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Cuba, the Catholic Hierarchy and Power

March 30, 2012 2 comments


In Cuba, there have been few priests who have bended their knees on the ground with the poor and persecuted, like Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop assassinated in 1980. Or the Peruvian, Brazilian, Colombian and Spanish Jesuits who, in 1972, founded the Theology of Liberation.

This defense of the most underprivileged and those repressed for their ideas, was outstanding during the Republican period (1902-1958). And almost nil in the 53 years of government commanded by the olive-green Castros. Before the War of Independence, the Catholic hierarchy was in favor of the Spanish metropolis.

Although there were exceptions, such as Spanish or Cubans Fray Bartolomé de las Casas; Antonio María Claret, Archbishop Emeritus of Santiago de Cuba;  Prebístero Félix Varela; Juan José Díaz de Espada, Bishop of Havana; Evelio Díaz, Bishop of Pinar del Rio; Ismael Testé, pastor of the Church of Pilar, Archbishop Pedro Meurice and Father José Conrado.

Among the most significant are Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal and Enrique Perez Serantes (Pontevedra 1883-Santiago de Cuba 1968), Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and Primate of the Catholic Church in Cuba. In the 50s, Perez Serantes maintained strong links with the July 26th Movement, a political organization that turned into an armed organization to fight against the Batista dictatorship, from the coup of March 10, 1952. Santiago Archbishop not only denounced the violence in the country, if not openly collaborated with the rebels, in whose ranks were many devotees of Catholicism.

But on the island practicing Catholics were never the majority. For a long time, the leaders of the Archdiocese have looked dog-faced the growing influence of Afro-Cuban, Protestant and evangelical religions among the citizenry. After Fidel Castro, with his holy war in the 60’s, turned Catholic schools in barracks and expelled a third of the Catholic clergy.

Sunday Masses are given in empty temples. The cleric champions weathered the storm as they could. And in the ‘90s, by government strategy, the door was opening to Catholicism. With the regime standing and the priests on their knees.

It is good that the church struggles to expand its minimum spaces. But they should not discard the Bible so quickly in their negotiations with the autocracy. While they dialogue with fine wines in the capital and other provinces, the slums have tripled.

Today, Cuba is among the five countries with the highest prison population in the world. The future is a bad word. There are so many prostitutes it’s scary. And psychotropic drugs are as common among adolescents as drinking rum.

The escape valve from the precarious life is not exactly to go to Catholic churches to hear sermons. People prefer to take refuge in witchcraft or other, sometimes bizarre, beliefs. When young people don’t find a spiritual response, they throw themselves into the sea in a rubber boat, at the risk of becoming a snack for the sharks.

Also of concern is the absence of mulattos and blacks in the Catholic hierarchy. In a largely mestizo nation, the message sent has racist overtones. If the national church has not been a refuge for Santeria, babalaos, and other cultivators of the Yoruba religions, imagine it for the beleaguered dissidents.

In mid-March, allowing the political police to go into a temple in Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega slammed the table with his authority and conveyed a message loud and clear to the opposition that they are not welcome at this meal. The clergy forget something. Under any circumstances, present or future, we must have dissent. He achieved nothing except to exacerbate passions.

Externally, Cardinal Ortega has done a commendable task. In 14 years, two Popes have made pilgrimages to one of the least Catholic nations on the continent.

At the Pope’s Mass in Santiago de Cuba, on Monday, March 26, a Cuban screamed “Down with communism!” Hitting him they took him away. So far, we do not know his identity and whereabouts. At Mass on Wednesday 28 in Havana, there were no incidents, but some Cubans dared to express their opinions to the foreign press.

Benedict could not spend ten minutes taking a picture with the Ladies in White, who for nine years, since April 2003, have been attending Mass every Sunday in the Church of Santa Rita. Or five minutes to give a rosary to a representation of the opponents who have professed Catholicism their whole lives. But in his busy schedule he had half an hour with Fidel Castro. Perhaps, as Juan Juan Almeida wrote, the meeting between the Pope and the ex-leader, also served to give the last rites to the one responsible for the endless nightmare of the Cuban people.

What the peaceful opposition in Cuba has suffered for half a century, far outweighs the bitter accusations and expulsions of priests and nuns by Fidel Castro in the ‘60’s. In five decades, dozens of opposition members have died in prison due to ill-treatment, executions and hunger strikes. And hundreds have been banished or forced into exile.

In their humid galleys, almost all political prisoners had a little Bible and found praying before sleeping a comfort. Many received pastoral visits and more than one converted to Catholicism while in prison. If Jaime Ortega disappointed anyone with his rudeness, it is the dissent that worships Jesus.

The Archbishop should pressure the government to engage with the opposition. Sit down and negotiate inescapable rights such as freedom of expression and association, which allow independent groups in society, whether or not they are protesters. It’s a positive that the church will continue to increase its pastoral and social spaces. And hopefully one day Cuban children will study in Catholic schools, similar to those existing before 1959.

Jaime Ortega should have more tact in dealing with dissent. While in Cuba, by tradition, the Catholic hierarchy has always rubbed shoulders with the power, the Cardinal could rethink their strategies. Keeping the smiley face just for those in power, the Church of Christ will lose more members. Cubans continue to baptize their children at home and keep the images of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Charity. But prefer to bet on other religions. This is what is happening.

Iván García

Side comment from Tania Quintero:

The Pope’s visit has been a shame and a great putting on of an act. The regime, to seek publicity and hard currency, and the Vatican, to get a slice the totalitarian cake, with the complicity of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
Given the attitude of the Cuban diocese toward the dissent, which they know well is peaceful, and not violent or is not walking around with guns like Fidel Castro, and does not attack military barracks nor place a bomb in a cinema, the least Catholic opponents can to is to not enter a Catholic parish again. The Ladies in White should stop going to church on Sunday in Santa Rita, in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. If they really believe, pray at home.

One way or another. Reply with less Catholicism, more agnosticism and atheism. Or go to Baptist churches, Protestant, evangelical or any other where the dissidents are welcome. Or become followers of Spiritualism and Afro-Cuban religions, in the end they are more indigenous than the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquistadors, the same people who decimated the Indians. The best example of dignity and rebellion is found in Hatuey, the Domincan chief who moved to Cuba and preferred to die burned at the stake before accepting the imposition of a religion that had nothing to do with him.

We do not yet know the name, where he lives or what he does, the person who, during the Cuban Pope’s Mass in Santiago de Cuba, had the courage to shout Down with Communism. Apparently he is not a dissident, but it is a sign of the least expected, the anger that is inside people, can explode. When writing as a freelance journalist from Havana several times I said: the real dissent are not the public opponents, it is the thousands of Cubans who are silent for 53 years, holding it in, swallowing bitter mouthfuls. Until one day. There is no evil that lasts a hundred years, no body stand it.

Watered down, like everything of this German pope, was the request that the regime allow Good Friday as a holiday. But he doesn’t know that if the regime did that, on that day Cubans would go out with their bags into the street to try to find something to eat. And if they get a piece of pork they will eat, and if by some miracle they get a piece of beef steak they will eat well. Few Cubans on the island know the Catholic tradition, that on that day they should be abstinent and not eat meat, because it allegedly was the day Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, between two thieves. Those who eat fish or cod croquettes are the same Catholics as ever, like all Good Fridays they will go to their churches, to hear the Liturgy of the Passion. And if in 2012 the regime authorized street processions, they will also go.

I hope that once the Alitalia plane leaves heading to the Vatican, the authorities immediately release all the opponents arrested and the beggars, drunks and street vendors rounded up in Havana and Santiago so as not to make the city “look ugly.”. And let us not fail to be aware of that Cuban who shouted Down with Communism, because although the Vatican authorities have interceded for him, it is more likely they will judge and condemn him. (Tania Quintero).

Spanish post
March 29 2012

Not All Cubans Are Happy About the Visit of the Pope

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

From early in the morning, in the Havana municipality of 10 de Octobre, the elderly man Eladio seeks a few bucks calling out the routes of shared taxis bound for Vedado. According to the list of 178 occupations that can be exercised by the self-employed, this makes Eladio a ’Travel Manager’.

Cubans, allergic to the official jargon, call them “buquenques.” The word is not new to the Creole slang: Alejo Carpentier used it in his novel The Rite of Spring. There are legal and illegal buquenques.

Eladio is of the latter. He’s a poor devil who walks around dirty and smoking the cigarette butts thrown on the street. He is not usually aggressive and doesn’t harass passersby for alms. He earns some money as a buquenque. Enough to eat a lean and poorly developed diet put together in some a dilapidated State place.

Earlier this week, Eladio was picked up by a joint operation of the public health authorities and police, and driven to an unknown location. In this ’cleansing operation’ also loaded up with homeless beggars, the insane, hustlers and alcoholics spread like an arrow across the city.

The independent counsel Laritza Diversent is shocked at this particular raid. “They take advantage of any regulation to make the sweeps. Undoubtedly, they are violating the rights of individuals. They don’t do it for compassion. They just don’t want ugly scenes such as “dumpster divers” rooting through the garbage cans or spouting off with some crazy gibberish in the 24 hours that the Pope will be in Havana,” said Diversent, who runs a free legal advisory firm.

Near Red Square, in the neighborhood of the La Vibora, a drunk who often sells newspapers, magazines and old books, these days is no longer tending to his blanket in the doorway at the corner of Carmen and 10 de Octobre.

“I’m expecting the coming of the Pope. For us, the Cubans without resources, this priest has brought problems. For three days now I have been able to come up with the “scratch” to eat or have a drink, believe me it is not easy. If church and state were humanitarian, they should open kitchens for the needy and shelter where those of us with no homes can rest,” he says indignantly.

It is typical of the Cuban government to create an artificial environment for VIPs. From painting walls to repairing streets and planting trees where visitors will pass by, as in the Spanish film Welcome, Mr. Marshall.

This operation of image is a part of a much wider game. Within the dissent it’s said that the opponents considered most “recalcitrant,” those of the “barricades,” will be detained as long as the Pope remains in Cuba.

The government fears that dissident groups will shout slogans or deploy banners in the course of two Masses that the Pope will officiate on the island on March 26 in Santiago de Cuba and March 28 in Havana.

Another rumor circulating among the dissidence in recent days is that the opponents’ cell phone lines will be cut. But not only the dissidents will be affected by the interruption of wireless service.

It was also said that before his arrival until the return of the Pope to Rome, the cell phones of the phone company workers will also be interrupted. The alleged pretext is to not overload the lines. The engineers and managers of the only Cuban telecommunications company, ETECSA, have their phones recharged to a value of 120 and 300 convertible pesos monthly.

The atmosphere is much more tense and repressive than for the visit of John Paul II, January 21-25, 1998. Nor are there great expectations among the people, as happened with the Mass celebrated by Karol Wojtyla.

Although data released by the Vatican Information Service says that the 60.19% of the population is Catholic, the fact is that a majority of Cubans every day scratch their heads, and their pockets, to see how they can put two hot dishes of food on the table and prepare school meals for their children.

The regime has papered the city with the ruddy face of the German Pope, 86. If in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he was due to arrive on Friday 23, he wanted to talk about the violence and poverty that plagues the Aztec nation, his visit in Cuba has divided the opposition and exile. The Ladies in White and dissidence have requested a minute of his attention.

The Cuban Church’s response is that his agenda is very full. But there will always be room to chat with Fidel Castro. If, in politics the Pope’s visit has sparked controversy and social apathy, we add to that now the insane, beggars and people without papers to reside in Havana, who want the Pope to climb the steps of his plane as quickly as possible and fly toward the Vatican.

If there is anything the beggars and dissidents “of the barricade” agree on, it is that this papal visit has brought more harm than good.

Photo: AFP. Taken from El Universal of Caracas.

March 23 2012

The Opponents Sonia Garro and Roman Munoz Detained with Extreme Violence

March 24, 2012 Leave a comment

According to reports from neighbors and dissidents, the opponents and activists for racial equality, Sonia Garro Alfonso and Ramón Alejandro Muñoz González, on the evening of Wednesday 21 March, specialized forces of state security and special troops used rubber bullets to make an arrest at their home, located on Avenida 47 No. 11638 between 116 and 118, Marianao, west of Havana.

One of the rubber bullets hit the foot of Sonia Garro, who almost dragged from the upper part of her home. Sonia’s health is very delicate, she was waiting to be admitted to receive treatment for a kidney problem that is exacerbated by the blows that police have given her in the lower back.

The violence of the lightning operation can only be explained by the fear that the political police have for this marriage, who from 2011 have lived under perennial siege and repression. The harassment of them has been so brutal, that in May last year faced with a new arrest of his wife, Ramon, a tall and corpulent man, climbed to the roof of his half-built house and machete in hand and decided to ask for freedom and condemn the Castro brothers’ regime, protests that someone recorded it and posted on  You Tube.

This arrest is part of a major operation designed by the Department of State Security Department on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to the island to keep behind bars those considered to be the more militant opponents, including especially the Ladies in White and the women of the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement.

For days, a kind of ’cleansing operation’ was held in Havana by the police and public health authorities to remove from view the hundreds of beggars, fools, drunks, street vendors and those who search for food in garbage bins, among other marginal types who swarm the streets of the capital.

Photo: Sonia Garro her husband Ramón Muñoz, taken by Laritza Diversent

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March 24 2012

The Two Faces of Medicine in Cuba

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Dennis, 39, and his wife Elvira, 37, spent seven months trading off between sleeping on the floor and on a mat full of patches, next to the bed of their 10-year-old son, who was involved in a complex surgery at the Juan Manuel Marquez Pediatric Hospital , located in Marianao.

They have relatives in Havana, but their home is in Cardenas, Matanzas province, 140 kilometers from the capital, and for years, due to the precarious health of their only child, they have lived somewhere between the two cities.

The Marianao Pediatric hospital, freshly painted, seen from the outside does not look it, but it needs a careful building maintenance. The corridors leading to the neurosurgery room are completely dark.

The few air conditioners that still work leak water that floods the halls. When a child is admitted, families have to carry buckets, toiletries, televisions and food.

The hospital does not guarantee these supplies. Food intended for patients and those with them is a real hodgepodge. “The least bad is the medical staff, they are industrious and capable, but if you want to get good care, you bring gifts and snacks to every consultation,” says Dennis.

Also scarce are the latest drugs. The doctors in Cuba usually have two types of treatment, depending on the patient’s pocket.

If you’re short of money and have no relatives outside, you are prescribed drugs sold in pharmacies in the national network, usually of low quality.

If you tell them you have relatives across the pond, in the United States or other countries, the doctor offers a wide range of advanced drugs. The Cuban doctors have Internet and are quite well-informed.

Alternatively, if you receive remittances from friends or family abroad, or have access to foreign exchange, you can purchase in hard currency, in any of the dozen scattered International Pharmacies in Havana. They sell a wide range of drugs produced in the capitalist laboratories capitalists.

If the Marianao Pediatric urgently needs a hand, what about the other centers in Havana. When you visit dilapidated hospitals like the Miguel Enriquez in Luyano, or the ancient Dependientes, on 10 de October Street, you will miss the tiresome governmental discourse that tells us that Cuban public health is one of the best on the planet.

Also needing a standing 8 count are several rooms of the Calixto Garcia or Emergency, on Avenue Charles III. The floors and bathrooms with no sanitation, peeling walls, leaking roofs, rude manners of a segment of the nursing staff, shortage of surgical instruments and little professionalism in some physicians, have resulted in health care in Cuba that is currently in free fall.

When an ordinary citizen should be hospitalized or receive extensive treatment, cross your fingers. Many brilliant specialists are serving abroad.

And those left to fill those positions, are overworked. Add to that a doctor on the island, on average earns a monthly salary equivalent to $30, breakfast coffee without milk and they sometimes have to spend two hours in a crowded stop to board the buses that take them to the hospital or clinic, then the best option is to not get sick.

Norge, 28, with chronic asthma, wants to be well treated and so he became friends with the doctors and nurses treating him. “Whether I’m seeing them or not, I visit them and give them gifts. Once, I gave each a leg of mutton.”

If most of Havana’s clinics and hospitals are crying for maintenance, you can not say the same of Hermanos Ameijeiras Clinical-Curgical in Central Havana, within walking distance of the Malecon.

This hospital is in good technical condition and a simple look around notes the hygiene. One reason may be that is one of the flagship institutions of public health in Cuba, in addition to having several floors devoted to the care of foreign patients.

But if you want to see clinics like those you see in the U.S. TV shows transmitted on national television, look at the Cira Garcia Central Clinic or the Center for Medical-Surgical Research — the famous CIMEQ — both located in Playa municipality.

You will first see rooms that are conspicuous by their cleanliness, a quality balanced diet, a fleet of well equipped ambulances, security guards and top-flight doctors. All to be paid for in dollars, euros or pesos convertibles.

The ministers and generals are entitled to be treated at these clinics. Or foreign leaders like Hugo Chavez, operated on three times at CIMEQ, to stop the cancer he suffers.

For them, Cuban health care is a real gem. Dennis and Elvira, who have spent seven months sleeping on the floor of a pediatric hospital, think otherwise.

Photo: Room with two beds and two armchairs in CIMEQ for the patient and his companion.

March 22 2012

Cuba Will Receive the Pope with a “Bath of Masses”

March 19, 2012 2 comments

It’s something exclusive to the olive-green revolution. Fifty-three years ago, when Fidel Castro toured the island mounted on a Sherman tank, after overthrowing the Batista dictatorship, he was feted frankly and spontaneously by a sea of Cubans and he felt comfortable surrounded by crowds.

Since that times, the baths of the masses were a weapon of his revolution. Five decades ago, large segments of people voluntarily attended the meetings and listened to long speeches of the one comandante.

Over time, that spontaneity is lost. Now in the 21st century, most people go to political rallies or the hosting of personalities as if they were going to a carnival. Or to a boring union meeting.

It is a mixture of conditioned reflex and fear. Remember that for years, answering the calls of the Revolution had an effect on your quality of life and career. If you were not very Revolutionary and often didn’t attend such concentrations, then forget about winning a Russian Krim 218 black-and-white TV, a Minsk refrigerator, a Lada 2105 car, and even an apartment in Alamar.

When filling out forms to get an important job, in addition to writing a detailed biography where you should highlight your loyalty to the regime, you had to recount the marches you had attended.

In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed. And between the exhaustion of power and the disgust of the citizenry for a chaotic administration and an economy unable to make toothpicks, people just grumbled at the partying revolutionaries.

Fidel Castro abused those baths of the masses. Up to ten or twelve a year in Havana or in the capitals of provinces. Whether it was the first of May, to receive the remains of Che Guevara or demand the return of Elián González.

Those days they paralyzed the country. Public transport stopped working after midnight and the workers and employees were paid their full wages. They also suspended classes at all levels of education.

Many workers and students loved the marching soldiers. They could slip out of the crowd and go home to take a nap.

There are no statistics collected of many engagements and marriages were forged in those proletarian festivities. Amid shouts and chants, men made towers of rum or brandy bottles that came in plastic. Or homemade wine. Or 90 proof alcohol with water. Anything to change the body to endure hours of standing in the terrifying sun.

Since hand-picked General Raul Castro took the throne, July 31, 2006, public events decreased quantitatively. Castro II knows the millions of pesos wasted in all these concentrations convened by his brother. Mobilizations, the minimum. The key dates. The first of May or the July 26, dates of the autocracy that have become a tradition.

If the country is visited by a distinguished personage, he entertains them with a bath of the masses. So the organizing committee responsible for giving a monumental welcome Pope Benedict XVI is oiling the machinery.

Schools and workplaces are ready to welcome the pope when he arrives in Havana, after canonizing the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba. Rene, and phone company engineer, says the union and the core of the party within the company are calling on workers. Some allege personal problems for not attending, others say they hold a religious doctrine contrary to that preached by Benedict XVI.

“Although most people think they’ll go. Some out of faith. Others because they believe that this visit may mark a before and after. Of course, many of us who go to welcome the Pope in the capital, will subtly desert and go home to watch it on television,” he says.

The papal visit has aroused wide register of opinions in Cuba: indifference and applause, reviews and dislikes in a sector of the opposition and Afro-Cuban religions, because the Holy Father is scheduled to meet with them.

Whether Benedict XVI’s visit will make history, as his predecessor John Paul II’s did, remains to be seen. But you can be assured that this Vicar of Christ will be treated to a bath of masses. And sound. As only  a regime that has made the public acts a registered trademark knows how.

From his Popemobile and in the two masses he will officiate in Cuba, the Pope will see hundreds of thousands people. While on the island only 10% of the population practices Catholicism. One detail that the German pope should not overlook.

Photo: Reuters. Preparations in the Revolution Square in Havana, where Benedict XVI will give a Mass on Wednesday 28 March. Taken from Martí News. The Pope will arrive on Monday March 26 in Santiago de Cuba and say Mass in the Antonio Maceo Square in that city. The next day, Tuesday 27, he will visit to the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in the Sanctuary.

March 18 2012

Hugo Chavez: Fidel Castro’s Bet

March 5, 2012 2 comments

Some might think that luck came to the aid of a beleaguered Fidel Castro, when back in 1998, the island economy was going down with an industry crippled by lack of oil, exports were in the toilet, finances in the red, international debt swelling, and expenditures of billions of dollars to feed 11 million Cubans badly.

The only commander was crossing the desert. Four years earlier, in August 1994, a mob rioted on the Havana Malecon, demanding open borders and the ability to flee on rafts bound for Florida.

The continuous defections of professionals, athletes and intellectuals were no longer news. Education and Public Health, two of the vaunted achievements of the revolution, plummeted.

In Cuba in the late 20th century almost nothing worked. Except repression. Blackouts. People ate poorly. And their ramshackle houses clamored for urgent repairs. Between cyclones and low productivity, Cubans took refuge in sex and cheap rum. The future, when planned, was to flee. Wherever you could.

With empty bellies and penniless pockets, many people refuted the anti-Yankee discourse of Fidel Castro, who for hours and for any reason, planted his tent and mobilized the nation to go to  war for his “battle of ideas” .

Just when they painted the worst predictions for the continuity of the Cuban Revolution Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias came to power in Venezuela.

A stroke of good luck. In his eventful life, Castro has had good fortune. From not being lynched by Batista’s soldiers after robbing a barracks in Santiago de Cuba, serving only 22 months of a sentence of 15 years in prison on the Isle of Pines, freed by a general amnesty, until, dying of thirst and hunger and with only three old rifles to hunt doves, he and his group of 7 men undertook their guerrilla struggle.

Perhaps the emergence of Chavez was not only the product of good luck. Someday, when the state archives and political police files are opened, it will be known in detail the role played by Cuban intelligence in the political formation of Hugo Chavez.

The former lieutenant of skydiving was followed very closely by the spies of the Communist Party Central Committee’s American Department, who promptly sent his dispatches to the bureau’s first secretary. It was no coincidence that after the misguided attempt at a coup d’etat, on February 4, 1992, Cuban special services gave a special following to the reckless soldier from Barinas.

Maybe the game started earlier. But nobody can deny that after nearly two years in prison (he was released on March 26, 1994, case dismissed), the only place Hugo Chavez was greeted with a red carpet was in Havana. With several moves in advance, Castro completed the profile of the Venezuelan and opened the doors of the Great Hall of the University of Havana to the unknown coup leader to give a lecture.

By stages, Castro and Chavez planned the future moves of their pieces. From the formation of his Bolivarian party, until his election victory in 1998, the hand of Fidel Castro was behind him.

Venezuela had all the conditions created for an exalted populist, charismatic and talkative, to come to power through the vote. Rampant corruption and misrule of the traditional parties, while poverty and crime grew steadily in dark lands.

This cultivated cauldron was conducive to Chavez’z entry by the back door. Then he formed a Latin American entente of the carnivorous left with Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega. But Castro had his eyes on his Venezuelan disciple.

He had petrodollars by the bushel. He could revive plans shelved by revolutionaries on the continent. But first he had rescue the first-born, the Cuban revolution, tired, ragged and out of steam. Thanks to Venezuelan oil the extensive blackouts in Cuba diminished. And with the dollars of the Cuban doctors, engineers and other professionals who work in Venezuela, Castro received fresh tickets.

Behind the alliances and polarized discourse and anti-gringo attitudes of Chavez is Fidel Castro. If ALBA or another economic association hasn’t worked, it is because it is cursed by the inability of these autocratic systems to generate wealth.

Either way, the generous South American Santa Claus opened the checkbook and Cuban ruling class underpinned the power while the military corporations had liquidity.

From 2005 to date, Cuba has received more than 28 billion dollars in aid from the government of Chávez. The money has not caused a dramatic rise in the quality of life of Cubans. Not at all.

That money has gone to secret investments in telecommunications, tourism and modernization of the repressive forces. Therefore, Hugo Chavez’s unexpected cancer had thrown the government of the island for a loop.

If Chavez dies before the election of October 7, or loses power, the Cuban mandarins will be sunk. Not to mention they will have no money to buy oil, as new marine surveys from Scarabeo 9 show it may take three years to locate commercial wells.

To this, we add the logical exhaustion after 53 years of uninterrupted power. A fourth world infrastructure and a meager agriculture has not been able to bring root vegetables, beans and vegetables to the table of the Cubans. The cattle have been disappearing by the clandestine sharp knives of the butchers and hardly produce milk.

The situation is aggravated by the dissent that has become more rebellious and moved into the street.

If we return to another ’special period’, we already know what it means, a war without the roar of mortars, the dead calm of an exhausted population. That’s why Hugo Chavez has a cardinal importance: with him, the Castros entrenched their revolutionary dynasty.

The brothers from Biran have made their bet. One well calculated over the long-term. You can’t say it was a bad move. Although according to the news these days, they may have backed a losing horse.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Fidel Castro received Hugo Chavez on the tarmac on Havana in his first visit to Cuba on December 13, 1994.

Margin notes. – I do not know how or when Fidel Castro knew that in Venezuela he had a mulatto soldier called Hugo Chavez, born in 1954. But what is clear is that theirs was a political crush. They have cultivated their relationship as a well run marriage, and they do not forget to remember the date they met.

To mark 10 years from their first meeting on December 14, 2004, Castro presented Chavez with the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Order, in a ceremony at the Karl Marx Theater, where he delivered a fiery speech. In 2009, 15 years of faithful friendship were remembered with a card. The last celebration, of 17 years since the Castro-Chavez first meeting took place on December 14, 2011 at the Simon Bolivar House, Old Havana, and consisted of an exhibition of 41 photos donated by the State Council of Cuba.

One evening in December 1999 at the Havana movie theater, the Alameda, I saw the Venezuelan tape of the dawn of the coup, one of many Latin American films shown during the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, held that year in Havana. Directed by Carlos Azpurua and Jose Ignacio Cabrujas script, the film interweaves stories, I do not know whether real or fictitious, which occurred the night of February 4, 1992, when Hugo Chavez led a coup to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez.

In 1997 or ‘98, during his first presidential campaign, Chavez traveled to Europe and one night I heard the interview he gave to the BBC Latin American Service and I could understand what a populist that Venezuelan was. (Tania Quintero).

March 4 2012

Havana and its Small Businesses

March 4, 2012 Leave a comment

After 6 in the evening, Carlos, 48, looks distractedly at his fold Seiko, and takes a swig from a large Corona beer. He’s dressed in light blue vented Bermudas, Nike shoes that cost $120, and a shirt with the face of Messi, the Argentine star of the Barcelona football team. Right now, from his iPhone, he’s bargain shopping for a Willy jeep made in the USA in the ’50s.

Daily, Carlos meets at a downtown cafe near the Paseo del Prado, with the five contract drivers who work for him. He waits there  for each driver of the 3 jeeps to give him 1,000 pesos (40 dollars) and 550 per capita for the two drivers who drive “almendrones,” — the old American cars — faded, but strong as tanks, and while he waits he drinks half a dozen beers with Gouda cheese cubes.

In one day, Charles took home 4,200 pesos (170 dollars). The five drivers who work for him usually earn between 400 and 1,000 pesos a day, a wage unimaginable for a state employee. Although it is true that their work shifts sometimes exceed twelve hours.

Carlos doesn’t spend all the money he earns he earns on beers or nights with expensive whores. “I have to invest in tires, fuel and spare parts. Also pay the mechanic that maintains my cars,” he says.

Like Carlos, there is a growing legion of successful small entrepreneurs. The most profitable sectors are transportation, paladares (private restaurants), and trading in agricultural products.

In Havana there are not only newly minted entrepreneurs who own a fleet of 5 or 6 cars. In the services there are other types, people who run several rental houses, a couple of cafes, or own a dozen trucks in any corner of the city where prices are going through the roof, offering fruits, vegetables, beans and even apples.

After October 2010, when General Raul Castro kick started new forms of self-employment, and the army of his state inspectors got a little more flexible, a number of Cubans who kept their money under the mattress were ready to invest that money in businesses that offer good short-term benefits.

Not without a certain trepidation. Anyone who has lived in Cuba knows how the regime goes. At times, when the economic situation is extreme, they let out the line for private initiatives. But if they see that the boat is no longer taking on water, they make up a lot of regulations and send people behind bars for their little initiatives.

Now, Castro II has promised to respect certain rules as long as people can demonstrate that their money is from legal sources and they pay their taxes on time.

People like Rene, 60, who all their lives they have scrounged to find money on the black market, initially had misgivings. He is one of the old foxes can be found in the underground world of business.

“When the artisans began in the Cathedral Square, there I was. In the ‘80s, I also sought money in agricultural markets. I’ve been in jail twice on charges of illicit enrichment. So I do not trust them. It’s like a chess game. I have to have an exit strategy in case of danger,” said Rene, owner of two retail clothing stands and eight fruit and vegetable trucks.

Rene takes in just over 150 dollars a day. After a cup of strong coffee at home, starting at 4 am, on one side of the Joseph A. Echevarria City University (CUJAE), in the Rancho Boyeros municipality, he awaits the arrival of trucks packed with agricultural products, to buy in bulk and cheaply.

Others like Yosniel, 36, one day asked his relatives on the other side of the pond for a loan, and he got $4,000. And with the money he set up a home repair business. It has a crew of masons and plumbers. “The thing was doing well for me. I even get construction materials at bargain prices then resell to people who need to repair their homes,” he says.

Among these new native entrepreneurs, a particular interpretation of the regulations of self-employment predominates. They think the State does not allow control of those businesses — whether one or several — that encourage a lot of money in the hands of one person or family.

But Havanans like David, owner of two auto repair shops, manages in his own way. He is used to finding money under the pressure from a government that sees a threat in the entrepreneurial types.” We’ve been playing cat and mouse for 53 years, we try not to be the hunted,” says David with a broad smile.

Rightly, the regime feels that if their retailers do not offer raw materials, they can assume that they go out through the back doors of the state workshops.

But we all know in Havana, including the government, that behind this growing mass of vehicles that came out of the workshops of Detroit six decades ago, there are a handful of ingenious mechanics and body guys who keep the fleet of 6,000 ’almendrones’ rolling in the capital.

And the question of how far a State with a grudge will go in allowing those given to individualism and the good life to make money, is something that is always latent in these post-Fidel businessmen.

“That depends on the General. If our businesses don’t affect the wallets of the military corporation, I think they’ll leave us alone. But otherwise, they’ll give a turn of the screw to certain regulations to suffocate us,” says Carlos, the flamboyant entrepreneur, who owns five cars. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Photo: ZX-GR, Flickr. Entrance to Chinatown of Havana, where you can see the rise of private entrepreneurs.

February 11 2012

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