On the Virgin’s Day, The Poet Was Listening to Boleros / Iván García

I saw him. I’m sure it was him. He didn’t recognize me, absorbed in himself as he was, sitting in a bar on Belascoaín Street, listening to Olga Guillot on a decrepit RCA Victrola.

It was four in the afternoon on September 8th. A desert sun seemed like it was going to melt the Havana asphalt. Not a drop of breeze was flowing. Nearby, in a dirty cafe, some people were trying to refresh themselves with an insipid orange juice.

It was the Day of the Virgin of Charity. Many people walked hastily — almost all of them dressed in yellow, the color of Ochun, her equivalent in the Yoruba religion. They were headed toward the church that bears her name, at the corner of Salud and Manrique, Havana Center. They were going to participate in the procession and Mass in honor of Cachita, as the Cubans call their patron saint.

To pass the time, I sat in a bar with a bar made from blackened mahogany, and when I turned my head, there he was, with two friends. The victrola, rescued from some warehouse, was playing, one after the other, some boleros by Olga Guillot, Blanca Rosa Gil, La Lupe and Freddy, the fat one who gave me goose pimples.

The friends were drinking from a Caney rum bottle lazily, in their crystal glasses. He, with his eyes closed, was enjoying the music, while a cigarette threatened to burn his fingers.

I didn’t want to call out his name, so as not to break the spell. But I swear, he who I saw sitting with his friends was the poet who lived on the third floor in a building on Peñalaver Street, in the Victoria neighborhood. He had come incognito to this Havana that has less brilliance and enchantment each time.

That afternoon I saw Raúl Rivero, one of my journalistic icons, who, from the end of 1995 until March 2003, was my boss at the Cuba Press Agency. Then I was a rookie with ambitions of setting the world on fire. I have recorded in my head the journalistic advice he’d given me. Thirty minutes of talking with Rivero was for me like three years of university classes.

In that fateful spring, the Poet of Victoria was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by an arrogant and closed government which did not want — nor does not want — ideas to flow freely.

One winter afternoon in 2004 he left the Canaleta prison, in Ciego de Ávila, the land that had seen him born in 1945. A few months later, he went into exile, with his vices and manias in tow.

In splendid Madrid, he misses his friends. Because of that, on Charity Day he dropped in on Havana. I saw him. Listening to boleros in a bar on Belascoaín Street. It must have been a miracle of the Virgin.

Translated by: JT

September 9, 2010

Cuba: Where Real Politics Are Cooking / Iván García

You can’t imagine the quantity of pacts, commercial treaties and political deals that are planned over mojitos, cubalibres, and daiquiris. Perhaps you don’t know a part of those who risk investing in the island took their first step when their heart was trapped by a mulatto woman with an insatiable sexual appetite.

Robert, an Italian impresario with slicked down hair and the life of a playboy, wasn’t convinced by the Castros’ ideology, nor the precarious guarantees made by laws about investments to open his wallet and take on a deal in Cuba. No. It was his people. Above all, his women.

“In the mornings, while I’d drink coffee, I would talk with people. A good deal, honor, and material poverty convinced me to start a business. I’ve contracted some Cuban friends of mine under the table. It’s the best way to help them”, comments the Italian.

Helping person to person works better than many think. Entrepeneurs are few on the island. Almost all are married to Cubans, or have a side thing going with a stunning black woman. Local bedrooms have a certain share of responsibility for signing commercial deals with the government.

The special services know it. And one of their strategies with businesspeople, politicians, and foreign journalists is to wrap them up in the arms of a good looking young man or an irresistible woman. Testimony to that peculiar form of doing business is the National Hotel. And not just now, rather from its foundation, 80 years ago.

This mass of facades and windows was inaugrated in 1930. Situated on Taganana Hill, across from Havana’s Malecon, it has hosted hundreds of famous people: Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Maria Felix, Libertad Lamarque, Agustin Lara, Ernest Hemingway, Romulo Gallegos, Jean Paul Sartre, Pierre Cardin, Naomi Campbell, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Costner, Pedro Almodovar and Juanes, among others. And also gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

Captivated by the magnificent sea view have been personalities of the stature of Winston Churchill, Nelson Rockefeller, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, or Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin.

On its colonial style patio, where in the 18th Century the Spanish situated the Santa Clara Battery, which formed part of the defensive system of the city, you could see politicians and empresarios walking around Havana, in informal chats with consultants and assistants to the creole leaders.

Between glasses of beer, mojitos, and rum Collins, real politics cooks; after which the governors or ministers will probably give their approval.

On occasions, bed will convince those doubtful businesspeople. Politicians escape by the skins of their teeth. They come for a few days and are used to being in the public eye. “Even still, some fall to the temptations of big butts or brown dicks”, says an employee.

The National Hotel was declared a National Monument in 1998. A simple room costs 150 dollars a night. The suites, 510 dollars a day. Modest or luxurious, its rooms guard many secrets.

In Cuba, some drinks or a bedroom sometimes has more power than official speeches. Believe it or not.

September 12, 2010

A Shared Guilt / Fernando Dámaso

  1. In recent years the topic of global ecology and global warming has been on the table. Unfortunately, no decisive results have been achieved, despite the number of meetings and countless hours devoted to the problem. It appears the solutions are not as simple as they appear in articles and books.
  2. To solve a complex problem it is essential to have a frank dialog, free of prejudice, between the parties involved. This was not the tone in the global meetings. Since its inception we have defined two opposing positions: the rich and developed countries and the poor and underdeveloped countries. The latter, aiming at all times to download all the blame on the first and also resolved to demand compensation.
  3. Let’s delve into this a little. It is true that developed countries have produced and produce more pollution, consuming more fuel and producing more products, but these products are used by all countries, developed and undeveloped. That is, the producer pollutes more and the receiver less, but if the receiver produced what it needed it would also pollute. Therefore, a major share of the pollution falls on them. The blame, as we see, is shared and responsibility for the deterioration falls to both.
  4. If both groups are responsible, and they have been throughout the history of mankind, measures to solve the problem must be implemented by both. Indemnifying either from the implementation of measures is as opportunistic as it is dishonest. In addition, there is no single measure, as some demagogues assert, dedicated as they are not to the real solution of the problems, but to using any platform to add fuel to the fire in their ideological confrontation with the so-called first world.
  5. In this absurd context they have raised all kinds of nonsense to change the system, asserting that coal and oil are the fuels of capitalism and the sun is the fuel of socialism. Gentlemen, more seriousness please. It is forgotten, on purpose, that the former socialist countries, with the former USSR at the forefront, were (and still are) some of the biggest polluters and destroyers of the environment, with their huge old industrial plants and reclamation of land and unlimited logging, without any environmental regulation. We only need look at the polluted Lake Baikal and the regions of Ukraine affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Also the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the mercury in Hungary. As you see the phenomenon affects us all. If we want to solve the problem of global warming, we must discard the political opportunism and require the governments to act responsibility. This is the task of citizens and civil society in all countries.

December 2, 2010

Responsibility With Information / Fernando Dámaso

  1. The publication by Wikileaks of thousands of classified and highly sensitive communications from United States government officials, has created an international stir. And no wonder. Faced with a fait accompli, there are those who agree with what happened and those who do not.
  2. The search for and transmitting of information about enemies, potential enemies and friends, has been done by officials from the embassies of all world governments, without exception. It is accepted practice and has nothing to do with espionage, which also takes place, albeit disguised. It is undertaken to add to the elements taken into account when discussing policy. They are personal opinions and assessments of officials, not state policies.
  3. To welcome the publication, as some do, is to play with a double-edged sword: it can cut all players because everyone practices it. The problem stems from someone in the know. Wikileaks is symptomatic that, so far, it has only been published documents from the United States and not elsewhere. It could be due to serious weaknesses in the control of such documents by the various departments of this government, or because those of other governments are very well protected, although this assessment is doubtful. I think there is a strong interest in harming one particular player.
  4. I understand that there is information that should be in the public domain, since it relates directly to citizens, but there is others which does not have to be, since it relates only to the states. Freedom of information is one thing and irresponsible debauchery of information, with the intention to shock, is another. Setting limits is not easy, but it is possible and desirable.
  5. If this practice is accepted, and no steps are taken by the concerned agencies in the world to halt it, chaos will invade international relations, making it even harder for peaceful coexistence among states, in a globalized world. Irresponsibility can not be the road map to follow.

December 3, 2010

To Be of Use / Fernando Dámaso

  1. With some of the great historical personalities something very worrying has happened to me: the more I know about them the less they impress me.
  2. On delving deeply into their lives and acts, I have discovered greatness and baseness in almost equal parts, according to the interests of each moment.
  3. Presented to us in school as extraordinary and special beings, anointed by fate to achieve great feats in different areas, we learn to consider them unattainable for the common citizen.
  4. Perhaps because of this they seem so distant and become strange Olympian gods, material for books, painting, sculptures, music, film, et cetera, over the span of time.
  5. Although it is not healthy to stare at the sun looking for spots, I understand that besides paying attention to its light, it is important not to forget the spots. So, at least, we can see they are not so different from us, we will be more fair in our assessments and, perhaps, they will more useful to us in our daily lives.

December 6, 2010

The State and Me / Iván García

A few weeks ago, I called different ministries of the economic sphere asking for facts and figures. In a humiliating manner they told me that these issues were not my concern. “Trust Fidel and Raul, they always do the best for the country,” replied a technocrat in a lecturing tone.

I was born in 1965 and since I learned to read, all the textbooks contained the worn Marxist slogan, that the people were the true and sole owner of the property and means of production.

That made me feel like an important child. When I was a high school student, I naively thought that I was entitled to seek information on the economy and finances of my country. It was all a scam. As an adult, I realized that in a Marxist socialist society, the state’s role is similar to that of a 18-century feudal lord.

To me, democracy means that leaders are elected and removed by the votes of their citizens. And a president, parliamentarian or minister must do his public work as  transparently as possible, and is obliged to render accounts.

In “proletarian dictatorships” like Cuba, this is not the case. The leaders are above good and evil. They are a kind of deity.  They report half. Hide numbers. Tweak the tally. Or do not inform us about anything.

If a guy, supposedly brighter than an entire nation, is considered superior to the rest of its citizens, and believes it is possible to design a new economic and social model, outlandish and better than any other known, and once in power thinks that he individually can meet the needs of the people, would it not be easier to proclaim a monarchy and rule the destiny of a nation forever and ever?

In Cuba, because the State is the owner of all industries and assets of the country, it ruinously imposes taxes and heavy burdens on money, property, and consumption.  Without explanation.

I’ll give examples. First, they raise prices for high-demand products such as oil, soap and gasoline, without consulting the population. “Damn, I’m the owner of the farm,” they think.  Thus, pondering like ordinary landowners and without blushing, they impose a consumption tax on items that the State considers luxuries.

“These economic illiterates do not understand my strategy,” they contemplate. Now, in the case of new taxes on self-employment, they can be up to 40%. They have arbitrarily decided, arguing that this will improve the performance of the state bureaucracy and streamline its colossal expenses.

It has been demonstrated. The Cuban State is highly inefficient. It fails to generate profits. And in pursuit of maintaining certain social achievements, it puts the enterprising people who create wealth between the hammer and the anvil. It punishes them for their talent.

Politicians rule the world. They are a necessary evil. But it should be clear that they owe their people, and not vice-versa. And I remember what this bureaucrat told me, that I must trust in Fidel and Raul.

I’d rather go the wall on that.  Demand that they not conceal figures or financial budgets. Otherwise, I can not believe in the good intentions of the Castro brothers. And that is what is happening. Starting long ago.

Iván García

Translated by ricote

December 6 2010

Yoani Sánchez Wins CEPOS Freedom Award / News Bulletin

CEPOS’ Freedom award goes to the Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez along with DKK 300,000

Source: CEPOS Website

CEPOS, An independent Danish think tank, has instituted an annual freedom award. This year, the prize will be awarded to the Cuban dissident, Yoani Sánchez who, through her blog ’Generación Y’, demands the right to exercise her freedom of speech when criticizing the current conditions in Cuba. By doing so, Yoani risks facing imprisonment for years, a fate experienced by other Cubans who have dared to utter the mildest critique of the Communist regime.

CEPOS Director Martin Agerup and Yoani in Havana

“Despite the huge personal costs, Yoani Sánchez has shown amazing courage by expressing her honest and personal opinion of the society she currently lives in. Single-handedly and at great personal expense, she has managed to keep focus on one of the world’s most suffocating dictatorships. CEPOS wishes to show admiration of her courage and dedication by awarding her this prize,” said CEPOS Director, Martin Ågerup, who met with Sanchéz in Cuba this week.

In 2007 Yoani Sánchez started writing her blog ‘Generación Y’ which quickly gained so much attention – both locally and globally – that the Cuban government decided to block access to the blog from all public computers in Cuba. Yet thanks to the World Wide Web, Yoani Sánchez’ words and thoughts haven’t been hushed; moreover each one of her blog contributions is continuously translated by volunteers into over 15 different languages.

Yoani Sánchez activism has meant that she is relegated to a life of scrutiny and harassment at the hands of the Cuban authorities. She doesn’t hold a real job, but manages to support herself by periodically working as a translator for German tourists. Ordinary Cubans do not have access to the internet, so when she started blogging, she had to buy access to the Internet through hotels where foreign tourists stay. The price for a single hour online corresponds to a quarter of one month’s salary for a normal Cuban.

Yoani Sánchez warns against seeing her blog as an evidence of freedom of expression in Cuba.

“On the contrary, it should be more seen as an act of rebellion. Yet with neither the prevalence of freedom of speech nor that of a technologic infrastructure, it has still been possible to communicate with the outside world”.

CEPOS has invited Yoani Sánchez to Copenhagen to attend the award ceremony in the near future.

“Sanchéz has on earlier occasions been denied an exit permit, including to this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, but this time she both hopes and expects that the Cuban authorities will let her come to Denmark in order to accept the award in person”, Martin Ågerup concludes.

Information about CEPOS, The Center for Political Studies

CEPOS is an independent Danish think tank promoting a society based on freedom, responsibility, private initiative and limited government.

CEPOS was founded in 2004 by prominent Danish business people, thinkers and cultural personalities and started its work on March 10th 2005.

CEPOS wishes to contribute to more personal and economic freedom, rule of law and democracy as well as a limited government sustained by healthy civil institutions such as family, civil associations and cultural life.

CEPOS wishes to reform and limit direct and indirect economic support from the public authorities to the population. Government support shall benefit only the disadvantaged and will be abolished for people who can support themselves.

CEPOS encourages competition, supports free markets and global free trade, and opposes government subsidies to businesses.

CEPOS does not work at the request of any political party, public authority, commercial enterprise, organization or individual.

The Reprimands of Wednesday / Yoani Sanchez

At nine in the morning an official looks, with boredom, at the citation we have presented at the door of the 21st and C station.  We are left waiting on one of the benches for about 40 minutes, while Reinaldo and I take the opportunity to discuss all those things the dizziness of daily life always keeps us from talking about.  At 9:45 they take my husband, asking first if he has a cell phone.  Ten minutes later they return and take me to the second floor.

The meeting is brief and the tone energetic.  There are three of us in the office and the one who raises his voice in song has been introduced as Agent Roque.  To my side another, younger one, watches me and says his name is Camilo.  Both tell me they are from the Interior Ministry.  They are not interested in listening, there is a written script on the table, and nothing I do will distract them.  They are intimidation professionals.

The topic was as I expected: We are close to the date for the blogger meeting that, with neither secrecy nor publicity, we have been organizing for half a year;  they announce we must cancel it.  Half an hour later, now far from the uniforms and the photos of leaders on the walls, we reconstructed an approximation of their words:

“We want to warn you that you have transgressed all the limits of tolerance with your rapprochement and contacts with counter-revolutionary elements. This totally disqualifies you for dialog with Cuban authorities.

“The activities planned for the coming days cannot be carried out.

“We, for our part, will take all measures, make the relevant denunciations and take the necessary actions. This activity, in this moment in the life of the Nation, recuperating from two hurricanes, will not be allowed.”

Roque stopped talking–nearly shouting–and I asked if he would give me all this in writing.  Being a blogger who displays her name and her face has made me believe that everyone is willing to attach their identity to what they say.  The man lost the rhythm of the script–he didn’t expect my librarian’s mania to keep papers.  He stopped reading what had been written and shouted at me even louder that, “They are not obliged to give [me] anything.”

Before they send me off with a “get out of here, citizen” I manage to tell him that he won’t sign what he told me because he doesn’t have the courage to do it.  The word “Cowards” comes out almost in a guffaw.  At the bottom of the stairs I hear the noise of the chairs pushed back into place.  Wednesday has ended early.

3 December 2008