Delinquents and Loyalists

It seems like a kids’ game.  Two sides.  Good guys and bad guys.  The Cuban government tries to make us look like a bunch of crooks, fools, delinquents, mercenaries, and traitors to the country.

But life is much more complex.  It has mixes.  Nothing is black and white.  A wrongful precedent is created when the president of a country intends to govern exclusively for his followers only.

Society becomes fractured.  It polarizes.  Unnecessary hate is created among citizens only because they think differently.  And that is what the Cuban regime has been doing for 51 years.

“Within the revolution everything, outside of it nothing”, said Fidel Castro before fearless intellectuals in 1961.  That has been the ruling idea that has guided those who run the country.

The Castros continue treading down a well-worn path.  Manipulating society is nothing new.  These methods were also used by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and the rest of the satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

It’s much more comfortable to govern when you oppress those who think differently.  When you control the flow of information and when you have a press that glorifies its leader and serves as a weapon.

You can’t talk about democracy when these precepts are being violated.  You shouldn’t use that word when citizens have to ask permission to leave their country or to visit it.

It is vile to pronounce it when the doors are closed to those Cubans who dissent with the official ideology.  One is far from being humanistic or democratic when they jail people just for writing or having a different political perspective.

A government is not credible when it accuses everyone who is against it of a string of insults.  For the Castro brothers there is not a dissident, independent journalist, blogger, or human rights activist who is not a delinquent or mercenary at the service of the United States or of the European Union.

There is no single figure within the opposition that is respected.  The path of encouraging hate is a dead end street.  It will solve nothing.  The grave political and economic problems from which we suffer will not be solved in that manner.

Cuba is not going to escape the grave economic crisis from which it has suffered from for two decades by using monologues.  In fact, it will probably sink deeper.  Without an articulated and sensible dialogue we will never have a real democracy.

With the slogans and the hard-line discourse of neighborhood “tough guy”, shouting such things like “the street belongs to the revolutionaries”, and trying to prove who has more balls, we just will continue back tracking towards the worst instincts of human beings.

If what we have in Cuba during this Spring of 2010 is a participatory democracy, then there is something terribly wrong.  The strategists have lost their focus.  To find a solution for the acute problems of the island, violence is not necessary.  Not of any kind.  Not verbal, not physical.

Lots of injustices have been resolved by peaceful struggle.  Just read Gandhi.  Investigate Mandela.  Ask a Vaclav Havel.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Hop-Frog, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.

Ricardo’s Smile

It was an ordeal to go from La Vibora, my neighborhood, to Miramar, where Ricardo González Alfonso lived. There were only two options: catch Route 69, which could take two or three hours. Or the 100, with more buses, but with many more passengers, for its extensive run.

The 69 stops near Ricardo’s house. But if you took the 100 you had to get off at the Comodoro hotel stop and walk several blocks, in the sunshine or the rain. When you arrived, Ricardo would greet you with a smile. Even if he had just received a subpoena from State Security.

Once inside his ramshackle home, he would offer you a glass of cold water, from his even more dilapidated refrigerator. And tea from a plastic thermos, because he couldn’t be brewing coffee at all hours in the old coffee maker. Sometimes he served tea in a plastic cup, which he didn’t throw out: he rinsed it and returned it to use. But typically he would offer it to you in a glass jar, from when they sold Russian jam in Cuba, and which are still used as “cups” for tea or coffee in many homes.

Ricardo was one of the first to be hauled in on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18, 2003. An operation with olive-green uniforms, similar to what was carried out against other dissidents. In the crosshairs of the repression there were more than a hundred dissidents and independent journalists, but in the red dot of the gunsight was Ricardo González Alfonso.

Not because of his good character. And not because, practically by himself, with very little help, he brought to fruition an idea of Raúl Rivero: founding the Márquez Sterling Journalists Society, a purely professional association.

Ricardo was also able to assemble and print two issues of the magazine De Cuba, the only two that State Security allowed to circulate (Claudia Márquez managed to do a third in September 2003, with the help of Vladimiro Roca and Tania Quintero, among a few others who risked it in those dark days).

Ricardo did all that without ceasing to smile. But above all, without ceasing: to issue denunciations and write stories and poems; to serve visitors – from other provinces or other countries; to give interviews to the international media; to organize journalism workshops in his home; and to act as a correspondent for Reporters Without Borders in Cuba .

When Ricardo was arrested, at his home were his two sons, Daniel and David, then just boys, today young men. Two of the things he loves most in this world. Also left behind was Alida Viso Bello, an independent journalist like himself and his partner in life.

Hopefully among those to be released as a result of those negotiations between the government of Raul Castro and the Cuban Catholic Church will be my friend Ricardo González Alfonso, who has turned 60, and his health, as with nearly all political prisoners, is quite impaired. Not so his perennial smile.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Monologue of Two Balseros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

El Combinado del Este Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

An Inmate Tells His Story

It is not known with certainty the number of Cubans that have been held in prison during all these years of a revolution that was made for “the good of all”. Many harrowing stories have yet to be told.

For Alberto Díaz (let’s call him) his incarceration was a real torment. A nightmare that he will never forget. 33 years old and despite his impeccable look, he resembles the living dead. It is due to the fourteen years he spent behind bars.

Alberto Diaz was born into a wealthy family of Catalan origin, that, with the arrival of Fidel Castro and his legion of ‘barbudos’ to power, lost the properties they owned: three buildings of apartments for rent, two pharmacies, three farms and hundreds of head of cattle.

In the wave of nationalisation they saved only a mansion in the neighbourhood of Sevillano, in the Havana municipality of 10 de Octubre, and a summer house on the beach in Guanabo, 23 kilometers from the centre of the capital. In 1963 his family left for United States via Boca Camarioca, Matanzas.

They went on hard exile to Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora. Alberto’s mother remained in Havana, having just married a young captain of the Rebel Army. In love, she chose to stay in Cuba. Alberto was born soon after and grew up without experiencing many difficulties. In 1975 he lost his father in the Charlotte operation, which began 15 years of Cuban intervention in Angola.

The reunion with family members who left in 1963 occurred in 1979. They stepped on home soil again thanks to the approval of the government of the island to the return of the Cuban community living abroad. His uncles and grandparents begged him to leave. He did not respond to their pleas. He still believed in the socialist, tropical revolution.

But Alberto has always liked to dress well, wearing famous brand clothing, drinking quality wine and sitting at the table with the best menu. Tastes that in “the revolution of the poor” were becoming a mortal sin.

For that reason and because he did not participate in volunteer work or political activities, he was not seen in good light at the university where he studied. He never wanted to belong to the Communist Youth. His apathetic attitude to revolutionary tasks led to more than one “anonymous” report being raised with State Security suggesting that they keep an eye on the “improper conduct” by Alberto Diaz, or manifestations of “ideological deviation.”

The life that Alberto liked to lead was in contradiction with the policy of equitable poverty practiced by the government. Moreover, he had been used to having dollars, something considered illegal in 80’s Cuba. Everything happened quickly. A search of his home by the police uncovered $680 hidden under the mattress. The discovery ruined the good fortune that had accompanied Alberto from birth.

He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, for illegal possession of money and possession of capitalist objects of dubious origin. To no avail were the arguments of counsel, nor to have been the son of a martyr of the Angolan war. The sentence was irrevocable. According to the prosecutor, Alberto also “behaved inappropriately within a socialist workers’ society.”

The murky Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, did not receive him with open arms, but with overcrowded cells. More than 10,000 inmates were in prison at that time. One of the buildings in the north wing would be his “residence” for four years.

From the first day he intended to behave well to get out as soon as possible. His “re-education” (so called in Cuba by the guards who look after prisoners) had told him that if he was disciplined he could leave mid-sentence or be transfered to an “open front” where the terms are usually less stringent. But a prison is not a hotel, and less so in Cuba.

Sanitation, health and food were, and are, terrible. Alberto recalls that every day about a dozen inmates were maimed or died as a result of fights and showdowns. Panic seized him. He hardly talked to anyone, but the bad luck him showed him no mercy.

The boss of the gang to which he belonged proposed having sexual relations. This boss was also a prisoner but his explanations that was not homosexual were to no avail. One night that he wants to forget, but fails to erase from his mind, he was raped by the boss of the gang and four other prisoners, inside two weeks.

Alberto only got out of his bunk to eat. He thought that from then on everyone began to desire him as a sexual object.

An old prisoner serving 30 years for murder provided him with a shank and said: “They will come for you over and over again, get over your fear, you’re a man”. With eight stabs he killed the inmate who ran the gang and had violated him along with four other prisoners.

The revenge came at a price. He was landed in the “pizzería”, as the horrendous punishment cells of Combinado del Este are known by. They gave him 10 years more in prison. As soon as he could, he sent his mother a letter telling her to forget he existed.

He thought he would never leave this hell, but he left, in 1995. That year he breathed a different air after 14 years in prison, hunger, cold, heat, beatings, disease. Out in the street he realized how his life had changed.

The worst thing is he does not know what to do with his life. He constantly feels insecure. Restlessness can outweigh reason. Fear remains with him. He had to leave the country and start again. He could not find work commensurate with his training. He reached the third year of industrial engineering. “A prisoner is a negative symbol to society. Nobody wants us”.

Alberto is in good health, but he feels dead. He dream every day of his burial. His mother wants to take him to a psychiatrist, but he refuses. The mimes of his mother seem hollow to him. He has no purpose, bitterness eats his feelings. He blames many for his misfortune, but in the background knows that he has been at fault, because he did not want to leave when his family asked him.

Now what is calming is to walk, for miles and miles. “It’s that in prison one hardly walks.” At the moment, it is his inner peace. His only freedom is to walk with no fixed purpose.

Iván García

Cubafreepress, 25th February 1998.

Translated by Araby

Illegally, Many Cubans are Informed

Everything is there. The good and the bad. The family of Oscar Molina, age 49, learns what’s going on in the world thanks to an illegal connection to a cable antenna.

On channel 3 of his outdated 21-inch Chinese TV, Molina is given a bath of capitalism. CNN says that Greece is an erupting volcano. And Spain now has 20% unemployment.

On Univision news they hear of violence and corruption in the United States and other countries. ESPN brings what his sons like. Football in all colors – Mexican League, Italian, English, German and Spanish.

They see good baseball from the Major Leagues. They applaud the home runs of Cuban Kendry Morales, and suffer the losses of pitcher Liván Hernández. They follow the Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

The Molina family dislikes the constant program interruptions for the insertion of ads. They are bored with the soporific Mexican soap operas and canned low-class stuff. Neither likes sharing programs like Sabado Gigante. They prefer Discovery Channel. And laugh at how nice the Iberian comedy serial Aida is.

The “antenna” as they say in the island has set foot on earth to many in Cuba. The brutal negative media official propaganda about capitalist societies, led people to draw a simple conclusion: if the government criticizes life elsewhere, is because it is superior.

Whether the Castro brothers like it or not, their credibility for a substantial proportion of ordinary Cubans, is in tatters. And the disclosure of the evils of capitalism has been boomeranged.

Spain is wrong. The United States is hell. But a little over 30 percent of the population would go to those countries, according to unofficial estimates. The illegal cable antennas, so persecuted by the Cuban authorities, do not show perfect societies on their programs.

And people are not stupid. They are seeing with their own eyes that the news openly criticizes their president, naked, morbid violence, unemployment, corruption, and police brutality.

They see how they talk about the discontent of immigrants under the new law in the state of Arizona. They compare. And they realize that their reality is often not reflected in state television news. At least as they want it to be.

In Cuba, “everything is going well.” And to find a variety of views, they pay 10 convertible pesos per month (about $8). No small thing. It is equivalent to the minimum wage that is paid to discover other scenarios.

Miami channels provide information on Cuba that the national media do not provide, though sometimes it is distorted. And in some locations in the western provinces, you can see TV Marti, with poor image quality, but free.

And that is precisely what the regime does not like. Cubans know that there is dissent and women who take to the streets dressed in white to demand the release of their imprisoned husbands and sons. And that the result of a hunger strike killed a man named Orlando Zapata.

People like the Molina family are informed about what’s happening in Cuba and the Western world by the foreign channels. They know that life and the cultural uprooting are very hard for those who decide to leave their homeland.

But they feel they have already hit bottom. And they want a change of scenery. Meanwhile, they continue to observe life in capitalism with a remote control.

Iván Garcia

Note: All the time there are operations taking place against the “antennae”, as performed in the month of May in the Havana neighborhood of Parraga, as reported by Eriberto Liranzo Llorente of the Cuban Network of Community Communicators.

Meurice, Cuba’s most Beloved Priest

When Cubans find themselves struggling with personal problems they usually prefer to visit a babalao so that they could toss their shells instead of confessing to a priest in the church. Catholicism has the most followers on the island. But the beliefs brought over by former African slaves of the XVI and XVII centuries also have many followers.

During recent times when Cubans became more and more disillusioned with the olive green revolution, believing became popular.

Together with Catholics and Santeros, Evangelists, Protestants, Baptists, and Jehovahs Witnesses, among others, have risen in numbers.  The Hebrew community has also experienced a boom, as well as Masonry, Spiritualism, and those ladies who toss cards and read the palms of your hands.

But in January 1998, with the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, the Catholic religion regained much of its strength. In fact, it converted Santiago de Cuba’s Archbishop, Pedro Merice Estiu (1932), into the most loved and credible figure of national Catholicism.

Maria de Jesus Gonzalez, 72, is a practicing Catholic. When she remembers the speech by monsignor Meurice on January 24, 1998, she can’t help but get teary eyed.

“I had been waiting all my life to hear those words spoken by a priest.  And father Meurice spoke them in front of the Pope and of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint”.

The pope was received by Meurice in the plaza named after the mulatto combatant from Santiago who fought against Spanish rule- Antonio Maceo. That day the father told the pope:

“Holy Father, Cuba is a country that has an intimate calling towards solidarity, but throughout the course of its long history it has witnessed a disjointed and stranded civil society in which association and participation is restricted.  I present you with the soul of a nation that longs to reconstruct the fraternity of freedom and solidarity”.

Marcelino Linares, 57 and a militant of the communist party, did not like that speech. He considers that “Meurice took advantage of the fact that he could speak before all Cubans and the world to make some noise in the system”. The paragraph that Marcelino disliked the most was precisely the one that the people liked the most.

“In addition, I present you with a growing number of Cubans who have confused Country with only one party, a nation which has gone through a historical process which we have lived through within the last decades in which culture has embedded only one ideology. They are Cubans who refuse everything at a time without discerning. They feel rootless, they refuse everything from here and overvalue everything foreign”.

Twelve years later, many Cubans would have been happy if Pedro Meurice would have been one of the hierarchs that sat down with Raul Castro to talk for four hours on May 19.

Upon asking ten people between the ages of 35 and 60, 5 men and 5 women, why they would have been happy about this, the answer was unanimous: because in him we saw the bravest of all Cuban priests, since 1959.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI accepted his retirement. Since then, Archbishop Emerito inhabits the Sacred Brotherhood of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity in the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba.

In the farewell mass on February 18, 2007, Meurice made a calling to Catholics to work towards reconciliation and emphasized the importance of “renewing our pastoral practices…and moving away from many things that are currently happening”.  It seems like God heard him.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

Raul Castro Handles the Situation with Tweezers

The government of General Raul Castro is handling the Cuban situation with kid gloves, and a lot of discretion. The jubilation and cheap partying of revolutionary re-affirmation is pure distraction.

The national economy is sinking without remedy. The prescription for alleviating the disaster appears most like the neo-liberal variety that is criticized with such passion by the creole mandarins.

The forecast is not encouraging. Go figure. The measures designed by Raul Castro’s advisers are unpopular and hard. Very hard. One million three hundred thousand people will be unemployed. Inefficient industries will close. Worker transportation at the big enterprises will be eliminated.

The lunch also. Already the stimulus in convertible currency has been seriously affected. A well-informed source assures that they are studying cutting the payment of the wages in hard currency to a minimum that should not exceed 35 convertible Cuban pesos.

What could come down in this summer of fire is not friendly. According to a source consulted, during the month that the Football World Cup in South Africa begins, which State Television is going to transmit in full, it would be a good time to start with a package of regulations that would put people’s backs up.

A considerable part of the public will have their eyes on the Cup. One of the main measures is to dismiss between 100,000 and 200,000 workers from the inflated payroll slates. They are thinking of sending them home with 60% of their salary, and they are also considering placing them in some other sectors that have an enormous shortage of personnel, like the construction or agricultural industries, according to the source, who works in a branch of government.

To save face, the government of the Castro brothers intends to put into effect a model of private co-ops in small sectors such as barber shops or beauty parlors.

According to this person, the possibility is being looked at of eliminating some important subsidies like the ration card. “There is an exception, that foresees leaving the ration card only for cases of social security, in other words senior citizens, disabled people or families of low income,” points out the source and adds: “Everything is under meticulous study.”

The regime of General Castro who who will turn 79 on the upcoming June 3, has calculated to not make a false step. Twenty-one years of deep economic crisis has created a very important wearing down of a big sector of the population that is openly complaining about the policies of the government.

The rubber band will not stretch any more. It looks like the moment to apply the rumored formulas to save the economy has arrived. The situation of productivity and of finances on the island is going up in smoke.

It is strongly rumored that the next school year will be delayed until October. Essential food such as rice, salt and oil will not be readily available in the national currency, and prices have tripled. Fruits and vegetables continue to have stratospheric prices.

Many times, because of an ill-fated measure of the state organ in charge of commercialization, the products do not reach the markets, and are lost in the fields or are spoiled in warehouses.

Little and bad is the news that is falling upon us this hot summer.

Rogelio Lopez, a 67-year-old biologist by profession assures us that the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf is already provoking the hurried migration of sharks and other marine predators. Even the usual seaside months of July and August, when people rush to the beaches en masse, could be endangered by the black tide.

All a skinny dog gets are fleas. Castro II has other fronts open. One, that of the corruption at all levels. The other, political. With active opposition, the Ladies in White are trying to gain public space, the mediation of the church and the upcoming visit of the Vatican chancellor, who in addition to a face-to-face dialogue with the authorities, brings an express petition to the Havana government to free certain political prisoners.

To climb out of the hole induced by 51 years of bad economic administration, aggravated by the gringo embargo, clearly, the solution will bring strong criticism and bigger discontent in the population as well as an increase in illegal emigration.

Cuba is not Greece. None of the international organizations will inject huge sums of capital into the precarious Cuban economy. In addition, the foreign investments will continue to be minimal. We only have the summer which promises us good football, abundant heat and a new notch on the belt. Another one.

Ivan Garcia

Photos: Manu Dias. Raúl Castro is received by a native of Bahia de Acarajé, during a stop he made in Bahia, Brasil in July of 2009.

Translated By: Mari Mesa Contreras

Banana Dissidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translated by Regina Anavy

Marti for All Tastes

All take pride in knowing him well.  His writings are read like they were the Bible.  And it is politically correct to cite him at important moments.  Jose Marti is the icon of both bands in Cuba.  Opponents as well as those loyal to Castro use Marti’s speeches and phrases to focus their theories, projects, and ideologies.

Fidel Castro’s revolution identifies itself profoundly with Marti and uses his figure so repeatedly that young people have grown bored with it. Those who disagree with the One and Only Comandante are not far behind.  Their banner is Marti.

There are Marti busts in all schools, union and party centers, and in the living room of many dissident’s home.  And leaders of the opposition always cite him at the beginning of some document or political manifesto.

There are also numerous anti-Castro politicians across the pond who admire Pepe Marti and have him as their standard. In 1984, when the Reagan administration allocated funds for a radio station to broadcast to the island, it named the station Radio Marti.

Castro almost went apoplectic. He considered such an act an insult to the ideals of the Cuban martyr.  In 1953, when Castro himself attacked military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, he wore out Marti phrases in the process.

In fact, at the trial that followed, he declared that his actions were inspired by the national hero.  The official media designated Marti “the intellectual author of the Moncada Barracks assault.”

The humanist bard, who died at the age of 42 years at a minor skirmish at Dos Rios, in the former Oriente Province, is an important figure because his ideas are above good and evil.  Marti is to Cubans of all political stripes what Christ is to the Catholic Church.

In life, he had serious rivals and was envied by certain groups of crude and brave proponents of independence–they saw the journalist from Havana as some weirdo who spoke and wrote like the gods, but who had never fired a shot.

The men with machetes in hand, limping from the war against the Spanish motherland, would mutter that Marti was a Captain Araña.*  The poet, however, fought against the current.

His accomplishment of uniting the most important Cubans in the Revolutionary Party, which he founded, is indisputable. Even today, many in Cuba lament his premature death.

Many believe that events would have unfolded differently had Marti lived. Castro believes himself to be a fervent follower of Marti’s ideas. But he applies them at whim. Marti was an anti-imperialist, but he never said anything about ruling for life or disrespecting those with whom he differed. He never said that.

And that is where those who are opposed to the ancient rule of the brothers from Holguin say is where the government brazenly manipulates Marti’s premises. I agree.  Marti never applauded Marxist theories.

And the Cuban government, in a political aberration, considers itself both Marxist and based on Marti. Marti always advocated for the dignity of all persons. Those loyal to Castro turn a deaf ear to the Master’s ideas about this.

Marti has become a crutch for politicians, regardless of their ilk.  A cliche. And sometimes it gets tiresome, like the Cuban politicians of both bands who use Marti at their whim and convenience.

This has resulted in young people seeing the national hero with disdain–they even ridicule him. Most youth could not care less about Marti’s ideas. They are unbelievers by nature. They have other symbols: frivolous things, fashion, sports and movie stars. For Marti, it’s off to the attic.

It is a shame.  They are conditioned to see Fidel as an extension of Marti.  The government’s pure and hard propaganda has wished it so.

One hundred and fifteen years after his death, on the 19th of May, 1895, no politician on the island has been able to fill the void left by Marti.  Pepe, we are still looking for someone who could be like you.  There is no one.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Andrea Bellamy’s, Flickr

*Translator’s note: “Captain Araña” was an 18th century character who sent others to do what he would not.

Translation by HEFA and Paige Harbaugh

The Special Period Returns

If we Cubans thought that our hardships and shortages of all kinds had hit bottom, forget it. It is the twentieth anniversary of the most severe and extensive economic crisis that the island suffered in all its history. Those were hard years. Very hard.

It is still fresh in my memory. Blackouts of up to 16 hours. Undernourished people with tattered clothes, lining up at cafes to drink a vile brew made from orange and grapefruit peels. My mother, how could I forget, thinned down greatly, lost some teeth, and had to sell her most precious treasure — a fabulous collection of Brazilian music — for only $40, so she could shop for some food.

In 1989 in Cuba a violent decline in people’s daily lives had begun. Not that we had lived well. No. We were deprived of all kinds of essential freedoms, and we were third-class citizens in our own country.

But we had a relatively efficient health system, and the ration card had a bit more variety. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the door was closed to Fidel Castro for oil and Soviet rubles. Then we entered the age of indigence.

The economy shrank by 35 percent, and Castro clung even tighter to power, in the style of Kim Il Sung. Faced with the prospect of people dropping like flies in public view, he made lukewarm reforms. He legalized the currency of his enemy, the United States, and allowed some work to be opened to self-employment.

That was the lifesaver, because Havana is not Pyongyang. Everything good that happened to us in those years came at the hand of dollars or foreign capital investment. Then the government of the Castro brothers, amid fears that economic reforms could cost them the presidential chair, put on all kinds of brakes.

Foreign companies have declined to a minimum. And just as we’ve marked two decades since the dire national situation, the world is brought down by a deep economic crisis. No one has been spared. In order not to cause panic, the official media have started a mild campaign about how much the global crisis has affected us.

Already several nickel companies have closed, because of the depressed price of that metal on the world market. Those affected talk of the fall in tobacco exports and how few tourists are coming to the island. Obviously, these are not times for vacationing.

The solution, as always, is to ask for more sacrifice — and still more — from the exhausted Cuban population. Another turn of the screw. There is no mention that the culprit is the monumental economic inefficiency of a system that runs counter to human nature. Nor is there talk of allowing Cubans to set up small and medium-sized businesses.

They are entrenched in their far-fetched theories of sovereignty and two-bit nationalism. And of course we ordinary Cubans are to blame for the disaster, we who are asked to cut back, not to think about the future and, instead, “to be loyal to the supreme leader.”

According to an economist, there is so little money in the state coffers that “about two hundred thousand barrels of the oil that Venezuela sells us at preferential prices are being resold on the world market, because of the lack of liquidity.”

It is the height of folly. It’s like being hungry and selling food. Under the state of affairs emerging on the Island, this summer the majority of citizens will have to punch a new hole in the already tight belt. Another one.

Iván García

Photo: almamagazine, Flickr.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Oscar Elías Biscet, Resident of Lawton

Click image to be taken to video on Youtube

On July 20th, political prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González will turn 49 years of age. On that day we wanted to publish a text remembering him.

Because Biscet and his wife Elsa Morejon also lived in the Lawton neighbrohood, one of the highest in the Havana municipality “10 de Octobre,” and the most populous of the Cuban capital. For a short cut, Oscar Elias often got off the bus at the stop on Plaza Roja, by our house, and by way of Carmen, our street, headed up to his home, several blocks farther up, always climbing a hill.

We have decided to bring forward our memories, however, knowing that a documentary has been made about him in which Ana Luisa López Baeza does not appear. Ana Luisa  was an official reporter and later an independent journalist for Cuba Press, from the time it was founded by Raul Rivero, on September 23, 1995 .

A documentary about Biscet without the testimony of Ana Luisa is lame, incomplete. Because not only was she the first journalist to report about his dissent, but also because no one else has followed his career as a physician and human rights activist more than she has.

When Ana went into exile in Miami in 1999, others in Cuba Press continued to report everything to do with Oscar Elias: Raúl Rivero, Ricardo González Alfonso, Alida Viso Bello, Ariel Tapia and the two of us, among others. Last March 23, Ana Luisa remembered Biscet in this email:

“I can say that in that context I was most dazzled by Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet’s neat appearance, his modesty and his adherence to the Hippocratic Oath. This was apparent to me the first time I saw Biscet, when he went to my house to tell me what was happening in the Daughters of Galicia Hospital (where he worked) in relation to Rivanol-induced abortions.

“For me that is the first of many issues that have caused him so much suffering. His condemnation regarding the abortions was overwhelming. Added to his testimony was that of many women who, through that route, had had their pregnancies of 21 weeks or more terminated. Biscet made me listen to them in his presence and requested my opinion. I agreed with his: this was a horrendous crime.

“Almost all of these women, overcome by weeping, had not been informed about what they then lived through: many babies came out alive and thrashed around in the buckets or basins where they were deposited to be later silenced forever. Biscet left me a copy of the cassette and I reported about this through the means then available to us.

“I was aware at that time that he began his protests against that method of abortion displaying a sign that read ‘Abortion, murder of babies’ among his colleagues at the hospital where he worked.

“After that day, I kept in constant contact with Biscet and I kept track of all his activities in opposition up to the day I left Cuba in 1999. I was at his house several times, in Lawton, where more than once he was the victim of harassment. I remember most a stink bomb thrown at him, the kind that leaves an infernal stench.

“I also walked the streets of Lawton, his neighborhood, where I noticed the admiration and love that he inspired. Affection that was obvious, in spite of the forced need to be discrete, with gestures and words, in cases like his.”

What Ana Luisa said was corroborated by the following information published in Cubanet November 7, 2002 by Fara Armenteros.

“There is no doubt that this man has the capacity to understand human suffering, and that is why he takes on the defense of the human rights of the people,” Pedro, a man who traveled from another neighborhood to see Biscet, pointed out.

“My family told me that he had been liberated and I came to see his face. I am leaving more than satisfied, because I witnessed the entire press conference with the journalists” he added.

“Yesterday (November 6, 2002, a month before his arrest and permanent detention), Biscet held a press conference to make good on his promise to his fellow prisoners at the Cuba Si Prison, in Holguin province, where he was jailed for three years: to make known to the world the abuses and humiliations that prisoners in Cuban jails endure.

“When we asked Rachel Diaz, one of Biscet’s neighbors, her views on the doctor, she said: ‘Look at what he told the re-educator in prison,’ referring to one of the experiences recounted by the dissident, ‘and that’s what I think of Biscet, that he does not need re-education because he had great parents who raised him well.’

“Biscet said that in prison violence is used as an educational method, and explained the poor living conditions of prisoners: lack of medical care, poor food, overcrowding and lack of minimally adequate facilities for rest. He also noted that prisoners are not allowed to have radios. And although they are allowed to read the Bible, they cannot read it in groups.

“During the press conference, Biscet answered questions from independent journalists and foreign correspondents in Havana. ‘We are democratic and we need to accept diversity now,’ he said when asked his opinion about the Varela Project and the Assembly to Promote Civil Society.”

The documentary has another notable absence: that of Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, especially since the documentary has been dedicated to Orlando Zapata Tamayo. It seems that the filmmakers did not realize that Zapata Tamayo was among the opponents who joined the fast convened by the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in and led by Martha in February 2003, to demand the release of Dr. Biscet, arrested along Zapata Tamayo, Raúl Arencibia and Virgilio Marantes Guelma Fajardo, on December 6, when they were preparing to hold a meeting with human rights activists in the Lawton neighborhood.

Zapata, Arencibia, and Marantes were detained for a few weeks, afterward they were released to await trial.  Zapata was rearrested on March 20, but Biscet has been detained since December 2002. In April 2003 Biscet was given a 25 year sentence as part of the “Group of 75.”

Among the memories is the morning independent reporter Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso (sentenced to 20 years in prison on April 2003) reported by telephone, from our home, his coverage of the press conference that Biscet held near us, in his home.

On December 10th, 1998, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lawton Foundation, led by Biscet, organized a reading of the Declaration at Buttari Park, a park in the Lawton neighborhood.  Representing Cuba Press at this event were Ariel Tapia, Ivan, and I.  State Security staged a “show” at the scene that was later written about in the article “El show del Buttari.”

The last image we have of Biscet is from a photo Martha Beatriz showed us taken at a working lunch she, Rene Gomez Manzano and Feliz Bonne Carcasses held with Biscet at the Central Havana headquarters of the Canary Association of Cuba, where one can eat well and inexpensively.  That was in 2002 after Biscet had served a 3-year sentence and right before he was rearrested in December 2002.

A personal tribute by way of the following two texts from the independent journalists who had the good fortune of having met one of the most important Cuban dissidents of all times.

Una revolución pacífica comienza. [A peaceful revolution begins.]

La opción de Biscet. [Biscet’s Option.]

We would have also liked to reproduce “Cuba Yes, Biscet Also” by Raul Rivero and published by the Nuevo Herald on April 14th, 2000, but we were not able to locate it on the internet. [Translator’s note: This article has been located and will be translated and linked to this blog post.]

Ivan Garcia and Tania Quintero

Translated by HEFA and other(s).

Havana Water

Take note. More than 50 percent of the potable water that is distributed in the Cuban capital is lost to the poor state of the network of aqueducts and sewers.  It is a drama.  Also note that more than 100,000 Havana households do not have access to the precious liquid.

Ask Jose Mesa, 49, what his dream is, and without thinking he will say: running water in his house for 24 hours.  Because every afternoon, after arriving tired from the factory where he works, he has to carry 62 buckets of water to fill a pair of 55 gallon containers.

Could it be that Mesa is asking for too much.  In Havana you can count the families that have water all day.  In the best case, the immense majority of homes in the capital receive water every other day.  In apartment buildings, the water pump, if there is one, pumps a couple of times a day for 30 minutes.

The revolution of the Castro brothers has done little to help the situation.  There are aqueducts, such as those in Albear, that date back to the end of the 19th century.  Faced with the difficult situation of many residents of the city in accessing potable water, at the end of the ’80s the president mandated the construction of the El Gato aqueduct in Madruga, on the outskirts of Havana.

But this did not alleviate the critical water shortage.  It was intended to turn the situation around, after ten years, it constitutes the company Havana Water S.A., a joint-venture company with mixed Spanish ownership which is advised by Barcelona Water.

The first thing that began to happen was the reestablishment or construction of new water lines.  But so deplorable was the technical state of the water mains that the work proceeded at the pace of a tortoise. If you want to see the utter waste, walk through the streets of the city at night and you will see numerous leaks, occasionally veritable rivers.

While those like worker Jose Mesa live without potable water and every day have to carry dozens of buckets, each night in the city of Havana more than 50 percent of the vital liquid is lost.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Utilizing the water in a small square in Old Havana.

Cuba, the Black Market in the Crosshairs

It is the lifeline for many. The underground market supplies about 60% of the products needed by a majority of the population.  When the island was living through the silent battle, the “special period,” underground sales provided what the depressed state could not.

Adela Bencomo, a 73-year-old housewife has always purchased cooking oil, beef, chicken, high quality fish, and powdered milk for her grandchildren in the black market.  They had lower prices.  And often, your groceries were brought right to your door.  Now, during this hot May 2010, much has changed.

For months now, neighborhood vendors have not been able to sell anything.  Every day their anxious customers ask how long the situation will last.  They all respond the same way: “Times are hard.”

Due to the shortages in the informal economy, many families are using their funds sent from abroad to buy what they need in convertible currency shops, says Adela, while waiting in line at the butcher shop to buy the half pound of chicken per person rationed by the state.

After 2008, when the country was devastated by three powerful and furious hurricanes, the governement of General Raul Castro unleashed a major crackdown on “illegal vendors.”

Anyone caught profiting from selling food was sentenced, in summary 25-minute trials, to a two-year prison sentence.  It was very dangerous to walk down the street with 5 kilos of rice or a dozen fresh eggs.

Anyone carrying a backpack was detained by the police.  Being young was enough to arouse suspicion.  Being black marked you.  After unrelenting harassment by law enforcement, the tide changed.

But the state maintained its stranglehold on warehouses, businesses, and shops, the principal source of provisions for those who sell food underground.

And so the well has begun to dry up. The black market is an important industry in countries going through economic hardship.  In Cuba, to buy clothes, personal hygiene products, and items like cooking oil, cheese, or quality sweets, you must have hard currency.

Around 70% of all people receive euros or dollars from their relatives scattered around the world.  But these remitances are not enough to purchase in convertible currency the food needed for basic survival, as well as shoes, clothing and other things, in adequate quantities.

To make matters worse, since 2004 the government, which is always talking of its generosity with the people, has charged a “revolutionary tax” of 20% on the USD and 8% on the Euro.

In addition, since then, they have raised prices on basic goods, which were already very expensive. Currently, all goods sold in convertible currency are taxed at around 400 percent.

It is logical, then, for people to resort to the black market. Due to police harassment, the black market is in a tailspin and this has created a headache for more than one person. Forty-nine-year-old Rosa Duarte is a good example.

“I don’t know what I am going to do, I try to stretch the 100 dollars my daughter sends me from the U.S. every month, but it is barely enough to cover the necessities. If the informal economy continues to dry up, I will be left with two options: ask my daughter for more money or ask for help in the streets,” she says with a certain irony.

And that is no joke.  If something that ran as smoothly as the black market begins to falter, the common person’s troubles are only going to increase.

Add to that insulting salaries, which are barely adequate to buy a few vegetables and what is rationed, meager quantities that do not last 10 days.  What’s worse is, there is no solution in sight.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by HEFA