From Casino Player to Toilet Cleaner / Iván García

Night falls suddenly in Havana and Billy, 81, empties out the money he collected in a colourless plastic bowl in the public toilet where he works.

He counts the small change. With a nervous uncontrollable tic, his mouth shakes. His hands also tremble. It’s Alzheimer’s that is devouring him. He trys to hide it. Impossible. He should be in bed attended by his family. Or in some nursing home.

“I’ve been in three hospices and it is better to be dead. Bad food. No care. I preferred to go to the street to find me a few pesos. I was always a creditworthy guy. Now ruin has befallen me. My days are numbered. At any time the Lord may take me to him. So what I do is take care of this public toilet for ten hours. In the morning I also sell sweets and so get more money for hot meals”, says Billy, his voice worn.

He has no home and sleeps on the floor of the toilet itself. An extremely messy room with an unbearable stench of urine and ammonia. According to Billy, the administrator of the place gave him the keys and some cardboard to sleep on. Someone else gave him an old Russian portable radio. In the evening he listens to baseball and traditional music.

“I was a successful man. The best player of poker and pool that was in Havana in the 50’s. I earned much money. One cold January afternoon I was in the lobby of the Plaza hotel when a suited man, small and with glasses, approached me and invited me to a Ron Collins. It was the Jew, Meyer Lansky. He made me a proposal”, recalls Billy as he rolls a cigarette using butts collected in the street.

Lansky offered him a place in a course for dealers in the school that was running on the roof of the hotel, the first of its kind in the city. Around a year later he had become a ‘crack’ dealer. Whoever dealt cards also worked as a roulette croupier.

But in ’59 Castro arrived and he ordered the closure of the casinos. Lansky and Santo Trafficante had to pack up. He then worked in the casino of the Havana Riviera. And eventually became unemployed. He didn’t possess the revolutionary spirit. He was never militant nor cut sugar cane.

“I had my savings and a ’58 Chevrolet that was a gem. I threw away money on drink and prostitutes. I left the house to the mother of my two children. I sold the car and set up a ‘burle‘ (illegal gaming casino), but I was caught in a police raid in the 80’s. I spent five years in prison, for prohibited games”, he points out. Later on he slowly eats some cold pizza, bought hours ago. It is his dinner.

Having reached old age the neglect of his family is taking its toll. He knows nothing of his children. He tries changing the subject when asked about them. “Nothing matters now. I will be a better person in the next life. My gift was my hands. Alzheimer’s has robbed me of the ability to handle a pool stick or play tricks with a deck of cards”, he says, after cleaning the filthy sinks and toilets without detergent.

He switches off the single bulb. “I’m tired, and tomorrow is another day. The bad thing about being old and sick is that memories and nostalgia beset you without warning. I was young and handsome. Lansky’s friends nicknamed me ‘Billy the Kid’ for the speed of my hands in the game”, he says. And throws himself like a heavy bundle on the cardboard that serves as a bed.

He begins to cry and turns his back. He does not want pity. Nor does he allow photos. Old Billy still has his pride.

Translated by: Araby

May 12 2011

In Havana the Illegal Taxis are Booming / Iván García

Photo: Ioooquito, Panoramio. Stopping taxis on Calzada 10 de Octubre, in Havana.

“God knows what it costs me to keep the car rolling,” says José, a former diplomat retired since 1994 and owner of a Lada 2105, made in Russia in the late 80’s.

He receives a pension of about 350 pesos that evaporates to buy tomatoes, rice and tropical fruit. To find the necessary extra money, he rents his car for $25 a day to trusted people, mostly foreign tourists passing through Havana.

Rosario, his wife, is also dedicated to the ‘invento’ (business). She sells ​​coconut filled tarts. Nevertheless, at the end of the month they have their heads in a noose. “We have no relatives in Miami. We have to play it tough”, she says.

When not renting the car, José himself acts as an illegal taxi driver. That is ‘on the side’, evading taxes. He usually hires it to the creditworthy people of the neighbourhood for going out at night to clubs or restaurants for hard currency.

When his car is out of action, he helps his wife to prepare the tarts. Neither his wife nor he pays taxes. “If I take out a license I would have to work every day. I’d rather be an illegal taxi driver. Everything goes into my pocket.”

Also Alicia, a surgeon working for 15 years, evades the taxes. At weekends she rents her car to families with money who decide to go to the beach and other leisure centres.

“I charge less than state taxis”, she says. Also, leaving consultations or ward duty, and returning back home, Alicia hires to people who put out their hand and are heading in the same direction.

“It’s not much money, but at least I cover the gasoline”, said the surgeon, who prays every night to her orishas to send her on a medical mission in South Africa.

According to Alicia, the Cuban doctors in South Africa manage to collect a good sum of dollars. “If they grant me the trip, I can buy a new car and thoroughly repair the house.”

Although the procedure for obtaining licenses is fast and without many obstacles, car owners prefer to rent on the side. The low tax culture of Cubans might be one argument. José has another: “Taxes are too high. If for ten years I have rented the car without paying a license, I do not see why I have to do it now.”

The surgeon Alicia argues that she does not have time to practice as a legal taxi driver. “I make the most of my spare time. Anyway, the government doesn’t pay doctors a fair wage.”

Although there are no figures, the number of people who maintain a business under the table without paying a penny of tax is considerable. They risk being caught by a state inspector but on the island ‘an eye for an eye’ is often practiced: “If the state steals from me, I steal from the state.”

Translated by: Araby

Lino, The Habanero Who Heals With His Fingers / Iván García

Nothing can stop the man’s perennial belief in miracles. Not even the most advanced sciences that seek answers to the unknown. People are always going to believe in something. Or in someone.

Be it God, Mohammed, Sai Baba or the newly beatified John Paul II. And also in the healers. The cure that medical science can not always give makes sufferers of AIDS or malignant tumors, not content with waiting to die in bed, go to seek remedies from anywhere.

They run in pursuit of a miracle. In Cuba there are several amazing healers. But the best and most famous is called Lino Tomasén. Near La Guardia paladar, at 410 Concord Street between Gervasio and Escobar, Centro Habana, Dr. Tomasén has his office.

There, in the marginal black neighborhood of San Leopoldo, in a room with about 40 seats, Lino greets his patients. It is a blend of science, spectacle and mysticism.

Daily, over a hundred people are treated by Tomasén. The consultation is cheap: 20 pesos (less than a dollar). From the early hours of the morning, people come from all over the country, lining up to be one of the first.

The seriously ill, with advanced cancer, AIDS or a brain tumor, take precedence. In the waiting room, the people are not holding back praise for the man who heals with his fingers.

Ana, a woman with three children who suffer from chronic asthma, would erect an obelisk to him if she could. “Thanks to Lino my children are no longer asthmatic. After four visits, the asthma disappeared as if by magic. Now I come to thank him and give him a box of Cohiba cigars”, she says, sitting on the narrow path in front of the Tomasén’s clinic

What is said about Lino is lined with fable. Carlos, a white-haired and robust man, shows a photo of a wrinkled guy with death reflected on his face. “That was me six months ago, when doctors diagnosed my case with no solution. I had advanced cancer in my bones. With his treatments, Lino cured me. At the last scan I did, the doctor was speechless and asked: Carlos, what drugs have you taken?. I told him of my sessions with Lino. He took note and wrote down the address. And said that from now on, patients that science could not save, are going to be referred to Tomasén Lino”.

So it goes. When you await the start of the consultation, listen to the endless stories of patients who were on the verge of death or could not walk and now are healthy.

At about 8 o’clock in the morning Tomasén Lino arrives. He has the ways of a prophet. And not the occult. In therapy sessions he constantly repeats: “I am the best, the foremost in the world. I can cure anything, even AIDS. I’m the height of healing”, Lino repeated like a refrain.

Tomasén is black, tall, overweight, full of necklaces and with a cigar that never leaves his mouth. He was born on December 4, 1961, the day of Santa Barbara, who in the Afro-Cuban religion is Changó, one of the most powerful orishas. He is a doctor by profession. According to some physicians, has been banned for his non-traditional methods of healing.

In quick sessions that do not exceed 5 minutes, Tomasén attends to each one of his patients. By sight, without a medical history to hand, he tells them their condition. Right now, with incredible force, he is lifting a man of 120 kilos and with the tips of his fingers he touches various areas of his body.

He recommends that he returns. “Your case is complicated, but I will cure it”, and prescribes him green medicine. Of the hundred or more people in the room, almost everyone waiting their turn is sick. But there also is the curious, the doubters, and even foreigners with health problems who, passing through Havana, and through the Internet have seen the miraculous cures of Lino, decide to go to his clinic.

Osvaldo, an old friend of the physician-healer, tells that Tomasén came to the world marked by a lucky star. “Several spiritualists predicted to his mother that she was going to have a child prodigy. The portents were confirmed. Since childhood, Lino has had a knack for predicting things. He played sports and was never physically exhausted, he was a marvel. Then in college, only by passing his hand over his friends he cured them of certain ailments. Tomasén is an inexplicable example, for now, of the extraordinary abilities that some human beings have”, said Osvaldo, a graduate in biology and with doctorates in various scientific fields.

Meanwhile, Lino continues on his way. Serving in turn his patients, to whom he often applies a technique known as chiropractics, based on massages to different parts of the body combined with acupressure, reflexology and an Asian method known as Chi Kung.

Of course, Lino Tomasén has many detractors. Many see him as a weirdo. Something that borders on an entelechy. But there are no few Cubans who when science has labelled them to die, race to find solutions in the clinic of 410 Concordia Street.

Video: From the documentary ‘Aborto de la Naturaleza’, by Felipe Vergara Vargas

Translated by: Araby

May 8 2011

With Santiago de Compostella in Her Heart / Iván García

Every night she dreamed of Santiago de Compostela. It was a recurring dream for Antonia Ortega, who died in Havana at age 86, without returning to visit her native Galicia.

But Antonia described so vividly the places of the Galician capital to her daughter Rosario that she feels she has known the city inside out since childhood, though she has seen it only in pictures.

“My mother has given me a passion for Galicia and its customs. She inherited it from her usual habit of sitting at night in the backyard of the house to sing old Galician songs and dance muñeiras,” says Rosario, 69.

She lives in the bustling neighborhood of Santos Suarez in the Havana municipality of Diez de Octubre, in a mansion of the 1930s, in need of repair.

Rosario runs a Spanish dance school in Curros Enríquez, an old society that bears the name of the poet and journalist Manuel Gallego Curros Enriquez (1851 Celanova-La Habana 1908). Now, in addition to pool tables and a coffee, the place has a hard-currency restaurant where you can eat pork and drink good Spanish wine.

At the door of the school, Rosario takes attendance of the girls who attend dance classes. She charges 40 pesos (about two dollars) for registration and 20 pesos a month. Twice a week, the little ones go to tap their feet on the stage on the top floor of Curros Enríquez.

When it gets dark, after preparing a frugal meal for herself and her husband, memories and nostalgia begin to visit her.

“My mother came to Cuba in 1937. She came with at 16 in her uncle’s care. His parents died during the civil war. He was a fierce republican. Not used to attending meetings of his countrymen. Desperately poor, he quickly adapted to that Havana of the flamboyant 40’s, full of neon lights and prosperity.”

Antonia Ortega did not have a store on the corner, like most Galicians on the island. Neither did she go on Sundays to the society of Rosalía de Castro to eat empanadas, while from an RCA Victor could listen to the football games of Deportivo and Celta Vigo.

“She was very stubborn and did not speak of her misfortunes. She preferred to convey to me the good memories she treasured of Santiago de Compostela. She was very ahead of her time. She married a black man, my father, thirteen years her senior. They lived together until he died in 1996. They felt a deep respect for their traditions. She with her songs and prayers, he and his orishas and the dead. I was very happy in my childhood. My father used to tell me about his ancestors in Nigeria, and my mother exuded nostalgia when talking about Galicia,” says Rosario.

This daughter of Galicia did not take advantage of the new law of historical memory that allows travel to Spain for hundreds of Cubans. “I’m too old to leave my homeland. I have no children and do not wish to burden anyone. My only dream is to visit the land of my ancestors. Santiago de Compostela and its ancient streets and the village of Calabar where my paternal grandparents were born.”

In the living room of her house a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus goes hand in hand with a group of Afro-Cuban deities located behind the door, to “trap all badness.”

It’s eleven at night. The neighborhood of Santos Suárez is calm. At half-light and the water wasting away by the faulty mains. In the distance, I hear the bagpipes of a Galician muñeira and behind, an African drum. It is not uncommon. It’s Cuba. A mixed island.

Photo: Habano, Panoramio. Curros Enríquez at the corner of Rabí and Santos Suarez, Havana.

Translated by: Araby

March 21 2011

Gadaffi in Castro’s Rearview Mirror / Iván García

Dictators are a unique family no matter how you label them. They can be populist, authoritarian, fascist, totalitarian or Marxist. And almost always the sum of all these classifications.

Most autocrats enter through the back door in societies that are not working, crippled by corruption and serious economic crisis. They can promise work, bread, butter and living space, as well as auto austerity for all German families. This was the case of Adolf Hitler, the greatest and finest example of a paranoid tyrant.

The Jackal of Uganda, Idi Amin used to eat human flesh. Stalin felt a compulsion to kill human beings by the millions. In Haiti, Duvalier Jr. collected Ferrari cars, while his private army slaughtered opponents with machetes. Now the disgraceful Haitian dictator wants to return to politics. Such things happen.

In Argentina, for the military dictatorship it was a hobby to throw people alive from helicopters. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Franco in Spain or Ceausescu in Romania, as if they were vampires, were fond of human blood.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro did not pull the trigger as hastily as his rivals from other places, but with his capital blunders, he destroyed the continent’s second economy, like breeding dwarf cows to produce large quantities of milk. Not counting that he brought the island and the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 nor his subsequent war games in Africa.

But the champion of the dictators is the Libyan Muammar el Gadaffi. He is the classic perverse and eccentric character. Everyone knows his hobbies. The same one who planted a tent in Manhattan, accompanied by 200 virgin bodyguards, sent a message by radio to his agents in Europe to blow up a civilian airliner full of passengers in mid-flight.

It’s disgusting to have relations with sinister people. I am ashamed that my country is anxious to defend Gadaffi. I do not understand how Castro condemns terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, and defends the corrupt, murdering and peripatetic Libyan sitting on a balcony with his trusty green book.

There is no justification for being friends with such characters. Tyrants tend to behave as a clan. They defend each other. When Castro looks in the rearview mirror he sees with distress that the Bedouin could have his days numbered. Perhaps out of sheer survival instinct he defends him. Chavez and other apprentice caudillos should also condemn him.

Western democracies deserve their share of the blame. After the madman of Tripoli decided to save millions in Swiss and European banks and put aside the C-4 and terror, the heads of modern and civilised states raced to flatter him and give him a chance.

A part of the ills afflicting the planet today is attributable to the lukewarm and indecisive Democrats. For a while now Gadaffi should have been sitting on the bench of an international tribunal. Now they are paying the consequences.

Translated by: Araby

March 16 2011

The Malecón – Gangway to the Open Air / Iván García

Foto: Zé Eduardo, Flickr

It’s the same place as a century ago. With the intense blue sea and calm of the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. A long strip of more than 8 kilometres of cement and concrete, with the lack of maintenance, falling apart in several sections.

It’s the Malecón. Meeting point of Habaneros. Of students who skip class and go swimming in dangerous and polluted waters. Of young people who can talk and listen to music freely. Territory of lovers. Rest-stop of Bohemians, drunks and nighthawks.

Wailing wall of strict syndicalists and party militants who at night, in the absence of recreational options, sit with their wives to speak of the children who fled 90 nautical miles away so as not to be like their parents.

Built in the early 20th century, the Malecón is the soul of Havana. The city has other symbols. El Morro y La Cabaña. The Giraldilla and the ceiba of the Temple. The Capitol and Paseo del Prado. The Cathedral and the cobbled streets of the colonial era. The Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio. The stadium of Cerro and the Industriales team. El Vedado and its wide avenues and parks.

Havana, its people and its neighborhoods awake regret in millions of exiles. But the Malecón is the main thief of nostalgia for those who no longer live in the capital of all Cubans. So strong is this sentiment than an interview by Armando López with the actress Susana Pérez is entitled “The world starts on the wall of the Malecón”.

It has always been a wide walkway. With its own 24-hour life. In the morning and at night, in certain places, fishing rods and reels pretend to be able to catch a fish for dinner or to sell it at a good price.

It’s difficult. But the skilled fishermen, illegally, on rafts made from obsolete Russian truck tyres, row in the dark sea, and with hammocks and nets return with a string of edible fish. The amateurs will kill time and talk nonsense with their fishing colleagues.

There are other types of fishing. Exhausted hookers, in the early morning, sit on its wall as workers sleep, kick off their high heels and rub their feet after walking miles without ‘fishing’ a tourist with dollars or euros.

The length and width of the Malecón you can find sellers of melca, psychotropics and marijuana. Prostitutes with minuscule clothing try to stop cars rented by foreigners.

At any time you can see a troop of sellers, who evade the stringent budget instituted by the Government, dedicated to selling peanuts, pop corn and homemade candies for 5 cents. Or chicharrones of pork, hot tamales and bags of fried bonito at 25 cents.

To the disgust of those who used to take fresh air with children and families, certain areas have been occupied by transvestites, lesbians and fags. They are the “experts”, as they call themselves.

The police patrols with their new Chinese-made Gely cars usually look at them with contained repugnance, but they leave them alone. The order not to upset them comes from the very top. Mariela Castro, daughter of the number one, has said enough to the suppression of gays. And those, in Cuba, are big words.

Translated by: Araby

March 15 2011

An Inmate Tells His Story

It is not known with certainty the number of Cubans that have been held in prison during all these years of a revolution that was made for “the good of all”. Many harrowing stories have yet to be told.

For Alberto Díaz (let’s call him) his incarceration was a real torment. A nightmare that he will never forget. 33 years old and despite his impeccable look, he resembles the living dead. It is due to the fourteen years he spent behind bars.

Alberto Diaz was born into a wealthy family of Catalan origin, that, with the arrival of Fidel Castro and his legion of ‘barbudos’ to power, lost the properties they owned: three buildings of apartments for rent, two pharmacies, three farms and hundreds of head of cattle.

In the wave of nationalisation they saved only a mansion in the neighbourhood of Sevillano, in the Havana municipality of 10 de Octubre, and a summer house on the beach in Guanabo, 23 kilometers from the centre of the capital. In 1963 his family left for United States via Boca Camarioca, Matanzas.

They went on hard exile to Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora. Alberto’s mother remained in Havana, having just married a young captain of the Rebel Army. In love, she chose to stay in Cuba. Alberto was born soon after and grew up without experiencing many difficulties. In 1975 he lost his father in the Charlotte operation, which began 15 years of Cuban intervention in Angola.

The reunion with family members who left in 1963 occurred in 1979. They stepped on home soil again thanks to the approval of the government of the island to the return of the Cuban community living abroad. His uncles and grandparents begged him to leave. He did not respond to their pleas. He still believed in the socialist, tropical revolution.

But Alberto has always liked to dress well, wearing famous brand clothing, drinking quality wine and sitting at the table with the best menu. Tastes that in “the revolution of the poor” were becoming a mortal sin.

For that reason and because he did not participate in volunteer work or political activities, he was not seen in good light at the university where he studied. He never wanted to belong to the Communist Youth. His apathetic attitude to revolutionary tasks led to more than one “anonymous” report being raised with State Security suggesting that they keep an eye on the “improper conduct” by Alberto Diaz, or manifestations of “ideological deviation.”

The life that Alberto liked to lead was in contradiction with the policy of equitable poverty practiced by the government. Moreover, he had been used to having dollars, something considered illegal in 80’s Cuba. Everything happened quickly. A search of his home by the police uncovered $680 hidden under the mattress. The discovery ruined the good fortune that had accompanied Alberto from birth.

He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, for illegal possession of money and possession of capitalist objects of dubious origin. To no avail were the arguments of counsel, nor to have been the son of a martyr of the Angolan war. The sentence was irrevocable. According to the prosecutor, Alberto also “behaved inappropriately within a socialist workers’ society.”

The murky Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, did not receive him with open arms, but with overcrowded cells. More than 10,000 inmates were in prison at that time. One of the buildings in the north wing would be his “residence” for four years.

From the first day he intended to behave well to get out as soon as possible. His “re-education” (so called in Cuba by the guards who look after prisoners) had told him that if he was disciplined he could leave mid-sentence or be transfered to an “open front” where the terms are usually less stringent. But a prison is not a hotel, and less so in Cuba.

Sanitation, health and food were, and are, terrible. Alberto recalls that every day about a dozen inmates were maimed or died as a result of fights and showdowns. Panic seized him. He hardly talked to anyone, but the bad luck him showed him no mercy.

The boss of the gang to which he belonged proposed having sexual relations. This boss was also a prisoner but his explanations that was not homosexual were to no avail. One night that he wants to forget, but fails to erase from his mind, he was raped by the boss of the gang and four other prisoners, inside two weeks.

Alberto only got out of his bunk to eat. He thought that from then on everyone began to desire him as a sexual object.

An old prisoner serving 30 years for murder provided him with a shank and said: “They will come for you over and over again, get over your fear, you’re a man”. With eight stabs he killed the inmate who ran the gang and had violated him along with four other prisoners.

The revenge came at a price. He was landed in the “pizzería”, as the horrendous punishment cells of Combinado del Este are known by. They gave him 10 years more in prison. As soon as he could, he sent his mother a letter telling her to forget he existed.

He thought he would never leave this hell, but he left, in 1995. That year he breathed a different air after 14 years in prison, hunger, cold, heat, beatings, disease. Out in the street he realized how his life had changed.

The worst thing is he does not know what to do with his life. He constantly feels insecure. Restlessness can outweigh reason. Fear remains with him. He had to leave the country and start again. He could not find work commensurate with his training. He reached the third year of industrial engineering. “A prisoner is a negative symbol to society. Nobody wants us”.

Alberto is in good health, but he feels dead. He dream every day of his burial. His mother wants to take him to a psychiatrist, but he refuses. The mimes of his mother seem hollow to him. He has no purpose, bitterness eats his feelings. He blames many for his misfortune, but in the background knows that he has been at fault, because he did not want to leave when his family asked him.

Now what is calming is to walk, for miles and miles. “It’s that in prison one hardly walks.” At the moment, it is his inner peace. His only freedom is to walk with no fixed purpose.

Iván García

Cubafreepress, 25th February 1998.

Translated by Araby