Cuba: We Have a President (or a Puppet) / Iván García

Miguel Díaz-Canel. Taken from Huffpost.

Ivan Garcia, 23 April 2018 — Lacking the solemnity of a conclave in the Vatican to elect a pope or the white smoke announcing the new Holy Father, on Thursday, April 19, at the Convention Center, west of Havana, the new Council of State and its president were announced, those who will rule the destinies of Cuba in the next five years.

There were no surprises. The script was already written. Raul Castro awarded the position of president of the Councils of State and of Ministers to Miguel Díaz-Canel, an electronics engineer born on April 20, 1960 in the village of Falcón, a rural municipality in Placetas, Villa Clara province, about 200 miles from the Cuban capital. continue reading

Now we’re in a wait-and-see time before the performance of Diaz-Canel. In the history of the Castro dictatorship, camouflaged as a country in a perennial revolution, there were two presidents*: Manuel Urrutia and Osvaldo Dorticós, managed at will by Fidel Castro.

The novelty in this comedy is that there will be a kind of cohabitation. A president of the nation next to the first secretary of the Communist Party.

Who will have greater power? According to the quirky Cuban Constitution, which was reinforced in the summer of 2002 by Castro I with a perpetual Marxist socialism, the lead role is held by the Party.

The brothers from Birán, by-the-book autocrats, performed both functions when they governed.  But now Diaz-Canel has his hands tied.  A kind of Big Brother will supervise him from the headquarters of the Central Committee.

In practice, what has happened is a distribution of powers. An elderly lover of vodka with orange juice like Raul Castro, simply got bored with controlling internal finances, self-employment and the unsettling double currency system with its seven types of exchange rates that distort the national economy.

That disastrous puzzle is now in the hands of Diaz-Canel. To move the economy forward in Taliban mode, there will need to be a magician or a suicide. If the changes upset the most conservative sector of the party, they will pass the bill to Diaz-Canel. He is a disposable politician. He is not untouchable.

But if within five or ten years the economic and social situation of Cuba continues along the same paths or gets even worse, there will be a shot at the target, a culprit, who can pay for the broken dishes.

With the presidential relay, Raul Castro, eternal conspirator, ran out of revolutionary gods. Diaz-Canel and the majority of the current Council of State, with the exceptions of Ramiro Valdés, Leopoldo Cintra Frías and Guillermo García, are dispensable.

Diaz-Canel appears to be faced with mission impossible, as long as the current economic model is maintained. After nine o’clock in the morning, when he strode into the session at the convention center, along with his political manager Raul Castro, dressed in black suits and red ties, the new president looked like a deer in the headlights.

The ratification of the positions, selected by a mysterious commission, was a piece of cake in a nation like Cuba, where the parliament votes unanimously, or almost, on any election or bill put before it.

Diaz-Canel’s first speech was lousy. Quotes from Fidel Castro and singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. Monotonous pronunciation, a bland tone, no enthusiasm. Fortunately, he does not have the diction problems of the primitive Esteban Lazo, president of the National Assembly, nor make mistakes when reading.

Miguel Diaz-Canel left many Cubans open-mouthed, like the child who was promised an ice cream and then deceived by being given a purgative. To Elier, a taxi driver, the very first words disappointed him. “He said he did not come to promise anything and that he was going to continue to work along the same lines. Wow, everything stays the same. I expected him to make important announcements or at least to talk about what will happen with the self-employment licenses that have been suspended. But nothing, the guy did not talk about that, as if the fact that the economy is a disaster was not important. The kitchen robot should be an actor in a telenovela, not the president of a country that is bankrupt.”

A brigade of bricklayers who are repairing an apartment in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood listened to the new president’s speech on the radio. “Something else was expected. From what I heard, the man has nothing on the ball. His first speech was pure drool to Fidel and his compadre Raúl, whom he has to thank him for giving him the job without even holding a raffle,” says Manuel, bricklayer.

On a tour of Diez de Octubre, Havana’s most populated municipality, looking for the impressions of ordinary people, a butcher, who was cutting chunks of frozen chicken with an ax and putting them in a refrigerator confesses that he did not have time to see the speech. “What did he say?” He asks. And upon learning that he did not say anything new, he replies: “I imagined it. This isn’t any kind of arrangement. The guy had a reputation in Villa Clara for being a good and liberal person, but then he climbed the ladder and now he doesn’t laugh. One more opportunist who coasts. Who takes advantage, because the opportunities are all bad.”

Carlos, a sociologist, is not surprised by the appointment of Díaz-Canel or his dull inaugural speech. “You can’t get blood from a stone. The self-centeredness of Fidel Castro clipped the wings of Cuba’s political class. Diaz-Canel is not creative and is more accustomed to listening and following directions from ‘above’ than having any autonomy of his own. I would be surprised if he was different, he’s Raul Castro’s private satellite. He’s in his pocket. He will not do what he wants. If he departs from the script, he will find himself in Combinado del Este (prison).”

Everyone interviewed believes Diaz-Canel is a puppet. To Douglas, a seller of online navigation cards, “the guy doesn’t rule on his own, he receives orders from the Padrino. These people (the regime) are like the mafia.”

Luisa, a clerk in a cafe that charges in hard currency, believes that “you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the man does things right. What we can say is that we have the best-looking president in all of America.”

Idania, a priestess in the Santaria religion, recalls that one afternoon in 2013, “at the headquarters of the Yoruba Association, Diaz-Canel did a few dance steps from our religion. The man could be stuck in the past or take the country forward. Of course, he will have to change many things and fight with an army of prejudiced bureaucrats.”

Elvira, a teacher, was the only one consulted who mentioned the word democracy. “As long as Diaz-Canel is in the government or Raúl Castro is in the party, they will not implement an openly democratic system. a real one, not a fake one, Cuba will be bogged down in the same swamp. The Cuban problem is economic, but also political.”

The new president is facing difficult times. An economy adrift, an aging population, low productivity, widespread apathy among citizens, especially the youngest, and aspirations to emigrate from an important sector of society.

The demands are multiple. From lowering the prices of food and items sold in stores that deal only in hard currency, raising wages to cover current inflation, improving public transport, expanding private work and small business, stop extorting Cubans living abroad with exorbitant passport fees and allow them to participate actively in national political and economic life.

In baseball terms, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, comes on as a relief pitcher with the bases full, no one out, and the best batter in the league at the plate. He does not have easy.

On April 20, the day of his 58th birthday, in his bedroom, next to his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza, the first lady, he will be able to analyze coldly the dimension of the assignment that Raul Castro has left him.

Any mistake can bury the fragile system that his predecessors insist on calling Revolution. There are some gifts that may be poisoned.

*Translator’s note: In the early years of the Castro dictatorship there was the position of “president” — currently the person formally designated as President of the Council of State fills that position.

The Castro Regime, an Aged Boxer Who Won’t Leave the Ring / Iván García


Iván García, 16 April 2018 — By all accounts it is like a bad divorce. No one remembers the exact moment when things went from applause for every revolutionary project, no matter how ludicrous it might have seemed, to a torrent of unfulfilled promises and hollow rhetoric.

Martí Noticias wanted to solicit opinions on Cuba’s social, political and economic situation and on the country’s future prospects. It first chatted with three well-informed people, then it asked thirteen ordinary Cubans if they feel they are represented in the current power structure.

One of those interviewed was fifty-five-year-old Igor, who worked in Moscow’s railway industry during the Cold War and views politicians as a necessary evil but believes that “they are the ones who rule the world.” continue reading

“Not everyone can be a politician,” he says. “They have to have leadership skills and a gift for oratory in order to mobilize large segments of society. They must rely on image consultants and experts in specific fields. They need surveys to gauge levels of popular support and to determine what people want.”

Igor believes that a government has to govern on behalf of all its citizens, not just its supporters. “That is the main problem with the Cuban system,” he says. “Its leaders don’t listen to those with different opinions. Most of the island’s current politicians don’t know how to behave or express themselves in public. They have trouble reading and problems with diction. They have no empathy and seem to be improvising. My impression is that both the old government and the new government have no idea how to get us out of the current quagmire.”

In Igor’s opinion, they are just throwing stones, stalling for time, unable to grab the bull by the horns. “[President-designate] Miguel Díaz-Canel isn’t unattractive like other Cuban leaders, who come off like stock characters from a Soviet-era movie. When he was the party’s first-secretary in Villa Clara province, he was more spontaneous. Now he seems like a remote-controlled robot. He speaks without moving a muscle in his face, which is a sign that he doesn’t believe what he is saying. I don’t expect anything new from Díaz-Canel. Exhaustion is what will bring about real change in Cuba, when they realize they are just thrashing around aimlessly.”

From the time he was an adolescent, twenty-one-year-old history student Damián, was that rare individual who actually felt compelled to read the Communist Party newspaper Granma and watch state television news shows. He followed politics like a soccer fan. “At first, I believed what the state press said. But not now,” says Damián. “I read between the lines. I realized that communism is a utopian dream. And a society cannot afford to waste several generations, as has happened in Cuba, chasing a fantasy. The socialist ideal sounds nice — to give voice and a better quality of life to the dispossessed — but Marxist-Leninist ideology has failed all over the world.”

Damián asks himself what kind of society Cuba aspires to be. “We went from the Batista dictatorship to a totalitarian regime with overtones of nationalism. It made excuses for the lack of democracy because it felt it was under siege by the United States. That era has passed but Cuba doesn’t realize it. Díaz-Canel, or whoever takes over, will continue following the same script. That’s why Cubans don’t have any expectations. I hope I am wrong but what the Castro regime most closely resembles is an aged boxer who refuses to leave to ring, who wants to keep fighting even after the bell has rung.”

What most bothers Carlos, a sixty-six-year-old sociologist, is having been fooled for so long by Fidel Castro’s rhetoric. Carlos is no dissident. He is an intellectual who, like so many others, believes that time is up for Cuba’s current system. “Its time ran out decades ago. Behind all the clatter about a ’sustainable and prosperous socialism’ is bad faith and a hunger for power. Planned economies don’t work. [The regime] could opt for the Chinese or Vietnamese models, which have capitalist economies and autocratic one-party governments, but they don’t dare,” he says.

The worst part, he says, is that it has killed the aspirations of many talented people. “Men and women alike, almost all with university degrees, have seen emigration as the only way out. The National Assembly only represents the interests of the regime. It doesn’t matter that blacks and women make up forty percent of its delegates; every measure it votes on is approved unanimously. I see Miguel Diaz-Canel as a Russian matrioshka doll. He always follows a prepared script. Maybe I’m wrong, but Diaz-Canel represents the continuation of a failed system.”

The perception one gets from conversations with less well-informed Cubans, people who are apathetic about politics, is that they are not part of the game. They live in another dimension, one focused on survival. Of the thirteen people interviewed by Martí Noticias, six did not care who succeeded Raúl Castro as president, whether it was Díaz-Canel or the ballplayer Yulieski Gurriel.

“Man, what problem is that stone faced parasite (Díaz-Canel) going to solve? Here people just want a few pesos to get drunk, have something decent to eat, capture some fresh ’mangoes’ (girls) and play pululu (a video game app),” says a young vendor who sells internet SIM cards in a Havana park.

Three of those interviewed believe things could get better under Díaz-Canel. One of them is Anselmo, a forty-nine-year-old bus driver. “We won’t be worse off,” he says. “If Trump can meet with the fat guy from North Korea, he can meet with the man from Villa Clara. We’ll see what happens. We can’t count on Venezuela or Brazil any more. It would be ironic if we find ourselves once again in the arms of the bolos (the Russians). If that happens, it will be the overseers who have to lose the most.”

Four people are very pessimistic, among them Dania, a thirty-six-year-old dentist. “This situation has been going on for a long time in Cuba,” she says. “The best solution is to leave the country, whether things change or not.”

One option for a large segment of the population is to decamp to other shores. Watching the situation from afar is pleasanter than fighting for democratic change from within. That is a job for patriots.


Concerning When We Ate Cats in Cuba / Iván García

Iván García, 7 April 2018 — “I was born during the Special Period, in 1990. Twenty years later, my parents told me the truth: my birth brought them to tears,” says Ricardo, today a university graduate.

I can understand that. In my house, too, we went through difficult times when my sister gave birth during the height of the “Special Period in Times of Peace.” As ostentatious as that was the official name given to one of the blackest intervals suffered in 59 years by the Cuban people–and that is saying a lot.

An old proverb says that a child comes into this world with a loaf of bread under his arm. But in the 90s, to have a child in Cuba meant the opposite: to lose an arm, if not both, just to get a piece of bread. continue reading

The story of this war-without-cannon-blasts could fill multiple tomes. In 2018 the mere mention of the Special Period to a Cuban is enough to send shivers down his spine.

The first time I had any notion of the “Special Period” was in the summer of 1989. Upon inaugurating an AKM rifle manufacturing plant in Camagüey, Fidel Castro made mention of what we would be facing. Later, during a function at the Karl Marx theater in Miramar, he half-jokingly told the women in attendance, “Take good care of your wardrobes–you’ll need them in the coming years.”

The people on the Island never lived abundantly. There was always a shortage of something. Besides holding back individual liberties (about which those of us born after the Revolution had no concept), Father State guaranteed to each of his citizens a poor life, but a dignified one. Thanks to the petroleum pipe from Moscow.

Prior to that silent war, we could buy two pairs of pants a year, three shirts and one pair of shoes, with a ration book for “industrial products.” These were paid for in Cuban pesos, the national currency.

The ration book for groceries back then was more generous. Nothing to write home about, but less emaciated than in later years. There were foodstuffs for sale in unregulated venues. At the dairy stores, boxes with bottles of fresh milk, yogurt containers, and cheeses would be delivered at dawn, and nobody even entertained the thought of stealing them.

That was in the 70s or 80s. Back then we could not imagine the “surprise” that the olive-green* socialism had in store for us. It was terrible. People dropped weight as if they were going to a sauna every day. We were always hungry. Lines would form for half a day to buy pizza topped with boiled potato instead of cheese.

Starving and toothless old people would jam into the little cafés just to down a kind of infusion made with orange or grapefruit rind. As for animal products, you can only imagine. Culinary monstrosities appeared. The state laboratories hastily churned out soy hash, “meat” mass, oca pasta, and fricandel [a kind of “mystery-meat” hot dog], among other horrible inventions.

The dollar was prohibited, and what few valuable items there were, people would sell to afford food. When in July 1993 the dollar was decriminalized, my mother sold her record collection of Brazilian music for $39.

Others sold their furniture or exchanged it for a pig, which they would hide in the bathtub. It became fashionable to breed chickens on balconies and roofs. Many cats ended up in pots, in place of rabbits.

Exotic diseases appeared, such as polyneuritis, optical neuritis, and beriberi. On the streets, more than one person dropped like a fly from locomotive deficiencies. Public transportation disappeared and in its place emerged horse-drawn wagons, which are still functioning in rural towns. Tractors were replaced by ox-pulled plows.

The bicycle became the official vehicle of the people. The top brass, of course, continued getting around by car. There was serious talk about Option Zero, a plan to have army troops go though neighborhoods giving out food.

What prevented people from starting to die off in massive numbers from hunger, and Cuba becoming the North Korea of the Caribbean, were the measures adopted by Fidel Castro. Venturing far from socialist philosophy, and taking a liberal and market economy approach, the government allowed small business start-ups. The possession of hard currency was legalized.

All of this proved effective. Hundreds of citizens were able to progress, and the government stashed millions of dollars into its coffers.  But in 2009, a real crisis emerged that affected the entire planet. Facing a worldwide drop in oil prices, coupled with internal instability and squandering, Hugo Chávez–the new ally–whispered a message to the Castros: “I am running out of cash.” The Brothers from Birán** took the hint. And they started proclaiming the same decades-old speech they have sold to the Cuban people: Savings must be made. The belt must be tightened. One more time.

And so we go. In the midst of a storm. Without umbrellas. With an economy that is taking on water. And with foreign partners who view the regime with distrust for the absurdity of its investment laws and the dishonesty of its dealings. With thousands of Cubans leaving the country or trying to leave, to go anywhere, tired as they are of the aged government, and never forgetting the crude reality of the Special Period when in Cuba we ate cats.

Translator’s Notes:

*A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders. This epithet is often used by dissident Cuban writers when alluding to the Cuban government, its socio-political system, and its bureaucrats.

**A reference to the town in eastern Cuba that is the birthplace of Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

To Be "Rich" in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

In Cuba it is considered “rich” to have a private or successful restaurant, such as Porto Habana, on Calle E No. 158 between Calzada and 9a, Vedado, visited by celebrities passing through Havana. Taken from TripAdvisor.

Ivan Garcia, 4 April 2018 — From the twentieth floor of a building near the Havana Malecon the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean look like you could touch them with your hands. From that height you can’t see the disastrous infrastructure of Havana. Or its broken streets, water leaks or the buildings torn apart by bad state management.

When Victor, owner of a micro-lodging business, feels frustrated, he spends an hour on the balcony with a cup of coffee watching the panoramic view offered by his apartment in the central neighborhood of Vedado. Before venting his worries about the rumored new government measures that will curb private work, he runs a a pocket comb over his gray and sparse hair. continue reading

“Do you know why Cuba is not flooded with fruit, food and quality services?” he asks, and before answering pauses to savor his coffee. “Well, it’s the government’s fault. If the State did not harass private individuals and, instead, empowered them, agricultural, dairy, livestock production and housing shortages would not be as dramatic as they are now.

“It is the government that has to answer for those deficiencies. Every time there are timid openings the creativity of the private sector is on display. If there were a legal framework, impartial courts and wholesale markets, business owners would not be forced to violate the laws, to try to find ways to avoid taxes and to practice double accounting.”

The Havana entrepreneur rents his apartment for the equivalent of 50 dollars a day, which would be 1,500 dollars a month. “Discounting taxes, I clear 1,100 dollars. Enough for the expenses of my wife and I who live in another apartment in the same building. My children are in Miami. With what I save, in any other kind of society, I could expand my business buying homes in poor condition or outsourcing those services to people who want to rent their homes, but do not have the resources. It’s the business cycle. Save money, then invest and earn more. I do not see any kind of crime in that intention. I do not know why the government wants us to always live in poverty.”

In the third section of the Economic Guidelines approved in 2010, a kind of road map instituted by the regime of Raúl Castro, it is stated that concentrations of wealth and capital will not be allowed for Cubans on the island. Eight years later, a segment of private entrepreneurs has accumulated a quantity of money, whether legally, with subtle subterfuges or under the table.

Onel, an economist, believes that “between 10 thousand and 20 thousand small business owners have been able to hoard between 10 thousand and 250 thousand dollars, some may even have amassed more than a million dollars. But, given that this is Cuba, gaining capital is a crime and you mark yourself as a suspicious person or presumed criminal, so those people invest in buying houses from relatives, or works of art or take the money out of the country, because they have relatives abroad,” he says and adds:

“Among them there are repatriated Cubans, who because they have more capital at the time of starting their business and knowledge of marketing, they have generated profits faster. There are also Cubans who live in the United States, who live off the income of their businesses on the island or share the profits with their families,” says the economist.

To have a fortune in Cuba is to travel through a minefield. When self-employment was forbidden by the autocracy of the Castro brothers, clandestine managers of businesses, warehouses and restaurants made money by stealing from the State. Most Cubans do not believe that the means of production are owned by all, as Marxist theory says. And at the first chance, they defraud the state in order to survive in the harsh conditions of Island socialism.

Carlos, who lives in Florida, recalls that “the first time I raised half a million pesos, the exchange rate of the time artificially equated the peso with the dollar, and I threw the money on the mattress of my room and slept on the bundles of notes,” he says with a smile from a restaurant in Miami.

“I was a supplies manager in a luxury hotel. I sold whatever I could under the table. Then, the money I earned was exchanged for dollars one-by-one with the hotel’s accounting manager. A negotiation. My plan was to fill my pockets and get out of that shit. I have friends who thought they could be millionaires in Cuba and ended up in jail. Like Roberto, the former manager of the World Ice Cream Parlor, on Santa Catalina Avenue,” says Carlos.

As he tells it, “Roberto came to grief because of the typical envy of the top leaders. He had a better Lada than the higher-ups. One morning, passing through Avenida Boyeros, Ramiro Valdés, who was then Minister of the Interior, observed that a bodyguard greeted Roberto as he passed by. He asked who that guy was and the bodyguard told him he was a compañero of State Security. Ramiro found out and discovered that he was a simple corrupt administrator and broke his balls. It is a very envious breed, if you presume to have more than them, they make your life impossible. Only they can be rich.”

Nobody in Cuba knows the limit of what you can and cannot have. The amount of money that sets off the alarms in the police apparatus of the regime is not known. “In the statutes, the determined amount of money that violates the laws is not specified. For example, Silvio Rodriguez [the singer], Alicia Alonso [the dancer] or the ballplayer Alfredo Despaigne, who plays in a professional league in Japan and has a millionaire’s salary, have six zero incomes and no one challenges them for economic crimes. The reason is ideological. If those who make money are inside the apparatus or comply with government rules, they are allowed. If they earn money through their own efforts, they will always be suspects,” says Beatriz, a lawyer.

On the island, acquiring certain material goods can pigeonhole a citizen as being suspected of ‘illicit enrichment’. “I used to sell toiletries and clothes. I was able to raise enough money to build my own business. I had two air conditioners, three plasma televisions, several appliances besides repairing my house. They opened a file on me for violating the laws, that is to say selling without the required license, they confiscated all my merchandise and electrical appliances, alleging that they had been acquired with dirty money. Ultimately, I was sentenced to three years in prison,” says Luis Alberto, a resident of the municipality of Diez de Octubre.

Those who accumulate a significant amount of capital try to fly below the radar. They don’t buy sumptuous mansions in Miramar or Siboney. Nor the latest cars or a yacht. It is exposing oneself too much to the public magnifying glass in a command and control socieity.

In Cuba, members of the club of the rich often dress in olive-green.


Emma Gonzalez Also Has an Impact in Cuba / Ivan Garcia #emma4change

Emma Gonzalez at the March for Our Lives in Washington DC on 24 March 2018. Source: Teen Vogue.

Ivan Garcia, 2 April 2018 — On Friday, 23 March, with a temperature of 50 degrees and a warm sun melting the snow on the streets of Washington DC, a crowd of teenagers began to settle in, wearing T-shirts and caps stamped with the phrase that is now in vogue in the United States: #NeverAgain.

Flights arriving from cities all over America to the local Ronald Reagan Airport, were packed with young people with banners, many accompanied by their parents and teachers.

In a cafe, relatively close to the White House, children, teachers and family members waited for their boxes of pizzas and bottles of Coca Cola while listening to music on their smartphones. continue reading

“I’ve never seen such a big line so early in the morning. It looks like Saturday the 24th is going to be big,” said a clerk originally from Mexico.

The beautiful capital of the United States of America, is the best example of a variant of neoclassicism that arose in the United States between 1780 and 1820, defined as Federal style. The Capitol, the National Library and the Lincoln Memorial, among others, preserve the grandeur of ancient Greek temples.

The city has a European touch and it seems drawn with a brush. The buildings do not block out the sky and the people, despite the unusual spring cold, walk on the sidewalks. It is a pedestrian city with an efficient public transport, very different from Miami, where on any given day you lose two or three hours sitting behind the wheel of a car.

The National Museum of History, located in an area where museums abound, is usually full of schoolchildren who are attentive and respectful as they pass through the rooms that show important moments in the history of their nation.

In the five days I was in Washington DC, in hotels, Starbucks cafes or on the subway, the student revolution and a new law regarding guns was a matter of debate.

“Something we have to do. You have to stop these killings. It is not compatible with a society that promotes work and creativity. This country, unlike Trump or the gentlemen of the NRA, is multi-ethnic and people from all over the world come here to change their fate. It’s crazy that a young man, who can not buy alcohol in a liquor store, can buy an automatic rifle designed for war. It is a contradiction in a country that claims to be a standard bearer of the values of democracy and integrtation. With my two children I will go to the march (March for Our Lives),” said Irma, a Dominican-born maid who works at the State Plaza Hotel.

According to the authorities, on Saturday, 24 March, 800,000 people marched to express their discontent in front of the White House gates. A figure even higher than the protests against the Vietnam War in 1969.

The youth movement that emerged as a result of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a shooting that on 14 February left 17 dead and 15 injured, has not gone unnoticed in Cuba.

It is true that the Castro regime takes advantage of any school slaughter, revolt or the murder of a black American to fire up its propaganda machine against ’Yankee imperialism.’

But this time it has been different. The image of Emma González, 18, with her shaved heat and a military-cut jacket with a Cuban flag on her right sleeve, has generated sympathy in different strata of Cuban society.

In Havana’s Diez de Octubre municipality, very close to the Red Square of La Víbora, while waiting for customers, two transvestites seated on a staircase at the entrance of an art gallery, spoke about Emma.

“That girl rules! In an interview I read on the internet, she declared that she was Cuban and bisexual. Over there you do not have to be hiding your sexual orientation. She dresses like she talks. Not Obama. Her mother is American and her father, José González, arrived in New York [from Cuba] in 1968. I hope that in the future, if things change here, that little girl will run for president of Cuba,” says one of the transvestites. “I would vote for her,” says the other, wearing a leather skirt and high-heeled shoes.

On Tuesday, 27 March, Cuba’s National Television News, aired in its entirety Emma’s speech at the March for Our Lives in Washington and her overwhelming six minute and twenty second silence: the time it took the murderer to riddle students and teachers with the bullets from his AR -15 rifle.

Dianely, the mother of three children and professor of biology, confesses that in addition to “being moved by the speech, I was struck by the the capacity of high school students to deliver such high-level oratory. In the national press I read that an major share of American students don’t know where Cuba is on the map and that their education was deficient. But those Florida kids are very well prepared. Emma has earned respect in many countries. In Cuba, it couldn’t have earned less. She has our roots.”

In a global and interconnected world, the good or bad that happens on the planet, diffuses in a few minutes. The women’s movement against sexual harassment and the student revolution to stop the sale of automatic weapons in the United States have been echoed on the island. In the case of Emma González, Cuban pride has shined.

Cuba Milks the Tourists / Ivan Garcia

Cruise ship entering Havana. From El Nuevo Diario.

Iván García, 29 March 2018 — As the cruise ship sits docked at port, two ragged old men lie drunk on top of the seawall. An almost motionless gray-haired man tries to catch fish in the fetid waters of the bay. Around him, several stray dogs fight for the leftovers of a fried chicken that a passerby has thrown on the sidewalk.

Curious onlookers take snapshots of the imposing ship with their phones. A squadron of police is there to keep the peace and to prevent the populace and the local rabble from harassing the ship’s passengers as they disembark in Havana. continue reading

After an expedited passport check, a bland complimentary mojito and a brief performance by some mulatto women with make-up running down their faces and visibly tired from dancing to Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” in the cheesy reception that the official tourist agencies often put on, the travelers exit the terminal.

A young man speaking in a low voice and in rudimentary English offers “girls, boys, cigars, Cuban music DVDs” to a somewhat startled British tourist walking along the cobbled street of the Lonja del Comercio.

The official guides — they are dressed in green, yellow or white shirts, the colors corresponding to the hotel group to which they belong — welcome them and describe a wonderful night under the stars at the Tropicana nightclub.

Freelance guides, who speak German, Russian and fluent English, also have tourist attractions to offer: “Señor, a tour of Havana in an old convertible, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, dinner at the private restaurant where the Obama’s ate and, to cap off the evening, salsa at Casa de la Música in Miramar, all for a hundred dollars.”

Outside the terminal swarm all manner of people, including hookers, male prostitutes and professional con artists. They have interesting cultural attractions to offer the newcomers.

From a distance girls in skimpy shorts — some overweight, with visible cellulitis — watch for tourists travelling alone, then approach them and offer them sex. Retirees selling peanuts or the dreary national newspaper Granma take advantage of the new crop of tourists, shouting, “Roasted peanuts for twenty-five American cents; Granma for thirty cents.”

The police try to scare off and intimidate the hustlers. But since these people know how the police operate, they wait for the phalanx of tourists to filter out through the old city streets before making their proposals, far from police radar.

A few noisy Europeans arrive at the Two Brothers bar and within a few minutes the placed is packed with others like them. In the area’s guesthouses, cafes and restaurants, half a liter of mineral water goes for three dollars and a beer for five.

Joel, a bartender at a guesthouse on the Alameda de Paula says, “Every time a cruise ship comes in, sales triple and prices take off. That’s why I stock extra bottles of rum, mineral water and beer. On a busy day, I can go home with 150 to 200 bucks.”

Private restaurants use assistants, with menus in hand, to invite strangers wandering nearby to come in. “For every American I bring in, the owner pays me a commission of three CUC. There have been days when I have brought in an entire busload of tourists,” says a gentleman who describes himself as a “private tourism manager.”

Most government-employed guides and drivers in the tourism industry have an under-the-table verbal agreement with the owners of private bars and restaurants. They charge fees of 5 CUC for single tourists and 100 CUC or more for a group of twenty or thirty. “Additionally, anything they eat or drink is on the house,” says the bartender of a private restaurant a stone’s throw from the former presidential palace.

Of course, the choices offered by the self-employed are more novel and attractive. Armando, the owner of a fully restored Chevrolet convertible, charges 70 CUC for a two-hour tour of picture-postcard Havana, including the restored colonial area, El Vedado and Miramar.

“If tourists are going to spend a bit more time in the capital, I suggest they visit Viñales, in Pinar del Rio province, which is the best example of a town with a range of high-quality private businesses. There are some foreigners with less money than others and then there are those who are quite stingy. The Japanese, Russians and Americans are the most generous. They give good tips and will invite you to lunch or to have a beer. Spaniards are despicable and foul-mouthed. I will only accept them as customers if there are no tourists from other countries available,” confesses Armando.

A recent development in the private tourism sector are those options described as “an experience in Cuba.” Usually, these are tours led by professionals with broad technical knowlege who introduce visitors to Havana’s rich architectural heritage. Others give casino dance lessons or teach people how to play the tumbadora. Former athletes offer physical training courses or provide instruction in the rudiments of boxing. But perhaps one of the most original options is offered by Olga Lidia, a former English teacher who invites tourists to live like Cubans for a week.

According to a smiling Lidia Olga, “Europeans — especially the Swiss and Scandinavians — and Americans love the idea. They sleep in a bedroom with an electric fan but no air conditioning. I give them a ration book to buy bread and chicken at the butcher shop. In the morning I put them on a city bus and take them to visit San Miguel or Arroyo Naranjo, where I have relatives. They can go online once, at a wifi hotspot in a public park. And they may have only a single meal on two out of seven days, like many Cubans. Some of them can’t take it and complain.”

While state-run establishments try to milk tourists, with prices comparable to those of New York but at much lower levels of service, private entrepreneurs are more creative and even offer discounts to visiting foreigners.

The Cuban Electoral Show / Iván García

Taken from Diario Las Américas.

Ivan Garcia, 12 March 2018 — After six o’clock in the afternoon, do not ask Daniela, a single mother of three children, her opinion about the Cuban electoral process or whether she was planning to vote on Sunday March 11 in the imitation-plebiscite that will ratify the 605 deputies to the parliament which, on April 19, will elect the new State Council and the President of Cuba.

And when night falls, Daniela’s apartment is the closest thing to a small hell. While trying to prepare the food — spicy chicken, white rice, black beans and tomato salad — her children fight among themselves to watch certain programming on television or they start playing football with a ball that crashes into the walls, threatening to destroy the home’s furniture and decorations. continue reading

Around eleven o’clock at night, when her children are asleep, Daniela offers her verdict on the elections in Cuba: “All the elections here are a montage. What do they solve? Nothing. It’s a joke. It is part of the simulation that we live in this country. On Sunday I will go and leave my ballot blank as I have been doing for a while. Although that does not solve anything, whether I vote a blank ballot or do not vote at all, the future delegates are already chosen.”

Rosa María Payá Acevedo, daughter of the opposition figure Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, who died in a traffic crash in July 2012 and whose family accuses the olive-green autocracy of having caused the fatal crash, has another point of view.

At the head of the CubaDecides organization, Rosa María, who lives between Miami and Havana, carries out a campaign for Cubans to annul thir ballots by writing the word Plebiscito on them.

In her opinion, “it would send a signal of rejection, both to the electoral system and to the government of Raúl Castro” and would support the proposal promoted by CubaDecides, to hold a binding plebiscite that would initiate a political transition towards democracy on the Island.

Other opposition groups, such as the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, headed up by Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González, believe that the road to follow to demand the rights hijacked by the regime is marching in the streets. They believe that participating in electoral processes is validating the dictatorship.

The dissidence, divided and without a popular base, has not been able, or has failed, to build bridges with ordinary Cubans. They speak the same language and have more or less similar aspirations — democracy, economic freedom and freedom of expression and free elections — but for now they are not working together.

Ordinary people see the dissidence in another dimension, either due to the official narrative or the poor performance of the opposition, which rarely appears in the community and lives from a discourse focused on the outside.

Given the lack of leadership, political apathy and fear that still grips many Cubans, the position of a broad segment of Cubans with respect to the elections on Sunday, March 11 is to continue the simulation. Or just stay at home chatting or watching television.

I chatted about the subject with several Habaneros. Ana, an engineer, will take advantage of Sunday to straighten her hair and organize her daughter’s closet. “I’m not going to vote. I do not swallow another story anymore. One can be deceived for ten, twenty or thirty years, but now it’s six decades with the same story and the people get nothing.”

Otto, a bus driver, is going to vote so as not to raise a red flag with his CDR — the block watch group formally named Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. “Living in my house without official permission are my wife and her mother who are from the east of the country. If I don’t go to vote the CDR will air my dirty laundry. I’m going to leave the ballot blank, or write a bad word or put an X through all the candidates, but none of these options will resolve our problems.”

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that the electoral process in Cuba is an infectious and undemocratic mechanism. “It’s pure formalism. Cubans do not elect the president directly. The vote on Sunday is not to elect anyone, it is to ratify a group that was already chosen by the authorities. Not going or leaving the ballot blank, perhaps it is useful for the statistics and you can see that popular support has been lost. But if just 50 percent of the voters attend, staying home will not prevent the nominated candidates from being elected. ”

Hilda, an official, will work in an electoral college in the municipality of Diez de Octubre. Without blushing, she repeats the regime’s tirade: “The elections in Cuba are the most transparent and democratic in the world. The polls are guarded by pioneers (elementary school students), not by soldiers. And at the time of counting, any citizen, even if he is an opponent of the government, can observe the count. Our electoral model is not perfect, but it is among the best on the planet.”

Faced with the questions of why Cubans can not directly elect their president; or why a person who does not belong to the Communist Party can’t run for office; or the prohibition on participating in the elections as neighborhood candidates, enforced against dozens of dissidents; or not allowing direct plebiscites on citizen proposals, Hilda responds:

“Our system to elect the president is parliamentary, just like in other nations. Cuba is a one-party democracy. The individuals who tried to participate in the constituency elections are mercenaries paid by the United States to overthrow the system. And we can not accept that. Holding direct elections on popular requests is more science fiction than reality,” the official argues.

Due to ignorance or disinformation, she did not know that direct plebiscites are carried out in Switzerland. Those in charge of the electoral processes of the Cuban regime should visit that country and learn how a real democracy works. And not continue congratulating themselves on a useless invention.

"Revolutionary" Offensive Against Private Work Began in 1959 / Iván García

Business signage in Old Havana in 1959. Taken from the blog Cuba Material.

Ivan Garcia, 23 March 2018 — On March 15, 1968, two days after the autocrat Fidel Castro finally confiscated the last 55,636 micro-businesses still operating in Cuba, Eusebio, 85, remembers walking with his father and two carpentry assistants to the family business in the Havana’s Santos Suárez neighborhood.

“Two blocks before we got to the carpentry shop, some neighbors told us that the police and the inspectors had shown up armed to teeth. As if it was the business of a drug dealer, they broke the lock, and when I arrived, they were already arranging the work tools and the wood to load them on a truck. Everything was fast. I signed some documents that authorized the transfer of the premises to the State and I returned home. The only thing that they left us was the orders that we had not yet delivered,” says Eusebio and adds: continue reading

“The team proposed that we would continue working in carpentry. To my father that seemed a proposal of incredible cynicism. They take away your business and then they want to hire you as a salaried employee. The old man got sick. The family business had been his whole life. Any carpentry work in the area was done by us. Ten years after the dispossession, in 1978, my father died.”

Bárbaro, an old man now who waits for death in a shabby state asylum in La Víbora, sits in a faded chair recalls his time in the Jacksonville bar, located at the corner of Luz Caballero and Milagros, in Santos Suarez.

“Apart from the bar, there was an inn that made the best ‘ropa vieja’ (shredded beef) in Havana. The owner, who has long since left for the United States, had three workers. Two people cooked, one delivered the food and I was the bartender. Santos Suarez was a pleasant area of the capital. Middle class people lived there and there were also poor people, but they were all very educated. In the morning, retired people used to go for drinks. In the afternoon, people arrived from work. On weekends, it became a club where we talked about politics, business and sports. Meanwhile, they listened to the victrola,” says Bárbaro, closing his eyes, as if trying to trap his memories.

Before Fidel spoke on March 13, 1968, Granma newspaper and Bohemia magazine began a campaign against small businesses, particularly against bars. “They accused us of being nests of drunks, marijuana growers and individuals who did not support the Revolution. I heard that speech on a radio I had at the bar. It was very long and he announced the closing of all private businesses, including fried food stalls. He said that bar owners earned a lot of money.

“It was not true. I earned enough to live. These businesses were family-run. The owner was like my second father. Besides me, my father and an uncle worked there. I earned 300 pesos a month, a fortune then, in addition to the tips. After they took the bar, I started working in a state bar on Heredia Street, where to earn four pesos you have to put water in the run and screw the customer,” explained Bárbaro.

Guillermo, an economist, believes that private enterprise is the antithesis of Marxism. “In all the communist societies of Europe, China and Vietnam, before starting their market economy model, large foreign and local companies and small businesses were nationalized. But those who took the confiscations to the point of confiscating micro-enterprises were the former USSR and Cuba. Other Eastern European nations did not go that far. Of course it was counterproductive. The State could not replace the private workes in food services and other services. It was a huge absurdity that assume that the government could competently manage a shoe stores.”

But communist governments are the only animal that stumbles twice on the same stone. Let’s make history. The deadly thrust against small private businesses was on March 13, 1968. But the crusade against free enterprise began in January 1959. In October 1960, the regime practically nationalized all the industry that had more than 25 workers. With the two agrarian reform laws (1959 and 1963), a greater volume of land was concentrated in the State than that of the large estates.

In Cuba before the Castros, microenterprises of one to 10 employees predominated, along with the small ones (from 10 to 49) and the medium ones from 50 to 250. Out of 2,300 industrial establishments, half were micro-enterprises, which shows how predominate they were. Although in the 1950s the transnational companies came to represent a third of the total investments, micro-enterprises constituted 45% of the business fabric and it is estimated that small businesses constituted 36%.

Most of these businesses were run by honest, visionary and entrepreneurial people. They paid their taxes and competed to earn market share through the quality of what they offered.

For every corrupt businessman, like the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who owned nine sugar mills, two refineries and other businesses, in addition to collecting a juicy benefit from the US mafia located in Havana through Meyer Lansky, there were hundreds of virtuous companies.

The pretext under which Fidel Castro initiated his campaigns was to crucify the owners of large, medium and small businesses as white-collar criminals and greedy capitalists who extorted money from the people.

The ineffectiveness of the unproductive socialist system has shown how terrible Castro’s strategy was. The current production statistics of plants, factories and state industries are lower than during the era of private businesses.

The autocracy itself, almost 60 years later, begs for more foreign investment to catapult the rickety Cuban economy. There is a convincing reality: today the State is a monopoly administered by a military junta that operates like the worst African capitalism.

Just like five decades ago, when Fidel Castro launched his Revolutionary Offensive against wineries, carpenters, bars and fried food stands, among others, the regime now sharpens the fiscal blade and oils its legal machinery to prevent the self-employed from accumulating riches.

It is a strategy of containment that the dictatorship applies cyclically. No matter whether it is October 1960, March 1968 or April 2018. In the gene of communism, a private business will always be an enemy. No more no less.

Cuba: Avoiding Reality / Iván García

From the Central Havana Scenes series, produced in January 2018 by the photo reporter Juan Suarez for Havana Times.

Ivan Garcia, 9 March 2018 — From the loudspeaker of a hot filthy state-owned bar in Diez de Octubre, a thirty minute drive from central Havana, Micha’s voice is blaring out — he sings reggaeton like a dock worker.

“Twist round tight on your toes,” Micha sings. A couple of mulatas with fat stomachs, with their faces stuck in the plastic cups of cheap beer in their hands, move their hips to the rhythm, up close to a fat guy blinged up with chains round his neck. continue reading

They are pissed. Like almost everybody in the windowless stinking bar which seems like a sauna at midday. It’s a working day. But the bar is packed, and, in between shouting and swearing, the regulars discuss the Caribbean Series and Alazanes de Granma getting knocked out. Or talk about under-the-counter business. Or women. Or nothing. And they down one beer after another in the wretched bar in Havana.

Please, don’t discuss politics here. These people have had enough of it. They reply with slogans, like “there is nobody who will fix it, and no-one who will end it.” They take it as read that Fidel Castro’s revolution will last 100 years — at the very least.

“I’m outa here”, says Eduardo. “Plumber in a team with the Havana Water Company”, he repeats with emphasis. When I can, I pinch stopcocks to sell later to a private guy who has a licence to sell plumbing things. Half of the money, 200 or 300 pesos, I spend on food to take home. The rest of it is for drink or cheap prostitutes. Nothing left after that, dude. If you don’t chill out, the system drives you mad,” he adds, while he buys a round of beers, and casts a lecherous eye over the mulatas dancing one reggaeton after another, as if they were dolls on a string.

“They’re happy. When they give you the eye, a hundred cañitas (refers to coins, not drinks in this context), and they all gather round”, the plumber says, as if he’s teaching me something. He looks at the clock and adds, “And if not, you go off with another one. After three in the afternoon, they close in on the guys with no bread and for ten cuc you can have sex both ways”.

The best description for these groups of Cubans who are trying to get away from everything, from misery, from a nothing future, and from the revolutionary chanting (although they make out they are not political), was given by Carlos Manuel Álvarez, probably the best Cuban writer nowadays: he called them the tribe.

There are tribes located on the bottom rung of the poverty ladder. The people who rummage around in the refuse. The crazy street people. The homeless tramps. The incurable alcoholics. The people who touch themselves up in public. The cheap night-time prostitutes. Or the indifferent people who always ask what’s available at the convenience store or the butcher’s, but look vacant when you ask them about anything to do with politics.

These people have switched off. Floating. They survive watching soap operas, dancing reggaeton and boozing. In private, they complain. But, when they are in front of a foreign reporter’s camara, they pretend to talk about other stuff. And, they go and vote, so as to not stick out, and join in the Primero de Mayo processions, because “it’s party time”.

Two kilometers away from the dirty state-owned bar where Eduardo is hoping to make out with a local prostitute, there is an elegant and expensive air-conditioned private bar called Melao, where a Cristal beer costs 2.50 cuc, and a caipirinha made with cane sets you back 5 cuc. In the bar, various girls quietly alert the barman, who yawns if someone comes in, and they flirt with any customer who walks by.

It’s a different tribe to the other one, because it has a slightly better life style and culture than the poor people drinking state beer or cheap rum in the state bars. In this tribe,

you meet football specialists (Florentino, if you are looking for a substitute for Zidane, take a look around Havana). Guys with fitted shirts, tight pants, hairdos with too much gel, and shiny pointed shoes, who closely analyse for you the four-three-four play arrangement and explain to you that Cristiano Ronaldo is now rubbish, and that the future is Mbappe or Neymar.

Perfect jacks-of-all-trades. People skilled in getting you to offer them a  beer. Looking for chicks and drugs, who please whoever has the cash. They are a human equivalent of the iPhone Siri. They talk about anything. Apart from politics.

“What do you think about the next elections? How would you rate the Cuban government? What about Miguel Diaz-Canel? Those topics get in their way. So, they come over as cynics. “Change the record, my friend.I t’s swimming and keep an eye on your clothes. Find out how to make money without getting any mud on you. I’ve had it with politics. I’m into partying and pachanga,” says Adonis, a young night-lifer.

The Miami press is more interested in Gladiador’s problems than analysis of the Cuban political and socio-economic situation. When they emigrate, they don’t change their spots. They remain indifferent, apolitical, and frivolous, just like on the island. They care about buying the latest car or iPhone, seeing if they can come up good in the Miami lottery or win some money in the Everglades casino.

Nearly all of these urban gangs are allergic to talking to dissidents. They look the other way when they repress the Ladies in White, or independent journalists. And, to distance themselves from the Castro opposition, they call themselves socialists, neocommunists, social democrats, liberals, evangelists, masons, followers of santeria cults …

Nevertheless, the security folk, who are always ahead of things, don’t waste any time in labelling them. They are all counter-revolutionaries: they don’t respect the guidelines from the country’s highest leadership.

You can understand the indifference of lots of people, and that they use sex, alcohol, football and reggaeton as an escape valve from the madhouse they have had to live in for 59 years. But, for honest thinking people, the avoidance of reality can only be explained by one word: fear.


Translated by GH

How I Remember Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring / Iván García

The old Lourdes Clinic, today the House of Culture, in Carmen and October 10, in the Red Square of the Víbora, is very close to my home. Taken from

Ivan Garcia, 19 March 2018 — On a mid-February day in 2003, a month before the repressive wave against the Cuban dissidence, sometime after 9:00 in the morning it took me almost an hour to board Route 100 bus, which at that time started its route at the corner of Diez de October and O’Farrill, in La Víbora, and ended in the Nautical district in the municipality of Playa.

Public transport, unaddressed by the regime, was chaotic. My destination was the house of Ricardo González Alfonso, on Calle 86 between 7th and 9th in Miramar, in the west of the capital, to deliver a couple of notes that would later be published in the magazine De Cuba, prepared entirely in Havana. continue reading

I had 40 pesos in my pocket: 20 to return to La Víbora in a private taxi and the rest to buy a pizza for lunch. The trip on Route 100 involved a lot of shoving and bad language. I got off at the Comodoro Hotel stop, at 3rd and 84th, and bought a Neapolitan pizza from a privately run snack bar just before 5th Avenue.

I then continued on my way to Ricardo’s home, a sort of itinerant newsroom for Cuba Press, the most professional independent press agency in Cuba, directed by the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero.

Ricardo was a good guy. Demanding with regards to the work, he was always on the journalists to deliver two weekly articles. His house was also used as a press workshop, for literary or political gatherings, always with a thermos of coffee. There, Raúl Rivero taught journalism classes and it also served as a set for interviews with the foreign press.

It was at Ricardo’s home where, in 2000, the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Society was founded, which brought together the majority of the free correspondents in Cuba and where De Cuba magazine was created. The first number came out in December 2002 and the second in February 2003.

The journalists Luis Cino, a friend in good times and bad, along with Claudia Márquez and Ricardo, were in charge of the selection, editing and layout of the articles.

On any one day, in that house in Miramar, there were about ten to fifteen reporters, almost all of them with vast experience in the official press. The most inexperienced always received good advice from journalists like Raúl Rivero, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Iria González Rodiles, Tania Quintero or Ricardo González Alfonso himself.

Harassment and repression by State Security was part of daily life. We promptly denounced it on Radio Martí when they confiscated our money or work material, as well as the summons and threats of the G-2, the Intelligence Directorate. I remember that in those days of February 2003, when I spoke with Luis Cino, I told him that a security guy on a Suzuki motorcycle who called himself Jesus, on the corner of the so-called Red Square of La Víbora, had told me: “You people have little left.” I did not pay particular attention.

The repression was constant and at all times. The official media set the stage for the future raid against 75 peaceful opponents, including 27 independent journalists, by publishing editorial vitriolic against the opposition. At night, I would turn the sound down on the black and white television so that my grandmother, my sister and my 8-year-old niece would not hear the name of my mother, Tania Quintero, nor Fidel Castro’s public threats against the opposition.

At that time, Castro spent hours reading reports and citing the names of journalists and dissident activists who attended receptions and visited European embassies or the United States Interests Section. The atmosphere smelled like something was going to happen. Tania and I carried a spoon and a toothbrush when we went out, in case they stopped us.

On Tuesday, March 18, 2003, I had a difficult day. I lived with my mother, my grandmother, my sister and my niece in La Víbora, I had written an article for Encuentro en la Red (Meeting on the Network) and had to find a way to send it. But in the Sevillano neighborhood I had a daughter a little over a month old and in the afternoon, when I went to see her, her mother was dead tired because the baby was keeping her up at nights. I decided to stay, so she could rest.

I sat with the baby in an armchair was midnight, when she fell asleep. I put her in the cradle, I said goodbye to her mother and when I went to my house, down San Miguel Street, I was struck by the fact that Villa Marista, the political police barracks, was completely lit up.

The most veteran among the dissidents said that when “all the lights of Villa Marista are lit, it means something bad is happening or is going to happen.”

At the little kiosk on Avenida Acosta, I ate two fritters and an instant pineapple drink. When I turned the corner of Diez de Octubre and Carmen and was nearly at our apartment on the first floor, when I saw Tania waving at me from the terrace. I stopped and in a low voice she said: “Iván, they have several opponents and independent journalists. At any moment they are coming to look for us.” I felt a chill of fear.

I took a deep breath, hurriedly climbed the stairs, Tania was waiting for me at the door and I said: “Whatever happens will happen. Better lie down and try to sleep because Security starts its operations at 5 or 6 in the morning. ” The following days were terrible. The list of those arrested was initially a hundred, later it was 75.

It is said that the dictator made an account and arrested 15 dissidents for each of the 5 spies of the Avispa network who were imprisoned in the United States. The trials were summary. The sentences of the prosecution were appalling. For seven of the opponents they asked for the death penalty. Luckily, the autocracy did not go that far.

In November of 2003, Tania, my sister and my niece went into exile in Switzerland. Independent journalism remained in its death throes, but it did not die. Some continued writing without signing the articles. Others waited for the tide to go out to go back to writing.

Five years later, in 2008, journalism without a gag re-emerged with force. Supported by new technologies, various rebellious blogs appeared and the quality of websites on Cuban topics based inside and outside the country rose. International media, such as El Mundo, BBC and El País, among others, began publishing collaborations with unofficial journalists. It was the best possible shield: the regime was careful about repressing those who write in influential newspapers in Europe and the United States.

Today, more than 250 reporters, of different tendencies, write independently from the Island. The harassment and repression of dissent continues. But never at the level of the Black Spring of 2003.

Fifteen years later, Cuba is closer than ever to the road to democracy. It may take six months or six years. But it will happen.

See also:

Who Benefits From the Release of the Cuban Political Prisoners?

Liberation or Forced Exile?

Libertation or Exile?

The "Castro List"

Private Sector in Cuba, Defenseless in Face of New Restrictions / Iván García

Source: OnCuba Magazine

Ivan Garcia, 5 March 2018 — The last week was pure hustle and bustle for Yunia, owner of a hair salon in the neighborhood of Cerro, fifteen minutes by car from downtown Havana. After having given birth at 48 to a nine-pound baby girl and while breastfeeding her in an armchair, holding the cordless telephone between her right shoulder and her head, she was talking to a sister who, for two months, had been running her hair salon.

The news on the other side of the line was not good. “My sister says that an official of the ONAT (National Tax Administration Office) informed her that when the state begins issuing licenses again, in the case of hairdressers, the products [purchased for use in the business] must be supported by a purchase receipts in the [legal] market.” continue reading

Yunia explains that in hard currency stores, beauty products are expensive and their sale is irregular. “Sometimes a certain product disappears for months. The best Havanan hairdressers buy their products abroad, either because people have the ability to travel or because their relatives send them. They are also acquired through ’mules’ dedicated to the sale of clothing, cleaning and cosmetics.”

She puts her newborn in her crib and continues explaining: “Hair treatments, extensions and dyes, when using premium products are expensive. In a month, a young woman who carries extensions can spend 30 or 40 CUC in her city. But in Havana there are customers who can pay those prices. For hairdressers there are a variety of options, to try to please all pockets. If now, the State begins to inspect and control the inputs or insists that they be bought in Cuba, the prices will rise, since it will be much more expensive to obtain suitable cosmetics. The worst thing is not the state interference, but that the private workers are legally defenseless. They impose new measures and there is no legal venue where one can take a complaint. It’s a lion-to-monkey fight, with the monkey tied up. ”

Since last week, Martí Noticias and the Reuters news agency revealed details about a restrictive package of measures for private work, the social networks lit up, and inside the old taxis, which have become forums for debate, discontent has been increasing.

The new twist is being openly criticized by ordinary Cubans. “They did it with the roving cart vendors and the private produce markets, and now you walk through the state produce markets and they’re empty,” says Roberto, retired, pointing with his hand to the dirty and empty shelves.

“What will be the solution, that the State takes control of everything again? That has not worked in sixty years. Sometimes I think there are government officials who are from the CIA. They are idiots. If you forbid what works more or less well, to implement what has never worked, chaos returns. The issue is not that individuals charge high prices. The problem is that the State does not pay the wages that are needed. Of course, the easiest thing is to take on the weakest party and put a lot of limitations and kill your business or make you work yourself to death to earn a few pesos,” says Gladys, a state cafeteria worker.

When you talk to any taxi driver in the capital you will notice the displeasure clear as day. “It’s a giant fucking over from this Party of shitheads. Basically what they want is to suffocate private work with the story that we are getting rich. Rich from what?” Asks Eduardo and he answers:

“We have to work twelve, thirteen and even fourteen hours to clear 400 or 500 Cuban pesos. Half the money goes on food and things for the house. The other, saving, to fix the car when it breaks down. For months now, the government has had the idea of putting private taxi drivers into cooperatives and exploiting them as slaves, just as they do with cooperative taxis. Most of us are against it and we will not give in. In good faith I knew that those who keep driving freelance, they will get rid of them with inspections, fines and severe inspections of the car. It is well known that half of these junkers should not be on the street. In the end what they want is to fuck us over.”

René, owner of a fleet of five cars and three jeeps that he rents as taxis, says that through people he knows in the ONAT he learned that “as of April the government will go after us with every thing they’ve got. There is talk that each taxi driver has to own his car. I do not know how this mess will end, but we will look for a shortcut to follow the new rules. It is the State, which is not capable of satisfying the demands of the people, which forces us to cheat to live as God intended. The only ones who are getting rich in Cuba are those who govern.”

The information in the foreign press, not being denied by the regime, has given rise to a wave of rumors and speculation.

“It’s a witch hunt that does not surprise me. History repeats itself. The government has always watched the progress of the private sector and then it takes the repressive scissors and cuts off their wings. That fatso Marino Murillo said that we, the individuals, have caused more harm than benefits. We pay our employees up to ten times more than state salaries and provide better services despite high taxes, and they do not allow us to import food or have a wholesale market, says the owner of a paladar, a private restaurant.

Daniel, an economist, believes that future restrictions on private work is “a terrible strategy. This has already been said repeatedly by other colleagues. What must be fought is poverty, not those who generate wealth. If they want to eliminate illegalities in private work, the State must provide the options so that this does not happen. It is the government that has failed to enable them by not allowing a wholesale market, not allowing them to associate with foreign companies or import directly from abroad. In this war the people lose. The only sector that grows in Cuba is the private sector. They employ half a million people, who by having better salaries, can increase domestic consumption. That is, more oil, clothing and appliances are bought in hard currency stores and one million people are tourists in hotels.

On the street, people ask why the military autocracy (which is guided by the ’scientific theories of communism’), dislikes that a segment of Cubans can prosper by their own efforts.

The answer seems elementary. It will always be easier to govern a herd that depends on an authoritarian state than on loose cattle in open, well-groomed paddocks.

Interview with Rosa Maria, Oswaldo Paya’s Daughter / Iván García

Photo: EFE, taken from Diario de Cuba

Ivan Garcia and Leonardo Santos, 15 March 2018 — It is difficult, for the macho mentality that prevails among Cubans, to relate to a woman with bold attitudes that require determination and bravery. Regarding Rosa María Payá Acevedo, freelance journalist José Hugo Fernández said that “she has a graceful, elegant appearance, a candid look.”

This is the leader of the CubaDecides campaign and president of the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy, who received us at her family home in the Havana neighborhood of El Cerro to talk about the second annual Freedom and Life Oswaldo Payá Prize, on 8 March. continue reading

Ivan García/Leonardo Santos: Why is the ceremony for this award being held in Havana, knowing that the Cuban regime would deploy a campaign to discredit the event and prevent the participation of influential international political figures?

Rosa María Payá: We will never shape our actions based on the decisions and actions of the regime of Raúl Castro, but rather on what all Cubans can do for ourselves. The decision to deliver, for the second time, this award in Cuba is not only consistent with honoring the legacy of my father and honoring the winners of each year’s award, but also demonstrates to Cubans the support of the international community.

We must be able to generate actions, both inside and outside the Island, in favor of a peaceful change in our country, in favor of a change towards democracy, and as I expressed during the first prize ceremony, for this we must move the scene of our actions to Cuba.

What happened this week, where the Cuban regime for the second time has considered the participation of the international community in the delivery of theFreedom and Life Oswaldo Payá Prize as a political provocation, we can consider as a victory, because it made clear the tolerances that still exist, in the international community, with respect to the Castro dictatorship.

García/Santos: In the first installment of the award, in February 2017, the regime denied entry to Cuba to Luis Almagro, secretary general of the OAS, former Chilean minister Mariana Aylwin and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón. On this occasion, the regime denied entry to presidents Jorge Quiroga and Andrés Pastrana and Chilean deputy Jaime Bellolio, among others. How do these actions hurt the Cuban regime ahead of the VIII Summit of the Americas to be held on April 13 and 14, in Lima, Peru?

Rosa María Payá: It is incoherent that there is a dignified position in the face of the Venezuelan dictatorship perpetuated in the figure of the dictator Nicolás Maduro and that the same treatment should not be assumed before the Cuban dictatorship perpetuated in Raúl Castro. The position of the Peruvian government and the Lima Group, declaring Nicolás Maduro not welcome for the next Summit of the Americas, is truly worthy.

The Cuban regime, which describes its electoral farce as transparent, nevertheless refuses to allow entry into the country of two presidents who were democratically elected.

On the other hand, it is impossible to conceive the collapse of democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua without the concrete and active interference of the Cuban regime. I think all these considerations should be addressed seriously during this summit. The Secretary General of the OAS said clearly that dictatorships are not welcome.

García/Santos: Sectors of the opposition on the island have described CubaDecides, and its call for a binding plebiscite, as a “fanciful, ineffective and electioneering” endeavor.

Rosa María Payá: CubaDecides is a campaign for all Cubans and for all non-Cubans who support the right of Cubans to decide. The right to decide about how a nation operates, and the citizens that compose it, to determine its present and its destiny. To be against this basic principle is to be against democracy itself. And that basic principle is what CubaDecides defends.

CubaDecides is a citizen mobilization campaign to change the system and begin a process of transition towards democracy. The conditions for this transition to occur are based on the fact that there must be freedom of expression, freedom of association, access to information, and a combating of repression. These things are demanded by CubaDecides, and if that is not what the Cuban opposition wants, then what does it want?

However, all are welcome to join a decisive struggle for freedom. A fight that will end the day there are free elections in Cuba. The change in Cuba will not come from whomever will be the next candidate, because the change has to be radical and for this all Cubans should have the opportunity to participate in that change.

The CubaDecides campaign does not propose to speak for the Cuban people because nobody else should speak for all Cubans. Let’s ask the people, in a plebiscite, what they want.

García/Santos: The doctor Eduardo Cardet, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement among whose founders was your father Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, has been imprisoned since November 30, 2016. His family has recently stated that his case “has not had all the desired repercussions.”

Both since the CubaDecides campaign and the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy, we have been carrying out actions for the release of all political prisoners and specifically for the release of Eduardo Cardet, whom the regime has targeted so particularly.

We are not only worried about his freedom, but also about his physical integrity and that of his family. It is a priority for the Network to take the case of Eduardo Cardet to the Summit of the Americas.

Will It Take Blood Toil Tears and Sweat to Emerge From the Olive Green Disaster? / Iván García

The state of countless houses located in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populated of Havana. Taken by Ernesto Pérez Chang for SOS Calzada de Diez de Octubre, published on February 15, 2018 in Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 21 February 2018 — Political honesty is worth its weight in gold. That is why history values those words of Winston Churchill, probably the most influential British and European statesman, when on May 13, 1940, in his first speech as Prime Minister before the House of Commons, he uttered a phrase which was attributed to the Theodore Roosevelt during his time as Undersecretary of the Navy: “I have nothing more to offer than blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

The United Kingdom was being threatened by the overwhelming Nazi war machine. Poland, Belgium, Holland and France barely waged a fight against the armored cars and German fighters. Churchill did not act with evasiveness. Sacrifice and bravery was the only recipe for victory, finally achieved with Allied support five years later, on May 9, 1945.

To speak frankly, seems the easiest, but many politicians opt for subterfuge. It happens in Cuba. The revolution of Fidel Castro came to power with a high percentage of popular support. Social justice, democracy and greater economic development were his promises. But the bearded guerrilla lied. In six decades, the regime he founded has not been able to build a modern and productive country.

Two months after Raul Castro handpicked a successor, taking Castroism to a new dimension, the incoming president who will be voted in by the monotonous national parliament, does not have a credible project for the nation on the table.

The people on the street are not interested or motivated by the presidential transfer. It is not commented on at street corners. One candidate is not privileged over another. There is no confidence in the next government.

Can the new political bureaucracy offer options that excite Cubans? José Manuel, a former high school teacher who now makes a living making wicker chairs, does “not believe that the new government brings anything good. This is not a surprise. The press reiterates it every day. What comes is a succession, but there won’t be a leader with last name Castro. That is, it will continue with the ’update of the economic model’ until 2030, with the slogan of a prosperous and sustainable country and the discourse of ’without haste, but without pauses’.”

On weekends, the port area adjacent to the neighborhoods of old Havana receives a large number of people. Sheila, a mother of two children and a private hairdresser, usually visits La Maestranza, so that her children “can play on the park equipment and get distracted for a while.” The sun burns. The breeze that comes from the bay is a litle refreshing in the heat of February. Sitting on a concrete bench while watching the children at a distance, Sheila says she feels pessimistic about Cuba’s future.

“The ideal is to emigrate and try your luck elsewhere. It can go well or badly, but I do not think it will be worse than in Cuba. I do not have that option, I do not have family in la yuma (USA). I have to deal with it here. I do not care about the president they choose. What will they solve? Will they repair the houses in Jesús María, Belén or Colón? Will wages rise? Will the prices of food go down?” she asks. She shakes her head: “No. We will continue with the usual hardships.”

Most Cubans do not have a favorite candidate. Vladimir, along with some friends, in a currency bar next to the Paseo del Prado, watched the Champions League match on TV between the merengues of Cristiano Ronaldo and the PSG of Neymar. Exciting football, don’t even think about asking him about the future president.

After the victory of Real Madrid and after drinking a couple of cans of Cristal beer, Vladimir says: “What is coming is a fraud. Everything is set, brother. They (the rulers) are like the Corleone, a mafia. They are not going to give up power like that. It will have to be taken away and I do not believe that in the population there are the balls to shoot up the street and change things “.

Rita, a retired teacher, believes that they should choose a woman. “Men have not known how to solve problems.” Which woman?, I ask. “I do not know, many candidates come out on television. I do not like Mercedes (Lopez Acea), the first secretary of the party in the capital, she’s barely feminine. And Mariela, Raúl’s daughter, would be in the same. One could try with Inés María (Chapman) the one who directs hydraulic resources. My son, who works at Aguas de La Habana, says she has done a good job. I sympathize with that one who is diplomatic (she is referring to Josefina Vidal), that if she was able to sit down and and face off with the Americans, she could run the country well. I do not think that Diaz-Canel has the stature, there is something about him I do not like, I see him as tight, a little hard to get along with.”

A pedicab driver, a native of Santiago de Cuba, thinks that Lázaro Expósito, first secretary of the party in Santiago since 2009, could be an excellent president. “He is a man who speaks straight, is not corrupt and ordinary people follow him. Maybe already in his position he’s tied hand and foot by the military and can’t do much, but the guy has guts.”

At this stage of the game, most Cubans are not interested in the candidate who will govern them in the next five years. Even clueless citizens wonder if “the people will elect the president.” Misinformation, combined with apathy, is brutal.

But whoever is elected, the national and international sitaution will force him him to behave like a statesman. Venezuela, the unconditional ally, is a car that’s lost its brakes. Obtaining economic credits from Russia in exchange for using the island as a puppet or allowing concessions in the military field would be a dangerous game. Debt with China, the same. And in the White House, Donald Trump, bent on his project to make America great again, does not have in his agenda to negotiate a new deal with Cuba, unless the new Cuban government takes a 180 degree political turn.

What options does the next regime have? Three possible scenarios can be glimpsed.

First, keep playing at gatopardismo (change something so as to not change anything), that is, change appearances, but basically not change anything, leave everything the same or almost the same as it was.

Second, bet on the market economy, in the style of China and Vietnam, without fear of a segment of the population getting rich; abolish the obstacles that prevent the emigrants from investing in their homeland and negotiate a new project for the nation with the exile.

Third, continue with the same delirium, and institutionalize the crazy experiments of Fidel Castro. Keep the discourse short and to the point, full of vitriolic poison about ’Yankee imperialism’ and Western capitalism.

Whatever the path predesigned by the neo-Castro, the first trial by fire would be to speak honestly to the Cubans. As Churchill did to the British in the spring of 1940.

Otherwise, to get out of the olive green disaster will take blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Cuba: Private Enterprise Could Be the Solution / Iván García

Designers in the shop, Clandestina, Old Havana. Taken from The “Revolution” of the Entrepreneurs, Cubanosomos, February 4, 2018.

Iván García, 19February 2018 — Pescao Designs, a project that is intended to offer decorative solutions to foreign businessmen, state-owned operations and small private businesses, began operation five years ago in the house of the founder, on Carmen 16 Street, in La Víbora, a neighborhood 30 minutes by car from the center of Havana.

Their initial equipment was technologically backward, but indispensable. Equipment that gave the impression it was antediluvian. The boss, Carlos, a 41-year-old automation engineer, seemed a lot like an orchestra conductor. He operated the machinery and looked over new contracts, which he organized at night, and he cleaned the garage that served as his office. continue reading

A family loan and a credit from the State bank, Metropolitano, were the capital with which he began to operate. “In the modern world, design is fundamental in all facets of life. Any design project in the U.S. or Europe counts on an investment of a million dollars or euros. I began with less than 20,000 dollars, which is nothing for this type of business. I learned along the way, and I substituted creativity for money.”

In spite of the olive-green Regime’s restrictions on small private business in Cuba, his business enjoys fame, credibility and good financial health. Carlos built an attractive air-conditioned office in a large house adjacent to his home. He has 12 workers on his staff. They were in charge of designing popular television programs, like Sonando in Cuba (Dreaming in Cuba), En Familia (In the Family) and La Colmenita (The Little Beehive). Also, he designed the stands for Havana Club and other businesses in the International Fair of Havana. Dozens of bars, cafeterias and private restaurants request his design services, for interior decoration up to menus and employee uniforms.

However, because of the restrictions and prohibitions on imports, equipment, state-of-the-art machinery, raw material and supplies are more expensive for private businessmen.

“Any piece of last-generation machinery costs more than a quarter of a million dollars. You have to buy the ink cartridges, 3-D design equipment and other material  from middlemen who charge very large commissions. The ideal would be to import it directly from the wholesalers in Panama or Mexico, at much lower prices,” says Carlos.

When you chat with private businesses, one of their demands is authorization from the Government to import equipment or to accept credit from foreign banks.

Another problem to solve, considers René, the owner of a shop that offers software applications and computer equipment repair, is to eliminate “the stupid prohibition on allowing professionals to open their own business. It obliges many entrepreneurs to make false declarations on their taxes or to open a business under a license that isn’t theirs. In practice, in spite of the prohibition, thousands of professionals are working for themselves under the table. And they aren’t paying taxes.

“The most intelligent thing to do would be to legalize the whole framework, because it brings a value-added that the businesses of lodging, home restaurants and other services don’t generate. It’s absurd that the Government is putting brakes on progress. They should give up the primitive idea that being rich is a perverse crime. The State should combat poverty. And the function of the private sector is to create wealth.”

Since professionals don’t have the Regime’s consent to open a business, those that exist function in a judicial limbo, or illegally. Sahily, a lawyer, dreams about having a law office that advises foreign firms and private business owners and helps them to negotiate the bureaucratic process.

“The Government must understand that it cannot be both judge and defendant. Foreign businessmen don’t trust the State to handle legal matters. They prefer private law firms to advise them. But right now, the Government hasn’t figured out that if they want to see foreign investment grow, they have to change the law and permit the participation of private individuals, if they really want to interest company owners in establishing businesses in Cuba.”

Enrique, an architect with 10 years of experience, thinks that “now is the time for the State to permit architects and designers to create their own firms. We need a master plan for construction. There are Cubans who can now afford designs for their houses and businesses. This way a better quality would be guaranteed, and it would overcome the improvisation and present sloppiness in housing construction in the hands of private workers without a professional adviser.”

In December 2016, a group of private businessmen had a meeting with officials at the National Office of Tax Administration, the institution that governs private work in Cuba.

A well-informed source told Diarío Las Américas that “all the limitations by the Government that presently exist were considered, and innovative proposals were presented. If the private sector has shown anything, it’s that in services like consulting, among others, it functions better than the State. In the last seven years, we have never stopped growing. It’s calculated that more than 1,200,000 Cubans  work in non-agricultural cooperatives or in private businesses. I believe we have earned the right to have the Government listen to us. In this first meeting, there were no commitments, but the Government officials took notes.”

As in any facet of life, private workers aspire to grow in quantity and quality. They think that private business isn’t the problem; it could be the solution to things that don’t function in Cuba.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Luis Manuel Otero: From Athlete to Dissident Artist / Iván García

Iván García and Luis Manuel Otero, photo by Yanelys Núñez

Ivan Garcia, 15 February 2018 — He’s like a character out of a dark novel by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. He turned 30 on December 2, 2017, and the life of Luis Manuel Otero has been marked by survival.

He still remembers the 12-hour blackouts when he was a kid, in the middle of the Special Period. The empty, grimy pots and the unmistakable color of El Pilar, his neighborhood in the Havana municipality of Cerro.

The section of Romay Street, from Monte to Zequeira, doesn’t even go 100 yards. It’s narrow and unpaved. The houses are one-story. The only building that had three floors collapsed from lack of maintenance. continue reading

The house of the Otero Alcántara family, at number 57, is typical of early 20th century construction, with tall pillars and large windows. Throughout the night, women are sitting in the doorway, gossiping, while the men take up a collection to buy a liter of bad rum, steal detergent from the Sabatés factory or kill the boredom with a game of baseball in the old Cerro Stadium.

Luis Manuel grew up there, on a poor block full of tenement housing, where drugs and psychotropics are a rite of passage, the young people are abakuás (devotees of the African religion) and problems are solved with guns or machetes.

His father, Luis Otero, used to be a dangerous guy. He always was mixed up in legal problems, and jail became his second home. In prison he became a welder, and the last time he left the Combinado del Este prison, he promised he wouldn’t return.

María del Carmen, the mother of the artist and a construction technician, is a “struggler,” like most Cuban women. When she was pregnant with Luis Manuel, his father was in jail.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said to herself. She acted as mother and father for a long time. Perhaps because of maternal overprotection, she opted to bring him up behind closed doors at home.

Luis Manuel Oteros, a mulatto with an adolescent expression, gestures with his mouth and mentions that to escape from that reclusive life, “I made my own wooden toys. I had this gift from the time I was little. I don’t know who I inherited it from, because there’s no other sculptor or visual artist in my family. I spent hours and hours talking alone. I created scenes and imaginary characters. And from childhood, I vowed to be someone in life,” he said, seated on a wooden stool and leaning against the wall of his studio on San Isidro in Old Havana.

Then he went to school. “I spent primary at Romualdo la Cuesta and secondary at Nguyen Van Troi. I always had a piece of wood in my hands. My grandmother was working in Viviendas, and this was during the years when Cubans decided to emigrate. The State confiscated their property, and many people gave her things, used clothing and household appliances. So we had a washing machine, but I hardly ever had shoes, only one pair that almost always was torn. I went to school wearing hideous boots or plastic shoes,” remembers Otero, and adds:

“I was nine or 10 years old, and like all the kids in the area, we were looking for a way to make money to help out at home, to buy things or go to parties on weekends. A friend and I from the neighborhood decided to remove bricks from buildings and abandoned houses. At that time, recycled bricks were selling for three pesos on the black market, but we sold them for two. One afternoon, my mother caught me doing this and beat me with a rope all the way home.”

Before getting involved with visual arts, Otero spent four or five years training as a mid-distance runner on a clay court at the Ciudad Deportiva.

“I wanted to get ahead. I appreciated the discipline and commitment of sports. I ran the 1,500 and 5,000 meter-dash. I had prospects. I was training hard to reach my goal: to escape from poverty. But in a competition in Santiago de Cuba, in spite of being the favorite, I came in fourth. I wasn’t programmed for losing. So I decided to study and try sculpture and the visual arts.”

In his free time, he and a friend sold DVDs for three convertible pesos in the streets of Nuevo Vedado, and he made wood carvings. “A cane that I made ended up at a workshop that Victor Fowler had in La Vibora. I was 17 and started to become serious about sculpture. I attended many workshops. I always had a tremendous desire to learn, study, better myself. I’m a self-taught artist and a lover of Cuban history. I also slipped into the courses offered by the Instituto Superior de Arte. It was an exciting world.

“When I went home, I went back to reality. Mediating the fights and blows between my father and mother or the problems that my younger brother had,” remembers Luis Manuel, leaning on an ancient VEF-207 radio of the Soviet era, dressed in mustard-colored pants and a white pullover with the faces of the Indian Hatuey, José Martí, Fidel Castro and the peaceful opponent, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara had an exposition for the first time in a gallery in Cerro, on the Avenida 20 de Mayo, in 2011. “I called it, ’Heroes are no burden.’ It was wooden statues of men from the trunk up, without legs. I dedicated it to the soldiers who were mutilated during the war in Angola. I personally invited a dozen combatants who had been in the struggle. I was tense, waiting to see what the reaction would be, but the show was very well received.”

The statue from which the “Heroes are no burden” exposition took its name (Havana Times)

He had already begun his political activism by then. “I had too many questions without answers. I saw that the expectations of society were not taken into account. I had no way out. Everything was a bunch of blah, blah,blah, speeches with no meaning. In private, the majority of artists recognized that things should change. Cuba is crazy. It’s also true that there’s a lot of opportunism in the artistic world. Hustling is normal in this environment. I saw that something should be done,” commented Otero, in a deliberate tone.

And he decided to work on his art with a new focus. December 17, 2014 was a date to remember. “That noon I was amazed to see Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on television. I felt that a new epoch was beginning. That the worst was behind us. That a stage of reconciliation and national reconstruction would begin. That was the feeling among most people: that there would be more negotiations, that finally we would have a better level of life. People had tremendous hope. It was a dream that was contagious.”

But the Regime put obstacles in the way. The greatest optimism passed to the worst pessimism. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. was purely an illusion. More press headlines than concrete initiatives that will improve the quality of life of Cubans.

Luis Manuel Otero remembers that Rubén del Valle, the Vice Minister of Culture, “said, and no one told me, I was still here, that they were going to need several shiploads to be able to sell all the works of Cuban culture. The feeling that many artists had was that in the biennials and events, Americans would start buying valuable artistic pieces. I wanted to make something, to be in fashion. My sin was in being naive.”

Barely one month before, on November 25, 2014, Otero performed downtown on Calle 23, on the Rampa, which was noted in the international press. “At that time I had an American girlfriend. The intention of the performance was to ask her to marry me at a wifi site that had become popular, with no privacy and people screaming and asking for money and other things from their families. I did a stripper act on the corner of L and 23, accompanied by two mariachis. On that occasion, perhaps out of surprise, State Security didn’t interrupt me.”

A little after this, he broke up with her and started courting Yanelys Núñez, who had a degree in art history, and a main piece in her present project at the Museum of Dissidence. Otero is like a box with push-buttons: hyperactive, suggestive and creative. In the middle of a conversation, an idea of his next performance came to him.

“Sometimes I take two or three days tossing around an idea for a work. And it’s in the middle of the night that a concrete idea comes to me. Then I wake up Yanelys and we go to work. With the last one, the Testament of Fidel Castro, it was more or less like that. The George Pompidou Center in Paris asked me for a sample that I was going to make. What occurred to me was the testament of Fidel inside a bottle of Havana Club rum. I implied that at the end of his life, he repented of all the harm he did,” emphasizes Alcántrara.

Right now it’s not at all clear to him. But perhaps before, during or after the succession directed by Raúl Castro, he will start a new project. April, Luis Manuel speculates, could be the month he gets lucky.

Translated by Regina Anavy