The Cuban Government, Complicit in Corruption and Peddling Favours / Iván García

Cuban bodega (ration store). From AvaxNews.

Iván García, 26 MAY 2017 — Ideology is no longer the most important consideration if you want to get an administrative position in Cuba’s chaotic business and commercial network. They only ask you to do two things: fake support for the autocracy and show loyalty to government business.

If you have both these qualities, they will remove any common offences from your work record. Nor is it a problem if you frequently beat your wife or drink more rum than you should.

Human qualities are no longer a priority if you want to have a job in a company management team or join the ranks of the Communist Party. continue reading

Let’s call him Armando. He has always worked in internal trade. “It’s all been run down. Starting with the beginning of the Revolution. In the food and internal trade sector, the biggest wastes of space have occupied key positions. The employment culture is asphyxiating, like being in a prison. Money, extortion, nepotism and witchcraft are more important that professional qualifications and personal qualities”.

After letting his life go down the drain, what with getting into trouble, involving knives, robberies, public disorder, Armando decided to get himself back on track when his son was born. “I spent most of my youth and adolescence in the clink. With a family to support, I have to look at things differently. I have no family in the States who could get me out of here. I had to learn how to play the system. With the help of a friend, after paying him 300 chavitos (CUC), I got a bodega [ration store] for my wife and managed to include myself in the staff as an assistant to the storekeeper”.

After a year and a half, his wife started the process of joining the party. “She knows nothing about politics, but in Cuba having a red card opens doors for you. My next goal is to ’buy’ a bodega just for me.”

According to Armando, for 400 CUC you can get a bodega with lots of customers. “The more people buy things in your store, the more options you have to make money. In six months or a year, depending on your contacts with truck drivers and people running warehouses, you can recoup your investment”.

Although the neighbourhood bodegas have seen a reduction in the distribution of goods being issued through the ration books, various storekeepers have said that, in spite of that, they are still making money.

“It’s not like thirty years ago, when we had 25 different products delivered to the bodegas. You don’t get rich, but you can support your family. You can do two things: cheat on weighing, and buy foreign made things and sell them on to owners of private businesses or direct to customers”, admits a storekeeper with forty years’ experience.

If there is a robbery in a state-owned food centre or bodega, the boss or storekeeper has to meet the loss. “A little while ago, they stole several boxes of cigars and bags of coffee. I didn’t even report it. I paid about 4 thousand pesos for the loss and coughed up nearly another 200 CUC have new bars fitted and improvements to the security of the premises”, said a storekeeper

An official dealing with these things emphasises that, “When a robbery occurs, the first suspect is the storekeeper. It’s an unwritten law of business. If you get robbed, you should pay up and shut up, because police investigations usually uncover more serious problems”.

Naturally, in high-turnover food stores and markets you pay weekly bribes to the municipal managers. The manager of a state pizzeria explains: “The amounts vary with sales level. The more you sell, the more you have to send upstairs. At weekends I send an envelope with 1,500 Cuban pesos and 40 CUC to the municipal director, as I sell in both currencies”.

This hidden support network, of mafia-like construction, at the same time as it offers excellent profit on the back of State merchandise, also generates a de facto commitment to the government.

“It’s what happens in any important government activity. Whether it’s tourism, commerce, or import-export. The money comes from embezzlement, irregular financial dealings and corrupt practices. One way or another, the present system feeds us. It all comes together, as a kind of marriage of convenience. I let you do your thing, as long as you let me do mine”, is a sociologist’s opinion.

Raúl Castro has tried to sort things out, and designated Gladys Bejerano as Controller General of the Republic. “Successes have been partial. They get rid of one focus of corruption but leave others or change the way they work. If you were to arrange a thorough clean up of the network of government-run businesses, the system would break down. Because, like the bloodsuckers, they feed off other peoples’ blood”, explains an ex-director of food services.

Essentially, what is left of socialism in Cuba is a pact. In its attempt to survive, Castroism violates Marxist principles and, in place of loyalty, accepts that Catholics, Santeria priests and masons can enter the Communist Party.

In the business sector there is a different idea. Embezzlement in return for applause. In that way, not much is being stolen – kind of.

Translated by GH

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit / Iván García

An old building in Old Havana is the view you get from one of the boutiques in the Hotel Gran Manzana Kempinski. Taken from the article The New Luxury Hotels in Cuba try to attract a swarm of tourists, by Ali McConnon, published in the New York Times in Spanish on May 10, 2017, with photos by Lissette Poole.

Iván García, 11 May 2017 — Scarcely a block away from the majestic Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski, whose inauguration is expected next June 2nd, next to the Payret cinema, a state-owned cafeteria sells an acidic and insipid hamburger with bread for the equivalent of 50 centavos. Workers in the neighbourhood and beggars who survive on asking foreigners for change, form a small queue to buy the inedible hamburger.

The hotel, built by Kempinski, a company started in Berlin in 1897, stands in the place of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first shopping mall on the island, at Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana. Opened in 1910, throughout its history, the Manzana de Gómez housed everything from offices, lawyers’ chambers and commercial consultants to businesses, cafes and restaurants and other enterprises. continue reading

Very near to Manzana Kempinski, the first five star hotel there, will be the Cuban parliament, still a work in progress, which will have as its headquarters the old National Capitol, a smaller scale replica of the Congress in Washington.

The splendid hotel, owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military corporation, and managed by the Kepinski organisation, can boast of having the old Centro Asturiano, now the home of the Fine Arts Museum’s private collections, the Havana Gran Teatro and the Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Plaza and Parque Central hotels as neighbours.

Apart from the recently-built Parque Central Hotel, the other three hotels are situated in 19th century or Republican era buildings, and are among the most beautiful in the city. In the centre of these architectural jewels we find Havana Park, presided over by the statue of the national hero, José Martí.

In those four hotels, you will find shops selling exclusively in convertible pesos (CUC), a strong currency created by Fidel Castro for the purpose of buying high quality capitalist goods.

Incidentally, they pay their employees in the Cuban Pesos (CUP), or national currency. In the tourism, telecoms and civil aviation sectors, their employees only earn 10-35 CUC as commission.

The chavito, as the Cubans term the CUC, is a revolving door which controls the territory between the socialist botch-ups, shortages and third rate services and the good or excellent products invoiced by the “class enemies”, as the Marxist theory has it, which supports the olive green bunch which has been governing the island since 1959.

21st century Cuba is an absurd puzzle. Those in charge talk about defending the poor, go on about social justice and prosperous sustainable socialism, but the working class and retired people are worse off.

The regime is incapable of starting up stocked markets, putting up good quality apartment blocks, reasonably priced hotels where a workman could stay or even maintaining houses, streets and sidewalks in and around the neighborhoods of the capital. But it invests a good part of the gross domestic product in attracting foreign currency.

José, a private taxi driver, thinks that it’s good to have millions of tourists pouring millions of dollars into the state’s cash register. “But, the cash should then be reinvested in improving the country. From the ’80’s on, the government has bet on tourism. And how much money has come over all those years? And in which productive sectors has it been invested?” asks the driver of a clapped-out Soviet-era Moskovitch.

Government officials should tell us. But they don’t. In Cuba, supposedly public money is managed in the utmost secrecy. Nobody knows where the foreign currency earned by the state actually ends up and the officials look uncomfortable when you ask them to explain about offshore Panamanian or Swiss bank accounts.

In this social experiment, which brings together the worst of socialism imported from the USSR with the most repugnant aspects of African style capitalist monopoly, in the ruined streets of Havana, they allow Rapid and Furious to be filmed, they tidy up the Paseo del Prado for a Chanel parade or open a Qatar style hotel like the Manzana Kampinski, in an area surrounded by filth, where there is no water and families have only one meal a day to eat.

In a car dealer in Primelles on the corner of Via Blanca, in El Cerro, they sell cars at insulting prices. The hoods of the cars are covered in dust and a used car costs between $15-40,000. A Peugeot 508, at $300k, is dearer than a Lamborghini.

For the authorities, the excessive prices are a “revolutionary tax”, and with this money they have said they will defray the cost of buying city buses. It’s a joke: they have hardly sold more than about forty second-hand cars in three years and public transport goes from bad to worse.

For Danay, a secondary school teacher, it isn’t the government opening hotels and luxury shops that annoys her, “What pisses me off is that everything is unreal. How can they sell stuff that no-one could afford even if they worked for 500 years? Is it some kind of macabre joke, and an insult to all Cuban workers?” Danay asks herself, while she hangs around the shopping centre in the Hotel Kempinski.

In the wide reinforced concrete passageways, what you normally see there is amazing. With his girl friend embracing him, Ronald, a university student, smiles sarcastically as he looks in a jewelry shop window at some emeralds going for more than 24k convertible pesos. “In another shop, a Canon camera costs 7,500 CUC. It’s mad.” And he adds:

“In other countries they sell expensive items, but they also have items for more affordable prices. Who the hell could buy that in Cuba, my friend? Apart from those people (in the government), the Cuban major league baseball players who get paid millions of dollars, and the people who have emigrated and earn lots of money in the United States. I don’t think tourists are going to buy things they can get more cheaply in their own countries. If at any time I had any doubts about the essential truth about this government, I can see it here: we are living in a divided society. Capitalism for the people up there, and socialism and poverty for us lot down here”.

Security guards dressed in grey uniforms, with earphones in their ears and surly-looking faces, have a go at anyone taking photos or connecting to the internet via wifi. People complain “If they don’t let you take photos or connect to the internet, then they are not letting Cubans come in”, says an irritated woman.

In the middle of the ground floor of what is now the Hotel Kempinski, which used to be the Manzana de Gómez mall, in 1965 a bronze effigy of Julio Antonio Mella, the student leaders and founder of the first Communist party in 1925, was unveiled. The  sculpture has disappeared from there.

“In the middle of all this luxurious capitalism, there is no place for Mella’s statue”, comments a man looking at the window displays with his granddaughter. Or probably the government felt embarrassed by it.

Iván García

Note: About the Mella bust, in an article entitled Not forgotten or dead, published 6th May in the Juventud Rebelde magazine, the journalist Ciro Bianchi Ross wrote: “I have often asked myself what was the point of the Mella bust which they put in the middle of the Manzana de Gómez mall and then removed seven years ago, before the old building started to be transformed into a luxury hotel, and which seems to bother people now. Mella had nothing in common with that building. The Manzana de Gómez had no connection with his life or his political journey. Apart from the fact that from an artistic point of view it didn’t look like anything”.

Translated by GH

Eating Steak and Fries is a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García

Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.

Iván García, 2 May 2017 — On an afternoon like any other, an underground seller of beef, living in the southeast of Havana, bought flank steaks wholesale from a slaughterer, to then sell them to private restaurants and neighbours who could afford them.

He filleted the chops and started to offer them for the equivalent of three dollars a pound. “They flew off the shelf. By night time I didn’t have an ounce of it left. If  any red meat comes my way, I can sell it immediately. The thing is, Cubans like to eat a good piece of steak with fries, washed down with a glass of orange juice. But, my friend, that dish has become an extravagant luxury in Cuba,” says the vendor, who knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of the Havana black market.

Even though a pound of beef costs three days’ of a professional’s salary, you don’t always find it in the profitable black market. continue reading

In the island there is a network of butchers, slaughterers and sellers which makes sufficient money selling beef. “Everything starts when someone spots a bullock or a cow not properly protected in some odd corner in the Cuban countryside. That’s when they start to plan how get it to end up as stew (kill it) and transport it to Havana, which is where they can sell it for the best price. They can get between 1,300 and 1,600 chavitos (CUCs) for a 1,000 pound bull, and the slaughterer, the transporter and the sellers get a few kilos of meat free”, according to a cattle slaughterer, a native of the central region of the country.

And he explains that they will just as happily kill a calf, a grown up cow, or a horse, “whatever has four legs and moves, gets what’s coming to it. Of course, a slaughterer who knows what he’s doing takes care not to kill a cow which is sick or has brucellosis, because if the police catch you, along with the twenty years the District Attorney goes for on account of killing a cow, he adds another five or six on top for endangering public health.

In 2013, the Granma newspaper reported that more than 18,400 cattle were dying of hunger or disease in the province of Villa de Clara. In April 2014, the Communist party organ highlighted that something over 3,300 cows died in the first three months of that year in the province of Holguin, and another 69,000 were found to be under-nourished. The authorities blamed the drought and, according to Granma, 35 thousand head of cattle were receiving water from water tank trucks in order to alleviate the effects of the months without rain.

According to Damián, an ex-employee of a sugar mill, who now survives selling home-made cheese on the Autopista Nacional, “what has happened to the cattle here is irresponsible and those officials should be behind bars. But they carry on like that, carrying their Party card and talking annoying rubbish”.

Mario, a private farmer, says, jokingly, that “Cuba is an unusual mixture of Marxism and Hinduism. Seems like a religious prohibition on eating beef, which is what Cubans like to eat. Although the leaders carry on eating it — just look at their faces and stomachs; they look as if they are going to explode. If you gave them a blood test, their haemoglobin would be around a thousand”.

During the time of the autocrat Fidel Castro, when people wore Jiqui jeans, Yumuri check shirts and very poor quality shoes, all made locally, the old ration book which, in March 2017, had been in use for 55 years, authorised half a pound of beef every nine days for people born in the country.

“Then the cycle was lengthened to once a fortnight, then once a month, until it was quietly disappearing from the Cuban menu. Along with many other things like milk, fresh fish, prawns, oranges and mandarines”, recalls a butcher, who made plenty of money selling beef “on the side” for four pesos a pound in the ’80’s. In the 21st century he survives making money from selling soup thickened with soya.

In the last week of February, some “good news” was announced. Because of poor agricultural output, the state started to sell potatoes through ration books again.

“It’s one step forward, one step back. Five years ago potatoes were rationed. Until one fine day, the bright sparks in the government decided that, along with beans, they should be sold by the pound. So that, everyone was fucked, with potatoes becoming a sumptuary good. If you wanted to eat potato puree or fries, you had to wait in a queue for four hours and put up with fights and swearing just to buy a bag of ten potatoes for 25 pesos. And now that it is rationed once more, the news channel tells you that they will sell you 14 pounds a head, two in the first month, and six after that. But in my farmers’ market they don’t give you a pound any more. Five miserable spuds and you have to take it or leave it”, says Gisela, a housewife.

If you fancy a natural orange juice, get your wallet ready. “Green oranges with hardly any juice cost three pesos, if you can actually find any. A bag of oranges costs between 140 and 200 pesos, half the monthly minimum wage.  I keep asking myself why it is that in countries with a Marxist government, or a socialist one, as invented by Chavez in Venezuela, getting food has to be such torture”, says Alberto, a construction worker.

In Cuba, you can’t eat what you want, only what turns up.

Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.

Translated by GH

The Fidel Castro Fair / Iván García

By Elio Delgado, from the Havana Times

Iván García , 21 February 2017 — The wood charcoal embers are slowly browning half a dozen kebabs with vegetables, pineapples and pieces of pork, while, on a shelf, the flies are hovering around the steamed corn cobs.

From very early in the morning, Jesús, a chubby mulatto with calloused hands, gets on with cooking chicken, pork fillets and sautéed rice, to sell later in his small mobile shop positioned in a large car park, at the main entrance to the International Book Fair in Havana.

A line of kiosks with aluminium tubes and coloured canvas tops offer local favourites, like bread with suckling pig, ham and cheese sandwiches, jellies, mineral water and canned drinks. continue reading

“My kiosk specialises in dishes from San Miguel de Padrón.  But the truth is that in this particular fair, sales are sluggish. Mainly because the organisers prohibited the sale of alcohol. You can forget about books and all that intellectual shit, you have to give Cubans beer and reguetón if you want them to feel happy – the rest is secondary”, says Jesús.

Thursday February 16th started off rainy in Havana. Idelfonso, a self-employed clown, looks up at the overcast sky and mutters, “if it starts raining again, they’ll have to take the circus and its tent away, because no-one will bring their kids in bad weather. This fair has been pretty bad for us. No-one has any money, and those who do prefer to spend it on books and food”, he says, in his bear get-up.

In different parts of the car park, private businesses rent out inflatable toys for fifteen pesos for the kids to bounce about for thirty minutes, and five pesos for a quick ride on a horse.

“Many families don’t come to buy books. They would rather their kids enjoyed themselves playing with the equipment. There are hardly any amusement parks in the capital”, says Rita, who deals with charging for the horses.

Families and groups of friends lay towels out on the grass and picnic on a hill from where you get a unique view of the city across the bay.

Gerard, a young man with tattooed forearms, feels uncomfortable. He tells his wife to go off with the kid to play with the inflatable toys while he complains about the lack of any beer.

“These people are really party poopers. Whose idea was it to stop selling lager and nips of rum? I can’t imagine it was because of Fidel Castro’s death, as the bloke has been pushing up daisies for over two months now”, moans Gerard, knocking back a lemonade as a temporary solution to the matter.

Dora and Germán come from El Cotorro, in south west Havana, with two enormous bags to buy “fifteen or twenty boxes of drink. We have a cafe and we buy stuff here for ten pesos and then we sell them there for twenty. If we have time, we buy a few books for our grandchildren”.

The Book Fair always was a good excuse for thousands of Habaneros to amuse themselves. Kids skipping classes looking over displays of foreign books, inveterate bookworms, pseudo intellectuals who take the opportunity to come over as writers, the peripheral catwalk of hustlers and pickpockets selling tourists fake Cohíba cigars made in shacks in deepest Havana.

But this time the organisers decided to put a stop to “sideshows which have nothing to do with reading”, says Idalia, a Editora Abril bookseller, who adds:

“The fair has been turned into a mess. Like a strip club. Hustlers who came to pull foreigners and people with money who have never read a book and were downing beers ’til closing time. The number of people coming here has definitely fallen, as nearly two million people came here two years ago. Now the numbers have fallen to less than half” says Idalia, who, in exchange for offering her opinions for Martí Noticias, asks me to buy some books.

“The thing is, we get commission on our sales. And we aren’t selling much”, she emphasises. From the books on display, I choose the biography of  Raúl Castro written by Nikolai Leonov, an ex high-up in the KGB and personal friend of the Carribean autocrat.

The book, which looks good, costs 30 pesos, equivalent to three times the daily minimum wage in Cuba. According to the official press, it is the best selling book of the year.  Idalia thinks differently.

“You can put any rubbish you like on paper. They give the book, just like they did with Fidel’s, as gifts to lots of people who attend events, and then they record them as sales. And, being prioritised by the printers, they have gigantic print-runs, and are on sale in all the bookshops in the country. But, I haven’t seen too much enthusiasm among Cuban readers for Raúl’s biography. Foreign lefties certainly do buy books dedicated to Fidel”, she tells me.

Although the present Book Fair is dedicated to Canada and the tedious state official Armando Hart Dávalos, the dead Fidel Castro is the prime actor.

There is no lack of sets of Fidel Castro’s speeches on the local publishers’ stands, a revised edition of History will Absolve Me and cartoon books eulogising the dictator from Birán.

“God help us! Fidel everywhere”, says a lady walking through the Mexican pavilion looking for a diary she has promised her granddaughter. The foreign publishers are the busiest, in spite of the high foreign currency prices.

They also sell pirate Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar teeshirts, as well as a collection of Barcelona and Real Madrid posters. A Mexican bookseller tells us that “We take advantage of the fact that Cubans like football, and so we push this merchandise”.

At midday St Charles Fort looks just like an informal flea market. A few serious readers sit down, leaning against the ancient cannons which protect the fort, in order to read George Orwell’s 1984 or a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

The less serious fill up nylon bags with books on spritual advice or magazines about fashion and cooking. Then they form a little queue at the exit from La Cabaña, to get the bus going to the centre of Havana.

Few visitors know the dark history of the fort, an ancient prison and location of hundreds of firing squads for Castro opponents. The thing is that in Cuba the disinformation, fear of knowing the truth, and amnesia help people live apathetic and apolitical lives.

Translated by GH

"Fatal attraction" Magali Alabau’s Riddles / Luis Felipe Rojas

The poet Magali Alabau signs copies of her book “Fatal Attraction” (“Amor Fatal”) in La Esquina de las Palabras Lounge, Coral Gables, Miami.

Luis Felipe Rojas, 14 March 2017 — A poet writes to unpick puzzles, to sell and buy other questions.  The Cuban poet Magali Alabau came to Miami this Friday 10th March to give a reading from her book “Fatal Attraction” (Betania, 2016). She did it in La Esquina de las Palabras Lounge, which was founded and run by the poet Joaquín Gálvez in Café Demetrio in Coral Gables.

Alabau, a stage actress, who didn’t decide to write until she hit 40, has a voice which slides words around to tell a story which is forgotten here in the north, which all of us in exile are seeking – everyone in exile is seeking. Her sense of direction as she weighs every step becomes a necessity. “Poetry is the foundation through the word, and in the word”, states Heidegger when he embraces the poetry of Hölderlin, and it is precisely in that tone of voice that Magali Alabau has proposed to construct and name her domain, nomatter how small … or resonant … or large it seems to us. There is no other foundation which is not a word.

“This foreign body / which is, during the day, / only involuntary movements, prayer which starts / and doesn’t finish.” continue reading

What is praiseworthy in a poet who lowers her head to give herself to others, to not look back, and to follow those voices which will call to her all her life? Nothing, we can reply, if we understand the ancient profession rebuilt time and time again on the graves of other voices, of other authors.

The mistakes of friendship, the errors of custom, pseudo love, and violence, flow through this book like a flood. In Magali’s voice we encounter accidents and not human characteristics. It is a text without makeup, for which we should be thankful. “I can hear you behind me / harping on about supposed predictions. / I laugh at you, yes, I laugh”, she says to death.

Alabau lives in New York and is the author of a dozen books of poems, with a special mention for “Hermanas”, which won the Poesía Latina Prize in 1992; “Electra, Clitemnestra” (Ed. El Maitén, Chile, 1986) and  “Hemos llegado a Ilión” (Betania,, 19922), among others.

Translated by GH

Grow Food In Caves: The Latest Brainwave From The Ministry Of Agriculture In Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 16 March 2017 — Specialists from MINAGRI, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, tell us that planting seeds inside or near to the Cuban cave network could quickly guarantee food production, which would help to satisfy the ever-increasing requirements of the Cuban population.

Another insane initiative, launched by the Ministry of agriculture, focuses on sustainable solutions to environmental problems, optimising energy and water, improving productivity, and using human waste as compost.

It is not a new idea. Millions of years ago man took advantage of the humidity in caves and their surroundings. How is it possible that today, in the 21st century, the Cuban government is trying to return to the agriculture of the cavemen?

The insane move, which includes training and the creation of laboratories for studying the quality of water in each cave area of the island, emerged as a response to a presumptuous and pushy ministerial debate on the use of water in agriculture that took place last February, where Inés María Chapman, President of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources spoke about the serious situation regarding this natural resource, and Norberto Espinosa Carro, director of the Livestock Business Group, discussed the development programme being undertaken in the middle of straitened economic circumstances.

Anyone traveling to Cuba, even as a tourist, will know that the island has one of the largest cave systems in the world, 70 per cent of its territory, with the exception of Las Tunas, is composed of limestone and calcareous rock, natural phenomenon that leads to the formation of caverns. I doubt that farmers want to return to the caves, or that the MINAGRI can guarantee an underground irrigation system when, over more than 50 years, it hasn’t been able to guarantee even one-third of the national food requirement on fertile ground.

“It is called permaculture and it is a fashionable nonsense brought here by this new Minister from his trip to Europe. And that is exactly one of our biggest problems, the lack of organization, and Ministerial fantasies”, as we are told by one of the managers of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering Research.

“In Cuba”, he concludes, “the problem is not the water or moisture, but the poor support for the beneficial owner of the UBPC Cooperative, the absence of liquidity, the poor utilization of agricultural land, the very bad selection of water sources used for irrigation and drainage, the thousand and one legal restrictions which prevent farmers enjoying a better life, such as building their own home on the land where they work, the poor livestock management and shortage of cattle feed, the shortage of manpower and technically-qualified personnel, the scarcity of supplies and tools, the unavailability of machinery to prepare the soil, the lack of spare parts in the areas where they work,  the deficit of qualified technical staff and work force, the lack of inputs and tools, the non-availability of machinery for the preparation of the land, the lack of spare parts, and the long-running errors in allocating transport for agricultural marketing.  That’s all”

Translated by GH

Undercover American Tourists in Cuba / Iván García

AFP photo taken from Vivelo Hoy

Ivan Garcia, 23 January 2017 — Miami Airport is almost a city. And the American Airlines’ departures area is a labyrinth, with dozens of corridors and passages. That’s why Noahn, an American living in Michigan, arrived five hours before his flight’s scheduled departure time to Varadero.

He was travelling with his wife, his eight-month-old son carried in an arm-sling, and a dog with long floppy ears. In his luggage, professional diving equipment and an electric skateboard. The couple speak in carefully enunciated Spanish, with a hint of a Colombian accent. “It’s because I worked for an American company in Bogotá,” explains Noahn. continue reading

To everyone who wants to listen to him, he describes his experiences as a tourist in Cuba. He knows the Coco and Santa Maria Keys, located to the north of Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara and Maria La Gorda, in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

“But I was enchanted by Varadero. It’s the third time in two years I’ve been there since the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. Neither Miami Beach nor Malibu can compare with Varadero, with its fine white sandy beach. The water is warm and there are hardly any waves. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro and The Bahamas may have just as good or better natural conditions,” he adds, while his wife gives the child some milk in a bottle.

Despite the prohibitions on tourism in Cuba, Americans such as Noahn travelled to the island by way of a third country. “Before December 17, 2014, I travelled to Cuba via Mexico. After that date it’s been easier. There are twelve quite flexible categories, which they call the twelve lies. You declare whichever pretext, and travel in a group or individually. “In theory you can’t go as a tourist, but I bet that’s what half of the American travellers are doing.”

Out of more than 200 passengers on the flight heading to Varadero, only six were Cubans going back to their country permanently or to visit relatives on the island.

Judith, a biologist living in Georgia, is going to Cuba for the second time this year. Why? “Half for professional experience, half tourism.” I’m interested in gathering information on the varieties of Cuban vegetation. Once I finish my research, I’m going to stay a week in a hotel full-board in Camaguey or in Holguin.”

Asked if she felt any harassment or if any federal institution has opened a file on her for violating the country’s regulations, she replies: “Not at all. Seems to me the wisest thing to do would be to openly permit tourism in Cuba, because that’s what in reality people are doing.”

After the re-establishment of relations between two countries that were living in a cold war climate, many more Americans are travelling to the Greater Antilles. In January 11, 2016, Josefina Vidal, an official working in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, and responsible for relations with the United States, reported on Twitter that, in 2016, the island received a total of 614,433 visitors from United States (Americans and Cuban Americans), 34% more than in 2015.

Although on paper the Americans arriving are recorded as being part of a religious or journalistic or a people-to-people exchange, it isn’t difficult to spot well-built blonds or redheads downing quantities of mojitos in a bar in Old Havana or enjoying the warm autumn sun on a Cuban beach.

When at 8:30 in the evening, the American Airlines plane landed at the Juan Gualberto Gómez international airport in Varadero, after a quick check, half a dozen air-conditioned buses were waiting for the “undercover” tourists to take them to four and five star hotels along the Hicacos Peninsula coast.

“Yes, the Americans are tourists.” Many of them go to Havana, others pass the time in Varadero. They prefer to stay in hotels. About 400 or 500 come every week. And many more are expected at New Year’s,” said an official of the Gaviota chain, balancing on the stairway of a bus.

Private taxi drivers and those who lease vehicles from the state hang around the terminal. “There are gringos who come as individual tourists. I charge them the equivalent of $40 for the trip to Varadero, about 20 kilometers from the airport. Almost all give good tips. Unlike the Spaniards and Mexicans, who are complete tightwads,” says Joan, a private taxi driver.

The majority of Cubans are convinced that Americans are rich. And have more money than they know what to do with. They try to milk them as if they were cows.

At the currency exchange outside the airport, they exchange dollars for 86 centavos, less than the official rate of 87. “The rate goes down at weekends,” he says.

An employee in the terminal, says “Here everyone is doing business. “The lavatory cleaner charges, the café sells stuff on the side, and the customs people get things off the passengers.”

Tourism in Cuba is like a harvest. Everyone wants to squeeze the sugar cane. And you can extract plenty of juice from the sneaky tourists

Translated by GH

Informers Approved by the Cuban Government / Iván García

CDR Billboard: In Every Neighborhood, CDR 8th Congress. United, Vigilant and Fighting

Ivan Garcia, 10 February 2017 — Seven years ago, when the roar of the winds of a hurricane devastated Havana and the water filtered through the unglazed living room door of Lisvan, a private worker living in an apartment of blackened walls which urgently needed comprehensive repairs, his housing conditions did not interest the snitches on the block where he lives.

“When I began to be successful in my business and I could renovate the apartment, from doing the electrical system, plumbing, new flooring, painting the rooms to putting grills on the windows and the balcony, the complaints began. What is, in any other country, a source of pride that a citizen can leave his poverty behind and improve his quality of life, is, in Cuba, something that, for more than a few neighbours, arouses both resentment and envy so that it leads them to make anonymous denunciations”, says Lisvan. continue reading

So many years of social control by the regime has transformed some Cubans into hung-up people with double standards. “And shameless too,” adds Lisvan. And he tells me that “two years ago, when I was putting in a new floor, my wife brought me the ceramic tiles in a truck from her work, authorized by her boss. But a neighbor, now in a wheelchair and almost blind, called the DTI to denounce me, accusing me of trafficking in construction materials.”

Luckily, Lisvan had the documents for the tiles, bought in convertible pesos at a state “hard currency collection store” — as such establishments are formally called. But the complaint led to them taking away the car his wife was driving. In the last few days, while he was having railings put across his balcony, to guard against robberies, a neighbor called Servilio complained to the Housing Office that he was altering the façade of the building, and to the electric company for allegedly using the public electricity supply. Lisvan ended by telling me that “It all backfired on him, because everything was in order, and the inspectors involved gave me the phone number of the complainant, who, being a coward, had done it anonymously.”

According to Fernando, a police instructor, anonymous complaints are common in the investigation department where he works. “Thanks to these allegations we started to embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States.

“People report anything — a party that seems lavish, someone who bought beef on the black market or a person who drinks beer every day and doesn’t work. It’s crazy. Snitching in Cuba is sometimes taken to extremes.”

When you ask him what is behind the reports, he avoids the question.

“Because of envy or just a habit of denouncing. These people are almost always resentful and frustrated and tend to be hard up and short of lots of things. And not infrequently the complainant also commits illegal acts,” admits the police instructor.

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that large scale reporting, as has happened for decades in Cuba, is a good subject for specialist study. “But lately, with widespread apathy because of the inefficiency of the system, the long drawn-out economic crisis and the lack of economic and political freedoms, as compared to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, informing has decreased.”

And he adds. “It’s true that in the beginning the Revolution was the source of law. But it also smashed to pieces deep-rooted traditions and social norms. Fidel Castro justified launching the practice of informing on people by reference to Yankee Imperialism, class enemies, and as a way of protecting the Revolution.”

In Cuba, the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) are the basis of collective vigilance in the blocks and neighborhoods of 168 municipalities on the island. Those same committees provide information to the State Security Department about dissidents, that elevates unfounded gossip and marital infidelities to the category of ‘secret reports’.

“In the 21st century, when inequalities have increased, the most diehard Fidelistas, who are still to be found in blocks and neighborhoods, continue with their complaints. It’s a mixture of several things, from base instincts to failure to adapt to new circumstances. It will take years for this dreadful habit to disappear,” concludes the Havana sociologist.

Diana, an engineer, recalls the time when the State granted a week’s holiday on the beach, a TV, a fan or a coffee. “The ancient squabbles in the union meetings to decide who should get the prizes were a theatrical spectacle. It was embarrassing. Yesterday’s shit gave us today’s smell.”

It is likely that in Cuba, if we bet on democracy and are lucky enough to choose good rulers, we will make progress in economic terms, and the country will start to develop and progress.

But the damage caused to Cuban society by informants, as approved by the olive green autocracy, is anthropological. Recovering a basket of interpersonal values will take time. Perhaps ten years. Or more.

Translated by GH

Cubans Wanting To Emigrate See The United States As First Option / Ivan garcia

Cubans who want to emigrate prefer to go to the US

Ivan Garcia, 19 January 2017 — There are few things that spontaneously bring Cubans on the island together. For example, if the provincial team is crowned champion in the national baseball series, where, in between the infamous beer and a noisy reggaeton, in Communist Party-arranged pachangas, people celebrate at the tops of their voices.

It’s also a desire to live as well as possible in a country with the lowest salary in the third world and things for sale at the same price as in Qatar. And, God willing, to be able to travel abroad.

It’s all the same if it is for business, or a government mission, or an invitation from a relative, a friend, or a future fiancé or fiancée living in Europe. To emigrate for a fixed period of time or permanently, is an almost permanent plan on the part of many unmotivated young people or professionals who earn less than a hotel porter. continue reading

A wide cross-section of the Cuban population has it stuck in their imagination, like a postage stamp, that some foreign country ought to sort out their national disaster.

Instinctively and shamelessly, the government, Cubans in the street, trained intellectuals and dissidents, act the victim, and blame the mess on the trade embargo, the global crisis, tropical hurricanes, or the lack of help from the United States.

Any situation is held responsible for the economy not growing, not enough houses being built, the disaster area that is urban transport and waste collection and that the internet is not available everywhere.

With new measures adopted jointly by the White House and the Palace of the Revolution, abolishing the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, an inconsistent policy that Clinton enacted in 1994 which allowed Cubans who “touched dry ground” in the US to stay, the majority of Cubans have vented their anger at Barack Obama.

Let’s analyse it. Obama is a liar. He cannot publicly announce that certain migration laws exclusive to Cubans will not be changed, and then eight days before the end of his mandate, changed them.

And it isn’t that Barack is mistaken. No. He is right. Each sovereign nation designs its immigration regulations as it sees fit. The privileges for Cubans were at the very least counterproductive.

If being born in a country with a dictatorial communist government, where founding other political parties and the freedom of the press are prohibited, is a force majeure for the state which is the world’s greatest receiver of immigrants to offer an opportunity to Cubans, then it should not take any half-measures, and should defend its enacted legislation according to its ethical principles.

Democracy, opportunity and human rights are part of the pillars of American society. They should not find it difficult to safeguard them. Although, in the case of migration, it should be monitored.

A terrorist is not going to arrive from Cuba, and dangerous criminals rarely land. But sometimes there are scammers of Federal programs, people who bet on making money with the sale of drugs, or lazy intellectuals, accustomed to living in a parasitic state where natural human ambition is labelled as suspected delinquency, who abuse the support of the American government.

The wet-foot/dry-foot policy was a dangerous and badly implemented program. If you are going to receive immigrants, then receive them. Don’t make them go on a marathon by sea or land to reach the United States’ border.

That double standard of the American executive was absurd. If you want to help the hundreds of thousands, probably a million or two, who dream of emigrating, do it by safe routes.

Lotteries for visas, or, after analyzing the labour needs of different production and service areas, grant work permits. If you want to find out how many Cubans are fed up with the Castro military junta, I suggest that the White House grant a three-month extension and issue a visa to any Cuban who wants it and has no criminal history. The queues outside the embassy in Havana would be miles-long.

Sloppy regulations create a reckless mirage. Because what the letter of the law doesn’t prohibit is presumed to be permissible. That’s what happened to the policy repealed by Obama.

It’s a pity for his administration, which was certainly the most highly-regarded by the Cuban people, until it annulled the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. If you spoil a child, it will not behave reasonably later.

The United States federal government should allow the two or three thousand Cubans scattered throughout Central America and Mexico, to enter the US. Most of them burnt their boats. They sold their homes and valuable possessions. They cannot look back. They have nothing left.

The greatness of the United States is not its force, but its magnanimity. Those professionals, athletes and technicians, among others, who want to work hard to get on, should have a chance to emigrate safely from Cuba.

Some dissidents and exiles believe that after closing the immigration doors, many fellow countrymen would begin street protests demanding their rights.

It would be ideal. But I’m afraid that’s not going happen. Totalitarian States are whimsically different. If four generations of Cubans have left or have been expelled from their homeland, they can’t ask the rest to be heroes.

Most Cubans are peaceful people. They want the best for their family and to live in dignity. The Castro autocracy will fail because of its own inefficiency. But it has strength and will not hesitate to use it.

The silent mass of Cubans, who pretend to have loyalty to the regime and also yearn to emigrate, do not want to be cannon fodder. Patriotism and defence of their rights are not going to bring them together to challenge the regime.

It’s hard to accept, but it’s the way it is. They only want to emigrate. And to the United States as their first option.

Translated by GH

The Internet In Cuba: Strict Control And Excessive Prices / Iván García

The wifi hotspot outside the old El Cerro Stadium is one of the few where you can calmly and comfortably connect to the internet, due to the park they put up because of the presence of Barack Obama at a baseball game, when the US ex-president visited Havana on 20, 21 and 22 March, 2016. Taken by the New Herald.

Iván García, 30 January 2017 — Five or six abstract oil paintings are tastelessly jumbled together in the living room of a house in the west of Havana, next to  a collection of laptops and ancient computers waiting to be repaired. We can call the owner Reinaldo.

A clean-shaven chap, who has fixed computers, tablets and laptops for twenty years and also, quietly, provided an internet service on the side.

“I have two options. Dial-up internet at 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC – roughly $50 US) a month. And via ADSL at 130 CUC. The transmission speed of the modem is between fifty and seventy kilobytes a second.  With ADSL, the speed is two megabytes. It has the advantage of being free (i.e. unlimited), as it is rumoured that two MB connections will be marketed by ETECSA, the government-owned telecoms company, at 115 cuc for 30 hours,” Reinaldo explains. continue reading

No-one is surprised by anything in Cuba. Clandestine businesses are always two steps ahead of what the state comes up with. Many years before the olive green people legalised private restaurants and lodgings, people had been taking the chance of running such businesses anyway.

And something similar is happening with internet business. The spokesmen for the ETECSA monopoly — the state run telephone and communications company — strongly deny it.

When, on 4 June 2013, the government opened 118 internet rooms all over the country, Tania Velázquez, an executive in the organisation, announced that “by the middle of 2014, we will start to market the internet for cellphones and, by December, at home.”

It was a bluff. While we are waiting for ETECSA to get the internet for cell phones started, what we have now is ETECSA’s Nauta email for cell phones, running on out-of-date 2G technology, too many technical problems, and initially they were charging 1 CUC a MB.

Just over a month ago, they lowered the price to 1.50 CUC for five MB, calling it Bolsa Nauta. But the service is dreadful. “You wait five or six hours to send an email, and the message never leaves the outbox. They are robbing you, as they sometimes charge your account without having offered any service. My advice is to disconnect Nauta from your cell phones as quickly as possible,” says Marlén, who opened an account two years ago.

Marketing the internet at home service is two years behind what Tania Velázquez promised. Just after Christmas 2016, ETECSA started to provide free internet via ADSL to two thousand families with fixed residential phones around the Plaza Vieja, in Havana’s colonial quarter, as a pilot, until the month of March.

“The connection is better than the wifi hotspots. Although it sometimes runs slowly. You need to have a conventional phone to receive the internet service. It isn’t true that you have to belong to the CDR, or Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, or be working. I don’t know if dissidents will be able to opt for the service when they start to sell it. Although the prices will be “thank you and goodnight.”

An ETECSA engineer, working in an internet distribution centre in the capital states that “the prices for internet at home are bollocks. Saying that they will charge 30, 70 and 115 CUC, the dearest tariff, for 30 hours, and depending on the bandwidth, is unofficial. They are looking at setting up a flat charge and also a charge per hour. The prices will be high, but not what the foreign press claims, because an hour at two MB would cost nearly three CUC, and users of half that would prefer to connect to a wifi point. There will be various speed options. The highest will be two MB,” says the engineer.

The military dictatorship has designed a structure capable of controlling the internet. Before the internet landed in the island, where previously the finca rusa, a Russian-built electronic spying base, known as the Base Lourdes, operated. Fidel Castro inaugurated the University of Information Science on the San Antonio de los Baños highway on 23 September 2002. In addition to exporting software, its functions include the rigorous monitoring of internet traffic in the country.

The internet started to operate in Cuba in September 1996. One of the first public internet rooms was located in the National Capitol building, charging $5 an hour. The connection was painfully slow and was not provided by ETECSA, but by CITMA, the present Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

The internet was also offered in four and five star hotels, at between $6 and $10 an hour. In the winter of 2011, the coaxial network on the island was connected to a submarine cable, at a cost of $70 million, and jointly planned with Venezuela and Jamaica.

“The cable was quite a story. It had everything. Embezzlement, poor work quality, various company officials jumping ship. Leonardo, one of the people implicated in the misappropriation of funds, stayed in Panama. The Obama administration authorised a Florida-based company to negotiate with ETECSA. The proposal was to renovate an old underwater cable. The project cost about $18 million. But the government, citing digital sovereignty, opted to do the cable with Venezuela. It is that cable which is providing the present service,” explains an engineer who worked on the ALBA-1 project.

The Cuban secret services have tools for hacking into opposition accounts and spying on the emails of the embassies in the island, including the US one.

“You must not under-estimate the technical capacity of the counter-intelligence. Almost nothing works in Cuba, but they have the latest technology for their work. Since the time of the EICISOFT (Centre of Robotics and Software) at the end of the ’80’s, the Ministry of the Interior has had specialists in new technologies. Maybe they can’t get into Apple systems, but the rest is easy peasy. They now have advice from Russia and China, which is amongst the best in the world when it comes to hacking,” says an ETECSA specialist who prefers to remain anonymous.

According to our informant, “Nothing gets past them. They have a complete arsenal of spy programs and an army of information analysts to crack dissidents’ accounts and keep an eye on social networks like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Everybody who travels the information highway is under their microscope.  Whenever ETECSA opens a new internet service, the State Security monitoring tools are already in place.”

For Cubans whose breakfast is just a coffee, account privacy doesn’t matter much. It’s normal for people to lend their cellphones to strangers. Or to give out their passwords to show how to work their emails. “I don’t care if the State Security is watching me. What interests me is getting off with girls on Facebook,  arranging to get out with the help of workmates who have already got to the US, and finding out stuff about CR7, as Cristiano Ronaldo is known, and Real Madrid,” says Saúl, undergraduate.

The thing is, in Cuba, the internet is, with few exceptions, a means of communicating with your family “across the Pond” (i.e. in Florida). You will see that when you go to any wifi hotspot. “Hey guys, look at the new car Luisito’s just bought,” a kid shouts to a group of friends in the Parque Córdoba hotspot in La Vibora.

“Look, what matters for most people is asking for money by email, talking to family and friends by IMO, the Cuban equivalent to WhatsApp, using the internet to read about famous artists and sport personalities, and other unimportant stuff like that. Not serious media or websites published abroad about Cuban issues,” is the realistic view taken by Carlos, a sociologist.

You can read periodicals from Florida, the New York Times in Spanish, and dailies like El País and El Mundo, without any problems. But not sites like Martí Noticias, Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Cubaencuentro or 14yMedio.

“But you can reach them with a simply proxy,” says Reinaldo, who, as well as repairing computers, sells internet service on the side. And he takes the opportunity to explain the technical features of a gadget he has for sale, which lets you connect to the internet via satellite, without using ETECSA’s servers.

How do such gadgets get to Cuba? I ask him. “Through the ports and airports. The government controls the state economy and also the black market”, he tells me. And I believe it.

Photo: The wifi hotspot outside the old El Cerro Stadium is one of the few where you can calmly and comfortably connect to the internet, due to the park they put up because of the presence of Barack Obama at a baseball game, when the US ex-president visited Havana on 20, 21 and 22nd of March, 2016. Taken by the New Herald.

Translated by GH

21 km for Cuban Political Prisoners / Luis Felipe Rojas

Luis Felipe Rojas, journalist, Cuban writer. (Photo: Daniel Banzer).

Luis Felipe Rojas, 21 January 2017 — This 29th of January I will be running the Miami Half Marathon. It will be 21 kilometers of puffing and panting while I think about the people who are in jail in Cuba because of their opinions.

My legs and ankles will get unscrewed, my liver will tell me to stop throughout the entire 13.1 miles of the run, which I will try to survive. I come from an island where you are not allowed to criticise whichever dictator happens to be there. Isn’t 58 years a dreadfully long time to dictate peoples’ lives? continue reading

I am going to run for those who held up an anti-government sign, those who uttered a slogan which clashed with the chorus of sheep who say yes and think no. Also, for those who once took arms against the oldest dictatorship in the west: the two Castro brothers.

I have spent exactly a year puffing away along the road for more than two hours, in the stifling humidity of the Miami swamps, and the sun which doesn’t understand which season is which. Weights, treadmills, long runs, speed runs, and running barefoot. I want to run through the 21 kilometers of this beautiful city and the endless alleys where you can breathe the humidity of the Cuban jails.

I want to get to the 8 mile point, which will totally wear me out, like somebody who gets put in the Guantánamo Penal Institution, “Combinado”, as it is known, the dismal jail in Boniato, Santiago de Cuba, or the monstrous model prison at Km 8 in Camagüey.

I can do more, I know, but it’s a gesture which will do for now. I only want to invite you to watch the 15th Miami Marathon and Half Marathon. I will run slowly, to savour and suffer every mile, every pace within the pack of runners. This Sunday, more than a hundred Cuban political prisoners will hear the shout Count! and some will be beaten.

The country that is Cuba which will be subdued by each kick, each beating. A lock will be fastened. Someone will run along the road in Miami to open it.

Translated by GH

Cuba: Skepticism Beats Hope / Iván García

Havana cafe. From Juan Suárez’ photo journal entitled La Habana Profunda, Havana Times, September 9, 2016

Ivan Garcia, 4 January 2017 — Like a metaphorical invisible hand, moving to place a ouija or bet on Russian roulette, David, a young writer, considers that the coming year will be unpredictable for the island.

In the hope that the Ifá priests (Yoruba mystics) will spread around their Letters of the Year, the necromancers predict the future, and a woman dressed as a gipsy, furiously blowing out cheap tobacco smoke, turns up various clues after tossing a pack of cards on the table. David suspects that 2017 will throw up more bad news than good. continue reading

“Forecasting is a maddening activity. All sorts of things can happen, but few of them will help the Cuban in the street. The economy is getting worse, Venezuela, which gave us free oil, is holding out the begging bowl, and now we have a weirdo like Donald Trump at the White House. In this situation, I don’t think anything good is going to happen for our country,” is David’s sceptical comment.

People in Havana said the same kind of thing when polled by the Diario Las Américas.

Sergio, an economist “sees the future as grey with black stitches. The countries which gave us credit for nothing, like Brazil and Venezuela, are swamped by their own internal crises. Cuba’s finances are in the red and have far less purchasing power.

“Insufficient exports and imports which are almost doubling the balance of payments. In most areas of production, whether agricultural or industrial, we are either stuck, or going backwards. Forced cutbacks on fuel are affecting and paralysing a variety of development plans, as well as infrastructure, highways, railway lines, and ports which are in urgent need of investment.

“All we have left is tourism and the export of medical services, which, because of domestic conditions in Venezuela and Brazil, may fall by 40 per cent. And, of course, family remittances, which, although the government will not publicise it, are now the second national industry and the country’s biggest contributor of new money.”

Rubén, a social researcher, sees three possible scenarios, but makes it clear that there could be other variants. “First scenario: Donald Trump tears up all the agreements reached with Cuba. If you then factored in the difficult economic situations in Brazil and Venezuela, the best allies the government had, and Putin looking for a rapprochement with the White House, the economic reversal would be serious. I don’t think as bad as the Special Period, but nearly.

Second scenario: If Trump does not move the counters about, there would still be effects for Cuba, which is crying out for investments and credits from anywhere in the world, but, because of geography and history, the United States is the most appropriate. Third scenario: Trump negotiates a major agreement with the government. But, in order to achieve this, Raúl Castro has to give ground in political and human rights terms. It is a complicated context”. To that he adds that Raúl and the historic generation has only one more year to govern.

For most people, the future is a dirty word. It’s senseless and not worth giving yourself a headache thinking about it. “Put simply, we have to live from day to day here.  Try to make four pesos, look up girls’ skirts, and think how you can get away from Cuba”, says an internet user in Mónaco Park, in the south of Cuba.

People usually shrug their shoulders, smile nervously, and churn out rehashed remarks they have learned through many years of media and ideological indoctrination.

“I hope our leaders have some answers, because things look grim”, says a woman queueing to buy oranges in the Mónaco farmers’ market.

“If they”ve planned what’s going to happen in 2017, up to now they’ve said nothing. I think they’re just like the rest of us — no way out and shit scared. Like they’ve always said, “No one can bury it, but no one can fix it either,” says a man in the same line at the market.

And, on the question of what would be the best options for riding out the probable economic storm, Yandy, a high school graduate, is unequivocal. “Get the hell out of Cuba. Or, have a business, making lots of money, so that you can dodge the economic crisis which will be with us for decades”.

Lisandra, a prostitute, is more optimistic “As long as the American tourists come, you can make money. And if there aren’t many of those, the only thing to do is to make out with Cuban wheeler-dealers. But the best choice is get out of Cuba.”

But most Cubans, drinking their breakfast coffee black instead of with milk as they would prefer it, don’t bother themselves too much about the future.

José, a street sweeper, takes the view that “in Cuba things don’t change. Hardly ever up and and nearly always down.  The people who need to worry are the bosses in government. If things go badly, they are the ones with most to lose.”

Translated by GH

Cuba: Christmas for Rich People and for Poor People / Iván García

A typical Cuban Christmas Eve meal for 24th December, is some variation on pork, whether it’s roast, as in the picture, or a suckling pig, and fritters.

Ivan Garcia, 24 November 2016 — Two trucks with trailers, full of reddish-brown earth, park in a narrow street, next to the agricultural market in Mónaco, a neighbourhood thirty minutes from the centre of Havana.

Four men with teeshirts and dirty overalls lug sacks of yucas and sweet potatoes, and boxes of tomatoes to a store with a door made of metal bars. A chap with an enormous stomach cups his hands to his mouth and shouts “Get your yucas here! A peso a pound. Three-cane tomatoes, knock-down prices.”

In a few minutes, in the hot sun, a queue was formed of twenty or thirty people, each with their own basket. A few yards away from the agricultural market, in a state market, there is an even longer queue, to buy pork. continue reading

Rubén, a retired chap, joined the queue at five in the morning. And by mid-day, “I still haven’t  bought two legs of pork, one for the 24th and the other for December 31st. It’s because pork is cheaper in the government markets. They sell loin of pork at 21 (Cuban) pesos a pound, and it’s 25 pesos in the private ones.”

You can hear murmuring and complaints. The legs have an odd colour. A lady said, “They don’t look like pork. It’s because they keep it for so many months in the fridge that the meat gets a strange colour.  They say when you eat it, it tastes like fish or game. Maybe it isn’t even pork. You never know with those people (the government). They sell coffee thickened with chickpeas, cigarettes sold in Cuban pesos with bits of wood in them.”

But it’s the cheapest option for Cubans who have coffee without milk and bread without butter for breakfast. Diana, a housewife, is optimistic. “At least tomatoes were much cheaper this year, 3 pesos a pound. Last year at this time they were going for 25 baros (one of many terms for Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC))” she recalls, and adds:

“Cubans are born to work. Three days before New Year’s Eve, many families have not yet bought their pork. And not very many can buy nougat. Look at those prices”, she adds, indicating a selection of nougats displayed in the counter of a foreign currency shop.

Prices may be cheaper than in Miami. Jijona soft nougat costs the equivalent of four dollars. Ones with fruit, nuts, almonds or chocolate, around five dollars. “Yes, but in ’Mayami’ people get eight dollars an hour, while in Cuba, people earn 20 dollars a month. And the average pension is 12 CUC.  There’s no comparison”, replies a man waiting angrily in the government market queue.

Let’s take the Rodriguez family as a microcosm. Six people live in a two-bedroom apartment in La Víbora. “My wife, daughter and I sleep in one bedroom. My in-laws and our son sleep in the other one,” says Rodriguez. His wife and he are professionals and together earn the equivalent of 2,500 Cuban pesos, if you add in the 25 CUC she is paid as a salary incentive.

“My parents’ pension is 570 Cuban pesos. We have a total of 3,070 Cuban pesos coming into the house, which converts to 125 CUC” (about the same in dollars), notes Mrs Rodriguez, as she goes over their expenses once more. “Ninety per cent of the money goes on food. The rest on electricity, telephone and other services. Buying clothes, going anywhere or celebrating Christmas means inventing stuff.”

All Cubans know what “inventing” means. Pinching things from where they work, or running a business on the side which provides some extra cash.

Christmas Eve dinner at the Rodriguez house will include a leg of pork, four fricasseed turkey thighs, rice, black beans, lettuce, cabbage and tomato salad, yuca with mojo sauce, Jijona nougat, cut into twelve pieces, two for each one of the six family members.

The kids drink pop and the adults half a dozen canned Cristal beers and a bottle of red wine. As well as the nougat, the dessert also includes doughnuts prepared by grandma. “We eat and drink the same at New Year’s, except that, instead of red wine, we drink rum. The cost of the dinners for the 24th and 31st of December adds up to around 120 or 130 CUC, which is about the same as what we both earn in a month. Cuba is a crazy country, don’t you think?” asks Sr. Rodríguez.

Quite a lot of Cubans don’t celebrate Christmas. Not because of Fidel Castro’s death, but because they can’t afford to. “If all the butcher has is chicken, because fish is hard to come by, I get annoyed and buy two boxes of cheap Planchao rum to celebrate Christmas Eve. Right now, I don’t have any plans for parties,” says René, a construction worker.

But a small minority, between 7 and 10 per cent of the population, have enough cash. Augusto, a musician, has already bought a frozen turkey for 60 CUC, six different nougats, three crates of beer, and six bottles of mature rum. For the 31st, he plans to buy El Gaitero cider and some bunches of grapes (traditionally eaten at New Year’s). And he has put up an enormous Christmas tree in his living room, covered in balls and lights.

Mario, an independent furniture designer, is planning to spend 60 CUC a head for his wife and himself on 24th December at Meliá Habana, a hotel in Miramar, which also offers lunch at 25-27 CUC for adults and 15 CUC for children up to 12 years old, and evening meals on the 31st for 145 CUC for adults and 55 for children up to 12.

The generals, ministers and government officials with sufficient seniority receive a basket with a turkey, fruit, bottles of rum and wines, nougats and other delicacies. Even during the hard times, when Fidel Castro prohibited parties at Christmas and Three Kings Day, the olive green middle class never failed to celebrate Christmas Eve.

“The first time I saw so much food was in the house of Enrique Lusson, who was then Minister of Transport. There were tables overflowing with meat, seafood and drink”, recalls a MININT (Ministry of the Interior) security guard.

The story of having to scrimp and save is about the other people, the ones lower down. The higher-ups are different. Their lives are hardly affected by the rules. Although, maybe, this 31st December, they will see in 2017 with moderation, since they should show discreet mourning for the death of their commander-in-chief.

Photo: A typical Cuban Christmas Eve meal for 24th December, is some variation on pork, whether it’s roast, as in the picture, or a suckling pig, and fritters.

Translated by GH

Rice Might Be In Short Supply This Festive Season / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 22 December 2016  — Sad, paradoxical and irresponsible — but real. Rice, the common denominator, and basic ingredient, of Cuban cuisine, could be almost absent from the island’s tables at the end of the year.

The official press has already started its plan of offering free publicity for the dinner parties which will be celebrated the coming 24th and 31st of December and January 1st in cinemas, cultural centres, social circles and theatres on the island.

The idea, as they explain it, is to guarantee family enjoyment and dining during the Christmas period and, fundamentally, for the coming of the 58th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. continue reading

For that reason, they have doubled the work schedules for catering units and restaurants belonging to the government commercial chain.  They will arrange exceptional supplies to livestock markets and local market places, and they are  planning the sale of foodstuffs, from a variety of crops to different types of meat. But … is there the productive support to achieve this aim? As far as rice is concerned, no.

One of the directors of the agro-industrial company “Fernando Echenique Urquiza” made the point, in the national press, that, although in 2016 the production of rice was much higher than in previous years, he could not get hold of a good supply.

The government official blamed the problem on the early maturing of the crop, but another worker in the sector proposed other explanations:

“During the rainy season, we had a lot of rain, which helped the crops”, was the rice expert’s explicit and clear explanation.

“It’s true that it was ready early, but there are other factors which also have a negative effect, and not only in this harvest” he said.

“The country has developed an important investment programme to increase rice production nationally.  Agreements have been signed authorising credits from the Import Export Bank of China (EXIM) for the purchase of medium and high-powered YTO tractors, and financial arrangements for the promotion of the national rice-growing agro-industry. We are setting up new irrigation systems, repairing dryers and mills. Modern seed-processing factories have been built and advanced equipment and technology has been purchased.

“But we still cannot depend on a sufficient fleet of vehicles to transport the product from the farm to the dryers, and to the stores, let alone to the markets. Nor do we have enough combine harvesters. And the dryers both here in Mayabeque province, and nationally, do not have the capacity to deal with a good harvest. And all of that is without taking into account the ridiculous price paid to the farmers for the demanding task of producing the grain which is irreplaceable in Cuban cooking”, said the expert.

As a last resort, the government has had to make up for negligence and inefficient production with last-minute imports, taking a hit with the purchase price, which, in turn, has a clear impact, especially at this time of year, on your average Cuban table.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these difficulties, for all Cubans, this is a Christmas to celebrate.

Translated by GH

Donald Trump and Raul Castro / Dimas Castellano

(Ilustration: Giovanni Tazza)

Dimas Castellano, 29 November 2016 — The great majority of Cubans were surprised by Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Surveys in other countries, and the official Cuban press, labelling Hillary Clinton as the favourite, created false expectations.

Since the results have become known, all sorts of opinions have been put forward. Some believe that Trump is a dangerous man, who will damage things, others that he will demand more from Havana, and they are happy about that, and many are worried that there will be a setback to relations and regret his triumph, while a majority are unhappy with the official press campaign against president Barack Obama’s policy.

What almost everyone is agreed upon is the poor state in which Cuba finds itself, and the need to emigrate. continue reading

Going back on the established improvements in relations will be extremely difficult. Why is that? Because of the division of public authorities, the existence of a diversity of interest groups, and its institutionalisation in the United States.

The president could limit or eliminate some things, but not everything, because that would imply affecting North American interests. Quite simply, electoral populism is one thing, and presiding over an institutionalised country is quite another.

Even supposing that Trump really could be a threat to the improved relations with Cuba which Barack Obama managed to achieve — in my opinion the most important political act in the last half century in Cuba — the biggest danger of sliding backwards up to now has been, and still is, the Cuban side of things.

Nationalisation, centralised planning, and the absence of liberties, are among the principal causes of the permanent crisis in which Cuba finds itself. The Obama administration’s policy offered an opportunity for change, which was missed by the Cuban side.

Therefore, whatever risk the Trump administration might represent would be less than the negative influence of the Cuban government, trapped in an insoluble contradiction between changing and at the same time preserving power.

Fidel Castro’s thesis that “Cuba already changed, in 1959,” produced a more pragmatic vision than General Raúl Castro’s one of “changing some things to hold onto power.” Nevertheless, the measures implemented to that end have not brought about the desired result, because of a conflict of powers. Instead, they have revealed the unviability of the economic and social model and the depth of the crisis.

The series of measures enacted by the White House have, among other things, led to increased tourism and remittances sent to families, the first cruise ship has arrived, flights have restarted, agreements reached with American telecommunication companies, negotiations with other countries and restructuring of external debts. Meanwhile the Presidential Decision Directive of last November was aimed at rendering irreversible the advances achieved.

If those measures have not produced a better outcome, it is because the obstacles in the path of production and the absence of civil liberties in Cuba have prevented it. For that reason, changes are dependent on the Cuban authorities, rather than on Trump. To tackle these changes now, albeit very late, would neutralise any intention by Trump to set things back.

Bearing in mind that the suspension of the embargo is the prerogative of the United States Congress, what is needed now, after the “physical disappearance” of Fidel Castro, is to get on with a comprehensive structural reform, like that carried out by the Vietnamese, who, having abandoned centralised planning and adopted a market economy, have positioned themselves as the 28th largest exporter in the world.

Taken from: El Comercio, Peru

Translated by GH