Raul Castro Closes the Wall*

Cuba today is more of an island than ever before.  The discourse which took place this past Sunday, 4th of April, by the Cuban general and president, Raul Castro, has slammed the door to any anticipated reforms.

During the closing ceremony of the IX Union of Young Communists (UJC), Castro II, with his hoarse voice, guttural and worn out, returned to Cold War discourse, a tone that unmistakably resembles that of his brother Fidel.

When Raul rose to power two years ago, various “Cuba experts” predicted that an era of reforms was on the horizon.  The supposed tropical “perestroika” limited itself to changes in design. Pure make-up. A slight touch of the brush, no substance.  Cubans were allowed to rent cars and hotel rooms.  They now could own cell phones and surf the web, as long as they paid the equivalent of the minimum salary on the island.

The rest was just a war between clans.  It is a fact that the tough guys exert power with a clique of men who are loyal to their man.  And Castro II did not even remotely trust in the men who were trusted during the Fidel era.

And there was a change of furniture.  When you move the furniture around in your house you get a new look, another perspective.  But it doesn’t change the fact that you continue living under the same exact roof.  That was what the General did.  With his chess moves, he dethroned 12 ministers and a hundred lower-ranking functionaries.

He surrounded himself with his people.  He was advised by his son-in-law Jose Luis Lopez Callejas, the type who stays away from the cameras and the limelight, but actually ended up being one of his most valuable advisors in everything dealing with businesses that report in hard currency.

At his side on each foreign trip or public act within the island, one can see his grandson Alejandro, also known as the “Crab,” and of whom it is rumored he will eventually have an important role in the future of Cuba.

Mariela, the daughter, pretends to be the First Lady.  She is supposed to be the tolerant one of the family, reaching out to gays and lesbians who decide to come out of the closet.  Pouting, she asks her dad to allow homosexuals into the military.

Another one of his trusty men is the Minister of the Armed Forces (FAR), General Julio Casas Regueiro.  The Cuban military, just like that of China, has become excessively involved with businesses.  The majority of those companies that are succesful just so happen to be those that are being run by military-businessmen.

Abelardo Colome Ibarra, Furry, another of Castro II’s right hand men, is in a delicate position. The current Minister of Interior, it is whispered – on the island almost everything is rumor or speculation – is very ill. Also, he might be involved in acts of alleged corruption.

Among the key personalities in the era of Castro II is Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, Minister of Computing and Communications, now with super minister powers. He is the same one who goes to Caracas to whisper advice in the ear of Hugo Chavez, who travels to the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, 900 kilometers from Havana, to monitor water rehabilitation works.

The economic changes that lie ahead are timid. First aid for an economy that has called for help for many years. There is talk of giving autonomy to a number of state establishments that have never worked, such as barbers, cafes and small domestic appliance repairers. They would work as cooperatives. But everything is still on the table in the hierarchy.

In this year of 2010, the death of the opponent Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the hunger strike that Guillermo Fariñas is staging have become a big fat problem for General Castro.

Much of the world openly criticizes the political inertia of the Castro brothers. The European Parliament signed a condemnation that has greatly upset the regime in Havana.

In his speech on April 4, Castro closed the wall. He hid in his shell. He said more of the same. To increase productivity, to respect disagreement and he criticized the submissive unanimity in all sectors of Cuban society.

Of course, all these disagreements are within the Revolution. For the others, dissidents, free journalists and opposition supporters, he shot them with the usual verbal shrapnel: mercenaries and traitors paid by U.S. or European imperialism.

The hardship of this Numantian policy is that they speak in the name of the people of Cuba and of ethereal ideals that do not put food on the table. General Raul Castro has had a hard job. To bring to safe harbor a leaky old boat, worn out by 51 years of hazardous travel.

Now nothing is the same. A high percentage of the population does not believe in its leaders. And does not look favorably on a course that takes the country back to polarization and the speech of the bully. And worse, nobody knows the final destination.

Iván García

(*) “To close the wall” is an expression used in Havana as in other cities. In the seventeenth century, due to the constant attacks of corsairs and pirates, the Cuban capital had to be walled. The wall was closed at 9 pm, when a cannon was fired from the fortress of El Morro-La Cabaña. More on the history of the Wall of Havana. In 1958, Nicolás Guillén, national poet, wrote a poem called The Wall, which became famous when set to music and performed by the Spanish duo Víctor Manuel and Ana Belén.

Translated by: Raul G.

The 15th Birthday in Cuba: Dreams and Expenses

The day arrived. On January 30th, Rogelio Sarduy and Maritza López woke up very early in the morning to finish up all the details of Yailén’s – their only daughter – fifteenth birthday party.

Nervous and glad they were running all over Havana. In a little notebook, they had written down the pending to do’s. See if the man in charge of baking the cakes has them ready. Keep calling to confirm the attendance of the TV anchorman hired to be the emcee.

Everything started twelve years ago when, with endless patience, the parents started saving – in the pocket of an old coat – part of the money being sent by their relatives on the other side of the Florida Strait.

“We deprived ourselves of many things, but we always had in mind a huge party for our daughter. And it paid off. She ended up being a good student and very well mannered; she deserves all the sacrifices we have made,” said the happy parents, a few hours before their daughter reached the age of dreams.

It’s a Cuban tradition that upon reaching their fifteen birthday, teenagers are showered with enormous parties that include choreographed dances, dances with long gowns and endless sessions of photos and videos. Even the poorest people work wonders to celebrate that important birthday. That tradition is not followed with male children, though.

A juicy private business has been born surrounding these quinceañeras (the birthday girl), especially in Havana. Now, take notes. The Sarduys paid $110 convertible pesos for two photo albums, shot in two different locations. For six hours in an upscale ballroom in the capital, $150 convertible pesos. Add on $600 in food, beer, appetizers, desserts and the elegant cakes.

As if that wasn’t enough, a week prior to the party, on top of buying sets of clothes and shoes for Yailen, they spent $900 convertible pesos for a weekend in a hotel in Varadero (the famous beach 100 km East of Havana), the three of them together. The young man that created the ball’s choreography for 15 couples charged them $60.00. But the TV anchor ended up being more pricey: $100.00.

The hard currency pipeline didn’t shut down there. Renting several taxis and minibuses was almost $300. After gulping down a big shot of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años, the father smiles. He doesn’t believe the time to sit down and do the math has come. Although, off the record, he says, “Here and there, we have spent $4,000 convertible pesos, all the money we had saved for 12 years.”

Just to put it in context: the equivalent of $4,000 convertible pesos is $100,000 Cuban pesos. That is the money earned by a professional in 14 years of work, assuming he gets paid 600 Cuban pesos a month (around 24 dollars) or about 7,200 a year.

As you can imagine, not everybody in Cuba can do what the Sarduys just did. But, in the name of celebrating their daughter’s fifteenth birthday, even poor families spend what they can not afford, sinking themselves in debt.

It’s the tradition. Maybe in Europe and other parts of the world this could be seen as kitsch and senseless: spending the money they don’t have on superficial parties, where photo shoots with the girl posing as an international top model are common.

There are only a handful of Cuban families who, despite not having enough to eat and having only coffee for breakfast, do not overspend on that day. Other sell valuable items, borrow money and go into debt. Whatever it takes. Anything to celebrate the daughter’s quinceañera.

Next morning, with an empty wallet, a hangover and the happiness of having thrown the best party in the neighborhood, is when life really slaps you in the face. In those moments, the Sarduys resort to a very particular philosophy. “Tomorrow will be another day,” says Sarduy, while he watches, emotionally, the video recording of his single child. “It is worth it. It is a party that you celebrate only once in your life.”

Iván García

Note: This post, published in El Mundo/America under the title “Extravagant fifteen birthday parties in the midst of Cuba’s poverty” has more than 200 comments. While reproducing it in this blog, we enriched with two different chronics on the same topic: My 15 and Yania’s 15.

Translated by Cubanita / M.Salabarria

Chronicle with First Quarter Moon

Perhaps I’m not the right person to write this chronicle. Or maybe I am. I know colleagues who personally knew Silvio Rodríguez in that first stage of the revolution, ingenuous and difficult, crude and contradictory, where children magically became men.

Further, I’m going to talk about the spell that Silvio provoked in my generation, by many considered “lost.” Anyone under 50 years had a similar experience in the way we listened to his songs.

Perhaps in school, in the subject interpreted by an infantile adventure or in the voice of a friend, I don’t remember now exactly, but when I discovered Silvio it was while he composed songs and had been one of the founders of the Sound Experimentation Group of ICAIC, together with the indispensable Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola and Vicente Feliú, among other, all directed by Leo Brouwer, who already was a maestro.

One year later, in 1973, the Movement of the New Trova had been created, of which Silvio was the main part. The Beatles, with their myth spreading around the world, had disintegrated in 1970, and it was no secret that the geniuses of Liverpool, with their ballad-rock music, had left an incurable vacuum after their dissolution, in spite of the psychosis they gave the Cuban cultural and political authorities.

Then, I think, the strategists of culture saw a vein of gold and thus supported that scruffy group that sang about strange things, because when it came down to it, they were “revolutionaries.”

A truce was declared. The media, little by little, put themselves at the service of Silvio and the New Trova movement. With reserve, of course. At the start, because of disinterest in the trovadors, they were heard only at political events, patriotic commemorations or on days of national mourning.

The official propaganda put emphasis on the known themes of Silvio Rodríguez, like The era is giving birth to a heart, Gun against gun, Song to the chosen and the Chief, songs that with their metaphoric and poetic language demonstrated support for the revolution. Silvio also sang about the everyday and alienation, but from moment to moment, until he didn’t show his complete loyalty, those texts navigated in semi-secrecy.

The singer-songwriter from San Antonio de los Baños was a kind of moon in the last quarter: we could appreciate only one part of his face. Thus, in this way, he came to our generation.

We hummed the lyrics on patriotic anniversaries or in memory of the martyrs. Silvio was growing with us. Upon reaching the decade of the 80s, the tested Cuban composer still was not being censured. It had been a painful and traumatic birth, but here was this Rodríguez, in his rightful place. One of the best Cuban composers of the 20th century.

The lyrics of Summary of the news and Hopefully didn’t raise suspicions. On the contrary, he was a prophet in his own land and also in Latin America and Spain. Many, like I, followed and harassed him from recital to recital. We knew almost his whole repertoire by heart.

Human beings need myths, leaders, chosen people…and for us, Silvio was it. Or, at least, he made a valuable mark on a portion of Cuban youth, although some later became critical of his work and his ideological position. Others say that he stagnated, adapted, and lost his nerve.

My current political position differs a good bit from that of Silvio Rodríguez now that I am 63 years old. Not for that reason am I going to stop admiring his songs: that would be denying and betraying an important part of my life.

Now, Silvio, we see you clearly, without the halo whose light deceived us. And we are grateful to you for having enriched us spiritually and distracted us from superfluous and useless music. Thousands of my generation are far away, in other lands, beneath the sea, or departed forever.

I don’t know about others, but I want to express my thanks to you for having proposed something to us, not imposed it. For having transmitted good values to us, freely. This is more important than any militancy.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Havana Celebrates for its Ball Players

This April 1st, we forgot about the lack of food and the tragedy of living without a future.  We set aside our empty refrigerators, as well as all the anachronistic internal politics that don’t work. We ignored the bad taste left by an inoperative government, and the empty wallets.

It is Thursday of Holy Week, but Havana is partying. Yes. This Havana of columns and porches, of the Prado and the Malecon, is enjoying the victory of its baseball team, which was just crowned National Champion.

Baseball, a sport introduced during the 19th century by Cubans residing in the U.S., is a passion in Cuba.  It’s play became widespread and resonates deep within the country.  Before 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, a series of winter championship games, which were followed by millions of fans from all the provinces, would take place throughout the island.

These games were made up for four teams:  Almendares, Havana, Marianao, and Cienfuegos.  The majority of the people would root for the Almendares “Blues” or the Red Lions of Havana.  Huge stars who later became popular in the US, such as Orestes (“Minnie”) Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, and Adolfo Luque, debuted in our very own local classics.

The oldest fans can remember that final match in 1944 between the eternal rivals, Havana and Almendares, won by the latter when no one believed it possible. Industriales, the new lions of Havana, now wear blue.  And in the 2010 finals, the Blues of the capital and the Oranges of Villa Clara brought back the same drama from that 1944 series.

Industriales are not just the icons of the capital, but also of the entire country.  Since 1959 they have won the most, with 12 titles.  It is a team that is either hated or loved, but never unnoticed.

It is also the team that, without a doubt, has lost the most players, thanks to the ceaseless trickling of desertions.  Players who leave the island, tired of their worker salaries and full of dreams of becoming millionaires in the best baseball in the world, the Major Leagues in the United States.

Industriales were three-time champions with the New York Yankees’ pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, a great among the greats. Their ranks also yielded some who showed promise, and now actually shine in the majors, like Yunel Escobar with the Atlanta Braves and Kendry Morales with the California Angels.

In the last twenty years, Industriales have lost more than 40 first-rate players. All decided to go to the United States, the baseball world’s mecca. Despite this, those who have remained are always in the mix. From 2003 to date, they have won four crowns. First with manager Rey Vicente Anglada and now with Germán “The Wizard” Mesa.

Germán Mesa is considered the best shortstop of all time in Cuban baseball. He was removed in the late 90s, per government decree by Fidel Castro, who accused him of being part of a network of players and major league scouts who instigated the defection of native players. For three years “The Wizard” was absent from the baseball fields. Until he was redeemed in 1999 and authorized to play again.

In this championship, Industriales’s chances of taking the title were slim. In 2009, the ninth pair of their most outstanding pitchers left: Yadel Marti and Dennis Suarez, who were central to the team. If to them you add the whole litter of its members who have defected since 2003, Industriales had no chance of winning.

The year before, they had occupied 12th place. They didn’t even qualify for the post-season playoffs. It was expected that this campaign would straggle into mediocrity. True, they had been reinforced with young talent, but it was felt that they were still very green.

Hence the great merit of this team. They were never favored in the final three games, against Sancti Spiritus, Havana, and Villa Clara. But the men did it and defeated the Spiritus, the best team of the season, Havana, with the best pitching, and then the Orange of Villa Clara, the most consistent in the last dozen years.

The final best-of-seven-games with Villa Clara were full of suspense. They were a drama. And are regarded as the most tense and hotly contested games since 1959.

When after two in the morning, Industriales won the crown in Augusto Cesar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara, at that hour, 300 kilometers away in the capital, they beat the drums and, in the absence of cava or champagne, uncorked bottles of rum. Hundreds of fans lined the streets between rumba steps and mouthfuls of rum, to celebrate the title of their Blues.

In swirling lines they marched to Central Park – the Havana version of La Cibeles – and until well into the morning they celebrated the win. About 3 p.m., in convertible cars, the Industriales players made their entry into the capital, cheered by hundreds of thousands of fans who lined the route of the procession.

Cars horns honked furiously all day long, and many people didn’t go to work. People were exulting on the rock in Central Park, the same one often visited by Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the political prisoner who died after a prolonged hunger strike on February 23rd, and a rabid lover of baseball.

In this Holy Week, Havana is celebrating. People have brought large speakers to the balconies, and with loud reggaeton music they revel in the victory. I’m also out in it. Since I was three years old – and I’m now 44 – I’ve been a fan of Industriales.

I have pity for Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, the dissident journalist and psychologist on a hunger strike in Santa Clara, a follower of the Oranges. According to his friends, was glued to the TV until late in the game. I feel for you, Coco.

Iván García

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.

Cuba, Passion for Some Good Football

Nobody disputes the fact that baseball is the island’s passion. It is the only spectacle that is capable of filling entire stadiums to the point of bursting. During these days, in a Spring that caresses us already, the framboyan trees begin to release their red flowers, as if they were being guided by an invisible and powerful hand.

Amid so much natural beauty, the baseball championship play-offs are underway.  And in the city of Havana, they are being entertained by the performances of their favorite team, the Industrials, Cuban baseball’s banner team.

But our national sport has a heavy competitor amongst those who love sports. Football: the most universal sport over the last 147 years which has become the second most followed sport in the country.

Despite the fact that in Cuba tournaments that take place in backyards are of little quality, or they play in rough fields sown with potatoes, and the players could not be more mediocre, yet the number of football fans grows each day.

Of course, people don’t follow the local games. Instead, they look to the prestigious European leagues. Especially the Spanish league. Of all the clubs, Real Madrid, coached by the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, and manager Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are the ones that attract the most following.

The idols of young Cubans are the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, from Madeira, or the Brazilian Kaka of “los merengues” (Real Madrid), and the golden boot winner of 2009, the Argentinian Lionel Messi, in the starting eleven of Barcelona.

The nostalgic colony of naturalized Galicians feel homesick for Deportivo de La Coruña, very far away in current performance from that of the great Super Deportivo, of the mid-90s, where Brazilians Bebeto, Djalmiha or “the grandfather”, Donato, shone.

Also, the Malian, Kanoute, and the Brazilian striker, Luis Fabiano, of Sevilla have fans in Cuba. The national television commentator, Reinier Gonzalez, the person most familiar with football on the island, supports Valencia, along with “The Kid”, David Villa.

There are numerous fan clubs for Real Madrid and Barcelona in the capital and the provinces. Biting their nails, they anticipate the phenomenal duel between the two Iberian football teams, on 10 April, in Chamartin stadium, which, by any reckoning, will define the league.

Nor are we forgetting the fans of the Italian Serie A, the French league, the English Premiership, or the German Bundesliga. Before the fever for illegal cable antennas, fans followed their clubs on short-wave radios.

The programme Tablero Deportivo, of Spanish National Radio, has thousands of listeners. Cubans are among those that send the most emails and letters from Latin America for the attention of the legendary Chema Abad.

Those who pay 10 Cuban convertible pesos ($8) per month to have satellite television coverage follow soccer on the American channel ESPN, which transmits all the details of the European, Mexican and South American leagues. There are incredible disputes at home when watching TV with women hooked on the soporific Aztec or Brazilian soap operas.

But even the official media, which do not deign to write a line about Major League Baseball or the basketball players of the NBA, have two football programs on national television. And all sports radio slots tend to announce the results of the European leagues.

But when it comes to betting on a team, as they approach the World Cup or European Championships, the weight of opinion is for the Argentines and the five-times Champions, Brazil, with its strong but magical touch.

However neither the DT Diego Armando Maradona with his poor results with the albiceleste (Argentine team colours), nor the Brazilian Dunga with his defensive strategies, in a team full of guys who have ‘goal’ in their blood, are viewed favorably by Cuban fans.

The Spanish team of mustachioed Vicente del Bosque is the third choice in Cuba to win the World Cup. Villa, Casillas, Xavi, Iniesta and “El niño” Torres are icons in the ‘green caiman of the Caribbean’.

Baseball is already playing its final phase. South Africa is in sight. And passionate football fans anxiously await the great event. They are feeling like orphans, because since 1938 a Cuban team has not qualified for the finals of a World Cup.

Tired of seeing a selection process in which some tough guys try to “play the violin,” and without outstanding results for a long time, people are ready to support European or South American teams.

But there are still three months until the start of the World Cup. Meanwhile, football lovers warm up with the long-awaited derby between the two great teams of Spain at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Already fans of Real Madrid suffered a considerable blow when they were beaten by Lyons in the Champions League. Now they hope to take revenge against Barcelona. That’s all they have left.

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

Havana, a Day Just Like Any Other

At whatever time, the hustle and bustle around India square, next to Fraternity Park, in front of the National Capitol, is always constant.

It is a coming and going of people from all the provinces.  Also tourists, with their hats and their cameras.  Despite the ruins and her age (she has already turned 490 years old), Havana sill preserves her enchantment.

The Cubans, as usual, in the streets.  Taking care of things.  Each one of them dealing with their own problems.  “Struggling”, “Solving”, “Surviving”: three of the most common phrases on the island of the Castro brothers.

In the former building of the Marina Newspaper, which now serves as the headquarters of the Provincial Court, the public is much different.  Cuffed prisoners, police and jailers, lawyers and judges, witnesses and onlookers all impatiently await the commencement of the trial.

A few blocks down, where El Paseo del Prado ends, one can see those who prefer to pass the time sitting on the best spot the city has to offer, the wall of the Malecon, morning, noon and night.

Text and Photos:  Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

I Consider Myself Agnostic

Mister Editor of El Mundo America has put me in a tough spot. In a chain e-mail, he asked his colleagues throughout the continent to write about life during Holy Week in their respective countries. Fuck.

If there is anything I can brag about it is of not knowing anything about Holy Week. I will explain. I come from a communist family and was never baptized. I was born with the revolution of Fidel Castro, who, as you already know, always viewed priests with suspicion.

Especially if they were not on his side. Or were unsuccessful guerrillas, like the Colombian priest Camilo Torres, killed the first time he saw combat. Or were proponents of Liberation Theology, as was the custom of the Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto.

My ignorance of Catholicism I owe basically to my family, who never took me to a church as a child. But also to the anachronistic ideology where I was educated and became a man, and where to believe in God was a waste of time.

The revolution needed men of a new type. Those who hated religion and Yankee imperialism. Thank God, I didn’t take the bait. The artificial unanimity of opinions, the dangerous entente with the former USSR, the guerrilla focus of so many people, military mobilizations and obedience to their leader, were never to my liking.

Even though in recent years, many Cubans began to fill the churches, especially after the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998, Cuba does not have a sense of festivity during Holy Week like in Spain, Mexico, Peru or Colombia.

I grew up admiring the U.S. basketball players Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. On video, I saw the fantastic game of the “Vulture’s Cohort”  of Real Madrid of the 80s. And of course, I liked the great guys from Liverpool. But religion was always in its infancy. It is one of the subjects that I didn’t pursue.

The first time I read the Bible was at age 20 when I was drafted into military service. A friend lent it to me saying, “You read a lot but you haven’t read the principal book of life.” And it was important for me. But I was still ignorant about Easter and Holy Week. I thought it was a practice of the nations that believe in Islam.

In the Cuba of olive green, the weeks I knew about were those of defense, or the many weeks about hatred, which in a cyclical way the government generates against people, presidents, or countries that criticize the state of affairs in the island.

Speaking frankly, already being a man, a free journalist and a critic of the absurd way the Castro brothers govern destinies, Holy Week remained a matter of little importance to me. I remember that foreign friends, visiting Havana in the months of March and April, told me about the celebration of Holy Week in their homelands. It went in one ear and out the other.

I think that maybe something exists. But I have grown up in a country and a family where religion “was a distant piano playing a long way away on the horizon,” in the words of the Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto.

Not only do I not know about Catholicism, I am also a neophyte in the field of Afro-Cuban beliefs. I am not happy with my ignorance. I would have liked to have faith in a religion. I am going for the easy route. At least, I know who to blame.

My mother, a political refugee in Switzerland, in her youth had no attachment to religion. Her parents, my grandparents, were atheists. In the first 30 years of revolution, Fidel Castro always did everything possible so that people would be ignorant of faith.

It is never too late. For an aunt, who was a devotee of St. Lazarus, and before she died asked her “not to abandon the old Lazarus”, she now lights a candle the day that Cubans revere him, December 17. Before leaving Cuba, under the mattress of my bed, she left me a talisman and a picture of the saint of beggars.

Although I consider myself agnostic, I am teaching my daughter Melany to respect and understand Catholicism. She was baptized at a few months old and now, at 7, before bed I read to her from a child’s Bible that they use in catechism classes.

I do not know how to pray, but at night I pray to the Lord for the situation in my country to change; that the political prisoners can return to their homes; that fate does not require me to go to prison for writing what I think; that I see my mother before she dies in her forced exile, and that democracy and respect for differences might be possible in Cuba.

When one crosses the barrier of 40 years of age, it is sad not having faith. Either way, Mister, I don’t know what I’m going to write about Holy Week.

Iván García

Photograph: La Virgen del Camino is located in a park of the same name where two of the busiest roads of Havana meet, the Causeway and Causeway Luyano San Miguel del Padrón, on the outskirts of the capital. The work is by Cuban sculptor, Rita Longa (1912-2000).

Translated by: CIMF

Barricade Journalism

Carlos Serpa Maceira, 43, a freelance journalist born in the former Isla de Pinos, now Isla de la Juventud, is one of the leading communicators of the activities of The Ladies in White. More than a few times the taking of photographs or the writing of notes has ended up with his being dragged along the ground by a mob, at times with physical abuse.

Serpa Maceira, a mulatto, Indian-looking, with dark eyes and medium height, is committed to journalism from the trenches. Some free journalists in Cuba have specialized in exposing all sorts of abuses.

Thanks to Caridad Caballero Batista, a freelance reporter in Holguin, from the very beginning Serpa Maceira knew and denounced the brutal beatings and mistreatment Orlando Zapata Tamayo, whom he had met in Havana in March 2003, during the fast called for the freedom of Oscar Elias Biscet and other political prisoners.

Another independent journalist, Roberto de Jesús Guerra, a young mestizo, with a stout constitution, was the first journalist who reported the deaths of 26 patients at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.

Almost all of these communicators commonly report the news on Radio Marti, a station of the U.S. government that emerged in 1984. They also write on different websites, including Cubanet, Miscellaneous of Cuba and Spring from Cuba, an electronic newspaper entirely made on the island, or in their own blogs.

The independent media emerged in Cuba in the late ’80s. At first, it was made up of reporters coming out of official circles, such as Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, or Rolando Cartaya. Then in the ’90s, others joined such as Raul Rivero, Tania Quintero, José Rivero, Tania Díaz Castro, Iria Gonzalez Rodiles and Ana Luisa López Baeza, people who had worked in the government press.

You can not ignore the work of free journalism.

There are reporters still with a simplistic style to their writing. Others label their news without much importance. But they are, have been and will remain the people who write about another Cuba that the government intends to ignore.

There are about a hundred men and women of various ages and from all provinces. Most are without resources. Several have taken the path of exile. Twenty of these journalists are serving long sentences in prison for reporting.

Through their individual prisms and from their respective locations, they make known to the world events that do not otherwise leak out of “the most democratic country on the planet”.

They have limitations. They don’t know journalistic techniques. They learn on the job, writing reports, columns and articles, recording interviews, shooting photos. In the words of José Martí, referring to the crude poets of the countryside, they rhyme badly, but they think well.

Others, like Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera, Oscar Espinosa Chepe or Laritza Diversent, could hold their own against any news or information professional.

Much of the time, they write for a small group of readers. Including for themselves.

Major media correspondents accredited in Cuba can surpass them in quality and scope. But not in immediacy. Nor in coverage of a multitude of events that the foreign press on the island overlooks.

Some risk their necks, like Carlos Serpa Maceira, a barricade reporter who is ever there. Others, like Roberto de Jesús Guerra, with the patience of a goldsmith, weaves a network of people who inform him about what is happening in a hospital or an important factory in the country.

They practice journalism as if it were the priesthood. They have only one hope. To inform. One way or another.

Iván García

Photo: Carlos Serpa Maceira, on the right, next to Orlando Zapata Tamayo, taken March 19, 2003.

Translated by: CIMF

Three Hours with the Ladies in White

Ladies in White leaving Laura’s house on March 25, 2010.

I arrived just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the house of Laura Pollán Toledo, right in the middle of Cuba’s capital at 963 Neptuno Street. Pollán, is the wife of the prisoner of conscience Héctor Maseda, one of the 75 peaceful dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro’s government during what has come to be known as  the “Black Spring of 2003.”

Laura’s small hot living room is packed.  “Today, we have planned a march,” she announces in a soft voice.  Where?  “We always let everyone know while we are marching,” Laura says. Generally, that is the only security measure they take in order to prevent the political police from foiling their planned marches.

“We know that the phones are tapped and that there may be some infiltrators in our group. It is a rule that we follow to protect ourselves and it has worked,” stresses Pollán in the midst of coming and goings in her small kitchen, while she makes coffee and tea for 24 relaxed ladies talking and laughing while waiting for “zero hour.”

Ladies in White, at Laura’s house, waiting for the moment to take to the streets.

Laura is the spokesperson and leader of the Ladies in White, winners of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament in 2005. They are more than 70 women, counting amongst them relatives of those incarcerated and supporters of the group. Almost none had been previously involved in anti-government activities. None were dissidents.

Pollán Toledo was professor of Literature and Spanish. Others worked at factories and offices or simply stayed home. Their biggest headache, just as with all other Cuban women, was to prepare two hot plates of food each day and to take care of their husbands and children.

At Laura’s house waiting to leave for the march.

If anything pushed them toward government opposition and public protests, it was the government of Fidel Castro. And they do not regret it. They have their children, husbands, fathers, brothers behind bars, serving long sentences… “We will not stop until they release all of the prisoners of conscience,” stressed Pollán, a short, slightly overweight blond.

The previous week they had put the regime in a tough spot, after a series of six marches to churches located in different municipalities of the city of Havana.

“The march of Wednesday the 18th was the most violent one, marchers were pushed and beaten. During the other marches they offended us but we were not physically attacked,” observed José Alberto Alvarez, a 56-year-old independent news reporter who, together with Serpa Maceira, who is 43, serve as spoke-persons for the group of the group of women who dress in white.

Laura Pollán’s home is a headquarters of sorts.  In the afternoon of March 25, everyone milled casually around the narrow home.  They talked about the latest political happenings, about their husbands and children or the current soap opera on TV.

Laura was giving an interview on the phone. Today, March 25, a march organized in support of the Ladies in White by the Cuban-American singer, Gloria Estefan, is taking place in Miami, and the phone lines have not stopped ringing.

Around six in the afternoon, several women began handing out gladioli and a nylon bags with a white dove inside. “Be careful not to let them fly away,” a smiling Laura warns. Some foreign correspondents and independent news reporters asked what was going on. Mischievously peering out from her intense blue eyes, Pollán tells them: “Follow us and find out.”

Before heading out for one of their now habitual marches through the city, Laura Pollán rallies them and warns them.  “We are going to release the doves at one place and then we will stop at another and we will shout for Freedom. The purpose of this march is to support the march that our compatriots in Miami are carrying out. Remember, do not allow them to provoke us.”

Everyone agrees and they leave in silence. They look like ghostly figures dressed in their white clothes. As soon as they set foot on the street, an accelerated operation on behalf of State Security is unleashed. Right in front of Laura’s house there is a surveillance camera recording everyone who enters or leaves the house.

In no time at all, while the Ladies walk through Neptuno Street, several men, cell phones in hand, organize the usual government ordered counter-march against the ladies who demand freedom for their loved ones.

The destination is the Malecón, by the side of the Maceo Park.  There they free 24 doves.  They then walk about 400 meters along the Malecón and very close to the back patio of the Hotel Nacional. Holding their gladioli high, they begin to shout “Freedom, Freedom…”

Ladies in White by the Malecón. Photos taken March 25, 2010.

By this time, the police have finished organizing their shindig. Two public buses filled with police officers park near them, as well as numerous police cars and the motorcycles of State Security. Even an ambulance.

The hostile presence of the government can be felt next to the foreign correspondents whom the government tries to intimidate, by taking their photographs and filming them.

As soon as the Ladies in White begin to chant Freedom, suddenly, like a typhoon, a group of about forty people show up shouting insults: “sell-outs, traitors, mercenaries.”

The two groups are so close to each other that it looks like a brawl is about to explode. But nothing happens.  The group called together by the government just tries to counteract the Ladies’ call for freedom.

Passersby stare at these marches with surprise, and more than a few with admiration.

Occasional tourists snap pictures. Many in Havana have already become used to the marches of The Ladies in White.

In 51 years of strong-man revolution, acts of public street criticism against the government have been non-existent.

Today, in this Spring of 2010, the women who demand freedom for their loved ones, have turned public criticism into an important weapon for peaceful protests. A stamp from home.

Text and photographs: Iván García

Translated by: Ondina Felipe and Raul G.

Congratulations, Jorge!

Our dear old friend, the composer Jorge Luis Piloto, born in Cardenas, Matanzas, Miami resident since 1980, received on March 23 in Los Angeles, the Golden Note Award, given by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

It was in appreciation of his contribution to Latin music and to his career over 25 years as a composer.

In the first picture. he is next to Puerto Rican Tommy Torres and Joan Sebastian, who shared the Songwriter of the Year award, and Armando Manzanero (Mexico 1935), honored with the Latin Heritage Award, for his great contribution to world music. In the second photo, Piloto is saying a few words of thanks. And in the last, he is next to the little big man who is Manzanero.

For those wishing to learn more about the Cuban-American composer, I suggest you read  The Jorge Luis Piloto I knew“, “Manufacturing Fantasies” and “Forbidding Celia or Los Van Van is a weakness“.

Iván García y Tania Quintero

Translated by: CIMF

Calle 13 and their Havana Megaconcert

The megaconcert started at 5 p.m. sharp. The one in charge of warming up the 100,000 people crowding into the “Anti-Imperialist Rostrum,” popularly known as the “Protestodrome,” was Cuban singer Kelvis Ochoa.

For nearly an hour, in warm spring sun and a gentle breeze, Ochoa went through his repertoire from top to bottom. He heated the place up. A poor audio that could barely be heard more than 350 meters from the stage did not prevent people from enjoying themselves, jumping and dancing, as only those born in this corner of the world can.

With their bottles of sugar-cane rum, or cans of Cristal beer, the mass of youth made it a date, enjoying the concert. After 6 in the evening the music of the Boricuan* band Calle 13 broke out.

The Puerto Rican musicians, who boast several Grammy awards, have many followers on the island. And from the first hit, the Protestódrome exploded. Despite a heavy police presence, thousands of tourists had joined the wild dancing and the hip hop tropical holiday.

The good feeling continued even after Calle 13 played their final note after two hours of contagious rhythm and fiery lyrics. Thousands of people, eager to prolong the event, gathered in the parks of Vedado to pass around brandy and, accompanied by an Mp3 or an old broken-down guitar, to sing until they were hoarse, throughout the night.

Others stood in long lines at the Coppelia ice cream parlor, to ease the heat with an ice cream of modest quality available for purchase with national currency. There were only a couple of flavors, and they didn’t include strawberry or chocolate.

Opposite the capital-city ice creamery, there were long lines to buy hot dogs for ten pesos. The places that accept only convertible currency were also packed.

It turns out that in Havana the people are thirsty for good concerts and high-quality cultural activities. And when there are some, like the concert by Juanes and Miguel Bosé, September 20, 2009 at Revolution Plaza, or this one by Calle 13 at the edge of the Malecon, people will turn out however they can.

They forget about poor transportation and bad food. They even set baseball aside, although the national title is being decided, and Industriales, the local team, is in contention.

“Baseball can wait, but shows like Calle 13 only happen once in a while,” says Yuri, a 23-year-old black young man, outlandishly dressed and wearing heavy 14 karat gold chains . Nonetheless, Yuri and his friends are constantly keeping an eye on their watches; they don’t wait for the end of the show and rush to catch a packed bus to their homes.

They wanted to arrive in time to watch the final match on tv between Industriales and Villa Clara for the championship. If they succeeded, they could kill two birds with one stone. They enjoyed good music and they could see on tv the conclusion of a sizzling tournament.

And in an expensive Havana, with few recreational options, to be able to enjoy two high-level events on one day is a luxury. And for free.

Iván García

*Puerto Ricans refer to themselves using the Taino word “boricua”

Translated by: Tomás A.

Transport in the Capital: An Unresolved Issue

Public transport has always been an unresolved issue for Fidel Castro’s government.  In Havana, in particular, where after the trams were taken out in the early 1950s, the bus service was among the best of all the most important cities in the world.

In the 1980s, when the county had a direct pipeline to the resources of the Kremlin, Hungary and other countries of the old socialist block, in the village of Guanajay, 60 kilometers from the capital, they set up a factory to assemble Ikarus buses. This did not prevent movement from one part of the city to another being a disaster.

At the time of the greatest material abundance of the olive-green Revolution, when you could buy yogurt and milk without a ration card, 2,500 buses and about 5,000 taxis circulated in the capital. But even still the deficit in public transport was not eased.

With the arrival of the silent war called “the special period,” after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, traveling around the city was a feat worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. There were times when some bus routes operated only twice a day. Then they made their appearance with the famous “camels,” trucks towing large trailers that could fit up to 300 people, squished in like sardines. Real saunas, and places for pickpockets and sexual perverts.

People walked up to 20 kilometers a day to conduct their business, visit a friend or family member. The main streets were deserted and dark as the power was cut off up to 16 hours a day. On that chaos, the heavy Chinese bicycles were introduced, which caused fatal traffic accidents to skyrocket.

Not to mention the escalating violence. The streets of Havana were competing with those of Medellin or Rio de Janeiro. In order to steal your bicycle, the thieves were just as likely to chop you with a machete or slit your throat, as they caught you by stretching a rope across the dark street, when you passed on your bike.

With the passing of time, to the buses and “camels” they added “Haley’s comet.” Castro 1, preoccupied with his delusions of helping Third World countries, and squandering the meager public funds in economic nonsense and meaningless plans, landed to reality in 2004. And looking stupid in the Assemblies of People’s Power, he asked what the Minister in charge was doing to resolve the transport crisis.

As always, el comandante blamed the failure on others. But he realized that if he wanted the economy to grow, he would have to take some money from the bank to buy buses, trucks and locomotives. From China and Russia they bought about 5,000 buses and an equal number of trucks.

Urban transport, starved, saw the manna when they started to roll out 460 Yutong, Liaz and Maz buses throughout the city. The bus company began to operate 17 routes designated with the letter P, that today run on Havana’s main arterials.

In peak hours, the P routes run every 5 to 10 minutes. They are always full to bursting and hot as an oven. But for want of bread, cassava. The much vaunted improvement that the city’s leaders boast about is pure mirage.

Today, one-third as many buses are operating in the city as in 1988.  It makes sense that a city of more than two million people, like Havana, if you want it to function even minimally, must have bus service capable of carrying a million people who move around the city every day.

Lacking a subway or suburban train, and where taxi service in national currency has disappeared, the only viable option for the citizenry is to take the congested P routes. Still, moving from the main central avenues to a marginal neighborhood on outskirts is a complicated story.

The bus service in the major neighborhoods and peripheral areas is a calamity. With the downturn in the economy due to the two crises, the world financial crisis and the one we have suffered for 21 years as a result of the Special Period, the plans to expand public transport have been shelved.

With the cutting of the frequency of trips, heading out with the family on the weekend is quite inconvenient. The buses known as the P routes are packed and run up to 30 minutes late on Saturdays and Sundays.

To make matters worse, among the staff of the bus company it is rumored that the due to the usual default on part of the Cuban government, the providers will not guarantee to supply parts for the years to come.

To go from one zone to another in the city could become an inferno. And the hard years of the 1990s, when a bus was as rare as a spaceship, could return. Although never, to be perfectly honest, has a bus ride in Havana been easy or pleasant.

Iván García

Photo: DCvision2006, Flickr. One line of trams in Havana in the 40s.

The Two Faces of the Internet in Cuba

For Rolando, a 56-year-old worker, the internet is science fiction. Fernandez, who has never navigated the information highway, thinks it is pure fantasy that someone sitting in their home can read a newspaper or magazine, watch television shows or listen to the radio.

Laureano, a 61-year-old retired cigar-roller, looks at me with amazement like he doesn’t believe what I am telling him: that you can reserve airline tickets or buy tickets to the World Cup in South Africa, all on the Internet.

Many Cubans have only seen the Internet in films that come on Cuban television on Saturday nights. Magic and immediacy. A fabulous way to get whatever inquiry you want from the keyboard of your personal computer.

Internet is seen as an impossible art. When someone wants to share reliable information, the say “I read it on the internet.” On the island, it has become customary to disseminate texts on the subject of Cuba downloaded from newspapers, blogs or digital pages.

As less than 0.8 % of the Cuban population have a home  connection to the World Wide Web, people try to manage as best as they can. In the offices of the Telecommunication company (Etecsa), hotels, hospitals, airports, government ministries and offices of the main national media, the employees can access the Internet.

But people who are lucky enough to get on the Internet, are always in the eye of the hurricane.  It works for many things.  To be able to have an e-mail address through Yahoo or Gmail and be connected with family and friends outside the country. Or to read secretly the last post of Yoani Sánchez or articles in El Nuevo Herald, El Mundo or El Pais, Cuban’s preferred news sources.

Also the Internet is used to spread gossip about those who are famous, to try to make foreign friends and why not, if the your boss isn’t too controlling, then like a business tool.

Those that have Internet at their jobs can make some money off of it too.  Not much, but enough to be used for the daily needs.  Luisa, 29, works at a hotel and every morning she comes in with a flash drive full of messages her neighbors have given her to send to their families, girlfriends or friends whom live outside the country.

“I charge 10 pesos (50 cents in dollars) for sending an e-mail.  If the connection is possible, I copy movies or soap operas which later I burn to a DVD and rent it out for 5 pesos (25 cents in dollars).  It’s not much, but it gives me enough so I can have lunch and take private taxis daily.”

Others like Mariano, 43, with a vast knowledge of the Internet, can make an appreciable amount of money. He designs web pages for people who rent rooms to tourists, or for prostitutes which advertise themselves on the net.  And also copies films or TV programs broadcast from Miami, especially about when people close to Castro leave the country, or other critical reports on Cuba.

“I sell films, soap operas and reports to people dedicated to renting movies.  For designing a web page I charge 50 pesos (40 US Dollars).  In the case of those who rent rooms, I charge a 5 peso (4 US dollar) commission per tourist who rents their house.  On a good day I can earn from 60 to 100 pesos (50 to 80 US Dollars).”

Knowing that people are making money with the Internet connections at their jobs, the Castro government has tried to close the web, and watches it with a magnifying glass.

At her workplace, Nora, 43, was obliged to sign a code of ethics, whereby she pledges not to access counter-revolutionary, politically biased or defamatory web-pages. At the same time, it is forbidden to possess an email account.

The least expensive Internet connection costs 5 CUCs (cuban convertible pesos) or 125 pesos in local currency, equivalent to half of the minimum monthly wages in Cuba. Beside being expensive, the connections are extremely slow. The fastest ones do not go above 50 Kbs and are only available in luxury hotels like the Melia Cohiba or the Saratoga.

Uploading photos or videos is almost impossible.  To think you can have Internet at home is a fantasy.  On the black market they sell Internet passwords for the most secure and fast Internet connections in a range of prices from 50 pesos to even 120 (from 40 to 100 US dollars).

If they catch you, the fines are scandalous.  From 20,000 pesos (4,000 US dollars).  If you are a resident you can even go to jail.  A lot of Cuban workers like Rolando or the retired Laureano can’t believe that one day they will be able to sit in front a desk and find that the Internet is not magic nor a fable.

Until such time comes, Cubans will have to be satisfied to learn about the Internet from their children and  grandchildren. Or from the Saturday night movies on TV

Photo: bibicall, Flickr. Tourist connecting to the Internet from a cybercafé in Santa Clara, a city in the center of the Island

Translated by:  Betsy

Surviving in Socialist Cuba

Life for Juan Domeq, who is 79-years-old, is a vicious cycle. Every day, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and with his gait slow and hesitant, he arrives at his newspaper corner. He buys 50 copies of the Granma newspaper and the same number of the Juventud Rebelde. Domeq invests 20 pesos (less than one dollar) in the 100 copies. If he manages to sell them, at one peso for each one, he gets 80 pesos in profit. But he cannot sell that quantity of newspapers every day.

“People in the streets are not interested in what the Cuban press says. Besides, the employee at the street corner cannot always sell me 100 newspapers, usually, he sells me 40 to 50 of them. Afterward, if I have a good day, I buy food, milk or yogurt for my wife who has been bedridden for the past four years with paralysis. The small amount of money that I get selling newspapers is spent on meals. In addition, I have to keep my eyes open all the time, because the police has already given me a fine of 40 pesos because I have sold the newspapers without a licence,” Juan Domeq says, a sad old man overburdened with problems who lives in a filthy bunkhouse in the Havana neighbourhood of Lawton.

At the same time that Domeq gets up to buy the newspapers, Antonio Villa 68-years-old, with a physical impediment, wakes up. Then, after a cup of hot coffee, in his wheelchair, he goes towards the bakery of his area, where he sells bags of nylon for one peso each (.05 cents).

According to Antonio, someone he knew sold him a hundred bags of nylon for 35 pesos. ” Selling bags takes between 10 and 12 hours daily. Sometimes, I have a good day and I manage to sell 200 baskets, but most of the time, I only sell 80 or 90. With what I get, 65-120 pesos, (3-5 dollars) I buy a meal and I keep some change to pay a lady who washes my clothes. Several times the police have taken me down to the station. Besides fining me, they confiscated my bags. But as much as I want to be free, I return to doing what I know how to do so I can earn an honest living”, relates Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war with Angola and lives in a wooden hut with a roof of aluminum.

Also, without much luck, Clara Rivas tries looking for a handful of pesos. She is 71-years-old and is a resident of a decrepit old people’s home in the La Vibora neighbourhood. Clara, dirty and in old clothes, sells cigarettes as a retailer. “In the home, we are given lunch and a meal, but it is so bad that many old people who live there prefer to look for our own money and to eat in the street.”

After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, money earned can buy a portion of rice, stewed peas and a tasteless bony fish, in a hovel belonging to the state where prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the home to sleep.

Juan, Antonio and Clara are three old people full of complaints, already with signs of senile dementia, and without a family who cares for them. They must perform miracles so as to survive under the hard conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not the only ones.

Iván García

Photo: Martin Baran, Flickr

Translated by : George L