Informers Approved by the Cuban Government / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

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

Cubans who want to emigrate prefer to go to the US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

21 km for Cuban Political Prisoners / Luis Felipe Rojas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

Cuba: Skepticism Beats Hope / Iván García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by GH

Donald Trump and Raul Castro / Dimas Castellano

(Ilustration: Giovanni Tazza)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taken from: El Comercio, Peru

Translated by GH

Denunciation and Fear: Fidel Castro’s Family Treasure / Luis Felipe Rojas

Maikel R. Alfajarrín, an informant, seated next to First Lieutenant Alexander La ‘O Aguilera, a police officer who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011.

Luis Felipe Rojas, 28 November 2016 — Who in Cuba has not been asked to speak a little more softly? Who has not lowered his or her voice while making a comment about Fidel Castro? This is the regime’s family treasure: a snitch on every corner.

When the triumphant son from the town of Birán — Fidel Castro’s birthplace — announced the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in 1961, he set in motion the well-oiled machinery of denunciation, of the little men who direct the pipeline of information between neighbors and the much-feared State Security (known as G2). continue reading

Every company, hospital, cultural institution, baseball stadium, fine collection office and shoe shop is “served”  by one or more agents, the number based on the facility’s national importance or the sensitivity of the activities which take place inside.

Everyone knows them; many keep out of their way. These “officials” yield power with few restraints. If they tag you as being “hostile to the revolutionary process,” you will spend years trying to get your name removed from their list. They will then forget about you or look the other way when they see you, should that ever happen.

Within the provincial offices of State Security is the Department of Enemy Confrontation. This is the agency that deals with opponents, dissidents, writers and independent journalists, as well as those artists who once dared to use metaphor or irony in their work to portray the power or person of Fidel Castro.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the confrontation officers, who have less visibility but more devious responsibilities. In the shantytowns, so-called honorary officers — often frustrated men and women who saw their Interior Ministry careers cut short — now find solace by keeping watch over an opponent’s house, snitching on a little old lady selling coffee beans or reporting a rapper who has just written a protest song.

I was detained on one occasion for five days and had to sleep the floor of a meeting room at a village police station. It was guarded in rotating shifts by almost a dozen young honorary officials who worked for G2.

Among them was “Pedrito,” an educator and active member of the Union of Young Communists. He had been accused of stealing televisions, then trying to sell them through a national Social Workers’ program. Pablo, an agronomist and former classmate, was unable to answer any of my questions about human rights in Cuba, explaining that conversing with detainees was forbidden.

I met others a little more despicable and despised. One was Maikel Rodríguez Alfajarrín, dubbed “Maikel the Spark.” A former bartender, student and civilian, he doled out punishments such evictions, fines and criminal prosecutions as a member of the Housing Intervention Brigades while also acting as an informant, or a chivato as Cubans in the 1930s called people like him.

There are others, many others. I cannot be the only Cuban to have had an experience with them.

The honorary officers carry an identification card displaying the State Security insignia, with the infamous acronym G2 stamped one corner.

One day in the town of San Germán in Holguín province, my wife was waiting in line to buy soap in store that only accepted payment in dollars. It was May and Mother’s Day was approaching. The line was very long. Women were talking or arguing when a seguroso, a State Security agent, arrived. The honorary official’s name was Luis Perez, commonly known as “Luis El Calvo” (Bald Luis). The store allowed only about twenty people inside at a time. Everyone else had to wait outside in the stifling heat. When the doorman looked up to let a few more people in, El Calvo demanded to speak with the manager: “Tell him there is a counterintelligence officer here who needs some nylon bags.”

Mumbles, furrowed brows, pursed lips and eyes moving wildly in their sockets were the reactions to the announcement by the honorary officer.

All honorary officers are affiliated with the Rapid Response Brigades — designed to come running at the least sign of protest — and even coordinate their surveillance, harassment and acts of repudiation. Many people fear them, many hate them, but few dare to challenge these evil Cubans who use their red pencils to turn you into a non-person.

Translated by GH

Donald Trump, Cuba, and the Example of Vietnam / Dimas Castellano

Dimas Castellano, 5 December 2016 — The majority of analysts looking at the change of direction which may be experienced in the relations between Cuba and the United States, following the 8th of November elections, have concerned themselves solely with the policies on Cuba to be pursued by the new occupant of the White House, ignoring the fact that these are bilateral relations.

Their forecasts range from those who consider that Donald Trump will fulfill his electoral promise of going back on Barack Obama’s policy, up to the possibility of an improved understanding with the Cuban authorities. In nearly all cases, the emphasis is on what the new President will do, as if the Cuban side of things had nothing to do with what could happen from next 20th of January onwards. continue reading

A retrospective analysis of relations between the two administrations indicates otherwise. Taking into account the fact that the Cuban people don’t have human or political rights to influence that process, and that the weakness of the emerging civil society makes it difficult for it to take the role of an opposition, the analysis has to limit itself to intergovernmental relations.

Appealing to electoral populism is one thing, and leading the greatest power in the world is another. Setting back the development in re-establishing relations during Barack Obama’s presidency will be extremely difficult. The institutionalisation of public powers, the existence of diverse sectors with interests in our island, and regional interests in the face of incursions by other powers, will hinder it. In those conditions the President-elect could limit of eliminate some things, but he could not nullify everything, because it would affect his country’s own interests.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States – the most important political act since the 1959 revolution – responds to the interests of both nations. The supposition that Trump constitutes a threat to the relations which the Barack Obama administration succeeeded in moving forward is one side of the coin. The brake applied by the Cuban government to the advances is the other side.

The obstinate obsession with dragging everything into public ownership, centralised production, and the absence of liberties for Cubans, are among the principal causes of the crisis in which Cuba finds itself. The Obama administration’s policy offered an opportunity for change, which was missed by the Cuban side, to remove internal obstacles in the country. Therefore, along with the potential risk represented by the Trump administration, there is the real negative in the form of a Cuban government lacking the necessary political will to face up to the present situation. An insoluble contradiction consisting of changing and at the same preserving power.

Fidel Castro’s thesis that “Cuba already changed, in 1959,” produced a more pragmatic vision than General Raúl Castro’s one of “changing some things to hold onto power.” The measures implemented to that end over eight years have not brought about the desired result. Instead, they have revealed the unviability of the model and the depth of the crisis, in the face of which the only way forward is implementing major reforms.

If the series of measures  enacted by the White House – including the Presidential Decision Directive of last October aimed at rendering irreversible the advances achieved – have not produced a better outcome, it is because they were not accompanied by the necessary measures on the Cuban side to free up production and restore civil liberties. For that reason, the solution for Cuba lies in its own authorities, as opposed to what might happen during the Trump administration. To tackle these changes now, albeit very late, would neutralise any intention to set things back on the part of the new occupant of the White House.

Bearing in mind that the suspension of the embargo is the prerogative of the United States Congress, what is needed now, after the “physical disappearance” of Fidel Castro, is to get on with a comprehensive structural reform, which should have been started a long time ago, commencing with, at least, what Vietnam did, with a crippled economy, in a country which had had, in ten years of war, three times the number of bombs dropped on it than were used in the Second World War, where 15% of the population perished or were injured in the struggle, with 60% of the villages in the south destroyed and which, after the war ended, confronted the economic blockade and frontier attacks, and, instead of ideological campaigns, launched reforms.

The Granma daily of November 4th, in a report entitled The Vietnam of the Future, says that the province of Binh Duong, previously mostly agricultural, is now predominantly industrial. This province has more than 2,700 projects funded by foreign investment; its GDP is, since 2010, increasing at an annual 14%; it boasts 28 industrial parks with factories constructed by companies from more than 30 countries; in the last two years it has launched nearly 370 new investment projects, and, between 1996 and now it has created more than 90,000 jobs.

The same paper, on 11th November, published The Miracle of the Vietnam Economy, where it reported that the World Bank had placed Vietnam among the most successful countries, which had, in 30 years, tripled per capita income, between 2003 and the present had reduced the level of those in poverty from 59% to 12%, and, in 20 years, had lifted more than 25 million people from destitution. It added that in 1986 the average Vietnamese income was between $15 and $20 a month and now varies between $200 and $300, and that in 1986 they eliminated centralised control and implemented a market economy, with a socialist orientation.

With these results, the United States suspended the embargo which lasted 30 years. In 2008 they directed their efforts to exiting the list of developing countries, in 2010 established the objective of entering the group of countries with medium income, in 2014 they found themselves among the 28 highest exporters in the world, and in 2016, they approved measures to convert themselves into an industrialised nation.

In that same time period, Cuba anchored itself in the past, with a policy of “Rectifying errors and negative tendencies,” and managed to get the United Nations to condemn the embargo for a period of 25 years.  Now, we have to lay out millions of dollars on importing food which we could produce in Cuba, and, after teaching the Vietnamese how to grow coffee, we have to buy the beans.

Havana, 28th November, 2016.

Translated by GH

Did He Disappear, Or Was He Gotten Rid Of? / Cubanet, Jose Daniel Ferrer

Camilo Cienfuegos
Camilo Cienfuegos

cubanet square logoCubanet, Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, Santiago do Cuba, 29 October 2016 — The top headline in the nightly news on the Castro family’s private television — the only television permitted in our country – on October 28th this year, was: “Cubans are paying tribute to Camilo Cienfuegos on the 57th anniversary of his physical disappearance.” Then we see leaders, the military, workers and students, all of them in the service of the family who own the television and who also own everything in Cuba, – when a few people own everything, the rest don’t even own their own lives – scatter flowers in the sea or in rivers in homage to the brave and much-loved guerilla. Lázaro Expósito, Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in the province of Santiago de Cuba, and his entourage, distributed their flowers in the contaminated Santiago Bay.

Was Camilo lost at sea? Or, did Fidel Castro make him disappear? For most Cubans, the second possibility seems more likely. My father, Daniel Ferrer, fought in Column 9 under the command of Huber Matos, and, with me still in primary school, he told me that Camilo hadn’t fallen into the sea, that that was just a story. He never explained to us why he said that. Since I was a kid I have never wanted to be deceived or used. From the 5th grade on, I never again “threw flowers for Camilo.” They haven’t found any trace of the light aircraft which, supposedly, crashed into the sea. Will we need a diver like the one who discovered the wreckage of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plane? continue reading

If Camilo was, and I think it is true, a brave, intelligent and sincere man who fought for the restoration of democracy to the Cuban people – the great majority of Cubans who fought against Batista thought that they were fighting to restore the 1940 constitution, never imagining that they were fighting for one family to become owners of the whole nation – it is logical to think that, when he saw the disastrous road along which Castro was leading the Revolution, he would have expressed his disagreement, or, at the very least, Fidel and Raúl would have imagined that it would not be easy to manipulate him and, in either case, would have decided to get rid of him. And if that is what happened, he certainly does deserve flowers, respect, admiration and justice. But not that we should participate in the Castros’ farce of casting flowers on the sea.

If, on the other hand – and I don’t think it’s true – Camilo was another docile instrument in the hands of the Stalin of Birán (Fidel Castro’s birthplace), always ready to obey orders, even though the orders converted his country into a nation of slaves, and he really disappeared in an airplane accident over the sea, after Huber Matos’ arrest, then it’s the best thing that could have happened to him. In that way, he died clean, without having on his shoulders the weight of the tyranny’s subsequent grave and continuous crimes And, if that’s how it was, he deserves neither flowers nor admiration.

But, I do think that he deserves flowers, respect, admiration, and justice. And for that, I do not throw flowers into the sea. One day, we will know where his remains are. I don’t know why, but whenever they speak of Camilo, or of other friends and victims of the Castros, even inluding the Argentinian communist who executed so many Cubans in Havana’s La Cabaña fortress, I remember Lev Trotsky, Sergei Kirov, Lev Kámenev and Gregory Zinoviev, among other victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges.

They say there is no proof that Stalin ordered Kirov’s assassination, or that Castro got rid of Camilo. But what we do know is that Stalin did not like to be upstaged by anyone, and that the Castros even stick people away and out of sight if they seem to be the slightest bit “difficult.”  Kirov and Camilo seemed to be malcontents. Those who want to have everything, do everything to control everything, and then they tell whatever whoppers suit them. But, in Stalin’s time, there was no internet.

Translated by GH  

Why Do We Cubans Put Up With All This? / Cubanet, Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces

Cuban protester arrested by State Security officials, December 10th, 2014. (AP)
Cuban protester arrested by State Security officials, December 10th, 2014. (AP)

cubanet square logoCubanet, Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces, Guantanamo, Cuba, 3 November 2016 — In talking to fellow countrymen and foreigners, the question comes up: Why do we Cubans have put up with so much abuse from the Castros?

The question is raised because of the discrimination to which we have been, and are still subject, to the existence of a dual currency system, excessive prices for goods and services, and the indiscriminate repression at the slightest sign of dissidence.

But those who ask this question are forgetting inescapable historic circumstances, because the anthropological damage caused to the Cuban people by the Castros has its origins in the Sierra Maestra guerilla warfare and in secrecy. We also should not forget that the Cuban Revolution enjoyed the overwhelming sympathy and support of the people because its political and economic programme was backed up by the restoration of democracy. Measures which, with obvious popular impact in a country where the people, up until then, had been seen as an entelechy, guaranteed an extraordinary level of support for Castroism. Taking advantage of that, it was able to convert the slightest criticism into a counter-revolutionary act, thus legitimising repression “in the name of the people” although those who are repressed are a part of the people. continue reading

In April 1961, a group of excited militiamen accepted Fidel Castro’s proclamation of a socialist revolution, “in the name of and on behalf of the Cuban people”, without which nobody would have conceded that right, on the corner of 23rd and 12th (opposite the cemetery in Vedado, Havana). A typical example of manipulation of the masses.

Absolute control of education and the media, subjugating everyone to surveillance, ranging from telephones and correspondence, up to their private lives, making all family or individual advancement indissolubly linked to loyalty to the regime, was, among other practices, sufficient to establish Castro’s rigid control of society. When, in October 1965, the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party was created, another leftist dictatorship was politically formalized, which had, de facto, existed since 1959.

Those who dare to stand up to the totalitarian regime pay for it by death in combat, being lined up and shot, thrown in jail, sent into exile, or ostracized.

In the 70’s, the advance guard of a peaceful opposition made itself felt. It began to knit together a new awareness and, although the regime continued to enjoy popular support, the discontent was evident, as was demonstrated at the Mariel embassy and what happened afterwards. (The April 1980 occupation of the Peruvian embassy, the confrontation with the Castro government, and the subsequent mass exodus from the port of Mariel of some 125,000 Cubans to Miami.)

The Special Period was another turning point. (the extended economic crisis from 1989, through the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union). Progress in the independent civil society was still going slowly, although more visibly. Its protagonists contributed to the revealing of another Cuba, which did not exist in the Cuban official media. Radio Martí, broadcast from the United States, made an enormous contribution to that.

Fidel Castro’s posture, which was to refuse to admit the de facto failure of socialism, which he was faithfully copying, and which was going hand in hand with shortages, the exodus from the country of important cultural, sporting and political figures, the strengthening of the mass exodus of the Cuban people, the emergence of marked social differences and phenomena such as tourist apartheid, decriminalization of the dollar and prostitution, increased popular discontent.

From then on, the civil society began to grow rapidly. The ground they had gained was thanks to their courage and persistence. Repression increased, but because of that, the people know that the police beat up and lock up men and women whose sole offence is to peacefully demand the observance of the human rights, which the Castro regime repeatedly violates on a massive scale.

All of this occurs with the complicity of the State Prosecutor’s Office and the tribunals. The Cuban opposition lacks any rights. Along with the complicity of the state institutions, can be added the no less shameful connivance of numerous governments whose latest cynical act has been to approve Cuban membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Some ask, how much longer? Forgetting that to be a peaceful opposition requires a large dose of humility and courage. Anyone can shoot a policeman in the back, as did the members of Castro’s 26th of July movement, dedicated to overthrowing Batista, or place a bomb in a cinema or public place. If the peaceful opposition started to do that, if they took up arms – if they obtained them even though one of the first measures of the dictatorship was to eliminate arms factories – then Castro and his inevitable front men would go crying to their accomplices in the UN to denounce the “terrorists” and put an end to them with the consent of the governments who praise democracy while they support Castroism.

But it’s just one day at a time. In spite of the defamatory campaigns, the discrimination and abuse, the people are watching. It’s a long-term struggle, but at least the opponents don’t have the death of any other Cuban on their consciences. Their achievement is that they are fighting peacefully, even for the cowards who hit them, discriminate against them, and penalize them.

Translated by GH

Villa Clara: Poverty, Wifi and Monotony / Iván García

In Santa Clara, as in the other cities and villages in the interior of the island, the horse and cart has become one of the main means of transport. Taken from Carol Kieker's blog.
In Santa Clara, as in the other cities and villages in the interior of the island, the horse and cart has become one of the main means of transport. Taken from Carol Kieker’s blog.

Iván García , 3 November 2016 — Situated between sugar cane fields and with the Escambray mountain chain visible in the distance, at the side of the old Central Highway is the village of La Esperanza, part of Ranchuelo, one of the 13 towns of Villa Clara province, some 290 km east of Havana.

It’s an unpretentious village, similar to thousands of hamlets and little groups of outbuildings deep in the heart of Cuba. Smelling of molasses at sugar harvest time, a parish with commercial and neighbourhood life going on in the village park. A place where everybody knows everyone else. They know every family’s ins and outs, and outsiders live the life of Riley. continue reading

“The smaller the town, the worse the gossip. When my husband and I want to drink a few beers, we go to Santa Clara, the province capital, 16km from La Esperanza, because otherwise the comments start up right away: ’Look at that, those guys have money’. Here, people just have enough to get by, says Dianeye, 36-year-old mother of two children and wife of Servando, who has a 1936 Harley Davidson and is probably one of the most important guys in the village.

In La Esperanza, people count their centavos. In the El Colonial restaurant, at the side of the park, a lunch of white rice, pork chops, red beans, plantain chips and seasonal salad for 2 people costs 34 pesos, less than two dollars.

The currency exchange shop is empty. Two bored assistants chat about the current TV soap and one shows the other one how to connect to the internet via wifi on her cellphone, in order to sign up to Facebook.

“So that I can make friends”, says the girl. “She’s trying to get a boyfriend”, says her friend with a smile. And in these villages, getting married always affects the family’s future.

Dianeye knows it only too well. When she was fifteen, she married Servando, the father of her children. Often she rides pillion on the old Harley Davidson to get to out of the way places on the island. “Yes, once I wanted to move to Santa Clara or Havana, but I got over it. My husband built a good sheet metal house. After spending so much money we’re not going to leave the village, which isn’t very entertaining, but it is peaceful”, says Dianeye.

Peaceful and boring. In La Esperanza, minutes seem like hours. The clock stands still. You can chatter forever, and only four minutes will have passed. And the time also passes slowly if you decide to walk the two kilometers round the village.

The kids who have finished with high school, give each other moral support in the park. The pensioners read their single-focus national newspapers and talk about baseball, while they yawn. The drunks share a litre of Ron de Caña (Flor de Caña rum, made in Nicaragua) and when they are completely pissed they sleep it off on the red-painted iron and wood benches.

The bus that takes you here and there passes at certain times. If you want to go a short distance, you take a small horse and cart. A noisy out-of-date Girón bus (a type of bus introduced in the ’70’s to alleviate the transport problems of the time, also known as “aspirinas” — aspirins, because they helped a bit but didn’t cure the problem ), which has Cuban-made bodywork and a Soviet-era engine, and an exposed roof showing the metal structure, takes you the 16 km separating La Esperanza and Santa Clara.

Santa Clara, capital of Villa Clara province, is something else. Although still nothing to write home about. But it’s Cuba’s third or fourth town. In the avenues, there are more than enough slogans commemorating Che Guevara, a cantankerous Argentinian who occupied the town on New Year’s Eve 1958, during Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war.

Santa Clara has impersonal architecture. Self-built houses, groups of Socialist Realism buildings, same and ugly and planned without parks or leisure facilities. Some were built with ancient Yugoslavian technology, which town planners should not hesitate to knock down some time in the future.

Just as in La Esperanza, but  occupying a larger space, you will find Leoncio Vidal Park, surrounded by baroque or classical-style buildings and a modernist-looking hotel, the Santa Clara Libre.

There are several excellent privately-owned restaurants. You can have a generous portion of prawns for 4 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, about 4 dollars) and a medium size red snapper for 3 CUC. La Terraza is one of these eating places, located in a narrow alley close to Vidal Park. It’s always full of foreigners passing through Santa Clara.

There’s a wifi point in the park, where youngsters chat to their friends, suitors or family members, on their cellphones, using the IMO app. The older folk, with their portable radios, discuss the Villa Clara baseball team’s performance, play by play, in the National Series. The fans get their hopes up over their national team.

“It’s two years since Villa Clara qualified for the second round.  Now we have a chance to put up a good show. I’m sure Alexander Malleta, reinforcement for the Industriales (a successful Cuban baseball team) will perform well”, says Mario, a total baseball fanatic.

The young people in Santa Clara, just like in the rest of the country, prefer football. And in the afternoons they get together in a cafe on the ground floor of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel to watch the Real Madrid or Barcelona Champions League games.

You need to be comfortably-off to go to this cafe. A beer costs 25% more than in other bars and it has a satellite tv channel. Around 11 at night, a dirty and half-naked crazy man begs for money from the regulars.

A security guard throws him out into the street. The number of beggars in Santa Clara is rocketing, just like in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.  They are referred to as ’itinerants’ in government-speak.

There seem to be three things which can’t be dealt with in Cuba. The future, the invasive marabú weed, and poverty. Santa Clara is not exempt from any of these.

Translated by GH

Cuba: Journalists, That’s All / Iván García

Cuba Internet Freedom Panelists
Cuba Internet Freedom Panelists

Iván García, 25 October 2016 — Erasmo Calzadilla, a columnist for the Havana Times digital newspaper, is a controversial chap who listens to opposing arguments but but hangs on doggedly to his own opinions.

In a forum on Cuban journalism, organised by the IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting) in Miami, Calzadilla ran into Luis Cino, an openly anti-Castro reporter, who lives very near to his house, in the the Eléctrico neighbourhood in south Havana.

In the panel discussion groups they came together with different political opinions,  but united by the same aim — to improve journalism in a country where the government tries to transform it into an exercise in loyalty and bending the knee. continue reading

The IWPR forum was a complete success, as much as the Cuba Internet Freedom conference was, which took place the week before, also in Miami, and which was attended by reporters, bloggers and communicators from the island.

Nothing new was said they nobody knew before at the two events. But it is always good to point to the closed and locked doors which exist in Cuba in order to exercise free expression and write away from state controls.

Elaine Díaz is a journalist of the people and former professor of the Communication Faculty of the University of Havana, and now Director of Periodismo de Barrio (Neighbourhood Journalism), a freelance project which tries to publicise the thousand and one environmental problems suffered by Cubans living in remote communities. In the IWPR forum she summed up the discussion about independent and alternative journalism in one phrase, coined by ex-official journalists: “Journalism is journalism, and that’s all.”

Elaine, along with Carla Gloria Colomé, reporter for El Estornudo (the Sneeze), a nearly-new digital medium on the internet with an entertaining and relaxed angle on the national reality, and Marita Pérez Díaz, the editor of the digital On Cuba Magazine, goes for refined reporting, with light literary touches, when she comes to describing the daily life of ordinary Cubans.

There is also talent on the other side of the street. Men and women born in different provinces, seasoned reporters from the barricades, with experience of reporting from the streets and writing op-eds. There were Ernesto Pérez Chang, Regina Coyula and Augusto César San Martín, politely greeting each other.

Standing on the periphery of the media they were representing,  the participants passionately defended their points of view and journalistic priorities. At the end of the debates, they chatted, took photos and talked about their future projects.

A newspaper column pointing out the repressive nature of the Castro brothers’ regime, can be as effective as an article or report written in the east of the island, particularly following the passage of Hurricane Matthew through Baracoa, Imías and Maisí, among other towns in Guantánamo.

Taking their different routes, each one transmits a message there and back. Cuba needs to change, depoliticising differences of judgement, accepting the rules of democracy, and respecting freedom of expression.

Of course, it isn’t a perfect objective, particularly when we look at the Latin American panorama with its dysfunctional “democracies”, galloping corruption, and governments coming and going, plundering public funds, and where democracy is sometimes a dirty word. It seems to me that one way or another the reporters present at the IWPR forum and at the Cuba Internet Freedom conference, were agreed about respect for differences.

Apart from the participation of prestigious journalists such as Verónica Calderón, who writes in Spanish in The New York Times, and the editor of Political Animal, who always provide interesting material for Cuban reporters, the most important thing, in terms of the meeting supported by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was different writers getting together under the same roof, without any hysterics, or anyone being verbally attacked or being kicked out.

Nothing like the government’s stance of physical attacks or intolerant comments to those in opposition or reporters who speak out. Right now, there are bad times ahead for the profession in Cuba.

Opinion pieces from reporters writing under orders, and official ventriloquists, paint a dismal picture. They have gone back to frenzied attacks, some of them directed at colleagues from the state press, just because of a wish to depict Cuba in flesh and blood.

There are even reporters who have preferred to abandon their calling, before they become conspirators in carrying out their work in a way which they would find uncomfortable. That is what Yarislay García Montero did, who is now selling coffee and croquettes in Matanzas, where he was born. “Media analysis was going off in one direction while real life was going off in another. I think our journalism is merely partisan, working in an infantile manner, avoiding any conflict, in spite of the quantity of it which occurs on the street”, he says on the El Toque website.

The spiral of threats, malicious lies and repressive methods can put off many journalists from reporting the national reality with all its nuances. In a system like the Cuban one, the word is mightier than the bullet. That is why the regime is trying to silence them.

Photo:  Panel working on independent Cuban journalism, at the Cuba INternet Freedom conference on September 12th and 13th in Wynwood, Miami. Right to left: Miram Celaya, Ignacio González, Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, Rachel Vázquez, Iván García and Luis Felipe Rojas. Taken from Babalú Blog.

Translated by GH

Cuba After a Hurricane / Iván García

Elderly married couple married in their house which was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in Jesús Lores, El Marrón neighbourhood, Guantánamo. The photo, taken by Leonel Escalona Furones, was taken from the Venceremos newspaper.
Elderly married couple married in their house which was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in Jesús Lores, El Marrón neighbourhood, Guantánamo. The photo, taken by Leonel Escalona Furones, was taken from the Venceremos newspaper.

Iván García, 6 October 2016 — One week. Perhaps two. That’s the shelf-life of news in Cuba about the recovery process after a hurricane has passed through. You can read information, which has a slight smell of triumphalism, about  the various teams of linesmen who re-establish communications and power.

A gallery of moving photos of the disaster provoked by the hurricane in Baracoa. The account is always related in military terms. As if it were an epic battle. If you can believe the newspaper headlines, the olive green big cheeses and first secretaries of the Communist party in the eastern regions really got down and touched base with the people.

While they are inspecting the devastation, they promise to build strong new houses, and they ask the people in neighbouring areas for more work and sacrifice, and tell them they can be absolutely sure that “the revolution will never abandon them”. After that, the news focus fades. continue reading

Then the state scribblers turn to concentrate on the starting of the new sugar harvest or in the “innumerable production successes”, which can only be effectively conveyed in the black ink of the national and provincial press.

The human drama starts up precisely on the day after a natural catastrophe terminates. Ask any of the 35 families who are surviving in precarious conditions in a big old dump of a place in the town of Cerro. The run-down development, number 208, is located way down in Domínguez Street.

The authorities declared the building uninhabitable in 1969. Its occupants have seen a dozen hurricanes pass through. As a result of the floods of April 29, 2015, caused by torrential downpours, Raúl Fernández lost all the electrical appliances his wife brought from Venezuela. “I am 46 and I was born in this place. I have spent years asking for an apartment so I can leave here and, up to now, my requests have been in vain. The town council is well aware of the situation of the families here and they do nothing”.

Some tenants say that the only things they have received have been foam mattresses. “But, if we wanted them, we would have to pay, in cash or installments. It is 900 pesos for singles and 1,400 for the bigger ones. Government corruption. Because insurance doesn’t work, or works badly in Cuba, people have to pay for the fuck-all that they give you — a mattress, a rice cooker and a packet of spoons and cups, says Magaly, who has lived in Domínguez for 20 years.

In 2015, by way of Resolution no, 143, The Ministry of Finance and Prices put out a regulation containing the procedure for valuing, certifying, setting prices, accounts, finance, fees, and risk and damage management in cases of natural, health and technological disasters.

That’s to say a family which loses its possessions needs to pay for what the state can give it at the commercial retail price level. If it can’t, they authorise a credit which has to be repaid in accordance with the terms set out by the bank.

Also, based on analysis of the economic situation of the victim’s family, the Peoples’ Council, or Defence Zone, can propose to the Municipal Council or the Municipal Defence Council, if it considers appropriate, that the bank loan interest be partially or wholly assumed by the public purse.

Olga, aged 71, retired, and resident in a poor area of Havana, lost an ancient cathode ray tube television, refrigerator, saucepans, rice boiler and all her clothing.

“After an interminable paper-chase and standing in queues for hours, where I had to demonstrate that I only have my pension to live on, they gave me an airbed, some extra-large size used clothes, a half-broken rice boiler, a refrigerator motor, for which I had to pay a mechanic 500 pesos to install. For a year I have had to listen to TV soaps on the radio. And the number one item in the political propaganda is about Civil Defence performance, which is good for saving lives, but as for repairing the damage suffered by the victims, the government does nothing”, says Olga.

There are families like Jorge Castillo’s, who live in a shabby room in an old lodging house in the south of Havana, turned into a hostel for victims, who have put up there for fourteen years waiting for a home.

“That was the time of the tropical storm Edward in 2002. Imagine waiting until the people came from Santiago, having lost their homes in Cyclone Sandy in 2012 and now the people from Baracoa after Matthew passed”, says Jorge.

On 25 October, 2012, Barrio Rojo, in Mar Verde, Santiago de Cuba, nearly 1000 km east of Havana, was wiped off the map by the destructive 175 kph gusts of wind of Hurricane Sandy.

“Mar Verde is a community which has been officially recognised since 1981. It is located on the beach of the same name, forms part of the Agüero-Mar Verde Peoples’ Council, which covers 62.5 square kms and is District 47 out of the 277 which constitute the town of Santiago de Cuba. There is no postal service there, shops, farmers’ markets, pharmacies, schools or grocery stores. Only a family medical consultancy offering a basic service, reports the journalist Julio Batista in a shocking article published in Periodismo de Barrio last February.

Thirty one families, 85 persons in total, who lost their homes during Hurricane Sandy, live in little shacks in a poor old campsite where the water comes through the pipes only every 10 or 11 days.

The authorities have promised to let them have a group of new houses. But it’s a never-ending tale. First they said in December 2014 they would hand over the keys to 56 of the 250 homes. Then, in December 2015. Now, according to Julio Batista’s report, they are talking about finishing the works in December 2016.

But the people living in the Mar Verde campsite are sceptical. The people who lost their properties through natural disasters, whether in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo or Baracoa, feel they have been misled by the government. Or that it has not been frank with them. As if the tragedy they are living through is nothing much.

Diario Las Américas, 7 October 2016.

Translated by GH