The Cristal River

Río Cristal, a tourist center inaugurated in 1960, is located on Avenida Rancho Boyeros, close to one of the airports in the capital, after passing the Aqueduct of Wind. It’s on the site where, in the 18th century, a slave barracks existed, and, later, a convent for nuns. Remodeled on different occasions, it still enjoys being the choice for the people of Havana, above all those who can pay with CUCs to stay there.

The entrance is still the same, wide and shady.

The swimming pool is in great demand all year.

…surrounded by a tranquility and a vegetation that is absent in the best hotels of the city.

And, for the kids, the park.

…in particular the little castle, in good-enough shape.

Inside the same installation, not only are there unattended areas, there is also the river. According to data published on Cubanet on September 22, between 2008 and 2009, five young people drowned in the Cristal River, which borders the recreation center of the same name.

Because of the deaths and accidents. the police have put up a sign prohibiting swimming in the river, but the young continue to do it. They say it’s because they don’t have other places where they can go to have fun.

Alexander, a lifeguard at the Rio Cristal swimming pool, said that on many occasions he has had to help kids who were on the point of drowning, but he did not always arrive on time.

Ana Lidia, the mother of a child who lives in the area, asserted that the river water is very contaminated. “The time my son escaped from me and went into that filth, he contracted a staph infection.”

Iván García, with text and photos by Robin Thom, of Flickr.

Translated by Regina Anavy

An alcoholic with a name

Rufino Delagado, 38 years old, in his occasional lucid moments, admits that his life has already hit rock bottom. And he looks up to the sky, impotent, as if looking for an answer to his problem with alcohol. He has not always been a dirty and rude guy. Six years ago, he used to work in the warehouse of a tobacco business, and with what he used to steal from the State and the salary he received, he could afford to keep his wife and daughters with some ease.

“I used to offer a box of tobacco for 20 CUC. There were days in which seven or eight were sold. As my wife received remittances, the money left over was used to buy me drinks.”

He started as a social drinker. And ended as a common drunk, one who sells the little that is left in order to get a drink. At the beginning he used to drink quality rum and beer. Now, Rufino drinks the alcohol of the miserable, filtered with molasses, in improvised barrels, where a liter costs 10 Cuban pesos. He cannot live without drinking. His family put him under medical treatment. But it didn’t work. Rufino always would come back to the alcohol.

When he was drunk he was a monster. He used to hit his wife and daughters. His wife got rid of him, as you throw away an old sofa, when one night in 2006 she arrived at their poor apartment and found him naked among vomit, food and cockroaches that were enjoying themselves in the mess as if they were at a party.

He never again had news about either his daughters or his wife. He lost his job. Now he roams in the surroundings of La Vibora. He eats, when he eats, from the little that people throw away in the bins. He has no friends. Only sad guys like him, that every day get together on the corner of Calle Carmen and 10th of October, opposite Plaza Roja, to drink the drink of the forgotten.

They always finish in the same way. Fighting among themselves. In the squabble they hit each other and cause a huge disturbance. Even the police are not interested. If by chance they are detained for a couple of days, they bathe and kill the hunger of their days with prison food.

In his occasional periods of lucidity, Rufino remembers that he was a guy who used to love his daughter, and he used to dress tastefully. He took baths with hot water and ate home-made food. After, he used to sit with his wife to watch the soap-opera of the moment on the telly. He never thought that his life would become hell.

When he is not drunk, the memories take him back to alcohol. Among tears and curses, with the 10 Cuban pesos that he gets selling some old item or money given as payment for a favour, he goes to the same place, to buy distilled alcohol. His existence is a vicious circle. And what is left is for going to church and imploring the Virgin to let death take him away, soon. With just one wish to be granted, that, before dying, he will be allowed to see his wife and two daughters.

Iván Garcia

Translated by: Tanya May and Regina Anavy

If the comandante danced to rock…

If the Cuban generals had liked rock, things in Cuba might have been different. Perhaps the soldiers would not have gone out in their vulgar Russian jeeps, scissors in hand, cutting the hair of those devoted to this type of music. And they would not have had to arrest thousands of young people whose only crime was to be a fan of the songs of the Beatles, the mythical quartet from Liverpool, and send them to those concentration camps that were called the Military Units of Support for Production, more commonly known by their acronym, UMAP.

If Fidel Castro and his military court had frequently hummed “Yesterday,” or some other ballad by Led Zeppelin, and at their ranches, between beers and select rums, while they filled their mouths with shrimp and masses of fried pork, the weekends had been spent with the Rolling Stones or some other rock band of the epoch, perhaps Cuba would not have known the Gray Period in the ’70s.

Later, everything was pure cynicism. The Cuban leaders always hated rock, Western influence, books of foreign authors and the consumer market. They thought that the flock of sheep that is the Cuban people ought to be immunized against the “brutal and decadent capitalist society.”

Therefore, zero short-wave broadcasts, music, styles and foreign pleasures. They wanted those long-hair types and druggies who composed strange songs to remain very far away from the proletarian and internationalist archipelago.

When the air from the East began to blow, indicators that the “brothers in the socialist camp” were tired of collective societies, repression and unanimous thought, then the comandante and his generals decided to paint over some things.

They named a minister of culture with long hair, who perhaps in his youth had listened to prohibited music. But as soon as he entered into the martial discipline of the Communist Party, he had to trade his tastes and sing loud and clear the marches and hymns that Fidel Castro liked.

The summit of impudence was to erect a statue to John Lennon in a park in Vedado, in Havana.

lenon.jpg

And very serious and with remorseful faces, celebrate in Havana the 8th of December, the day Lennon was assassinated in New York. One of so many ways to insult peoples’ intelligence. Because when the ex-Beatle was alive, in order to listen to him, you had to be a prisoner in Cuba.

Also, they are now paying homage to the playwright Virgilio Piñera and the writer José Lezama Lima. If the comandantes and generals have demonstrated something on the island, it’s that they know how to take advantage of the figures of culture, above all after they’re dead. Although I do have one doubt.

If in the hypothetical case that the Castro dynasty lasts 100 years. would they raise statues to the poet Raúl Rivero, the blogger Yoani Sánchez or the opposition figure Oscar Elías Biscet? From a regime as surrealistic as this one, anything can be expected.

Perhaps, if the commandante and his generals had danced to rock, none of this would have happened. And our country would be enjoying democracy. It’s symptomatic, in societies that are not closed, that the leaders enjoy rock music. In Cuba it could not be different.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina

Carrots and Sticks

I would like to understand certain radical leaders of our America.  I share many of the social political views of the left and I have my doubts about a liberal economy.  Above all, when it is poorly applied by the leaders of the continent.

For almost two centuries there have been enough Latin American presidents who mostly ran their countries like they were their own country estates. Many see the government as a way to write their own ticket and loot the public treasury.

It’s the same from the left and the right.  Look at Carlos Menem or Hugo Chávez.  Without considering their inveterate habit of becoming plotters and dictators. We blame our ills on the United States. It is the easiest. True, the colossus of the north, which emerged as a nation around 1775-76, more than a few times has referred to the region as its natural backyard.

We don’t have U.S. type leaders for the simple reason that Latin American governments tend to nepotism and warlordism. The Yankees, with their gift for business, realized they could impose their views on the continent throughout the centuries with a couple of dollars and a few threats.

In the deal between two people or countries one invariably tries to set itself above the other. It is the animal tendency of the human being. This has happened because the brilliant military leaders such as Bolívar, Sucre, Paez, and San Martín who brought about independence were not succeeded by statesmen of their stature.

In the United States, no.  The leaders of their revolution were equal to or less than their counterparts on the continent. It is at the time of governance that the country of the stars and bars surpasses the countries of the region.  In Latin America there has not been a Washington, Lincoln or a Roosevelt.  The majority of our statesman are more worried about leaving rich from their time in office, and in creating an opaque framework, than in governing well.

Sad to say, but that’s the case.  Now in the 21st century, we look with favorable eyes on presidents like the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, or the Brazilian Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, two who are philosophically socialist but realistic about the world around them.

And in 2009 a guy like Barack Obama came to the United States, a black man who exceeds the leaders of the continent in clear ideas, empathy, and good sense.  I watch with concern as radical statesmen like Evo Morales or Hugo Chávez who, at the first sign of change, add to the hackneyed speeches accusing him of “Yankee Imperialism.”

If they were to govern democratically, respecting differences without polarizing the logical contradictions of opinion that usually exist in any nation and do not always look askance at what the U.S. president does and says, this would be the first big step forward for the region.

In the Summit of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), held in late August in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, leftist radicals engaged in a bitter debate over the establishment seven U.S. military bases in Colombia.

They may be right. I do not think it’s time for military bases. But I’ve never heard of Morales, Correa and company criticizing the joint military exercises conducted this year by Venezuela and Russia. Nor did they criticize Chavez’s huge purchases of Russian weapons, nor do they criticize their complicity with autocratic governments like Iran.

I believe in social ideas. I consider myself a kind of leftist. I’m tired of seeing populist rulers, made hoarse by protesting U.S. policies and yet being silent when it applies to measures affecting the people or the sovereignty of other nations under a leftist president or a dictator like Fidel Castro.

I’ve never heard Chavez or Morales demand that the Castro brothers allow other political parties, free press or elections. Nor do they recall that in the Fall of 1962, Cuba had nuclear missiles and Russian military bases.

It’s true. It is pragmatic and convenient to portray the USA as allied with the worst guys on our continent. But the blame for most Latino leaders has been scant, we can not always say everything is the fault of the gringos. Yes, it is also true: at times they use the carrot and stick approach.

But we must recognize that during its more than two centuries of existence, the U.S. government has enabled its people to live better. Latin American radicals make splendid speeches, talking about bright futures and social theories. But in practice it has not worked. If you doubt this, look to Cuba.

Iván García

Translated by Karen

A Drama in Two Acts

teatro1.jpg

The First Act: The Executioner’s Weeping (1999)

For a long time, Jorge Gonzalez, 47, suffered the same nightmares. A discharge from a rifleman on a misty and starless night. Then, he senses the sound of a shot dealt to a condemned man who is he himself.

He always wakes up the same: bathed in sweat and crying. Another night robbed of rest. When he has that nightmare, Jorge can’t get back to sleep and stays awake until dawn. It happens to him almost daily since he retired from his thankless profession as an executioner. Killing one’s fellowman–guilty or not–has its consequences.

Now, the profession is costing him. One rarely talk about this occupation. One thinks of big guys, unfriendly and with a brain the size of a garbanzo bean, divest of feelings.

In men that have been called by the government for the insensitive task of administering the death penalty, they arrive humming a commonplace tune, then roll up their sleeves, and put on a black hat to hide their faces. Afterwards, they go on the same path to their homes, far away from the mundane noise, without a family and accompanied by their dog, waiting for the next execution. Nothing farther from reality. In the absence of testimonies about the life of executioners, people have invented legends.

Jorge Gonzalez is the antithesis of the classic executioner who appears in books and films. Of small stature, a bit bald, thin, and with a fixed fear before any significant event. Jorge, who confesses that his pulse doesn’t tremble at having taken the lives of more than 20 people, gets scared in the presence of a cockroach and panics at the sight of small lizards.

He’s cultured, likes Ricky Martin and his happy music. He reads Goethe and Stendhal. When one speaks with him they discover that he’s not stupid, but a rather intelligent man. But the 10 years that he spent on the firing squad have changed him.

in 1982, after fulfilling three and a half years of military service in Ethiopia, as part of the communist help to Mengistu Haile Marian’s pro-Maoist regime, Jorge graduated from college without being completely sure of what his future would be. The same thing happened to him as to other men of war: skillful in the handling of a rifle, but unable to function as civilians.

Jorge had been a sniper in a battalion under the control of General Arnaldo Ochoa, who years later was executed by Castro’s government, accused of treason and drug trafficking. Under Ochoa’s orders, Jorge participated in the famous Battle of Ogaden where the Cuban general was exalted for his new method of devising military strategy.

“I always admired General Ochoa, who in Ogaden displayed his skills. No wonder the battle is the subject of study in Western military academies.”

In 1989, Gonzalez could have been one of the men that, in Baracoa, a coastal town on the outskirts of Havana, formed part of the task force ordered to executed General Ochoa.

“I couldn’t be untrue to myself. I had killed murderers, rapists, and terrorists, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on my old boss. I made up a phony mental illness and they relieved me for six months.”

Upon returning to his speciality of killing, the executioner found out in detail about the final seconds of the hero of Ogaden.

“It’s not a fairy tale, that’s for sure. Ochoa drew close to the firing squad, saluted each one of firing squad’s members and said to them: ‘Don’t fret, men, carry out the order.’ He refused to cover his face. He died a valiant man.”

He says it, his voice faltering and his gaze lost out the window to where the sea becomes discernible.

“In that moment I thought it was a harsh course of action, but a just one. Now, I think it was excessive.”

In 1992 Jorge gave up this macabre task. His nerves weren’t letting him live and he decided to discharge himself from the army. He travelled to various psychiatric hospitals and resorted to electric shock therapy. But he couldn’t keep his mind clear.

Every night when a discharge from a rifleman wakes him in a sweat and crying, his wife tries to calm him. To no avail, though. Unable to sleep, he sits in the balcony of his house and stares at the sea. With the departure of the sun, weariness sets in and with it, the sensation that he is the most miserable man in the world. And perhaps he isn’t.

Second Act: The Last Execution (2009)

It was like any afternoon in the month of July. Jorge Gonzalez, 57, prepared rather slowly and fearfully the details of his death. It was the last day of his dangerous and uncommon life. He bought a few pounds of chicken from the black market and, with 3 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), a package of Cubitas Coffee at the store.

At noon he put on his Sunday best: a red and violet checked shirt, a gift from his only wife, and pair of cotton pants, old and used, that 23 years ago he had bought in a little market in Addis Ababa while he was completing his military service in Ethiopia as a sniper in a group of elite troops.

He had eaten like never before; rice with chicken and all the fixings, and even allowed himself two glasses of Fortin Wine. He looked at himself in the mirror and entrusted himself to the Lord. He tied a thick rope to the iron chandelier in the living room and put it around his neck.

Four days later, the police opened the door with an axe. The body was already showing signs of decomposition.

Jorge Gonzalez had been an executioner. One of those entrusted with administering the death penalties decreed by the State.

He graduated from the armed forces and was admitted to psychiatric hospitals. His wife left him, tired of this short bald guy who spent the mornings reading like one possessed and at night awoke drenched in sweat and screaming.

When this happened he would sit in an armchair for more than two hours, without saying a single word. With his gaze fixed on the deep blue sea visible from his balcony. Probably the last image he caught before he died was the quiet summer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

I knew Jorge Gonzalez. Ten years ago I devoted a story to him, The Cry of the Executioner. I found out about his suicide, in 2009, a month and a half later. The delirium had disturbed him. It was his last execution.

Iván García

Bad Luck

If bad luck had a name it would be Antonio Fonseca.  An enormous black man of almost 400 pounds, with a wide nose, sharp cheekbones and lips two fingers thick, who was born one cold, wet night in January 1981.

His mother, stark raving mad, set her husband and son on fire, when the latter was three years old. The father died. Fonseca still has visible marks on his entire body. And he still wonders what his mother’s motive was for her macabre pyromania.

Not having any family to take care of the little boy, from the age of three he lived in a state orphanage to the south of Havana, very close to the José Martí International Airport.

“In my childhood I had very few happy moments. One of them was when I was 10 and a group of us escaped from school to go watch the big planes take off and land.”

Antonio, wearing dirty, discolored, denim shorts, was seated on a wooden bench, in the shack where he lives, in the heart of Havana. On his nude torso you can see large bruises, produced by the burns of his disturbed mother.

“I don’t know the name of the woman who gave birth to me. I have never wanted to know about her; I only know that she spent many years in prison,” recounted Fonseca, while he took a drag on his cigarette.

He finished the 5th grade with great difficulty. And since he was 12 years old, the only thing he knows how to do is to commit small crimes and smoke marijuana. In spite of looking like a basketball player, he is not a violent guy. No. The three times he went to prison were for possession of drugs for his own consumption, It’s been a year since he was referred to a drug addiction clinic. But nothing helped him get better.

“I feel better when I’m high, only then can I sleep and hope for another day.”

And his eyes shine brightly. He works as a construction worker and does any work in the neighborhood, from finishing a patio and clearing debris, to filling buckets with water. Then, with the money, he buys a couple of joints at 25 pesos each. And on dark nights he feels like he’s in the clouds when he walks through Brotherhood Park, in the direction of Monte and Cienfuegos, in search of a cheap whore to calm his sexual appetites.

His minor crimes, to get some money, usually consist of stealing lightbulbs or chairs from some house. The money, of course, is destined to buy marijuana. This was Antonio Fonseca’s vicious circle. A big baby who could barely read and write. A prisoner of drugs. A sick guy whom luck avoided.

But the culmination, just a few days ago, was that in the tenement where he lives there was an over-the-top police operation. As usual, Antonio was high. And with his red, bleary eyes, he found himself accused of a violent robbery. A witness recognized him as the man who savagely beat a young person in order to steal his gold chain.

He swore to the authorities, on the mother he never new, that he was innocent. But confronted with a guy from a dissipated life with prior crimes, the police had already closed the file on the case. He remained in jail, hoping they would take him to preventive detention, where he would wait for his trial.

The prosecutor is requesting a penalty of 25 years. Without family, children or friends, Antonio Fonseca knows what fate awaits him. “No one can do anything without luck,” he used to say. He was right. Luck was never his ally.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

H1N1 Attacks

dsc00647dsc00647.jpg

The new influenza is gaining ground in Cuba. With the change in the weather, according to epidemiologists, it’s expected that the H1N1 virus will reap its harvest among the population of the island. As of October 1, the Ministry of Public Health reported the detection of 457 cases.

Now the Hubert de Blanck High School, in the municipal district Plaza of the Revolution, in the capital, has been forced to close. On Wednesday, September 30, the principal of the school reported that a sanitary commission, headed by the provincial director of epidemiology, had carried out a detailed inspection at the school.

A couple of days before, the principal had sent out an SOS because of the high number of students with respiratory problems. Due to bad hygienic and building conditions at the school, an old mansion poorly adapted to serve as a school, at first it was thought that this could be the cause of the high fevers and respiratory problems that many were suffering.

After numerous check-ups the doctors found 121 cases with respiratory problems of various degrees. As a preventive measure, the sanitary authorities decided to close the school. The tests done in the labs of the Institute of Tropical Medicine confirmed that five students were infected with the H1N1 virus.

In another two high schools in the same area, José Larruñada and José Luis Pérez, the alarm has gone out. Ana Rosa, a civil engineer who is 34, admits that because of the parents’ fear that their children might get infected, school absences have been noted. As an example, she says that on Friday, October 2, 70 students at José Luis Pérez High School did not attend classes.

Despite the fact that the virus threatens to become a pandemic, the government has taken it calmly. Maybe to avoid spreading the panic, the press has not mentioned what occurred at Hubert de Blanck and prefers to mention “stimulating” cases, like that of a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, who, thanks to medical attention, survived the type-A flu at the National Hospital.

On television, a timid propaganda reminds us that hands should be washed frequently and cleanliness should be maintained at home. In taxis paid in foreign currency and in city buses, posters have been placed in favor of better hygiene. But the new flu is not explicitly mentioned.

Low-income families in Nuevo Vedado, where the word on the street is that H1N1 is almost a plague, want to know if it had crossed the minds of the Castro brothers’ government to make an urgent and substantial discount on products like soap and detergent, which can be bought only in Cuban convertible pesos, at prices that are impossible for most ordinary Cubans. It would be the logical thing to do. But so far, the rulers of the destiny of Cuba have shown no concern about this sector of the population.

Alarmed, I phoned the provincial office of the Ministry of Public Health. I asked if sanitary authorities were ready to confront a possible pandemic. The person who answered did not want to identify himself, but he assured me that they had sufficient anti-virals and medicines to treat H1N1.

Many parents interviewed believe that the mega-concert given by Colombian singer Juanes, on Sunday, September 20, was the explosive device for the uncontainable advance of the virus. More than one million people gathered in tight quarters, and this could have been the “soup” that made it easy for the virus to grow.

If that is the case, Juanes’ good intention of singing for peace in Havana could have become the ideal place for H1N1 to form a massive attack on the citizens of Havana. As a coincidence, the most-affected schools are within a few kilometers of the Plaza of the Revolution.

Now the problem is whether the Cuban authorities have resources and effective measures to stop the spreading of the disease. I hope they do.

Iván García

P.S. On Friday, October 9, a television program was announced to report on the situation in Cuba with the H1N1 flu, respiratory illnesses and dengue.

Translated by Anonimatus Generacion Y

The Poet Was Listening to Boleros

I saw him. It was he. He did not recognize me, engrossed as he was, in a bar on Belascoaín Street, listening to one of Orlando Contreras’ boleros, or perhaps it was La Lupe, with “Yours is Pure Theater,” on a decrepit, recycled RCA Victor record player.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 8. An almost desert-like heat seemed to melt the asphalt in Havana. Without a drop of breeze. People were crowing into a dirty little store on Sitios Street, trying to cool off from the heat wave by drinking a tasteless juice, with a slight taste of orange.

It was the day of the Virgin of Charity. Dressed in yellow, many people were walking quickly toward the Church of the Virgin, located on Salud Street, at the corner of Manrique. At 6:00 in the evening, a procession would leave from there with the patron saint of Cuba, to walk through the streets of Central Havana.

To kill time, I sat down in a bar with a blackened mahogany counter. And as if it were a miracle of “Cachita,” when I turned my head, I saw the poet Raúl Rivero playing dice with the bard Rafael Alcides and the journalist Reinaldo Escobar.

A record player salvaged from some warehouse of useless objects offered a recital of boleros. From the two Orlandos, Contreras and Vallejo, continuing with La Lupe and Blanca Rosa Gil, up to Freddy, that voice that puts meat on the chicken.

Reinaldo and Alcides were drinking out of glasses, in no hurry, from a bottle of Caney rum, aged seven years. The plump Rivero, with closed eyes, was enjoying the music, while in his fingers a mentholated cigarette threatened to burn his hand.

I did not want to call him. I did not want to break the spell. But I swear that the man with glasses, seated with his friends among drinks, dice and boleros, was he. The poet who in his last years in Havana lived on Peñalver Street, in the La Victoria neighborhood. He had come back in disguise. To this Havana in 2009, without charms or spells. But with something to put under my pillow at night to fall asleep.

Yes, I saw Raúl Rivero. One of my journalistic icons, who for seven years directed me at the Cuba Press Agency. It was in the middle of the ’90s, until the fateful spring of 2003, when an arrogant and closed government, that did not want – and does not want – to permit ideas and poems to be published on their merits, sentenced the poet of La Victoria to 20 years in jail.

At that time I was a novice wanting to consume the world. His journalistic advice was engraved on me forever. For me, a one-hour chat with Rivero represented years of classes in any school of journalism.

One cold afternoon in the spring of 2004, he left Canaleta prison, in Ciego de Ávila, the land where in 1945 he saw the birth of a world war, recently ended. He marched into a hard exile with his native land and his friends on his back. Also his manias.

In the splendid city of Madrid, a stranger to the city and its people, to boleros and record players. For that day of the Patron Saint, he jumped over to Havana. And I discovered him seated, listening to boleros, in a bar on Belascoaín Street. It must have been a miracle of the Virgin.

Iván García

Translated by Regina

Riding on Route P

la-mala-hora

Public transport has always been a pending issue of the government of Fidel Castro. In spite of the fact that in the 80’s (when the country had more resources and support from Hungary and other former socialist countries), the Cuban government set up a factory that assembled the “Ikarus” brand buses in the village of Guanajay, 60 kms from Havana, it has always been almost impossible to attempt to seek transportation from one point of the city to the other.

In years which offered more abundant material wealth of the olive-green revolution, when there was access to yogurt and milk without the need to use ration cards, 2,500 buses and about 5,000 taxis ran about in the city; but not even then were they able to alleviate the deficit of urban transport.

With the advent of the silent war that is the “Special Period,” getting around town in the state transport was  a feat almost worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. There were times when some bus routes passed by twice a day. The “camels” surfaced, tractor-trailer trucks which hauled a large trailer carrying as many as 300 people packed like sardines; non-air conditioned saunas which also presented opportunities for pickpockets and perverts.

People walked up to 20 kilometers to take care of personal issues. At night the main streets were deserted and dark, for there were times when the electricity was shut-off 12 or more hours a day. Then came the heavy Chinese bicycles, which were largely to blame for the growth of fatal traffic accidents.

Not to mention the escalating violence; the streets of Havana, were in direct competition with the streets of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro.  Just to steal a bike, the same thieves would cut their victims with machetes, or snare their victims with ropes hung along the width of the dark street you passed while on a bike ride.

Buses and “camels” were called “Halley’s Comet,” because they were so infrequent between trips. Castro was more concerned with helping Venezuela and squandered the meager public funds on meaningless economic plans, but in 2004, reality struck hard. At the Popular Assembly, sporting a startled look, Castro asked what the Minister of Transportation was doing to resolve the issue at hand in the transport industry.

True to form, el Comandante blamed the failures on others.  However, he realized that if we wanted economic growth, we had to use bank funds to purchase buses, trucks and trains; five-thousand Chinese trucks and trains and an equal amount of Russian trains and buses were purchased.

Urban transport, in a state of indigence, saw the manna when 460 Yutong brand articulated buses started circulating around the city.  The Motorbus Company, its official name, operates 17 routes denominated with the letter P, which cover the principal arterial of Havana.

At peak hours, it has a frequency between 5 and 10 minutes. The P’s are always full to capacity and are hot as an oven. They just lack bread, or cassava. The so much talked about improvement of the vainglorious Havana leaders is pure mirage.

It is logical that a capital of more than two million inhabitants, like Havana, if it is to function minimally, must have bus service able to move one million people each day in the city. In the absence of a metro or a commuter train, and where state taxis in local currency have practically disappeared, people’s only viable option is to ride on the crowded route P.

Now moving from the main streets to some distant neighborhood is a complicated story. Another calamity is the bus service that circulates in the more populous districts and neighborhoods.

With the twist to the economy, due to the two crises, the world crisis as well as the one we have suffered for the last two decades, the product of an endless Special Period, the expansion plans of public transport have been slowed and service on many of routes was reduced.

To make matters worse, among the staff of the company Metrobus it is rumored that due to the default typical of the Cuban government, providers will not guarantee the spare parts for years to come. If true, going from one area to another city may turn you into a martyr. Although never, to tell the truth, was a Havana bus ride very pleasant.

Iván García

Jacques Rogge Does Not Like Baseball

jacques-rogge-002

Not his fault. Jacques Rogge was born in Belgium. And everyone knows: in Europe, baseball is a sport that doesn’t draws crowds. Unlike football (or “soccer” as they call it in the U.S.).

The International Olympic Committee president prefers other sports for the summer Olympics. In London, 2012, baseball has already been eliminated. Many hope that by 2016, this injustice is remedied.

But no. Although it is passion in the Americas, Japan and South Korea, Rogge hates baseball. In a terse statement, the Belgian has said that baseball is a long and tedious game. He has a point. In part because it can last up to four hours, it is not cost effective for television.

But he could have taken steps to expedite the games. Not everything can be about money. Because more than 500 million people on the planet love baseball. And I’m pretty sure, it is more popular than dressage or sailing.

For the 2016 Olympics, whose location was expected to be announced on Friday October 2nd in Copenhagen, the phlegmatic Rogge seeks to introduce three new sports to the Olympic program: golf, rugby or football, and bowling. At a stroke, the Belgian eliminated baseball, thanks to the small support given by the administrators of the Major Leagues in the United States.

The IOC president had already passed sentence: if the best baseball players didn’t attend the summer games, it would disappear.  To the powerful men who lead the Big Leagues, this went in one ear and out the other.  To the barons of the Big Show, the only thing they care about is their local seasons.

To hell with the Olympics!  Whose calendar also coincides with the prime months of the baseball season.  And they, of course, would not change or stop the tournament so that starts like Derek Jeter or Alex Rodríguez could take part in the Olympic Games.  This disinterest handed the solution to the Belgian on a silver platter, the Belgian who neither understands nor likes baseball.  And he took it out of the Olympic lineup.

Perhaps for the stuck-up suit-wearing Jacques Rogge, it is healthier to see a female boxing match than to watch some guys hammering away at a hard little ball with seams.  He has his motives.  But what is not in doubt is that this orthopedic surgeon hates sports with balls and strikes.

Iván García

D-Day

diad

At times I have recurring dreams. One of them is a nightmare. There’s a loud knock at the door, and when I open it a couple of huge burly guys lift me up and without even touching down on the stairway, they throw me into the backseat of a Russian-made Lada 2107.

They put a hood over my face and order me by menacing gestures to put my head between my knees. The last thing I remember before I wake with a start, are the hands of my captors, deformed by an excess of martial arts.

Other dreams are more pleasant. Two hands, warm and soft, waken me. It’s my daughter Melany, age 6, who comes to give me good news. “Grandma Tania, Aunt Tamila, and Cousin Yania, are coming this afternoon from Havana,” the girl tells me happily and rapidly.

Margarita, my wife, explains to my amazement, “The radio is breaking the news. Raúl Castro resigned and established a transitional government.  The first measure taken is that Cuba belongs to all Cubans, and the exiles who want to can return,” says my wife.

I have never seen her so happy.

More than a few times, in the solitude of my room, I have wondered which of these dreams will come true first.

Translated by: Tomás A.

My Neighborhood, My Little Country

In the bureaucratic and political jargon of my country it’s called Vibora People’s Council. It’s my neighborhood. A piece of geography, extending from Avenida de Acosta to Santa Catalina, and from the Causeway on 10th of October – once called Jesus del Monte, which the poet Eliseo Diego Rodriguez immortalized – to Mayia Rodriguez.

They form a quadrilateral seven blocks long and ten wide. There are many schools like the Institute of Vibora, now a technical and business school, the “Thomas Alva Edison” primary school and “Enrique José Varona” secondary school, once prestigious colleges. Other schools, such as “Pedro Maria”, are now dirty warehouses, and the ancient college of the “Marist Brothers” is the headquarters of the shadowy political police.

When night falls, the Calzada de 10 de Octubre, becomes a catwalk. Repressed gays hunting for a partner. Lesbians with military haircuts, who after drinks kiss desperately at the door of Pain de Paris, an exclusive cafe that takes only convertible currency. Cordova Park is perhaps the largest open-air “hotel” in Havana. Cheap sex in foreign or domestic currency, whichever. You choose your sexual preference.

Later in the morning, old men with sad faces and worn clothes form a line at the Metropolitan Bank — opposite the former home of the Counts of Parraga, today a cultural center — to collect their meager pensions. Also under the cover of darkness, thieves, robbers and voyeurs practice their misdeeds.

When the sun heats up, the nightcrawlers go to bed. And the street is colored yellow, red and brown, the colors of uniforms for secondary, primary and high school. Rushing people gather at bus stops to board lines P-6, P-8, P-9 and P-10, and to try to get to work on time.

The old men who in were line at the bank at dawn are now the first to buy the solitary 80-gram roll that the ration book allows us.

These seven by ten blocks make up the Vibora neighborhood. My home town.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Russia is Coming Back

Breaking: The Russians are coming back to Cuba, this time as tourists and with hard currency. And these last few days there has also been a fleet of enormous Russian ships, bristling with weaponry and radar, at anchor in Havana’s port. The intentions of both governments are clear. Castro II wants to ask for a lot and to pay little. Dimitri Medvedev wants to re-position Russia at the center of world power.

They’re as tall as palm trees. They walk slowly and scrutinise the buildings in the old part of Havana. It’s a group of five Russian tourists. Three men and two fashionably dressed young women. They’re blond and have green or blue eyes. If you didn’t know about the embargo on Americans travelling to Cuba, you could easily mistake them for bored and slightly lost Yankees.

Near the Plaza de Armas, in their faltering English, they ask a balding mulatto guy holding a guitar where they can get something inexpensive to eat. “Fast food”, says the Russian girl. “Oh, there’s no McDonald’s here. The most similar thing you’ll find is the ‘Di Tu,’ which sells chicken, about two blocks from here”, the mulatto guy replies, in Russian, to the amazement of the tourists who want to know where he learned it.

“In the 70s I studied at Oleg Popov’s famous Clown School in Moscow”. “Oh, so you’re a clown?” asks a Russian wearing a Chelsea football shirt. “Yes, a clown who earns his living by singing nowadays,” he replies, while picking out on his guitar the tune to “Midnight in Moscow.”

The ex-clown manages to extract 10 convertible pesos from the Russian’s wallet for the song. His name is Manuel Oritz and he’s 53 years old. For the last 15 years, he’s been on the soup circuit (the term used on the island for serenading tourists while they eat) around Old Havana’s cobbled streets. “I was lucky with them. On the whole, they’re stingy, the Russians, and they don’t like hearing the old Russian songs, nor being called Tavarish.”  [Translator: Tavarish is the Russian word for comrade, and was the only acceptable form of address in the days of the USSR.] Ortiz confirms that he did indeed study as a clown in the former USSR. With this new wave of Russian tourists, the extensive and well supplied informal market place, home to jineteras, personal guides, musicians, rum and tobacco sellers, drivers, and guest house keepers, is dusting off the old basic Russian manuals so as to be able to break the ice with the new visitors.

Joel Romero is 32, slightly overweight, and has the look of an intellectual about him. He works as a private guide for tourists. Keeping an eye out in both directions in case a tourist comes along, and smoking a menthol cigarette, he offers the following profile of the Russian visitors: “They still like rum and Cuban tobacco in excessive quantities, just like the old Soviets did. They go after mixed race girls, and young bisexuals, for their orgies. Unlike Western Europeans, they don’t like the old style Cuban music. They prefer rap groups, like Orisha, or Isaac Delgado’s salsa. They do sometimes leave tips, but they’re not big tippers, not like Cuban-Americans or Canadians.”

Héctor Gómez is 48 and works for the Gran Caribe hotel chain. He estimates that the number of Russians who have visited the island this year is about 10 thousand. And the new Russian invasion extends beyond tourism. Russian-made Maz buses are operating the Metrobus company’s PC, P9, P6 and P10 lines, some of the routes around the city’s main roads where the use of large capacity buses has managed somewhat to alleviate the capital’s difficult transport situation.

Besides buses, the Cuban government is also studying the possibility of establishing joint ventures with Russia in the petro-chemical and biotechnology sectors. Where they’re keeping mum is on the question of the military. We know that the islands’ armed forces are  equipped with out-dated Russian technology: it’s a miracle it keeps going and then only thanks to the numerous adaptations carried out by Cuban military workshops. Nothing was said last November about this during Dmitiri Medvedev’s visit as Russian leader.

One thing which is being updated is civil aviation with new Russian Ilyushin 96 and Tupolev 204 airplanes. Even in religious matters Cuba and Russia are busy. Those who control our destinies have never looked favourably on the Catholic church.

The latter awaits an official response in order to be able to dedicate more space to pastoral work and to the work of the church in educational and social spheres.

Meanwhile, however, a Russian orthodox church has been consecrated in historic Havana; this is a religious doctrine which has few followers in this country. Raúl Castro’s new foreign policy aims to get Russia back as an ally, alongside Venezuela and China, so as to re-float the country’s precarious economy. The Russian answer has been Yes.

It remains to be seen what cards the young Russian president is keeping up his sleeve. Analysts suggest that Cuba has a debt of 20,800 million rubles to the former USSR. Neither Putin, the current Prime Minister, nor Medvedev, is a fool. They know that the island’s ability to pay for their products is non-existent. Cuba isn’t a good place to do business.

So, the reasons for this rapprochement with Cuba must be of a political nature. The joint military exercises with Venezuela, plus the war with Georgia, both point to Russia looking to regain a pole position among those countries which play a decisive role on our planet.

It remains to be seen whether the current government of Castro II is more interested in a dialog with the president of the United States, Barack Obama, or with being a chess piece in Russian’s foreign policy. once before, 46 years ago, marriage with Russia could have meant the end of the world with the missile crisis. And in exchange for an oil pipeline and Russian oats, the Russians got permission to establish on our soil military bases like the Study Center Number 11, and the Lourdes Farm of Electronic Espionage.  Apart from that, Russia made little mark on Cuban society.  Thousands of marriages, and names like Mijaíl, Iván, Tania or Tatiana.

The shape of Cuba’s future foreign policy is in the hands of Raúl Castro and his team, and theirs alone. It’s simple. Do we side with Obama and his view of the world or with Russia’s twisted imperial ambitions.

The visit of the Russian fleet to Havana, and the political flirting with Moscow, create more doubts than hope. Let’s wait and see.

Iván García December 2008

Translated by RSP