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Ciro Diaz, Guitar Player for Porno Para Ricardo

June 27, 2011 1 comment

Ciro Diaz, 33, guitar player for the group Porno for Ricardo and musical producer, had all the ingredients to be a jet setter of the Revolution. He was born and raised in the heart of a family who listened to Fidel Castro’s long speeches and went to the Revolutionary celebrations cyclically generated by the olive green government.

Diaz, a guy of a medium height, brown eyes and incipient baldness, studied at the elite Vladimir Ilyich Lenin High School, south of Havana, Cuba. One of those labs where the regime tried to mold the future “New Man.”

With Ciro the experiment didn’t work. Between rock music and political discrepancies, Diaz never fully understood the Prussian logic of the one and only commander. And he withheld the free applause for the father of the Cuban Revolution.

His idols were others. Nirvana, Metallica and Aerosmith. Since his first year of High School, he was the composer of songs that, later and without pretensions, he performed in the different bands at his school, which would form and disband in a period of a few months. In between octaves and complex theorems, Diaz graduated in mathematics on a sunny afternoon on July of 2004.

Earlier, starting in 1998, he was the guitar player for the band “Porno para Ricardo,” led by Gorky Aguila. Music was a serious business. “I had my first performances with a big audience playing for “Porno.” We had critical opinions about the regime. It was especially perceived in our concerts, where we told jokes against the government,” says Ciro, seated in front of a console table in an independent recording studio built in Gorki’s house.

The rebel attitude of the rock band set off the red alarms of the island censors. The musicians in Cuba know very well what price they will have to pay for certain positions that break away from the guidelines dictated by the troop of bureaucrats who rule the national culture. “It’s simple. As if it was a part of a magic trick, you disappear from artistic life. They ban your concerts. And you can not record in the state’s recording studios,” Ciro explains.

Then, another life begins. In the underground world. Like an armadillo. Offering special concerts to your fans in a concrete factory backyard or in the park of your neighborhood.

Several times, running to escape from the cops, they left behind some musical instruments. By then, the Special Services came to the conclusion that they had to raise the bar for “Porno para Ricardo,” whom they already labeled as “a disturber of the public order,” the step before sticking you with the label “counterrevolutionary.”

In 2004, the band leader, Gorki Aguila, was sentenced to 4 years in jail. “They made up false charges of drug possession. That’s precisely when the band started to have a notorious anti-governmental stance. Thanks to international support, Gorki only served two years in jail.”

The harassment of the members of “Porno” became a nightmare. The bad news came down over their heads. In 2008, The government pulled several judicial tricks out of its sleeve to open a new case against Gorki. In an almost desperate act, the members and some of the band followers, decided to use the peaceful protest method.

At a Pablo Milanes concert, on August 28 of 2009 in the Anti-imperialist Bandstand, known by everybody as the “protest-drome,” they tried to pull out a banner demanding the release of Aguila, who was detained at a local precinct.

“That became a battle ground. We were attacked physically and verbally by law enforcement agents,” remembers Ciro. Starting from this period, when the group couldn’t interact with its followers or record compact discs, the idea of having their own recording studio was born.

Such a crazy idea developed after the musician Gorki Aguila sold one thousand CDs during his trip to United States. “To that money, we added the help from friends in Europe and Central America. Building the recording studio was an odyssey indeed. We were under the microscope of the Cuban State Security forces, and for that reason we took the precaution of buying the materials and the equipment with their respective paper work. Everything by the book,” Ciro points out.

The dream came true a year and a half later. In June 2010, La Paja (“Jerk off”) Records was inaugurated. A studio built by the members of the band that allow them to make their own CDs.

“I got an audio operator’s license, and I pay taxes for it. The idea is not only to record our music . Also help to produce discs of marginalized groups regardless of genre, it can be rock, punk, salsa or hip hop. Any musicians whom the State closes their recording doors on can count on us,” said Diaz.

Independent recording studios flourish today in Havana. “There’s a dozen. But there are very few with the professionalism and rigorous standards of ours.” In ten months, they have produced seven discs. Two of them complete. The principal producer of the “Jerk off Records” is Ciro Diaz, a guitar player for “Porno para Ricardo” and for a group called “La Babosa Azul” ( The Blue Slug).

Although in reality he considers himself a composer. He has written hundreds of songs and composed themes for short films and documentaries. He spends half of the day between the console and the computer, producing music.

Right now, he is frantic. He had to repeat six times the recording of a string group, that didn’t come out the way he wanted. “Production steals a lot of time from my work as a composer. But it is something I enjoy. My dream is to give a mega-concert on the same square where one day we were repressed.”

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Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

June 25 2011

Still the Same Thing

June 26, 2011 1 comment

The fiery debate and emotions around the reforms of General Raul Castro were circumscribed to the air-conditioned rooms of the Palace of Conventions, where between April 16-19 the five commissions of the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party were in session.

Cubans warily followed the central report and saw on the TV news the abstracts of the linguistic, rather than political, debates of the different commissions debating the future of Cuba. At the end, as a common practice, the 986 delegates unanimously approved the economic policies proposed by Castro II to straighten the bow of the already cracked olive green ship, which with 52 years of sinuous navigation is at great risk of sinking.

The communist delegates can feel the sublime over-enjoyment of the spectrum of supposed controversies surrounding the economic plan to be executed in the next five years.

A lot of delegates, probably, believe without any doubt in the project designed by the economic tsar Marino Murillo and his troop of technocrats who, during four days, traded the military uniforms for elegant white guayabera shirts.

Some of them preferred to remain silent. Maybe they have a lot of doubts and decided to wait to know the amount of truthfulness involved in the Castro II proclaimed democracy in the Cuban Communist Party. In Cuba it is always right to be cautious in political matters.

Not always when the bosses fire the starting gun so that the political commissioners, official journalists and partisans will talk and unreservedly criticize the status quo, is it a signal of a change in the leaders mentality.

On the island naivety is a sin you can’t commit. Because the mandarins who today say that not everybody has to raise their hands at the same time to support one of the revolution’s projects, it is still the same ones who are written on a black list of those who criticized their decrees and those who, in their eagerness to be creative, contributed with their own ideas.

The people on the street are not fools neither. The VI Congress touched interesting points and the regime anticipated opening a little the iron fist that monitors citizens’ lives.

But everything here is still the same. Maybe worse. The money doesn’t want to land in the wallets. The food is more expensive every day. And the salaries are still frozen in time, in spite of inflation and the shortages.

Out of the party’s meeting, the common person got as a result the imminent authorization allowing him to buy and sell cars and homes. The homes part of the deal sounds weird: although on the island 90% of the families own their homes, by official decree they couldn’t transfer them and if they left the country, the government took ownership of their properties.

Amending the front page (it seems), now the common Cuban citizen waits for more concessions. Like the permission to come and go from the national territory, the decriminalization of political dissent or, at last, access to the internet from home.

I doubt that Castro II will fulfill those wishes. He is not Aladdin. He is only a politician who turns back, knowing that opening the fist too much may trigger a cataclysm that may end the personal revolution made by his brother Fidel.

This, socialism, has to be preserved by all means. Making controlled changes heavily reined in, therefore the beast don’t run away out of control.

Then, at the end of the day, people who for breakfast have coffee without milk, who are the majority in Cuba, didn’t see themselves represented by the “polemic” delegates, who either keep on silent or ignore the bunch of rights and civil liberties claimed, not only by the dissidents, but by the Cuban citizens while waiting in the long lines at the local grocery stores, or in the interior of the collective gypsy cabs.

The regime’s propagandistic marketing wants to sell us the idea that the Congress happened in a rush  of constructive criticism, a kind of tropical Perestroika and the new popular ideas that will nurture the homeland’s economic future.

I am afraid not. Certain things had changed. There’s a glaze of blackness and more skirts in the Central Committee. There will be fewer revolutionary marches and empty political speeches. They will issue more permits to open small variety stores or to sell bread and mayonnaise and pirated compact discs without so much effort. And that’s it.

Photo: Jutta Winkhaus. Playing dominoes at the side of the stairs leading to La Guarida: the famous “paladar” (a private home restaurant with a few seats) which is located in and old run down mansion in a poor Havana neighborhood.

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 Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

April 27 2011

Raul Castro Has Known How to Improvise with the Car in Motion

June 25, 2011 2 comments

The administration of General Raul Castro has known how to improvise with the car in motion. Castro II, who this past June 3rd turned 80 years old, has had a trajectory as a warrior, soldier, and politician, always crouching under the shadow of his media star brother who governed the island for 47 years with a self-centered power and long anti-imperialist speeches

General Castro knows his limitations. He doesn’t have the gift of gab to capture his world political counterparts or fill plazas with fiery harangues. He is used to working as a team. And he listens without interrupting the statements of others.

He also never had the complex of a world statesmen. He never was the top of the class. But he has taken on guiding the fate of a nation impoverished by 52 years of crazy economics, ferocious bureaucracy, military campaigns, and subversion in the Third World. He knows that his mission is trying to save the historic legacy of the revolution and attempting to create ideological continuity after his death and that of his brother.

Before starting to renovate the building on a weak foundation, he did an evaluation of the dangers. The diagnosis was correct. There were more than enough bureaucrats; the communist party is an intruder in the subject of business administration; there was a need to stimulate self-employment and also send more than a million workers to the unemployment lines.

He emphasized belt-tightening to not go over the budget, something sacred. No more taking money from public funds just to fulfill whimsical ideas like the construction of a biotechnology center outside of the annual planning. That was his brother’s way, who jumped over the rules as easily as drinking a glass of water.

Still Castro II believes in Marxist theories.  But he is realistic.  And when he opens on his desk the world map, he observes that no communist nation moved forward using quinquennial plans and a centralized economy.  But he is cautious.

Still he has the jealous and vigilant eye of his brother taking note.  He is trying to buy time. The erosion of power when he lets people act on their own disgusts Fidel Castro.  He always preferred to keep the herd tied up.  Let the state give the good and bad news. The awards or the punishments.

But the General and his military partners think differently.  It doesn’t matter how you call the ideology, what it is essential is to have the power.  And that people drink milk, eat well, and get enough money to consume and have fun.

Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz has always been a plotter.  His reforms will be at a Danzón pace. Slow, sure, and anticipating disasters.  But decidedly, at the end of the tunnel, the model Cuba tries to follow is a mixture of Vietnam and China, beautified with components from Latin-American folklore, like the nonsense of the new socialism of Chavez or the pragmatism of a modern left like the Brazilian one.

He plays three ways. From China he needs money and experience on handling a market economy and an inflexible control over the dissidents. Vietnam is a good example on how a nation can come back from a bloody war.

There are similarities between Cuba and Vietnam. Excepting the million deaths that the conflict between USA-Vietnam left behind, the almost 50 years of Castro I’s government left the nation financially and economically as if it was coming from a catastrophe.

The General is reluctantly supporting Chavez: he is an ally of his brother. An obnoxious political inheritance. The one from Barinas has no brakes. Not even a clutch. Ignores discretion. He has the brain directly connected with the tongue. A capital sin for a statesman.

But the Venezuelan commander has oil. Which is expensive, and Cuba needs it to restart its economy. Raul Castro doesn’t go all the way out, he prefers to follow him from a prudential distance. He uses logic. If Chavez has won the power through elections once, the same electoral system will take him back home.

That’s why he goes all the way out for Brazil. It is not a bad option. The green giant is the number ten economy of the world. The left, that governed and currently governs, has demonstrated a capacity beyond its third world political discourse against poverty and in favor of the social justice, being guests at the White House galas and in world economic summits.

Moreover, Brasil has the necessary technology to extract the possible crude oil deposited in the sea bed of Cuban waters, and its exploitation will end the Cuban dependency on the Venezuelan oil.

In fact, right now, Brazil is an important economic partner for the government. 800 million dollars on the Mariel project speaks for itself. The already started construction west of Havana promises. And promises a lot. According to the figures of local analysts, it will be the biggest harbor in the Caribbean, with capacity to store more than a million containers, and with factories and duty-free zones in the near future

When the embargo is finally lifted and Castro’s heirs are welcomed in Washington, Miami’s cove as a door to the Americas may pass to a second place. It is the opening of Castro II’s play. He knows that no USA politician in office will dialogue with him or his brother.

And in advance he prepares a dolphin. Therefore, the current reforms of the General have several steps. And at the end the balance will be leaning towards a market economy. He hasn’t been dogmatic either.

When he notices that something does not work, either excessive taxation or absurd rules, as in the case of increasing the number of chairs in a ‘paladar‘ (a private home restaurant), lowering the taxes on gypsy cabs or increasing the amount of acres and the lease time for small farmers, he changed all of these without hesitation.

To maintain the Biran dynasty, the General will cede anything he has to. Including, to design an opposition to meet his needs. Remember, Raul is a full-time conspirator. Of course, the real reforms will begin after the death of Fidel.

Photo: EFE, La Habana.

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Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

June 17 2011

They Threaten to Prosecute Opponent Sonia Garro and Six More Women for Marching Against the Government in Havana, Cuba.

June 22, 2011 2 comments

Photo : On the left Mercedes Fresneda, on the right Sonia Garro.

According to opponent Sonia Garro, intelligence officers let her know that they may open a court case against her and six more women who several times organized peaceful marches of protest on the streets of Havana.

Garro commented that in one of the interrogations, agents of the State Security told her that “President Raul Castro himself wants to know who is the woman organizing protests on the streets. It may be possible that we won’t put all seven in prison, but for sure the leader or leaders will end up in a prison”.

Like the rest of the group, Sonia belongs to the Ladies supporting the Ladies in White. She, also, is a member of an Afrocuban independent association Led by Mercedes Fresneda, who is another of the ladies threatened with prosecution if they insist on engaging in anti-government protests.

Garro is one of the few opponents who is dedicated to do communitarian work in the island. Since 2007 she has led a project to help poor children, without taking into consideration the political affiliation of their parents. The project is operating where she lives, in the Los Quemados neighborhood, in the Marianao municipality in Havana,Cuba

Graduated as a nurse, in 2008 she was terminated from her job because of her political activities against the regime. She is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter and she is married to another dissident, Ramon Alejandro Munoz, who as an answer to the beatings given to Sonia by the police, in May of this year, chained himself on the roof of his home, machete in hand, yelling anti Castro slogans. Still today he goes out to the street with one arm chained, as a protest against police brutality.

“I feel harassed by the State Political Police. In front of my window there are constant repudiation rallies of mobs egged by the authorities. I received severe beatings and I suffer from a right knee contusion. On Thursday June 9, 2011, at a protest at the Anti-Imperialist Stage paying respect to Orlando Zapata, we were battered. They arrested me and kept me for two days in the police precinct of Aguilera, in the municipality of 10 de Octubre. The other six ladies were also arrested in different precincts. They opened a case against us for insult to  patriotic symbols, disrespect and disorderly conduct”, Garro points out sitting on a ramshackle sofa.

The seven Cuban women who monthly go out to the street asking for democratic changes are Mercedes Fresneda, Ivonne Malleza, Niurka Luke, Yaquelin Bonne, Rosario Morales, Leidi Coca and Sonia Garro. Recently and separately, they have been taken to Cuban Intelligence’s “visiting house,” in order to intimidate and scare them.

“They offer you everything. From improving your way of life to becoming one of their agents. Officers of Cuban Intelligence with ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and Major talk with us. In charge of this harassment is a man called Tamayo, second chief of Section 21, the department dedicated to watch and to repress the opponents”, explain Mercedes Fresneda.

Garro adds that she has been threatened by the political police that if she continues with the street marches, her daughter will not longer continue studying.

These women promised to keep on in a public way expressing their grievance about the ways of the Cuban government. They believe it is their right. All of them have in common that they are poor, almost all are black or mestizo, and they were born with the revolution.

They are longing for profound and serious changes in the policies of their country. They are rooting for a democracy. And they shout for it.

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Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

June 22 2011

Cuba is Not a Country For the Elderly, Especially if They are Black

June 20, 2011 1 comment

Being old in Cuba is a problem. Check this, if a young family have to work miracles to bring three meals a day to the table, buy clothing for their children and try to make money from who knows where to repair their shack, you can imagine how hard can be for an elder. It becomes harder if you are black.

The quality of life of the Cuban grandparents has been decreasing for a long time. They are the biggest victims for this war without thundering cannons that lasts for already 22 years, ludicrously called “The Special Period”. The new fiscal adjustments to balance out the finances has been striking hard at those of the third age. And it will keep pounding them. The General Raul Castro pretends to give another turn to the screw. He promises to end the old subsidies and throw in the trash the ancient ration card.

The most affected by these new measures are the elderly. In 2006 the government established a raise for the pensions. As an average, a retiree gets between 186 and 300 pesos (from 8 to 13 dollars a month). In everyday life, these amounts are very little. The inflation of some food products and the electricity bills, among others, it’s a bite that takes a big chunk out of the tiny increase in the pensions.

Ask Julia, an 82-year-old black woman, feeble and emaciated, if her retirement dough is enough to live her life with dignity. Her answer will be a pathetic grimace.

From the time she gets up, early in the morning, her life is hard. “I buy 100 newspapers in a news stand. Later I resell them for one peso each. Not always all of them are sold, so I have to sell loose cigarets and peanuts wrapped in paper cones. If I get lucky, I can have lunch and dinner. But most of the time I get money only for the dinner. I have no descendants and my family is in the same situation or worst. Being black and old is a curse”, she points out at dusk in a central avenue of Havana.

It is not officially known how many elders actually live as indigents. Cuba is a nation where the numbers and statistics are only known by the big shots. But what you are seeing in the streets is frightening.

The majority of the people looking in the trash containers, who pick pieces of discarded aluminum or sell any other junk at a city corner, are older than 60 years.

It is no longer unusual to see a drunk elder with home-made moonshine sleeping on cardboard. Or an abandoned old lady panhandling on the streets. And there’s not a government solution in sight for this sector of the population.

According to the data offered by the official news, the population of Cuba is getting inexorably older.

The pension system that guarantees a tranquil and safe retirement is bankrupt. The majority of elders who are wandering all over the city in search for food and money are humble working class people who once worked in the “construction of socialism”. Some are like Juan, 79 years old, who, in the Escambray mountains, chased the groups fighting against Castro. He also fought in Angola as a reservist.

For some years now he sleeps on the streets, in any place, wherever he is when the night falls. A porch, a funeral home or the staircase of any building.” A long time ago my family got rid of me. The same happened with the State. What they offered me was a position as school night-time security. I work alternate nights. I lost the sight of one eye. I escaped the seniors home, it’s better be dead than to live in such an asylum. Bad treatment and worst food. The only thing I wish is that God takes me with him as soon as possible,” expressed Juan while in a run down restaurant managed by the State he eats an order of white rice, black beans and boiled fish full of bones.

The senior citizen homes in Cuba in most cases are impoverished. They are run down buildings with a depressing look, and the people who pass by look the other way. On San Miguel St. almost at the corner of Acosta St., in the Diez de Octubre municipality, there’s one of them.

In the winter it is sad to look at a group of elderly wearing coats from the fifties to get warm. Swinging frantically on a rocker asking the passers-by for cigarettes and money. In the summer they sweat and stink. They pass the time playing dominoes on the asylum’s porch and watching TV. They eat little and bad. They talk nostalgically about the past, when they were young and strong. Many of them wish to die soon.

Most of these elders are black. The African descendants are living in an extreme poverty. The ones who live the worst. Dwellers of the prisons cells.

And when they arrive to the third age, the little hell where they grew up, their scarce preparation and family violent environment takes a toll. Along comes the insanity and the dole. They take refuge in alcohol. Or prefer to commit suicide. Decisively, Cuba is not a country for the elderly. Especially if they are black.

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 Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

June 20 2011

Illegal Cubans in Havana

June 14, 2011 3 comments

Havana is a sort of forbidden city for people from deep inside Cuba. By Decree 217, effective April 22, 1997, residing in the country’s capital is a complicated pattern of bureaucratic procedures and hours of queues at central administration. You have to meet a lot of requirements to be approved to move to the city. It’s a mess.

Unless you’re from Guantánamo, Camaguey or Santiago, and you have some responsibility in a state enterprise or within the Communist Party. Then they open the gates of Havana. And the generous resources of the State or the Party will assure you a dwelling from its vast network of housing for those situations.

If your visit to the capital is temporary, they will put you in a three-star hotel with an open bar, to eat and drink in your spare time. Without spending a cent from your own pocket.

Companies that handle foreign currency such as tourism, civil aviation and telecommunications have homes available to house specialists, engineers or administrative staff from other provinces. Or quality hotel rooms that must be paid in hard currency. It is the only legal way to settle in Havana with the permission of the authorities.

The other is to stay a few days with relatives in the capital, visit the Zoo on Avenue 26, take photos across from the Capitol and visit Chinatown or the beaches of the East. And get the ticket back to the country.

Otherwise, they will open a file on you as an illegal. In pursuit of stopping the growing exodus of Cubans from the country’s interior, desperate because of the acute economic situation and lack of a future. For fourteen years there have been controls and regulations that prevent settling in Havana to those born outside its territory.

They are foreigners in their own homeland. With Decree 217, State institutions pretend to provide a solution to overcrowding in a city that already exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, with a fourth-world infrastructure and a cruel shortage of housing, water and public transport.

There was the paradox that while they tried to stop the terrifying wave, particularly of young people in the eastern regions, who fled their villages to try to live better, they built huts with pitched roofs of asbestos cement, where they housed the builders and the police candidates.

And habaneros don’t want to be cops. Nor do they want to work hard in the construction trades, with low pay and poor working conditions. Thus the government had no choice but to hire labor in the eastern provinces for a period of two to five years.

But the provincial people find a way to leave the plow and the land behind and show up in Havana. There are several reasons. The main one is that in spite of the severe economic crisis affecting Cuba for 22 years, it’s in the capital where money flows, and products and services cost more.

It’s also a good place for girls to take the train from Bayamo or Manatí and prostitute themselves in the streets and bars of the city. There are abundant domestic customers and tourists on the hunt for fresh meat that makes sex pay a good price.

Of course, the hookers from the east of the island are frowned upon by their counterparts in Havana. The prostitutes born in the city consider that the easterners or “Palestinians” as they say, have devalued the longstanding profession, by the low prices they charge. And they hate them.

The easterners who arrive in Havana illegally do everything. From pedaling a bicycle-taxi for 12 hours, to collecting scraps of aluminum or cardboard, selling shoddy textiles, pirated discs, detergents and perfumes on Monte Street.

Those who come to work hard are worthy of admiration and respect. Others, violent scoundrels, want to make money on the fast track. And they become Creole marijuana dealers. Or pimps who get off at the railway terminal with a harem of hookers, disoriented with the lights, and put them to work in dilapidated rooms, screwing for 5 dollars a half-hour.

From El Cobre or Manzanillo, gays and lesbians are also packing their bags, coming from villages where they are frowned upon and kept in the closet. Once in the capital, they quickly adjust to the dissipated nightlife. With high heels, transvestites attend the gay or lesbian parties, without the disapproving gaze of family and friends.

It often happens that sometimes the police are from the same province, but this does not affect them. They hunt and then ride the train back in the morning. In vain. Because the illegals, marginalized by their sexual orientation, manage to evade the police cordon and controls. And they return to Havana. It’s a matter of survival.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 14 2011

See You Later, Reina Luisa!

June 9, 2011 1 comment

Until the last minute, I was hoping to interview you before your final departure from the country. On several occasions I tried to travel to your town and couldn’t, for reasons beyond my control. Once I talked to you over the phone but the conversation was not as deep as I would have liked.

I’m left with the satisfaction that you were always within reach, I wrote about you and your son. The last time, the day Zapata died. In my blog is the testimony of martyrdom during the seven years Zapata spent in prison.

You are leaving the island sheltered by close relatives. At your age, one might think you’re going to enjoy some peace, that you have not had since Orlando was arrested in March 2003. You are an ordinary Cuban, but not ordinary at all. And from exile, your voice will continue to be heard, as though you were there in your beloved Banes.

Hopefully the ashes that you are now taking to Miami will not be too long delayed in returning to Cuba, which is and will always be the home of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and all Cubans!

June 9 2011

Cuba: Inconvenient Journalism

June 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Although they say abroad that the government of General Raúl Castro is urgently calling for a different period – one that is critical, controversial, appealing and lively – in practice the official reporters are not rushing to drop the burden of language loaded with slogans and pieces from speeches by Fidel Castro.

Journalists working in the state media are thinking twice before producing a hot story containing the reality of the street, which they see in their neighborhoods filled with prostitutes and guys cautiously selling powdered milk, vegetable oil or jeans stolen from some store.

We shouldn’t expect that this bold crowd of “revolutionary journalists,” who look more like scribes or ordinary letter-writers, will decide to write about political aspirations or publicly request the stopping of the acts of repudiation against the Ladies in White and the beatings of those who think differently. It would be asking too much.

The polemical reflections are from a handful of bureaucrats, who, from an office in the Palace of the Revolution, dictate what should be news. For now, it’s possible to transmit these things only on the Web, after passing them through a sieve that shows the editor the authors identify with socialism and are loyal to the Castro brothers. Without that confession of faith, writing for yourself is equivalent to having them open a file on you in the Department of State Security.

There is an open space of criticism and discussion for journalists and intellectuals accepted by the regime, but only on the Internet. They consider it unhealthy or undesirable for Cubans, those who drink breakfast coffee mixed with peas and eat bread without mayonnaise, to be able to read opinions that differ from the official discourse, which is tiresome and repeatedly published by the national newspapers.

The government’s interest is that these talented and fresh writers be read only abroad. So that those who romanticize the Revolution from a distance, and the Latin American and European Left, believe that something on the island is changing.

These inconvenient journalists, who Cubans on the island would like to read in the newspaper, are assigned to publish on personal blogs or websites. Then the guy deep in the Cuban countryside can’t read Elaine Diaz, Sandra Alvarez, Boris Leonardo Caro or gay Paquito, unless he has access to the Intranet.

For people in the real Cuba, lunching on pizzas in self-run cafeterias, after spending two hours at the P-7 bus stop to get home to the Alberro neighborhood, they have no choice but to spend a peso for an 8-page tabloid trying to be a newspaper and usually more useful for wrapping garbage or as a substitute for expensive toilet paper.

Controversy is served up….but exclusively for an elite.

It’s not just Raul Castro’s government that has inconvenient journalists. A sector of the internal opposition also has them. If you’re a foreign correspondent or freelancer and you don’t cover or write a few pages praising some of the events, conferences or projects that the local dissidents invent by the bushel, then they put you on a blacklist.

The least they accuse you of is being a Castro supporter. And in their frequent gatherings in the rooms of their houses, where vulgar dissidents gossip without factual information, you are labeled as an agent of G-2 (State Security).

Doing unfettered journalism in Cuba is like walking a tightrope. It will always awaken the capacity for intrigue and mistrust on both sides. But I prefer it that way. Or I wouldn’t be a journalist.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 7 2011

In Havana There Are State, Illegal and Hard Currency Pharmacies

June 7, 2011 3 comments

Every time that Niurka needs vitamin C or an albutamol (albuterol) inhaler for her asthma, she knows where to find it. First, before asking Fermin, a medicines peddler, she tries to get it by slipping a 20 pesos bill over the closest state-owned pharmacy counter.

If the pharmacist opens her eyes incredibly wide, it means the deal is going bad, then she goes and looks for the illegal medicine peddler. Most of the time she finds what she looks for.

Fermin works for an old and central Havana hospital’s apothecary. His salary of 300 pesos (16 dollars) a month is a joke. But with the medicines he carries out of the hospital in his backpack every afternoon, he multiplies his salary by ten.

“I use to steal vitamins, asthma inhalers and, when I can , donated foreign medicines. Also I take orders, if someone asks me for a specific medicine and it’s in stock in the hospital, it will magically disappear from the shelf,” confesses Fermin.

The public health standards on the island are lower today in comparison to the decade of the 80’s, but either way, Cuban public health is still giving a notable service in spite of being a third world nation.

But certain medicines are scarce. The Cuban government blames it on the USA embargo, which impedes Cuba from buying latest generation medicines. It may be. But in the foreign currency pharmacies you can find vitamins, antibiotics or analgesics from renowned pharmaceutical brands of capitalist countries. To make up for the medicine deficit, the Cuban state approves humongous amounts of American dollars to increase its national production

Sonia, a pharmacist, believes that Cuban-made medicines have a low quality, a good portion are also limited by a ration card given out by the family doctor or by a specialist.

Those who suffer from respiratory illnesses are the ones who suffer most. There are two classifications. Type I and II. The first ones are entitled to one inhaler a month and the second ones, to one every two months.

“Most of the time I have to buy asthma inhalers on the side, in the black market. Either by bribing a hospital employee or a pharmacist with 20 pesos, or buying from one of the hundreds of existing medicine peddlers in Havana,” Rogelio, a chronic asthmatic, makes clear.

Cuba being a tropical island, with high humidity, the number of persons suffering respiratory illnesses is significant. For this reason, all illegal medicine vendors have a guaranteed market.

Denis, one of these vendors, says that in addition to the vitamins, antibiotics and inhalers, a product with a great demand are the sanitary napkins women called “intimas.”

“Women of fertile age are entitled to buy a package of ten sanitary napkins–“intimas“–a month. And because it isn’t enough, the sanitary napkins are a colossal business. Each package is sold for ten pesos (half a dollar). Thanks to the sale of female sanitary napkins, vitamins and asthma inhalers, in the twelve years I have in this business, I repaired my room,” says Denis with pride.

Cuban health care is free and its doctors–as a general rule–have a good preparation and are committed. But when it comes the time to get a drug the patient has three options.

First, acquire in the local pharmacy the ones prescribed by the doctor, if they have it in stock. Second, if you have “hard currency,” in an international pharmacy you can buy a fifth generation antibiotic or Johnson & Johnson syrups. And the third option, buy from an illegal vendor, who for dollars (fulas in Cuban slang) will bring the medicines to your door.

Ivan Garcia

Note- This article was written in March 2011, but I have a lot of articles to publish, from Ivan and other authors, and it was left behind. (TQ)

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Translated by: Adrian Rodriguez

June 7 2011

Coppelia Ice Cream Turns 45… Without Strawberry or Chocolate

June 4, 2011 1 comment

Coppelia, the most famous ice-cream parlor in Havana and in Cuba, turned 45 on June 4. Located on the corner of Calle 23 at L on the central avenue La Rampa, its architecture is one of the most beautiful and best-designed since the olive-green revolution led by Fidel Castro.

The design, by Mario Girona (1924-2008), one of the most important Cuban architects of the 20th century, was done with the collaboration of planners Rita Maria Grau and Candelario Ajuria. The structural calculation was carried out by engineers Maximiliano Isoba and Gonzalo Paz.

Girona formerly completed a successful project baptized with the indigenous name Guamá, established in 1962 in the Zapata Swamp, Bay of Pigs, Matanzas, about 140 kilometers southeast of the capital. Those 10 wooden huts in a circular motion in the manner of a Taino village (aboriginal), on the edge of a lagoon infested with crocodiles, remain one of the favorite places for tourists.

When they entrusted Mario Girona to design the gigantic ice-cream parlor, he was somewhat taken aback. In an interview done a few years ago, he emphasized, “There were no global benchmarks for such an immense ice-cream parlor.” In record time, the architect Girona and his team drew the rough sketch of Coppelia, strongly influenced by the style of the tourist complex of the Zapata Swamp. In this respect he stated: “Guamá was the starting point for the new work. To give some privacy, we designed five small spaces, a large court divided into three sections and a floor on top. We provided ample parking and lush natural vegetation, which would not intrude.”

The hospital Reina Mercedes, built in 1886, formerly was situated on this spot. The land had cost 3,000 pesos. When it was demolished in 1954, the land was worth 250,000 pesos. The idea was to erect a 50-story skyscraper, even taller than the Focsa, the tallest building on the island, with 36 floors.

But the project didn’t materialize because of the arrival of the bearded ones. Before, a recreation center called “Nocturnal” and a tourist pavilion had functioned in the ample space. In 1966, during the celebration of an international congress in the Hotel Habana Libre, situated on the opposite corner, Fidel Castro, a great lover of ice cream, decided to erect Coppelia, whose name and image – the legs of a ballerina – pay homage to one of the great performances of the National Ballet of Cuba.

When, on June 4, 1966, the Coppelia ice-cream parlor opened, it offered a menu with 26 flavors and 24 combinations. A scoop of coconut with almonds or cream cost 50 cents, a Copa Melba (vanilla ice cream with a slice of mango, strawberry syrup and marshmallow), one peso. That day they sold more than 3,000 tubs of ice cream, and during the 12 hours it was open, the line was several blocks long.

Ice cream is one of the favorite treats for Cubans of all ages and eras. The first ice-cream shop was installed in 1807. Due to a climate that averages around 30 degrees (Celsius) annually, people like to cool off with ice cream, alone or with cake, cookies and syrup. Or a milk-shake with ice.

Before the comandante took power, there were several prestigious brands of ice cream in Havana: Hatuey, Guarina, San Bernardo and El Gallito. They were sold in ice-cream parlors and cafes or in vehicles located in crowded spots in the city. “I preferred waiting for the seller ringing a bell in a cart with wheels or pulled by horses. For a peseta (20 cents) you could buy an iced coconut,” remembers Humberto, a retired man of 82 years.

Those ice creams, produced with milk in factories, competed with the artisanal fruit ones, produced by the Chinese without milk. According to Josephine, a housewife, 70, “I have never tasted ice cream as rich as the ones made by the Chinese.”

After Castro they continued to make good ice cream. The Coppelia brand was sold in the ice-cream parlor of the same name. It was very creamy and came in 20 different flavors.

With the arrival of the “Special Period,” an economic crisis that has lasted 22 years, ice cream became a luxury. And its quality diminished tremendously. In those hard years, the ice-cream parlor was open two hours a day. There were only two or three flavors, and because of a lack of milk, the ice cream was watery and tasteless.

Ice-cream resellers bought tubs of ice cream from Coppelia. And in their homes or the vicinity of hospitals and playgrounds, they sold a plastic cup of ice cream for 10 pesos. This was one of the many illegal business that existed in Havana.

With the legalization of the dollar, imported ice cream with the brand-names Word or Nestlé arrived. One Nestlé Extreme was worth 2.50 cuc (3 dollars), the 4-day salary of a worker. For hard currency you could also buy first-rate Cuban brands, like Flamingo.

Forty-five years after its opening, the ice-cream parlor Coppelia is only the shadow of its former self. Sunday, May 22, there were only three flavors: vanilla, orange-pineapple and mint. Although ice cream is not expensive, at one peso a scoop (5 cents), its quality leaves much to be desired. Of course, the long lines continue. Once, going to the “Cathedral of Ice Cream” constituted the main week-end outing for many Havana families.

Today, weary travelers, students, workers, prostitutes, pingueros, gays, transvestites and lesbians, among others swarming around the clock by the central ice-cream parlor, form a line by sheer force of habit. There are almost never the flavors you want. Like almond or moscatel. Strawberry or chocolate.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 4 2011

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