The Right of Assembly / Somos+

Somos+, Ezequiel Álvarez, 27 March 2017 — I believe that, in the resistance against the totalitarian, military dictatorship of the Castros, the existence of diverse organizations is essential and necessary. If we fight against a monolithic system, it is indispensable to start from a pluralist base wherein there is room for different ideas. continue reading

If communism’s major flaw is to intend for all the world to submit by force to one ideology, our response cannot be another antagonistic solution of the same kind.

The human being by nature represents a variety of opinions. The democratic system proclaims freedom of assembly, and as proponents of democracy for Cuba, we should accept that other points of view also have a right to participate in the opposition.

Starting from that premise, I propose that we should know how to work together in this phase, and allow the electoral process to decide the democratic route that the nation will take.

Meanwhile, let us continue, each according to his conscience, respecting the same right in others, working together toward the same ideal.

Let us prepare the foundations starting now, so that in the eventual future, we can be ready to prevent a repeat of the current tragedy. An upright structure that will serve as safe passage to a constitutional democracy, with the prior approval of the opposition parties, is a solution that we should explore and work towards making a reality.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuba: To Live As Third Class Citizens / Iván García

A Cuban market. Photo Credit: Libre Mercado

Iván García, 17 March 2017 — On a wooden shelf are displayed two bottles of liquid detergent, a dozen packs of Populares cigarettes, a packet of coffee, and, on a hastily-drawn poster, a quotation from the deceased Fidel Castro.

Past 10:30 am, the hot bodega [in this case a store where rationed items are sold] is like a steam oven. Luisa, the saleswoman, seated on a plastic chair, tries to start up a rusty residential fan. In the background can be heard the baritone voice of an announcer narrating a soap opera scene.

In the bodega’s storeroom, stacked in random heaps, are 10 or 12 bags of rice, a half-empty container of vegetable oil, and several bags of powdered milk that the State provides exclusively for children younger than 7 years of age and for individuals who possess medical documentation of having cancer or some other grave illness. continue reading

Sitting on the stoop at the store’s entrance, two dirty guys knock back mouthfuls of rum from a small jug while a stray dog, old and ragged, urinates on the door. The monotony of the surreal panorama is broken when the saleswoman hurls a piece of hose at the dog to frighten it away.

After a while, customers begin arriving, nylon bags dangling from their forearms and ration books in their hands.

To all who were born in Cuba, the regime sells 7 pounds of rice, 20 ounces of black beans, a pouch of coffee blended with peas, a half-pound of vegetable oil, and 1 pound of chicken per month–and on a daily basis one bread roll, almost always poorly made.

This subsidized market basket, if consumed in small portions at lunch or dinner, will probably last 10 or 12 days. After that, for the remainder of the month, people are on their own. Housewives and mothers who, after getting home from work, must turn on the stove should be given prizes for creativity.

To feed a family requires 90 percent of the household income. Those who make a low salary (which is the majority of the population) have no choice but to purchase average to low-quality merchandise offered by the State. Those who receive remittances from family or friends abroad in hard currency can purchase higher-quality products.

The ration book, which was implemented in March 1962, is the reason that thousands of Cubans have not died of hunger. Although what they eat remains a mystery.

Luisa the saleswoman says that “for four months now, the rice we get at the bodega is dreadful. Nobody can eat it. Not even the best cook could make it better. It sticks, forming a sludge, and it tastes like hell. And don’t even mention the beans. They’ve been taken from the state reserves, where they’ve been stored for ages. They have a terrible smell. And you could try cooking them for four or five hours and they still wouldn’t soften. This is rice and beans that pigs would not eat.”

But Diego and María, a couple of pensioners who between the two of them take in the equivalent of 25 dollars a month, cannot afford the luxury of discarding the subsidized rice.

“I mix it with the rice that’s sold at 4 Cuban pesos per pound; it’s pretty good, and this way we can eat it. If you live in Cuba you can’t be picky. You have to eat what they give you, or what you can find,” María emphasizes.

If you go around inside any state-run cafeteria, you will note that hygienic standards are nonexistent: stacks of cold-cut sandwiches, fritters or portions of fried fish on aluminum trays surrounded by a chorus of flies.

The elderly, those great losers in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms, tend to eat foods of low nutritional value and worse preparation, just to lessen their hunger.

There is a chain of state-run dining halls on the Island that serve lunch and dinner to more than a half-million people who are in extreme poverty.

One of these facilities can be found in the old bar Diana, located on the busy and dirty Calzada Diez de Octubre street. The rations cost 1 Cuban peso. According to a Social Security roster provided to the administrator, about 100 Havana residents–almost all low-income elderly people–are served there daily.

At two steel tables covered with cheap cloths, three women and four men, holding their old metal bowls, await the day’s rations. “The food isn’t worth mentioning. A bit of rice, often hard, watery beans, and a croquette or a boiled egg. Sometimes they give you a little piece of chicken,” says Eusebio, a retired railway engineer who lives by himself.

A dozen people interviewed complain more about their bad luck, about having no money and being dirt-poor, than about the bad cooking. “Yes, it’s bad, but at least in these dining rooms we can count on getting lunch and dinner,” notes Gladys, a single mother of four daughters who receives Social Security.

A staff member admits that “it’s very difficult to cook well without seasonings and condiments. Nor do we get vegetables and fruits. On top of that, the administrator and the cooks make off with the oil and the chicken when we get them.”

In Cuba, what is bad, unpleasant and incorrect goes beyond food preparation. You can find it in the dirty stands that hold vegetables and fruits, in the sale of unwrapped goods, or the adulteration of standards for making sausages and weighing them appropriately at the point of sale.

“It shows a lack of respect towards the population. Anything that you buy in Cuban pesos is of horrible quality. It’s the same for clothing, hardware items or household items. In general, what is sold to the people is shit. Look at these bags of watery yogurt,” Mildred points out while standing in line at a state store to buy whipped yogurt at 15 Cuban pesos per bag.

Even when purchases are made with convertible pesos*, it is hard in Cuba to buy items of assured quality.

But Cubans, who must eat, dress and enjoy their leisure time by paying for it with the national currency– the Cuban peso–must make do with devalued merchandise. They are third-class citizens in their own country.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos, worth about 4 cents US, and Cuban Convertible pesos, each worth 25 Cuban pesos, or about one dollar US. It has been a longstanding, but as yet unfulfilled, promise of the government to move to a single currency.

#SaferInternetDay / Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, 7 February 2017 — Today is the worldwide observance of Safer Internet Day. Best practices should guide navigation for the benefit of the user; thus, she would never have the sour sensation that her Facebook page has been taken down for having undesirable content or that he has lost access to his email account containing all his correspondence–not to mention the disaster of a hacked web page–and all for not selecting a password other than “password” or “1234.”

Often when I speak of these matters, people stare at me in surprise or with frank indifference and think that “my contents are not secret.” I always say that mine aren’t either, but to maintain the security and privacy of my data is my right, even more so in a country where intrusive (bad) practices are part of daily life.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Eight Truths About Cuba That the Bikini-Clad Girls Don’t Know / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 4 March 2017 — Another crazy initiative…a bit picturesque, perhaps interesting, but totally absurd. Representatives of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) arrive at the José Martí Airport in Havana with the express intention of combatting animal abuse and creating vegetarian habits on the Island.

The idea of watching young activists dressed in lettuce leaves attached to green bikinis makes for an attractive attention-getter–and it surprisingly reveals the enormous ignorance of many about Cuban history, politics, culture, laws, and society.

Perhaps the authorities, as part of a “considered” neo-diplomacy, allows these young ladies to promenade with gossamer lightness through Old Havana, dispensing souvenirs, feeding homeless dogs, or handing out introductory pamphlets on vegetarianism with recipes for beans and rice. But there exists, and it is good to know this, (1) a cautionary, provincial ordinance that more or less says the following: Anyone who publicly goes around the Cuban capital dressed in swimwear, even when we all know that it is a coastal city, commits a violation and could be fined. continue reading

Regarding beef, somebody should explain to the PETA activists that, ever since July 12, 1963–creation date of the sadly famous OFICODAS (Offices of Food Control and Distribution)–(2) Cubans have been forced to exchange beef for chicken, ‘hotdogs’ and/or fish [see (4) below, there is no fish], depending on which series is listed on the ration booklet.

In the greatest of the Greater Antilles, (3) there is as much beef consumed as in India, where cows are considered sacred. And, besides the facts that Cuba is (4) the only island in the world whose diet does not feature fish and that Cubans born in that time euphemistically called the Special Period (5) grew up without a culture of beef consumption, (6) one pound of vegetables, in the agricultural market, competes with pork in terms of price.

It would be useful to know who will offer lettuce to these young lovelies because, even though Raúl Castro in 2008 started leasing out 1.7 hectares of land in usufruct for agricultural use, (7) Cuba still imports more than 63% of the food it consumes and the (8) fresh lettuce offered in the restaurants of tourist hotels is not cultivated on the Island.

A misguided plan which, save for the level of risk, is very similar to that of the Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma–who even knowing the fate of his ex-comrade and mentor, the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez–still decided to travel to Havana this past 1 March to receive urgent medical care in Cuba.

The principal enemy of people who waste time creating publicity stunts is common sense. Now is the time for momentum, determination, and awareness-raising about real matters, such as the disturbing rise in the crime rate, gender-based violence, and the innumerable cases of domestic violence. To name just a notable few.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Too Young for the Party and Too Old for the Communist Youth / Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez

Harold Cárdenas (

cubanet square logoCubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez, Havana, 9 February 2017 — Try as I might—to avoid being a bore and accused of holding a grudge against the boy—I cannot leave Harold Cárdenas, the ineffable blogger at La Joven Cuba, in peace, I just can’t. And the fault is his own, because the narrative he makes out of his adventures defending his beloved Castro regime, and his loyal candor, strikes one as a kind of masochism worse than that of Anastasia Steele, the yielding girl in Fifty Shades of Grey.

In a post on 19 January, Harold Cardenas complained of the terrible limbo, for a communist, in which he finds himself (not to mention that it would be the envy of many militants who accepted the red card because they had no other option): Harold, being past the requisite age, was removed from the Union of Young Communists (UJC), but he is not accepted into the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) because, they explain, he is still too young. continue reading

His situation reminds me of a 1976 song by the British rock band Jethro Tull (which Harold probably doesn’t know, because of his age, and because I can’t imagine him listening to any music other than that of Silvio, Buena Fe and Calle 13). The song tells the story of the disconsolate and hairy motorcyclist and failed suicide, Ray, who was “too old to rock and roll, too young to die.”

Harold Cárdenas rightly intuits, given the entrenchment recently being displayed by the regime, that he has been given the boot—or the bat, as his contemporaries say—from both organizations because of his publications “in other media.” And so he knocks himself out with explanations, challenges his punishers to find one counterrevolutionary line in his writings, “but without taking a line or a post out of its context—conducting a serious search through the totality of the content.”

As if these guys needed to go to so much trouble to suspect someone and consider him an enemy!

The blogger, with his foolish sincerity and wild innocence (Ay, Julio Iglesias!) has annoyed the stony big shots and their subordinate “hard-core” little shots—always so unsympathetic towards those who, even while remaining within the Revolution, dare to think with their own heads and give too many opinions. This is why they consider him undisciplined, hypercritical, and irresponsible, why they don’t want him in the UJC nor the PCC.

Overall, he came out all right, because in other times, not too long ago, who knows what the punishment might have been…

Harold Cárdenas, with his faith intact through it all, assures us that he does not have a single complaint about the Party, although, as he says, it hurts him “how some dogmatists detract from the collective intelligence of the organization.”

As far as Harold is concerned, his punishers do not answer to an official policy, but rather are dogmatic extremists who think themselves more leftist than Stalin. He warns: “We must take care not to confuse sectarian procedures with State or Party politics, even if they try to disguise themselves as such. The individuals who apply them, although they might try to justify their actions as being taken in the name of the Revolution or some institution, are doing it for themselves. They are trying to preserve the status quo of the known, motivated by fear, ignorance or other interests.”

Harold Cárdenas, who seems to believe himself the reincarnation of Julio Antonio Mella (who, by the way, seems to have been assassinated by order of his comrades and not the dictator Machado, due to his Trotskyite connections) believes that what is happening is a “tactical struggle among revolutionary sectors” of which he has been a victim. But he does not despair. With the patience of a red Job, having been warned that “it is very difficult to fight for a better society outside of the movement that must lead the construction,” Cárdenas says that he will join the Party when he will not have to “subordinate the political struggle to a vertical discipline… when they give me a way, there will be a will.”

And one, faced with such resigned masochism, does not know whether to pity Harold in his wait for the blessed little red card, or give him up as incorrigible, and let him continue to self-flagellate. May Lenin Be With Him!

Author’s email:

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuba Seeks to Have Defecting Physicians Return to Work in the Island / Juan Juan Almeida

Cuban doctors who defected from medical missions in Venezuela protesting in Bogota (Archive)

Juan Juan Almeida, 27 January 2017 — With notable determination, the Cuban government seeks to lure, or rather rope-in, physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers who have defected while serving on medical missions outside Cuba.

To this end, it has sent out a flyer in which it assures that the right of return is guaranteed–just as long as they maintain a respectful attitude toward the Revolution and have not joined counter-revolutionary organizations.

Everyone knows that healthcare is a strategic factor in the development and wellbeing of any society. The diplomacy of white coats, as the export of medical services is also known, is among the principal revenue sources of the Cuban state, and a very effective tool for political influence. continue reading

Cuban medical doctors serve in remote areas. Cuba’s contribution to the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa still resonates in the memory of European, and even North American, politicians. For this reason, any defection or escape poses a concern for the Island authorities.

A medical defector, besides becoming a bad investment for the country’s economy, also symbolizes the unquestionable link in the chain of failures of the Cuban healthcare system. But a traitor who returns signifies a social, economic and public relations triumph.

They must be induced to return. To this end–and to take advantage of the tremendous uncertainty planted by the announced end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and the Cuban medical professional parole program–the government has started a campaign that covers every municipality of the Island, visiting the families of every ungrateful malcontent health worker, making them complete a form and using it as a communication link or bait.

The form is as follows (“collaborator” in this case being a positive term):

Proposal to Exchange Information with Relatives of Ex-Collaborators

Date:               Location:

Name and surnames of the ex-collaborator:

Name and surnames of the interviewed relative:

Relative’s political affiliation:

Degree of kinship with the ex-collaborator:

Duty to Inform:

The family member is to inform the ex-collaborator regarding the Cuban Government’s disposition to guarantee the right of return to the country, according to the requirements of the Migration Law, as long as individual maintains an attitude of respect towards the Revolution, and has not joined a counterrevolutionary organization.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Ileana de la Guardia: "Castro Executed My Father Because of Rivalry" / Juan Juan Almeida

Ileana de la Guardia

Juan Juan Almeida, 16 December 2016 — Twenty-seven years after Cause Number 1, the judicial proceedings that resulted in the deaths by firing squad and arrests of several high officials of the Cuban army and secret services, Ileana de la Guardia–daughter of the then-colonel of State Security of the Havana regime–believes that the decision to execute her father was made by the Cuban dictator to teach a lesson.

According to De La Guardia, who lives under asylum in France, Castro did not accept the critiques that her father and others, such as the general Arnaldo Ochoa–also executed–made regarding the need for changes in the country. She affirmed that the deaths of her father, Ochoa, and two other officials served as a way to cast the blame on them for the charge by United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that Cuba was involved in international drug trafficking.

Ileana de la Guardia with her father.

Until the time of your father’s trial, who was Ileana de la Guardia, how did you learn of the trial, how did you experience it?

At that time I was living in Cuba, had finished my university studies, and was a psychologist. I learned of the seizures of my father and my uncle, Patricio de la Guardia, on the same day. We did not know where they were nor what the charges were. Eventually, we learned that they were being held at Villa Marista [Central Offices of Cuban State Security], and we went there. Upon arriving we were told that they were being detained, that they were not arrested, that we had to leave, and that nobody could tell us what the charges were. This is how justice works in Cuba–“justice” in quotation marks, that is, because it is not justice. continue reading

A week went by, and I was given the authorization to see my father. I asked him if he knew what he was being accused of and he told me no. I also asked him if he would be tried, and he said he didn’t know. That same day in the evening, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, I learned from a phone call that I was required to appear in the auditorium of the Armed Forces (FAR) the next day because that was where the hearing would take place.

Imagine receiving this news without them having the right to have their lawyers present. The lawyers who were there were “public” defenders. The one assigned to my father told me that he was ashamed to represent him. The one for Patricio told us that he had not had time to read the file and did not really know how to defend “that gentleman.”

That was when we knew that they were all lawyers with the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). Before starting the proceedings, before trying them, Granma newspaper ran headlines announcing the death penalty. The front page said, “we will cleanse with blood this offense to the fatherland.” It was clear that the decision to execute them had already been made.

The trial was a kind of circus in which all were accused or accused themselves. Later we learned that they had been blackmailed, that they had to incriminate themselves to escape the death penalty–and to protect their families–there was a lot of blackmail with regard to the families. Thus the trial went until the end.

Our family wanted to appeal, but we were denied. Later, the Council of State, fully and unanimously, came down in favor of execution. They were executed exactly one month after being arrested: General Arnaldo Ochoa; Martínez, the assistant; my father, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia; and his assistant, Amado Padrón.

The memory of that trial brings back images of confusion and much division within the high military command. How do you remember it, and what were the repercussions for you, your family?

The consequence for our family was being watched all the time. There were always cars parked near where we lived, and when we went out, these cars would follow us with officials inside them who would watch us. There were also cameras filming us from the houses across the street from ours.

The de la Guardia brothers were twins.

Your father, as well as Patricio (the brother of your father, Antonio de la Guardia), and General Arnaldo Ochoa were well-known and admired men. Throughout that trial, what happened with their friends?

I could not say that all the friends stopped seeing us; I believe some people were afraid, others were not. I maintained relationships with many people who continued coming to see us. I know that many people were let go from the MININT, many officials, a high percentage. That ministry was taken over by Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, who up until that moment was in the FAR. There was a takeover of the Interior Ministry by military officials.

What information do you have about the real reason that your father and the other defendants in Cause Number 1 of 1989 were executed?

From the beginning, I knew immediately that the charges against Ochoa and Patricio, who were in Africa, were trumped up. All of them were charged with drug trafficking, which made no sense. If they were working in Africa throughout so many years, directing the Cuban troops in Africa, how were they going to be accused of something that they couldn’t control? If drug trafficking was going on, and the ships were docking in Cuba, it was happening while these men were in Africa.

Later we realized that Raúl Castro, in a speech to the armed forces that was broadcast on television, had said, “those officials who are criticizing, let them go to Eastern Europe,” and then, “down with Ochoa.”

Then, connecting the dots, we realized that Ochoa and the group of officials around him criticized Fidel Castro and the regime a great deal because of the need for changes. This reached the ears of Fidel and Raúl because Ochoa had made sure to make it public, within the army and in family gatherings–besides telling them directly.

This is the fundamental reason why Fidel decided to eliminate these officials: because of the political aspect.

Meanwhile, the DEA was accusing Cuba of involvement in drug trafficking to the United States, and Castro found the perfect excuse to eliminate these military men while at the same time eliminate the DEA’s accusation of the Cuban government.

Prior to these events, what would you hear your father say about Fidel Castro?

As of 1986 or 87, there were very critical articles starting to appear in the press in Cuba, in the [Spanish-language Soviet] magazines Sputnik and Novedades de Moscú, which spoke of glasnost and about how Gorbachev was trying to make rapid changes.

People read these publications and these topics were discussed a great deal in my father’s house, we would speak of it on the patio. They thought the place might be bugged but they didn’t care.

The fact of being at a high level of command and knowing that the Soviets were already changing the system made them think that Fidel Castro would accept this. They thought that he couldn’t be so crazy as to oppose the changes. “He has to realize that this doesn’t work anymore, people must be given freedoms to express themselves, to travel, to have human rights”–they talked about all of this.

When I left Cuba–first to Mexico and later to Spain–it was very difficult to talk about this because we were still undocumented, we had no residency anywhere, no political asylum. It was in France, where we received support, including political asylum, where I decided to speak publicly. Articles started to come out, journalists started to investigate, and other facts emerged. We learned that there are officials in Russia who say that Ochoa met in private with Gorbachev in Cuba. Ochoa spoke Russian, there was nobody else present, Gorbachev wanted to speak only with Ochoa. Fidel could not stand this.

Ochoa never kept quiet about anything. One day, right in front of me at Patricio’s house, he said, “This has to change, it cannot go on this way, that man is insane, what are we going to do with the crazy man.”

In Cuba, it was always said that the writer Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and personal friend of Fidel Castro, tried to intercede so that they would not execute your father and Arnaldo Ochoa. Is this true?

What I know for sure, because my husband Jorge Masetti and I went to see him, is that we took García Márquez a letter from my grandmother, asking him to intervene so that these officials, including my father, would not be put to death.

He told us, “I will do everything possible, I believe that this is not a good idea, and I have tried to get across to Fidel Castro that it is not a good idea for him personally.” But I never had proof that he did this.

After the execution, did you ever see García Márquez again? Did he tell you anything about this matter?

No, never again. I was now the daughter of a traitor. García Márquez was a powerful man, friend to powerful men. After being executed, my father was no longer a powerful man, he was a victim.

Did you have the chance to speak with your father after the sentence and before the execution?

Yes, before the trial, then during the trial I had a visit, during which he gave me to understand that they asked him to take responsibility and then they would not execute him, but that there was blackmail regarding the family and also with his life, and if he did not say that [incriminate himself], they would execute him.

And they did execute him. During the visit prior to the execution, which was very personal, he said, “things are going to get bad, but very bad, in this country.” Later came the “Special Period [grave economic crisis].” He knew what was awaiting Cuba.

Have you had any further news of your uncle Patricio, where he’s living? Does the government provide him with any retirement pension?

I cannot speak about this very much because it is a bit sensitive. What I can say is that he paints, because they [Antonio and Patricio de la Guardia] were painters before being military men, and they studied at an art school in the United States. He paints very well. He lives in the family home, it is not a house given to him by the Cuban state. Our family had properties before 1959. I don’t speak much about him these days, because if I say where he is or if I say too much, they will throw him in jail again.

Do you have contact with the family of General Ochoa or any of the other executed officers?

No, none.

In 2006, because of illness, Fidel Castro gave over the command of the country to his brother, Raúl. The day after this announcement, I entered the cafeteria of the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, ran into one of the daughters of General Ochoa, and she told me, “I don’t want him to die, I want Fidel to suffer at least the half of what my family has suffered.” What did you feel at that time, when you heard this announcement, and what was your reaction when you found out that Fidel Castro had died?

At first, I didn’t believe it. When they called me from the US and my husband answered the telephone, I said to him, “He died again? I want to continue sleeping, leave me in peace.” Later when I got up and realized that it was true, it was like a sense of relief.

My husband asked me, what do you feel? I told him an enormous relief. The matter is that for me, it’s as if I had died spiritually. Besides, I already knew that he was ill and that he had lost his senses somewhat, given the things he would say. For me, he was like a shadow, a ghost. But that sense of relief was also because that symbol of the repression is no more, he doesn’t exist.

Does the death of Fidel Castro modify or change what 13 July 1989, means to you and your family?

To a certain point, I will tell you that for me, it is a relief that the one responsible, who decided the death of my father, has died, and in a certain way it gives me joy, I must admit. I cannot say that the death of him who ordered my father to be executed makes me sad, that would be absurd. That would be hypocrisy.

What does Raúl Castro mean to you?

For me, Raúl Castro represents the continuation of the system, with certain attributes different from those of his brother. They are two different people and have different command styles. The two have that ideologically dogmatic aspect, but perhaps Raúl is a bit more pragmatic, thus the changes that have been made on the economic level.

This is why I have been in favor of Obama’s visit, the opening of tourism, and of certain exchanges because it is the Cuban people who will benefit from this. Unfortunately, the regime takes advantage of this situation, but so does the average Cuban, those who have been able to start a business derive benefit and thus are able to help their families and other Cubans. And it is better than nothing, the problem is that it is not enough.

The country will not change until there are real political changes.

After the execution of your father, have you talked with or run into any of the children of Fidel or Raúl? If this were to happen, what would you say to them?

No, never, no. I didn’t know them. I never went anyplace where the children of Fidel Castro might be. I did meet two of Raúl’s daughters, but they were not friends of mine, we ran into each other somewhere. Mariela also studied psychology, so one time we coincided in some place.

How do you see Cuba’s immediate future?

In the short run, as things are now, the growth of tourism and Cubans surviving. This is what for now the government wants so as to not have social conflicts with the people because of the difficult economic situation.

At the political level, they are demonstrating that if they have to repress people for taking to the streets, for writing certain things in the blogs, they will do so. They will try to maintain control that way. We will have to wait and see if they realize that a country cannot develop without liberty.

Your family, like many others, is scattered around the world. Do you think that you will ever reunite again in Cuba?

I don’t know, the truth is that this is very difficult to answer. Seeing how things are, knowing that Raúl Castro has placed his children and relatives into the most important sectors of the country, taking control of the country with a view towards the future. Truly, I cannot give you a yes or no answer if I do not know what will happen. It would have to be a situation that would allow the return to a place with certain guarantees of justice and legality.

Would you delay, then, being able to give your uncle Patricio a hug?

For now, it will be delayed, if they don’t make changes and accept that one can go there having different opinions, which I have stated publicly outside. I don’t believe that I can go.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Little War Games / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 29 November 2016 — In October, Hurricane Matthew struck the eastern side of the Island, creating destruction and desolation in Maisí, Baracoa, and other communities of the territory, from which their inhabitants–given the precariousness under which they were already living–will take years to recover. This is especially so being that much of what is reconstructed today is of a temporary character, due to the lack of durability and resistance to natural phenomena of the materials utilized.

The national economy continues to be in crisis, and the lack of supplies can be seen in the empty shelves of the freely-convertible currency (CUC) stores, in the service stations bereft of gasoline, and in the pharmacies that don’t stock basic medications. Other essential services also show their deterioration and affect the Cuban people. continue reading

Against all logic, from the 16th through 18th of this month, the authorities carried out the Bastion 2016 Strategic Exercise, which practically paralyzed the country for those three days. As if this were not enough, they added two “Days of Defense,” the 19th and 20th, with the goal of perfecting the country’s preparedness to confront a supposed enemy, under the concept of “War of All the People.”

In the conclusions published in the official press, the solution to wartime problems was declared “successful” by the ministries in charge (the same ones who are incapable of resolving the problems of peacetime) as were the exercises carried out with the mobilized population (infantry exercises, arming and disarming of weapons, shooting, grenade launching, disguise and others). In addition, there were assurances that “Cuba’s invulnerability to military aggression” had been confirmed.

In today’s world, with the level of arms development and technological advances in all spheres, no country can consider itself invulnerable, including the major powers. It is absurd to declare this with respect to a small and poor country such as Cuba, equipped with obsolete and recycled weaponry.

Now the practice runs were underway for a great military parade, in the style of those from the Cold War era, on 2 December, for the 60th anniversary of the Landing of the Granma and in honor of the “historic leader’s” 90th birthday–which has been moved to 2 January 2017, due to his death on the evening of 25 November and the activities surrounding his funeral.

It is true that all of these events, except the (albeit expected) demise, was long planned. But prior to Hurricane Matthew and the results of the United States elections. they could have been reconsidered.

It is no secret to anyone that these happenings required resources of all types and exacted great physical and economic costs. The questions by many citizens were: Why, instead of being squandered, were these means not applied to relieve–in the shortest time possible and with greater quality–the problems in the communities affected by the hurricane?

The explanations provided by the authorities–including the one about the exclusion of Guantánamo, a poor province with few resources, from these activities–satisfied very few. In the context of the improvement of relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States, do they not insert unnecessary noise?

Could it be that with these little war games, there was an attempt to “cohere” to the regime the ever-less “cohered” Cuban people?

Could it be a pathetic attempt to “play an old hand” for the benefit of the next tenant of the White House?

Given the recent events, much should change.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Flag "Bearers" / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 12 September 2016 — In light of the proliferation among Cubans of garments adorned with elements of the United States flag and, to a lesser degree, the flag of England, some “defenders” of the national identity and of patriotic symbols have proposed making the Cuban flag more visible, as “many Cuban flags.”

Being that the natives of this Island tend to outdo ourselves and we forget that there is a happy medium, some sportswear items have appeared (awfully designed for the Río de Janeiro Olympics)–shirts, shorts, caps, purses, tote bags, and even aprons–bearing elements of the national standard or, simply, reproducing it without any creativity. continue reading

Now, following the beat of these pioneers, other “purists” have raised their voices, demanding a prohibition against the use of the flag on items of clothing, because it is unnecessary to import “bad customs” from other countries. In the first place, to categorize the habits of others as “bad” or “good” seems a bit petulant: they are customs and should be respected, even if not imitated.

Besides, why this late defense of patriotic symbols, when in fact, officially speaking, they have been quite disrespected? Examples abound: utilizing the flag during any political activity, no matter how trivial; leaving it suspended eternally in closed-off areas, even exposed to the elements; printing it on paper and, later, allowing it to be strewn on the floor like so much trash, trampled on by passers-by; hanging it up in state-run establishments as a curtain on doorways and windows to block the sun; printing images of historic and not so historic figures on it; and, as if all this weren’t enough, having the Historic Leader write his signature on it with a felt-tip pen during a public act on the staircase of the University of Havana.

Let us not even mention the national coat of arms, for it has been obviated and forgotten, having not been present, as was customary before 1959, in government buildings, but rather, in observance of a blatant personality cult, substituted by photos of living personages.

All of this racket is due to some “dogmatics” who, from an “idiotological” point of view, want to confront a foreign custom that has been taken up in our country.

I think there are real problems that are more important to confront, unless this is one more entertainment designed to lull Cubans with cheap patriotism.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Period of National Mourning, or Curfew? / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 27 November 2016 — On Saturday 26 November of this year, my telephone rang at almost 2 in the morning. I picked it up with trepidation because normally at that hour one expects to hear bad news. The reality, however, was different: a friend was calling to inform me of Fidel’s death. I was relieved because, what with my family being out of Cuba, I had expected the worst.

The news did not stir any kind of feelings in me, neither pity nor joy. It was something that had been expected and that many of us wished would just be over.

What did surprise me was that Raúl so quickly made the event public knowledge. We had always thought that this would be something that would be kept hidden from us for a while and that we would find it out from relatives and friends outside the country. But the social networks and the immediate impact they cause made the current president react this way.
continue reading

They have decreed a national mourning period of nine days, which in my opinion is rather exaggerated. They say it is so that everyone can say goodbye and pay their respects before his ashes. I am convinced that the majority of those who will go to do so will not go spontaneously, but rather will be transported by the Young Communists Union, the University, the Cuban Workers Center, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and all the rest of the governmental mass organizations of which the country boasts (and which are under the direction of the government, even though it publicly declares that they are not, which is totally false).

The state-run television has all the channels lined up with programs broadcasting only images of the deceased, extolling the personality of a leader who died in full decline. Only his “successful” episodes are shown. There is not a single children’s program on the air, being that children, too, are obliged to observe an enforced mourning period.

They have prohibited all public and cultural spectacles. The greatly advertised and one-time-only concert by the Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, who traveled to our country with 500 guests, has been suspended–which for him must have been “disconcerting.” Also, the sale of alcoholic beverages has been prohibited in state-run and private restaurants, as well as in all the stores throughout the country.

I have learned that they are visiting establishments that rent out private rooms, to investigate whether any journalists are among the guests.

The city is practically deserted at night. Is this, really, a period of mourning, or a curfew? You decide.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Dictator’s Fortune Exceeds 900 Million Dollars / Hablemos Press

castroHablemos Press, 26 November 2016 — The dictator Fidel Castro has died in Havana this 25 November. He was among the military men who ruled the Island with an iron fist for 49 years, amassing a great fortune–despite being a critic of capitalism.

Hablemos Press, 26 November 2016 — The dictator Fidel Castro has died in Havana this 25 November. He was among the military men who ruled the Island with an iron fist for 49 years, amassing a great fortune–despite being a critic of capitalism. continue reading

According to the North American magazine Forbes, “the retired military man’s fortune exceeds $900 million dollars.”

Many friends on our social networks are sending us comments, asking, “Will the fights among his children and wives be publicized on the national media?”

Will children emerge who were previously unknown?

Who will inherit this fortune?

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Assassins, Accomplices, and Victims (II) / Ángel Santiesteban

Abel Prieto, Cuban Minister of Culture, Eduardo Galeano and Roberto Fernández Retamar, President of Casa de las Américas. AIN FOTO/Omara García Mederos

Ángel Santiesteban, 2 September 2016 — After writing what will now be considered the first part of this post, and publishing it under this same title, I was arrested by State Security; however it was not the writing, and much less the visibility that it would attain in my blog, that was the real cause for the arrest. My captors, in the height of contempt, tried to make me believe that I was a trickster, a vulgar swindler. In a flash I became, again, a dangerous offender. I confess that I even got to imagine myself in the shoes of some famous swindlers whom I met in movies, but this was not at all a game, and the cell was not a movie set.

I have dug around a great deal in their procedures up to now, and I know their falsehoods, which was why I urged them to let me know the details of my mischief. What was the cause? What would they do now to present me as a swindler? continue reading

First would be to convince me of that strange condition of con artist that even I did not recognize in myself. Time and again, fraud would be cited in their arguments, with no trace of it when the facts were compiled. Diffusion, accusation…so that the crook I was would contradict himself and ultimately see the error of his ways. Which ways?

They themselves would offer me very few details. Everything had occurred a year ago, and on the Isle of Pines–that island south of the larger one which, arbitrarily and without popular consultation, the government decided to rename the Isle of Youth. While I was shut away in a dungeon, my “interlocutors” mentioned a fraud which they were not able to explain very well, only to later refer to a packet of leaflets which, supposedly, I had given to the photographer and human rights activist Claudio Fuentes, who was also detained.

Try as the hired gun might to convince me of the “misdeed” and that I had no option other than to recognize my “crime,” I could not help but burst out laughing. The allegation was so ridiculous that I could have dignified it with many guffaws such as the one it provoked at the start, but these spurious accusations have no intention other than to ruin the lives of we Cubans who think differently, and laughter is a good thing.

I had not other option than to let them know that I was well aware of those strategies, that I was sure that they were trying to make me believe that Claudio had denounced me, and how that was a well-worn tactic–even in the movies and police novels. “I do not think the same as you. I am not a coward, nor am I your ’comrade.’ I am not a lackey.” That’s just what I said to them.

Then they laughed, but their laughter was not that of a victor, it was the nervous laughter of someone who’s about to lose. I confess that I felt frustrated; I have always dreamed of taking on an intelligent adversary, an enemy convinced of the rightness of his actions. This would be much better, but this time again it was useless to pine for such a thing, and the worst was that those gendarmes had not the slightest idea what the words “liberty” and “democracy” mean.

I was so annoyed that I started to speak of my childhood, of those days when I believed that Cuban State Security was one of the best in the world, even mentioning out loud the titles of a few novels: “Here the Sands are Whiter,” and “If I Die Tomorrow,” and “In Silence It Has Had to Be.” I mentioned the mark that those works had left on a bunch of proud adolescents who, still, believed that what which those fictional officials were defending actually existed in reality–and that we even believed, naively, that on this Island was a concerted effort to create a lasting prosperity.

The bad part, I assured them, was when I knew the whole truth, when I understood that those agents were only after ensuring the perpetual rule of the Brothers Castro. I mentioned the moment in which I crossed the line, that line that placed me, irreversibly, on the opposite side. I spoke of my discontent with a totalitarian regime, and about how I discovered the true essences of those killers in the service of the Castros: people capable of abusing women, of planting false evidence for the prosecution (after brutalizing them) of those who fight for change in Cuba. They would laugh, nervously…and with no segues they arrived at a new argument, undoubtedly the most important one, the one that caused them to shut me away.

What had truly annoyed them was a post that I had published regarding Roberto Fernández Retamar, in which I called him an assassin. According to them, I had not considered the fact that Roberto was my colleague. “I don’t have colleagues who are assassins,” I told them, and they replied that my attack had not achieved any importance, that it had already been forgotten, and that Fernández’ true comrades had made a tribute to him immediately. Then why, I asked, were they holding me there? Why were they mentioning that post? For sure, they were contradicting themselves–but I was already used to that, and once again I smiled, sardonically.

I thought of a version of Silvio Rodríguez whom I had seen on TV making tributes, in song, to Fernández, which made me suspect that it all could be a reply to my post. My detention had nothing to do with the leaflets nor with any fraud– that seizure was orchestrated after I accused Roberto Fernández Retamar of having signed a death sentence against three youths who only wanted to get out of an extremist country where they no longer wanted to live.

I had already received some news about the comments that had been incited by that post, and I also knew of the vexation that it had provoked in some writers, who judged it excessive that I should call Fernández an assassin. Again it was I who was the monster, I who committed savageries, I the irreverent and cruel barbarian–while Fernández was presented as the venerable elder, the respectable and virtuous man, the honest citizen, even after having signed a death warrant.

My detractors, the same who became his defenders while forgetting that the poet was one of the signatories of that judgment that would send three youths to the execution wall, denigrated me again, but never mentioned that the “revolutionary” poet lent a veneer of legitimacy to the death of those three young men, whose only sin was to have tried to leave a country that was tormenting them, to separate from an Island and from the dictators that have been ruling it for more than 50 years. Is that a crime?

Those who were annoyed by the post are the same who repeat the charge against me that the official discourse prepared some years ago. Those who claim that I was unjust toward Roberto Fernández Retamar did not defend my innocence when I went to jail. They saw me be taken away, they knew I was shut away in a cell, and they were silent. They never had doubts, they never confronted a power that decided to accuse of me of physically mistreating the woman who was then my companion. Those who again judge me and cast me aside are also guilty of my imprisonment.

Those who today are annoyed because I accused the president of the Casa de las Américas, did not lift a finger to request, at least, a thorough investigation of my case. They believed in the “dignity” of that woman, and today turn a deaf ear to the statements by my son. They, whom my post angered so, are the same who remain silent when “State Security” beat the Ladies in White, a “State Security” that beats women who are demonstrating peacefully. What kind of security is this? Of what State? This shows their double standard and hypocrisy. Those who signed the accusation against me today are irritated by my “attack” on the poor poet Fernández, following the orders of Abel Prieto, who at the same time was following those of the highest hierarchy of a dictatorial government.

My attackers defend only their permanence in that official union that is the UNEAC. They who seek to tarnish me want to preserve their membership in the official delegations sent to any event taking place outside the Island. They who raise their voices to attack me defend the shoes and sustenance of their children. They who attacked my liberty because, supposedly, I was beating the mother of my son, said not a word after the thrashing that State Security delivered to the actress Ana Luisa Rubio.

That woman who found herself so vulnerable, so trampled, had no choice but to leave Cuba–and what else could she do, if the UNEAC did not offer her any support nor did it organize a demonstration to confront that power that decided to batter her. No woman was to be found confronting the janissaries that bashed Rubio. In those days there was no book going around collecting the signatures of indignant UNEAC members, if any there were. Nobody went out on the street–apparently, they were amusing themselves by protecting the crumbs they get from the powers that be for their services to the “fatherland.”

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others

A Disappointing And Unfair Report / Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez

cpj_logo-354x354Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez, 30 September 2016 — The most recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on the state of journalism in Cuba is, more than disappointing, worrisome. It is not that its authors are uninformed about the Cuban reality. Rather, they have manipulated the information at their disposal so as to emphasize—at the expense of traditional independent journalism, whose presence is concealed—that journalism which is done on the Island more or less outside of state control. However, the sector to which they devote so much attention is not really quite so outside of that domination as the authors seem to wholeheartedly believe; either they are too naïve or too optimistic about the situation of journalists who work under the conditions of a dictatorship.

This report reinforces a tendency which could be seen emerging in recent months: that of obscuring and making obsolete the journalism that is most critical of the regime so as to present the pro-government bloggers and journalists who work in foreign outlets or alternative media of recent vintage—On Cuba, Periodismo de Barrio, El Estornudo, El Toque, Progreso Semanal, La Joven Cuba—as the new protagonists of a free journalism on the Island. continue reading

And I was calling this worrisome because this type of analyses, arising from who knows where, which try to make the case that Cuba is changing by giant steps in rhythm with the Raulist reforms, turn into a type of “trending topics,” become viral, and are later unstoppable.

The report obviates the fact that the independent journalism that has obtained in Cuba since the first half of the 1990s, and which ever since then has had to endure repression pure and simple, and which brought to light the prohibitions, and enabled the very existence of those alternative media whose collaborators are set on clarifying that they are not dissidents, complaining about the scoldings and warnings they receive, as if they were wayward sheep, from government bigwigs.

Regarding journalism which is critical of the regime, the report makes sole* reference to 14ymedio, but praises its middle-of-the-road tone. Lacking this tone, Primavera Digital, for example, is ignored, even though it continues to come out every Thursday on the internet despite the fact that it has not received a single cent of financing for more than two years. By the way, when 14ymedio started, Primavera Digital had already been around for more than six years—a fact that does not prevent the repeated assertion, mantra-like, that 14ymedio “was the first independent news outlet in Cuba.”

It is laudable that these young communicators from the alternative media have appeared, speaking of a Cuba more like the real one than what is portrayed by the official media. There are excellent ones, such as Elaine Díaz, or the team at El Estornudo with its literary journalism—and even Harold Cárdenas, why not? Despite his pretensions of “saving the Revolution” and making himself out to be more socialist than Marx and Engels combined. But when speaking of quality in the field of the independents, I have to say that it is the dissidents who have for many years now been incomparably plying their trade—journalists such as Miriam Celaya, Tania Díaz Castro, Iván García, Ernesto Pérez Chang, Juan González Febles, Víctor Manuel Domínguez, Jorge Olivera, among others.

More than unfair, the angle the CPJ report takes in characterizing TV and Radio Martí as “mostly irrelevant” is insulting. It would be interesting to know, keeping in mind the powerful interference of their signal and the blockage of their web site in Cuba, how TV and Radio Martí might increase their audience and have greater relevance compared to, let us say, Granma or Radio Rebelde. However, even this would not be enough for the CPJ, which lumps the official press with Radio and TV Martí insofar as they both “have become echo chambers for ideologues at both extremes of the political spectrum. As they are currently structured, neither is capable of providing the type of transformative journalism that could help to achieve the changes longed-for by the majority of Cubans.”

Bearing in mind that this section of the report was written by Ernesto Londoño, a journalist who when it comes to Cuba sees only what he wants to see and make seen (remember those editorials in The New York Times that heralded 17D?*), I believe I understand the changes to which he is referring. The problem is that these are not exactly the changes that are desired by the majority of Cubans, who desperately aspire to others of much greater significance.

Neither is it just for the report to not acknowledge the relevance of such outlets as CubaNet—not that it is blocked in Cuba occasionally, but rather that it was occasionally not blocked for almost a year. Since a few weeks ago it has begun being blocked again (as has Diario de Cuba), several of its journalists have been arrested, and the political police have confiscated their equipment. It would be interesting to know which formula CubaNet could employ to be in Havana the same way that On Cuba is. I say this because both outlets are based in the United States and the journalists who contribute to them are Cubans who live on the Island.

The CPJ’s concern for Cuban journalists is all well and good, but it should be for all, equally—the official and semi-official ones (it is often hard to tell them apart), and those who are lately turning the screws even more—but also for the independents, those truly critical ones, those who do not remain on the surface or who try to hide the fact that they definitively have gotten out from the “innards” of the Revolution: those who, in the CPJ’s report, have been diminished, or simply ignored.

About the Author

Luis Cino Álvarez (Havana, 1956) is a journalist in Cuba currently visiting the United States. Cino has worked as a professor of English, in construction, and in agriculture. He entered the field of independent journalism in 1998. Between 2002 and Spring 2003, Cino was a member of the reporting team at De Cuba magazine. He is assistant director of the online magazine, Primavera Digital [Digital Spring], and is a regular contributor to CubaNet since 2003. A resident of Arroyo Naranjo, Cino dreams of being able to make a living from writing fiction. He is passionate about good books, the sea, jazz and blues.

See also: Committee to Protect Journalists Invites Journalists inCuba to “Cross the Red Lines”

**Translator’s note: As Americans say “9-11” instead of September 11, 2001, Cubans say “17D” instead of 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro jointly announced the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuba: Tallies and Tales of the Reforms / Vicente Botín

Vicente Botín, Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), The Hilton Miami Downtown Hotel, 29 July 2016.

Once upon a time…

A female cat fell in love with a handsome young man and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to turn her into a woman. The goddess, pitying the cat’s yearning, transformed her into a beautiful maiden, and the young man, captivated by her beauty, married her. But, on the wedding night, Aphrodite wanted to know if the cat, now a woman, had changed inside as well, and so she let loose a mouse in the bedroom. The cat, forgetting her status as a woman, rose from the bed and chased the mouse so as to devour it. At that point, the goddess, grown angry, returned her to her previous condition, turning the woman back into a cat.

With this fable, the Greek philosopher Aesop means to tell us that, “The change in status of a person does not cause her to change her instincts.” Which the wise collection of popular sayings might translate as, “You can dress up a monkey in silk, but she is still a monkey.”

“Why this eagerness to dress the monkey in silk?” I asked myself, when I saw, incredulous, the Chanel parade in Havana. The Adidas tracksuit which Fidel Castro has been sporting for years was outshone by fashion czar Karl Lagerfeld’s diamond-studded jacket and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen’s beret (albeit without the star that adorned Che Guevara’s cap in that famous photograph by Alberto Korda). continue reading

Could it be that vileness can be disguised by glamour? Is is possible to wrap in gift paper, as though it were a box of chocolates, the Penal Code in force in Cuba, which brutally punishes all forms of dissidence?

Can repression and the lack of freedoms be combined with haute couture? Is the march by the Ladies in White along Fifth Avenue compatible with the pageant of Chanel models along the Paseo del Prado?

Giusepe Tomassi de Lampedusa puts in the mouth of Tancredi, one of the characters in his novel, “The Leopard,” this utterance directed to his uncle Fabrizio, Prince Salina: “Everything must change if everything is to stay as it is.”

In political science, “leopard-like” or “Lampedusian” are descriptors for the politician who initiates a revolutionary transformation but which, in practice, alters the structures of power only superficially, intentionally keeping the essential elements of those structures.

Raúl Castro is a lot like the Lampedusian Tancredi, because he seems to want to change everything, but his intention is for everything to stay as it is.

When I arrived in Havana in early 2005 as a correspondent for Televisión Española, everything was much clearer, or, to be more exact, seemed less confused. There were no fireworks. Any glamour, for want of a better term, was provided by Fidel Castro, with his eternal olive-green uniform, and the parades were not directed by Karl Lagerfeld, but rather by the dictator himself, on the Malecón, in front of the then-US Interests Section, now the US Embassy.

Of course, then these demonstrations were called “Marches of the Embattled People.” The other marches, those of the Ladies in White, were repressed without pity, and concerts, such as those by the group “Porno para Ricardo,” were nothing like those by the Rolling Stones: they would end with their leader, Gorki Águila, in jail. There is where the dissidents could be found, the ones from the Black Spring of 2003, and other, newer ones, who were continually being thrown into the prisons.

At that time, Havana was falling to pieces. There were power blackouts, and the ration book was entirely insufficient to meet the basic needs of the population. The US was the imperialist ogre, the culprit of all the evils afflicting the country, and the spies, “The Five,” were heroes. There were no shades. Everything was black or white.

Now I ask myself, “Has all that changed? Is it all part of the past?”

When he was named the successor, and with his brother still physically present, Raúl Castro started his own trajectory. He proceeded like a good bureaucrat, without rhetoric, step by step, convinced that, in order to survive, the Revolution needed a facelift. So he pulled out of his hat a jar of makeup, a tube of lipstick and a comb, and with an oriental patience (it is not for nothing that they call him “the Chinaman”*), he began to embellish the corpse of the Revolution until he made unrecognizable… unrecognizable for the gullible who let themselves be fooled by Photoshop.

Cuba is in fashion, and the mirage of the reforms serves as a screen to cover the reality that Cubans live, or rather, suffer. Could it be that they are invisible who inhabit the Island? Do they no longer have to steal or deceive in order to survive? Do they no longer have to “resolve” their problems?

There has been too much speculation over the nature of and the time it will take to implement these reforms that have been announced so many times, like the Byzantines used to speculate, in the 15th Century, about the sex of angels, while the Ottomans were besieging Constantinople.

Could it be that the Turks are at the gates of Havana?

The Turks, probably not, but the Cubans yes, who for more than half a century have lived besieged within a fortress, commanded by an apprentice and witch doctor, who is performing a balancing act to contain the demands of a people beleaguered by penury and the lack of freedoms.

The foreign correspondents who work in Cuba confront the dilemma of rummaging through the trash or going with the flow. During the four years that I spent on the Island, I suffered all types of pressures to force me to sweeten my reports. The censors were not concerned with political criticisms, after all, the Cuban government enjoys no few sympathies throughout the world. What bothered them was the pure and simple description of the difficult living conditions of the Cuban people. The shameful condition of the hospitals, the precariousness of the housing, the cut-offs of water and power, the scarcity and bad quality of the food, the lack of transportation, and let us not mention the prostitution, as a express route to access consumer goods.

All those topics were taboo. They could not be mentioned, under threat of expulsion. The paradox is that currently, all of those problems continue, they have not disappeared, but they appear to no longer be a problem for anybody. Simply put, they are not spoken of. They are swept under the rug.

The first “reformist” measures announced by Raúl Castro provoked an effect similar to hypnosis. Like an expert prestidigitator, he exchanged the bread and circuses of the Romans for self-employment licenses, cell phones, cars, houses and microwave ovens, despite their high cost in Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC).

But Cubans, after so many “absurd prohibitions,” celebrated them joyously and, beyond that, the announcement of new promises–among them, the suppression of the double currency, the revaluation of the Cuban peso, and the end of the ration book which, in Cuba, ironically enough, is called the “provision” book.

But it is well known that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Eight years later, those good intentions have yet to be realized, especially the suppression of the double currency, which not only has not been resolved but has become even more complex, with the application of different exchange rates.

For Raúl Castro this is the cause of “an important distortion, which will be resolved as soon as possible.” It will not be put off until the Twelfth of Never, the dictator has said, but at this rate, it will be resolved when hell freezes over.

The dual monetary system — the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC) — is cause for no few arguments among brainy analysts who do not tire of debating over the consequences of solving that problem through a type of shock therapy or, conversely, doing it in phases.

While the dispute rages on over whether they are greyhounds or wolfhounds, until the Island’s government solves the enigma, Cubans will suffer the consequences of that distortion that suffocates them, because their salaries are paid in Cuban pesos, but they must use CUC to buy practically everything they need at a 25% markup.

The minimum salary on the Island is 225 Cuban pesos, and the median monthly salary is 625, which come out, respectively, to about 9 and 25 CUC or roughly the same in US dollars. What can one do with that amount of money? What would you be able to do with an income of $25 per month?

The cost of the products in the “basic basket,” subsidized by the government is, approximately, 10 Cuban pesos per month. It it is simply impossible, however, that one person, especially a retiree, with no other resources but his pension, can subsist all that time, with just a few pounds of rice and beans, the basic food of Cubans, to which are added a few ounces of pasta, coffee and salt.

The ration book also provides for five eggs per person per month, and a few more more for 10 pesos: a bit of oil, another bit of ground soy meat, a bar of soap… come on, it’s as if one had just come out of a war zone.

Aside from the ration book, one can purchase (also with Cuban pesos) certain unregulated products, but the true foodstuffs, beef and fish, primarily, can only be bought with CUCs.

And although the government recently lowered the price of some basic products, these continue being very high. For example, one kilo of frozen chicken costs 2.35 CUCs, and a half kilo of powdered milk, 2.65. Just these two products account for 20 percent of the median monthly salary.

In the world in which we live, it seems absurd to speak in these terms. Has any one of you ever told a guest that you cannot make her an omelet because you have already consumed your five monthly eggs?

Cubans do not live in our world. To not understand that is to turn on its head the myth of Plato’s cave and to accept that the people inhabiting Cuba, chained and in the shadows, live in the real world and we, on the other hand, in an apparent reality.

Allow me to ask you some questions. Has any one of you recently visited a house in Centro Habana? A great number of them are propped up to prevent collapse and, even so, this occurs almost daily, with a high number of fatalities.

Did you know that in the hospitals, the sick must bring their own sheets, their food and even a bottle of bleach for sanitation, due to the abysmal hygienic conditions, and that infections in the operating rooms result in a high rate of deaths?

I invite you to visit, for example, La Balear hospital in San Miguel del Padrón. It is not in Haiti, but rather in Havana, the capital of the country that publicizes its health system as one of its greatest accomplishments.

Are you aware that diabetes patients only receive, on a monthly basis, between two and five sterile, single-use syringes of insulin, and that the rest that they need they must buy them on the black market or, as recommended, boil the used ones?

Do you know that hopelessness is causing a stampede toward the United States, and the exodus to that country has quintupled in the last five years?

Do you know the number of boat people who escape to the United States for lack of a travel permit, despite the much ballyhooed migratory reform, and perish in the Florida Straits?

All of this occurs, continues to occur, while the eyes of the world are turned to the reforms that have been implemented in recent years, although it remains to be seen to what extent they will be affected by what Raúl Castro has euphemistically called “tensions” and “adverse circumstances” provoked by, among other factors, the crisis in Venezuela, which has substantially reduced the shipments of oil to the Island.

The reforms yet to come are discussed, exhaustively, in forums such as this, but there are always more questions than answers because only the government of the Island holds they key to what it will do and when.

And the Cubans? What role do they play in all this? Are they and their circumstances also an object of study?

If you allow me I will parody Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice” to say, “Does a Cuban not have eyes? Does a Cuban not have hands, organs, proportions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us do we not die?”

Cubans do not have a dog in this fight. They attend, mute, to the government’s hot air and do what they have always done under the dictatorship: survive.

And surviving in the towns of the interior is much more difficult than in the capital. The living conditions of millions of Cubans are pitiful. The metaphor of Italian writer Carlo Levi would have to be employed, and say that Christ was detained in Havana, because further out from the capital, Cubans live outside of history, crushed by poverty.

But the government, insensitive to the privations of Cubans, walks and walks toward the precipice.

Among the litany of lamentations over the failure to fulfill the economic plans, during the recent sessions of the National Assembly of People’s Power, voices of alarm were heard before the possibility that the situation will deteriorate even further and produce a social outburst, with a repeat of street protests such as those of the Maleconazo of 1994. As a precaution against such incidents, the government is sharpening its knives.

But the spotlights, at present, are shining on the enormous cinematic stage which Cuba has become for the world, and especially on the proposals of the VII Congress of the Communist Party, which took place this past April.

Essentially, what was discussed there was what the government understands as the “conceptualization of the socioeconomic model,” which in reality is nothing more than the continuation of the so-called “Alignments of the Social and Economic Policy of the Party and the Revolution,” presented during the previous Congress and which, like all good resolutions have been left half-baked.

The conceptualization is now in its eighth version and only 21 percent of the 313 Guidelines have been implemented; the rest, that is, the 79 percent, is “in-process.” At this rate, it will take decades to put the well-worn guidelines into practice.

Similarly, the Mariel Special Development Zone has dropped anchor: of the 400 investment projects that were predicted, only 11 have been accepted; within a century, perhaps the rest will have been approved.

The government continues to beat around the bush and appears not to fear that it is past its prime. Meanwhile, it maintains control over the means of production, what it calls the “predominance of the property of all the people,” although in the last five years the state sector diminished, from 81 to 71 percent, while the private and cooperative sector expanded.

The government of Raúl Castro is confident in the new Foreign Investment Law’s capacity to attract capital, authorizing outside investment in all sectors of the economy, except in health, education, armed forces and communication media.

But there is much mistrust on the part of the investors regarding the guarantees they will receive on acquired properties and the transfer of utilities in foreign currency. The law is very ambiguous in this regard, as it establishes the freedom of investors to repatriate their profits, so long as doing so does not constitute, and I quote, “a danger to the sovereignty of Cuba.”

Another negative aspect is that joint ventures or enterprises funded by foreign capital will continue to not have the power to contract their employees directly; they will have to do it through government entities charged with negotiating salaries and other working conditions.

This practice was in place under the previous law and implies an infringement of the rights of workers who are without free unions to represent them.

More than a few discriminations are suffered by Cubans, without the new laws, the laws of the much -vaunted changes, protecting them.

The current Foreign Investment Law allows Cubans who reside overseas to invest in Cuba, but not those who live on the Island. They are prohibited from investing in their own country.

The executive director of Cuba Archive, María Werlau, recently made a presentation to the US Congress denouncing the repugnant business of human trafficking carried out by the Island’s government, and which has become its major source of revenue: something more than $8-billion, compared to the $3-billion produced by tourism.

According to official data (I quote María Werlau), around 65,000 Cubans work in 91 countries, with 75 percent (approximately 50,000) in the health sector. Their services are sold abroad, and the greater part of their salaries is confiscated by the Cuban government.

The violations of universal labor rights, which such a practice implies, infringes international accords signed by Cuba and by the majority of the countries where these exported workers are laboring, including conventions and protocols against the trafficking in persons, and of the ILO, the International Labour Organization.

The wage vampirism practiced by the Cuban government attains its most repulsive aspect in the trafficking of blood. The massive drives to obtain donations made voluntarily and altruistically, even using coercive methods, cover up a lucrative business, which some sources estimate brings in some $30-million per year. The government sells the blood of Cubans overseas, with no concern for the shortage of reserves in the Island’s hospitals.

The doses of capitalism which Raul Castro is introducing in Cuba ma non troppo, as the Italians might translate Castro’s slogan “without haste but without pause,” do not alter in the least the stone tablets of the current Constitution that is in force, which establishes an “irrevocable” one-party regime, of “Marxist-Leninist ideology and based on the thought of Martí,” as an “organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, primary leading force of society and of the State.” And to overlook this means to not understand what country we are talking about.

In Cuba, there are no political prisoners, according to Raúl Castro. But in fact, there are, and many. It is enough to consult the statistics put out monthly by human rights defense organizations.

Are you familiar with the Article 72 of the Penal Code? If you have read “1984,” the shocking book by George Orwell, you will recall that the “thought police” would go after “thoughtcrime,” crimes of the mind.

So, then, Article 72 of Law Number 62/87 of the Cuba of the supposed changes, is a carbon copy of the Orwellian laws.

That article says the following: “The special proclivity in which a person is found to commit crimes, demonstrated by the conduct he observes, in manifest contradiction to the norms of sociality morality, is considered a state of dangerousness.”*

In other words, the police can detain anyone suspected of hiding subversive ideas in the deepest part of of their consciousness.

The appointment of Miguel Díaz Canel, 56 years old, an “apparatchik” of the Communist Party, as first vice-president of the Council of State, and the announcement, made by Raúl Castro himself, that he would cede power in February 2018, could mean that the regime was heading towards renewal, at least generationally. But, once again, it was apparent that all was purely cosmetic.

If, in fact, Raúl Castro reiterated, during the VII Congress of the Communist Party, his intention to resign from his position as President of the Councils of State and of Ministries, he was reelected “Bulgarian style”** with 100 percent of the vote, as First Secretary of the Party for the next five years, that is through the year 2021, at which time he will or should reach, if God does not intervene, the age of 90 years.

At that time, Raúl Castro will turn over the secretariat of the Party and also, in his words, “the flags of the Revolution and of Socialism, without the least trace of sadness or pessimism, with the pride of duty accomplished.”

As Don Quixote says, “for empty words, the noise of bells.”

And what did the President of the United States try to do by going to that Island situated beyond all comprehension? Like Hank Morgan, the hero of Mark Twain’s celebrated novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Barack Obama was transported to the land of never again, convinced that normal diplomatic relations and a surge in commerce will give way, in the end, to greater liberty for Cubans.

Hank Morgan was saved from death by fire by knowing when a solar eclipse would occur, but Barack Obama, lame duck that he is, was slowly roasted over a barbeque.

For the exegetes of the Revolution, Obama did not go to Cuba, as he said, with the purpose of “burying the last remnant of the Cold War on the American continent,” but rather with more nefarious intentions. The United States, according to Raúl Castro, has changed its former hostile strategy for “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion that threatens the very essences of the Revolution.”

As the song says:

Not with you and not without you

are my sorrows eased

with you because you slay me

without you because I die.

The United States has taken giant steps in the normalization of its relations with Cuba, and the Island’s government is taking good advantage of this. But it has not changed its rhetoric, nor has it advanced one millimeter on the path that leads to democracy.

The rapprochement between the two countries has provoked an enormous controversy between supporters and detractors, while Raúl Castro and his minions observe the bullfight, with satisfaction, from the sidelines.

For The Washington Post, the policy of the Obama Administration toward the Cuban government has stymied the efforts of those who fight for democracy on the Island: the activists who have spent their lives struggling against the regime at enormous personal cost.

It is they, and the Cuban people, who should lay the foundations of a new nation with democracy and liberty, and not those who, illegitimately, have usurped that right and want to continue doing so through deceit.

The Cuban Revolution is a corpse, but that corpse has not yet been buried, and its stench will take time in going away. Meanwhile, Cubans continue to live inside a cage with heavy bars, which the government is now sugar-coating, like sugar-coating a pill to hide its bitterness.

As in Oscar Wilde’s gothic novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Raúl Castro shows a benevolent face, but his smile is the reverse of a mocking grimace. His tactic is tall tales; his strategy, maintaining his position in power.

Allow me to end my contribution by reading a brief poem of León Felipe, a Spanish writer exiled in Mexico after the Spanish civil war. It is entitled, “I Know All the Tales,” and I believe it reflects very well the great deceit of the Cuban government’s reforms.

It says:

 I do not know much, it is true.

 I only tell what I have seen.

 And I have seen:

 that man’s cradle is rocked by tales…

 That man’s cries of anguish

 are drowned out by tales…

 That man’s weeping is tamped down with tales…

 That the bones of man are buried with tales…

 And that the fear of man…

 has invented all the tales.

 I do not know much, it is true.

 But I have been lulled to sleep with all the tales….

 I know all the tales.

Thank you very much.

 Translator’s Notes:
*In fact, Cubans call Raul Castro not “El Chino,” as in the original text here, but “La China” — The Chinese Woman — as a slur on his parentage and his sexuality.
**”Pre-criminal dangerousness” is a crime in Cuba’s Penal Code and carries a sentence of 1-4 years in prison.
*** An expression that alludes to the former Soviet bloc, and decisions made unanimously–more out of fear or coercion than by conviction–during Communist Party meetings.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Vicente Botín, the Spanish Journalist Who Can’t Get Cuba Out of His Mind / Mario Lleonart

At either edge of this photo, Mario Félix Lleonart and Yoaxis Marcheco; in the center, María Werlau, between Vicente Botín and his wife.

Mario Lleonart, 24 September 2016 — During this past July 28-30, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2016 meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, held in Miami, as part of the panel discussion,”Transitional Justice and the Longed-For Cuban National Reconciliation.” My paper was on “The Longed-For National Reconciliation: Challenges, Realities and Hopes.” However, it is not my paper to which I will refer here.

During this timeframe, on Friday, July 29, a special luncheon took place that provided a pause in the midst of the 18 interesting panels and their debates. For this occasion, the Spanish journalist Vicente Botín, who also served as the special guest commentator on the panel in which I took part, gave a talk that was thought-provoking for all present. continue reading

Botín is a journalist and writer who specializes in international politics, particularly in Latin America. He has produced numerous documentaries in many countries as the managing editor of a well-known television program, including one in Cuba for which he interviewed Fidel Castro. He served as a correspondent for Televisión Española from 2005-2008, and later published two books about Cuba: “Castro’s Funeral,” followed by, “Raúl Castro: The Flea That Rode the Tiger.” Today he is a columnist for El País, El Mundo, and other Spanish newspapers, and resides in Madrid.

His words made so much sense to me regarding the Cuban reality that, upon the conclusion of his remarks, I congratulated him and sought his permission to post them on my blog–receiving from him a most cordial assent–but which unfortunately I have been unable to do until now because of technical problems on my blog which I have only recently been able to resolve.

But, because Botín’s voice still resounds so vibrantly in my mind, with words that have not lost one iota of their relevance–quite the opposite–I share them now with great pleasure so as to place in cyberspace these thoughts which are so sympathetic to the catastrophe of the Cuban people, by someone who also has been directly immersed in our reality, and who cannot get us off of his mind, nor out of his heart.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison