Fariñas, Ready to Die, Like Zapata

In the poor, out-of-the-way neighborhood of La Chirusa, in the city of Santa Clara of Villa Clara Province, about 185 miles east of Havana, Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez, 48 years of age, is quite a character.

When a stranger, asking for directions, asks where Guillermo Fariñas lives, all of the neighbors widen their eyes and don’t know who you are talking about.  But if you ask about “Coco”- the nickname by which he is known – then people smile and say “Coco lives in number 615, he’s into human rights, he’s a ballsy guy, give him my regards,” one of his neighbors says with the straightforward language that is common among humble people.

To get to the small, cramped house of Fariñas you have to walk through a maze of passageways where the sewage runs freely.  Guillermo Fariñas lives in an early 20th century house, with his wife, 8-year-old daughter, and a niece.  In a ten-foot-square living room, Fariñas is seated in a chair against the wall, facing the front door, wrapped up in a flowered blanket.

About 15 people, relatives and dissidents, chat with him about various issues.  Some become emotional and break into silent weeping. “That affects me even more, please, you’ve got to be strong”, says “Coco” without any solemnity.

Fariñas must have some sort of unofficial world record when it comes to hunger strikes.  The one he started on Friday, February 26 is his 23rd.  And it is taking a toll on his body.

Like many dissidents, ‘Coco’ Fariñas used to believe in Fidel Castro’s revolution. He risked his hide fighting in the isolated villages of Angola during the 1980s civil war in that African country. He was a member of Castro’s elite troops, but in 1989 when General Arnaldo Ochoa was shot, accused of drug trafficking, Fariñas began to have second thoughts and unanswered questions.

He has a degree in psychology, and better than anyone else in Cuba, he knows the methods of the political police for breaking those who dissent. Since 1997 this big-eyed mestizo has been one of the heavyweight dissidents on the island.

He writes as a freelance journalist, and an independent library is located in his house. During the strike, many neighbors come by and talk cheerfully with Fariñas, giving him encouragement or begging him to stop. To everyone he delivers a speech, without slogans and in everyday language, giving his reasons for continuing the hunger strike. The main reason for this latest and perhaps final hunger strike: the death of the dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23rd.

“I knew him in 1991, when Zapata was a construction worker in a contingent, and was also a member of the Union of Young Communists, something that the government journalists are silent about now that they criticize him. Zapata was part of the rapid response brigades that the government counted on to repress the opposition, but after long talks with the dissidents he began to see that he was wrong. The official media don’t want to talk about any of this.  I’m also convinced that the death of Zapata was a state crime, an assassination.”

The dissident of the Chirusa neighborhood in the city of Santa Clara adds other arguments for continuing his hunger strike to the very end.

In a letter sent on February 26 to Raúl Castro, he urges him to demonstrate to the world and to his people that his lament to the foreign media was honest, and asks him to release the 200 political prisoners now held in various Cuban jails.

“I am a firm believer that when the government sees that the result of the hunger strikes is dissidents dying like flies, they will sit down and negotiate. These strikes are our weapons of pressure, we have nothing else.”

He also asks the Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to firmly press the Havana regime to introduce political changes.  He even believes that His Majesty the King of Spain Juan Carlos I, should comment on the fateful death of Zapata Tamayo.

Fariñas receives medical attention every 4 hours.  He believes that he will be admitted to the provincial hospital of Villa Clara Arnaldo Milian to receive parenteral alimentation.  His lips are dry, as he is not drinking water.  His appearance is frightening.  Juan Juan Almeida, son of the commandante friend of the Castros, who fought with them in the Sierra Maestra, left Coco’s house greatly saddened last Saturday.

In a text message Juan Juan sent to his friends, he said:

“The dissident of the barrio La Chirusa, professed admirer of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, figures beyond right and wrong, believes this is the way to turn the state around and to dream of democracy.  ‘If I must sacrifice my life to achieve political change, then count on my life,’ the Cuban champion of hunger strikes states quietly.  This is number 23 and his neighbors and friends suspect this will be the last.”

Translated by Tomás A. and Gracie Christie

Martha Beatriz Roque Remembers Orlando

On the afternoon of February 27th, Havana looked run-down.  A persistent rain engulfed the worn out streets of the Santo Suarez neighborhood with mud.  The sky, with its rat-like color, added a sad touch to the city.

Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Laritza and I arrived to the house of the house of the opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabella, a 64-year-old economist, and a woman with a chubby face and with deep bags under her eyes.  Roque Cabella lives in a narrow inner corridor.  Right in front of her door, agents from the political police have placed a large drawing of Fidel Castro, embedded into a grayish wall which has been deteriorating with time.

The veteran dissident received us in her small living room.  She is one of the most active voices for change in Cuba.  She has had to pay a high price for choosing to oppose the Castro government.  She has lived through innumerable detentions and abuses.  On two occasions she was even condemned to long years in prison.

The last time she “visited” the woman’s jail called Manto Negro, in the town of Guatao, was actually the 20th of March 2003, during the so-called Black Spring.  Through a medical parole, thanks to a string of illnesses and the pressure of the civilized world, the Castro regime was forced give in and free her.

“I am drained from my exhausting trip to Banes, where I attended the burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo — a trip in which I was 24 hours without sleep,” comments Martha, who is wearing a house dress the orange color of the mamoncillo fruit.

According to Roque Cabello, the town of Banes was completely taken over by State Security forces.  “It looked like a military fort, there were dozens of high-ranking officials, fearful and alert.  Reina Tamayo, the mother of the dissident who lost his life due to a prolonged hunger strike, resides in a poor concrete hut.  Walking in the streets filled with patches of misery was almost an adventure.”

She continued to explain to us, “There was a chain of soldiers and members of the political police.  There was a tense atmosphere, one could slice it with a knife.  In her living room, the body of Tamayo resided, along with a group of dissidents and the Ladies in White.  We placed a flag in the coffin,” she recalls with a calm voice.

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello half closes her eyes and meditates.  “It was around the year 2002 when I first met Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  He was a very humble guy, very respectful and disciplined.  One had to extract words from him.  On December 2002 he was detained simply for participating in an act of protest in the Lawton neighborhood — a protest organized by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.”

She adds: “During the first days of January 2003, almost on the eve of the Black Spring, he visited my house and acknowledged the personal support that I had given him, as well as our group, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society.  Zapata had no desire to assume a leading role, he did not desire to leave his country — he was just a common brick layer who felt that his country needed changes immediately,” she says with vehemence.

Martha then answers a phone call and later returns to the dialogue.  “In March of 2003 a group of dissidents of our organization initiated a hunger strike in the house of Marieta, the wife of the deceased dissident, Jesus Yanes Pelletier, in Humboldt, Vedado.  Orlando Zapata Tamayo participated with us.  I clearly remember that it was in that hunger strike where I held a full conversation with him and he told me about his miserable lifestyle, about his childhood which lacked material goods, and his dreams.  He was a simple person with a very firm idea in his mind: that Cuba move towards democracy”, she says in a low voice.

One of the principal leaders of the Cuban dissidence, Martha continues telling us:

“On March 20th 2003, they detained Orlando along with 86 other dissidents.  At first, the government of Fidel Castro detained that number of people and later, I suppose to round off the numbers and so the totals could match, in other words, 15 imprisoned dissidents for each one of the 5 spies jailed in the US, then he reduced the number of those arrested to 75.  Zapata spent a few days in a cell.  A few weeks afterward they let him go.  Then, after a few days, during an act of protest in favor of the liberation of the 75 arrested dissidents, which he carried out in Havana’s Central Park, he was again detained and sentenced 3 years in prison for disrespect.  Then he started his ordeal, the beginning of the end for this humble mestizo from Holguin.”

During the initial 3 years, because of different protests and complaints, they held various trials where they accused him of acting out in prison and his sentence was lengthened to 43 years.  Later, the court combined a sanction and his sentence was reduced to years in prison. In all the jails where Orlando Tamayo Zapata stayed, he was tortured and brutally beaten by the prison authorities. I recall that in one of the trials they staged, he arrived with his mouth all bruised up, handcuffed, and with shackles on his feet.  During his fateful hunger strike, the soldiers of the jails denied him water for 18 days…it wasn’t an accident or suicide…it was a crime,” an indignant Mara Beatriz declares.

She then grabs the Granma newspaper, dated February 27th, and with her fingers points out an article by the journalist, Enrique Ubieta:

“Besides lying without blushing, in his article there are many inconsistencies.  To try to vilify Zapata Tamayo, he tries to fabricate a background of dangerous delinquency.  Without a doubt, it is an obvious contradiction, for according to Ubieta, he was sentenced 3 times for supposed grave crimes in 2000, but already towards the end of 2001 he was free.  If there is no bad blood, then Ubieta is lying and the crimes couldn’t have been so grave,” points out Marta.

And she adds that for the government of the Castros it is inadmissible for a person who has had common crimes on their record to have the right to demand political changes.

“In his protests, in the hunger strike he carried out for 86 days, Orlando only asked for decent food cooked by his mother, to have water, and the freedom of the political prisoners.  It seems that for the government these demands were exaggerated.  Then they would have to deal with the outpouring of protests throughout the world and the accusing finger of the world media.  It is still too early to derive lessons from the death of Zapata Tamayo.  At this time, 7 other prisoners of conscience have initiated their own hunger strikes and the journalist, Guillermo Farinas, who resides in the city of Santa Clara, a man whose body has already been debilitated by prior hunger strikes, if he and the others do not give up, the bad news could pile up for the regime,” finishes Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, who promises that the internal dissidency will not stand by with their arms crossed.

The government of the Castro brothers may think it has reason in saying that nothing needs change in Cuba, that everything marches along just fine, and that the people are happy.  But it should be difficult to sleep with a peaceful conscience when, in their country, a man has lost his life simply for reclaiming a bunch of rights during the 7 years he was in jail.

The case is not about ideology, it is about humanity.  At least that is what many Cubans on the island believe.

Ivan Garcia y Laritza Diversent

Photos: Martha Beatriz, to the right, honoring Orlando Zapata Tamayo next to his coffin, together with various Ladies in White.

Translated by Raul G.

Lula Did Not Want His Party With the Castros to be Spoiled

The story of Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva seems to be taken straight out of a Globo TV soap opera.  Despite the fact of having only studied up to the 5th grade, Lula is a guy of natural intelligence, skillful statesmanship, and clever strategies when it comes to political moves.

He became a giant in trade union struggles back in the 70’s in the industrial belt of Sao Paulo, where he worked in a steel plant.  Lula is the Latin-American version of the Polish Lech Walesa and his Solidarity syndicate.  He never was communist and has been a firm critic of the former totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe.

An active Catholic, he created the Worker’s Party in 1982, and thanks to his work, this organization became one of the principal actors on the political map of Brazil.  As a good Brazilian, he likes the ‘Cachaca’ drink, festivals, and soccer.  He is a fan of the Corinthians football [soccer] team and bets on DT Dunga returning the sixth Cup back home from the World Cup this coming June in South Africa.

He was elected to the government after three failed candidacies.  In his case, he succeeded after the fourth try.  He contracted with the number 1 campaign advisor in Brazil to run his campaign.  This choice took him straight to the Planalto Palace.  Of course, Lula did alter his discourse.  He realized that in order to run a country it would take much more than workers, people from villages,  life-long shanty town residents, and people without land.  He didn’t threaten the rich and he allied himself with International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whom he has never failed to pay up to the last centavo of Brazilian debt.

Lula is a product created by political surgery.  He is a fruit produced by marketing.  He is an elite of political necromancy and transvestim.  His Zero Hunger campaigns have not achieved much.  Brazil continues to be among the countries in the world with the greatest inequality.  And such beautiful cities as Rio de Janeiro are also one of the most violent in the world.

Blacks and mestizos account for very little of the social and political life of the country, unless they are maybe soccer players, religious caretakers, or Rio musicians.  This year, Lula returns home to Sao Bernardo do Campo, with a Brazil that is amongst the 25 most economically powerful countries of the planet, yet it has a very uneven distribution of wealth and very few financial opportunities for those at the bottom.

As for the international realm, he has won success.  He is Obama’s right hand at international summits and representatives of the most richest countries have a soft spot for the working man who rose to be president.  Although Fidel Castro and his buddies, Chavez and Morales, have pulled the rug out from under the bearded Brazilian.

At times, Lula has turned away from the ideology of the left, but blood is thicker than water and before finishing his term he wanted to take a trip to Havana to say goodbye to his friend, Fidel, and to do some business with the Cuba of General Raul Castro.

He is within his rights as president of a sovereign country.  The bad side of Lula in his Havana trip, though, was to ignore the death of the peaceful opposition figure Orlando Zapata Tamayo due to a long hunger strike.  He was asked about the situation but he spoke about something else.  He turned a deaf ear.

Perhaps Lula was unaware that the 42 year old mestizo who, on February 25th, was buried in Banes, Holguin (an Eastern town about 850 km from the capital), was a bricklayer, and like him, a supporter of democracy and human rights.

His advisors did not want to spoil the party he was having with the Castros.  And Lula preferred silence.  The Brazilian president of the poor failed to point out that during that same day of his visit to Havana, a simple Cuban man died only because he was demanding the same thing that he (Lula) had demanded his entire life as a trade unionist, opposition politician, and statesman.  But despite having lived through periods of military dictatorship in Brazil, Lula had much more luck than Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

One night, while he is alone in his house drinking a Brazilian coffee, perhaps Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva will recognize how contemptible and cowardly he was to refuse to speak even a few words of condolence to the tormented mother of a man who, like himself, wanted the best for his country.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

There are Deaths that End up Being Very Expensive.

There are some deaths that could avoided.  Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death, for instance, was one of these.  It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the Cuban government.  The fact that in the 21st century a man has died as a result of an extensive hunger strike whose sole purpose was to demand a handful of rights, will always be a slap in the face of the most elemental principles of humanity.

It is not a problem of pride or of clearly establishing who is right.  The implacable power of a state should not, and could not, squash, without consideration, the life of a human being.  Especially when that person was purging an unjust sanction of 36 years behind bars.

The strength of those who have power lies in knowing how to make good use of the same.  The government of the Castro brothers is not going to accomplish any merits with situations like those of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  All the contrary.  In many ways, they should have, and could have, stopped his death.

Now, this cadaver has a symbolism attached to it that is far too great.  There are deaths that end up being very expensive.  It is not possible to talk to politicians of other latitudes and look them in the eye when you very well know that you have over 200 prisoners of conscience behind bars.

You can’t chat about ethics and humanity when in a prison cell in the depths of Cuba, a 42-year-old black and humble man like Orlando Zapata Tamayo, has died.  The point is not to discuss ideologies or to talk nonsense about groups and individuals who think differently.

What the government of my country should make a note of, with un-erasable ink, is that stupidity and caprice are not appropriate weapons for governing the destiny of a nation.

Zapata Tamayo is no longer with us.  He stopped existing on the 23rd of February at 3:15 pm in the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, where he was taken by the penal authorities when his decease was already imminent.

His death is a message of coming and going, of should not be done in the politics of a state.  Before, they had an opponent without any weapon who demanded things that could have been negotiated, but now they have a martyr.

It is not the first time that a peaceful opponent dies, product of a hunger strike, in a Cuban cell.  On the May 24, 1972, the student leader, Pedro Luis Boitel, ex-comrade of Fidel Castro, died of the same causes.

While I type this note on the morning of February 24, others who are dead come to mind.  The 4 pilots of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, shot down over international waters by the Revolutionary Combat Air Force in 1996.  From Havana, and with that action, Fidel Castro gave the pen to then president Bill Clinton so he could sign the unjust Helms-Burton Law.

I feel indignation.  I didn’t even know Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  From chatting with some of his companions from the Alternative Republican Movement, I sense that I am far from sharing his ideology.  But at this point in the Revolution, the machinery of hate and violence should be dropped.

It resolves nothing.  It only increases the scale of resentments and polarizes political rationalizations.  The government of Raúl Castro, whose second anniversary of being named president happens to coincide with this death, lacks sense, dialogue, and the desire to fix the shameful economic and political situation in Cuba, that system for which both he and his brother are primarily responsible.

I think it was the icon of civil rights struggles, Mahatma Gandhi, that said that hunger strikes are an effective weapon when they manage to soften the hearts of your enemies.  It seems, though, that the hunger strike carried out by Orlando Zapata Tamayo could not soften the hearts of the Castros.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

On the Edge of the Precipice

In Cuba we live on the edge of a precipice. If you want to get by, you have to take risks. In almost every sector of Cuban life you have to resort to illegal activity to be able to survive.

Market shortages in freely convertible currencies have become a frequent prospect. Furthermore, its normal to turn to to the black market to obtain the best selection and prices of goods.

In the street, hidden under a cloth you can even find a coffin if you need one, but you cannot forget that you are committing a crime by obtaining these goods. In Cuba, almost everything is illegal. If you sell or buy with the intention of re-selling the item afterwards, depending on the case you could be brought before the Commission for crimes involving the acquisition or the hoarding of goods.

The same thing can happen to you where you live. In each area a committee watches people 24/7. A culture of suspicion has been created, which doesn’t accept any proof of innocence. The reality is that no worker can live on just their monthly salary alone. You have two options, you live off remittances from your family or you improvise, you hustle and in Cuba this means you turn to the black market, like the illegal trade during the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

On Castro’s Island you can draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons simply by painting your house, buying a television, eating meat from time to time, throwing a good birthday party for your children or owning 3 or 4 pairs of shoes. This would be considered as having a quality of life which is too high, which is enough to result in the confiscation of your possessions for making money illegally. In this case, the responsibility to provide evidence is reversed, as it is up to you to prove that your “riches” are not a result of illegal activity.

It’s rare not to know what certain neighbours are up to in your area; not out of curiosity, but mainly out of necesity. You return from work and you discover that your cooking oil has run out, so you can take an empty bottle and ask around the neighbourhood. Straight away someone informs you who is selling oil. The same thing happens if you don’t have the right money when you’re out shopping and you need to buy detergent, soap or sausages or if you need to get hold of a chicken for your child who is ill.

Despite having spent 51 years basically living illegally, Cubans allegedly have to denounce all acts which go against the law. A failure to do so is considered a crime under the penal code; in other words turning a blind eye is also illegal.

Could you imagine turning in the person who sells you chicken for a lower price than the state or pointing the finger at the people who enable you to buy food, clothes and shoes at prices which you can afford? These people let you pay in two or three installments with other advantages which the state-run businesses do not offer. As the people consider this law unfair, you will find that in Cuba today there is a great social tolerance towards illegal activities.

The government is also aware of this situation so as a result a complex network of anonymous informants has been set up. People are betrayed not only due to strict vigilance or a desire to obey the law, but also due to jealousy, quarrels or sexual passions. This demonstrates the loss of morals in Cuban society and above all, the way in which the government can interfere in the private lives of citizens with complete impunity.

The wealth of a neighbour can worry one person or irritate another, including those “Revolutionaries,” who over the years have become frustrated with a life which seems to be going nowhere. An argument about loud music, a fight between brothers, a confrontation over the boundaries of an adjacent patio or simply just being proud and not saying hello to anyone can be the catalyst for a tip-off.

In other cases, you can give information in return for being left alone by the authorities. In all the neighbourhoods there is no lack of unscrupulous people who say “I am involved in illegal activities, but I will also inform on what others are doing.” These type of people have become the main source of information for the authorities, to fight against the “new rich,” the Cubans who supposedly represent a real danger to the political power of the communists. This is a twisted way of looking at things, but the informers are also acting out of necessity.

Despite these areas of 24 hour vigilance and denunciations, the number of people breaking the law increases every day. This is normal when you forbid a person from doing something against their natural survival instinct. All the individuals who flout the penal code do so for this reason and come from all walks of life.

There are acts which do not represent a danger to society, as they already classified as illegal in the legislation. It is certain that the only thing that is legal in Cuba is to work in a state owned enterprise, study and go shopping with your ration card in the warehouse. To do anything else means to cross over into illegality.

What damage does it do to a society when a citizen cannot sell eggs and advertise his goods in the street? What kind of feeling is created when the government prevents its citizens from going into private business when it is unable to meet their individual needs? The state knows that it is irrational to maintain a ban on something which it cannot provide a substitute for. The authorities are also aware that the citizens need to resort to illegal activities to survive, and the economic situation makes sure that this vicious circle prevails.

Illegal activities and corruption are closely linked. The shortage of resources encourages the black market and all this contributes to the collapse of the economy, hinders law and order of the state and removes the necessary social consensus which legitimizes the state’s power. By allowing individuals to live like barbarians in an uncivilised society without rules which must be obeyed, the state contributes to the breakdown of the fundamental components of education and the moral code.

if there are so many disadvantages from the illegal sector and rational measures are not taken to stop them either, what is the real purpose of the Cuban government? Their intention is not clear except to remain loyal at any cost to a system built upon illegal activity.

From this point of view, the illegal actions suit the government as their excessive bans help them to completely control the population who are suffocated by a repressive police presence and the population will be loyal as they need to survive. Under these conditions their power could last for another half a century.

For people in countries where a government of laws and rights exist, it is very difficult to understand why Cubans have to break the law in order to achiveve their aspirations or realize a dream. You commit a crime whilst accepting the crimes of others or run the risk of being turned in simply on a whim or out of spite.

This is an incomprehensible and surreal situation, but this is how we have lived in Cuba for 51 years since Fidel Castro came to power.  Without civic values.

Ivan Garcia and Laritza Diversent

Photo: juanmrivas, Flickr

Translated by : Ellie Edwards

The Fortress, the Books, and the City

Havana from La Cabaña fort

From Feb 11-22, Havana is the center of the 19th International Book Fair.  Then, the Book Fair will tour the major Cuban cities for a month.

The Book Fair will take place at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña.  This is  a building in the form of a polygon, composed of numerous bulwarks, moats, barracks, and warehouses.  Its construction was started in 1763, and finished 11 years later in 1774.  Of the military buildings Spain constructed in America, it is the largest.  As well as lodging for the best units of the Spanish Army in Cuba, it served to protect Havana from pirate attacks.

By order of Fidel Castro on January 3, 1959, Ernesto Che Guevara occupied La Cabaña and established his command headquarters there.  From that date, it was transformed into a military unit for the guerilla fighters.  And also into a giant prison.  In its humid cells, the same ones where they happily sell literary titles,  hundreds of political and common criminals used to be crowded together.

Serial executions took place in the yards where now the fascinated children run and play hide-and-seek behind the solidly built canons of the 18th century.  Stories are told that in the first days of the revolution, Che personally supervised the executions of the Batista party members accused of crimes.  In those same pits, the opponents of Castro were executed.  In 1991, after various years of remodeling, the old fortress was converted to the Military Morro-Cabaña Historical Park.

The 19th edition of the Book Fair is devoted to Russia.  In various pavilions, a heap of books by authors like Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, and Pushkin are sold.  I didn’t see books from Solzhenitsyn, Pasternack, or Nabokov.  If there is one whose books should have been sold, it is Yevgeny Yevtushenko, symbol of the post-Stalinist thawing, because the controversial poet is one of the more than 200 Russian intellectuals, writers, and artists, among them the Bolshoi Ballet, that traveled to the Island like special guests, purposely for the Fair.

Eighteen Years ago, Russia said goodbye to the communist ideology, but in Cuba, such a trustyworthy ally of Moscow that in 1976 a paragraph was included in the Constitution highlighting the “indestructible relations between both nations,” certain Russian literature, music, and movies are still considered dissident.

Having been dedicated to Russia, this Fair has brought loads of nostalgia to supporters of the Castro brothers.  Opened by the president, who has never hidden his veneration for the Soviet feat during World War II.  According to professor Jaime Suchlicki, from the University of Miami, “the Soviet army seemed to have always fascinated Raul, who exhibits photos and statues of soviet generals in his office in Havana.”

Together with the Russian Chancelor Sergei Lavrov, the general Raul Castro presided over the inauguration on Thursday, the 11th.  In subsequent days, people turned out en masse to the different areas of The Cabaña.

Havana – Book Fair 2010

With an impressive and unique view of Havana, and a multitude of books and kiosks with an ample gastronomic offering in the two currencies that circulate on the Island (the Cuban Peso and the Convertible Cuban Peso), thousands of people crowded the pavilions in search of literary novelties.

In pesos, the national currency, they sold a few tattered books.  More of the same.  At the entrance, they gave out the title Niños del Milagro (Children of the Miracle) published April 2004, about the eye operations of Venezuelan children, written by the Cuban journalists Katiuska Blanco, Alina Perera, and Alberto Ñúñez. By means of a human wall and with a little luck, you could acquire novels from universal pens or police procedurals from the Spaniard Juan Madrid.

There were ample offerings in strong currency.  Above all, for children.  Ricardo Rojas, 43 years old, seated with his back to the sea and with his daughter, under a bright sun and an irritating wind commented: “I spent 54 Cuban Convertible Pesos (some 50 dollars) in books for my daughter.  When I got back home, I will have to put up with the argument from my wife, for the money wasted only on books.  But they are didactic works that will serve in her education.”

At least Rojas can give himself this luxury.  The majority think about it twice when it comes time to open the wallet. The books are expensive, even the ones sold in pesos, as well as those sold in convertible currency. Nora Diaz, spent five hours with her 3 kids spinning like tops by all of the pavillions.  In her purse she had 120 pesos (4 dollars) and 6 convertible pesos (5 dollars) to spend between books and something to eat.

At the end she bought a pair of infant stories from a Russian author, a cookbook, and 4 apples that she and her kids ate seated on the heights of the Fortress of the Cabaña, looking at the still intense blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and scant anchored boats, waiting to enter the Havana port.  Nora does not believe that it was a lost day.  “It is an oasis of tranquility to see from the city from here.  We will go back with few books, but hopeful,” she said captivated by the splendid scenery.

In spite of its shady past, the vision offered from the grounds of La Cabaña offers is fabulous.  If only to look at Havana from the other side of the bay it is worthwhile to challenge the lines, the empty wallets, the daily disgust, and the deficient public transport.  Book Fair or no Book Fair.

Iván García

Photos: CalQBN, Flickr and Iván García

Translated by BW

Ballplayers Longing For Six Figure Salaries

They can’t sleep easy at night.  The millionaire salaries that they pay the ballplayers in the Big Leagues of the United States give the Cuban players a migraine.  It’s no small wonder.

Every time a newspaper from the other side of the pond falls in their hands, or they watch it through Florida TV Channels, they see the Angel’s great hitter, Kendry Morales, who had a dream career, or when they see that the lefty Aroldis Chapman pitching 100 miles per hour signed six seasons with the Cincinnati Reds for 30.25 millions dollars (he will make a minimum of 5 millions dollars per season). It is inevitable that the young local baseball stars like Aramis Mendez sighs to play one day in the big arena.

The drip drip drip of desertions from the national sports increases. When in 1991 the right handed pitcher René Arocha from the Havana town of Regla, from the other side of the bay, opened the spigot of baseball players that preferred to play as professionals and manage their money without the inference of the State, since then the number grows year by year

A little more than 300 baseball players have left the country. At the first opportunity, however it might be, by abandoning the team in the middle of a game, or throwing themselves onto the sea in any floating object. They want to leave behind their modest lives of playing the whole year just to get the salary of a simple worker.

In Cuba a baseball player plays in the national classics, he does not work, and he competes the whole year like his counterparts, the professionals, do. When he goes to the pay window he collects super modest salary. Noelvis Rodríguez, a shortstop with good hands and a hot batting average, makes 278 Cuban pesos a month (around 12 dollars) as an exterminator even though he has never done this job before.

It is an old trick of the countries with totalitarian societies. They say that the athletes are amateurs, but actually, since infancy they are groomed as sportsmen of high efficiency. Since the now-extinct USSR appeared in the sports arena, back in 1952 in the Olympic games of Helsinki. The hierarchy of the communist states was eager to obtain great results in the sport arena to be able to show the superiority of the socialist system over undesirable and wild capitalism.

In all these nations, including Cuba, they could go without butter and beef but they will have plenty of Olympic winners; since an early age, their athletic abilities are manufactured like sausages and polished in the sporting schools.

In the quest for Olympic glory, they even practice dirty tricks. The biggest cheaters were the East Germans. To a swimmer like Cornelia Ender or an arrogant runner like Marita Koch, they were stuffed with forbidden substances to achieve results that border science fiction.

On the Island they also resorted to doping, although not with the same intensity as the East European athletes who had shining scores, like the disk thrower Luis Mariano Delis, or the weight lifter Daniel Núñez, they incurred in the use of forbidden substances to place themselves among the best of the world

The main sports of all times in Cuba are boxing and baseball. Before 1959 baseball players, the size of Adolfo Luque, Orestes Miñoso and Martin Dihigo, and pugilist like Kid Chocolate.

After the arrival of the bearded ones, sport was diversified, and they were great winners, like Las Morenas del Caribe in volleyball, track and field athletes, headed by the phenomenal runner of the 400 and 800 meters Alberto Juantorena, double Olympic champion in Montreal in 1976.

But the unexhaustible quarry was always in baseball and boxing. In the first years of the Revolution, the athletes who ran away from their Country to make money and compete for whichever country would take them were few. After 1991 when René Arocha started the stampede, the exodus of boxers and baseball players has increased

Mediocre athletes do not leave, no way. They want to make juicy salaries, Olympic boxing champions like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yan Bartelemí, and Odlanier Solís. Baseball players the caliber of the brothers Liván Hernández, José Ariel Contreras, Kendry Morales, Dayán Viciedo and Aroldis Chapman.

That is the reason why young talents like Noelvis Rodríguez watch mesmerized from home at the spectacular plays of their idols. If one day they make it to the Major Leagues, they also expect six figure salaries, and to be able to rescue their relatives out of their poverty. The government of the Castro brothers maintains a sterile struggle with its athletes.

The Castros plead that they compete in the name of honor and the love of the motherland. That money is not important but the love of their compatriots. Baseball stars like Kendry Morales and Aroldis Chapman got tired of hearing the string of patriotic rhetoric, while living in their humble concrete shacks

Their meager salaries disgust many Cuban baseball players. A long time ago, they glanced to the north. They wait for the opportunity to escape from the Island and make their dreams come true.

By the request of those interviewed, the names has been changed.

Translated by: Mari Mesa

A Calvary of Problems

El Calvario (Calvary) is a dusty and steep village, with many half-paved streets. It is located south of Havana, in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, the poorest and the one with the greatest number of imprisoned men in the entire city.

It was once a major town. When it was founded in 1753 by a family of Canary Islanders it had pretensions of being a middle-class neighborhood. There were three sugar mills, a municipal park, a church and a cemetery.

It is even said that the Cuban national hero José Martí had a girlfriend in the village. This is a typical claim of inhabitants of lost villages, inventing fables to add prestige to the soil of their birth.

In this January of 2010 in the 21st century, the village is a collection of sad one-story houses. Some have roofs of palm fronds and dirt floors. At the local cemetery a sallow, mentally-challenged guy acts as gatekeeper and gravedigger. Like something out of a horror movie.

In the space between graves, he grows squash, which he offers to the mourners and the curious who visit the rundown cemetery. The fool, which is what he really is, takes advantage of the ground and its possibilities.

A few days ago, between swigs of cheap rum, filtered with molasses and the smell of pork barbecued over charcoal on the grill, in the squalid old town they held the Assembly of Accountability.

What kind of assembly is that? It’s a review of what has been done by the delegate (a kind of council member) before the people who elected him. That night the atmosphere was warm. At the meeting, under the stars and surrounded by marabou weed and banana plants, the rotund president of the People’s Power in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo and his deputy were present.

The People’s Power emerged in 1974. It is a poor imitation of a Western parliament, where they play at practicing democracy. People go and raise a long list of complaints, which are very rarely solved.

That night, someone tape-recorded the Calvary Assembly. The local chiefs expressed themselves so badly,  mixing lies with the prepared government speech and partisan jargon, that it seemed like it was taken from a film script by Berlanga. They appear to propose ideas. The reality is that they impose them. They discussed issues such as lack of doctors, the possibility of having a market, and what to do to get a phone.

If it were not for the poor audio, it would have been worth listening to. It is a sample of Cuban democracy. The best in the world. According to Fidel Castro.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Love in the Time of the Special Period

Julia Romero, a 20-year-old university student, will never forget the day she lost her virginity. Forget the fairy tale of a magical night, surrounded by a pleasant environment.

“My first night of love was terrible. It was in the middle of spring, we left a mediocre disco and had sex in a pitch-black park, surrounded by onlookers and in a heavy downpour that surprised us. The only pleasurable thing was that we were two people in love.”

And so it is that to make love in decent conditions in 21st century Havana is a luxury. Before 1989, there was an extensive network of motels, known in Cuba as posadas or inns. They were discrete, inexpensive, and air conditioned. They offered sandwiches and alcoholic beverages. They were open 24 hours. And for young couples, unfaithful spouses, and others who lived in overcrowded conditions and enjoyed no privacy, the only option they had to engage in sexual relations was to go to these motels.

But in 1990, with the arrival of the special period, a crisis that has lasted 21 years, among many other things, the inns quietly disappeared. The most common situation on the island is for up to four generations to live together under one roof. Having a single room is a convenience that few enjoy. Even young couples, when they have children, tend to sleep with them in the same room.

Ask the married couple Jose Ramirez and Delia Iznaga, about the problems they face when having sex. And with a frown, they will give you a long list of calamities. The Ramirez marriage produced two sons, 8 and 11 years old.

“They sleep in the same room. We barely have time for married life, it’s been a month since we had sex. And although we’re both 35, when we go out at night, my wife and I look like a couple of teenagers. We’ll make love in a staircase, the courtyard of a school, or a vacant lot. Several times we have surprised the custodians of the place or the police. We were shamefaced when we had to go pay a fine for ‘obscene acts in public.'”

With the legalization of the dollar and self-employment, private houses proliferated that rented to couples. They are comfortable and offer a wide assortment of food and beverages. But they are very expensive for the average Cuban.

Rudy Ramos, 43, owns one of these “tryst houses.” “The business is not going badly. I have expanded to 9 rooms, air conditioning, television, refrigerator, and shower with hot and cold water. The charge is 5 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) for two hours. And 10 CUC for the entire night. My papers are in order.

It happens that 10 CUC (250 Cuban pesos) is the minimum monthly wage in Cuba. These kind of houses for rent by the hour arose with foreigners in mind. It is well-known that one of the attractions of the island is sex tourism. But Cubans who work in hotels, or in cafes for CUCs, or who receive remittances from abroad, can with some frequency lie on a good mattress with a girlfriend, while drinking Crystal beer, and can shower with warm water after making love.

But they are the minority. Most, such as the Ramirez couple, or the college student Julia Romero, have sex without spending a dime, in a park under the stars or on any staircase of some building in the city. And believe me, in Havana there are many of these places.

Iván García

Photo: la imagen, Flickr

Translated by: Tomás A.

Revolutionary Tax

It’s like a casino.  Pure gambling.  Cuban government economists don’t have to envy the financial wizard George Soros. Since October 25, 2004, when Fidel Castro levied an 18 percent tax on the U.S. dollar and 8 percent on other currencies, from this source alone Cuba has banked more than 600 million dollars a year in hard currency.

Let me explain. There is no trick whatsoever. Of the one billion dollars in remittances sent every year by Cuban exiles in Florida, the government pocketed 200 million. Without investing a dime.

If we accept as valid that two million visitors enter the island every year — naive northern Europeans, horny Spaniards hunting dark-skinned girls, relaxed Canadians fleeing the cold, and thousands of Cuban-Americans who come to visit their families — to all without exception, when they exchange money, the government applies the revolutionary tax.

As good Galician descendants, the Castros are reluctant to give figures, especially when it comes to money. So one has to keep accounts on paper. To the 600 million dollars, add 200 million for the tax applied to tourists, assuming that each of them, on average, exchanges 3 thousand U.S. dollars or euros.

And to complete Operation Robin Hood as implemented in Cuba, let’s add another 200 million dollars from high prices charged in establishments that sell goods or offer services for foreign exchange. Since 2004, commodities like oil, soaps, detergents and garments are sold exclusively for Cuban convertible pesos or CUC, the straw currency that hides the Yankee dollar.

$100 in 2002 translates to $60 in the newly released 2010. It’s simple arithmetic. You lose $20 when you change money in the state banks and another twenty when they mercilessly suck your taxes, sometimes in excess of 240 percent, when you go shopping at hard-currency stores.

At the time, the Comandante only justified that kind of abusive tax because the U.S. Department of Treasury, with its regulations resulting from the embargo, had made it impossible to trade with Yankee money. It was really because the Americans discovered four billion U.S. dollars deposited in the Swiss bank UBS from transactions with Cuba, which the Havana government claimed came from sales in hard-currency stores.

I’ve always wondered why they saved so much. Then came the plucking operation. Including Castro’s “good one”; one sunny morning in 2005, told the foreign press that this money was paying for the vaunted “energy revolution”, as he called the replacing of millions of electric appliances from the prehistoric era in most Cuban homes.

Forty-year-old American refrigerators, home cooling fans with industrial motors that made as much noise as an airplane taking off, and Russian television screens in black and white. He distributed poor-quality Chinese rice cookers, televisions and refrigerators. In addition to paying for the new equipment, people had to surrender the old. And the best of it was that the operation to save fuel and to replace archaic appliances was paid for by Cuban exiles, as well as tourists and foreign visitors, with the government tax on foreign exchange. Business full-circle.

Alan Greenspan had to be green with envy. With a government that does not take money from the rich, as did the hero of Sherwood Forest. No. It punishes the Cuban emigre who has to work two jobs in Miami and live in a cheap apartment and make sacrifices to send money to his family in Cuba.

The government always makes a monumental miscalculation, when it supposes that by having a second-hand car, an Apple Computer, a Motorola phone, air conditioning and a satellite dish, a Cuban is a rich guy. Maybe they should look in the mirror. Because they usually have all that paraphernalia and the rest of the people don’t, they presume that the “worms” in Miami are rolling in greenbacks.

It is not new to impose a revolutionary tax that the people don’t want. The Basque terrorist group ETA, made it fashionable for entrepreneurs and bankers to pay large sums of money, as one of the ways to maintain their terror campaign against the Spanish government. Leftist groups have also robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy people, and then demanded a lot of money. Anything goes in pursuit of the conquest of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Of the many omissions that the Castro brothers are silent about, the revolutionary tax on foreign exchange is one of them. As it is also obvious that for 16 years the exiles and their relatives in Cuba have to a large extent maintained the stunted island’s economy.

It is well-known that the Cuban economy is in bankruptcy. And with these reprehensible practices they keep it afloat. The least that the Castros should do, as fond of museums and statues as they are, is to erect a great monument in the heart of Havana to those Cubans in the diaspora who give oxygen to their economy.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Independent Journalists’ Avatars

Damn.  What do I do now?  I had planned an interview with a lady from the Marianao neighborhood who does community service with needy children.  Because of reasons beyond my control I had to postpone it.

It’s 8:00 in the morning of an unusual and cold month of January in 2010.  I look at the wallet, 28 cuc’s left.  I have to improvise for the failed interview.  Already inside an “almendrón” (antique American car in use as a shared taxi), I decide to share with you the avatars and dreams of an Independent Cuban Journalist.

When, in October, 2009, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, in its digital version, asked me to write a debate blog titled 90 Miles in partnership with Max Lesnik, the idea seamed brilliant.  Also, if I could, the Mister of Editing with his Madrid accent asked me, some stories.  Great!  Hands to work.  But — there’s always a but — to write in Cuba is a task worthy of Tarzan.

I’ve seen Robert Redford’s film about Watergate seven times.  Incarnates the famous Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, and his celebrity source, Deep Throat.  A majestic case of journalism.  With avidity the stories get published in the magazines Time or Newsweek.  Also reports in El Mundo or the Sunday edition of El País.  They’re over the top.  To be a journalist in the First World must be gratifying.

No bureaucrat can deny you public information.  Nor dangling over your head is a horrific law that can condemn you to 20 years in jail.  Also no one in the neighborhood where you live can mount a “repudiation act,” a verbal lynching, German fascist style, where the least they’ll scream at you is a verbal assault on the mother who gave you birth.

Never, in that First World where for breakfast there’s a variety of dishes and with frequency you can eat meat, will a candid intelligence agent pay you a visit to threaten you, that if you continue to write you could be processed.  Must be good to be a journalist in the First World.

In the civilized, because in Colombia or Mexico, a paid thug of a drug cartel can spray you with bullets.  Or in the Venezuela of the delirious Hugo Chavez where the Bolivarian, without contemplations can fill you with improprieties on his television program Aló Presidente.

I have the habit of reading the comments left me.  I like to be criticized.  More so when they are views with weight in them.  If I adore something from the 21st Century is it’s feedback.  I write what I think, be it in a chronicle or in an opinion piece.  For the government, I’m a mercenary.  A traitor to my people and the Socialist Revolution.

I don’t frighten.  I take the work seriously.  Believe me.  And I’m a dreamer, who believes that deep down inside people are good.  For this 2010 I’ve got my plans.  I’d like for Raul Castro to give me the answers he denies blogger Yoani Sanchez.  Also I’d like to interview Fidel Castro in his private clinic.

The encounters list continues.  With Cuban athletes Kendry Morales and Dayron Robles.  And afterward have them sign their autographs for me.  I’d be happy if Usain Bolt, the man who came from another planet, the Swiss Roger Federer, the Argentine Lionel Messi or the Spaniard Pau Gasol, would grant me a few minutes.  Of the politicians, apart from the Castros, with pleasure I’d talk for El Mundo or for my blog, Desde La Habana, with the prisoner of conscience Oscar Elias Biscet or with the exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner.  Of foreign statesmen, I’d pour off with Lula or a polemic interview with the Father Christmas of Caracas.

Well, why not?  Also with the charismatic Barack Obama and the insipid Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who I’d ask to explain his government’s position with respect to Cuba.  I would miss a fist-full of artists and my little right eye, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s good to dream.  But I’ve arrived at the Parque Central Hotel.  An Internet card for one hour costs 8 cuc, a ton of money.  I tuck away well in my wallet the rest of the 20 cuc’s.  For next time.

I’d give what I don’t have to try out extensive reports, controversial and balanced and with good pictures.  And because someone from the said list granted me an interview.  But that’s jerking off.  Now I have to put my feet on the ground.  And besides this chronicle, see what else I can write for El Mundo and my blog Desde La Habana.  Afterwards I can continue dreaming.

Iván García

Photo:

Translated by: Mickey Garrote

DHL Switzerland Does Not Inform Its Cuban Clients

The flood of publicity with which DHL inundates the world floods in telling us that they will deliver packages in 72 hours from door to door.  Well, that will be the case for the rest of the world.  In Cuba, generally, it takes a while longer.  And you have to pay a lot for their services.

I have experienced for myself how the leading firm of global couriers tricks its clients.  I will tell you my story.  I have a daughter who turned 7 on February 3rd. Several weeks in advance I asked my mother to buy her a red outfit for her birthday.  My mother lives in the prim city of Lucerne, a German-Swiss city that never captures international media headlines.

What appeared to be a routine procedure turned into an odyssey and this time Cuban Customs was not to blame.  According to Moraima Vargas Hernández, who is in charge of the DHL Import Office in Havana, the office of the multinational on the outskirts of Lucerne had been informed by email that “for anything with a value over $100, the sender must acquire a consular invoice from the Cuban consulate.”  This consular invoice costs 210 Swiss francs (some 200 dollars).  And in this document one can read that the invoice is required regardless of the contents and weight of the package.

In 2009, my family in Lucerne sent us four packages via DHL. To send a package to Cuba, a country located in Zone 2, the geographic area most distant from Europe, you must use a box, which they give you for free, that is one of five sizes.  The tariffs from Switzerland to Cuba are not cheap: 155 Swiss Francs for the smallest package and 320 for the largest (some $147 to $303).

The point is that DHL in Switzerland had never told my mother, who is 67 and who had to take a bus to Dierikon where the Lucerne DHL office is located, some 40 minutes from her house, that to send a package to the Island she had to get the consular invoice from the Cuban consulate in Berne.

That is  not all, besides of this flagrant violation of the worldly courier, the implacable Cuban bureaucratic state machinery came onto the scene. According to official Vargas, the time allowed for these errands was only ten working days, a very short time in comparison with the two months allowed by DHL for these types of errands.

I agreed with my mother to reclaim the box and pay the money she had to pay to have it returned to her house.  As she lives in a country with rights, there are mechanisms to complain and even sue the international company for providing bad information.

From Cuba it’s a waste of time.  In its desire to deposit money in its depleted coffers, the government imposes high taxes on any commercial transaction or sale of products.  Not to mention that on the Island, the law does not protect the consumer.

For the Castros, emigrants are a kind of cow, the more they can milk them and the more foreign currency they can obtain the better.  DHL, like nearly all transnational companies when it’s about money, is apolitical and unscrupulous, and they negotiate with the highest bidder.

The giant Google, anxious to grow its user-base, has established itself in China, a nation where fierce censorship and human rights violations are enforced  Or the famous Nike, has also installed factories in the Asiatic giant to produce low cost goods, without caring that the Chinese government pays miserable wages and exploits their workers mercilessly.

Unfortunately, this is the way most multinationals operate. They are more interested in a piece of the cake than adhering to ethical business practices or principles. They negotiate with tyrants and closed dictatorial regimes, knowing that these countries violate human rights and the free press is notable for its absence  Each time the contradictions between the politician’s speeches and those of the business people are even more evident.

Doing business with Cuba could backfire for DHL. Employees from DHL in Switzerland were alarmed upon learning that their offices in Havana charge 200 Cuban pesos for delivering the package to your door. According to what we know, DHL global pays for the fuel for the delivery vehicles that bring the shipments to their destinations in all of the countries where it does business.

In this tug-of-war between a company that cheats its clients and a government that for any transaction charges high amounts of money, my daughter Melany will not be able to premiere, on her birthday, the clothes that her grandmother bought for her. Thankfully, she is a happy girl. Not even DHL in Switzerland or the Customs of Cuba are going to erase her naughty smile.

Melany still does not understand the diabolical mechanisms established, in the country where she was born, to continuously put obstacles in the way of the free flow of goods. They form a part of the embargo of the Castros against its people. Three times more effective than that of the United States against Cuba.

Iván García

Translated by: caribbeanmanny@yahoo.com

Another Year Without Hope

When winter comes, Ruben Soriano, 42, is hoping more than anything for the arrival of a cold front. He takes his straw hat off, looks up at the sky and exclaims: “It’s not going to rain again today.” That’s bad for his business. Ruben works hard on a not-very-fertile field on the outskirts of Havana, where he plants tomatoes and vegetables in season. High temperatures and prolonged drought have decreased his crops. With a simple and compelling logic he says:

“If I harvest little, I earn little. And if I don’t get good money I live badly, and I will not have much money to buy seeds and farming tools for the next year. So I pray that the weather will help me.”

Soriano was one of those who benefitted when in 2008 the government of General Raúl Castro gave out rights to farm vacant land. He, his wife and three children were full of hope.

The only thing that Ruben Soriano has done and has done well in his whole life is to work the land. He complains about the low prices that the State collection centers pay for his crops. In theory, he must sell the state about 70 percent of what he grows.

In practice, that’s not what happens. He is forced to under-report the true figures, so that he can sell to private buyers who pay triple the price for his products. “But if the heat and lack of rain continue, I’ll have to do something else,” he worries. And he admits that all he watches on TV are the weather forecasts.

Oscar Suarez, 56, couldn’t care less if it rains, or is cold or hot. He is a private taxi driver, licensed to drive for hire since 2006. Each December, he has to report his earnings to the Treasury and pay the bank between 2,000 and 3,500 pesos.

“It’s always the same. When the last month of the year comes, I have to work like a mule to get that money. For me the important thing is not how much time I have to work, it’s whether there are people needing to go from one place to another who have the ten Cuban pesos to pay the fare.

Suarez is a taxi driver with an elevated cultural level. He doesn’t have to envy his counterparts in Buenos Aires, where according to what he has read, they talk about opera, the stock market, the Boca Juniors, an Argentine soccer team, and the situation in Iraq. “I am like them,” he boasts.

“I am not like the taxi drivers in Argentina, or anywhere on the planet, in that I drive an ancient Chevrolet, a real Frankenstein.” And laughing, he says: “It’s an old lady with rouge. I’ve painted it seven times, and done body work as many times. It’s a mechanical monstrosity; it has the engine of a Volga (Russian car) and parts from so many countries that it seems like a product of the United Nations.”

But it runs and makes money, which is all that’s important to him.  Nor does he worry about whether it pollutes the environment.

“This old Chevy is part of the family. My grandfather, my father, and now me and my children have all driven it. I am more grateful to it than I would be to a watchdog. I often say that in my house, before dinner, instead of praying to the Lord, we pray to General Motors.”

For 2010, Oscar Suarez wants peace and harmony throughout the world, and that Cuba’s economic situation improves. “I have wanted this since 1989, but I’m getting tired of keeping my hopes up. Although it would be good if those above” –and he makes a gesture with his hand indicating the beard of Fidel Castro — “would change direction and be guided by the market economy, but who knows what’s best for the coming year …”

Diego Ramirez, a 34-year old engineer, does not expect great things from 2010. Quite the contrary.

“More likely we’ll have to punch another hole in our belt. In my company there are rumors of pay cuts in hard currency. They took away our lunch and give us 15 pesos a day for food. The outlook is gray and getting darker.”

Diego is a textbook skeptic. “The only ones who see where the country is headed are the people leading us.” And he shows a copy of the daily newspaper Granma, with a grinning Hugo Chávez, and a headline in black letters with the good news: 13 billion dollars invested between Cuba and Venezuela.

Guys like Diego Ramirez long ago stopped believing in the exaggerated triumphalism of the official media. Every day he hopes for a different kind of news.  “Deaths, changes of power, political and economic changes …” And dreams of learning from foreign media. “The Cuban press won’t report anything until everything is under control. So it’s possible that by next year, something really good will happen. ”

– Deaths, firings, political and economic changes…

And he dreams of what he’s learned through the foreign media.  “The Cuban press wouldn’t report anything until everything is under control.  So it’s possible that in the coming year, something good could happen.

According to Diego, many Cubans want the same thing.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Sonia Garro, or the Cruelty of a Regime

Sonia Garro at her sewing machine

It all started one sunless noon, on the 24th of February, 2007. “Up here,” said Sonia, a laboratory technician, who sews on a 50-year-old machine on the porch of her home, from where she often saw accidents involving children playing without the watchful eyes of their parents. And her large eyes filled with tears on nights when she saw girls 12 years old, with emaciated bodies, like that of her daughter, prostitute themselves for trinkets.

And it was decided. That day Sonia established an independent community project that would help poor children in her neighborhood, regardless of the ideology of their parents.

We introduce to you Sonia Garro Alfonso, 34, a black woman, somewhat overweight, who lives on Avenida 47 No. 11,638 between 116 and 118, in the populous and humble district of Marianao, at the north end of the City of Havana. If anyone can talk about poverty, prejudice, and setbacks in life, she can.

“I can count the happy moments of my childhood on the fingers of one hand. I am the tenth child in a family of twelve children, desperately poor. Forget Christmas presents. We always wore second-hand clothes given out of charity to my mother by a neighbor. I went to school with my old, broken-down shoes, but with an immense desire, always thinking that studying and outdoing myself could change my fate,” Sonia tells us in the narrow room, panelled with mustard-colored wood, in her precarious two-story house.

Unfortunately for Sonia, her luck did not change in her early youth. On her own, and against obvious shades of racism, during the years when she studied to become a laboratory technician, to climb the hill and leave poverty behind, choking down bread to ward off hunger and be a person who is solvent, it was almost a mission impossible.

“I lived racism firsthand. I remember one day I wanted to make a complaint at the school and the assistant director, with hatred, told me “Go wherever you want, who’s going to listen to the case of a black woman?”  When I graduated from the technical school in laboratory science with a first class degree, they had a ceremony in the Astral theater in the middle of Havana.  The Minister of Public Health was to hand out the diplomas to the most outstanding, and another person from the minister’s circle approached me and said someone else would receive my diploma for me, because to have someone with such black skin in the photo wouldn’t look good. “No offense, it’s not because of racism, but with skin that dark you’ll spoil the photo,” recalls Sonia in her calm voice.

That night, which should have been the happiest of her life, she had to swallow the bitter pill that another person, of the white race, had taken her diploma. She was so humiliated that she left the theater. “I never got that diploma,” she confesses. But as the saying goes, on a skinny dog, all that falls are fleas.

Then, when she was employed in a clinic in her neighborhood, in an “emergency” meeting, she was expelled from the health center for having a husband who was a political opponent. “‘You can do one of two things,’ they told me, ‘either separate from him, or you have to leave the clinic.'” Sonya left.

If anyone has pushed this woman to dissent, and to set her own standards, it is the government itself, with its absurd way of acting. Until for her the light went on. After spending hours sitting on her porch, watching children get hurt, getting stuck between trash dumpsters, playing barefoot and squabbling among themselves, Sonia knew she had to do something.

Then with the help of her husband, she founded the Independent Cultural Recreation Center, on February 24, 2007.  In their house, every afternoon after school, scores of children between 7 and 15 years old meet on the porch and in the living room of their modest home.

The children

“The first rule I have is not to talk about politics at all. I organize activities of drawing and cutting and sewing. My husband, Ramon Alejandro Muñoz, a musician by profession, is in charge of preparing dance choreography and teaching them to play musical instruments. When we can, on weekends we have parties and distribute children’s books and toys. Some foreign non-governmental organizations have helped us with materials and medicines. Also embassies of European Union countries, and individual people, who give us what they can. Because this is not a work of one person,” says Sonia, while showing us many photos of activities with clowns, where the common denominator is the bright smile on the faces of those children.

After that initial experience, Garro decided to go for more. She opened another community center in the El Palenque slum, in the borough of Marianao. If you want to know how El Palenque is, look at photos of a sordid favela of Rio de Janeiro or a shantytown of Port au Prince before the earthquake. It is almost the same. There, Sonia and her partners serve between 16 and 18 children.

What looks like a healthy activity of civilized society, which brings more benefits than problems, has unleashed a small hurricane from the State Security forces of the Cuban state. Accustomed for 51 years that any good idea always starts at the desk of a senior official of the Communist Party, it always raises suspicions and makes a person suspect when a citizen, on her own, creates a project without the support of Father State. And Sonia Garro has had to pay a price for her humanitarian work.

“The government’s response to my social work has been three acts of repudiation and a couple of beatings. The last act of repudiation they tried to give me did not work, because nobody on the block went to support them, they had to march with empty hands,” she says, without animosity or emotion.

Most of the children who attend the project live in little hells at home. Almost all come from dysfunctional families where the father is in jail or his children do not know him. At the very least, revolutionary neighbors, supposedly integrated into the system, “congratulate the Garro Muñoz couple.”

“There are even police who welcome and encourage us for what we do,” says Sonia’s husband.

Sonia Garro is far from being a sociologist or expert, dedicated to studying just why in Cuba, a paradigm of a happy childhood, cases like this occur in her neighborhood. Neither does she want to emulate Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Nor Zilda Arns, the Brazilian doctor who died in Port au Prince as a result of the Haitian earthquake, and left a legacy of thousands of children rescued from poverty and marginalization.

The task of this Cuban is simple. Seeing the children laugh and grow in a healthy environment, free from violence. If in the future these children become professionals, educated in civic values, and not locked up in jail, she will be satisfied. She does not ask for anything more. And that is why she doesn’t understand why her work arouses such resentment among the authorities.

By other pathways, Sonia Alfonso Garro assumed that the State wished to accomplish the same thing. But the government does not think like she does. On the contrary.

Iván García and Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

From Havana, Year 1

The old computer in Lucerne

The idea of having a blog where I could post about life in my country and to have the power to write in the first person about the small things in this scene that surround me, that was an idea that was cooked a long time over a slow flame.

It was in 2004, while reading Time and Newsweek, that I learned about the phenomenon of blogs.  With evident delay, some past postings by a very special guy, Andrew Sullivan, landed in my hands.

It was like this that I learned about a North American solider in Iraq, a picketer in Buenos Aires, a nun in Calcutta, and a doctor without borders in Almeria.  I also learned about the legions of Iranian and Chinese bloggers who, in spite being besieged by their governments, continued to write and forcefully denounce through their personal stories.

Let’s get to work, I thought.  But it had limits.  Not having a laptop nor money, I could not easily justify spending the money that my mother, from the mountainous city of Lucerne, would sacrifice for and send me.  Internet access cards in Cuba cost about 6 to 9 dollars an hour.

My family in Switzerland chose to continue using an old computer, pictured here, and sent me a Dell laptop which had been a gift to them.  The keyboard was in English, or maybe German, I am not sure.  But it made me suffer long hours trying to place an accent or compose the letter ñ.  One does not look a gift horse in the mouth, better this than nothing.

At first, I thought of opening a blog just for me where I could write small chronicles and articles.  But then later I thought it would be better to create a collective blog.

Between educating my daughter and managing the daily Cuban vortex of securing a hot meal, the blog was delayed.  Finally in December, 2008, I put two and two together.  You know, the last month of the year is the month of resolutions where one tries to balance what has been with what is yet to come in the next 365 days.

I decided that in 2009 I would take off, full speed ahead.  Luis Cino, one of the best independent Cuban journalists, told me to count him in.  My mother, a political refugee, retired journalist, and blogger since March 2007 was also in. The team would be complete with the chronicles of poet and reporter Raul Rivero who compiled for the daily El Mundo.  (For eight years, Rivero lead the Cuban Press agency where I began as an independent journalist in 1995.)

The platform was ready, but something was missing.  We needed a person that would write about the bizarre Cuban laws and the high rate of judicial illiteracy that exists among our citizens. Our last card would be the attorney and independent journalist Laritza Diversent, of Haitian roots, hyperkinetic, and just as poor as her ancestors from Port Au Prince.

So the network was composed.  And it was just at this moment that the star of the Cuban blogosphere, Yoani Sanchez and her husband, the journalist of wide curriculum Reinaldo Escobar, put the icing on the cake and gave a happy ending to the idea.  They linked me to the portal Cuban Voices born January 28th, 2009.  Thanks to Yoani’s patience, I learned to use Word Press 2.7 and was able to upload photos and post.

It wasn’t easy.  But on that same January 28th, the From Havana blog was also started.  It’s been a year.  Luis Cino, due to conflicts with the independent periodical for which he works was not able to write.  Several other journalists and young Cuban writers, residents of other provinces, have shown interest in publishing their works on our blog.

It is Laritza’s and my dream that we not be limited to only the capital, that we are able to cover all of Cuba.  But we need resources to help organize those volunteers that wish to collaborate. Those who know best can describe what occurs around them. In spite the limitations, the idea still stands. We want the From Havana blog to be open to Cubans and also to foreigners.  Quality chronicles about daily life that will move people.  Or comments about successes, national or international ones.

The good news started towards the end of 2009. Thanks to Carlos Moreira, a friend from Portugal, since October we have a webpage named Cuban Points of View.  And starting in January, 2010, this same friend began to help us administrate the blog.  Moreira, among many other things he’s done in his free time and free of charge, has given the blog a new look and also placed us on Twitter and Facebook.

The blog has also been enriched by videos and news footage prepared in Lucerne by my mother.  This is an initiative we would like to continue with her because finding videos and photos on the internet is not only costly but exasperating as the internet and network connections to the island are very slow.

Foreign friends of Laritza and mine ask in what way they can help and we always say the same.  Technology is expensive and for that reason, we always prefer that they purchase internet cards for us.

A few days ago Laritza and I went to the Marianao neighborhood to plan a profile of Sonia Garro, a woman of the black race who against winds and tides has maintained an independent community project for the poor children of the neighborhood.  You will soon read what we wrote.  But among this work, Laritza and I gave ourselves the satisfaction of gathering 20 CUC to be able buy a few toys to take to the little ones.

In this first year, many things have impressed us.  The history of Sonia Garro is one of them.  The other was the case of Yunia Palacio, a young mother of three with very few means.  She’s 27 years old and looks as if she were 50.   She has a husband who beats her and has kicked her out of their home — if that’s what a cardboard roof, some palm fronds and three dirty mattresses on the floor could be called.

When we spoke with this mixed woman from Santiago, Laritza cried.  My eyes watered too.  Yunia Palacio is the closest face that we have met that has the potential to be suicidal.  As modestly as we can, we’ve helped her pay a fine of 500 pesos (20 dollars).  We also give her clothes that no longer fit my daughter or Laritza’s son.

They are symbolic gestures.  For this reason we believe that the From Havana blog as well as the Cuba Points of View website and the daily El Mundo/America, published since October 2009, serve to amplify these small stories and expose the tarnish that our government and its spokespeople ignore.

And that is the point.  It’s not that these things don’t occur in other countries, they do and possibly even worse.  But journalists there have the liberty to reflect.  In Cuba they don’t.   For the official Cuban media, the revolution is a tropical paradise.

If our text moves you and provides awareness of the reality of our country, then we have met our objective.

In the meantime, from Havana we will continue to report.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

Photo: Work area of Tania Quintero, in the living room of her apartment in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she has lived as a political refugee since November 26, 2003.

Translated by: AV