Angel Santiesteban, 16 October 2017 — Another title of this book could be A Cuban History of Fear. The fear of living (and, above all, of writing) surrounded by an army of police, undercover agents, collaborators and simple snitches in charge of rounding up the misguided souls of Cubans, be they writers or not. But “this book is not a monument to grievance,” insists the anthologist. What is intended is “to collect a small amount of Cuban contributions to a genre already proclaimed by Kafka from the first pages of his unfinished novel, The Trial. The first chapter of the novel, which announces in the first sentence that K. “without having done anything bad, was detained one morning.” A genre that Orwell would continue in 1984, with the addition of hope: “You are a difficult case. But don’t lose hope. Everybody is saved sooner or later. In the end, we will kill you.” A recompilation that stretches from the time of almost artisanal vigilance up to that virtual panoptic that is Facebook. And beyond.
Iván García, 6 May 2017 — Some people in Cuba, not just a minority, want blood. And more severe laws for criminals.
While the Catholic Church and different international institutions are advocating a crusade to eliminate the death penalty on the Island, there are people who, for many reasons, think firing squads should be reactivated.
If you ask Gisela about the subject, her eyes fill hopelessly with tears. At one time this woman, who is pushing 50, was a brilliant nurse. She formed a model family together with her spouse, an ex-official of a foreign business. They lived in a well-cared-for apartment in Reparto Sevillano, in the south of Havana. continue reading
But the night of December 14, 2010, their marriage took a dramatic turn. “They killed our only son. He was only 15. He was with some friends in El Vedado. A gang assaulted him to take his clothes. Before running away, they stabbed him twice in a lung. After his death, our life changed and got worse. I always wonder, if God exists, where he was that night,” says Gisela.
After the loss of their son, the marriage dissolved. She became a habitual alcoholic. They sold their car and later exchanged their apartment for a smaller one. The money was spent on rum and psychotropics.
Gisela divorced the father of her deceased son, and they put him in a psychiatric hospital. When you ask her opinion about the death penalty or more severe laws for certain crimes, she answers without subtlety: “Whoever kills a person ought to be executed. Look at my case. The criminal who killed my son got 20 years in prison, and for good conduct he served only six and is now back on the street. It’s not fair.”
Those who have lost a family member or friends of violent crime victims are more susceptible and hope for the return of executioners and a State that decrees death.
In Cuba, the crime rate is notably low. Although official statistics are unknown, the Island is a safe place. But gangs of juvenile delinquents and home robberies have increased.
Since 2005, the Cuban Government has had a moratorium on the death penalty. The last convict executed was called “Crazy Victor” in the world of the marginal underground, and he was a sinewy mestizo almost 6’6″ tall, with an assassin’s soul.
At the end of the ’90s, he killed an old woman inside her house in the neighborhood of La Vibora. The day of his arrest he had a shoot-out with police in the style of an American action film.
In the spring of 2004, the Council of State ratified the death penalty for Victor, which was carried out in the adjacent courtyard at the Combinado del Este, a maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital.
Fidel and Raúl Castro have not held back from pulling the trigger. From the very beginning of January 1, 1959, they used the death penalty to eliminate their recalcitrant enemies and even peaceful dissidents. A lawyer, now retired, relates:
“When an objective academic study is done, without political passion, the exact number of Cubans that the government of Fidel Castro has executed will be known. On principle, they eliminated criminals from Batista’s police and army. Several of these trials were real Roman circuses, televised to the whole country, without the proper judicial guarantees. They took advantage of the situation to deliver justice in order to liquidate the enemies of the revolution.
“In one step, the laws sanctioned the death penalty for betrayal of the country by soldiers, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. Or the execution of 19 people in an air base in Holguín in 1963, most of them war pilots. Fidel, Raúl and Che signed quite a few death penalties. The figures vary, according to the sources. Some say that 500 were executed; others, 3,000 or more.
“Dissident jurists consider these to be crimes of the State, because they were established offenses that didn’t necessarily call for capital punishment. But the Government claimed it was being persecuted by Yankee imperialism.”
In 2003, after a summary trial, three young black men, residents of Centro Havana, were executed for trying to hijack a boat to leave the country, which they weren’t able to achieve. “It was a counterproductive political error. It was an an act of Fidel Castro’s meant to set an example that cost him the condemnation of world public opinion,” said the ex-lawyer.
In the spring of that same year, among the 75 peaceful dissidents punished with long years in prison by Fidel Castro, who used only words as a weapon, the Prosecutor of the Republic requested seven death penalties. “It was something appalling. Luckily the Government didn’t carry it out. It would have been a crime in all meanings of the word,” said the old lawyer.
As in any revolutionary movement, whether in France, Russia or Cuba, violence begins with force. The death penalty always was a weapon of combat for intimidating the enemy. However, several people consulted considered that while political adversaries were sanctioned excessively or executed in a pit in the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, Cuban justice was too permissive with some blood crimes.
“Right now someone who kills a cow gets more years in prison that someone who kills a human being. I know cases where they got only four or five years in prison in spite of having killed someone. Those who slaughter beef cattle are condemned to 20 or more years of privation of liberty,” says an ex-prisoner.
There are quite a few ordinary Cubans who think that crimes like robbery in occupied homes, sexual violations and other mean-spirited acts should be considered by the State as crimes, and the killers should be executed.
“Although my religion is against the death penalty, I’m in favor of executing those who commit horrendous crimes,” confesses Mayda, who defines herself as a practicing evangelical.
Saúl, who works for himself. considers that in addition to “executing serial killers or psychopaths, they ought to punish other infractions with more years. As in the United States, where they give them life imprisonment for these same crimes. The thugs would think twice before breaking the law.”
But in the opinion of another lawyer, in the case of major crimes or by resuming the death penalty, “the State could be tempted to condition these laws and carry out a purge of the opposition. The subject of the death penalty, whether to abolish it or keep it, should be debated nationally and the citizens should decide by vote.” But Cuba isn’t Switzerland.
Ivan Garcia, 26 April 2017 — When night falls, it’s not advisable to walk through certain neighborhoods in Havana. Like the one from El Curita Park, on Reina and Galiano, up to the corner of Monte and Cienfuegos.
In addition to the disagreeable odor from the sewer water running through the streets, you’ll see propped-up buildings, beggars and drunks hanging out in the doorways, and poor cheap whores on the hunt for the incautious.
More than 10,000 compatriots of the eastern provinces who flee poverty reside illegally in Havana. In the case of Zenaida, a woman from Santiago, who with a bag full of cones of peanuts and chickpeas for sale ambles along toward a rickety room in a rooming house on O’Reilly Street, which she rents. continue reading
There, under the light of an incandescent bulb, she loads several pails of water and waits her turn to bathe in one of the three shared bathrooms of the tenement. After reheating her meal, she turns on the old Chinese television and hopes for the arrival of her 22-year-old son, who makes a living by pedaling 12 hours in a bicitaxi.
“This is what it’s like to live in poverty: eat badly and make a few pesos to survive in the lion’s den. Yes, because in this zone of Havana you have to be a lynx if you want to make a little money,” says Zenaida, seated in an iron chair.
In spite of everything, she doesn’t complain. “In Santiago de Cuba we were worse off. The water supply on the outskirts of the city comes every 40 days, and the money just goes. At least in the capital, although we live like animals, you can make enough money to eat and send detergent and clothing to relatives in Oriente. If I were younger, I would be hooking like some women in the building. But now I can’t do that kind of thing,” confesses Zenaida.
The old part of the city is a network of narrow alleyways with broken asphalt and deteriorated buildings where Cubans live who know their way around the streets.
Here illegalities are not hidden. Any neighbor knows who sells imported marijuana, cocaine delivered from a boat on the coast or who rents half an hour in a room in his house for convertible pesos, so that a client can have a toss in the hay with a prostitute who charges in the national money.
Just in front of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, formerly Manzana de Gómez, which is close to being inaugurated, several blue buses with large windows in Parque Central pick up more than 100 workers from India who are putting the final touches on the first five-star plus hotel in Cuba.
Seated on a marble bench in front of the Kempinski Hotel, José Alberto wonders, “Why are they paying an Indian, 500 dollars a month and Cuban workers, adding up pesos and hard currency, don’t even get 60 dollars?” And he answers himself: “These people (the Regime) don’t respect us. Havana now is the same as during the epoch of Batista. Luxury hotels are for the foreigners, surrounded by poverty, whores and guys who have to clean to earn four pesos. The worst is that there’s no end to this.”
José Alberto is a perfect wildcard. He gets money from the illegal Cuban lottery, parks cars for a home restaurant in the area and fills the cistern with water for the “retired guys in the neighborhood.”
Under the protection of night and avoiding the black-uniformed police with their German Shepherds who patrol the streets at this time, José Alberto asks for money from passing tourists. “The ones from the State (United States) are the most generous, and the Japanese, if they like you. Europeans are the most stingy.”
Old Havana has two opposite faces, distinct levels of life and many ways to earn money, outside the law or behind its back. In the areas restored by the historian Eusebio Leal, with their cobbled streets, renovated buildings, innumerable cafes, restaurants and hard currency shops, the panorama is beautiful.
Two blocks up or down, the landscape is something else. At the entrance to crowded quarters, shirtless men standing in the heat seem to be waiting for a a miracle. Around them are screaming neighbors, Reggaeton at full blast and kids playing soccer with torn tennis shoes and a deflated balloon.
On calle Chacón, a few meters from the Museum of the Revolution, where a garrison of young soldiers at the back of a patio guard the Granma yacht and other relics and trophies of the delirious guerrilla saga of Fidel Castro, there are three elegant bars where tourists calmly drink mojitos and nibble on garlic shrimp.
Nearby, a group of boys, mainly black, sitting on the sidewalk pavement, wait for the foreigners to leave the bars, restaurants or home restaurants to ask them for money, chewing gum or pens.
The revolution of the humble, so promoted by the Castro brothers, today is a slogan without meaning for the poor people of Havana.
Note from Tania Quintero: The night photo of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, the first with five-plus stars in Cuba, was taken by Iván García. Up to this date, the hotel installations had not been officially inaugurated, but after putting in shops and luxury boutiques on the ground floor, with showcase windows on the street, every day hundreds of people go to look at and even photograph the clothing and accessories exhibited, with prices that are not within reach for the large majority of the population. Already the first incident happened when they removed the bust of the student leader, Julio Antonio Mella, which had been installed in 1965, from the central patio with access to the public.
An installation artist held a silent protest with a sign that said “Where is Mella?” Without using violence, the police took him away, put him in a vehicle and drove him home. The hotel, constructed by Kempinski, a Swiss company founded in 1897, occupies the space of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first commercial center on the Island, located on Neptuno, San Rafael, Zuleta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana.
Inaugurated in 1910, along its history the Manzana de Gómez housed law offices, commercial businesses, restaurants and cafeterias, among other facilities. The management of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is under Gaviota S.A., a Cuban tourist corporation administered by the military.
Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado is in San Francisco, planning for the opening of his art exhibit, “Angels and Demons,” at the Immersive ART LAB, 3255A Third Street, May 11, 6-10pm. His exhibit is sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation as part of its Art in Protest series. This interview took place with the translation help of Alexandra Martínez.
Regina Anavy: Danilo, I know that you’ve already had interviews with the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other people about your experiences as a political prisoner in Cuba. Now I want to ask you about your artistic process. How you were able to create art while you were in prison?
Danilo Maldonado: I wasn’t able to paint in prison. I could only draw.
RA: How did you get drawing materials?
DM: To draw, all I need is pencils and plain sheets of paper.
RA: Did you have visitors who brought you these materials?
DM: My family brought colored pencils and pens and paper.
RA: Did the authorities try to prevent you from having these materials?
DM: Yes, that happened. They search everything, and a lot of the things they take away. For example, they didn’t let my mother take in my asthma medication, but I could get pens and little notebooks, as long as there was nothing already written on them. continue reading
RA: What did you do without your medication?
DM: A friend provided it for me until my mother finally was able to bring it in.
RA: How did you have the space to draw in a cell with other people?
DM: The same place where I was living and sleeping was the place where I could draw: my bed. I wrote letters but also spent my time drawing.
RA: How did you get your drawings out?
DM: In Valle Grande, I could always get somebody to help me take out the drawings. Someone who worked with an official but who wasn’t part of the searching, even sometimes an official.
RA: So people were mainly sympathetic to you?
DM: Some, yes. When I was in the isolation cell in Valle Grande, a doctor at one point gave me a sheet of paper and a pen so I could draw.
RA: It’s good to know that there were people inside the system who wanted to help you.
RA: How long have you been living in Miami?
DM: I’ve been here for roughly four months in total in the U.S.
RA: Are you here permanently or are you planning to go back to Cuba?
DM: At the moment it doesn’t make much sense – it’s not very logical – for me to be in Cuba. I can’t keep going to jail every five minutes. I can’t help my family. Now I’m trying to start a new life here, and I’m trying to focus on my career. There are a few motives for me to return, of course, because that’s my country, that’s my place, but I’m not sure when that will be.
RA: I understand you’re having a baby with Alexandra. Congratulations. How did you two meet?
Alexandra Martinez: I met him over a year ago in Miami. I’m a local journalist in Miami, and he was there for an art show, and I interviewed him, and then a few months later I went to visit family in Cuba and we started dating.
DM: It was her plan to be together. She went after me. And she’s been supporting me ever since. There have been a lot of dark moments but also some nice moments.
RA: Alexandra, are you still working as a reporter in Miami?
Alexandra Martinez: Freelancing. I went with him to Cuba for a month, and I was reporting from there. That was our original plan, for me to do that from Cuba with him, and then he went to jail. There was a moment when they didn’t want me to visit Danilo. They tried taking my camera away, and then when he was in jail they wouldn’t let me see him at first. They said that I was American and I wasn’t really his spouse. So I couldn’t see him. And then I was with his mom trying to visit him, waiting outside the prison, and in that very moment we hear Danilo’s voice, and he’s screaming, “They’re taking me to Combinado del Este.” And that was the first time that Danilo and I had seen each other in a month. They move prisoners around without informing the family. Families have to struggle to find out where the prisoners are, and it was lucky that we were out there.
DM: In 55 days I was moved to six prisons.
RA: And each time your family didn’t know where they had taken you?
DM: No. But I would always find a way to relate the news back to my mom. Whether that was through a prisoner who had recently been released or a friend who worked there, I would always find a way to get the news back to her.
RA: Were you allowed to have telephone calls?
DM: No. It was always very difficult for me to get to the phone. It was complicated, because if the guards helped me they would get into trouble.
RA: Did you have trouble getting a visa to come to the U.S.?
DM: No. I have a five-year travel visa.
RA: Are you planning to study art here?
DM: If they pay me, I will teach. I’m not a student anymore. I absorb what’s going on around me, and it would be difficult for someone else coming from a different tradition, a different place and time to teach me something. I’ve always drawn from when I was little. I had art history professors; then I studied marketing and public relations.
RA: I understand your mother is in Cuba and you also have a daughter there.
DM: Yes, but my mother can’t travel. She doesn’t have a passport. My daughter has a British passport, like her mother, and I’m trying to see if they will be able to come over here, so I can see my daughter.
RA: Is your art recognized in Cuba as much as it is outside?
DM: There are many people who know me, who recognize me in many parts of Cuba, in my neighborhood. I didn’t make myself famous on social media at first. I’m a graffiti artist who invaded the street, and the people on the street know me. It’s a different type of thing, because bloggers, journalists and people who tweet or do interviews are famous on social media, but I’m coming from the street and this gives me a different type of visibility. For example, on May Day, May 1, the activist who went out with the American flag and was beaten, many people had known him and seen him before, but never on the television screen. Although many people would never dare do that, many people now know about him, like the famous Reggaeton artist, Chacal. They will give a shout-out in a concert, and the popular rap group, Los Aldeanos, who are on film, critical of the Regime, have made songs about me as well. Now is when I’m able to take my career to another level of visibility. I’m really just trying to show and teach others through my own conduct.
RA: Do you feel now that you’re outside that you’re getting more information about what is going on in Cuba with opponents of the Regime?
DM: Yes, now I can get a lot more, but I already have my network and I’m well connected. I know what’s going on in my neighborhood.
RA: Is this through the Internet, telephone, word of mouth?
RA: What was your reaction when Obama suddenly ended the wet foot /dry foot policy?
DM: Unfortunately the issue of immigration and people entering the country is really only a concern for the president of that country. Really it was Obama’s decision whether or not to end the policy. The reason Cubans emigrate is not really Obama’s fault. The blame is on the Castro Regime for forcing people to leave. And at the end of the day, I’m more concerned about the problems facing the Cuban people. Even I could have been a victim of the change, of not being able to come into the country, but really the people to blame is the Castro government. The main concern is changing things inside Cuba. The dictatorship is to blame for me even being here right now. The country’s a prison. Look at all the people who attacked the man with the flag. There are people who get attacked and don’t appear on television. But we need to be very clear about who’s to blame here, because maybe even if they [the Castro Regime] are brought to international trial, they could be set free, and we need to be very clear. Who’s to blame? The guard in the prison? The police officer who didn’t want to open the door for me or the security guard who was beating me up for saying something? In this case both of them are guilty.
RA: Our mutual friend, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo wants to ask you this question: Was it easy to find a tattoo artist willing to put the image of the martyrs, Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá on your skin? Tell us about that experience and what it means to you.
DM: Yes. A friend made the appointment. I explained what I wanted to do. He told me, “Don’t record my face.” And immediately I had a solo appointment just for me. Another problem with art is that tattoo artists in Cuba are persecuted by the Regime. It’s not a legal business. They don’t give out licenses. Everyone is persecuted.
RA: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo has another question: In 2011, in the first article ever published about you, which appeared in Diario de Cuba, he quoted you as saying that you were like “the noise of the people.” Today, six years later, what do you feel is the noise of Cuba?
DM: I believe that there’s some “noise” now with respect to graffiti. There are a few graffiti street artists, like Yulier [Yulier Rodríguez Pérez]. I love his work. He does graffiti on the street, very morose-looking surrealist creatures. He’s not outrightly political; he doesn’t associate himself with anything political. Right now I’m in a process of war against the bad in Cuba, and even heroes like José Martí had to leave Cuba and go into exile for some years. So I consider what I’m doing now to be part of this process, part of this war that I’m fighting. I didn’t leave to forget about what’s going on. I don’t stop working. I don’t stop thinking every moment, every day, about what I started and what I want to achieve. So there’s a lot left to do.
RA: What about what’s happening in Venezuela. What would it take for a movement like that to happen in Cuba?
DM: No, it’s a different situation. The people in Venezuela are completely different.
RA: What do you predict will happen when Raúl steps down in 2018?
DM: I don’t like predictions. The future belongs to the future. But I believe that what comes after Raúl is going to be another Castro. They will put different faces, different people to control the economy, different people to control different sectors, but at the end of the day they’re all puppets for the Regime. And one day they can put up on the television that so-and-so, like Miguel Díaz Canel, is betraying the revolution. Mariela Castro knows what she’s doing with the homosexual community, running around with the flag, and they’re trying to make out that what she’s doing is not a political campaign, not a political strategy, but of course it is. What’s coming is Mariela. That’s what they’re preparing. She’s taking a political platform. And if it were the sons, they would have created a political campaign for them. But the only thing people see is Mariela Castro going around, touting herself, doing whatever she wants and getting away with it, so we can only imagine that she is staging a political campaign to build the next face, the future of the revolution, something progressive, a human rights activist, a woman.
RA: But she wont be officially replacing her father.
DM: No. I wouldn’t dare make that type of prediction, but I can see that she’ll be the president; she’ll be the one controlling everything from behind the scenes. It will all be the same.
RA: So we should talk about your upcoming art exhibit in San Francisco.
DM: I’ll be inside of a cell for three days not eating anything, just drinking water.
RA: And at night?
DM: Same thing. I’ll be drawing portraits of political prisoners to raise awareness not just in Cuba but also in the whole world.
RA: What about a bathroom?
DM: There is one inside the cell.
RA: Are you going to have more of your paintings up in the gallery?
DM: There will be a total of about 20-25 paintings, all the drawings I did in prison and the most recent ones. They will be for sale.
RA: And this exhibit is going on how long?
DM: Two weeks, but I’ll only be there for three days.
RA: What are your future plans?
DM: I’ll continue with my work here. First I’m trying to take my art to the next level. Not just in the U.S. but in the whole world, the free world. Now there’s a show coming up called “Angels and Demons,” on May 11. Then I’m going to Europe for an Oslo Freedom Forum and Internet event, and then in September, this same show is going to Houston. The goal is to not stop working, to build a larger platform, so that when I decide to go back to Cuba, I will have a larger following, a larger layer of protection. We’re dealing with a group of murderers, of assassins, and we don’t know if they will detain me or not, so I have to keep doing what I’m doing. That’s my job.
Iván García, 30 March 2017 — Fear has the habit of first knocking on your door. On any night, in a work center or a house, an official of State Security can give a citizen an official citation with an intimidating look.
It could be your sister, a close relative, childhood friends or a neighbor. The strategy is always the same. The assassination of the dissident journalist’s reputation by combining half-truths with treacherous lies.
They play all their cards. From one’s commitment to the Revolution to blackmail and social isolation. continue reading
Since I began a relationship with my wife, a telecommunications engineer, her professional career has been stalled. They control her email and the contents of her work through a magnifying glass. The same thing happens with friends who collaborate on my journalistic notes. It’s an insolent and arbitrary harassment.
The political policy officials in Cuba know they have an all-reaching power. They perform, Olympically, the violation of their own laws of autocracy.
An official of the National Revolutionary Police told me about the problems the State Security agents cause among their staff instructors. “They consider themselves to be above good and evil. They come into the unit and mobilize personnel and resources to detain or repress someone in the opposition. Or they take over an office without even asking permission. They’re a bunch of thugs.”
If you want to know the methods they use to create tensions among families and friends and to cause marital problems, I recommend that you see the documentary on political prisoners in Cuba, Avatares de la familia, made by Palenque Visión and recently premiered in Miami.
When someone gets involved in peaceful dissidence or exercises independent journalism, the family pays the price. If it’s not enough to create concern when a mother, father, spouse or son isn’t going to sleep at home one night; the treacherous State Security tries to dynamite intimate relations with accusations of marital infidelity.
The Regime surely washes its hand like Pontius Pilate when it declares, in international forums, that the Island doesn’t assassinate the opposition or independent journalists. But the fabrication of files with false proof is also a punishable crime.
The beatings of dissident women on public streets or in front of their children have increased. The occupation of work teams and the harassment of independent journalists have become a habitual practice of the political police.
Creed, religion or ideology doesn’t matter. It’s the same repression for neo-communist bloggers like Harold Cárdenas (El Toque Cuba), foreign correspondents like Fernando Rasvberg (Cartas Desde Cuba) or pure reporters like Elaine Díaz, who founded a digital newspaper (Periodismo de Barrio), which covers the country’s vulnerable communities.
For Raúl Castro’s government, disagreeing is a symptom of insubordination and the first step toward dissidence. In the midst of the 21st century, the olive-green State affirms its right to give permission about what should be written or expressed. Anyone who doesn’t fulfill this precept is a criminal outside the law. Of course, for the openly anti-Castro journalists, the repression is more ferocious.
In the spring of 2003, 14 years ago, Fidel Castro ordered the incarceration of 75 peaceful opponents, 27 of which were independent journalists, among them the poet Raúl Rivero, whose “weapon” was a stack of ballpoint pens, an Olivetti Lettera typewriter and a collection of literature from universal writers.
Some colleagues who write without State permission and with different doctrines believe that the subject of the dissidence in Cuba — although it is packed with problems, divided but real — is hidden by the ideological police, and that those who support the status quo, the cultural policies and ideological thought on the Island, are rewarded.
Recent facts show that the mantle of intolerance, which at times resembles fascist behavior, has no borders. They insult Rasvberg with crude swearwords and detained Elaine and several of her colleagues from Periodismo de Barro when they tried to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, just as they systematically harass the independent journalist from Camagagüey, Henry Constantín Ferreiro, who has been the regional Vice President of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa for some months.
I know Henry personally. He’s a quiet guy, unaffected and creative, and right now the authorities are trying to accuse him of “usurpation of legal capacity,” the same as his colleague, Sol García Basulto. His “crime” is to exercise independent journalism and direct a magazine without State sponsorship.
We Cuban journalists should show solidarity with each other when the State tries to roll over us and shut us up. It doesn’t matter what each of us thinks. We all have the right to freely express our opinions.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King: You don’t have to love me, I only ask that you don’t lynch me.
Iván García, 6 March 2017 — A sloppy piece of cardboard painted with a crayon announces the sale of a discolored house in the neighborhood of La Vibora, 30 minutes by car south of Havana.
If Amanda, the owner, who is raving poor, manages to sell the house for the equivalent of 40,000 dollars, she intends to buy two small apartments, one for her daughter and the other for her son.
The house urgently needs substantial repairs. But Amanda’s family doesn’t have the money needed to undertake the work. Frank, 36, her son, is the custodian of a secondary school and earns a monthly salary of 365 Cuban pesos, around 17 dollars, and to help support the family, he’s a blood donor. continue reading
The Cuban regime doesn’t pay for these donations. Frank, who gives blood up to two times a month, should receive some 10 pounds of meat, a half-kilo of fish and three pounds of chicken.
“There are always delays. It’s a pain. In every municipality there’s a warehouse assigned to distribute this food to the blood donors. But it never happens. And what is worse, the government doesn’t reinstate you. For example, you never receive fish. Several of us donors sent a letter to the Ministry of Public Health complaining about the lack of supplies, but we’ve never received an answer,” complains Frank.
The material insecurity in Cuba is brutal. A growing number of families have furniture in their homes that is half a century old, or more. They lack modern appliances and must make their clothing and shoes last forever.
But the biggest problem is food, which devours between 80 and 90 percent of the average salary, which, according to official data, is the equivalent of 26 dollars a month.
Odalys, a nurse in a blood bank, says that “most volunteer donors give blood in order to take some food home. There are also people who occasionally give blood in order to receive a little snack of ham and cheese and a soft drink.”
The CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) are paramilitary organizations, created as embryos of support for special services, to collect commodities. They also conduct night patrols to expose dissidents and those suspected of “illicit enrichment,” an aberrant judicial heading applied by the Castro government to any person who improves his quality of life.
Also, the CDRs have campaigns for blood donations. A resident of Lawton, the president of a CDR, affirms that “every time there are fewer people who want to donate blood. The CDRs have become a mess. They’re only busy snitching on the dissidents. They haven’t done night duty for some time on my block, much less organized recreational activities.”
Danaisis, who’s been a doctor for three years, recognizes that “even in the large hospitals in Havana, where there are dozens of surgical interventions every day, they don’t have sufficient plasma in their blood banks. When a patient has to have an operation, family members must donate blood. Or buy it from people at 20 dollars a donation.”
Like Frank and the rest of blood donors in the 10 de Octubre municipality, the nurse, Odalys, and the doctor, Danaisis, don’t know that the State exports, annually, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of human blood derivatives.
According to María Welau, the executive director of the Cuba Archive project, in an article published June 4, 2016, in Diario de Cuba, “For decades, the Cuban State has coordinated a multimillion dollar business, based on the commerce of blood extracted from its citizens, who ignore this trafficking and don’t receive any remuneration for their donations. Already in the middle of the 1960s, reports indicate that Cuba sold blood to Vietnam and Canada. In 1995, Cuba exported blood worth 30.1 million US dollars, and this commerce represented its fifth export product, surpassed only by sugar, nickel, shellfish and cigars.”
Werlau provides figures. “These exports don’t appear in the official statistics of the Cuban Government, published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), but data from the world commerce indicate that in the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, Cuba exported 622.5 million dollars worth of human blood derivatives — which gives an average of 31 million dollars a year — under the category of Uniform Classification for International Commerce (SITC 3002), for human blood components (plasma, etc.) and medical products derived from plasma (PDMP is the acronym in English).
Cuba: Exports of human or animal blood prepared for therapeutic uses (in dollars)
In this article, the Cuba Archive Director denounces the fact that “the largest amount of these exports has been allocated to countries whose authoritarian governments are political allies of Cuba, probably to state entities that apply less strict criteria and have the same ethical standards (Iran, Russia, Vietnam, Algeria until 2003; then to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador).
“According to Cuban Government reports, 93 percent of all units of human blood collected are broken into their components, which permits a much more lucrative business than if only plasma is sold, and facilitates the production of derivatives of high value, like interferon, human albumin, immunoglobulins, clotting factors, toxins, vaccinations and other pharmaceutical products. This export commerce gives Cuba a considerable advantage over its competitors, because it saves the usual cost represented by payments to the doors, whose blood is the raw material of the business.”
Exporting plasma, whether animal or human, isn’t a crime. What’s despicable is the lack of transparency of Raúl Castro’s regime. Or that Cubans like Frank have to give blood in exchange for a handful of meat and a few pounds of chicken. Food that the State doesn’t deliver most of the time.
Iván García, 21 March 2017 — In the slum of Lawton, south of Havana, the need for housing has converted an old collective residence with narrow passageways into a bunkhouse. With dividers made from cardboard or bricks recovered from demolished buildings, “apartments” have appeared where a dozen families reside, living on the razor’s edge.
Among the blasting Reggaeton music and illegal businesses, cane alcohol, stolen the night before from a state distillery, is sold and later used in the preparation of home-made rum; or clothing with pirated labels, bought in bulk from stalls in Colón, a stone’s throw from the Panama Canal. A while back, when cattle were slaughtered in the Lawton or Virgen del Camino slaughterhouses, you could get beef at the wholesale price.
These overpopulated townships in the capital are cradles of prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling. Lawton, like no other neighborhood in Havana, is the “model” for marginalization and crime. People live from robbing state institutions, selling junk or whatever falls from a truck. continue reading
But don’t talk to them about political reforms, ask them to endorse a dissident party or protest about the brutal beatings that the political police give a few blocks away to the Ladies in White, who every Sunday speak about political prisoners and democracy in Cuba.
Let’s call him Miguel, a guy who earns money selling marijuana, psychotropic substances or cambolo, a lethal mix of cocaine with a small dose of bicarbonate. He’s been in prison almost a third of his life. He had plans to emigrate to the United States but interrupted them after Obama’s repeal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.
Miguel has few topics of conversation. Women, sports, under-the-table businesses. His life is a fixed portrait: alcohol, sex and “flying,” with reddened eyes from smoking marijuana.
When you ask his opinion about the dissident movement and the continued repression against the Ladies in White, he coughs slightly, scratches his chin, and says: “Man, get off that channel. Those women are crazy. This government of sons of bitches that we have, you aren’t going to bring it down with marches or speeches. If they don’t grab a gun, the security forces will always kick them down. They’re brave, but it’s not going to change this shitty country.”
Most of the neighbors in the converted bunkhouse think the same way. They’re capable of jumping the fence of a State factory to rob two gallons of alcohol, but don’t talk to them about politics, human rights or freedom of expression.
“Mi amor, who wants to get into trouble? The police have gone nuts with the businesses and prostitution. But when you go down the path of human rights, you’re in trouble for life,” comments Denia, a matron.
She prefers to speak about her business. From a black bag she brings out her Huawei telephone and shows several photos of half-nude girls while chanting out the price. “Look how much money. Over there, whoever wants can beat them up,” says Denia, referring to the Ladies in White.
Generally, with a few exceptions, the citizens of the Republic of Cuba have become immune or prefer to opt for amnesia when the subjects of dissidence, freedom and democracy are brought up.
“There are several reasons. Pathological fear, which certainly infuses authoritarian societies like the Cuban one. You must add to that the fact that the Government media has known very well how to sell the story of an opposition that is minimal, divided and corrupt, interested only in American dollars,” affirms Carlos, a sociologist.
Also, the dissidence is operating on an uneven playing field. It doesn’t have hours of radio or television coverage to spread its political programs. The repression has obligated hundreds of political opponents to leave the country. And State Security has infiltrated moles in almost all the dissident groups.
“The special services efficiently short-circuit the relation of the neighbors of the barrio and the people who support the dissidence. How do you overcome that abyss? By expanding bridges to the interior of the Island. I believe the opposition is more focused on political crusades toward the exterior. The other is to amplify what the majority of Cubans want to hear: There isn’t food; to buy a change of clothing costs a three months’ salary; the terrible transport service; the water shortage….There is a long list of subjects the dissidents can exploit,” says Enrique.
I perceive that around 80 percent of the population has important common ground with the local opposition. The timid economic openings and repeals of absurd regulations were always claimed by the dissidence, from greater autonomy for private work, foreign travel or being tourists in their own country.
According to some dissidents, many neighbors approach them to say hello and delve into the motives for their detentions after a brutal verbal lynching or a beating. But there aren’t enough.
Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, the leader of the Alianza Democrática Oriental (Eastern Democratic Alliance) and director of Palenque Visión (Palenque Vision), felt frustrated when street protests demanding rights for everybody were taking place, and people were only watching from the curb of a sidewalk.
“One night I was in the hospital’s emergency room, since my son had a high fever, and I initiated a protest because of the poor medical attention. Several patients were in the same situation. But no one raised their voice when the patrols arrived and the political police detained me by force. That night I realized that I had to change my method to reach ordinary Cubans. Perhaps the independent press is a more effective way,” Lobaina told me several months ago in Guantánamo.
Although independent journalists reflect that other Cuba that the autocracy pretends to ignore, their notes, reports or complaints have a limited reach because of the lack of Internet service and the precariousness of their daily lives.
For the majority of citizens, democracy, human rights and freedom of expression are not synonymous with a plate of food, but with repression. How to awaken a Cuban from indifference is a good question for a debate.
Juan Juan Almeida, 22 February 2017 — Qatar authorities presented an official complaint before Eumelio Caballero Rodríguez, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Cuba, because during the obligatory health exam of the Cuban health workers they detected some cases of Cuban doctors infected with HIV.
This was expressed in an email from the Embassy of Cuba in the State of Qatar, which landed like a tsunami in the office of the Minister of Public Health of Cuba. Here are a few fragments:
“Beginning now, all [Cuban] care providers who leave for Qatar must bring a certificate from the Provincial Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology that shows the results of an HIV test.” continue reading
“Urgent,” says the message. “These 15 cases listed here arrived in Qatar the past month of January without said document, and three of them tested positive in the required check for entry to the country, and now we are requesting an explanation for this.”
“Gentlemen,” continues the missive, “This must not happen again. It is required that you take disciplinary measures against the provinces of the implicated care providers.”
It should be pointed out that Qatar is a State mediator and negotiator in Middle Eastern conflicts, and its principal interest in Cuba is concentrated in medical services, considered the backbone of relations between both countries. This is why, in January of 2012, the Hospital of Dukhan was created, which today has more than 400 Cuban professionals, including doctors, nurses and technicians in the fields of rehabilitation, odontology, medical laboratories, bio-medicine and radiology.
Furthermore, the incident puts at risk the confidence of the Arab Emirates, which, with the third largest world reserve of natural gas and the largest income per capita on the planet, has shown interest, in addition to health, in exploring other spheres of business, for example: financing the extraction and commercialization of Cuban marble, the construction of five-star hotels on the island and the implementation of an airlines operation between Qatar Airways and Cubana de Aviación.
Of course, I’m convinced that we won’t read anything about this disagreeable incident, absolutely nothing, in the official Cuban press.
Ivan Garcia, 24 February 2017 — Marino Murillo, the presumptive tsar of economic reforms in Cuba, a prime minister with broad powers, passed up a seat in the first row next to the senior staff of a long-lived revolution governed by an exclusive club of elders who, as a group, have lived almost 500 years, to take a seat in the third row, far from the spotlight and the cameras.
In closed societies, where rumors are more truthful than the information offered by the State press, you have to learn to read between the lines. Lacking a government office that offers public information to its citizens, academics, journalists and political scientists, you must look with a magnifying glass at the most insignificant signs. continue reading
That morning in December 2015, when the autocrat Raúl Castro feigned indignation before the more than 600 deputies of the monotone national parliament about the abusive prices of agricultural products, was the beginning of the end for Marino Murillo.
Castro II requested that measures be applied. And not very consistently, alleging the law of supply and demand that governs the produce markets, Murillo mumbled that he would try to implement different regulations to try to curb the increase in prices.
Apparently this wasn’t sufficient. The previous super-minister fell into disgrace, and now not even his photo appears in the official media, although theoretically he continues at the front of the agenda, charged with implementing the economic guidelines, a kind of commandment that moves at a snail’s pace and with serious delays: In six years, only a little more than 20 percent of the guidelines have been implemented.
With the fading-out of fatso Murillo, the dynamic of timid economic reforms — together with openings in the obsessive defense of Fidel Castro, who transformed Cubans into third-class citizens — the game began to be directed by the most rancid and conservative of the military leadership.
It was essential to open to the world and repeal the feudal exit permit needed to travel outside the island, to permit Cubans to rent hotel rooms and to buy or sell houses, among other normal regulations in any country in the 21st century.
There is no doubt that this was a leap forward, with barriers, absurd prices and spite for people who make money. Yes, in Cuba they sell cars, but a Peugeot 508 is worth more than a Ferrari, and you must pay cash.
The Internet and cell phones are not exactly tools of science fiction, but the price for service is insane for a country where the average salary is 25 dollars a month.
The supposed reforms were always incomplete. They were left halfway. Cubans cannot invest in large businesses; professionals don’t have authorization to work for themselves, and the State claims the right to establish a ridiculous list of jobs that are or are not permitted.
Of the 201 authorized jobs, there are at least 10 or 15 enterprises where, with creativity and effort, you can make large sums of money, always taking into account the Cuban context, where anyone who earns 10,000 Cuban pesos a month (about $400) is considered “rich.” This is a country where for almost 60 years, the average citizen is sponsored by the State.
Of course the regulations, excessive taxes, harassment by State inspectors and a deadly clause in the Government’s economic bible, which prohibits persons or groups from accumulating large sums of capital, hinder prosperity and the boom in private work.
In a nation where the Government has been in charge of clothing, shoeing, rewarding or punishing its citizens, a margin of liberalism, as small as it is, was an oasis for a half million entrepreneurs who now live on the margins of the State.
The starting shot that would put the handbrake on the reforms began on December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro, of mutual accord, put an end to the incredible Cold War between Cuba and the United States.
Once out of the trenches, Obama began to launch packets of measures with the marked intention of favoring private workers. The Regime didn’t like that.
They wanted to do business with the gringos but with their own State enterprises, not to empower the private ones. Then, progressively, the Castro autocracy started to slow down the dynamic sector, probably the only one that was growing on the Island, that paid salaries from three to five times more than the State, and which gave employment to some 20 percent of the work force.
In autumn of 2015, a negative dynamic began. Presently only 30 percent of the supply-and-demand produce markets are functioning. The State harasses and penalizes the cart vendors who sell meat, fruit and vegetables, and they have declined by 50 percent. The State closed the largest produce market in Trigal, south of Havana, and the Taliban juggernaut expects to increase with regulations and taxes on all the buoyant businesses in gastronomy, transport and hotel services.
What’s this new “revolutionary offensive” about? I don’t think it has the reach of the confiscations of french fry stands and shoeshine stalls of 1968, or the counter-reforms for certain openings in the 1980s and ’90s.
But it’s undeniable that the Regime doesn’t want the train to derail. Presently there’s a small segment of Cubans, between 60,000 and 100,000 persons, who have amassed small fortunes thanks to their taste and talent for business.
We’re talking about 100,000 dollars going forward, an insignificant figure in any First World country, but extraordinary in a country impoverished by the poor management of the Castro brothers.
In addition to pleasure and social status, money engenders power. While Castroism functions in Cuba, private businesses will not be able to prosper. This is the reason for the brakes put on the private owners.
A word of advice to the olive green Regime: Be careful with excesses. In December 2010, an abusive fine on the owner of a food stand, Mohammed Buazisi, who out of contempt immolated himself, put a final end to the Tunisian dictatorship of Ben Ali and unchained the Arab Spring.
In its present offensive against the private taxi drivers, the Cuban authorities shouldn’t forget what happened in Tunisia a little more than six years ago. In societies of order and control, the devil is always in the details.
Iván García, 15 February 2017 — Decidedly, equanimity isn’t one of Pastor’s strong points. He’s an industrial engineer transformed into a private taxi driver, and six days a week he drives a 1954 Dodge with a body from a Detroit factory, patched up a couple of times in a Havana workshop and improved with a German engine from a Mercedes Benz, a South Korean transmission and a steering wheel from a Lada of the Soviet era. With this car he operates on a fixed-route as a shared-taxi.
This mechanical Frankenstein is the livelihood of Pastor, his wife, four children and two grandchildren. “When I stop driving, it’s felt in the house. So I have to be driving 12 or 13 hours daily. My family and even my in-laws live from my almendrón (old American car). The government considers us taxi drivers as tycoons, newly rich. But that’s not true,” says Pastor, while he drives his taxi through the narrow Monte Street in the direction of the Parque de la Fraternidad. continue reading
At the end of the trip, he parks very close to the Saratoga Hotel and enumerates details of the collective taxi business in Havana. “There are two types of taxi drivers. Those who own their car, like me, and those who lease it to someone who owns five or six cars and makes money renting them out. We all pay the same tax, which the State raises each year, by using some ruse,” he comments, and he adds:
“The study that ONAT, the National Tax Office, did, which controls private work on the Island, is very elementary. Its calculations are removed from reality. The deductions for the time we aren’t working are erroneous. Sometimes the car has to be in the shop for two or more months.
But the transportation problem, which the government tries to blame us for, is something that they haven’t resolved. If my business is one of supply and demand, then no one should stick their nose into my prices. It doesn’t concern the State. If they want to improve public transportation let them buy hundreds of busses and taxis, so they can see how low prices have fallen,” says Pastor, who, as we’re chatting, becomes impassioned, and more than a few swear words sprinkle the conversation.
“This can only happen in a dictatorship. If they really want things to get better they would have had a dialogue with us, the taxi drivers, who in the capital alone number more than 10,000. Compadre, the State doesn’t give a shit about helping us. They don’t give us so much as a single screw. We pay them everything. What would have been a good solution? To sell us gas, which now costs 1.10 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $1.10 US) in the government filling stations, at 10 or 15 Cuban pesos (roughly $0.40 to $0.60 US), and then require us to have fixed prices on a route,” says Pastor, indignant.
If you talk with any of the private taxi drivers in Havana, you will note their barely-contained irritation. “It’s simple: If the government continues fucking with me, I’ll surrender my State license tomorrow and work under the table. Actually, there’s a ton of people who are doing that. They don’t have enough police to be going after 15,000 illegal taxi drivers,” says a taxi driver who drives the Havana-Playa route.
Eliecer, a driver on the Lisa-Parque Central route, explains his accounting. “I drive for a lady who owns the auto. I pay her 25 CUC daily. But I have to pay for repairs and gasoline. After the 600 Cuban pesos that I turn over to the owner, I earn between 400 and 500 Cuban pesos daily. But I don’t have any rest. I kill myself working.”
What especially bothers Osvel, a retired soldier, is the arrogance of the authorities. “What would it cost the government to meet with us and negotiate a good agreement? But no, they do it as they see fit. It’s true that you can earn 10 times what you would working for the State, but you always have to put money aside in case of breakdowns, because the cars are old and need frequent repairs. The easiest way is to force it on people, an old government custom.”
In a note published in the government newspaper Granma on February 8, the authorities divided the city into 30 routes and determined the prices that they think should be charged from one stretch or destination to another in the city.
The other side of the problem is the customers. Eight out of 12 people interviewed said they were upset by the increase in taxi prices in Havana. “The taxi drivers have some nerve. Because they’ve had the balls to double and triple their prices. If they think the government is abusing them, then let them have a strike in the Plaza de la Revolución, but don’t try to get out of it by raising prices and fucking the passenger,” comments Daniel, who says he spent an hour waiting for a taxi on Calzada de Diez de Octubre.
In July 2016, the Regime decreed that prices were going up, and they opened a telephone line for complaints from the population. Many taxi drivers stopped driving for several days, and the majority decided to split the routes. For example, the route from La Palma to the Parque de la Fraternidad, which cost 10 pesos, was divided into two: 10 pesos up to Toyo and Calzada de Luyanó, and another 10 pesos up to the Parque de la Fraternidad.
“The problem is that before, you could get gas on the black market. But since last spring, the government began controlling the fuel that was being stolen from State businesses. Now you have to buy it in CUCs, and it costs more than double than it did under the table. And then they raise the prices, explained a taxi driver.
All those interviewed agree, taxi drivers as well as users, that with these populist measures the government is trying to disguise who’s really guilty and their proven inefficiency and incapacity to design a functional model of transport.
Pastor, angry, goes further. “It’s an undeclared war on private workers. Why don’t they raise the prices for taxis rented from the State? They work almost without using the taximeter and then charge twice or three times as much as they did two years ago. And in CUCs.”
The fleet of modern autos painted yellow that circulate in the city, for use by tourists or citizens with deep pockets, pay 55 CUC daily to the State as a leasing fee.
The government isn’t stupid. They’re not going to start a battle with taxi drivers who report their income. And in CUCs.
Ivan Garcia, 19 January 2017 — As if by magic, the irreverent and prosaic Donald Trump is the man of the hour for Cubans who have plans to emigrate. “He’s the guy; there’s no one else. If he orders it, the United States will open its doors,” says Miguel, emphatically, while he drives a ramshackle collective taxi down Infanta Avenue.
His comment intensifies the polemic of five passengers who shout above the odor of gasoline that filters through the old car’s patched-up exhaust pipe and the unbearably loud music.
“Obama is a real son-of-a-bitch. If Cubans allow their Government to step all over them it’s because they have the possibility of hauling ass out of Cuba. Tell me who here doesn’t have a family member in the States?” asks a corpulent mulatto. continue reading
Everyone wants to talk at once and give their opinion on the subject. Some analyses are puerile; others border on political science fiction, like that of Magda, a primary school teacher, who, from the back seat of the taxi, advises Trump to “accept all the Cubans who want to leave. Most will work at anything. You think there isn’t space in the U.S. for 11 million Cubans?” she says, and the other passengers smile.
Right now, the fashionable subject in Havana is the repeal of the wet foot-dry foot policy. A collection of sad, crushed people react to the announcement as if they received a direct blow to the chin by a heavyweight.
“Listen, brother, I sold my house to go to Guyana. My plan was to cross the Mexican border and enter the U.S. Now it’s impossible. But I’m going to get out anyway I can. Even through Haiti, I’m telling you,” says Jean Carlos, a veterinarian.
At Christmas time, Diego flew to Uruguay with his wife to travel to Laredo and cross the border into El Paso. “I’m devastated. I didn’t leave with much money. Now I’ll look for a job in Uruguay and see later where to go. But I’m not returning to Cuba. I have nothing there. I sold everything. If I’m going to start all over let it be in any other country,” he says by Internet.
The same thing happened to Yosvani and his wife, Mildred. The couple flew to Rome in November, on a tourist package. With a one-month visa they crossed the border and settled in Spain.
“Here we’re together with a group of illegal Cubans. My wife found a job taking care of an old man. I worked for a week cleaning a bar, but the owner paid me only four euros. My mother already sold my apartment in Havana and sent me the money that I wanted to use to go to Cancun, Mexico. But now with this news I have to stay here. My hope is that Trump will reverse the measures that Obama approved,” he says, through Instant Messenger.
The new panorama, presumably, will not put the brakes on those who have plans to emigrate. “It can change everything. But then people will try their luck in another country or will come to the U.S. through marriage or by other tricks. I have my eye on Panama. I liked the city and the people when I went to buy junk to sell in Havana. The one place I can’t be is Cuba. You can’t do anything here. You can’t move. The last person who leaves, please turn off the lights in El Morro,” (the castle fortress at the entrance to Havana Bay) confesses Maikel in a wifi park in Vedado.
Even those who have relatives in the U.S. don’t think they have enough patience to get there by family reunification. “My father has been in Miami for five months and is already working. When he has his residence papers he’s going to claim me. But how long will all this paperwork take? Three, four years can go by. If I can, I’ll leave before. Here in Cuba I have no future,” comments Germán, a university student.
Obama has passed from being a hero to being a villain. From that president, who 10 months ago in Havana gave a memorable speech, saying that Cuba should change and bet on democracy, to being persona non grata.
It’s the opposite with Donald Trump. The Cuban who drinks only coffee for breakfast, indoctrinated by the international press, always saw the wealthy New York businessman as an extravagant weirdo. A rich guy who by pure caprice got into the world of politics.
“The guy’s a time bomb. When he explodes, no one knows what’s going to happen. Trump thinks that politics is a reality show. It would be a miracle if in the next four years the world equilibrium doesn’t change. He’s poorly educated, an egomaniac with the soul of a tyrant; and thousands of Cubans who are thinking of emigrating are placing their faith in him,” says Norge, a political science graduate.
Like in an Agatha Christie crime novel or a suspense film, the roles have been reversed. Goodbye Barack Trump. Welcome Donald Obama. The world has been turned upside down, and not only for Cuban emigrants.
Iván García, 6 January 2017 — When you live on the edge of an abyss, you lose your capacity to think about the future. Just ask Giraldo, who works as a plumber for Aguas de La Habana, what his plans are for 2017, and you’ll see an expression of surprise on his face.
He takes off his faded New York Yankees cap, which once was blue, and takes a few seconds to think. Before I tell you his answer, I’ll give you some details about his every-day existence.
Giraldo lives in a tiny, one-room apartment, but because of overcrowding, he had to enlarge it with a “barbecue” — the name Cubans have given to a makeshift platform built in an existing room between the floor and the ceiling (see page 7 of this document). Now seven people of three different generations live together. continue reading
They have coffee for breakfast, when there is some, and spread a mixture of cooking oil, crushed garlic and salt on a 2.8-ounce bread roll, which, for the price of five centavos, the ration book gives by right to all Cuban-born citizens.
In the living room you see an outdated, cathode-tube Chinese television, and on a wood and glass shelf, a half-dozen empty bottles of rum and whisky serve as decoration.
The Haier refrigerator, also Chinese, granted to them 11 years ago, has still not been paid off. “And we’re not going to pay it,” says Giraldo’s mother, calmly, while she rocks on a chair of springs.
The apartment needs work. But the money is only enough to give it one coat of paint. They don’t have money in the bank, they don’t dream about having a modern car with GPS, and they have never thought about spending their vacation in Varadero or Cayo Coco.
Their lives are made up of working eight hours a day for the adults, studying Monday to Friday for the kids and, after they have dinner, sitting in a patched armchair to watch the current soap opera or a national-series baseball game.
Probably, like in a movie, these images passed through Giraldo’s mind before answering a question that any other person would find easy. Now, with his speech armed, he answers, without drama:
“For people like us who count their money by the centavo, every year is more or less the same. Some less bad than others. But none are good. I think it’s unfair that the Government doesn’t resolve the problems of working people and fucks us over. My only plan is to get enough money to fix the roof, which is full of holes. It’s been that way for over three years, and I haven’t been able to get enough money.”
You should walk in his shoes before judging. I suppose that right now in Aleppo, Syria, or in a stronghold in Yemen being overrun by warlords, a crust of bread or not hearing the howl of mortars is a good sign that you’ll still be alive the next day.
But Cuba isn’t in a civil war. The plans of Julio, a Cuban who arrived recently in the United States, are different. He was put in prison on the Island for embezzlement when he was the manager of a State cafeteria. Then alcohol and a lack of future sent him into a self-destructive cycle. But when he crossed the El Paso international bridge in Laredo, he swore that he was going to start anew.
Now he lives in Kentucky, where it’s unbearably cold. Two times a week, by instant message, Julio communicates with his friends in Havana, who wait for a connection from a wifi zone. And he tells them how things are going in la yuma, and that, really, you have to work hard in the United States to move forward.
Cubans are emigrating precisely in order to move forward. They know the difficulties, what it costs to adapt to other customs and to learn a new language.
“The problem is that to hold onto an option, it has to be achievable, however distant it is. That when you pass by a store or a car dealership, you can say, ’Look at that car; if I work hard, I’ll be able to buy it. If I make an effort, I can improve my quality of life.’ Everything good that can happen in your life depends on you. Here things don’t depend on you,” says Sergio, who clandestinely sells clothing he imports from Panama out of his home.
It would be very pretentious to paint a picture of Cuba as monolithic. There are too many realities superimposed on the Island. But if anything remains clear it’s that people have lost the capacity to think big.
“Every New Year’s Eve we set goals. And we tell our relatives and friends,’May you fulfill your dreams in the New Year.’ But what are our dreams? To get a better salary at work, to be able to become sainted (in the Yoruba religion), to win a big sum in the numbers game or leave the country. Very few have plans to increase their business or to buy a better house or modern car. Our goals are not big. To make a little more money and eat more meals. The Government has killed our hopes with ideology, anti-imperialist speeches and odes to Fidel Castro,” says Rachel, a lawyer.
When you ask Cubans, their aspirations for 2017 are not at all ambitious. Quite the contrary. Antonio, retired at 79 years, wishes for this year that “there won’t be blackouts, the quality of bread gets better, the State repairs the multi-family buildings and they increase my pension by 1,000 pesos.”
He says this with a joking tone, but it makes you sad and compassionate. And among the average Cuban citizens you perceive a skepticism, fatigue, unease and apathy that doesn’t seem to have a cure.
It’s not that they don’t aspire to live better. It’s that they don’t find the way to do so.
Iván García, 13 December 2016 — The heat returned to the city along with the Reggaeton, the bustle and the alcohol. There’s nothing that bothers Danay, 26 years old, more than the drops of sweat running down her cheeks, mixed with the unbearable smell of kerosene of the old cars used as taxis in Havana, and the scandalous Reggaeton of Micha booming in her ears.
“Turn yourself around, tight and on your toes,” echoes the husky voice of Micha, an ex-slum dweller converted into a singer, coming from the audio equipment of Luis Alberto, 56, a self-employed taxi driver who drives a hybrid racing car 12 hours a day. It has a 1948 Chevrolet body, a German Mercedes Benz motor, a Japanese band-brake and a South Korean Hyundai gear box. continue reading
“I really missed the noise and the sandunga (a type of dance) of Cubans. Those nine days of mourning made Havana into one big funeral parlor. A magic trick. Rum wasn’t being sold, and if they saw you drinking a beer, you were pigeon-holed as a counterrevolutionary,” says Luis Alberto, while he tries to swerve around the collection of potholes on the streets of the capital.
Of the five passengers, no one mentions Fidel Castro. Nor the national mourning. Zulema says she got some bags of chicken at 24 fulas (Cuban Convertible pesos/dollars) each in a market at Carlos III and tells how she rations them out to her family.
“If I put them in the freezer, my children and my husband, who eat like pigs, will devour them in a week. I put five pieces of chicken in a little container inside the fridge. I keep the rest in a freezer under lock and key,” she explains to the passenger at her side, a sporty-looking black man who rides with his head shrunken into the back of the car and only knows how to nod, without commenting.
A young man with a bizarre hairstyle is living in another dimension. He listens to Jay Z with wireless headphones at elevated decibels. He doesn’t participate in the daily debate of the habaneros about the lack of money, food and a future.
He only looks out the car window and occasionally wipes the screen of his shiny Samsung Galaxy 7 with a cloth. Twenty minutes into the trip, Danay explodes.
The heat, the drops of sweat that are spoiling her makeup, the Reggaeton at high volume and the driver’s cigarette smoke, one cigarette after the other, like Marlon Brando in the Godfather saga, have gotten to her: “Please, can you turn down that music and stop smoking?”
The taxi driver looks are her like she’s an extra-terrestrial and answers, “Baby, although it doesn’t look like it, the car is mine. If you’re in a bad mood, you can get out. I bet anything that your boyfriend has left you,” and everybody laughs.
I’m left with this image. The laughing. In the last nine days, just to smile was suspicious. The habaneros were walking around like zombies, solemn and crestfallen.
When people talked about Fidel Castro, they threw out that automatic reproduction that many Cubans carry inside: “The greatest statesman of the twentieth century, the undefeated comandante, the man who escaped more than 600 attempts on his life by the CIA.” Something in that style. The commentaries were replicas of the official jargon.
People drank rum on the sly, the noise died down and a silence that brought more fear than calm spread throughout the whole city. Those who liked to tell tales about Pepito — the little boy who stars in so many Cuban jokes — in the corners, where Fidel Castro was the center of the joke, postponed the pleasantry until new notice.
The private bars sold only soft drinks, malt, fruit shakes and hamburgers. Neither mojitos nor wine. “You’re crazy, brother, if you think I’ll let the inspectors take away my license,” whispers the bar owner to a client. But before closing, he looks from one side to the other, and to those who remain in the bar he offers of drink of aged rum: “This is on the house, so you can celebrate what you want to celebrate.”
And so Fidel Castro’s death suddenly switched off the local customs, the proclamations in the street and that juicy and casual language of the Cubans. But Cuba is a game of mirrors.
Below ground they were betting on the numbers game and playing cards or baccarat in the clandestine casinos known as burles. The hookers worked exclusively door-to-door.
“In those nine days of national mourning it wasn’t wise to prowl around the outskirts of the private bars and discotheques,” says Zaida, who on Monday returned “to the fire.” “The clients were hungry. The mourning ended at 12 midnight on Sunday the 4th, and right away I began to have requests. Because the men were tense.”
Twenty-four hours after Fidel Castro’s ashes were placed by his brother, Raúl, inside an enormous rock that supposedly was brought from the Sierra Maestra to the Santiago cemetery of Santa Ifigenia, 900 kilometers from Havana, the chatting and the noise returned to the capital, and the drunks came back to uncork their bottles.
And the Reggaeton at high volume couldn’t be far behind.
Diarío Las Américas, December 9, 2016
Photo: Once the nine days of official mourning for Fidel Castro’s death was over, the habaneros not only went back to laughing, singing, dancing and making jokes, they also resumed their cultural life. On the night of December 7, many attended the Gran Teatro de La Habana to enjoy the premiere of four works from the Acosta Danza company, directed by the Cuban, Carlos Acosta, who, in addition to the National Ballet of Cuba, has been a dancer in the Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theater and The Royal Ballet, among other important companies. One of the works premiered that night, taken by Ana León, from Cubanet.
Ivan Garcia, 29 November 2016 — Cintia will never forget the day Fidel Castro died. Not because she had affection for the old guerrilla or felt devoted to the figure of the ex-comandante in chief.
One month ago, Cintia’s parents had reserved a room, paid for sessions of photography and makeup, and invited some 100 people to a party to celebrate her 15th birthday.
No expense was spared. More than 2,000 convertible pesos, some 2,400 dollars, four years’ salary for a professional. The adolescent’s birthday coincided with the nine days of official mourning that the Regime decreed for the death of Fidel Castro. continue reading
In accordance with the provincial government’s regulations, bars, night clubs, shops and markets were prohibited from selling alcoholic beverages.
Cintia’s parents had already invested around 500 convertible pesos in clothing and 400 in photo sessions and videos. The date of the birthday celebration, with plans for a dance group, a professional presenter and a bottle of aged rum on each table, was to take place on Sunday, November 27.
As a precaution, Cintia’s family, preparing for a shortage of beer, had already bought 15 cases of Cristal. But they figured they could buy the rum, which was always available on the shelves of the hard-currency stores, the day before the party.
The first problem came with the renting of the salon, a State center that was used at night as a discotheque. On Saturday morning the administrator returned their money, explaining that “because of the national mourning after the death of Fidel, recreational and cultural activities were suspended.”
Cintia’s family understood the reasons. “Look, here almost all the businesses are State property. So we decided to rent a private house. The trouble happened later, when we went to buy rum, red wine and champagne,” the mother says.
They went to dozens of markets and saw that black nylon had been put over the alcoholic beverages on the shelves, as a sign of mourning. “Señora, I’m sorry, I can’t do anything for you. If they catch me selling alcohol I’ll lose my job,” a clerk told her.
When asked where this regulation came from, they pointed toward the roof. “From above, from the Government.” As always happens in Cuba, when you want to know the name of the officer or minister who approved an absurd law, the web of bureaucracy conceals the one who implemented it.
Telephoning departments of the Ministry of Interior Commerce, which administers the hard-currency shops, the answers were the same: “We’re in national mourning for the death of the comandante.”
So what do you do with those who wanted to celebrate their birthdays or their weddings between November 26 and December 3? Or the devotees of Santa Barbara who always celebrate on December 4?
Although the official press hasn’t announced it, the Dry Law is extended to the whole Island. The journalist Lourdes Gómez, in Diario de Cuba, reported that “strangely, you don’t see anyone drinking alcohol. A cafeteria worker said that they received a directive prohibiting the sale of alcohol for the next nine days, the period decreed by the Council of State for national mourning.”
We Cubans are used to getting silence for an answer. Right now, Fidel’s death is the priority. He’s a genius and an important figure up to the grave, after his death, built up with a gibberish worthy of a Cantinflas comedy.
The celebrated tenor, Placido Domingo, who was going to make his Cuban debut in the Gran Teatro de La Habana, on Saturday, November 26, had to pack his bags and leave until further notice. Those who love baseball or football in the European leagues have to spend the equivalent of two days wages to get on the Internet to find out the results, since the official press and other media like radio and television are only giving news about the trajectory of the Maximum Leader.
By State decree, the army of drunkards in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and the rest of the provinces can’t drink beer or rum. “This would be in poor taste, to have people drinking and partying in the middle of national mourning. Where’s the pleasure in that? After December 4 they will have plenty of time to booze it up,” answers a police officer.
Those not suffering from the unexpected tropical Prohibition are the usual drunks. “Those people will even drink dog piss. The ones selling “chispa de tren“* are making a fortune now, since it’s not easy to spend nine days of this fuss without having a drink,” says the owner of a cafe on the outskirts of Mónaco, south of the Capital.
Private bars, restaurants and cafeterias can’t serve or sell alcohol either, but under the table, rum and beer are sold for consumption on the premises.
Coming back to Cintia’s family: At the last minute they were able to buy several bottles of rum and red wine. Of course they paid dearly for them. Finally they could celebrate her birthday, with the music at low volume. So as not to offend Fidel Castro in his national mourning.
*Translator’s note: Literally, “train spark,” referring to the sound made by train wheels on the tracks. A cheap, homemade rum, distilled from sugar and mixed mainly with kerosene or residue from petroleum refining. The toxic rum of the poor.
Juan Juan Almeida, 26 October 2016 — Under the alleged charge of influence peddling, Héctor Rodríguez Llompart, an ex-Cuban diplomat and the ex-President of the National Bank, was arrested.
“No one knows the motives,” said a source close to the Llompart family. “I think after the Ochoa case, the people running this country lost all the elements of inhibition in human conduct.” continue reading
Retired and 82-years-old, on August 8, 2016, there appeared in Granma an article that was later reproduced for the digital portal, Cudadebate. It was entitled “Viva Fidel,” in allegory to the 90th birthday of the ex-Cuban leader. However, in spite of his advanced age, his copious history and the laudatory writing about Fidel, Llompart was arrested at home, in the Casino Deportivo neighborhood, together with his wife, Patricia Arango.
Llompart, ex-Vice Chancellor, ex-President of the State Committee for Economic Collaboration (CECE), ex-Vice President of the National Commission on Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation and ex-President of the National Bank of Cuba, is known for depenalizing the dollar in 1993, and for the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso as the second official currency in 1994. Both measures had a significant impact on the economy and on living conditions for Cubans.
According to sources consulted, Patricia Arango, Rodríguez Llompart’s wife, after being freed and subjected to a search of her home, has been confined to her house.
Héctor Rodríguez Llopart is a native of Havana and did not join the Rebel Army during the conflict in the Sierra Maestra. He passed through the Cuban Chancellery, where he was Vice Minister, Minister-President of the CECE, and then the President of the National Bank of Cuba for 10 years.