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The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

August 17, 2014 1 comment

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis.

The olive green government put contingency plans into action. Research institutes patented garbage food such as meat mass, soya soup, and oca paste, which were used to fool the stomach.

The government considered an extreme project called “zero option,” against the time when the people would start to collapse in the street due to hunger. It was a red alert, when military trucks would hand out rations neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

“Zero option” did not get implemented. The dollar ended up worth 150 Cuban Pesos, and a pound of rice, if you could get one, cost you 140 pesos, the same as an avocado.

That’s how we Cubans lived in 1994. A hot year. Many people launched themselves into the sea in little rubber boats, driven by desperation and hardship, trying to get to the United States.

I was 28 and four out of every five of my friends or people I knew were making plans to build boats good enough to get them to Florida. We talked of nothing else. Only about getting out.

In the morning of 5th August it was still a crime to be a boat person. If they caught you, it meant up to 4 years behind bars. In spite of the informers, the blackouts helped people build boats of all shapes and sizes. Havana looked like a shipyard.

In my area, an ex-sailer offered his services as a pilot to anyone setting out on a marine adventure. “It’s a difficult crossing. You could be a shark’s dinner if you don’t organise your expedition properly,” he said.

At that time there were red beret soldiers carrying AK-47s patrolling the streets in jeeps. The capital was like a tinderbox.Any friction could touch off a fire. Hardly a month and a half before, on 13th July, the fateful sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo had occurred.

In order to teach would-be illegal escapees a lesson, the authorities deliberately sunk an old tug 7 miles out from the bay of Havana.

72 people were on board. 37 of them died, among them, 10 children. According to the survivors’ testimony, two government tugs refused to help them. It was a crime.

At eleven in the morning of Friday August 5th, a friend of mine came up to a group of us kids who were sitting on a corner in the neighbourhood, and, stumbling over his words, said: “My relatives in Miami have phoned up. They say four large boats have left for Havana, to pick up anyone who wants to leave. There are lots of people in the Malecon, waiting for them.”

A route 15 bus driver, who now lives in Spain, invited us to ride in his bus, to get there faster. He turned off his route. And as he went along, he he picked up anyone who stuck out his hand.

“I’m going to the Malecon” he told people. Every passenger who got on had new information about what was happening. “They’ve broken shop windows and they’re stealing food, toiletries, clothes and shoes. They’ve overturned police cars. Looks like the government’s fucked.”

There was a party atmosphere. The bus was stopped by the combined forces of the police, soldiers and State security people, near the old Presidential Palace.

A group of government supporters was trying to control the antigovernment protesters and the disturbances that were breaking out. It was bedlam.

We got off the bus and we walked down some side streets going towards the Avenida del Puerto. There were lots of anxious people in the avenue with their eyes on the horizon.

There was a police car which had been smashed up by having stones thrown at it near the Hotel Deauville. Paramilitaries were arriving in trucks, armed with tubes and iron bars. They were casual construction workers hired by Fidel Castro who had been rapidly mobilised.

For the first time in my life I heard people shouting Down with Fidel, and Down with the Dictatorship. What had started off as a lot of people trying to escape to Florida had turned into a popular uprising.

The epicenter of what came to be called the Maleconazo were the poor mainly black neighbourhoods of San Leopoldo, Colón and Cayo Hueso. Places where people live in tumbledown houses and with an uncertain future.

Those areas breed hustlers, illegal gambling and drug trafficking. And the Castro brothers are not welcome there.

After 6:00 in the evening of 5th August 1994, it seemed that the government forces had taken control of the extensive area where the people had filled the streets to protest, rob, or just sit on the Malecon wall to see what happened.

Anti-riot trucks picked up hundreds of young men, nearly all of them mixed race or black. A rumour went round that Fidel Castro was having a look round the area. The soldiers had released the safety catches on their AK47s, ready to use them.

By the time it began to get dark, the disturbances were already under control. We walked back, talking about what had happened. That night, because they were afraid another revolt might break out, there was no power cut in Havana.

Iván García

Translated by GH

6 August 2014

Alan Gross: Trapped in a Cold War Tale / Ivan Garcia

August 15, 2014 2 comments
Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now.

Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now. Source: The Cuban History

In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.

It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.

People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.

Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones.

People don’t know Alan Gross, who is kept in a cell in the hospital, just a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood. As far as Ernesto, one of the neighbourhood kids, is concerned, he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba”, he says, but he doesn’t know any details of the case. Another kid, who shows off about being well-informed, tells some of the details:

“I found out on the antenna that the American has staged a hunger strike and he says that, dead or alive, he’s going to leave this year (the antenna is an illegal construction — usually made of a metal tray and some Coke cans — and is used as a communication medium in many poor Cuban poor neighbourhoods). I don’t know why Obama doesn’t exchange him for the “three heroes” (Castro spies in jail in the States).

That is what the Cuban man-in-the-street — many of them — know about Gross, the contractor. A spy who came from the north to subvert things on the island.

Not many of them know what it was that he tried to bring into the country. And, when they know that Alan Gross had with him in his briefcases and backpacks two iPods, eleven Blackberrys, three MacBooks, six 500GB discs, three BGAN satellite phones, among other things that Castro’s government considers “illegal,” they look a bit stupid.

“But they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys,” is what Arnold says, smiling (he is the owner of a little workshop that fixes punctures on your bike or car).

The crime that the olive green State accused him of: “assembling parallel networks to gain illegal access to the internet,” is only an offence in countries with eccentric laws like Cuba or North Korea.

The official media, sporadically offer brief comments, edited in a cleaned-up kind of style, by the hacks at the Foreign Relations Department, who disinform, rather than inform.

People hear about it in the news on the radio and television and it is the main news item in the newspaper Granma. And it all backs up the Cubans’ opinion that Alan Gross was caught carrying out espionage.

Cuba is a nation that scatterbrained foreigners do not know. There are two currencies and the one which is worth more is not the one they pay to workers.

The press assures us that five decades ago they “got rid of prostitution and other capitalist scourges”, but an elderly foreigner on a beach receives more sexual proposals than Brad Pitt.

In order to understand the story put together by the Havana government’s communication experts, we need to have in mind one of its key features: from 1959, the United States is the public enemy number one.

Everything bad stems from that. Six hundred supposed attempts on Fidel Castro’s life: from planning to assassinate him by a bullet through the  temple, to injecting him with a strong poison which would make his beard fall off.

The eleven Presidents who have occupied the White House during Castro’s 55 years are far from being angels. They have hatched attacks, subversions, and assaults on the first Castro. But the regime exaggerates them.

In that context, Alan Gross was a useful pawn for the island’s special services. Gross visited Cuba four times with the idea of giving unrestricted internet access to the small local Jewish community.

On December 3, 2009 the US contractor was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Cuban tribunal. Gross was not the “stupid innocent taken in by USAID,” as they said at his trial.

He was aware of the risk he was running bringing in information equipment into a totalitarian nation, where parallel communication is a crime against the state.

According to a 2012 article from the AP agency, the reports about his trip indicate that Gross knew his activities were illegal, and he was afraid of the consequences, including possibly being expelled from the country. One of the documents confirms that one of the community’s leaders “made it absolutely clear that we are playing with fire.”

On another occasion, Gross commented “There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous business. It would be catastrophic if they detected the satellite signals.”

It would be possible to appeal to  Raúl Castro’s government’s better nature, asking that they set free an unwell 65-year-old man, who is mentally “out of it,” following the death of his mother the previous 18th of June in Texas.

But the criollo (Cuban) autocracy in playing its own game with the USAID contractor. There are still three spies from the Wasp network locked up in US jails, two of them on life sentences.

Alan Gross was the perfect pretext for a negotiation which the Obama administration finds morally unacceptable, as it would place the elderly Jew on the same level as the Cuban spies.

Gross is an authentic laboratory guinea pig, stuck between the United States’ ambiguous politics and Castro’s attempts to get his agents back home. An exchange which the White House is unwilling to accept.

Iván García

Photo: Alan Gross (b. New York, 1949), before his detention, and now, although he is probably thinner and weaker after his last hunger strike and his depression over his mother’s death last June 18th. Taken from The Cuban History.

Translated by GH

10 August 2014

Chatting with One of Havana’s Entrepreneurs / Ivan Garcia

August 4, 2014 2 comments
View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.

And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.

At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.

Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.

He is a cross between a tropical rogue and a guy with a nose for business. He is dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt and a pair of Timberland moccasins. A Swiss Tissot watch cost him six-hundred dollars at an airport duty-free shop.

“Money brings you neither health nor happiness but it makes you feel good, different. Knowing you have money in your wallet and enough to eat is a big deal in this country. Then, if you live in a nice house and own a car, you can afford certain luxuries, like drinking Scotch and sleeping with young girls without having to be a police informer or a senior official in the regime. Solvency raises your self-esteem,” says Humberto, who has wanted to be businessman since he was young.

“At the time of the Revolution I was the owner of an high-end apartment in Vedado. When communism came along, like everyone else I learned to fake it. I was never a member of the militia or a militant, so the goverment tried every trick it could to get me to give up my apartment. They wanted me to exchange it for an awful place in Alamar, as though I were crazy,” says Humberto. “These people,” he adds while making a gesture as though stroking an imaginary beard, “love to talk about the poor but they like to live like the bourgeoisie.”

“In the building where I live there are military officers and government leaders. During the Soviet era there were also technical specialists from the USSR, East Germany and North Korea living there. I have never known more savvy businesspeople than the ’comrades from the communist bloc.’ The used to buy and sell everything. They even set up a small bank,” he notes with a smile.

Things have not always gone so well. He was jailed in the 1980s, accused of illegal economic activity. “After my release from prison I had to sweep parks. When my children were grown, I got them out of the country. They have lived overseas for a long time. My grandchildren are foreigners. I stay here because I prefer to live in Havana, the city where I was born,” says Humberto.

During the 1990s — the tough years of the “Special Period” — Humberto began renting his apartment to foreigners. “Almost all private business was illegal, from dealing in art to buying and selling houses and cars. But after 2010 the government expanded the private sector and I got a hospitality license.”

He lives in a house with his wife and rents out his apartment. “The prices vary depending on the length of stay and the time of year. In peak season I rent it for 60 CUC a day. The apartment has four bedrooms, air-conditioning throughout, a big living room and remodeled bathrooms with hot and cold running water,” says Humberto.

In general he only rents to couples, women and older men. “I don’t like renting to young men or bachelors. They turn your house into a brothel. I don’t rent to Cubans because, on top of being messy, they walk off with things. They have stolen everything but the electricity itself from me. That’s why I only rent to foreigners.”

Humberto considers himself to be a good friend, a better father and a lousy husband. “I have never been stingy. I take care of my parents and I have discreetly helped dissident family members and friends. As long as this regime exists, business people like me will always be treated like suspects and possible criminals. To be a real small businessman you have to live in a climate of democracy.

The night has engulfed Havana. From the bar at La Torre the view is spectacular. You see all the lights but none of the misery.

Ivan Garcia

Video: Views of Havana from La Torre Restaurant where Ivan talked with Humberto. The video was made by Winston Smith and uploaded to YouTube in July 2013.
2 August 2014

What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

July 31, 2014 1 comment
Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself.

She doesn’t know what her future vocation will be. But, in he,r the Party has a good prospect of a political commissar. Wanting to investigate other aspects less publicized in the national media, I posed the following questions.

What could you tell me about Stalin’s brutal purges, that cost the Soviet people millions of lives? Did you know that the application of agricultural collectivization caused a famine and between 7 and 10 million deaths in Ukraine, the so-called Holodomor? Have you read about the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact where in a secret clause Hitler and Stalin shared out the Baltic republics and the Eastern European zone?

Have you read or heard about the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish soldiers by elite Soviet troops. Did you know that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, like many other intellectuals, was imprisoned in the Gulag just for thinking differently?

Don’t you think that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic nation, because it occupied a part of Eastern Europe as a trophy of war and installed puppet governments? Have you studied the Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in 1970?

Did they ever tell you that by the decision by Nikita Kruschhev and Fidel Castro, 42 medium-range atomic missiles that would have provoked a nuclear war were installed in Cuba? Did you know that, just like the United States has a military base against the will of the Cuban people, Fidel Castro without consulting the people authorized a military training center with Soviet troops and an electronic espionage base on the outskirts of Havana?

To each of the questions, the young woman answered evasively, “No, I don’t know that. No, I haven’t read that or they didn’t teach us that in school?”

It’s well-known that the teaching methods in Cuba try to equip its students with a Marxist vision and exalt Fidel Castro and his Revolution. In rigorously tested subjects, the method used is not lying, but no admitting that you have the information or not telling the whole truth.

Although the Soviet Union disappeared from the map more than 20 years ago, and said adios to its bizarre ideology, the education on the island continues to zealously hold to the Soviet narrative.

Manuel, who graduated in philosophy, recognizes that in his university history studies there was no emphasis on Perestroika and Glastnost. “The teachers slide over that stage. They tell us that Gorbachev was a traitor, that he dismantled the Soviet power and influence stone by stone. Communism’s undertaker. A pariah.”

In the Cuban power structure there is a powerful nucleus that still remembers the Soviet period with nostalgia. General Raul Castro, at the head of Cubans’ destiny, is a great admirer of Russian communism.

In a visit to the apartment of Juan Juan Almeida, soneof the guerrilla commander, when he lived in Neuvo Vedado, Juan Juan told me that in the anteroom of General Castro’s office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces, there was a painting of Stalin, the butcher of Georgia.

In the discourse of the old “apparatchiks” (leaders), raised in the severe Party schools, the old Soviet Cuba persists.

Joel, a retired officer, longs for the trips to Moscow and visit the Kremlin mausoleum, where Lenin lies embalmed. At his house, on a wooden shelf, there’s a collection of books by Boris Polevoi, Nicolai Ostrovski and Iliá Ehrenburg, among others who wrote about the exploits of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War.

Carlos, sociologist, considers “that the Soviet Union might seem like an old newspaper, but it is not dead yet. People no longer remember the corned beef, the applesauce or the nesting dolls. It is in the power structure where the Soviet era is missed.

The love story toward the USSR among the intellectual and political sector is long-standing in the country. Many who swear to be nationalists standing firm, accuse people who admire the lifestyle and institutional structure of the United States of being annexationists.

But where annexationism really exists is in Communism. Not only did they import the ideology, they also tried to clone the Soviet model in a Caribbean archipelago 6,000 miles away.

And those who applauded the theory of a Soviet Cuba weren’t stupid or illiterate. Among them were intellectuals of stature like Nicolás Guillen, Salvador García Agüero and Juan Marinello, members of the People’s Socialist Party.

With the coming to power of Fidel Castro, the political opportunism of the bearded ones coupled with the communist imagery of skilled men in labor unions and the Marxist proselytizing in various academic and intellectual sectors of the nation.

Despite the Cuban government’s affinity for the Soviets, among a wide segment of the citizenry, the Russian culture doesn’t go down well. Nor are they cool with their fashions and customs, their food and religious beliefs.

What the Soviet Union left was were hundreds of marriages between Russians and Cubans. And names like Ivan, Tatiana, Vladimer, Irina, Boris, Natasha… Little else.

Although the stale political dinosaurs treat Russia royally in the media, and the nomenklatura endeavors to reactivate new pacts, the Eurasian company remains a distant and exotic music for ordinary people.

But, by geography and culture, Cubans continue to look north.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966) and the American communist politician Earl Browder (1891-1973), on sale in bookstores in Havana, taken in Cuba in 1945

25 July 2014

New Measures by Cuban Customs Service Coming in September / Ivan Garcia

July 22, 2014 2 comments
Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

On September 1, 2014 the Customs Service of the Republic of Cuba will begin enforcing new regulations intended to combat illegal trafficking of merchandise by relatives, friends and “mules”* through airports and port facilities.

It’s one more turn of the screw. Every year since 2011 new regulations have been put in place designed to halt the illegal importation of goods destined for families and private businesses on the island.

In Spring 2012 the customs service began charging ten dollars for every kilo above the twenty-kilo limit for personal baggage. For parcel post the charge was ten dollars per kilo above the five-kilo limit.

According to Onelia, a customs official, “The new measures are intended to halt the trade in goods brought in by mules.”

The military regime quite often resorts to demagogic rhetoric. It eschews the military uniform and takes on the role of victim when talking about the economic and financial embargo that the United States has imposed on Cuba since 1962.

But the embargo does not justify establishing a string of regulations that affect family well-being, private businesses and the quality of life for a wide segment of the population.

Simply put, they are applying a set of prohibitions and laws in order increase sales in the chain of hard-currency stores operated as military businesses. It is a disgrace.

It is monopoly in its purest form. The government would now find itself hard pressed to explain how these measures are benefitting its citizens. Its aberrant customs rules, prohibitions on retail sales of imported clothing and high taxes on the self-employed are anti-populist edicts.

I asked twenty-eight people — friends, neighbors, taxi drivers, public and private sector workers — if they approved of these regulations. Regardless of their political beliefs, the verdict was unanimous: all twenty-eight were opposed to the current measures as well as to those scheduled to take effect on September 1.

Some 80% of Cubans have a relative or friend in the United States or Europe. Some benefit from regular shipments of clothes, food, appliances, video games, computer tablets or smart phones. Others receive occasional shipments.

But it is black market commerce, driven scarcity and a system of economic production that does not satisfy demand, the most important provider of the things people need.

HP laptops, plasma-screen TVs, instant soups and even major league baseball hats arrive on the island from Miami, as do Russian car parts and cloned satellite TV cards, which are banned by the Cuban government.

What businessmen, politicians and exiles living in the United States do not mention when expressing support for relaxing or repealing the embargo is the regime’s obsession with controlling our private lives.

We must navigate an internet packed with filters, watch TV channels that the government authorizes, read books over which the mullahs of censorship pass judgment and pay extortionist prices for cell phone service.

We should be talking more often about the internal blockade the government imposes on its citizens.

Is it legal for a nation to stifle illegal commerce? Yes, it is. But before punishing people, it should provide by offering range of products and prices for the domestic market, living wages and efficient services.

This is not the case in Cuba. State workers earn around twenty dollars a month. The “basic basket” of goods that a ration book covers barely lasts ten days. Putting two meals a day on the table is a luxury in many homes.

The State has become an insatiable overseer. It owns industries that provide us with overpriced mayonnaise, canned tuna and queso blanco.

At no meeting of the boring and monotonous National Assembly did I hear any delegate demand that the state set fair prices. Food prices in Cuban hard currency stores are higher than those in New York.

The price of flat-screen TV or a computer is two and a half times what it is in Miami. Tiles and bathroom fixtures are five times as expensive. And a Peugeot 508 sells for an exorbitant price, comparable to that of a Ferrari.

Thanks to mules, relatives in Florida send us everything from powdered milk to sanitary pads because the state cannot satisfy the monthly demand of women or offer such products for sale at affordable prices.

This is what it’s about. The new measures attempting to stop trafficking by mules are intended to benefit state enterprises and businesses, and to increase their sales, though what becomes of the profits is never revealed.

They are only hampering the transfer of small ticket items, however, not of dollars. Greenbacks are still welcome. The more, the merrier.

Before the Obama administration relaxes that relic of the Cold War called the embargo, those speaking on behalf of the Cuban people should ask Raul Castro for greater freedom and economic independence for his citizens.

And don’t get me started on the denial of political rights. That’s another story.

Photo: From Univision Colorado.

 *Translator’s note: Slang term for couriers of goods from overseas.

18 July 2014

Cuba: Is Varadero for People of Another Social Class? / Ivan Garcia

July 10, 2014 1 comment

Under a brightly colored umbrella, a representative of Gaviota, a tourism chain, the property of businessmen in the Cuban military, offers an inclusive leisure package for the summer.

The bureau of reservations is nestled in an old parking lot of a strip mall in 5th Avenue and 42nd, Miramar, to the west of Havana.

It is Saturday. There is a festive atmosphere: Kiosks selling popcorn, sandwiches, and frozen pizzas that are heated in the microwave and taste like plastic. Meanwhile, flat screen televisions are airing the World Cup soccer matches in Brazil.

There has to be music. Randomly situated speakers amplify too loudly the current hit, Bailando, by Enrique Iglesisas, Descemer Bueno, and People of the Zone.

In the tourism bureau everything is a hustle. Over a table, public pamphlets of “all-inclusive” hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco, or Santa Lucia.

Past nine-thirty in the morning they begin to see clients. The personnel are friendly with Colgate smiles and a commercial diction learned through quick marketing courses.

The representatives of each chain wear differently colored shirts: Gaviota, green; Cubanacan, red; Havanatur, yellow, and Isla Azul, white. Why speak of the price? Two nights in the hotel Bella Costa de Varadero, 240 CUC. A weekend in the beach Ancon, Sancti Spiritus, 380 cuc. Recall that the average monthly salary in Cuba is 20 convertible pesos.

Like anywhere else in the world, the hotels cost according to their glamour and five-star rating. In a queue to make reservations of nine people  there is only one black woman.

The rest are white. Two foreigners with Cuban “girlfriends” with extremely long nails, tiny shorts, and high heels, probably prostitutes, choose the Pesquero Beach, in the eastern province of Holguin, where they hope to drink mojitos and relax in beach chairs.

A Cuban-American residing in Coconut Grove, Miami-Dade, wishes to rent in a four-star hotel in Varadero for a week. “My family is from a mountainous area in Santiago de Cuba. Everything is going well for me in the United States. There is no one better with whom to share my vacations than with them.”

When it is his turn, the shrewd representative of Gaviota makes an offer: “Almost impossible, this is a hotel that specializes in family services. It is ranked second in preference within Varadero. You will thank me,” signals the vendor with engrossing confidence.

It has been ten years since she has visited Cuba and she debates between the unplanned expenses and her poor parents, who spend their vacations watching TV and relieving themselves from the heat with a chinese fan. She gives in to the commercial coaxing of the type of expert who draws money from clients.

“By the end I wasted two thousand CUC for eight nights and four rooms in El Patriarca, a five-star hotel. It is worth distracting my family. Cuba is not doing well. Whatever one does for the family will be too little,” she says, and stores away her reservation in her bag.

Natacha, from the Cubanacan chain, knows how to handle all types of clients. “We win our commission for every sold package. The cheapest are the Spanish, they always have been, but now with their financial crisis they like to buy cheaply. The Canadians and the Russians pay without joking. The Cuban-Americna or other American we attract once in a while, will even leave tips.”

Two married doctors who worked for two years in South Africa, while drinking Corona beers, are enthralled while listening to a tourism operator who proposes an offer in Cayo Coco, Ciego de Avila, 500 kilometers from Havana.

“After working in such alienated places we deserve a good vacation. With the money we collected we could repair the house and buy appliances for the house. We thought of acquiring a car, but after the government annulled the special right to doctors, it is impossible to buy a car with the current prices. We therefore decided to rent 4 nights in Cayo Coco,” recounts the married couple.

The black woman is an engineer. Since 2010 she tends to stay two or three days in an “all-inclusive” hotel in Varadero. This season she could rent 5 nights in Melia Marina Varadero. This cost here 822 cuc.

“With my salary of 500 Cuban pesos and 27.50 CUC monthly I would never be able to. Thanks to the grandmother of my daughter who resides in Europe and my husband, who is working for himself, we can spend some time in a hotel in Varadero,” she expresses.

If you leave the commercial complex in 5th and 42, Miramar, and arrive at the center of Havana, in corners within dangerous neighborhoods you will see young people chatting about soccer or making plans to make money.

They are hardened by their marginal existence. They know where drugs are sold and often spend nights throwing dice in an illegal gaming house. They are also experts in proposing sex with boys or girls and sell fashionable clothes. When you ask them where they will spend their vacations they look at you as if you were an alien.

“Are you kidding, brother? Vacations for us mean having money in our pockets, drinking beer, talking about nothing or going out with an American. If we can lunch or dine as God wishes we are happy. We entertain ourselves watching sports on the television and when it is hot we go the beaches in the east, we take a shower and down a whole liter of white rum. Neither Varadero or Cayo Coco is in our plans. That is for people of higher social standing.”

Ivan Garcia

Notes by Tania Quintero

The five-star Hotel Melia Marina Varadero was inaugurated in July 2013 and included in its attractions is a harbor with a capacity to dock 1,200 yachts, which will grow to 3,000 boats of small, medium, and large sizes.

Situated in the Hicacos Peninsula, Matanzas, 150 kilometers east of Havana, expect 423 rooms and one condominium with 126 one- and two-bedroom apartments.  This hotel is the 26th establishment by the firm Melia Hotels International, which in May 10 1990 inaugurated in Varadero as its first hotel in Cuba, the Sol Palmeras. Melia is the foreign hotel chain with greatest presence in Cuba. In 2016 it will open a hotel in the colonial city of Trinidad, in the central south of the island.

Currently, 60 hotels are administered by 16 foreign chains, among which is the Portuguese Pestana, which in August 2013 started its operations in Cuba with the opening of Pestana Cayo Coco Beach Resort, a four-star hotel located in the Jardines dle Rey, keys which are north of the province, Ciego de Avila.

The last one to join the list is the Swiss empire, Kempinski Hotels, founded in 1897, and with more than 80 luxury hotels in the world. Kempinski acquired the rights to administer and commercialize the hotel that was constructed in the old Manzana de Gomez, in the heart of Havana, to be inaugurated in October 2016.

The main national operator is the Group of Tourism Gaviota S.A., property of the Ministry of the Armed Services. As of 2008, the Cubans can stay in any hotel or tourism facility…. as long as they pay in Cuban convertible pesos, the Creole hard currency. Three years later, in 2011, BBC World informed that after the Canadians, the main group of tourists in Cuba were the Cuban citizens from the islands and the immigrants who visit.

We recommend the lecture series in 10 posts dedicated to Varadero, that during October 7-28, 2013 was published on “The Blog” by Ivan Garcia and his friends, among these the last two, “Memories” and “Varadero, where Benny found peace.”

Translated by: Bianca Martinez

25 June 2014

Not Everything About a Cuban Athlete is Worthwhile / Ivan Garcia

June 30, 2014 1 comment
Photo: Taken from "Yasiel Puig's Untold Journey to the Dodgers," published in LA Magazine.

Photo: Taken from “Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers,” published in LA Magazine.

There have been so many escapes by Cuban baseball players and boxers that they have stopped being news. The stories behind some of these defections could make a Hollywood script.

From the late-90’s land and sea odyssey of Havana pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, who signed with the New York Yankees, to the unusual escape of the fabulous shortstop Rey Ordóñez, who jumped over a wall during his team’s warmup in a tournament in Buffalo, New York, in 1993.

Within the plot of an escape there is a blend of diverse ingredients. There’s a bit of everything:  human traffickers, drug cartels, and sports scouts.

Some rafter-ballplayers have tried escaping several times. When caught, they opt for the mea culpa traditional in authoritarian societies.

There is talk of repealing the embargo barriers that keep Cuban athletes from competing in ball clubs in the United States. But let’s not be naive. The olive-green autocracy loves to play the role of victim.

Before discussing whether Major League Baseball or the professional boxing associations should review their policies for hiring Cuban athletes, the regime should be required to give financial freedom to the athletes.

Let everyone choose their own representative. And set a tax rate similar to that of other nations. It is hard to accuse the team owners of using their athletes as merchandise when the state is doing the same thing.

Even more embarrassing: until last year, coaches and athletes with foreign contracts only received 15% of the money they earned.

Now the state is trying to negotiate with the Major League owners, because the contracts of Cuban ballplayers totalling more than $600 million is a good excuse for fattening its bank accounts.

People in Cuba enthusiastically follow the performance of Pito Abreu or Dayán Viciedo, who started the season with hot bats. Abreu, the home run leader with 10, stokes the dreams of Creole fans.

Fans on this side of the straits want to have a home-run version of the Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera or the Dominican Papi Ortiz. And they believe this man’s last name is Abreu. But the passion goes beyond sport.

There is currently an issue inspiring debate in every corner of Cuba. Many do not approve of the alleged accusations used by Aroldis Chapman and Yasiel Puig to camouflage their future intentions.

This human damage caused by the revolution of Fidel Castro, of encouraging anonymous reports, tip-offs, and confessions, is a clear sign of the ethical and moral decline in society today.

Some Cubans would betray their mother for a trip abroad, a government apartment, or a vacation on the beach. As with lab rats, regime officials used the bait of “prizes” to divide.

Some local athletes, on their way to stardom in foreign clubs, have left people in jail, accused of promoting the “defection of athletes.” This conduct cannot be justified by the reprehensible behavior of a segment of human beings who climb to high position by trampling on corpses.

It is always sad when our sports idols act so miserably. I sincerely hope that Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman can prove their innocence.

We all make mistakes. But some faults can cause reputations to suffer. One of them is betrayal.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from “Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers,” published in LA Magazine.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 May 2014

Cuba: The Tricks of the Embargo / Ivan Garcia

June 22, 2014 2 comments

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Cartoon taken from The Canal, blog The PanAm Post.


In Havana, the good medical specialists always have at hand two kinds of treatment for their patients.

“If it is a person with family abroad or of high purchasing power, I propose that he go to the international pharmacy to buy the medications in foreign currency because they are of higher quality and more effective. Those who cannot, then I prescribe the treatment approved by the ministry of Public Health with medicines of low quality manufactured in Cuban laboratories or of Chinese origin,” reports Rigoberto (name changed), an allergist with more than two decades of experience.

When you visit one of the 20 international pharmacies located in the Cuban capital, you can find a wide range of medicines patented by pharmaceutical companies of the United States.

From eye drops, syrups, tablets and ointments. Their prices instill fear. Lidia, an engineer, browses the shelves meticulously in search of Voltaren eye drops, indicated by the ophthalmologist to begin a treatment of her mother who underwent cataract surgery.

“It costs a little more than 10 CUC (the minimum monthly wage in Cuba). I have to buy two bottles, 20 CUC, which is my monthly salary.  Thanks to relatives living in Europe I can get it,” says Lidia.

In the same pharmacy, Yamila, a housewife, waits to pay for 15 envelopes of Inmunoferon AM3 stabilized in an inorganic matrix that doctors usually recommend for allergic patients or to raise the body’s defenses after a prolonged treatment with antibiotics.

“It is shameless of the government to sell it so high. My sister who lives overseas sends me the boxes with 90 envelopes and each one costs her 18 dollars.  In the international pharmacies they sell you 15 envelopes for 8 CUC.  And then they fill their mouths talking about the blockade (economic embargo) of the United States against Cuba,” says Yamila.

On the island, the “blockade” is at fault for almost everything that does not work:  the dirtiness of the streets, empty warehouse shelves and cracked buildings in danger of collapse. A perfect alibi where lazinesss, low productivity and the lethal Creole bureaucracy are hidden.

A government never had such a powerful weapon for justifying its impotence. “Whether lack of soap, toilet paper or condoms, the blockade is to blame. There exists a vast catalog of jokes at the expense of the blockade.  And it has become a joke,” says a newspaper vendor.

“The blockade,” says a pre-university student, “affects only people who have no access to hard currency. With hard currency everything is in the stores. From toiletries, food, computer equipment and domestic appliances.”

When you travel the stores located inside the Miramar Center complex, you will notice the wide range of products with US patents.

In a repair shop for electronic equipment, refrigeration and home appliances of the CIMEX chain, which is controlled by military firms, on San Lazaro and Carmen, in the 10th of October township 30 minutes from downtown Havana, you can see great publicity about the qualities of RCA, Hamilton Beach, Black & Decker and other brands patented in the United States and which sell like hotcakes in the hard currency stores.

Speaking of the embargo has become a cliche. People mechanically repeat the official line. I asked 7 people between ages 18 and 35 about the reasons the United States government instituted it, and they did not know how to explain it to me.

“I believe it was because Fidel promulgated socialism in Cuba.”  “I don’t really know, but it is unfair, their fault that many Cuban children do not have the medicines they need.”  “They should lift it immediately, so that these people (the Castros) will not continue the same old story (line),” were almost all the answers.

No one knew how to answer why then Coca-Cola and HP printers are sold and the regime acquires a bus with parts and additions Made in the USA.  But the average Cuban is as tired of the embargo as of his aging rulers.

They intuit that the blockade is not at fault for the marabou weed that overruns the countryside, the scarcity of oranges or the astronomical prices of meats, fruits and vegetables in the farmers’ markets. They live with their backs turned to the furious anti-embargo lobby that is happening on the other side of the pond.

Fermin, a cobbler who works in a doorway of Calzada in 10th of October, was unaware that a delegation of the United States Chamber of Commerce visited the island and, among its objectives, is to create mechanisms for granting credit to small businessmen.

“You speak seriously or it’s a joke. I cannot believe that I am a small businessman. I doubt that if they someday award loans to individuals, we will be the beneficiaries. The favored will be the same as always, the children of ministers and retired ex-military who have businesses.  We screwed will always be screwed,” vows Fermin.

What it has to do with, in this new dynamic to improve relations and relax the embargo, is that there exist multiple legal tricks and legal created by the olive green regime in order to control the emergence of a class with economic power.

In the first utterances of the Economic Guidelines approved by the last Communist Party Congress in April 2011, the government of General Raul Castro plays its cards face up, signalling that the measures are designed so that citizens involved in self-employed economic activities cannot accumulate capital.

Evidently, the “fine print” has not been read by the politicians and businessmen who in the United States are carrying out the campaign to lift the embargo.

The cobbler Fermin is clear: “Here the private worker who makes a lot of money is labelled as ’criminal.’  And what awaits him might be jail.”

Ivan Garcia

Translated by mlk.
21 June 2014

Fidel Castro’s Undesirables / Ivan Garcia

June 14, 2014 1 comment
Photo: Over 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel on boats like these bound for the Florida coast between April 15 and October 31, 1980. Source: Martí Noticias.

Photo: Over 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel on boats like these bound for the Florida coast between April 15 and October 31, 1980. Source: Martí Noticias.

It was Spring 1980 in Havana. Before dawn a group of policemen hurriedly entered the cells of the Eastern Consolidated prison, known as the “pizzeria.” After lining the inmates up, their backs to the wall along a narrow corridor, an official of the Ministry of Interior spoke in a loud voice and without beating around the bush.

He was blunt. “You can get on a bus that’s waiting outside and leave for the United States, or within three days your prison sentences will be doubled. You choose,” he said.

“Imagine, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder,” recalls Randolfo, sitting in a park in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. “Going to the U.S. was my  passport to freedom.

“I don’t know if my sins can be purged. I stole, killed and caused harm. Since I was sixteen-years-old, prison had been like home. In January 1980 I was transferred from the prison at La Cabaña to Eastern Consolidated, which was still under construction. Before the incident at the Peruvian embassy, which took place before the stampede at the port of Mariel, I was in a prison cell. I didn’t think twice about leaving,” recalls Randolfo.

1980 was an extraordinary year in Cuba. On April 1, the #79 Lawton-Playa bus, travelling at full speed, smashed through the security barricade at the Peruvian embassy on 5th Avenue and 72nd Street in Miramar. The police crossfire caused the death of one of their comrades, Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, who worked there as a guard.

It was a period in which Fidel Castro and his regime were in complete control of civic life. Insincerity and hypocrisy were at their height. Many people energetically applauded his speeches in the Plaza of the Revolution even as they relished leaving the gray, uniform setting in which an all-powerful state rewarded or punished those it governed by edict.

The jails were full. Anything could be a punishable offense: having dollars, sailing on a rubber raft to Florida or telling a neighbor you had a dream that Fidel had died. And there were also dangerous guys like Randolfo, individuals with short fuses who moved through life with a knife clenched between their teeth.

After Castro’s miscalculation — he never imagined that over ten thousand Cubans would storm the Peruvian embassy within a few hours after his decision to remove police protection — the strategy became one of carrying out a full-scale social cleansing of the country by clogging American society with murderers, the mentally ill and violent criminals. It was a collection of humanity that would have had no place even on Noah’s ark.

At a processing center near the Lucero highway south of the capital heading towards Mariel, homosexuals, silent dissidents, prostitutes, rockers and social misfits were hastily dispatched.

Castro branded them as “scum” and shipped them off in boats owned by Cubans living in Florida, who came out hoping to find their relatives. Before leaving, eggs, insults and punches were hurled at the “repulsive worms” at Fascist-style rallies in which their neighbors or work colleagues happily participated.

Randolfo has a different story. He was transferred from the prison to the processing center and in little more than an hour he was on a boat headed north.

“It was a rainy afternoon,” recalls Randolfo. “I arrived at Key West at the end of May, 1980. The government had released about four thousand inmates and criminally insane individuals. We were processed by immigration officers and the FBI at a detention center in Florida. Those who had no family in the United States, or who were determined to be prisoners or psychiatric patients, were sent straight to prison in Atlanta.”

In 1987 Randolfo participated in a massive prison riot in the southern state of Georgia.

“It was like a movie. We took hostages and things got ugly. Many Cuban prisoners didn’t want to return to the island. We wanted to serve out our sentences and then settle in the United States. But it wasn’t possible, at least in my case “

Randolfo’s was one of the 2,746 names that made up a list of people to be repatriated to Cuba after agreements reached between Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro in 1984.

“I landed at a Havana airport in night in late 1990. They took off the handcuffs and handed me over to the Cuban guards, who put handcuffs back on and transferred me to Eastern Consolidated. I was a prisoner there for another year. I had not been a free man since 1978. All I knew of the United States was its prisons. I’ve changed. I have a family and my dream is to emigrate to the U.S, to work hard and to get ahead. It’s a society that gives you that opportunity. But my past is holding me back. The U.S. immigration authorities will never give me a visa,” says Randolfo.

Thirty-four years after events at the Peruvian embassy and the mass exodus through the port of Mariel, U.S. customs and immigration authorities continue to deport criminals and the criminally insane sent over by Fidel Castro in 1980. There are five-hundred and two awaiting repatriation.

Iván García

8 June 2014

Internet in Cuba: A Success in Spite of Everything / Ivan Garcia

June 10, 2014 2 comments

CUBA-INTERNET ACCESSEight in the morning. On the ground floor of the Focsa building  – Cuba’s Empire State – on M between 17 and 19 Vedado, in a shop between the Guiñol theatre and a beaten-up bar at the entrance to the Scherezada club, a queue of about 15 people are waiting to enter the internet room.

It is one of 12  in Havana. They are few, and badly distributed for a city with more than two and a half million inhabitants. In El Vedado and Miramar there are four, two in each neighbourhood. Nevertheless, 10 de Octubre, the municipality with the most inhabitants in the island, doesn’t have any at all.

Poorer municipalities like San Miguel, Cotorro and Arroyo Naranjo (the metropolitan district with the greatest incidence of acts of violence in the country), don’t have anywhere to connect  to the internet either.

On June 4, 2013, they opened 118 internet rooms for the whole island. According to an ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba) official, around 900,000 users have accessed the service. Not very impressive figures.

On average, each internet room has received 7,600 customers a month in the first 12 months. Some 250 internet users a day. 25 an hour: the internet premises are open 10 and a half hours every day of the week, from 8:30 am to 7 pm.

But remember that Cuba is the country with the lowest connectivity in Latin America. Some people continue to regard the internet as something exotic with hints of espionage or science fiction.

The murmurings of the NSA analyst Edward Snowden, accusing the Unted States Special Services of eavesdropping on half the world, added to the paranoia of the Castro regime, which compares the world wide web with a Trojan Horse designed by the CIA, along with the USAID’s trickery, trying to demolish the olive green autocracy with a blow from twitter, inhibits many ordinary Cubans from exploring the virtual world.

The oldest people get panicky when they sit at a machine – the way they do. Lourdes, 65-years-old, housewife, only knows the internet by references. “Seeing it in American films on the television on Saturdays. I have never sat down in front of a computer. That is something for the youngsters”

There are plenty of people who see a James Bond in every internet surfer. Norberto, president of a CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) considers that “the internet is a Yankee military invention which is used to subvert and drive the youngsters crazy with frivolities. An instrument of virtual colonisation. Our organs of State Security have to meticulously regulate those of surf the web.”

And they do it. The Cuban Special Services have taken note of the way the social networks operate during the Middle East uprisings.

According to an ETECSA source, who prefers not to be named, there exists a formidable virtual policy police which controls all the access services to the internet in Cuba with a magnifying glass.

“From the spy programs and the army of information analysts to hack into dissidents’ accounts, up to following social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. All surfers are under suspicion. Before ETECSA opens a new internet  service, the State Security surveillance tools are already working,” indicates the informant.

A technician tells me that, right now, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) has a fleet of vehicles equipped to detect illegal internet signals and cable satellite channels.

“Month in and month out there are MININT and ETECSA personnel working together to remove cabled games networks or illegal wifi which are connected up by kids where they live. They also pursue pirate internet connections, illegal international phone call connections, and cable television. A couple of years ago, in one of these investigations, even Amaury Pérez, a musician loyal to the government, had an illegal cable dish connected” recalls the technician.

In spite of everything, the internet is an unstoppable phenomenon for many Cubans, who don’t care about the absurd prices. Although you pay 4.50 CUC (112 pesos, a third of the average salary in the island) an hour, in internet rooms like the one in Focsa, there is always a queue.

Just to open an account in the Nauta mail on their mobile phone, in order to read their emails, a little over 100,000 Cubans stood in queues from the early hours of dawn.

“There were so many people waiting, that we had to assign 30 daily shifts,” indicates a lady working in the Focsa internet room.

The international press tends to incorrectly refer to the Cuban internet rooms as “cyber cafes”. Nothing further from the truth. In none of the 118 premises do they sell coffee, refreshments or sandwiches.

They are commercial offices, where people also pay their phone bills, they sell flash cards and charge up mobile phones. They are big and have air conditioning like the one at Focsa or the Business Centre of Miramar, with 9 computers. The one which has more pc’s, with 12 of them, is situated in Obispo Street, in the heart of Old Havana.

The connection speed can’t be compared with what you find in other countries: between 512 Kb and 2 Mb. It’s a huge difference in comparison with the narrow band connection of 56 Kb offered by ETECSA to the state-approved users.

Even in 5 star hotels, like the Saratoga or Parque Central, the connection is no more than 100 Kb. The price they charge in the tourist locations is very high. One hour costs between 6 and 10 CUC. There is no business strategy. In spite of charging more, the connection is slower.

Because of that it is normal to see lots of foreign tourists or Latin Americans and Africans studying in Cuba, standing in queues outside one of the 118 ETECSA internet rooms.

The internet rooms are called Nauta. The staff are friendly although some have limited ability to advise people who are using the internet for the first time.

I only go onto the internet twice a week. And, apart from striking up conversations with anonymous surfers, who are not known to be dissidents or independent journalists, I have noted that their ages range between 18 and 55, approximately.

There are more whites and mestizos than black people surfing. When you talk to them, 90% say that they are going to look at their Facebook account, look for friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, or to read news about sport, and deal with processes for migration or working abroad.

For those who like to read the international media, the favourites are the BBC, El Pais and the Financial Times. Of the Cuban pages, the most visited are Diario de Cuba and Havana Times, and, of the Miami newspapers, El Nuevo Herald and Diario de las Américas. Martí Noticias, Cubanet and Cubaencuentrohave always been blocked  by the govenrment.

Of the blogs or webs originating in Cuba, like Primavera Digital, out of every 100 people consulted, only 9% said they copy the contents onto a pendrive to read later at home.

Cuba is a country of extremes. The internet arouses affection and fear. A country which limits it, disconnects itself from scientific advances. Puts shackles on progress and throws away the keys in the bottom of the ocean.

he government’s fear of a possible seditious uprising, has reined back the world information superhighway, at the expense of torpedoing the economy and branches of cultural and technological knowledge. That’s what happening in Cuba.

Iván García

Translated by GH

29 May 2014

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