Yris Made It to Colón

My wife Yris left early this morning, as always with a cell phone ready with a message of arrest or detention*. Our brother Blas Fortun accompanied her as far as the station and stayed there with her until he saw her leave in a rental truck headed to Santa Clara. As always, on the few occasions when we don’t travel together, I waited with cell phone in hand for the damned message. This time, fortunately, it didn’t come, and when I called her phone she was already at the home of our dear sister Idania Yánez.

She told me how painful it was to pass by the Provincial Hospital without be able to inquire about Coco Fariñas for fear of being arrested there and not be able to continue the journey.Much less would they let her know about her brother on hunger strike. She did not ask permission to exercise this legitimate right, she was going, or more accurately she could go, as far as Colón thanks to her determination not to abide by orders that limit her rights and movement. She could go because call to alert the public that was put out hours earlier left the repressors no other option. And that decision not to accept impositions, to be consistent with what we believe and what we are fighting for is a very important and significant form of non-cooperation with the repression, a way to say I, also, am resisting.

Thanks to all those who helped her. They are, as my fellow Cubans would say, the steps towards freedom that our people are taking.

*Translator’s note: Many Cubans such as Yris enter text messages into their cell phones “ready to send” so that with the touch of a single key they can alert someone if they are arrested or detained, before their cell phone is confiscated.

The Foreignization of Cubans

Sandy Olivera is a young Cuban who, two years ago, emigrated as a political refugee to the United States. His girlfriend remained on this side of the sea. A week ago, he returned to Cuba to marry her.

The formalization of the marriage took place in the Specialized Notary at 23rd and J, in Vedado, Plaza de la Revolución District, in Havana. To marry, as mandated by law, he had to pay 525 CUC and 100 national currency in stamps. To make matters worse the notary, without blinking, asked for a gift of 5 CUC.

The Cuban government treated Sandy as if he were a foreigner. Has residing in the United States become one of the legally established reasons for losing Cuban citizenship?

The Constitution of the Republic states that when a person acquires foreign citizenship, Cuban citizenship will be lost. It further declares that the law establishes the procedure for the formalization of the loss of citizenship and the authorities who will decide.

This means that the fact of acquiring other citizenship does not by itself imply the loss of Cuban citizenship. For this to happen, the government authorities have to decide. In fact, Cubans with U.S. citizenship must enter the island with a Cuban passport. That is, as citizens of the socialist state.

In practice there is dual citizenship. What happens is that the government recognizes only the Cuban citizenship, ignoring that newly acquired. That is not Sandy’s case. He has not taken any steps to become a U.S. citizen, and therefore has not lost his status as a Cuban citizen.

As evidenced by the fact that he paid 220 CUC for permission to enter the country, as decided by the Cuban authorities. He entered Cuba as a Cuban citizen, yet within the island, he had to pay for services received in freely convertible currency as if he were a foreigner.

This is the “rule of law” so defended by the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. A State that, in Article 41 of its Magna Carta recognizes that “all citizens enjoy equal rights and are subject to equal duties,” but that discriminates against those living in other parts of the world.

Cubans living abroad are not foreigners. It is understood that the “socialist state subsidizes the services that the population receives” and that those living abroad have greater purchasing power than those living on the island. But the factual situations do not justify the government violating constitutional rights.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

Cuba and Its System of Exclusion (II)

Cubans are outcasts in their own land. Both those who reside in the country, as well as those living abroad. The latter are doubly discriminated against. They cannot invest in the economy because they are citizens of the State, yet when they return to the country they are treated as foreigners.

Law No. 77, “On foreign investment,” provides that a foreign investor is “a natural person or legal entity with a foreign domicile and foreign capital, who becomes a shareholder of a joint venture, or participates in a company with totally foreign capital, or is named as a party in the contracts of an international economic association.”

Under the rules of this legislation, Cubans residing permanently abroad shoddily have no obstacle to investing in the economy of their homeland. They have a foreign domicile and foreign capital. So what stops them?

Article 32 of the Cuban constitution establishes that Cubans cannot be deprived of the citizenship, except for legally established causes. Nor can they be deprived of the right to change this. Dual citizenship is not permitted. Consequently, when another citizenship is acquired, Cuban citizenship is lost. The law establishes the process to follow to formalize the loss of citizenship and the authorities authorized to decide it.

The causes of losing and recovering citizenship before the 1992 constitutional reform were specific and were contained in the text of the “Supreme Charter of the State.” Now they have lost legal significance and should be regulated by law.

Taking into account the increase in Cuban emigration, one might think that the goal of reform was to eliminate citizenship. On the contrary, the measures taken by the government tend to retain it.

Conveniently for the authorities, they have not formulated the law that regulates the particulars of the analysis. The practice is to require all Cubans to enter the country with the passport that qualifies them as a national. It is not that they allow dual citizenship for them, with respect to nationals, only Cuban citizenship is available. By virtue of this, they cannot invest in the national economy.

However, within the territory they lose their rights as nationals.  They are required to pay for all services in hard currency, as if they were foreigners. Far from being a privilege, this provision violates the constitutional and fundamental rights of Cubans.

Laritza Diversent

What they Don’t Tell Us about the Matamoros Trio

Fifty years ago, on May 10, 1960, the Matamoros Trio, headed by Siro Rodriguez, Rafael Cueto, and Miguel Matamoros, performed in public for the last time.  They bid their farewells on the program called Partagas Thursdays, one of the most popular Cuban TV shows at the time.

According to the Colombian investigator, Walter G. Magaña, “the silence which the Matamoros Trio was subdued in was not accidental.  We must remember that on January 1, 1959, the movement headed by Fidel Castro had displaced the president Fulgencio Batista, and during that time period the leader of the Cuban revolution announced Cuba’s integration into communism (a year later, in 1961, he announced it to the world during the ONU)- a move which Miguel Matamoros was never supportive of.  Therefore, in order to not musically represent a communist country before international eyes, he opted for silence”.

Magaña then continues detailing:  “Everyone was aware of the sympathy that Batista felt for the Trio, thanks to all their compositions previously made against the politics of the dictator Gerardo Machado.  In the 50’s, when Miguel Matamoros returned to the structure of the Trio with very irregular activity, Congress granted them economic help so their members could live decently, according to Jose Pardo Llada, the Cuban journalist who lived in Cali (and passed away in 2009).”

If such statements are accurate, the interpreters of “Son de la loma“, “El que siembra su maiz“, and “La mujer de Antonio“, along with many other famous songs, did not sympathize with the bearded revolution.  In fact, most of them came from Oriente province, just like them.

But that anti-communism, or anti-fidelism, is not exposed to the public today in Cuba.  The songs of the Matamoros Trio, just like those of Ignacio Piñeiro, Benny More, Bola de Nieve, and other great Cuban musicians, are among the most covered songs in the world.  And the cultural authorities prefer to ignore it and just skip the page.

Political disagreements aside, in Cuba the Trio from Santiago is still very much venerated.  Recently, in order to commemorate the 85 years since its beginning on May 8, 1925, in the Trio’s native city, Santiago de Cuba, Cafe Matamoros was reopened.  Every two years that large city is host to the International “Matamoroson” Festival.  The latest edition, in 2009, commemorated the 115th anniversary of the birth of Miguel Matamoros.

The version of “Lagrimas Negras” (‘Black Tears’) which Bebo Valdes and Diego El Cigala interpreted is well known in the five continents.  But perhaps very few know that the woman who inspired this song was not Cuban.

In 1930, during a tour in the Dominican Republic, the Matamoros Trio witnessed an unexpected hurricane.  The devastation was tremendous and the death toll was up in the thousands.  The musicians returned to Santiago de Cuba in a Cuban military plane that had transported doctors and medicines to the Dominican Republic as humanitarian aid.

Impacted by the disaster, Miguel Matamoros first composed “El Trio y el Ciclon” (‘The Trio and the Hurricane’), and a few days after, “Lagrimas Negras”.  The lyrics to this song were inspired by a lady that he saw crying uncontrollably in Santo Domingo.  Her husband had abandoned her and between sobs she would utter that she did not care if she died because that man had been the love of her life.

Miguel Matamoros (1894-1971) was not only a talented composer and innovative musician, but also a chronicler of his era.

It’s noted that in June 1929, the Basque doctor Fernando Asuero (San Sebastian; 1887-1942) arrived in Cuba. He had become a media hit in Spain, Portugal, France, Argentina, and Mexico, among other countries, for having discovered a method to cure certain kinds of paralysis by pinching a nerve known as the “trigeminal.”

That “therapy” did not cure anyone on the island.  But the volume of information about the doctor and his miraculous cures served as inspiration for Matamoros to write “El Paralitico” (‘The Paralytic’).

The Paralytic is an original and catchy son.  But its lyrics aren’t as brutal as the “Cocainomana”, a song which Silvio Rodriguez made an excellent cover of.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: jaramij, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.

Cuba and Its System of Exclusion (I)

It is fair to acknowledge that foreign investment in Cuba brings benefits to the economy. But by itself it is not the solution for confronting the overwhelming problems.

Law No. 77 was adopted in 1995 to provide security and guarantees to foreign investors, and from this to achieve economic recovery. So stated the Cuban Parliament, in the introduction of this statutory provision.

In it the National Assembly also said that through foreign investment Cuba could get (among other objectives) increased production efficiency, improved quality of products and services offered, and reduced costs.

Fifteen years after this law was passed, it’s worth asking: Did it enhance the welfare of the Cuban people? Which services was Parliament referring to — those received by foreigners or those offered to the general population?  And regarding the latter, some comments.

Inadequate wages discourage citizens, mainly young people, from working with the State. How does the government solve the problem of labor abstinence, which forced it to increase the retirement age? By imposing four-year prison sentences for social dangerousness.

This leads to another problem, that of illegalities. The low purchasing power of thousands of families causes them to live outside the state regulations, in order to cope with the ongoing crisis.

What is the solution to this other conflict? The deployment of police operatives to catch those who are engaged in individual economic activity red-handed. Isn’t it easier to legalize the status of people who opt to live independently of state handouts?

Why doesn’t the Cuban government encourage profitable activities by citizens? Just as with  foreign investment, the individual economic initiative of Cubans results in increased productivity, the creation of new jobs, etc..

In principle, one of the reasons underlying the exclusion of Cubans from national economic affairs was the social egalitarianism that socialism attempted but never attained.

To try to guarantee one right, others were violated. A supposed social equality justified the government acting contrary to constitutional dictates, and led to an institutionalized form of segregation, based on national origin.

Cuba needs a law of investment, not exclusion. In its 15-year existence, Law 77 has only brought economic apartheid. It is not fair that only the individual capital of foreigners has value in the Cuban economy.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

Being a Journalist is Almost Impossible in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Being a journalist in Cuba is like performing black magic.  Investigating a story or getting reliable data is like trying to catch hold of a mirage.  With a faltering voice, people whisper information to you that there is no way of confirming.  I will give examples.

Having some drinks one hot night on the balcony of his house, an employee told me all about a dark, corrupt plot between the government and a foreigner at the firm where he works.

The following morning, now sober, I asked him if he would let me publish his story.  He was frightened.  “Please, remember that this business is my livelihood. If you write about this, I will be the first suspect, so, definitely no,” he told me.

It also happens with people who phone you to supposedly give valuable information. After agreeing to an appointment, in a park or central location in the city, what happens next seems like a mediocre espionage film.

The subject wears dark glasses and makes you walk three blocks. “Now bend, sit on a bench, stand, buy a Granma newspaper and wait in the coffee shop on the corner,” he’ll tell you wearily and automatically to your back.

Then, after he has vomited up his story, it seems so fantastic, it makes you laugh out loud. A pure conspiracy theory. “If you want me to write a line of this, you have to give me something more than just storytelling,” I say incredulously.

He promises to get videos. I haven’t heard from him again. It has a bad smell. Perhaps because of an agent of the political police. Once, a woman who worked as a maid of a famous person told me about the extravagant and wasteful life style of her master.

When I say that I would quote her using another name, she panics. “If the police question me, I’ll say you invented all this,” she says indignantly. Others think that a journalist is a blank check. “If I tell you what I know, how much would you pay me?”, they inquire with a greedy look.

And there are people for whom all legal options have been closed and they resort to dissident or independent journalists, to provide them a greater impact for their cases.

Sometimes they are navel-gazing. The story might be trivial. Such as creole squatters, evicted to live in empty houses. Or someone who wants to accuse the head of the union of their factory, who has been granted, by favoritism, a microbrigade apartment (built by the workers). The man thinks he deserved it instead.

At the other end of the scale of obstacles to working as a reporter in Cuba are the government agencies. Any request for data raises suspicion. I phone an office, to find out what percentage of whites and blacks there are on the island. The questioning begins: Who are you? Why would you want this data? Who authorized it?

In March this year, I went to Cardenas, the home of Elian Gonzalez, the former child rafter, now a military school cadet. I tried to interview him, and then I was hounded with questions. One of his guards said I had to get a paper signed by a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, or by the first party secretary in Matanzas or Havana.

Everything is too difficult in Cuba. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. Arranging a house. Transferring by bus around the city. But being a journalist is almost impossible. Still, I try.

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

The Revolution Gives and The Revolution Takes Away

For six months Sandra has lived in Havana with her father. She’s 24 and is an “emerging” elementary school teacher. She used to work in her hometown, Holguin; but she left teaching because the salary wasn’t enough. Now she sells pastries in the doorways of Monte Street.

Sandra was saving to buy a little house. But the police caught her when she was selling sweets. They levied a fine for “speculation.” Then they put her on a train back to her province, for living in the capital without the right to do so. She was a victim of the application of Decree-Law 217 of April 22, 1997, which establishes “Internal Migration Regulations for Havana.”

The provision restricts the freedom of movement of Cubans from other areas of the country. It prevents them from residing, whether domiciled or living together, permanently and without authorization in the capital. The provision also applies to citizens from other areas of the capital who live in a dwelling located in Old Havana, Central Havana, Cerro, and Tenth of October, without the corresponding license.

Sandra has to ask permission from the President of the Municipal Administrative Council to live in the capital. She must prove to the Housing Department that she has the express consent of her father, as owner of the house. She also needs a document from the Municipal Architecture and Urbanism Department that certifies that the dwelling meets the minimum conditions for habitation, and that there are ten square meters of space for each occupant.

Once all the paperwork is completed, the young woman’s problem is not yet solved. The decision, yes or no, of the Municipal President depends on the opinion in the file that elaborates on the issue, from the Municipal Housing Office.

It is immaterial that the Constitution of the Republic in Article 43, allows Sandra, as a Cuban citizen, to live in any zone or sector. A right, according to the article, conquered by the Revolution, and if they have the right to give it they have the right to restrict it.

The “Historic Leaders,” concentrates all the power in the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, with the ability to grant or to restrict the rights of citizens. The validity of decree 217 proves that the Cuban government and its leaders have no desire to make positive changes. Meanwhile, cases like Sandra’s, common in Cuba, continue happening and the guilty parties go unpunished.

Laritza Diversent

We, Dissidents

Ladies in White in one of their marches down Fifth Avenue.
Photo: Luis Orlando

I don’t want to saddle anyone with adjectives they don’t want. In general, I, for one, have always been rather hesitant to accept labels, especially when the socio-official “taxonomy” is so prodigious in itself in ambiguous definitions that it turns a political opponent into a traitor, an individual freely expressing their own ideas into a Treasury Department employee of the United States, or alternative bloggers practicing what has been called citizen journalism into “cyber-terrorists.” Everyone, without exception, is put in a large sack with the terrible label of “dissidents”, which automatically makes us “despicable mercenaries at the service of the empire”. Ordinary Cuban citizens that we come across in our daily strolls, or the very neighbors that greet us when we meet on the stairs in our building have come to incorporate into their psyche that we carry on our shoulders and faces the epithet of “dissidents”, that we are a sort of contagious plague, such as the lady with the scarlet letter, the Jews with their yellow star under Nazi Germany or the lepers forced to wear jingle bells in medieval times.

This comment I’m making is a necessary preamble. Believe it or not, a candid and sincere old couple living in my neighborhood was offended when someone warned them to be careful because I’m a dissident. They protested: “Don’t say that about her, she is a good person and hers is a very well-mannered and decent family”. These nice old people and I often run into each other at the grocer’s, the butcher’s or the farmers’ market, and they know my political opinions (which I have never hidden and they are in agreement with, by the way), but won’t allow that anyone to “insult” me with the loathsome nickname of dissident. I simply cannot be “that”.

Another example no less amusing is that of another elderly gentleman, one of my sources of information about what happens in the neighborhood, who even enlightens me with comments that hit the nail on the head. I once told that I am a citizen-journalist and that what I write can only be read on the Internet. “Ah, you’re a journalist!” I said “kind of”. “And you dare to write about the heavy things we discuss?” I answered yes and added that -as he must know- I am a dissident. “No way! You’re not with the government and criticize all the bad things, which are many, but dissidents are those who want the Americans to invade us”. I gave up: he’s over 70, and, with his low level of schooling, he would probably better understand how to manage a blog than the true concept of what a dissident is. The term has been demonized to that extreme.

Because of this, when I use the word I am always ready for a reply, even when applied to a civil disobedient like me. Some people get uptight, perhaps because they know the power of words. That is why, here and now, I ask permission of to all who disagree with the government, of political prisoners, of those who spread the truth about the Cuban dictatorship, of those struggling to promote peaceful change towards democracy in Cuba, of independent journalists, of bloggers, and all civic organizations not affiliated with the government to refer to this large set as dissidents. I assume that everyone in this diverse group has in common a clear awareness of the need for change in our country, will do and say what we think is necessary to promote those changes through peaceful means, the spirit of democracy and freedom, and the hope for a better future for all Cubans, among other principles. The risk this entails unites us in a country where a half-century long dictatorship holds absolute power and has begun to understand that its power will not last forever.

We are used to viewing the government as a clever and powerful enemy, so perhaps we may not have realized how much we have been growing in recent years. There are more Cubans raising our own voices every day inside the Island. More and more groups are facing the dictatorship. It is cracking the shell of fear, and the authorities are expected to increasingly tighten the nut and repress with ever-more rage. Though the signals of the future end of the regime are in sight already, it would be premature and hasty to mention deadlines; we have a long way to go to reach a consensus, a common destiny, but I have the impression that, for some time, dissidents have begun to abandon belligerency and, showing respect for mutual differences, we have begun to show solidarity with each other. That is a first step and a healthy sign.

I want, therefore, to publicly thank today all dissidents for the reasonable end to the hostilities. This time, the alleged “unity” is not based solely on signing a proposal every once in a while. Orlando Zapata’s death, the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas, and the constancy of the Ladies in White have had the power of assembly that political harangues or programs of either leader had not achieved before. Interestingly, this time, almost no one is claiming the limelight, and almost all are pushing in the same direction and with similar strength… I vote for such humility to be maintained. All indications are that the true seeds of the strength of the dissidence lay in plurality, solidarity and respect for civic differences.

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Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

“If we have eaten cat stew…”

During the last few years, Cuban places located outside of the island have exposed the production and consumption of catfish- that voracious species- in an unpleasant light, in fact, it has been stated that the environment may be at risk if we do not control the production of such a plate.

The issue already made headlines in 2006 as product of the documentary titled “Blue Revolution” which was made by a Mexican student of the International Cinema and Television School of San Antonio de los Banos, in the outskirts of Havana.

According to Jesus Baisre, the fishing industry adviser, two types of catfish were brought into Cuba between 1998 and 2000.  These were the macrocephalus and the gariepinus, coming from Asia and Africa.  The catfish were introduced in the country in order to increase the consumption of protein of the population.

“But the cure was worse than the disease because the catfish has become a powerful threat to the Cuban ecosystem”, argued Nibaldo Calvo who has a degree in economics and is a resident of Mexico.

Before 1959 the main fish consumed by Cubans was the biajaca.  “In the ’70s they introduced the tilapia, which at first nobody liked thanks to its dirt taste.  But seeing that there was no choice, we had no other option but to invent recipes so our families could eat it,” remembers Lidia, 67-years-old and a retired teacher.

Other exotic fish species that are consumed in the island, besides catfish, are Tench, Sea bass, Red Sea Bass, and the Chinese Grass Carp.  On April 2009, during a workshop in Artechef, a restaurant of the Cuban Culinary Association in Havana, numerous elaborate plates were presented with various different kinds of fresh water fish, among them the catfish.

Someone who does not want to hear talk about “the catfish or any of those strange fish” is Jose Miguel, an 81-year-old grandpa.  “It’s incredible that on an island surrounded by sea they have to spend money raising fish and that they have not been capable of allowing us the fish that we Cubans have eaten all our lives, like snapper, ruffle, swordfish, and the yellowtail snapper.”

The local press publishes information about the production and consumption of the catfish and some journalists acknowledge its dangerousness, especially when there are intense rains or hurricanes and the dams overflow and these fish escape.

But that occurs among the ecologists- nationals or foreigners- directly affect by the controversy.

The economist Calvo points out that the uncontrollable expansion of catfish in Cuba during the last decade “is provoking serious havoc among aquatic fauna and vegetation.  The ecological equilibrium and domestic life is also affected because the catfish preys on tilapia and frogs and could very well introduce itself into subterranean caves, sewers, and household tubes.”

The fact is that the catfish- also known as the devil fish- is capable of traveling across land, thanks to very strong whips of its tail, in search of food outside of the water.  Since it is carnivorous, if it is loose, it can swallow anything in its path:  lizards, snakes, rats, and even birds, turtles, and small crocodiles.

There is not much worry right now for the population.  Neither ecologically or with regards to food.  “It must be known that no one has become sick or has died yet because of eating catfish.  It is a dark and ugly fish, but its meat is white and tasty.  When I have oil, I bread and fry the filets.  Sometimes I also make croquettes which my kids love,”  explains Roxana, 35, who works as an office assistant.

Just one kilogram of catfish filet costs around 39 Cuban pesos (1.50 dollars).  “It’s very popular, it sells quickly.  I get about 200 kilos and in two days it’s gone,” declares Dionis Cruz, a fish vendor in the capital.

Ana Rosa, 70 years of age and a housewife, defends the controversial fish:  “They say that catfish eat rats, but if we have eaten cat stew, and cats also eat rats, eating catfish filet is now a luxury.”

During the difficult years of the Special Period (1990-2000), many Cubans substituted cats for rabbits, for once they are skinned there is no difference. If in home bathrooms they raised pigs, while animals were disappearing from the zoo and vultures had gone to look for food in household cooking pots, then eating catfish today is the most normal thing in the world.  At least for Cubans it is.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Breaded catfish filet

Translated by Raul G.

The Capital Dresses Itself for the Fair

It is organized for the weekends in the city of Havana.  It takes place in public spaces, avenues or wide plots of undeveloped land.  Trucks arrive and improvise points of sales- some sell directly from their vehicles, on boxes, on the floor.  The offers vary:  viands (potato, sweet potato, yucca, bananas), fruits, vegetables, meat derivatives, and hardware tools, among other things.

Local restaurants offer fast food under thick colored carps:  fried chicken, smoked pork, and beer.  Lunch-sellers with tall white hats and squared pants prepare pork sandwiches, ham, hot dogs, or breaded fish.

There are sky-rocketing prices.  Just one kilo of papaya costs 20 pesos (one dollar).  Black beans are 10 pesos per pound (half a kilo).  Well, at least what is supposedly a pound.  Manuel Montoya, 65 years of age, is retired.  He always finishes stressed and with high blood pressure due to the displeasure he goes through when he has to purchase some viands and meat.

“Despite the prices, the sellers try to swindle you when they weigh the product.  I always take a small personal weight and whatever I buy usually weighs up to two pounds less than those measures given to me by the sellers,” points out Montoya while he tosses around yuccas and sweet potatoes that are full of reddish dirt.

Hygiene is not the specialty of the viand, vegetable, and fruit sellers.  In Cuba, agricultural products are not taken aside and cleaned.  They are brought in bulk in bags and boxes and they get all mixed in platforms or on the floor, together with dirt, rocks, and bugs.

The Red Plaza of La Vibora, in the municipality of 10th of October, which is actually neither a plaza or painted red, and is nothing but  a 260 foot wide street, is converted into a mixed flea market on Saturdays and Sundays.

Besides vegetables and other foods, they sell recycled clothes, plumbing products, and efficient light bulbs.  The good stuff starts early in the morning.  Refrigerated trucks that offer fresh fish for 15 to 20 pesos per pound arrive to the rhythm of Willy Chirino and Isaac Delgado, exiled Cuban salseros who live in Miami and are censored by state media.

They also sell turkey, chicken, and cured meats.  It usually sells out very quickly.  The lines are long and many people wake up very early to be one of the first ones.

Those people from Havana attend these fairs in mass.  But they are very shocked by the abusive prices, like Josefa Cerdena, 60 years of age, and who is a housewife.  “One mango is sold for 5 or 10 pesos, while a mamey is sold for 15 pesos,” says the lady with her eyes wide open.  Other fruits, like guavas, oranges, and grapefruits are just as expensive.  However, there is an abundance of potato, cabbage, and tomato.

Despite the fact that the aggressive June heat quickly decomposes vegetables and fruits, the prices stay just the same.  They have a news series on TV that has criticized the inefficient form of commercializing these products and the scandalous corruption displayed by many of the vendors.

According to official sources, the decrease and devaluation of fruit and vegetable quality, over 750 thousand pesos (30 thousand dollars) is lost daily, in the capital alone.

We know where that money ends up.  The majority ends up in the pockets of the administrators, while the minimum goes to the sellers.

Whatever the case may be, these weekend street sales are a relief for thousands of families.  With pesos, they can purchase merchandise that they lack.  It’s true that such fairs have a common denominator:  the long lines.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Kirsty Stephenson, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.

Welcome Diversity!

Following what is being called the “Letter of the 74,” where we asked the United States Congress to consider the possibility of further relaxing its economic restrictions and recognizing its citizens’ right to travel to Cuba, a rich debate has been launched in which arguments new and old are surfacing.

Who is right? Life will tell. In my humble opinion, the most helpful part of this is that finally Cubans, who to varying degrees and with different nuances expressed their dissatisfaction with the political situation in the country, have publicly let go of the burden of their prejudices and have been encouraged to distance themselves from a false unanimity.

Even the Communists are now doing it, although timidly, in the pages of Granma, where they diverge from each other on the sensitive issue of the privatization of services (without going to the extreme of calling each other traitors to the cause, or insulting each other). And if they can do it, there is nothing detrimental in political opponents of different stripes offering to expose their differences, whether of principal or simply of methods, in a civilized way,

These should not be discussions undertaken to determine a winner, but to find pathways. As we are finding our way in these disputes, we will need to be patient with some passionate people who prefer to discredit the bearers of an idea rather than refute their arguments.

Someday we will have more difficult discussions, for example: there is the issue of the death penalty and the dilemma between justice and forgiveness, and what about the presumed returns and the debate between those who want to maintain and those who want to dissolve one conquest or another. Let us learn now, later there will not be time.

An Economist Behind Bars

When I first went to his home, what struck me most was an old glass cabinet. Inside, sorted by date, were national newspapers from at least ten years before.

Lacking a computer and Internet, this had been the main source of information for Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique (b. Havana, 1942), an economist who believed in the revolution while he worked in state institutions. When he became disillusioned, unlike other Cubans, he had the courage to dissent even though he is old enough to be a grandfather.

Sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in April 2003, he is now the oldest political prisoner of conscience. But he is also one who has made the most use of his time behind bars continuing to carry out his profession.

In the lined or blank pages of notebooks, using pencils or pens, Arnaldo Ramos has continued to further analyse the economic and political situation of the island. One afternoon in August 2003, he sent a piece of work he had written to my mother, Tania Quintero. She typed it up and sent it out through a Spanish diplomat. It was entitled “Two lawsuits, the same author,” in which he compares the conditions of opponents jailed in Cuba with the five Cuban spies convicted in the United States.

“Cuba is very good” and “Cuba, between the Orinoco and Titicaca” are two of his texts that can be found on the Internet. The latter, about the libretas (the Cuban ration book), has just been published in  El Mundo/América.

But perhaps one of the most substantial is “The so-called achievements,” written jointly with Manuel Sánchez Herrero, who died in 1999 and who was one of the founders of the Institute of Independent Economists of Cuba, created by Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello in the ’90s.

Like other Cuban political prisoners, Arnaldo has suffered abuse and humiliation by his jailers. In September 2004, his wife, Lidia Lima, denounced him and he then found himself in the prison at Holguín. After a search of his cell, Ramos was beaten with sticks, kicked and slapped by the appointed “re-educators” named Florencio and Batista. After the beating, they took him to the head of the prison, Israel Pérez, who also abused him and sent him to a punishment cell for five days.

The son of a Cuban father and a Spanish mother, Ramos Lauzurique was part of the group that in 1997 wrote “The Fatherland Belongs to All“, one of the most important documents for Cuban dissidents.

In his childhood and adolescence, Arnaldo lived in the room on Eagle Street, in Jesus Maria, one of the poorest and most troubled neighborhoods in the capital. This marginal environment did not stop him from studying and graduating university. This was at a time in our history when families like his raised their children with a premise now lost: that they were poor, but honourable.

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

Neither Strawberry Nor Chocolate

The corner of 23 and L is the center of Havana. It is always lively. At any hour. Together, as if they were shaking hands, we have the Habana Libre hotel, the Coppelia ice cream parlour and the Yara cinema. There are too many blown bulbs amongst the neon lights of the cinema billboard which barely manages to announce a British film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

The cafeteria of the former five-star hotel chain Hilton, today the Habana Libre, full of lights and marble, is a rendezvous for girls on the hunt for a foreign boyfriend and bisexual guys who walk about with the same aim. There are also people with some purchasing power for foreign or domestic beer who watch football on large plasma screens in the bar. The cliques that support Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Holland and France are having a great time in the heart of Vedado.

There, in La Rampa, a four-lane street with sidewalks of granite, designed by famous artists, which begins and ends at the Malecon, are concentrated the best nightlife spots in town. In the arcade, right at the entrance of the building, is a television, fans gathered around it to watch the game in which Australia was humbled four nil by Germany.

The noise is tremendous. Although more bearable than the ‘vuvuzela’ on South African stages. The management of the Yara cinema announced that giant screens would be placed outside, so passersby can watch the semifinals and final of the Cup. And that Cuba is not in the World Cup.

Children and adults line up for two hours to get into Coppelia. The ice cream is no longer of the same quality as in years gone by. There is no strawberry nor chocolate ice cream in Cuban pesos. Only for hard currency. Opposite the parlour, a kiosk sells hot dogs 24 hours a day, for 10 pesos (0.50 cents to the dollar), with sufficient demand.

While many see the Adidas Jabulani ball moving around, few have noticed that the Castro brothers’ government is discreetly shuffling the deck. With his best currency exchange and negotiation playing card being the political prisoners. As has always been the case.

Already the opponent Ariel Sigler Amaya has been released from prison. In an ambulance, very ill. To date, twelve have been transferred to prisons closer to their homes. In vans with bars, escorted, they have been put in their new cells.

Foreign Minister Moratinos said in Luxembourg that in the coming days there will be more releases in Cuba. Probably. Maybe not. The list of the Castros is like a lottery. It depends on domestic issues, on the international situation or on the mood of the big bosses.

For Cubans who walk along La Rampa, the political prisoners are a distant issue and the releases are not news.

The government plays its cards close to its chest, skilfully keeping its movements hidden from the people. It does not want to alarm them. It prefers to keep people busy with football and two hours of queuing for an ice cream cone. Although there is neither strawberry nor chocolate.

Iván García

Photograph: veo_veo, Flickr

Transalted by: CIMF

Unjust or Legitimate?

Flags in front of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. Photo: Luis Orlando

An article published by the official Cuban press (Granma, Tuesday June 15, 2010, front page) reports a collateral appeal, or habeas corpus, filed on behalf of Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United after being tried on charges of espionage, as “the final legal recourse for his case,” under the judicial system of that country.

It seems no coincidence that they have recently taken up the issue of five State Security combatants imprisoned in the U.S., in an apparent effort to minimize, in the eyes of public opinion, the question, in turn, of the political prisoners in Cuba and the controversial talks between the government and the Catholic authorities, which have captured the public’s interest in recent weeks. Collaterally, they insist on establishing some form of subordination between the potential release of the Cuban prisoners from the Black Spring and the return to the island of the above-mentioned spies, so that, once again the media minutely obsesses with notes about the five “heroes” of the regime’s reckoning. 
 
It is not idle, however, to take advantage of this juncture to point out the abysmal difference between the case of the five confessed spies, captured during Operation Wasp, and that of the peaceful journalists imprisoned by the Cuban dictatorship in March 2003, not to mention the marked contrast between the two cases relative to the considerable resources spent on the Cuban government’s campaign to release the Five. To wit: the very expensive lawyers; travel and per diem for family members who have come from around the world; the national and international crusade that has mobilized money and agents in the four corners of the globe; as well as the immense propaganda campaign; all of which is explicitly covered almost entirely with State funds without any consultation with taxpayers.

Nor do they skimp on the resources invested by the government in relation to the 75 political prisoners of the Black Spring, although in a completely opposite sense: mobilization of the repressive forces to trample the Ladies in White; privileges and incentives for their most loyal henchmen; the propaganda apparatus set in motion to slander and demonize the political prisoners and their families as well as the whole civic movement that supports them. All this without counting the political cost and the demoralization caused by this repression, the death in prison of Orlando Zapata, and the current hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas.

Apart from this brief summary, there is still an additional critically valid question: if the Cuban government has always declared the imprisonment of their spies by their northern neighbor to be unjust (and even “illegal”); if they insist they were sentenced after a process that was “rigged” and markedly political against five “anti-terrorist fighters,” as they try to convince international public opinion and as they have broadcast in the national catechism; if, in short, the American judicial system is so “corrupt” and “subordinated to the Miami Cuban-American mafia”… How is it possible that the government of the Island is allowed to legitimize its own system by appealing to the recourse that system offers? It is not immoral to demonize and criticize the U.S. Justice system and at the same time lower oneself to appeal to it? Could it be that the five imprisoned spies are politically more useful to the Cuban government than to the anti-Castro groups in Florida?

Clearly, the Cuban authorities display an unlimited impudence by not discriminating between the unjust and the legitimate. So twisted are they, that we will see them once again ranting against the U.S. system to which they now appeal, should they get a new denial of the last legal recourse they have just presented before the Federal Court in Miami.

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Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

What Will be the Next Move?

Carrying out any sort of political analysis or political prediction in Cuba is almost like an Indiana Jones adventure.  The media does anything it can to misinform.  They barely extract any bit of information from those in power.  There is no way of getting any official statistics or facts.

When one is an independent journalist and the government does not approve of you, everything becomes much more difficult. Instinct and reading between the lines of official reports are common investigation methods.

Another way of trying to understand the reality of this island is if you have friends or sources who work for important organizations and they chose to whisper information into your ear.  It is already known that Cubans are extroverted.

Well, back to the point.  It is true that in Cuba something is moving.  For the first time in 51 years the Castro government has given in to a group like the Ladies in White.

The strategy used by those in power was a very interesting one. They pulled the letter of the Catholic Church out of their sleeve.  Using the church as a mediator and as a valid interlocutor has various interpretations.

They either pretend to win some time and sell the idea that the regime is willing negotiate certain political things, or in reality the economic crisis that has been plaguing us for 21 years, the decrease of foreign investments, and the empty treasury, are forcing the government of Havana to search for a negotiated exit with two heavy-weight actors: The United States and the European Union.

Castro, a charismatic statesman of unpredictable strategies, always confused Western politicians with his tricks.  Just ask Felipe Gonzalez, Carlos Solchaga, or Jimmy Carter.

When you think you have him cornered and without defenses, he pulls a card out of his sleeve as if he were a magician.  It turns out that this situation is different.  Since July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro has lost a large portion of power.

And it has not been the dissidence that has opened the breach.  It is the generals, those businessmen in the island who are ruled by his brother, who have taken over power.

Ever since the 1980’s, a portion of the military and intelligence sectors were allowed to establish certain businesses, and so started the beginning of the end for the monolithic rule of Castro I.

For years the generals have made money.  They have hidden bank accounts and have become corporate men.  They traded in their AK-47s for executive briefcases.  The word comrade was traded for the word sir.  And the rustic Soviet technology was exchanged for sophisticated first world equipment.

Those elite military men who control the few profitable businesses that function in Cuba prefer to drink Jack Daniels over our own rum.  After a while, they traded in their traditional guayaberas for very formal suits with silk ties.

They have converted themselves into cut-throat capitalists.  Their advisers studied marketing and speak about efficiency and profitability, costs and gains.  They also like to keep some dollars or euros under the mattress.

It is precisely those generals who are really in charge during this summer of 2010.  Fidel Castro is only a symbol.  Very heavy.  Perhaps the old guerrilla leader just pulls the strings of exterior politics.

But the economy is in the hands of the military.  And they want certain changes.  Nothing big, really.  Economic freedom for the people.  Firing a million workers in the inflated labor scene.  They want to give autonomy to small and medium companies.  They want to do away with the benefactor State.  They want to lighten the load.

The military favors some liberalizations in Cuba for the simple reason that it would be a much more effective way of staying in power.  They know that with hard-line and radical discourse, and with the huge crisis that faces the planet, business doesn’t work.

Internal peace is needed.  Developed countries do not need to condemn the island.  Then, they had to give in.  And they used the church.

It is also possible that a number of political prisoners may be released.  Not all of them.  The regime needs prisoners like spare change.  But it is the only way of keeping the determined Ladies in White calm.

The internal dissidence is not very worried about the generals who control the power.  For various reasons.  One of these reasons is that the opposition is deeply penetrated by the political police.

The other reason: they do not have a solid base within the population.  They also do not have brilliant or charismatic leaders.  That is why I think that the recent move by the Castros was conditioned by the pressure of a sector of the military.

What will be the next move?  If the money does not continue coming in and the international pressure does not stop, there will be new sacrificial moves. The Castros still hold some winning cards in their hands.

But the deteriorated economic situation, which has not had any possible solutions mapped out, the disgust of a wide portion of the population, the poor rule of the leaders, and the huge monstrous bureaucracy all have the Creole mandarins cornered.

This summer promises some interesting things. Raul Castro has been on the throne for two years and has only implemented cosmetic measures. The situation which the country faces needs an entire package of wide reforms, from top to bottom.

The generals look at Vietnam.  This Asian nation has achieved economic changes while maintaining its hard fist towards internal politics.  Of course, Cuba is not an interesting market like China or Vietnam.

If the European Union or the United States continue with their politics of closed borders and deaf ears and if they don’t ease up in response to the liberation of only a hand full of political prisoners, then the government will have to change its strategy.  This would most likely lead them to negotiate with a sector of the opposition.

The regime wants power and it needs financial oxygen.  It will everything in its power.  In politics, it’s all worth it.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.