Cooking Gas Is Also Lacking In Cuba

Wood-fired kitchen typical of the Cuban country dwellings. Taken from Invasor, the provincial newspaper of Ciego de Ávila province, located some 400 kilometers to the east of Havana.

Ivan García, 26 May 2023 — The National Highway running through Matanzas province divides Los Arabos municipality in two directions. On the left, a town of just over 23 thousand inhabitants, cracked streets, and wagons pulled by horses that in their tiresome trot leave their poop on the main road.

On the right, a handful of isolated villages with clapboard huts and thatched roofs, surrounded by small food plantations and a few lean cows grazing under the gaze of their owners. If not watched, they are lynched by clandestine butchers.

160 kilometers east of Havana, in the middle of the 21st century—the century of new technologies, 5G and artificial intelligence—Pedro, 56 years old, a generous guy as are almost all the residents of the interior of Cuba, still plows the land with a team of of oxen and cooks with firewood. He lives with his wife and two children in a wattle-and-daub hut with a polished cement floor.

Pedro and his family own few belongings. An antique cathode-ray tube television set, a Haier [Chinese] refrigerator, and a rice pot “from when the Government was giving them out in 2007 during the Energy Revolution,” Pedro explains, and begins plucking a hen. Besides a patch of yuca [cassava] and another of plantains, there are mango, avocado, and sour orange trees. In a pigpen are five native Cuban hogs with shiny black coats.

Two cows and a bull sleep in a shed at the back, attached to the house. “I have to keep them close so they don’t get stolen. It’s a daily struggle to make sure the thieves don’t slaughter the animals and destroy the harvest.” With the milk from the cattle he makes cheeses that his children later sell along the National Highway. continue reading

The fuel shortage prevents him from renting a tractor to plow the land. “We are the same or worse off than during the Special Period. A liter of oil to run the turbine costs me 200 pesos on the informal market. And you can’t always find it. The government talks about food sovereignty, but it provides no fertilizers or fuel, and farm implements and tractors are sold for hard currency. If they don’t change their methods, we are heading for famine,” Pedro predicts.

Three years ago, his wife started cooking with firewood in an open field. “We have a kerosene stove, but it is difficult to find fuel for it. The fuel is usually dry firewood or marabou–the best and healthiest. It doesn’t smoke and the food tastes good. If there is anything in surplus around here, it’s marabú”.

Some 200 kilometers from Pedro’s ranch, in Havana’s Sevillano district, Julia, an 81-year-old housewife, saves liquefied gas down to the smallest measurement. “In March and April, we had a hard time. We had to cook and boil water with an electric oven. In May they gave us a gas cylinder that lasted fifteen days. They should have given us another one, but liquefied gas has not reached the point of sale yet,” she states, then adds:

“There are six people in my house, including a small child. Almost all the gas we expend is for boiling drinking water we and preparing food. At most, it lasts us nine or ten days. On the black market, the gas cylinder costs between 1,000 and 1,200 pesos. Add to that what the courier charges to deliver it. There is no wallet big enough. Before Díaz-Canel’s economic crisis, the gas would be used up sooner, because there were beans to soften, a piece of pork to roast, or a panetela [Cuban sponge cake] to bake. But now, there ain’t nothin’ to cook.”

On April 17, Vicente de la O Levy, Minister of Energy and Mines, said that one of the country’s products with low available reserves is domestic fuel. “Some provinces have one day’s worth left in reserve, others two. But in the eastern region, for example, the fuel in CUPET [state-run petroleum company] tanks at our bases has already run out,” he said.

From end of February to the first days of May, instability in the delivery of liquefied gas has raised alarms among Cubans, who live in constant suspense, awaiting a new crisis. More than 1.8 million customers cook with liquefied gas.

“In Santiago de Cuba we have only the month of May guaranteed. In June, we will see if a fuel ship arrives,” said a worker from the gas company. On May 21 in Havana, families who depend on street gas for cooking lost service that day for a period of more than 24 hours.

“It was about two in the afternoon and I was making dinner. When I turn on the stove, I see that there is no gas. We were like this until Monday afternoon. These people (the rulers) have turned the country into a hell. When it’s not gas that’s lacking, then sugar is scarce, there’s no water, or the electricity goes out. We live in a bloody state of shock,” Luisa, a pensioner, complains.

According to the state-run press, the street gas deficit was caused by an accident at the Puerto Escondido plant, east of the capital. So far in 2023, the fuel shortage in Cuba has grown. There are provinces where gasoline is not sold to private drivers.

“You have to have a permit from the governor or the provincial mayor. That represents another avenue of corruption, because you have to pay an arm and a leg to get the permit. Also, they only sell you 20 liters a week,” stressed a private taxi driver in Villa Clara.

State-owned companies have had to make drastic cuts in fuel use. ETECSA [the state-run telecommunications company], for example, is only receiving fuel for ten or fifteen work days. Most state companies have ceased providing transportation for workers, except military corporations and Communist Party institutions.

On Tuesday the 23rd, the line to buy fuel at the gas station at Infanta and San Rafael streets was three blocks long. “They have tried to alleviate the queues with a WhatsApp feature that notifies you the day you should come to buy. But since there is so much corruption, people arrive early to verify that they’re dispensing gasoline, because sometimes when you get there, they tell you that they’ve run out,” says a private taxi driver.

A liter of gasoline is sold in the informal market for between 500 and 800 pesos, and oil between 200 and 300 pesos. The fuel crisis has shot up transportation costs within the city and also for travel to other provinces.

The fare from La Víbora to Vedado by collective taxi [taxis that pick up people and travel set routes, often in old American cars], which used to cost 100 pesos, increased to 150 pesos–and 200 at night. If you rent a taxi using a WhatsApp feature–a kind of local Uber–an eight-kilometer trip comes out to no less than 1,200 pesos.

This inflationary spiral generated by the fuel shortage has, in a domino effect, caused food prices to increase by between 10 and 40 percent on the informal market–where the vast majority of people are forced to do much of their shopping.

To illustrate: The price of a carton of eggs rose from 1,500 to 2,000 pesos. A pound of rice was 170 pesos, and is now 200–280 if the grain is of higher quality. A pound of ham that used to cost 850 pesos is now priced at 950. The cost of fish increased from 500 to 650 pesos per pound. The biggest increase was that of chicken imported from the US, from 230 to almost 400 pesos per pound. A box of chicken that used to be priced at 7,000 pesos now exceeds 11,000 pesos.

Within the last year and a half, the price of food in Cuba has risen by almost 71%. Various factors have an impact, ranging from the systemic crisis of the economic, political and social model implemented by the regime, to the rise in food and fuel prices on the international market.

Pedro, the farmer from Los Arabos, considers himself lucky. “We don’t even have clothes to wear, and if a cyclone were to pass over us, the house would be blown away by the wind. But at least we have food,” he says. Meanwhile, his wife continues tenderizing a hen with a piece of marabou firewood. And that, in Cuba, is a luxury.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison  

Crony Capitalism in Cuba

Private business in Havana. Source: Diario de Cuba

Ivan García, Havana, 22 May 2023 — Juan José, a private entrepreneur in Cuba, spent a year and a half trying to find a place to install a mini-brewery west of Havana. “He greased the palms of several government officials in the Playa municipality with bills to speed up the procedures. But no go. Things never loosened up,” said a relative of Juan José.

Two years ago, on February 21, 2021, the state newspaper Juventud Rebelde published this news: “Companies from China and Cuba sign an agreement to install a mini-brewery in Havana.” According to the official press, the Cuban ambassador in Beijing, Carlos Miguel Pereira, commented that the agreement was signed by the company Jinan China-Germany Co LTD and the Cuban company Maquimport.

“This is the first import of this type carried out by the Foreign Trade Business Group in the Asian State, to support a non-state form of management. Pereira explained that the purchased equipment will go to a vacant locale of the Playa Municipal Government, west of Havana, which will be converted into a gastronomic complex,” the report reads.

On April 5 of that same year, Cubadebate published an extensive report entitled “Local Project without a locale, or, the dream that dissipates like beer foam,” and showed the extensive catalog of economic absurdities that operate on the Island.

What the entrepreneur Juan José and his group have experienced is an authentic criollo farce. They invested a considerable sum of dollars to import the machinery, following to the letter the convoluted regulation instituted for “non-state forms of management”, as the regime pompously calls private businesses.

Goodbye to the dream

Juan José went through all the twists and turns designed by the Cuban bureaucracy, trying to obtain a license that would allow him to produce top quality malt and beer. But the state bureaucracy monopoly did not approve him. He bid goodbye to the dream of opening a business that would generate 30 new jobs and could produce up to 4,500 liters of malt and beer daily. continue reading

Why was Juan José not approved? “A guy with more money and better connections appeared on the scene. It’s that simple,” says a former Communist party official in the capital. He tells Diario Las Américas* about the shady dealings behind a legal bidding process, or the granting of a permit to a private business or “Micro, Small, or Medium Enterprise” (MSME). Here is his testimony:

“I know the case of the brewery that was going to be set up in Playa. Those entrepreneurs passed the screening and internal investigations. We were still in the pandemic stage and it was urgently needed to reactivate the economy and generate new businesses in goods and services. But in Cuba there is no marketplace to determine, according to the proposals presented, who is to be granted permission to open the business.”

Under the table

“Everything works through relationships and money moving ‘under the table’ [to buy influence]. After the MSME is approved by the ministries of finance and prices, economy and planning, and other government functionaries, the mayor of the municipality is the one who gives the OK. From the outset, they saw a gold mine in the emerging MSMEs. Those are big chunks of money. To approve a certain business, such as a restaurant that sells food or a mini-industry that produces preserves, you have to pay between 3 and 5,000 dollars or its equivalent in pesos.

“The money is there for the taking. If the business is a construction cooperative, party officials in the municipality or province are in charge of getting you the jobs. For example, a contract to paint a certain state company is valued at 300,000 pesos and from that money the president of the cooperative pays 30 or 40,000 pesos to the mayor. Of course, never directly.

“With the MSMEs, the business is more succulent and a flock of government vultures are hovering around those ‘businesses’ that fork out money. From the import permit (state importers charge a fee of up to 20%), to paying 300 dollars to the little guys to speed up the operation or 2,000 or 3,000 dollars to a high-level official to lease you premises in a central area of the city”.

According to the former official, the government’s intention is to approve as many MSMEs as possible. Since the process began in September 2021, and until November 2022, the Ministry of Economy and Planning had approved 5,643 private MSMEs, 68 state-owned MSMEs, and 59 non-agricultural cooperatives.

“In the corridors of the provincial government headquarters it is rumored that MSMEs are going to sell their merchandise even in the warehouses of the Ministry of Interior Commerce. Businesses that can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars or one or two million are being favored. The strategy is to dismantle the blockade (US trade embargo), because those private businesses can import directly from the United States and OFAC grants them a license,” he clarifies.

“Of course, not all the people who manage these businesses are politically reliable. That is why a group of mysterious MSMEs have burst on the scene, run by ‘heavyweights’ from the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, or relatives and friends of important government officials. This business has the approval of the Russians, who are currently advising the Cuban economy. The State does not disburse a single dollar. All expenses are paid by the MSMEs, which are charged 30 or 35% taxes. It’s a good deal,” concludes the former official.

An employee of a Havana MSME confesses that all “these businesses do not have the same rank. There are MSMEs that move a few thousand dollars and others that handle millions. The government has its eye on those. Almost all of them are in a conspiracy with the authorities or the high-ranking government officials who own the business”. And he describes the modus operandi to replenish themselves with dollars and have a clientele on the side.

“As the State banks do not sell you dollars–only privileged MSMEs are sold foreign currency at a lower price and are allowed to import products directly–the others buy euros and dollars on the informal market, according to the daily exchange rate published on the site, El Toque. But because right now there is a deficit of dollars, I am paying the dollar at 195 pesos, one or two pesos above the daily rate. Then, when we buy the container of foodstuffs, that increase in the price of the dollar is added to the cost of sale. As the dollar becomes more expensive, the prices of the products we sell go up. Some MSMEs are allowed to import pork, chicken, cheese, and sausages. The owner of the business sells a part of it on the leased premises and another part is sold on the informal market–in order not to avoid taxes–to VIP clients, usually restaurant owners and others who pay in cash with dollars and buy large quantities”.

From repressor to businessman

Former FAR and MININT officers have been allowed to open private businesses. Yoandy Riverón, identified as agent ‘Cristian’ of State Security–who harassed and repressed dissident activists in Villa Clara province and is now a businessman–owns the shoe store Jona’s SURL in the town of Camajuaní. A former manager of CIMEX [the state-owned Domestic Business, External Market conglomerate], emphasizes that there is “a strategy to convert a group of retired military and civil servants into business owners so that in the future they can circumvent the yanqui blockade. For some time now, government heavyweights have had accounts in tax havens and are owners of very lucrative businesses. They use frontmen and foreign citizens as intermediaries to establish companies abroad”.

The dictatorship tries to monopolize the most profitable private businesses and tack on an incipient oligarchy obedient to its interests. As happens in Russia. There is a segment of commerce–online food sales paid with international credit cards–whose owners are important government figures. This is the case of Supermarket, run by Guillermo García Frías, a nonagenarian former combatant in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces in the Sierra Maestra, who no longer holds any political office, but he has more power than any minister. Or Ramiro Valdés, another of the so-called ‘historical’ ones, at the head of COPEXTE [National Electronics], who manages a digital business in dollars.

Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American businessman, owner of the company Fuego Enterprise, does not belong to the official nomenklatura nor is he affiliated with the Communist party, but he manages a food sales business that imports directly from the United States. And recently OFAC granted him a license to import automobiles to Cuba.

The crony capitalism that prevails in Cuba takes brings us ever closer to Haiti.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Testimony of Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca Currently Being Held at Combinado del Este Prison / Ivan Garcia

Taken at the time Valle Roca was arrested outside the Yara cinema on the downtown Havana corner of 23 and L, when together with other activists he was demonstrating peacefully on December 10, 2015, International Human Rights Day. Before being imprisoned at Villa Marista on June 15, 2021 and then sent to the Combinado del Este, Yuri was detained many times. Image taken from Radio Viva 24.

From the Blog: Iván García at Desde de la Habana, 4 July 2022, Havana

Author: Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, political prisoner of conscience. Combinado del Este, maximum security prison, June 25, 2022, three days after being arbitrarily and unjustly tried by a court.

I write these lines to release those thoughts and events that led me to make the most correct decision I have ever made in my life: to declare myself an opponent and fight against the oldest dictatorship in Latin America.

It was the year 1978 or 79 when my grandfather Blas Roca arrived at the house feeling unwell. As I heard my grandmother, Dulce Antúnez, tell it, he had had a fierce argument with Fidel Castro. Those heated discussions with Fidel were quite frequent. It is already known what the character of the dictator was like, his arrogance and smugness.

My grandmother asked Dr. Cabeza what was wrong with my grandfather and he told her that it was nothing, that it had only been a headache and he had given him a painkiller. But my grandmother, who knew my grandfather well, called me into the room and told me to get ready because we were going to take him to the clinic. Dr. Cabeza questioned my grandmother’s decision, but she told him that she knew her husband well, after having been married for more than 50 years. When we arrived at the clinic, my grandfather’s face and mouth were already disfigured and he was diagnosed with a cerebral venous thrombosis.

From that moment on, things began to get tense, to the point that they got my grandparents divorced so that they could marry him to his secretary Justina  Álvarez. They argued that my grandfather and Justina had an extramarital affair of many years, something totally untrue. In that state that my grandfather was in, Raúl Castro got him divorced and then married to Justina. There were countless things they did to my family, to the point of not letting us go to see him. I went on several occasions and Justina would say that she had to give advance notice and schedule an appointment. On other occasions they threw me out because I would talk with my grandfather about subjects they didn’t like, especially the humiliations and contempt towards my family.

I remember the day my grandfather died. My grandmother, with tremendous courage, said to me, “Yuri, your grandfather died. Get dressed, we’re going to the viewing.” And so we walked to the Plaza de la Revolución. She sat next to the coffin and I sat next to her. Imagine the scene when Justina arrived, but my grandmother and I were unshakable. Fidel, Raúl, Ramiro Valdés and Guillermo García were looking on from behind a divider nearby.

At that moment Raúl calls me over to tell me why did I not take my grandmother home, so that she could rest, to which I replied: “Why the fuck don’t you tell her yourselves, or you don’t have the courage to do it, so go fuck yourselves, you sons of bitches.” And I went back and sat next to my grandmother. Five minutes later they ended the viewing. They requested that my grandmother not continue reading

attend the burial. After the ceremony ended, my mother, seeing that there were people throwing earth inside the grave, went and took the shovels from the gravediggers and gave them to her children, so that it would be her family who would bury her father, Blas Roca Calderío.

There were many vexations and humiliations against my family. There was a lot of hatred on the part of Fidel and his clique against my grandfather, who was a humble man, simple and correct. We ate, as did the people, according to the ration book. My grandfather never wanted houses on the beach and – after much insistence from Fidel and Raúl – he would rent a beach house for vacation, but the family had would have to save all year to pay for it.

On one occasion, Raúl sent a gift Jeep to my grandfather and he returned it to him. He told him that in the Central Committee you could only have one car. There are countless things I could tell you; that’s why my grandfather was not liked, because they could never corrupt him. He had arguments with Fidel when the 1976 Constitution was drawn up, because Fidel wanted to impose arbitrary things and my grandfather never agreed with it. He was the only one who would dare tell Fidel Castro that something could not be done. That’s why they hated him, that’s why they got him divorced while he was sick, with his brain shattered by clots from thrombosis.

On another occasion, in 1981, I was 20 years old and was spending my military service in border guard troops, in the national squadron located in the Ensenada de Cubanacán, near Jaimanitas, Havana, where I worked as a radarist on a Griffin interceptor ship. Many leaders kept their boat and yachts at that marina, including Fidel. The skipper of his yachts was Colonel Kiki Finalé, who was going around there that day in a speedboat. One of the boys I had under my command ran to find me, to tell me that Finalé was harassing and humiliating them, showing off and imposing on them his arrogance and despotism for being a colonel and the skipper of Fidel Castro’s yachts.

I went to the aid of the soldiers, getting into a tremendous argument with Colonel Finalé, to whom I ended up saying that over my cojones would he leave the marina towards Varadero – where they were headed that day – and then I left on the ship to do my guard duty. When I saw his battle-drill motorboat coming and fired the warning shots at him, he stopped the boat. When I approached, in the boat with Finalé were Alejandro Castro and Juan Juan Almeida, who immediately recognized me. I didn’t know that Kiki was accompanied by them, I apologized and they continued their journey. This incident resulted in the fact that five days later I was expelled from military service, with the prohibition that I could not carry any firearm.

I hope you understand that I cannot be more explicit and provide more facts and details. I am imprisoned and I have many inmates around me, keeping an eye on the smallest detail – what I eat, what I write – everything. In addition, to produce this text and make it reach its destination, I must circumvent searches and inspections. I hope that with these few examples you understand why I decided to stand against the dictatorship.

My grandparents always told me to think and do whatever I wanted. From them I learned to hate the dictatorship, to help the most needy, and that the people – the sovereign – are the ones who rule. I was also taught these words of our Apostle*: “One man is worth no more than an entire people, but there are men who do not tire when their people get tired, and they choose war before entire peoples do, because they do not have to consult anyone but themselves. And peoples have many men, and cannot consult each other as quickly.”

The time I was most proud of my grandparents, Blas Roca and Dulce Antúnez, was on one of my trips to the United States, when I was greeted by friends who knew my family. Their words of admiration and respect for my family were moving. That is why I fight against the dictatorship, that is why every day I feel proud of my grandparents and of my mother, Lydia Roca Antúnez, who instilled in me pure and patriotic feelings.

It is my commitment to continue with the fight they started. To carry out their ideas is my guide and my strength. And the examples of Martí, [Antonio] Maceo, [Ignacio] Agramonte – they give me strength to face all of the abuses and humiliations that inflicted on me in an effort to make me desist in my struggle so that Cuba and Cubans are free once and for all. The Apostle taught us that “heroes are those who fight to make peoples free, or those who suffer in poverty and misfortune to defend a great truth.”

Thank you very much to all the brothers who raise their voices in my defense to get me out of this unjust and arbitrary confinement, which I face with the firmness of my family legacy and my ideals. And with the conviction that Cuba has to be free now.

Homeland, Life and Freedom.

Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, political prisoner of conscience.

Combinado del Este, maximum security prison, June 25, 2022, three days after being arbitrarily and unjustly tried by a court.

Note from Iván:

This testimony was made known in Havana by Eralidis Frómeta, wife of Lázaro Yuri.

*Translator’s note: José Martí, the 19th century national hero, is often called the “Apostle of Cuba” or the “Apostle of Cuban Independence.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Ordeal of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

After a life of poverty, disease, and repression, Lisset Naranjo Girón, opposition figure and a Lady in White, died in Havana on April 10, 2021 at the age of 36. As the photographer and activist Claudio Fuentes wrote on his Facebook, from where this photo was taken, “the lack of protection of dissidents and political prisoners in Cuba is not only the responsibility of Castroism.”

Ivan García, Desde La Habana, May 2022 — For the act of writing this article, the regime – were they to deem it pertinent to do so – could prosecute me and slap me with up to twenty years in prison, according to the current Law 88 which was approved in February, 1999. For collecting payment for my contributions to Diario Las Américas, the new Penal Code says that I could be sentenced to ten years in prison.

If I were to leave the following comment on social networks – “Simply because they are enemies of the United States, their enemy the Cuban regime supports a comic-opera dictatorship in Nicaragua and is an ally of a nation like Russia that violates the rights of homosexuals, and of an autocratic asylum like North Korea” – the punishment could vary. Depending on the judge, I could be sentenced under Law 35 to pay a fine of three thousand pesos, or if Law 370 were applied I could be subject to three years of criminal sanctions.

The colleagues who produce the digital newspaper 14ymedio in Havana could also be sanctioned for “affecting world peace” or some other legal nonsense used for cracking down on free expression in Cuba – in addition to being charged under any current law that exists to muzzle independent journalism.

I do not consider myself a hero. But ever since I began writing in December 1995 for the independent press agency Cuba Press, directed by the formidable poet and journalist Raúl Rivero who died on November 6, 2021 in Miami, I have accepted the consequences of my way of thinking.

If there is something that those who oppose Castroism have never lacked it is laws and sentencing rules to forewarn us of long prison terms and even the death penalty.

Therefore, the new Penal Code, wherein the regulations against dissidence are expanded upon, is more of the same. Another roundabout message from the regime to warn us that we live on the razor’s edge, that we have few options to defend ourselves. If they open a case against us, not even the best lawyer in the world can keep us out of jail; the sanctions against opponents are pre-established by the State.

Years ago, I decided to be transparent. My opinion that Cuba will – sooner rather than later – begin the path towards democracy is one that I have always written and to which I have signed my full name in the digital and print media, where I have published for more than 25 years.

I am an uncomfortable journalist. I have no commitments to any opposition group or political current. My commitment is to journalism. I recognize that the newly approved Penal Code intimidates some sectors of the opposition and free journalism. And faced with the prospect of future criminal sanctions, members of those sectors often decide to leave the country.

When a dissident appears on State Security’s radar, the harassment that ensues is inhuman. The hostility of the political police affects the individual’s family, friends and neighbors. Almost all activists and reporters who have left the country have been arrested multiple times, faced imprisonment, and been harassed in countless ways.

Independent journalist Camila Acosta has been evicted at least eight times from the rental house where she lived because of pressure from State Security on the owners. Luz Escobar has been held under house arrest by State Security in her own home. continue reading

The repression in Cuba is constant. For this reason, opponents and journalists – particularly the youngest ones – have left their homeland or are packing their bags.

Currently, the internal opposition and ungagged journalism are at a low ebb. When you chat with any dissidents, they tell you about their plans to emigrate.

As the political refugee program of the United States Embassy in Havana has not been operating for several years, activists plot their itinerary like any other irregular immigrant, to try to reach the southern border of the United States and, once there, request asylum or cross illegally.

I remember the case of Ramón Arboláez, from Villa Clara, a cancer patient, who in 2016 fled Cuba with his wife and two children, harassed by the political police. Thanks to the involvement of Maite Luna, a reporter in Miami, and follow-up by Diario Las Américas, Arboláez was granted a humanitarian visa after being stranded in Mexico for two months.

Oppositionist José Daniel Ferrer, the artists Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Osorbo, and independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca have been in prison for months without being tried. The regime has proposed exchanging imprisonment for exile for all four. They have not accepted it. Activist Anamely Ramos is a victim of political exile in the 21st century.

The dissidents on the Island have it increasingly difficult. Like the vast majority of Cubans, they are suffering from the economic crisis, rising inflation, and widespread shortages. They have to queue for hours to buy a package of chicken or a bag of detergent. The health status of several opposition veterans is fragile.

Juan González Febles, an independent journalist who turned 72 on May 21, suffers from senile dementia and urinary incontinence. “He and his wife Ana Torricella, also an independent journalist, are going hungry,” a mutual friend tells me. Febles and Luis Cino founded the online newspaper Primavera Digital [“Digital Spring”] in November 2007; in June 2012 they also began publishing a printed edition that boasted a weekly circulation.

In Cuba, dissidents and independent journalists do not enjoy job protections, nor the right to take sick leave, vacations, or retirement. One example is that of my mother, Tania Quintero Antúnez, born in Havana in 1942, and since November 2003 living in Switzerland as a political refugee. In August 1959, at just 17 years old, she started working. On April 4, 1996, a 37-year career working for State-run institutions was cast aside when at age 54 she was expelled from the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (where she worked as a reporter for the Cuban Television Information System) for having signed on as an independent journalist with Cuba Press. They did not pay her a penny of the pension to which she was entitled by national and international law.

Some die destitute. Vladimiro Roca – a prominent dissident who in 1997, together with Martha Beatriz Roque, René Gómez Manzano and Félix Bonne Carcassés (he died in 2017 of a heart attack, blind and forgotten), authored the 1997 paper, The Homeland Belongs to All* – sold his residence in Nuevo Vedado and moved into a small and stuffy apartment. The money from the sale supports him in his old age.

Luis Cino, 62 years old, a brilliant columnist, lives on the edge. He cares for a sick aunt and supports her family with a salary of around 15,000 pesos a month, but due to rising inflation, barely has enough to buy food. “If I, who earn almost four times the average salary in Cuba, am having a hard time, imagine those who earn less or whose pensions are lower. I have friends and neighbors who go to bed hungry.”

Neither the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), nor Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have budgets to send stipends or subsidies to journalists living in dictatorial regimes. Instead, the latter must leave their countries because their lives are in danger or because advanced age or health problems have prevented them from writing.

A few years ago, there was a program in the United States, run by Cuban exiles, that every two or three months sent packages of food, personal hygiene products, and medicines to the most-needy dissidents in Cuba. For unknown reasons it was abolished, it no longer exists.

Due to economic hardships and constant threats of imprisonment, oppositionists in their 60s and 70s are emigrating. “It is preferable to be in a care home in Miami than to live without knowing what you are going to eat every day in Cuba, and with State Security harassing you 24 hours a day,” confesses an activist from Santiago de Cuba (who, because he lives far from Havana, is not known). Many compatriots in the diaspora, out of their own pockets, help dissidents on the Island. But something more than altruism is needed.

Iván García

*Translator’s Note: Archived copy of the Spanish original here: La Patria Es De Todos.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Shipments to Cuba to be Paid for in Miami

Taken from the Shipments to Cuba section of the Cuban Directory

Ivan Garcia, Havana, 4 April 2022 — After shaving his incipient beard, Sergio, 36, a software programmer, gets his smartphone and goes online. Using the WhatsApp tool Infotienda, he tracks down which market in Havana is stocking cheese, toilet paper, and milk powder.

His 10-year-old daughter and two of her friends play The Sims on a state-of-the-art PlayStation in the living room, while Mildred, his wife of 34 years and owner of a hairdressing business, seasons chickpeas in the kitchen. Sergio can’t complain. He lives in a two-story villa with a patio and garage in El Casino, a quiet suburb of the Cerro municipality thirty minutes from the center of Havana.

His house is equipped with all the comforts of modern life: appliances, air-conditioned rooms, and a small jacuzzi. He drives a 2018 KIA Picanto that cost him $55,000 on the informal market. This young professional couple, successful entrepreneurs, would probably not attract attention in any other country. But in Cuba, where on average people stand in line four hours a day to buy bread or food, that comfort level is the exclusive domain of foreign residents, or of the opulent olive-green* bourgeoisie who preach social justice while living the high life.

Sergio has shielded himself in these times of crisis. Gates, security cameras, burglar alarms and a pair of intimidating Rottweiler dogs protect the property. But “resolving”** the food problem, even with money, is a not-infrequent problem. “Getting food is a very tough battle in Cuba. You can buy beef in government hard currency stores, but it isn’t always available. They also run out of chicken breast sometimes as well as quality sausages, and the seafood costs an arm and a leg. On the black market you can buy some things like fresh fish and shrimp. If you buy beef you have to have a trusted contact, because many times the meat that is sold is not suitable for human consumption,” he says.

“The other big problem is the high prices and minimal variety,” Sergio continues. “For example, two weeks ago I bought eight kilos of beef and six kilos of veal from an MLC [hard currency] store and it cost me $237. Or, I could buy it in one of those places that sells food to Cubans living abroad. Some have better deals than others. For me, the two best are Supermarket and Katapulk, which sell food imported directly from the United States such as chicken, pork, rice, milk powder and toiletries, among other things. But the prices are scandalous and these places have a discriminatory policy against Cubans who live on the island, because you can only pay with Visa, Mastercard or some other foreign bank card.” continue reading

I’ll give you a price list. Katapulk, a mysterious agency founded by Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American who presents himself as a businessman and also runs the online site OnCuba News, sells a pack of four five-kilogram bags of milk powder for $279.96. A 25-kilogram sack of long grain rice at $60.79. A small pig for roasting, 12 to 16 kilograms, for 131 dollars. And two pigs’ legs of 24 to 26 kilograms at $178.47. All Made in the USA.

Despite the vaunted economic embargo, Katapulk offers everything from frozen chicken, juices, compotes, smoothies, instant soft drinks, soaps, Colgate toothpaste, Palmolive shower gel and shampoo, to cereals and frozen green plantains*** brought directly from the United States. Cuban food producers sell beef, seafood, pasta sauces, juices, sausages, dressings, ice cream and cookies on Katapulk. This last fact is a reason for discontent among the population, because such items are rarely found in the poorly-stocked “peso” markets, or even in the so-called “MLC” [freely-convertible currency] stores.

Such is not the case with Sergio, a Havana man who in a month can earn up to three thousand dollars selling software and can afford to have cards from foreign banks that allow him to buy on sites enabled for Cubans living abroad, especially in Miami.

“If you travel to another country, what you do is open an account there, or you get a relative who lives abroad to send you a Visa or Mastercard. When I get paid, I deposit part of the money directly onto the card. You must use an address, email and telephone number of a relative or friend who resides outside the country. For home delivery they charge you between 15 and 18 dollars, depending on the site. You have the advantage that you can buy food that is not sold even in the MLC stores. But the prices are outrageous. Even for me, who makes a salary much higher than the average salaries in Cuba, buying in those markets is unsustainable. What I do is combine my sources. There are things that I get on digital sites, others on the black market and others in MLC stores,” Sergio confesses.

For María Elena, an 80-year-old retiree, her children in Miami send her food and personal hygiene products purchased on one of the more than 25 digital e-commerce sites designed for the Cuban emigration. “My children spend a fortune, from 400 to 500 dollars a month on food and toiletries for their family on the Island.”

A former foreign trade official comments that “most of these sites are camouflaged businesses of high-ranking government officials. The Council of State, with its Palco enterprise, is behind many of these businesses. COPEXTEL, owned by Ramiro Valdés, has also set up a beach bar. All these stores sell food at between three and eight times higher prices than in any Western country. They squeeze the pockets of the emigrants as though they were oranges. They are extremely lucrative businesses.”

The question that ordinary Cubans ask themselves is where and how does the regime spend all that money. The water leaks that abound in the country, the cracked streets,  and the 50 percent of houses that cry out to be renovated, are a sign that these profits are not invested in improving the quality of life of the people.

The only investments in Cuba right now are the construction of four- and five-star hotels. These are executed by GAESA, a military company that is a parallel State within the State. It’s likely that part of the foreign currency that enters the country through this route stays there.

Iván García

Translator’s Notes:
* “Resolving” is how Cubans refer to dealing with, or surmounting, the many daily impediments they face in meeting their basic needs.
** “Olive-green” is a reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.
*** Green plantains are used in Cuban cuisine to make the popular chips,
tostones, and other dishes. 

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Rollero, the Most Unpopular Minister in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, Cuban Minister of Agriculture (left, in red cap and plaid shirt) (Taken from Radio Habana Cuba.).

Iván García, Havana, December 16, 2019 – I’ll introduce him to you. His name is Gustavo Luis Rodríguez Rollero. He was born on December 21, 1963 in the town of Iguará, Yaguajay municipality, Sancti Spíritus province, about 224 miles east of Havana.

According to EcuRed, the Cuban digital encyclopedia, Rollero was, as they say, a platoon leader of motorized infantry in the armed forces. Once discharged from the army, he worked as an agricultural technician, brigade chief, agricultural deputy director and director of an agro-industrial complex in Ranchuelo, Villa Clara. He later became a provincial delegate of the Ministry of Agriculture and vice minister in that ministry. Afterward, deputy minister of the Ministry of Sugar, where he became first deputy minister. In June 2010 he reached the top and was appointed Minister of Agriculture, a promotion that would be ratified in July 2018 by the National Assembly of People’s Power.

His biography, like that of other officials of the Communist Party of Cuba, is unblemished. But no expert on the island can explain what his merits are that have allowed him to remain in office for nine years, despite the fact that since 2013 the statistics in the agricultural sector have plummeted.

If you ask people on the street who the most unpopular minister in the country is, they will first point to Rollero, the one from Agriculture. In second place to continue reading

Eduardo Rodríguez, of Transport, but since he was appointed in January of this year, he is not as well known as the previous one, Adel Yzquierdo, who spent four years at the head of MITRANS.

Eduardo, now retired, worked for 55 years in the old Toledo plant, located in Marianao, west of Havana. He recalls that in 2000, when Fidel Castro ordered the restructuring of the sugar industry (a restructuring that was called Tarea Álvaro Reinoso) more than a hundred sugar mills were closed, including Toledo, the only one in the capital, which had been renamed by the revolution “Manuel Martínez Prieto,” after a union leader from that area assassinated in 1958 by the Batista dictatorship.

“Screw by screw, the entire plant was disassembled. The dismantling allowed neighboring residents to take advantage and steal. MINAZ (Sugar Ministry) officials passed through central Toledo promising villas and castles. But the biggest liar was Rollero. He showed up one day, looking like a student at Ñico López (Communist Party high school), assuring that an industry was going to be set up to process alcohol and take advantage of the by-products of sugar cane. He said that the production was going to be exported. “It was all a lie,”recalls Eduardo,” who at 72 sells brown sugar coquitos, allowing him to earn a few pesos and supplement his pension, which is equivalent to twelve dollars a month.

It is well-known that disinformation is habitual among high officials of the Castro regime. Some are more disinformed than others. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, for example, was unaware that Cuban doctors who deserted their missions were prohibited from visiting their homeland. He also didn’t know that almost a hundred dissidents and independent journalists are “regulated” and cannot travel abroad, despite having no criminal charges against them.

In a meeting with Cuban émigrés residing in Ireland last October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel asserted that the government did not repress those who thought differently. In a country where lying has become a way of life, the staging, the deluge of hollow slogans, and the media barrage of ideological content slanted and manipulated by experts controlled by state media is understandable.

Right now, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero is the perfect target for ordinary people. A few weeks ago, he appeared on the national television news, surrounded by a mountain of papers. While he was adjusting his glasses, he asserted that in a meeting of ministers with President Díaz-Canel, it had been said that “the goal of each Cuban eating 30 pounds per month of fruit, vegetables, and meat” was being fulfilled. And he claimed that he was “working to guarantee 5 kilograms of animal protein per capita per month.”

Mirta, a housewife, regularly watches television news. “The lies that the officials tell on TV raise my blood pressure. But I’m a masochist and I still watch the news, especially the ’estelar’, as they call one at 8 pm. The one who lies the most is Rollero. The guy rolls longer than a movie. Thirty pounds of fruits and vegetables and five kilograms of meat? Don’t make me laugh, Mr. Minister,” says Mirta, and she mentions the situation in which Havana’s grocery stores find themselves:

“In December, the price of pork meat continued to rise in Havana. A pound of boneless pork doesn’t fall below 50 or 60 pesos. Probably for the last week of the year it will cost even more. In state agricultural markets there’s nothing, only bananas, sweet potatoes, yuccas and black beans, no tomatoes or onions. Sometimes fruits, dried sweet oranges – sour and  juiceless – and some miniature pineapples that, after you remove the peel, barely give two glasses of juice. It’s true that there are Cubans who are able to eat 30 pounds of food per month, vegetables and fruits and 5 kilograms of chicken, pork or mutton. What Rollero’s lying face doesn’t say is the amount of money those people spend every month to be able to consume these products.”

Diario Las Américas toured several state agromarkets in Havana. The shortage is striking. Usually just five or six agricultural products, almost always bananas, yuccas, sweet potatoes, black and red beans.

Private sellers have a better selection, but prices are through the roof: a pound of tomatoes is 20 to 25 pesos; a pound of onions 30 to 40 pesos; a cabbage, 15 to 20 pesos; a lemon 7 or 8 pesos; and a pound of chickpeas, 25 pesos; guava, 8 to 10 pesos per pound; a ripe pineapple, 15 or 20 pesos; a mamey, 25 pesos; a four-pound melon, 40 pesos, at ten pesos a pound; and a whole papaya can cost more than 50 pesos.

Liliana and her husband, private entrepreneurs, say that they try to keep the menu as healthy as possible. “But the amount of money we spend is tremendous,” says Liliana and shows a notebook where she records the expenses.

“Every month we spend more than two thousand pesos, about 80 dollars, just on fruits, vegetables, food and beans. And between 250 and 300 Cuban convertible pesos [CUC – a currency that has been taken out circulation] on beef, chicken, fish, cheese, yogurt, spaghetti and tomato puree, among other foods from the foreign exchange markets. When you add it up, you get 9 to 10 thousand pesos a month, just so that three people, my husband, our daughter and I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner. I pray every day not to get sick and be unable to work, because if we lack the money we’re not going to be in the black.”

For six decades, the number one priority of Cuban families has been to be able to prepare one or two hot meals at home seven days a week. But as the “Revolution has advanced,” on an island with a tropical climate, it is incredibly increasingly complex, difficult, and expensive to get food in Cuba.

Ordinary people blame the government and in particular the Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, for scarcities, shortages, poor quality, and high prices. And for firing off volleys of lies.

Translated by Tomás A.

What Really Interests the Cuban Regime? / Ivan Garcia

Photo Credit: Dominoes, from Diario de Cuba.

Iván García, Havana, 21 June 2021 — On July 4, 2016, in the splendid residence of the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Cuba located west of Havana, there was a celebration of that country’s Independence Day. Hundreds of guests nibbled on hors d’oeuvres, sipped red wine or cold beer, and chatted on sundry topics in small groups. Following the re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Cuba on December 17, 2014, the harmony between the two peoples was noticeable.

At the long tables dressed in white tablecloths and under the canopies set up in the gardens, you could see renowned artists, business executives, prelates of the Catholic Church, as well as activists, opponents, and independent journalists. A blues soundtrack could be heard in the background while I conversed with a Spanish businessman based in Florida, who told me how the huge state bureaucracy was preventing him from opening a ferry line between Havana and Miami.

That July 4th, I remembered that in November of 2015, Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons — of the Alabama-based tractor manufacturer Cleber LLC — had made the news when they wanted to install a small tractor assembly plant in the Mariel Special Development Zone, which would have been a beneficial business for the unproductive agriculture of Cuba, especially for private farmers and agricultural cooperatives. Berenthal and Clemmons intended to sell the tractors in national currency. It seemed that the Cuban authorities were going to approve the deal, as it was profitable for both parties. By then, the Sheraton hotel chain had opened a property in Miramar in partnership with the military-run company Gaviota. continue reading

Day in and day out, famous Americans would visit Havana and roam the city in antique convertibles. Travelers from the United States were amazed to see no advertising in the capital city, to have no internet connection, and they lamented the deterioration of buildings that were architectural jewels. On the streets of Havana, Barack Obama was more popular than Fidel and Raúl Castro. From balconies, bicitaxis and collective taxis, you could see the American flag waving next to the Cuban. Paladares (private restaurants) and private lodgings were bursting. At Sloppys Joe’s — a bar located next to the Hotel Sevilla that before 1959 was frequented by the actor Errol Flynn — between mojitos and “ropa vieja” (shredded beef) sandwiches, a bartender told me that on a bad day, he would earn 150 dollars in tips thanks to American tourists.

During that honeymoon period — when many Cubans naively believed that in ten years, skyscrapers would once again grace the Havana skyline and Starbucks and McDonald’s franchises would be seen everywhere — I would have assumed that the Spanish businessman from Florida was optimistic. But the Cuban government had applied the brakes. The official press and functionaries of the dictatorship were accusing Obama of not doing enough to dismantle the embargo. And the amanuenses were issuing warnings about the cultural “danger” inherent in thousands of American tourists being on the Island.

That afternoon in 2016, I was unaware that the Castro brothers’ order was to return to the Cold War trench. The Spanish businessman warned me: “They are not interested in businesses that benefit the people. All business has to be with military companies, and they must make good profits. I told a senior government official about my project to open a ferry service, which would lower travel costs. In addition, Cubans living in Florida could bring 300 pounds of luggage, and even cars. The official told me privately that this was not in the government’s interest, as it would affect the military companies that run the foreign exchange stores. And he confessed to me that the business they were interested in was cruise ships.”

Obama approved at least three packages of measures that favored the private sector in Cuba. When you chat confidentially with Cuban private entrepreneurs, they recognize that the internal blockade, the government’s distrust, and excessive taxes and controls affect them more than the U.S. embargo. Two business owners who were at the meeting with Obama said that “if the government wants it, we can import food, raw materials, and other items from the United States.”

One of them told me that they “imported cuts of beef from Canada. But when the authorities found out, they banned it. There is no manifest will for private businesses to flourish. All that support for entrepreneurs expressed by the rulers is what they say publicly. But the reality is different. They drown you with absurd taxes, excessive controls, and a lot of corruption. They force you to cheat and commit illegalities in order to be profitable.”

It was the regime that never approved, nor cared, that the measures passed by the Obama administration would strengthen the private sector. The dictatorship and its military companies were never interested in opening businesses that would benefit the families of émigrés by authorizing them to bring hundreds of pounds on their ferry trips. It is the Cuban government that charges excessive sums of money for the shipments sent from abroad by émigrés. A box weighing five kilograms mailed to Cuba requires the recipient to pay about two thousand pesos to receive it. It is a way of discouraging imports to poor relatives on the Island.

The Cuban government is lying when its officials try to sell the story that “it is the U.S. blockade that affects the Cuban family.” The regime has never cared about the Cubans who leave, except whether they support the system and do not publicly express their differences with it.

In the spring of 2015, I covered the exodus of Cubans to Central America together with Celeste Matos, a formidable reporter based in Florida. We traveled from one end of Costa Rica to the other, from Paso Canoas, on the border with Panama, to Peñas Blancas, bordering Nicaragua. Dozens of Cubans told me that the Cuban Embassy in San José never gave them any help or legal advice. Cuban émigrés are only useful to the regime as ATMs.

Never has the autocracy apologized for the verbal abuses and lynchings to which they subjected Cubans who wanted to emigrate. According to a former Interior Ministry official, in 1980, Fidel Castro ordered the delivery of only two thousand food rations during the occupation by more than ten thousand Cubans of the Peruvian Embassy. “He did it on purpose, to create riots, fights, and present them to the world as a savage scum.” A few days later, Castro released hundreds of dangerous and mentally ill criminals to contaminate the exodus that was leaving through the Port of Mariel.

The regime charges Cuban émigrés very high prices for their passports and permits to visit their homeland. Emigrés have absolutely no political rights. They cannot vote or be elected to public office. This new measure to suspend the use of the dollar is another act of arrogance against expatriates and their relatives in Cuba. The authorities, because of the economic madhouse, mismanagement, and the unproductive state sector — a kind of sit-down strike by the workers due to their insufficient wages — cannot offer a decent life or efficient public services to the population.

There are several ways to dismantle the embargo. The measures approved by Obama are still in force, so if the State were to allow the private sector to import food and goods from the U.S., to later sell them in their businesses, this would alleviate the fierce shortages.

The government itself can buy food from the U.S., as long as it pays in cash. If, as the Central Bank of Cuba officials say, they had their vaults full of dollars, they could buy tons of beef, fish and sausages in addition to the usual frozen chicken. If the regime is unable to guarantee the supply and production of food, why does it not allow foreign chains to import and sell food in Cuba?

The dictatorship only issues measures that allow them to stay in power. They detest private business. They have prohibited Cubans from accumulating wealth. They speak of authorizing investments by Cubans who reside abroad, but they delay approval, because it is a contradiction for their ideological adversaries to return to Cuba as successful entrepreneurs. Each new unpopular measure decreed by the government headed by Miguel Díaz-Canel digs its own grave deeper. Authoritarian systems doing things half-assed crumble on their own. Cuba is not going to be the exception.

Translated By:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Surviving in the Cuban Jungle / Ivan Garcia

A crowd of people lining up in front of a store in Havana, waiting for their turn to shop (Photo Mario Muñoz – Facebook).

Ivan Garcia, Havana, 10 May 2021 — It is the law of survival of the fittest: only the most quarrelsome, opportunistic, and worthless citizens can get ahead. From top to bottom, today’s Cuban society is a jungle. A failed state that lives off ideological propaganda, promises it never keeps, and a chaotic subsistence economy.

If you ask Magda – a 40-year-old from Havana who supports herself by reselling for dollars the merchandise she buys at exclusive stores and has made a business out of managing the long lines of shoppers – why this is so, she will give you a concise answer: “The system forces you.” She is silent for a few seconds and then makes the following case:

“The Cuban system works by caste. The mayimbes (bosses) do not want for anything, nor do the senior officers in the armed forces. They get free housing and food, and they can take vacations at recreational villas for reasonable prices. Mid-level party officials also enjoy their little privileges. The cuadros (administrators) of tourism, domestic trade and other ministries and large companies, they live by stealing and profiting from food, fuel and construction materials. We – those at the bottom, the marginalized, almost all blacks – who live in poverty, we have to fight each other for the crumbs. Wherever money can be made, that’s where I’ll be. I’m not afraid to fight, and I’m not afraid of the police. Whatever it takes.” continue reading

Then in a calm voice, Magda recounts how since childhood she has had to deal with family violence, husbands who beat her, and neighborhood fights. “I have been imprisoned twice. There, you have to be a lioness. It’s not that I’m a bad person, but I don’t have too many options. Either I sit on my hands while my children go to bed hungry, or I go out and fight in the street for money and food. Necessity forces me to fight like a beast to get ahead.”

Like Magda, many women and men in the capital and in other provinces make a living by earning dollars organizing the lines, buying food for resale, and bribing police officers and officials who are supposed to be ensuring the social order. “You also have to grease the palms of store managers and employees. There are people who spend a week in line and never reach what they need. If you don’t pay 500 or a thousand pesos to a colero (someone who stands in line – “cola” – for others) you won’t get anything. If it’s a freezer you’re after, you have to pay them $70 or $100. It’s hard, but right now in Cuba, the law of the jungle rules,” Magda explains.

At any store in Havana, the coleros have organized a corrupt structure in cahoots with store managers and employees. On the outskirts of the market at 5th and 42nd in Miramar, half a thousand people await entry to go shopping. A policeman tells the crowd that only the first 150 will be allowed in. “The rest of you, please go home,” he says. Those who have not advanced to one of those spots have an alternative: they can, for a higher price, buy food and toiletries at private homes nearby.

Let’s call him Hiram, who works by walking the lines and quietly selling places for a thousand pesos. “In this country there are three types of Cubans. Those who rule, who do what they want and are accountable to no one. Those who have no choice but to silently endure the foot that the government puts down on them. And the dissidents, who are cocky, but lacking weapons, are not going to overthrow the regime. Most of the population are terrified of joining the opposition, because they can lock you away for many years. Criminals don’t want anything to do with the opposition, either. However, there is an unwritten pact between the government and the underworld: they let you do what you want as long as you don’t get into politics,” explains Hiram.

He goes on to say: “That’s why you see a bunch of people in the worst neighborhoods of Havana selling stolen items, and the police don’t even show up there. Drug dealers generally work for the police, as do the higher-level prostitutes. I don’t like communism. In 1980, when I was 23 years old, I got into the Peruvian embassy. We were ten thousand people and Fidel only sent a thousand boxes of food and bottles of water. They would do this to get us to fight with each other. Now it’s the same thing. (Cuban President) Díaz-Canel’s strategy, he has said, is to break off little pieces of problems, not solve them. I was in the United States and I was arrested, and they returned me as undesirable. I have to live off something. And the best I know how to do is be in the jungle, the fights and the illegalities. When you see two old men wrapped around a package of sausages, you realize that things in this country do not work.”

For a high percentage of Cubans it is a big production just to eat, buy soap, or obtain medicines. Any errand takes five or six hours. The atrocious inefficiency of the olive-green* economic model forces the citizens to travel long distances and line up for miles to try to get a roll of toilet paper or a bottle of soda.

In the midst of the shortages, the eternal economic crisis, and the sustained pandemic outbreak (which has practically collapsed the healthcare system in Havana) the authorities – instead of calling back the thousands of specialists and doctors who work abroad to provide dollars to the State – bet on bringing doctors in from other provinces. Public health is at a low ebb in Cuba. There is a scarcity of healthcare personnel, dozens of ambulances are halted for lack of spare parts, and there is a brutal shortage of antibiotics, syringes, and medicines.

One doctor said that “physicians and nurses who work on the front line treating Covid-19 patients are exhausted. They have spent many months working in precarious conditions, deprived of the necessary security, and subsisting on a very poor diet. Government propaganda claims that the public health system here works wonders, but this is a lie. There are shortages from water to gauze and cotton swabs, not to mention broken medical equipment.”

Carlos, a sociologist, opines that “in times of economic crisis, the worst qualities of human beings come to light, such as selfishness and lack of solidarity. Civic values ​​are deteriorating, while speculation, theft and abuse of the weakest increases.”

These days, a 3-kilogram portion of Gouda cheese, which in foreign currency stores costs between 25 and 27 dollars (625 and 675 pesos at the official exchange), is resold on the black market for 1,900 or 2,100 pesos. A pound of chicken for 20 pesos is resold for 50 or 55 pesos. The pound of black beans that a year ago cost 10 pesos now costs 60. The kilogram of powdered milk that cost 40 pesos is offered at 300 or 350 pesos. Two packages of sandwich cookies and three of crackers, whose price was 70 pesos, are not available for less than 700 pesos. And worst of all, even with money in your pocket, you don’t always find what you’re seeking.

The biggest speculators are the regime’s commercial companies. The foods that are offered in stores for dollars – the so-called MLC (freely convertible currency) – obtain profit margins that sometimes exceed 300%, says an official of the TRD Caribe chain. And he gives this example: “A Samsung side-by-side refrigerator costs $1,870 here. At a retail store in Mexico, it might not even sell for $ 1,500. It’s abusive. If the reseller doesn’t murder you with his speculative prices, the State will gouge you with its inflated prices.”

The Cuba of today is an absurdity. A savage mix of dysfunctional, Soviet-style socialism and rudimentary feudal capitalism, sustained by a Zimbabwe-like public infrastructure, with prices comparable to those of Switzerland. Castroism continues to boast that its imperishable revolution was made by the humble and for the humble.

But the reality is that on the Island, the poorest eat a hot meal once a day and live in precarious huts made of aluminum and cardboard pieces. The Cuban model is a snapshot of rampant bureaucracy, full-throttle corruption, and mediocre officials. And in that jungle, people must manage as best they can to survive.

*Translator’s note: A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

For Washington, Cuba is Not a Priority / Ivan Garcia

Independent journalists Iván García Quintero (left) and Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina on a street in the capital city of the United States. In March 2018, the two were invited to participate in a program on journalism sponsored by The Dialogue, a center founded in 1982, based in Washington, DC, and considered one of the leading think tanks on US and foreign policy.

Iván García, 15 February 2021 — As he drives a ramshackle Soviet-era Moskvitch down a central avenue west of Havana, Samuel, a retired athlete, explains why doing business in Cuba is very difficult. Eleven years ago, when Raúl Castro kicked off the expansion of private work, Samuel used the money he saved plus a loan from his New York-based brother to buy two Willys jeeps manufactured in the 1950s, but updated with modern engineering.

With his earnings from deploying those jeeps as collective taxis, Samuel acquired a brand-new 1958 Impala convertible that he would rent to the tide of North American tourists, who – seduced by the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the free marketing provided by the generous Obama Doctrine – rolled in on planes and cruise ships to get to know the communist Island of the Caribbean. Samuel had a fleet of two jeeps and two cars and was planning to buy a truck, recondition it, and use it for interprovincial transportation. But he never had legal backing.

“That is the main problem with opening a business in Cuba. There is no agreement or deal, a notarized document spelling out your rights and duties. All that happens is the State one day will tell you that it is authorizing this or that business (which usually was already operating illegally) and then it imposes a severe tax on you and too many controls. You can’t count on a wholesale market, and with every passing year – with no justification – your taxes go up and the inspectors make your life impossible,” Samuel  asserts, and adds this: continue reading

“Because of certain circumstances, the government has been forced to authorize private work. This has never been to promote free enterprise, so that the most talented will prosper and generate wealth. No. It has always been a concession by the State, forced upon them by their inefficiency or, like now, because they are trapped in an economic crisis and they will  let you run certain businesses – but always while pointing the finger at you and not allowing you to gain too many profits.”

Six out of nine entrepreneurs interviewed agree that self-employment is not usually to the liking of the regime’s apparatchiks. “It is a necessary evil that allows the State to reverse the economic depression and attract the half million state workers who between 2010 and 2012 lost their jobs. But, ideologically speaking, we are out of context. We are annoying. The usual suspects who engage in speculation, tax evasion, and personal enrichment. They see us as potential criminals or dissidents of the system, “says Geovany, owner of a body shop, a business that for many years has been in legal limbo.

Manuel, an economist, believes that if a society is committed to the progress of the country and the creativity of its people, then “private work should not be a problem. It is desirable for taxes to be as low as possible so that those business that are the genesis of future small and medium-size enterprises, and even of large companies, can flourish. Under Cuba’s circumstances, it would be very difficult for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos to become what they are today. They would not have passed the startup-in-a-garage stage. And if they had made a lot of money, they would have been accused of illicit enrichment or embezzlement.”

Onilio, a software programmer, prefers to give the regime a chance. Just one more. “I would like to believe that, this time, the announced opening of more than two thousand private jobs will unleash the creativity of Cubans. I intend to set up an electronic payment gateway for food, clothing and household appliances. But for that to work, the government must authorize imports. Either legalize the “mules” – or else make it so that we private entrepreneurs can purchase goods abroad on our own. If the level of importation is too high, then call upon the State-run import companies to manage it. We should have wide autonomy. And bet on ventures that have added value. Not just services.”

At the moment, the regime maintains some restrictions that prevent free importation. An entrepreneur who met with US President Obama during his visit to Havana in March 2016 is skeptical of the current Cuban government strategy.

“I hope I’m wrong and the authorities this time are serious and don’t put the brakes on private work. But the evidence and history make me pessimistic. I remember that as soon as I left the meeting with Obama, the ONAT (National Tax Administration Office) officials began to inspect my business. If there is no structure where to acquire raw materials, free import and export or doing business with foreign entrepreneurs is impeded, it is very difficult for businesses to be transparent. It is the regime itself, by not creating a specific legal framework and by imposing high taxes, which caused the self-employment sector to be distorted. To change things, the government must change its mentality.”

Ramiro, an analyst, considers that the expansion of private work as more a political strategy to seduce the current White House administration than a project to involve private entrepreneurs in Cuba’s economic future. “Too many coincidences. Recently, the government informed the president of Colombia of alleged terrorist plans by the ELN (Army of National Liberation), most members of which reside in Cuba.

What is the real intention here? To distance themselves from the Colombian terrorists? The Cuban government will probably leave the ELN to its own devices, sacrifice it in its attempt to negotiate with Washington. But I am left wondering if the efficient Cuban intelligence services did not know in advance of the attack on a police cadet school in Bogotá in January 2019. It is clear that this move is a message to Biden: that Cuba is willing to negotiate on any topic. It would be necessary to see if they do not sacrifice a bigger piece, such as [Nicolás] Maduro [the contested president of Venezuela]”, the analyst emphasizes and adds:

“Internally, regime leaders know that the White House’s policy guidelines favor relations with the private sector and dissidents. They yield on the issue of the private sector, hence the bait is tossed to expand self-employment, so as to continue repressing the opposition. The government knows it is racing against the clock. The historical figures of the revolutionary process will cease being valid interlocutors within a couple of years, since they are already of retirement age and close to death. It is the new breed of leaders, in my opinion, which must draw up a functional economic policy and a consequent foreign policy. The White House knows this. And within Cuba some things are no longer the same. As a result of the ‘tarea ordenamiento‘* – a strategy about which the people were not consulted – discontent, controversy and criticism from the population have changed the correlation of forces,” and he concludes:

“More and more citizens and sectors are betting on dialogue, transparency and democracy. This segment of civil society is not even dissident – something that has caught the government – which is aiming its media cannons at the opposition – by surprise, being that it is a vast majority of Cubans who seek to dialogue with the regime about the future of Cuba. And not for the regime to negotiate on its own with the United States.

On February 9, a bipartisan resolution presented in the United States Senate by Democratic legislators Bob Menéndez, Richard Durbin and Ben Cardin, and Republican Marco Rubio, expressed solidarity with members of the San Isidro Movement and requested the Cuban authorities to initiate a dialogue process with independent artists. The text also demanded the release of rapper Denis Solís, the cessation of repression against Cuban artists and the immediate repeal of decrees 349 and 370 as well as the other laws and regulations that violate freedom of expression in Cuba.

Local political operatives will choose to negotiate directly with Washington, trying to avoid a national dialogue. They believe that it is possible to return to the honeymoon period that lasted between 2014 and 2016, when the flags of the stars and stripes waved on the balconies and old collective taxis. A rupture that provoked the dictatorship itself, especially after Obama’s historic speech in Havana.

The bulk of the measures approved by the White House at that time benefited the private sector and the Cuban people, not the military companies. But this time the game board is different. The Island is caught in an extensive economic and social crisis. And on Biden’s agenda, Cuba is not a priority.

*Translator’s note: Tarea ordenamiento = the [so-called] ‘Ordering Task’ which is a collection of measures that includes eliminating the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), leaving the Cuban peso as the only national currency, raising prices, raising salaries (but not as much as prices), opening stores that take payment only in hard currency which must be in the form of specially issued pre-paid debit cards, and others. 

Cuban Emigrants Debate: Dialogue Or Confrontation?

Iván García, Desde La Habana, 10 August 2020 — Casa Bacardí is a venue annex just a stone’s throw from the University of Miami. One autumn morning in 2016 it became the setting for an event headlined by political analyst and writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, Agapito Rivera — who fought in the Escambray Mountains against Fidel Castro’s army in the mid-1960s — and poet and former political prisoner Angel Cuadra, who concluded the program. The audience consisted mostly of young dissident activists and independent journalists residing in Cuba and were not intimately acquainted with that opposition movement that confronted the Castro regime with weapons and subversion.

The regime’s propaganda apparatus manipulated and misrepresented that piece of history. The Bay of Pigs combatants were cast as bourgeois who came to recover their property that had been confiscated by Fidel Castro’s olive-green revolution, and the Escambray guerrillas were a band of assassins. My friend Carlos Alberto Montaner (whose articles I would furtively read while studying at the pre-university) was, according to the official historiography, by the age of 16 an old CIA hand and admitted terrorist. Angel Cuadra was a “counter-revolutionary” and was not published in Cuba — enough to erase him from Cuban culture.

With a business card like that, anyone would think that Carlos Alberto, Agapito and Angel were intolerant and intimidating people. Nothing is further from reality. They were three old-timers bearing the infirmities of age, agreeing on one point: the war against Castro was lost, but they had fought the good fight. Times have changed. Now, the opposition is peaceful. But the plan remains in place: the goal of a democratic Cuba. continue reading

While the broken voice of Cuadra declaimed how at Playa Girón both sides fighting were Cuban, and both went to battle waving the Lone Star Flag and singing the national anthem, many of us in the audience wondered what would be the best strategy to negotiate a different future with the regime.

It was in the years of the Obama Doctrine, which boasted many supporters in the population and among the opposition. What was Barack Obama’s plan? The simple answer is, a change in policy, because the hard line of other U.S. administrations hadn’t worked. Even those who disagreed with Obama thought that, as in any negotiation, the tactic had to be quid pro quo.

The Castro autocracy, with its victim story of David versus Goliath, of the country besieged by the yanquis, suddenly ran out of arguments. Castroism was able to win at Bay of Pigs, but lost the narrative of dialogue and tolerance. All it had left were complaints, a repeat of the old discourse and absurd demands.

The rulers were exposed to their people. They were not interested in betting on democracy. They never cared about making a pact with the exiles. They did not feel comfortable having normal relations with the U.S. The issue is that the philosopher’s stone of Castroism is to perpetually maintain an enemy. Vampires live by sucking blood. The Cuban system feeds on the imperialist discourse — as long as it is about the U.S., for they have never condemned Chinese or Russian aggressions.

Was Obama’s strategy correct? Or are Trump’s restrictive measures more effective? Each faction makes its own sensible arguments. But I doubt that either of the two strategies can bring about a change in Cuba. The reforms in our country will come sooner rather than later.

Perhaps by other means. Hopefully it will not be through a social explosion. But change is on the way. It will not necessarily be a democratic project. It probably will not be. It depends on the balance of forces.

The internal opposition, disunited and unfocused, has committed a capital crime. Transferring leadership to the exile organizations in Miami. It is impossible for remote dissent to work. A new opposition must settle on the island and autonomously draw up the projects that are deemed to be most effective.

The groups in exile must be a companion voice, not the ones who design the strategies. As long as Miami shoots you WhatsApp texts about what should or should not be done, the Cuban opposition will remain irrelevant. Battles, projects and petitions are not won by litigating on social networks. They are earned with your feet on — and your ear to — the ground. By proselytizing Cubans and managing to capitalize on the widespread social discontent that exists in Cuba right now.

They say that during the Second World War, Stalin was with his generals, arranging some combat strategies, when an aide told the dictator that the Vatican had declared war on the USSR. Stalin looked at the model and wanted to know how many tank divisions these people could put in the field. None, his generals replied. And he continued to prepare the next battle against Germany, the real enemy.

As long as the internal opposition is unable to summon five or six thousand Cubans to a protest march, the regime will not negotiate with them at all. The dissidents’ weapon to confront the government is the people. On their ability to mobilize people depends the likelihood of the autocracy taking them into account.

Crusades on social media and dissident projects that are known only to their supporters, while they drink coffee in their living rooms, are never going to be successful. The Miami exile community should not wear itself out in polemics against Haila for kissing Fidel Castro* or whether former baseball player Víctor Mesa was actually an informant. These are minor issues.

What is reasonable and fruitful is to demand in international forums the right to enter and leave their homeland without having to pay a tax or obtain a visa. Claim their right to participate in national political life, to elect and be elected. To be able to invest and pay workers directly. To be heard as Cubans who matter.

Although the regime tries to ignore them, the economic and political power of the emigrants is considerable. Official statistics try to silence an overwhelming reality: remittances constitute the second industry in Cuba, after the export of medical services. As remittances are an important source of capital, the regime’s military companies have designed a commercial fabric to capture these currencies and reinvest them in the construction of golf courses and luxury hotels.

The exiles have two channels to demand their rights: negotiate with the regime, or confront it. Not with bullets. Traveling to the Island and making themselves heard. It would be more effective for thousands of compatriots to organize a protest march in Cuba and not on social media. If the internal opposition does not work, the vociferous exile community should show its face.

Something was clear to me about that event at Casa Bacardí in Miami: the incipient Cuban opposition lost the war, but risked its skin. In the hot zone. Not from an apartment on Brickell**. Outside of the ring, anyone is brave.

Translator’s Notes:

*Cuban singer Haila Mompié was harshly criticized in Cuban Miami for praising and kissing Fidel Castro during a concert in 2010.

**Brickell Avenue is the main road through the Brickell financial district of downtown Miami, and is lined with luxury condominium buildings.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Independent Journalism: A Risky Profession in Cuba

Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, an independent journalist who writes for Diario de Cuba and the Spanish newspaper ABC. (Radio Televisión Martí)

Iván García, July 6, 2020 – To do objective journalism in Cuba is an abstraction. You cannot obtain data or statistics from official institutions, as there is no public information office. What is normal in any other country in the world – knowing the president’s agenda or itinerary, accrediting yourself at a minister’s press conference, or participating in a given event – is an impossible mission on the Island.

Knowing the budget of the stealthy military business monopoly GAESA, or how much it has invested in the construction of luxury hotels, is considered a state secret. Even information about the remittances that former ‘worms’ [exiles] send to the Island is classified. Cuba is a mixture of police control, failed welfare state, and a scheme of government in the style of the former Soviet Union’s powerful bureau. Is Cuba communist? The facts indicate that Marx’s ideology was adopted to camouflage Fidel Castro’s political and military caudillismo and thirst for power.

The regime’s ideological contortions to survive could fill an anthology. At a certain stage – following the collapse of the USSR – Catholicism, Santería, and other religious currents were authorized to join the membership of the Communist Party, provided they expressed loyalty to the comandante. continue reading

Right now, an authoritarian government exercises the worst state capitalism in Cuba. It combines anachronistic command-and-control institutions with a planned economy, pockets of capitalist market economy, and a military business conglomerate that controls 90 percent of the currency that circulates in the country.

Vis-à-vis the international gallery, the olive-green* autocracy wants to sell itself as reformist and open to dialogue and foreign investment. Internally, the story is different: fear that small family businesses will make a lot of money, high taxes to curb private work, and a pseudo-nationalist discourse intended to bolster the cult of personality of the late Fidel Castro.

Although the welfare state is a drain everywhere, the regime clings to its immobility and proclaims that it is the solution to the pressing problems that Cubans suffer due to the serious economic crisis and alarming shortages of food and housing. In this unproductive system, the official press plays a fundamental role.

There is a whole network designed by the Communist Party to control the media and its journalists. The Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR) is the entity that supervises the press and conveys the guidelines of the highest leadership to directors, deputy directors, and chief editors. A scheme copied from the Soviet era and that works according to the top leadership’s linkages and interests.

Opinions and judgments about the international press are classified in terms of friendly, enemy, or neutral countries. Regarding the “friendly” countries – Russia, Iran, North Korea, Nicaragua, Venezuela, China, Vietnam, or Mexico – you will not read or see criticism of their governments and institutions in newspapers and television newscasts. Condemnations of human rights violations, articles highlighting the increase in poverty, police violence, unemployment, or economic crisis, are reserved for “enemy” countries, mainly the United States.

Such is the amount of human resources dedicated to the “Number One Enemy of the Revolution” that whole departments are assigned to the United States. The number of specialists and expert journalists on that nation far exceeds that of academics who should seek solutions to Cuba’s structural malfunction.

There are three national newspapers: Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and Trabajadores. The three compete to see who is the most misinformed. Granma is the organ of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), Juventud Rebelde of the Young Communist League (UJC), and Trabajadores of the Workers Central Union of Cuba (CTC). But only one should be published – thereby saving paper – because both the UJC and the CTC fall under the umbrella of the PCC. Pure libels.

The fifteen Cuban provinces and the special municipality, Isla de la Juventud, have their newspapers, which are more of the same. Dozens of national, provincial, and municipal radio stations, ten national and several regional television channels, are in operation. Magazines are published that vary only in name but hardly in content.

The study of journalism in Cuba is an ideological field, controlled by the Communist Party. The most irreverent journalists who have their own opinions are left without jobs. A Cuban official journalist is a type of scribe. S/he cannot write about a topic of choice, and the censor’s red pen can mutilate paragraphs

In the late 1980s, an attempt was made to populate this information desert by various journalists who came from the official press, such as Indamiro Restano, Rolando Cartaya, Tania Díaz Castro, and Rafael Solano. Solano was awarded the 1988 Rey de España prize in journalism for his articles focused on political issues. In the mid-1990s, independent press agencies emerged, among them Cuba Press, the most professional of all, directed by Raúl Rivero, and which began covering social issues, publishing stories about prostitution, drug use, illicit gambling, and other problems of national life that did not appear in the state press.

The testimonies of those who had no voice expanded the journalistic tuning fork and relegated political hack writing to the background. In addition, it was more cost-effective to tell stories of jineteras, drug addicts, beggars, and families residing in houses in danger of collapsing, since no authorization was needed to conduct the interviews, only the consent of the interviewees. But, it was still difficult to find other points of view, the necessary journalistic balance, because state officials almost never offered their impressions to an independent communicator.

With the passage of time, things changed. Visibility on the internet and international recognition of the independent press has been of great help. Journalists without muzzles began to publish pieces in newspapers of wide circulation such as El Mundo, El País, El Nuevo Herald, Diario Las Américas, The New York Times… Recently, Abraham Jiménez was appointed as a columnist at  The Washington Post.

What is the most difficult thing about doing quality journalism in Cuba? From my point of view, it is having good sources. This is done with trust and respect for diverse political opinions. Many citizens, including middle-ranking state officials, take advantage of their friendly relationships with a freelance journalist to uncover corruption cases or provide classified data and statistics. Since Cuba functions as a police state, we free journalists must take care of and protect our sources.

My advice to novice journalists seems more like a manual for spies. Among my tips: Have phone cards that are not in the name of the journalist or any close family member. When aiming to cover a high-risk event – such as the June 30 call for a peaceful demonstration to protest the murder of young Hansel Ernesto González Galiano by a policeman and against police violence in Cuba – one of the first measures that State Security takes is to cut the phone lines and disable internet data traffic.

So that we are not left without means of communication, the thing to do is to have more than one blank SIM card that would allow one to communicate with sources. Always use secure channels – not SMS, phone calls, or email. So that our plans do not leak, it is essential to be discreet, walk alone, and not talk about your plans in front of a group of people. The political police have infiltrated much of the dissident movement and of independent journalism.

To demonstrate that it is not a bloody dictatorship, Castroism boasts that a journalist has never been murdered in Cuba. This is true. It is also unnecessary. They use other methods. They murder your reputation, they try to demean you socially. They resort to disqualifications and insults, calling you ‘traitor’ and ‘mercenary’. Or they prevent you from leaving the country. This harassment has taken its toll on young and brilliant journalists and that is why they decided to emigrate.

Others, such as Camila Acosta, Mónica Baró, Abraham Jiménez or Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, have been subjected to intensified harassment.  In Rodríguez’s case, he was arrested on Sunday, June 28, on a charge of “contempt of authority,” and the authorities told him that they were going to put him on trial on Wednesday, July 8. Following a large gathering mobilized inside and outside the Island, he was released on Friday, July 3. The next day he had to report to a police unit, where he was fined 800 pesos, to be paid within ten days.

As the economic crisis worsened and with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, State Security redoubled the repression, increasing brief arrests against independent journalists, as well as seizures of work equipment. Until June 16, 28 journalists had been charged under the absurd Decree 370 (or, the “Scourge Law”) and fined 3,000 pesos, eight times the minimum wage. Since September 2019, the lawyer and journalist Roberto Quiñones, 63, has remained behind bars, accused of “disobedience” and “resistance”.

It is increasingly difficult to do serious, objective, and balanced journalism in Cuba. But not impossible. Something does get done.

 *Translator’s note: A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison



Monica Baro: "You Can’t Sacrifice Yourself for a Utopia" / Ivan Garcia

Iván García, Havana, December 9th, 2019 — This interview is the fruit of much bargaining. In various profiles that Journal of The Americas aims to publish on independent Cuban journalists of different generations, the name Monica Baro is underlined in red.

The plan was to open the season with an interview of the brilliant young reporter from Havana, who at 31 years of age publishes El Estornudo (The Sneeze), a digital publication of narrative journalism. But Monica was impossible to catch. When she was not travelling abroad, she had a lot of work. Time and again she postponed the date of the interview. I refused to give up.

Finally, on Tuesday, December 3rd, we managed to meet at the Cafe Fortuna, on First and 24th Street in Miramar, a neighborhood in the west of Havana caressed by the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. The locale was decorated in a vintage style, dimly lit with poems by Chaplin adorning the walls. The servers were dressed in 1950s sailor outfits. continue reading

Twelve minutes after the agreed-upon hour, Monica appeared in black jeans covered in patches. Her hair hung loose and she wore a plastic Made in China watch, a white pullover emblazoned with an image of Frida Khalo, a smile and glasses that gave her a quirky, intellectual air. Monica was in her element.

I heard her name mentioned for the first time in 2014. It was a hot afternoon in summer, in a bar a stone’s throw from the Bay of Havana, where we, a group of independent journalists, would go to drink beers once a month. We would speak about our families, baseball and soccer, as well as local and international politics. But the majority of our time we dedicated to talking about journalism. I don’t recall if it was Jorge Olivera or Victor Manuel Dominguez who mentioned an interview that a Monica Baro had published in OnCuba.

When I read the interview, I found myself more interested in the questions the reporter was asking than the interviewee’s responses. Reading the byline at the end I learned that the reporter was a recently graduated journalist. She had worked in the publication Bohemia and at the Institute of Philosophy. A short while later, as I was revising articles in the Wi-Fi park of La Vibora, I stumbled across Monica again, this time in the independent newspaper Periodismo de Barrio, with a report on a woman who lived in extreme poverty in deep Havana.

Already, journalist cliques were babbling about Monica Baro. It was clear that she was in another league. And then the awards began to pile up. The last, the Gabo Prize, she received in October 2019 in Colombia for her investigation ‘La sangre nunca fue amarilla‘ (The Blood Was Never Yellow), published in Periodismo de Barrio in February of this month.

But Monica remained shrouded in her natural humility, dodging spotlights and praise. When she sat on the stool at Cafe Fortuna, after the usual greeting, she ordered a refreshment. I made the most of it and told her she was more difficult to trap than a politician. She smiled, tilted her head and we began to film.

Iván García: Monica, are you planning to leave, to emigrate?

Monica Baro: Not so far. I am not sure if I will stay in Cuba indefinitely, it is impossible to tell. You never know where you’ll end up.

Iván García: I am going to describe to you two hypothetical scenarios. One, Cuba 2059, Monica, grandmother to a couple of grandchildren, prepares to cover the centennial of the disaster called the Cuban Revolution for El Esturnudo. Second scenario, Monica, 71 years old, already retired, remembered for her contributions to Cuban narrative journalism. Which scenario do you think the future will bring? Do you sincerely believe there is a solution for Cuba?

Monica Baro: I believe so. There are those that think that Cuba will change in two years. Others say five, ten. The truth is that I don’t know how much time Cuba will need to democratize and become a country that respects political liberties and freedom of expression. To be a decent country, where people can have a future and develop themselves openly. But I persevere. This is not something that gives me pause. I think that one has to be in a place one wants to be and is happy.

If I am here it is not because I feel a certain commitment to a certain cause or to the democratization of the country. I am in Cuba because the work that I do here makes me happy. The day that this work no longer makes me happy, I’ll leave.

For a long time the government, and the most rancid left on the continent, have wanted to inoculate us with the idea that you have to sacrifice yourself and everything for the cause and put the interests of society in front of the interests of the individual. And I believe that this is not healthy for any cause. I believe that causes have to be the ones that make people happy.

If you are defending human rights, the freedom of expression and independent journalism, it is because it makes you happy. When I worked for the review Bohemia, I interviewed Pepe Mujica at a CELAC event, and something he said stuck with me: “A generation cannot sacrifice itself for a utopia.”

It is the same on the individual level. You cannot sacrifice yourself for a utopia. For me, utopia is the present. It is not the future. It’s today. And for me, since I graduated in journalism in 2012, every day that I have been in Cuba I have been living in my own utopia, my happiness.

Iván García: Independent, free and alternative journalism, as you call it, arose at the end of the 1980s. Afterward, in the 1990s a number of independent journalism agencies were established that abused the use of the opinion column. But, at the same time, street journalism began, with reports and chronicles from that other island that the regime tries to ignore.

In 2007 the blog Generation Y was started by Yoani Sanchez, which undoubtably marked a new era in freelance journalism with the appearance of new digital publications.

With the relaxation of tensions of the Obama era in 2014, a wave of talented journalists surged forward, exploring that which I call the new Cuban narrative journalism. This is a deliciously different kind of journalism of undeniable quality, and it has awakened suspicions in some independent journalists of the barricade, decidedly anti-Castro. It is said that this new group does not compromise, that they are a fifth column that rejects the current themes of Cuban society and look a bit from above the shoulders of the rest. What is your take on this topic?

Monica Baro: I think this is another political miseducation that we have inherited from the government. We think that we have the authority to judge the political and social leanings of other people. In issuing judgement, we believe ourselves to be the judge of others. It is sad, a culture that we have to overcome, to be constantly questioning that if you are committed to this, I am more committed than you are, a logic that really shocks me.

I make a fair effort not to fall into this vicious cycle, but I don’t want to claim that I am a stranger to this culture. I was educated in Cuban schools, I was indoctrinated, we are part of the same society. One should always question their way of interacting with others, their way of conversing, their way of treating people who are different and think differently than you. And it shouldn’t be that you put yourself in a position of moral superiority to issue judgement, since those who judge believe that they have the moral superiority to do it.

Iván García: Do you believe that this has happened?

Monica Baro: Yes, of course. All those who can say that El Estornudo, Periodismo de Barrio or El Toque are not more radical media, because they don’t deal with more political themes, are obviously making judgements. And for me there is a logical explanation: these media are drawing a border between activism and journalism. I am aware that there are some media that do both simultaneously. I understand that there are publications that engage in political activism. I myself have engaged in political activism on social media in defense of political liberties, freedom of the press and of expression.

In a way, when you create independent journalism in a country where there is no freedom of the press you are defending the right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. But you have to know there is still a border between journalism and activism. It is important to respect this, as it is what guarantees that what you publish as a journalist has more credibility.

Genre journalists are here for a reason. When you want to give your opinion, you do so. When you go to investigate, you investigate. You demonstrate with facts, you contrast your sources, using various sources if you are going to denounce something.

You try to respect these genres that are here for a reason. And also respect a profession that has rules and norms that are not by choice. They are there to ensure that, first, you protect yourself, second, you protect your sources, and, third, the information that you publish has the effect you are looking for. This is not to say that a journalist, when they leave their office, goes and serves in a political party, of course. But you have to know where the limits are.

Iván García: I am going to give you some bad news and the good news. Digital journalism, just like traditional journalism, has not recovered from the crisis that the introduction of new technology created. The majority of media has not found an effective business model. And the worst part is that, for the past ten years, even now, Chinese media has been using robots as presenters.

They say that artificial intelligence and robots will substitute for a large number of journalists, in particular those who write news. I suspect that the journalists that will remain are those who can tell stories differently, to be read by an audience of readers nostalgic for the Sunday paper.

The good news is that this kind of advanced technology will take a while to reach Cuba. Has the though ever crossed your mind to abandon journalism and take refuge in literature or poetry?

Monica Baro: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever leave journalism. What I want is to tell stories, and journalism gives me this space. Nonetheless, at some point I would love to write literature. In fact, when I first started to write as a child of eleven years, I did not start as a reporter. I liked to write stories and novels. When I was twelve I wrote pages and pages of things. This was where I started, with fiction. But my main interest is telling stories. I would love to write screenplays, but without completely giving up on journalism. The only difference would be that one contains fact and the other fiction.

Iván García: Do you think that social media is harmful to serious journalism?

Monica Baro: Social media is a tool used by people. I do not see it as something abstract, as it has its own life. I do think that we have to educate ourselves about the use of social media, especially when it comes to the consumption of news and information.

Many people say “I read it on the internet,” but the internet is not a source of information. We have to know how to identify which sources are trustworthy, why they are trustworthy or not. People have to learn how to consume journalism. To look up the sources and citations from news articles.

I think that schools should include, as another required subject, a course on how to protect yourself on the internet and how to consume information from the internet. But I don’t believe that journalism will disappear, as journalism does not just inform people but also helps them to understand. Literary journalism is trying to provide something different, other focuses. It does not just aim to give cold hard facts.

Iván García: But then this happens: a joke or fake news generates thousands of comments on social media. Regardless, a deep and entertaining piece like ‘La sangre nunca fue amarilla’, which you published in Periodismo de Barrio, and was awarded the Gabo Prize for Journalism, barely had comments on the site.

Feedback, when there is any, stays in the intellectual world. And then something strange and dangerous happens–those who read your article begin to think themselves reporters and communication professionals. And these articles never reach the people they were aimed at. Not even through reposts.

Monica Baro: This report, ‘La sangre nunca fue amarilla’, took me three years, between research and editing. Of course at times one can feel a bit decieved. But I keep insisting.

The server brought something to eat. Monica mentioned that she’s a fan of cinema.

“From when, on the 5th of December, the annual Cinema Festival starts in La Habana and until it ends on the 15th, I turn off my cellphone. I love classic black-and-white films. Every night I go to see a movie.”

She enjoyed Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker. She loves Tarantino.

“Have you seen his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?” I asked.

“No, how was it?” She wanted to know.

“Very good, Tarantino in his purest form.” I said.

We finished eating and returned to the task at hand. She told me that State Security had detained her only once.

“It was in Guantanamo, in 2016, during Hurricane Matthew. I am also regulated (restricted from travelling abroad). At least for now.”

She doesn’t see herself as a political figure. “It’s not my responsibility. Politicians, democracy, have to come to different agreements to be able to govern. I prefer to judge them as a citizen from the perspective of journalism.”

She has her habits and manias. “Before sitting down to write, preferably in the morning, I have to bathe, then I drink coffee and burn some incense, in that order. I don’t have to isolate myself. I can write just the same in an airport at peak hours. I read a lot, at all times,” she confessed.

She respects political columnists. She thinks that they should have broad historical knowledge, a lot of information and a good analytical capacity to write. But they also have to be willing to jump in and give their opinion in any them when needed. Monica Baro is one of the forty Cuban women who signed a letter petitioning an Integral Law against Gender Violence and last November she presented to the National Assembly of Popular Power.

Night had fallen in La Habana. I bid farewell to one of the young voices for change in Cuba. A woman fighting for a different kind of journalism. And for democracy in her country.

Text and Photography: Iván García

Note: On the 5th of December, after this interview, it was announced that four Cubans, the journalists Mónica Baró Sánchez and Carlos Manuel Álvarez, the filmmaker José Luis Aparicio Ferrera and the environmental entrepreneur Alexander López were included in the list of 100 young Latinos who believe in and inspire a better world, created by the periodical Avianca. About Monica, the Colombian publication wrote that the Cuban woman, connected to alternative media like Periodismo de Barrio, El Estornudo and El Toque, won the Gabo Prize of Journalism in 2019 in the Best Article category for her report “La sangre nunca fue amarilla.”

 Translated by: Geoffrey Ballinger

10 Years: A Guy Named Ivan Writes from Havana

July 2009. Iván writing on the first laptop he had, in the room of his daughter, who was then six years old.

Iván García, January 20, 2020 — Three years ago I had a smart phone for the first time. It was a gift from Celeste Matos, a journalist in Miami, with whom I worked for a time. It was robbed, and she offered me another, which was blocked because I couldn’t remember my account ID.

In January 2009, when I began this adventure of opening the blog Desde La Habana (From Havana), I didn’t have a laptop. I used to type on a portable Olivetti Lettera that my mother left me before going into exile in Switzerland in the autumn of 2003.

The Black Spring, as you know, was a repressive wave ordered by Fidel Castro, that imprisoned 75 dissidents, among them 27 independent journalists. It was a tremendous blow to uncensored journalism, and there was a logical retreat. continue reading

My friend Luis Cino, an unsurpassed chronicler, started working as a custodian in a dairy. In order to support my daughter, born February 3, 2003, I had to sell pizzas, snacks and fruit juice from home.

A Swiss reporter used to visit Havana in the month of December and we would meet in the home of Reinaldo Escobar and Yoani Sánchez. I heard Yoani talking about the blogosphere for the first time.

Later I read a very interesting article in Newsweek in Spanish about the importance of personal blogs in the media. This was in 2007. Cino and Juan González Febles had founded Primavera Digital (Digital Spring), an independent site considered illegal by the Regime, and they invited me to collaborate.

In April 2007, Yoani opened her blog, Generación Y (Generation Y*). Her posts were short, well-edited and irreverent. The Sánchez-Escobar couple are like a push-button box: you press a button and out comes an idea. And it occurred to them to open a Blogger Academy in their apartment, on the 14th floor of a Soviet-style building in the suburbs of Nuevo Vedado.

It was then that Yoani invited me to become part of her initiative to set up a platform of bloggers living in Cuba. You are your own publisher, censor and editor. You can write whatever you want. You’re on your own. One month before, I had done an interview with Yoani, which, because of its length, was divided into two parts.

I posted the first part, Conversation with Yoani, on the blog Penúltimas Días (Penultimate Days) on February 9; and the second, Yoani apunta con pistola (Yoani Aims a Gun) on El Blog de Tania Quintero (The Blog of Tania Quintero). It took me a lot of work to convert this long conversation into an interview, since the keyboard on my laptop was in German and didn’t have Spanish accent marks.

Finally, the blog Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices) created a platform with the name of a musical group containing some 30 bloggers who were keen to win over the world. The idea appealed to me, but I preferred a blog that was more tilted toward journalism. So I invited the independent journalist, Luis Cini, and the lawyer, Laritza Diversent, to write a column.

Each one had their own plan, but I proposed to Laritza that she dissect the convoluted Cuban laws that not even the Government itself complied with. And I, like Cino, wrote posts about the Cuba that the Regime wanted to hide. Also, I tried to monetize the blog to earn some money for the three of us.

As for the Blogger Academy, there I learned everything I know about technology tools. Yoani had insisted that we open our own Twitter accounts. In one class she showed us an iPhone, the first I’d ever seen.

A little later, colleagues in the U.S. gave us modern laptops with Spanish keyboards and decent cell phones. In October 2009, Manuel Aguilera, a world-class journalist, discovered me from the blog Desde La Habana. He hired me for the American edition of El Mundo that Aguilera directed, where I wrote until 2012. In 2013 I began to publish in Diario Las Américas. This was something positive from the journalistic and monetary point of view. The pay for my collaborations allowed me to support my family without many hassles.

But the exclusivity of the blog was lost. The whirlwind of work prevented me and prevents me from writing original posts. Although my texts are reproduced and published on Diario Las Américas and other sites, I haven’t been able to return to writing specific texts for the Desde La Habana blog and El Blog de Iván García y sus amigos. Now I have more time. My daughter is about to enter university, and at present I’m writing only for Diario Las Américas.

For the 10th anniversary of the blog, I promise readers to return to exclusive stories. At least once a month. Up to now I’ve published in private, official, or commercial media. Desde La Habana has been like one of my children. It has opened doors and allowed me to know wonderful people, like Carlos Moreira from Portugal, who has been our administrator for 10 years, as well as innumerable readers who have contacted me through the blog and whom I later met in Cuba.

After a decade, the time to renew oneself has arrived. We will try to do things differently, to incorporate new writers, include videos. I will be telling you along the way what I have in mind.

*Translator’s note: The name refers to the generation born in Cuba during the Cold War whose parents were inspired by Russian names beginning with the letter “Y”.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Two Havanas Within a Single City / Ivan Garcia

Photo of central Havana by Juan Suárez, November 2019, for Havana Times.

Iván García, 5 December 2019 — For three days now there is no running drinkable water. If you want to purchase a pack of cigarettes or medication at the drugstore after 8pm, you must walk more than a kilometer. It is common for men to urinate in the public right-of-way and for people to dump their garbage onto any corner or barren lot.

The residents of La Lira neighborhood in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo have already forgotten the last time that the state-run roads agency repaired the sidewalks and black-topped the streets that are lit by a few incandescent bulbs. Despite the deteriorating environment, the people there are wont to sit at the street corners or on their front porches and play dominoes, drink cheap rum, or converse about any topic to keep the tedium at bay.

Those with the money to do so make their way over to Calzada de Managua and drink beer in private cafeterias and bars near the old Route 4 stop in Mantilla, where the only famous figure who lives around there is the writer Leonardo Padura, who has never wanted to move from a locality that grows ever poorer and more crime-ridden. continue reading

When one talks with young people of Mantilla, they see as models of success the owner of an illegal gambling casino, an ex-convict who sells stolen construction materials, or a female prostitute who managed to marry an Italian and bought her mother a house in El Vedado.

Due to the abysmal urban transit service and the high price of the private shared-ride taxis, which have doubled in number, it has become difficult to travel regularly to the picture-perfect city of Havana, enjoy a ball game in El Cerro stadium, or tour the glamorous Miramar district.

Arroyo Naranjo localities such as Mantilla, La Lira, El Mor, Párraga, El Calvario, Tamarindo, and Callejas, among others, look like Wild West movie sets. Snide and disdainful Habaneros who reside in the center of capital refer to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city as Indaya.* Those denizens of Havana who consider themselves superior to the rest of the Cuban populace were the ones who, more than 30 years ago, awarded the moniker, palestinos (Palestinians) to natives of the eastern provinces

Carlos Andrés, an automotive mechanic and father of three sons, settles into his easy chair after his meal of fried eggs with white rice, red beans, and an avocado slice, to watch sports or a TV drama, until sleep overtakes him. Ironically, he lives on Progreso street, about five or six blocks from the Calzada de Managua. His wife Melba’s routine is to listen to the radio soap operas and gossip a bit with the neighbors.

They had wanted to leave Mantilla. “Arroyo Naranjo, San Miguel del Padrón, and Guanabacoa are the three most violent municipalities. The problem is that in Cuba there is no ’red news.’ Around these parts, a knifing, a home invasion robbery, or a rip-off is an everyday occurrence. Games of chance make waves, someone who doesn’t bet on the bolita will go play cards or throw dice. Drugs — weed (marijuana) above all — are all over the place. And let’s not even mention liquor. A teetotaler cannot live in Mantilla, where the boredom drives you to drink,” says Carlos Andrés.

The couple have one son incarcerated at Combinado del Este prison, another who resides in Miami, and “the youngest likes to study and play piano, but if we stay in Mantilla he’ll end up a bum,” says his wife.

For the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, Carlos Andrés and Melba decided to go to La Ceiba del Templete and, on Avenida del Puerto, watch the fireworks that were donated by Canada for the occasion, and later sit for a while on the Malecón seawall and breathe the night air.

“The experience was disappointing. Between the rain and the busses, it took us two hours to get to El Templete. Then another two hours to go around La Ceiba a few times. There are many lights and renovated buildings in Habana Vieja, but all that’s for sale there is for hard currency only. We got home at almost 6am. We’re too old for that kind of thing anymore. It’s better to stay home.”

Gerardo, a retired teacher, lives with his family in an elevated section of La Víbora, and they could watch the fireworks from Parque de Los Chivos. “We could see them as if we were on the Malecón. What many of us Havana residents find annoying is that the government celebrated the 500th anniversary only in that section of Havana where the hotels and tourists are, such as Centro Habana, Habana Vieja, and El Vedado. As for the rest of the municipalities, they can go fuck themselves.”

Havana was designed for less than one million inhabitants. Its aqueduct and infrastructure cannot provide efficient service to the 2.5 million people who live in the capital of the Republic of Cuba today.

Diana, an architect, thinks that the State has not been able to put up quality bars, discotheques, cabarets, and recreational centers in the municipalities to the south of Havana province. “The hotels are concentrated in five municipalities (Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Plaza, Playa, and the beach zone of Habana del Este). The remaining ten municipalities are bedroom communities. The same has happened with stores and businesses. From there we get the phrase, ’going to Havana,’ when we talk about going shopping. In heavily populated municipalities, such as Diez de Octubre and Arroyo Naranjo, there are no commercial centers. Any stores that exist are small, and they’re almost always out of merchandise. That gentrification has forced people to travel to the center of the city, causing urban transportation bottlenecks.”

Heriberto, manager at a so-called Hard Currency Collection Store (TRD), says that “the various chains that sell in convertible pesos (CUC) had created a network of kiosks, stores and markets in the slums on the outskirts. But, because of fuel shortages and chronic understocks, these TRD have closed, and the majority of these establishments are now concentrated in central Havana, which gives rise to crowded conditions.”

In 12 of the 15 municipalities of the capital, no stores have been opened that sell home appliances and spare parts for cars in dollars, nor are there major supermarkets.

Susana, a housewife, had to go from the Caballo Blanco section of San Miguel del Padrón to the recently re-inaugurated Cuatro Caminos market, in El Cerro, just to buy some spaghetti and tomato paste. “There was none where I live,” she explained, “and since I assumed that I could find some at Cuatro Caminos, I went over there. But the crowd was a nightmare, with cops and police cars all over the place. More than one elderly person was shoved to the floor, and they also broke a window. If the merchandise were distributed in an equitable manner among all the municipalities, these things wouldn’t happen.”

The celebrations for Havana’s 500th anniversary did not reach the suburbs.

*Translator’s Note: “Indaya” is an unofficial “city” or shantytown that sprang in the early ’90s on the banks of the Quibú River, to the west of Havana, built by would-be residents of the capital who migrated from other parts of Cuba. Source: See here.

Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Independent Journalism In Cuba: Flourishing But Underfunded / Ivan Garcia

Journalists from Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean participate in the Investigative Journalism Workshop, organized by the Institute of the Americas on 10-14 November 2014, in San Diego, California. Representing Cuba was the independent journalist Iván García Quintero (back row, far left).

Iván García, 9 May 2019 — Around the mid-1990s, the cohort of official reporters taking the leap into unrestricted journalism in Cuba had — besides experience and media training — the privilege of typewriters at their disposal. Those just starting out in the world’s best occupation were hand-writing their articles in school notebooks.

Newbies would be tasked with reporting evictions, setting up interviews, or being gofers. Those who had been at it longer would sign the articles to be published later by some daily or website based in Florida. In 1995, when poet, writer, and journalist Raúl Rivero founded the Cuba Press agency, he opened the door to a handful of young people who lacked a journalism education but had the desire to learn and work.

To the rookie reporters, Raúl would assign brief write-ups, which after his meticulous review of spelling and style, would be replete with strike-throughs from his red pen that he kept in the pocket of his perennial blue denim shirt. Rivero would dress up the story and insert a compelling headline, never longer than five or six words. In the end, the text would emerge, infused with the literary flavor of his excellent compositions. continue reading

Twenty-four years later, Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera, Víctor Manuel Domínguez and I, among others of Raúl’s followers, continue to religiously publish two or more columns per week on several sites.

We learned that work culture and respect for the profession from dyed-in-the-wool journalists such as Raúl Rivero, Tania Quintero and Ana Luisa López Baeza (deceased in 2018 in exile). It was a time when the Internet sounded like science fiction. Articles would be read by telephone to someone in Miami who would record the texts and later upload them online.

At that time, at the start of the independent journalism movement, you had to climb a sort of military ladder. First, you had to learn to write longhand. Then, you had to master the heavy-duty typewriters made in East Germany. And when you were finally capable of writing a decent text, you could produce it on a laptop that was rotated among various journalists. In those hard years, the beginner reporter learned by doing.

In the spring of 2003, Fidel Castro made a gross mistake: he sent 75 peaceful opposition members, 27 of whom were independent journalists, to prison. He expected that, by jailing a third of those who dedicated themselves to writing freely, he would intimidate the rest. But from the Island there was no stopping the denunciations about repression, the political prisoners of the Group of 75, nor about the situation in Cuba or of Cubans – even if the texts were published unsigned.

Fear did not freeze the writing pens. In November 2007, a group of journalists headed by Juan González Febles y Luis Cino founded Primavera Digital (Digital Spring), an openly anti-Castro weekly. Others continued sending their articles to Cubanet, Cubaencuentro, Revista de la Fundación Hispano-Cubana, and the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa website.

Some months before, in April of 2007, following the success of the Generación Y blog created by Yoani Sánchez, other oppositional blogs began multiplying. Dozens of bloggers irrupted into digital journalism. Starting in 2012, the incessant trickle of journalists quitting their positions in state media has been unstoppable. As of today, the independent (or free, or alternative – whatever you want to call it) press has grown impressively.

To the more than 200 reporters who, on their own and at their own risk systematically write from Cuba on political, social, cultural, ecological or sports-related topics, we must add newspapers, magazines, Facebook accounts, YouTube channels, and other online platforms.

Also administered from the Island are Primavera Digital, 14ymedio, Periodismo de Barrio, Postdata Club, La Joven Cuba, El Estornudo, El Toque, and Vistar Magazine, among others. Ignacio González of En Caliente Prensa Libre, headquartered in Havana, and Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina of Palenque Visión, located in the eastern zone of the Island, lead audiovisual agencies that are notable for their social protests.

Almost all free communicators lambast the government. Others demand democratic changes, but they recognize and accept the status quo. The biggest problem faced by sites edited in Cuba is monetary. Periodismo de Barrio is the only one that transparently informs the public how it receives and spends its funding, which isn’t much.

The lack of regular cash flow when it’s time to pay contributors for their work, and of the minimum financing needed in journalism, puts the brakes on various projects. Journalistic investigations and in-depth reporting are expensive: they tend to be team efforts, they can last for months, and occasionally require travel to other locations, provinces or countries. With no access to bank credits, the new independent journalism presents a great many difficulties for self-management, growth, and solvency.

The majority of independent journalists in Cuba survive by writing for sites whose editorial staffs are based abroad. A great portion of the materials published in Diario de Cuba, Cubanet and Cubaencuentro come from Cuba. But other sites, also located in foreign countries and dedicated to the subject of Cuba, are sustained by contributors who do not live in Cuba, by international news agencies, and by the rehashing of content from independent sites or the official Cuban press.

Some non-official reporters collaborate on commercial sites run out of the United States, Mexico, and Spain. Those who do this on sites that are subsidized by various foundations will charge $30 to $40 dollars per published text, a bit more if accompanied by photos or videos. Those who publish in for-profit media can make double that, from $50 to $60 per piece. But there are very few who can publish between eight and ten works per month in a private newspaper.

Due to the boom in the number of journalists and a deficit of financing for the editorial offices anchored in other countries, even a willing editor cannot publish more than five or six pieces per month by a single contributor. On average, an independent journalist in Cuba makes somewhere between $125 and $150 per month. This amount is the equivalent of four to six times the median salary in Cuba, but given the scarcities and inflation rampant in the country, it is not enough to live on and provide for a family.

So, what happens? With no outlets for their writing, talented journalists – who, besides lacking material goods, are harassed by State Security – are making plans to exit the country permanently. This is a shame. Young people are leaving who excel in the profession and have even taken courses and won scholarships in foreign universities.

One solution that would stem this bloodletting might be that serious and professional sites such as Diario de Cuba, Cubanet and Cubaencuentro, could receive greater funding so that they could publish more journalists residing on the Island and pay them better rates. Or that foundations or non-governmental organizations would facilitate funds for independent reporters with possibilities of establishing a digital journalism site headquartered in Havana.

Cuba’s future will be decided in around five or six years. By then, the country will find itself with an even more ruined economy, without public infrastructure to speak of, and decapitalized corporations.

And, contrary to the spokespersons for neo-Castroism in the state-run media, Cuban independent journalists will continue denouncing injustice and shedding light on the reality of their country and people. As they have done up to now.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison