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Chavez’s Defeat and the Economic Reforms in Cuba

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Maybe he was surprised that Chavez was defeated in the popular vote. In Havana alarms went off. The unstoppable South American Santa Claus is a very valuable asset for the Cuban political strategy. He is its strong man.

He’s also fundamental for supporting an economy that is foundering. The frenzied Chavez offers the oil the island needs, to avoid slipping into and age of darkness, at rock bottom prices.

That’s why the leaders pamper him despite his drivel and verbal incontinence. Maybe his political mentor, Fidel Castro, is upset because of the Caracas autocrat’s mania to hold elections every time he feels like it.

It’s a known fact that Castro does not believe in that damaging vice called democracy, nor in holding referendums. Even less in holding a referendum just to lose it. Tough guys like the mythic bearded one only hold elections if they know for certain that they’ll win more than 95% of the votes.

That strange habit of the swarthy caudillo’s trying his luck at the ballot, keeps the island’s rulers on their toes. It’s a known fact that the fall of the Soviet Union threw Cuba suddenly and without warning into a crisis which has lasted for 21 years, and which in its darkest days took us close to the stone age.

Castro knows that the Cuban government can’t allow another violent worsening of conditions, with food shortages and 14-hour blackouts. That could be the end of his revolution. Already, advisers are looking through their files for contingency plans, just in case Chavez loses power in 2013.

To stop being the beggars of the Caribbean, living off the resources of another country, it’s urgent to get the weakened internal economy rolling again. This is the time for the fans of the Chinese Model. They’re probably on edge.

They think this is the time to speed up the reforms and economic openings. It’s a task for titans. And there’s little time. The red commander could lose his post in three years. There aren’t many  options at hand. The most feasible is to bet on the market economy but keep a tight hand on the reins of power, like China does.

Playing two cards. Capitalism on the outside and socialism on the inside. Of course, that needs improved relations with America, and Obama lifting the embargo.

The wise make their estimates. Maquiladoras — cross-border factories — would come by the dozen, and the hundreds of thousands on unemployed would work for a pittance. Like the Asian Giant, Cuba offers a cheap, docile workforce, with a union that will not encourage them to protest or strike.

In that economic model, with the worst of wild capitalism, fans may forget a little detail. Cuba is not China. It doesn’t have an internal market of a billion people and Cubans do not work like slaves.

Whatever it is, something must be done to take the local economy out of its slump. Chavez is no guarantor. Maybe it’s time to speed up the changes. It would also reveal if the policies of the Castro brothers are aligned or not.

If stagnation continues, it would risk their continuity in power. And that is a powerful incentive to speed up the reforms.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

 


Yunia Continues Living on the Edge of Suicide

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Yunia Palacios, 30, is a potential suicide. You can tell by looking at her. She and her three children live poorly and eat worse. She is a mulata Indian with mild mental retardation and an almost animal life.

Her history is an ordeal. For the official media there are no people like Yunia. But there are. And the number is growing sharply.

She was born in the steep and hot city of Santiago de Cuba. She has always been unhappy. Typical. Daughter of alcoholic parents who abandoned her to her fate. At age 12 she embarked for Havana — the Miami of those living in eastern regions — and fell into the clutches of a guy who while she slept while poured his semen on her child’s body.

She escaped. Running away is her natural state. Wandering dirty and hungry along the National Highway she stumbled upon a bastard, three times her age and evil. He beat her at will and impregnated her three times.

The guy, a low-class thief, went to prison for killing cattle. Obediently Yunia visited him in jail. When he was released he threw her and their three children out of their home. Well, not exactly a home.

They lived in a hut of palm leaves with a dirt floor. They slept on a filthy mattress between cockroaches and mice. Yunia returned to spend the night, trapped. This time with an additional charge, their three children.

The girl has gone to different levels of government to seek a shelter or a room to live in. She always gets the same answer: wait. Desperate, she thought of jumping off a bridge 40 meters high.

If she died, she thought, state institutions would take care of the children. But her blood did not flow into the river. Lawyers and independent journalists visited her and reported her case in 2009.

As usually occurs in Cuba, the situation is aired outside the island. And on occasion they give an official response. But there is still an ordeal for Yunia: The authorities said they could stay at the home of the father of her children.

The ideal would have been to provide her with a modest apartment or room. “The economic situation,” replied the officials. And she had to return to the hut of her executioner.

When at night the children’s father violently beats her, Yunia runs to a small hill surrounded by marabou bushes. There, in silence, she thinks about the best way to die.

When the sun shines and shows the green of the countryside, among the songs of mockingbirds and morning dew, Yunia reverses her suicide plan. Hope is reborn in her.

She begins to daydream. One day she will live in a house with their children be able to eat enough to satisfy hunger. It’s all she asks.

Her dream end when she returns home. With each new beating, again her head is filled with the option of suicide. Yunia has never discarded it.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

September 21, 2010

We Were Few and Grandma Gave Birth

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment


When Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in 2008, it was rumored among the population that the general carried a fistful of changes up his sleeve. The most desirable, the elimination of entrance and exit permits for traveling to and from the country. Cubans on the island already saw themselves getting passports and boarding planes to visit their families in other countries.

It was also said that he would allow free access to the Internet. There were days of speculations and euphoria. And what they were able to buy were cellular phones, DVD players and computers, old and expensive. Nationals were allowed to stay in hotels exclusive to foreigners. Paying in foreign currency, of course.

Two years later, many Cubans have cell phones and DVDs in their homes and some have stayed in nice hotels. It’s certain that employment has grown on its own accord, and certain measures have benefited certain sectors, like hairdressers, taxi drivers and the rural population.

But today the topics of conversation in Cuba are very different. “When your job is what’s in play, the internet and the ability to travel outside the country become secondary,” says Lorenzo, 42-years-old and employed.

In Havana, nothing else is discussed: Massive layoffs, taxes, private businesses and the rationing book. The latter is what bothers Caridad — 78 and retired — the most. “My boy, you know what it is at these heights with a pension of not quite 200 pesos, old and sick, they’re taking more products out of my ration book. They took cigarettes from me, which I traded with a neighbor for sugar”.

The disappearance of the ration book keeps awake the older people who have low pensions, those who have it rough to stay alive. The stronger of the old folks go out on the street to earn a living, selling cigarettes, peanuts, plastic bags or newspapers.

For the laboring population what keeps them awake are other issues. “For me, the worse is not knowing exactly what the government is planning. I worry, a lot, what’s been said, that we will be paying very high taxes”, says Ignacio, 46-years-old and a mechanic.

“Rough stream, better for the fishing”. Like in all crises, there will be those who will be able to play along. Especially all the vermin, unscrupulous people, experts in the art of cheating.

It happened during the 90’s, during the hard years of the Special Period. Roberto, 48 years old, had a brilliant idea of rounding up empty containers from shampoos, creams and deodorants….he would wash them out and would refill them with his own concoction, he would put in a few drops of cheap cologne and would sell then for a few pesos. “I am thinking of doing that again”.

Could be that during these desperate times, some would take advantage of the people’s frustration. “But I think that the majority is going to try to improve themselves honestly. At least that’s what I will ask the Lord for when I go to church this Sunday”, confesses Lourdes, 61 and a housekeeper.

In the midst of many questions and suspicions, discouragement and uncertainty, a few rub their hands, plotting how to cheat others. Or dreaming of establishing small businesses, even if they have to pay abusive taxes.

But the majority pulls their hair out and visits the babalaos. This new Special Period could turn out to be darker than the one twenty years ago. Now with almost one million unemployed and with the same speeches and slogans as always.

Translated by Yulys Rodriguez

What it Costs to Eat on the Island

September 19, 2010 Leave a comment


There’s nothing as complicated and stressful in Cuba as eating. “It’s terrible. Putting three meals on the table every day wipes out 90% of our household income,” says Caridad, a 39 year-old pediatrician.

“Imagine my case,” comments Orlando, a construction worker, 46. “I have four children, a wife and my sick mother to feed. I don’t receive any money from foreign remittances and not one penny of my wage is paid in dollars.” (In Cuba, the dual currency system leaves those who don’t have access to CUC, commonly known as ‘divisas’ or ‘dolár, much worse off than those that do.) “The only way my family can eat meals of rice, beans, and the occasional bit of pork is through theft. It’s as simple as that.”

On the island almost every aspect of life is difficult. But the food situation borders on insanity. For instance, two married professionals with two children and a combined monthly income of 1000 pesos (45 US dollars) would only be able to provide food for 14 days. The rest of the month, you ‘invent it’.

Now for some calculations. Juan, 26-years-old and a workshop employee, lives with his retired parents who between them receive a state pension of 377 pesos a month (15 US dollars). When he adds to this his wage for a grand total of 496 pesos (21 dollars), he goes to a market and buys 5 pounds of pork at 23 pesos (almost a dollar) per pound. There goes 115 pesos.

Next he heads to the fruit and veg stall. One avocado costs 10 pesos (50 cents), and he gets three small green mangos for 22 pesos. Two pounds of guava costs 10 pesos per pound and 8 plantains are 3 pesos each.

Juan buys a little garlic and onion for 25 pesos. Five nylon bags are one peso each: for some time now here in Cuban stores there haven’t been any shopping bags. And Juan can brag that he’s a lucky guy, because you can’t always find what you’re looking for at the markets.

When he arrives home and works out the numbers, he shakes his head in disgust. He has spent 211 pesos on being able to eat a little better for 3 days. And he still doesn’t have rice, eggs, oil or tomato purée.

If combined with the basic food rations provided per capita each month by the state (7 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of sugar and 2 pounds of dark sugar, 20 ounces of beans, a few ounces of coffee and a daily bread roll weighing 80 grams), Juan’s family can eat for half the month.

Long ago, his parents replaced a proper lunch with a bread roll and a piece of guava paste or a flour fritter seasoned with chives. Breakfast, when they have it, is a cup of coffee. They can’t ask any more of their son: he already spends all of his wages on food.

There’s more. In his workshop, Juan usually steals what is thrown away. Bulbs, paint, screws, alcohol… anything. The extra money he earns from selling these items is also spent on ‘jama‘ (food).

When he goes out with his girlfriend on the weekends, all they have to share is their love for each other. They are always penniless. Occasionally they sacrifice and go to the cinema, and then to the wailing wall of Cuba: Havana’s seafront, the ‘malecón’.

And just like Juan, Rolando and Caridad, around 40% of the Cuban population receives no money in foreign remittances. General Raúl Castro has repeatedly recognized that beans are more important than guns. He’s even said that the provision of food is a matter of national security.

This matter does not seem to interest his brother Fidel. With his world leader complex, what matters to him are foreign affairs. He doesn’t burden himself with such mundane problems.

According to Jeffrey Goldberg, the American journalist who recently interviewed Fidel, the older Castro enjoyed a Mediterranean diet during lunch: fish, salad, bread with olive oil and wine. Not bad.

If heroes, or in this case heroines, exist in Cuba, then they are the nation’s housewives. They have spent decades inventing ways to provide food for their loved ones. With little to cook, they have the creativity of top chefs. Their top priority is that nobody in their family goes to bed on an empty stomach.

It’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. They deserve an obelisk in Havana’s Revolutionary Square.

 

The Hard Road to Democracy in Cuba

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment


I don’t think capitalism is the model of a perfect life. But it is more logical and possible at this stage of human development. Communist ideologies removed at the stroke of a pen competition and discrepancies.

We already know what that has meant. Material poverty, lazy people with no motivation to work. It discourages individuality. What counts is collectivism.

Closed systems such as Cuba and North Korea go against human nature. In their attempt to design a New Man, perfect, docile, who works for a pittance and venerates his leaders, they have demolished the institutions of modern life.

It’s the hideousness of people like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung… In theory, the concepts of communism are attractive. Societies without police or armies. One lives according to one’s needs. And there is no money.

To reach this hypothetical paradise you must first go through hell. That is making the nation mediocre, restricting essential liberties and “educating” the masses to respect their leader.

These nations that have embarked on this chimerical project, have always had to face a dictator, a caudillo, a visionary…

Totalitarian regimes are the cradle of nationalists, egomaniacs, and personalities who are not always in their right mind. When power goes beyond reasonable limits, it can become monstrous.

Examples abound. To maintain your monsters you use prisons, gulags and firing squads. In this type of society there are no checks and balances. Everything is controlled by a group of men. Or one alone. The choice is the supreme law.

But man is a weirdo. Like some bacteria, he develops resistance to certain antibodies. Citizens emerge who have no desire to continue applauding the country’s daddy.

And the battle begins. Silent. The natural reaction of a human being with respect to his right to be different. To be able to talk, shout, write, opine, and disagree at his leisure.

Cuba is one of the societies where there has been a long war of ideas and concepts among an elite that is sure that Marxist Socialism is the best, and a group of intellectuals, opponents and independent journalists who try to show that the Cuban model is broken.

Let’s leave aside the figures that confirm the country is sinking. While Fidel Castro walks as the prophet of nuclear conflagrations and world apocalypse, those on the island who dissent know that democratic change in Cuba is a daily struggle. Extremely peaceful.

September 17, 2010

Cuban Fans Are Disappointed

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Despite baseball being the national sport, its followers don’t get access to information about the best teams in the world. No space on television nor on radio divulges the results of the leagues in the United States, Japan, and South Korea, the most prestigious.

Neither are the winter tournaments that are played in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, or Venezuela. Nor a trace of news about the series put on every year in the Caribbean with the best squads of nine.

On an island all-in for baseball, there aren’t specialized magazines on the theme. Scholastic and youth categories play almost clandestinity. Only a pair of journalists, Jesús Suarez Valmaña and the talented Yasel Porto, write articles for the website of the broadcaster COCO or the website of the Cuban Baseball Federation.

Playing the sport of balls and strikes in Cuba is pretty expensive. Not to mention the bad state of the fields, full of weeds and without adequate care. Parents have to buy from their pockets — in convertible pesos — the sporting implements of the discipline, like bats, gloves, and spikes.

Raciel knows well what it has cost him to keep his 15 year-old son playing baseball. “I assure you I’ve spent more than 600 dollars in sporting goods. In the school where he has a grant, the food is poor, and I’ve also had to spend on reinforcing his diet.”

Leonel is another father who has long term plans for his son, a player in the youth category. “I hope he stays interested in baseball. I think that some day he might go play in the big tent, in the United States.”

It’s the dream of many young ballplayers. And including some of the big stars who defect at first chance. The salaries with six zeros in the Majors make Cuban ballplayers dizzy.

But it is so hard and expensive to train and play organized baseball, the fans will say. In these months of September where we don’t play on the Island, people are thirsty to know what’s happening in the leagues in other countries.

At the famous and busy rock in Central Park, much of the Capitol, from very early in the morning a large group of followers argue in loud voices about their favorite passion: ball.

It’s there where one can meet some person with access to the Internet, to the Miami dailies, or the specialized magazine USA Baseball. In that way, followers of the sport can keep up to date with what happens in the Big Leagues.

Also the performances of Cuban ballplayers are followed with interest. And let there be no doubt, the first baseman for the California Angels, Kendry Morales, an ex-Industralista who shone on that team, is a sporting hero the length and width of the country.

The most absurd is that Cuba, a nation where the soccer that is played is vulgar and basic, there exist spaces dedicated to the universal sport. Spanish and European leagues are rebroadcast, and results of South American play are shown frequently.

On this island where the absurd is almost a law, baseball fans suffer for the drought of news. One cause might be that the authorities fear that with the broadcast of games in foreign leagues, the desire of national players to emigrate grows.

Perhaps they consider that the local fans shouldn’t see Cubans who’ve defected. Or see impoverished ex-children of Maracaibo, Caguas, or Santiago de los Caballeros converted into stars of the first degree and earning stratospheric salaries, when the ballplayers on the Island earn workers’ salaries.

Another cause is political. The Castro brothers are interested in making sure they speak as badly possible of the United States and the capitalist countries. And that phobia is paid for by Cuban baseball fans.

Photo: azulísimo, Panorama. Latin American Stadium, in El Cerro, Havana.

Translated by: JT

The Showcase of Cuban Education is Showing Cracks

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

When, on the 6th of September, more than two million children, teenagers and adults began the new school year in Cuba, for their parents it meant yet another problem.

The youngest of them carry schoolbags weighed down with water, buns, sweets and soda. And even food. They look like mountain climbers. As the mid-morning snack and lunch given to primary children is usually little more than garbage, their parents have to spend a considerable part of their salaries buying food for them.

Those who have hard currency can give them something fairly substantial. Bread and tuna, ham or pork. Natural fruit juice and yoghurt. The ones who really suffer are those who receive a salary in pesos, and struggle to make ends meet.

Carmen knows this well. She’s divorced and has three children of 6, 9 and 12. “Their father is a worthless type. He’s never bothered about his children. I don’t have enough money. Every day is a problem. I make them bread with catfish dumplings, but they’ve had them so many times that now they can’t stand them. If I have eggs I make them omelette. To drink there is only squash or sugared water. Sometimes they have nothing”, says Carmen, clearly stressed.

School uniform is another problem. The disgusting state bureaucrats have decided to provide one uniform per child every two years. Just imagine. Many children grow quickly and can’t wear the uniform the following year. Their parents have two choices. Either they buy one on the black market, at 5 convertible pesos (6 dollars, half the minimum wage in Cuba) or they go to school without a uniform.

The other major complaint of parents with children in primary and secondary schools is the standard of the teachers. Their training is abysmal. They are usually young people between 16 and 20 without adequate knowledge or a vocation to teaching.

This means that some families have to pay extra money. There are parents who choose to pay private teachers. And for 15 or 20 dollars a month they reinforce the learning of their children.

Technology and pre-University students are a little better off, as they have older, more experienced teachers. And now they aren’t sent a long way from home, where they had to work on the land and the food was scarce.

The level of education in Cuba is very low. It is fallen alarmingly in recent years. If you are in any doubt about this, ask our teenagers and young people about history, politics or culture and you’ll be surprised by the high level of ignorance. To this ignorance must be added the poor and inappropriate use of the Spanish language.

Fidel Castro can still be very proud of education in Cuba with its more than a million University graduates. This is worthy of high praise.

But we’re going downhill fast. Many people are trying hard not to notice that the showcase of the revolution is beginning to show cracks.

Translated by: Jack Gibbard

The Cachita of Central Havana

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

In September, Havanans venerate three virgins: on September 7 the Regla virgin; the following day the Virgin of the Charity of  Cobre, and the Merced virgin on the 24th. Regla and Charity are mixed race, and one of them, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, is the Patron Saint of Cuba.

Rain or shine, Havanans gather on September 8 at the church that bears her name, a construction from the 19th century, painted white and yellow. For some time, a procession passes through the streets outside on this day.

The temple is located in Los Sitios, a neighborhood of poor, black, marginal people in Central Havana. It is a few miles around and from everywhere you can see overflowing trash containers, sewage running in torrents, and a frightening odor of shit that emerges from the cracked and filthy tenements.

The area is one of the most densely populated in the city. In miserable shacks, and high houses propped up on stilts with twisted iron balconies, innumerable families live crowded together, many consisting of “Palestinians,” citizens who come fleeing the extreme calamities of the Eastern provinces.

Almost all are living in Havana illegally. On the day of Cachita, as Cubans call their patron saint, the easterners carry the devotees in their bike-taxis. And they charge double.  And they aren’t the only ones making a killing. One woman in dark glasses reads the cards for one convertible peso (less than a dollar). Other neighbors sell roasted peanuts, homemade candy, and bread with thin slices of ham and cheese.

With so many people crowded together the “choros” (pickpockets) take advantage of the least chance to grab a wallet from a pants pocket or a backpack, looking for money or anything of value. A black-haired young woman flies into a rage at an older man who for some time, according to her, had been pressing his penis into her ample buttocks. She threatens to call the police and the guy disappears.

The police, of course, flood the area around the church. The State Security agents keep their distance with their short hair, Motorola cell phones and Suzuki motorcycles.

Tourists usually show up with video cameras. A well-built black boy hugs his Spanish girlfriend. Hookers dressed in the latest styles try to make it inside the church to put a roll of coins on the altar.

The priest announces that the procession is starting. The figure of the virgin is taken out in a class case and mounted on a convertible car.

The crowd starts to move. Some are praying and some are drinking rum and beer. Others eat peanuts and chew gum. They take photos and record videos. Although perhaps only once in their lives, Cubans go to this church to pay tribute to Cachita. It doesn’t matter that her Havana temple is surrounded by poverty.

Fortunately, her real home, in the Cobre Sanctuary, in Santiago de Cuba, is located on a beautiful place surrounded by mountains.

Translated by RST

September 15, 2010

Havana Streets: Veritable Minefields

September 15, 2010 2 comments

Havana has the prices of London and the infrastructure of Zimbabwe. Life is as expensive as in Madrid or Berlin, and the streets look like those of Bosnia after its civil war.

The state of Havana’s streets is pathetic. Particularly the secondary and interior streets of the city. At the corner of Milagros and Diez de Octubre, in the La Vibora neighborhood, there’s a hole like one that might be left by a 500 pound bomb.

Rene, 45, nearly lost his life in this cavern. On rainy night he was driving distracted, when suddenly the car, a ’56 Ford, that has weathered thousands of battled and millions of kilometers, was caught in the trap in the middle of the street.

“It was terrible. I couldn’t see the pothole as it was underwater. The car fell almost six feet into the hole. The crash was very violent. I lost consciousness and got a hole in my head, they had to give me 23 stitches. The car was totaled,” he related three weeks after the accident.

Many streets and even stretches of the National Highway are a clear demonstration of the state’s neglect of road maintenance. Real landmines, for the damage they do to the cars.

Ask Luis, a Spanish tourist passing through Havana, how many tire blow outs his rental car has suffered due to the state of the roads. “Man, it’s horrendous. And then, to make it worse, there’s nowhere to put air in the tires,” he says in disgust.

The government invests millions of pesos in the repair of certain principle arterials. But the repair work is poor quality. In a few months the streets are full of potholes again.

The number one enemy is the breaks in the water pipes. When it gets dark, a great number of streets seem like real rivers, where the water is lost to the streams. Meanwhile the propaganda on TV announces that we have to save the precious liquid, every night about 60% of the drinkable water doesn’t make it to its destination, because of the deterioration in the capital’s water system.

This water that runs extravagantly though the streets of the city is a ticking time-bomb. The famous Havana potholes have caused numerous accidents. Sometimes, trying to avoid them, drivers cause fatal crashes.

Take note. Traffic accidents are the fifth leading cause of death in Cuba. Even though the density of traffic is nothing like in the great European cities, the number of deaths and injuries is skyrocketing.

The government tries to solve the problem. And since August 1 they have enacted a law demanding road safety. Not bad. But first they have to repair the streets of the city; compared to them the streets of Zimbabwe have nothing to be jealous of.

He Left Without Meeting Almodóvar

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

They called him Almodóvar. He idolized the director from La Mancha, of whom he claimed he was a distant relative. People didn’t take him seriously.

He was as black as coal and as hefty as a circus elephant. He was 69 when his heart literally broke one afternoon, while drinking cheap liquor on the corner of Carmen and 10 de Octubre, in Havana.

He wasn’t a bad guy. He used to clean patios and gardens, and repair batteries and plumbing. He drank a lot, and from a little bowl he’d eat enormous quantities of rice and beans. If money caught up to him, he’d add a helping of chicken, fish, or pork.

Other than alcohol distilled with molasses, he loved baseball and the movies. When Pedro Almodóvar was in Havana, he seriously thought about introducing himself at the hotel so that the director of “High Heels” might know that in Cuba he had a poor, black relative who idolized him.

He knew all of his films. The last one, “Broken Embraces“, he saw several times. But his favorite movie was “Everything About My Mother“. On seeing it, he left the theater crying. He knew all the dialogs by heart. The day that Almodóvar got an Oscar for “The Sea Inside“, he celebrated it with good rum. “My namesake is a crack”, he’d say.

On a typical afternoon, he died in Havana. Without a penny in his pocket. The State had to finance his funeral. He couldn’t enjoy the victory of the Industriales, his baseball team.

Black and drunk. A sad fat guy. He left us without meeting his Spanish ‘relative’.

Translated by: JT

September 14, 2010

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