Independent Journalists’ Avatars

Damn.  What do I do now?  I had planned an interview with a lady from the Marianao neighborhood who does community service with needy children.  Because of reasons beyond my control I had to postpone it.

It’s 8:00 in the morning of an unusual and cold month of January in 2010.  I look at the wallet, 28 cuc’s left.  I have to improvise for the failed interview.  Already inside an “almendrón” (antique American car in use as a shared taxi), I decide to share with you the avatars and dreams of an Independent Cuban Journalist.

When, in October, 2009, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, in its digital version, asked me to write a debate blog titled 90 Miles in partnership with Max Lesnik, the idea seamed brilliant.  Also, if I could, the Mister of Editing with his Madrid accent asked me, some stories.  Great!  Hands to work.  But — there’s always a but — to write in Cuba is a task worthy of Tarzan.

I’ve seen Robert Redford’s film about Watergate seven times.  Incarnates the famous Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, and his celebrity source, Deep Throat.  A majestic case of journalism.  With avidity the stories get published in the magazines Time or Newsweek.  Also reports in El Mundo or the Sunday edition of El País.  They’re over the top.  To be a journalist in the First World must be gratifying.

No bureaucrat can deny you public information.  Nor dangling over your head is a horrific law that can condemn you to 20 years in jail.  Also no one in the neighborhood where you live can mount a “repudiation act,” a verbal lynching, German fascist style, where the least they’ll scream at you is a verbal assault on the mother who gave you birth.

Never, in that First World where for breakfast there’s a variety of dishes and with frequency you can eat meat, will a candid intelligence agent pay you a visit to threaten you, that if you continue to write you could be processed.  Must be good to be a journalist in the First World.

In the civilized, because in Colombia or Mexico, a paid thug of a drug cartel can spray you with bullets.  Or in the Venezuela of the delirious Hugo Chavez where the Bolivarian, without contemplations can fill you with improprieties on his television program Aló Presidente.

I have the habit of reading the comments left me.  I like to be criticized.  More so when they are views with weight in them.  If I adore something from the 21st Century is it’s feedback.  I write what I think, be it in a chronicle or in an opinion piece.  For the government, I’m a mercenary.  A traitor to my people and the Socialist Revolution.

I don’t frighten.  I take the work seriously.  Believe me.  And I’m a dreamer, who believes that deep down inside people are good.  For this 2010 I’ve got my plans.  I’d like for Raul Castro to give me the answers he denies blogger Yoani Sanchez.  Also I’d like to interview Fidel Castro in his private clinic.

The encounters list continues.  With Cuban athletes Kendry Morales and Dayron Robles.  And afterward have them sign their autographs for me.  I’d be happy if Usain Bolt, the man who came from another planet, the Swiss Roger Federer, the Argentine Lionel Messi or the Spaniard Pau Gasol, would grant me a few minutes.  Of the politicians, apart from the Castros, with pleasure I’d talk for El Mundo or for my blog, Desde La Habana, with the prisoner of conscience Oscar Elias Biscet or with the exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner.  Of foreign statesmen, I’d pour off with Lula or a polemic interview with the Father Christmas of Caracas.

Well, why not?  Also with the charismatic Barack Obama and the insipid Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who I’d ask to explain his government’s position with respect to Cuba.  I would miss a fist-full of artists and my little right eye, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s good to dream.  But I’ve arrived at the Parque Central Hotel.  An Internet card for one hour costs 8 cuc, a ton of money.  I tuck away well in my wallet the rest of the 20 cuc’s.  For next time.

I’d give what I don’t have to try out extensive reports, controversial and balanced and with good pictures.  And because someone from the said list granted me an interview.  But that’s jerking off.  Now I have to put my feet on the ground.  And besides this chronicle, see what else I can write for El Mundo and my blog Desde La Habana.  Afterwards I can continue dreaming.

Iván García


Translated by: Mickey Garrote

Beggars and Mentally Ill Havanans

In the city of Havana, the number of mentally ill street people in their filthy and ragged clothing increases on a daily basis.  The number of beggars is also going up — you can find them in just about any doorway lying on cardboard asking for change with their lost looks.  And on any corner there are street vendors selling peanuts, cheap things, loose cigarettes and second-hand items.

It is almost a legion.  Walk around the old Capitol Building and Central Park and you will see more than a few senior citizens, dressed in worn-out but clean clothing, all asking for money from the pale European tourists, who, fascinated by all of this, shoot photographs in bursts with their digital cameras.  You’ll also see 11- or 12-year old children begging for money from the foreigners.

Not far away, a robust black man announces that he has souvenir pictures for the photo albums of the travelers.  He takes their photographs in black and white using a box camera from the beginning of the 20th century.  Close by, a group of beggars takes turns holding out their hands without thinking twice about badgering the foreigners.

The troupe of beggars doesn’t just swarm around the areas where distracted tourists tend to wander.  No.  The scene is a frequent one on any central street in Havana.  Or in cafés or stores that only deal in foreign currency.

When the brutal cold wave passed over Cuba during the first fortnight of January — 26 patients admitted into the psychiatric hospital in the capital died due to hypothermia and lack of food — when this happened, the mentally ill street people and vendors magically disappeared.

They were sent to decrepit shelters and guaranteed two frugal meals a day.  But the sun warmed things back up again and they returned to their everyday affairs of trying to win some small change or sell cigarettes and cheap items of limited utility.

If there is anything that fills the revolution of Fidel Castro with pride, it is that at the beginning of 1959, when the lawyer from Birán took the reins of power, you hardly saw any beggars who were out of their minds and demanding.

Back then, there were lunatics who were brilliant and agreeable, like the famous Gentleman from Paris, who was born in Galicia.  He was a crazy, extravagant person who composed poems, and who on avenues and corners in the center of Havana, gave passionate dissertations in the style of an 18th century Spaniard.

Later, when the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR closed the spigot of oil and rubles to Castro, there was a resurgence of a range of flabbergasted scruffy vagabonds who rummaged around in garbage cans looking for left-over food or an old piece of clothing or something to sell.

It is a habitual sight to see extensive legions of poverty-stricken people who have nothing in any Latin-American city you might name.  Those images which used to be unpublished in Cuba, now form part of our urban landscape.  As a result of the 26 deaths in the psychiatric hospital, known as Mazorra, and the hair-raising earthquake in Haiti that snuffed out the lives of almost 100,000 people, those of us here on the ground on the island have been left in shock.

Caridad Ruiz, who is 73 years old and an indigent without a roof who sleeps on newspapers on the pavement of the 10th of October Street, says that on those icy days her beggar’s cup with the faded image of Saint Lazarus filled with coins.  “People were more sensitive, I could eat hot food and have some rum to warm my stomach.”  That’s what the old lady says as she continues to beg for money from anyone who walks through the doorways of the popular avenue.

It could be that in Havana the crowd of beggars, the alienated and the vendors of peanuts, cigarettes and newspapers are not so numerous as in Lima, Río de Janeiro or La Paz.  But we are getting there.

Iván García

DHL Switzerland Does Not Inform Its Cuban Clients

The flood of publicity with which DHL inundates the world floods in telling us that they will deliver packages in 72 hours from door to door.  Well, that will be the case for the rest of the world.  In Cuba, generally, it takes a while longer.  And you have to pay a lot for their services.

I have experienced for myself how the leading firm of global couriers tricks its clients.  I will tell you my story.  I have a daughter who turned 7 on February 3rd. Several weeks in advance I asked my mother to buy her a red outfit for her birthday.  My mother lives in the prim city of Lucerne, a German-Swiss city that never captures international media headlines.

What appeared to be a routine procedure turned into an odyssey and this time Cuban Customs was not to blame.  According to Moraima Vargas Hernández, who is in charge of the DHL Import Office in Havana, the office of the multinational on the outskirts of Lucerne had been informed by email that “for anything with a value over $100, the sender must acquire a consular invoice from the Cuban consulate.”  This consular invoice costs 210 Swiss francs (some 200 dollars).  And in this document one can read that the invoice is required regardless of the contents and weight of the package.

In 2009, my family in Lucerne sent us four packages via DHL. To send a package to Cuba, a country located in Zone 2, the geographic area most distant from Europe, you must use a box, which they give you for free, that is one of five sizes.  The tariffs from Switzerland to Cuba are not cheap: 155 Swiss Francs for the smallest package and 320 for the largest (some $147 to $303).

The point is that DHL in Switzerland had never told my mother, who is 67 and who had to take a bus to Dierikon where the Lucerne DHL office is located, some 40 minutes from her house, that to send a package to the Island she had to get the consular invoice from the Cuban consulate in Berne.

That is  not all, besides of this flagrant violation of the worldly courier, the implacable Cuban bureaucratic state machinery came onto the scene. According to official Vargas, the time allowed for these errands was only ten working days, a very short time in comparison with the two months allowed by DHL for these types of errands.

I agreed with my mother to reclaim the box and pay the money she had to pay to have it returned to her house.  As she lives in a country with rights, there are mechanisms to complain and even sue the international company for providing bad information.

From Cuba it’s a waste of time.  In its desire to deposit money in its depleted coffers, the government imposes high taxes on any commercial transaction or sale of products.  Not to mention that on the Island, the law does not protect the consumer.

For the Castros, emigrants are a kind of cow, the more they can milk them and the more foreign currency they can obtain the better.  DHL, like nearly all transnational companies when it’s about money, is apolitical and unscrupulous, and they negotiate with the highest bidder.

The giant Google, anxious to grow its user-base, has established itself in China, a nation where fierce censorship and human rights violations are enforced  Or the famous Nike, has also installed factories in the Asiatic giant to produce low cost goods, without caring that the Chinese government pays miserable wages and exploits their workers mercilessly.

Unfortunately, this is the way most multinationals operate. They are more interested in a piece of the cake than adhering to ethical business practices or principles. They negotiate with tyrants and closed dictatorial regimes, knowing that these countries violate human rights and the free press is notable for its absence  Each time the contradictions between the politician’s speeches and those of the business people are even more evident.

Doing business with Cuba could backfire for DHL. Employees from DHL in Switzerland were alarmed upon learning that their offices in Havana charge 200 Cuban pesos for delivering the package to your door. According to what we know, DHL global pays for the fuel for the delivery vehicles that bring the shipments to their destinations in all of the countries where it does business.

In this tug-of-war between a company that cheats its clients and a government that for any transaction charges high amounts of money, my daughter Melany will not be able to premiere, on her birthday, the clothes that her grandmother bought for her. Thankfully, she is a happy girl. Not even DHL in Switzerland or the Customs of Cuba are going to erase her naughty smile.

Melany still does not understand the diabolical mechanisms established, in the country where she was born, to continuously put obstacles in the way of the free flow of goods. They form a part of the embargo of the Castros against its people. Three times more effective than that of the United States against Cuba.

Iván García

Translated by:

Another Year Without Hope

When winter comes, Ruben Soriano, 42, is hoping more than anything for the arrival of a cold front. He takes his straw hat off, looks up at the sky and exclaims: “It’s not going to rain again today.” That’s bad for his business. Ruben works hard on a not-very-fertile field on the outskirts of Havana, where he plants tomatoes and vegetables in season. High temperatures and prolonged drought have decreased his crops. With a simple and compelling logic he says:

“If I harvest little, I earn little. And if I don’t get good money I live badly, and I will not have much money to buy seeds and farming tools for the next year. So I pray that the weather will help me.”

Soriano was one of those who benefitted when in 2008 the government of General Raúl Castro gave out rights to farm vacant land. He, his wife and three children were full of hope.

The only thing that Ruben Soriano has done and has done well in his whole life is to work the land. He complains about the low prices that the State collection centers pay for his crops. In theory, he must sell the state about 70 percent of what he grows.

In practice, that’s not what happens. He is forced to under-report the true figures, so that he can sell to private buyers who pay triple the price for his products. “But if the heat and lack of rain continue, I’ll have to do something else,” he worries. And he admits that all he watches on TV are the weather forecasts.

Oscar Suarez, 56, couldn’t care less if it rains, or is cold or hot. He is a private taxi driver, licensed to drive for hire since 2006. Each December, he has to report his earnings to the Treasury and pay the bank between 2,000 and 3,500 pesos.

“It’s always the same. When the last month of the year comes, I have to work like a mule to get that money. For me the important thing is not how much time I have to work, it’s whether there are people needing to go from one place to another who have the ten Cuban pesos to pay the fare.

Suarez is a taxi driver with an elevated cultural level. He doesn’t have to envy his counterparts in Buenos Aires, where according to what he has read, they talk about opera, the stock market, the Boca Juniors, an Argentine soccer team, and the situation in Iraq. “I am like them,” he boasts.

“I am not like the taxi drivers in Argentina, or anywhere on the planet, in that I drive an ancient Chevrolet, a real Frankenstein.” And laughing, he says: “It’s an old lady with rouge. I’ve painted it seven times, and done body work as many times. It’s a mechanical monstrosity; it has the engine of a Volga (Russian car) and parts from so many countries that it seems like a product of the United Nations.”

But it runs and makes money, which is all that’s important to him.  Nor does he worry about whether it pollutes the environment.

“This old Chevy is part of the family. My grandfather, my father, and now me and my children have all driven it. I am more grateful to it than I would be to a watchdog. I often say that in my house, before dinner, instead of praying to the Lord, we pray to General Motors.”

For 2010, Oscar Suarez wants peace and harmony throughout the world, and that Cuba’s economic situation improves. “I have wanted this since 1989, but I’m getting tired of keeping my hopes up. Although it would be good if those above” –and he makes a gesture with his hand indicating the beard of Fidel Castro — “would change direction and be guided by the market economy, but who knows what’s best for the coming year …”

Diego Ramirez, a 34-year old engineer, does not expect great things from 2010. Quite the contrary.

“More likely we’ll have to punch another hole in our belt. In my company there are rumors of pay cuts in hard currency. They took away our lunch and give us 15 pesos a day for food. The outlook is gray and getting darker.”

Diego is a textbook skeptic. “The only ones who see where the country is headed are the people leading us.” And he shows a copy of the daily newspaper Granma, with a grinning Hugo Chávez, and a headline in black letters with the good news: 13 billion dollars invested between Cuba and Venezuela.

Guys like Diego Ramirez long ago stopped believing in the exaggerated triumphalism of the official media. Every day he hopes for a different kind of news.  “Deaths, changes of power, political and economic changes …” And dreams of learning from foreign media. “The Cuban press won’t report anything until everything is under control. So it’s possible that by next year, something really good will happen. ”

– Deaths, firings, political and economic changes…

And he dreams of what he’s learned through the foreign media.  “The Cuban press wouldn’t report anything until everything is under control.  So it’s possible that in the coming year, something good could happen.

According to Diego, many Cubans want the same thing.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Sonia Garro, or the Cruelty of a Regime

Sonia Garro at her sewing machine

It all started one sunless noon, on the 24th of February, 2007. “Up here,” said Sonia, a laboratory technician, who sews on a 50-year-old machine on the porch of her home, from where she often saw accidents involving children playing without the watchful eyes of their parents. And her large eyes filled with tears on nights when she saw girls 12 years old, with emaciated bodies, like that of her daughter, prostitute themselves for trinkets.

And it was decided. That day Sonia established an independent community project that would help poor children in her neighborhood, regardless of the ideology of their parents.

We introduce to you Sonia Garro Alfonso, 34, a black woman, somewhat overweight, who lives on Avenida 47 No. 11,638 between 116 and 118, in the populous and humble district of Marianao, at the north end of the City of Havana. If anyone can talk about poverty, prejudice, and setbacks in life, she can.

“I can count the happy moments of my childhood on the fingers of one hand. I am the tenth child in a family of twelve children, desperately poor. Forget Christmas presents. We always wore second-hand clothes given out of charity to my mother by a neighbor. I went to school with my old, broken-down shoes, but with an immense desire, always thinking that studying and outdoing myself could change my fate,” Sonia tells us in the narrow room, panelled with mustard-colored wood, in her precarious two-story house.

Unfortunately for Sonia, her luck did not change in her early youth. On her own, and against obvious shades of racism, during the years when she studied to become a laboratory technician, to climb the hill and leave poverty behind, choking down bread to ward off hunger and be a person who is solvent, it was almost a mission impossible.

“I lived racism firsthand. I remember one day I wanted to make a complaint at the school and the assistant director, with hatred, told me “Go wherever you want, who’s going to listen to the case of a black woman?”  When I graduated from the technical school in laboratory science with a first class degree, they had a ceremony in the Astral theater in the middle of Havana.  The Minister of Public Health was to hand out the diplomas to the most outstanding, and another person from the minister’s circle approached me and said someone else would receive my diploma for me, because to have someone with such black skin in the photo wouldn’t look good. “No offense, it’s not because of racism, but with skin that dark you’ll spoil the photo,” recalls Sonia in her calm voice.

That night, which should have been the happiest of her life, she had to swallow the bitter pill that another person, of the white race, had taken her diploma. She was so humiliated that she left the theater. “I never got that diploma,” she confesses. But as the saying goes, on a skinny dog, all that falls are fleas.

Then, when she was employed in a clinic in her neighborhood, in an “emergency” meeting, she was expelled from the health center for having a husband who was a political opponent. “‘You can do one of two things,’ they told me, ‘either separate from him, or you have to leave the clinic.'” Sonya left.

If anyone has pushed this woman to dissent, and to set her own standards, it is the government itself, with its absurd way of acting. Until for her the light went on. After spending hours sitting on her porch, watching children get hurt, getting stuck between trash dumpsters, playing barefoot and squabbling among themselves, Sonia knew she had to do something.

Then with the help of her husband, she founded the Independent Cultural Recreation Center, on February 24, 2007.  In their house, every afternoon after school, scores of children between 7 and 15 years old meet on the porch and in the living room of their modest home.

The children

“The first rule I have is not to talk about politics at all. I organize activities of drawing and cutting and sewing. My husband, Ramon Alejandro Muñoz, a musician by profession, is in charge of preparing dance choreography and teaching them to play musical instruments. When we can, on weekends we have parties and distribute children’s books and toys. Some foreign non-governmental organizations have helped us with materials and medicines. Also embassies of European Union countries, and individual people, who give us what they can. Because this is not a work of one person,” says Sonia, while showing us many photos of activities with clowns, where the common denominator is the bright smile on the faces of those children.

After that initial experience, Garro decided to go for more. She opened another community center in the El Palenque slum, in the borough of Marianao. If you want to know how El Palenque is, look at photos of a sordid favela of Rio de Janeiro or a shantytown of Port au Prince before the earthquake. It is almost the same. There, Sonia and her partners serve between 16 and 18 children.

What looks like a healthy activity of civilized society, which brings more benefits than problems, has unleashed a small hurricane from the State Security forces of the Cuban state. Accustomed for 51 years that any good idea always starts at the desk of a senior official of the Communist Party, it always raises suspicions and makes a person suspect when a citizen, on her own, creates a project without the support of Father State. And Sonia Garro has had to pay a price for her humanitarian work.

“The government’s response to my social work has been three acts of repudiation and a couple of beatings. The last act of repudiation they tried to give me did not work, because nobody on the block went to support them, they had to march with empty hands,” she says, without animosity or emotion.

Most of the children who attend the project live in little hells at home. Almost all come from dysfunctional families where the father is in jail or his children do not know him. At the very least, revolutionary neighbors, supposedly integrated into the system, “congratulate the Garro Muñoz couple.”

“There are even police who welcome and encourage us for what we do,” says Sonia’s husband.

Sonia Garro is far from being a sociologist or expert, dedicated to studying just why in Cuba, a paradigm of a happy childhood, cases like this occur in her neighborhood. Neither does she want to emulate Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Nor Zilda Arns, the Brazilian doctor who died in Port au Prince as a result of the Haitian earthquake, and left a legacy of thousands of children rescued from poverty and marginalization.

The task of this Cuban is simple. Seeing the children laugh and grow in a healthy environment, free from violence. If in the future these children become professionals, educated in civic values, and not locked up in jail, she will be satisfied. She does not ask for anything more. And that is why she doesn’t understand why her work arouses such resentment among the authorities.

By other pathways, Sonia Alfonso Garro assumed that the State wished to accomplish the same thing. But the government does not think like she does. On the contrary.

Iván García and Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

From Havana, Year 1

The old computer in Lucerne

The idea of having a blog where I could post about life in my country and to have the power to write in the first person about the small things in this scene that surround me, that was an idea that was cooked a long time over a slow flame.

It was in 2004, while reading Time and Newsweek, that I learned about the phenomenon of blogs.  With evident delay, some past postings by a very special guy, Andrew Sullivan, landed in my hands.

It was like this that I learned about a North American solider in Iraq, a picketer in Buenos Aires, a nun in Calcutta, and a doctor without borders in Almeria.  I also learned about the legions of Iranian and Chinese bloggers who, in spite being besieged by their governments, continued to write and forcefully denounce through their personal stories.

Let’s get to work, I thought.  But it had limits.  Not having a laptop nor money, I could not easily justify spending the money that my mother, from the mountainous city of Lucerne, would sacrifice for and send me.  Internet access cards in Cuba cost about 6 to 9 dollars an hour.

My family in Switzerland chose to continue using an old computer, pictured here, and sent me a Dell laptop which had been a gift to them.  The keyboard was in English, or maybe German, I am not sure.  But it made me suffer long hours trying to place an accent or compose the letter ñ.  One does not look a gift horse in the mouth, better this than nothing.

At first, I thought of opening a blog just for me where I could write small chronicles and articles.  But then later I thought it would be better to create a collective blog.

Between educating my daughter and managing the daily Cuban vortex of securing a hot meal, the blog was delayed.  Finally in December, 2008, I put two and two together.  You know, the last month of the year is the month of resolutions where one tries to balance what has been with what is yet to come in the next 365 days.

I decided that in 2009 I would take off, full speed ahead.  Luis Cino, one of the best independent Cuban journalists, told me to count him in.  My mother, a political refugee, retired journalist, and blogger since March 2007 was also in. The team would be complete with the chronicles of poet and reporter Raul Rivero who compiled for the daily El Mundo.  (For eight years, Rivero lead the Cuban Press agency where I began as an independent journalist in 1995.)

The platform was ready, but something was missing.  We needed a person that would write about the bizarre Cuban laws and the high rate of judicial illiteracy that exists among our citizens. Our last card would be the attorney and independent journalist Laritza Diversent, of Haitian roots, hyperkinetic, and just as poor as her ancestors from Port Au Prince.

So the network was composed.  And it was just at this moment that the star of the Cuban blogosphere, Yoani Sanchez and her husband, the journalist of wide curriculum Reinaldo Escobar, put the icing on the cake and gave a happy ending to the idea.  They linked me to the portal Cuban Voices born January 28th, 2009.  Thanks to Yoani’s patience, I learned to use Word Press 2.7 and was able to upload photos and post.

It wasn’t easy.  But on that same January 28th, the From Havana blog was also started.  It’s been a year.  Luis Cino, due to conflicts with the independent periodical for which he works was not able to write.  Several other journalists and young Cuban writers, residents of other provinces, have shown interest in publishing their works on our blog.

It is Laritza’s and my dream that we not be limited to only the capital, that we are able to cover all of Cuba.  But we need resources to help organize those volunteers that wish to collaborate. Those who know best can describe what occurs around them. In spite the limitations, the idea still stands. We want the From Havana blog to be open to Cubans and also to foreigners.  Quality chronicles about daily life that will move people.  Or comments about successes, national or international ones.

The good news started towards the end of 2009. Thanks to Carlos Moreira, a friend from Portugal, since October we have a webpage named Cuban Points of View.  And starting in January, 2010, this same friend began to help us administrate the blog.  Moreira, among many other things he’s done in his free time and free of charge, has given the blog a new look and also placed us on Twitter and Facebook.

The blog has also been enriched by videos and news footage prepared in Lucerne by my mother.  This is an initiative we would like to continue with her because finding videos and photos on the internet is not only costly but exasperating as the internet and network connections to the island are very slow.

Foreign friends of Laritza and mine ask in what way they can help and we always say the same.  Technology is expensive and for that reason, we always prefer that they purchase internet cards for us.

A few days ago Laritza and I went to the Marianao neighborhood to plan a profile of Sonia Garro, a woman of the black race who against winds and tides has maintained an independent community project for the poor children of the neighborhood.  You will soon read what we wrote.  But among this work, Laritza and I gave ourselves the satisfaction of gathering 20 CUC to be able buy a few toys to take to the little ones.

In this first year, many things have impressed us.  The history of Sonia Garro is one of them.  The other was the case of Yunia Palacio, a young mother of three with very few means.  She’s 27 years old and looks as if she were 50.   She has a husband who beats her and has kicked her out of their home — if that’s what a cardboard roof, some palm fronds and three dirty mattresses on the floor could be called.

When we spoke with this mixed woman from Santiago, Laritza cried.  My eyes watered too.  Yunia Palacio is the closest face that we have met that has the potential to be suicidal.  As modestly as we can, we’ve helped her pay a fine of 500 pesos (20 dollars).  We also give her clothes that no longer fit my daughter or Laritza’s son.

They are symbolic gestures.  For this reason we believe that the From Havana blog as well as the Cuba Points of View website and the daily El Mundo/America, published since October 2009, serve to amplify these small stories and expose the tarnish that our government and its spokespeople ignore.

And that is the point.  It’s not that these things don’t occur in other countries, they do and possibly even worse.  But journalists there have the liberty to reflect.  In Cuba they don’t.   For the official Cuban media, the revolution is a tropical paradise.

If our text moves you and provides awareness of the reality of our country, then we have met our objective.

In the meantime, from Havana we will continue to report.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

Photo: Work area of Tania Quintero, in the living room of her apartment in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she has lived as a political refugee since November 26, 2003.

Translated by: AV

Cheap Sex

They don’t have the charm of the “jineteras”(prostitutes seeking foreign tourists) who work for hard currency.*  They don’t wear brand-name clothes, or high-heeled shoes.  They don’t use Chanel perfumes, or wear gold jewelry.  They are the poorer type, who at most smother themselves with large quantities of Cuban-made Suchel talcum powder, and smell of cheap eau-de-cologne.  They wear short tight skirts.  And they tend to plaster on the make-up.

These are the local currency whores.  Many of them get off the train at daybreak and before the sun has fully risen they are already busy at work.  Like Yanelis, 28 years old, an Indian mulatta, born in an eastern province 800 km from the capital.

Her life is a small hell. She never knew her parents and doesn’t have fond memories of her childhood. Her maternal grandparents did what they could. But Yanelis only managed to get as far as finishing seventh grade. And yet her round and shapely backside, her firm breasts and her skin, the colour of coffee with cream, would get men aroused. Especially some of her male relatives.

One night, a cousin invited her to the fair and he plied her with an excessive quantity of a bog standard and insipid brew which is sold loose as draught beer. When she had passed out from drinking so much alcohol, he repeatedly raped her.

She was only twelve years old. Her first customers were her own family members. For 5 pesos (a quarter dollar) she let them fondle her breasts or masturbate and then ejaculate on her face.

“The most perverted of my relatives was also the one with the most money, because he worked in a hotel exclusively for tourists. He forced me to sleep with animals and on more than one occasion I got sick. I’ve tried everything. I’m bisexual and for as long as I can remember, I’ve never known what it’s like to feel in love with someone. That only happens in movies.”

Prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet, Yanelis gulps down a can of Bucanero beer and goes on with her story.

“I came to Havana because business is good here. It’s my third trip. I’ve been caught by the police a couple of times and they sent me back to the province where I’m from. I even spent a year and a half in jail. But I always come back. Things are very tense in my home town. I don’t have, nor do I want, any other way of making money. Perhaps this is the most difficult way, but it’s the easiest for me. I don’t have many options unless it’s coffee picking in the mountains or wiping tables in a café,” says this girl, prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet.

In the capital, Yanelis and some other prostitutes rent an extremely shabby room. They have to fetch their water in containers and live by candlelight because they don’t have electricity. Each one pays 5 convertible pesos for the room. On a good day, she makes the equivalent of 50 or 60 convertible pesos (about 1200 or 1500 regular pesos). If you do the math, to make this amount Yanelis is having to sleep with ten or twelve men. For a quick half hour ‘screw’ they make 100 regular pesos or 5 convertible.

She started working as a prostitute in the area around Fraternity Park, in the heart of Havana. Her stroll was Monte and Cienfuegos streets, the first marketplace to emerge on the island for cheap sex bought with regular pesos, back around 1996. Things didn’t go too badly for her. But every now and again there was a police raid.

When she got out of jail, she thought she needed to be more discreet. She’s a fixture now in a spot on the fringes of the National Freeway. Guys in cars and on motorbikes pass by, drunk and looking for a woman to satisfy their sexual appetite.

That is where you’ll find girls like Yanelis, ready to offer you their a la carte menu: 50 pesos for a blow job, 40 for a hand job, and 100 for the full works, in other words, for penetrative sex. Paying a bit more gets you anal sex. And if you’ve got 20 convertible pesos or 500 of the regular kind, you can head off with two sad and pale girls who’ll offer you a moonlight lesbian show in the middle of a banana field with some dirty bits of cardboard for a bed.

There are at least a dozen such places in the city. In Havana slang they are known as chupa-chupa [suck-suck].

The young women who prostitute themselves for local currency don’t come close to the beauty and silhouettes of the splendid hookers that have dazzled the Iberian and Italian men who have taken them under their wing and married them. No. These are poor lost souls who stoically endure being penetrated by more than ten men in a single day in order to make a few pesos.

Yanelis doesn’t want to think about the future, which is a bad word for her. She lives fast and for the present. Night has fallen. She looks up at the cloudy sky and comments despondently:

“Uh oh. It’s going to rain. Bad for business.”

She prefers picking up men when she’s drunk or after smoking a couple of joints. Sometimes she takes a few parkisonil tablets to get high. When she gets back to her wretched room she sometimes feels guilty.

This is when she remembers that she’d like to have children, a good husband, and to start a family. She soon abandons the idea. That stuff is only in movies. Or romantic novels by Corín Tellado. Then she comes back down to earth. To the reality which is her lot in life. And she has neither the energy nor the desire to change it.

Iván García

Translated by BW and RSP and ANB

* Translator’s note: There are two kinds of pesos in circulation in Cuba, one which can be exchanged for dollars and Euros, the Convertible Peso, and one which can’t, the regular kind. One convertible peso (officially worth $1.08) is equivalent to 24 regular pesos (referred to as moneda nacional (national money) by Cubans, and translated in this text as local currency).

Iván What’s-his-name

In October 2009, in tandem with Max Lesnik, the Cuban journalist based in Miami,  I started writing a blog, called 90 miles, for El Mundo, one of Spain’s national dailies. Plus some notes, articles, features, and stories about what life is like for Cubans and my perceptions of the Castros’ government. Within a few days, I was approached by various people I consider friends (and others I don’t). After congratulating me, they gave me some free advice.

An experienced and foxy old reporter told me in confidence and in a hushed tone, “What you want is lots of curveball and not much fastball. Try and come up with colourful stories which won’t cause you any problems. That way you get paid and life’s good. If you go about with an AKM machine gun at the ready, the government will call you to account.”  Such was this long time journalist’s advice. Opportunistic, cynical, someone who enjoys life, like a lot of people in Cuba who just want to have a decent salary paid in hard currency and not rock the boat.

The old reporter, who knows how much I love the sports pages, made a point of using some baseball jargon. When you cover the island “curveball” means sticking  to subjects like the history of the Malecón, Havana’s Chinatown, or the Capitolio; talk about curiosities or explain how a parcel containing copies of Granma was thrown out of an airplane over the mountains in the East and knocked dead a cow when it landed. In short, his advice was that I should write about unimportant “news” and steer clear of critical articles.

If it meant writing colourful stories and throwing curveballs, I would give up writing for El mundo. I say what I think and tell it like it is. You have the chance as readers to express disagreement in the comments section. I’m very far from thinking that what I write amounts to any kind of absolute truth. Perhaps I get things wrong. But these opinions about an event, theme, or personality are mine.

I’m nearly 45 years old and at this stage in my life I’m not going to be afraid to defend my perspective. Being imprisoned for many years, which is the prospect held out by Cuba’s laws for all those voicing public dissent, does scare me. I don’t have a vocation to be a martyr. But I’m not going to change my ideas. Even if I end up bricked up in a state security cell or in a dirty Cuban prison block.

Disagreement is healthy. And so is debate about ideas and dialogue with people who think differently. But in Cuba, when someone in the media criticises you or attacks you, be afraid. The message is: “What goes around comes around”. In other words, shut up or you’re mincemeat.

We know that the beginning of a vigorous offensive on the part of the state apparatus portends further actions. Ranging from acts of repudiation and even threats and humiliations for your family. Or, in an extreme case, detaining you, penalising you, and locking you up in jail.

I would like to ask a journalist of Max Lesnik’s calibre, or José Pertierra, the lawyer, if at any time they’ve felt paralysed by the US secret services breathing down their necks, or if they’ve ever had their arms twisted by the Yankee government because of holding critical views about the system in the North or for showing admiration towards the Cuban Revolution.

I suspect the answer is no. It’s true that in Florida, in the ’70s or ’80s, a group of intolerant Cubans, terrorists more than anything else, went as far as assassinating people who supported Castro. But in this, the 21st century, things in Little Havana must have changed. And it goes without saying that no US administration has ever instructed its official media, like the Voice of America, to intimidate its political rivals.

The United States is capable of the best and the worst. If he happens to be having a bad day, any madman with a rifle slung over his shoulder and whistling along to a Bruce Springsteen song can rub out a dozen people as if he were at a shooting gallery in a fairground. I have a feeling that Lesnik and Pertierra and their compatriots on the other side of the pond have all the freedom in the world to write and to say what they think.

Not in Cuba. And that’s the point. Since I was born, in 1965, I’ve never known what is called democracy. And before I die, I would like to live in a pluralistic society where you as a person aren’t of the slightest interest to the State.  And where, if the powers that be don’t appreciate me, thanks to certain Constitutional laws, I’m not locked up in prison.

I don’t mind who’s in power. They can be communists, liberals, greens, social democrats, right wing, centrists, or left wing. Just so long as they’ve won an election. I ask myself if this is an impossible dream. I don’t think it is. That’s why I write what I think.

I remember that on a cold and gray afternoon in February 2003, Raúl Rivero, the Cuban poet and journalist, typed with two fingers on his Olivetti Lettera-25: “No decree can stop me writing in the country where I was born and where my grandparents were born. I’m a man who writes.” So am I.  Even though I could lose a lot.

Albeit with my fears and the paranoia typical of those who live under threat, I will send stories, articles, and news about the reality of my country. Written from my untidy apartment in the Víbora district, my neck of the woods. I’m not going to follow the experienced reporter’s advice.  My writing is going to be lots of fastballs, few curves.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

The Day After

Donato, who usually sells newspapers in the area around Roja de la Víbora square, is an elderly man of 67 wearing threadbare clothes; he’s convinced that Fidel Castro has for quite some time been a corpse. Abelardo, 54, a civil engineer, thinks the same. He says, “The people haven’t been told of Fidel’s death to prevent disturbance” In Cuba, everyone has his or her own take on the one and only Comandante’s illness.

For want of reliable information, people invent rumours. Carlos, a 21-year-old university student, swears on his mother’s life to a group of sceptical youngsters that he read an article on the Internet where it said that Fidel Castro was in a deep coma. In every nook and cranny of the island it’s the same.

Never before has a man’s death engendered such anticipation. No sooner does a rumour start over there on the other shore, in other words, in Florida, than it quickly arrives on the Cuban coastline. Many people have family in the sunshine state or else they illegally watch cable TV, and more than a few times some rumour is heard, even in the middle of the night, as happened to Jesús, a 34 year old worker. A friend, restraining his emotion, woke Jesús up at three o’clock in the morning to tell him: “Fidel’s snuffed it, I saw it on channel 41.”

Castro’s been given up for dead so many times in Miami that new reports of his death are taken with a pinch of salt on the island. Deborah, a 29-year-old primary school teacher says: “The day when he dies for real, I won’t believe it.” It’s now been three years and five months since the 31st of July, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, Castro’s former private secretary, announced on national television, in a sombre tone of voice, that the Comandante was relinquishing power due to illness.

Since then Cubans have been living on a knife’s edge. And not because their former president’s state of health is of special interest to them. No. The key issue for the majority is what’s going to happen when Castro dies. Some in Cuba take it as a given that Fidel’s brother, General Raúl, is putting off reforms pending the patriarch’s disappearance.

I don’t believe that. I don’t think that Raúl Castro is going to be the Caribbean Gorbachev. The agents of change in Cuba are perhaps men in power now, wearing masks, keeping their heads down and obeying orders. They’re waiting for their moment. Or they’re walking about the country’s streets anonymously. I’m a sceptic and I don’t think a worthy leader for the future will emerge from the Cuban opposition. Almost everyone talks about democracy and makes out that they’re a democrat, but they act like little dictators.

The is what concerns the man in the street in Cuba. The day after Fidel. Cubans take it for granted that Raúl is a transitional president. As such, the health and impending death of Fidel Castro isn’t a problem of personal hatred. It’s simply about discovering what the future will be like without the former Comandante.

There are even people making bets, like Amador, 43 and unemployed. Two years back, Amador and twelve friends agreed on a lucky draw: whoever accurately predicted  the date of Castro’s death, or whoever came closest, wins 1,200 convertible Cuban pesos (about 1,200 dollars). Amador had predicted that God would take Castro I from this earth on the 31st of December, 2009.  He’s sorry that he’s off by a bit.  He says, quite seriously, that it’s nothing personal against Fidel. It’s just a bet. And he wants to win.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

Without Freedom… Even to Travel!

One of the various unresolved and failed issues of the Castro brothers’ government is the Cuban citizens’ lack of freedom to travel. If a foreign friend invites you to spend some time in his country, in addition to extensive and tricky bureaucratic red tape, ultimately, with nerves of steel, you have to wait for the exit permit granted by the Department of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Interior.

This department determines whether or not you have the right to travel. Also, if a person has been exiled, said military body is the one which determines whether or not such a Cuban can visit his native land. It’s humiliating. It’s like begging to be allowed to leave Cuba, and, what’s worse, to be allowed to enter your own land.

For me this is the most flagrant violation of personal rights committed by the government of the island. It doesn’t matter if an individual who wants to visit a friend or a relative has an immaculate record and doesn’t have any prior convictions. If Immigration considers you unsuitable, you cannot leave the island.

It’s a form of punishment. Something like, you better behave if you want to see the world. To behave badly is, above all, to publicly dissent from the way the State administers the country. Another major arbitrary act is when a person definitively leaves the country. It doesn’t matter that he owns his house. If he lived alone, he doesn’t have the right to leave or give his house to whomever he wants.

No. The government’s laws put an end to your right to dispose of your own home. This is coupled with a number of tricks and lies to circumvent the unjust measures that the State applies. Whenever people think about leaving the country for good, they put the name of a friend or family member on the deed beforehand so they don’t lose the house.

Days before you abandon your country, an inspection from the Institute of Housing inspects your home and verifies the furniture and electrical appliances that you possess. If, at the moment of leaving, it’s proven that you have given someone these things, your permission to leave can be denied.

What people do is to give away or sell the furniture, refrigerator or television, before the housing inspectors visit. It’s arbitrary. I will tell you a personal story.

My mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist, together with my sister and my niece, left Cuba to go to Switzerland, on November 25, 2003, at the beginning of the Black Spring. [Translator’s note: The “Black Spring” refers to the 2003 government crackdown, when independent journalists and democracy advocates were arrested and imprisoned.]

When she left, she did not know my daughter, Melany, who was 9 months old. Because she was a political refugee and a persona non grata for those who direct my country, Melany’s maternal grandmother had to content herself with seeing her in photos and chatting by telephone when her rare retirement resources allowed her to telephone.

She will probably die in the staid city of Lucerne without ever knowing her other granddaughter. The government hasn’t given the slightest inkling of doing away with its absurd rules on emigration. It’s true that in the USA, on account of another stupid law, North American citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Ninety miles apart, the two countries are still living in the Cold War era.

Both of our communities, so close geographically and, at the same time, on account of the policies of their respective administrations, so distant, must insist on having our rights count.

There’s no reason why my mother should have to die 9000 kilometres away without ever knowing her granddaughter. It’s unreasonable for anyone to stop her. But the Castros keep in their pockets the files for all exits and entries. And Melany’s grandmother is not to their liking.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy & RSP

OLP’s Intifada

The writer Orlando Luis Pardo (OLP), 34-years-old, is like a box with buttons.  You press a button and out comes a stream of ideas.  OLP is bursting with talent.  He has published several books of stories.  He has a pair of blogs, among the best being done in this 21st century Cuba.  He’s a high-flying photographer and a few weeks ago I attended an astonishing performance where OLP presented one of his formidable poems.

He’s a quiet type and excessively paranoid.  As is usually the case with any person born under an abnormal regime, where everything is suspicious and criminal.  Orlando Luis doesn’t remember the exact moment he started his personal intifada against the sinister machinery of Castro’s power.

It is likely that it happened when the “mystery” croquettes disappeared; one never knew what they were made of.  Perhaps that slimy grey mass with its tiny red-colored bits inside, at the end of the ’80s, was the point of departure for his personal rebellion.

Because Orland Luis has publicly confessed that he ate tons of the popular croquettes.  And their disappearance, along with the tasty yogurt and the Russian jams, in the hard years of the Special Period, may have sparked OLP’s serious contradictions with a regime closed lock stock and barrel to disparate opinions.

In 1993, with the daily 16 hour black outs, more mystery meat and soy hamburger, Orlando escaped the madness by reading like one possessed and pouring out his undeniable talent in poetry and prose on some old invoice forms from some business on which he could only write on one side.

In addition to real hunger, OLP was far beyond the cojones of Papa State.  He still remembers, of course, his first blue jeans, and the day he tried Coca-Cola.  Like one who brings a valuable treasure, a sailor friend of the family appeared with a bottle of the soft drink wrapped in gift paper.

The whole family sat down to celebrate the even around an old table, long and rectangular, of dark mahogany.  The father took the first shot.  Then, the bottle was passed around and everyone took a sip.  Only one.  Like something sacred, they saved the bottle of Coca-Cola in the old Philco refrigerator.  OLP remembers that it lasted nearly a week; after dinner everyone took a tiny sip.

So much spiritual and material misery turned him into a skeptic about Fidel Castro’s Real Socialism.  Today he is one of the best voices among young Cuban writers.  With his fears and doubts on his back, with the red lantern of paranoia always lit, with his overflowing imagination OLP fires his missiles from the neighborhood of his birth, Lawton.

He does not know how to change the status quo.  He only knows how to be a free man.  Getting good with himself.  Being happy in the dark and starless early mornings with his girlfriend, while waiting for the P-2 bus that will take them home.  And believe me, he is getting there.

Iván García

As Much Pain As Hope

Not yet having overcome the gray and cold, with little bread and scant shelter, which we Cubans have passed through in these days of January 2010, news of the earthquake in Haiti came to us.

With the passing of the hours, we learned the magnitude of the catastrophe, a tragedy that grows daily.  The entire world mobilized, but as a consequence of the chaos and the lack of infrastructure, the airport and port facilities in Port-au-Prince that are insufficient for the number of planes and ships coming from five continents bringing every king of humanitarian aid.  The faster they can arrive, by air and by sea, the more lived can be saved.

Once more, disaster falls on Haiti.  Not because they are black or the descendents of Africans.  The evil in Haiti is not of this origin.  Given their history of struggle for emancipation from slavery and freedom, they should be one of the most prosperous nations in the Caribbean.  However, for more than two centuries, Haiti has been bleeding.

If today it is the poorest country on the American continent and one of the poorest in the world, it is because of the successions of misgovernment.  Ungovernability summarized in two words: repression and corruption.

Dictators and incompetent leaders are to blame for the backwardness and evil current endured by the Haitian people.  Illiteracy and unemployment have been a breeding ground for the emergence of gangs, machete in hand, who perpetrate violence, theft and crime, all common in the streets and neighborhoods.

A share of the guilt also belongs to its neighbors in the Americas, the closest and the furthest, like the United States, who when not intervening to support coups d’etat, preferred to look away and block their ears.

Better late than never.  Now, we’re grateful that President Barack Obama has made Haiti a White House priority.  A decision supported by the generous response of the American people, poor and rich, anonymous and famous, atheists and believers, civilian and military.

Let us leave Washington and return to Havana.  The truth is, of the few nations in the region who have always stood by Haiti, we find Cuba.  It’s logical.

We share more than 200 years of geographic, historic, cultural and ethnic background.  The veins of thousands of Cubans run with the blood of Haitians, especially the people of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey, three of the provinces where there are major Haitian communities, and whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep alive the language, music, religions, food and other traditions.

Many of these Haitians or their descendants achieved fame on the Island.  It is impossible to mention them all and therefore we have chosen one name, that of Martha Jean-Claude.  With her we pay tribute to all the Haitians who have made Cuba their homeland.

When the earthquake struck, around 5:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday, January 12, more than 400 Cuban helpers, mostly doctors and nurses, were already in Haiti.  To date, only three Cubans have been reported injured, two mildly and one seriously.

The love story between Brazil and Haiti is more recent.  It began in 2004, when under UN mandate, Brazil assumed responsibility for coordinating the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH).  Brazilian president Lula made that responsibility his own, and many Brazilians began to get involved.  And as happens in the fairy tales, for a few hours everyone was happy.  In 2005, when the Brazilian National Football (Soccer) Team went to play a friendly match in Haiti, the video shows what happened:

Despite the critical economic situation in Cuba and the deteriorating living and nutrition standards of a great part of our population, many Cubans, according to man-on-the-street opinions, would be willing to go to Haiti to help in the reconstruction.  A so urgent and necessary work that at this time, against the clock, is being done by volunteers, firefighters, rescue workers and sniffer dogs from Mexico, Spain, Japan and China among other countries with considerable experience in earthquakes and natural disasters.

So far, three pieces of good news were announced on Friday, January 14.  The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. reported that Obama granted temporary resident status (TPS) to all undocumented Haitians in its territory, allowing them to reside and work in the United States for 18 months.

For its part, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the Island was ready to cooperate with all countries, including the United States, to help save lives in this emergency situation.  Showing this was more than mere words, the Cuban authorities announced they had authorized U.S. planes to fly over the eastern territory of the country, to evacuate the wounded from Haiti to the Guantanamo Naval Base, where there is a hospital.  This authorization saves 90 minutes of flying time.

The third piece of good news came from Port-au-Prince.  The heroes were two Spanish firefighters who rescued a two-year-old Haitian boy whose photograph circumnavigated the globe.

Along with this good news, a rumor circulating for some days in Havana was confirmed, that some twenty mentally ill patients had died in the Psychiatric Hospital commonly knows as Mazorra, located in Rancho Boyeros, where the thermometers had fallen to 4 degrees Celsius.

The terrible event, that had been publicized by the dissident National Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was confirmed by the Minister of Public Health.

There were 26 dead.  A true scandal. People are shocked and hope that those guilty of such negligence will face trial.  And that the response will not be limited to distributing blankets, clothes and food with more calories.  Cubans want, once and for all, to free Mazorra from the Dante-esque fame it has always had.

Returning to Haiti.  Among so many dead and such ruins, we are sure that the green grass of hope will begin to sprout.

Iván García and Laritza Diversent

Photo:  Chicago Red Cross, Flickr

Havana Boulevard

Beginning at Prado street and ending at Galiano, there is a five-block long pedestrian mall in the heart of Havana, replete with stores that take hard-currency or national pesos. Cafes, barber shops, ice cream parlors, markets, a cinema for children and a jewelry store in decline.

Throughout the year the boulevard is very busy. December, the month of summing up and hospitality, causes city dwellers to shop compulsively. It’s possible that in some of its businesses they can get what they want or need.

At the Belinda store, a group of ladies enter, looking for a set of sheets for their home. Their mouths drop open and they remain speechless when they learn the prices in inflated currency.

Nearby, some guys who are drunk, accompanied by cheerful black girls in the same condition, look both ways and surreptitiously enter by a rusty iron gate what were once the Duplex and Rex theaters. They empty their bladders full of beer, consumed in a nightclub called Palermo, where they usually will hook up with the old, cheap whores who don’t have the option of hooking up with a foreigner.

At the National Cabaret, where the boulevard starts at Prado Street, are a line of men in their fifties and a group of young mestizo girls, with the typical body language of females seeking pleasure, trying to find some “Temba” (men in their fifties) to pay the entry fee to the nightclub. The Disco Temba, as it is known, opens at 4 pm.

A stone’s throw away at the gates of the Hotel Inglaterra, Nordic ‘Vikings’ and fat ‘Iberians’ drink daiquiris, accompanied by tapas of ham, cheese, and olives. They listen raptly to a bad version of Chan-Chan by Compay Segundo. Inside the hotel, a Japanese girl with teenage acne complains in English to a clerk about how expensive Internet service is: a card costs 6 CUC per hour. What shall we Cubans say?

Evening falls and the comings and goings of hurrying people increase. To alleviate the thirst caused by the heat from this end-of-year fire, people drink bottled soft drinks, locally produced, at 5 pesos a bottle. In a kiosk they sell unwrapped bread, exposed to the air, with the appropriate dose of microbes; bread with either pork, ham, or a cheese with a terrible smell.

Wherever you sit, to take a drink, or eat a serving of fried rice or a piece of smoked chicken, you are approached by dirty, mangy dogs, which with pitiful faces beg you to give them your leftovers. They are part of the army of hungry dogs that roam around the entire city.

Beggars also do their part in the streets of downtown Havana. Some shamelessly and even aggressively ask you for money.  Others, with the picture of a saint, usually St. Lazarus, ask you for alms, “preferably in hard currency.”

If you look like you have a foolish face, a crook will try to separate you from your money. You can find everything in the Boulevard of San Rafael. Schemes are constantly hatched and if you don’t look like a cop in civilian clothes, you can buy a gram of coke for 35 CUC or a Creole marijuana cigarette for 25 pesos.

The cobblestone streets are painted with large white squares, surrounded by pots with withered plants that the state gardeners do not look after, disgusted by their low pay.

Now at the far end, at the corner of Galiano and San Rafael, a park is a reminder that in this place once stood El Encanto, one of the most chic department stores in Havana. It was devoured by fire on April 13, 1961, as part of the sabotage before the Bay of Pigs invasion. There were 18 injuries and one fatality, Fe del Valle, the head of the El Encanto’s children’s department.

This story is not known to the children, whites, blacks and mestizos who play soccer with a deflated balloon. A black boy pulls off feints incredible for his age, barefoot and with a faded Kaká T-shirt. His fans, sitting on a wall, applaud the small Cuban Pelé.

Maybe the Boulevard San Rafael does not have the charm of Paris or Barcelona. But it is the only one in Havana: meeting point for Havanans, nostalgia for exiles, and headquarters of private guest houses for outsiders. If you pass through Havana, be sure to visit.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Tomás A.

Cuba, Dog Time

These are the Dog Days.  With the fine and constant rain and the overcast sky the color of a gray mouse.   Likewise, a freezing cold.  We throw to one side in this January of the new year the postcards of brilliant sun that show us a happy, festive, and warm city.

Since January 1st, the first serious cold front entered the capital, the streets of Havana have become a carnival of poor people.  A population accustomed to an annual average temperature of more than 27 degrees Celsius is not used to having adequate wardrobe items to tolerate low temperatures.

The solution for many is to layer items of clothing over each other.  Three, four, and up to five, and to top it off, a sweater, with gloves and an old coat.  It’s nothing compared to the intense snows in Europe, Canada and the north of the United States.  But for the Habaneros, Sunday, the 10th of January, was frightening.

Too much cold for a tropical city.  The wind chill was 8 degrees.  The people look like inflated balloons with so much clothes.  The most humble protect themselves from the cold with jackets from the era that Cuba traded with the CAME, more than 30 years ago.  Some dusted off wool sweaters and jackets, used by fathers and grandfathers before Castro came to power.  The most elderly and needy garnish themselves with overcoats like those used by Humphrey Bogart in his films.  The children and youth were also disguised.

The streets are deserted.  The beggars and demented that have made the doorways on the corn er of Carmen and Calzada streets their home since the 10th of October, had rushed to less frozen spots. What blew through this corner wasn’t a friend.  According a neighbor, vehicles from the public health division recognized the beggars and interned them in the Psychiatric Hospital,  an asylum more commonly known as Mazorra, located on Rancho Boyeros, halfway to Jose Marti International Airport.

I’m not sure if it is true.  The people from the capital have a tendency to exaggerate.  What *is* true is that in these “polar” days, many bakeries have closed due to lack of flour.  You see, bread, like rice is a primary necessity in the current diet of the Cuban.  The state ration card grants us a miserable bread roll of 80 grams per person.  Then, people head to the bakeries of the Cuban Chain, where in the free market, one can buy half a flauta of bread for 5 pesos, and for 10, a whole flauta.

The administrator of one of these establishments commented “that several bakeries that offer free sale of bread have closed because of a shortage in the distribution of flour, because the government has reoriented it to prioritize rationed bread, that sold on the ration book.”  Outside, a long line of people wait for an hour hoping to leave with bread.

With the cold hunger rages.  And with a half-empty fridge, the most common thing is to buy bread and eat it with anything.  It may be jam, if the family is “wealthy”, or with tomato, tortilla, oil.  Or just dipping it into coffee, or milk, something those under 7 do, the only ones the State guarantees a daily quota of milk to on the ration book.

Pablo Pacheco, 30, independent journalist condemned to 20 years in prison in the Black Spring of 2003, told me by telephone from Canaleta, the prison in the province of Ciego de Avila where he is serving the unjust sentence, the temperature fell to 7 degrees Celsius.  “The prisoners wrap themselves in two or three quilts, and even so your teeth are chattering like castanets.  Add to that there is little food and it is terrible,” he told me.

Due to a lack of adequate clothing and of a hot breakfast, many families in Havana have stopped sending their children to school.  In my daughter’s classroom, of 20 students, there are six or seven students, no more.  In the rest of the country, where even the cold is more intense, the school situation is the same or worse.

The lowest temperatures report up to now, according to the Meterological Institute, have been at the Jose Marti International Airport, in Havana (3.7 degrees Celsius);Isabel Rubio, Pinar del Río (4,0); Tapaste, La Habana (4,2); Aguada de Pasajeros, Cienfuegos (5,0); Bainoa, La Habana (5,2); Batabanó, La Habana (5,4); Bauta, La Habana (5,5); Güira de Melena, La Habana (5,9); Güines, La Habana (6,2) and Santiago de las Vegas, Ciudad de La Habana (6,5). In Jucarito, Granma province, considered the hottest place in the Cuban arh=chipelago, the thermometer reads 12.7 degrees!

Although these January days, with the gray skies and cold have dominion over the landscape of the entire Island, the star meteorologist of the Island, Jose Rubiera, calms the innumerable rumors and affirms that the temperature has never fallen under 0.6 degrees Celsius, as happened in 1970, in all the national records.

Nothing to do.  Little bread and a lot of cold is not healthy.  And what’s worse, without sun.

Iván García

Cuban Dissidence: More Ego Than Talent

Even the president of the United States, Barack Obama, senses that the opposition on the island squanders its talents and energy in sordid and fruitless struggles. In response to the questionnaire sent by the blogger Yoani Sánchez, the American leader, among other aspects, commented that the Cuban opposition did not agree among itself.

It’s true. They quarrel too much about trivial things. They seem like big spoiled children. Full of lust. And with overflowing egos. They are given to defamation and, at the first exchange, act like animals in heat when they feel they are losing prominence.

It’s an immature and undiplomatic opposition. A banana republic dissidence. If these dissidents with more ego than talent are going to be those governing the destinies of Cubans, I will be the first one heading into exile the day the regime of the Castro brothers disappears.

The background of the misunderstandings between the numerous groups of the opposition is almost never determined by a specific political project. The boxing match is either for money or for having more influence in the leadership of the opposition on the Island. They fight furiously to appear as valid interlocutors with the US government or the European Union.

It’s lawful and healthy to differ. And each party, organization or movement shows that its future strategy is more viable. Fine. What I don’t understand is why, when someone doesn’t agree with their proposals, ta volcano of mud and a waterfall of insults falls on that person or group.

The internal dissidence has a worth that no one can deny. Opposing a government like that of the Castros is worthy of applause. Besides being harassed and infiltrated by State Security, they are threatened with laws, like Law 88, the gag law, that can put them behind bars for 20 years or more, just for disagreeing and asking for a political space.

But at least for me, the dissidence has lost its way. Also its perspectives. Busy as they are, fighting and swearing, they have not noticed the absence of a viable and robust project for this future that is upon us.

They’re like hunters on private reserves. Focused on the foreign media and the western leaders, doing little or nothing to expand their partisan bases. Lacking space in local media–for obvious reasons–they don’t try to convince, speaking eye-to-eye, the Cuban on the street, weary and disgusted after 50 years of an inefficient system that meets the personal expectations of almost no one.

Instead of unrealistic and outlandish proposals, it’s better they roll up their sleeves and use the little loophole in the Constitution of the Republic to get more involved in community affairs. And in the varied and multiple problems of material scarcities and lack of values that affect everyone.

Literally everyone. Be they supporters or not of the Castros: liberal, socialist, Marxist or Christian; of the left or the right. From the rising violence, the lack of drinkable water, the poor state of the roads and housing, the plummeting quality of teaching, and the pitiful decline in public health, in the proud epoch of Fidel Castro, one of the showcases of national socialism.

The dissidents need to make themselves known among their fellow citizens and assume a leading role, open to a democratic debate. Changing the discourse and respecting the differences between them would be a first step. To continue the current state of affairs would mean continuing to be moored in mediocrity and disrepute.

Obama, perhaps for diplomacy, did not pursue the theme. There are numerous people within independent journalism and underground groups and intellectual young people, who are as tired of the stale Castro government as the peripatetic positions of the Creole opposition.

Not only must we change the system in which we have lived for half a century. We must also transform local dissent. Continuing on with the distribution of pamphlets, the litany and personal caudillo-of-the-hour politics, will burden the future Cuban society yet to be born.

Yes, there will be a change of names and people in the country’s direction. But it will be like having a Fidel Castro in plain clothes. For me, at least, I don’t want this future for my country.

Iván García