Raul Castro Now a Retiree-in-Waiting / Iván García

Raul Castro (Prensa Latina)

Ivan Garcia, 17 July 2017 — Hunched and wearing an oversized military uniform, helped by his grandson-cum-personal-bodyguard, Raul Castro rose from the beige leather armchair at the presidential desk and with the air of an exhausted old man, and went to the dais to give the closing speech of the conclave.

He placed a folder with several pages under the microphone, adjusted his glasses and in his rough voice began reading the speech that closed the eighth legislature of the National Assembly of People’s Power, an imitation of a Western parliament, one without opposing voices.

Castro II’s speech lasted little more than thirty minutes. As he spoke, Melissa, a high school student, exercised in the living room of her home in front of the flat screen of a 32-inch television. In the courtyard, her father and three of his friends played dominoes. When asked about what he said, the girl shrugs and smiles. continue reading

“I just had the TV on without sound. I was waiting for Raul to finish to see the soap opera. I’m not interested in politics and these meetings are always the same,” says the young woman.

At that time, nine o’clock in the evening in Havana, very few had followed the words of Raul Castro. In shorts and a Miami Heat jersey, Fernando was chatting with two neighbors in the doorway of a bodega.

When they were asked for an assessment of the speech of the country’s president of the country, offered a poke face. “About the speech I an’t tell you, but about the assembly of people’s power I know that, among other things, they talked about how expensive toys are, that more than half of the agricultural harvest is lost in the fields, and that there is a deficit of more than 800 thousand houses,” responds one of the neighbors.

Of 14 people surveyed, 11 said they had not heard Raul’s speech, they did not know that according to government forecasts, the economy grew 1.1% in the first half of the year and confessed that they were not interested in the topics discussed in the sessions of Parliament.

“Dude, it is always the same old blah blah blah. These people (deputies) do not really represent the true interests of the people. They meet twice a year carrying on about the same issues and in the end they do not solve anything. You have to be crazy or smoking something to pay attention to that on television,” says Ignacio, a metalworker.

Carlos, a driver for a bus co-operative, believes that ordinary people “are tired of the same thing. You see the deputies and leaders, most fat and potbellied, who gather, study and propose measures that never improve the quality of life of the people. That is why the majority of Cubans do not follow these meetings.”

And he adds, “I myself work in a transport cooperative, which is a cooperative in name only. The members are puppets. Government institutions are in charge. The State has set up a parallel business with public transport. They give the cooperative a lot of old cars and buses, the workers must pay for the spare parts and then they exploit us like slaves. The biggest percentage of the money is pocketed by the Ministry of Transport and nobody knows where that silver goes.”

Although the economy is taking on water and there are obvious shortages in agricultural markets, foreign exchange stores and pharmacies, a considerable segment of Cubans looks with indifference on the national political landscape.

“There is chronic fatigue. Apathy consumes a good part of the population. They do not want to know anything about politics. They are tired of everything. What they want is to live as well as possible and the youngest want, if given a chance, to emigrate. That apathy favors the regime because it governs without any upsets,” says a sociologist.

During his speech, Raúl Castro hammered his strategy of doing things without any hurry, so as not to fall into errors when promulgating new measures. In a rare exercise of self-criticism, he acknowledged he himself was at fault for several erroneous decisions. He emphasized capital control of new businesses and greater control of private entrepreneurship, although he stressed that the State supports and intends to expand self-employment and service cooperatives.

The pace of the reforms is what bothers Leonel, owner of a cafe west of Havana. “Raul does not lack grub and everything he needs is assured, so he makes changes with that slowness. But on the street people want reforms to be done more quickly. Right now I have grandchildren and everything is still at a standstill.”

Of the fourteen people surveyed, they noted that Castro II did not mention the resignation of his position next year.

“With these people (the regime) you have to be careful. Before, Raúl repeated that in 2018 he was withdrawing from power. Now that he is a short timer, he did not say so. At the end you will see that for any situation, whether because of Venezuela or an alleged US threat, the man is still in office,” says Diego, who works in a pizzeria.

Seven months before the hypothetical date of abdication of the Cuban autocrat, no one can certify what will happen. Although the presumed retirement of Raúl Castro will not prevent that a military junta continues administering the Island.

The end of Castroism is not near.

 Translated by Jim

"Since 2013, 7 of every 10 Cuban dissidents have settled in the US" / Iván García

Political map of the United States taken from the Internet

Ivan Garcia, 24 July 2017 — Cuba’s incipient civil society, independent journalism and political activism on the island is starting to find the cupboard is bare.

According to a US embassy official in Havana, “Seven out of ten dissidents chose to settle in the United States after the Cuban government’s new immigration policy in January 2013.”

The diplomat clarified that, “Some stayed when attending events, workshops or university courses they’d been invited to. Others, with multiple-entry visas to the United States, simply boarded an airplane and when they arrived in the US they took advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act.” continue reading

To this slow leakage, we have to add the opposition figures who leave Cuba under the political refugee program.

The cause of the migration of dissidents is varied.

It ranges from the Cuban Special Services repression of dissidents and free journalists, constant detentions, searches and seizures of their tools of the trade, to beatings and threats of prison sentences.

And believe me, the Castro brothers’ autocracy plays rough. A law, known as the Gag Law, has been in force since February 1999, under which public dissent can results in 20 years or more of imprisonment, whether of dissidents, journalists or state officials.

The peaceful opposition, which emerged in the late 1970s and which from its beginnings has been committed to democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and a multi-party system, has been dismantled by the regime’s permanent repression, forcing many dissidents to choose exile as a way out.

It is a reasonable decision. We Cubans have no vocation for martyrdom. But this fleeing of brave people, capable of facing the powerful machinery of a totalitarian state, has been difficult to replace in the short term.

In spite of its repeated economic failures, Castroism maintains strong social control due to the absence of honest intellectuals, academics and journalists committed to the people who, from their official or individual positions, serve as counterpart to authoritarian outrages.

When Fidel Castro seized power in January 1959, a considerable percentage of the cream of society, including talented Cubans who had proven themselves capable of creating wealth, and also those who in their early days fought against Fidelism using their own violent methods, opted for the diaspora.

They decided to jump ship, leaving the bearded helmsman behind. Perhaps they thought that the Revolution would be a matter of a few months, that soon it would fail and they would return to save the mother country.

It was precisely this mass emigration that paved the way for the establishment of an almost perfect autocracy, which sealed all legal channels to other political viewpoints and allowed the government to maintain a swollen Praetorian guard. A Praetorian guard that currently holds in check the minority and weak opposition.

The Castros’ Cuba was left without a powerful national bourgeoisie, without successful entrepreneurs and without a seasoned political class, capable of confronting the president in all areas.

At the same time, State Security has been very adept at short-circuiting any bridge between the opposition and the citizenry. That is why on the Island we do not see protest marches with thousands of participants or a general strike.

Of course, the work of dissidents has also failed, particularly those who have emerged in recent years, and unlike their predecessors, are more focused on selling headlines in Florida newspapers than listening to their neighbors, showing an interest in their problems and trying to get them to increase and strengthen the membership of their groups

Right now, in Cuba, all the conditions exist for the emergence of a truly independent trade union movement or an association of private entrepreneurs that demands their rights from the rulers.

The miserable wages, the brakes on self-sufficiency, the daily hardships of families, the abandonment of old and retired people, the increase of drunks and beggars, the failure of the regime in the economy and agriculture, housing construction and the creation of quality services, are powerful reasons to replace the olive green state.

The discontent is in full bloom. Just stand in line for a few minutes, walk the streets of neighborhoods away from the tourist lights, or ride a bus or a shared or private taxi. Today, a large segment of the population openly criticizes the regime, something that did not happen three decades ago.

The vast majority of people want better lives, without so many material shortages, they want fair pensions and salaries and to be able to count on the power of the vote that allows them to dethrone inept politicians.

But there is a lack of dissident leaders capable of bringing together that mass that is now invisible, fearful and faking loyalty.

Many opponents and activists have left their country, almost all of them to the United States. And those who remain on the island do not seem to be up for the work of changing the state of things.

Some prefer to spend much of their time in meetings and conferences abroad. Others, “live on horseback” between Havana and Miami. And Cuba and the Cubans? Fine thanks.

Without Water in Havana / Iván García

Photo: Havana Times

Iván García, 10 June 2017 — The heat is terrible. Not even a light breeze in the wide entry to Carmen Street, by Plaza Roja de la Vibora, thirty minutes from Havana centre.

Reinaldo, an old chap, depressed, seated on a wall facing the water tank of the building where he lives, waits for the water to flow.  “On the Havana Channel news they said that we will have water from six in the morning on Wednesday May 31st, until six in the evening”, he says without taking his eyes off the tank.

All his neighbours passing by ask him the same question. “Rey, has the water come on yet?”.  With a weary voice, the self-appointed water guard replies: “Not yet, but I’m sure it will in a minute”. continue reading

The neighbours don’t hide their ill-humour and vent their annoyance insulting the government’s performance. “These people (the government) are pricks.  How long do us Cubans have to put up with having our lives screwed up?” A retired teacher considers that “if they had kept the water pipes maintained, there wouldn’t have been any leaks”.

The official press tries to be positive. As always. It talks about “the efforts of the Havana water workers who are working 24 hours a day to repair the leaks”.

And they blow a smoke screen. “After the repair work the water pressure across the city will be a lot better”, says a spokesman on the radio in a tenor voice. But the man in the street is sceptical.

“When the government takes something from us, that’s the cherry on the cake. They snatched a pound of rice from each of us to give to Vietnam during the war. The Vietnam war finished 42 years ago, and now the Vietnamese are sending rice to us. The government never gave us back the pound of rice. That’s how it always is, they take us by the hand and run off. I am absolutely sure that, because of the fuel shortage and the drought, they will extend it to a three day water cycle in the capital”, is the angry opinion of a man who tells us he has a friend in Havana Water.

The negative rumours fly about. Some worse than others But few of them are good news. Emilio, from Santiago, visiting Havana,  tells us: “it’s worse for us in Santiago, my friend”. In the city centre it’s every eight days and on the outskirts every thirty or forty. All we’ve been able to do is learn to wash ourselves with half a bucket of water and walk around in dirty clothes, which get washed every two weeks.

Juan Manuel, a hydraulic engineer, explains that “the water problem in Havana is pretty complicated. Instead of new pipelines they have put in 748.6 km of old tubing. The company repairs one section, but then the water pressure damages a section which has not yet been repaired. On top of that there is the fact that their workmanship is not of the highest quality. And their old fashioned technology along with years of no maintenance complicate things further. It’s a complete waste of time.

A pipework and drainage specialist considers that “the government wants to improve the water quality and the pipe network. But they did no maintenance for decades. 60% of the water distributed through the capital leaks away. That figure has now fallen to 20%. It’s a complex task which needs millions of dollars and the government hasn’t got any money”.

In the last seven years, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have between them donated about 50 million dollars.  “But it’s not enough. Don’t forget that the problem of out of date water pipes and drainage is not only in Havana. It affects the whole country. It’s obviously the government’s fault. When things were going well, they didn’t provide the necessary resources. And now, with the economic crisis, the reduced quantity of oil coming from Venezuela, and the drought, have made it more difficult to sort out the problem”, said our specialist, and he adds:

“Ideally we need to completely change our water management strategy.  Introduce renewable sustainable recycling methods for the water supply and for dirty water. Build a new aqueduct for sea water desalination and increase the existing capacity.

There are various water distributors in Havana. The main ones are  Albear Aqueduct, opened in 1893, the Conductora Sur, and El Gato. But, because of the deterioration of various sections of pipework, there are frequent fractures.

The water supply varies from one part of the city to another. In some parts they get water every day, at specific times. In most other places, on alternate days. And in different districts on the outskirts you get a three or four days’ supply.

The deficit in the precious liquid leads the Habaneros to increase their  water storage capacity by using tanks constructed without worrying about technical specifications or guaranteeing its drinking quality or ensuring they are protected against becoming breading zones for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito which spreads dengue and chikungunya.

“If you extend the water cycle in Havana, you increase the extent of stagnant water without adequate protection and increase the risk of insect-spread disease and get more rats. With less hygiene and reservoirs containing contaminated water you open the door to epidemics “, is the point made by an official of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

But the biggest worry for families like José’s, with his wife and three children, is having enough water to take a shower and run the toilet. In this heat, their mother has to wash with half a bucket of water and she cant flush the toilet”, José tell us.

Some places have it worse. Regla, a pensioner who lives in a run-down room  in a plot in Old Havana, the same as 170 thousand families in the capital, hasn’t received drinkable water in her home for years. “I pay 100 pesos to a water seller for him to fill two 55 gallon tanks which I have in my room. That lasts me a week usually. But with the water crisis, the man put up the price to 160 pesos. And I only get a coupon book for 200 pesos”.

The price charged by the water tanker trucks  has also shot up. “When there are no supply problems, a tanker charges 30 CUC. Now you have to pay 40 or 50 CUC. But you don’t get any, even for ready money,” is what the proprietor of a cafe selling local specialities tells us.

Food business owners have had to shut at certain hours because of the lack of water. “I hope they sort it out quickly, because sales have gone up 200%, as many people prefer to eat in the street so as to save water in their houses” says the self employed man.

According to the government media, water distribution will be back to normal on Thursday June 1st. But lots of Habaneros don’t believe it. ” They have lied to us so often that when they tell the truth, you always doubt it”, says Reinaldo, the guy living in La Vibora, who, from early morning on waits by the tank for the water to flow.

On June 1st precisely, the government announced an extraordinary session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament. The Cuban in the street suspects that there will be more economic stringencies and they will be obliged to tighten their belts. Again.

Translated by GH

Salaries in Cuba are a Joke / Iván García

Source: El Nuevo Herald

Ivan Garcia, 15 July 2017 — Even the street dogs, ragged and hungry, take cover under the roofs in Havana when the clock marks 1 PM.

The sun burns and humidity gives you sweat marks on your clothes. After noon the Havana’s street look like the Saharan desert. People take cover in their houses and those out walking are just desperate go into any store, cafeteria or a state bank with air conditioning to get a blessed shot of air from the refrigerated climate.

In that desolate tropical picture of a July noon in Cuba, where everyone flees from the steel heat, Antonio, along with his workers brigade, works asphalting streets in the district of Diez de Octubre. continue reading

After having two boiled eggs for lunch, along with white rice and a watery black bean soup, Antonio, places against his shoulder, as if it was a baseball bat, the heavy pneumatic hammer and starts breaking streets.

“I work twelve hours a day. Nobody likes repairing and asphalting streets. Almost all of us that work here are ex-prisioners, incurable alcoholics or mentally impaired. I make the equivalent to US $50 (approximately 1,250 Cuban pesos) a month, sometimes a little more if we meet the plan,” explains Antonio.

Even when his salary is almost double to the average in Cuba ($740 Cuban pesos), the money that Antonio makes for his hard work doesn’t cover a quarter of his basic family’s needs. “I have two kids, 12 and 14 years old, and the salary is not enough to buy them clothes and shoes, nor take them out on the weekends. It is enough just for two plates of hot food on the table every day. We don’t eat what we’d like, but rather the most economic.”

Antonio, a black and burly man, was able to get work as a doorman in a private bar. “Like many Cubans, I get into any business that gives me money. Fixing the streets is exhausting work, but I can’t stop it because it’s a steady salary. In addition, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

In other countries, the maintenance of public roads is done during the night time, among other things to help with the heat during the day. But in Cuba, the supposedly socialist Mecca with a human face, it is done with a sun from hell.

The olive green regime is a complex game of mirrors. They sell the social justice narrative, love for the people and productive successes that are only met on the television newsrooms.

If you really want to understand the authentic military power that governs Cuba, please, stop at the salary of their workers. Since Fidel Castro came into power, using military force in January 1959, a part of one’s salary, between 5% and 9%, was deducted to pay for education and universal health care.

The majority of the Cubans agree on keeping their taxes to support the health care and education. But with the passing of time, the galloping inflation, the lack of productivity of the communist system and the bloated apparatus of the state system, taxation feeds on sales of goods and workers’ salaries as if they were a sandwich.

That salary of state workers, which is 90% of the labor force in Cuba, is joke in bad taste. The minimum monthly salary is 225 Cuban pesos or approximately US$10.

With that money people pay for the lean “basic basket” that the State gives to all people born in Cuba: 7 lbs. of rice, 5 lbs. sugar, 20 ounces of beans, half a pound of vegetable oil, a pound of chicken, a pack of pasta and a small piece of daily bread of approximately 80 grams.

The described merchandise costs no more than 20 Cuban pesos (or less than US$1). But it only lasts for one week. The rest of the month, the ones that earn minimum salary, like retirees, have to do miracles to eat.

Then you have the electricity bill. It’s very expensive. A family with a television, two fans, a fridge, a rice cooker, a blender and a dozen light bulbs pays between 30-40 Cuban pesos monthly.

If you have air conditioning and more than one TV in the house, the consumption increases to 300 Cuban pesos per month. Except the high level government leaders — and no one knows exactly how much they make — the next highest paid salaries are earned by doctors or ETECSA (the only telecommunications company) engineers. A medical specialist could earn the equivalent of US$60. For an ETECSA professional, adding the hard currency bonus, it can be close to US$90.

But is that enough to support a family? Of course not. Ask Migdalia, the engineer. As an answer, the young professional shows a pile of paper full of numbers and expenses.

“I am a single mother to a son. For food for two people it costs between 1200-1300 Cuban pesos. The rest, it just evaporates in school snacks. It’s not even enough to pay the electricity, buy books or any other entertainment. My father lives in Miami, he sends me US$200 monthly and once a year pays for a week-long vacation in a hotel in Varadero. Although my salary is one of the highest paid in the country, it doesn’t let me have a quality nutritional diet. To buy clothes, go to the hair salon or go to dinner at a paladar (private restaurant) you have to make money under the table,” explains Migdalia.

In Cuba, that euphemism translates to a hard and simple aphorism: stealing from the State. “It is the only way to get to month end, fix the house that is in shambles or go to the beach with the family,” confesses Orestes, a port worker.

A national joke defines truthfully the non-existent social contract between the salaried workers and the regime: “people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us.” It’s never been said better.

Translated by: LYD

Cuba Awaits New Trump Proposals / Iván García

Outside of the US Embassy in Havana. Taken by 14ymedio.

Ivan Garcia, 14 June 2017 — What you lose last is hope. And those who have plans to immigrate to the United States maintain bulletproof optimism.

Close to a small park in Calzada street, next to Rivero’s funeral home, dozens of restless people await their appointment for the consular interview at the American Embassy located at the Havana’s Vedado district.

Ronald, a mixed-race man of almost six feet, requested a tourist visa to visit his mother in Miami. Before going to the embassy he bathed with white flowers and sounded a maraca gourd before the altar of the Virgen de la Caridad, Cuba’s Patron Saint, wishing that they would approve his trip. continue reading

Outside the diplomatic site, dozens of people await restlessly. Each one of them has a story to tell. Many have had their visas denied up to five times while some are there for the first time with the intent to get an American visa; they rely on astrology or some other witchcraft.

Daniela is one of those people. “Guys, the astral letter says that Trump instructed the embassy people to give the biggest possible number of visas,” she says to others also waiting.

Rumors grow along the line of those who read in social media — never in the serious news — that Trump, in his next speech in Miami, will reverse the reversal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.

In a park on Linea Street with Wi-Fi  internet service, next to the Camilo Cienfuegos clinic, two blocks from the United States Embassy, Yaibel comments with a group of internet users that a friend who lives in Florida told him that Trump was going to issue open visa to all Cubans.

The most ridiculous theories circulate around the city among those who dream to migrate. The facts or promises made by Trump to close the faucet of immigration mean nothing to them.

Guys like Josue holds on to anything that makes him think that his luck will change. “That’s the gossip going on. Crazy Trump will open all doors to Cubans… Dude we are the only country in Latin America that lives under a dictatorship. If they give us carte blanch three or four million people will emigrate. The Mariel Boatlift will be small in comparison. That’s the best way to end this regime. These people — the government — will be left alone here”… opines the young man.

In a perfect domino effect, some people echo the huge fantasy. “Someone told me that they were going to offer five million working visas to Cubans. The immigrants would be located in those states where they need laborers. The people would need to come back in around a year, since the Cuban Adjustment Act will be eliminated,” says Daniela, who doesn’t remember where she heard such a delirious version.

Now, let’s talk seriously. If something Donald Trump has showed, aside from being superficial and erratic, it is being a president profoundly anti-immigrant. But more than a few ordinary Cubans want to assert the contrary.

The ones who wish to immigrate are the only segment that awaits with optimism good news from Trump. The spectrum of opinion of the rest of the Cubans ranges from indifference to concern.

In the local dissidence sector, the ones who believed that Trump was going to open his wallet or go back to Obama’s strategy towards dissent, became more pessimistic after the White House announced a decrease of $20 million dollars for civil society programs.

“Those groups that obtained money thanks to the Department of State are pulling their hair out. But the ones that receive financing from the Cuban exiles are not that unprotected,” indicates a dissident who prefers to remain anonymous.

The Palace of the Revolution in Havana is probably the place where Trump’s pronouncements are awaited with the greatest impatience. The autocracy, dressed in olive green, has tried to be prudent with the magnate from New York.

Contrary to Fidel Castro’s strategy, which at the first sign of change would prepare a national show and lengthy anti-imperialist speeches, Raul’s regime has toned that down as much as possible.

In certain moments they have criticized him. However, without offensiveness and keeping the olive branch since the government is betting on continuing the dialogue with the United Estates, to lift the embargo, to receive millions of gringo tourists and to begin business with American companies.

Official analysts are waiting for Trump to act from his entrepreneur side. The autocracy is offering business on a silver plate, as long as it is with state companies.

According to a source that works with Department of Foreign trade, “The ideal would be to continue the roadmap laid out by Obama. With the situation in Venezuela and the internal economic crisis, the official wish is that relations with the United States deepen and millions in investments begins. The government will give in, as long as it doesn’t feel pressured with talk about Human Rights.

“I hope that Trump is pragmatic. If he opens fire and returns to the scenario of the past, those here will climb back into the trenches. Confrontation didn’t yield anything in 55 years. However, in only two years of Obama’s policy, aside from the panic of many internal leaders, there was a large popular acceptance,” declares the source.

In Havana’s streets Trump is not appreciated. “That guy is insane. Dense and a cretin and that’s all. If he sets things back, to me it’s all the same. The majority of ordinary Cubans don’t benefit from the agreements made on December 17. Of course, I think it was the government’s fault,” says Rey Angel, worker.

And the reestablishment of the diplomatic relations and the extension of Obama’s policy to get closer to the the island’s private workforce, caused more notice in the press than concrete changes.

The people consulted do not believe that Trump will reduce the amount of money sent in remittances by Cubans overseas, or the number of trips home by Cubans living in the United States. “If he does, it will affect many people who live off the little money and things that family living in the North (United States) can send”, says a lady waiting in line at Western Union.

The rupture of the Obama strategy will decidedly affect the military regime. And it looks like the White House will fire its rockets against the flotation line. But anything can happen. Trump is just Trump.

Translated by: LYD

How Cubans See the Crisis in Venezuela / Iván García

Leopoldo López, kisses the Venezuelan flag shortly after arriving at his home in Caracas. After serving nearly 4 years of a 13 year sentence for “arson and conspiracy” he was sent home under house arrest.

Iván García,  11 July 2017 —  After painting the facades of several buildings along 10 de Octobre street, the workers of the brigade shelter from the terrifying heat in doorways, eating lunch, having a smoke or simply chatting.

These days, in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, in the area between Red Square and the old Bus Terminal, there is a hive of workers dedicated to converting the one-time terminal into a cooperative taxi base.

The work includes asphalting the surrounding streets and a quick splash of cheap paint on the buildings along the street. continue reading

“They say that Raul Castro or Miguel Diaz-Canel is going to come to visit the Luis de La Puente Uceda Limited Access Surgical Hospital and to inaugurate the taxi base,” says a worker sweating buckets.

When they finish talking about the poor performance of the national baseball team against an independent league in Canada, a group of workers comment on the street protest that have been going on for more than a month, led by the opposition in Venezuela, and how much the economy and energy picture of Cuba could be affected.

Yander, in dark blue overalls, shrugs his shoulders and responds, “I don’t follow politics much. But I hear on the news is that place (Venezuela) is on fire. According to what I understood, the Venezuela right is burning everything in their path. They’re as likely to burn a market as they are some guy for being a chavista [supporter of Maduro’s government]. If Maduro falls off his horse, things are going to get ugly in Cuba. The oil comes from there

Opinions among the workers, students, food workers consulted about Venezuela, demonstrates a profound disinterest in political information among a wide sector of the citizenry.

Younger people are active in social networks. But they pass on political content. Like Susana, a high school student, who with her smartphone is taking a selfie which eating chicken breasts in a recently opened private care, to post later on Instagram. When asked about the Venezuela challenge, she answers at length.

“You can’t fight with a political grindstone. What are you going to resolve with that. You’re not going to change the world and you can make problems for yourself. I heard about Venezuela on [the government TV channel] Telesur, but I don’t know why they started the protests. Nor do I know why there have been so many deaths. The only thing I know is that Cuba is strongly tied to Venezuela by oil. And if the government changes, if those who come, if they are capitalists, they will stop sending us oil. So I want Maduro to remain in power,” explains Susana.

Not many on the island analyze the crisis in Venezuela in a wider context. The South American nation is trapped between the worst government management, a socialist model that doesn’t work, and the hijacking of democratic institutions.

Ordinary Cubans don’t know to what point the Castro regime is involved in the design of the the local and continentals strategies of Chavismo. Opinion in Cuba is fueled by a myopic official press and Telesur, a propagandistic television channel created with the petrodollars of Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa.

Except for specialists and people who look for information in other sources, most of the Cuban population believes that the violence originates with the opposition, classified as terrorists and fascists by the official media.

They know nothing of the fracture within chavismo itself, as in the case of Attorney General Luisa Ortega or the former Interior Minister Miguel Torres. Nor that at least 23 of the 81 who have died in more than ninety days of protests, was due the excessive use of violence by the Bolivarian National Guard.

Alexis, a private taxi driver, believes that the state press sweeps under the carpet any news that shows the brutality of the chavista regime. His concern is that “if they’re fucked, we’re fucked too. Man, then the blackouts will start, the factory closures, and eating twice a day will be a luxury. There’s no certainty about the origins of what is happening in Venezuela. I suppose the Venezuelans would like to free themselves from a system like ours. If they manage to do it then Cuba isn’t going to know what to do with itself.”

A wide segment of Cubans think that if the street protests in Venezuela end up deposing Maduro, given the domino effect, hard times will return to the Cuban economy.

“These people (the regime) have never done things well. That is why they are always passing the hat to survive or live off favors from others. We have not been able to made the earth produce. Everything we have we export. We are a leech. Thanks to the Venezuelan oil and the dollars that come from relatives in Miami, the country has not sunk into absolute misery,” points our Geraldo, an elderly retiree.

Geraldo clarifies, “It’s not out of selfishness, political blindness or love of Maduro that many Cubans are betting on the continuity of chavismo. It’s pure survival instinct.”

And the fact is that the economy has not yet hit bottom. Statistics and predictions forecast new adjustments and an economic setback if there is a change of government in Miraflores Palace.

Cuba is still not at the level of Haiti, the poorest country in Latin American, but it is headed that way. As the former USSR was, Venezuela is our lifeline.

Trafficking in Goods, a Strategy to Survive in Cuba / Iván García

Source: Diario Las Américas

Iván García, 28 June 2017 — On Havana there are illegal stores for all tastes. Pirated jeans at 20 CUC, copies of Nike shoes at 40 CUC and imitation Swiss watches at 50 CUC. People with higher purchasing power mark the difference. By catalog, they buy fashions, smartphones, LED lights, Scotch whiskey, Spanish wines.

And although the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba applies retrograde and severe laws on the importing of merchandise, rampant corruption always opens a gateway to singular private commerce. Although there are no exact figures, it is calculated that it moves twice as much money on the island as does foreign investment.

Let me present Rolando, the fictitious name of a guy who has been a ‘mule’ for three years. “My grandparents live in Miami and to supplement their pension, they became ‘mules’. They took the orders to customers’ homes, whether it was clothing, medicine, household goods or dollars. When travel abroad became flexible in 2013, I obtained a multiple-entry visa for the United States. Every year I travel seven or eight times and I bring stuff either for family use or to resell. All for a value of four to five thousand dollars.” continue reading

The complicated Customs regulations only allow Cubans to import certain goods once a year and to pay the customs fees in Cuban pesos — rather than convertible pesos, each of which is worth 25 times as much — but by means of bribes under the table the provisions of the law can be evaded.

Yolanda, an assumed name, is dedicated to bringing garments and hair products. “In Cuba, the stake fucks anyone who follows the letter of the law. This is the case for Cubans living in other countries when they send things by mail: they can only send three kilograms and if the package exceeds that weight, every additional kilogram is taxed at 20 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). A real abuse.

“What do those of us who dedicate ourselves to this business do? We have good contacts in Customs and so we can take all the stuff through. You pay the people according to what you bring. If you bring in goods valued at $10,000, for example, you have to give them $200 and a “present” which can be a flat screen TV, a home appliance, or some clothing.”

According to Yolanda, “Palmolive, Colgate, Gillette or Dove toiletries sell like hot cakes in Cuba. If you buy in the free zone of Colon, Panama, you earn a little more. In Miami, it depends on the place: in small stores and wholesale markets you get more for you money. Gillette deodorants purchased wholesale will come out at $1.50 and in Havana they will be sold at 5 CUC (roughly $5 US).

“An appliance or television is not profitable if you buy it at Best Buy, you have to buy it in Chinese stores or have a contact that sells it wholesale. The problem of the electrical appliances is that they weigh a lot, that’s why they are shipped by boat.

“With the exception of certain items that my regular customers order from me, the rest I buy to sell in quantity to the resellers. On a trip, apart from recovering expenses, I can earn up to 800 CUC. And I am a new ’mule’ in this market, the ones that spend more time, they earn three times more, because they bring more expensive items such as car parts and air conditioning equipment.”

Several ‘mules’ consulted believe that the best places to buy merchandise are Panama, Miami, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico. “Moscow is expensive for the cost of the plane ticket. But if you have the way to bring into the country large quantities of parts and components for cars and motorcycles, you earn a lot of money. Any trip leaves a percentage of profits that ranges from 30 to 100 percent,” says Rolando.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a report on the traffic of automobile parts between Moscow and Havana: “They travel 13 hours, sleep crowded in emigre apartments and ask for borrowed coats and boots to rummage and bargain in a cold weather looking for used parts of the Russian capital. But do the accounts: a Lada car of the Soviet era in good conditions sells on the Island for 14 thousand dollars.”

The current collection of Soviet-era vintage cars has made the supply of parts and components for these cars into a highly profitable business. “In Russia there are few Moskoviches, Ladas and Volgas manufactured in last century still running. With the help of Cubans residing in Moscow, full cars are bought for the equivalent of 300 or 500 dollars and scrapping them for pieces increases the values tremendously. There are also small businesses where you can packaged new parts,” explains Osiel, dedicated to the selling of car parts bought in Russia.

It may seem like an unimportant business, but a Soviet-era car, with an American chassis and parts from up to ten different nations, costs $10,000 to $20,000 in Cuba.

In the Island you find ‘mules’ specializing in the most diverse branches. “I only buy smart phones, tablets, PCs and laptops. After paying the respective bribe, in a single trip I bring in up to ten phones, five or six tablets, two PCs and four laptops. The profits can exceed 3,000 CUC. Smartphones are a gold mine. Companies buy them, then through payment they activate to unlock them and there are those who know how to ’crack’ them. In Havana, the iPhone 7 or Samsung 8 is cheaper than in Miami,” says Sergio.

At the beginning, the ‘mules’ started as a business managed by Cubans living in the United States and they moved any amount of money and stuff. The parcels are delivered personally to people in their homes.

After the olive-green state did away with the so-called White Card — the travel permit you use to have to have — that blocked Cubans from traveling freely, thousands of compatriots on the island decided to become ’mules’ and started to traffic in goods.

According to Rolando, “It has many points in its favor: you do not work for the government and do not depend their shitty wages. On each trip, you earn a ticket that makes your life more comfortable, you disconnect, meet people and travel to clean cities and well-stocked stores. And the government has not opened fire on the ‘mules’ as much as they have on the self-employed.”

In addition, they don’t pay taxes to the state for their underground business.

Cuban Government Fires Off One Lie After Another / Iván García

Almost a million Havanans have been affected by water shortages for more than a month. Taken from Diario las Americas

Ivan Garcia, 3 July 2017 — The fan stopped turning around 3:30 in the morning, when in the middle of a heat wave, a black out forced Ricardo, his wife and their two children to sleep on a mat on the balcony of their apartment in the Lawton neighborhood, a thirty minute drive from central Havana.

Several areas were left dark and lit only by candles and lanterns, dozens of neighbors complained with rude words and sharp criticisms of of the poor performance of state electricity and water companies.

The blackout lasted for seven hours. “I couldn’t iron my children’s school uniforms and they are in the midst of final exams. I sent them to school in street clothes. Nor could my husband and I go to work. When I the light came on, after ten in the morning, we lay in bed for a while. The situation is already so bad no one can stand it. It’s one problem after another. The water crisis, which is still affecting us, public transportation is the worst, food prices don’t stop rising and now this black out in the middle of this terrible heat,” says Zoraida, Ricardo’s wife. continue reading

Almost a month after a break in one of the main pipes that brings potable water to Havana, and then an intense information campaign on the part of the office press, filled with justifications and an exaggerated optimism, where radio, TV and newspapers report the hours there will be water in each neighborhood, after the repairs, completed two weeks ago, and with the promise that service would gradually return to normal in the different zones of the capital, they are still suffering the affects and the media doesn’t offer any explanations.

“Some 200,000 people are still affected and are receiving water every three days. By Thursday, June 22, it was expected to regularize the service, but some problems have arisen,” said an official of Aguas de La Habana in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populated of the capital’s districts.

The affected Havanans don’t stop complaining. “In my house, the tank that we have on the roof does not have the capacity for the water to last three days. Although we try to save it, in the bathroom, kitchen and laundry, the water that we are able to collect is spent in two days. The government comes up with one lie after another. First it was reported that the break was a matter of a week, at most two. And we’re going on for a month now. Instead of responding with so much noise to Trump’s measures, they should focus on improving the living conditions of Cubans,” complains Mario, a resident of Luyanó, a working-class neighborhood in the south of the city.

Rumors about the resurgence of the perennial economic crisis that Cubans are experiencing, spread throughout the city. “I have it on good authority, from a friend of my brother who is in the party, I know that by summer the government is going to make new cuts in companies’ fuel consumption, and they will close unproductive factories and industries  until further notice. The scarcity is noticeable. The state farm markets are empty and the shortages in the hard currency stores are obvious. It is said that in the upcoming session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, on July 14, they are going to announce new measures of cuts. Thing looks ugly,” says Miriam, housewife, at the entrance to a bodega in Cerro municipality.

Diario Las Américas could not verify those comments and rumors.

A banking official who prefers anonymity believes that the country’s financial situation is “quite delicate.” He says, “There is not enough currency liquidity. Even payments of the various debts contracted with foreign companies are not being made. Tourism, which contributes about $3 billion in revenue, devours almost 60 percent of that revenue in the purchase of inputs. Remittances are the lifeline, but with shortages in foreign exchange stores and high prices, many people are spending their convertible pesos on the black market or in the parallel trade of the ’mules’ that bring products from abroad. A large part of that money is not being returned to the state coffers, as people involved in these activities either save it or use it as an investment in their business.”

To minimize reality, the olive-green autocracy uses anti-imperialist discourse and condemnations of Donald Trump’s new policy of restrictions as a smokescreen.

“That narrative has always worked. But people on the street know that this discourse is exhausted. They can’t justify all the national wreckage and the poor performance of the public services with the economic blockade of the United States nor with the recent aggressive policy of Trump. Cubans are at their limit with everything. It is not advisable to think that Cubans will always be silent. Situations such as blackouts and cuts in the water supply make people angry and their reactions could be unpredictable,” warns a sociologist.

With finances in the red, an economic recession that threatens to turn into a crisis of incalculable consequences, and grandiose development plans that sound like science fiction to ordinary Cubans, the authorities are facing a dangerous precipice.

Six decades of selling illusions and with unfulfilled promises are already coming to an end. And it could be less than happy.

If Trump Ends Our Remittances? / Iván García

Western Union branch in Las Tunas. Photo by Alberto Méndez Castelló, taken from Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 8 July 2017 — Without too much caution, the CUPET tanker truck painted green and white begins to deposit fuel in the underground basement of a gas station located at the intersection of Calle San Miguel and Mayía Rodríguez, just in front of Villa Marista, headquarters of State Security, in the quiet Sevillano neighborhood, south of Havana.

The gas station, with four pumps, belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and all its workers, even civilians, are part of the military staff. “To start working in a military center or company, be it FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces) or MININT (Ministry of the Interior), besides investigating you in your neighborhood and demanding certain qualities, you have to be a member of the Party or the UJC (Union of Young Communists),” says one employee, who adds: continue reading

“But things have relaxed and not all those working in military companies are 100 percent revolutionary. And like most jobs in Cuba, there are those who make money stealing fuel, have family in the United States and only support the government in appearances.”

Let’s call him Miguel. He is a heavy drinker of beer and a devotee of Santeria.

“I worked at the gas station six years ago. It is true that they ask for loyalty to the system and you have to participate in the May Day marches so as not to stand out. But it is not as rigorous as three decades ago, according to the older ones, when you could not have religious beliefs or family in yuma (the USA). I do not care about politics, I’m a vacilator. I have two sons in Miami, and although I look for my shillings here, if Trump cuts off the remittances to those of us who work in military companies, Shangó will tell me what to do,” he says and laughs.

If there is something that worries many Cubans it is the issue of family remittances. When the Berlin Wall collapsed and the blank check of the former USSR was canceled, Fidel Castro’s Cuba entered a spiraling economic crisis that 28 years later it still has not been able to overcome.

Inflation roughly hits the workers and retirees with a worthless and devalued currency, barely enough to buy a few roots and fruits and to pay the bills for the telephone, water and electricity.

Although the tropical autocracy does not reveal statistics on the amount of remittances received in Cuba, experts say that the figures fluctuate between 2.5 and 3 billion dollars annually. Probably more.

Foreign exchange transactions of relatives and friends living abroad, particularly in the United States, are the fundamental support of thousands of Cuban families. It is the second national industry and there is a strong interest in managing that hard currency.

“Since the late 1970s, Fidel Castro understood the usefulness of controlling the shipments of dollars from the so-called gusanos (’worms,’ as those who left were called) to their families. When he allowed the trips of the Cuban Community to the Island, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) had already mounted an entire industry to capture those dollars.

“Look, you can not be naive. In Cuba, whenever foreign exchange comes in, the companies that manage it are military, or the Council of State, like Palco. That money is the oxygen of the regime. And they use it to buy equipment, motorcycles and cars for the G-2 officials who repress the opponents and to construct hotels, rather than to acquire medicines for children with cancer. And since there is no transparency, they can open a two or three million dollar account in a tax haven,” says an economist.

The dissection of the problem carried out by the openly anti-Castro exile and different administrations of the White House is correct. The problem is to find a formula for its application so that the stream of dollars does not reach the coffers of the regime.

“The only way for the government not to collect dollars circulating in Cuba, would be Trump completely prohibiting transfers of money. It’s the only way to fuck them. I do not think there is another. But using money as a weapon of blackmail to make people demand their rights, I find deplorable. I also have the rope around my neck. I want democratic changes, better salaries, and I have no relatives in Miami. But I do not have the balls to go out in the street and demand them,” says an engineer who works at a military construction company.

Twenty years ago, on June 27, 1997, the Internal Dissident Working Group launched La Patria es de Todos (The Nation Belongs to Everyone), a document that raised rumors within the opposition itself. Economist Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, along with the late Félix Antonio Bonne Carcassés, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez and lawyer René Gómez Manzano, tried to get those Cubans who received dollars to commit to not participate in government activities or vote in the elections, all of them voluntary.

It is true that the double standards of a large segment of Cubans upset the human rights activists. With total indifference, in the morning they can participate in an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White and in the afternoon they connect to the internet so that a family member expedites the paperwork for them to emigrant or recharges their mobile phone account.

This hypocrisy is repulsive. But these people are not repressive. Like millions of citizens on the island, they are victims of a dictatorship. In totalitarian societies, even the family estate is perverted.

In Stalin’s USSR a ’young pioneer’ was considered a here for denouncing the counterrevolutionary attitude of his parents. There was a stage in Cuba where a convinced Fidelista could not befriend a ’worm’, or have anything to do with a relative who had left the country or receive money from abroad.

I understand journalists like Omar Montenegro, of Radio Martí, who in a radio debate on the subject, said that measures such as these can at least serve to raise awareness of people who have turned faking it into a lifestyle. But beyond whether regulation could be effective in the moral order, in practice it would be a chaos for any federal agency of the United States.

And, as much frustration as those of us who aspire to a democratic Cuba may have, we can not be like them. It has rained a lot since then. The ideals of those who defend Fidel Castro’s revolution have been prostituted. Today, relatives of senior military and government officials have left for the United States. And the elite of the olive green bourgeoisie that lives on the island likes to play golf, drink Jack Daniel’s and wear name-brand clothes.

If Donald Trump applies the control of remittances to people working in GAESA or other military enterprises, it would affect more than one million workers engaged in these capitalist business of the regime, people who are as much victims of the dictatorship as the rest of the citizenship.

The colonels and generals who changed their hot uniforms for white guayaberas and the ministers and high officials, do not need to receive remittances. Without financial controls or public audits, they manage the state coffers at will. One day we will know how much they have stolen in the almost sixty years they have been governing.


Trump Provides the Perfect Stage for the Castro Regime / Iván García

Caricature of the Cuban News Agency taken from Cubahora

Ivan Garcia, 21 June 2017 — One morning, eighth grade students at a high school in La Vibora, a neighborhood in southern Havana, are waiting to take a Spanish test. After drinking a glass of water, the principal clears her throat and lashes out with the traditional anti-imperialist diatribe, denouncing the interference of “Mr. Trump and his terrorist acolytes in Miami’s Cuban mafia.”

Taken by surprise by Barack Obama’s novel approach of extending a hand to the Cuban people and reminding a stunned military gerontocracy of the virtues of democracy and respect for political differences, the regime has found a familiar dance partner in Donald Trump.

There have been numerous public events in state institutions, dozens of newspaper articles written and a timely diplomatic response in any number of platforms and international forums against Trump’s new policy towards Cuba. continue reading

It is not always true that with age comes wisdom. After almost 60 years of dealing with the Castro brothers and their dictatorship, America’s executive branch — for reasons ranging from electoral politics to, with some exceptions, a profound ignorance of Cuban society — has opted for a failed policy.

One of the Cuban exile community’s few successes was achieved by Jorge Más Canosa and his lobbying group, the Cuban American Foundation, which understood that a fundamental feature of American democracy is the need for political connections. It was one of the key reasons for the prominent role it played in shaping White House strategy for dealing with Cuba.

In the 1980s U.S. policy towards Cuba originated in Miami. By then, armed uprisings the island’s mountainous regions as well as attempts on Fidel Castro’s life had already failed.

With the powerful Israeli lobby as a model, Más Canosa launched a battle that combined diplomacy with knowledge of Washington’s political landscape to halt the Castro regime’s actions on the world stage.

And he had some successes: condemnations by human rights groups, codification of the embargo and special immigration status for Cuban exiles. And in the political arena, there is no group of immigrants to the United States with more congressmen, mayors and government officials, whether state or federal, than those from Cuba, despite the fact that they are only two and a half million of them in the country.

Most Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits agree on one thing: sooner or later we all hope to have a sovereign, democratic and fully functional country. Ideas on how to get there vary.

Some favor dialogue with the regime and a lifting of the embargo as the best option. Others prefer isolating the dictatorship, continuing the economic embargo and imposing international sanctions to force it to change or lose power. Though it was effective in ending apartheid in South Africa, in the case of Cuba the second option has not worked.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba has failed. Fifty-eight years of dictatorship by the Castros is the best evidence of this.

The United States should not feel conflicted about upholding its commitment to democracy and human rights. But using isolation as the means to achieve this goal has only provided the Castro brothers with a pretext to cast themselves as victims.

Among the few things on the island that do work are the secret police, repression and skillful diplomacy. But don’t expect production quotas to be met, more housing to be built or a government capable of creating a rational or sustainable economy.

Dissidents — those in charge of advancing democratic change in Cuba — are more lost than a drunk man on Saturn. Due to an almost scientific level of repression, their excessive self-importance and the lack of unity among different dissident groups, the opposition has not managed to build bridges to the average Cuban despite sharing many of the same beliefs.

There have been three different generations of regime opponents. Some go into exile; some explore new opportunities for creating legal platforms to express themselves among the few controlled options the armor-plated regime allows; others adjust to the way things are. The effect is to turn being a dissident into a private business.

That is the current state of the Cuban opposition, which remains divided, with no base of supporters ready to rally behind them and with some betting on a miraculous rescue by the United States.

If the regime and the dissident community are similar in any way, it is that they blame their failures on the United States or on one of its policies such as the Obama doctrine.

The military autocrats are not going to change. They will continue to repress, verbally attacking and jailing dissidents. Donald Trump, who has not come up with a strategy of his own, simply pours a little more gasoline on the fire to benefit Raúl Castro’s propaganda efforts.

In coming days there will be declarations by Cuban workers, farmers, architects and studentes “condemning the Yankee injustice.” The state’s barrage of propaganda will become even more fierce.

It is incredible that Trump’s boistrous appearance in Miami, with his pathetic gestures and expressions, arouses more interest than the decaffeinated session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, where the country’s problems are supposedly being discussed.

Meanwhile, as Trump pouts and makes promises he will not fulfill, reality prevails. In spite of all the verbal fuss, only two elements of the Obama doctrine have been reversed: trips by Americans to Cuba and doing business with military companies. Everything else remains in place.

And who benefits? Since most of the agreements remain in place, the answer is Castro’s propaganda apparatus and American interests. Neither Trump nor any other U.S. president is better able to defend our rights than we ourselves are.

The Stars and Stripes is not our flag. And the USA is not our country.

Once and for all, the compatriots living abroad and those on the island have to make clear that the solution to the problems of Cuba is an issue for all Cubans. And no one else.

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.