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

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

August 17, 2014 1 comment

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis.

The olive green government put contingency plans into action. Research institutes patented garbage food such as meat mass, soya soup, and oca paste, which were used to fool the stomach.

The government considered an extreme project called “zero option,” against the time when the people would start to collapse in the street due to hunger. It was a red alert, when military trucks would hand out rations neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

“Zero option” did not get implemented. The dollar ended up worth 150 Cuban Pesos, and a pound of rice, if you could get one, cost you 140 pesos, the same as an avocado.

That’s how we Cubans lived in 1994. A hot year. Many people launched themselves into the sea in little rubber boats, driven by desperation and hardship, trying to get to the United States.

I was 28 and four out of every five of my friends or people I knew were making plans to build boats good enough to get them to Florida. We talked of nothing else. Only about getting out.

In the morning of 5th August it was still a crime to be a boat person. If they caught you, it meant up to 4 years behind bars. In spite of the informers, the blackouts helped people build boats of all shapes and sizes. Havana looked like a shipyard.

In my area, an ex-sailer offered his services as a pilot to anyone setting out on a marine adventure. “It’s a difficult crossing. You could be a shark’s dinner if you don’t organise your expedition properly,” he said.

At that time there were red beret soldiers carrying AK-47s patrolling the streets in jeeps. The capital was like a tinderbox.Any friction could touch off a fire. Hardly a month and a half before, on 13th July, the fateful sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo had occurred.

In order to teach would-be illegal escapees a lesson, the authorities deliberately sunk an old tug 7 miles out from the bay of Havana.

72 people were on board. 37 of them died, among them, 10 children. According to the survivors’ testimony, two government tugs refused to help them. It was a crime.

At eleven in the morning of Friday August 5th, a friend of mine came up to a group of us kids who were sitting on a corner in the neighbourhood, and, stumbling over his words, said: “My relatives in Miami have phoned up. They say four large boats have left for Havana, to pick up anyone who wants to leave. There are lots of people in the Malecon, waiting for them.”

A route 15 bus driver, who now lives in Spain, invited us to ride in his bus, to get there faster. He turned off his route. And as he went along, he he picked up anyone who stuck out his hand.

“I’m going to the Malecon” he told people. Every passenger who got on had new information about what was happening. “They’ve broken shop windows and they’re stealing food, toiletries, clothes and shoes. They’ve overturned police cars. Looks like the government’s fucked.”

There was a party atmosphere. The bus was stopped by the combined forces of the police, soldiers and State security people, near the old Presidential Palace.

A group of government supporters was trying to control the antigovernment protesters and the disturbances that were breaking out. It was bedlam.

We got off the bus and we walked down some side streets going towards the Avenida del Puerto. There were lots of anxious people in the avenue with their eyes on the horizon.

There was a police car which had been smashed up by having stones thrown at it near the Hotel Deauville. Paramilitaries were arriving in trucks, armed with tubes and iron bars. They were casual construction workers hired by Fidel Castro who had been rapidly mobilised.

For the first time in my life I heard people shouting Down with Fidel, and Down with the Dictatorship. What had started off as a lot of people trying to escape to Florida had turned into a popular uprising.

The epicenter of what came to be called the Maleconazo were the poor mainly black neighbourhoods of San Leopoldo, Colón and Cayo Hueso. Places where people live in tumbledown houses and with an uncertain future.

Those areas breed hustlers, illegal gambling and drug trafficking. And the Castro brothers are not welcome there.

After 6:00 in the evening of 5th August 1994, it seemed that the government forces had taken control of the extensive area where the people had filled the streets to protest, rob, or just sit on the Malecon wall to see what happened.

Anti-riot trucks picked up hundreds of young men, nearly all of them mixed race or black. A rumour went round that Fidel Castro was having a look round the area. The soldiers had released the safety catches on their AK47s, ready to use them.

By the time it began to get dark, the disturbances were already under control. We walked back, talking about what had happened. That night, because they were afraid another revolt might break out, there was no power cut in Havana.

Iván García

Translated by GH

6 August 2014

Alan Gross: Trapped in a Cold War Tale / Ivan Garcia

August 15, 2014 3 comments
Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now.

Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now. Source: The Cuban History

In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.

It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.

People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.

Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones.

People don’t know Alan Gross, who is kept in a cell in the hospital, just a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood. As far as Ernesto, one of the neighbourhood kids, is concerned, he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba”, he says, but he doesn’t know any details of the case. Another kid, who shows off about being well-informed, tells some of the details:

“I found out on the antenna that the American has staged a hunger strike and he says that, dead or alive, he’s going to leave this year (the antenna is an illegal construction — usually made of a metal tray and some Coke cans — and is used as a communication medium in many poor Cuban poor neighbourhoods). I don’t know why Obama doesn’t exchange him for the “three heroes” (Castro spies in jail in the States).

That is what the Cuban man-in-the-street — many of them — know about Gross, the contractor. A spy who came from the north to subvert things on the island.

Not many of them know what it was that he tried to bring into the country. And, when they know that Alan Gross had with him in his briefcases and backpacks two iPods, eleven Blackberrys, three MacBooks, six 500GB discs, three BGAN satellite phones, among other things that Castro’s government considers “illegal,” they look a bit stupid.

“But they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys,” is what Arnold says, smiling (he is the owner of a little workshop that fixes punctures on your bike or car).

The crime that the olive green State accused him of: “assembling parallel networks to gain illegal access to the internet,” is only an offence in countries with eccentric laws like Cuba or North Korea.

The official media, sporadically offer brief comments, edited in a cleaned-up kind of style, by the hacks at the Foreign Relations Department, who disinform, rather than inform.

People hear about it in the news on the radio and television and it is the main news item in the newspaper Granma. And it all backs up the Cubans’ opinion that Alan Gross was caught carrying out espionage.

Cuba is a nation that scatterbrained foreigners do not know. There are two currencies and the one which is worth more is not the one they pay to workers.

The press assures us that five decades ago they “got rid of prostitution and other capitalist scourges”, but an elderly foreigner on a beach receives more sexual proposals than Brad Pitt.

In order to understand the story put together by the Havana government’s communication experts, we need to have in mind one of its key features: from 1959, the United States is the public enemy number one.

Everything bad stems from that. Six hundred supposed attempts on Fidel Castro’s life: from planning to assassinate him by a bullet through the  temple, to injecting him with a strong poison which would make his beard fall off.

The eleven Presidents who have occupied the White House during Castro’s 55 years are far from being angels. They have hatched attacks, subversions, and assaults on the first Castro. But the regime exaggerates them.

In that context, Alan Gross was a useful pawn for the island’s special services. Gross visited Cuba four times with the idea of giving unrestricted internet access to the small local Jewish community.

On December 3, 2009 the US contractor was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Cuban tribunal. Gross was not the “stupid innocent taken in by USAID,” as they said at his trial.

He was aware of the risk he was running bringing in information equipment into a totalitarian nation, where parallel communication is a crime against the state.

According to a 2012 article from the AP agency, the reports about his trip indicate that Gross knew his activities were illegal, and he was afraid of the consequences, including possibly being expelled from the country. One of the documents confirms that one of the community’s leaders “made it absolutely clear that we are playing with fire.”

On another occasion, Gross commented “There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous business. It would be catastrophic if they detected the satellite signals.”

It would be possible to appeal to  Raúl Castro’s government’s better nature, asking that they set free an unwell 65-year-old man, who is mentally “out of it,” following the death of his mother the previous 18th of June in Texas.

But the criollo (Cuban) autocracy in playing its own game with the USAID contractor. There are still three spies from the Wasp network locked up in US jails, two of them on life sentences.

Alan Gross was the perfect pretext for a negotiation which the Obama administration finds morally unacceptable, as it would place the elderly Jew on the same level as the Cuban spies.

Gross is an authentic laboratory guinea pig, stuck between the United States’ ambiguous politics and Castro’s attempts to get his agents back home. An exchange which the White House is unwilling to accept.

Iván García

Photo: Alan Gross (b. New York, 1949), before his detention, and now, although he is probably thinner and weaker after his last hunger strike and his depression over his mother’s death last June 18th. Taken from The Cuban History.

Translated by GH

10 August 2014

Chatting with One of Havana’s Entrepreneurs / Ivan Garcia

August 4, 2014 2 comments
View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.

And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.

At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.

Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.

He is a cross between a tropical rogue and a guy with a nose for business. He is dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt and a pair of Timberland moccasins. A Swiss Tissot watch cost him six-hundred dollars at an airport duty-free shop.

“Money brings you neither health nor happiness but it makes you feel good, different. Knowing you have money in your wallet and enough to eat is a big deal in this country. Then, if you live in a nice house and own a car, you can afford certain luxuries, like drinking Scotch and sleeping with young girls without having to be a police informer or a senior official in the regime. Solvency raises your self-esteem,” says Humberto, who has wanted to be businessman since he was young.

“At the time of the Revolution I was the owner of an high-end apartment in Vedado. When communism came along, like everyone else I learned to fake it. I was never a member of the militia or a militant, so the goverment tried every trick it could to get me to give up my apartment. They wanted me to exchange it for an awful place in Alamar, as though I were crazy,” says Humberto. “These people,” he adds while making a gesture as though stroking an imaginary beard, “love to talk about the poor but they like to live like the bourgeoisie.”

“In the building where I live there are military officers and government leaders. During the Soviet era there were also technical specialists from the USSR, East Germany and North Korea living there. I have never known more savvy businesspeople than the ’comrades from the communist bloc.’ The used to buy and sell everything. They even set up a small bank,” he notes with a smile.

Things have not always gone so well. He was jailed in the 1980s, accused of illegal economic activity. “After my release from prison I had to sweep parks. When my children were grown, I got them out of the country. They have lived overseas for a long time. My grandchildren are foreigners. I stay here because I prefer to live in Havana, the city where I was born,” says Humberto.

During the 1990s — the tough years of the “Special Period” — Humberto began renting his apartment to foreigners. “Almost all private business was illegal, from dealing in art to buying and selling houses and cars. But after 2010 the government expanded the private sector and I got a hospitality license.”

He lives in a house with his wife and rents out his apartment. “The prices vary depending on the length of stay and the time of year. In peak season I rent it for 60 CUC a day. The apartment has four bedrooms, air-conditioning throughout, a big living room and remodeled bathrooms with hot and cold running water,” says Humberto.

In general he only rents to couples, women and older men. “I don’t like renting to young men or bachelors. They turn your house into a brothel. I don’t rent to Cubans because, on top of being messy, they walk off with things. They have stolen everything but the electricity itself from me. That’s why I only rent to foreigners.”

Humberto considers himself to be a good friend, a better father and a lousy husband. “I have never been stingy. I take care of my parents and I have discreetly helped dissident family members and friends. As long as this regime exists, business people like me will always be treated like suspects and possible criminals. To be a real small businessman you have to live in a climate of democracy.

The night has engulfed Havana. From the bar at La Torre the view is spectacular. You see all the lights but none of the misery.

Ivan Garcia

Video: Views of Havana from La Torre Restaurant where Ivan talked with Humberto. The video was made by Winston Smith and uploaded to YouTube in July 2013.
2 August 2014


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