What Was the Havana Metro? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Conceived 30 years ago, it would have been the largest civil engineering project in Cuba, but it sank after Perestroika.

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana | June 17, 2014

It’s morning rush hour at the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor bus stop, a busy node in the city of Havana. Thousands of people rush to work, school, the office, or run errands. New bus routes, as well as signaling changes on the existing road network, have tried to relieve the headaches involved in mass transit in our country.

Thirty years ago, when the island was a satellite of the USSR, and other foreign capital was virtually nonexistent, an ambitious rapid transit project was conceived for the Cuban capital with a metro  system as the centerpiece. The civil engineer Felix C., today employed by a Cuban-Foreign construction equipment company, related his experiences working for the City of Havana Executive Group (GEMCH), the company then in charge of what was called “the work of the century.”

“I came here after I graduated, in the mid-eighties,” he said. “GEMCH already existed at the beginning of the decade and several projects for the metro came out of CUJAE (Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria) — the technical branch of the University of Havana. Several of us were even sent to Eastern European countries to study and participate in works of this type already being implemented.

During those years, in fact, everything seemed to be in place to build the metro in Havana. A series of articles published in the magazine Technical Youth in August, September and October of 1982, expounded in a straightforward way not only on the necessity, but also on the possibility that Havana could count on this type of transport. Enthusiasm was great. At that time relations with the USSR looked stronger than ever, and it was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro system. Continue reading

Our Own Dangerous “Twin Towers” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Tejas Corner. 14ymedio

Texas Corner. 14ymedio

Havana, June 9, 2014, Victor Ariel Gonzalez — Corrugated fiber-cement sheets and wooden planks form a security fence in the shadow of the two tallest buildings of an iconic Havana site: the “Twin Towers” at Texas Corner, where 240 families live, marooned, as the buildings crumble.

Every day many people walk past, where the sidewalks of Calzada Del Cerro and Diez de Octubre intersect. Life goes on as usual at the foot of the gray structures, 20 floors and 200 feet high, which dangerously dominate the landscape.

A glance behind the makeshift wall leaves no doubt about the problem: chunks of rust-stained concrete detached from the walls are scattered in the grass, evidence of the deterioration of the buildings. If you look up, the poor state of the structural walls, which support thousands of tons, is revealed, with their broken edges and numerous areas where rebar is exposed. Continue reading

Dad, I Want to Go to La Yuma* / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Josué Colomé Vázquez, son of Cuba’s Minister of the Interior. Photo from Josué’s Facebook page.

Havana, Cuba – It’s not too surprising that a son of Cuba’s Minister of the Interior recently arrived in the U.S. to stay. Josué Colomé–as this immigrant is named–is not the first descendent of a high official of the regime who decided to leave for “enemy” lands, and so join the thousands of Cubans who arrive in the United States each year in search of opportunity. It’s obvious that the Revolution that dad helped make isn’t good enough. Not even for him.

His father, General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, is one of the historic leaders of the Cuban dictatorship. He serves in a key position, given that he’s the guardian of State Security, in charge of administering the repressive forces, watching friends and enemies alike, as well as executing exemplary sentences. That is, the largest jailer on the island-prison. The job of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) one of the strongest currencies that sustains the regime: fear. The heads of this institution have always been dark characters who enjoy the greatest confidence of the Supreme Leader. MININT is the principle guarantor of the Cuban government (that is the Castro brothers) to exercise their absolute power.

Thus, although not unique, it’s a singular case of apostasy. The son of the General, who now awaits his residency in the U.S., is one of the few who know first hand the intimacies of the governmental summit. Josué has lived among luxuries and complete indifference, and could stay in Cuba enjoying his surname. However, he preferred to abandon ship.

But that’s not the most striking thing: his father having ears that hear everything, it’s tempting to wonder about the following: Did the General know that his son was preparing to escape? Did the chief of MININT participate in the plan in some way, or knowing it, did he look the other way?

It’s hard not to suspect it. The Cuban Minister of the Interior could sin at anything, but not naivete. It may never be clear what, if any, degree of involvement did the Cuban official have in the happy journey? Perhaps it’s not a crazy assumption that the young Josué, now a refugee in the USA (waiting on the Cuban Adjustment Act), had the help of his powerful father to get to his destination through a third country. Then, the “killer” Adjustment Law would have been very good for the family interests of the representative of the regime.

General and Minister of the Interior Abelardo ColoméIbarra with Raul Castro. Photo from Internet

General and Minister of the Interior Abelardo Colomé Ibarra with Raul Castro. Photo from Internet

*Translator’s note: “La Yuma” is what Cubans call the United States and other foreign countries.

Cubanet, 7 April 2014, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Shelves of Misery / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

The old Carlos III market was transformed into a “mall.”  At the beginning, Havanans found a wide selection of merchandise (in CUC — hard currency); today the showcases are empty.

The shelves where the most common ingredients should be found often appear empty or offer only one product of its type without options of quality or size.  Those foods that Cubans eat the most are exhausted rapidly, sometimes missing from the shelves for weeks.  On the other hand, the most expensive foods stay for sale for so long that many wind up expiring.

Carlos III market, inaugurated in 1957 as Plaza de Mercado

Not to mention the toiletry section. This week there was only one kind of soap for sale, a small bar for 0.25 CUC.  The counter where there used to appear dozens of offers for varying budgets now presents a desolate emptiness. Continue reading

2014: Death Before Birth / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

HAVANA, Cuba, January, www.cubanet.org — Doorways where until a few days ago all kinds of clothes and shoes were for sale are now empty. All the usual stalls are closed. It is a return to the recent past, confirmation that the economic openings are not as open, but quite the opposite: they narrow.

The state of opinion on the streets of Havana is negative. Skeptics have multiplied and pessimism is heard in normal conversations. A taxi driver who was driving an old American car, in the dark December nights, predicted to this reporter what the new year would be from his vision at that time. According to him, he’d never seen such a dark end of year, perhaps not even such an infamous December 31, 1994, when a cigar box cost 120 pesos (the entire pay, let’s say, of a secretary).

The man apparently was not mistaken in his forecast that 2014 would be fatal. The first thing that happened is that an important branch of trade is dead. There will be no stalls where the poorest buyers can go looking for something to wear. People are angry, as the Cuban population usually is without any spontaneous social event occurring. Continue reading

Legacies of Castro-ism: The Destruction of the Sugar Industry / CID, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

On December 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes liberated the slaves of his sugar center La Demajagua and invited them to join him in the fight for Cuban’s independence. The Cry of Yara was the beginning of the 10 Years’ War.  These are the ruins of Demajagua.

The great capitals of the Cuban economy were forged within the sugar industry.  This last one and all its surrounding areas constituted a basic feature of the country’s culture, of its identity.  The formation of the Cuban nation is closely linked to sugar production in that it served to form a Creole aristocracy, which with the passage of time was differentiated from the Spanish mother country, still holder of political power on the island even while in the economic sphere it began to lag behind her thriving colony.The formation of the Cuban nation is closely linked to sugar production in that it served to form a Creole aristocracy, which with the passage of time was differentiated from the Spanish mother country, still holder of political power on the island even while in the economic sphere it began to lag behind her thriving colony. Continue reading

Havana Smells Very Bad / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Havana, Cuba, November 2013, www.cubanet.org – In Cuba there exists no consumer society.  Or heavy industrial activity.  The quantity of debris should not be frightening. But the treatment of waste is troubling, because it pollutes the country and promises to future generations.

There exists no appropriate policy for dealing with the debris.  And if it is true that Cuban reality demands a solution for more urgent problems, where the trash goes, it should not be left behind.

The frowned upon dumpster divers

In homes, work centers, dumpsters on the streets, everything that is thrown in the trash falls in the same compartment where glass or metal or biodegrables are not distinguished. The whole lot ends up at the landfills, where the trash is not classified or its treatment facilitated.

One of the effective ways of contending with trash is recycling.  In Cuba it is a task of extreme difficulty.  There is no education nor political will directed to the necessary separation of wastes.  Moreover, the State hinders the process.

An example of that is the negative attitude towards “divers,” who are dedicated to searching for empty beer and soft drink cans to sell to raw materials recovery companies.  These individuals are frowned upon by the government in spite of the fact that their labor is ecologically laudable and they are socially useful since they have honest work.

Beyond not separating trash, the system does not even recognize the work of those who could be called “little aluminum businesses.”

If other discarded materials also gave business, there is no doubt that the waste recovery industry would rapidly flourish and contribute to the city’s improvement.

Fire at the big dump

From the heights of one of the faculties of the Superior Polytechnic Institute, Jose Antonio Echeverria observed how a dense column of smoke rose, born in the entrails of the big dump of Avenue 100.  The toxic spectacle was nothing new: the uncontrolled combustion of debris would be dragged by the wind to the classroom of the university grounds.  The students in class there were going to inhale however much undesirable chemicals the fire generated.

Only after many sinister — and repeated — complaints was the cause of the fire removed, giving certain treatment to the wastes.  The decomposition of large quantities of organic material can generate sufficient heat to unleash accidental fires.

The fire out, the bad odor of the Dump of Avenue 100 continued flogging the surrounding population.

The first mistake is to locate an enormous landfill in the middle of Marianao township, near well traveled areas, but of course, quite distant from the Havana neighborhoods where the country’s ruling class lives.

Lack of containers

Another of the problems is the lack of trash containers and the irregularities in collection.  Parts and fuel are stolen from the garbage truck, as they are from all state vehicles.  Garbage cans are also vandalized.  Their wheels are ideal for making street vendor carts.  Wastes accumulate for days on the corners.

Not to mention sewer networks.  The growing population has made the water collection and treatment system collapse.  And the construction going up lacks the most basic technical standards.  Entire communities are found with a deficient and even non-existent sewerage.  Sewer water runs through the streets or seeps into the lower soil, contaminating springs, while the toxic wastes in rivers and oceans destroy various ecosystems in their wake.

The lack of control, the accumulation of trash and the deterioration of water treatment systems contribute to the fact that in Cuba there exists the danger of a widespread epidemic.  Signs of the health crisis have already started to be seen:  the resurgence of illnesses that were eradicated from the country indicates that the filth that surrounds us will have disastrous consequences.

By Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Cubanet, November 26, 2013

Translated by mlk

Initiating Improvements in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Victor Ariel Gonzalez, CID

On October 30th the newspaper Granma published,

Beginning improvements in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: The approved proposals were aimed at shaping a modern revolutionary Foreign Ministry to ensure more efficient performance of the organization and the concentration of the resources and efforts in the priorities of Cuban foreign policy.”

Commentary:

Under the slogan of “Combating the blockade as our principal mission” in the diplomatic sphere, lies perhaps in the modification of the existing legal mechanisms, which allow Cubans (especially the most powerful Cubans, who are those of the Government of Havana) to interact with foreigners (governments or companies) interested in the new direction that Cuban political economy seems to be taking.

Should this be the case, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) would be undergoing a transformation similar to that of other State agencies and entities: to  accommodate the game at the convenience of the ruling class, who want to economically restructure the country while still having absolute power over it.

All this can also be related to the winks that come from the leadership of the country to the prosperous Cuban community in the US.  They have made declarations (onthe part of Antonio Castro, son of Fidel Castro and the true “owner” of the Cuban baseball team) that it would be good if the Cuban ballplayers in the U.S. major leagues returned to play under their flag: which was denied to them the day they “deserted” and were called “traitors.”

Certainly, with the changes within the country there will also come changes toward the exterior. MINREX will not be the exception.

Víctor Ariel González

14 November 2013

Does Human Trafficking Exist in Cuba or Not? / Victor Ariel Gonzalez, CID

 

“Cuba is not the place of origin, transit or destination of human trafficking”.  This was declared by Isabel Moya Richard, the director of ’Editorial de la Mujer’ (A Cuban Women’s Federation publisher) on November 1.  However, later in the article it is stated that in 2012 fourteen people were convicted of trafficking.  So, the phenomenon does exist.

The aforementioned director recognises that it is important to prevent these practices through an orientation towards healthy sexuality, implementing “sexual education in all levels of education”.

She adds that “another key matter is the work of the Ministry of Tourism to avoid campaigns that could associate Cuba with ’sexual tourism’”.  The matter “is not easy” given the advertising image of a paradisaical beach (main natural resource for Cuban tourism) upon which usually walks a woman whose figure indirectly offers to the visitor the possibility of finding sexual pleasure.  This aesthetic concept implies a distortion of the female image and its association with a product that sells.  Paradoxically, this phenomenon, equally common in western market economies, has been criticised by the Cuban government, that for reasons of “avoiding turning women into merchandise” has gone so far as to prohibit the possession of pornography.

In various civil independent society publications, foreign as well as Cuban, accounts appear that bear witness to the sexual exploitation of Cuban adolescent victims. They speak of families that agree to “offer” their daughters to a foreigner who promises to take them with him to give them a better life and in this way the girl is able to help those who she leaves behind.

Prostitution is a hidden subject in Cuba. The critical economic situation has contributed to the growth of this phenomenon in recent years to never before seen levels.

In respect to human trafficking we can also include those who are victims of irregular migratory trafficking.  Although it is not necessarily related to prostitution, conditions in Cuba also give rise to a high number of illegal immigrants, those who pay exorbitant prices to arrive to the U.S.A. by sea or via third countries such as Mexico.  The price of a “ticket” is above 8,000 CUC.

By Victor Ariel González

16 November 2013

Translated by Peter W Davies

Paperboys Made in Cuba / Victor Ariel Gonzalez Celaya

Photo from Cubanet

Photo from Cubanet

Isn’t it totally iconic that the four or five newspapers — no more — that are sold in Havana are distributed by old men?

Whether it’s a way to flagellate myself, make myself laugh, and even to get a spark that sets off something I end up writing about, every day I go and buy one or two of these gray pamphlets that should contain news. I recognize that sometimes they succeed.

And one of the things that marks this regularity is that I always buy them from a quite old gentleman. It’s not that it’s always the same seller: what I mean is that in Havana it’s the old men who sell the newspapers, and in the morning, at dawn, you can see long lines of old men (if we add their ages these lines would be millennial) waiting at the newsstands to buy what they then sell for a profit.

So let’s compare this: if you watch a movie and see a newspaper seller, for example, in the United States. His figure is diametrically opposed to the “dealer” here because he has, let’s see, a bike, he rides through a nice neighborhood, and he’s no more than 11 or 12 years old. He’s a child who sells newspapers to Americans. He rides quickly through on his bike, hefting a canvas bag with with its umpteen pages (obviously the newspapers there breakfast better) and then he gets lost on his bike, zigzagging childishly between one sidewalk and the other.

Now I turn my gaze to the daily Cuban move, where I am my own hero: I’m walking down the filthy Carlos III Avenue (and still I have a song in my chest just being out there) until I reach a corner where waiting for me is a gentleman who could be my grandfather, surroundied by newspapers on the ground. I look at the old man, who must be more than seventy, and give him a peso or two for a few printed sheets.

These veterans of whom I speak are part of an army that is our living image. This is because the situation facing the elderly in Cuba is the extract of Revolutionary history. There is no one more helpless, no one from whom they’ve snatched more because, to me at least, I have overabundant youth and strength, but I don’t have all the freedom I want; to them, all that remains is pure waiting while their strength and the years of their youth are left behind, “compensated” by a pension so miserable that they have to walk around, with their tottering steps and trembling hands, selling the newspaper Granma, peanuts or candy.

4 November 2013

The Deadly Boredom of Havana / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

La-Habana-aburrimiento-jovenes-malecon-300x200HAVANA, Cuba, October, www.cubanet.org – While most young people have virtually no place to go, others go to clubs where the entry fee alone is more than the weekly wage of the average Cuban. The price, actually, is nothing special, but we know that in Cuba 5 CUC is a sum of money that few pockets would be willing to pay to get into a halfway decent establishment.

Havana is a city that has not died, but languishes. On weekends, most of its inhabitants dedicate themselves to wandering around to overcome some collective boredom. People are gather in a few places in the city, like Paseo de G or Coppelia, or they wander around with nothing to do along the well-known streets of the city like 23rd or the Malecon.

The most common diversion is sharing from a bottle, can or carton the alcohol that can be acquired on any park or on any corner for a little party. This, far from representing some collective happiness that many tourists relate delightedly when they return to their own countries, is a distinctive feature of the decadence that more and more marks recent generations of Cubans.

You have to have enough money to entertain yourself and have a really good time in the capital. Some girls — and also boys — prostitute themselves just to have the privilege of entering what are considered the “luxury” venues within a short circuit of nocturnal Havana: cabarets for foreigners and discotheques in hotels which, in any great city in the would pass for second-rate, except that here sex-for-hire is infinitely cheaper. The number of Cubans who go to these places is tiny.

Meanwhile, in the streets, amid apparently immobility and the lack of alternatives, the most destructive forms of entertainment flourish, forms that have been criticized lately in the government’s own media, with its continuous calls to public order and the “fight” against “the improper behavior of a people like ours.”

La-Habana-aburrimiento-jovenesSome teenagers engage in all kinds of dangerous games, damaging the urban environment and even assaulting other passersby. They hang onto the buses from their bikes, or, on rainy days, do it barefoot sliding along the pavement; they break the garbage bins and write vulgar signs, abuse vehicles, shout, insult, push and cause all kinds of annoyances. The deadly boredom of Havana reaches a crescendo each year with the annual carnivals, which have a far from comforting quota of deaths and injuries in riotous quarrels or knife fights.

The government, instead of promoting healthy options, exerts itself in punishing the undisciplined. It doesn’t seek to create appropriate environments, stimulate the market of services targeted to Cubans, repair the occasional damage in a timely fashion, or provide abetter education in the schools.

La-Habana-aburrimiento-prostitucion-masculina-300x173Of course, no child of the famous residents in the most exclusive neighborhoods inhabited by the super-exclusive caste of the country’s leaders looks in on these commoners’ parties: nor will they favor them with their presence, because, for their families, the already most “generous” result is having converted one of the most prosperous and active cities in the Caribbean into a dark and silenced sun helmet.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Cubanet, 2 October 2013

Self-employed Don’t Take to the Streets in Massive Protest / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Self-employed

Self-employed. Photo from Internet.

HAVANA, Cuba, November 1, 2013, Victor Ariel Gonzalez/ www.cubanet.org.- For days now, rumors have been spreading about a strike of self-employed workers somewhere in Central Havana in the capital. Presumably, the event would be November 1st on Reina Street, where people would come to the demonstrations to protest the restrictions announced in the Island’s official media for weeks, relating to private sector trade in industrial products.

A call for public protest has been circulating on the Internet. But as in Cuba there is no real access to the network, it’s unlikely that an announcement in this media will be effective; the population doesn’t know that something is afoot.

“This morning the Department of Technical Investigations, a division of the Ministry of the Interior, came to ask who was going to participate,” an appliance repairman who asked not to be identified confessed a few days ago. Clearly, concerned State Security officers tried to intimidate potential protesters.

There is no known trade union daring enough to organize a strike, nor have links between the self-employed and opposition parties that could be involved in the event, or the call to the streets, proven to be strong enough.

So far, what could be identified as an emerging social class of non-state workers doesn’t have a political platform distinguished by the regime nor does it seem to have a definite political opinion. This sector, which is also too new in a country civicly depressed and without the social networks that have helped the transition to democracy in other parts of the world.

Weeks ago Cuban government officials declared what is obviously a persecution of industrial goods vendors. These are retailers who, given the lack of supply that we suffer, find it normal to speculate on the price of products, which is the main weapon that the country’s leaders ranged against them.

But beyond this accusation, it has been proven that the self-employed (officially they avoid the word “private”) are able to fill the market and even make better deals than the State, who would have all the advantages of competition, but in instead they have chosen to annihilate any opponent.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Cubanet, 1 November 2013