The habaneros were screaming for it. After 9 months of a fierce drought, where water-laden clouds kept moving around the city, and the dams and reservoirs had gone to code red, the rain appeared.
Now, when the month of May leaves us, the longed-for spring showers made themselves present. Children and teens in shorts, barefoot and shirtless enjoyed the first serious rain of the season
Some adults also joined the party. And worried. Water reserves in Havana reach only 18%. And added to that, more than 60% is lost every night because of leaks in the whole capital. The alarming shortage made the water authorities give a new turn of the screw in the distribution of the precious liquid in the capital.
In most neighborhoods of Havana, on alternate days, usually after 8 pm at night, potable water is distributed to the population. In the old part of town there are places where running water has never reached the tap.
There are houses with pipes thick with magnesium and garbage. Nemesio, a resident of Laguna Street in the marginal and largely black suburb of San Leopoldo, has forgotten the last time he took a shower.
In these places, the birthplace of prostitutes and swindlers, the “pipers”, as they call those who handle the “pipes” or tank trucks, often make a lot of money. A family in a three-story tenement, with some resemblance to a U.S. prison from the mid-20th century, pays up to $20 for the “piper” to fill their water tanks.
In these parts, water has its price. Types who came from the east of the country who live underground in Havana, charge 4 dollars to fill up a 55-gallon tank. And believe me, there’s enough work. With the first rains of May, people breathed a sigh of relief.
“We now need it to rain every day for two months, in order to take the bad away,” says a santera. Like her, there are many people afraid of the vagaries of time. The news from the north and south is frightening. Murderous tornadoes in the U.S. and endless rain in South America. As if to show that the world is upside down.
In Arroyo Arenas, municipality of La Lisa, west of the capital, there was an intense local storm, which dropped hail the size of lemons. The rains of May also brought thunderous lightning, and because of deficiencies in drains and sewers, the streets were flooded.
But that’s not important. Habaneros were clamoring for rain, so the dams and the water table are overflowing. We’ll see if these showers alleviate the African heat.
The showers of May have returned a smile to residents and authorities. Let the water continue. Let Havana become Macondo.*
Translator’s note: Macondo is a fictional town created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It suffered a four-year rainfall.
Translated by Regina Anavy
May 28 2011
When Roman, a tall, skinny guantanamero, who has spent three years living clandestinely in Havana, feels a burning sexual desire, he plans his binge.
After working 12 hours selling trashy textiles and pirated tennis shoes in a street fair on Galiano, which brings him daily earnings between 20 and 30 dollars, he goes to the small room he keeps rented for 40 dollars a month in the San Isidro shantytown. He bathes and shaves. He puts on a bright pair of jeans and pours a strong, cheap cologne over his whole body.
To accelerate his libido, he takes half a capsule of Viagra, sold on the black market for a dollar each. Earlier, in a cafe near the Casa de la Música in Central Havana, he calmly drank five or six ice-cold bottles of Bucanero beer.
After a bit, the whores start to congregate. There are two ways to deal with the hookers in local currency. Either wait for them shamelessly to come to you to make their offers, or by that universal body language of prostitutes, you see what vibe they’re presenting.
It’s all easy. Sex-hungry men like Roman already know the pimps for many prostitutes. There is something for everyone. And prices. You can have a quickie for two dollars in the bathroom of the cafe where you’re drinking beer, or in a dark corner of the many dilapidated buildings in Havana, they will suck you till you finish. Always with a condom in place.
If you want something different, you have the option of hookers a la carte. Black, white or mulatta. Equally, you can have two on your arm, to make a picture of lesbian love. If you pay extra, you can take them home. In that case, the pimp asks you “please don’t abuse them or give them drugs.”
At any time of day in that kilometer of Havana geography that includes Chinatown from Zanja Street up to Central Park, a legion of kids have a trained eye to spot the guys who are looking for hookers.
Osvaldo, a young mulatto who spends several hours in the gym every day, is one of those who lives off his women. He has six working for him. “I live by my pinga (penis). That’s what God gave me. A good cock and the power of seduction. I was once arrested for pimping. But this is a business that lets you make money without getting your hands dirty. Now the police are less strict. And I work without much pressure. The ideal thing is to hook up yumas (foreigners) with my girls. But there are now many Cubans with money, and they are more generous than foreigners,” he says while scanning the scene.
There are also independent hookers, like Julianna. She doesn’t have a pimp. “All the money I make is for me. I have to take care of my sick mother, who suffers from nerves, and a 5-year-old son. After 8 pm I pay a woman to take care of them both and I go into the ‘fire’ (the street). I do well,” she says. The only thing she asks is that the guy be good looking and bathe before having sex. “Oh, and to not be stingy.”
Dedicated to the “meat market” (prostitution), several houses in Central Havana are for rent. Some are comfortable and air-conditioned homes, which typically charge five dollars an hour. Others are true joints. Hot, humid rooms that look more like the cache of a terrorist than a place to fornicate.
These shacks charge a dollar an hour. They are preferred by Cubans with few resources. Roman, who turns over money every month to his mother and three children in Guantanamo, would rather pay for a cheap room.
All the hookers carry condoms. Some even keep in their bag in a sharp awl or a Swiss army knife recently sharpened. “It’s that sometimes the guys get nasty or will not pay or try to give us a beating,” says Tatiana, one of the hookers swarming around Monte Street.
By nightfall, the prostitutes have multiplied. The pimps drink rum in the bars and parks nearby, while their women are “working” outside. Specialized police in their black uniforms with their German shepherds don’t even see them. There are so many prostitutes it’s frightening.
Photo: Cover of the book, The Night Gave Birth to a Hooker (2006, publisher Manati, Dominican Republic), by Olga Consuegra, writer and screenwriter based in Santo Domingo. In the book, 22 Cuban prostitutes in the Dominican Republic recount how they started hooking in Cuba. Today they are known by Dominicans as “imported hookers”. The only man interviewed is the owner of a brothel.
In a review published in the Journal of the Americas in December 2006, journalist Luis de la Paz wrote: “Many have college degrees (veterinary, engineering), [and are] professionals in different fields. All left Cuba for a better life and in most cases continued in the ancient craft. So they were not led into prostitution by their status as migrants, but were brought to this task by the tyranny that rules Cuba, that has made prostitution into a way to survive, something which, unfortunately, is not deeply discussed in the book.”
Translated by Regina Anavy
May 26 2011
For Sandra, an adolescent who is currently in the 8th grade, January 1st of 1959 is the independence and birth date of Cuba as a republic. And believe me, the girl is not ignorant. She has excellent grades and enjoys good literature and cinema.
But no history professor mentioned to her that it was actually on May 20th 1902 that the Republic of Cuba was born. The official version of history tries to avoid the date.
When the professors speak about the first years of republican life, they always add phrase of a “mediated republic”. The history of Cuba which is taught today in the classrooms lacks any sense. It’s black and white.
Only what the government is interested in is mentioned: The 10 years war, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Perucho Figueredo, and Ignacio Agramonte, among others, and they leave out the profound existing contradictions between the independence fighters of the time. They obliquely mention the life of Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo, and the Dominican Maximo Gomez.
That 20th of May in 1902 is barely mentioned at all in the Cuban classrooms. The new generations do not know that Tomas Estrada Palma was the first Cuban president. On that day, Havana locals witnessed how the American flag was lowered (interventionist country in 1898 and 1902) and how the flag of the solitary star was raised.
Youths and adolescents are stuffed with dates and facts about the assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953 by Fidel Castro. Also, from the moment one enters first grade they talk a lot about the guerrilla war in the massive mountainous area of the Sierra Maestra. And it’s not a bad thing that the victors are the one who tell their story. But a capital sin of the regime’s historiography has been to avoid mentioning all the events which occurred during the 57 years before the triumph of the olive green revolution.
That historical amnesia can be seen whenever we look at any aspect of Cuban life. It seems as if all that is good or grandiose came from the hand of Fidel Castro. A country which forgets its past will have an uncertain future.
One must turn the page on the way the official media tells history. That republic was not perfect. Many elections were fraudulent. During a specific period, the communist party was illegal. There were dictators, Machado and Batista. Many corrupt politicians. And we depended economically on the United States.
It’s true. But during 5 decades of a republic they introduced a Constitution — the one from 1940 — which was advanced for its time. There was freedom of the press; laws which benefited the workers; independence from tribunals and the existence of Habeas Corpus.
Also due to its close proximity to the United States, public phones, radio, and television were introduced in Cuba before any other European nations. Havana was more of an important city than Zurich or Brussels.
One does not have to be a supporter or an adversary of the Castro brothers in order to realize the twisted turn given to our republican history. If you carry out a poll of secondary school students, very few will know the day which the republic was born.
It’s unfortunate. Just like the United States has its 4th of July and Mexico has its 16th of September, the Day of the Nation in Cuba is May 20th. Even if the regime would rather ignore it.
Photo: Raising the Cuban flag on May 20th of 1902.
Translated by Raul G.
May 22 2011
“We are Frustrated by the Stress of the Constant Repression”, declared the dissident Sonia Garro / Iván García
From a public pay phone and despite the fact that she was being watched by police agents in civilian clothes, the woman for which one man decided to climb up on his roof and yell anti-governmental slogans (as can be seen in this video,), Sonia Garro Alfonso told El Mundo that she and her husband, Ramon Alejandro Munoz Gonzalez, feel overwhelmed by the “stress of the constant repression” which the Cuban regime has maintained over them for quite some time.
She did not know that they would have recorded the video and uploaded it onto YouTube. The final straw which led Munoz Gonzalez to protest in that way was the desperation he felt when, on May 9th, his wife Sonia, and three other women (Niurka Luque, Niola Camila Araujo, and Leydis Coca- all of which are Ladies of Support to the Ladies in White) were violently suppressed and beaten by fifty agents of the “rapid response brigades” (the name given to paramilitaries used to oppress dissidents in Cuba) at 51st Avenue and 100 Street.
Her crime? Having taken to the streets with a white blanket on which she had written in black letters “No more police repression” and “Sentence the murders of Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia”, the dissident who died in Santa Clara on May 8th as a consequence of a beating.
After they were beaten, the four were arrested and taken to different police units in accordance with where they live. When Munoz found out about what happened, and after he investigated in his corresponding unit, Sonia’s husband headed to Section 21 of the Department of State Security where they did not tell him where she was being held.
It was the final straw. He decided to do what he did, and continues doing: protesting on his own. He says that as long as the violent repression continues against them or the dissidence on the island, then he is even willing to chain himself to a tree in the middle of a central avenue of Marianao. Munoz Gonzalez goes out to the street with the chains he has thrown on himself, and not with his machete, which he only wields when he is on the roof of his house.
Sonia has not only been beaten and detained on various occasions, but she has also had to withstand scornful and humiliating treatment for being black. In this last arrest they told her: “Nigger, we are going to send you straight to Manto Negro (the female prison) because you have us tired out already.” In the case of Sonia, as occurs with all dissidents who are black or mulattoes, the State Security agents always shove this sentence in their faces: “I can’t believe that you are black and a counter-revolutionary.”
Sonia Garro Alfonso has spent years suffering because of her skin color. Because of her very dark skin color, on the day she graduated as a Clinical Laboratory Technician, functionaries from the Public Health Ministry chose a white student to go up and receive her diploma from the hands of the minister. This was a humiliation she has never been able to forget. In 2006, when she refused to give up her activities in favor of afro-descendants or her independent cultural project which she runs with children of poor neighborhoods, she was expelled from her work place.
Nor has life been easy for her husband, Ramon Alejandro Munoz Gonzalez. He is a mulatto professor of folkloric dance who was also expelled from his work due to his social activism. That was the pretext which the police found in order to apply the “social dangerousness” law to him and send him to prison for a year.
The scene of the unusual protest is a blue house located on 47th Avenue, No. 11638, between 116th and 118th in Marianao. It’s just a few steps away from Los Zamora, Los Pocitos, and Palo Cagao, three of the most marginal and conflicting neighborhoods in Havana, filled with prostitutes, pimps, and delinquents. But also filled with professionals and dissidents like Sonia Garro and Ramon Munoz. Even if today they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Translated by Raul G.
May 22 2011
On May 5, Liu Santiesteban, from Havana but living in Spain, sent seven questions to Ivan for an interview in his blog, Todo el mundo habla (The Whole World Talks). Ivan does not like to be interviewed, he said that journalists are for interviewing, not being interviewed. But a week later, he sent back the answered questionnaire. In an final note, he said that he had made an exception, although it was not my birthday, he wanted to give me a gift for opening a blog with my name, Tania Quintero.
Ivan, you come from a family of importance in politics and journalism, from Blas Roca Calderío to Tania Quintero. When did you decide to make the leap to independent journalism?
Liu, journalism is all around me. It is not alien to me. The punishment of my grandmother Carmen — as a boy I was an extremely active child — was that my mother Tania Quintero then a reporter for the magazine Bohemia, took me with her on her trips to the provinces. Thus was born my passion for the craft of reporting. Met in the writing of Bohemia great writers of the sports section such as Capetillo Enrique and Jorge Alfonso. Also a very old man with ugly glasses who had a small room in the office smelling of mothballs. The old man was kind enough to satisfy my curiosity and tended chat with me, named Jose Zacarias Tallet. Years later I learned he was one of the sacred cows of Cuban poetry.
In particular, apart from sport, the only profession I have a calling for is journalism. But I never belonged to the Communist Youth and from the 80′s, the revolution of Fidel Castro seemed to me a complete failure. Therefore, I couldn’t even dream of studying journalism. For guys like me, politically misguided, there were two ways: work as a plumber, undertaker or be other than black man going to prison for robbery, assault on a tourist or a pimping.
I preferred to speak up. That took its toll. In 1991 I was spent two weeks detained at Villa Marista and the State Security officials, arrests without cause and constant hostility towards me, pushed me get started in independent journalism. I had no resume. I just wanted to be doing something I liked.
I worked a couple of months as assistant director at the Institute of Cuban Radio and Television (ICRT) and learned something about broadcast journalism. In the printed press I had the influence of my mother and personally, a morbid inclination for U.S. journalism. The sober style and storytelling of American journalists captivated me. Also the colorful chronicles the Brazilians and, of course, good stories and excellent use of the language that we read in the newspapers back in Spain.
One morning in December 1995 with a cold from hell and an overwhelming desire to have a cup of hot chocolate, I went to the home of the poet Raúl Rivero, director of the newly founded Cuba Press independent news agency where my mother was already working. I said I wanted to write sports and social issues. He looked me slowly up and down smoking a cigarette, meanwhile rocking rythmically in an old chair and drinking coffee from a cup.
To myself I thought: “The fat guy’s going to give me the bat,” (say no). In reply he said: “Write something, then we’ll see.” The first two papers I wrote were about the long jumper Ivan Pedroso and self-employment. Recently, in an old notebook I’d given up for lost reread them and I swear I wanted to cry, they seemed to bad to me. But that morning, Rivero accepted them. Then, between Raul’s soliloquies about journalism on the balcony of his home in the Havana neighborhood of Victoria, the advice of my mother, and my desire to eat the world, I polished my style. By the end of February 1996, Cubanet and El Nuevo Herald published some accounts of mine.
To Bernardo Marques, a former journalist for Bohemia magazine, now in Miami, I owe a great deal for his good advice, when I read him my stories over the phone, in order to post them on the web. Also Rolando Cartaya, from Radio Martí. In terms of style and journalistic analysis I must acknowledge the influence of Carlos Alberto Montaner, whose books I read and reread until they fell apart. Equally Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Right now, I’m a fan of the way a number of writers write: Luis Cino, Laritza Diversent, Zoé Valdés, Raúl Rivero, Jorge Olivera, Miriam Celaya and Tania Quintero. I also like the casualness of pro-government bloggers like Elaine Diaz, Sandra Alvarez of Paquito of Cuba.
From my matrilineal kinship with Blas Roca, I ate so well at my Aunt Dulce’s house, his wife and the sister of my grandmother Carmen, the good home they had in Nuevo Vedado, tickets for the boxes in the Latino that Blas always sent us (my grandmother and I were baseball fanatics) and the great guy who is Yuri Valle Roca, Blas’s eldest grandson.
What media do you write for now and since when?
From January 28, 2009 I have had a blog, From Havana (desdelahabanaivan.wordpress.com) and, since October 9 of that year I collaborated with the Spanish digital newspaper El Mundo America. Also as of this year I am writing for Diario de Cuba and some stories are reproduced in several blogs, including Todo el Mundo Habla and Punt de Vista, of Joan Antoni Guerrero, so take this opportunity to thank them both.
Your blog From Havana was hosted on the platform Cuban Voices directed by blogger Yoani Sanchez. When and why did you leave there?
I myself don’t know clearly why Yoani took me off the Voices portal. She never gave me an explanation. Reinaldo Escobar, who I consider a friend, was kind enough to offer me one, although he didn’t convince me. It all started, apparently, with opinion articles against the dissidence that my mother wrote in my blog.
It’s an old habit that we Cubans have, regardless of political affiliation, if you criticize me you are not my friend. Due to time and how costly it is to access the Internet from Cuba, did not read what my mother wrote. Nor did I need to. I assume that she and anyone who writes on my blog, can pour out whatever view they want. Other than to encourage terrorism and fascism, racial and gender discrimination, violence and pornography, xenophobia and intolerance, anything goes.
I’ve known that in the environment around Yoani Sanchez that are people who have an African hatred for me. I swear I don’t know why. They don’t have the guts to tell me in a face to face chat. They go around gossiping and slandering me. I pray to God that in the day when Cuba becomes a democracy and the State Security archives are published, their names don’t appear among those who collaborated with the political police.
Liu, in the wide sector of the dissidence, democracy means to criticize the Castro brothers, not them. When their timid performance is criticized they respond by discrediting you, with intrigues and shenanigans. To me that gets my goat. If I have no fear of the Special Services, I couldn’t care less about the mediocre and cowardly campaigns of some, be they bloggers or dissidents.
In Cuba the freedom of expression is an offense as enemy propaganda. What consequences has it brought you write against the official current of the Castro government?
Not many. Except for several “friendly chats” and a citation, in the 15 years I’ve been doing journalism, I have not felt harassed. Before I started doing journalism they often bothered me, and at the first opportunity they would put me in a police cell for the whole weekend. I have to thank those security officers who tried to scare me with their harassment when I was just one more black man, anonymous and voiceless.
But I’ve moved forward and if they want to harass me now I’m going to give them a good reason. The best defense against persecution in Cuba and the impunity of the Secret Services is to raise your voice in public. If you remain silent, you get it.
It is known that there are several political opposition groups inside Cuba. Which, in your opinion, have a solid alternative project and which are working to shake up Cuban society on the island?
The Cuban dissidence to me is a disappointment. There are exceptions and laudable projects. But broadly speaking, the opposition is not a valid reference. Their discourse is more for foreigners than for Cubans on the island. With few exceptions, dissent has been corrupted and accommodated.
The time is not only past for the old Castro government, many dissidents are also a disjointed choir singing out of tune in a hoarse falsetto, trying to head in the same direction. Their discourse is exhausted and there’s little new. Many act and behave as if they were Arab sheiks. They mark their territory like wild animals.
Then there are the outlandish projects, passing the hat around Europe and the United States and giving interviews and statements to the foreign press. They don’t even try to talk with their next door neighbor. That can and must change if we really want to influence the future of Cuba and, in my opinion, is just around the corner. Otherwise they will be political cadavers, if many of them aren’t already.
I have faith that a new type of opponent will arise on the island. If not, we’re fucked. In an autocracy that is handing over power to employers in olive green, within ten years Cuba might look like Russia, but with an opposition that neither paints nor does it in color.
Before the reforms currently undertaken by the government of General Raúl Castro and the recently held sixth Congreeso PCC, what is the environment that is perceived on the street? Are people hopeful or disappointed?
Liu, people are for whatever falls off the back of the truck. The prostitutes are the order of the day and night in Havana. Devalued and screwing for pesos. They are so frightening. A high percentage of those who work, want to steal everything they can. The rest is already known. Fake it, dance to reggaeton and drink rum. To be successful in the Havana of the 21st century is to connect with a ‘yuma‘ (foreigner) and to get out, the sooner and farther the better.
Now, with new initiatives for self-employment and lax state inspectors, cafes and bootleg stalls, with cheesy trinkets brought from Venezuela or Ecuador are flourishing. Many are disillusioned with government mismanagement, but look away when they see a vacuum.
For the official control of information, people do not know the projects of the opposition. And because of the propaganda of the Castro media, some Cubans have the feeling that the dissidents are a bunch of crooks. If we sum it all up — the noticeable loss of values, the terrible hatred that builds up in society, domestic violence and in the streets, especially the verbal (the screaming, it’s like people bark)–what is upon us could be the worst version of a savage State capitalism of.
I want to be optimistic. But the picture I see looks ugly. And I’m on the street itself. I walk around town and talk to people every day.
How do you see the future of Cuba? Do you think people are hoping that Cuban exiles return to undertake the construction of democracy and a market economy?
What I would like to tell you is that all Cubans want a deep and real democratic change. But I am afraid to disappoint you. A wide band of compatriots do not even know what a Constitution is. Legal illiteracy is appalling. So the police and courts make the harvest.
What to say of democracy. For many, a good democracy is drinking cow’s milk, having two meals a day, weekends playing dominoes and drinking beer, occasionally eat bread with beef steak, such as those sold in the Havana kiosks before Fidel Castro launched a ‘revolutionary offensive’ and nationalized all small private businesses.
Democracy for them is also being able to buy a car and a house, great. Let there be no interference in prostitution by the police and openly play the ball, fine. If some or all of these possibilities are satisfied by the State, they don’t care who is on the throne. But look, there are young intellectuals who are far from open opposition to the regime, with interesting ideas. If they do not leave the country, if they overcome the mediocrity around them and frustration doesn’t wear them out, they could be a future option.
I hope that the compatriots of the Diaspora can invest on the island and carry that message of freedom and democracy learned in modern societies. But I honestly do not see thousands of exiles taking the plane back to Havana. You would have to be too crazy or love your homeland too much to go back to carrying buckets of water, sleeping with a fan when it’s 100 degrees in the shade. If many of those crazies and patriots in exile, they are welcome here. Cuba is and will always be their home.
May 18, 2011
Every day Cuba is more of an island than ever. A sector of the official intelligentsia is engaged in an interesting debate on the future of the country. It’s something that’s needed. I don’t think it’s the shock troops of Cuban Intelligence, as a certain sector within the opposition insultingly suggests.
Simply something is moving. Both bloggers — we call those accepted by the government, within this movement there are many nuances — as well as figures within the national culture use new information tools to reflect their points of view.
I’m not naive. In Cuba spontaneity is rare. Certain government sectors, to counter the phenomenon of alternative bloggers, have encouraged the intellectuals who defend the irreversibility of the revolution, who with their talent, in their proposals, reports, articles and analysis, assume the need to maintain a project created by Fidel Castro in 1959.
Is good that journalists of the caliber of Reinaldo Taladrid, Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Enrique Ubieta sharpen their pencils and make known to us their keen observations.
Their works, which I sometimes do not agree with, are better and more substantial than the soporific political speeches of the island’s hierarchy. The evil background of this supposed “Battle of Ideas” is an unwillingness to accept the other side.
And it exists. They live in the same country and think differently. I would be disappointed if people who I appreciate professionally, such as Sandra Alvarez or Elaine Diaz, bloggers accepted by the government and of unquestionable quality, fall into the cliché of the official discourse, of labeling all who disagree with the Castro brothers, with the crutch of ‘agents of the empire, mercenaries or traitors.”
Any ideology or political system leads to resistance. To fail to recognize it is to deny the dialectic. Unanimity does not exist. A government cannot govern only for its supporters. In democratic societies, the various factions argue and talk to each other. In Cuba, each side is entrenched in an islet. And they fire their missiles. They read what the opposite group writes sideways. But always at hand they have the little sign that some are “puppets operated by the State ” and others, “mercenaries paid by the empire.”
If the Cuban revolution is considered a mature and consolidated project, it need not fear open and respectful debate among Cubans who think differently. Enough of monologues. There should be a dialogue.
I find it incomprehensible that journalists, analysts and foreign scholars can debate with people who advocate socialism and these intellectuals cannot even say hello to citizens whose “sin” is to not agree with the Castro brothers.
What is at stake is not to tear the system down and implement capitalism as Enrique Ubieta believes, director of La Calle del Medio, the only readable newspaper on the island.
It would be very pretentious to think that bloggers barely known in Cuba, by dint of posts that are read only by those the other side and 0.2% or less of the Cubans, will create a climate of opinion to unseat the established status quo.
Were it to happen, it would be the first blogger revolution in history. Let’s not fool ouselves. Yes, new tools such as the Internet, Twitter or Facebook have a remarkable drawing power. But only when the deterioration of a nation, its citizens’ complaints and malfunctions of the country’s economy articulate a widespread discontent.
If things in Cuba are distorted it’s simply from inefficient government management. If there is a sector of society that asks for deeper changes it is because the present does not meet their expectations.
What has devalued Marxist socialism is incompetence. It has not worked. Nowhere. And not for lack of professionals and resources. True, in the utopian communist society there is no lack of material and money is not needed. Nor is the army or the police to suppress or tough guys with State Intelligence making your life impossible.
But we must keep our feet firmly planted on the ground. And to be human, to truly evolve, we need freedom, confrontation of ideas, dialogue and to listen to the other party.
The point that most worries closed governments such as Cuba’s is information flow, and therefore they control it because they find it easier to govern. They also inconvenience people fleeing the tight state control.
I think the followers of the revolution driven by convictions. If so, they are honest citizens. So why not have a face to face dialogue?
If, in fact, the supporters of Cuban socialism have solid arguments, I do not see why they’re so afraid to discuss eye to eye, and not in virtual forums. Please Ubieta and company, show that you are free men.
Photo: Max Lexnik, journalist in exile in Miami, with bloggers from La Joven Cuba, a blog of Cuban university students. Transcription of the first part of the meeting.
May 17 2011
Good old Ted Henken was caught in the crossfire. I met him on his latest trip to Cuba. He’s an academic who speaks Spanish like a black man from Carraguao. The Cuban reality interests him greatly and he understands it well.
He was born in Pensacola, Florida and is a professor at a university in New York. He has a blog, El Yuma, and is a humanist and leftist. He meets all the requirements of a good democrat. He knows how to listen and respects differences of opinion.
He’s the type of person the Cuban government, which I don’t think has too many followers in the United States, should respect for his rectitude, honesty and professional ethics.
But as it happens the Cuban special services are wary of most of the people who come from the North. Erasing mental stereotypes takes time. And, unfortunately, the Cuban intelligence officers have been trained and raised with the image of Uncle Sam who comes in every disguise, including academics, to subvert the order.
And Ted comes from the North and is an academic. Also he brought a burning proposal in his backpack. Talking with bloggers from both sides. He was a perfect target. We already know that the regime sees a portion of the alternative bloggers as cyberwar commandos capable of causing more damage than an Al-Qaeda franchise.
In the rearview mirror, the Creole mandarins are seeing in technicolor the wave of protests in the Middle East and the civil war in Libya. The autocrats are trembling.
And they have to find new enemies to suppress and scare the masses. They can’t sit the creators of internet, twitter or facebook, in the dock of the accused, they point the censoring finger at those who use such tools without state approval.
In the “brave fighters of silence” didn’t like a gringo from New York coming to Havana to try to build bridges. The political police, more than any other authority, need an enemy. They don’t look kindly on pro-government bloggers who let their heads hover over the words dialogue and council.
And even though Ted didn’t come to Havana tobe the mother-in-law trying to harmonize damaged matrimonial relations, he chatted with bloggers of both tendencies. And he made the State Security tough guys nervous. At the airport, before he left, they put him on the black list. And told him, this will be your “last visit.”
Their motives could be great or nothing. They need adversaries. It’s the combustible to sustain the battles, justify the spending of resources, and maintaining high morale.
So Ted gave them the hook. A Yankee who is interested in the social situation of Cuba and not mulattas and mojitos. A weirdo. The authorities want the Yankees to come … but to spend dollars and shake their hips at evening soirees. Don’t think and leave a lot of tips.
Thus, Ted Henken unwittingly got caught in the crossfire. Despite being a ‘gringo’ leftist Latin American scholar and coming on his own account. But he came the North. That’s enough.
May 17 2011
In every self-respecting city there is a Chinatown. Havana is one of those. The Chinese are the largest population on the planet. If to the 1.3 billion people living in mainland China we added those scattered around half the world, the figure may exceed 1.5 billion.
They arrived in Cuba in the mid 19th century, fleeing war and misery. Most came from Canton and emigrated as cheap manual labour on the sugar plantations. They did the toughest work. Little by little they were lifting their heads and opening chinchales (illegal tobacco workshops). In addition to selling fritters, they were setting up dry-cleaners or opening a restaurant in a neighborhood of Havana or elsewhere on the island.
During the war of independence against Spain in 1868, the Chinese also took up the machete. And they certainly did it well. On the corner of L street and Línea, Vedado, almost kissing the Malecón, stands an obelisk to the Chinese who fought against the Spanish troops. In the words of the inscription, there was not one Chinese Cuban defector nor traitor.
Very few became fluent in Spanish. Their frugal lifestyle provoked ridicule from the Cubans - well known for wastefulness. They were mainly located, and still are, within the area bounded by Zanja, Dragones, Rayo and San Nicolás streets, in Central Havana.
There they had shops, cafes, cinemas and theatres like The Shanghai, at the time considered as ‘relaxed ‘ (pornographic). They also had associations where in the afternoon they practiced martial arts or worshipped their deities. On hot nights, between rice wine and mouthfuls of opium, they played Mah Jong in silence.
After the arrival of the bearded ones to power, the Chinese, along with the Cubans, Spanish and other foreigners, had their businesses expropriated. That was during the olive green offensive of 1968, a copy of the collectivisation carried out by Mao Zedong on the other side of the world. Many decided to leave and settle in the United States.
In the 90′s, when the USSR bade farewell to its exotic doctrine, China invented a bicephalous system of two ideologies and one nation. At a stroke, with a market economy and factories, they became the number one manufacturer of the planet. In the absence of rubles and Russian oil, Fidel Castro had no choice but to move his pieces.
It was during this stage of timid liberalisation that Eusebio Leal, the city historian, and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, concluded an agreement to allow Chinese descendants to create culinary entities.
They are able to operate autonomously. Without the jealous eye of the state — a kind of bull in the china shop — Havana’s Chinatown began to flourish. Now is the best place to eat in the capital.
The old Chinese restaurants have been converted. Comfortable and with air-conditioning, the menus offer dishes like fried rice, chop suey and spring rolls. In the absence of an Italian neighborhood, they also sell pizzas, spaghetti and cannelloni. And local Creole food: rice and black beans, roast pork and yuca con mojo.
Yes, you eat well in today’s Chinatown in Havana. The bad news is when it’s time to pay. A dinner for four people costs about $50, five times the minimum monthly wage of a Cuban worker. Unlike the food offered in Chinatowns in other countries, which are economically priced, that of the Cuban capital is a luxury. Those who can, go on special occasions such as Mother’s Day or family birthdays.
Never was it so expensive to eat Chinese food in Cuba. Gone are those cafes on Monte, Belascoaín, Infanta and other streets in downtown Havana, where 3 Pesos was enough for a plentiful serving of fried rice with shrimp, chicken and ham among other ingredients, and Chinese vegetable soup.
Now Chinese children and grandchildren do not sell fruit ice-creams nor wash and iron clothes. They do not need to. Today they are managers of restaurants or companies and live in style. In this peculiar neighborhood in Havana, supply and demand works. In most premises they will charge a 10% tax for a dinner. The current generation is much smarter than their parents and grandparents.
May 15 2011
“God knows what it costs me to keep the car rolling,” says José, a former diplomat retired since 1994 and owner of a Lada 2105, made in Russia in the late 80′s.
He receives a pension of about 350 pesos that evaporates to buy tomatoes, rice and tropical fruit. To find the necessary extra money, he rents his car for $25 a day to trusted people, mostly foreign tourists passing through Havana.
Rosario, his wife, is also dedicated to the ‘invento’ (business). She sells coconut filled tarts. Nevertheless, at the end of the month they have their heads in a noose. “We have no relatives in Miami. We have to play it tough”, she says.
When not renting the car, José himself acts as an illegal taxi driver. That is ‘on the side’, evading taxes. He usually hires it to the creditworthy people of the neighbourhood for going out at night to clubs or restaurants for hard currency.
When his car is out of action, he helps his wife to prepare the tarts. Neither his wife nor he pays taxes. “If I take out a license I would have to work every day. I’d rather be an illegal taxi driver. Everything goes into my pocket.”
Also Alicia, a surgeon working for 15 years, evades the taxes. At weekends she rents her car to families with money who decide to go to the beach and other leisure centres.
“I charge less than state taxis”, she says. Also, leaving consultations or ward duty, and returning back home, Alicia hires to people who put out their hand and are heading in the same direction.
“It’s not much money, but at least I cover the gasoline”, said the surgeon, who prays every night to her orishas to send her on a medical mission in South Africa.
According to Alicia, the Cuban doctors in South Africa manage to collect a good sum of dollars. “If they grant me the trip, I can buy a new car and thoroughly repair the house.”
Although the procedure for obtaining licenses is fast and without many obstacles, car owners prefer to rent on the side. The low tax culture of Cubans might be one argument. José has another: “Taxes are too high. If for ten years I have rented the car without paying a license, I do not see why I have to do it now.”
The surgeon Alicia argues that she does not have time to practice as a legal taxi driver. “I make the most of my spare time. Anyway, the government doesn’t pay doctors a fair wage.”
Although there are no figures, the number of people who maintain a business under the table without paying a penny of tax is considerable. They risk being caught by a state inspector but on the island ‘an eye for an eye’ is often practiced: “If the state steals from me, I steal from the state.”
Translated by: Araby
Night falls suddenly in Havana and Billy, 81, empties out the money he collected in a colourless plastic bowl in the public toilet where he works.
He counts the small change. With a nervous uncontrollable tic, his mouth shakes. His hands also tremble. It’s Alzheimer’s that is devouring him. He trys to hide it. Impossible. He should be in bed attended by his family. Or in some nursing home.
“I’ve been in three hospices and it is better to be dead. Bad food. No care. I preferred to go to the street to find me a few pesos. I was always a creditworthy guy. Now ruin has befallen me. My days are numbered. At any time the Lord may take me to him. So what I do is take care of this public toilet for ten hours. In the morning I also sell sweets and so get more money for hot meals”, says Billy, his voice worn.
He has no home and sleeps on the floor of the toilet itself. An extremely messy room with an unbearable stench of urine and ammonia. According to Billy, the administrator of the place gave him the keys and some cardboard to sleep on. Someone else gave him an old Russian portable radio. In the evening he listens to baseball and traditional music.
“I was a successful man. The best player of poker and pool that was in Havana in the 50′s. I earned much money. One cold January afternoon I was in the lobby of the Plaza hotel when a suited man, small and with glasses, approached me and invited me to a Ron Collins. It was the Jew, Meyer Lansky. He made me a proposal”, recalls Billy as he rolls a cigarette using butts collected in the street.
Lansky offered him a place in a course for dealers in the school that was running on the roof of the hotel, the first of its kind in the city. Around a year later he had become a ‘crack’ dealer. Whoever dealt cards also worked as a roulette croupier.
But in ’59 Castro arrived and he ordered the closure of the casinos. Lansky and Santo Trafficante had to pack up. He then worked in the casino of the Havana Riviera. And eventually became unemployed. He didn’t possess the revolutionary spirit. He was never militant nor cut sugar cane.
“I had my savings and a ’58 Chevrolet that was a gem. I threw away money on drink and prostitutes. I left the house to the mother of my two children. I sold the car and set up a ‘burle‘ (illegal gaming casino), but I was caught in a police raid in the 80′s. I spent five years in prison, for prohibited games”, he points out. Later on he slowly eats some cold pizza, bought hours ago. It is his dinner.
Having reached old age the neglect of his family is taking its toll. He knows nothing of his children. He tries changing the subject when asked about them. “Nothing matters now. I will be a better person in the next life. My gift was my hands. Alzheimer’s has robbed me of the ability to handle a pool stick or play tricks with a deck of cards”, he says, after cleaning the filthy sinks and toilets without detergent.
He switches off the single bulb. “I’m tired, and tomorrow is another day. The bad thing about being old and sick is that memories and nostalgia beset you without warning. I was young and handsome. Lansky’s friends nicknamed me ‘Billy the Kid’ for the speed of my hands in the game”, he says. And throws himself like a heavy bundle on the cardboard that serves as a bed.
He begins to cry and turns his back. He does not want pity. Nor does he allow photos. Old Billy still has his pride.
Translated by: Araby
May 12 2011