Reporting from San Diego / Ivan Garcia

November 18, 2014 Leave a comment
The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

There are Cuban dissidents and independent journalists who, since the emigration and travel reform was enacted by Raul Castro in 2013, have already accumulated some trips abroad. This has not been the case with Ivan, who agreed to travel to the United States because it was for a workshop about investigative journalism, organized by the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, San Diego, California. And he accepted because it was a short stay of one week. We offer the first of three reports sent from San Diego. (Tania Quintera [Ivan’s mother]). 

Monday, November 10

I made the trip from Havana to Miami without problems. The Miami is airport is a city, I had to walk nearly a kilometer from the gate to passport control. At both customs I was treated well. At the Miami airport I met a former neighbor from La Vibora who worked there.

I took advantage of having to wait three hours for the flight to San Diego to buy a laptop at one of the airport stores (I left mine in Cuba because it is defective). It cost me $200, has Windows 8 and an English keyboard.

The flight to San Diego was long. The plane, a little uncomfortable. The seats were too close together. This is the best way I’ve found for airlines to make money: put people in a tube as if they were cattle. Although the service and food were good.

I found the San Diego Airport more functional than Miami’s. What I liked best so far is San Diego. A gorgeous city, with clean streets and well cared for houses. For those who have been accustomed to living in a barely lit capital, I was impressed with the great amount of light.

The temperature was 66F degrees, but there was little humidity, the climate was agreeable.

In the hotel rooms there is free internet, but there are computers only in the lobby. The rooms are comfortable. A television with a lot of channels, large bathroom, microwave, dryer, iron, coffee maker, refrigerator and an air conditioner I had to turn down.

Tuesday, November 11

Since the Institute of the Americas started these workshops in 2009, it’s the first time a reporter from Cuba came. The professors’ curriculum is very high level. Yesterday in the afternoon there was a debate about the difficulties of engaging in journalism. It was enriching. The 25 participating journalists are anti-Castro, Venezuelans stand out, with whom I have very good chemistry.

There’s little time for writing. The agenda is packed. When I return to Havana I have thought of writing a dozen stories. I was wrong about what I might expect from the workshop. For years to come, they will think to include subjects related to Cuba. It happens that our country is the ugly duckling of the continent.

The breakfast is too much. In matters of food, the gringos overdo it. We had a good time on Coronado, an island that was and still is a military base, they have a World War II aircraft carrier that is a museum. We dined there. The pizzas gigantic, and the servings of shrimp, it was painful to toss them out when there is so much hunger in the world.

We are going to visit the weekly newspaper Zeta in Tijuana, where in the last 14 years the drug cartels have murdered five journalists.

Wednesday, November 12

Tijuana is a city bordering San Diego and two million people live there. The border crossing seems like a maximum security prison. It is a bad copy of San Diego. There are developments with the same architecture as their neighbors, with the difference that in Tijuana there six thousand well-capitalized factories and businesses.

The interior streets are dark and pot-holed, like Havana. From the border crossing the border the difference is notable. You can smell it in the air. On a narrow boulevard there is a cluster of shops and fast food joints.

I didn’t like the city. It looks like a stage set. It seemed to me that people hide more than they say. You walk the streets and they look at you like you’re a freak. There are many unemployed with apparently nothing to do, but they are doing something: selling a devastating drug called Crystal. It’s a drama. The poor and hopeless people use it to the point of madness. A dose costs some four dollars.

We had lunch at a top restaurant. Excellent food, slow service. By late afternoon we were in a “tolerant” neighborhood. We went with a police patrol and city official. Prostitution is legal. There are around ten blocks of nightclubs and brothels. The prostitutes pay taxes and have to keep their health cards current. In the clubs there are a lot of Chinese, spending dollars on go-go girls.

I was the only one in the group who had to stumble back to San Diego. The immigration official didn’t understand why I presented several gringo visas and was entering the United States from Tijuana. I suppose it must have been a red alert, as nearly 15,000 Cubans a year enter the United States through Mexico.

I replied that if I had wanted to stay I would have done it in Miami and not gone to San Diego. “I like your country, but I have one, it’s called Cuba, I was born there and my family is there,” I told him, and asked him if would have abandoned his.

The guy smiled and answered, “All journalists are the same, they love to turn the tables, but the reality is that Cubans in Mexico stay at the first opportunity.” “I’m not one of those,” I answered. “I think the United States is at fault, they should repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act to end that problem.”

He waved goodbye cheerfully and told me he hoped I wouldn’t write a report accusing him of racism (I’m black) or intolerance towards Latinos, because, “I’m also of Latino descent, it’s nothing personal, but it is my work.”

Colleagues who were waiting in the bus to take us back to the hotel applauded when I got in. In a few days they have learned certain Cuban realities they didn’t know. After the myth of Che Guevara, healthcare for all and good education, here is an autocratic regime.

Iván García

13 November 2014

Old dissidents in Cuba: Between homelessness and forgetting / Ivan Garcia

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment
Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

The elderly are the big losers in the timid economic reforms of Cuba’s General-President. Thousands who once applauded Fidel Castro’s long speeches in the Plaza of the Revolution, or fought in the civil wars in Africa, today survive however they can.

There they are. Selling newspapers, peanuts, or single cigarettes. Others have it worse. Senile dementia has overtaken them and they beg for alms or dig through the dumpsters.

But even harder is life for an old dissident. Do the names Vladimiro Roca Antunez, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Felix Bonne Carcassés mean nothing today? In the 90s they were the most active opponents betting on democracy and political and economic freedoms. In the summer of 1997 they drafted a lucid document titled “The Nation Belongs to Everyone.”

For this coherent and inclusive legacy they received verbal and physical violence on the part of the regime and its secret police. And they went to jail. Seventeen years after the launch of “The Nation Belongs to Everyone,” already old and with a litany of ailments, they are barely surviving.

Vladimiro, son of the Communist leader Blas Roca, had to sell his house in Neuvo Vedado. With the money he bought a crappy apartment and with the rest he survives. He’s about to turn 72, has never received the pension that he has a right to because he flew MIGs and worked in State institute.

Fidel Castro was implacable with the first waves of dissent. In addition to jailing them, he expelled them from the dignified and well-paid jobs And refused them a check on retirement. Others were forced to live in exile.

Bonne, the only black person in the group, was a university professor and prominent intellectual. He is almost blind and between the memory loss and shortages, waits for God to take him in his house in the Rio Verde neighborhood.

Martha Beatriz, a distinguished economist, is trying to weather the storm at the front of a network of social communicators, for which she receives insults and violence from State Security.

If the autocratic state doesn’t care about historical dissidents, who should watch over them? The younger dissidents? The current opponents should find ways to help the elderly dissidents.

It is just and humane. And is not acting like the government with the hundreds of thousands of men and women who, in their youth, didn’t hesitate to offer their energies and even their lived to his Revolution, and when they get old they are abandoned to their fate, with few exceptions.

To repair the unjust reality in the ranks of the dissidents, independent journalists Jose A. Fornaris and Odelin Alfonso are trying to do something. “We are working on how to create a support fund destined to the older opponents so they will receive at least 50 convertible pesos a month. Also this fund would cover a stipend for colleagues who are incapacitated by accident or illness,” said Fornaris, head of an association of free Cuban journalists.

For his part, Alfonso thinks that a kind of pension fund, “Every journalist who publishes his works and is paid, will voluntarily donate a portion. It’s sad how older dissidents are living.”

Implementing the project would allow dozens of opponents in their seventies to squeak by with dignity. Tania Diaz Castro, poet and journalist, was in the front lines in the hard years of the 1980s, when few dared to dissent against Castroism.

Their names should not be forgotten. Ricardo Bofill, Reinaldo Bragado, Rolando Cartaya and Marta Frayde, among others, gave birth to a party in favor of human rights.

Díaz Castro, a member of that party, never imagined that many years later Cuba would remain a totalitarian country. She lives in Santa Fe, to the west of Havana, surrounded by books and dogs. She survives writing reports for digital sites and with the dollars her children are able to send her from abroad.

And she is not the worst off. A few blocks from her home lives Manuel Gutierrez, in the opposition since the 1980s and founder of a dissident party. Now over 70, he earns a living working the land and tending goats.

He lives in a miserable hut of tiles and rough cement. But he does not complain. “That’s what happened to me. Worse off than me are the less known dissidents. It was my choice, to stay in Cuba and fight for change,” he said, trying to hide the tremor in his hands, due to unaddressed Alzheimer’s.

The current dissidence cannot and must not forget the past. When the current dissidents were afraid and silently accepted the regime’s public verbal lynchings of those brave opponents, they were speaking for all Cubans.

Now, we dissidents and independent journalists who don’t yet have grey hair, should concern ourselves with those who came before and opened the way for us. If the present is less repressive on the island, it’s precisely because of the old dissidents.

Iván García

Photo: Gladys Linares Blanco, 72, a teacher by profession, is a prominent opponent who thanks to her conversion to an independent journalist, can more or less survive in Havana, where she lives. Another who survives thanks to his collaborations in digital media is the lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano, a former colleague of Felix Bonne Carcasses, Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca Antunez in the Working Group of the Internal Dissidence, the four writers of The Nation Belongs to Everyone. Unlike Gladys, René has been invited to events in the US and Spain, among other countries. The photo was taken from a Cuban Una cubana fuera de serie.

5 November 2014

Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment
Britannia School, Havana

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams.

The faculty is first rate. And although it costs 20 CUC to register and another 10 CUC a month for tuition, the school is no longer accepting new students due to lack of capacity.

Adriana, a civil engineer, enrolled her eleven-year-old daughter in the school. “It’s quite expensive,” she says, “but thanks to help from the girl’s grandmother, who lives overseas, I can afford to pay for these English classes.”

It costs Osvaldo, a private-sector worker, a bit more. “I enrolled my two sons,” he says. “The sacrifice is worth it; they get a lot of personal attention and the teaching methods are excellent.”

Each student is given an 8-gigabyte flash drive with learning materials, textbooks, exercise books, pencils, pens and a light blue bag. Erasmus, who teaches classes for children, notes, “In the two years the school has been operating, the reception has been tremendous. Over 80 people attend the Monday and Friday evening classes. We guarantee students will learn both forms of English — the UK and the US versions — as well as idioms used in cities like New York and Miami.”

In a spacious porticoed house with a carefully tended rose garden half a mile from the  Britannia private school, Adela teaches English to children, adolescents and adults for 10 CUC per month.

“I give classes three times a week in two different time slots. On September 10 I had to stop enrolling students. In addition to the 10 CUC a month, the first month costs 8 CUC, which covers textbooks, specialized DVDs and other material,” explains Adela.

In Tenth of October alone — with 213,000 inhabitants, it is Havana’s most populous district — there are sixty private English language schools.

“In addition to these there are eleven or twelve state-run schools that offer language classes at night,” says Gregorio, a local high school English teacher. “In addition to price, the main difference between these and the private schools is quality. The classes taught at the private schools are much better than those at state schools.”

Havana probably has more English language classes per capita than any other city on the planet. This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a few state-run foreign language schools in English, German, French or Russian.

By the mid-1980s English language classes were being suppressed in Cuban schools. “It was crazy,” recalls Renato, a philologist. “Russian was adopted but it didn’t enjoy widespread acceptance in spite of the fact that Radio Rebelde broadcast Russian courses.”

But with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, English language instruction returned to school curricula. With new regulations in 1994 providing greater options for self-employment, hundreds of teachers, interpreters and translators of the language of Shakespeare began giving classes as a way to earn money and improve their quality of life.

Twice a week, Marlén gives English lessons to about twenty students, all under the age of twelve. “I charge 5 CUC a month. I worked as part of a team translating books and articles for Fidel Castro. But I am retired and my 300 Cuban peso a month pension is not enough to live comfortably.”

You wil find that prices run the gamut in Havana, from 1 CUC per class, or 3 CUC a month, to 10 or 15 CUC a month in private academies or well-equipped homes.

According to Carlos, a sociologist, the demand for classes in English and other foreign languages for younger kids and adolescents is driven by the desire of many parents to prepare their children for emigration in the future.

“Not since before 1959, when there were schools throughout Havana offering free English language classes, have so many students of all ages been studying English in such a serious and in-depth way. It is taught in state schools but the classes are poor quality. Behind the high-demand is a desire to be prepared to work, study or live in the United States, Canada or some other English-speaking country. No self-respecting professional — whether he or she is an engineer, programmer or high-tech worker — can avoid the study of the English language. Knowing how to speak English is essential in today’s world.”

Juan Antonio, a Cuban-American living in Miami, knows firsthand the importance of English. “I spent four years working in low-paying jobs because I had not mastered the language. That’s why I send money to my nephews and nieces, so that they can learn English from an early age,” he says. “When it comes time to leave, they will have opportunities for better jobs.”

With the new winds blowing through the island, among the goals a bright young man like Jonathan has is to learn English well enough to attend an American university.

“Young Cubans are always preparing because we hope to get scholarships to study at American or European universities. A degree from any prestigious university is an advantage that will allow us to find good-paying jobs. It’s no longer enough just to emigrate. After arriving, I want to thrive,” says Jonathan.

Comfortable schools with modern teaching methods, such as Britannia in Havana’s Santa Catalina Avenue, offer the quality that those who see their future in an English-speaking country are looking for.

Iván García

Photo from Martí Noticias

23 October 2014

Crisis Among Cuban Dissidents? / Ivan Garcia

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

The egos and grandstanding are projecting an uncertain outlook within the peaceful opposition in Cuba. It’s like a symphony orchestra without a conductor, where musicians play their own tunes.

It’s not for lack of political programs that Cuban activists cede space. They are overflowing with ideas, projects and platforms aimed at democratic change. Some are more consistent than others.

And although all platforms and political parties are entitled to have their doctrines and programs, the reality in Cuba has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of dissident theses.

Born deformed as a matter of genesis. They have no popular support. There are ever fewer reports about them in the Florida media, the Spanish press and the BBC.

Indeed, to be an opponent on the island is an act of unquestionable value. Hanging in the air of the Republic is a dark law that sanctions with up to twenty years behind bars those who oppose the regime or write without permission.

But the repression, fierce or subtle, the lack of public space, has transformed the dissidents into a group of coffee klatchers, without support in their neighborhoods.

The evidence of their incompetence is that they’re out of sync with the average Cuban. Never before in the 55 years of the Castro brothers’ government, has the percentage the citizenry who disapprove been higher.

Any survey or conversation with people on the street serves to confirm it. But political proselytizing has failed to organize that anger.

Their interests are different although they sound analogous. Carlos, a carpenter, also wants democracy. He feels that the military autocracy has hijacked the future of his family with unfulfilled promises. Be he has no confidence in the discourse and narrative of the Cuban opposition.

In the old taxis in Havana, in the lines for bureaucratic paperwork, or at a baseball stadium, people talk to you without hesitation about a radical change to improve the economy and the precarious quality of life.

Some have read or heard about an opposition paper. But it does not excite them. They see it as distant as a government minister. Although the dissidents are neighbors on their same block, they have done little for his district or municipality.

They are disconnected, like a cosmonaut from the Earth. The particular world of dissent is to generate news, report meetings, make suggestions or report police abuse, but they lack a basic foundation to become legitimate actors for the future that is upon us.

The fate of the Island will be decided in the next five years. Perhaps earlier. The great majority of those in European Union, the United States and Latin America also want a democratic Cuba.

But the opposition’s raw material to manage the future is tenuous. So the strategy of the international community is to agree to a bizarre transition from totalitarianism to authoritarianism with Castro supporters. According to their perception, it is the least bad way.

On issues ranging from the repression to the shamelessness, the opposition has degenerated into a “swallow” dissent who at the first change ask for political asylum, preferably in the United States.

Those who remain are tough, but have adapted to the rules dictated by the regime.

There is an unwritten law of what can be done within the magical realism of autocracy.

The elderly rulers have gone from an anachronistic and authoritarian totalitarian system to another with a veneer of modernity and more flexible laws.

In 2014 you won’t be sent to prison for writing articles critical of the government. The most that will happen is a short detention in a police dungeon, an act of repudiation, or screams on the public street from an enraged assassin.

Depending on the circumstances, the dissidence is allowed to hold discussions, forums and debates in private homes. For two years, just for dissenting, Sonia Garro and her husband Ramón Alejandro Munoz, both black, have been held in jail. Another dozen activists are also prisoners or awaiting sentencing.

But the playing field is much wider today than before 2003. Since February 2013, most opponents and independent journalists are allowed to travel abroad.

A golden opportunity for more effective political lobbying. And they are not taking advantage of it. Everything stays in sterile encounters. Probably the most consistent program is led by Antonio G. Rodiles with his Citizen Demand For Another Cuba.


It is reasonable, because it has a grip on reality and not in the political science fiction of other groups with their outlandish appeals. Rodiles uses a primary logic.

If we want Cuba to change, the government must ratify the United Nations’ international covenants signed in 2008. This is the gateway to legalizing a future civil society where, in addition to freedoms and human rights, there is political pluralism.

All opponents should support Rodiles and the Campaign for Another Cuba. But egos and grandstanding prevails. Each dissident leader is surrounded by a cloud of minions who defend their project as if it were an island under siege.

In turn, they attack and discredit contrary proposals. The worst of these brawls is that they don’t generate any credible proposals. Just bluster and platitudes. And behind them are the special services with their strategy of division.

Unfortunately, the Lades in White, an organization whose street marches in 2010 forced the government to release the 75 dissidents imprisoned in the 2003 Black Spring, has been split by intrigues and intemperate personalities.

This scrapping also extends to other dissident groups. More than an internal crisis or one of leadership, the Cuban opposition suffers from paralysis and the inability to join with the citizens.

When I read that some opposition groups claim to have the support of thousands of followers, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. An event that triggers a massive protest needs capable leaders Any event that triggers a massive protest only need capable leaders. And that is what we’re lacking.

Iván García

Photo: Antonio G. Rodiles, Coyula Regina and Ivan Garcia in a panel of independent journalism in Cuba organized by Estado de SATS in Havana on September 4, 2014.

9 October 2014

Of Jails In Cuba / Ivan Garcia

October 13, 2014 1 comment
A "combatant" as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

A “combatant” as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a free man since April.

According to a former prison official, 90 percent of detainees in Cuba work with scarce security and are paid poverty wages.

“I am convinced that the work of prisoners is one of the main productive engines of the country. Exploiting them allows high profits. Until 2006, when I worked in a Havana jail, they were paid 150 or 200 pesos a month for working up to 14 hours (remember that the minimum salary in Cuba is 484 pesos) or they were paid not a cent. Those who were paid also had deducted expenses like food and lodging. The government gives degrading treatment to the majority of common Cuban prisoners,” says the ex-official.

Throughout the green alligator it is calculated that there exist more than 200 prisons. Cuba is the sixth nation on the planet in per capita prisoners. In 2013, the regime recognized that the penal population is around 57 thousand inmates.

The internal dissidence claims that the figure might approach 100 thousand. Cuban jails are rigorous. Physical mistreatment and abuses by the penitentiary guards are standard.

Suicides, mutilations and insanity within the prisons are a secret statistic that the government handles with clamps. Prestigious companies, like the Swedish Ikea, have been accused of complicity in prisoner slave labor in Cuban factories.

In the 1980’s, Ciro was a prisoner for five years for illegal exit. In his pilgrimage through the detention centers, he worked in a transportation parts warehouse for the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) in the Lawton slum, some 30 minutes from downtown Havana.

“MININT is the main beneficiary of cheap prison labor. In Workshop One I worked with hardly any protection on an assembly line for cars with plastic bodies and VW German motors. I also worked in an upholstery shop where fine furniture was given its varnish. Years later, I learned that they were for Ikea. They never paid me a cent,” says Ciro.

Thousands of inmates participate in construction of hospitals, schools, housing, food production and the most dangerous work. “We do what no one wants to do. Clean streets, sewers and cut the invasive marabou weed,” says Evelio, who is completing a two-year sentence scrubbing urban buses.

Military or state enterprises like Provari are at the head of labor exploitation and captive work. In a brochure published in 2001, the firm Provari was said to have 150 production installations on the island.

In the prison Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, Provari produces insecticides. A report published in the daily Guerrillero in 2013, said that the Provari branch office in Pinar del Rio in 2010 had sales valued at 200,000 dollars.

According to that report, the Pinarena branch production included chlorine and muriatic acid, beach chairs, baby cribs, concrete and clay blocks, paints, paint brushes, plastic tubes and ornamental plants.

In a workshop in the women’s prison in Havana, jeans are made for export by different brands, as well as uniforms for police, armed forces and the prisoners themselves.

Provari also produces the insecticide Lomate, anti-bacterials for lice and ticks, as well as other products destined for sanitary hygiene. And there are plans to build a solar water heater of 170 liters according to official media.

In that 2001 brochure, among other activities of Provari was mentioned carpentry with precious wood, sale of textiles under the brands Oeste and Hercules and upholstery of office furniture by the Ofimax brand.

“The most worrying thing is that they work without special uniforms, adequate for producing chemical substances.  We prisoners do not have options or a legal representative where we can complain and make demands of the government,” comments the former prisoner Saul.

And he adds that almost all the prisoners work voluntarily. “It’s a way to get air, eat better and escape the abuses of the jailers.”

While the autocratic Castro government prepares “tours” for credentialed western diplomats and correspondents in Cuba to model prisons like La Lima in Guanabacoa, a township to the southeast of the capital, thousands of inmates work in precarious conditions and without the required remuneration.

The odd thing is that state enterprises in the style of Provari, with all signs of participating in slave prison labor, expect a foreign partner to expand their businesses.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  A “combatant,” as jailers in Cuba are called, poses together with several prisoners who with new uniforms were selected for display during the visits that in April 2013, a group of foreign correspondents and journalists for official media made to Cuban prisons previously chosen by the regime.  Taken from Cuba opens the jails to the press.

Translated by mlk.

7 October 2014

Well-Being in Cuba Hides Behind a Visa / Ivan Garcia

October 7, 2014 1 comment

Cuba-Tourist_Card (1)Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.

Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.

“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.

This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years.

The poet Virgilio Piñera blamed Cubans’ misfortune on our insularity. “The damned circumstance of water everywhere,” he wrote in “The Isle in Weight.”

He was probably right. Not having control over one’s future and with an average monthly salary of twenty dollars a month means that for some people the only option for improving their quality of life is to obtain a visa.

Regardless of ideology, race or education, almost no one wants to travel abroad to visit museums and learn about other peoples and cultures.

Whether they be members of the regime or the opposition, their purpose in travelling is to come back with lots of stuff and a decent amount of money.

When you talk to some dissidents who have travelled to the United States or Europe, they describe how comfortable their hotels were, how much they ate and how advanced the technologies they encountered were.

They go into great detail when talking about the luxurious stores or the prices of home appliances. Government officials do this as well; it is only in speeches and public forums that they condemn capitalism.

A year and a half after passage of an emigration law allowing Cubans to travel overseas more easily, fifty independent journalists have been to various countries.

I am waiting to read more reports on Cubanet from the likes of David Canela and Alberto talking about what they have seen in American cities they have visited. A lot of people have been to Florida but I have not anything on the aspirations of the latest generation of Cubans living on the other shore. And those who go to Madrid don’t usually venture out to Cañada Real, preferring Lavapies or Chueca instead.*

They cite a lack of time, though they always find time to visit the Ño que Barato store in Miami. I do not know if it is from apathy or spiritual poverty but, with rare exceptions, independent journalists do not write about the men and women from the places they have had the privilege to visit.

Preoccupied with academic get-togethers, my colleagues are missing a golden opportunity by not reporting on life and local customs of the populations in these localities.

You can’t ask an ordinary Cuban to join the activism in support of a democratic society, when the supposed dissident and journalist leaders, dazed by trips abroad, have disengaged from political proselytizing in their communities.

The merit now is in accumulating flight hours and visas. It is important to participate in academic events and economic forums or to pass courses at prestigious universities.

But I wonder who will support guys like Cecilio, medical specialist, to learn to fight for his rights to a fair wage, or to convince him that if the Castro autocracy approves the UN covenants, it will open a door to a democratic society.

Not even in the most difficult years of the so-called Special Period have we seen so many Cubans dreaming of leaving the country on either a permanent or temporary basis. They see the future outside their homeland.

A visa to the developed world is their priority. Cuba is hurting. It is a real tragedy that every year more than twenty thousand of our fellow citizens leave in a legal and orderly way for the United States.

In the first months of 2014 fourteen thousand Cubans crossed the border between Mexico and the United States. No one knows if the forty thousand people who have left the island since the new emigration law took effect on January 14, 2013 will return.

In addition to these numbers, there are also the hundreds if not thousands of people who take to the sea in rubber rafts. We are more of an island than ever.

At this rate, there will be no one to defend the hijacked rights and face off with the Castro brothers. The regime could win the case by default. It is already winning.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: Cañada Real is a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid known for crime and drug trafficking. Lavapies is a neighborhood in central Madrid with a large immigrant population. Chueca is a square in central Madrid popular with members of the gay community.

20 September 2014

Summer Vacations in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

September 2, 2014 1 comment
Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Raudel and his family have already packed their bags for a six-night stay at a campsite in Mayabeque province near Havana.

They saved some of the money their relatives in Miami send them every month and rented an air-conditioned cabin in Los Cocos along the north shore of Havana.

“It costs us 106 CUC with breakfast. We bring our own food to save money. It’s the best option we could find given our budget,” says Raudel.

Depending on the currency and how much of it you have, there are a variety of vacation options available in Cuba this summer. Having convertible pesos (CUC) — popularly known as chavitos and used by the state to pay monthly bonuses of 10 to 35 CUC to employees in key economic sectors such as tourism, telecommunications and civil aviation — certainly makes a difference.

Others ways of obtaining chavitos include operating a small private business or receiving dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency from relatives overseas.

There is also a faction of corrupt bureaucrats and white-collar swindlers on the island who are experts at looting the public coffers. They carry red Communist Party membership cards in their wallets and parrot the harangues of the regime but use financial strategies to embezzle money, food and commodities.

Hugo (a pseudonym) is one of them. He works in a state grocery store and over the course of eighteen years has been careful to cover his tracks. He does not blow thousands of dollars on a quinceniera party or dine at fancy restaurants.

“I fly under the radar,” says Hugo. “There are three types of criminals in Cuba: the thieves who steal from people, the administrators who steal from the state and the consumer, and the high-level officials who through business dealings and illegal activity get hold of anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a couple of million. The closer they are to the seat of power, the faster the banknotes and the perks pile up. A government minister might spend two weeks at a Varadero resort without paying one cent. His position gives him access to food baskets, a cell phone and a free internet account. These people are the upper class. We — the directors, administrators and business managers — are the middle class,” he says with a straight face.

If you establish good relationships with people in power and are adept at not getting caught, it’s smooth sailing.

“It never pays to show off. But if you know how to walk a tightrope, you can buy a car, a house or a holiday in Cayo Coco or Varadero,” says Hugo.

This summer the wily storekeeper booked a week in a five star hotel. But in Cuba the heads of the “mafia cartels” which control the restaurant industry, foreign trade and tourism are the exceptions.

Much more common are families like Ruben’s, who works eight hours in an office and whose vacations are always more of the same. “A lot of television, a little beach time, dominoes and cheap rum with neighborhood friends,” he says as he cools off in front of a Chinese electric fan.

The military is probably the most privileged caste in Cuba. Joel (a pseudonym) is an official at the Ministry of the Interior. Every year he rents a cabin at a military villa. “I never spend more than a thousand pesos (40 dollars).”

In addition to having their Suzuki motorcycles and mobile phones provided by the state, the security agents who harass dissidents are able to buy clothes and food at modest prices and summer in military-owned villas scattered throughout the island.

While officials like Joel enjoy nice vacations, primary school teacher Elisa looks forward to payday so she can afford the 60 pesos it costs for two seats on the bus to take her eight-year-old daughter to the beach east of the capital.

“Every year a guy who works at a state-owned enterprise gets a bus so those of us from the neighborhood can go to the beach or the aquarium. It costs 30 pesos a person,” notes Elisa. “Teachers are essential to any society but in Cuba educators earn poverty-level wages and we cannot afford to rent a house on the beach or stay in a hotel.”

The problem with summer vacations in Cuba is not a lack of options. It is an issue of hierarchy, influence and hard currency.

Ivan Garcia

16 August 2014


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.