A Night in Paso Canoas on the Border with Panama / Ivan Garcia

Cubans at the Panama/Costa Rica border

Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 25 November 2015 — When Alex Sigler, 22, landed in the Quito airport in an African heat with thunderclouds that presaged a tropical shower this past November 11, he began his own journey to achieve the American dream.

In five days of passing through the Colombian jungle, Alex encountered hitmen of few words and with twitchy trigger fingers.

“The police, who supposedly are there to preserve citizen order, are the first to rob us. Almost all Cubans have been fleeced at Colombian checkpoints. The coyotes are frightening. They traffic cocaine the same as people. They talk about their criminal exploits like a group of friends in the neighborhood commenting on football and a penalty,” explains Alex, lying on top of some tattered cardboard in an inter-provincial bus terminal in the Costa Rican town of Paso Canoas, a stone’s throw from the border with Panama.

On the platform about 30 Cubans are sleeping, having been robbed or conned by drug traffickers in Colombia. They have lost everything.

They find themselves without money, waiting for some relative or friend in Miami to urgently spin a few hundred dollars their way so they can pay for the rest of the crossing, if the authorities in Nicaragua will finally let them pass through their territory.

They burned all their bridges. On the Island, they sold everything. Or almost everything. The hazardous journey through eight countries to reach the U.S. is much harder than they thought.

But they’re not sorry. “I was already worn out. In Cuba we’re just a number. People count only for voting in the elections or supporting the Government. Maybe things will be bad for me in la Yuma (the US), but at least I’ll be a free man,” says Alex, who in Caibarién, some 350 kilometers east of Havana, left his wife and a four-month-old daughter.

The village of Paso Canoas is a township of one-story houses and ambulatory stalls where they sell every possible commodity. At night it’s deserted. The more than 300 Cubans who arrive in unstoppable dribbles from Panama have several options at hand for lodging. Those who arrive without a cent sleep in the old Canoas bus terminal.

Others pay five dollars a night, the lowest price for lodging, in a sweltering hostel without windows that is run by Pepe Restoi, a Catalán, who says with two raised hands that he is voting for Catalán independence.

“Man, it’s not that I’m uncaring; obviously I’m aware of the drama of the Cuban emigrants. But I’m a businessman. In Paso Canoas, between hotels and guest houses, there are about twenty. What you have to do is keep your property occupied,” says Restoi in the door of the El Azteca pension.

It would be very pretentious to call “hotels” a chain of houses adapted for guests or enlarged to be rented to the more than 3,125 Cubans who, since November 15, have walked through Paso Canoas.

Prices are expensive for a segment of terrestrial balseros (rafters) who, in tune with the closing of the Nicaraguan border, have to dig out bills and scratch their heads to stretch their money after having spent between three and four thousand dollars on their trip through Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.

“You have to be very farsighted with your money. You have to hide it in unsuspected places so that the Colombian hitmen don’t fleece you. You still have to cross four countries before reaching the U.S., and the dough is going to run out,” says Alfredo Ávila, 28, an electrical engineer who lives in the eastern province of Holguín.

Among the island emigrants there are different hierarchies. Those of extreme poverty are the ones who spend the night on the unpolished cement floor in the bus terminal and, for lack of a bathroom, urinate in a garbage dump site.

“This is hard. The majority eat only once a day. They only have their clothing left from their baggage. On the road, to lighten up, they left their belongings or sold them to be able to eat,” indicates Alex.

Gabriel, a young man who recently left military service in Cuba, says that while crossing Colombia a compatriot had to improvise a fishing rod to be able to eat.

The emigrants who have a more substantial economy spend the night in third- or fourth-class hotels, which in Costa Rica rent at first-class prices. The El Descanso hostel doesn’t calculate how many it’s received. A large grocery store is sometimes a restaurant, a bar and, occasionally, the Cubans who wait to cross the border drink beer without too much moderation.

One night, in a monumentally drunken episode in the swimming pool, some Costa Rican guests were wounded.

“They had to call the police. Many Cubans behaved inappropriately. Particularly those from Havana, who believe they deserve everything. They steal the towels, destroy the electrical outlets and are always complaining, even though the hotel management decided to reduce the tariff for them to nine dollars a night,” says Rey Guzmán, the manager of the El Descanso.

The lack of money has caused several girls to prostitute themselves or ask for money from the ticos (Costa Ricans). “In the Peñas Blancas encampment, two or three girls offered me sex in exchange for 20 dollars. Another asked me for two dollars to buy cigarettes,” says Jorge, a Costa Rican taxi driver.

Past midnight, Yadira, a willowy morena (brown-skinned woman) of 22 years, a native of Las Tunas, some 600 kilometers from the capital, was dancing a Dominican merengue surrounded by a chorus of drunken men who were whistling at her.

“She’s happy. If she’s looking for a man to save her (offer her money) she’ll do well. All the Cubans who are here have had trouble crossing, but for women it’s been worse. I have a friend who was raped seven times in Colombia,” says Magda, a blond who, in Cuba, owned a small manicure business.

Among the wandering emigrants from the Island there are those with sufficient money to stay in the best hotel in Paso Canoas, a two-floor building, painted an ivory color, that rents for 50 dollars a night.

Where are some Cubans getting so much money that they can pay between 10 and 12 thousand dollars in a country with an average salary of 23 dollars/month? I asked the engineer, Alfredo, at the entrance of the El Azteca pension.

“Many sold their car, their house or gold. Others earned money thanks to private business. Or they receive enough money from their relatives in the U.S. But most travel with their own money, which a family member abroad sends them, little by little, after a reunion, so they can come. It’s not recommended to travel with so much cash,” he answers.

Gabriel made an agreement with a sister who lives in Miami. “She offered me a loan and when I get to the U.S. I will pay her back,” he confesses, worried. He has spent the three thousand dollars and is still stranded in Paso Canoas.

Even far from Cuba, not a few emigrants are panicked at the thought of talking before the cameras or answering questions from journalists. “If I talk more, in case they send me back, I wouldn’t even be able to belong to the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution),” says a shirtless young man in the bus terminal.

On the contrary, a black man with a rugged complexion unloads his frustration, blaming the government of the Castros. “It’s their fault that people have to leave their country. Not even dead will I return.”

That’s the perception of the Cubans stranded in Puerto Canoas. There’s no way back.

Iván García, from Costa Rica

Translated by Regina Anavy

Bucanero-Cristal Exploits Ties to Self-Employed and Palco and Habaguanex Executives / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 24 November 2015 — Just as the proceedings surpassed the scandalous total of 42 people indicted, the General Vice-Prosecutor of the Republic of Cuba, Carlos Raúl Concepción Rangel, imposed a gag order on the case and hid it underneath the trite mantle of “secret character,” because — according to sources in the Prosecutor’s office — he’s expecting the number of those involved to increase.

The investigation filtered down, and some of the people implicated hardened themselves and beat it out of the country. Others are hiding out; there is a border alert for them, and an order of search and capture.

Before such an emergency, and even without finishing the trial, they’re taking the accused out of the investigation center at 100 and Aldabó — the women to the western prison, El Guatao (known as Manto Negro), the men to Valle Grande or the Combinado del Este. The VIP accomplices, owing to their natural status as first-class citizens, were sent home and asked to be “low profile” until their names could be pulled from the file or, at least, their complicity silenced in a case that could paint them as crooks. Continue reading

Press Workshop with Raul Rivero / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Raúl Rivero in his house in Havana.

Ivan Garcia, 23 November 2015 — On these hot nights in Havana, when nostalgia, that silent thief that robs you of strength, strikes without warning, Raúl Rivero, the poet, sneaks through my window and offers me a workshop specifically on the latest news from modern journalism.

The art of teaching still doesn’t accept journalistic lectures by telepathy. But I confess that I have grown as a reporter by brushing up on the lessons of the poet from Morón, Ciego de Ávila.

I met him one day before Christmas in 1995. There was an unusual cold spell in Havana. The sun didn’t poke out, and the greyness made the streets simmer with grime. Continue reading

Eight Years of the Cuban Independent Writers Club / Ivan Garcia

 Photo: Members of the Cuban Independent Writers Club at a meeting in Havana in 2011. From the Cuba blog.

Iván García, 16 November 2015 — In the depths of the peeling, unpainted building where the journalist and independent writer Víctor Manuel Domínguez lives, a lady, who is waiting for customers behind a display counter of cheap Chinese jewelry, is reading a well-used copy of a book by Corín Tellado.

On a rusty, narrow vertigo-inducing staircase, a dirty abandoned dog urinates hastily and without pause. Dominguez has lived in that ruinous building, in the very heart of Havana, for thirty years.

In the living room there are more books than furniture. With some music of Gal Costa in the background, Victor Manuel looks over dozens of manuscripts which will compete in the Vista-Puente de Letras competition [ed. note: for Cuban writers resident in Cuba] which it is anticipated will in the future be divided between Havana and Miami. Continue reading

The Stampede Continues / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 20 November 2015  — One year after initiating conversations to reestablish relations with the U.S., the Cuban Government continues its immobile posture, without taking a step forward.

The raised expectations, with which the immense majority of the Cuban population gave itself illusions, have stagnated, and the stampede of Cubans, most of them young, continues making news in all the foreign newspapers.

A new Mariel Boatlift, but this time by land, is happening. So far this year, the alarming number of national emigrants by different routes and countries, with Miami the final destination, has risen to 43,169, surpassing the massive emigration of 1994. Continue reading

The Shipwreck of Havana / Ivan Garcia


Ivan Garcia, 19 November 2015 — One hour before noon, the bus stops on Calzada 10 de Octubre are flooded with irritated people who want to transfer to other neighborhoods in the capital.

Hundreds of old cars reconverted into collective taxis full of passengers roll in the direction of Vedado or Centro Habana. The autumn heat and sense of urgency cause those waiting to despair.

Public transport continues to be a popular subject in a magical and flirtatious  city, which, in spite of its grime and ruins, will be 496 years old on November 16.

Orestes, a bus inspector, receives a spout of critical resentment from citizens who are disgusted with the precarious urban transport. Continue reading

Another Prisoner Swap? / Mario Lleonart

Mario Lleonart, 30 October 2015 — Once again the name of Ernesto Borges Pérez returns to the public arena, generating new expectations about his release. He has served more than seventeen long years of the thirty to which he was sentenced, after his death sentence was commuted at the prosecutor’s request. Ernesto’s advance disclosure thwarted the illegal infiltration into the U.S. of twenty-six Cuban spies, of the hordes frequently sent there. But at the cost of seventeen unrecoverable years from Ernesto’s valuable life. Everything indicates that he is the bargaining chip long set aside to trade for the spy Ana Belén Montes.*

Ernesto may finally go free and benefit from his heroic action, which by any measure was invaluable, whatever the price paid. I hope that the answer to the prayers we have raised for so long finally arrives. Ernesto’s parents Yvonne and Raul, elderly and ailing, can still experience the greatest happiness of their lives. His brother Cesar, and Paola, his only daughter, in exile, can laugh again. And he, with his tremendous human virtues, strengthened in prison, can still be of great benefit to a world greatly in need of heroes like him.

*Translator’s note: The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst convicted in 2003 of spying for Cuba and sentenced to 25 years in prison. See, e.g. “New Revelations About Cuban Spy Ana Montes.”

Translated by Tomás A.

Censorship, the Vital Artery of the Cuban Regime / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Jeovany Jimenez Vega, 4 November 2015 — The recent termination of Juan Carlos Cremata as a theater director, the previous suspension of “The King is Dying,” his last work on the stage of the Theater Center, and the publication online some days ago of an inflamed letter from the prestigious critic, Enrique Colina, motivated by this fact, once more stoked the embers of the polemic on censorship in Havana. Affectionately remembered for 24 per Second, his excellent program — definitely a reformer of our cinematographic culture and to whom more than one Cuban owes his passion for the best of this art — Colina comes out this time in valiant defense of Cremata and, by extension, of all censured creators in post-revolutionary Cuba. Continue reading

How Does History Help Us? / Dimas Castellano

Dimas Castellano, Havana, 17 September 2015 — 120 years ago, between 13th and 18th September 1895, twenty delegates selected from the five corps that the Libertador’s Army was divided into, and formed into a Constituent Assembly, promulgated the Constitution of Jimaguayú.

This Constitution, different from others in that it wasn’t structured in three parts — organic, dogmatic, and with a reform clause — but rather contained 24 consecutive articles without divisions into titles, sections or chapters. In it the Government of the Republic resided in a Government Council with legislative and executive powers. The executive power devolved upon the President (Salvador Cisneros Betancourt), while the legislative power stayed in the hands of the Government Council. In addition to a judicial power, organised by the Council, but functioning independently. The posts of General in Chief and Lieutenant General were vested in Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo respectively. Continue reading

What Can the Opposition Offer to Cubans? / Juan Juan Almeida

Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, voting unanimously, as it virtually always does.

Juan Juan Almeida, 9 November 2015 — Cuba is a country where polemics or its relative, debate, is the daily bread of artists, private entrepreneurs and intellectuals; an island where the majority of the young population are assured of being poor or having no possibility of fulfilling their dreams; a nation where the average professional suffers from a ridiculous salary; and a State where discontent between the politicians and the military is worrisome. Still, the opposition, which works for freedom and the right to establish a democratic government, has been incapable of building a plausible alternative.

Where exactly does our opposition find itself in relation to the other components of the Regime? Continue reading

Serving a Meal, a True Luxury / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya

Policemen trying to control line to purchase potatoes (file picture)

Policemen trying to control line to purchase potatoes (file picture)

Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, HAVANA, 6 November 2015 — Hopes and expectations that encouraged Cubans at the beginning of 2015, following the announcement of the restoration of relations between the governments of Cuba and the US, have vanished completely. Over the past eleven months there has not been a hint of any economic improvement for the population, and  the end of the year is expected to be grim, judging by, among other factors, rising prices in the food sector, our most important market.

Visits around numerous commercial shops and roving street markets in the populous municipality of Centro Habana, in the neighborhoods of San Leopoldo, Pueblo Nuevo and Cayo Hueso, evidence the shortages in merchandise, the low quality of products and the unstoppable rise in prices. Pork meat – the Cuban indicator par excellence –– fluctuates between 45 and 50 pesos per pound; while black beans go for 10 to 12 pesos. Other grains are priced beyond the reach of most pockets. The price for one pound of red beans has reached 17 pesos, while white beans cost between 18 and 20, and the price of chick peas has risen to 22. Continue reading

The Havana Fair: Hookers, Heat and Beer / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Feria-de-La-Habana-_ab-620x330Iván García, 12 November 2015 — Liudmila and Sheila are prostitutes and they don’t know about business or cutting-edge technology. But a colleague sent them a text message telling them, “Come here, the yumas (foreigners) are wild.”

They put on stunning high heels, tight clothing and perfume with an anesthetizing fragrance. Their plan was simple: to prowl around the stands for Canada, South Korea, France and Germany, and see how the fishing was at the International Fair of Havana.

“I can speak pretty good English. Let’s go to each pavilion and ask about the products on display or the possibility of working in a company. When we see some foreigner checking us out, we can go on the attack,” says Sheila, who has seven years of experience in prostitution. Continue reading

Cuba: Waiting and Hoping for the Cruise Ships / Ivan Garcia

Crucero-académico-M.V-_ab-620x330Iván García, 9 November 2015 — One warm evening in September, a scrapping brigade arrived from Habaguanex* and, in a little more than two hours, dismantled the aluminum tubes and awnings of three open-air bars on the Avenida del Puerto, where habaneros and tourists drank beer or ate fried chicken among the ambling musicians and prostitutes on the hunt.

The smell of fritanga** combined with the street-sellers’ cries and the nauseating odors from the contaminated Havana Bay. The spillage of waste matter was the pretext for the mandarins, who control the strongbox in the old part of the city, to disassemble the gastronomic shed, a couple of outhouses and, in passing, put some three dozen workers out of work. But the real reasons were something else. Continue reading

Cuban Journalists are in No-Man’s Land / Ivan Garcia

Foto-de-Elaine-Díaz-tomada-de-Periodismo-de-Barrio-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 31 October 2015 — It seems much time has passed since the ’80s, when a stern official from State Security, dressed in civilian clothing, solemnly intimidated us, a group of fresh youngsters, who were studying at La Vibora’s pre-university.

I was 16 years old. I don’t remember having felt more fear in my life than that afternoon, when the agent showed us his document with a red stamp and green lettering: DSE. The initials of the feared Department of State Security.

The guy manipulated our youthful fear like an expert. Perhaps he learned that in a KGB counterintelligence academy, or in the STASI of Marcus Wolf. Continue reading

To March or Not to March… that is the Question / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

March of the Ladies in White through Havana. (EFE)

March of the Ladies in White through Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 28 October 2015 — The latest cyber-skirmish unleashed around statements made by Eliécer Ávila, leader of the opposition movement Somos+, about the #Todosmarchamos initiative, once again focuses first, on the need for restraint in political discourse and the importance of not allowing ourselves to be swayed by the provocations of those who pursue only ratings and drama from the comfortable security of their distant geographical locations, and secondly, on the inability to weigh things at fair value, whether by the so-called opposition leaders — regardless of their strategies, their ideological orientation or their political proposals, if they happen to have them — or by public opinion.

In this case, there are numerous myths contained in a sort of Theogony of the opposition, a mirage created and sustained from abroad in an absurd desire to hold on to an opposition epic — which should eventually replace the current revolutionary epic — which, like the latter, creates pockets of prestige and heroism, and even castes and lineages, depending on whether the new heroes are willing to bleed or get slapped on the head. It is a well-known fact that we Cubans are experts at repeating our mistakes, especially those that guarantee future suffering and shredding of vestments.

We Cubans are experts at repeating our mistakes, especially those that guarantee future suffering and shredding of vestments Continue reading