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How Many Havanans Entertain Themselves

January 20, 2013 1 comment

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In Havana you can get a hooker to make a housecall for 20 convertible pesos. Illegal “cable” antennas for a monthly fee of 10 CUC. Pirated internet connections for 2 CUC an hour. And illegal copies of soap operas, mini-series and movies, especially those from the United States, are on the rise.

There are houses where on weekends spectacular dance parties with enormous plasma screens and techno music take place. They charge  a 10 peso entrance fee in hard currency. If you like sports, for 25 pesos you can go to certain homes whose residents have converted their living rooms into actual mini-stadiums. Between swigs of run, you can watch the Atlético-Real Madrid match.

At the moment the local Cuban video game market is also on the rise. Of course it does not have the power and scope of foreign companies which in 2011 alone earned 74 billion dollars worldwide through non-stop distribution of cinematic quality productions.

It is almost all illegal, but Cubans do it by cobbling together a minimal infrastructure. Using pre-historic access to the internet and obsolete technologies, they have created a fledgling entertainment industry. Why do they do it? To provide distractions for their stressed-out loved ones, neighbors and friends, who spend most of their time looking for food.

Pirated disks with the latest editions of video games can now be purchased at private stalls which also offer CDs and DVDs of movies and music videos. If you so desire, you can also call a guy who knows about information technology.

The man will arrive at your house with an external hard drive and a long list of games for sale. The prices range from one to two convertible pesos, depending on how recent they are. Within a few minutes he will install SIM 4 or FIFA Player 2012 on your computer. There are also experts at “cracking” Xbox, Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation in order to read their disks. In case anything breaks down, there are no state-owned shops which repair video games, but there are any number of private shops that will do this work.

If you do not have relatives on the other side of the pond who can send you sophisticated video games, you can buy them on Havana’s black market, but you will need a fat wallet. If it is a new PlayStation 2 still in its box, you will spend between 100 and 120 convertible pesos. A used one will cost perhaps 40 convertible pesos.

Prices for recent versions of PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo vary between 300 and 400 convertible pesos. Video games are not for sale in hard currency stores. Some owners will rent them for 20 pesos an hour. And, believe me, there are plenty of customers. Everyone in the neighborhood with gather in someone’s living room to play violent video games in which blood and mayhem abound.

Many parents will gladly pay these prices to keep their adolescent children entertained with video games and off the street corner, a place synonymous with bottles of rum and Parkisonil* pills.

Sometimes the entire family gets in on the act. After 7PM the Gonzalezes and their eight- and eleven-year-old sons plug a video game into their 32 inch plasma screen TV and keep playing until 9PM, the time when the soap operas start.

“I made the investment (of buying the video game) as a way of being together during the dead hours of Cuban television when they usually broadcast reruns or those suffocating round table talk shows. It’s true we don’t realize it most of the time, but playing the game is more interesting,” says Roberto Gonzalez.

Faced with a bleak future and a hard life which produces waves of anxiety and hopelessness, people prefer to take refuge behind a joystick. And it is not only the young who take pleasure in video games.

Just ask Juana, a 68-year-old housewife. She often sits for up to ten hours in front of a computer, and any number of times has left the beans to burn after becoming absorbed in the search for clues in a detective game.

Iván García

Photo from diario ecuatoriano Hoy. Havanans also like going to the movies, especially in December when the city hosts the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, as it has done for the past 34 years.

*Translator’s note: Also known as trihexyphenidyl, it is a drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and to treat the sides effects of anti-psychotic therapies. In recent years it has become an illicit recreational drug in Cuba. Untreated overdoses can be fatal, especially in children.

January 19 2013

The Cuban Style of “Dumping”

January 16, 2013 1 comment

cuba-construccionIn the south of Havana, underneath a burning sun, half a dozen men are working in a precarious workshop making blocks using a machine made up out of odd bits and pieces. It’s hard work. For twelve hours a day they put in cement, stones and clay, filling up a mold which the Frankenstein machine then, with tired wheezing noises, coughs up again as blocks for use in construction. In a typical month they earn 1,600 pesos (64 cuc – Cuban Convertible Currency). Four times more than the average Cuban salary.

In theory, these precarious factories, put up in a hurry in a deserted recreation area or in the middle of a field, close by heavy industry, could be the key to increasing production of construction materials. For many families, it allows them to repair their dilapidated houses, especially now, following the passing of the devastating hurricane Sandy through Santiago de Cuba and other eastern provinces.

Alfredo’s target, working in the improvised workshop, is to produce 8,000 blocks a month. He usually manages that, working at half-speed, in the space of 10 days. The rest of the blocks he produces, between 750 and 900 a day, are carefully stored in an old state warehouse.

In accordance with the instructions of their senior manager, those blocks aren’t mentioned in the monthly report. They are for “under the counter” sales. If you add the more than 20,000 blocks which Alfredo’s workshop can produce — and there are hundreds of these little mobile establishments throughout the country — to the output of heavy industry, it is reasonable for people to ask themselves why then are the prices of bricks and building blocks so high.

Each one costs 10 pesos on the black market (0.5 cuc). Demand exceeds supply. And if you go to try to buy them in one of the state flea-markets, you never find any. Nevertheless, the yards of several stores are overflowing with cement, paving stones, aggregate, bricks and blocks.

According to an official of the Ministry of Internal Trade, managers in companies and stores collude in artificially maintaining the scarcity, in order to keep prices up. And that doesn’t only apply to construction materials.

Acopio, whose role is to acquire 80% of the harvests of co-operatives and individual farmers, has transformed itself into a stronghold of predatory corruption. Factories and branches of Internal Trade selling products for hard currency have set up a formidable mafia profiting from the prices of food products.

The regime is in the habit of favoring and turning a blind eye to this sort of activity. A can of beer, a soft drink, or a malt-whiskey, for example, including shipping and unloading, doesn’t cost more than 10 centavos in cuc. But then the foreign currency tax collectors see to it that the shops sell them with a 10-fold markup on the price.

The double currency has created a closed market in the national economy, above all in the companies which sell oil, mayonnaise, tomato paste, soap and detergent, which are among the most profitable, thanks to the elevated income from sales in convertible pesos

These mafia groups, which have taken hold in the local commercial and distribution channels, have amassed fortunes. Information is circulating in the internet about the case of the manager of a factory producing preserves, who has a cupboard full of dollars in his house. Nearly all the corrupt people are bureaucrats. With a red party card in their pocket. And when they speak, like robots, in everything they say they repeat two or more times the words Revolution, Fidel and Raul. An absolute bunch of opportunists.

They make up a compact group, with a monopolistic control over the prices of food, and essential items. Someone who used to work in a state-owned grocery store told me that in the month of April last year they received instructions from the provincial government to supply all the state outlets with black beans at the price of 8 pesos a pound.

Good news for the mafia rings. At that moment in the non-state farms, a pound of black beans cost between 15 and 18 pesos. The answer was to delay the distribution. By the back door, trucks full of beans started to deliver to private houses, which were converted into temporary stores. Then later, the beans went out again from these houses to supply the private farmers’ markets.

They sold the beans wholesale to private sector agents for 12 pesos a pound. And with the profit, 4 pesos a pound, they oiled the wheels of corruption: truck drivers, stevedores and senior managers. In this way they sold tons of black beans. And in official reports it was recorded that a pound of beans was selling for 8 pesos — which it never was.

Apples are another good example. In the hard currency shops, they cost between 35 and 45 cuc centavos each, according to size and quality. Right now you can go around the shops and cafes in Havana and you won’t find any apples for sale. Nevertheless all over town hundreds of people pushing barrows are offering apples at 15 to 20 pesos each.

Behind all this Cuban-style “dumping” there exists a clockwork mechanism which carefully manages the availability of foodstuffs and prices. General Raul Castro has created an army of anti-corruption  inspectors, headed by Gladys Bejerano, Controller General of the Republic. The idea is to put the brakes on this multi-headed monster which affects the life of the whole nation.

But for every vermin’s head that Bejerano gets close to, five more spring up. It’s totally evil. People think that we are dealing with something quite weak. They only go after the low and mid-level swindlers and crooks. Certain individuals, referred to as the “bosses of the bosses” carry on in their air-conditioned offices, calmly and unconcernedly watching what’s going on.

Iván García

Photo: Collecting bricks from a building which collapsed in the path of Hurricane Gustav in Havana in August 2008

 Translated by GH

January 14 2013

The Castro Dynasty Turns 54 Years Old

January 7, 2013 1 comment

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January 1, 2013, the Castro brothers’ autocracy turns 54 years old.  That leaves 20 years in order to equal the duration of a Communist Party in power, the CPSU, in the former Soviet Union.

Only North Korea, China, Vietnam or Mexico with the PRI, have been governed longer with the same party.  In the succession of its governments,  Cuba is comparable to North Korea.  With the difference that the Sungs have governed since 1948.  It is true that on the island the impressive cult of personality that exists in red Korea is not practiced.  But what has made us emulators of the North Koreans has been the continuity of power in a single family.  No other communist state has created a dynasty.

Fidel Castro is the indisputable leader of the Cuban Revolution.  Founder of the July 26 Movement, no one — or few — knew who he really was when he entered Havana on January 8 of 1959.  From his turbulent past, some historians identified him as a gangster gunman in his years as a university student.

If he was a Marxist, he never practiced the ideology openly.  He did not serve in the Popular Socialist Party.  Nor in his letters or dialogues with friends from that period has his support or admiration for the Soviet cause been demonstrated.  More likely he was a home-grown guy.  Future history will tell us what was his true motive for turning 180 degrees in his democratic and liberal discourse of 1959 and making a giant leap, enlisting in the socialist bloc of eastern Europe.

Anyway, Fidel Castro is a quite anarchic Marxist.  At his whim, he conciliated the discourse of the humanist Jose Marti and the quotes of the general Antonio Maceo.  And he tried to give his support to the Communist ideology by promoting and supporting with weapons and money the armed struggle in Latin America and Africa.

Despite Castroism not being a recognized ideology or doctrine, nor existing a text that explains to us what it deals with, in Cuba its followers call themselves “Castristas.”  A dangerous cocktail of fanaticism, authoritarianism and personal loyalty.  If the leader, as they still consider him, tells them they should mobilize for a war against gringos, here go his partisans to build anti-aircraft refuges and to train with AK-47s.  In his name and his revolution, thousands of Cubans were disposed to immolate themselves in the missile crisis of 1962.  Or they departed for unknown places in Angola and Ethiopia and involved themselves in civil wars.

For the official discourse, Fidel Castro is synonymous with Fatherland.  Whoever opposes him is a traitor and can go to jail.  Then in 2006, because of illness, Fidel saw himself forced to cede power to his brother Raul, a clear dynastic intention pervades the air of the Republic.  If the sons and nephews of Castro I, in appearances, are not installed in the estates of power, the offspring and relatives of Castro II do have intentions of controlling the State.

Now the brothers from Biran are two grandfathers, 86 and 81 years of age, in full retreat.  Cuba’s luck will be decided in the next decade.  Maybe sooner.  The economic monopoly exercised by the military entrepreneurs and the control of special services by Raul’s son Alejandro Castro Espin permit glimpses of the succession within the power apparatus.

With an illegal, hounded and weak opposition, the designs and plans of the Castro brothers to “perpetuate their revolution” are not preposterous.  It remains to be seen how long Castroism is capable of surviving when its creators no longer live.  It is complicated to make predictions about Cuba’s future.  It’s the same for an unexpected situation changing the path of the island towards democracy, so in 2059 thousands of Cubans may gather in the Plaza in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the revolution.

January 1, 1959, few on the island and in the world thought that a bearded young man of 32 years of age and his retinue of guerrillas would occupy power for the next 54 years.  No statesman or dictator in the 20th century governed as long as Fidel Castro.  A world record that now belongs to him.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Spencer Platt, Getty Images.  Taken from Global Post.

Translated by mlk

January 6 2013

The Year of the Venezuelan Tiger

January 3, 2013 1 comment

We already know that Cuba is a country of paradoxes. Around here it’s not rare to see a nuclear physicist selling cotton candy in an amusement park. A plastic surgeon working 4 hours as a taxi driver. Or a university student alternating her studies with work as a prostitute.

If there is something Fidel Castro’s Revolution has brought, along with socializing poverty, it is certain extravagances. So this is how you can understand that on an island crazy for baseball, and without any notable results in international soccer, there is a huge amount of information displayed about the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, while the official media barely touches the career of the Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera, the first Latin American to earn the offensive triple crown.

Only the Havana radio station COCO, on its sports show, was there a summary of the feat. In the baseball corridors, in this case at Central Park, and on the corners where baseball fanatics clandestinely get information about the Big Leagues, through cable connections to illegal antennas or a pirated internet connection, the event was trumpeted in Gothic letters.

Let’s talk for a minute about Cabrera. José Miguel Torres Cabrera was born in Maracay, Venezuela, on April 18, 1983. Because of his formidable offensive power he’s known in the Venezuelan sports media as “The boy from the movies,” or “The Pope.” He played shortstop, third baseman and outfielder with the Aragua Tigers in Venezuela’s winter league.

At 20 he made his debut in the big leagues. And he did it in style. On June 20, 2003, in his first at-bat, he homered off pitcher Al Levine to win the game in the 9th inning.

In the entire history of Major League baseball the only ones who accomplished this were Billy Parker in 1971 and Josh Bard in 2003. That same year, thanks to his hot bat, he was instrumental in his team, the Florida Marlins, winning the World Series crown.

Facing the favored Yankees, Cabrera homered to his compatriot Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood, Roger Clemens and Mark Prior, driving in 12 runs and setting a mark for postseason novices.

At the end of the Autumn classic in 2003 he rejoined the Aragua Tigers and broke the ball. After 27 years of drought, his triumph in the 9th was essential to their championship in the Venezuelan Professional League.

In the title game facing the Caribe de Oriente, he connected two homers against the stellar Carlos Silva. In the round robin of the 2003-2004 season Miguel Cabrera was frenetic at bat.

He hit nine homers and brought in 32 runs in only 16 games to set a new mark in morocho baseball. And that was not all.

Cabrera and his Aragua Tigers won three trophies in later years. His major league numbers are impressive. Before that season he batted 317, 1597 hits, 346 doubles, 277 homers and 984 RBIs.

Since 2008 he’s played first base for the Detroit Tigers. Their savage offense places him among the big hitters in the majors. And perhaps only the Dominican Albert Pujols, in an arena of power to power, surpasses him as the best Latin American player of the decade in the majors.

Cabrera has been tremendous in 2012. He joined the limited list of 14 players who have achieved the triple crown in the best baseball in the world.

And he is the first Latin American to do it. Since 1967 no one had achieved it. The boy from Maracay was the leading hitter with 330, 137 hits, 44 homers and 137 RBIs, in addition to leading the on-base percentage and slugging.

I do not understand how some U.S. specialists consider Mike Trout to have better attributes than Cabrera for the MVP of the season. True, Trout has been a fabulous rookie with the Angels.

But his numbers are below those of Miguel Cabrera. Hopefully “the Pope” will continue hitting it out of the park in the play offs. This is the year of the Tiger.

Iván García

November 2 2012

Cuba 2013; A Cautious Forecast

January 3, 2013 2 comments
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Photo: AP, from Metro.

Let’s take a look at government predictions. According to state technocrats, Cuba’s GDP will grow 3.7% in 2013. Spokesmen for General Raul Castro claim that, in spite of an economic crisis affecting half the world, social services will remain at 2012 levels.

The “good news” keeps on coming from the Palace of the Revolution. The construction materials industry will grow 5.4% The electrical energy supply will increase 2%. Planned investments at 34%. Construction at 20.8%. Domestic travel will reach 10.1%. Labor productivity is estimated to grow 2.6%.

The finishing touch to these official forecasts is that tourism figures will surpass three million visitors. The military overlords, who control 80% of the nation’s wealth, claim it will be a good year economically. But the macroeconomic figures do not trickle down to Cuban households. For the last twenty years a basket of essential goods and services has consumed 90% of a typical family’s income.

Having three meals a day is a luxury in Cuba. Most people have black coffee and bread with oil for breakfast. Or they do not have breakfast. Families try to see to it that the ill, elderly and children have lunch at home. For a large segment of the population lunch is bread and croquettes or pizza prepared at small, privately owned cafes. At night, dinner ideally consists of rice, beans, egg, pork or chicken, and salad or a seasonal vegetable.

But there are not always beans and meat. Right now procuring food is Cubans’ number one concern. High food prices make it difficult for many people to satisfy their nutritional needs.

For several years now General Raul Castro has recognized that guaranteeing the bean supply is more important than having a fleet of T-62 tanks at the ready. The inefficient agricultural and livestock industry has not been able to guarantee a steady supply of dairy products, meat, legumes, produce, fruits and vegetables at prices commensurate with the poverty-level salaries that Cuban workers earn. Management is inefficient in other sectors as well. The water supply in Havana, for example, is often accessible only every other day. In villages such as El Calvario distribution occurs one out of every three days.

This has forced many families along the width and breadth of the island to install supplemental facilities for storing water. These are regularly found to be uncovered, in bad repair and infested with swarms of mosquitoes, which transmit dengue fever. Cholera has also reappeared due to the shortage of clean drinking water.

Another day-to-day problem for the average Cuban is public transport. We do not have a subway line in Cuba. The suburban rail system is barely functional and modestly priced taxis do not exist. The only way then to get from one location to another is by city bus or private taxi, which charge ten to twenty pesos a ride.

Five years ago a network of articulated buses was introduced in Havana. There were seventeen lines that ran along the city’s main thoroughfares, and were spaced five to ten minutes apart at peak hours. More than 200 are now out of service due to a lack of replacement parts. The bus shortage has led to the collapse of the capital’s public transportation system.

The optimistic economic figures do not take into account repairs to the innumerable water leaks in towns and cities. Or repairs to streets and multi-family apartment buildings. The government claims that the sale of construction materials unsubsidized by the state will grow for years to come.

But if you visit one of the markets where they are sold, you can almost never find what you need. To say nothing of the high prices. Not everyone can afford to pay 90 to 110 pesos for a bag of cement. Or 10 pesos for a cinder block or a brick.

I have reviewed the 2013 economic forecasts, but have not seen anything to indicate that the government intends to study, address or resolve the issue of low wages. Or the contradiction of having two currencies in circulation within the country. And one of these, the principal one being the convertible peso or CUC*, is not used to pay the bulk of workers’ salaries.

Any rational analysis would show that a family of four, that hopes to live comfortably, must have an income of no less than 6,000 Cuban pesos or 240 Convertible pesos (CUCs). The average salary in Cuba is 400 Cuban pesos. Such insolvency is the cause of low productivity and poor quality in industrial manufacturing. Many go to work simply to steal whatever they can.

Work schedules are ignored. Stores open half an hour after the posted time and close half an hour before. In stores and markets cash counts and audits in the middle of the day are routine, paralyzing sales.

The average Cuban is not a habitual slacker. He has demonstrated his industriousness and creativity in places he has settled, such as Florida. But he feels he has not been sufficiently motivated to work long and hard in his homeland. These days, in conversations among people waiting in line, there is skepticism about the government’s encouraging predictions.

Amid the “good” economic forecasts is a fundamental issue on which the regime would prefer not to comment. That is the state of health of President Hugo Chavez, who remains bedridden in a Havana hospital. An atmosphere of suspense and secrecy surrounds the formidable chief executive.

No one knows with certainty if his swearing-in on January 10 will take place in Caracas or in a medical clinic in Havana. If it becomes impossible for Hugo Chavez to retain office in 2013, the force of such a political earthquake will strongly impact Cuba, whose economy is highly dependent on the 100,000 daily barrels of oil provided at favorable prices by the generous Venezuelan.

A new government, even one led by Chavez supporters, would lead to an anxious waiting period on the island. The Chavez factor is more important to the Castros than the rosy published economic predictions.

Without Chavez, 2013 will be a tough, dark year in Cuba. The Creole autocrats are doing everything within their power to assure that their optimistic forecasts do not go off track. From a mass for the Bolivarian comandante in a Catholic church to the orishas of the Afro-Cuban religion, anything goes.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: The convertible peso, or CUC, is one of two official Cuban currencies and is pegged at roughly 1.10 to the US dollar. Many essential goods are sold only at government-run hard currency stores, which accept payment only in convertible pesos.

January 2 2013

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