Iván What’s-his-name

In October 2009, in tandem with Max Lesnik, the Cuban journalist based in Miami,  I started writing a blog, called 90 miles, for El Mundo, one of Spain’s national dailies. Plus some notes, articles, features, and stories about what life is like for Cubans and my perceptions of the Castros’ government. Within a few days, I was approached by various people I consider friends (and others I don’t). After congratulating me, they gave me some free advice.

An experienced and foxy old reporter told me in confidence and in a hushed tone, “What you want is lots of curveball and not much fastball. Try and come up with colourful stories which won’t cause you any problems. That way you get paid and life’s good. If you go about with an AKM machine gun at the ready, the government will call you to account.”  Such was this long time journalist’s advice. Opportunistic, cynical, someone who enjoys life, like a lot of people in Cuba who just want to have a decent salary paid in hard currency and not rock the boat.

The old reporter, who knows how much I love the sports pages, made a point of using some baseball jargon. When you cover the island “curveball” means sticking  to subjects like the history of the Malecón, Havana’s Chinatown, or the Capitolio; talk about curiosities or explain how a parcel containing copies of Granma was thrown out of an airplane over the mountains in the East and knocked dead a cow when it landed. In short, his advice was that I should write about unimportant “news” and steer clear of critical articles.

If it meant writing colourful stories and throwing curveballs, I would give up writing for El mundo. I say what I think and tell it like it is. You have the chance as readers to express disagreement in the comments section. I’m very far from thinking that what I write amounts to any kind of absolute truth. Perhaps I get things wrong. But these opinions about an event, theme, or personality are mine.

I’m nearly 45 years old and at this stage in my life I’m not going to be afraid to defend my perspective. Being imprisoned for many years, which is the prospect held out by Cuba’s laws for all those voicing public dissent, does scare me. I don’t have a vocation to be a martyr. But I’m not going to change my ideas. Even if I end up bricked up in a state security cell or in a dirty Cuban prison block.

Disagreement is healthy. And so is debate about ideas and dialogue with people who think differently. But in Cuba, when someone in the media criticises you or attacks you, be afraid. The message is: “What goes around comes around”. In other words, shut up or you’re mincemeat.

We know that the beginning of a vigorous offensive on the part of the state apparatus portends further actions. Ranging from acts of repudiation and even threats and humiliations for your family. Or, in an extreme case, detaining you, penalising you, and locking you up in jail.

I would like to ask a journalist of Max Lesnik’s calibre, or José Pertierra, the lawyer, if at any time they’ve felt paralysed by the US secret services breathing down their necks, or if they’ve ever had their arms twisted by the Yankee government because of holding critical views about the system in the North or for showing admiration towards the Cuban Revolution.

I suspect the answer is no. It’s true that in Florida, in the ’70s or ’80s, a group of intolerant Cubans, terrorists more than anything else, went as far as assassinating people who supported Castro. But in this, the 21st century, things in Little Havana must have changed. And it goes without saying that no US administration has ever instructed its official media, like the Voice of America, to intimidate its political rivals.

The United States is capable of the best and the worst. If he happens to be having a bad day, any madman with a rifle slung over his shoulder and whistling along to a Bruce Springsteen song can rub out a dozen people as if he were at a shooting gallery in a fairground. I have a feeling that Lesnik and Pertierra and their compatriots on the other side of the pond have all the freedom in the world to write and to say what they think.

Not in Cuba. And that’s the point. Since I was born, in 1965, I’ve never known what is called democracy. And before I die, I would like to live in a pluralistic society where you as a person aren’t of the slightest interest to the State.  And where, if the powers that be don’t appreciate me, thanks to certain Constitutional laws, I’m not locked up in prison.

I don’t mind who’s in power. They can be communists, liberals, greens, social democrats, right wing, centrists, or left wing. Just so long as they’ve won an election. I ask myself if this is an impossible dream. I don’t think it is. That’s why I write what I think.

I remember that on a cold and gray afternoon in February 2003, Raúl Rivero, the Cuban poet and journalist, typed with two fingers on his Olivetti Lettera-25: “No decree can stop me writing in the country where I was born and where my grandparents were born. I’m a man who writes.” So am I.  Even though I could lose a lot.

Albeit with my fears and the paranoia typical of those who live under threat, I will send stories, articles, and news about the reality of my country. Written from my untidy apartment in the Víbora district, my neck of the woods. I’m not going to follow the experienced reporter’s advice.  My writing is going to be lots of fastballs, few curves.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

The Day After

Donato, who usually sells newspapers in the area around Roja de la Víbora square, is an elderly man of 67 wearing threadbare clothes; he’s convinced that Fidel Castro has for quite some time been a corpse. Abelardo, 54, a civil engineer, thinks the same. He says, “The people haven’t been told of Fidel’s death to prevent disturbance” In Cuba, everyone has his or her own take on the one and only Comandante’s illness.

For want of reliable information, people invent rumours. Carlos, a 21-year-old university student, swears on his mother’s life to a group of sceptical youngsters that he read an article on the Internet where it said that Fidel Castro was in a deep coma. In every nook and cranny of the island it’s the same.

Never before has a man’s death engendered such anticipation. No sooner does a rumour start over there on the other shore, in other words, in Florida, than it quickly arrives on the Cuban coastline. Many people have family in the sunshine state or else they illegally watch cable TV, and more than a few times some rumour is heard, even in the middle of the night, as happened to Jesús, a 34 year old worker. A friend, restraining his emotion, woke Jesús up at three o’clock in the morning to tell him: “Fidel’s snuffed it, I saw it on channel 41.”

Castro’s been given up for dead so many times in Miami that new reports of his death are taken with a pinch of salt on the island. Deborah, a 29-year-old primary school teacher says: “The day when he dies for real, I won’t believe it.” It’s now been three years and five months since the 31st of July, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, Castro’s former private secretary, announced on national television, in a sombre tone of voice, that the Comandante was relinquishing power due to illness.

Since then Cubans have been living on a knife’s edge. And not because their former president’s state of health is of special interest to them. No. The key issue for the majority is what’s going to happen when Castro dies. Some in Cuba take it as a given that Fidel’s brother, General Raúl, is putting off reforms pending the patriarch’s disappearance.

I don’t believe that. I don’t think that Raúl Castro is going to be the Caribbean Gorbachev. The agents of change in Cuba are perhaps men in power now, wearing masks, keeping their heads down and obeying orders. They’re waiting for their moment. Or they’re walking about the country’s streets anonymously. I’m a sceptic and I don’t think a worthy leader for the future will emerge from the Cuban opposition. Almost everyone talks about democracy and makes out that they’re a democrat, but they act like little dictators.

The is what concerns the man in the street in Cuba. The day after Fidel. Cubans take it for granted that Raúl is a transitional president. As such, the health and impending death of Fidel Castro isn’t a problem of personal hatred. It’s simply about discovering what the future will be like without the former Comandante.

There are even people making bets, like Amador, 43 and unemployed. Two years back, Amador and twelve friends agreed on a lucky draw: whoever accurately predicted  the date of Castro’s death, or whoever came closest, wins 1,200 convertible Cuban pesos (about 1,200 dollars). Amador had predicted that God would take Castro I from this earth on the 31st of December, 2009.  He’s sorry that he’s off by a bit.  He says, quite seriously, that it’s nothing personal against Fidel. It’s just a bet. And he wants to win.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

Without Freedom… Even to Travel!

One of the various unresolved and failed issues of the Castro brothers’ government is the Cuban citizens’ lack of freedom to travel. If a foreign friend invites you to spend some time in his country, in addition to extensive and tricky bureaucratic red tape, ultimately, with nerves of steel, you have to wait for the exit permit granted by the Department of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Interior.

This department determines whether or not you have the right to travel. Also, if a person has been exiled, said military body is the one which determines whether or not such a Cuban can visit his native land. It’s humiliating. It’s like begging to be allowed to leave Cuba, and, what’s worse, to be allowed to enter your own land.

For me this is the most flagrant violation of personal rights committed by the government of the island. It doesn’t matter if an individual who wants to visit a friend or a relative has an immaculate record and doesn’t have any prior convictions. If Immigration considers you unsuitable, you cannot leave the island.

It’s a form of punishment. Something like, you better behave if you want to see the world. To behave badly is, above all, to publicly dissent from the way the State administers the country. Another major arbitrary act is when a person definitively leaves the country. It doesn’t matter that he owns his house. If he lived alone, he doesn’t have the right to leave or give his house to whomever he wants.

No. The government’s laws put an end to your right to dispose of your own home. This is coupled with a number of tricks and lies to circumvent the unjust measures that the State applies. Whenever people think about leaving the country for good, they put the name of a friend or family member on the deed beforehand so they don’t lose the house.

Days before you abandon your country, an inspection from the Institute of Housing inspects your home and verifies the furniture and electrical appliances that you possess. If, at the moment of leaving, it’s proven that you have given someone these things, your permission to leave can be denied.

What people do is to give away or sell the furniture, refrigerator or television, before the housing inspectors visit. It’s arbitrary. I will tell you a personal story.

My mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist, together with my sister and my niece, left Cuba to go to Switzerland, on November 25, 2003, at the beginning of the Black Spring. [Translator’s note: The “Black Spring” refers to the 2003 government crackdown, when independent journalists and democracy advocates were arrested and imprisoned.]

When she left, she did not know my daughter, Melany, who was 9 months old. Because she was a political refugee and a persona non grata for those who direct my country, Melany’s maternal grandmother had to content herself with seeing her in photos and chatting by telephone when her rare retirement resources allowed her to telephone.

She will probably die in the staid city of Lucerne without ever knowing her other granddaughter. The government hasn’t given the slightest inkling of doing away with its absurd rules on emigration. It’s true that in the USA, on account of another stupid law, North American citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Ninety miles apart, the two countries are still living in the Cold War era.

Both of our communities, so close geographically and, at the same time, on account of the policies of their respective administrations, so distant, must insist on having our rights count.

There’s no reason why my mother should have to die 9000 kilometres away without ever knowing her granddaughter. It’s unreasonable for anyone to stop her. But the Castros keep in their pockets the files for all exits and entries. And Melany’s grandmother is not to their liking.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy & RSP

OLP’s Intifada

The writer Orlando Luis Pardo (OLP), 34-years-old, is like a box with buttons.  You press a button and out comes a stream of ideas.  OLP is bursting with talent.  He has published several books of stories.  He has a pair of blogs, among the best being done in this 21st century Cuba.  He’s a high-flying photographer and a few weeks ago I attended an astonishing performance where OLP presented one of his formidable poems.

He’s a quiet type and excessively paranoid.  As is usually the case with any person born under an abnormal regime, where everything is suspicious and criminal.  Orlando Luis doesn’t remember the exact moment he started his personal intifada against the sinister machinery of Castro’s power.

It is likely that it happened when the “mystery” croquettes disappeared; one never knew what they were made of.  Perhaps that slimy grey mass with its tiny red-colored bits inside, at the end of the ’80s, was the point of departure for his personal rebellion.

Because Orland Luis has publicly confessed that he ate tons of the popular croquettes.  And their disappearance, along with the tasty yogurt and the Russian jams, in the hard years of the Special Period, may have sparked OLP’s serious contradictions with a regime closed lock stock and barrel to disparate opinions.

In 1993, with the daily 16 hour black outs, more mystery meat and soy hamburger, Orlando escaped the madness by reading like one possessed and pouring out his undeniable talent in poetry and prose on some old invoice forms from some business on which he could only write on one side.

In addition to real hunger, OLP was far beyond the cojones of Papa State.  He still remembers, of course, his first blue jeans, and the day he tried Coca-Cola.  Like one who brings a valuable treasure, a sailor friend of the family appeared with a bottle of the soft drink wrapped in gift paper.

The whole family sat down to celebrate the even around an old table, long and rectangular, of dark mahogany.  The father took the first shot.  Then, the bottle was passed around and everyone took a sip.  Only one.  Like something sacred, they saved the bottle of Coca-Cola in the old Philco refrigerator.  OLP remembers that it lasted nearly a week; after dinner everyone took a tiny sip.

So much spiritual and material misery turned him into a skeptic about Fidel Castro’s Real Socialism.  Today he is one of the best voices among young Cuban writers.  With his fears and doubts on his back, with the red lantern of paranoia always lit, with his overflowing imagination OLP fires his missiles from the neighborhood of his birth, Lawton.

He does not know how to change the status quo.  He only knows how to be a free man.  Getting good with himself.  Being happy in the dark and starless early mornings with his girlfriend, while waiting for the P-2 bus that will take them home.  And believe me, he is getting there.

Iván García

As Much Pain As Hope

Not yet having overcome the gray and cold, with little bread and scant shelter, which we Cubans have passed through in these days of January 2010, news of the earthquake in Haiti came to us.

With the passing of the hours, we learned the magnitude of the catastrophe, a tragedy that grows daily.  The entire world mobilized, but as a consequence of the chaos and the lack of infrastructure, the airport and port facilities in Port-au-Prince that are insufficient for the number of planes and ships coming from five continents bringing every king of humanitarian aid.  The faster they can arrive, by air and by sea, the more lived can be saved.

Once more, disaster falls on Haiti.  Not because they are black or the descendents of Africans.  The evil in Haiti is not of this origin.  Given their history of struggle for emancipation from slavery and freedom, they should be one of the most prosperous nations in the Caribbean.  However, for more than two centuries, Haiti has been bleeding.

If today it is the poorest country on the American continent and one of the poorest in the world, it is because of the successions of misgovernment.  Ungovernability summarized in two words: repression and corruption.

Dictators and incompetent leaders are to blame for the backwardness and evil current endured by the Haitian people.  Illiteracy and unemployment have been a breeding ground for the emergence of gangs, machete in hand, who perpetrate violence, theft and crime, all common in the streets and neighborhoods.

A share of the guilt also belongs to its neighbors in the Americas, the closest and the furthest, like the United States, who when not intervening to support coups d’etat, preferred to look away and block their ears.

Better late than never.  Now, we’re grateful that President Barack Obama has made Haiti a White House priority.  A decision supported by the generous response of the American people, poor and rich, anonymous and famous, atheists and believers, civilian and military.

Let us leave Washington and return to Havana.  The truth is, of the few nations in the region who have always stood by Haiti, we find Cuba.  It’s logical.

We share more than 200 years of geographic, historic, cultural and ethnic background.  The veins of thousands of Cubans run with the blood of Haitians, especially the people of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey, three of the provinces where there are major Haitian communities, and whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep alive the language, music, religions, food and other traditions.

Many of these Haitians or their descendants achieved fame on the Island.  It is impossible to mention them all and therefore we have chosen one name, that of Martha Jean-Claude.  With her we pay tribute to all the Haitians who have made Cuba their homeland.

When the earthquake struck, around 5:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday, January 12, more than 400 Cuban helpers, mostly doctors and nurses, were already in Haiti.  To date, only three Cubans have been reported injured, two mildly and one seriously.

The love story between Brazil and Haiti is more recent.  It began in 2004, when under UN mandate, Brazil assumed responsibility for coordinating the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH).  Brazilian president Lula made that responsibility his own, and many Brazilians began to get involved.  And as happens in the fairy tales, for a few hours everyone was happy.  In 2005, when the Brazilian National Football (Soccer) Team went to play a friendly match in Haiti, the video shows what happened:

Despite the critical economic situation in Cuba and the deteriorating living and nutrition standards of a great part of our population, many Cubans, according to man-on-the-street opinions, would be willing to go to Haiti to help in the reconstruction.  A so urgent and necessary work that at this time, against the clock, is being done by volunteers, firefighters, rescue workers and sniffer dogs from Mexico, Spain, Japan and China among other countries with considerable experience in earthquakes and natural disasters.

So far, three pieces of good news were announced on Friday, January 14.  The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. reported that Obama granted temporary resident status (TPS) to all undocumented Haitians in its territory, allowing them to reside and work in the United States for 18 months.

For its part, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the Island was ready to cooperate with all countries, including the United States, to help save lives in this emergency situation.  Showing this was more than mere words, the Cuban authorities announced they had authorized U.S. planes to fly over the eastern territory of the country, to evacuate the wounded from Haiti to the Guantanamo Naval Base, where there is a hospital.  This authorization saves 90 minutes of flying time.

The third piece of good news came from Port-au-Prince.  The heroes were two Spanish firefighters who rescued a two-year-old Haitian boy whose photograph circumnavigated the globe.

Along with this good news, a rumor circulating for some days in Havana was confirmed, that some twenty mentally ill patients had died in the Psychiatric Hospital commonly knows as Mazorra, located in Rancho Boyeros, where the thermometers had fallen to 4 degrees Celsius.

The terrible event, that had been publicized by the dissident National Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was confirmed by the Minister of Public Health.

There were 26 dead.  A true scandal. People are shocked and hope that those guilty of such negligence will face trial.  And that the response will not be limited to distributing blankets, clothes and food with more calories.  Cubans want, once and for all, to free Mazorra from the Dante-esque fame it has always had.

Returning to Haiti.  Among so many dead and such ruins, we are sure that the green grass of hope will begin to sprout.

Iván García and Laritza Diversent

Photo:  Chicago Red Cross, Flickr

Havana Boulevard

Beginning at Prado street and ending at Galiano, there is a five-block long pedestrian mall in the heart of Havana, replete with stores that take hard-currency or national pesos. Cafes, barber shops, ice cream parlors, markets, a cinema for children and a jewelry store in decline.

Throughout the year the boulevard is very busy. December, the month of summing up and hospitality, causes city dwellers to shop compulsively. It’s possible that in some of its businesses they can get what they want or need.

At the Belinda store, a group of ladies enter, looking for a set of sheets for their home. Their mouths drop open and they remain speechless when they learn the prices in inflated currency.

Nearby, some guys who are drunk, accompanied by cheerful black girls in the same condition, look both ways and surreptitiously enter by a rusty iron gate what were once the Duplex and Rex theaters. They empty their bladders full of beer, consumed in a nightclub called Palermo, where they usually will hook up with the old, cheap whores who don’t have the option of hooking up with a foreigner.

At the National Cabaret, where the boulevard starts at Prado Street, are a line of men in their fifties and a group of young mestizo girls, with the typical body language of females seeking pleasure, trying to find some “Temba” (men in their fifties) to pay the entry fee to the nightclub. The Disco Temba, as it is known, opens at 4 pm.

A stone’s throw away at the gates of the Hotel Inglaterra, Nordic ‘Vikings’ and fat ‘Iberians’ drink daiquiris, accompanied by tapas of ham, cheese, and olives. They listen raptly to a bad version of Chan-Chan by Compay Segundo. Inside the hotel, a Japanese girl with teenage acne complains in English to a clerk about how expensive Internet service is: a card costs 6 CUC per hour. What shall we Cubans say?

Evening falls and the comings and goings of hurrying people increase. To alleviate the thirst caused by the heat from this end-of-year fire, people drink bottled soft drinks, locally produced, at 5 pesos a bottle. In a kiosk they sell unwrapped bread, exposed to the air, with the appropriate dose of microbes; bread with either pork, ham, or a cheese with a terrible smell.

Wherever you sit, to take a drink, or eat a serving of fried rice or a piece of smoked chicken, you are approached by dirty, mangy dogs, which with pitiful faces beg you to give them your leftovers. They are part of the army of hungry dogs that roam around the entire city.

Beggars also do their part in the streets of downtown Havana. Some shamelessly and even aggressively ask you for money.  Others, with the picture of a saint, usually St. Lazarus, ask you for alms, “preferably in hard currency.”

If you look like you have a foolish face, a crook will try to separate you from your money. You can find everything in the Boulevard of San Rafael. Schemes are constantly hatched and if you don’t look like a cop in civilian clothes, you can buy a gram of coke for 35 CUC or a Creole marijuana cigarette for 25 pesos.

The cobblestone streets are painted with large white squares, surrounded by pots with withered plants that the state gardeners do not look after, disgusted by their low pay.

Now at the far end, at the corner of Galiano and San Rafael, a park is a reminder that in this place once stood El Encanto, one of the most chic department stores in Havana. It was devoured by fire on April 13, 1961, as part of the sabotage before the Bay of Pigs invasion. There were 18 injuries and one fatality, Fe del Valle, the head of the El Encanto’s children’s department.

This story is not known to the children, whites, blacks and mestizos who play soccer with a deflated balloon. A black boy pulls off feints incredible for his age, barefoot and with a faded Kaká T-shirt. His fans, sitting on a wall, applaud the small Cuban Pelé.

Maybe the Boulevard San Rafael does not have the charm of Paris or Barcelona. But it is the only one in Havana: meeting point for Havanans, nostalgia for exiles, and headquarters of private guest houses for outsiders. If you pass through Havana, be sure to visit.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Tomás A.

Cuba, Dog Time

These are the Dog Days.  With the fine and constant rain and the overcast sky the color of a gray mouse.   Likewise, a freezing cold.  We throw to one side in this January of the new year the postcards of brilliant sun that show us a happy, festive, and warm city.

Since January 1st, the first serious cold front entered the capital, the streets of Havana have become a carnival of poor people.  A population accustomed to an annual average temperature of more than 27 degrees Celsius is not used to having adequate wardrobe items to tolerate low temperatures.

The solution for many is to layer items of clothing over each other.  Three, four, and up to five, and to top it off, a sweater, with gloves and an old coat.  It’s nothing compared to the intense snows in Europe, Canada and the north of the United States.  But for the Habaneros, Sunday, the 10th of January, was frightening.

Too much cold for a tropical city.  The wind chill was 8 degrees.  The people look like inflated balloons with so much clothes.  The most humble protect themselves from the cold with jackets from the era that Cuba traded with the CAME, more than 30 years ago.  Some dusted off wool sweaters and jackets, used by fathers and grandfathers before Castro came to power.  The most elderly and needy garnish themselves with overcoats like those used by Humphrey Bogart in his films.  The children and youth were also disguised.

The streets are deserted.  The beggars and demented that have made the doorways on the corn er of Carmen and Calzada streets their home since the 10th of October, had rushed to less frozen spots. What blew through this corner wasn’t a friend.  According a neighbor, vehicles from the public health division recognized the beggars and interned them in the Psychiatric Hospital,  an asylum more commonly known as Mazorra, located on Rancho Boyeros, halfway to Jose Marti International Airport.

I’m not sure if it is true.  The people from the capital have a tendency to exaggerate.  What *is* true is that in these “polar” days, many bakeries have closed due to lack of flour.  You see, bread, like rice is a primary necessity in the current diet of the Cuban.  The state ration card grants us a miserable bread roll of 80 grams per person.  Then, people head to the bakeries of the Cuban Chain, where in the free market, one can buy half a flauta of bread for 5 pesos, and for 10, a whole flauta.

The administrator of one of these establishments commented “that several bakeries that offer free sale of bread have closed because of a shortage in the distribution of flour, because the government has reoriented it to prioritize rationed bread, that sold on the ration book.”  Outside, a long line of people wait for an hour hoping to leave with bread.

With the cold hunger rages.  And with a half-empty fridge, the most common thing is to buy bread and eat it with anything.  It may be jam, if the family is “wealthy”, or with tomato, tortilla, oil.  Or just dipping it into coffee, or milk, something those under 7 do, the only ones the State guarantees a daily quota of milk to on the ration book.

Pablo Pacheco, 30, independent journalist condemned to 20 years in prison in the Black Spring of 2003, told me by telephone from Canaleta, the prison in the province of Ciego de Avila where he is serving the unjust sentence, the temperature fell to 7 degrees Celsius.  “The prisoners wrap themselves in two or three quilts, and even so your teeth are chattering like castanets.  Add to that there is little food and it is terrible,” he told me.

Due to a lack of adequate clothing and of a hot breakfast, many families in Havana have stopped sending their children to school.  In my daughter’s classroom, of 20 students, there are six or seven students, no more.  In the rest of the country, where even the cold is more intense, the school situation is the same or worse.

The lowest temperatures report up to now, according to the Meterological Institute, have been at the Jose Marti International Airport, in Havana (3.7 degrees Celsius);Isabel Rubio, Pinar del Río (4,0); Tapaste, La Habana (4,2); Aguada de Pasajeros, Cienfuegos (5,0); Bainoa, La Habana (5,2); Batabanó, La Habana (5,4); Bauta, La Habana (5,5); Güira de Melena, La Habana (5,9); Güines, La Habana (6,2) and Santiago de las Vegas, Ciudad de La Habana (6,5). In Jucarito, Granma province, considered the hottest place in the Cuban arh=chipelago, the thermometer reads 12.7 degrees!

Although these January days, with the gray skies and cold have dominion over the landscape of the entire Island, the star meteorologist of the Island, Jose Rubiera, calms the innumerable rumors and affirms that the temperature has never fallen under 0.6 degrees Celsius, as happened in 1970, in all the national records.

Nothing to do.  Little bread and a lot of cold is not healthy.  And what’s worse, without sun.

Iván García

Cuban Dissidence: More Ego Than Talent

Even the president of the United States, Barack Obama, senses that the opposition on the island squanders its talents and energy in sordid and fruitless struggles. In response to the questionnaire sent by the blogger Yoani Sánchez, the American leader, among other aspects, commented that the Cuban opposition did not agree among itself.

It’s true. They quarrel too much about trivial things. They seem like big spoiled children. Full of lust. And with overflowing egos. They are given to defamation and, at the first exchange, act like animals in heat when they feel they are losing prominence.

It’s an immature and undiplomatic opposition. A banana republic dissidence. If these dissidents with more ego than talent are going to be those governing the destinies of Cubans, I will be the first one heading into exile the day the regime of the Castro brothers disappears.

The background of the misunderstandings between the numerous groups of the opposition is almost never determined by a specific political project. The boxing match is either for money or for having more influence in the leadership of the opposition on the Island. They fight furiously to appear as valid interlocutors with the US government or the European Union.

It’s lawful and healthy to differ. And each party, organization or movement shows that its future strategy is more viable. Fine. What I don’t understand is why, when someone doesn’t agree with their proposals, ta volcano of mud and a waterfall of insults falls on that person or group.

The internal dissidence has a worth that no one can deny. Opposing a government like that of the Castros is worthy of applause. Besides being harassed and infiltrated by State Security, they are threatened with laws, like Law 88, the gag law, that can put them behind bars for 20 years or more, just for disagreeing and asking for a political space.

But at least for me, the dissidence has lost its way. Also its perspectives. Busy as they are, fighting and swearing, they have not noticed the absence of a viable and robust project for this future that is upon us.

They’re like hunters on private reserves. Focused on the foreign media and the western leaders, doing little or nothing to expand their partisan bases. Lacking space in local media–for obvious reasons–they don’t try to convince, speaking eye-to-eye, the Cuban on the street, weary and disgusted after 50 years of an inefficient system that meets the personal expectations of almost no one.

Instead of unrealistic and outlandish proposals, it’s better they roll up their sleeves and use the little loophole in the Constitution of the Republic to get more involved in community affairs. And in the varied and multiple problems of material scarcities and lack of values that affect everyone.

Literally everyone. Be they supporters or not of the Castros: liberal, socialist, Marxist or Christian; of the left or the right. From the rising violence, the lack of drinkable water, the poor state of the roads and housing, the plummeting quality of teaching, and the pitiful decline in public health, in the proud epoch of Fidel Castro, one of the showcases of national socialism.

The dissidents need to make themselves known among their fellow citizens and assume a leading role, open to a democratic debate. Changing the discourse and respecting the differences between them would be a first step. To continue the current state of affairs would mean continuing to be moored in mediocrity and disrepute.

Obama, perhaps for diplomacy, did not pursue the theme. There are numerous people within independent journalism and underground groups and intellectual young people, who are as tired of the stale Castro government as the peripatetic positions of the Creole opposition.

Not only must we change the system in which we have lived for half a century. We must also transform local dissent. Continuing on with the distribution of pamphlets, the litany and personal caudillo-of-the-hour politics, will burden the future Cuban society yet to be born.

Yes, there will be a change of names and people in the country’s direction. But it will be like having a Fidel Castro in plain clothes. For me, at least, I don’t want this future for my country.

Iván García


The Cuban Facebook

Devoid of Internet and cable TV, people in Cuba get by as best as they can. Newsagents don’t sell foreign newspapers. And if you want to be properly informed, the only way is to listen to the BBC from London, Radio Exterior from Spain, or the Voice of America, from the United States. And that’s it.

Over the last 50 years, the Castro brothers have put a fat lock on information. Zero sports from the Yankees. No news from abroad, if they criticize the Castros, or what is going on the island, even in the slightest. In the dollar stores, short wave radios have “mysteriously” disappeared.

But the regular Cuban in the street wants to learn what he doesn’t know, whatever way he can, even if he has to sacrifice his grub. One of the most lucrative businesses nowadays is to hire out a bunch of foreign TV channels for 10 CUC a month (250 pesos). In Cuba, this is called “renting out your antenna”. Or simply “the antenna”.

If you ask Roberto, he will tell you with a faint smile that “in the five years I have been hiring out the antenna, I have made enough money to buy my motorbike, refurbish my apartment, and eat meat every week.” And this, in a Cuba stuck in an endless Special Period, is plenty.

And, what’s more, he boasts of being well-informed. Usually, the program listings offered by those renting out the Cuban cable, are full of B movies, mediocre Mexican soaps, Spanish humour shows and baseball games from the Major Leagues.

But some offers include news programmes from Univision. “Some people only want to rent CNN in Spanish, ABC, NBC and ESPN. This sort of people pay double, 20 CUC a month”, states Roberto.

The antenna business is a sort of local Facebook, and it sprung up out of the strong desire – and need – for having an alternative to the highly-manipulated news fed on a daily basis by the regime. To avoid state television, which is generally boring and full of tired shows.

“It all begins when some friend or relative from the other side of the Florida Strait pays for a bundle of cable programs, preferably in Spanish. Then, the TV signal receptors are smuggled into Cuba. Once they are here, there are some people who make a living building rustic antenna dishes,” Roberto explains.

“When you have all the gear, that is, the receptor and the dish, then you begin to offer the private cable service to your neighbours. The demand is huge, because even if they are living it rough, many people would make sacrifices to see a different way of life.”

The owner of the antenna connects up all the houses using a coaxial wire. In Havana, you can find people in the business of renting out antenna who have more than 100 homes linked up.

You can do the math! No less than 1,000 CUC (25,000 pesos) a month. That is why, despite the joint efforts by the Cuban intelligence and the police to curb the boom in private antennas, they have achieved little. If they catch you, they can fine you up to 30,000 pesos (1,250 CUC). And if you are a repeat offender, you can even go to jail for up to two years.

But it is a good business, and people like Roberto take the risk. There are hundreds of anecdotes to tell, such as a firefighting station, whose staff enjoy free cable TV in return for their silence.

The regular Cuban on the street wants to be informed and entertained. He doesn’t mind if he doesn’t have pork or vegetables on the table. It is worth it to sacrifice them to watch, with his very own eyes, what is happening on the other side.

And frequently they find out what happens in their own country through the foreign media. When there is no internet and foreign media, the business of hiring out antennas is a sort of social network. The Cuban Facebook.

Iván García

Translated by: trelex

The Letter of the Year

Photo: Reuters. On the right, the Cuban writer and journalist Natalia Bolivar

With the arrival of the first serious cold front, which in these days of January has lowered the thermometer to unusual temperatures in Cuba, the babalaos of the island gave the expected Letter of the Year.

This time it was announced with a drum roll and cymbals. Friday the first of January, Radio Progreso, a broadcaster of national importance, gave the whole reading of the document issued by the Cuban Council of High Priests of Ifá.

According to the Cuban babalaos, this year the sign is Obesa, ruling Yemayá and accompanying Changó. On the island, the devotees of Afro-Cuban religions count in the millions. No one knows the number to a scientific certainty. But religious sincretism is so strong that it is common to see a Catholic who “makes himself a saint” and a Santero being married in the church.

One song from Adalberto Álvarez, who sings Afro-Cuban songs, says in its refrain, “There are people who believe in nothing and they go for consultations at the first light of day.” It’s true. Frowning Marxists from the Communist Party have their bean-tokens and at times “feed them” to the higher power.

It’s speculated that even Fidel Castro, since he was a boy, has a Haitian voodoo doctor. The government never has denied the rumors. But let’s get to the point. In the letter for 2010, the local babalaos offer their recommendations and advice.

In a cryptic reading they offer a series of adages from the signo, which Juan Carlos Ariosa, 25 years old, a young sculptor, believes interprets signs of the political diatribe towards the government. Luis Álvarez, a retired soldier, who, since his participation in the African wars has been a devotee, in capital letters, of Afro-Cuban religions, interprets everything just the opposite.

“It’s a good sign that the government gives the Letter of the Year official publicity. The Council of Priests is a group of patriots who support the Revolution. If you read the document carefully, you will come to that conclusion,” affirms Álvarez, elated, with her necklaces of green and yellow beads and a white hat.

Each to his own. And those who are desperate, because of the extended outcome of the economic and political situation in Cuba, think that the babalaos expressed a weak sign in a veiled way.

If Cubans know anything it’s how to read between the lines. Neither the Catholic church nor the Council of Priests has publicly and openly condemned the politics of the government. At least in the last 10 years.

It’s like a cat and mouse game. If you shut up, we give you space. And at least, in my assessment, a part of the religions on the island have made themselves complicit in this silence.

It’s not possible that the majority of common people think otherwise and the churches and temples don’t speak their minds. As far as the Afro-Cuban religions are concerned, in the last two decades, they have converted themselves into a prosperous business.

It’s become the mode to become a babalao to mount a throne and get hard currency. Hundreds of devotees from Spain, Switzerland, Japan and even Australia come to the country of sun and palms to be blessed. It’s not cheap. For a Cuban it costs a minimum of 10,000 pesos (400 CUCs), a year and a half’s salary for an engineer. For a foreigner it costs double.

Faithful practitioners are many. But some beliefs, like the Afro-Cuban ones, have degenerated and become commercialized. In any event, the announcement of the Letter of the Year always awakens great expectations.

In an ancient mansion dating from the beginning of the 20th century, in the Calzada of 10th of October between Josefina and Gertrudis, where on occasion the babalaos consult the saints, on the afternoon of January 3, a group of 20 to 30 people were trying to read, with anxiety, the Letter of the Year 2010.

Probably they had not heard Radio Progreso. Also, at the same time, some thousands of kilometers away, in Peru, the South American shamans predicted that the Venezuelan president was very sick and that Fidel Castro had a vague death that protected him. According to the Peruvian oracles, Castro could live for the years that he offered.

To confirm the validity of their prognostications, they gave the example that last year they said that Barack Obama would win the US elections. On the island, when people saw on Channel 23 in Miami the news of the religious leaders of Peru, many were astonished.

At least the Peruvians were daring and gave prophecies. The Cuban babalaos were neither one nor the other. You would have to continue reading them between the lines. Something anyone could do by reading the latest edition of Newsweek, where they predict that 2010 might be the last year on earth for Fidel Castro.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina

Our Best Wishes for 2010

We wish all readers and their families the realization of all resolutions proposed for this year, and to Cuba, our homeland, we wish for a new beginning with tolerance, respect and a democratic conciliatory spirit, leaving behind the resentment that has blinded us for so long. From Havana, Cuba, a sincere hug from,

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

Translated by Tony de la Fuente

Sunday Anguish

On Sundays, in the late afternoon, I feel  a recurring unease.  It begins with a slight, imperceptible tingling in the stomach, then a heaviness in the arms, and finally a tightness in the chest and a chill in the soul.  The imminent death of the afternoon, and with it the weekend, fills me with a sensation of incompleteness.  Time is running out and there are issues to resolve.

From my time as a high school student, Sundays are sad days.  Incomplete days in which I cannot start anything, waiting for transport to take me back to school, seeing my friends again.  And then spending hours recounting our weekend adventures. Some, like Roberto, stretch Sunday a little further, bringing music and drink with them and continuing the dancing on the dark balcony, or on the roof of the dormitory, partying until exhaustion or the dawning of Monday makes us stop.  When there isn’t any transport the adventure of traveling on my own starts, in the trains and buses still running.  An adventure that almost always ends by the side of the road, signaling everything that passes. As it’s impossible to predict the duration of such a haphazard journey, we have to hit the road earlier.  And the Sundays are that much shorter.

When I start working, I think the character of Sundays can change.  And for a while, it’s true.  I amuse myself, even though diversions are expensive.  And scarce.  A few years go by and I discover that working doesn’t satisfy a vital need, rather it entangles me in a confused network of circulars, intrigues, resolutions, black outs, opportunisms, procedures, quarrels, voluntary work, much less transport, egotism, production campaigns, professional jealousies, generalized inefficiency, vigilance work, envy.  A lot.  Nothing makes sense. Much less is logical.  Only the amount of fanfare matters.  And the enthusiasm.  Always the enthusiasm.  Yes. In its always greatest expression: unconditional enthusiasm.  And Sundays become a prelude to depression.

Six years ago I started making a living on my own. I don’t have hours, because the bananas don’t stop growing at 5 pm, and the clients need their equipment working so they, too, can earn a living.  I exchange the security of a wage at the end of the month for the freedom to say what I think, not to go where they order me to go when I don’t want to, and to excuse myself from the pantomime of raising my hand to achieve the sacrosanct unanimity.  Many who would call themselves my friends haven’t been to my house since then.  Others who in truth are at my side, though they are in Spain, warming the chest with an unpalatable coffee. To be free can mean to be more alone, if those around you continue to be slaves.  For six years I haven’t marked a time card nor gone to union meetings, but Sundays continue to be sad days.

The Joke of the New Man / Ivan Garcia

The formation of the New Man has always been a fruitless task. Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara, its precursor, with his straw full of mate (a kind of tea that Argentinians drink from a bulb-shaped container, through a straw), was delirious in his moments of rest in the guerrilla war, on the road to Santa Clara in the last days of 1958. At that point in the war against the dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Argentinian Guevara was convinced that in the future society that would be built in Cuba, they would have to start by designing a “laboratory” man.

Che, a Maoist and radical communist, was dreaming, and he believed it would be possible, but the fun-loving Cuban people–with a tendency to idleness and informality–would need a firm hand to discipline them. According to Guevara, these Creoles, given to unending parties and festivals, playing around and disrespectful with their neighbors’ women, needed a revolution, with a dose of repression and terror that would permit the construction of a Communist society.

The Argentine tried it. In the short time he was Minister and an important man in Cuban politics, besides festively pulling the trigger in the large, damp patios that served as firing fields in the San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress, he imposed “voluntary” work, moral stimulation and other formulas that the doctor from Rosario (i.e. Che) had read about in his Marxist studies.

Until he realized that fabricating men in an assembly line from a test tube who were monogamous and would not move their hips to the rhythm of drums was an impossible mission on an island of sun, drink and craziness. Che was a convinced fanatic, argumentative and with faith in proof by bullets. But his friend Fidel Castro was another specimen.

The lawyer from Birán (Fidel), in the best of cases, was a pragmatic opportunist, with an inflated ego, a narcissist who saw in guys like Che and Communist ideology the best way to draw up a plan for permanent and effective power. Guevara then marched to his own drummer, creating centers of guerrilla warfare and the formation of killing machines that would annihilate the gringos without mercy, anywhere in the world.

He died convinced, risking his hide to try to demonstrate his truths. This was around 42 years ago in Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia. After his fall, he was converted into one of the largest marketing operations in history.

Castro, Cuban after all, knew that to modify the souls of his countrymen, who were given to Santería and not taking things seriously, illusion was necessary. In order to dominate for 50 years, he has used, at his discretion, fear, prisons, and a pinch of cheap idealism. And above all, a false morality, excitedly imparted to him by Ernesto Guevara in the days they were in a jail cell in Mexico City, in between chess games and theoretical discussions of what the future would be for Cuba and Latin America.

Not an atom remains of the New Man that Che Guevara dreamed of. Almost all Cubans steal whatever they can at work, from a straw to a piece of paper. When someone begins a new job, he is not interested in how much his salary will be, only in how much he can steal.

A few followers remain. At appropriate moments – historic dates and anniversaries of his death – they put on their masks and at the daily work meetings or publicly, they raise their voices, put themselves on automatic pilot and even act emotional talking about Che. Excellent actors, unseen and missed by Hollywood.

And the Revolution sails on. Now, functionaries and rulers try to gain time and search for hard currency. No one remembers the New Man, nor the stupidities advocated by social engineers like Che Guevara. The supposed New Men are in the lines outside the Spanish Consulate or the U.S. Special Interests Section, crazy about leaving.

They have forgotten about the world crisis. Since they were born, they have lived in a crisis and in ghost-wars against the Yankees. Many of these “new men” go out at night as transvestites, to engage in sex and drugs until dawn, and with luck, to hook up with a foreigner. Or they are dissidents, independent journalists or bloggers.

For the tired and unbelieving Cubans, the true New Men are guys like Kendry Morales or Isaac Delgado, who seized their chances, who are free to name their own price and who make a lot of money, whether it’s by making home runs or dancing in public with their contagious music. To talk about the New Man is today a joke in very bad taste in Cuba.

Translated by Regina Anavy

A headache for Cuban women

Nothing is easy in Cuba. Even menstruating is a headache. If you doubt it, ask Marlene, a 23-year-old computer expert, who suffers when her period comes, every 28 days. On the island, sanitary napkins are known by the name, “intimates.”

They are rationed. They are sold in the pharmacies, to women previously registered, between the ages of 10 and 55. At the rate of one package of 10 sanitary napkins per head, once a month, at 1.20 pesos.

“They are awful quality, break easily, and don’t work. Then you have to buy them on the black market or in the dollar stores,” an angry Marlene explains.

“Under the table” the same packet sold in the pharmacies can cost 10-15 Cuban pesos (50 or 75 cents in CUCs). In the “shoppings”, or dollar stores, there is more choice and the quality is better. But for one package of imported sanitary napkins you have to pay from 0.90 to 1.30 in CUCs. Converted into Cuban pesos, the national money, that’s between 22 and 30 pesos. Twenty-two pesos is two days’ wages.

“It’s like a punishment for being a woman and bleeding every month,” Raisa, a 27-year-old housewife, says indignantly. “And if you don’t have “intimates,” you use pieces of old clothes, which you boil in hot water and put out to dry in the sun to disinfect them.”

According to commentary on the National Television News, In Cuba there are about 4 million women of fertile age. When interviewed, Gladys Vásquez, an official in Interior Commerce, the ministry that controls what is distributed by the ration book, takes the easy way out.

The same old thing. The Party line. The calamity of the Cuban economy is the fault of the “Yankee Blockade.” It’s to blame for everything. It’s the same if you don’t have potable water, a decent living place, your kids don’t have toys or women lack sanitary napkins. The fault lies with the “Blockade,” as they call the embargo in Cuba.

Young women like Yailén, 17 years old, a college student, ask themselves why products so necessary as sanitary napkins are sold in hard currency. The journalist does not ask the official this question, and if she had, I doubt she would have had a response.

“In Havana, everything is fine,” declares Suchitel, 32 years old, a shop employee. “In Santiago de Cuba, where I live, there are no sanitary napkins during certain months. If you don’t have money to buy them in hard currency or on the black market, then the options are to use rags, the leaves of some plant or a home-made tampon, put together with the cotton padding that they use for mattresses.” (There is also a shortage of cotton on the national market).

The same Gladys Vásquez, the official from Interior Commerce, recognizes that “deliveries have been incomplete, owing to the lack of prime materials, which are bought in China or France.” And of course she repeated the slogan: It’s the fault of the Blockade.

Many on the island are against the embargo. In addition to being inefficient, it has been a pretext for the Castro brothers to justify the country’s disasters for more than four decades.

Few believe that the day there is no embargo, there will be an abundance of ham and beef. Or that we will be able to buy Tylenol in the pharmacies. Or that high-quality sanitary napkins, like the Kotex used by Cuban women before 1959, will be sold on the ration book in the stores. With or without the embargo, the government lacks something: money. And the women, “intimates.”