Staged Photos / Iván García

It all started at age 14 when his father gave him an old Russian camera with a fixed 35 mm lens. Before he got passionate about photography, Roldán, 42, was the guy in the neighborhood who played baseball in the mornings and went up to the roof in the evenings, to quietly watch some naked neighbor.

He took photography seriously. He dreamed that he would be like Robert Capa, Richard Avedon, the Catalan Joan Fontcuberta, or at least surpass the Cuban Alberto Korda. Roldán always carried his camera and loads of lenses.

He worked part-time for a travel agency. He took photos for unofficial foreign journalists passing through the island. He refused to work on a boring and uncreative local newspaper.

His pictures didn’t please the censors and bosses of the official press. They were good and even artistic, but they starkly showed the dirty, ugly face of Havana.

Beggars and prostitutes. Drunk and gays. Sad, fat old types who spend time sitting on wooden stools at the entrance to dilapidated housing.

He could never exhibit in galleries and museums. He was never praised or rewarded. He was not a complacent photographer. But upon the death of his parents, who always supported him, he was forced to make a living. He stopped doing underground art and devoted himself to commercial photography. A friend with enough money and a gift for business set him up in a studio with a showy, brightly-colored decor.

Roldán began to take photos of girls who turned 15. He was successful. Now he earns a lot of money. A photo album can cost more than 100 Cuban convertible pesos (120 dollars). Today he is one of the photographers who is most requested by the parents of quinceañeras.

Roldán did not achieve his dream of being like Capa, Avedon, Fontcuberta or Korda. But he lives well. He was able to furnish his apartment, and he has an old Dodge that looks like a jewel. Although he continues making quality photos, he feels that he has prostituted his profession with these staged images.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 13 2011

“In the Underworld, being abakuá means being a tough guy” / Iván García

Benito is 85 years old. Every morning, outside a butcher shop in the Havana neighborhood of Vibora, he sits down with one of his ekobios (sect members) to chat about baseball, religion and politics.

He’s a tall black man, stern and full of infirmities. For 63 years he has been part of a abakuá sect called Enmaranñuao. He is the Plaza and Mokongo of his “game,” which means he is the person in charge of preserving and following the rituals and principles of the religion. As in any abakuá sect, only men are accepted.

“To be a worthy individual you don’t have to become abakuá, but to be abakuá, it’s essential to be an honest man. It’s the golden rule of the sect, whatever the label or ritual,” he says on a cold, gray afternoon while smoking a brand-name cigar.

The abakuá sect was born at the end of the 19th century in Havana. Its antecedents go back to secret societies in the Nigerian region of Calabar. There are 43 sects. Only in the capital and the province of Matanzas is the cult practiced.

Each sect has its seal, which is the representation or “game” of the cult. There are over 120 games. In the beginning, they were created by black African slaves or their descendants who had been freed beginning in 1886, when slavery was abolished in Cuba.

Later, things changed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first abakuá society of white men was founded. Alberto Yarini, the famous Havana pimp from San Isidro, was white and a respected abakuá.

Yarini, a legend made into a film, was stabbed over an issue of women at the hands of a French pimp. Then, and in tune with the multicolor Cuban society, abakuá fanned out.

Although other sects sporadically accept white people, until 1959 its members were black and mestizos, simple people who worked as stevedores in the port of Havana or in other tough jobs. There were also abakuás among artists and musicians, like the percussionist Chano Pozo, who used to play abakuá and Yoruba rhythms. Chano was found dead on a street in New York in 1948.

Benito’s father was an important abakuá. He taught respect for others, family and women. “In these stormy times, part of the Secret Abakuá Society has been distorted.”

“Money is also an element of weight. Guys with a lot of money pay to enter a sect. In the underworld of Havana, to be abakuá has become synonymous with being tough. There are a legion of dangerous criminals who are abakuás. In my time this was not so.”

The old ñañigo, as a sect member is called, stretches on his oak stool and recalls the past. “Good conduct of the Society was the norm. Only if a crime was committed for reasons of honor would we accept people who had been in jail. This is a cult of values, virile, but not at war, nor does it conflict with respect for the law and for those who have any.”

Now everything is different, he says. “Even the prisons have sects. The temples seem to be public fiestas. Anyone can attend. It’s horrible. Guys who have stabbed an old lady, robbed a house or beaten women feel entitled to become abakuá.”

In the first years of revolution, the police looked at the abakuá sects with fear and respect. “It was their stumbling block. But the authorities did not try to obstruct our meetings. It’s been a distant but correct relationship,” adds this man with 63 years of belonging to an abakuá sect.

Other followers of Afro-Cuban religions agree with him. If honest, honorable men don’t try to turn things around, abakuá tradition, so deeply rooted in Cuban society, could become a racket for the worst kind of criminals. “In fact, it already is,” confesses Benito.

Photo: Chano Pozo

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 8 2011

Brand-Name Dressing / Iván García

In Cuba there are two types of citizens. Those who can enter the elegant boutiques and buy brand-name clothing and those who have to content themselves with pressing their noses against the window panes.

In many cities of the world, December is the month for reductions. In Havana it’s not. In 2010, in a circular to the managers of the hard-currency stores, the articles to be discounted are enumerated for the year-end.

It’s not a cause for fireworks, but it’s something. Waiting for this day, Yuliet, 25 years old, a hotel employee, goes to the Comodoro complex of shops, located in the west of Havana, to look at the price of a pair of dresses with the Mango label.

“If I don’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll go to Zara, to see what they are selling,” she says while she checks the merchandise, all very expensive.

The prices are abusive. A pair of good tennis shoes for a little girl can easily cost 50 dollars. And if they are Adidas, Nike, Puma, Levi’s or Guess, they can be close to or more than 100 dollars.

Obispo Street, in old Havana, is full of hard-currency shops. Román, 43 years old, a teacher, shakes his head when he sees the prices in a leather store.

“This is the last straw. I need a pair of shoes to be a witness at a friend’s wedding, and I have only 40 dollars. I’ve spent 7 hours going to all the shops. I liked the ones made of Italian leather, but they cost 120 dollars,” he said, disillusioned.

To buy something good in Cuba is a mission impossible. Nothing is cheap when you have to pay in a type of money that you don’t receive when you get paid (the average salary on the island is 12 dollars per month).

In addition to clothing and shoes, in order to buy certain articles of food and cleaning products, you have to pay in Cuban convertible pesos or CUCs, the Cuban hard currency.

And everyone knows that hard currency comes from the USA, the “enemy” territory of Fidel Castro. Also from Europe and Latin America. There are Cubans sprinkled in half the world.

Although dollars and euros are a rare commodity for 40 percent of Cubans who don’t have access to hard currency, the prices for clothing and shoes have gone up by 30 percent in the last five years.

Add to this that the Castro government taxes hard currency between 12 and 18 percent, a casino for the State. Without counting investments, this “revolutionary tax” (instituted by Castro in October 2004), brings in about 600 million dollars annually.

This isn’t the only one. There’s a tax on products in the “shoppings,” the hard-currency stores, that sometimes exceeds 240 percent. This doesn’t prevent artists, intellectuals, musicians and high-class prostitutes from buying brand-name clothing and shoes without looking at the prices. They don’t even blink when it comes time to pay.

They are in the minority. The majority have to write down the telephone number of their families in Miami, Madrid or Rome. Or risk their hides in some black-market negotiation that will give them a good profit.

Since 1959, Cubans have had the custom of wearing something brand new to welcome in the new year. During this time, the shops make money, in spite of the questionable quality of what they offer. And the fact that Havana is as expensive as New York.

Photo: Fashion show on the Malecón of Havana.

Translated by Regina Anavy

December 30 2010

Getting Married in Havana / Iván García

Diana, 25, has seen the same video hundreds of times on her Chinese television. And she still gets excited about the time when, dressed in white at the side of her future husband, she drove through the streets of Havana in a 1957 Cadillac convertible.

“It was the happiest moment of my life. Entering the matrimonial palace, the notary declaring us married, and those present asking us to kiss,” remembers Diana.

The modest hotel where they spent their honeymoon did not prevent them from having sex at all hours. Some months later, the marriage became a nightmare. Money was tight, and her husband suggested that she prostitute herself, discretely. “Darling,” he told me, “we cannot live in a virtual reality.”

Diana was very much in love. And she went to war. Her battle was to sleep with her husband’s friends, who lusted after her and were ready to pay 50 convertible pesos for one night. Later came foreigners who paid better.

As for material things, they went forward like the wind, but her love went out the window. “I had enough when a Russian offered me 120 dollars to screw me in front of my husband. The worst is that he accepted,” she said, indignant. Diana continued to prostitute herself, now on her own account.

Carlos, a sociologist, considers that one of the greatest harms caused by five decades of revolution has been the loss of traditional concepts about family and marriage, and the absence of ethical and moral codes.

“In the first years, the revolutionary discourse was very anti-Catholic. And the effort to give women more space in society brought promiscuity, with dorms in the country and the boarding schools, far from their families from a very young age. That created a frivolous feeling toward the institution of marriage,” pointed out the sociologist.

Ricardo, a notary, agrees with the sociologist. “In the Special Period, the number of marriages in Havana was spectacular. The reasons were simple. People got married because they had the right to buy three cases of beer and spend three days in a hotel where the lights didn’t go off and they could have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of the unions lasted two years on average. Others separated and didn’t even go to court,” affirmed the notary.

Then there are the cases of girls who get married for the extravagance. “I got married in church. To dress in white, with a tiara and veil, to take photos and make a video has become the fashion,” says Delia, a sculptor.

Others do it to imitate their parents. “I don’t understand how the old people have been able to last 45 years together. I tried it. But it was a fiasco,” confesses Rolando, a university student.

A female writer who asked to remain anonymous admits that “among my friends it’s normal that we sleep with the other’s spouse, with his consent. We even make love among ourselves. At times I tell my husband to go away, that tonight I need someone different in my bedroom.”

Carlos the sociologist wonders, So why get married? The answer can be what Ana, a primary school teacher, says. “To escape from your family and be independent.”

Couples have their reasons when they decide to go to the altar. The reality is that there’s an alarming tendency in Havana to get married. And later come the horrors, like the young writer who asks her husband to take a walk while she enjoys an orgy with friends.

Photo: Google images

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 13 2011

The English Take Havana / Iván García

The news spread like wildfire in the old part of Havana. A black rapper drained his beer while he spoke rapidly into his cell phone. “Buddy, a big ship of foreigners just arrived. They speak English, they seem to be gringos. Let them know about the girls, I think it will work,” noted the pimp.

From the other side of the avenue, in stalls and outdoor cafes located along the coast, ordinary people watched the huge tourist vessel docked in Havana Bay with open mouths.

While the visitors wandered around town or ate a sandwich, the prostitutes, private tourist guides, illegal sellers of cigars, crafts and disks, and the musicians who sing boleros for small change immediately went on the march to see how they could gain something by offering their varied merchandise during the three-day stay in the city.

What the Thomson Dream cruise ship brought was a load of 1,500 British tourists. They disembarked with summer clothes and beer in hand, and without wasting time began to tour the historic sites of Old Havana. They went on foot, took rickety pedicabs or rode in horse-drawn carriages.

A television journalist, soberly dressed, interviewed some of the English, who were surprised by the unexpected welcome and at the same time half-frightened, when they noticed the legions of Cubans who were accosting them with all kinds of offerings. Mulattos and blondes dressed in miniscule attire, flirted shamelessly with a group of young men wearing Liverpool shirts.

Since 2004, cruise ships stopped coming to ports on the island. The drought ended on 12 November, when the Spanish ship Gemini, with more than 200 passengers from 11 countries, was in Havana. But its presence didn’t cause as much stir among the people of the capitol as this floating English hotel.

Strict control by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets against the embargo had unleashed a witch hunt, sending notice in strong terms to the companies that own cruise ships from Spain, Germany and other countries. If they stopped in Cuba, then they could not dock in U.S. ports. Those were the days of George W. Bush.

The Tourism Ministry had already created an infrastructure in the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, specialized in serving the unique guests. Foreign companies hired staff to work on Caribbean cruises. Everything was left hanging when the U.S. threatened the shipping companies that visited the island of the Castros.

The blow made Fidel Castro angry, and in 2005 he complained about having to receive rude tourists, who threw cans and garbage into the sea and didn’t care about the environment.

But enough water has passed under the bridge. Now, a relaxed Barack Obama is in charge of the White House. And since February 2008, Raul Castro, brother of the historic leader of the revolution, is leading the country’s destiny. And he is engaged in the implementation of a series of reforms to rescue the fragile economy of Cuba.

In addition to hard measures of cuts and layoffs of 1,300,000 workers, Castro II urgently needs dollars, euros or pounds, equally. Therefore, since 2010, he returned to a number of projects abandoned or left half-finished by his brother’s administration.

Among them, the construction of buildings for foreigners and the opening of golf courses for high-class tourist segments. The reopening to European cruise companies also is part of the package of measures whose main objective is to collect hard currency.

In a few months, the arrival in Havana of thousands of tourists by sea could become routine. To the delight of the prostitutes and hustlers.

Photo: EFE

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 8 2011

False Unanimity / Iván García

Either President Raul Castro is deluding himself or he is trying to deceive Cubans. One of the two. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

If Castro the Second is pretending to be sincere when he speaks with severe disgust about the artificial unanimity and complacency practiced at all official levels in the country, then he should implement, once and for all, the long-heralded “revolutionary democracy.”

It’s a contradiction. The General shakes with rage before the final vote, which is feigned and compliant, both in the Parliament and the Council of State. But then, when the time comes to raise a hand, everyone, absolutely everyone, votes in favor of the proposals put forth by the government.

I don’t know of any deputy to the National Assembly who has suggested a single project agreed to by the citizens he represents. In no session of the boring and monotonous national parliament does anyone dare to propose economic methods that are different from those offered by the chiefs in olive green.

In Cuba, the opposition departs from the government line. It is the only one qualified to offer and provide solutions. The Communist Party and other social organizations are merely bystanders, a well-tuned chorus.

It’s amazing that the 611 deputies agree on the shape and design with which they intend to revive the depressed national economy. Not one single deputy disagrees or has doubts. At least publicly.

It can’t be said that Cuba is the most democratic country in the world when everyone in the government accepts any law or project with his head down, applauding. The executive branch is the one that curtails discussion of differences, by permitting only “constructive criticism.”

Of course, the deputies and party members are afraid to come out against any proposal that has the approval of the Castro brothers. Non-acceptance of the laws and wishes of the hierarchy can mark them as undesirables. Or worse, as counter-revolutionaries, a sure passage to hell in the revolutionary island paradise.

The only ones who openly criticize and put forth different proposals are the opposition and independent journalists. Some might be unrealistic. But if the government at least would hear or analyze them, you might have more elements on hand when making laws that affect all of society.

It’s easier to disparage the dissident movement. The big problem with Cuba is to break in a real way, not in words, the false unanimity of the state representatives. Discrepancies enrich dialogue, according to Raul Castro.

But in practice, they prefer to listen to the instrumental music, without fanfare and pleasing to their ears, played by their followers in the forums.

If they really want to stir up the system and hear truly critical voices, they will have to acknowledge the dissidence, which exists in spite of everything. And it’s not unanimous within itself; on the contrary. Therein lies a healthy difference.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 10 2011

A Hope that Doesn’t Fade in Cuba / Iván García

On the eve of Three Kings Day, Melanie Garcia, 7 years old, feels that the hours take years. At 5 pm she wants to go to bed, to shorten the time. Intensely she lives the hope of getting up before dawn and discovering what new toys the Three Wise Men from the East brought her.

In spite of everything, the tradition has been maintained for centuries. It’s been a dangerous crossing. Families wanting to keep the custom have fought against an atheistic state that decided to bury it five decades ago.

Fidel Castro struck the first blow to the magic world of children in the ’60s, when he distributed three toys per child by state decree. He decided to become the only Wise Man.

He even changed the months. He exchanged January for July, a month where they sold toys by the ration card. Just five days after coming down from the Sierra Maestra, he sent a message round to all segments of society.

From a war plane he dropped thousands of toys to children living on the hillsides of the eastern provinces. The idea wasn’t bad. They were kids who were dirty and full of parasites, whose only toys were chickens and pigs.

But after the altruistic gesture he sent a coded message in red: from now on, the State would appropriate tasks hitherto performed by Catholic and social institutions. Then you know what happened.

January 6 disappeared as a holiday. In his 52-year-long journey through the honey of power, Castro sought to undermine the religiosity of the population. Temples were closed. Some priests were expelled and others disparaged.

In pursuit of building the first communist society in America, many things had to be changed. And Three Kings Day was one of them: they considered it a petty bourgeois backwardness. More important than the toys, U.S. imperialism was to be buried in the dustbin of history.

Boarding schools prepared children and young people to be future soldiers of the country. The theme was “study, work and rifle.” Five decades later, the same government decided to sweep under the carpet part of its original sins.

Long ago, toys were removed from the ration card. Now they sell for hard currency, available only to families that receive remittances. These days, shopping at the Commodore Center, west of Havana, is a madhouse of parents buying toys.

The offers vary, but the prices go through the roof. A game is over $100. A bike, the same. A doll with a battery that says three sentences costs more than $60. Barbies, which you can have for $50, are piled on one part of the counter. The cheapest toy is equivalent to two months’ salary for a worker.

January 6 is just one more date to the Cuban authorities. There are no parades through the streets of the city. But if you wake up early that day, in the neighborhood you will hear the din of the little ones, finding a toy in some corner of the house

There are other happy moments for children on the island. But the Day of the Kings is the icing on the cake. If you have any doubts, just ask Melany Garcia.

Photo: Havana.

From Tania Quintero: “My granddaughter Melany with the toys that the Kings brought her on January 6, 2009. See, on the left, the cradle of wood, there are still carpenters in Cuba who make them, just like 60 years ago, when I was a child. I am glad that this tradition has not been lost in a world of increasingly sophisticated electronic toys.”

Translated by Regina Anavy

Originally posted: January 7 2011

Letter from the New Man in Defense of the Gang of Three / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate

For more information about this series of posts, please click here.

From “The New Man”

Dear comrades, close comrades,

Those who now warn us, memorializing the life and work of Papito, Pavón and Quesada, instead of ridiculing them as flunkies, or treating them as model sacrificial snitches from a gray period of our history, should raise a monument to them, the highest.

Because those who vent against them today, in the name of our moral purity that, don’t forget, is also unreal, also epic, if they have any glory, that which they say fits into a grain of sand, they owe it to them.

Neither the most vigorous combatant nor the most ferocious adversary has contributed so exactly disproportionately to my creation than Papito, Pavón and Quesada, who, with their dauntless imprint, converted me into the most perfect historical construction of the people.

I am the most exact result of this now excessive dialectic process of the middle century. And when I say “dialectic,” I’m referring to the custom derived from the contradiction, the struggle of opposites, antagonistic or not, although preferably of the first, the most drastic conservatives, because with their defeat they make irreversible the evolutionary, historic processes, creating the collective conscience that sweeps them away from the future, to not be negative examples, unrepeatable, although irreversible,

Papito, Pavón and Quesada are, without a doubt, part of this pattern. But also those who inject a memory of the institutionalized terrorism, at the state level, the mistrust (mutual and self), the paranoia, the fear of the Other (whether it’s myself, my tortured conscience), that which is not (in so far as being ontological, that’s good, but fundamentally ideological) the same as I, someone similar. The fear of otherness (Jiminy Cricket, leading you on the right road) was not aroused or undone with/by the dirty work (hidden, secret, clandestine) of Papito, Pavón and Quesada, but above and beyond their “Five-Year Gray Period” it extends, was extended and – if we don’t do something today – will be extended, as it menaced with all awareness and allusive capacity, poetic, let’s say, from the “small screen”, the administrators of our power.

Yes, Gray Period paranoia aside, it’s frightening to see that, when they were buried they managed to (dis)simulate themselves in the tomb, where some of us go to lie, to create unarmed defenseless, specimens that appear (we might wish) extinct, they emerge from the silent obscurity of forgetfulness, upon emerging from the back of the small screen (that’s to say from banality, nothingness or The Difference, which is the summit), as a sample demonstration of media proof. Papito, Pavón and Quesada have complied with the cause to which one day they swore to dedicate themselves, subordinate their lives for, at all cost, repressing them, extolling values, contrasting them, excluding them. Omission doesn’t work, not even with them.

Those who saw them on TV comment that, simply seen and not doubting it, I add, they didn’t seem repentant, one of them even said that nothing tortured his conscience. They gave no indication of reviewing their bad steps, those who from their intrepid trenches of mistaken ideas, intolerance and premeditated errors, some treacherous or coldly calculated (while drinking cold beer, on the Patio of the Cathedral, according to what they tell me), working overtime into the wee hours with the delight of a goldsmith, gave me the master touch, the finish.

It’s not paradoxical to say that with their excesses Papito, Pavón and Quesdad stopped delineating at least my contours, extracting me from the utopia of that time, up to achieving what I am now, or we are. In their eagerness, in order to accomplish unthinkable renovations, in a process of reaching the high dream of being a different human, united in solidarity, utilizing the method of standardizing society, they contrasted it so much that they opposed me, at least like a paradigm, trying to institutionalize in place of man until then sacrificed, worker, conscious of his revolutionary role, that I was blindly obedient, which formerly giving one’s all for an ideal accepts as good constitutional violations, the alienation, disposal of human rights and the installation of dogmas and prejudices, the most diverse exclusions like rational, honorable, and valid social behaviors.

So that I, the idealized, monotonous, intangible new man, after passing through the filters of the numerous Papitos, Pavones and Quesadas, generalized in every social sphere of the “Five-Year Gray Period,” have materialized into the youth and adults of today: writers of merit (whether they’re gay or not, who cares anymore), obscure musicians of the music stand, or precious stones in tune with April, modern dancers or not so much, Moorish boleristas or Mountain-man soneros, half sorghum or full sorghum, drunken or blurred jugglers, broke or with cash, with trim haircuts with little lines shaved into the sides, mop-hairs initiated into Santeria, protestant christians, salty, with too much on their plate or salty, with no plate at all, plumbers, bricklayers, shoemakers working (for themselves or on the black market), painters of little boats, escapees on a raft, bakers without oil, deserters of salsa, those of the rains-on-roofs or even though you know that later you’ll be going, improvisational singers of desperate rural music, ex-cane cutters, we give them posts and we relieve posts, the thieves on the bus, the transvestites of Reina and other artists, because we are all them, we have to make art or crafts under certain circumstances called “special,” which during that “Five-Year Gray Period” – which has not died out, like a good fire provoked – converted them into their appeasing victims or systematic opposition, many of them equally broken and not claimed…

In the end, at the vertical level of our society, all owe it, we all owe who we are to the “Five-Year Gray Period”, when by virtue of the laws like those of vagrancy, the centers of work converted themselves, instead of centers of material production with the goal of benefiting the people, into centers of inflated production, subjective, abstract, of rehabilitation.

Yes, we, the new or repaired men of today, if we apply to everyone the double standard that we owe to the Papitos, Pavones and Quesadas and company (they weren’t working alone, of course, they had lackeys and even figureheads, so as not to say hit men), all the dignity that now they proclaim, we proclaim, a proclamation coming from the e-mails that we interchange, with no little hope of victory, which we are owed, in place of ridiculing them (inquisitorial manner of saying “skinning” them) or putting them again on the public pillory or pouring on them so much earth that they appear dead, to show them our most profound recognition, and raise them to the highest peak of Mt. Turquino, of The Havana Libre Hotel, an unforgettable monument to tedium, with one entry per turn and for heterosexual couples, of course, as God ordered in the ’70s, but paying the hardy cover in Convertible Cuban Pesos, the same as now, in these years of 2000, just as God has decreed that we all pay.

Sincere greetings from

The New Man

Translated by Regina Anavy and Los Iguanitos

January 31, 2007

Economic Reforms: More Questions than Answers / Iván García

People on the street in Cuba look sideways at the recent reforms designed for the impoverished national economy. Few are counting on these changes put forward by president Raúl Castro. They don’t believe they will make the country function more efficiently.

They know what a group of Cubans think. In a survey of 48 persons of both sexes, with an average educational level of 12th grade, between 18 and 71 years of age, white and black, there was more pessimism than optimism. Many don’t trust the system. So expectations are low.

There were four questions:

1) Do you believe that real reforms will bring satisfactory, short-term changes that will improve your standard of living? 2) What do you think is missing in the government’s new economic proposals? 3) Do you believe that Raúl Castro’s administration can give a boost to our economy? and 4) Do you think the Cuban social system can generate wealth and motivate independent business people so that they will benefit from the government plan?

Thirty-nine (39) of those polled think that the much-vaunted reforms are more of the same. “It’s not the first time that the country has brought up a supposed change to put socialism back on track and make it more efficient. As I remember, it was tried in the ’70s, the middle of the ’80s, and now again. Nothing makes me think that the third time will be the charm,” said a cab driver.

The answers of the other 38 are similar in tone to that of the cab driver. They feel pessimistic about the government’s economic suggestions. They laugh ironically at the thought that changing only the polish would change their lives for the better. They doubt that General Raúl Castro can make the weak local economy function.

Even fewer believe that the present model of a collective society will generate creative and dynamic people who will produce wealth. “That’s the principle of these systems that combine Marxist ideology with authoritarian forms of government: to control man. They come with a dislike of people who make money. They don’t want there to be a class of rich people. It’s a kind of society that’s allergic to capability and individual liberty for its citizens. They are seen as enemies. They are a contradiction,” says one university student.

The 39 people polled do not expect great things from the regime’s economic update. They believe there are interesting matters that are not considered in the plan, which these days is being discussed at work places and CDR meetings in the neighborhoods.

“No one is saying that Cuban Americans can invest in the country. Also, they ought to abolish all the immigration regulations for those born in Cuba, introduce a realistic investment law that will give incentive to foreign businessmen to invest in the island. Eliminate entrance and exit permits. Abolish the high taxes for people who work for themselves. Drop once and for all the role of the State as a prison warden that must control its citizens,” adds an intellectual.

Nine (9) of those polled gave the benefit of the doubt to the government. They are not fully optimistic, but they think that the changes will bring, in the long term, a haphazard version of capitalism to the country.

“No one wants this. Socialism is a system that is purely superior in theory. If it has not shown results it’s because the human factor has failed in the practice. The Cuban revolution has been more political than economic. In order to involve a large section of the population in the changes, we should abolish absurd laws and not look at those who make money as an enemy. The reforms may fail. But there is still the question, asked by an engineer, “What if they work?”

The economic reforms launched by the government have not created a state of favorable opinion in the majority of the population. They think they are subsistence measures. That they can bring a new plate to the table. And perhaps a glass of milk.

But basically the government can’t commit to a profound turnaround, which is necessary for the economy to be efficient, robust and long-lasting. The dream of millions of Cubans. Whoever accomplishes it will be a giant.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Cold Air or the Fridge Up in the Air / Regina Coyula

On Mother’s Day last year, my niece gave my mother a refrigerator as a gift. My mother was delighted, since in spite of being larger, the new refrigerator consumes less electricity than the former one.

And everybody was happy in my mother’s house until this New Mother’s day. First the refrigerator and then the freezer stopped working. As the refrigerator had a guarantee of three years, the following day my sister decided to find out how to repair this important piece of equipment. Now things began to get worse; the fridge stopped being cold. My sister spent all morning on the telephone trying to find the Copextel shop that was supposed to maintain the sick refrigerator. When she finally got through, the young person on the phone who receives complaints told her to expect the visit of the technicians between three days and a week. Ten days later, they appeared, and in one glance diagnosed a fault in the source of the manufacturing lot and said the sick refrigerator couldn’t be cured. It should be exchanged.

“Now?” Hopeful, my sister began to ask about the conditions for the replacement.

“No, señora. Two technicians will come from the other shop to certify that there wasn’t a fraud and that the refrigerator should be replaced.”

“A fraud?”

“Yes, so that we don’t exchange a repaired refrigerator under the table for a new one.”

“And how many days will this take?”

“Between three days and a week.”

Improving on the record of the former visit, the new repairmen appeared within two weeks. They lingered, more in hopes of getting coffee than because my mother ordered them to certify the broken refrigerator. More cautious than before, my sister asked:

“And now what?”

“They are coming from the Division with the new refrigerator.”

“Yes, but how long will it take?”

“Between three days and a week.”

Ten days later, my sister again found herself on the phone calling all the workshops of Copextel. In her latest telephonic escalation, my sister talked with the workshop chiefs, the head of public relations, and the head of the division. A kind of smokescreen existed there. And always the same words:

“Don’t worry, we’re going to solve the problem.”

She called so many times that now they knew her case. But – big surprise! – one Friday she got a call saying they were going to bring the new refrigerator on Monday morning. Finally she could stop leaving packages of food and water at the neighbors. But it wasn’t until the following Thursday, after 65 days, that the new refrigerator arrived. Finally! it took the place of the defunct fridge.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Monologue of Two Balseros

It’s been a boomerang. Carlos and Ariel both are 41-years-old. They grew up with the idea that the United States was the worst of all countries. The dogs and white racists, dressed in their white hoods, were waiting around every corner to knife a defenseless Negro.

The prisons were full of Latino immigrants and ethnic minorities. The American dream was a fraud. Any crazy, dangerous and unemployed person could take up an AK-47, bought on sale, and knock off a half-dozen people at a bus stop.

Carlos and Ariel, like many Cubans born with Fidel Castro’s revolution, became adults convinced that the days of capitalism in North America and the world were numbered. Castro, the great statesman, repeated it to us in his apocalyptic speeches. The future belonged entirely to socialism.

As the years turned, the opposite happened. The immortal Party, the one of the Soviet Communists, took on water. The Kremlin changed color. And the totalitarian societies of East Europe said “adíos” to an eccentric ideology that didn’t work.

Now being men, with children and a family to care for, Carlos and Ariel, with one quick glance, noticed that the revolution erected by Castro, brick by brick, was – and continues to be – a stressful society.

Every morning, a new problem. Breakfast, a small cup of coffee. Toothpaste, vile. Rice so dirty that you need a couple of hours to clean it before putting it on the fire.

The buses come when they feel like it. Eating beef or shrimp, a fantasy. Going on line, science fiction. Having a car, a satellite antenna and air conditioning in your house, equivalent to raising suspicions with the police.

Cuba is the native land of Carlos and Ariel. They don’t deny it. But they have had enough. They are tired of the hard speech and the triumphalist propaganda of the opaque and docile national press.

On television they see that agriculture is growing and the figures for the production of pork are increasing. But the prices continue to go sky-high. And to bring four dishes to the dinner table is a labor worthy of Superman.

Differing from many of their compatriots, Carlos and Ariel do not believe that the United States is paradise. No. But if you work hard, you don’t live badly and you can send dollars to the needy family that you leave behind.

They know that in La Yuma (the USA in popular slang) they make good computers and excellent razor blades. It’s a nation capable of the best and the worst. The people are free to say what they want and there are no ration cards. And you can live without the annoying political onslaught of the official Cuban media.

Forty-one years, the same number of years as their age, it has taken Carlos and Ariel to decide to leave their country. Now they prepare a precarious raft. Before the hurricane season arrives, they hope to be able to cross the Straits of Florida. They know the risks. One out of every three persons is a snack for the sharks.

They are going to experience a different culture. Now the speeches of the Castro brothers seem like black humor to them. They are jaded. And they are going to the North. To try their fortunes.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

El Combinado del Este Prison


It’s the maximum security prison in Cuba. It’s located at Kilometer 13 and a half on the Monumental Highway, some ten kilometers from the center of Havana. At the entrance, a sign in English warns that it is forbidden to take photos. On visiting days, families arrive in droves at the entrance, loaded down with huge bags of food for their imprisoned family members.

“I bring him cigarettes, dark sugar, crackers, toast, powdered soft drinks and preserves, that by prison rules have to fit in plastic containers,” says Elena, 63 years old, who every 45 days makes the trip from the village of Artemisa, some 70 kilometers from the capital, to visit her son and bring him provisions.

In order to enter the prison, you have to pass by two security barriers, where at each one they check your identity card. To visit a prisoner, you first have to include your name on the card where he is authorized to receive up to 5 people at one time, over 18 years of age.

The strictness varies in accord with the “dangerousness” of the prisoner and the number of years he is serving. For those with minor crimes, they can have a visit every 21 days and a conjugal visit with fiançées or spouses every three months. For political prisoners who are in the Combinado del Este prison, like Doctor Oscar Elias Biscet or the independent journalist Ricardo González Alfonso, they are authorized to receive a regulation visit every 45 days and a conjugal visit every six months.

After going through the first line, you arrive at a door of aluminum and glass where electronic equipment scans the packages brought to the prisoners, common or political.

A sign informs you that the prisoners cannot receive eau de cologne, medicine or food in glass or metal containers. Neither is it permitted for women to wear low-cut blouses and shirts, short skirts or provocative clothing.

An official, brown as petroleum and with deficient syntax, joins the family members and explains what can happen if they wear garments that can arouse the fantasies of men who spend years without having sex with a woman.

“Some days ago a prisoner sliced the neck of another because he was looking at his wife in a lascivious way. Those who don’t have family or any one who comes to see them, often go at visiting time to see the women and later, in the solitude of their cells, masturbate. Even in the bathrooms of the visiting room prisoners have been caught beating off,” indicates the official.

And because of that, he adds, the spouses, daughters, sisters and female friends ought to dress modestly and with pants. Very angry, the official says: “Recently, relatives of the prisoners walked off with a piece of the bathroom sink. We have fixed it, but remember that any perforated cutting object is a weapon inside the prison.”

After the scolding, the relatives are invited to form a line, to pass by in order. An electronic arch scans all the visitors. It’s prohibited to bring in cameras, recording equipment and cell phones. Each person has to bring his identity document, which is kept until he leaves.

The visiting room is a long, narrow compound, with tables and cement seats on both sides. When you are inside you can’t leave until the two and a half hours of the visit have been completed. Several officials with a lumbering aspect walk around the room with a heavy step.

The prisoners sit facing the women; the men can sit beside visiting males. In this time they are permitted to eat and drink juices, soft drinks or fruit shakes. The room is painted in a dark tan color, which gives it a gloomy feeling.

From this place you can see the prison hospital. It’s large, painted in white, and, according to the common prisoners, for several weeks the prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, was there, wavering between life and death after 86 days on a hunger strike.

At the side of the visitor pavilion, there is an athletic field that surrounds a baseball diamond. At the back you can see three masses of concrete and stone. These are the prison barracks, with a capacity of 10,000 prisoners.

There are three buildings of four floors each. They are known by their numbers, One, Two and Three. In One are the prisoners with the longest sentences: Cuban-Americans accused of human trafficking, foreigners who are completing sentences in Cuba, and several political prisoners from the Black Spring of March 2003.

A common prisoner who is serving 18 years behind bars indicates that the food in general is abysmal, but “now it is better, thanks to the pressure from the human rights people and because they expect the visit of a special envoy from the United Nations.”

When he is asked about the treatment, he looks both ways, asks that his name not be published, and in a low voice says that the abuse from the guards and the beatings are something normal in the Combinado del Este, “above all, of the common prisoners who have committed crimes,” he emphasizes.

Now at the exit, the men have to wait in a walled-off gate until the prisoners that received a visit are brought back to their cells. After the official at the door receives the communication that they have done the recount and all of them are in their respective barracks, he gives back the identity cards to the men over 18 years who visited some relative or friend that day.

When you leave the gigantic prison, and a strong spring sun accompanies you on your return trip to the city, the tension relaxes. And the ambiance of oppression and confinement you suffered for more than three hours goes away.

The sea that surrounds the Monumental Highway and its pygmy palms give me goose flesh, when I think about the almost 9,000 prisoners in the Combinado del Este who for many years cannot enjoy freedom and be together with their families. Some, like Oscar Elías Biscet, Ricardo González Alfonso and Ángel Moya, are completing 20 years of an unjust prison sentence. Only for having a different opinion from the government and writing what they think.

They purge their convictions closed up in buildings of stone and concrete. A few kilometers from a sea of intense blue. And those jagged palm trees that communicated to me peace and freedom.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

Banana Dissidence

Dania Virgen García is a journalist like Usaín Bolt is a cosmonaut.

Her story is one of an imposter. Before the flood of material and political shortages that Cuba experiences, some citizens, spontaneously, feel deeply that the road of dissent is a good way of changing the state of affairs.

Okay. It’s fair that all have their own point of view and try to share in the pie of transformation that inevitably will happen on the island. But to invent a curriculum for oneself is a stretch. Writing notes or having a blog is not rocket science.

To do journalism on one’s own or have a blog is a kind of personal exorcism. A venting. A cry with all your lungs. A particular prism that permits you to observe and reflect the life of your people and your country. Nothing special.

History is what is narrated. News is that which is worth telling. But on this island of unproductive sugar cane, there are often Cubans who dissent, who believe themselves to be wild cards. Or an octopus.

They are five in one: journalist, blogger, opposition member, human rights activist and independent librarian. It’s not possible to try to write in a way that is the most objective possible if you are the spokesperson for a party, a group or a political tendency. Or if you claim to play several roles at the same time.

The road of opposition or independent journalism generally is taken by people who had a trajectory in Fidel Castro’s revolution. and with courage they distanced themselves and criticized the manner of governing of the lawyer from Birán.

But once in the dissident movement, they are in the habit of burdening themselves with a series of unmistakable phenomena with the single way that Castro used to manage public matters. Consciously or unconsciously, they place on the opposition the same Castro stamp. And they convert themselves into clones dressed as dissidents of the one and only comandante.

Inside some parties and internal opposition groups you find individuals, strong leaders who are corrupt, who practice nepotism and trafficking in favors just like you would drink a glass of water.

When the government throws them into the street and they can no longer earn a living, they join the line of help offered by governmental agencies of the United States. Help, of course, that also has generated an apparatus of opportunists in Miami, under the pretext of “the struggle for liberty and democracy in Cuba.”

From my point of view, it’s lawful to write, and for a web page or a newspaper to publish and pay you. Or to place advertising on blogs. What I don’t think is good is for agencies of the federal government of the United States to send money to the dissidents.

The regime in Havana stays silent, criticizing the interference of the Americans on the island. But if someone cannot speak it this respect it’s this government. during many years not only has it sent money but it also has sent specialists and weapons to parties of the left or guerrilla groups in Latin America.

Just because the Castro brothers are immoral and unscrupulous, the opposition leaders shouldn’t be the same. I think that if the United States didn’t interfere in our internal affairs, there would still be opposition leaders, independent journalists and true bloggers, not ones invented or inflated.

It’s true. In an impudent way in Cuba, the inalienable rights of human beings are transgressed. But in my opinion this doesn’t justify building an opposition more toward the exterior than trying to resolve the acute problems of the country.

If the stagnation of the Castro government lasts, it’s partly the fault of the banana dissidence that we have.

And from Cubans who lack ethics, who elevate the story of a simple woman to a “legend,” with more litigious family members than preparation, who one day decided to write basic news. And from night to morning they announce her as “a big star of independent journalism.”

Perhaps that’s the problem in Cuba. A lot of ego and little talent. Too much protagonism. And believe me, it’s nothing personal. Against no one.

Iván García

Photo: EFE. Provincial Court of Havana, Friday, May 14, 2010. Dania Virgen García and an unidentified opposition member give the victory sign, upon her release with a fine of 300 pesos (13 dollars), after an appellate court judgment on García’s detention, at the end of April, when she was sentenced to 20 months, accused of a crime related to domestic violence.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Cardinal’s Rebellion

No one counted on him. He was a person who accommodated the political mandarins. Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, the Archbishop of Havana, had just left the local parish.

In all the years of the acute economic, social and political crisis that Cuba has and continues to live in, Ortega made very few announcements. He simply took a pass. Many practitioners of the Catholic faith left the church feeling disappointed when the Cardinal officiated over the Mass. Because he said nothing.

He never raised his voice in the name of the nonconformists. He didn’t say anything about the death of the dissident Orlando Zapata. He turned his back on the Cuban opposition. His lenses, it seemed, had another calibration. The reality of the island captured his interest with a different prism.

Maybe the time has arrived. Perhaps his last critical reflections on the state of things in the republic marked the beginning of a more active role on the part of the Cuban Catholic church. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s just punching the time clock and saying a few appropriate words, so as not to pass unnoticed and to grab some headlines in the mainstream media.

In my opinion, Jaime Ortega is the representative of the upper hierarchy of Catholicism in Latin America, less committed to the ills afflicting his people. While ecclesiastic figures on the island come out in favor of certain inalienable rights and a change in the politics of the Castro government, Ortega maintains silence.

His work as a mediator for the Ladies in White ought to go beyond fulfilling an express request of the government. Perhaps once and for all he is assuming the role that he has avoided performing: that of an important actor in the social life of his country.

We are in a crucial moment for the future of Cuba. Definitely, the Cardinal should look at Poland in the 1970s and 1980s.

To remember the leadership of an archbishop of Krakow called Karol Wojtyla. To review the role performed by the Catholic church in the Polish transition. Jaime Ortega can and should be a firm point of dialogue between two parties with the tendency toward emotional speech and apocalyptic monologues.

The best sign of acceptance of his recent action in this spring of 2010 was something I heard on the street: “Finally the Cardinal has taken off his toga and put on his pants,” commented a bookseller, not very far from the Archbishopric of Havana, in the old part of the city.

Such an authority should not speak just in the name of God. He should also speak out in the voice of those who don’t have one.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Highway Robbery

They’re like pirates on the highway. And they act with total impunity. On the stretch between Kilometer 10 and the first ring of the National Autoroute, a road with 8 lanes, dark as a wolf’s mouth and where the poor condition of the pavement makes drivers reduce their speed, it’s the propitious moment for a new breed of delinquents, known as “ninjas,” who use scooters and ski masks, to force open the trunk of a car, and, lickety split, plunder what’s inside.

Later, a car, an accomplice of the Cuban “ninjas,” collects the bags, and they divide the booty somewhere else. Their favorite target is autos rented by tourists. Fermín Escobar, 45 years old, who drives his own taxi, earning his living by charging 15 Cuban convertible pesos (13 dollars) per person, going between the bus terminals from Havana to the city of Santa Clara, some 300 kilometers away, firmly suspects that these highway robbers operate with the complicity of the police.

According to Escobar, on the Autoroute, there are numerous control points and police cars that detain you at each pass to inspect travelers’ luggage, in search of shrimp, beef or cheese, the favorite products of the people who are dedicated to the lucrative business of the black market.

“Then it’s not possible for these delinquents to carry out the robberies in peace. I have friends who are drivers, who have told me that some police alert the “ninjas” by cell phone about the license plates of the tourist cars, which are the ones they prefer. Although they also misappropriate whatever auto they suspect has valuable things in their suitcases. If the driver notes the presence of the “ninjas” and stops the car, there is a big uproar because those thieves can be armed,” reports Fermín, who counsels that the best thing to do is to accelerate as fast as possible and to not stop.

Of course the National Autoroute has a high presence of police who stop and search, at any time of the day or night, all types of vehicles, be they buses, trucks, or cars. But in spite of all these controls, there exists a hole through which “luxury” foodstuffs penetrate Havana, like shellfish and beef, which have a high demand among the habaneros.

Boarding and ransacking moving cars in the middle of the night is work that carries a high risk. It’s already known that the highway “ninjas” have an impressive dominion of scooters. For which reason the police barely detain them, and it’s a good question for the chief of the national Police. Or police ineffectiveness exists or they are “greased” with hard currency. The drivers who use the National Autoroute every day are waiting for a response.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy