The Peace the Castros are Looking For / Luis Felipe Rojas

Patrols keeping the Ladies in White headquarters in Havana under observation. Photo: A. Moya

Luis Felipe Rojas, 13 August 2016 — Now, in the second week of August, dozens of members of the Cuban opposition have been trapped in their houses. The Cuban political police have been instructed to close off the streets and mount patrols to prevent dissidents from going out to protest.

The photos published by the ex-political prisoner Ángel Moya Acosta let us see the Lawton area in Havana, where police patrols, olive-green forces and members of the Rapid Response Brigade harass Cuban dissidents, especially the Ladies in White, to stop them going to Sunday mass or arranging the monthly Literary Tea (monthly meetings with discussions and speeches on current social/political situation in Cuba, attended by opposition group representatives).

A police patrol keeping watch over the Havana office of the Damas de Blanco. Photo: A. Moya

The peace that the Castros are looking for: with plastic handcuffs, rubber truncheons and fetid prison cells.

Translated by GH

Between Analogue and Ideologue. Internet Access in Cuba / Regina Coyula

Ideas shared at the Internet Governance Forum events of the Internet Society of Latin America and the Caribbean, which recently took place in Costa Rica.

Regina Coyula, 5 August 2016 — Now recognised as a human right by most people and most governments, internet access in Cuba has been a bumpy road. Cuba connected to the internet in September, 1996. The first dial-up internet access, by telephone, was via government information offices, although some users could access email .cu from their homes.The speed of the noisy connection through a modem some three or four years ago, hardly got to 50-56 kbps.

In 2010 news came out of the extension of a powerful underwater fibre optic cable, from Guaira, Venezuela to Santiago de Cuba. According to the report, this cable would be the solution for data transmission speed; we would no longer depend on satellite connections. When the cable reached Cuba, for nearly four years its use was a mystery – something was happening, therefore there must be something there. The last mile, most of us thought, was the expensive technological challenge which was delaying access for the public. But a solution was found in the form of wifi connections. Continue reading “Between Analogue and Ideologue. Internet Access in Cuba / Regina Coyula”

In a little under three years, they opened internet rooms in diifferent parts of the country, at a charge of 4.50 cuc an hour. That availability did not increase until 2015 with the provision of wifi points in principal town centre locations. ETECSA (Government-owned Cuban Telecoms Company) only offers services at home to foreign residents in Cuba, to officials and to certain personalities and journalists.

There are various information networks which make up the internet (Informed, Cubarte, Rimed, Upec, etc.). The great majority of their users don’t have internet access in their homes. Those who do, have an access packet of 25-100 hours a month.

Universities, and some colleges, offer access. Students have an increasing allocation (250 Mb a month in their last year of study).

When you hear talk in the press and in international forums about percentages of access to the internet, above all they are referring to the above-mentioned Internet which is generally limited to .cu sites, to an email provider and some news sites.

Cuba, with illiteracy erradicated, free education, and with a high percentage of university professionals, technicians and skilled workers, has the lowest level of internet penetration in the region.

One hour of connection now costs 2 cuc, and the average salary is about 20-25 cuc a month. People use their connection time mostly for communicating with family and friends. Use of mobile data in the CUBACEL network costs $1.00 CUC for every MB and is only available by going into the email service @nauta.cu.

In the broadcasting media you often come across references to negative aspects of the internet, such as child porn, racism, violence, loss of privacy, which influences people who only know the internet by hear-say. The government is the only IT service provider  and importing routers, hotspots and other digital tools for private use is prohibited by law.

People don’t know about the power of social networks to help them get organised and achieve consensus about things which matter, from local issues up to the desire to elect the President of the Republic. In fact, many people imagine that Facebook IS the internet.

The internet has not been free from profound ideologisation. If the terms of the embargo laws imposed by the US government have particularly impacted IT, it is our duty to insist on the importance of eliminating the internal blockade on information and vindicate the open and democratic character of the internet, wihout any censorship of the contents or personal opinions inside or outside of the web.

An additional factor in Cuba is that video gamers, prevented from gaining access to the real internet, have put together a cable connection which is free but contributory, which nowadays is not used just for games but also for online chat and the notorious Weekly Packet, which the authorities prohibit  but cannot sanction as it is not for profit.

Priorities

  • Lower access cost
  •  Improve the quantity and quality of connection locations
  •  Attack digital illiteracy

Objectives

  • Initial public discussion on the Media Law
  • Public education by way of courses on browsers, digital business, social networks, cyber security, ethics, etc. In Council computer clubs for kids.
  • National education channel
  • Open access internet
  • Transparency over payments for internet connections in order to improve public access
  • Permit private connections at market price with equal transparency and for the same reason as the above.

Make public internet connections, where you now have to pay, free.

Translated by GH

Traffic Accidents: The Fifth Highest Cause of Death in Cuba / Iván García

The state of a Transtur bus, carrying 30 European tourists, after a crash. The crash happened on April 2, 2016, at the Jatibonico exit going towards Ciego de Ávila, leaving 2 dead and 28 injured. The two who died were the driver, Alkier Barrera Medina, a 36-year-old Cuban national, and an Austrian tourist, Johnn Eberl, aged 63. Photo by Vicente Brito, Escambray newspaper from Sancti Spiritus.
The state of a Transtur bus, carrying 30 European tourists, after a crash. The crash happened on April 2, 2016, at the Jatibonico exit going towards Ciego de Ávila, leaving 2 dead and 28 injured. The two who died were the driver, Alkier Barrera Medina, a 36-year-old Cuban national, and an Austrian tourist, Johnn Eberl, aged 63. Photo by Vicente Brito, Escambray newspaper from Sancti Spiritus.

Iván García, 11 July 2016 — Fernando, owner of a private business to the east of Havana, bought his ancient black Moskvitch during the difficult years of the Special Period, when the proprietor, a national labour hero, found himself obliged to sell his cane cutting business to feed his family.

The Soviet era car should have gone to the scrapyard years ago. Moreover, the Russian factory which made the vehicle went bust in 2002. But in Cuba, the obsolete Moskvitch refuses to die. Continue reading “Traffic Accidents: The Fifth Highest Cause of Death in Cuba / Iván García”

“At that time, I was in charge of a store in a tourist centre and earned a lot of money with the ’contraption’. I bought it for $7,000”, says Fernando.

It was a miracle the car went anywhere. The handbrake didn’t work, the steering was faulty, and it didn’t have any windscreen wipers. But, the magic power of discreetly slipping a 50 cuc bill to a transport official, who had to inspect the vehicle, saw to it that the clapped-out Mokvitch passed its technical inspection.

Fernando used the car to purchase food and raw materials for his business, after driving through different parts of the capital. Its disastrous condition was an accident waiting to happen.

“Sometimes I took my family in it, and occasionally I drove it when I was drunk, but only short distances, along back streets”, Fernando added, justifying himself.

In spite of the fact that the island declares a low rate of traffic fatalities (7.8 per thousand inhabitants*), half the world average (17.4), and also lower than in Europe (9.3), according to the 2013 data of the World Health Organisation, few countries like Cuba include lack of maintenance as one of the principal vehicle risk factors.

In 2015, on average, there was a pedestrian-related accident every 47 minutes, and a death every 11 hours, according to a meeting of the National Road Safety Commission. Fatal traffic accidents are the fifth highest cause of death in Cuba.

Ricardo Alonso, Director of Automobile Security and Inspection at the Transport Ministry, announced that, according to the last year’s accident statistics, an adult over 70 years old was killed every three days, and an injury was reported every hour, most of all in the provincies of Havana (152), Camagüey (83), and Santiago de Cuba (80).

Havana, a city of more than two and a half million inhabitants, presents a highway picture ranging from fair to disastrous. Although the main arteries are tarmacked, the poor way this is done produces potholes and unevenness in the streets.

“There are no streets in the city which don’t have lumps and bumps. With the exception of Fifth Avenue and 23rd, the rest are land mines. We are not talking about back streets. In some areas the streets have lost their asphalt surface. Driving in such conditions damages your car. Every two months I have to take it to the garage because of problems caused by the poor state of the streets,” says Saúl,  who spends 12 hours a day driving a shared taxi between El Cotorro and Parque de la Fraternidad.

When you ask private drivers what are the principal causes of accidents in Cuba, most of them point to the bad state of the roads, animals wandering in the streets, poor road signs and little or no lighting on the highways.

“Driving at night along Ocho Vias or the Central Highway is pretty well suicidal. When you least expect it, you come across cattle crossing the road, or a pothole as deep as a swimming pool wrecks your car”, according to Reinaldo, who drives a “semi-bus” (a truck converted to carry passengers) from Havana to Santa Clara.

Many drivers ask what is the government doing with the money it collects from taxes applied to small private businesses. “The government rakes in thousands of millions of pesos from taxes. Why don’t they repair the streets and highways and put in street lighting?” asks Norberto, a private taxi driver.

According to the official press, 76% of the roads in Cuba are in fair or poor condition. Most drivers interviewed blame the government for the high prices of auto spare parts.

Ninety percent of the ancient American cars running around the country conceal powerful Hyundai or Mercedes motors underneath the hood.

Modernising them, only in terms of the labour, can cost up to $1,000, a luxury few can afford in country where people live on an average salary of $25 a month.

In a state-owned chain of shops, which are generally out of whatever you want, private drivers have to pay a fortune for parts. In the Fiat dealer, a stone’s throw from the Malecon, an engine costs between $4,000 and $8,000, three times the average cost in any other Latin American country.

People who have the money and patience to get through the slow processes involved, import spares from Panama or Miami, but the black market continues to be the main supplier.

But other causes of hundreds of fatal accidents are down to the drivers. Driving while drunk, talking on their mobiles while they are driving, speeding, and using vehicles unsuited to carrying passengers, are some of the factors leading to traffic accidents.

Eighty percent of Cuban vehicles have been in use for 30 years, or more. Ancient Soviet era cars, and Frankenstein American models built six or seven decades ago, run on the imagination of their mechanics, and also bribes to corrupt Ministry of Transport officials to get their operating licences.

“There have been examples of cars running on cooking gas and even kerosene. More than a few are rolling bombs. If the government sold cars at affordable prices, the problem would not be so serious”, says Carlos, a bus driver.

In Cuba, the price of a used car varies between $14,000 and $30,000 in government dealerships. And a new Peugeot 508 is approaching $300,000. Nearly as much as a Ferrari.

According to Fernando, talking about his beat-up old Moskvitch, “a little while ago, I was offered 9,000 convertible pesos [roughly the same in US dollars] and I thought of selling it.” It would be a circular business. Only in a country like Cuba would a Soviet era piece of rubbish still have a market value.

From Hispanost, June 27,  2016.

*Translator’s note: Vehicle crash rates on a per capita basis are meaningless because they do not take into account different rates of vehicle travel. The commonly accepted measure in the industry is “per capita vehicle kilometers/miles traveled.” For obvious reasons, including exceedingly low vehicle ownership rates, Cubans presumably log much fewer kilometers/miles in vehicles than do people in other Western Hemisphere countries. While the Cuban government cannot be relied on to provide accurate data, world comparisons of death rates per number of vehicles owned place Cuba (133.7) well above the United States (12.9), Europe (19.0) and the Americas as a whole (33).

Translated by GH 

Poor Quality Teaching in Cuba Leads to Expenses and Bribes / Iván García

Photo by Calixto N. Llanes, taken from the blog Siluetas de Cuba. Primary school pupils with their satchels and lunch bags on the first day of classes of the academic year 2015-2016.
Photo by Calixto N. Llanes, taken from the blog Siluetas de Cuba. Primary school pupils with their satchels and lunch bags on the first day of classes of the academic year 2015-2016.

Ivan Garcia, 20 June 2016 — The choice facing Yolexis was simple. Either he studied teaching, or he would have to do two years in the armed forces. At the age of 18, he couldn’t think of anything worse than putting on an olive-green uniform and marching around for hours in the hot sun.

So, he decided to study to become a teacher in the  east of Havana. “To be a teacher in Cuba is the last card in the deck. My parents told me that, before the triumph of the Revolution, to be a teacher was a source of pride in society. Now, to be a teacher is just shitty”, says Yolexis, who, because of the shortage of primary teachers in the capital, gives classes without proper academic training. Continue reading “Poor Quality Teaching in Cuba Leads to Expenses and Bribes / Iván García”

In order to add to his meagre 425 pesos a month salary (about $19), Yolexis offers tutoring lessons in the living room of his house. “I charge 20 pesos a lesson. Doing that I get over a thousand pesos extra, double my teacher’s salary.

If there once existed an ethical limit which ensured a teacher’s observation of certain rules and commitments, for quite a while now many Cuban teachers have been just jumping right over those precepts.

It is normal now to see directors of primary, junior high and high schools, giving private classes or tutoring for topics which then appear in the exams.

Let’s call her Olga. She is an assistant director of a Havana primary school. After 6 in the afternoon, she is providing tutoring classes to half a dozen pupils from her own school.

She charges 6 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) a month for each child, and in the neighbourhood she is well-known for covering the material which is almost exactly what then comes up in the final exams. “It’s a kind of hidden fraud. But what can we do? With such poor education, what every parent wants is that their kids get good grades” is what I am told with an air of resignation by Oscar, a father whose son is in the sixth grade.

Academic fraud on the island is old news. You could analyse different reasons for that detrimental behaviour. But let’s be blunt. It is Fidel Castro who is to blame for the fraud in Cuba, in whichever form it takes.

In his eagerness to set up a model system of public education, he established weird standards which encouraged academic fraud as a tool to promote the highest possible grades for students.

Let’s leave to one side the highly doctrinaire education, subsidised by a silent tax on incomes. The structural distortion of Cuban education started at the same time as Castro designed the system as a display cabinet to highlight his work.

Elsa, a retired teacher, remembers that time of schools in the countryside, in which “if a teacher did not pass more than 95% of his pupils, he was being troublesome, and even counter-revolutionary. On the day of the exam, I shamelessly whispered the exam answers to my pupils. That was when the fall in the quality of education started.”

Although there are more than a million university graduates in Cuba, Eugenio, professor of higher education, considers that quality standards leave much to be desired.

“There have been cases of fraud in the University, but not as serious as in primary, junior high, or high schools. The problem with university education is quality. More and more well-trained teachers are leaving the country. Our universities are not listed in the 300 best in Latin America. The recruits we are getting now have clear gaps in their knowledge of maths and grammar”.

In an article published June 3rd in the Vanguardia de Villa Clara newspaper, it was revealed that, out of the 3,300 applicants who sat the university entrance exam in that province, 1,200 failed in mathematics.

Eugenio repeated that, “There is a lot of talk about the poor standard of primary and secondary teaching, but there has also been a big drop in the quality of higher education”.

According to pupils studying for their degrees, some teachers sell exam papers for 20 CUC. “The final exams cost up to 40 CUC. On exam day, the teachers tells you the answers and then charge you outside the school. Those who are screwed are the pupils whose parents don’t have the money to pay for tutoring or the exams,” says a female student in the third year of High School.

Caridad pays between 25 and 30 CUC a month to a retired teacher who helps her two children do their homework. “It isn’t easy. After they have spent 8 hours in secondary school, many adolescents pass another hour and a half studying, because in school, with the teachers’ deficiencies, they find it difficult to take in their lessons. On top of that there is the money for a snack and lunch, which in my case is 50 CUC a month, quite apart from ’presents’ for the teachers and directors to get them to look after my kids”.

Maria Elena has lost count of the money she has spent on gifts and favours for her daughter’s teacher. “Those extra expenses started in the first grade. I usually bring her lunch, buy her clothes and cellphone cards. The more parents do for their childrens’ teacher, the better the grades that they get”.

René, father of an eighth grade student, complains about the number of requests made by the school. “They’ve got a cheek. They ask you for fans so that the students are not too hot in the classrooms. In my son’s secondary school, the parents have provided detergent, paper, curtains, electric sockets … and then the government says the education is free”.

The final exams are coming up, and more than a few few families open their wallets to pay for extra tutoring, or give subtle bribes to certain teachers. Juan Carlos recognises that perhaps it isn’t the best way to motivate his kids to be interested in their studies, “but what we are talking about is them getting good grades so they can get into a good university course. If I have to pay, I pay”.

What with gifts for teachers, English classes and tutoring, Yolanda spends a hundred of the two hundred dollars sent to her every month by family members living in Miami. “What is important is that my daughter learns and studies English in a private school. If she works hard she could get a scholarship to a university in the United States.”

After the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, many families have started to value the teaching in Cuban schools as a first stepping stone.

They see their kids’s professional future outside the island. And they are thinking big. University of Florida, Harvard, or perhaps the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology. It doesn’t cost anything to dream.

Photo by Calixto N. Llanes, taken from the blog Siluetas de Cuba. Primary school pupils with their satchels and lunch bags on the first day of classes of the academic year 2015-2016.

Translated by GH 

Cuba, a Tax Haven for the Untouchables / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

The Panama Papers confirmed that Cuba controls the Venezuelan passport system (courtesy)
The Panama Papers confirmed that Cuba controls the Venezuelan passport system (courtesy)

Jeovany Jimenez Vega, 6 June 2016 — In recent weeks, the world has taken a great interest in the scandalous revelations of the Panama Papers. Millions of documents have revealed the  shady side of celebrities, politicians and leaders in every region and of all political colours.  And, of course, a government as chameleon-like as Cuba’s was not going to be an amazing exception, the missing condiment in this soup.

The very serious revelation that the Castros’ government and its Venezuelan counterpart contracted the services of a German business, by way of the Mossack Fonseca law firm — trying in that way to not appear tied in with such unsavoury accomplices — to arrange the production of the current version of the Venezuelan passport, and the subsequent control over the distribution of this document since then by Havana, has been the most embarrassing thing that has been revealed by these documents about the island’s government. Continue reading “Cuba, a Tax Haven for the Untouchables / Jeovany Jimenez Vega”

Although many people are waiting avidly for new revelations which incriminate high Cuban officials, this writer would not be surprised, nevertheless, if absolutely nothing of the sort happens. This certainty derives from a total conviction in a long-established truth, which is the most obvious and elemental of all: none of the Castros has ever needed to deposit his fortune or cover up his activities in tax havens, simply because they have never needed to avoid any kind of audit. They alone are their only auditors, judges and participants in their shady activities, in which nobody else can stick their fingers in — period. Or, in fewer words, both dictators have always considered Cuba to be their exclusive private tax haven.

In order to back up this accusation, let’s look at the most widely-held definition of what is a tax haven. Normally it is considered to be any territory or country which complies basically with the following conditions:

If the jurisdiction levies no taxes, if it permits non-residents to benefit from tax breaks, even when they in fact carry out no activities in the country.

If there is no transparency, if there are strictly private bank accounts, and the personal details of owners and company shareholders do not appear in public records, or indeed they permit formal representatives, called nominees, to be employed.

If the laws or administrative practices do not permit interchange of information with other countries or international organisations for fiscal purposes in relation to taxpayers benefitting from exceptionally low tax rates.

In order to understand the present analysis, we have to start off from the incontrovertible premise that the same geographical space is cohabited by two antagonistic Cubas. One of them is the Cuba of the dictators and the regime’s historic “sacred cows,” and a whole entourage of opportunists, high level executives, managers of important companies, all of whom are absolutely tied in with the government, and the highest level officials of the Ministry of the Interior and the armed forces, as well as Cuban ambassadors overseas. Their respective families and lovers also belong to this elite, along with good friends, and the cream of this Cuban neo-bourgeoisie, the emerging upper middle class, and also — and why not? — all those businessmen and foreign diplomats resident in the island.

A completely different totally opposed reality, is the life lived by the ordinary Cuban. 90% of us Cubans live in this lower class Cuba, and this is where I live, with my family and all my friends, just like the overwhelming majority of Cuban professionals and everyone who works for the state. It is the Cuba of miserable salaries and the everyday pursuit of your daily bread. It is this Cuba, which is poor and hopeless, that wave after wave of Cuban young people are fleeing.

So we have the upper class Cuba convinced that it has no obligation to account for anything to lower class Cuba. If we consider these realities, only apparently overlapping, as two separate countries, which in practice is what they are, we are then able to understand why it is not hyperbole or gratuitous to say that the Castros have for more than 50 years enjoyed the advantages of having their own tax haven.

But, finally, why should we consider Cuba to be a tax haven? Very simply, we are talking about a country without the most basic legal or civic mechanisms to indict the most corrupt, because it is precisely those people who call the shots. It is a country without division of powers, which guarantees the total impunity of those people.

There has never existed in post-revolutionary Cuba either an official press which denounces anything, or a police authority which investigates anything, or a public prosecutor which accuses any one of the most corrupt people in the government, because — get this — you cannot take at face value the the periodic purges of disgraced officials, because in these cases the order always comes from the current dictator’s executive, and never from the judicial system which should naturally deal with it. There are far more than enough examples of investigations which have faded away into nothing when they have been countermanded from above, which no-one dares to question.

When you check it out, there are all the elements here of the above-mentioned definition. We have a caste which doesn’t pay any taxes on their informal or illegal businesses, or if they do pay them, they are just a token in relation to the real level of their income.

We have a government which has always practised the most absolute and systemic secrecy in relation to the private lives and real incomes of its most important chiefs, and also a rigid censorship over whatever may be produced to evidence their over-the-top schemes, managed by unscrupulous front men, referred to above as nominees. And finally we have a body of law, for the most part in violation of the most important human rights, but made to measure for the aspirations of the elite to maintain their power and influence.

Cuba is still today a tax haven for the untouchables, with all institutions in submission to this privileged class which lives like kings on the Olympic heights, disconnected from the reality of the people who live beneath them in poverty and want.

In fact, if you asked a thief or corporate tight-wad who want to fill their bank accounts on the margins of any tax responsibility, what would be the country of their dreams, they would definitely say that that country would have a government which didn’t waste its time on listening to useless pleas from its people, which was hard-line and keeping a grip on its power — it would be ideal if, by the way, it was the only one legally recognised in the constitution — and which would guarantee that it would leave me in peace to get on with my business dealings, sorting out unionists and trouble makers. That is to say, a government keen on the most profitable exploitation of whatever you can come up with.

Our hypothetical crook would say that in that fantasy world, I would have a monopoly of all markets, which would practically make me a God who could order, to my heart’s content, the fate of millions of consumers who would have no choice apart from what I offer, which would allow me to speculate by selling dear whatever cheapo thing I imported.

I would love to carry out my activities, our respondent would continue, among serious, upright people and businessmen who understand that the best business is the one which generates the most profit in the shortest time possible, no matter who may be hurt.

I would like a country to have no division of powers, in which every judge, right up to the Supreme Court, was subordinated to a powerful man, an arch-calculator, through whom everything flows, as smooth as silk, and protected from indiscreet gazes.

Just think, dear reader, whether that elite country, the above-mentioned Cuba, with its life-long privileged class, where greed and opportunism reigns, the Cuba of despotic generals and criminals who go unpunished, should not be considered to be a genuine and very exclusive tax haven. If such a country could not be classified as such, then a guanábana is not a spiky green fruit. Needless to say,  whatever similarity to real life here would not be a coincidence. Draw your own conclusions

Translated by GH

Harsh Reality / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 17 May 2016 — In the few available spaces for people to express their opinions in the official Cuban media (letters to the editor of “Granma,” “Rebellious Youth,” a page of “Workers”, “Ordinary People Talking” on Havana Channel, “Cuba Says” on Cubavision, and others), they complain about and attack useless, bureaucratic, irresponsible and lazy officials, who don’t do what they’re supposed to do and let problems mount up and increase. The editors of these spaces are no better. The criticisms are not forwarded, but remain stuck at square one. They are rarely sent on to the relevant government ministries or organisations. It seems that these deplorable events only occur because of officials’ mistakes, since, higher up, everything is perfect and there is no responsibility for any of it. Continue reading “Harsh Reality / Fernando Dámaso”

Nevertheless, it cannot be that so many officials of different organisations and departments (The Electric Company, Postal Service, ETECSA (the phone company)), Public Health, Education, Housing, Planning, Water and Drainage, Communes, Transport, Employment and Social Security, Justice, the National Bank, National Assembly of Peoples’ Power, etc.) could be so unprofessional and inept.

We have to ask whether these “qualities” are not also to be found in these organisations and institutions and, logically, in the “system.” In reality, it seems that it is the latter which doesn’t work, for the simple reason that it achieves nothing. More than fifty five years with the same worsening problems, many new ones too, and nothing solved, clearly demonstrates that.

They can continue appealing to patriotism, discipline, efficiency and whatever else they want,  but as long as they fail to satisfy the ever-increasing needs of the people and allow them to freely develop their initiatives and talents, it’s a waste of time.

Unfortunately, and not just in Cuba, socialism has shown itself to be a “political, economic and social system” which has totally failed.

Translated by GH

The Castros Will Miss Obama / Iván García

President Obama on Cuba's favorite comedy show (see details below)
President Obama on Cuba’s favorite comedy show (see details below)

Ivan Garcia, 23 May 2016 — It was a warm autumn night in 2015. The Mikasuki casino, in a swamp in the Everglades, thirty minutes from downtown Miami, was crammed full of anxious people, frantically pressing buttons on the slot-machine screen.

The cushioned floor absorbed the footsteps of good-natured assistants who manoeuvred about like the captain of a drifting gondola, carrying their trays of drinks. Continue reading “The Castros Will Miss Obama / Iván García”

Some friends had taken me there so that I could see what the inside of a casino was like. I had returned from a three day journey to Costa Rica, intending to write various stories about Cubans stuck in Central America.

In Miami I chatted with some fellow-countrymen to find out their opinion about the fourth migration wave which was in progress and had led to the exodus of nearly 50 thousand Cubans in a year and a half.

In Sun City (as Miami is referred to) opinions were divided. People like Tomás, born in Caibarién, Santa Clara province, and retired from an electric company in Florida, voted with both hands up for Obama to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.

“It is the worst Cubans who are coming here. People who are naturally lazy and always shouting. With three months of cardsharping, and with their Social Security money, they go to the island to speculate with rented gold chains. Only when there is no more Cuban Adjustment Act, will the Castros just have to get on with it”, he said while knocking back a whiskey on the rocks.

At his side, a friend, a fisherman in his spare time, and also retired, was counting the hours until Obama leaves office, “he can go to Kenya or Nigeria, I don’t know, so long as he goes”, he said.

The Anglo-Saxon Americans I spoke to had a very bad opinion of Obama. They called him weak, that he had destroyed the middle class, they accused him of letting the Chinese steal their jobs, and that economic growth was a smoke-screen, because the new jobs were low quality and badly-paid.

Like many redneck Americans they yearned for someone like Donald Trump. Nevertheless, when they came to the subject of Obama and his policy on Cuba, although opinions varied for and against, the majority came to the conclusion that the greatest beneficiary was the government in Havana.

Good luck is seizing opportunities. And, one year and five months after the historic 17th of December, when the cold-war enemies agreed to raise a white flag, the return for the Cuban people has been very poor.

When you talk to the Cuban man in the street, many of them feel that a golden opportunity has been missed to reconstruct a stalled economy from the ground up and create a environment favourable to microenterprises and small family businesses.

After 17-D, things moved from exaggerated hope to blackest pessimism. In Havana, the recurring theme for many young people and adults are their plans to emigrate.

The olive green government’s wasted opportunity is what led Saúl, owner of a food business, to gather together as much money as possible in order to then leave with his family to go to the United States.

“I am up to here with their lies. The Communist Party Congress was the last straw. All that happened with the re-establishment of relations with the Americans, was the government gained time to prepare its plan of succession. Nothing is going to change in Cuba”, the businessman assured me.

Two months after Obama’s visit to Havana, people still remember the Secret Service paraphernalia, Air Force One, and The Beast, as his Cadillac is called. Quite a few people have kept or downloaded the whole of the speech made by the American president at the Alicia Alonso theatre.

They think of it as a swindle. Obama’s speech and the affection it generated in Cuba perhaps was the origin of an abrupt relapse in the Castro regime.

Although the government Talibans continue to think of digging trenches and planning imaginary combats with windmills, their myopia has cut them off from the wishes of the people.

People want to live in the best way they can. Receive reasonable salaries, have more than a black coffee for breakfast, and have a comfortable house to live in. Cuba is an albatross around their necks. Ignoring the opinions of its people, the government has bet on rigid fundamentalism and the insane defence of its positions.

Perhaps in 2017 the autocrats will miss Obama. In 114 years of the republic, no US president has offered his hand with such unexpected frankness to the Cuban people.

In my opinion, the government has calculated wrongly. For them, their ideology and the broken record of their propaganda has counted for more than the possibility of building a modern democratic nation.

When in November the US elections take place–and the Rolling Stones concert in Havana, and the catwalk glamour of Chanel along the Paseo del Prado have become anecdotes–then honest government officials will appreciate Obama’s gesture.

But I think by that time it will be too late. As always, the Castro brothers have decided for all of us the way forward for the nation.

Photo: Obama playing dominoes with the comedians Pánfilo, Facundo and Chequera. According to the columnist Mauricio Vicent in El País, “every Monday night at 8.30, when Cuban TV’s news, which takes a quick glance at the real national problems, has only just finished, Vivir del Cuento (Living to tell the tale), the most popular and most watched  comedy programme, comes on in everyones’ homes. Pánfilo, its protagonist, is a grumpy retired man, who suffers the same day to day problems as any of his countrymen and who has spent half his life standing in lines”. …Taken by Martí  News, which in turn took it from the White House website. The photo was taken in Havana, 21st March 2016, by Peter Souza, official White House photographer (Thank you).

Translated by GH

Cuba: The Return of the Power Cuts / Ivan Garcia

Black out in Cuba (Cubanet)
Black out in Cuba (Cubanet)

Ivan Garcia, 27 May 2016 — As of three weeks ago there have been power cuts of up to three hours in different parts of Havana. Sometimes longer.

“Friday, April 29 in Altahabana (a neighbourhood in the southeast of the city), the power was cut off from eleven at night until four-thirty in the morning. Because of the heat, I spent the whole night waving a fan over my eight-month-old baby. Two days earlier, there was a three-hour outage in the afternoon,” I was told by Magda,  who works at Comercio Interior.

In the central and eastern provinces, the power cuts started in the middle of March. According to Reinaldo, who lives in San Pedrito in Santiago de Cuba, 550 miles east of Havana, the blackouts aren’t the only problem. Continue reading “Cuba: The Return of the Power Cuts / Ivan Garcia”

“In some parts of Santiago we get water every eight or nine days. People store it in buckets, bowls and improvised tanks, which increases the chance of mosquitos transmitting dengue, zika and chikungunya. You can add to that the countless earthquakes you get in the months of December through March. Many families sleep in the parks because they are afraid their roofs will collapse. The power cuts in Santiago are frequent. Sometimes half an hour, and other times up to five hours,” Reinaldo told me.

In Remedios, a town in Villa Clara province, 180 miles from the capital, Odaisi, an intensive care assistant, tells me that the cuts have become worse since the end of April.

“There are two or three a week, and sometimes up to five hours, or all night. People go out in the street because of the dreadful heat. Lots of people phone the electric company but they get no reply,” Odaisis said.

Esther, who works in a substation on the outskirts of Havana, is sure it isn’t because of a fuel shortage, which is what many people think. “Fifty percent of the electricity generated in the country uses Cuban diesel. And there are new plants which run on gas. The problem is unexpected breaks in the cables, which, together with maintenance to the power stations in Matanzas and Holguín, have created power shortages in peak hours.”

A power company official, who preferred to remain anonymous, didn’t think that the present cuts will get as bad as the ones in the years of the Special Period [a time of severe crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elimination of its aid to Cuba].

“No way. The country is much better prepared to deal with electricity supply. Thousands of kilometres of cable have been replaced, transformers and connections have been renewed, and power distribution losses, which got to thirty percent, have fallen to five percent. There is also more modern equipment in the power plants, and we have a contract with Russia to build two new power stations and modernise four others. Our present problem is due to breakages, but we will sort them out in the month of May,” the official assured me.

But Noel, who works at CUPET, the initials of the Cuba Petrol Company, is doubtful. “Out of the 105 thousand barrels a day we were receiving from Venezuela two years ago, now we only get sixty thousand, and my bosses tell me that they expect it to reduce further down to forty thousand or fewer barrels. In Venezuela, because of the drought, and the bad technical state of their power stations, there are constant power cuts outside of Caracas. To that you can add the economic crisis and the fact that oil exports represent ninety-five percent of their income.”

Although a barrel of oil has fallen from over a hundred dollars a barrel a few years ago to a little under thirty dollars on the international market, Orelvis, an economist, believes that the Cuban government doesn’t have enough money to buy fuel.

“Bartering with Venezuela is the perfect business deal. Medical services in exchange for oil, and part of the oil gets re-exported. Now electricity generation in the country has increased. More hotels and private businesses consuming more, and some of the people with money to buy things have air conditioning and electrical appliances in their houses. I think there has been a setback in electricity production, but I don’t think that the situation can be as serious as in the 90’s, and the Special Period, but people need to be ready for programmed blackouts in the coming months,” he thought.

Raisa, a technician in the electric company sees the problem differently. “Every province and town in the country has an assigned level of fuel consumption, and, for various reasons, most of them are consuming more. That, plus the recent breakdowns, are the cause of the latest outages.”

But it’s difficult to convince the Cuban in the street with technical arguments. There is nothing they like less than a power cut.

“It’s one damn thing after another. A screw-up getting any food. Salaries which are too low, not enough public transport, and now they are telling us that if the drought continues, the water supply will be cut in Havana. And, the cherry on the cake, more power cuts. It’s too much. We have had these problems for nearly sixty years, and they have never come up with a definitive solution,” complains Adelberto, a pensioner.

The electricity cuts in Cuba are cyclical. For one reason or another, they always recur. It’s one of the pernicious legacies of Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Translated by GH

Why Cuban Agriculture Is Inefficient / Iván García

Plowing in Cuba with oxen. (From On Cuba)
Plowing in Cuba with oxen. (From On Cuba Magazine)

Ivan Garcia, 19 May 2016 — The raindrops tinkle on the zinc roof of a greasy hut used to store sacks of fertilizer, agricultural tools, and the various ancient contraptions that are always be a nuisance to keep in the house.

Osvaldo, the sixty-five-year-old owner of a farm southeast of Havana, calmly takes a drag on a cigarette butt, scratches his head with his thick fingers, which look like twisted meat hooks, and asks his son, “Where the hell have you left the wrench to open the water pump?” Then, once the engine has been started, he runs through the rain back to the entrance of his house. Continue reading “Why Cuban Agriculture Is Inefficient / Iván García”

Before answering a question as to why Cuban agriculture is incapable of supplying people with enough food, he takes a swig of coffee and rocks back and forth in his iron chair. He then tells me:

“No point in beating about the bush. It’s the government’s fault that agriculture doesn’t work. I have lost count of the number of measures and strategies the agricultural directors have drawn up. The problem is that you can’t grow a crop sitting behind an office desk. Every piece of farmland is different. The amount of sweet potatoes or beef cannot be planned from an office in Havana.”

He continues unwrapping his opinions about the black hole in the nation’s agriculture. “The land is for the peasants. If the government wants to buy everfything that’s harvested, they need to pay a fair price for it. Now they have promised to pay properly, but two or three months down the line Acopio (Cuba’s state procurement and distribution agency) and other government departments start to fall behind on their payments. In my case, they owe me 20 to 30 thousand pesos. The Havana middlemen buy your entire harvest, in cash.”

Osvaldo is aware that shortages breed speculation. “But the government needs to get real. They sell everything at very high prices to individual farmers — fuel, seed, working clothes — and the agricultural equipment is of poor quality. Also, times have changed. Now, nobody wants to work on the land. Everyone is going to Havana or Miami. And when it comes to hiring workers to gather the harvest, you have to pay at least a hundred pesos a day. That drives up the cost of what you’ve harvested. If the government gave the land to the people who are working it, in Cuba, the food that they produced would be for export”.

When you speak to private farmers, people working in co-operatives or tenants, their opinions vary, but most of them believe that, to increase the harvests, you have to first create appropriate living and working conditions.

“I lost about a hundred pounds of bananas and sweet potatoes because Acopio couldn’t provide enough transport,” observes a farmer with a credit and service cooperative, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s a joke. They have some honest people but most of the officials there are corrupt.”

When Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, he began applying countless forms of production management to Cuban agriculture, from huge state farms and cooperatives to land leases.

But harvests did not increase. Bureaucrats always come up with excuses to explain the shortfalls. They blame the unchecked greed of middlemen, hurricanes, rain or drought.

Though intended to alleviate the deficit, targeted price controls quickly generate even greater shortages instead. But there could be other reasons as well. Economist Juan Triana Cordoví cannot be accused of being of a dissident. But in his article “Price Caps”, published in On Cuba Magazine, Triana tries to find answers to the riddle. For this economist, prices controls are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are other explanations. According to Triana, if you compare produce production in 2005 to that of 2009, you will find that harvests were, on average, was 15% smaller. With respect to potatoes, the drop was 50%. In the case of vegetables, the average rate of growth in this same period did not exceed 1% while tomato production fell 30%.

In 2009, 34,558 hectares of produce were planted (4,245 of which were potatoes), while only 16,494 hectares were planted in 2014 (596 of which were potatoes). In short, in 2009 — the latest year for which data is available — there was 50% less produce and 14% less potatoes planted. In 2009, 32,174 hectares were planted while in 2014 only 21,397 hectares were planted. This amounts to 66% of what had been planted just five years earlier.

Less acreage under cultivation, lower yields, increased demand, higher costs… “What else can we expect but for prices to go up?” asks Triana.

But the government is only thinking in the short term. Faced with complaints from millions of its citizens, the solution is a home remedy to relieve the pain while it continues to postpone the radical solution that Cuban agriculture needs.

Average Cubans approve of the new measures the state has taken to cap prices and close El Trigal wholesale market south of Havana. On May 13 Martí Noticias toured fifteen produce markets — some state-run; some private, leased or cooperative operations.

In the markets with price controls, the chalkboards indicated nine to fifteen items for sale. Tomatoes, on average, cost 2 pesos per pound. Guava was priced at 1.5 to 3 pesos, a banana went for 2 pesos, and cassava and sweet potato sold for 1 peso per pound.

The privately-run markets had more variety, were cleaner and provided better quality, though the prices were twice as high. For example, two Caney mangoes cost 30 pesos while a six-pound melon went for 25 pesos.

Osvaldo, the peasant quoted above, believes that price controls will not increase farm production. And he is sticking to his theory: “When the land belongs to the peasants, and they are allowed to import and export without having to rely on the state, there will be more than enough food,” he says.

In no country with an autocratic government — whether it be Vietnam, China or the former Soviet Union — did state-control of the land work. Cuba is hardly an exception.

 

Translated by GH 

Missing People / Dora Leonor Mesa

Dora Leonor Mesa, 13 May 2016

Guide for Members of Parliament No. 17-2009

This manual is the result of a collaboration between the Interparliamentary Union, a world-wide parliamentary organisation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with the support of the International Red Cross Movement and the Luna Roja Media.

On all five continents, parents, brothers, spouses, are children are desperately seeking  family members, about whom they have no news. Families and communities, who don’t know what has happened to their loved ones, cannot move on from the violence which has disrupted their lives. Continue reading “Missing People / Dora Leonor Mesa”

When the armed forces in Latin American countries started their practice of making people disappear, as a tool of repression, they thought they had discovered the perfect crime. No victims, therefore no murderers, no crime.

The States: Responsible for finding a solution 

In the first place, it’s the responsibility of State authorities to prevent people going missing and to find out where the people who have disappeared actually are.

A forced disappearance is a detention or kidnapping carried out by State officials, or people or groups acting with the authorisation, support, or acquiescence of the State, followed by the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the missing person.

The Argentinian authors found precedents for people disappearing in Nazi practices during the Second World War, when seven thousand people were secretly shipped to Germany under the Nacht und Nebel decree (Night and Clouds), passed in 1941 by the Supreme Command of the German army.

Following Hitler’s orders, the Nazis resorted to making members of the opposition disappear so that they did not become martyrs in their home towns if they were tried in court and sentenced to death. The decree laid down that anyone could be detained on a simple suspicion, and “vanish.” In this way, it was not possible to obtain information about the status and whereabouts of the victims, and that’s how they tried to achieve an “effective intimidation” of the population, and of family members, as a result of the paralising terror which it would unleash.

The International Convention on Missing Persons (2007) is the first universal treaty to define and prohibit enforced disappearance. In order to fight against this brutal crime, the Convention sets out four main ideas:

  • Combating impunity
  • Prevention
  • Victims’ rights
  • Application

Fields of Action

To address missing persons’ problems, five fields of action were identified:

The prevention of disappearances includes, as a fundamental measure, respect for the right to exchange news

To find out what has happened to people who have gone missing. It is important to maintain vigilance, so that the issue of missing people is not forgotten at the national or international level.

Manage the information and records relating to people who have gone missing. The collection and interchange of information with all interested parties should be arranged and coordinated adequately and actively, to increase the efficiency of the measures adopted to clarify what has happened.

Deal with the bodies and information relating to those who have died.

Support missing persons’ families.

The Role of Members of Parliament

  • To check whether their country has laws relating to missing persons and their families (these regulations may be found in a variety of laws).
  • If there aren’t any, to propose that the necessary legislation be enacted.
  • To confirm that the law in their country conforms with international humanitarian law and international law on human rights; if it does not, to not hesitate:
  • To make contact with the appropriate authorities to obtain information;
  • To prepare questions for the government;
  • To open a parliamentary debate on the need for legislation to protect people against forced disappearances and to respect the rights of missing persons and their families;
  • To iniciate a debate on the contents of appropriate legislation;
  • To seek the advice of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other competent international organisations.

(1) Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen (1988).  Enforced disappearance of persons in Latin America.

See also: International Committee for the Red Cross: Missing Persons

(2) International Convention for the protection of all people against forced disappearance, 2006. Article 2.

(3)Amnesty International (1983) Disappearances. Editorial Fundamentos, Barcelona, p.8.

Translated by GH

Servile Talents / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 10 May 2016 — “There is really no spectacle more hateful than that of servile talents.” (José Martí, Complete Works, Volume 13, Page 158, Cuban National Press.) I wanted to start these lines with this thought of the Apóstol [Cubans refer to Martí in this way], as many of our intellectuals, some of them with famous names, have joined the flock of government sheep, without having any need to do so, taking an active part in its campaigns of disinformation and manipulation of the people, going so far as to commit acts of violence against those who think differently to them, and demonstrating an aggressiveness which is foreign to them and does not fit well with their personalities. Continue reading “Servile Talents / Fernando Dámaso”

Intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals (and there are plenty of them too) of both sexes, united in a so-called “defence of national identity, independence and sovereignty”, repeat everything that the old “historical leaders” say, like well-trained parrots. Even including self-confessed Stalinists who, divorced from reality, still have nightmarish dreams of a communist world, firmly believing that their words reflect what most Cubans feel, and that they are historic, because only they have the illegal right to think, which other Cubans are not allowed to do.

Such servility, opportunism, and fanaticism is disgusting, most of all when it comes from supposedly educated people, who should serve as good examples of ethics and honour for the rest of us.

I am not going to name names, because I am afraid of being unjust and forgetting some of them, since most of them are well-known because they appear regularly in the official media, with their pig-headed articles, declarations and interviews, get books published without any trouble, and receive prizes, awards and government tributes in recognition of “carrying out their political duty”, as distinct from their intellectual or artistic merits, which I do not deny they possess.

Although they are now enjoying their “bit of Sunday”, as the adverts for a popular brand of beer used to say years ago, tomorrow they will be questioned and condemned for their cowardice and lack of civic-mindedness.

I am going to end with another one of the Apóstol’s thoughts: “All tyrants have one of these educated thinking people at their side, who can pen justifications, mitigations and pretences. Or many of them do, because hand-in hand with all this writing goes an appetite for luxury, and that brings an eagerness to sell themselves to anyone who can satisfy this desire. Many intelligent scumbags sell their tongues or their pens to get a house or a car or a bag of money for their loved-ones.” (José Martí, Complete Works, Volume 12, Page 276, Cuban National Press).

Translated by GH

Beggars and Madmen: The Latest Spectacle in Cuba / Iván García

Source: Quo Vadis Cuba blog

Source: Quo Vadis Cuba blog

Ivan Garcia, 1 May 2016 — Guillermo tries to run away, to avoid the stones the kids are throwing at him, as if he were a doll stuck on a target, but his legs, which are atrophied and beginning to go gangrenous because of his diabetes, can’t respond to the urgent messages from his brain.

So he tries to hide behind some small bushes, but the stones keep flying around his head. It’s four in the afternoon on a normal day in La Vibora, and, without anything better to do, the pair of youngsters do their target practice with an old man of over 80 who can hardly support himself on his crutches.

People eating pizzas in a cafe in Heredia Street, on the corner of Acosta, watch what’s happening, like spectators who have come to watch someone being stoned to death in Iran. Continue reading “Beggars and Madmen: The Latest Spectacle in Cuba / Iván García”

Some women try to persuade the kids to stop. But a hail of insults is hurled at them, like “Go and find husbands, you old lesbians,” which they shout as they clear off.

The old man, a beggar who hangs around the neighbourhood and who tries to deal with his hunger by looking through rubbish bins, bent over on the pavement, can’t understand why the kids hate him.

“I don’t interfere with anybody. They are abusive. And it isn’t the first time. Almost every week children and youngsters throw stones and insults at me. I only want to find some food in the rubbish. It’s Fidel and Raúl Castro’s fault,” he says, and starts off on a fiery tirade against the autocratic brothers.

Some onlookers take off. Others record what’s happening on their cellphones. It’s the fashion now to record on mobile phones whatever quarrel or degrading spectacle is going on.

Then they upload it onto YouTube. That’s what happened with a group of kids of primary school age in Camagüey, when parents with cellphones left evidence of their degrading erotic reggaeton dancing.

Or a body which fell off a Legal Medicine truck on 23rd and G in Vedado, and that’s where the crowd went to record what happened. Two years ago a youngster was killed by a train on a level crossing at Café Colón and Calzada de Diez de Octubre, and the rabble started filming before help arrived.

For Eulogio, a customer in a state-owned cafe in Galiano Street, it is worrying how many beggars and crazy people there are in the capital, and the audio visual activity that occurs each time something happens.

“Two months ago a drunk who slept in doorways died, and people, instead of calling the police or an ambulance, recorded it on their mobile phones, as if it was nothing serious. And every day there are more layabouts and mad people, who are always dirty and hungry, in the city. What’s the government doing? I ask myself,” says Eugenio.

There is an alarming number of beggars in Havana. The government calls them “itinerants,” and, if we believe an official study, the number is between 2,500 and 3,000 in the country.

But José Carlos, a geriatric nurse, says this information doesn’t accord with reality. “Just in 10 de Octubre district, I have dealt with more than 200 itinerants sleeping on the street.”

The number of destitute drunks and poor people is unknown. On the corner of Carmen Street, opposite Plaza Roja de la Víbora, a dozen needy people, alcoholics and madmen gather early in the day in the entrance to a warehouse finding a selection of things in the rubbish bins.

From books on Fidel Castro’s speeches, Sovet-era alarm clock parts, clothes and used shoes to old computer parts. The prices range from 5 to 20 pesos. After that, they use the money to drink the worst kind of home-made rum or eat something hot in a stinking state-run greasy spoon.

According to a People’s Power delegate in Central Havana, “there have been discussions with the authorities in the province to find a solution to the growing number of layabouts, people collecting raw materials without a licence, with serious problems of dementia, who are swarming around the city. But, except when a foreign leader visits the country, when they round them up, wash them and feed them in a state hostel, the rest of the year they don’t do anything. Or very little.”

The Catholic church, and other religious orders do what they can. “Every afternoon we give a snack or a meal to various needy people. Many of them sleep in the street. We would like to do more,” admits a nun from Mónaco parish.

Some of the beggars were common criminals and are violent. Others are leftovers from a revolution which left them in the ditch.

Papo, a homeless guy who sleeps in boxes in a park in Reparto Sevillano, claims that he fought in the clearance of bandits in Escambray and Angola. And look how I am repaid by the government for whom I risked my life.”

Nobody remembers Cubans like Papo. Not in the official press, nor in the Communist Party’s future plans. They are always forgotten.

And now, with cellphones, they have become a spectacle for kids who, without any sense of feeling, record them and upload them onto YouTube or Facebook. Human beings who could be their parents or grandparents.

Translated by GH

Broken Families in Cuba / Iván García

A Cuban family (X bit labs Community)
A Cuban family (X bit labs Community)

Ivan Garcia, 2 April 2016 — The dilapidated old house where the Varona family lives, in the Lawton district of Havana, could serve very well as a set for a television series about marginalisation and violence.

The front wall cries out for a coat of paint. Cracked roof tiles threaten to fall off. And inside, the house is subdivided into seven small apartments.

Agustín, one of tenants, has an informal business selling building materials. Therefore he has been able to improve his apartment with Italian ceramic floor tiles, build a tiny bathroom with a modern shower and hot and cold running water. Continue reading “Broken Families in Cuba / Iván García”

His room has a heavy Samsung Split air conditioner. Opposite the bed is a tiled table with a microwave, induction cooker and a two-door fridge.

The rest of the apartments are absolute ruins, with dirty old beds, but other bedrooms have been treated with grouting. On shelves on the wall, tacky plastic ornaments and empty rum bottles. And, of course, every room secured with bars on the windows and doors.

“It’s to avoid being robbed, which is common here. Hardly anyone speaks to us. Some of them are trying to legalise their place as a separate dwelling. There are various ration books. And when the people come to fumigate the mosquitos it’s a shambles, because not everyone is at home, or they don’t allow them to fumigate. The atmosphere is like a prison, but I’ve got nowhere else to live,” admits Agustín.

Of the sixteen people who live in the house, twelve of them have family ties through their mother or father. The quarrels range from obscene shouting, punch-ups, up to fighting with machetes.

“It’s like a jungle. People get beaten up for anything, because someone has eaten up the bread ration, or stolen a piece of chicken from the fridge,” says Raisa, who lives in this jungle with her husband and daughter.

There are three refrigerators in what was the living room of the house. They all have padlocks, as if they contained valuables. In the neighbourhood they call them Los Muchos. “When they start their fights, you don’t know when they’ll finish. They have set up a protocol in the block. When the insults start, a neighbour informs the police,” a neighbour tells us.

These degrading spectacles form part of the neighbourhood entertainment. “These fights make people want to grab a front-row seat. They are more entertaining than TV soaps, and some fights are more enjoyable than a boxing match programme,” a neighbour told us.

You might think this is an isolated case. It isn’t. Too many Cuban families have split up for silly little things, ideologies or marital conflicts.

When Fidel Castro seized power at gunpoint, a large number of families began to break up. “There were examples of brothers who fought at the Bay of Pigs or in Escambray on different sides. Families who stopped talking to each other, writing or accepting phone calls from family members in Florida just for thinking differently. The government owes a public apology to these broken families,” said Carlos, a sociologist.

For reasons of economic necessity, when they got married, Sergio and Margot agreed to accept money and food and clothing parcels from their daughter Yanira, a prostitute who married an Italian in 1994.

“Before my sister left, my parents broke off contact with her. Then, when she went off to Italy, they said that as far as they were concerned, their daughter was dead. My parents were, and still are, intransigent communists. But, when the ’Special Period’ started, with twelve hours of power cuts and an extreme shortage of food, the old people relented. And now they are living off the euros and things sent them by my sister. She comes every summer and arranges a party in the doorway of the house of the president of the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution),” explains Ramsés, Yanira’s brother.

The other problem suffered by many families is domestic violence and marital arguments in front of their kids. “Cases of mistreatment of women are frequent. Most of them, because they are ashamed, don’t report them. But I believe that right now, domestic violence is the number one category of crime in Cuba,” said a police inspector in Havana.

These dysfunctional family members are the germ of the perfect storm of the decline of values in Cuba. Until the autocrat Raúl Castro launches a crusade to end it. They run from, for example, vulgar speech, bad manners and lack of courtesy, up to drunks boozing on street corners and then urinating in the street.

For the sociologist Carlos, this degradation “is a terrible anthropological damage. Developing the economy and rebuilding the country should be simpler. But poor education, violence and lack of respect for your neighbour’s private space will be difficult to remedy.”

And it is not the fault of the US embargo.

Appeared in:  Hispanopost, 30 de marzo de 2016.

Translated by GH

The Repression Obama Did Not See in Havana / Iván García

Some 46 Ladies in White who on Sunday, March 20th, were removed by force from Gandhi Park and subsequently arrested by members of the Ministry of the Interior in uniform and plainclothes. (Source: Nuevo Herald)
Some 46 Ladies in White who on Sunday, March 20th, were removed by force from Gandhi Park and subsequently arrested by members of the Ministry of the Interior in uniform and plainclothes. (Source: Nuevo Herald)

Ivan Garcia, 22 March 2016 — Just when Air Force One landed at 2 pm at the Andrew military base on the way to Havana, forty-six Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) walked in file along the central promenade of 5th Avenue, with photos, placards with slogan against the autocracy, and photos of political prisoners.

Starting eleven months ago, every Sunday, these women take part in a march which always ends in blows, detentions and insults between Castro supporters, and the opposition.

Nearly thirty foreign journalists, accredited to cover Obama’s visit, arrived at the Santa Rita church to see what would be the olive green regime’s strategy in relation to the resolute Ladies in White. Continue reading “The Repression Obama Did Not See in Havana / Iván García”

But, let’s take a look back. After midday on Saturday 19th, Yamilé Garro, a member of the group led by Berta Soler, was in the kitchen, in he group´s base in the Lawton district, a half hour from central Havana by car, two pans of white rice, hot dogs and peeling different things to eat for lunch.

In the living room, spread around among three easy chairs, various women were watching the television. In the hallway some others were playing dominos or simply chatting. You wouldn´t notice the tension in the group. They were hiding it.

When night fell, Victoria Macchi, an Argentinian journalist working for the VOA (Voice of America News). and I decided to stay and spend the night with the women in their redoubt in the south of Havana.

Ángel Moya, Berta Soler´s husband, has been an opponent of the Castro regime for twenty years. He has visited prisons, more often than he would have wanted to, In Oriundo de Jovellanos, an area in Matanzas province east of Havana.

When, along with another seventy-four dissidents and independent journalists, he was sentenced to many years in jail in the spring of 2003 by the autocrat Fidel Castro, his punishment laid the way for women, who were housewives, professionals or workers, to create the Ladies in White.

Apart from their differences of points of view, that group symbolises resistance in a society which does not respect political freedom and which confuses democracy with personal loyalties.

The original group now has splinter groups, and what is probably the only flag-waver for present-day Cuban dissidence has been the recipient of painful slights and insults.

Most of these women are not intellectuals and don´t feel comfortable in front of a microphone. But when they speak of their daily lives and the abuse they suffer from the political police, it is difficult to remain indifferent.

Many of them live in dreadful concrete houses with tiled roofs or in disgusting hostels. Perhaps it is difficult for them to find the exact words to describe what is happening in the country. But when it comes to courage, they are the equal of anybody.

Margarita Barberá, age 71, is the oldest of them. “And she has been leaving for the last eight years,” gossips a fat dark-skinned woman with a low voice and a ready laugh. The youngest is a 17-year-old called Roxana Moreno.

The march on Sunday, March 20th, will be their first. In the morning another four foreign journals showed up. Together we headed to Santa Rita Church.

Like it fell from the sky, a P-3 bus appeared, totally empty. “State Security has prepared for us. Although sometimes they take us straight to the dungeon,” said Moya.

In Miramar, another “phantom” bus signed for the P-1 route parked, without passengers. Berta Solar is somewhat surprised. “Are they not going to repress this Sunday because of Obama’s arrival?” she asks, but the response is immediate.

“I doubt it, they won’t go against their nature,” she says. Already, in Mahatma Gandhi Park on 5th Avenue and 22nd Street, there’s a brawl right in the street.

Three repressors from the special services are furiously beating the independent journalist Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca. Two of them pick him up and put him in a Russian-made Lada, while and with private plates.

The foreign reporters run with their cameras to film the scene. Later, after the end of the Mass, the group files along the central promenade of 5th Avenue, the only place in Cuba where the government allows dissent, and heads down 22nd Street headed toward Third, the place of the violence.

Around 250 people, between workers in the area and paramilitaries, advised by State Security officials, beat them with impunity and deployed a lamentable verbal lynching.

These are the famous “acts of repudiation.” A sad achievement of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. An apparently popular method of canceling the will of “the other.” Of annulling it. Of intimidation.

When the populace tires of the brawling and shouting that the Ladies in White are “mercenaries,” the police pretends to intervene to prevent the feast of violence from continuing.

A grey-haired man, stocky, who calls himself Romulo, tried to convince two foreign journalists that “these opponents are invented by the United States, they are criminals and mercenaries.”

“And because of this can can’t demand political rights?” I ask. “Since the Triumph of the Revolutions we Cubans have had all the political rights we need,” he responds.

“And why do they arrest and beat them?” I inquire. “Well,” he says hesitantly,” because they violate the laws with their public scandals,”

“And why don’t they also arrest the other side who are also screaming and beating?” I delve more deeply.

Lacking arguments he looks at me like I’m a freak, and says, “Which side are you?” and walks away. A former official of the Ministry of the Interior, who at least is present, says that because of “those lunatics (the opponents), the State spends some hundred thousand pesos every Sunday on fuel, blocking off streets, mobilizing the workers and diverting buses from public service.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler if these people didn’t follow anyone, according to the government, leaving them to fight their own battles?” The man shut up without answering. The fourth bus, two ambulances and numerous patrol cars took 46 Ladies in White and 13 men to the dungeons.

When Air Force One landed in Havana, perhaps Obama’s advisors in Cuba mentioned the incident. It raises several questions. Will the president of the United States hold Raul Castro responsible for the repeated violations of human rights? He probably will, but without offering details.

Obama has already said that the road to democracy will be long. The Ladies in White know this better than anyone.

Translated by GH

Goodbye, Obama / Iván García

Good
Goodbye Obama! (See source, below)

Ivan Garcia, Havana, 23 March 2016 — Three hours before Obama delivered his speech in the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro in Havana, while he was having his breakfast of bread and butter and cold lemonade in a private cafe in La Vibora, Anselmo shared ideas with a friend as to what matters the President of the United States would deal with in his address.

“You will see that the man will talk about the lack of democracy and human rights. This chap is not an idiot like Pope Francis or the President of France. He’s going to announce new things”, he said. Continue reading “Goodbye, Obama / Iván García”

His companion was more pessimistic. “Doesn’t matter what he says, nothing’s going to change here. When he goes, the usual will happen. It’ll change when the old gits who run the government finally kick the bucket. Forget about what Obama could offer us. Remember that Fidel and Raúl are Spanish. If you wanted to find more obstinate people, you’d have to get them specially made”, says an old grey-haired chap, gesturing with his hands.

The disnformation and rumours swirl around. “I’m not going to miss the speech. They say Obama is going to announce the end of the blockade”, says an old lady selling cones of peanut in Avenida Acosta in the 10 de Octubre district in the south of the capital.

Since Sunday 20th March, the weather is quite fresh and the Lenten winds cause waves which top the walls of the Malecón.

To get a taxi to the old part of the city, Vedado or Miramar is almost mission impossible. “Many streets are closed, and the police are being very difficult. I am not going to work until Obama goes. And I am not going to miss his speech or the Tampa game,” says Victor, driver of a ’55 Ford.

When Obama started his moving address, using his oratorical gift, combining it with specific subliminal messages, he emphasised that democracy and political rights are not a whim or a luxury, in this 21st century they are a necessity.

Even in the auditorium, with an audience carefully-chosen by the authorities, you could hear applause when Obama mentioned the right to demonstrate and freedom of expression.

Drawing parallels from the fight for racial integration in the United States, Obama made it clear that democracy in all its glory is the jewel in the crown of human rights.

Susana, an engineer, says that her eyes filled with tears when Obama described his meeting with a Cuban lady who had not seen her sister for 61 years. “In 1979 I saw my father leave for the States and I never saw him again. He died last year and I couldn’t even go to his funeral. These things have to end. The cost of the political polarisation between the two governments is being paid for by ordinary Cubans. Hopefully, Obama’s words don’t just blow away in the wind.”

Minutes after his historic speech in the enemy’s house, Obama arrived in Cadillac One, which caused a sensation in Havana, at the US embassy. For just under an hour, he held a discussion with 13 representatives of the Cuban opposition.

At the same time, in another room, four journalists, who were “unmuzzled”, met Ben Rhodes, one of the architects of the thawing-out strategy with the Castro regime.

In the conversationn, Rhodes did not contribute anything new. Of course, Obama´s adviser has a bomb-proof belief that the new politics will permit the empowerment of the Cuban people.

Although there are no historical precedents to show that discussions, internet, and an open channel for dialogue with dictatorial regimes smooth the way to democracy,

Both Rhodes and Obama insist that détente is a better option than interference or economic sanctions. But a lot of Cubans have little expectation that there will be a move toward democracy in Cuba within the lifetime of the Castros.

Last year, 43 thousand Cubans abandoned their country in search of decent pay and a reasonable standard of living. They voted with their feet. I have no doubt that after Obama´s visit, the Cuban exodus will continue.

Photo: The President of the United States saluting from the door of Air Force One. It was after 4 pm on Tuesday 22nd March, it wasn´t raining, but the Lenten wind that you get in spring and Easter made itself felt on the runway of Rancho Boyeros Airport and throughout the city of Havana. To say goodbye to him there was Raúl Castro, with Raulito, his grandson, bodyguards, and some others. A few hours later, Obama, his wife, two daughters, and his mother-in-law, arrived in the early morning in Buenos Aires for a two-day visit to Argentina. (Source: Telemundo.)

Translated by GH