Iván García, 22 February 2019 — While the television news announces an imminent landing of the Yankee marines in Venezuela for the weekend, and resuscitates phrases from old speeches by Fidel Castro, Orestes, a Havanan who, among other things, sells liters of bleach at 25 pesos, prepares a sofrito of black beans while the volume of his portable speaker rises with the music of the reggaeton singer Jacob Forever.
“Today I ended up late for dinner. I had to walk almost twenty kilometers selling bleach all over the city,” he says as he starts making the tomato, cabbage and cucumber salad which he will accompany with white rice, beans and a single-egg omelet,” because there are also almost no eggs to be had.”
In addition to bleach, Orestes sells what falls off the truck: flavorings, floor mops or clothes brought in from Panama by the ‘mules’. He lives in a ramshackle room in a collective shelter south of the capital. His topics of conversation are sports, women and the harsh living conditions implemented by neo-Castroism.
“Cuba has become a jungle. Everyone is trying to survive. And the government continues with its theater. It is rumored that after the referendum on February 24, Canelo (Díaz-Canel) will legalize la bolita (the now-illegal lottery). If that happens, then it will be the government that is going to make the money,” he says, adding:
“I’m going to vote Yes. I have no other choice. Otherwise, the sector chief (police) comes down on you and makes your life impossible. Vote NO and what does it solve? And if the Americans get their hands on Venezuela, they say they’re going to send Cubans to fight there. I would not go, I don’t need anything in that country. Why do I have to fight for Maduro? I would look for a medical certificate where it says I’m crazy. My thing is selling bleach and getting it on with my little girlfriend. There isn’t anything else.”
A few hours after the beginning of the electoral farce that would ratify the future Constitution, I asked all sorts of people in Havana if they had read the text of the Constitution. “One day in my workplace, from up above, they scheduled a debate. I didn’t understand anything. These legal issues are written in a language that only lawyers understand,” says Mara, a clerk in a state cafeteria.
Yadira, a pre-university student, responds: “No, I didn’t read it, I’m not for that.” And how do you plan to vote?, I ask. “I will vote Yes. At my school, in a debate we had, they told us that it was the only way to maintain the gains of the Revolution. We know it’s crap, but nobody wants to look for problems,” confesses the young woman, who on Sunday, February 24, will vote for the first time in her life.
Luis Manuel, a taxi driver, says he read the constitutional text “and that’s why I will mark NO. You have to be very forgetful to vote Yes after living so many years with a foot up your ass. Buddy, it is irresponsible to support a system that does not work and grant it the grace to govern us the rest of our lives.”
Ismary, a bank employee, does not intend to vote. “And if the polling place comes to my house with the ballot, maybe I’ll put Yes, so as not to stand out. But if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, I’m going to vote No. In any event, if I vote Yes or No, annul the ballot, leave it blank, not go vote, nothing is going to change, everything will remain the same or worse. Diaz-Canel said it already, on Sunday the Yes will win. I do not know why they have elections in Cuba, if they do not want people to vote NO.”
Andres, a biologist, resident of the Capdevila neighborhood, twenty minutes by car from downtown Havana, says that in his neighborhood they prepared a debate “with stooges from the government, to encourage them to vote Yes. But you can’t live on rhetoric or the past, this revolution has already gone to hell. I intend to vote NO because the rulers have not been able to meet the demands of the people. They’ve been living off their story for 60 years, false promises and lies. And everything in life has a limit. It’s been a while since I hung up the gloves. I do not believe in any of them.”
Along with the referendum, the critical situation in Venezuela is a topic of conversation in the streets of Havana. If we give credit to the neo-Castro autocracy, it is only a matter of time before the United States invades Venezuela. And in schools, companies and institutions throughout the island, Cubans are being called to sign a book condemning the hypothetical invasion.
The official story they offer about Venezuela is very simple: Trump has blockaded it because it is a sovereign and independent nation and the United States and the Venezuelan opposition are to blame for all the evils.
The propaganda apparatus of the regime has designed a version of the events that excludes the disastrous administration of Nicolás Maduro, corruption, repression and torture of political prisoners as well as the parliamentary coup of the PSUV of the National Assembly which — after the opposition won a majority in 2015 — took away all its powers.
This strategy works with uninformed people, such as Cubans who drink coffee without milk (because there isn’t any) or with those who, due to the high cost of the internet, only use it to communicate with their relatives abroad and not to learn about what is really happening in Venezuela and in the rest of the world, except for a few exceptions.
“A military aggression by the United States against Venezuela would be a gift to Maduro, because it would justify the disaster by selling him as a victim. Trump is capable of anything. But there is a reality: the hyperinflation in Venezuela, the hunger and poverty have two culprits: Madurismo and the Cuban government, which with its crazy advice has caused the collapse of that nation,” says Sergio, a retired university professor.
Someday, those who have governed Cuba for six decades will have to offer a public apology. In the name of the worst socialism, they have impoverished Venezuela and polarized the country. For twenty years, the Cuban special services and their military advisers have designed defense strategies. The blatant interference of Castroism in Venezuela was proven in an audio, released in 2013, of a conversation between Mario Silva, a Chavista journalist, and Aramís Palacios, a senior Cuban intelligence official.
Caracas is a matter of national security for the Havana regime. They will fight with all the means at their disposal in order to keep Maduro in power. The defense at all costs of Hugo Chavez’s substitute has unleashed all kinds of rumors. In the streets people are saying that Cuba could send troops. “My son is doing his military service and I told him not to sign any paper that would commit him to fight in Venezuela. We are not living in the times of Angola, when many like me were naive enough to fight,” says Armando, self-employed.
Local analysts believe that unless they send elite troops, “Cuba is not in a position to deploy a vast operation like the one in Angola 44 years ago. It would be impossible, with outdated weapons and a precarious preparation. The doctrine of a war ‘of the whole people’ is the case for the military occupation of the country.
But if military events take place in Venezuela, modern warfare strategies should be used, such as air strikes to specific sites with smart missiles. The United States will not disembark troops in Venezuela. It would be a clumsy move that would reverse all the Latin American and global support that Washington has achieved,” predicts a former officer of the armed forces.
According to the prestigious Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lage, the loss of the Venezuelan subsidy would impact between 10 and 15 percent of Cuba’s GDP. In an economy in recession, where Raúl Castro’s reforms do not encourage agricultural, productive or industrial growth, losing access to subsidized oil from Caracas could cause a dangerous setback.
Cubans are tired of shortages and false promises. A new Special Period could explode through the air the inoperative barracks economy and the lack of political liberties. And Fidel Castro is no longer there to help get through the disaster.