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Ricardo’s Smile

May 30, 2010 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Monologue of Two Balseros

May 30, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

El Combinado del Este Prison

May 27, 2010 1 comment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina Anavy

An Inmate Tells His Story

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Cubafreepress, 25th February 1998.

Translated by Araby

Illegally, Many Cubans are Informed

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván Garcia

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

Meurice, Cuba’s most Beloved Priest

May 25, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

Raul Castro Handles the Situation with Tweezers

May 22, 2010 2 comments


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Garcia

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

Translated By: Mari Mesa Contreras

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