Cuba Bets on Japanese Baseball / Iván García

Responding to the alarming deterioration of baseball in the largest of the Antilles, the Cuban hierarchy that governs the sport of balls and strikes shouted for help from Japanese consultants.

This news has raised indignation among fanatics of the sport. No one doubts the quality of Japanese baseball. They won the championship in both versions of the World Baseball Classic, an event of the highest quality, where the best players on the planet compete. And in the Big Leagues, baseball players with slanted eyes play with great skill.

The local debate centers on the manner of interpretation of baseball in the land of the rising sun. The Japanese philosophy of play, its strategy, and training are completely distinct from those of the nations of the American continent.

According to sources within the Cuban Federation, the directors are most interested in Japanese style of pitching coaching and preparation. Although, the possibility was left open for instruction in areas of hitting and field play, as well.

After Fidel Castro abolished professional baseball in 1962, many players of paid clubs left for the United States. Those that stayed on the Green Caiman, like Gilberto Torres, Fermín Guerra or Conrado Marrero, began to coach new amateur players.

This assessment gave fruit. In the span of a few years, the amateur player elevated his quality of play, and towards the end of the 70s and through the 80s, possessed a level of play comparable to a AAA player in the United States.

But the old stars have died, or are home-bound, like Conrado Marrero, who will turn 100 on August 11, 2011. A significant number of valuable coaches, formed in the sporting institutes after 1959, have fled Cuba or are sharing their coaching knowledge in other countries.

Some experts see the Japanese assistance as an affront. It is as if the Spanish soccer league, La Liga, for the brutal difference in skill existing between Barcelona and the rest of the clubs, were to ask the assistance of The Netherlands to increase the competitiveness of the league.

All baseball lovers recognize that Cuban development methods and training are old-fashioned. The ideas of the managers are from the middle of the twentieth century.

Lack of information, bibliographic works, and internet access, and inability to follow the Big Leagues, the best league in the world, on TV, has created a lethal ignorance among pitching and other coaches, who, on occasion fail to recognize the latest techniques and statistics of baseball, in the United States and other elsewhere.

In light of this crisis that has rocked the national sport, with more than 350 baseball players deserting in the last 15 years, directors of baseball have approached the Japanese, who, in my opinion, have little to offer, in terms of history or methods.

I do not see a Cuban pitcher adopting the draconian methods of training to which Japanese pitchers are subjected. In Japan, a pitcher throws 120 pitches daily, with no regular downtime between sessions. Japanese pitchers have a limited shelf life, eight or ten years maximum. Those who arrive and perform well in the United States, in the span of five years, fall into mediocrity.

This rigorous work forms part of the Japanese philosophy, and the Asian philosophy in general. It has given them results, but on this continent there are different ideas about the game.

Cuba needs to adapt to the new techniques of baseball. We must look to the United States. The embargo impedes open assessment of the Cuban game. If the Castros would change their absurd politics and lift the clauses that prohibit Cubans from competing in the big tent, the story could be different.

This lack of vision has transformed the national pastime of baseball into a low-quality spectacle. Before 1959, Cuba was the country that sent the most players to the Big Leagues. That title is now held by the Dominican Republic, with nearly 400 players.

The culture of the island has always been one of sugar and of unbridled passion for baseball. Fidel Castro buried the industry of the sweet grain, and baseball is heading down the same path.

Photo: New York Times. Japan defeated Cuba in the first World Baseball Classic, played in cities of Japan, the United States, and Puerto Rico in March of 2006.

Translated by: Gregorio

February 15 2011

Havana Reinvents Itself / Iván García

The family of Hector Iznaga lives hand to mouth. His daughter, 18-years-old, was going to have a baby, and they realized that their house was very small. They got to work. Without permission from any state body, they quickly turned the balcony of their small two-bedroom apartment into a new bedroom.

Many families in this country are like the Iznaga family. There are areas of Havana geography that have been turned into veritable architectural Frankensteins. Very different from their original design.

In Cuba, the respect for rules and directives of the Housing Institute and for the municipal architects do not exist. In general, people wipe their rear ends with the norms of urban order.

It’s like we live in an African jungle. The disregard for the laws of coexistence is typical on the island. People like Hector Iznaga show why. His family has lived for 20 years in an dreadful building of five floors in the Alamar neighborhood, one of the largest and worst slums in Havana.

its upkeep, supposedly, falls to the State, but only in theory. No official organ cares that the inhabitants of the property have carried their water for months, because the water pumps don’t function.

When it rains, the roofs leak to even the lowest floors. The situation is the same with the sanitary services. The stairways are dark and without handrails. The building speaks for itself. Filthy and dilapidated, crying out for a even a little paint.

The neighbors have complained to their local delegation of the Popular Power in their area, but nothing. Life continues the same. So, the inhabitants, in the face of such state slacking, do as they please.

At a glance, you can see that numerous families make adaptations without legal permission. They change the facade. They take collective areas for themselves. And without any knowledge of construction or engineering, they tear down load-bearing walls, putting themselves and the rest of the residents in danger.

I’ll offer you a figure. Sixty percent of the housing in the city of Havana is in fair to poor shape. In general, up to four generations live in one house.

In the middle of the capital, or in other overpopulated areas like Luyano, Lawton, or Vibora, it has been decades since many buildings have seen repairs. They have not even been painted.

People who live in larger houses or chalets renovate them based on their economic situation. It’s “save yourself if you can.” Although the State offers very little, it severely punishes urban violations.

According to the official press, just in Havana, in the first six months of the year, more than 3,500 fines have been imposed for illegal construction projects in private homes. The fines range from 200 pesos (10 dollars) to 1,500 pesos (60 dollars). In the case of about 500 families, newly finished construction projects have been torn down.

The issue of housing is one of the unresolved problems of the government of the Castro brothers. The deficit of housing is enormous. They have tried to patch this enormous gap with small patches, like allowing organizations or individuals to construct their own homes, but the supply of materials is precarious, and of poor quality.

Throughout the city, one can see buildings that have been under construction for ten years or more. And they threaten to take longer. In the face of such a necessity, families patch them together the best they can.

The same families construct “barbacoas,” a 100% Cuban invention. It consists of a wooden or concrete porch inside their own house. If later, they want to add on to the house, if they have an empty lot next door, they will take it over and expand their dwelling with no consent from the authorities.

This all serves to give a little more capacity for a relative from the country, or for a baby on the way. Like the Iznaga family, who got rid of their balcony in favor of a new room for their future grandchild. And they have been lucky, not having been caught by the state inspectors. For now.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Gregorio

August 29, 2010

Prison Rats / Iván García

The first time Valentín set foot in a jail, he was fifteen years old. Up and down the narrow streets of Old Havana, together with a group of delinquents, he set out to steal the purses or video cameras of the unsuspecting tourists.

“I was sent to a youth reform center in 1996. From that point on, prison has been my home. I’ve spent 12 of the last 14 years behind the bars of a cell,” Valentín recounts to me during one of his brief stints of liberty.

When he entered the slammer for the first time, he was young, black, thin, and with a full head of hair. In 2010, I see in front of me a bald man who lacks many teeth, with two cuts on his neck from some sharp object, and with a face and physical make-up that would inspire fear.

“In jail, I have had more than one problem. The treatment of common criminals by the guards is violent and humiliating. We are non-persons. The Cuban jails are a jungle. Only the strong survive,” he points out, as he drinks a vile beer at an improvised bar.

When Valentín is free, he returns to his old adventures. He is a first-class anti-social. His way of life is to rob or swindle the unwary. He knows nothing else.

“I do not see myself living on a miserable salary. I like weed and rum, white women, and to dress well. My way of obtaining all that is stealing. For me, there’s no other way,” he said, without pretense.

Eighty-eight percent of the common (non-political) prisoners in Cuba are black or mestizo. These two groups make up 50% of the population of the entire island. In general, they have the hardest lives. Their families are madhouses. Violent crimes are usually committed by blacks.

The Martell brothers are also black. Two boys who speak rapid-fire slang. From age 13, their lives have been one transgression after another.

Six months ago, they were on the street. And now they’re next in line to visit prison. “We’re awaiting a hearing, where the prosecutor is asking for 12 years,” they tell me, in an almost jocular way. They add, “Our partners in jail are already saving us a bunk.” To be prisoners is the natural state of being for the Martell brothers.

The worst part is that in Havana, young black, marginalized youth, who believe themselves to be tough, abound. They are prison rats. Roberto Dueñas, age 22, has been in jail for 7 years. He carries a sentence of 43 years. He entered for a minor infraction with a sentence of 3 years.

But once in the system, he killed a couple of inmates, choking them with his own hands. And one afternoon in 2009, together with a group of prisoners, he rioted, trying to take over the jail located in the outskirts of the province of Camaguey, 600 kilometers from the capital.

If, one day, Dueñas gets out of jail, he’ll be 58-years-old. Without a wife or family. In a letter he mailed to a friend, full of spelling errors and in childish handwriting, he confessed that he does not regret it.

“Here in the tank (jail), what matters is force, to earn respect and the benefits that make life more bearable. If my life is to die in jail, so be it. I will never permit another man to be above me. The only person above me is God,” wrote Dueñas to his friend.

The government of the Castro brothers has never offered data on the number of common prisoners on the island. Nor on the number of jails. The environment in which these youths grow up is fertile ground for delinquency.

The worst part isn’t the silence. Rather, that the Cuban State doesn’t have a solution for the problem of a society that grows more unstable and violent.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Gregorio

August 17, 2010

Waiting to be Evicted by Force / Iván García

Right now, Teófilio Roberto López, age 66, is out of his mind. He ambles like a lunatic doing the paso doble along the edges of his farm, located a stone’s throw from the National Highway.

Lopez is on the razor’s edge. All of his possessions, erected with sacrifice and with the help of his eight brothers who live in the United States, are lost. Sitting on the large porch of his two-story home, rocking frenetically in an ivory-colored rocking chair, with a frown and a threatening gesture, he vented his ire.

“When the authorities enter my property to evict me, I’ll make a ruckus. All this” — and with his thick index finger, he signaled everything around him — “I built in 30 years, so that my family and I could live comfortably,” said the elderly Teófilo, a gentleman of medium stature, who speaks at the speed of light and with nervous movements of his hands.

The case of Teófilo goes back to July of 2009, when the minister of Finance and Prices, Lina Olidna Pedraza Rodriguez, ordered the Directorate of Housing of the municipality of Arroyo Narranjo, in Havana, to confiscate the belongings of the family of Teófilo, outlined in Decree 149 — the law against new riches — that permits the dispossession of properties of a person for “improper enrichment.”

Here began the ordeal of the Lopez family. If there’s one thing Teófilo has known all his life, it is work. Born in 1944 on a remote plantation in the province of Sancti Spiritus, 400 kilometers from Havana, he has labored hard to come out ahead.

In 1996, together with his son Antonio Lopez, age 40, and his wife, Elsa Avila, age 60, the Lopez Avilas began a small personal business. They established a small but successful roadside cafe.

Highly particular, the elderly Teófilo saved the receipts from the repairs to his home and those from the money sent to him by his brothers from Florida.

He saved all the documents regarding his properties in a file. “When I obtained this house as owner, it was a miserable shack. Thanks to our efforts, we constructed a spacious home and began to work the land,” recalls Teófilo.

The family farm was 0.6 hectares, and from a bird’s-eye view it was obviously well cared for, and one could see groves of mango, avocado, guayaba, orange, plantain, and dwarf coconut plants.

To this, Teófilo added pig breeding, and had obtained six cows that produced hundreds of liters of milk. In the best months of the farm and the cafe, the income exceeded 30,000 pesos (1,400 dollars). Along with the remittances sent to him from the north, he was able to build a residence that, by Cuban standards, was “luxurious.”

He even built a small swimming pool, to spend time with his family and his brothers, who visited the island up to three times a year. Teófilo knew he broke the law when his son Antonio began to rent the house without a license.

“We paid an outlandish fine, and they seized our house from my son. I believe this was my family’s only error. From that moment on, the authorities were out for me. They weren’t able to catch me in any more illegal activity. I have papers that attest to that,” noted Teófilo while he sipped from a cup of coffee.

The Lopez family has tried everything through legal channels. But they have not been able to stop the bureaucratic machine, which set the month of August as the date to kick them out on the street. In exchange, they offered the family a minimal house, cracked and damp, with only one bedroom.

In the deepest part of his soul, Teófilo considers that the state is acting against him arbitrarily. And he has considered the worst. From setting fire to his property, to setting up with a rifle in the middle of his plantation, refusing to abandon it.

After consulting with a group of attorneys from a firm on the margins of state control, he made up his mind. Laritza Diversent, one of the attorneys who helped him, believes that if, in Cuba, its own laws are respected, Teófilo would come out on top in this case, and the state would have to return what had been seized up until that point. And those were not little things: two cars, a motorcycle, and countless electronic appliances valued at two million pesos, according to official appraisers.

Meanwhile, while justice decides, with each dawn the Lopez family waits for the authorities, supported by the police, to evict them, by force, from their farm.

Whatever happens, Teófilo thinks that his biggest crime was to try to have a prosperous life. “This is not looked well upon, in Cuba,” he said, hanging his head. His eyes tear up. “I’m too old to try to start a new life.”

Iván García

More about this story in “Minister puts a citizen in defenseless position.”

Translated by: Gregorio

August 15, 2010