Cholera in Havana with Fatalities / Dania Virgen Garcia

HAVANA, Cuba, 9 July 2013, Dania Virgen García/ For several days there has been an increase in the cases of cholera in the provinces of Havana and Guantánamo.

In Havana, where there are reports of more than 40 children admitted to the hospital, the municipalities most affected are Diez de Octubre and Cerro.

In Cerro pediatric hospital there are more than 37 children; in Accion Medica hospital, at Coco and Rabi, Santos Surez in the municipality of Diez de Octubre, on July 5 four cases were transferred to Cerro pediatric hospital.

At Pasteur Polyclinic, on Santa Catalina Street, also in Diez de Octubre, on the 5th, a three-year-old boy, Abel Lizuela Martinez, was transferred in a delicate state to Cerro Pediatric

From Guantánamo, at the opposite end of the country, Niober García Fournier of the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy, reported another death from cholera: that of José de la Cruz Castillo, 42 years old, resident in 12 Sur, between Santa Rita and San Gregorio, on July 1. He was in Room 12 Bed 3 in Agostino Neto Provincial Hospital. His wake was held for six hours. The health authorities barred the family from access to the interior of the funeral home, so they had to hold the wake for him in the street. The deceased worked in the provincial Meat Company.

Also, in Guantanamo prison there is a quarantine for cholera. Visits and the bringing in of articles to meet the basic needs of the inmates are restricted.

10 July 2013

Accumulation of Power / Fernando Damaso

Photo Peter Deel

When authoritarian, centralized and vertical power has been exercised for such a long time and without any opposing counterpart, where decisions are taking and implemented from above to below, without effective citizen participation, as it is not in their compliance and enforcement, it’s tremendously difficult to set aside these habits and to think and act in a democratic way.

In the case of Cuba, this is what has happened. As a result, institutions and organizations created with the objective of offering the world a “light” image of the Cuban “model,” have not been able to change anything, because they are simple bureaucratic constructs, where everything is determined beforehand, both with regards to its selective composition as well as for the issues authorized to be addressed and the decisions taken.

Neither the National Assembly nor the Central Workers Union of Cuba, nor any of the existing organizations (UNEAC, ANAP, FMC, FEU, FEEM, etc.) respond to the interests of their members; rather they are no more than chains of transmission of government policy, used to control and manipulate the population.

As long as they don’t produce economic, political and real social changes, with laws and regulations that are legally binding on all social subjects and, mainly, on the State and its institutions, everything is simple words that blow away in the wind, whether or not those who utter them are sincere or not.

This country, to save itself, needs a complete turnaround, that doesn’t necessarily have to be violent, but it has to be deep. The patches, re-soles and mends are ineffective, and instead of solving problems, they extend them and in time complicate them. Understanding this is not that hard!

4 July 2013

Saving Agent Snowden? / Miguel Iturria Savon

Spies have always existed; what would secret services be without agents within the mafias? The terrorist gangs? The narco-guerrillas? The bank robbers and other groups who violate social norms and impose their interests on people and institutions? Don’t they watch governments and their ministers and generals? Doesn’t espionage exist between political parties? Does anyone believe that governments don’t “leak” and “process” — for their interests — the growing virtual media network used by millions of citizens every day?

The issue has come to the fore in the international press following the revelations of U.S. analyst Edward Snowden, who escaped with thousands of secret documents from New York to Shanghai and then to Russia, from where he tried to get political asylum in Ecuador, Venezuela or any other Latin American country where the transparency of information he requires is a chimera in the face of state authoritarianism and the fragility of the democratic system.

To escape and become a become a media star, the new “avenging hero” chose to create an image crisis for the United States and President Barack Obama. Snowden had a better civic alternative: giving up his job with the cyberpolice and denouncing, to the courts, how an agency of the federal government violates the information privacy of its citizens.

Maybe it’s too much to ask of a 29-year-old boy fascinated by the growing popular revolts shaking the institutional order from North Africa to Brazil. It may be attractive to dynamite the government apparatus instead of fighting to improve it. Are we looking at a civic hero or a traitor in service to countries like Russia, China, Iran or Venezuela? We still don’t know, but however imperfect but American democracy is much more transparent than that trumpeted by those seeking to benefit from computers and briefcases carried by Edward Snowden.

In times of social demands, discredited politicians and ministers, technological advances that position the citizen against the power of the state, the young American becomes the friendly face of challenge. What will happen? Will his revelations benefit the citizens or just pit the United States against the champions of oppression in Russia, China, Cuba or Venezuela?

For now, Edward Snowden, like Sergeant Bradley Manning — who leaked thousands of secret documents to Julian Assange, the Wikileaks leader now finding refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London — is revered as a hero by Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, John Cusak and other Hollywood stars who alternate between artistic creation and defending caudillos such as F. Castro, the late Hugo Chavez and many snipers who despise democracy and deny their people freedom of speech, press and association.

5 July 2013

Things You Cubans Wouldn’t Believe / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Days in Queens

The bang-bang of the trains is permanent on Roosevelt Avenue. Our little house in Queens trembles, refuge of Cuban immigrants, patriot performance of the passports with which Raul Castro has blessed us, with pretensions of State-God.

As there are electric trains, as New York is an electric city, when they pass (and the trains always pass), it sets off the AT&T phones, such that not only for the noise is it impossible to speak. Much less is it conceivable to communicate with Cuba, where I left my elderly mother and my young love.

None of this happens in the United States, of course. Cuba reproduces like a cancer in our heads. Months ago I couldn’t express myself in English, except in some chats I’ve given in universities. The set continues to be Queens and then Brooklyn and then Manhattan, but the United States is what we’ve all left back there: in Cuba, it’s understood, in our enthusiasm to leap over decades of sub-socialism and finally escape.

This little area of Queens is the most atrocious neighborhood of Latin America. Low prices, nocturnal screaming, rude looks, pre-literate Chinese, railway accidents, oily smells, Dominican-New-Yorkers, police who ask for drivers’ licenses (I haven’t seen this done since Cuba), enigmatic medieval little castles, Japanese teenagers with their on-line iPads, wholesale freedom, cats (copulating and fighting off-stage, what a marvel), Old Coronabana bookstores, cold mornings in May, earplugs to avoid nervous breakdowns from the bang-bang, Mexican housewives running errands decked out with rapper jewelry, and keychains that screech louder than the elevated subways of this city.

I’m an absolute witness, I’m happy.

It looks like the United States. Just that: it looks like the United States, but it’s another country that we Cubans of Cuba always imagined. Without us, the North American union would be incomplete. And I say again, it could be at risk of disappearing, among the voracious Latinness and the anonymous candor of DC, city of spies and the pro-Castro lobby.

We Cubans without Cuba are the spontaneous equilibrium. The faithful of a great nation.

I brush my teeth. Here nothing tastes of anything. Not the pasta, not the apples. But I brush my teeth with a spring-like delight, almost for the first time.

I spend the 24 hours of the world hooked to wi-fi, I recover the visibility of the planet with simple click-click (this is the country of onomatopoeia and acronyms), I think of my homeless future, for now I choose a tentative stairway where I sleep without my laptop being stolen. Because I think, also, in the Cuban novel I’m going to exterminate myself here, and in one of these corners, in absolute poverty, surely a little sick, my useless genius despised by the triumphant Cubans (that pragmatic pandemic), spitting and spit up until the for the last of my compatriots, looking over their shoulders for God’s spokesmen on the island (here) as in exile (there), abandoned (as it is only right that they abandon me) by elderly mother and my young love.

I never eat breakfast, I never eat lunch. I wait with more or less luck for your invitation to dinner. I try to save money. I don’t spend anything. It’s entertaining to see how long I will hold out.

The mistakes and the pressures begin. The threads of the labyrinth are cut. Nobody wants me back in Cuba, that foreign country where I wouldn’t have a passport or a penny (now I say “céntimo, not “quilo,” and this relocation is beautiful).

While typing in secret, to the rhythm of the bang-bang, I myself become a train. Meanwhile I tweet my quick blasts and some column or another so it seems I survived. It’s not true. I already took off. The midnight sun waits for me along with that long polar night I dreamed of in my boyhood dreams (I think when I was a boy, I was really a girl). A solitary night of shadows to the horizon, eternal and exceptional, in which I will enter without footsteps because I aspire to never have to return.

I have seen things that you, the Cubans, will never believe. And I am about to enumerate them, with periods and commas (and the occasional parenthesis), in a language that you, the Cubans, will never create.

Things like…

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

5 July 2013

The Dilemma of Lunch in Cuba / Luis Felipe Rojas

Photo: LFRojas-@alambradas

It’s not enough dealing with the high cost of finding products to make lunch for a family of four people. In Cuba, we have to add up the amount needed, the share of sacrifice go find all the products for decent nutrition. If it costs 15 CUC* we’re talking about a disproportionate figure of 375 Cuban pesos*, an amount that far exceeds the minimum wage, fixed at 225 Cuban pesos (or “national money”).

But many Cubans eat lunch every day without including a main dish of the two meets that they most crave, which are pork and chicken. The delicacies of the Cuban table are reserved for the weekend, when family gets together, and they don’t have to work or return to boarding schools.

A pound of rice is 5 Cuban pesos, one of beans (black or red) are 12, and quart of oil is 60 Cuban pesos, or 2.50 CUC. If we include a salad which the majority of times costs more than 10 pesos a pound for  products like tomatoes and avocados. Meat is a side.

For a very scant ration that any woman who has the task of preparing the meals for her home, spices are a vital piece. Right now, a pot’s worth of “full flavor” — a mixture of cumin, garlic and onion — has come to cost 1.50 CUC each.

Currently, a quart and a half of soda costs 25 Cuban pesos or 1.50 CUC, not counting dessert, which many consider a luxury for any Cuban who survives on his salary.

Yuliet Rodríguez Báez, a housewife from Pinar del Rio who also cares for her sick mother, believes that lunch is an odyssey that can’t always be managed gracefully.

Yuliet said that, “A pound of melon is about 12 Cuban pesos, and a pumpkin is about the same. If I manage to buy pork, it could cost me 30 or 40 pesos a pound, which could be 4 steaks.”

Looking for what you need

Maikel Martínez Cruz, an independent photographer who makes a living capturing the happy moments of the locals in Holguin province, thinks it’s madness what lunch costs for four people.

“In Cuba dessert is a luxury food,” he says, and continues, “almost nobody eats dessert because it’s very expensive. A soft drink, a soda, could cost 0.60 CUC each.” In the case of meat, according to Maikal, it’s now a privilege, “If it’s pork, it’s 25 pesos (fat, meat and bone, together), and it it’s chicken, a kilo (2.2 pounds) cost 3.40 or 3.50 CUC, which is not for whole chicken, its only the thigh, no breast, that’s the one we sell here at the ’shopping’.”

In addition to these high prices, consumers have to add “trying to find it,” says Maikal, who concludes, “this can cost you four hours of running around because if you find a place with meats, they have no rice, and so you have to keep going.”

The “complete”

However, most Cubans live their lives eating lunch in the time allowed to them at work, and arrange to have a small snack they bring from home or they see what they can find on the recently opened stands.

A lunch with two-peso croquettes and a soft drink for the same amount; a 5 peso pizza with a natural fruit smoothie are generally the choices of those who have a half hour off from the workplaces or universities where they work.

Although still illegal, services that deliver what is known as a “complete” with a base of rice, beans, mincemeat or root vegetables (or salad), is an option for those spending 10 Cuban pesos in the provinces, but in the capital it can be about 2 CUC a serving.

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies, convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (also known as “national money”). Many products are only available in CUCs, but wages are paid in Cuban pesos. The exchange rate is roughly 24 Cuban pesos to 1 CUC, and a CUC is roughly $1 US (it varies and exchange fees can add to the cost). Salaries in Cuba tend to top out around $20 (480 Cuban pesos) a month (even for doctors), though “benefits” can add to that; with the minimum wage set at 225 Cuban pesos (less than $10).

5 July 2013

Prison Diary XXXIV: Courts That Offer Revenge / Angel Santiesteban

The best thing that could happen to me in prison is that time slips away, because between editing unpublished manuscripts, creating some story, reading, writing posts, and listening to complaints from the prisoners, I barely have time to sleep.

Alexander Sanchez Izquierda complains about the arbitrariness with which they sentenced him. The instructor, First Lieutenant Dueña of the Sixth Station, is the godmother of his ex, and assured him during his detention that she would get revenge for his breaking up his marriage to her.

To achieve this, the officer to let him know he hurt-Alexander-was the one who had committed the crime and not accepted during the trial witnesses attesting to his innocence.

To achieve this, the officer told the injured one that he — Alexander — was the one who committed the crime, and during the trial they didn’t accept witnesses who’d testified to his innocence.

Alexander asked me how it’s possible that a government can ask for “justice” for five spies who carry several deaths on their shoulders, and not worry about the courts handing out justice to its nationals.

Alexander is waiting to finish his ten-year sentence to fight for the freedom of Cuba. He says the Cuban people can continue supporting the prisons being flooded by innocent people.

This is what we all are waiting for, I say to him. Meanwhile, we continue being the children nobody wants.

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats, Prison 1580, June 2013

4 July 2013

The Last Days of a House / Regina Coyula

Once, many years ago, the little palace at 13th and 4th in Vedado was the home of a family, a rich family who abandoned it also leaving behind other assets at the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 to go into what they thought was temporary exile and where nothing would even be the same again.

Along with other family properties, the house was considered embezzled goods recovered by the government and was then a diplomatic site for one of our brother countries of Eastern Europe with us in the construction of socialism.

I didn’t know at what point the brotherhood changed in tone, and socialism as well, and the mansion became an annex to the well-known MININT (Ministry of the Interior) unit charged with checking telephone transmissions, about 100 yards away; the annex was in charge of monitoring email traffic.

The corner is shadowed by powerful poplars sending roots over the sidewalk, the slender bars were boarded up with metal plates, and the enormous house was safe from prying eyes and at the mercy of its new owners.

Sheds were erected, the arcades bricked in and the walls painted now and then with treachery and cruelty to blacken later with humidity until it became a blot on the landscape.

I couldn’t fail to be surprised when I recently saw the metal plates removed from the perimeter, restoring the garden with the addition of streetlights, the little palace painted in the pastel shades they favor. A second youth to host in its heart something like the site for the struggle for the return to the fatherland of the anti-terrorist fighters imprisoned in the empire’s prisons, and the predictable and final destination of the ex-member of the Party Central Committee and the ex-president of the National Assembly of Peoples Power — and of so many exes, extinct — Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada.

3 July 2013

The Cuban Mega-Soap Opera / Fernando Damaso

Street Graffiti

The mega-soap opera of the Five Spies, recycled as anti-terrorists and heroes, for years have occupied a lot of space in the national political programming. Structured for the seasons, in the best style of the soaps, they appear one after another, regardless of the actual audience. The main characters presented at the beginning as meek and innocent doves attacked by the imperial eagle, according to the season it’s broadcast, have been adapted to the arguments of the interests of the moment.

In the first season, the starring performances were given by the attorneys, some designated officials and chosen journalists, who were charged with trying to convince us of their innocence, constantly bombarding us with scholarly interventions and articles. In it, the main characters were kept discreetly in the background, with few public declarations, to give the impression that in addition to imprisonment, they were subjected to isolation.

In the second, they started to appear alongside the popular figures (mainly actors who visited them) and their mothers, where they looked lush and healthy, although on returning these people speak of the cruel physical and psychological tortures, the subhuman conditions, harassment, etc. and shed a tear to add spice to their words in the in the best style of the soap operas from the fifties of the last century.

The melodramatic weight increased from chapter to chapter, with the incorporation of the loving and long-suffering wives and daughters, who lost no opportunity for national and international stardom, both in print and on radio and television.

The third season was characterized by their recycling as intellectuals. It turns out that not only were they anti-terrorists and heroes, but also cartoonists, painters, poets and writers. The reason for this readjusted argument was given so they could incorporate national and foreign artists and intellectuals and to the cause, and it was necessary that the main characters belong to that sector. Cartoons, paintings, poems and writings proliferated, most of poor quality, despite the hard work of surreptitious cartoonists, painters, poets and writers, trying to improve the work and make them more digestible.

In this fourth season, with one of the main characters gone from the plot (he already served his sentence), the argument has moved on to the moral and altruistic, related to virtue, dignity, loyalty and courage. Thus, one of those who is still in prison, marvels at the attitude of a self-employed punch seller in Las Tunas, whom he welcomes and greets for offering free punch to the ambulances.

The one released, now acting as a hero at events (he has no other work), participates in whatever congress, conference, meeting or workshop held, and offers lectures on morality, loyalty, dignity, etc. to students and, out of sync with the times, talks to them about visiting the Coppelia ice cream stand, without realizing that this hasn’t been an option for young people for several years, more interested as they are in discos, hotels, trips abroad and private restaurants (paladares).

Together, with the participation of some artists from the Governmental Team Cuba, draw up a huge mural for the Cuba Pavilion on the Havana La Rampa, and so it continues.

We don’t know what they’re going to try in the fifth season nor those that will come later, but it seems that the mega-soap opera will be prolonged in time, considering that in the absence of some more interesting argument, they will continue stretching it out as a way to keep a part of the population entertained and make them forget more important and momentous things, at least until the boredom of “more of the same” runs its course. The argument, which is nothing original, has already been used multiple times. They are only changing the characters!

1 July 2013

The Battle for Tres Leches / Rebeca Monzo

Among the reasons for the government’s move to increase the number of licenses for self-employment is the need to provide employment opportunities in the private sector for the large number of workers who have lost their jobs due to the massive reduction in national labor force. As a result paladares, or private restaurants, have sprung up and with them a new trend heretofore unknown in our country’s food scene: the dulce de tres leches.*

For many years the lack of  information and reference sources in almost all sectors of the economy and society led Cubans into a type of “creative hibernation.” Often someone would copy something, the idea for which had come “from outside.” If it turned out well, everyone would then want to copy it too.

Gastronomy has not been completely immune from this phenomenon. These days every paladar has a dessert menu featuring “French pastry.” This in a country which for many years had seen this specialty slowly “dying out” due to the rise of private businesses and low productivity of state enterprises. Milk, butter, cheese, even sugar – essential ingredients for this type of cooking – have been rationed little by little almost to the point of extinction.

There are very few paladares – we could say almost none – that offer homemade baked goods. They seem to have been forgotten amid the guava, grapefruit and orange shells poached in syrup, the jams, custards, puddings… in other words the whole long list of sweet delicacies. Certainly, fruits and other ingredients for baking have also gone through long periods when they were in short supply, so these could well have served as alternatives.

One day a restaurant owner decided to offer a tall glass (the kind used for sundaes) filled with a small portion of sponge cake, a bit of condensed milk and a lot of meringue, and called it tres leches. Soon there were imitators. Some used sponge cake, also covered with meringue, but with the milk component barely noticeable. In more “creative” versions almonds and chocolate were added. Ultimately, everyone came up with his own version, but none came close to the original dessert from Nicaragua, which has become famous throughout all of Latin America.

This type of confection is expensive, sometimes costing more than an order of cannelloni or lasagna. For this reason it is, of course, not in great demand. I cannot understand why at this point restaurant owners have not been able to find solutions more in line with the range of possibilities and their customers’ budgets. This is the main weakness of almost all these successful businesses.

That is why I have allowed myself to make this brief analysis. For the benefit of those interested, I am also providing the original recipe for this contentious confection as well as the costs to produce it in this country.

Ingredients for one cake: 6 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 cups all-purpose flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Instructions: Reserve two tablespoons of sugar and set aside. Beat the egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Gradually add the remaining sugar and vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Add flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated. Gradually add milk, and beat until incorporated. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until frothy. Add reserved sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Turn batter into a prepared cake pan and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Assembly: To finish the tres leches, mix one and a half cans of the condensed milk with an equal amount of evaporated milk. Add one container of cream. Poke holes in the top of the cake with a skewer and pour the mixture on top. To make the meringue topping, beat six egg whites to form stiff peaks. In a saucepan add two cups of sugar and one cup of water. Bring to boil and heat to the soft-ball stage. Gradually pour the hot syrup into the egg whites, beating constantly. Beat the meringue until cool. Spread meringue over the cake. Cut and serve.

Prices for the main ingredients in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is 20.00 CUC,** are as follows:

A can of condensed milk, 1.20 CUC

A can of evaporated milk, 1.30 CUC

A small container of cream, 1.50 CUC

1 kilo of flour, 1.20 CUC

Eggs, 1.50 Cuban pesos (the so-called national currency) apiece.

Note: 1 CUC = US$0.85

*Translator’s note: Literally, a three-milk cake, so-called because it is made with three different milk products: whole milk or cream, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk.

**Cuba has two currencies in circulation: the Cuba peso, or moneda nacional, in which salaries are paid, and the CUC, a convertible currency pegged to the U.S. dollar. Increasingly, essential consumer goods can often only be purchased at government-run hard currency stores with CUCs. Most Cubans with access to hard currency obtain it through cash remittances from relatives overseas.

30 June 2013