Cuba and Its System of Exclusion (I)

It is fair to acknowledge that foreign investment in Cuba brings benefits to the economy. But by itself it is not the solution for confronting the overwhelming problems.

Law No. 77 was adopted in 1995 to provide security and guarantees to foreign investors, and from this to achieve economic recovery. So stated the Cuban Parliament, in the introduction of this statutory provision.

In it the National Assembly also said that through foreign investment Cuba could get (among other objectives) increased production efficiency, improved quality of products and services offered, and reduced costs.

Fifteen years after this law was passed, it’s worth asking: Did it enhance the welfare of the Cuban people? Which services was Parliament referring to — those received by foreigners or those offered to the general population?  And regarding the latter, some comments.

Inadequate wages discourage citizens, mainly young people, from working with the State. How does the government solve the problem of labor abstinence, which forced it to increase the retirement age? By imposing four-year prison sentences for social dangerousness.

This leads to another problem, that of illegalities. The low purchasing power of thousands of families causes them to live outside the state regulations, in order to cope with the ongoing crisis.

What is the solution to this other conflict? The deployment of police operatives to catch those who are engaged in individual economic activity red-handed. Isn’t it easier to legalize the status of people who opt to live independently of state handouts?

Why doesn’t the Cuban government encourage profitable activities by citizens? Just as with  foreign investment, the individual economic initiative of Cubans results in increased productivity, the creation of new jobs, etc..

In principle, one of the reasons underlying the exclusion of Cubans from national economic affairs was the social egalitarianism that socialism attempted but never attained.

To try to guarantee one right, others were violated. A supposed social equality justified the government acting contrary to constitutional dictates, and led to an institutionalized form of segregation, based on national origin.

Cuba needs a law of investment, not exclusion. In its 15-year existence, Law 77 has only brought economic apartheid. It is not fair that only the individual capital of foreigners has value in the Cuban economy.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

Being a Journalist is Almost Impossible in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

The Revolution Gives and The Revolution Takes Away

For six months Sandra has lived in Havana with her father. She’s 24 and is an “emerging” elementary school teacher. She used to work in her hometown, Holguin; but she left teaching because the salary wasn’t enough. Now she sells pastries in the doorways of Monte Street.

Sandra was saving to buy a little house. But the police caught her when she was selling sweets. They levied a fine for “speculation.” Then they put her on a train back to her province, for living in the capital without the right to do so. She was a victim of the application of Decree-Law 217 of April 22, 1997, which establishes “Internal Migration Regulations for Havana.”

The provision restricts the freedom of movement of Cubans from other areas of the country. It prevents them from residing, whether domiciled or living together, permanently and without authorization in the capital. The provision also applies to citizens from other areas of the capital who live in a dwelling located in Old Havana, Central Havana, Cerro, and Tenth of October, without the corresponding license.

Sandra has to ask permission from the President of the Municipal Administrative Council to live in the capital. She must prove to the Housing Department that she has the express consent of her father, as owner of the house. She also needs a document from the Municipal Architecture and Urbanism Department that certifies that the dwelling meets the minimum conditions for habitation, and that there are ten square meters of space for each occupant.

Once all the paperwork is completed, the young woman’s problem is not yet solved. The decision, yes or no, of the Municipal President depends on the opinion in the file that elaborates on the issue, from the Municipal Housing Office.

It is immaterial that the Constitution of the Republic in Article 43, allows Sandra, as a Cuban citizen, to live in any zone or sector. A right, according to the article, conquered by the Revolution, and if they have the right to give it they have the right to restrict it.

The “Historic Leaders,” concentrates all the power in the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, with the ability to grant or to restrict the rights of citizens. The validity of decree 217 proves that the Cuban government and its leaders have no desire to make positive changes. Meanwhile, cases like Sandra’s, common in Cuba, continue happening and the guilty parties go unpunished.

Laritza Diversent

We, Dissidents

Ladies in White in one of their marches down Fifth Avenue.
Photo: Luis Orlando

I don’t want to saddle anyone with adjectives they don’t want. In general, I, for one, have always been rather hesitant to accept labels, especially when the socio-official “taxonomy” is so prodigious in itself in ambiguous definitions that it turns a political opponent into a traitor, an individual freely expressing their own ideas into a Treasury Department employee of the United States, or alternative bloggers practicing what has been called citizen journalism into “cyber-terrorists.” Everyone, without exception, is put in a large sack with the terrible label of “dissidents”, which automatically makes us “despicable mercenaries at the service of the empire”. Ordinary Cuban citizens that we come across in our daily strolls, or the very neighbors that greet us when we meet on the stairs in our building have come to incorporate into their psyche that we carry on our shoulders and faces the epithet of “dissidents”, that we are a sort of contagious plague, such as the lady with the scarlet letter, the Jews with their yellow star under Nazi Germany or the lepers forced to wear jingle bells in medieval times.

This comment I’m making is a necessary preamble. Believe it or not, a candid and sincere old couple living in my neighborhood was offended when someone warned them to be careful because I’m a dissident. They protested: “Don’t say that about her, she is a good person and hers is a very well-mannered and decent family”. These nice old people and I often run into each other at the grocer’s, the butcher’s or the farmers’ market, and they know my political opinions (which I have never hidden and they are in agreement with, by the way), but won’t allow that anyone to “insult” me with the loathsome nickname of dissident. I simply cannot be “that”.

Another example no less amusing is that of another elderly gentleman, one of my sources of information about what happens in the neighborhood, who even enlightens me with comments that hit the nail on the head. I once told that I am a citizen-journalist and that what I write can only be read on the Internet. “Ah, you’re a journalist!” I said “kind of”. “And you dare to write about the heavy things we discuss?” I answered yes and added that -as he must know- I am a dissident. “No way! You’re not with the government and criticize all the bad things, which are many, but dissidents are those who want the Americans to invade us”. I gave up: he’s over 70, and, with his low level of schooling, he would probably better understand how to manage a blog than the true concept of what a dissident is. The term has been demonized to that extreme.

Because of this, when I use the word I am always ready for a reply, even when applied to a civil disobedient like me. Some people get uptight, perhaps because they know the power of words. That is why, here and now, I ask permission of to all who disagree with the government, of political prisoners, of those who spread the truth about the Cuban dictatorship, of those struggling to promote peaceful change towards democracy in Cuba, of independent journalists, of bloggers, and all civic organizations not affiliated with the government to refer to this large set as dissidents. I assume that everyone in this diverse group has in common a clear awareness of the need for change in our country, will do and say what we think is necessary to promote those changes through peaceful means, the spirit of democracy and freedom, and the hope for a better future for all Cubans, among other principles. The risk this entails unites us in a country where a half-century long dictatorship holds absolute power and has begun to understand that its power will not last forever.

We are used to viewing the government as a clever and powerful enemy, so perhaps we may not have realized how much we have been growing in recent years. There are more Cubans raising our own voices every day inside the Island. More and more groups are facing the dictatorship. It is cracking the shell of fear, and the authorities are expected to increasingly tighten the nut and repress with ever-more rage. Though the signals of the future end of the regime are in sight already, it would be premature and hasty to mention deadlines; we have a long way to go to reach a consensus, a common destiny, but I have the impression that, for some time, dissidents have begun to abandon belligerency and, showing respect for mutual differences, we have begun to show solidarity with each other. That is a first step and a healthy sign.

I want, therefore, to publicly thank today all dissidents for the reasonable end to the hostilities. This time, the alleged “unity” is not based solely on signing a proposal every once in a while. Orlando Zapata’s death, the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas, and the constancy of the Ladies in White have had the power of assembly that political harangues or programs of either leader had not achieved before. Interestingly, this time, almost no one is claiming the limelight, and almost all are pushing in the same direction and with similar strength… I vote for such humility to be maintained. All indications are that the true seeds of the strength of the dissidence lay in plurality, solidarity and respect for civic differences.

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Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

“If we have eaten cat stew…”

During the last few years, Cuban places located outside of the island have exposed the production and consumption of catfish- that voracious species- in an unpleasant light, in fact, it has been stated that the environment may be at risk if we do not control the production of such a plate.

The issue already made headlines in 2006 as product of the documentary titled “Blue Revolution” which was made by a Mexican student of the International Cinema and Television School of San Antonio de los Banos, in the outskirts of Havana.

According to Jesus Baisre, the fishing industry adviser, two types of catfish were brought into Cuba between 1998 and 2000.  These were the macrocephalus and the gariepinus, coming from Asia and Africa.  The catfish were introduced in the country in order to increase the consumption of protein of the population.

“But the cure was worse than the disease because the catfish has become a powerful threat to the Cuban ecosystem”, argued Nibaldo Calvo who has a degree in economics and is a resident of Mexico.

Before 1959 the main fish consumed by Cubans was the biajaca.  “In the ’70s they introduced the tilapia, which at first nobody liked thanks to its dirt taste.  But seeing that there was no choice, we had no other option but to invent recipes so our families could eat it,” remembers Lidia, 67-years-old and a retired teacher.

Other exotic fish species that are consumed in the island, besides catfish, are Tench, Sea bass, Red Sea Bass, and the Chinese Grass Carp.  On April 2009, during a workshop in Artechef, a restaurant of the Cuban Culinary Association in Havana, numerous elaborate plates were presented with various different kinds of fresh water fish, among them the catfish.

Someone who does not want to hear talk about “the catfish or any of those strange fish” is Jose Miguel, an 81-year-old grandpa.  “It’s incredible that on an island surrounded by sea they have to spend money raising fish and that they have not been capable of allowing us the fish that we Cubans have eaten all our lives, like snapper, ruffle, swordfish, and the yellowtail snapper.”

The local press publishes information about the production and consumption of the catfish and some journalists acknowledge its dangerousness, especially when there are intense rains or hurricanes and the dams overflow and these fish escape.

But that occurs among the ecologists- nationals or foreigners- directly affect by the controversy.

The economist Calvo points out that the uncontrollable expansion of catfish in Cuba during the last decade “is provoking serious havoc among aquatic fauna and vegetation.  The ecological equilibrium and domestic life is also affected because the catfish preys on tilapia and frogs and could very well introduce itself into subterranean caves, sewers, and household tubes.”

The fact is that the catfish- also known as the devil fish- is capable of traveling across land, thanks to very strong whips of its tail, in search of food outside of the water.  Since it is carnivorous, if it is loose, it can swallow anything in its path:  lizards, snakes, rats, and even birds, turtles, and small crocodiles.

There is not much worry right now for the population.  Neither ecologically or with regards to food.  “It must be known that no one has become sick or has died yet because of eating catfish.  It is a dark and ugly fish, but its meat is white and tasty.  When I have oil, I bread and fry the filets.  Sometimes I also make croquettes which my kids love,”  explains Roxana, 35, who works as an office assistant.

Just one kilogram of catfish filet costs around 39 Cuban pesos (1.50 dollars).  “It’s very popular, it sells quickly.  I get about 200 kilos and in two days it’s gone,” declares Dionis Cruz, a fish vendor in the capital.

Ana Rosa, 70 years of age and a housewife, defends the controversial fish:  “They say that catfish eat rats, but if we have eaten cat stew, and cats also eat rats, eating catfish filet is now a luxury.”

During the difficult years of the Special Period (1990-2000), many Cubans substituted cats for rabbits, for once they are skinned there is no difference. If in home bathrooms they raised pigs, while animals were disappearing from the zoo and vultures had gone to look for food in household cooking pots, then eating catfish today is the most normal thing in the world.  At least for Cubans it is.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Breaded catfish filet

Translated by Raul G.

The Capital Dresses Itself for the Fair

It is organized for the weekends in the city of Havana.  It takes place in public spaces, avenues or wide plots of undeveloped land.  Trucks arrive and improvise points of sales- some sell directly from their vehicles, on boxes, on the floor.  The offers vary:  viands (potato, sweet potato, yucca, bananas), fruits, vegetables, meat derivatives, and hardware tools, among other things.

Local restaurants offer fast food under thick colored carps:  fried chicken, smoked pork, and beer.  Lunch-sellers with tall white hats and squared pants prepare pork sandwiches, ham, hot dogs, or breaded fish.

There are sky-rocketing prices.  Just one kilo of papaya costs 20 pesos (one dollar).  Black beans are 10 pesos per pound (half a kilo).  Well, at least what is supposedly a pound.  Manuel Montoya, 65 years of age, is retired.  He always finishes stressed and with high blood pressure due to the displeasure he goes through when he has to purchase some viands and meat.

“Despite the prices, the sellers try to swindle you when they weigh the product.  I always take a small personal weight and whatever I buy usually weighs up to two pounds less than those measures given to me by the sellers,” points out Montoya while he tosses around yuccas and sweet potatoes that are full of reddish dirt.

Hygiene is not the specialty of the viand, vegetable, and fruit sellers.  In Cuba, agricultural products are not taken aside and cleaned.  They are brought in bulk in bags and boxes and they get all mixed in platforms or on the floor, together with dirt, rocks, and bugs.

The Red Plaza of La Vibora, in the municipality of 10th of October, which is actually neither a plaza or painted red, and is nothing but  a 260 foot wide street, is converted into a mixed flea market on Saturdays and Sundays.

Besides vegetables and other foods, they sell recycled clothes, plumbing products, and efficient light bulbs.  The good stuff starts early in the morning.  Refrigerated trucks that offer fresh fish for 15 to 20 pesos per pound arrive to the rhythm of Willy Chirino and Isaac Delgado, exiled Cuban salseros who live in Miami and are censored by state media.

They also sell turkey, chicken, and cured meats.  It usually sells out very quickly.  The lines are long and many people wake up very early to be one of the first ones.

Those people from Havana attend these fairs in mass.  But they are very shocked by the abusive prices, like Josefa Cerdena, 60 years of age, and who is a housewife.  “One mango is sold for 5 or 10 pesos, while a mamey is sold for 15 pesos,” says the lady with her eyes wide open.  Other fruits, like guavas, oranges, and grapefruits are just as expensive.  However, there is an abundance of potato, cabbage, and tomato.

Despite the fact that the aggressive June heat quickly decomposes vegetables and fruits, the prices stay just the same.  They have a news series on TV that has criticized the inefficient form of commercializing these products and the scandalous corruption displayed by many of the vendors.

According to official sources, the decrease and devaluation of fruit and vegetable quality, over 750 thousand pesos (30 thousand dollars) is lost daily, in the capital alone.

We know where that money ends up.  The majority ends up in the pockets of the administrators, while the minimum goes to the sellers.

Whatever the case may be, these weekend street sales are a relief for thousands of families.  With pesos, they can purchase merchandise that they lack.  It’s true that such fairs have a common denominator:  the long lines.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Kirsty Stephenson, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.

Welcome Diversity!

Following what is being called the “Letter of the 74,” where we asked the United States Congress to consider the possibility of further relaxing its economic restrictions and recognizing its citizens’ right to travel to Cuba, a rich debate has been launched in which arguments new and old are surfacing.

Who is right? Life will tell. In my humble opinion, the most helpful part of this is that finally Cubans, who to varying degrees and with different nuances expressed their dissatisfaction with the political situation in the country, have publicly let go of the burden of their prejudices and have been encouraged to distance themselves from a false unanimity.

Even the Communists are now doing it, although timidly, in the pages of Granma, where they diverge from each other on the sensitive issue of the privatization of services (without going to the extreme of calling each other traitors to the cause, or insulting each other). And if they can do it, there is nothing detrimental in political opponents of different stripes offering to expose their differences, whether of principal or simply of methods, in a civilized way,

These should not be discussions undertaken to determine a winner, but to find pathways. As we are finding our way in these disputes, we will need to be patient with some passionate people who prefer to discredit the bearers of an idea rather than refute their arguments.

Someday we will have more difficult discussions, for example: there is the issue of the death penalty and the dilemma between justice and forgiveness, and what about the presumed returns and the debate between those who want to maintain and those who want to dissolve one conquest or another. Let us learn now, later there will not be time.

An Economist Behind Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF

Neither Strawberry Nor Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Photograph: veo_veo, Flickr

Transalted by: CIMF

Unjust or Legitimate?

Flags in front of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. Photo: Luis Orlando

An article published by the official Cuban press (Granma, Tuesday June 15, 2010, front page) reports a collateral appeal, or habeas corpus, filed on behalf of Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United after being tried on charges of espionage, as “the final legal recourse for his case,” under the judicial system of that country.

It seems no coincidence that they have recently taken up the issue of five State Security combatants imprisoned in the U.S., in an apparent effort to minimize, in the eyes of public opinion, the question, in turn, of the political prisoners in Cuba and the controversial talks between the government and the Catholic authorities, which have captured the public’s interest in recent weeks. Collaterally, they insist on establishing some form of subordination between the potential release of the Cuban prisoners from the Black Spring and the return to the island of the above-mentioned spies, so that, once again the media minutely obsesses with notes about the five “heroes” of the regime’s reckoning. 
It is not idle, however, to take advantage of this juncture to point out the abysmal difference between the case of the five confessed spies, captured during Operation Wasp, and that of the peaceful journalists imprisoned by the Cuban dictatorship in March 2003, not to mention the marked contrast between the two cases relative to the considerable resources spent on the Cuban government’s campaign to release the Five. To wit: the very expensive lawyers; travel and per diem for family members who have come from around the world; the national and international crusade that has mobilized money and agents in the four corners of the globe; as well as the immense propaganda campaign; all of which is explicitly covered almost entirely with State funds without any consultation with taxpayers.

Nor do they skimp on the resources invested by the government in relation to the 75 political prisoners of the Black Spring, although in a completely opposite sense: mobilization of the repressive forces to trample the Ladies in White; privileges and incentives for their most loyal henchmen; the propaganda apparatus set in motion to slander and demonize the political prisoners and their families as well as the whole civic movement that supports them. All this without counting the political cost and the demoralization caused by this repression, the death in prison of Orlando Zapata, and the current hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas.

Apart from this brief summary, there is still an additional critically valid question: if the Cuban government has always declared the imprisonment of their spies by their northern neighbor to be unjust (and even “illegal”); if they insist they were sentenced after a process that was “rigged” and markedly political against five “anti-terrorist fighters,” as they try to convince international public opinion and as they have broadcast in the national catechism; if, in short, the American judicial system is so “corrupt” and “subordinated to the Miami Cuban-American mafia”… How is it possible that the government of the Island is allowed to legitimize its own system by appealing to the recourse that system offers? It is not immoral to demonize and criticize the U.S. Justice system and at the same time lower oneself to appeal to it? Could it be that the five imprisoned spies are politically more useful to the Cuban government than to the anti-Castro groups in Florida?

Clearly, the Cuban authorities display an unlimited impudence by not discriminating between the unjust and the legitimate. So twisted are they, that we will see them once again ranting against the U.S. system to which they now appeal, should they get a new denial of the last legal recourse they have just presented before the Federal Court in Miami.

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What Will be the Next Move?

Carrying out any sort of political analysis or political prediction in Cuba is almost like an Indiana Jones adventure.  The media does anything it can to misinform.  They barely extract any bit of information from those in power.  There is no way of getting any official statistics or facts.

When one is an independent journalist and the government does not approve of you, everything becomes much more difficult. Instinct and reading between the lines of official reports are common investigation methods.

Another way of trying to understand the reality of this island is if you have friends or sources who work for important organizations and they chose to whisper information into your ear.  It is already known that Cubans are extroverted.

Well, back to the point.  It is true that in Cuba something is moving.  For the first time in 51 years the Castro government has given in to a group like the Ladies in White.

The strategy used by those in power was a very interesting one. They pulled the letter of the Catholic Church out of their sleeve.  Using the church as a mediator and as a valid interlocutor has various interpretations.

They either pretend to win some time and sell the idea that the regime is willing negotiate certain political things, or in reality the economic crisis that has been plaguing us for 21 years, the decrease of foreign investments, and the empty treasury, are forcing the government of Havana to search for a negotiated exit with two heavy-weight actors: The United States and the European Union.

Castro, a charismatic statesman of unpredictable strategies, always confused Western politicians with his tricks.  Just ask Felipe Gonzalez, Carlos Solchaga, or Jimmy Carter.

When you think you have him cornered and without defenses, he pulls a card out of his sleeve as if he were a magician.  It turns out that this situation is different.  Since July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro has lost a large portion of power.

And it has not been the dissidence that has opened the breach.  It is the generals, those businessmen in the island who are ruled by his brother, who have taken over power.

Ever since the 1980’s, a portion of the military and intelligence sectors were allowed to establish certain businesses, and so started the beginning of the end for the monolithic rule of Castro I.

For years the generals have made money.  They have hidden bank accounts and have become corporate men.  They traded in their AK-47s for executive briefcases.  The word comrade was traded for the word sir.  And the rustic Soviet technology was exchanged for sophisticated first world equipment.

Those elite military men who control the few profitable businesses that function in Cuba prefer to drink Jack Daniels over our own rum.  After a while, they traded in their traditional guayaberas for very formal suits with silk ties.

They have converted themselves into cut-throat capitalists.  Their advisers studied marketing and speak about efficiency and profitability, costs and gains.  They also like to keep some dollars or euros under the mattress.

It is precisely those generals who are really in charge during this summer of 2010.  Fidel Castro is only a symbol.  Very heavy.  Perhaps the old guerrilla leader just pulls the strings of exterior politics.

But the economy is in the hands of the military.  And they want certain changes.  Nothing big, really.  Economic freedom for the people.  Firing a million workers in the inflated labor scene.  They want to give autonomy to small and medium companies.  They want to do away with the benefactor State.  They want to lighten the load.

The military favors some liberalizations in Cuba for the simple reason that it would be a much more effective way of staying in power.  They know that with hard-line and radical discourse, and with the huge crisis that faces the planet, business doesn’t work.

Internal peace is needed.  Developed countries do not need to condemn the island.  Then, they had to give in.  And they used the church.

It is also possible that a number of political prisoners may be released.  Not all of them.  The regime needs prisoners like spare change.  But it is the only way of keeping the determined Ladies in White calm.

The internal dissidence is not very worried about the generals who control the power.  For various reasons.  One of these reasons is that the opposition is deeply penetrated by the political police.

The other reason: they do not have a solid base within the population.  They also do not have brilliant or charismatic leaders.  That is why I think that the recent move by the Castros was conditioned by the pressure of a sector of the military.

What will be the next move?  If the money does not continue coming in and the international pressure does not stop, there will be new sacrificial moves. The Castros still hold some winning cards in their hands.

But the deteriorated economic situation, which has not had any possible solutions mapped out, the disgust of a wide portion of the population, the poor rule of the leaders, and the huge monstrous bureaucracy all have the Creole mandarins cornered.

This summer promises some interesting things. Raul Castro has been on the throne for two years and has only implemented cosmetic measures. The situation which the country faces needs an entire package of wide reforms, from top to bottom.

The generals look at Vietnam.  This Asian nation has achieved economic changes while maintaining its hard fist towards internal politics.  Of course, Cuba is not an interesting market like China or Vietnam.

If the European Union or the United States continue with their politics of closed borders and deaf ears and if they don’t ease up in response to the liberation of only a hand full of political prisoners, then the government will have to change its strategy.  This would most likely lead them to negotiate with a sector of the opposition.

The regime wants power and it needs financial oxygen.  It will everything in its power.  In politics, it’s all worth it.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

More Doubts than Optimism

While some prisoners of the Black Spring of 2003, like Pablo Pacheco and Adolfo Fernandez Sainz, have their optimism levels up in the clouds, there is much more caution amongst the feelings of the Ladies in White.  In fact, there is much pessimism.

The doctor Lidia Lima, wife of the prisoner of conscience Arnaldo Ramos (an 68-year-old economist- one of the oldest political prisoners) has her doubts.

For Lidia the transfer of Arnaldo to the 1580 prison in the municipality of San Miguel del Padron in Havana is a relief.  The Ramos family resides in the capital and the trips to Santi Spiritus (about 400 kilometers from Havana) were always difficult and painful journeys for her and her two sons.

According to what Arnaldo told his wife during her latest visit, the food has improved.  However, he now resides in a galley full of very old men who suffer from mental illnesses.  At this very moment Lidia has more desire than faith.  She prefers not to fool herself with the idea that her husband could be one of the prisoners that will be liberated thanks to the visit of Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s chancellor.

This sentiment of doubt prevails amongst other Ladies in White.  The government of the Castro brothers has found itself at a crossroads.  If there is something that has defined them during these last 51 years it is that they do not like to give up any of their power.  The difficult political situation, the amount of international pressure, especially that of the US and the EU, has put them in a very uncomfortable spot.

It is very well known that with just a phone call from one of the Castros to the high ranking members of the Ministry of the Interior, the 56 prisoners left from the Black Spring, or the more than 200 political prisoners that still remain behind bars, could immediately be released.

If Fidel Castro took a few weeks to detain and judge 75 people only for opposing or writing without a mandate, freeing them would be a breeze, that is if the regime wanted to do it.  In Cuba, such situations are not solved in parliament.  They are personal decisions.

The ball is already rolling in South Africa.  The World Cup could be a good moment to free some political prisoners.  Some are in very poor states of health, like Ariel Sigley Amaya, who is practically paralyzed.

It was in the beginning of the war in Iraq, on March 18, 2003, that the one and only commander unleashed an oppressive wave against groups of dissidents and independent journalists in order to minimize the impact of such news.

Now, the regime of Havana could opt to try a military strategy.  The planet is focused on soccer.  At least that is what Pablo Pacheco thinks.  If you ask the family members, they’re not that optimistic.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Martha Beatriz Roque.  Ladies in White outside the Santa Rita Church on Sunday, June 6th.

Translated by Raul G.

Open letter to the BBC of London / Miriam Celaya

Note to readers of this blog:

The text that follows is extensive. It is a reply to statements made in recent days by the BBC’s correspondent in Havana, Mr. Fernando Ravsberg, as part of statements he made in an interview with his fellow countryman, journalist Emiliano Cotelo, during Ravsberg’s recent stay in Madrid. The complexity of the topics covered there and my total disagreement with Ravsberg’s views prevent me from expressing myself in a shorter post. I warn you, then, that those who enjoy brevity in writing do not get mired in reading this post and forgive the inability of this blogger to remain silent before such iniquities.

Miriam Celaya González

Open Letter to the BBC in London

I’m just one among millions of earthlings who use the Internet. That said, in my capacity as an alternative Cuban blogger, my access to the net is rather limited and sporadic. However, I feel a sincere respect for information professionals worldwide, and consider the BBC a serious and competitive agency. It is just because of this that I cannot understand how it is possible that under such prestige and tradition there is a chance for the defense of such deceitful and unscrupulous “journalists” who, violating every principle of ethics in the profession, are engaged in misinforming the world, distorting the reality of a nation and, incidentally, providing a (free?) service to the longest dictatorship known in the Western world.

Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg, a BBC Havana reporter, was interviewed recently in Madrid by Emiliano Cotelo concerning the controversial dialogue initiated between the Cuban government and the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Ravsberg’s answers, at times ambiguous and always highly partisan, reflect the contempt he feels for this country and for Cubans, as well as the profound ignorance of Cuban history and the aspirations of its people. Ravsberg is not the essence of a journalist, but a propagandist of the Cuban regime and, as such, an uncompromising critic of the dissent and civic outbreak that has started to gain strength in society, sectors very harshly persecuted and harassed in the Island that are struggling to maintain the economic, political, and social rights of all Cubans despite the harassment and repression of which they are victims, while “informers” such as the correspondent in question either look the other way or prefer to reinforce the official discourse by fabricating an imagined reality.

What is that “Cuba” that Ravsberg reports about, and what benefits does he get from it? Only he could answer this. We have already read on other occasions his very personalized Cuban scenario analysis and his peculiar versions in interviews he has done, so it is not so surprising this time that the brilliant correspondent of the BBC paint us a Cuba that Cubans themselves do not know and, to top it all, that he should exceed his ominous functions. It often happens that some clever foreigners like him need just a little bit of time in the Island and a couple of questions that they claim to ask around to master Cuban issues. It’s as if the tropics overheat their brain and they lose the ability to discern. Now Ravsberg not only misrepresents the Cuban reality, but also comes out as an expert in sociology and social psychology of Cuba, mainly in terms of politics and religion. An analysis of such nonsense would be extremely long, so I think it’s best to make only some remarks in order to correct a little the compass of this disoriented reporter, who, as the old popular saying goes, can’t see the forest for the trees.

The BBC correspondent in Cuba states that the government does not give value to dissidence “because it receives money from abroad.” I don’t know if this government has provided Ravsberg with the evidence of such emoluments received by “the dissidence”, since the Cuban people have never been shown any concrete evidence of this, unless we take into account the unilateral declarations of the official beefeaters (and unofficial ones, such as Ravsberg). On the other hand, who can be classified as “dissident” to the clever correspondent? In general, in that wide tuning fork in Cuba are included the opposition parties as well as the independent journalists, the alternative bloggers and whoever does not abide by government guidelines. If this is the case, I feel authorized to deny such a claim: at least one large group of bloggers who are close to me and I, among other “dissidents” do not receive any money from abroad. The Cuban government, on the other hand, not only has gotten all kinds of resources for decades (which it still receives and squanders) but –in addition- applies an abusive tax on relatives’ remittances and on any other kind of income Cubans may receive from abroad. With this in mind, it follows that the government also benefits from the alleged foreign funds destined to the internal dissidence, as I’m sure Mr. BBC Correspondent knows.

The Cuban government does not consider dissidence, not exactly for “receiving money from abroad,” but because dictatorships do not accept any alternative demonstration, whether colored by politics or not. The Cuban government does not recognize the opposition parties nor independent journalists, the various alternative civil society associations or bloggers, and we are not even an organization. The weakness of totalitarian regimes lies, nevertheless, in that absolute monopoly over society, over information, and over individual fear, so that all alternative event or trend that may involve a breach in the system becomes “dissidence” and must be demonized. Thus, according to the official discourse (and curiously, in that of “journalists” such as this Uruguayan gentleman) all dissidents “are mercenaries in the service of a foreign power that attacks, blockades and is hostile to us”.

Ravsberg tries to underestimate the international pressure on the dictatorship of the Island following the death of Orlando Zapata by arguing, “except the United States government, no other government condemned the Cuban government for the death of Zapata.” The criticism from Mexican and European parliaments, as well as those of civil society groups, artists and intellectuals from many countries, do not seem relevant to one who, paradoxically, employs Uruguay as an example of democratic tradition. Not even the discrete statements of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who publicly grieved over the death of Orlando Zapata, are mentioned by Ravsberg. His own discourse betrays his distinct sense of democracy: if governments aren’t the ones to directly produce criticism, international pressure does not exist.

Another issue relates to considerations about Cuban politics. Ravsberg tries to convince public opinion that in Cuba there has been a change in president that supposes some difference or change in the Cuban process. In an absurd simile, he makes a comparison between the Cuban dictatorial succession process (a real fingering of the candidate) and Uruguayan democratic elections that placed –via the polls- Mujica in power, after Tabaré Vázquez. Big deal, Ravsberg tells us, both (Tabaré and Mujica) are representatives of the Frente Amplio, this implies that the change in representatives in the Cuban dictatorship is “somewhat similar to what just happened in Uruguay”, since there is a different person in power in each case. One must be very stupid or disrespectful of the intelligence of others to hold such a belief.

Ravsberg’s views walk the same tightrope during the referenced interview, when he asserts “there has been a series of changes in Cubans’ access to hotels, which resulted in tourist hotels occupation rate of 10% for Cubans last summer, which also indicates that certain sectors have good incomes”. And also the unusual mockery on the Cuban people by saying “there have been a lot of changes in the country that people seem not to follow: economic changes, recognition of rights of citizens, for example, internet access, which was banned to Cubans for years, has just been legally ratified by decree as a right, and Internet cafes were immediately established so that any citizen can check out anything, from the Miami Herald to the BBC World and even El Espectador. These are key steps, steps that are not taken into account, but that mean, for example, that the Cuban government accepts, for the first time, to end the information monopoly and to grant access to the world”.

What Ravsberg failed to state is that certain websites cannot be viewed from the cybercafes because the government has “cut offs” that prevent access and, curiously, some of the banned pages are those of the alternative bloggers, which shows that officials show greater fear of the dissemination of news and views of those who are inside the Island than of the entire foreign press, including the one accredited in Cuba. The BBC’s correspondent didn’t clarify that such “rights”, generously granted by the government, will not become generalized, because no salary in Cuba provides enough income to cover the price of lodging in hotels or to afford the luxury to surf the Internet for information, unless there is an alternative income source (not legal), family or friends abroad to cover such expenses, or if the person is a Cuban with a foreign residence permit or with a job contract outside of Cuba. Only thus can Cubans allow themselves such excesses, against the grain of the painfully slow network connections or the questionable hotel service offered. However, each independent Cuban national staying in hotels is so suspect that his stay is carefully controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, with strict monitoring of his spending and the number of times he takes pleasure in these accommodations.

Perhaps a good demonstration of the government’s willingness to end the information monopoly would be to unblock the websites that host the alternative blogosphere ( and, for example), or to allow the right to all those who the official press has offended and discredited through the mass media, to reply, so that ordinary Cubans may get to know all the arguments presented for debate and form their own opinions. Ravsberg cannot ignore that the Cuban press has never published a single one of the documents condemning the government occurring at the national or international level, although it has allowed itself to deride them, so that the people has had only a partial and distorted version of them.

As for the internal repression and harassment that has kept up during seven long years against the Ladies in White, wives of political prisoners of the Black Spring, which the BBC’s correspondent attributes to the indignation of the people against betrayal, is Ravsberg ignoring that the raging hordes that have attacked these defenseless Cubans during their peaceful demonstrations every Sunday are agents of the Cuban government, specifically trained to smack and suppress any demonstration by the alternative civil society, whether they are opponents or not? Mr. Ravsberg is, at best, rude and vulgar when he so candidly states, referring to the talks between the Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church that “there is an antecedent, a few weeks ago when Raúl Castro’s government called on the Catholic Church to inform it that it had authorized the Ladies in White to march freely through the streets again.” In fact, the Ladies never asked nor needed government permission to march for the release of their relatives who are imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression to disclose truths that Mr. Ravsberg pretends to ignore; the streets are a place they have earned with their reputation and courage, just like they have earned the respect and admiration of all decent Cubans. They conquered the streets on their own.

As for the Catholic Church, which Mr. Journalist regards as if it were a sect of pariahs and fugitives and which he considers “a weak institution”, he clarified that the religious institution is the strongest in Cuba, only that Catholicism a la Cuban is not similar to that practiced in Uruguay, or, say, Spain. In Cuba, the syncretic cults of African origin have not surpassed Catholicism, but they have given rise to a particular religious amalgam in which it is difficult to see where the contributions of one or the other belief begin or end; they have imprecise boundaries because, for example, in everyday practice, the followers of the cults of African descent baptize their children in Catholic churches following the traditional Christian ritual, they place offerings in those very churches and show respect to both God and Oloffi. On the other hand, some call themselves Catholic and make offerings to the orishas, or consult the babalawo. The Social Science scholars in Cuba have never ventured to say that “the majority of Cubans profess an Afro-Cuban faith known as Santería”, as the audacious Ravsberg dares to assure us. Judging by how he sets out the issue, he seems to have spent much time in Cuba doing a survey of high statistical value to ensure this (the National Institute of Anthropology has lost so much for not having him on its staff!), as well as to maintain that the Cuban Catholic Church “is not a strong institution in the sense of having many followers, many supporters. It is a minority religion” and, in spite of that, it has high social influence ” (what, then, is this influence based on?).

I don’t want to finish without proposing to correspondent Ravsberg that it might be advisable to spend a little less time sightseeing in Havana and immerse himself in Cuban History texts in order to avoid issuing disparate comments; willful ignorance is not an ornament, so displaying it so shamelessly is not nice. When this man says that “Cuba is a country that was practically never independent, when the Spanish colony ended troops from another country entered, the US installed the first president, and later on there was practically no democratic history…” he is missing a rich history as a republic in which strong democratic values were consolidated, plus civil institutions that enabled the birth of a constitution in 1940, the most advanced of its time. Ravsberg ignores that the seeds of Cuban democratic vocation were born in unison with the dawning of a nation, when we were still a colony (as were all the nations of Latin America, including Uruguay), which was refined in the XIX century in the ideas of José Martí, the most democratic of all Cubans. Half a century of dictatorship and latent fear are preventing our people to show it; that is why sometimes Cubans don’t dare to express themselves, that is why when they express themselves freely they are incarcerated, that is why any false correspondent may divulge whatever he pleases about Cuba, as long as what he says is in tune with the government line, or risk losing his accreditation. The day Cuba becomes free, maybe even Ravsberg will be surprised of the democratic vocation of Cubans, but, on that day, he will have to strive to be a real journalist.

Finally, I’m sorry for having overextended my comments on what many might consider excessive attention that the BBC correspondent does not deserve, but it is not about him: We Cubans have already suffered enough damage for over 50 years, and, in addition, have had to remain mute to the offenses and contempt of a parasite of the press. I am not speaking on behalf of Cubans in general, no one has authorized me, nor do I merit it so much, but I speak in my own name because, like the bloggers and independent journalists whom I call my fellow travelers, every day I run the risk of repression for spreading the truths of my country, while Ravsberg’s arrogant insolence waddles with impunity in the midst of my people. I speak, too, because as Mr. Ravsberg knows, the vast majority of Cubans ignores the number of blunders being reported about them by this “journalist”, whom, I’m sure, has been welcomed with the hospitality and the affection of which he is not worthy. I don’t have the authority or qualities to issue guidelines to the BBC, but I am of the view that an agency that was born as far back as 1923 and has provided invaluable services to humanity as a reliable source of information, even during the bloody circumstances of the last century’s world conflagration, should be careful when selecting its correspondents: in the case of Havana, the BBC is paying in cash for the perpetuation of lies. It is disgraceful.

Sorry for your time, I hope that, after all, Fernando Ravsberg is only a small and regrettable error.

11 June 2012

Being Black in Cuba

At the intersection of Acosta Avenue and Calzada 10th of October, around 11 pm, a police van detained a group of people who carried bookbags or handbags. Inside the vehicle there were seven young black men who were detained and handcuffed. With blank stares, they clearly questioned the motives for their detentions.

Lieutenant Delfin Carneado did not know how give them a concrete response. “Shut up”, was what he told them. A frail mulatto with an afro and various green and yellow bracelets on his left wrist, wished to know if the cause of his being suspected of some presumed crime was the color of his skin.

Lieutenant Carneado stared at him coldly and answered: “I am not a scholar, but I do know that the majority of thieves are black”.  The lieutenant said something that was right. According to reliable sources, 88% of prisoners for common crimes in Cuba are either mestizo or black.

The Ministry of the Interior has never published any statistics about the number of common prisoners on in the island and their ethnic classifications. There is a statistic that states that in Cuba there are more than 100,000 behind bars, this is according to estimates made by human rights activists.

If 88% of these are mestizo or black, then the numbers are shocking. This would mean that within the island’s prisons there could be over 88,000 Afro-Cubans. Blacks are involved in 8 out of 10 bloody events that finish in death. They are also more prone to theft, pickpocketing, armed theft, and rapes.

Of course, blacks live in the worst neighborhoods in the most precarious of homes and most come from fractured families.  In a discourse by Fidel Castro on February 7, 2003, he acknowledged that the revolution “had not achieved the same success for eradicating the differences in social and economic status for the black population of the country.”

Seven out of ten managers of important businesses are white. In high political positions not even 10 percent of the positions are filled by blacks. If we consider the census of 2002 to be factual, then 34% of Cubans are either mulattoes or blacks.

Ethnologists and sociologists do not consider these statistics to be accurate, instead they state that the true numbers of black and mestizo citizens in Cuba ranges somewhere around the 60% mark. The numbers and the routines ring true when it comes to the police squad headed by lieutenant Delfin Carneado which operates in the late hours of the night and detains a considerable number of dark-skinned men.

It’s common. Before any operation or round-up blacks are the first suspects. That is why lieutenant Carneado does not have an answer to offer the young man with an afro who wishes to know if his arrest has something to do with prejudices. Perhaps it isn’t a racial problem. Habits, sometimes, are stronger than certain laws.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

For a Messi Shirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: CIMF