Is Baseball Finished in Cuba? / Ivan Garcia

Jackie-Robinson-1919-1972-620x330Fidel Castro has been an effective gravedigger. He buried sugar crops and the agricultural abundance of old. Recently, Cuba had to import sugar from Brazil and the Dominican Republic to meet the consumption needs of international tourists.

With this type of negative aura that has always surrounded Castro, it makes sense these days what baseball fans were saying after the dismal failure of Villa Clara in the Caribbean Series on Margarita Island: we are currently living through the last days of baseball.

I think not. We have the genes of baseball players in our DNA. Has it been dealt a fierce blow? It is true. Due to the obstinate and stupid policies of the state, baseball finds itself stationary, mired in crisis.

But we can make progress. If, for example, Cuban coaches could absorb the latest advances in the development of baseball via clinics (courses) with seasoned trainers from the United States. If the academies of the Major League organizations were allowed and if our players could play in the MLB without having to leave their homeland.

Although this would be the ideal, this nightmare of five and a half decades remains. In that sense, I am not optimistic. Because of the insane system established in Cuba, what could change within two years could equally extend for another fifty-five.

The methods used by autocrats to remain in power are known. Fear and repression inhibit many Cubans from publicly disagreeing. So people opt for a life raft. Marrying a foreigner. Or an offer letter of work anywhere in the world.

There are two possible scenarios. In the first, Raul Castro becomes a kind of tropical Jaruzelski and democratizes the island – I am skeptical – and the embargo is repealed. Perhaps, working hard, in around five or six years, Cuban ball players developed under modern methods would skyrocket into Major League teams.

The other option, the way we are going now, is that Cuba transforms into a discrete monarchy, where relatives, sons and compadres pull on the threads of the piñata and divide the loot amongst themselves.

The regime is engaged in unprecedented ideological spin. A mixture of family capitalism, few opportunities, micro-businesses and pure Stalinism.

The Castros want to negotiate, but with the gringos. Face to face. Seated at a table, dividing up the island as if it were their property. Under one of these scenarios, Antonio Castro, son of Fidel, would represent baseball and manage the future contracts of Cuban players.

The mouths of the Castro clan must be watering just thinking about that possibility. It has not yet arrived, but it looms, in backroom negotiations with businessmen of the style of Alfonso Fanjul.

If we want to raise the capacity of baseball, change must happen urgently. If the creole mandarins were sensible – 55 years have shown otherwise – they would design a new structure for the National Series. 16 teams seems to me too many.

Right now, according to the proven quality of local baseball, the right number would be a season with 6 teams and a minimum of 100 games.

The season should begin in September. You could have three stages. Six innings in the first 60 games. A round robin with 40 games and 4 teams. And ending with play offs between the top two in a best of seven matches.

The season would end in late January, so as not to overlap with the Caribbean Series or the World Baseball Classic. The few classy players that are left us, such as Alfredo Despaigne, Yulieski Gourriel, Frederick Cepeda, Norge Luis Ruiz, Freddy Asiel Álvarez or Vladimir García, if they are contracted to foreign leagues, it is preferable that they not to take part in the National Series.

The current level of our baseball only serves to stall us. Of course, before reforming the National Series, we should strengthen all of baseball’s development structures. From childhood to youth categories.

If the development categories of cadets and youth are still playing with limited quality balls, poor quality equipment, and bad playing fields, then the jump to premier level will not be achievable.

Cuba’s best trainers must work in the minor levels. All the people qualified to train players must have unlimited internet access to the latest information and game statistics.

Also, we should participate in academic and training camp baseball exchanges with the United States, Japan, South Korea and those Caribbean countries that play baseball. Cuban television should more frequently broadcast Major League games. Without the complex absurdities of broadcasting innings during the time that baseball-playing Cubans have to be on the move.

All that policy reorganisation would have to include selling affordable gloves and balls for children. Similarly, it would require the reconditioning and recuperation of those baseball fields that have been lost in the country.

The task is arduous and expensive. It remains to be seen if the state would find the resources or contemplate an agenda to improve the quality of the current game. If it’s smart, it would be the most practical idea. Then, in the unlikely event that Antonio Castro sits down to negotiate with MLB managers, we would have a greater amount of talent to offer.

Although I see the vision, insight has not been the greatest quality of the olive green autocracy.

Iván García

Photo: During the cold months in the United States, many players moved to the Caribbean to play baseball, including Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), who is pictured signing autographs at a stadium in Havana in 1947. A few weeks later, Robinson made history in his country by breaking the barrier that barred black players playing in the majors, thereby paving the way for other African-American, Caribbean and Latin American players. Taken by AARP Magazine.

Translated by: CIMF

18 March 2014

Cuba: You Can Buy A House / Iván García

The worst of the timid reforms of General Raul Castro is amnesia. In addition to the cynicism. All the prohibitions, whether it is sightseeing in your own country, having a cell phone, buying a car or now being able to sell, buy or exchange a home without the absurd regulations promulgated by the State, were designed by the government, where Castro II was the vice president.

There is no public apology from the government recognizing their blunders, especially not recognizing the guilt for those mistakes that ruled in national life for more than 50 years.

It is known that Fidel Castro, with no official opposition, drew up the rules, even violating his own constitution. Then in 2008 the General took the reins of power, at par, renewing the seats of power and retiring most of the ministers loyal to his brother. He terminated the inconsistencies, absurd violations of individual freedom, such as the boarding schools in the countryside where the students worked in the field, or not being able to stay in a hotel or sell your own home.

Cuba is a bizarre nation. Here, what is normal is abnormal and vice versa. For years, a majority wondered aloud why swapping homes should require permission from a state institution or why we have been denied the option of selling our homes, when the title shows us as the owner of the dwelling.

It was one of the many masks that allow the head of state to handle his citizens as if they were puppets. Castro II is throwing down some irrational regulations out of a pure instinct for survival.

There is still a large pile of prohibitions. From the abominable permits Cubans must ask for in order to travel, to the fatal stubbornness denying open access to the Internet, burdening the economic and personal future, in addition to monopolizing information, for a country with more than one million college graduates.

But let’s go back to the point. As of November 10, 2011, you can buy a house in Cuba.

According to the lawyer Laritza Diversent, the measure has its little tricks. To buy or sell in ‘special areas’, due to the population density in neighborhoods such as October 10, Cerro, Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, the person must have the approval of the corrupt Institute of Housing.

The licensed attorney, Diversent, has doubts about the new measures actually expediting the processing of the purchase and sale of a home. It is now mandatory to register the property in the Property Registry.

It turns out that the dilapidated legal offices do not have sufficient staff to deal with the number of customers who are coming round the corner. Something similar happens with the notaries, who are now increasing their legal presence in matters regarding the acquisition of a car or a house.

In each municipality, Havana has Notaries and Registries of Property. But due to the shortage of staff and computers, people have to wait in long lines from early in the morning.

Castro II attempts to lighten the bureaucratic burden suffered by ordinary Cubans as they try to process anything. Far from achieving this, the processing burdens are likely to increase. It is also unclear whether residents in so-called “frozen zones”, where ministers and mandarins live or where there are public or military institutions, can move without notice.

Despite the long lines, the paperwork, and of course the bribes that will run under the table to get things going, Cubans welcome the possibility of selling or buying a home.

Of course, the Real Estate stock is not very big. In Cuba, there is a deficit, the government says, of 600,000 homes. I think we should multiply this by three. It is common in a house to have, living together under one roof, three different generations. Given the lack of space, people expand their housing haphazardly.

It is very rare to see a house on the island that’s retained its original architecture. Rooms are added, sometimes endangering the structure of the house.

Those who have money go to the store and buy New York priced ceramics, floor tiles, sanitary ware or cement mortar. Note the record prices.

One meter of flooring costs between 12 and 27 CUC (convertible pesos). Tiles are around the same price. A sanitaryware set, including a sink produced in Brazil or Ecuador, costs from 150 to 200 CUC. The cement mortar costs 6.60 CUC. Sinks, faucets (taps) and other items also cost a good deal. To repair a house, the cost will not be less than 2,000 convertible pesos. That amounts to 48,000 national currency pesos. This is equivalent to the salary of an engineer working for 7 years, and he may not make even make that.

The government has removed subsidies for building materials sold in establishments known as ‘junkyards’. But because of the minimal delivery of items, within a few hours there is no cement or steel rods for sale.

There is so much apathy and corruption, that according to the official media, there are warehouses full of sand, blocks and other materials that lack means of transportation and so remain stranded.

Those who intend to buy a house in Cuba must have 2,000 CUC for a single room in a rooming sites; 20,000 CUC if you want a three bedroom apartment in satisfactory condition, or 60,000 CUC on average for a residence in the old quarter of Vedado, Nuevo Vedado or Miramar.

And, according to house brokers, it is likely that sales prices will rise rapidly. In Havana, a well-preserved 1956 car costs more than a two-bedroom apartment.

This tendency is bound to be reversed. The housing demand exceeds the supply. The remaining problem is the lack of money of the majority to take over a house. I guess that will increase phone calls to relatives abroad to send them the money. Exiles, prepare your wallets!

Photo: loooquito, Panoramio. Buildings repaired along the Paseo del Prado, Old Town Havana.

Translated by: CIMF, CASA

November 10 2011

Amy Winehouse and My Niece Yania / Iván García

When I heard through the BBC that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her house in London, the first person I thought about was my niece, Yania. I’ll explain.

It’s because in the choir of her secondary school, in the year 2006-2007, her teacher not only selected Yania to be a soloist, but she proposed a song much heard at that time: Rehab, written and sung by Amy Winehouse.

Yania’s teacher thought that with Yania’s deep voice, she could sing a good version of Rehab. And she did. Her grandmother – my mother – told me that a rumor spread throughout the school, based only on the choir practice, that there was a student (13 years old at the time), “who sang like Amy Winehouse”. Apart from the typical adolescent hype, she had had to sing Rehab dozens of times, requested by school mates, teachers and relatives.

The first ones who were surprised when they attended the school concert were her mother – my sister – and her grandmother. She came on at the end and as soon as she was announced, applause broke out. And when she finished, people were stomping their feet, whistling and yelling “Black Power”: Yania, my niece, was not only black and pretty but was also a good girl with her head well-adjusted. This is something her family, friends, and neighbors of La Vibora, the neighborhood where she lived in La Habana, are proud of.

At this effervescence of enthusiasm for the ‘Black Power’ in Lucerne, in some way influenced by the fact that, thousands of miles away from Switzerland, in the United States for the first time an African-American had a chance to win a presidential election, that he eventually won.

I have not had a chance to hear the full version of Rehab that Yania sings, only one verse, which she sang to me over the phone. It’s a shame that my mother or my sister didn’t have a digital camera that day. Or, better yet, a video, to record it. Although in the photo gallery of the high school you can still see it, so Tania told me. If it is possible, I will ask that she put the link here (it is one of the rehearsals, with Yania in the purple and white pullover).

From the chorus of eighth graders, she became a soloist, but refused to be typecast with Winehouse, and, with the approval of the music teacher, she interpreted Hometown Glory, by Adele, the British singer-songwriter who then wasn’t as famous as she is now. In ninth grade, the third and final year of high school, she sang Sunny, which had its greatest popularity in the years when her mother and I were born in a hospital in Havana.

After that one day when she was able to gain a foothold in the difficult and competitive world of music, my niece Yania has had her feet on the ground and now strives to finish high school and college in Switzerland, her second homeland.

Photo: Jutta Vogel. From the interview conducted by journalist Dominique Schärer and published in September 2004 in Amnesty magazine with the title “Ich habe eine grosse innere Freiheit” (I have a great inner freedom). It was taken at a playground near her home in Lucerne. Yania appears between her mother, Tamila Garcia and her grandmother, Tania Quintero.

Note from Tania Quinero: When Ivan sent this account, I did not know that Yania had dedicated a post to Amy Winehouse, in my blog. On June 3, 2009, the day she turned 15, Ivan wrote The 15 years of Yania. He left it that day on the blog ‘From Havana’, but all blog posts published in 2009 ‘mysteriously’ disappeared. It will be reproduced in his new blog. Meanwhile, I copy them from the beginning: “My niece is a black girl, almost as tall as Michelle Obama, and with a voice like Amy Winehouse. She is called Yania Betancourt García and her 15th birthday is on June 3, 2009. Since 2003, she has lived in the peaceful city of Lucerne, Switzerland, with her mother and grandmother. She studies in eighth grade in a secondary school, with students with better grades. In her spare time, she sings with a group of teenagers, where her deep voice has the unmistakable stamp of her African ancestors. The band, her classroom and her friends are like a mini UN: Tamil, Serbian, Croatian, Filipino, Swiss … and she, a Cuban, born in 1994 in the special period, in the neighborhood of La Vibora, La Habana.”

Translated by: CIMF

July 25 2011

Amazing Parade / Miguel Iturria Savón

Michael Novas, a resident of El Cotorro, in Havana, was surprised by the text message his wife sent on Saturday April 16 from Valencia, Spain, where she saw television images of the “amazing parade” held at the Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the socialist nature of the Castro government.

Noting that his cell phone beeped, he was enjoying the third part of the American film Pirates of the Caribbean American, “more fascinating than the political shows mounted from time to time by the gang of senile night owls who misgovern Cuba.”

He declined, however, to contaminate the euphoria of the lady with his critiques against such events. “She called me half an hour later for catharsis on the spot. She knows that our dictatorship revives the ghosts of the past and seeks legitimacy with populist acts, but she doesn’t not lose the sense of wonder. What worried me most was the teenagers shouting slogans and the old hierarchy who presided over the ceremony.”

Like Michael, other neighbors beyond the rhetorical contortions of supposed battles and victories, speak with disgust about the parade on April 16 and the forms of coercion to secure the assistance of thousands of children and adults.

“They refused to pay me the hard currency for the month for refusing to go to the Plaza to represent the workplace,” says Miguel, a sports trainer of 42 who returned months ago from Venezuela. He adds that “both the administration and the union responded to the Party for the mobilization of the assigned quota of workers.”

Jorge Hernandez, 59, an unemployed taxi driver, said, “This isn’t change, it’s the same political song as in the sixties; my oldest daughter went to keep her job in the Habaguanex store where she works; the younger one got out of it with a medical certificate.”

The artisan Orestes C. A. thinks that “most of those attending the parades don’t do so on their own initiative, nearly all are called to go by their school or workplace. Even the officials go because they have to. The case of the military and the “militia” is different; the officials govern and organize as if they owned the country; the military are like zombie guerrillas trained months in advance in exchange for promises and perks for their loyalty.”

I ask a colleagues from the independent press about the “amazing parade”; he makes a face of disgust and says, “It’s a matter of image, the Castro propaganda apparatus needs to display the supposed support of the people. Our army does not serve to confront any external enemy, but to intimidate Cubans. The act shows it is anchored in the past and in the manipulation of the masses.”

Translated by: Ariana

April 22 2011

The Powers of the Minister of Finances and Prices are Unconstitutional and Arbitrary / Laritza Diversent

The Minister of Finances and Prices, Lina Olinda Pedraza Rodriguez, ordered the execution of a process of confiscation against Teófilo Roberto López Licor, 66, based on Legal Decree 149 “on the confiscation of goods and accumulations made through improper enrichment,” known as the Law Against the Newly Rich and its regulation, Decree No. 187, both from 1994.

The state representative demands the confiscation of the goods and income obtained by the López Licor family, during a period of ten years (1998 to 2008). However, the resolution dictated in July 2009 is based on confiscatory record 1349, which does not specify the year of filing. This is a detail that creates doubt concerning the application of the legal decree with retroactive effects, on behalf of an organ of the state.

According to the Constitution of the Republic, non-criminal laws have retroactive effects when they deal with a matter of public interest or utility. Decree Law 149 is of an administrative character and in its operation does not mention that particularity.

The process also affected Pompilio López Licor, 61, and Teófila Elsa Ávila Gutiérrez, 60, brother and wife of Teófilo Roberto, who along with his son, Antonio, were named by the Ministerial decision, as third parties who benefited from the unjust enrichment.

The national deputy for the province of Villa Clara said that the three houses, two cars, a motorcycle and several other items, including appliances exchanged under the “Energy Revolution,” were obtained and legalised by Teófilo, and hidden through subterfuge, under the names of his relatives, without specifying which acts were illegal.

However, no legal action has been directed against members of the Municipal Housing Management of Arroyo Naranjo, in the City of Havana, who acted in the legalisation of the assets and property mentioned.

The confiscated goods amounted to 2,347,834 Cuban pesos and 24 cents. The value was certified by experts who did not specify, as they are legally required to, how the appraisal was carried out, or what the parameters were that were considered, nor the factors that were taken into account in the estimate.

López Licor is self-employed in the regulated activity No. 646 of “maker-seller of food and soft drinks at a fixed point of sale” and has documents from the income tax office substantiating an income of more than 500,000 Cuban pesos.

Teófilo Roberto can also establish receipt of 18,000 convertible pesos (CUC), 450,000 Cuban pesos (CUP), as received remittances from the United States from six brothers and a son living in that country.

However, the Central Committee member of the Communist Party of Cuba, Pedraza Rodriguez, dismissed the evidence provided by López Licor. He argued that the self-employed workforce engaged and the bank documents did not prove that he had actually received the money. The law considers it criminal to use labour that is not family. However, against López Licor, the penalty is not imposed for that reason.

The defendants appealed against the ministerial decision through the Reform Appeal before Pedraza Rodriguez himself, who declared it to be without merit, confirming his decision, in October 2009. On June 22, they appealed to the Head of Finances and Prices, the start of a special review procedure. However, the execution of the penalty of confiscation is not interrupted, although they have not exhausted all the avenues for appeal.

Decree-Law 149 places in a state of helplessness those affected by it by preventing access to the courts for justice against an act of the administration that is harmful. However, the Constitution of the Republic states that “the confiscation of property is applied only as a punishment by the authorities in cases and procedures determined by law.” The Penal Code applies as a specific penalty and accessory for a crime.

However, the Prosecutor, who is responsible for the exercise of public prosecutions on behalf of the state, decided to undertake an administrative proceeding before activating the court for the commission of crimes. In a criminal trial, the relatives of Teófilo Roberto never would have been responsible for the acts of others. The responsibility is individual.

The Cuban Penal Code, in force since 1987, provides that “the confiscation of property does not include … the goods or items that are essential to meet the vital needs of those sanctioned or their close relatives.” Therefore, in criminal proceedings, housing can not be seized.

The validity of this rule in the Cuban legal system does not protect general interests, destroying the trust and security that should surround the whole legal system. Its application violates the legal and penal guarantees offered to citizens and leaves them defenseless against the excesses of the government.

Lina Olinda Pedraza Rodríguez, Minister of Finance and Prices, claimed in her decision that the seized items “are not the result of honest work.” However, the Cuban Civil Code defines unjust enrichment as the transfer value of an estate to another, without legitimate cause. The Economic Control Minister was appointed by the government but is not qualified to administer justice. The powers under Decree Law 149/94 are unconstitutional and arbitrary.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: CIMF

August 16, 2010

And Presenting the Names of Some Cubans / Iván García

My grandmothers were called Carmen and Andrea, and my grandfathers, Jose Manuel and Rafael. Names are given according to the era. My uncles and aunts were given common names: Luis, Mario, Candida, Teresa, Maria, Dulce, Augustine, Maximus, Adelaide, Victoria, Milagros, Lidia… The exception was Avelino, no longer in use, and Veneta, of Italian origin.

For siblings, cousins and nephews, the tradition began to change: Tamila, Yaricel, Himely, Yuri, Yania, Mathew … Of the six mentioned, three are written with a Y. A boom that began in the 70s and still continues, as with the names of stars. The most popular, Maikel, is for Michael Jackson, a national idol.

It has become common to “nationalise” foreign names. So, for Ricardo, they say Richard; Billy for Guillermo, Robert for Roberto; Tony for Antonio; Maggie for Margarita; and Elizabeth for Isabel, amongst others. We gave my daughter the name Melany, from the French Creole version of Melanie.

Many parents opt for combinations like Sarim (Sara and Manuel), Leidan (Leida and Daniel), Franmar (Francisco and Marina) and Julimar (Julio and Maria) of endless possibilities which sometimes seem like trademarks. There are some who have wanted to be more original and have given their children the name of the parent reversed: Legna (Angel), Anele (Elena), Oiluj (Julio) and Otsenre (Ernesto).

Some recall characters and conflicts in other places: Lenin, Yasser, Indira, Hanoi, Libia, Nairobi, Namibia … Some are geographic: Israel, Argentina, Africa, Asia, America … Or planetary: Luna, Sol, Venus …

Soap operas have had an influence, too. In 1984, when the Brazilian serial started, a woman was called Malú, and many girls (and also dogs and cats) were given the name Malú. Others got the nicknames of the soap opera of the day. Like Dondita, a girl whose true identity nobody knows.

Even though in Cuba you can go to the civil registry and file a change of name, those who do not like the label given them by their parents tend to change it on their own, without wasting time on paperwork. This is the case with Yanet who hates the Yanci of Charity which she is registered as. When the mail carrier changed, the new one did not know that the correspondence directed to Yanet was for Yanci.

Amongst athletes born since the 1980s, there are many names beginning with Y: Yan, Yipsi, Yadel, Yumisleidys, Yoroemis, Yunel, Yoennis, Yargelis, Yannelis, Yunidis,Yeimer, Yuniseski, Yuriorkis, Yormani, Yoerkis… And a few rare ones: Jonder, Dayan, Level, Vismay, Gelkis, Uziel, Erislandy, Salatiel, Vicyohhandri, Osbiel, Roidel, Asniel, Edisbel, Leovel, Mijaín, Idales, Eglys and Arasay, among others selected at random from a long list.

In 2004, in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, they gave the example of Rayni Rodriguez, then 11 years old, whose parents gave him the name because he was born one rainy morning: Rayni is a variation of Rainy in English. The boy confessed that he would have liked to be called David, after Bisbal “a singer whom I admire a lot.”

In that report are mentioned other cases of Cubans with unusual names: Evergreen, Mylady, Sugarcandy, Geisha, Danger, Alien y Usnavy. Perhaps none is as bizarre as Yunaiestei. It only lacks the addition of “of America.”

Iván García

Photo: Yargelis Savigne (Guantánamo, 1984), gold medalist in triple jump, World Athletics Championships Berlin 2009 .

Translated by: CIMF

August 16, 2010

Thanks For Your Comments / Iván García

Once or twice a week, I connect to the internet from a hotel in Havana. Connections from Cuba tend to be very slow, and the time gets used up trying to send in my work. When I have a few minutes, I go to the blog, but I can hardly ever read and respond to comments.

Thank you for being regular readers of the blog and for leaving your opinions.


Iván García Quintero

Translated by: CIMF

Cell Phones in Cuba, on the Crest of the Wave / Iván García

Anabel, 23, unemployed, with the roof of her house full of holes through which water pours on days of heavy rain, eats hot food once a day, and ‘the future’ is a bad word.

She is short of many things. But she has a brand new phone. Cell phones are fashionable on the island. Especially among young people. Take note: The country recently surpassed one million active cell phone users.

There are even more cell phones in Cuba than fixed phones. The official newspaper Juventud Rebelde announced the news. According to Max La Fuente, vice president of mobile services, there are currently 1,007,000 cellphone users, while fixed phone customers have reached 1,004,000.

However, the manager said that 67% of call traffic comes from the landlines.

Of course, it’s much cheaper to talk on a landline. On average, people who have landlines in their households pay between 30 and 50 pesos (not more than $2.50) per month.

A cell phone is a luxury in Cuba. It is true that costs have come down. Prior to 2008, to own a mobile phone bordered on illegality and people only had them thanks to a relative or friend abroad.

So Cubans had no right to own a mobile phone line. When allowed, in March 2008, prices were exorbitant. A phone line cost 120 convertible pesos ($140).

The per minute cost was 0.60 cents in convertible pesos. However, the queues at the business offices of ETECSA, the only telecommunications company in Cuba, were gigantic.

Right now, the costs have fallen by 70%. Mobile lines cost 40 convertible pesos ($50) and there are numerous offers for 20 convertible pesos.

Calls cost 0.45 cents per minute and after 11 pm the price drops to 0.10 cents. Calls are still charged on receipt of the call and the services offered through mobile telephony are far from the quality and variety of their counterparts in Third World countries.

To have an iPhone or a Black Berry is more ostentation than anything else: half of the services that are touted by their manufacturers do not work on the island. Mobile phone users still cannot connect to the internet or to GPS. Nor access Google.

ETECSA executives have hinted that this could happen in the near future. What is announced for the second half of 2010 is the availability of prepaid cards for 5 convertible pesos and the gradual reduction of call costs, according to the available technology.

Two years after the Castro II regime allowed any Cuban to have a mobile if so desired, the cell is on the crest of the wave.

They are least used to make calls. Young people use them as MP3 players and send videos and photos via Bluetooth. Those most hungry for information use a clandestine service based in Madrid that sends free news updates about the worlds of sports, politics and entertainment.

Opponents, independent journalists and bloggers get information through the mobile phone chip. Most of the news, such as the release of 52 political prisoners or a momentous event, is spread by SMS at unheard of speeds.

And there are not a few who access social networks like Twitter or Facebook through their mobile. Although most people on the island, like Anabel, use the mobile more as a garment than as a necessity.

She always carries her modern phone stuck to her tight skirt with her headphones on, listening to hip-hop. Occasionally she sends messages. The call cost is still prohibitive for her. And though the house is in ruins, there is little food and not much money, young people like Anabel feel that the mobile is a new toy.

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

August 3 2010

Double Dealing

The Cuban revolution ceased to exist in 1976. The death certificate was signed when they put into force a rigid constitution and institutionalized the country with a questionable political-administrative division.

Farewell to the romantic phase of improvisation and a charisma-laden Fidel Castro, who in his uniform, travelled through fields and towns. And with a small group of escorts lunched at any cheap Chinese restaurant. With an everlasting Vueltabajo cigar and rough-framed glasses, the bearded one ruled the island from an olive-green jeep made in Russia.

What came next was pure political marketing. Castro continued to administer the country as a landowner manages his farm. But the republic entered the era of the gray five-year plans. With a mammoth bureaucracy hindering, rather than helping, the performance of Cuba.

He wove a dense network of myths and hackneyed speeches. Except for the commander, who has always been above the institutions and laws, the island lost spontaneity, the alleged generosity and that humanism which had shamed European intellectuals.

With the death by decree of the Revolution, and an absurd and inefficient regime, the stampede of the former flatters of the Fidelista project began.

Castro no longer walked the streets of the old part of Havana nor breakfasted in second-rate cafes. Already, he was no longer a human being. He was thought of as a God. Surrounded by the largest entourage any leader up to then had ever had.

Fidel spoke of the exploitation of man by man and the paying of poverty wages to their workers. He condemned the predatory imperialist wars of the U.S. against Third World nations, but in 1978, during the civil war in Ethiopia and Somalia, he supported the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Only because this was in line with Moscow, then the faithful ally.

He intervened in civil and tribal wars in Africa. In the name of the revolution and proletarian internationalism, he enrolled thousands of Cuban soldiers in numerous military adventures.

Wanting to be the flag of the world’s left, Fidel Castro and the leaders under his command were unconcerned with the economy. Following a rigid political and economic plan, exported from the former USSR, the island became one of the poorest nations in the Americas.

In theory, tropical socialism is generous, productive and humane. But in practice, it does not work. World revolution is a joke in bad taste for ordinary Cubans who daily breakfast with coffee without milk.

Cuba today is a virtual game. The reality is spoiled with so much demagoguery. People live badly and want to live well. They have an empty fridge and want it full. In the wardrobe are old clothes and shoes, and at night the heat does not let them sleep.

The Cubans of the third millennium aspire to have air-conditioning, cable television, the ability to buy computers, connect to the Internet 24 hours a day or travel abroad without needing permission to leave. The regime does not want, or know how, to ensure that people have a decent life.

Gen. Raul Castro, the current president, has been given a real hot potato. A bankrupt country, thousands of Cubans unhappy with the status quo, and a luggage cart of slogans and mottos that have become worn-out clichés.

To change the state of things you must tear down the building. Leave it in ruins. Castro II is trying. He has sat down to negotiate with the Catholic Church. And he has opened the floodgate a little, trying to deport the majority of the dissidents who were incarcerated in 2003.

Cuba is pure mirage. Many of the native petty bureaucrats demand sacrifice and saving, but drink Diet Coke in their air-conditioned homes. The only thing that is different is that the Cuban system was not implemented by Russian tanks.

After Fidel Castro aligned himself with the communist ideology, the island started to march backwards.

The cry of the current Cuban leadership is about the “evil” U.S. and European Union. While talking about the longed-for world-wide leftist insurgency, they try to do business with Western businessmen and send to Tokyo, New York, London or Madrid to buy the latest thing in electronics.

The Cuban Revolution died in 1976. In 2010, it still maintains photos of Fidel Castro and Karl Marx in official dispatches. But secretly, they read the advice of gurus like Alan Greenspan or George Soros. In Cuba, one lives by double-dealing.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: CIMF

Being a Journalist is Almost Impossible in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

An Economist Behind Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

Neither Strawberry Nor Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Photograph: veo_veo, Flickr

Transalted by: CIMF

For a Messi Shirt

It was at the exit of the nightclub. The night was over. Around 3 o’clock in the morning, in an unlit block, they beat him on the head with a baseball bat. That was the last thing he saw.

Yasser Bedia, 19, woke up in an intermediate care ward. Serious bruises on his head and with 43 stitches. The gang of thieves robbed him of his light blue Levi’s, retro plastic glasses, his Motorola, a wallet with nine Cuban convertible pesos ($8) and 75 Cuban pesos ($4), and a shirt with the red and blue stripes of Barcelona’s Argentine star, Lionel Messi.

“I thank God that they didn’t kill him,” says his mother, who does not understand how a person’s life can be endangered for so little.

Exaggerated acts of violence such as the case of Yasser are not isolated events in Havana. Havana is still not as violent as Rio de Janeiro or Caracas, but it is on the way.

Groups of juvenile delinquents roam the streets late at night. Their mission is simple: to steal or rob people wearing an item of value. Or simply because they like the shirt of a football star or an iPhone.

Let’s analyse these types of thieves. They go in bands of 5-10 youngsters. The average age is less than 18. They are armed with knives, razors, well sharpened scissors or just punches. Sometimes they have guns. The majority are black.

Now I present a young man who served five years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. Call him Yoandri. In a brawl in prison, he lost an eye. He has a long, ugly knife wound on his rear end. He looks like a mature adult. But he is only 21.

“I’ve always lived by stealing and assault. I have no father and my mother is an alcoholic and a raving lunatic. I was raised by a grandmother in the neighborhood of Belén. There I began snatching gold chains. We rode on a motorcycle and when we saw a person with a good piece, we would grab the chain and, with the motorbike running, we dragged them across the asphalt, until the chain broke,” says Yoandri.

He lost count of the items he took. “There were a lot, particularly at the exit from clubs. Well-dressed girls and young men with good phones – with a gun in our hands, we left them naked. If the female was good, sometimes we all screwed her,” narrates the young man without a fuss.

They caught him one afternoon in June 2004. Back on the street, Yoandri doesn’t see a clear future. “Work washing buses at a bus stop, my salary shit, trying not to go back to the slammer (jail), but the situation makes me seethe and I want to dress well and have hard currency in my pocket. The devil is pushing me to crime,” he says, seated in a seedy bar, taking a swig of a double rum, strong and cheap.

Young people like Yoandri do not try to change their fate. They go for the easy route. Crime. Dysfunctional families and households that are like a small hell is the common denominator of these guys.

They go out looking for what they can’t have. At times, even, causing the deaths of their victims. Prison for them is like a second home. Anything can spark their interest. A good watch or a mobile phone. Or a Messi shirt.

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

In Cuba, We Breathe the World Cup

The world is a football. With the end of the leagues on the old continent, people’s mouths are watering in Cuba. On 11 June, something great starts: the World Cup in South Africa.

Already in the sports clubs, they are setting up sweepstakes. Brazil, as usual, has the advantage in the betting. Mauricio, 32, a hotel worker in Saratoga, bet 50 convertible pesos that the Brazilians would lift their sixth World Cup.

“If they win, Dunga’s eleven will let me pocket 500 convertible pesos. A group of ten people each decided to go for our preferred teams. I know that Brazil is going have the upper hand,” he said optimistically, while preparing an Alexander cocktail at the bar of a downtown Havana hotel.

Spain and Lionel Messi’s Argentina are the other two great heavyweights that Cuban fans have fallen in love with.

The team selection of the mustachioed Vicente del Bosque, with his successful mid-field game and predatory strikers (such as “El Niño” Torres, “The Kid” Villa, and Pedrito, of Barcelona), has a strong likelihood of lifting the Jules Rimet trophy of beaten gold.

It’s now or never for Spain. Never before have they had much chance of being world champions. But Argentina is Argentina. And when you have a player like Messi with more than enough talent, it doesn’t matter that they have as controversial, unpresentable and pathetic a manager as Diego Armando Maradona.

Italy and Germany also have fans on the island. The Blues (the Italians) with their tough and nasty game don’t win any applause, but they are the reigning champions and are always a rival to watch out for. Germany has a rational and efficient team, like any product made in Germany.

The Germans seem like robots. Because they sweat, you realise that they are human. They run up and down, neatly, as if they were the military. The centre field players have the physique of NBA players and wingers thrash up and down the entire game. Watch them like German tanks.

The France of “Scarface” Ribery has supporters on the island, but not many. We also have the Clockwork Orange Dutch. They’re better than “The Tulips” — the team from Holland — but they lack that bit of luck mixed with a good pair of balls which is what brings victory in the end.

In Cuba, with a lack of good sporting events, we eagerly await the Cup. In these humid days, sports fans have nothing to watch on TV. The crazy ones on the patio dream that one day Cuba may be present in a World Cup. It will be difficult.

The football that is practiced in the green cayman is mean and coarse. Like eleven tough guys trying to play a violin. They look like wrestlers. They are athletes running around the court without rhyme or reason. Puppets who mistook their trade.

We will have to wait many years to see a national team in a World Cup. Since 1938, Cuba has not been involved. So the solution of enthusiasts of the beautiful game is to support any other team that takes part in the South African World Cup.

Habaneros, orphans of good football, bet on the concrete and magical touch of the green and yellows (the Brazilians), the magic of the white and blues (Argentina) or the compelling game of the red fury (Spain). They believe that any one of them could be the champions. There is no room for the others.

Iván García

Photograph: Aris Gionis, Flickr

Translated by: CIMF

Cuba, Passion for Some Good Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF