The Ladies In White Are Not The Real Enemy

I have good friends who completely support Castro’s revolution. I respect their opinions, as they respect mine. And there’s no problem. We have shared interests. We like soccer and baseball, white rum, and we love our children. We were born in Havana, which we love.  And each of us, from where we stand,  want the best for our country.

What separates us are the political opinions. I am convinced that of course individual rights are shamelessly violated in Cuba.  The government acts chaotically when the island is put on public trial.  But it isn’t a CIA campaign, or that the large media corporations have been cruelly baited with regard to the shortsighted policies of the Castro brothers.

No. It’s simply the actions of the system which provokes worldwide condemnation and the newspaper headlines. Following the death of the opponent Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the media, democratic governments, and social networks have aimed their cannons at the aged olive green government.

This death, the result of a hunger strike of one person, who the friends of the revolutions want to see as delinquent, who was at that moment serving a prison term for his politics, whose demands were purely political, was something that could have been avoided.

The system is very sensitive to internal or external criticism. It always sees an imperialist conspiracy. These are blows to the chest, and for them, no country has the moral right to criticize Cuba when it comes to human rights

And so it defends itself by going on attack. Personal rights are violated in almost the entire world, and this is   denounced by civil society groups. The same thing happens on the island. But it is the Cuban government that represses those who think differently.

It has not gotten to the point of extrajudicial deaths. Nor is there any need for that. They control the three basic powers of society, and if you go to a hearing on an alleged political crime, you are condemned in advance.

Not recognizing the opposition is the root cause of all the problems. All of my friends who support Castro in one way or another, live in societies where it is not a crime to be an opponent. It is not believable that an entire population supports a regime. Nor is it true that all who oppose it are a band of mercenaries at the service of the United States.

In Cuba there are many things that do not work. The Castros do not want nor do they permit other people to form a different political party with their own opinions. And then unfortunate events occur, like that of March 17 with the Ladies in White.

You can have whatever opinion you want about this group of women. But there is a truth which is like a fist: if their husbands, sons or other family members were not in jail, the Ladies in White would not exist.

Just as, if thousands of Argentinian children had not disappeared, during the military dictatorship of the 70’s, there would have been no reason for the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  The Castro government is anti-democratic, and repressive at the time when it should accept different political opinions.

But it takes advantage of the freedoms of the democratic societies. For the crime of espionage, five agents are jailed in the United States and they spend the people’s money, which is very scarce, on travel around the world for their family members to defend the cause.

In the ‘monstrous’ country that is the United States, friends of the revolution have paid 50 thousand dollars so that a “poisoned” media would publish propaganda in favor of freedom for the spies. The Castro politicians, on their world travel, unite with opponents of governments elected by their people, and with revolutionary groups.

And nothing happens. I haven’t read any articles about Frei Beto or Lucius Walker, fervent Castro admirers, delineating how they have been whipped by the intelligence services of their countries. Maybe they are more subtle than the Cubans. Or it might be, as I believe, that these things are entirely permitted in free countries.

In the events of March 17, in the poor neighborhood of Parraga, in Arroyo Naranjo, the poorest part of the city, which has the greatest number of prisoners per capita in the entire country, there was physical violence and manipulation.

I don’t offer any categorical opinion despite what I have read or heard about the Ladies in White. I saw photos and videos in which you can see them badly treated by the soldiers, who arrested and almost strangled one of the women in the group.

As an independent journalist, I have been present at a few public demonstrations, including these Ladies in White, and not only have verbal lynchings occurred, but punches, kicks, karate blows.

Furthermore, simply trying to impede a demonstration is counter to the freedom of self-expression. And it is a lie, that the government amplifies, that the “people spontaneously” insult and slander the demonstrators.

Those who have lived in Cuba know this is not true. Since 1980 when these “acts of repudiation” appeared, against people who decided to leave their country, where they were beaten and insulted, it has become an habitual practice and strategy of the political police.

The authorities summoned these people in advance to denigrate the marchers as “mercenaries.” In Havana it is known that more than a few times in the work centers, in order to give the appearance of the “revolutionary masses,” workers were given a day off, so they could go and shout insults at the Ladies in White or others in opposition who decided to demonstrate in the streets.

In Cuba, on their own, nobody would bother another person for peacefully demonstrating. Even less for this spent revolution, where the support for the Castro project diminishes every day.

The government, with these events, is creating a thick smoke screen. There are strong rumors, with much credibility, that people at the highest levels are involved in scandals, bribery, corruption, and this is a giant headache for the government of the brothers from Biran.

It is not the opponents, the independent journalists, the bloggers or the Ladies in White who are creating the final political crisis of this regime. It is and will be the generals who have now become businessmen, who have grabbed the greenbacks with such pleasure.

The dissidents demand change, but in a peaceful way. You can insult them or beat them, but it is the participants in the “dance of the millions,”* living well and sawing out the ground from beneath the government, that really threatens the people at the top.

The real enemy who could overthrow everything are rubbing shoulders with power.   These are the dangerous ones. The others are just dust and straw.

Ivan Garcia

*Translator’s note: “The dance of the millions” refers to the period in Cuban history when immense wealth was created in the sometimes speculative development of the sugar industry.

Translated by ricote

How I Survived The Black Spring

The evening of March 17 my mind was elsewhere.  I didn’t have a cent in my pocket and I had to buy a vitamin-filled milk complex, which at the time cost 4 dollars, for my daughter Melany, who was barely a month and a half old.  The baby’s voracious appetite forced the pediatrician to order the vitamin-filled complex to complement the mother’s milk.

Back then I was an independent journalist working for the agency Cuba Press, which was presided over by the poet and journalist Raul Rivero.  I wrote for the web site of the Inter-American Press Society, plus chronicles and stories for Encuentro en la Red [Encounter on the Web], a web site created by Cuban immigrants in Spain, which was the best, journalistically speaking, that was being promoted outside of Cuba.

Payment for the articles arrived every two or three months.  The day before the government launched a raid against 75 opponents and independent reporters, I was barely treading water. It was a hot month of March.  The Iraqi invasion by the U.S. troops was imminent.  The previous night I had spoken with my wife regarding the possibility of selling some of my clothes and a watch so we could buy the food for the baby.

That evening I spent the night at the baby’s house to help the mother, who was very tired by little Melany’s habit of waking up in the middle of the night and then sleeping until dawn.

Around midnight, on Tuesday, March 18, I returned to my house, in the district of La Vibora, where I lived with my mother, my sister and a niece.  I felt the exhaustion of centuries and the bags under my eyes reached the floor.

I saw, on the balcony, my mother Tania Quintero, who was an independent reporter as well, signaling incomprehensibly to me. When I arrived she informed me that they had detained several reporters and dissidents.

My exhaustion was gone immediately.  The bad news did not stop there.  There were massive detentions going on all over the island.  The next day we found out that almost a hundred people had been detained and their homes had been carefully searched.

My mother and I were waiting for our arrest at any moment.  We were walking around with a toothbrush and a spoon.  I spoke with my wife and sadly told her that they could come for me at any time.

We held our hearts in our fists.  Those days were full of fear.  I did not understand the government’s reasons for jailing a group of people whose opposition was peaceful or who wrote without mandate.

Reporter friends like Raul Rivero, Ricardo Gonzalez, Jorge Olivera and Pablo Pacheco, by State decree, slept in cells sealed by the political police.  I listened to short-wave radio and the world-wide denunciation was spectacular.  Castro, in his calculated strategy, thought the Iraq war would divert the world’s attention from the matter.  But it did not happen that way.

As the days passed, a powerful wave of attacks was let loose by the Cuban Media against the opposition.  The circus began.  Trials without rights and where the people who had infiltrated the dissidence came out to the light.  I remember with horror that there were 7 prosecutor requests for the death sentence.

The crime was to dissent and to write articles that were not favorable to the government.  As “definitive proofs” the office of the public prosecutor presented typewriters, portable radios, books, blank sheets of paper and money.  They didn’t trouble themselves to show a single firearm nor any explosive materials.

“Castro has gone crazy” I thought.  The more that I analyzed different fact, the less logic that the conclusions made. What was certain: the government had prepared meticulously for the hit.

The Varela Project, of the dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, had Fidel Castro by the balls.  Any democratic leader who traveled to Cuba asked him to fulfill the laws of his own Constitution, which authorized the reform of laws when 1000 signatures have been collected.

And that is what Paya’s movement had done.  In fact, the former US President, Jimmy Carter, in a speech given at the University of Havana in front of Castro himself, had demanded that the legal requirements be met.

This ended up exasperating Castro. Since 1998 five spies, from a ring of twelve, had been jailed in the United Stated, and no leagl maneuvering had succeeded in overturning the penality.  So he decided to play hardball.

He reformed to the Constitution to perpetuate his political system.  He created the scary Law 88, known as the gag law, which could send you to prison for over 20 years, simply for dissent or writings, under the accusation of working for a foreign power.

The conditions had been created to unleash the raid against the opposition.  The Iraq war was the smoke screen that Castro used to obscure the news.

No dissident of journalist was sure of his situation during the following months.  My mother and my family were forced into exile.  I preferred to watch my daughter grow up.  I felt I had every right in the world to be at her side and watch her say her first words in the country where she was born and where her parents and grandparents were born.  Fidel Castro was not going to stop me.  Even at the risk of going to prison.

Seven years after the fateful Black Spring, little has changed in Cuba.  Fidel Castro awaits his death in bed, writing his memoirs and a litany of personal reflections about anything going on the planet.

His brother Raul, without any big changes, has continued the same repressive politics against whomever opposes them.  He continues to disqualify and spurn them.  The intimidating Law 88 is still floating in the air of the Republic.  Whenever the government decides, they can jail the dissidents without any thought.

At this stage of the revolution and the logical erosion of power, the Castros are determined to remain power until death. Nobody is going to change their minds.  Not the international pressures, nor the honest talk of other countries’ leaders who wish for Cuba to join the group of democratic nations.

Seven years have gone by since the incarceration of dissidents.  Life here is still the same.  Nothing has changed.

Ivan Garcia.

Photo: La Víbora, a neighborhood of the municipality, 10 de Octubre, the most densely populated in Havana

Translated by Marfa Otano

Canaleta, Year Seven

I present to you Canaleta.  Not the famous fountain in Barcelona, where the fans gather to celebrate the victories of their soccer team.  No.  This is the Cuban prison, located in the province of Ciego de Avila, some 280 miles east of Havana.

Inside the Cuban Canaleta, in a narrow cell, dirty and poorly ventilated, in triple bunks, they have crowded 20 common prisoners and one prisoner of conscience: Pablo Pacheco Avila, independent journalist, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment during the crackdown of March 2003. His crime? Writing without government authorization.

A pen without mandate. A free electron. A humble man of the 9th of April neighborhood, Ciego de Avila, a degree in physical culture, who wrote sports commentaries and notes about the daily life in his city. A typical Cuban, a sip of coffee in the morning and a little tobacco to round it off.

Pablo Pacheco expiates the unjust sentence in that cell block, number 43, Canaleta prison. Next April 4 he will be 40. Far from his wife, Dr. Oleidys Garcia, a doctor by profession, and his son Jimmy, 11, who enters adolescence without the advice of his father.

In cell block 43, at eleven in the morning they lunch on a repugnant menu: rice not even cleaned, with a hint of fish stretched with soy made for animals. At four in the afternoon, the same disgusting thing for dinner. Pablo eats what his stomach and eyes permit. Or if he has it, the food his wife brings when she visits, every three months.

Pablo prefers to concentrate on writing. And taking advantage of the telephone minutes the regime allow to read his chronicles, news, and complaints to blogger colleagues or alternative journalists, who record the texts written in his cell.

In August 2009, Pablo Pacheco opened a blog, Voice Behind The Bars. A great chronicle of the hard conditions in Cuban prisons. In his articles he details the life of his unfortunate comrades. The bad treatment of the guards. And the rampant corruption of the militants in charge of the Canaleta prison.

Everything is there, in his blog. He tells us that in four years, 18 common inmates have committed suicide, desperate from the extreme conditions in the Ciego de Avila prison. And how dozens of the inmates mutilate themselves and make attempts on their lives, finding themselves in a dead-end street.

Pablo Pacheco has made journalism a priesthood. When friends read or hear his stories, sometimes they can’t help crying. And no wonder. The boy who slept under his bunk, unbalanced, suffering from Schizophrenia, he cut off his ears. He was taken to a punishment cell. Pacheco things that many of the convicts of Canaleta should be patients in a psychiatric hospital.

In cell block 43, a motley crew of convicts enjoys talking about baseball, politics and women. All have sinned, in some cases forced by necessity. Others knew what they were doing. His cellmates are a human trafficker, a pair of murderers and petty thieves who, in the dark of night, knife in hand, slaughtered cattle to sell its meat.

In the prison in Canaleta, in other cellblocks, also filthy and stifling, suffer four other prisoners from the Black Spring. They are Antonio Díaz Sánchez, Félix Navarro Rodríguez, Pedro Argüelles Morán and Adolfo Fernández Saínz. Recently, they have started to write and send their tapes also to Voices Behind the Bars, now a collective blog.

The poet and journalist Raúl Rivero Castañeda spent more than a year in these cell blocks; now thanks to pressure from the civilized world he lived in exile and Spain and writes for the daily paper El Mundo.

A few days ago, from cell block 43, Pacheco called me and told me that March 15 to 21, the prisoners of conscience of Canaleta will unite in a fast to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Black Spring and the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. They, and the common prisoners, are following the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, now in the intensive care ward in a hospital in Santa Clara.

The prisoners in Canaleta prison know that, in the face of any abuse or maltreatment, there are 5 political prisoners who will fearlessly disseminate their cases. The prison directors know that there are five pairs of watchful eyes to report any signs of corruption among the prison guards.

Pablo Pacheco and the rest of the prisoners in the cause of the Group of 75, not only call for their unconditional release, but also demand respect for the integrity of the common prisoners. Although from chilly Europe no advocate for human rights is allowed to visit the prisons on the island, the political prisoners are doing everything possible to overcome the abuse and excesses in Cuban penitentiaries.

Prisoners like the deceased Orlando Zapata frequently passed up the chance to talk to their families and instead they used their telephone minutes to call an independent journalist and report abuses, committed against them and the other prisoners. Pacheco and the other political prisoners of Canaleta have done the same.

If you would like more information about how life is lived in a Cuban prison, please click on Voices Behind The Bars.

Iván García

Being a Journalist in Cuba

To engage in the profession of journalism in Cuba, outside the control of the state, has its dangers.  Not to the extreme of having a hitman show up at your door on a motorcycle and fire a full magazine at you point blank from a .45 caliber pistol, as happens in Mexico or Colombia.

They also don’t put a black hood over you and later dump your mutilated body in a dumpster, as occurred during the 80’s in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala.  No.  For being an independent journalist or a critic of the Castro administration what could happen to you is that you can be thrown behind bars for up to 20 years if the government decides to do so.

The Castros promise many years of jail for those of us who report on our own account.  But to date, there has not been a documented State-sponsored assassination of a reporter, either official or independent.

For being a free lance journalist on the island, authorities can orchestrate an “act of repudiation”, a verbal lynching in which members of the public, instigated by the political police, insult and scream at you with the veins extended on their necks about to explode.

It’s also possible that some unknown person, a supposed “delinquent”, will ambush you and beat you up in the darkness of the night.  Or that the phone in your house will ring incessantly at 3 A.M. and when you answer it, a disguised voice shouts an earful of insults at you. By the way

When you decide to write without official sanction you lose your job, and State Security has the right to threaten you and summon and question you whenever they feel like it, under the guise of having a “friendly chat.”

The phenomenon of Cuban independent journalism was born in the 90’s.  Among its founders are Rolando Cartaya, Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, José Rivero, Julio San Francisco, Raúl Rivero, Iria González Rodiles, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Juan Antonio Sánchez, Germán Castro, Tania Quintero, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, Jorge Olivera, Olance Nogueras, Joaquin Torres, Héctor Peraza, Manuel Vázquez Portal.

On 18 March 2003, Fidel Castro was determined to strike a blow against journalism outside the State. During the early morning hours that day, the political police forces arrested 75 dissidents and journalists. In the black spring, 25 communicators ended up in jail; their only crime was reporting without government permission.

Correspondents such as Raúl Rivero, one of the heavyweights of Cuban journalism and director of the independent agency Cuba Press, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thanks to the intervention of the Spanish government, today he is a free man who writes two columns a week for the Spanish edition of the daily newspaper El Mundo.

Right now, 27 journalists languish in the hellish Cuban prisons. One of them is Ricardo González Alfonso, correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, who has not stopped writing in prison. In Spain he has published two books: Bleeding History, a collection of poems, and Men Without Faces, a narrative. Another is Pablo Pacheco, whose written and oral testimony from Canaleta Prison can be read on the blog Voices Behind Bars.

But since 1999, law number 88, or the gag law, has been floating menacingly in the air of the Republic, giving the regime a free hand in deciding when to send someone to the penitentiary. Not a single text by a free Cuban journalist has been written without a measure of fear and paranoia. It’s normal. Because you never know if tonight you will sleep in your own bed or in the bunk of a jail cell of the police or State Security.

At times I have a nightmare. In the solitude of my room, I dream that there is a loud pounding on the door of the house. And some tough, dog-faced guys dressed in olive green take me out of the room without my feet touching the floor, throw me by force into a Russian-made car with military license plates, and take me as a prisoner to an unknown destination.

Not all are hallucinations. Sometimes I dream that the little hands of my seven-year-old daughter, together with her mother, wake me with the good news that the government of General Raúl Castro abolished the absurd laws — Cubans no longer need permission to leave the island, the exiles who wish may return to their homeland, and never again will it be a crime to write a chronicle or opinion piece telling the truth about Cuba and Cubans.

Whenever this happens, I wonder which of these dreams will become a reality first.

Iván García

Photo: AP. (Right) Ricardo González Alfonso in 2002, some months before being detained and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Left) Luis Cino, also an independent journalist.

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.

Chávez, the Substitute for the Russians?

The government of the Castro brothers has staked everything on one card. That of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the strong man of Venezuela, a walking-talking comic strip, bursting out with some bizarre nonsense every minute. Chávez defies every canon of a balanced, sober and coherent statesman.

It could be a bible passage, or he might sing you folk song, or declaim one of his usual Maisanta poems, this Venezuelan fighter against the Spanish Colonialism of the 19th century. A deep and serious student, of course, of Simón Bolívar the Liberator.

And he has launched the strange theory that Bolívar died as the result of a complex Yankee plot. If he were a clown, comedian or a simple citizen of the state of Barinas, he would pass unnoticed. But he is the president of one of the major oil-producing countries of the world.

He has the hard currency to splurge on his extravagant projects, and considers himself a new Bolívar for the 21st century. He is committed to a different and humane socialism, but applies the same coercive measures his predecessors used to build communism.

Chávez is a confused ideological amalgam. He believes in God and Marx.  He is anti-Yankee, and since he came to power in 1999, he has radicalized his rhetoric, not only against the United States, but against all the countries of the first world.

His goal is to develop an entente among poor nations, who trade among themselves, use a common currency and who don’t rely for anything on the predatory trade with rich countries. He follows the usual custom of statesmen of “socialist societies,” who have the rare mania for perpetuating their own power, and who crush the opposition and the media.

Chávez is the classic bad boy of any meeting, debate, or world symposium where he makes an appearance.  He has no sense of moderation or respect. His brain is connected directly to his mouth. Any idea, no matter how absurd, spews forth without any processing by his mind. He has no clutch. Just an accelerator and a brake.

Let us add that the Red Commander runs his cabinet like a military barracks and distributes perks and positions among this friends and family, like every previous depraved Venezuelan president whom Chávez so frequently criticizes.

He came to power through the back door, thanks to a society paralyzed by the skyrocketing poverty and corruption in Venezuela. When democracies fail, they provide breeding grounds for these type of bullying strongmen.

From the Caribbean, Fidel Castro took note.  After the USSR said “see you later” to the bizarre communist ideology, Cuba found itself heading back to the stone age. Long blackouts, little food, a wartime economy and a large segment of the population angry and hopeless, whose only goal was to cross the Straits of Florida on a rustic raft or to marry some boring and lonely middle-aged Spaniard.

Castro had to make concessions.  Allow self-employment and small pockets of a mixed, market economy, but it wasn’t enough to move forward, though combined with the billion dollars being sent by families in Miami, it supplied him oxygen and precious time to keep his revolution from blowing away with the wind.

But the Castros worried greatly about a section of the population gaining independence. Money begets power, and makes people question the status quo. And so, the peripatetic Hugo Chávez seemed like a gift of the gods.

He had oil and money. He was a confessed admirer of Castro and had a handful of incendiary ideas that if used wisely could create a minefield for the gringos in Latin America.

Of course these were different times. Fidel Castro is a skilled political strategist, but to install a clone of the Cuban revolution in Caracas he would have to demolish the structures of civil society and free press. And obviously a segment of his dark-haired friends would not stand idly by and just watch their country go down the drain.

It is logical, than, that by February 2010 Chávez was having a terrible time. Closing a cable television station brought street demonstrations and violence. In eleven years under the commander in the red beret, the numbers tell us that there has been no reduction in poverty, corruption or violence.  Quite the contrary.

What has increased is the Cuban presence, in the form of doctors, trainers and military advisers. The Castros, worried about the situation of their ally, have sent their sinister minister of communications, Ramiro Valdés, former head of the Cuban political police and former Minister of the Interior, to see what actions can be taken to stem the disconnect among a wide sector of Venezuelans.

The official Cuban press hasn’t published one line about the latest events in Caracas, nothing about the daily four-hour blackouts, and almost nothing about the presence of Valdés. According to official media in the South American country, Valdés went to develop a plan for the power industry. Hard pill to swallow. Ramiro Valdés, fervent admirer of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first boss of the Russian Cheka, is a neophyte in this area. But if there is something he knows by heart, it is how to repress people.

If Chávez were to lose power, the Cuban economy, under siege, could not withstand the terrible blow of losing oil supplies. It is likely that among the counsels of Valdés are some messages from Fidel Castro, calling for restraint from the restless and unruly Bolivarian commander.

The Castros have bet everything on the Hugo Chávez card. From creating a trade organization, ALBA, or a common currency, the sucre, to depending on South American oil to keep the lights on in Cuba. For them, there is no way they can allow the rash Chávez to throw it all into the abyss. They are going to try everything. The fate of Venezuela is, in a very real sense, the fate of Cuba. And the Cuban government will do whatever it takes to keep the Venezuelan Santa Claus on the throne.

They bet on the wrong horse. But at this point, for the Castros, there is no turning back.

Iván García

Photo: Reuters. Hugo Chávez and Ramiro Valdés, Minister of Communications and Technology, during a recent visit to Venezuela.

A Minister in the Public Pillory

The street corners of Havana are hot. Glowing. Like a match on sandpaper that will burst into flame at the slightest touch. Baseball is to blame. This spring it is being played coast-to-coast on the island, celebrating the playoffs of the national sport, and Los Industriales, the team representing the capital, is hitting hot. The fans are going wild.

If baseball or “the ball,” as it is called in Cuba, serves as relaxation for most men, for women the sedative is found in soap operas, the electronic opium that makes them forget for 45 minutes that their refrigerators are empty.

But the ordinary Cuban also gives at least a passing glance to local events. And sees bad signs. Circulating clandestinely throughout the country are more than 300 photos of 26 deaths (rumored to be almost 60) from hunger, cold, and ill-treatment this past January, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.

If you have the courage to look at the entire dark collection you have a strong stomach. The photos, taken by police experts, somehow escaped the iron state censorship imposed by the authorities over the Mazorra case. And many people carry them on their USB or flash memory, and late at night, when the children are asleep, like a scary movie, they watch the horrors on their computers.

The black and white images of the dead are comparable to those from any Nazi concentration camp. Men without teeth, with fresh marks from beatings, emaciated bodies, concrete testimony of the hunger they suffered. They were so thin that three bodies fit on one stretcher.

Confronted with such horror, ordinary people have been shaken. Roberto Osorio, 34, an engineer, trembled with fear at the photos. And he wondered how these things could happen in this country, which, according to its leaders, has a public health system comparable with the best in the world.

In a survey of 30 people, between 19 and 74 years old, of both sexes, they unanimously demanded not only a thorough investigation, but also asked for the resignation of Public Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera.

Balaguer (born in Santiago de Cuba, 1932), a doctor by profession and one of the guerrilla commanders who participated in the revolution, is a member of the State Council and the Politburo of the Communist Party. He was appointed Minister of Public Health by Fidel Castro himself, when on July 31, 2006, he announced that for health reasons he was transferring power to his brother Raul.

One of those surveyed, Dahlia Fuentes, 56, an architect, doesn’t believe it’s possible that the minister wasn’t aware of what was happening in the country’s main mental hospital. “In every workplace in Cuba, there is a core of the Party and the Communist Youth, and they have to report what goes on. Furthermore, I assume that the Ministry of Health makes periodic inspections of its hospitals. If, in spite of all that, Balaguer’s story is that he was not informed of what was going on there, then he should resign because of incompetence” the architect says angrily.

Sara Villar, 21, a medical student, goes further. “Events like these are a clear sign that the country needs radical changes. It is not enough just to ask for the resignations and prosecutions of those responsible, it is the system that doesn’t work,” says the future doctor.

What happened in Mazorra in January 2010, has placed the performance of public officials, administrators and ministers in the public pillory. Also the political opposition, alternative journalists and the blogosphere are demanding the termination of Balaguer. The blogger Yoani Sanchez opened the tag #despidanaabalaguer# on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of followers so far.

Amid the passionate discussions around the series of local baseball playoffs, and the next episode of the snoozer soap operas, the  opinion on the street prevails: people want the head of the Minister of Public Health to roll.

The government has gone totally mute. Its response is silence. Even in these days, Jose Ramon Balaguer is appearing more than ever on TV. And people are wondering if that is the method adopted by the mandarins of court to confirm him in office.

It would be swimming against the current. But if there is one thing the Castro brothers know how to do well, it is swim upstream.

Iván García

Photo: José Ramón Balaguer during the presentation of the book, “Battles for Life,” in February 2009.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Good Worms and Bad Worms

It was Fidel Castro who, in one of his his typical vitriolic outbursts, during a speech on January 2, 1961 (in what was then the Civic Plaza, today Revolution Plaza), applied the epithet “worms” to those Cubans who dared to criticize his olive green revolution or who decided to leave their homeland. That day he also first used the term “gusanera” [roughly equivalent to what today might be called “the wormosphere”(!)] as synonymous with counterrevolution.

Since 1959, more than two million Cubans have emigrated from their country. Let’s speak frankly. Certainly in the first waves of migration, early in the revolution, the vast majority of those who fled the island were individuals who openly hated Castro.

Many had lost their properties, nationalized in one stroke by the bearded ones who came down from the Sierra Maestra. Others, members of the lower-middle class, packed up and flew to Miami, thinking that the Comandante’s revolutionary wave was only a passing fad.

In the early years, more than three thousand professionals, excellent doctors, engineers, architects, academics, intellectuals, almost all representatives of the enlightened Cuban intelligentsia, took to their heels. To denigrate their newly exiled countrymen, official propagandists labeled them as Batista-ites, bourgeois, landowners, exploiters … And to complete the string of insults, the usual cliche of “worms.”

Then things changed. In 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, most of the 120,000 people who left their native country were simple, humble people who had never had a cent, nor run a business. People who had been educated in schools where every morning, after a patriotic speech, they had to salute, shouting “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.”

Since ordinary Cubans can’t freely leave their country, those who desert are the ones who are able to travel: doctors, politicians, generals, artists, ballplayers and athletes in general. All are citizens who, while living in Cuba, stand out as “revolutionary,” all the while living a double-standard with masks on. Silently attending boring meetings of the CDR, and voting early in this parody of democracy that are the Cuban elections. With a bottle of rum and to the beat of the conga, they attend military marches and demonstrations in Revolution Plaza. In this way they meet the standard of what is “politically correct.” So they don’t draw attention to themselves, and so the Party and the Ministry of Interior continue to have confidence in them.

In the depths of their souls, they wait for an opportunity. And at the first chance they leave behind tropical socialism, absurd rhetoric and material burdens. The Castro government rationalizes all these Cubans voting with their feet (or at least the majority) by saying that they left in search of economic betterment. They try put their deserters on a par with Mexicans or Haitians who in desperation flee their countries. If we agree with the official line, then we must acknowledge that from the economic standpoint, the Cuban revolution failed.

Still, when you leave Cuba for a better life, and you can read and write, as every Cuban who goes into exile can, if you are not cynical, or a liar, you should let your government know that they are the main cause of your hardship, driving you to jump into the sea on a raft, or into a loveless marriage with a Spaniard or an Italian old enough to be your grandfather.

You must not have a short memory. I still remember — how could I forget — how as a teenager of 15, watching impassively the acts of repudiation and physical attacks on those who decided to leave the island. Then the wind went out of the sail of several socialist projects. The Berlin Wall came down, and overnight, this State of workers and peasants that was the USSR disappeared with amazing speed. The map of Europe changed color.

But Fidel Castro’s revolution, which certainly was not established by Moscow, clung like one posessed to the flag of resistance, nationalism and the threat of Yankee treachery. Then a “miracle” happened. The eternal “worms” turned into butterflies. To the chagrin of Castro, those scum, those worthless Cubans who failed to recognize the greatness of his revolution, thrived, and with the greenbacks of his hated enemy began to support about 60 percent of the Cuban population, according to unofficial figures.

And now in the 21st century, without U.S. dollars, euros, or other foreign exchange sent as family remittances, nobody on the island can make plans to fix their aging house, acquire a television, buy shoes for their children, or eat two hot meals a day.

For the regime, there are “good” worms and “bad” worms. The good ones are those who traveled to Havana on January 27th and 28th, 2010, to meet with government officials “in defense of national sovereignty, the struggle against the blockade, and the release of the five heroes unjustly imprisoned in the empire.”

The meeting was held in the Convention Center, west of the city, under the long title: “Meeting of Cuban Residents Abroad, Against the Blockade and in Defense of National Sovereignty.” According to Granma newspaper, it was attended by 300 delegates from 44 nations, of which 144 came from the United States.

Never mind that these “good” worms have achieved little or nothing. It is still necessary to ask the state permission to travel abroad or visit your own country. If you leave permanently, you lose your house and other properties. And Cubans who think differently than the official line, namely the “bad” worms, are ejected from any discussion as if they had bubonic plague.

I am in favor of any dialogue. But open to all. Not just for those who applaud so long that their hands turn red, for the way the Castro brothers rule the destinies of Cuba.

I want to see the liberal politician Carlos Alberto Montaner, who lives in Madrid, walking the halls of the Convention Center, chatting animatedly with Haroldo Dilla, a Marxist economist who decided to live in Santo Domingo.

How I would like to witness the rough humanity of the poet Raul Rivero, nibbling ham and cheese canapés at Bucan Restaurant with writer Miguel Barnet, while another bard, Roberto Fernandez Retamar approaches him and invites him to his home that evening to talk about poetry.

Or that my mother, Tania Quintero, who was once the friend and journalist partner of Rosa Miriam Elizarde, could ask her about her family and her work. Nor would it be bad if the prestigious journalist Max Lesnik, with whom I share a two-man blog called Ninety Miles in the newspaper El Mundo / America, called me and we stayed to grab a coffee at the Parque Central, and there disagree civilly.

For now none of this is possible. The “good” worms should push the government to take the path of tolerance and respect for differences. Then, these meetings of immigrants would have a reason to occur.

Max, in any case, if you visit Havana, come and see me.

Iván García

Photo: Max Lesnik with Fidel Castro, in the documentary “The Man of Two Havanas,” directed in 2007 by Vivien Lesnik Weisman.

Translated by Tomás A.

Armani, Take Note

He doesn’t look quite the same as English footballer David Beckham, or the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. He’s Cuban, his name is Carlos and he was born 24 years ago in a village in the middle of the Venezulea sugar-growing region, in the province of Ciego de Avila, about 375 miles from Havana.

He likes to wear tight-fitting Guess jeans, with a wide belt buckle decorated with an imperial eagle, and a Dolce & Garbana pullover sweater, tight, to show off his biceps, patiently sculpted in a gym. More than just his body, what he likes to show off is his penis.

To complete the picture of this neighborhood pretty boy: one gold tooth; two chains and a finger-thick bracelet, all 18 carats; black hair, shiny with too much gel; and he never loses the smile of success.

And what does success mean to the golden boy? He has lived in Havana for five years. In the early days, he rented a room with a friend for 40 convertible pesos a month in a sordid, filthy slum in the suburb of San Leopoldo. Not now.

“I have a Cuban girlfriend who is a model in Italy and is married to a man with a large belly and a larger bank account. She lives for me. Every month she sends me between 800 and 1000 euros and when she comes on vacation we have an amazing time in luxury hotels and trendy discos. She bought a house for my parents in Ciego de Avila and recently one for me in Nuevo Vedado. Also a car and the latest-generation computer. I have no complaints about her.”

Carlos doesn’t consider himself a typical “pinguero” as Cubans call the boys who sell their penis to men or women. From the beginning, when he was a newly-arrived hick in the capital, he found that he attracted men and women equally.

“I made love with a few disgusting old women for 30 cuc, and there were many nights that some European geezer would suck my cock for only ten dollars on the steps of the University of Havana.”

But after years of underpaid sex, life got better. Several Spanish and Canadian homosexuals returned home praising the qualities of this Caribbean gigolo, telling their friends that on their next vacation they should take a short hop to Havana to meet this great looking guy. As good-looking as Antonio Banderas. And hung like a porn star.

And of course, he also toured Nuevo Vedado — girls from Madrid or Milan, plump older women from London or Geneva. One infatuated German woman posted a page that advertised his “qualities.”

“I consider myself a professional. Now I don’t charge less than 120 euros a night, I even have hourly rates, like the best gigolos.”

Carlos’s dream is to leave for Madrid or Berlin, to open a male strip club.

“Here in Cuba you run many risks. Because it’s an illegal occupation, if I get caught I could be put behind bars for 5 years. And in prison, if I wasn’t brave, I would be the ‘girl’ of whichever bugger it pleased.

So he says his hours on the island are numbered.

“I once read that in the 50’s they had a club in Havana’s Chinatown, where a black man was very famous for a show in which he displayed his twelve-inch penis. I measured and I’m close to that. When I relocate to Europe I will do a remake of that show.”

Now he imagines earning euros and winning applause after a performance in nightclubs. Interviews in celebrity magazines and a row of fans making proposals to the boy from central Venezuela who looks like Antonio Banderas. “But better equipped than the actor from Malaga,” he says smiling.

And probably also than David Beckham, whose genitals the Italian reporter Elena di Cioccio dared to touch. The new image of Emporio Armani men’s underwear is the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo. Prettier and more muscular, but not very “gifted” as these photos show:

So, Armani, take note. This Cuban is not as famous, but with him you won’t lose any time doing photoshop.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

The Revolution Is Leaking

The Cuban revolution is a piece of junk. It leaks. It has a sentimental value for those nostalgics on the Left, who, between their plans, watch the end days of the capitalist bourgeoisie and Yankee imperialism on TV.

Sadly for the radical Left, the times have changed. The workers of the first world, the principal material of Marxist theory, those kinds of guys loaded with cholesterol who in the 18th Century lived in rat-infested huts are now buying this year’s cars, Levis blue jeans, and invest part of their money in the stock market or their pension funds.

To hell with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Today’s common people of Europe, the United States, or any other of the thirty nations that work with sanity and coherence on the planet are betting on democracy and the three-part division of powers.

Socialism of the Marxist cut, with its clans of political ruffians who are in power until death — as happened in Eastern Europe or the USSR — said goodbye a while ago. It didn’t work. That ideology was implanted by Stalin’s tanks at the end of the Second World War.

And the fundamental reason was that it went against human nature. In Cuba, in the beginning, Fidel Castro sold the argument of a humanist, nationalist, and liberal revolution. But it was all a trap, a political fraud that seduced many of the world’s intellectuals, who thought that a new form of society was being born on the island.

Castro could bet on this formula. He had the support of 90 percent of the population. But he had to institute democratic rules of play. Elections, opposition parties, independent tribunals, respect for private property and other “necessities” in which El Comandante alone didn’t believe – not a bit. Since childhood, he always thought big… when he played with his toy soldiers, there on his father’s farm in Birán, or when his friend, the house cook, read him the reports of the Spanish Civil War.

The anxious young man, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, wasn’t interested in British intellectuals, fat and well-dressed, who tried to demonstrate the benefits of liberalism. Those couch potatoes, he thought, wouldn’t have fired a shot. His heroes were the warriors — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Simon Bolivar. Those of blade and hammer, those who impose respect by force.

Our aged commander doesn’t have democracy among his priorities. All he criticizes automatically is “Yankee, traitor, and mercenary.” But that isn’t a credible theory. In 51 years he’s gotten used to applause and unanimity.

He can’t understand that in his country every day more people dissent with their own heads, and neither the CIA nor the FBI are slipping a check under their doors. No. They simply disagree with the form in which the Castro brothers govern the destiny of their country. With their inveterate autocracy, they are violating the very Constitution they created in 1976, a vulgar copy of the Soviet Constitution.

The forecast for Cuba’s future is nothing optimistic. With that formula of crassness and abuse of power applied by the Castros, they may only have succeeded in polarizing the opinions of their political adversaries on the island.

Fidel Castro himself, right after the murder of a young dissident by the Batista dictatorship at the end of the 1950s, exclaimed it was “more than a crime, it was a stupidity.” That phrase fits to a tee in the recent death of the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

In desperation, perhaps by having their hands tied, the Cuban opposition bets in large part on international support, in particular from the United States and Spain. And it is grateful for that support. But the opposition must roll up their sleeves and know that the criticisms in those countries against the Castro regime are arguments of smoke that the wind will carry away in a few days.

It is we, inside Cuba, who must demand the government take a turn toward democracy, we who must value our rights – protest that Raul Castro shouldn’t try to talk to the administration of Barack Obama, but rather with those Cubans who dissent.

Let Obama carry on with his own thing, which is enough, and let Shoemaker(*) concentrate on his shoes. The government of the Castros accuse all who oppose them of being mercenaries, except for a rare exercise of genuflection, they prefer negotiating with those whom they accuse of imperialism before negotiating with Cubans themselves, who in large percentage criticize their management.

I wonder who is playing such a miserly role. Time won’t stand still, as the Castro brothers would like. Whether those who govern like it or not, the state of things has to change. While this doesn’t happen, the forecast for the Cuban situation is unpredictable. Not hiring Houdini. Nor Walter Mercado.

Iván García


*Translator’s note: Zapatero means ‘shoemaker’, and is a play on words, referring to the current Prime Minister of Spain, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero

Translated by: JT

The Students of Delphine

On February 11th, they left a comment in the blog:

Sorry for the bother.  I am a Spanish professor at a French school and in our classes we our studying the subject of free press in Latin America and, more specifically, in Cuba.  We have studied an article about the Cuban bloggers, taken from the newspaper “El Pais”, and the students are asking lots of questions.  They are very interested in the subject.  I proposed to them the idea of collectively writing a letter which I am thinking of sending to all of you within the upcoming days.  Don’t feel obliged to respond, but it would be a magical moment for them to actually receive news directly from Cuba.  Thank you, I congratulate you for your blog.

Delphine Bougeard

On March 1st we received two letters, one from the 1S2 class and the other from the 1S3, directly from Lycee Julliot de La Morandiere, in Northeast France, in Normandy, nearby Mont. St. Michdel.  Four days later, Ivan responded.  The following is what he wrote.

Havana, March 5th, 2010

To the boys of the Julliot Institute of Morandiere:

It is a pleasure for me to respond to your doubts and curiosities. I will tell you. My name is Ivan Garcia Quintero and I have been an independent journalist since 1995.  I was born in Havana on August 15th, 1965.

I am self-taught.  I started writing in Cuba Press, an agency at the margin of state control, run by the Cuban poet and journalist, Raul Rivero (who was one of the 75 prisoners of the Black Spring in 2003– since 2005, he has resided in Madrid).  In these 15 years, I have collaborated with different web pages and digital newspapers.

Since January 28th, 2009 I have a blog.  It’s called “From Havana” (Desde La Habana), and I regularly write there together with the lawyer Laritza Diversent, my mother Tania Quintero (also an independent journalist), and Raul Rivero.  Sometimes we publish texts from other authors, both Cuban or foreign.  The content aims to expose the reality that is lived in Cuba during this 21st century, along with dramatic situations, like the recent earthquake in Haiti.

Since October 2009 I have also been writing in a debate blog called “90 Miles”, in El Mundo/America- a special edition of the Spanish journal ‘El Mundo’ which is targeted to Hispanics in the United States.  90 Miles- which is the distance that separates Havana from Florida- is a blog with different viewpoints, with Max Lesnik, an old Cuban reporter and politician, admirer of Fidel Castro’s revolution, and exiled in Miami.  In that journal I also tell stories about diverse Cuban subjects.  Because I write on my own account, I do not have a censor.  I self-censor myself whenever my sense dictates to do so.

I do not wish to leave my country, which belongs to every Cuban, not only to the followers of Fidel Castro and his revolution like those who control the destinies of my country wrongly think.

In Cuba, it takes God and help to actually be an independent journalist for various reasons.  The main reason is because the government automatically considers you a “traitor”, “sell-out”, and a “mercenary at the service of the United States”.

The Cuban rulers neither accept or respect any disagreements in thought.  When one writes without a mandate, the State’s official response is a plethora of insults and disqualifications. And that is the least of it.  Hovering in the air of this island is an obscure law that allows authorities to jail us for up to 28 years, if they deem it appropriate. It is Law 88 and you can read it here.

Right now, while I write this letter to you, there are 27 independent journalists in jail.  For many years.  They can’t see their children grow and they can’t  follow their progress in school like other parents do.  They have been jailed for writing what they think and for using their pens as weapons.

The independent Cuban journalists and bloggers have to make countless sacrifices to carry out their work.  In general, Cuban immigrants residing in the Unite States, Spain, Europe or other countries, support them by sending them computers, cell phones, and other materials.

When you dissent in Cuba, with some exceptions, they expel you from your job.  This is without taking into consideration that the salary is a joke.  On average, a Cuban earns (in the national currency of Cuban Pesos) the equivalent to about 20 Euros a month.  This is the best scenario.

Many Cubans survive by robbing from the State.  Anything from cheese in a state-run pizza shop to toilet paper and soap if they happen to work in a hotel.  The bloggers I know do not charge a single cent for their blogs.  In the case of Yoani Sanchez, she has obtained some money from numerous prizes and books published in the exterior.

My personal situation is different.  Tania, my mother, my sister Tamila and my niece Yania, who is the same age as all of you, live in Switzerland since November 2003 as political refugees.  With thousands of sacrifices they send me money.  Thanks to those remittances I can maintain my family and Melany, my 7-year-old daughter who is now learning to read and asked me to send her regards, she saw your photo.  I also help out an uncle who is 92-years-old and laughs at the idea of death.

In ‘El Mundo/America’ they pay me according to the works I publish.  With that money, I am planning on fixing the run-down apartment in which I live, in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora.  I also plan on helping Laritza, who resides in the community known as El Calvario, in a simple hut like any poor person from an African country.

I am an exception.  Nearly all the bloggers and independent journalists can only have coffee for breakfast and eat one meal a day.  Nobody in their right minds writes for money when right over your head their hangs a law that could condemn you to many years in prison.

If the Cuban government has not jailed, in a massive sweep, all of us who openly disagree, it is due to international public opinion, and sensible people like yourselves, who take into consideration what goes on under totalitarian regimes.

I’ll answer other questions.  Connecting to the internet is very expensive.  About 5 to 10 dollars an hour.  Almost the average salary in Cuba.  No independent journalist or blogger has DSL in their homes.  We have to connect in hotels where the service is very slow.  It is exhausting to load photos and videos.

There are embassies that, through compassion, allow internet access; but to go to diplomatic areas is risky because they can accuse you of “conspiring with the enemy.”  I do not have the vocation of a hero.  I am also not made out of martyr material.

Of course I fear the possible reprisals of the Castro regime, but my desires to one day live in a democracy is much stronger.  And it will happen.  Sooner or later, Cuba will be a democratic country and one day we will be able to chat face to face.

From the bottom of my heart I appreciate your concern for this small Caribbean island, full of symbolism and misfortunes.  You have all been raised to respect the ideas of your fellow neighbors.

France is the birthplace of the modern form of politics.  A short distance from your school, on June 6, 1944, the allied troops disembarked on the coasts of Normandy and did away with the evils of the Nazis.

From that moment, the world was changed.  The rights of men, freedom of expression, and freedom of information are now undeniable human rights.  Even if Fidel and Raul Castro don’t see it that way.

I hope that in the near future that approaches, you all will be successful professionals.

And when I am a grandfather, I will tell my grandkids that, one day, when in my country there did not exist essential freedoms, some French school boys, full of curiosities, wrote to me and sent a questionnaire with very intelligent questions.

It has been very pleasant experience for me to respond to you all.  If I was able to shatter your doubts, I will feel satisfied.  If I haven’t, please write back.

Let us stay in touch.  Keep on being concerned about what happens around you.  One day I hope to meet you all in Havana, which even if it’s not worth a mass like Paris, it’s worth making a trip to the city of columns and the Malecon.

With affection, to you all, Delphine and the rest of your companions and professors,


PS: Laritza asked me to please send you all a hug.  Like the majority of Cuban women who are workers, mothers, and wives, she has very little free time.  In order to actually publish her work she has to do it during the small hours of the morning.

Letter from Delphine’s students 1es2

Letter from Delphine’s students 1ls3

Translated by Raul G.

The Nursing Home on San Miguel Street

It gives you an uneasy feeling. The “Veterans Home” old-men’s shelter at Agustina and San Miguel, one block from 10th of October Avenue, is a two-story building, neglected and dirty, painted a color that many years ago was sky blue.

On these cold, wet, sunless mornings you can see several groups of old men, huddled together, bored, dressed in dirty overcoats that have been worn-out since the last century, their eyes bleary, longing for a hot coffee with milk to get the body moving in the face of this cold wave of January 2010.

The poet Raúl Rivero, now in exile in Madrid, says in one of his poems “when it’s cold, hunger carries a jackknife.” Ask Urban Fernández — an old man of 75 years, the last seven of which he has lived in the institution, beset by aches and cruel arthritis — what do you miss most in daily life? He looks at you calmly with his clear eyes, the only part of his body still alive. “I feel nostalgia for a clean bed, some children to care for me in the few years I have left, and a decent hot meal,” says Fernández, while he asks for cigarettes and money from the people who pass by on the streets surrounding the asylum.

People often look the other way when they walk by this run-down geriatric center. No wonder. The spectacle is depressing. Old cripples, hungry, some with advanced senile dementia, playing dominoes or turned into beggars.

“Once we were young and strong,” says Jesús Garzón. “I played baseball, I was a shortstop.” With his hands trembling like vanilla custard, he tries to demonstrate how he caught the ball. Now, debilitated by advanced Alzheimer’s, he is almost always in bed. His family hasn’t visited him in years.

“I am a burden, a nuisance. All I ask for this 2010 is to die as soon as possible.” And suddenly I wondered if someday I could take him to Latinoamericano Field, to the old Cerro Stadium, to watch a baseball game.

Another group of elderly men, covered with faded and darned quilts, play a game of dominoes, and comment on how much they would like to eat a joint of fried chicken. From a nearby cafeteria you can smell the aroma of frying chicken. “But it costs 25 pesos, and I get only 197 pesos (less than eight dollars) from my retirement, explains Reinaldo Peña, age 69.

According to Peña, they spent Christmas and New Years without tasting pork. “These days they gave us a thin soup, white rice, and fish full of bones. The attendants send us to bed early, so they can listen to music and drink rum with their buddies. Boy, you better pray fervently to God that when you reach old age you have a family to look after you,” says the old man, as his dull, nearsighted eyes well up.

Pedro Carballo, 84, has lived in the shelter longer than any of the other old men. “I’m going on 12 years. I’ve seen many die, some good friends of mine. Being in a nursing home is like being a prisoner. Because no one sees me. The attendants who look after us are poor devils who flock here because they don’t have a better option for earning a living. The government doesn’t pay them a living wage, so all they’re interested in is stealing as much food, oil, and detergent as they can,” Carballo said in a calm voice.

And he tells me that when they get donations from abroad, the workers divide them among themselves. “To us mangy old shits who refuse to die, we always get the worst,” said the angry old man.

A group of five or six octogenarians approach and give further details. “Those of us considered part-time, that is, we only come here to eat and sleep, we hit the streets at dawn, trying to earn a few dollars, to make life less hard. I sell newspapers, I have several customers who pay me 30 pesos a week to deliver the newspaper to their homes. With that money, I can dine on something better,” explains Norberto Arias, 78, a thin black man wearing an old wool coat and shoes with the sole detached, fixed with wire.

For Norberto, to “dine on something better” is eating rice, beans, root vegetables, and boiled fish, in a  gloomy, dirty state joint that sells food at low prices, called El Encanto. Most of the old guys in the facility state spent Christmas watching TV or telling stories, boasting about when they were young and had an army of beautiful women, dressed elegantly, and drank beer.

In a corner, Norberto Arias commented: “This is the only thing that distracts us, spinning yarns and living in the past and the nostalgia. Our reality is hard. We hope that God will take us soon. Many Christmases have passed since we ate candies or had a nice hot meal.  Our families reject us. We don’t blame anyone, it’s the hand we were dealt,” Arias said while lowering his head and weeping silently.

This is what remains of one of the Veterans Homes that existed in Havana before 1959, where former Mambises, as they called those who fought in the wars of independence from Spain, could live out their old age with dignity. You can see from the photo, taken February 24, 1952, when a group of female students from a public school (among whom is my mother) went with their teacher to take tobacco and spend some time with these history-laden old men. All impeccably dressed, with their linen guayaberas.

Now it is a gloomy and sad shelter, on Calle San Miguel in the 10th of October municipality, the most populous of Havana. If you’re not shocked to read how these old men live, please go to the cardiologist.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Fariñas, Ready to Die, Like Zapata

In the poor, out-of-the-way neighborhood of La Chirusa, in the city of Santa Clara of Villa Clara Province, about 185 miles east of Havana, Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez, 48 years of age, is quite a character.

When a stranger, asking for directions, asks where Guillermo Fariñas lives, all of the neighbors widen their eyes and don’t know who you are talking about.  But if you ask about “Coco”- the nickname by which he is known – then people smile and say “Coco lives in number 615, he’s into human rights, he’s a ballsy guy, give him my regards,” one of his neighbors says with the straightforward language that is common among humble people.

To get to the small, cramped house of Fariñas you have to walk through a maze of passageways where the sewage runs freely.  Guillermo Fariñas lives in an early 20th century house, with his wife, 8-year-old daughter, and a niece.  In a ten-foot-square living room, Fariñas is seated in a chair against the wall, facing the front door, wrapped up in a flowered blanket.

About 15 people, relatives and dissidents, chat with him about various issues.  Some become emotional and break into silent weeping. “That affects me even more, please, you’ve got to be strong”, says “Coco” without any solemnity.

Fariñas must have some sort of unofficial world record when it comes to hunger strikes.  The one he started on Friday, February 26 is his 23rd.  And it is taking a toll on his body.

Like many dissidents, ‘Coco’ Fariñas used to believe in Fidel Castro’s revolution. He risked his hide fighting in the isolated villages of Angola during the 1980s civil war in that African country. He was a member of Castro’s elite troops, but in 1989 when General Arnaldo Ochoa was shot, accused of drug trafficking, Fariñas began to have second thoughts and unanswered questions.

He has a degree in psychology, and better than anyone else in Cuba, he knows the methods of the political police for breaking those who dissent. Since 1997 this big-eyed mestizo has been one of the heavyweight dissidents on the island.

He writes as a freelance journalist, and an independent library is located in his house. During the strike, many neighbors come by and talk cheerfully with Fariñas, giving him encouragement or begging him to stop. To everyone he delivers a speech, without slogans and in everyday language, giving his reasons for continuing the hunger strike. The main reason for this latest and perhaps final hunger strike: the death of the dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23rd.

“I knew him in 1991, when Zapata was a construction worker in a contingent, and was also a member of the Union of Young Communists, something that the government journalists are silent about now that they criticize him. Zapata was part of the rapid response brigades that the government counted on to repress the opposition, but after long talks with the dissidents he began to see that he was wrong. The official media don’t want to talk about any of this.  I’m also convinced that the death of Zapata was a state crime, an assassination.”

The dissident of the Chirusa neighborhood in the city of Santa Clara adds other arguments for continuing his hunger strike to the very end.

In a letter sent on February 26 to Raúl Castro, he urges him to demonstrate to the world and to his people that his lament to the foreign media was honest, and asks him to release the 200 political prisoners now held in various Cuban jails.

“I am a firm believer that when the government sees that the result of the hunger strikes is dissidents dying like flies, they will sit down and negotiate. These strikes are our weapons of pressure, we have nothing else.”

He also asks the Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to firmly press the Havana regime to introduce political changes.  He even believes that His Majesty the King of Spain Juan Carlos I, should comment on the fateful death of Zapata Tamayo.

Fariñas receives medical attention every 4 hours.  He believes that he will be admitted to the provincial hospital of Villa Clara Arnaldo Milian to receive parenteral alimentation.  His lips are dry, as he is not drinking water.  His appearance is frightening.  Juan Juan Almeida, son of the commandante friend of the Castros, who fought with them in the Sierra Maestra, left Coco’s house greatly saddened last Saturday.

In a text message Juan Juan sent to his friends, he said:

“The dissident of the barrio La Chirusa, professed admirer of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, figures beyond right and wrong, believes this is the way to turn the state around and to dream of democracy.  ‘If I must sacrifice my life to achieve political change, then count on my life,’ the Cuban champion of hunger strikes states quietly.  This is number 23 and his neighbors and friends suspect this will be the last.”

Translated by Tomás A. and Gracie Christie

Martha Beatriz Roque Remembers Orlando

On the afternoon of February 27th, Havana looked run-down.  A persistent rain engulfed the worn out streets of the Santo Suarez neighborhood with mud.  The sky, with its rat-like color, added a sad touch to the city.

Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Laritza and I arrived to the house of the house of the opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabella, a 64-year-old economist, and a woman with a chubby face and with deep bags under her eyes.  Roque Cabella lives in a narrow inner corridor.  Right in front of her door, agents from the political police have placed a large drawing of Fidel Castro, embedded into a grayish wall which has been deteriorating with time.

The veteran dissident received us in her small living room.  She is one of the most active voices for change in Cuba.  She has had to pay a high price for choosing to oppose the Castro government.  She has lived through innumerable detentions and abuses.  On two occasions she was even condemned to long years in prison.

The last time she “visited” the woman’s jail called Manto Negro, in the town of Guatao, was actually the 20th of March 2003, during the so-called Black Spring.  Through a medical parole, thanks to a string of illnesses and the pressure of the civilized world, the Castro regime was forced give in and free her.

“I am drained from my exhausting trip to Banes, where I attended the burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo — a trip in which I was 24 hours without sleep,” comments Martha, who is wearing a house dress the orange color of the mamoncillo fruit.

According to Roque Cabello, the town of Banes was completely taken over by State Security forces.  “It looked like a military fort, there were dozens of high-ranking officials, fearful and alert.  Reina Tamayo, the mother of the dissident who lost his life due to a prolonged hunger strike, resides in a poor concrete hut.  Walking in the streets filled with patches of misery was almost an adventure.”

She continued to explain to us, “There was a chain of soldiers and members of the political police.  There was a tense atmosphere, one could slice it with a knife.  In her living room, the body of Tamayo resided, along with a group of dissidents and the Ladies in White.  We placed a flag in the coffin,” she recalls with a calm voice.

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello half closes her eyes and meditates.  “It was around the year 2002 when I first met Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  He was a very humble guy, very respectful and disciplined.  One had to extract words from him.  On December 2002 he was detained simply for participating in an act of protest in the Lawton neighborhood — a protest organized by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.”

She adds: “During the first days of January 2003, almost on the eve of the Black Spring, he visited my house and acknowledged the personal support that I had given him, as well as our group, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society.  Zapata had no desire to assume a leading role, he did not desire to leave his country — he was just a common brick layer who felt that his country needed changes immediately,” she says with vehemence.

Martha then answers a phone call and later returns to the dialogue.  “In March of 2003 a group of dissidents of our organization initiated a hunger strike in the house of Marieta, the wife of the deceased dissident, Jesus Yanes Pelletier, in Humboldt, Vedado.  Orlando Zapata Tamayo participated with us.  I clearly remember that it was in that hunger strike where I held a full conversation with him and he told me about his miserable lifestyle, about his childhood which lacked material goods, and his dreams.  He was a simple person with a very firm idea in his mind: that Cuba move towards democracy”, she says in a low voice.

One of the principal leaders of the Cuban dissidence, Martha continues telling us:

“On March 20th 2003, they detained Orlando along with 86 other dissidents.  At first, the government of Fidel Castro detained that number of people and later, I suppose to round off the numbers and so the totals could match, in other words, 15 imprisoned dissidents for each one of the 5 spies jailed in the US, then he reduced the number of those arrested to 75.  Zapata spent a few days in a cell.  A few weeks afterward they let him go.  Then, after a few days, during an act of protest in favor of the liberation of the 75 arrested dissidents, which he carried out in Havana’s Central Park, he was again detained and sentenced 3 years in prison for disrespect.  Then he started his ordeal, the beginning of the end for this humble mestizo from Holguin.”

During the initial 3 years, because of different protests and complaints, they held various trials where they accused him of acting out in prison and his sentence was lengthened to 43 years.  Later, the court combined a sanction and his sentence was reduced to years in prison. In all the jails where Orlando Tamayo Zapata stayed, he was tortured and brutally beaten by the prison authorities. I recall that in one of the trials they staged, he arrived with his mouth all bruised up, handcuffed, and with shackles on his feet.  During his fateful hunger strike, the soldiers of the jails denied him water for 18 days…it wasn’t an accident or suicide…it was a crime,” an indignant Mara Beatriz declares.

She then grabs the Granma newspaper, dated February 27th, and with her fingers points out an article by the journalist, Enrique Ubieta:

“Besides lying without blushing, in his article there are many inconsistencies.  To try to vilify Zapata Tamayo, he tries to fabricate a background of dangerous delinquency.  Without a doubt, it is an obvious contradiction, for according to Ubieta, he was sentenced 3 times for supposed grave crimes in 2000, but already towards the end of 2001 he was free.  If there is no bad blood, then Ubieta is lying and the crimes couldn’t have been so grave,” points out Marta.

And she adds that for the government of the Castros it is inadmissible for a person who has had common crimes on their record to have the right to demand political changes.

“In his protests, in the hunger strike he carried out for 86 days, Orlando only asked for decent food cooked by his mother, to have water, and the freedom of the political prisoners.  It seems that for the government these demands were exaggerated.  Then they would have to deal with the outpouring of protests throughout the world and the accusing finger of the world media.  It is still too early to derive lessons from the death of Zapata Tamayo.  At this time, 7 other prisoners of conscience have initiated their own hunger strikes and the journalist, Guillermo Farinas, who resides in the city of Santa Clara, a man whose body has already been debilitated by prior hunger strikes, if he and the others do not give up, the bad news could pile up for the regime,” finishes Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, who promises that the internal dissidency will not stand by with their arms crossed.

The government of the Castro brothers may think it has reason in saying that nothing needs change in Cuba, that everything marches along just fine, and that the people are happy.  But it should be difficult to sleep with a peaceful conscience when, in their country, a man has lost his life simply for reclaiming a bunch of rights during the 7 years he was in jail.

The case is not about ideology, it is about humanity.  At least that is what many Cubans on the island believe.

Ivan Garcia y Laritza Diversent

Photos: Martha Beatriz, to the right, honoring Orlando Zapata Tamayo next to his coffin, together with various Ladies in White.

Translated by Raul G.

Lula Did Not Want His Party With the Castros to be Spoiled

The story of Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva seems to be taken straight out of a Globo TV soap opera.  Despite the fact of having only studied up to the 5th grade, Lula is a guy of natural intelligence, skillful statesmanship, and clever strategies when it comes to political moves.

He became a giant in trade union struggles back in the 70’s in the industrial belt of Sao Paulo, where he worked in a steel plant.  Lula is the Latin-American version of the Polish Lech Walesa and his Solidarity syndicate.  He never was communist and has been a firm critic of the former totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe.

An active Catholic, he created the Worker’s Party in 1982, and thanks to his work, this organization became one of the principal actors on the political map of Brazil.  As a good Brazilian, he likes the ‘Cachaca’ drink, festivals, and soccer.  He is a fan of the Corinthians football [soccer] team and bets on DT Dunga returning the sixth Cup back home from the World Cup this coming June in South Africa.

He was elected to the government after three failed candidacies.  In his case, he succeeded after the fourth try.  He contracted with the number 1 campaign advisor in Brazil to run his campaign.  This choice took him straight to the Planalto Palace.  Of course, Lula did alter his discourse.  He realized that in order to run a country it would take much more than workers, people from villages,  life-long shanty town residents, and people without land.  He didn’t threaten the rich and he allied himself with International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whom he has never failed to pay up to the last centavo of Brazilian debt.

Lula is a product created by political surgery.  He is a fruit produced by marketing.  He is an elite of political necromancy and transvestim.  His Zero Hunger campaigns have not achieved much.  Brazil continues to be among the countries in the world with the greatest inequality.  And such beautiful cities as Rio de Janeiro are also one of the most violent in the world.

Blacks and mestizos account for very little of the social and political life of the country, unless they are maybe soccer players, religious caretakers, or Rio musicians.  This year, Lula returns home to Sao Bernardo do Campo, with a Brazil that is amongst the 25 most economically powerful countries of the planet, yet it has a very uneven distribution of wealth and very few financial opportunities for those at the bottom.

As for the international realm, he has won success.  He is Obama’s right hand at international summits and representatives of the most richest countries have a soft spot for the working man who rose to be president.  Although Fidel Castro and his buddies, Chavez and Morales, have pulled the rug out from under the bearded Brazilian.

At times, Lula has turned away from the ideology of the left, but blood is thicker than water and before finishing his term he wanted to take a trip to Havana to say goodbye to his friend, Fidel, and to do some business with the Cuba of General Raul Castro.

He is within his rights as president of a sovereign country.  The bad side of Lula in his Havana trip, though, was to ignore the death of the peaceful opposition figure Orlando Zapata Tamayo due to a long hunger strike.  He was asked about the situation but he spoke about something else.  He turned a deaf ear.

Perhaps Lula was unaware that the 42 year old mestizo who, on February 25th, was buried in Banes, Holguin (an Eastern town about 850 km from the capital), was a bricklayer, and like him, a supporter of democracy and human rights.

His advisors did not want to spoil the party he was having with the Castros.  And Lula preferred silence.  The Brazilian president of the poor failed to point out that during that same day of his visit to Havana, a simple Cuban man died only because he was demanding the same thing that he (Lula) had demanded his entire life as a trade unionist, opposition politician, and statesman.  But despite having lived through periods of military dictatorship in Brazil, Lula had much more luck than Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

One night, while he is alone in his house drinking a Brazilian coffee, perhaps Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva will recognize how contemptible and cowardly he was to refuse to speak even a few words of condolence to the tormented mother of a man who, like himself, wanted the best for his country.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.