able to achieve. “It was a counterproductive political error. It was an an act of Fidel Castro’s meant to set an example that cost him the condemnation of world public opinion,” said the ex-lawyer.

In the spring of that same year, among the 75 peaceful dissidents punished with long years in prison by Fidel Castro, who used only words as a weapon, the Prosecutor of the Republic requested seven death penalties. “It was something appalling. Luckily the Government didn’t carry it out. It would have been a crime in all meanings of the word,” said the old lawyer.

As in any revolutionary movement, whether in France, Russia or Cuba, violence begins with force. The death penalty always was a weapon of combat for intimidating the enemy. However, several people consulted considered that while political adversaries were sanctioned excessively or executed in a pit in the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, Cuban justice was too permissive with some blood crimes.

“Right now someone who kills a cow gets more years in prison that someone who kills a human being. I know cases where they got only four or five years in prison in spite of having killed someone. Those who slaughter beef cattle are condemned to 20 or more years of privation of liberty,” says an ex-prisoner.

There are quite a few ordinary Cubans who think that crimes like robbery in occupied homes, sexual violations and other mean-spirited acts should be considered by the State as crimes, and the killers should be executed.

“Although my religion is against the death penalty, I’m in favor of executing those who commit horrendous crimes,” confesses Mayda, who defines herself as a practicing evangelical.

Saúl, who works for himself. considers that in addition to “executing serial killers or psychopaths, they ought to punish other infractions with more years. As in the United States, where they give them life imprisonment for these same crimes. The thugs would think twice before breaking the law.”

But in the opinion of another lawyer, in the case of major crimes or by resuming the death penalty, “the State could be tempted to condition these laws and carry out a purge of the opposition. The subject of the death penalty, whether to abolish it or keep it, should be debated nationally and the citizens should decide by vote.” But Cuba isn’t Switzerland.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Autonomy of Cuban Dissidents Will Always Be Beneficial / Iván García

Photo: Diario Las Américas Dissidents attend the funeral of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas on 24 July 2012, at Colón Cemetery in Havana. (Diario Las Américas)

Iván García, 1 June 2017– The majority of the openly anti-Castro opponents I know do not live in lavish mansions nor do they possess items fashioned with the latest technology. Neither do they boast bank accounts in financial paradises and they do not own yachts or beach houses.  I don’t believe any of them know how to play golf or can afford a vacation on a Greek island.

Those luxuries are reserved for the hierarchs of the olive green regime. Those who sing The Internationale, compose speeches replete with declarations on behalf of social justice and poverty, but who wear designer-label clothing, use French perfumes and employ household servants. continue reading

The national prosecutor’s office will never open a file on the Cuban functionaries involved in the Panama Papers. No state office exists where the average Cuban citizen can learn how public monies are spent or invested. The nomenklatura lives and performs its functions with total impunity.

That leadership style of never being accountable, which has taken root inside the olive green autocracy, has in a certain way been imitated by the opposition on the Island. Most certainly, it is a harmful style.

Corruption, and its variants such as nepotism and influence peddling, has permeated a significant sector of the dissident movement. There is no transparency regarding the funding and materials they receive.

Some opponents behave with dictatorial arrogance and manage their organization as if it were a family business.

One needs money to live. And it doesn’t fall from the sky. The ideal would be that the opposition obtains money through local financing mechanisms. But Cuba under the Castros is a genuine dictatorship.

Those on the Island who declare themselves dissidents, if they work or study, are expelled from their workplaces or schools. And even were they employed, because of the financial distortions caused by the country’s dual currency system and low wages, they would be unable to sustain their organizations. Prior to 1959* political parties supported themselves with membership dues and donations from sympathizers and anonymous supporters.

To make political opposition and free journalism, to maintain offices for independent lawyers or for any civil society organization, requires funds. How to obtain them?

There are foreign private foundations that award grants to approved projects. Government institutions in first-world democratic societies also provide aid.

Is this lawful? Yes. But for the Castro regime, it is illegal and you could be prosecuted under the anachronistic Ley Mordaza [Gag Law] in force since February 1999. If the nation’s laws prohibit obtaining funds from other countries to finance political, journalistic, or other types of activities, Cuba in this case should be able to count on banking mechanisms to enable to transmission of resources.

But the opposition on the Island is illegal. The dissident movement has almost always been financed by institutions or foundations based in the US, which is not illegal in that country and is publicly reported.

I am not against receiving money from US government institutions, as long as it can be justified by by the work performed. In the case of journalism, reporting for the Voice of America, Radio Martí, the BBC, and Spain’s RNE Radio Exterior is not a crime–except in Cuba, North Korea or perhaps in China and Vietnam.

Any funding from abroad is financed by that country’s taxpayers. In the case of political or journalistic activities, the ideal would be to receive monies from journalistic foundations and citizens or enterprises.

An important part of the opposition’s economic support has come from the US State Department or other federal institutions. Those local opposition groups who believe this to be ethical and a lawful way to obtain funds should therefore be transparent in their management.

Yet 95 per cent of them do not account for those monies nor do they publish reports about them. Most of the time, the members of these groups do not know how the funds received are managed. By and large they are administered by the individual at the head of the opposition group.

They justify this secrecy with the pretext, at times well-founded, that they are keeping this information from reaching the ears of the State Security cowboys, who act like 21st Century pirates and confiscate money and goods without due process of law.

However, and this is regrettable to say, that opacity in managing collective resources is the embryo of corrupt behaviors within the Cuban opposition. Within the majority of dissident organizations, whatever they may be called, such absence of managerial accountability and transparency leads some dissidents to skim money and goods that do not belong to them, or to appropriate a portion.

These organizations, with their erratic performance, hand over on a silver platter enough information for the counterintelligence to sow division and create interpersonal conflicts inside the dissident movement.

How to stamp out these corrupt and nefarious practices, which not only defame the dissident movement, but also set a bad precedent for a future democracy? Can you imagine one of those current venal opponents tomorrow becoming a State minister or functionary? The most reasonable way to nip this phenomenon in the bud is through practicing transparency.

This could take the form of quarterly or annual reports. For example, the reporters of Periodismo de Barrio [Neighborhood Journalism], led by Elaine Díaz, keep a running budget on their web page of receipts and expenditures.

The Trump administration’s measure to drastically cut aid to the Cuban opposition, more than being harmful, signifies a new way forward that will require the development of new funding models.

Besides, this will provide greater autonomy and credibility. And it might bury once and for all that very questionable mentality of seeking solutions to Cuba’s problems through mechanisms sponsored by other governments.

The interests of the US are their interests. They are not necessarily our interests. Of course, that nation’s solidarity and also the European Union’s, is a support at the hour of denouncing the lack of political freedoms and the Cuban regime’s human rights violations.

But that’s where it ends. The money needed to carry out political projects under the harsh conditions of absurd tropical socialism should be provided by those Cubans in exile who are concerned about the future of their homeland. Money from their own pockets. Not from a foreign government. And if they believe that to enroll in a cause that is not their affair or doesn’t interest them is not a smart investment, they are within their legitimate rights to not donate even a penny.

Cuba’s problems are for Cubans, those at home and abroad, to resolve. Not for anybody else.

Our society’s modernization and the future we design for ourselves is our problem and we should resolve it with creativity, greater humility and more unity of judgment.

Perhaps the Cuban opposition will end up being grateful to Donald Trump for cutting millions in funds of which few knew the ultimate destination. Believe me, it is always better to be as independent as possible.

 

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s Note: Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces overthrew the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day, 1959.

Cuba: More Castroism but Without the Castros / Iván García

Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel. From Diario de las Américas.

Iván García, 17 May 2017 — In front of an old mansion on 17th Street in Vedado that now serves as the headquarters of the Union of Writers and Artists, there is a poster showing hundreds of men dressed in battle fatigues and lined up in military formation. A resounding verdict in two rows of black letters reads, “Cuba Post-Castro.”

The political propaganda machine is operating at full steam. On the exterior walls of schools, factories, public buildings and produce markets it is common to see “Fidel Castro’s Concept of Revolution” and the oft-repeated slogan “I am Fidel.”

Nine months and three weeks before Raúl Castro will presumably cede power, no one has any idea what protocols to follow for effecting a transfer to a new leader. continue reading

As part of her official duties Mariela Castro Espín, the dictator’s daughter, has granted a couple of interviews to the international press, reiterating that her father intends to resign from office. She claims not to know who will succeed him and said he has no intention of being further involved in politics.

Authoritarian governments control the flow of news so, to understand them, you have to read between the lines. A reader must be an empirical cryptographer, always on the lookout for a key piece data or a clue.

Although the tedious national press corps writes in Spanish, its soporific articles are so saturated with official jargon and stale rhetoric from the Cold War era that reading them is like deciphering a Chinese riddle.

In spite of being surrounded by a dense smoke screen of secrets and mysteries, it is still possible to surmise that — given the extent of his travels throughout the island and the extensive press coverage they have received — Miguel Díaz-Canel, one of the country’s two vice-presidents, is the man Raúl Castro has chosen to control the fate of a Cuba facing a new, untested version of Castroism, one without a Castro at the helm.

Tall and grey-haired, Díaz-Canel, has the look of a fading movie star. Women like him for his resemblance to Richard Gere. Those who know him say that he can be relaxed and witty. When he was the first secretary of the communist party in Villa Clara during the Special Period, he could be seen cycling through the streets of the city.

Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez was born on April 20, 1960, at his family’s farm in the village of Falcón, outside Placetas, in Villa Clara province. Aida, his mother, was a school teacher, and his father Miguel was a mechanical plant worker in Santa Clara. In 2012, the newspaper La Nueva España reported with pride that Díaz-Canel was the great-grandson of Ramón Díaz-Canel, a Spaniard from Asturias who emigrated to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century.

For many of his student years he was on scholarship, first at Campo Primero de Mayo high school and later at Campo Jesus Menéndez college preparatory school, both in Santa Clara. In 1982 he graduated with a degree in electronic engineering from Central University of Las Villas. He began his professional career as an officer in an air defense unit in the Revolutionary Armed Forces, a post he retained until April 1985. After leaving the military, he became a professor at his alma mater in Las Villas. After serving in an internationalist mission to Nicaragua in 1989, he worked as a “professional staffer” in the Union of Young Communists.

In 1994 he was elected first party secretary in Villa Clara. Nine years later he was named party leader in Holguín, a more challenging province than Villa Clara. According to local residents, his work in Holguín cannot be described as significant. That did not prevent Raúl Castro from promoting him to membership in the party politburo. At the time, Raúl stated: “He has a strong collective work ethic and high expectations of the subordinates. He leads by example through his desire to better himself every day and has demonstrated a solid ideological commitment.”

Raúl Castro is something of mentor to Diaz-Canel. In May 2009 he summoned him to Havana and appointed him Minister of Higher Education. In March 2012, he quit that post and replaced José Ramón Fernández as vice-president of the Council of Ministers in charge of education, science, culture and sport. On February 24, 2013, he was elected first vice-president of both the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, replacing José Ramón Machado Ventura, a party stalwart who gave up his position “in order to promote the new generation.”

Perhaps because he comes from a small village – the population of Falcón is only six thousand — those who know him describe him as educated and unassuming, someone who knows how to listen, though some believe he does not have enough charisma to be president of the republic. But at least in photos and videos he looks different from that coterie of rancid officials who never smile at public appearances. Unlike former high-level officials of roughly the same age such as Carlos Lage, Roberto Robaina and Felipe Pérez Roque, Díaz-Canal always stayed out of the media spotlight, preferring more intricate and discreet pathways. “He is not one of the newly rich or a makeshift candidate,” said Raul Castro in 2013.

He has two children from his previous marriage. His current wife is Lis Cuesta, a college professor whom he met while living in Holguín. A cultural affairs source in Santa Clara recalls, “He was the one who gave permission to El Mejunje nightclub to present shows featuring homosexuals and transvestites and to sponsor rock concerts He also allowed the provincial radio station to broadcast programming that was quite critical of state institutions.” In spite of such cultural support, he is a sports fan, one who is especially fond of basketball.

Díaz-Canel does not appear to be an eloquent statesman or a great orator. His speaking style is flat, as though he were exhausted. He does not engage in soaring rhetoric but neither is he given to anti-imperialist diatribes. As one official journalist noted, “he does not just regurgitate the party line like Machado Ventura.*” The journalist describes a event sponsored by the Union of Journalists at which Díaz-Canel was present. His statements gave some attendees cause for hope because “he did not repeat the usual litany about the need to improve the press. But after the applause died down, things went back to normal. The impression I have is that he is content to remain in crouching position, awaiting his turn. He is a cross between Cantinflas and Forrest Gump.”

As an official at the municipal headquarters of the communist party observes, “three or four candidates will be chosen at the plenary session of the National Assembly in December. Of those, one will be elected president.” According to this official, expectations are that the new president will govern the nation for the next five years.

“It seems like a bad joke,” notes a party member familiar with internal party dynamics. “Everyone knows the list of candidates is dictated from above and the ones who are chosen belong to Cuba’s only political party.”

Some dissidents and exiles believe that at the last minute Raul Castro will find a pretext, either a matter of national security or the crisis in Venezuela, to remain in office for another five years.

Tomás Regalado, the mayor of Miami, told the Spanish newspaper El País that he had bet money with a friend that Castro II would remain in power. A retired historian thinks otherwise: “That is not a conclusion the general shares. Raul is at the end of his rope. He is tired of power. And quite simply, if you want to undo the Gordian knot that is the embargo, you cannot have anyone with the name Castro in a governing role. I believe that Raúl will remain behind the scenes, calling the shots. On June 3 he will be eighty-six-years old and anyone that age could kick the bucket at any time.”

Among Afro-Cubans, the passing of the presidential baton does not arouse much interest. “The game plan will be the same. The communist party is the only game in town. I don’t think there will be any major changes. In terms of the economy, perhaps they will do away with the double currency and maybe there will be more cooperatives in the state service sector. But the script will not change much,” says the employee of a Havana nightclub.

One political science graduate is optimistic and hopes the presidential handover provides some surprises. “It’s a different generation so, of course, they are going to think differently. Don’t forget what happened under Gorbachev in the former USSR. Or under Balaguer, Trujillo’s vice-president, in the Dominican Republic. Both began the path towards democracy. Just as in Cuba today, people didn’t necessarily say what they meant. The gap is less than one imagines and a reformer could emerge.”

Arousing Cubans’ interest in national politics will require creativity. After almost sixty years of stasis, people move by force of inertia. Most Cubans respond to the government’s summons like automatons. And although they do not express their true feelings publicly, in private they confess to pessimism and frustration. They do not believe that a new litter of leaders is capable of building an efficient and prosperous political, economic and social system.

A large segment of the population is tired of everything and everyone. They have no faith in Castro, Díaz-Canel or anyone else who might happen to come along. Changing the current state of public opinion will require daring strategies as well as new and convincing promises. Yet all the government is offering is more Castroism. But without the Castros.

*José Ramón Machado Ventura, First Vice-President and Second Secretary of the Culban Communist Party.

Havana: Clandestine Business Deals, Poverty and Glamor / Iván García

The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski at night.

Ivan Garcia, 26 April 2017 — When night falls, it’s not advisable to walk through certain neighborhoods in Havana. Like the one from El Curita Park, on Reina and Galiano, up to the corner of Monte and Cienfuegos.

In addition to the disagreeable odor from the sewer water running through the streets, you’ll see propped-up buildings, beggars and drunks hanging out in the doorways, and poor cheap whores on the hunt for the incautious.

More than 10,000 compatriots of the eastern provinces who flee poverty reside illegally in Havana. In the case of Zenaida, a woman from Santiago, who with a bag full of cones of peanuts and chickpeas for sale ambles along toward a rickety room in a rooming house on O’Reilly Street, which she rents. continue reading

There, under the light of an incandescent bulb, she loads several pails of water and waits her turn to bathe in one of the three shared bathrooms of the tenement. After reheating her meal, she turns on the old Chinese television and hopes for the arrival of her 22-year-old son, who makes a living by pedaling 12 hours in a bicitaxi.

“This is what it’s like to live in poverty: eat badly and make a few pesos to survive in the lion’s den. Yes, because in this zone of Havana you have to be a lynx if you want to make a little money,” says Zenaida, seated in an iron chair.

In spite of everything, she doesn’t complain. “In Santiago de Cuba we were worse off. The water supply on the outskirts of the city comes every 40 days, and the money just goes. At least in the capital, although we live like animals, you can make enough money to eat and send detergent and clothing to relatives in Oriente. If I were younger, I would be hooking like some women in the building. But now I can’t do that kind of thing,” confesses Zenaida.

The old part of the city is a network of narrow alleyways with broken asphalt and deteriorated buildings where Cubans live who know their way around the streets.

Here illegalities are not hidden. Any neighbor knows who sells imported marijuana, cocaine delivered from a boat on the coast or who rents half an hour in a room in his house for convertible pesos, so that a client can have a toss in the hay with a prostitute who charges in the national money.

Just in front of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, formerly Manzana de Gómez, which is close to being inaugurated, several blue buses with large windows in Parque Central pick up more than 100 workers from India who are putting the final touches on the first five-star plus hotel in Cuba.

Seated on a marble bench in front of the Kempinski Hotel, José Alberto wonders, “Why are they paying an Indian, 500 dollars a month and Cuban workers, adding up pesos and hard currency, don’t even get 60 dollars?” And he answers himself: “These people (the Regime) don’t respect us. Havana now is the same as during the epoch of Batista. Luxury hotels are for the foreigners, surrounded by poverty, whores and guys who have to clean to earn four pesos. The worst is that there’s no end to this.”

José Alberto is a perfect wildcard. He gets money from the illegal Cuban lottery, parks cars for a home restaurant in the area and fills the cistern with water for the “retired guys in the neighborhood.”

Under the protection of night and avoiding the black-uniformed police with their German Shepherds who patrol the streets at this time, José Alberto asks for money from passing tourists. “The ones from the State (United States) are the most generous, and the Japanese, if they like you. Europeans are the most stingy.”

Old Havana has two opposite faces, distinct levels of life and many ways to earn money, outside the law or behind its back. In the areas restored by the historian Eusebio Leal, with their cobbled streets, renovated buildings, innumerable cafes, restaurants and hard currency shops, the panorama is beautiful.

Two blocks up or down, the landscape is something else. At the entrance to crowded quarters, shirtless men standing in the heat seem to be waiting for a a miracle. Around them are screaming neighbors, Reggaeton at full blast and kids playing soccer with torn tennis shoes and a deflated balloon.

On calle Chacón, a few meters from the Museum of the Revolution, where a garrison of young soldiers at the back of a patio guard the Granma yacht and other relics and trophies of the delirious guerrilla saga of Fidel Castro, there are three elegant bars where tourists calmly drink mojitos and nibble on garlic shrimp.

Nearby, a group of boys, mainly black, sitting on the sidewalk pavement, wait for the foreigners to leave the bars, restaurants or home restaurants to ask them for money, chewing gum or pens.

The revolution of the humble, so promoted by the Castro brothers, today is a slogan without meaning for the poor people of Havana.

Iván García

Note from Tania Quintero: The night photo of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, the first with five-plus stars in Cuba, was taken by Iván García. Up to this date, the hotel installations had not been officially inaugurated, but after putting in shops and luxury boutiques on the ground floor, with showcase windows on the street, every day hundreds of people go to look at and even photograph the clothing and accessories exhibited, with prices that are not within reach for the large majority of the population. Already the first incident happened when they removed the bust of the student leader, Julio Antonio Mella, which had been installed in 1965, from the central patio with access to the public.

An installation artist held a silent protest with a sign that said “Where is Mella?” Without using violence, the police took him away, put him in a vehicle and drove him home. The hotel, constructed by Kempinski, a Swiss company founded in 1897, occupies the space of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first commercial center on the Island, located on Neptuno, San Rafael, Zuleta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana.

Inaugurated in 1910, along its history the Manzana de Gómez housed law offices, commercial businesses, restaurants and cafeterias, among other facilities. The management of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is under Gaviota S.A., a Cuban tourist corporation administered by the military.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Getting Dressed in Cuba / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translated by GH

Independent Journalism Seeks to Revive Press Freedom / Iván García

Photo: MartiNoticias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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