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Fleeing from Wise Monkeys

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I am not given to interviews. Nor do I like them. Ninety percent of the time I turn down requests for them. A journalist’s role is to question, investigate, analyze and write. What I like about print journalism is the anonymity. Information, news, reporting or chronicling are what matter. Not the author.

I am caught between two currents. Government media outlets have accused me of being “counterrevolutionary.” Just like that, nothing more. I have never visited the United States Interest Section in Havana and I do not connect to the internet at an embassy. I swear it is not because of some neurosis. It is that I am disgusted by diplomats’ tendency towards flattery.

I pay 15 CUC out of my own pocket for two hours of time and once a week I go online from a Havana hotel. My first priority is to send my dispatches and, if time permits, I read online journals in Spanish and copy some texts, usually sports stories and world news.

The internet connection in Cuba is slow and the minutes remaining do not leave enough time to read emails or to visit Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin.

I would like to be able to read more blogs by renowned journalists from major media outlets directly, but I have to make do with links my mother sends to my email address. Once a week I copy them on USB’s, and later calmly open and read the articles on my laptop at home.

A news story captures the reality of the person writing it. No matter how much one may try to be balanced and objective, the article always somewhat reflects the journalist’s views.

I flee from wise monkeys, those whose egos are so big they often keep two beds in their rooms — one for themselves and one for their egos. No blog can completely capture the complex Cuban experience.

There are hookers, male prostitutes and gays disgusted by the economic inefficiency of the government. There are also people who believe in socialism and are confident that Raúl Castro’s reforms will work. Whatever beliefs one has, they should not be an impediment to dialog and the possibility of building bridges.

I like to write about losers. Or winners who are about to become losers. We are all Cubans. We do not all have to think the same way, nor should we. That would be very boring. When the government understands that it cannot govern only for the benefit its supporters, it will grow strong.

Some accuse me of being very critical of the dissidents. Once I described them as “banana dissidents,” which made me a countless number of “enemies.” They did not shoot me because they couldn’t. Instead they chose to accuse me of being a “security agent” and other such nonsense. For its part the government writes me off as a “mercenary.” This is the price one pays for having one’s own standards. I am a bothersome journalist.

But I do not see why people who think differently cannot have a civil discussion. We must stop gritting our teeth and clenching our fists and learn how to accept our differences. It is very easy to accuse and defame. It would be healthy to erase all these human miseries and distrusting attitudes.

The future of Cuba will be decided in ten years time. Perhaps less. All Cubans, whatever our beliefs, should put forth our best efforts to change and improve society. When we learn to say “I do not agree with you” instead of the more typical “you are mistaken,” we will grow as a nation.

Photo: Wooden sculpture of the three wise monkeys by Hidari Jingoro (1594-1634) at the Toshogu shrine, Nikko, Japan

September 26 2012

In Havana A Debate on Democracy

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The narrow streets of old Havana are a blazing market. Past two in the afternoon, the sun doesn’t let up on the sellers of cheap goods, prostitutes in their element and old musicians looking for a few convertible pesos entertaining some chubby Norwegians at lunch.

It is a passageway of scoundrels and survivors. On Obispo Steet a line of hurried pedestrians make their way towards the cathedral. They come and go. Some of them look at the displays, pick up the merchandise to examine it and, after seeing the astronomical prices, put it back on the shelf.

A heavy-set mulatto man pants while pedalling his bicycle taxi among trash cans, people walking purposefully through the streets and badly parked trucks. He complains to himself about the heat, about having to haul two passengers who weigh more that 200 kilos and — though he does say it outright — about the rules that forbid him from operating in many of the streets in the old section of the city.

Upon arrival at the former San Carlos Seminary he looks like he’s going to have a heart attack. When he learns that in this building a handful of intellectuals of various ideological tendencies will discuss the future and democracy in Cuba, he turns serious. “I’m a neighbor of the place. I’ve never read in the newspaper that they were talking about democracy in San Carlos,” he says. These are the contradictions of the island.

The national press has not dedicated a single line to these meetings, which take place in the former seminary, now the Félix Varela Cultural Center. The gatherings are sponsored by the Catholic church, without participation from government officials, but also without harassment by the special services or verbal assaults from the system’s loyal piqueteros, who either insult you or angrily call for a massacre with machetes.

It’s one Cuba superimposed on another. The stick and the dialog. Many wonder if in the end these debates have any practical utility. Or are mere trial balloons, where the government makes a note of the liberal thinking of some of the intellectuals in its close orbit.

In any event, the management by the Archbishopric and the magazine Lay is laudable, in the preparation and discussion of papers on the Cuba that is upon on. At the meeting on Monday, September 10, participants were given a publication that collects some essays and analysis about the future of Cuba “By a consensus for democracy.”

It was a spicy mixture. Liberals, neo-communists and exiles like Jorge Domínguez explained their points of view. For anyone betting on democracy in Cuba, these exchanges of opinion are like a fiesta.

The tone of the debate was respectful and without defamatory remarks. The terms “mercenary” and “imperial lackeys” were set aside. There were notable absences, though. The entrepreneur Carlos Saladrigas – a man with a somewhat extravagant political trajectory, which has veered from the conservative right to the center and then perhaps towards the left – did not attend for reasons unknown.

Those who have been historically opposed, such as Vladimiro Roca, Elizardo Sánchez and Martha Beatriz Roque, do not often attend these meetings, which are open to all. The new breed of dissidents, among them Antonio Rodiles or Eliécer Ávila, remained silent this time.

Among the more than 170 people congregated in the room, there were only three independent journalists and two alternative bloggers. The opposition should take better advantage of the opportunities for civilized debate.

The first presentation was by a panel was made up of the former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, Mayra Espina and Hiram Hermández, who discussed some of the issued raised in Espacio Laical.

After the awards presentation for the Casa Cuba competition, in which Armando Chaguaceda, Félix Sautié and Pedro Campos received honorable mentions, came the good part.

There was a dialog between the attendees and five academics of varying political beliefs and representatives from the church. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Dimitri Prieto, Roberto Veiga, Julio César Guanche and Mario Castillo responded to questions from the auditorium.

The climate of tolerance in the old cloister left a good impression in spite of the fact that a few meters away an obese and speechless bicycle taxi driver was confusing freedom with three plates of food.

It would be very presumptuous to think that these meetings would lead to the establishment of an inclusive, open and democratic Cuba. But at least it is an attempt.

September 19 2012

Cuba: Baseball and Rumors

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

If you want to see first hand how the syndrome of secrecy works in Cuba, visit the office of the commissioner of baseball. Such is the lack of information, that not even the managers of the teams know for sure the day and month the new season will start. No one knows what the new structure will be nor the amount of equipment. Or the number of games that will be played.

It’s all rumors. According to reliable sources, the next National Series might field 16 teams. One for each province and the municipality of Isla de la Juventud. They would do away with the Metropolitan team, the second of the capital, despite being at the bottom of the standings in the last five years, its exit could cause many talented players to be without a team.

The amazing thing is that for a couple of weeks, Metropolitan began its preparation for the upcoming season, as officially no senior official from the baseball federation has spoken on the subject. In any organized league, the schedule is known months in advance as is the start date of the season. Last season, two weeks before opening day the details were still unknown.

Another absurdity is the transfer of players. In order to respect territoriality, players must play for their provinces. Only in prominent cases are they allowed to compete in other teams. It has set up a summer soap opera with the alleged departure of the excellent player Yulieski Gourriell from the Sancti Spiritus team. For personal problems, Yulieski’s family decided to settle in Havana.

The All-Star third baseman said in an interview that he intends to play with the famous Cuban baseball team, the Industriales. But the case was handled like a top state secret. On September 3rd the suspense ended. The sports authorities refused Gourriell permission to wear the blue jersey.

In 52 seasons there have been major players moving to different situations. Most striking was the case of the national team starter, Antonio Muñoz, who moved from Sancti Spiritus to Cienfuegos.

Or Villa Clara’s Alejo O’Reilly who decided to play for Ciego de Avila.

If it’s decided to remove Metropolitan, the selection of The Industrialists would have a team full of stars in the batting, but after a few years, young talent stagnates if it’s not able to play regularly. It happens that the current structure of Cuban baseball has a pronounced slump. Many youth who complete their category does not have a tournament where they develop their skills.

Before they competed in a league championship parallel to the local championship. Now that tournament disappeared. In the last 12 years Cuban baseball has seen its quality fall into a tailspin. The causes are known. The principal is the departure of about 250 players who have chosen to play as professionals abroad. Another problem is the outdated concepts of preparing pitchers and batters.

With just five months to the World Classic III, even the baseball authorities still are not clear what kind of tournament is going to be played. In November, the national team will probably stumble a couple of times with its peer from Taipei, China as a warmup for the Classic. Ideally, the local season breaks in October. But it is very likely that due to the stop in Asia the championship will open in late November. If so, there would be a break in the series to prepare the players who participate in the Classic III.

If in questions of baseball there is a lack of information and mystery abounds, what can we expect on important issues like immigration reform or internet marketing. Cuba is a country of riddles and rumors. Learn to read between the lines. The press, rather than inform, misinforms. And those who must make decisions mock the media and citizens. It happens in everyday life. In politics and in baseball.

Photo: Logos of provincial baseball teams in 2010

Translated by: JT

September 15 2012

Doing Business in Cuba Is Like Surfing Rough Seas

September 15, 2012 4 comments

For a business relying on foreign capital to succeed in Cuba, it is essential to create a web of friendships with influential people in the government. Everyone knows how you cultivate these relationships. With good whiskey, gourmet meals and especially with thousands of convertible pesos. For ten years Rómulo (not his real  name) was the right-hand man to an entrepreneur who ran furniture businesses on the island.

Among the annual business expenses were the soirees and buffets in which the guest of honor was the former first secretary of the Communist Party in the capital. “These pesos are what open the door to a series of bids and sales of equipment to state agencies. But there is a cost. I remember that as part of one contract we had to furnish the party’s provincial headquarters for free,” he said.

Established laws are not an obstacle to juicy commissions. In spite of the creation of an office to fight corruption, headed by Gladys Bejerano and charged with halting under-the-table deals and the flow of “black money,” the biggest problems for any businessman in Cuba are the complicated and extensive laws on foreign investments and the need to have powerful friends who can guarantee you a market monopoly.

The island is certainly not a good place for serious capitalists to invest. It is more of a field for adventurers. There are the regime’s breaches of contract and absurd actions. At the drop of a hat they can shut down your business and confiscate all your equipment, or come up with a regulation that prevents you from withdrawing bank funds that exceed $10 million – a kind of corralito a la cubana.*

Doing business in Cuba is like surfing on rough seas. Another problem is the hiring of contract workers through a government agency. Having to pay the government 100% of each worker’s salary in hard currency, which in turn pays them poverty-level wages, means that theft and shoddy workmanship are the order of the day. Foreign business owners often solve the problem by paying their employees a little extra on the side, or by giving them baskets of food and other essential consumer goods. Capitalism in Cuba is business practiced among friends.

Brazil under Dilma Rousseff has changed bidding procedures by transforming the state into an entity that does not hire, but rather adjudicates and awards contracts based on the lowest bid, eliminating corruption in the bidding process. In contrast the golden rule in the Cuba of General Raúl Castro is to court influence with the regime’s officials by opening up the checkbook to make sure the machinery is running.

The more powerful the business partner, the better. In the 1990s, hotel investors like Melíá were promoted by Fidel Castro himself, who unveiled several tourism projects. We are not seeing the worst; it is yet to come. Cuba’s legal system is set up to turn it into the worst version of unbridled capitalism, with factories where employees work for a dollar a day, and without independent labor unions to defend the workers’ rights.

Suspicious capital consortiums like RAFIN, the majority shareholder of ETECSA, the state-owned telecommunications company run by khaki-green businessmen, promise to be major players.** Now the GAESA group, led by Luis Alberto López-Calleja, son-in-law of Raúl Castro, controls a broad sector of the Cuban business world. In ten years we could go from a capitalism of friends to a capitalism of family members. Everything points to this.

Photo: The Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania, Australia can reach heights of five meters and is one of the biggest and heaviest waves in the world. Source: correrolas.com

*Translator’s notes: Corralito, or corraling, refers to a series of measures taken by Argentina in 2001 to prevent a run on its banks.

** The Cuban state company Rafin S.A. recently bought Telecom Italia’s 27% share in ETECSA for $706 million. Khaki-green or olive-green is a term often used in Cuba in reference to the Castro-led government.

September 14 2012

Self-Portrait of a Hooker*

September 12, 2012 Leave a comment

It is Mayra’s first day on the street. The entire family is glad she is back. The atmosphere is very different from before, when she went to prison. Now her parents do not get upset when her eleven year old son tries to make them laugh with a stories about the comandante.

Her mother, with her back turned, laughs at the boy’s joke. Myra is astonished. Before, her parents were constantly monitoring her speech. Under no circumstances would they have allowed her to say anything bad about the comandante or the Revolution. They would become incensed and explained why she should be eternally grateful: “Thanks to the revolution you have a house, an education, you don’t pay anything when you get sick.”

Sitting in the patio, breathing the fresh air, she thinks back again to her cell, the bricked-up windows, the humid air, and a stench of urine and excrement. She blinks. She feels a sense of relief. Yes, things have changed at home. Her parents now complain about “how bad things are.” One by one they count their “chavitos” — their small change in convertible pesos — to see if they have enough to buy a liter of cooking oil.

Mami is now 65 years old. She is fatter, spilling over the chair in front of the sewing machine. She works mending clothes for the neighbors. Papi is bony and ten centimeters shorter than five years ago. In two more days he will turn 70. He is retired from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and gets a “chequera,” a pension of 320 pesos, some thirteen dollars. He also works as a nightwatchman at a business near his house. He cleans patios and makes some extra money.

It is difficult for Mayra to imagine that once they went to the Plaza to joyously scream their support for the Revolution and Fidel Castro. They dreamt of a paradise where there would be no social inequalities and the exploitation of man by man would not exist. They believed in the Constitution, which compelled them to memorize the passage in the Preamble by José Martí: “I want to see that the first law of our Republic requires devotion by Cubans to the full dignity of man.”

But when the “special period” arrived in the 1990s, fanatics like her parents lost their enthusiasm. They began to tell her to talk in a low voice when she complained about those scheduled power blackouts that lasted twelve hours a day, or when she occasionally even complained about the supreme leader. Now they become deaf and dumb when her son tells them that his dream is to become a ball player, to be able to travel, to live far away and to make a lot of money.

Dreams like that take her back to Doña Delicia, a women’s correctional facility. Images come to mind of when she went to work as a “jinetera” — a prostitute — on Fifth Avenue in Miramar. Images of police, acts of solicitation, a danger to society and five years in prison. It all happened so quickly. So stupid!

“I don’t have a ‘machango,’” she told the police. “If I had given them what they wanted, taken the easy route, I would not have gone to jail. But I would not let myself be blackmailed and so off I went. Who would have thought this would all get so complicated? It’s because of that son-of-a-bitch policeman, who tried to force me to kiss him. He was so disgusting. No, I am not sorry. If it happened again, I would do exactly the same. Ultimately, life is a game of Russian roulette.”

It seemed to Mayra that she was seeing the face of her father at the trial, the same one he had when her mother begged him to make piece with their other child, her brother, a “marielito,” one of the more than one hundred thousand people who left Cuba in 1980 through the port of Mariel. “We were dying of hunger,” she says, “but my father always had his pride. Even when Mami was sick with optical neuritis and almost died.”

“He now receives remittances from Miami, ’the nest of worms.’ How funny. When I went to prison, he was the president of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. A few days later he resigned. He got a letter inviting him to visit his family ’in the bowels of the beast.’ At any rate he learned that it does not matter what path you take if you are following improbable dreams. I only want to get out of all this shit. That’s why I understand my parents, their silence, their sadness.”

After so many sacrifices, the harvest of ten million, voluntary labor, the workers’ guard, acts of repudiation, meetings, militant marches, slogans and informing on the private lives of others, it has not been easy for them to acknowledge that Cubans today are worse off than in 1959, when it all began. It is hard to accept that, after 53 years of “socialism,” the promise that we would have a perfect country has turned out to be a lie.

Mayra is still in the patio, her eyes closed. Her hair dances in the wind. She gently passes her hand over the sun that is tattooed on her neck. She sighs, looking around her. With a handkerchief she dries her tears. She gets up and goes back inside.  She is the hostess. She must be with her family on her first day of freedom.

*Unpublished account by Iván García y Laritza Diversent, based on an actual case.

Photo: From a report on sex tourism in Cuba, published by La Prensa de Honduras.

September 11 2012

In Cuba a Lot of Stuff Falls Off of Trucks

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

In life to be a truck driver, or to work at a dock or container facility has been a lucrative business in Cuba. Very lucrative, as Eulalio, a 24-year-old driver with experience hauling heavy cargo, knows well.

He comes from a lost village in La Serpa in Sancti Spíritus province, 400 kilometers from Havana. For fifteen years he has lived in a house, built from “things that fell off the truck,” on the outskirts of the capital. The stolen shipments that he carried in his truck have been the principal source of income used to furnish his house and even to buy a Dodge from the 1950s. None of this has come from his salary.

Since the last cyclone four years ago the transport of asbestos cement tiles has been handled by the military. The regime had one thought clearly in mind. If it wanted the tiles to go to those who needed them most, it could not leave the responsibility for their distribution to State agencies. The materials would not have gotten to those affected. In Havana’s poorer neighborhoods, where people build or repair their houses, it is common to see large quantities of cement, sand, gravel, cinder blocks, ceramic tile and other construction materials being calmly unloaded from trucks in the full light of day. All of it done “on the side.”

“What falls off the truck” is retail theft. Yes, it is true that cases of extra-dry rum, clear Cristal beer and jeans imported from China get swiped. But the biggest heists are carried out in container facilities, in the port itself or at subsequent points along the way. The issue was discussed at a meeting of ministers headed by Raúl Castro in September, 2010. According to the state press, statistics were presented that outlined the large-scale looting of containers and the resulting million dollar losses inflicted on the country. Something must be done, said the general, to stop the theft.

That will be difficult. Breaking open containers and robbing cargo from trucks travelling to other provinces is now part of the culture of those who work in this sector. It is the most important link in the black market’s chain. It is also the source of funds that line the pockets of those who hold important management positions. They do not need to break into containers. The wads of bills that fill their wallets are instead generated from illegal sales.

A truck driver like Eulalio can, and does, sell ten bags of powdered milk or steals some boots for sale on the black market. But the theft of hundreds of thousands of convertible pesos, of plasma screen TVs and other electronic devices are carried out by corrupt individuals heading criminal gangs or illicit State clans. They are protected by the immunity afforded them by the desirable positions they hold in the Cuban Nomenklatura.

A lot of stuff falls off trucks. However, a low-level driver or a dock worker at the port takes only what he needs to feed his family or to get a little hard currency. Not much more. The million-dollar losses result from something else. They occur under the umbrella of government ministries and their affiliated businesses. The authorities know this. It is simply easier to open a criminal file on a supermarket worker or the cashier at a hard currency store than on a high-ranking official.

These cases always raise a question for me. If the government says that everything is owned by the people, how is it possible that the people are stealing from themselves? Or is that citizens do not trust the system? Or are they genetically predisposed to be kleptomaniacs?

Photo: Reuters. A truck carrying bananas and other agricultural products destined for sale in Havana’s State-run markets.

September 8 2012

The Only Thing That Interests The Castros About Emigrés Is Their Money

September 3, 2012 Leave a comment

They have gone from being persecuted, insulted and accused of being traitors during the first three decades after the Communist revolution to becoming the main pipeline for the dollars that prop up the regime.

The story of the Cuban diaspora in the last 53 years is marked by verbal lynchings, graffiti and artillery attacks of rocks or rotten eggs on the houses of those who were leaving the country, years in jail for those who tried to leave, and an irate Fidel Castro at a public trial calling them “worms, low-lifes and scum.”

Taking a plane to Florida or setting off on a rustic craft with a sailor’s compass meant unleashing Castro’s implacable fury. During the 1960s would-be emigrés were made to work long hours doing agricultural work before the government would issue them exit visas.

A letter received from or sent to a relative on the other side of the pond would prompt an urgent meeting of the trade union or the party, and the person would be accused of “ideological weakness.” Underprivileged blacks would be intimidated with tales of racism. If they abandoned the fatherland, the Ku Klux Klan and its dogs, trained to eat Negroes, would mercilessly tear them apart.

According to the Castro-controlled media, the first wave of emigrés were bourgeoisie, businessmen, misfits or people who had earned their money taking advantage of the poor. Later they were low-lifes, good-for-nothings, convicts, prostitutes and faggots incapable of becoming examples of the New Man in an “unparalleled society, the threshold of heaven on earth.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall Cuban professionals and athletes defected the first chance they got. The offensive language has now been shelved, but acts of repudiation have been revived as a weapon against dissidents.

Those who leave Cuba are still written off by the official media. There are no reports or in-depth articles about achievements of Cubans overseas. On the island there was no impact from the two home runs, from both sides of the plate in the same inning, by Kendrys Morales. Of the awards and prizes given to writers and poets in exile, not a word has been published.

As Rubén Martínez Villena said, they are only useful once they are dead. Like Cabrera Infante or Celia Cruz. The nation’s press has not reported on an article written by prominent academics at the University of Florida, whose data and statistics provide evidence of the strength of the Cuban exile community.

When leafing through Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), nowhere will you find any mention that in 2011 the country received more than two billion dollars in remittances. Cuban Americans spent a similar amount during vacation trips to Cuba and in endless purchases of consumer goods for their impoverished relatives.

Radio Rebelde says nothing about a study by the Pew Hispanic Center which reports that the median income for Cubans in the United States over the age of sixteen is $26,478, greater than the estimated $21,488 for the rest of the Hispanic community.

It is undeniable that, thanks to the Refugee Adjustment Act*, members of the Cuban diaspora enjoy privileges that other Latino immigrants do not. But the gains they have achieved are undeniable. They are leaders of important companies, are a force behind Miami’s growth and vitality, and constitute a handful of politicians with Cuban backgrounds. Eleven delegates to the Florida legislature are Cuban.

The official press maintains a low and ambiguous profile with respect to the exile community. Foolish rhetoric would have us believe that people emigrate only to get a car and a well-furnished, air-conditioned apartment. Yes, people leave in order to have decent salaries, satellite antennae and unrestricted access to the internet.

But they also leave the country to be reborn as free men. Hold a plebiscite among the more than two million exiles and, I am quite certain, the results would confirm that a majority do not want to retain the Castros in power.

The regime knows this. It is aware of the danger that closer ties and a loosening of emigration restrictions would pose. The exiles’ economic power and business know-how would put an end to the shoddy workmanship and habitual idleness of Cuban factories. They would become a potential threat to the status quo of the governing class, which now controls all reserves of hard currency.

To the Castros the only thing about emigration that interests them is the money. Exiles can come visit Cuba and spend a lot. Every time they bring in more dollars. But they do not like them too much. There can be no investments in strategic economic sectors. It’s better to keep burdening them with brutal tourism taxes and let them send packages to the island. Castro has no desire to treat emigrés fairly.

They will never allow overseas Cubans to hold political office or vote in elections. It is very difficult to change this mentality. These autocrats have always viewed the diaspora as a time bomb, a bunch of “worms,” a legion of traitors.

When exiles learn how to use their economic power as a weapon, it will force the government to change the outdated dialog and the anachronistic laws. In the meantime, it needs them only to fill the collection box.

Photo: Taken from the Gold Alert website.

*Translator’s note: A U.S. law, passed in 1966 with amendments added later, that allows Cuban refugees to apply for permanent resident status after living in the U.S. for one year.

September 1 2012

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