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Cuba, the Diaspora and the "Revolutionary Worms"

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

When Norberto (alias) defected from a sports tournament in Canada, the Cuban authorities, as usual, tried to erase him from the collective memory of fans who deliriously cheered his spectacular shots at the basket.

No journalist dared to write his name. Nor tell of his athletic feats. When they tell the history of national basketball, they intentionally mutilate the moments of glory that Norberto gave the sport.

Much later, when he was over 40, Norberto arrived in Havana laden with bags and gifts for family and friends. It wasn’t the first time he’d come.

On one of those trips he “made holy” in the Santeria religion. And on hot Havana nights he sits with a group of friends drinking rum as they talk about sports, women and, of course, the current situation. Although Norberto opposes the form of government of Raul Castro, he is wary of giving political opinions. “You know, my friend, I have my mother here and part of my family,” he justifies himself.

Norberto’s real fear is that the government will check its blacklist and, for desertion from an ’official mission’, he will be denied entry to the country and can not walk the streets of the city and share with his childhood friends.

Other Cubans in exile behave as Norberto does. To hate all the time is not healthy. But to forget the indignities suffered is not advisable. It is synonymous with cowardice, this justification used by some Cubans who annually visit the island and declare themselves ’apolitical’, assuring us that they have no interest in politics.

The country belongs to everyone. Therefore, the authorities do not grant any favors by giving you a visa to visit your country for a couple of weeks. You shouldn’t have to ask for what is a natural right.

The immigration issue is a subject suspended by the Castro brothers. Don’t forget that for a long time the regime hated Cubans who preferred to live in other latitudes, far from the tiresome Revolutionary campaigns.

Remember Camarioca in 1963. Or Mariel in 1980. Shameful chapters of the Revolution, when to show support for their ideas, they verbally lynched people with disgusting words, not to mention volleys of stones and eggs and the label of ’scum’ imposed by an offended Fidel Castro on the thousands of compatriots who decided to leave.

In the immigration offices they would put the initials SOB in their records. It’s hard to think that those same mandarins who detested those who abandoned ship, now have made an examination of conscience and revised their energetic speech, full of resentment toward Cuban migrants.

If Fidel Castro, 34 years ago, gave way to the council and family reunification with that Dialogue 1978, it was mainly for economic reasons. Almost two billion dollars in cash and thousands in little items and phone calls, is not negligible for an economy that has spent decades treading water.

But, like every autocracy, the authorities claim the right to decide which Cubans living abroad can enter the island. They do not care who oppose the system, as long as they do so quietly and anonymously.

It is estimated between 30,000 and 70,000 Cubans are on a blacklist. They are those who openly and publicly criticize the regime from the nations where they live. Dissidents, intellectuals and journalists who have written texts that expose the innards of an almost scientific repression and who  opening express dissenting opinions.

The government classifies the ’worms’ (disaffected) in three categories. The good and meek, who generously spend thousands of dollars on their families. And only at home with their relatives, do they quietly criticize the state of affairs. Those do not bother them. After all, in Cuba, a silent majority speaks evil of the Castros.

Then come the most precious. The “Revolutionary worms” living in the United States, They are very useful to Castro propaganda. For from the heart of the ’empire’ they support the regime’s policies, go to rallies in support of the five spies and even have breakfast or dinner with representatives of the government when they come to visit Cuba.

Many of these ’worms’ in olive green will participate in the First National Meeting of Cuban Residents in United States of America, scheduled to be held this coming April 28 in Havana. Among these may be the occasional dissenter, but in essence, they are in favor of ending the embargo, approving the update of the economic model and calling for the freedom of the spies imprisoned in the U.S..

The third group of ’worms’ is marked with iron and fire by the official spokesmen. They are the ’counterrevolutionaries’, labeled as ’Miami Mafia’ or ’CIA’, among which are web managers and bloggers on Cuban issues who wield their pen like a whip. Those can never return. And they can’t even dream of being buried in the land of their birth.

It is time that the Cuban diaspora oppose the categories created by the regime to divide the migration. It’s lawful that Cubans living in other nations have their own opinions, even pro-Castro. But it is reprehensible that they separate out those who peacefully oppose them.

As long as only the “Revolutionary worms” (the “respectful” as the organizers of this meeting call them), can discuss certain topics — and not the hottest — the meetings in Havana will be a joke. When we want to talk seriously about Cuban emigration, we must have all two million compatriots living abroad. Whatever they think.

April 21 2012

Havana and Its Spring With Scarcities and Rumors

April 14, 2012 2 comments

The flowers of the flamboyant on Havana’s Santa Catalina Avenue already began to change color. Majestic, shedding its flowers of yellow, orange and red forming a carpet on the sidewalks.

People do not stop to see the wonderful spectacle of nature. They are not into that. They walk with their heads down crates and bags in search of their daily food.

They bend to the task, the daily putting of two meals on the table. It is true that spring makes Havana good looking. The bright sun and cloudless sky hides as it can, the spoilage, filth and ugliness of a city that refuses, despite government apathy, to lose its charm, a city flirty and different.

Indeed, while the spring season is upon us. There was barely winter here in 2012. A few days cool and pleasant, no need to take out the old coats and able to share the evening with friends and compadres.

But for most in the capital it’s not about drinking a pitcher of beer in a bar in Santa Catalina and watching the festival of flowers and colors. Or sitting on the wall of the pier to watch the sunset. Even lovers of poetry.

That is, the thing is hot. Right now, the pork, the perennial highlight for a large segment of Cubans, is disappearing in combat and prices are skyrocketing.

In the Diez de Octobre and Santa Catalina market, for a pound of pork steak, thin, almost transparent, you must pay 40 pesos. For the shoulder 35, the same as the spine. Loaded with fat and bones, you have to watch the butchers, they will cheat you shamelessly on the weight. And hurry to buy, because at noon the stands are empty.

In the state markets the prices are cheaper. But for a couple of months due to shortages, the employees kill time playing cards or drinking poor quality rum.

Where are the pigs? Cubans are asking. According to official news, the downturn has been brutal. From 11,000 tons in December 2011 to 4,000 in January and February 2012.

Some 70% less. And to argue the reasons for the shortage they hide behind a bunch of excuses, from bad workers, higher feed prices in the international market, to the Yankee embargo that, as always, is to blame for the bare shelves.

No wonder the news and newspapers on the island are classified as science-fiction genre. Many buy the newspapers to wrap their trash or to use as a substitute for toilet paper. In the best case, to see the baseball results or take a look at the TV schedule.

Ordinary people are suffering the absence and higher prices for pork. Even smoked meats like ham or the loin are also scarce.

The pig has become the main meal for the Cuban family. In any variation: fried, broiled, fricassee with rice, tamales, chili sauce … also their entrails, feet, head and, of course, the skin.

Along with chicken, the protein is often the most handy for Cubans. Beef is a real treat. A pound cost 2.50 convertible pesos, when available in the underground market.

Good quality fish is in the sea or in the refrigerators of the mandarins. And there are not many pockets that can pay the excessive prices. Remember that on average Cuban earns a salary of $20 per month.

Therefore, companies and construction sites are an embryonic black market. In Cuba, whoever doesn’t “invent” (steal) in their job, it is because they receive remittances, he is an idealist or a fool.

Increasingly, many Havana families find it difficult to put a decent meal on the table. Ask Reinaldo, 37, a school teacher, the days are rare when he can fix rice, tomatoes and a piece of pork or chicken thighs.

“I do not receive even a dollar in remittances. I have to find a way to get money. From burning bootleg CDs to selling to my students tests, 5 convertible pesos each. The money is lost,” says the professor.

This lack of money has led to rumors that the “chavito” (the convertible peso or CUC), could fall from 24 to 16 Cuban pesos for one. “That is what people are saying, but no precise date is known,” says the cashier of a CADECA (official exchange house).

The issue of food is a national headache. It takes about 90% of the money that a family receives. And so everyone may not always eat decently.

And it is not only pork where the prices are scandalous. A pound of tomatoes costs between 6 and 7 pesos a pound. In the Sevillano neighborhood, a street vendor sells lemons for 20 pesos a pound. And in the neighborhood they grab them because the lemons are also gone.

“It’s crazy,” says Josefa a retiree receives 193 pesos a month. For people like her, the sight of Santa Catalina flamboyant dropping its flowers in the road means nothing.

His concern is getting food. And this spring, that is a problem.

 Photo taken from “Cuba Out”

April 11 2012

Carlos Saladrigas and the Two Cubas

April 4, 2012 1 comment

Right now there are two Cubas. The visible, of official gridlock, popular disenchantment, and an unknown future. And that in which what happens in the few spaces in which the regime allows bare-chested debate, and where those who think differently aren’t called “mercenaries”, nor are they accused of being agents of the United States.

It looks like gibberish. While a Cuban who yells “democracy and freedom” in the public way is crushed with billy clubs and karate chops dispensed by intelligence experts in street fights, slowly and behind closed doors, liberal thought gains ground, respectful and tolerant.

One of these pockets of democratic debate is located in the old San Carlos seminary, in the old section of Havana. There, on March 30th, the magazine “Lay Space”, a publication of the Catholic Church, organized a conference there with the Cuban-American entrepreneur Carlos Saladrigas. Its title: Cuba and the Exodus.

Access was free. In the packed room close to 200 people gathered. You could see alternative bloggers like Yoani Sánchez or Miriam Celaya. Independent journalists a la Reinaldo Escobar and Miriam Leiva; economists marginalized by the State such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe; activists for racial integration such as Juan Antonio Madrazo and Leonardo Calvo, and a new generation of dissidents, like Eliécer Ávila or Antonio Rodiles.

Also in the discussion were distinguished neocommunists such as Félix Sautié or Pedro Campos; the moderate politician Esteban Morales; the anti-State priest José Conrado and His Worship Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, an authentic man whom nothing deters.

The majority of the democratic dissidence on the Island approves of these grounds for civilized debate. It’s the society on which they bet.

At 4 o’clock sharp in the afternoon in the central hallway of the Félix Varela Salon, Carlos Saladrigas made his way. He wore a white long sleeve guayabera, a trimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses.

After greeting the audience, he took out his Apple tablet and began his presentation. It wasn’t extensive. In little more than 30 minutes he drew with a broad brush his impressions on Cuban exile.

Saladrigas knows what it is to be dispossessed. Son of a political family during the republican era, he inherited from his father the genes of a pure and tough negotiator. His story is the vision we have of the United States. The solitary boy who arrived in an operation frocked by the Catholic Church, known as Peter Pan, and when his family could travel, he had to wash dishes and pick tomatoes in South Florida, as Saladrigas himself tells it. Then he became a successful businessman, with an estate valued at several million dollars.

Between that Saladrigas — who cried inconsolably and prayed in the last row of wooden pews at a small parish church in Miami in the 60s, and this one — seated with his immaculate guayabera in a debate arena in the Cuban capital, there is a 180-degree turn.

At one stage, he asked for the head of Fidel Castro on a tray; it was the shot at a target for all he’d lost. He had to live transplanted in Miami, while he felt the lullaby of la Habanera Tu or La Bayamesa in the distance.

After having been a conservative who disavowed all dialog with the olive green autocrats, and opposing a crossing loaded with Catholics to the other shore, he would travel to Cuba in 1998, during the visit of John Paul II, Saladrigas moved his political positions from the ultra-right to the center, perhaps leaning a little towards the left.

The ’why’ of his transformation is something that isn’t clear. If we were to take at face value his public statements, we would have to come to the conclusion that his Catholic faith put to the missile test was one of the causes of his political transplantation. There are those who allege other reasons.

In his rear-view mirror, Carlos Saladrigas observes how the pages of the almanac turn inexorably and the Cuban economy springs leaks everywhere. Castro II is betting heartlessly on State capitalism. And a virgin island opens its legs to, in the near future, receive the dance of the millions. Perhaps he doesn’t want to arrive late for the cutting of the cake.

At least so thinks a sector of exiles and dissidence on the Island. You can’t be naive. Something is cooking in the sewers of power. In that very salon, some months ago, a firm Fidelista like Alfredo Guevara responded to questions from “sellout mercenaries” such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe, ordered to be imprisoned in the spring of 2003 by his friend Fidel.

Through the San Carlos seminary have also passed some suspicious types, like Arturo López-Levy, graduate from a US university, and professor in Denver, cousin of Luis Alberto López Callejas, son-in-law of General Raúl Castro and the best picker of hard cash in Cuba.

The dissertation of Carlos Saladrigas was nothing to write home about. Old news. What every Cuban knows, because he has at least one relative in exile. The key wasn’t the bland, politically correct chat. No. It was the message that the round trip which sent Saladrigas into dissidence and exile has for the future of Cuba: reforms are underway and he wants to be one of the agents of change.

After his presentation, Saladrigas responded to a battery of questions. He ran several analyses from which we can learn that the Cuban-American impresario is not playing a sterile game, and is well-connected and informed, more than one might imagine.

He assured us that within 5 years, Cuba’s situation will unfailingly change. And, of course, ’no’ to more socialism, contrary to what was said recently in a press conference given by the economy czar, Marino Murillo, when he said that no political reforms would take place.

With serenity and self-assurance, Saladrigas drew a dream future of an inclusive, tolerant, and rich Cuba. To achieve it, he said, the country will rely on its enviable human capital. The astute businessman winked at the regime in affirming that the best merit of the Castro brothers was having known how to administer poverty.

“There are nations that can generate riches, but do not know how to administer poverty”, he noted. With the intent of stimulating those disaffected who are waiting for the slightest opportunity to flee Cuba, he said “if you were 25 years old, you wouldn’t get out of the country before me”.

Carlos Saladrigas sees it all very clearly. Too clearly. I noticed that he did not question the hundreds of detentions of dissidents for the visit of the German Pope, or the spontaneous blow to someone who shouted “Down with communism” in the Plaza Antonio Maceo in Santiago de Cuba. Nobody else asked, either.

And it is these open spaces for the Catholic Church that generate a certain mistrust and some, not meaning all, attend to see and hear, not to investigate. It’s the lack of custom after five decades of listening to only one discourse. And many still don’t believe it.

Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo. Carlos Saladrigas makes his way to the dais to give his presentation, after having greeted the independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, standing, in a black shirt.

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Translated by: JT

April 1 2012

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