There is still the ration book. Potatoes are scarce, the price of fruit is going through the roof, and drinking a natural orange juice is a luxury. Sanitary pads are only distributed every two months — a package of ten to menstruating women. And connecting to the Internet is still a science fiction story for a large part of the population.
However, sex is liberated. A national sport. According to some, the infidelity between couples is a gene human beings carry. If those verse in it give a tour of Cuba, we can confirm their strange theories.
And they confirm that teenagers of 12 and 13 are “experts” in the field. Unaware that Australian is a continent, or that Henry Lee was in independence fighter in the American Revolution and not the creator of Lee jeans. But when it comes to sex, they have countless stories to tell. For many boys, their fathers teach them from the time they’re small, that the more women they have the more macho they are.
It’s the ABCs of a Cuban father to his son; life is dick. Men don’t cry. And the boss of the house is the one with balls. If in the 19th and 20th century fathers paid prostitutes to de-flower their sons, today it’s not necessary.
Most children are more up-to-date and more promiscuous than their parents. Having a “honey” or a lover is synonymous with masculinity. An athlete of sex. A son of a bitch of the street.
The more lovers, the more drinks friends pay for. In the bars they offer “wise” council about how to get into an impossible female. For hours, they tell sex anecdotes without ceasing to drink like Cossacks, beer and cheap rum.
Sex in Cuba is messy, but it has its hierarchies. Not like the neighborhood pimp that manages a five-star hotel. A capital that’s a general. A boring and monotonous deputy to parliament that’s a mandarin.
The “honeys” of the superiors respect them. Secretly they look at their breasts or butt, but desist from the rude compliment or indecent proposal. A boss can fire you or make your life impossible if he finds you prowling around his woman.
Meanwhile, the more stars on your epaulette or if your photo appears among the members of the Central Committee, the more chances you have to give major luxuries to your lovers. You can even choose: blondes brunettes, mulatto or black. Or have a collection with one of each. As all are stunning, with pride and discretion we see you on the weekend in exclusive recreational villas for senior officers, or at parties their wives don’t attend.
Being the “honey” of a major character in Cuba, is synonymous with social status. As if rocket-propelled, you climb the ladder at work. All over Havana everyone is talking about the meteoric rise of a famous television report, who is both beautiful and talented. According to the rumors, the lucky guy who sleeps with her is the “boss of the bosses.”
It’s still remembered that in the 90s, when Carlos Aldana was the third strong man on the island, in charge of the ideological sector of the Communist Party, came to have three “darling” journalists, the three well-known.
Even Fidel Castro, between sips of Jack’s Daniel, liked to talk in private about his sexual exploits, like the affair he had with the German Marita Lorenz and she told about it in a book. In a macho-Fidelista Revolution like the Cuban one, having amorous adventures in bulk sets you apart from the pack. A rogue, a pimp. A hallmark of virility that makes the difference.
In a note from Juan Juan Almeida published in Marti News, told about the debauchery of Cuban officials in Angola. He gave a figure, taking from the Ministry of the Armed Forces: 40% of the woman who were on the mission in Angola were harassed or raped. That figure has never appeared in the newspaper Granma. For me, Almeida Jr. is a highly credible source. He lived among the creme de la creme of the Cuban hierarchy. His father, a great person in the opinion of his relatives, took to his bed every woman who stirred his pleasure.
And I pardon their children and wives. The great difference between being the “honey” of a leader and dying of hunger, are luxuries and comforts. The guy with few resources invites you to a movie and buys you popcorn or peanuts. The “bigwig” puts a roof over your head. And if you really satisfy him he buys you a car. And in addition, you climb the ladder in your profession.
There are women who live off their lovers, like the pimps off their prostitutes. And sometimes they have more than one “girlfriend,” they compete to see who gets more and remains preferred. Recently I heard an argument between two hookers. One said to the other, “Yeah, I’m a monster, I bought my boyfriend a motorcycle and three gold chains. The others just give him shirts and sneakers.”
You can live in tile house in Carraguao, or a residence in Miramar. But if you were raised to it, you have to have a “honey.” In a conversation between “tough men,” if you don’t talk about the “girlfriends,” “honeys” or lovers you have, they might label you Catholic or retarded. A bore who doesn’t know how to use the penis God gave you. That is, taking care not to mention or even look at the boss’s lover.
16 May 2013
The French General Charles de Gaulle used to say that when two people or two countries associated with each other, one always tries to have the upper hand. Cuba, which because of its geographical situation is considered the Key of America, after 54 years of the exclusive mandate of the Castro brothers still has pretensions of being a lighthouse of redemption.
As the first Communist country on the continent it has forged the natural right to be an ideological mentor of the rebellious, seditious, or outdated Latin America anarchists.
The Havana government has outlined interventionist policies. When in the time of the “proletariat internationalism” the Soviet titty connected a tube of rubles, funds and oil, Fidel Castro offered guerrilla apprenticeship courses in Cuba.
Terrorists, such as the Venezuelan Carlos “The Jackal,” currently in prison in France, learned to use C-4 explosives from his Cuban comrades. On behalf of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an enraged poor island sent troops to civil conflicts in Africa.
After the years of the Castro hurricane are left behind, the amount of money and resources squandered in overseas battles will be known. When Soviet Communism said goodbye, the island entered a stage called the “Special Period”: a punishment of waste and economic unproductivity. The regime was jumping through hoops.
The State coffers were nearly empty. Lack of oil paralyzed the development plans. Closed industries. The blackouts lasted 12 hours a day. It was like a war, but without aerial bombardments.
In Venezuela, in 1992, a lieutenant colonel in the paratroopers attempted a military coup to install himself in Miraflores. Meanwhile, in his office, Fidel Castro circled in red pencil the news from the event. He awarded the highest priority to young Hugo Chavez. And when he was released in 1994, he was the guest of honor. It was in Havana where the future alliance was born.
The olive-green autocracy bet everything on a winning horse. Screaming, the homeland of Bolivar demanded changes. The corruption and inflexibility of traditional politicians, rampant poverty and urban crime, had gestated an explosive panorama.
Hugo was Fidel’s man in Caracas. He came to power skillfully managing the discourse of poverty and social change. No talk of socialism to be controlled much of Venezuelan institutions. He didn’t talk about socialism until he had the better part of the Venezuelan institutions under control.
Venezuela is a democracy in appearances. There is free press and political game. Even elections. But the strong man of Barinas designed a strategy that will enable staying in power for decades, using authoritarian methods subtly supported by the Constitution.
Chavez’s ideology was amorphous. Catholic, a little Marxism along the way, and a first class passion for the XXI Century Socialism devised by the German political scientist, Heinz Dieterich.
Death came to collect him and saved him from disaster. If Venezuela remains committed to the path of political absurdity, it will end in massive street protests, citizen discontent and social unrest. The economic figures are unsettling. Crime is frightening. Inflation soars.
Although the barrel of oil is around $100, the money collected evaporates. Oil production decreases. Part of this production is to pay their debt to China. Another part is delivered at a subsidized price, if paid for at all, to Cuba and other Caribbean nations.
Socialism sounds nice in theory. Helping the homeless, prosperity, health and free education. That is good. But social policies should be designed without violating individual liberties or leaping over democratic laws. A State can’t plan a whole economy from toothpicks to the exact amount of slushy ice.
President Nicolas Maduro could turn things around for good. But he’s carrying the burden of his friends’ cadaver on his back. The advice that blows down from Havana should not be a pattern to follow.
The project is to polarize society. To continue delivering oil to the string of friendly countries. And consolidate the continental hegemony against the United States. During his visit to Cuba he met with Fidel Castro for five hours, presumed mastermind of today’s Venezuelan landscape.
If Maduro is an honest man, he will notice that his alliance with the Cuban government could lead to political ruin. The ideal would be to break that heavy burden, which annoys even many supporters of Chavez.
And the model to follow, opting for a modern and moderate leftist style like Lula’s of Dilma’s in Brazil. Otherwise, its days are numbered.
Photo: Gregory Bull / AP, taken by Los Angeles Times. Fidel Castro receives Hugo Chavez at the airport in Havana on November 15, 1999.
11 May 2013
Some are advertised online. And they pay taxes to the state. Other work by the left. Either way flowers grow like Havana.
All are located in private homes. Prices vary between one and three CUC with the right to a bag of popcorn and a soda. They also sell ice cream and beer, rum, vodka and whiskey for adults.
There are runs for children, adolescents and youth. And sessions just for adults with horror movies or violence. These private 3D cinemas have a wide collection of films in three dimensions.
Avatar or Tintin, are now all the rage among children. In the neighborhood of La Vibora there are now several 3D cinemas. One of them is located in a house on the side of the former primary school, Pedro Maria, today a dilapidated shell.
So many children, youth and adults attend, making reservations days in advance with Roinel, the owner. The house has air conditioning and a small wood and metal bar. About twenty yellow and white plastic chairs, four large sofas and three high-legged stools.
In one of the showings last Saturday, the makeshift 3D theater was packed. Each session lasts two hours. “It’s tremendous, the reception given the 3D. It is a unique experience and people are loving it. In one day I have to 5 showings with a full house,” says Roinel.
He has 40 polarized glasses. A formidable 60 inch flat screen and a special projector for films in three dimensions. When Roinel is asked about the profits he responds with a smile. “I’m making good money,” he said without giving figures. The olive-green state, owns 90% of the companies in Cuba, and keeps an eagle eye on the new 3D cinema private businesses.
The first public exhibition hosted by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) was held in the province of Camagüey, a little more than 300 miles east of Havana, at an event for film criticism, last March. “It was more symbolic than anything else, because we only had 20 glasses, but for historical purposes it must be as the first exhibition in a public space by the State,” he told the film critic Juan Antonio García from the Spanish agency EFE.
According to ICAIC officials, the agency is considering adapting a small room at its headquarters at 23rd and 12th in Vedado, for three-dimensional projections. As always, the State lags behind the creativity shown by the self-employed.
The equipment in these particular 3D cinema comes to the island thanks to relatives residing in South Florida or Cubans married to foreigners.
Although 3D cinema is now causing excitement, this type of experience is not novel in Cuba. “In the 50s, in various rooms of Havana they showed films with the anaglyph 3D technique, blue and cyan. The new thing now is the polarized glasses,” says a capital cinephile.
According to official data, Cuba has just over 300 cinemas, with 16 and 35 mm format. Most were built before the Revolution. Today, operating theaters have severe damage and do not have the technological equipment to make the jump to 3D. Others have disappeared or turned into juggling schools, theater companies and stores selling schlock.
A movie ticket is very cheap on the island. Two pesos (ten cents). But talking about comfort is another thing. You can count on the fingers of one hand the air-conditioned rooms, ushers with flashlights and clean bathrooms.
The days of the old children’s matinees in the local cinemas where the children saw Chaplin and for the first time and the comedies of Laurel and Hardy, gone.
That magic of a dark room and a large screen has begun to be replaced by new private cinemas in 3D that proliferate in Havana. The difference is that the experience can cost a family two week’s wage.
7 May 2013
Like Deng Xiaoping in China, General Raul Castro is using capitalism to save Cuba’s brand of socialism. It worked in China. The party and its ideological stalwarts achieved results.
Not only did the market and capital investments transform China into the second largest economy on the planet, creating spectacular economic growth, the party also performed Olympian ideological acrobatics. Sweeping away the resounding failures of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the barbarities of the Cultural Revolution was a masterpiece of Chinese advertising magic.
Deng experienced the violence of the revolution personally. He was a victim of the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao. Accused of being a counter-revolutionary, he was stripped of power. He was confined in 1969 to a remote region and forced to work in a tractor factory in Jianxi province. After Mao’s death he was rehabilitated. Once in power he gradually began China’s transformation.
From a rural economy he created a superpower by fusing the tools of capitalism with the supremacy and control of the Communist Party. His first steps were gradual. At the time his Soviet comrades and Cuba’s Fidel Castro branded him a traitor to Marxism.
In the 1980s, while Fidel Castro dismissed the new Chinese government, his brother Raul took note. The Chinese reforms began seven years before Gorbachev’s perestroika. They met with approval from the United States which, astonished by the economic and social experiment, granted China most-favored-nation trade status.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International accused China of violating human rights, imprisoning political dissidents and carrying out 18,000 death penalties a year.
During the uprising in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did not hesitate to order the army to fire on peaceful protesters calling for democracy. Deng was clear; no one but no one was going to impede the progress of the reforms.
Millions of people got out of poverty thanks to the economic transformations. Today the Communist Party applauds people who make money, as long as they remain silent, obedient and do not succumb to democratic rhetoric.
Today China is a quiet empire – a country where laborers work for seventy dollars a month for as many hours as an investor wants without worries about losses from strikes or independent trade unions.
China is a cocktail of voracious capitalist ambition combined with the rigid societal controls typical of an autocracy. The entire reform process in China has been carefully studied by the accountants, technocrats and economists advising the Cuban general.
Raul Castro has been in charge of the nation’s economy since the mid-1990s, but it was only after July 31, 2006, when his brother gave up power due to illness, that the path was clear to introduce economic changes on the island.
In Cuba the capitalist methods of a market economy are to be introduced gradually. As in Deng’s China, lip service will still be paid to a planned economy, but the doors will be discreetly opened to capitalist investors. The economic czar, Marion Murillo, is careful to camouflage his future plans.
Among the first steps will be overtures to millionaire Cuban businessmen living in the United States. Unlike China, however, Cuba is of no particular interest to the world’s power centers.
A limiting factor is that its market of eleven million impoverished Cubans in not a seductive draw for foreign investment. Its complicated investment laws also do not inspire confidence.
Until now the Castros have acted like swindlers, breaking it off with capitalists and closing down their businesses when they feel like it. General Raul promises to change the rules of the game.
The embargo is another big obstacle. No capitalist with any sense of pride is going to invest money in Cuba if it means not being able to do business with the world’s superpower.
There is nothing more cowardly than a million dollars. To reverse the situation, sensible people in the regime are trying to strengthen the anti-embargo lobby in the United States.
They can count on the support of most country’s in the world as well as the proven inefficacy of the embargo. Economic pressures from Washington have brought neither democracy nor free elections to the island.
Eleven administrations have passed through the White House during the fifty-fours years of this autocratic government, having committed themselves to democracy in Cuba.
If Raul Castro comes up with cosmetic political changes and creates business opportunities for all Cubans — exiles and non-exiles — the next American president could change policy.
At the end of the day, China is no more democratic than Cuba. And the United States wants a neighbor that keeps illegal immigration under control and combats drug trafficking and terrorism.
These are the trump cards the government of Castro II will proposed to sit down and negotiate with the Americans. The current regime could be innovative in creating democratic pockets.
For some time, the special services have been colonizing certain areas of dissent. As an international image it doesn’t hurt. And, above all, to engage the rest of the nations of the continent, where the opposition is legal.
Raul Castro’s intentions are to revive the economy so that people can to live better without questioning who governs. His goal is to extend the Castro regime beyond his death.
His guide has been China’s reforms. His strategy is similar. That capitalism saves a shipwrecked socialism.
Photo: Iberostar Ensenachos. Five star hotel with 440 rooms, located on the north coast of the province of Villa Clara, in the center of the island. Among the benefits of the environment are two pristine beaches, the Ensenachos and The Mégano. Built on a virgin key in a the shape of a horseshoe, the area is considered a Biosphere Reserve, for having endemic species of flora and fauna and an aboriginal settlement.
25 April 2013
Havana is not Caracas. You can still walk the streets at night. There are gangs of youths who, dagger in hand, will relieve you of a Detroit Tigers jersey, some Puma sneakers or an iPhone.
Assaults on the street, however, are not common. In the capital there have been bank hold-ups, guys who have robbed trucks carrying hard-currency or who have highjacked a plane at gun point, but these are the exceptions.
Compared to Mexico, Venezuela or El Salvador, homicides are almost non-existent. There are hardly any violent crimes to report, though once in awhile a woman might go mad and kill her children, a wife might take a candle to her husband, or a rapist might unleash panic in the city.
The press publishes not a single line of gory news. In spite of such an apparently peaceful life and low rate of violent crime, Havana’s citizens are increasingly fortifying their homes.
The number of petty thefts is increasing. Some thieves spend months planning home burglaries with the goal of stealing a valuable painting or large sums of money.
The biggest increase in thefts has been by gangs of ruffians. They often take the closest thing at hand – a car’s steering wheel, an auto’s stereo system, a wet T-shirt hanging in a patio or on a terrace.
The increase in domestic robberies is the reason a huge number of Havana’s citizens have decided to install burglar bars on their doors and windows. When 62-year-old Anselmo was a boy, he played hide-and-seek in his neighborhood, running freely through its labyrinth of internal passageways. His children cannot do the same today. The neighbors have closed off and put railings around not only their own properties, but the adjoining alleyways as well.
“Every day we find out about a robbery in a nearby neighborhood. People deal with it by protecting their families and their belongings. But even houses with tall, spiked fences are broken into. Thieves simply figure that, if a residence has burglar bars, there must be money or valuables inside,” says Luisa, a resident of Vibora Park.
This has unleashed a cult of burglar bars. If you walk through Havana, you will see that homeowners have installed bars on 90% of the houses, porches, doors and windows, creating a symphony of ironwork.
It is a bunker mentality from which the government itself has not escaped. In the 1980s Fidel Castro, in one of his many eccentric obsessions, planted the idea in the Cuban consciousness that an invasion from the United States was imminent.
The deepest recesses of Cuba are filled with underground tunnels and bomb shelters. Thousands were constructed. Today almost all of them have been converted into discotheques or luxury retail stores. At night young couples without cash use them as love hotels.
The Yanks never came, but the regime kept up its war games, waiting for the anticipated invasion, though without the fervor of twenty years before.
Nevertheless, from time to time there are still military maneuvers in which overweight militiamen with corrugated metal rifles run to seek refuge in antiquated bomb shelters.
Fidel Castro still retains a state-of-siege mentality. He lives in an area of forty-five houses known as Zone Zero, where fortifications, security measures and camouflage are part of the landscape.
The military’s businessmen and government ministers also live surrounded by iron bars and fencing covered with vegetation to prevent onlookers from being able to see inside their homes.
They also rely on police protection and surveillance cameras. Others in Havana are not so fortunate. People pay for the protection they can afford. Those with the fewest resources try to keep an eye on their plasma screen TVs and 1950s Chevrolets. They pay ironworkers to fashion barricades of bulky metal rods to surround their houses or to craft a kind of garage-jail.
Families with greater resources opt for grillework that harmonizes with the architecture of the house. Although violence in Havana is nothing like that in Caracas or Medellin, people still jealously guard their properties.
Photo from La reja de mi ventana
21 April 2013
On Sunday, April 14, at 11:45 PM Havana time, the president of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, delared Nicolas Maduro, the candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the winner of the presidential election. More than a few bottles of champagne and Russian vodka were uncorked by Cuban government ministers and military businessmen in a relaxed and familial atmosphere.
The close victory by Chavez’ hand-picked successor — 50.66% of the vote compared to Capriles’ 49.07% — was the culmination of a political campaign orchestrated in large part from Havana.
While the Bolivarian comandante lay dying in CIMEQ, a large hospital west of the city, the Castro brothers offered their services as political intermediaries to the bereaved Chávez cabinet. It was in the Cuban capital that a plan was cooked up and a timetable for succession was worked out. Behind the scenes a script was being written.
Nicolás Maduro rehearsed the score beforehand. The regime did not want any surprises. It was a matter of life and death. Of national security.
Egos, ambitions for power and rivalries among red-shirted comrades had to be put aside. An agreement was patched together in the name of Chávez and Latin American unity.
If they lost the election, twenty-first century socialism would die of starvation. It would deal a death blow to the ALBA trade alliance, whose members included Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba.
Without Chávez’ policies of providing oil at cut-rate prices, multi-million dollar loans and subsidies for Latin American social projects, the continent-wide revolution’s days would be numbered.
Maduro’s mission is to continue Chávez’ social policies in Venezuela and to follow the moronic strategies of the lieutenant colonel from Barinas, as well as his confrontational and anti-American rhetoric in the name of Latin America’s insurgents.
Maduro is being asked to be a clone of Chávez. It is all a symbolic drama staged to reinforce pro-Chávez sentiment among the hill dwellers.
There is a little of bit of everything in the cocktail shaker. Allusions to Christ. Recalling the Bolivarian leader through folk songs and hymns interpreted in his voice. And mobilizing all the beneficiaries of the PSUV’s social policies to remind them whom they should vote for on April 14.
According to forecasts by the Cuban government, Maduro should have won by a wide margin, with an overwhelming landslide of 15% to 18%
Maduro himself talked about getting at least ten million votes. But as the days wore on and the country experienced blackouts, urban violence and shortages, many Venezuelans began to suspect that they were being led into a trap.
A difference of less than 235,000 votes in Maduro’s favor can be read in different ways. Capriles improved his standing, gaining a million more votes than he did on October 7, 2012. And at only 40 years of age, he is now a real threat to the ruling party.
During the fourteen years of Chávez’ rule no opposition candidate gained as many votes. Maduro must know that, if he keeps up the polarizing rhetoric and tries to govern only for the benefit of his supporters, half the adults in Venezuela will not feel comfortable about it.
The former bus driver and trade union official from Caracas could choose to make a 180 degree turn and govern for all the people in the manner of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva. If he leads the nation in an inclusive, modern and coherent manner, he could escape from under the shadows of his ideological father. He could even outshine him.
The county’s internal situation presents a serious test. There are 7.2 million people who do not support the pro-Chávez agenda. With Hugo Chávez’ corpse growing cold, and the economic and social situation in Venezuela continuing on its precarious course, Maduro has no other choice but to listen to all political opinions.
The opposition has been strengthened. If they devise effective strategies, they could attract more supporters. Chavismo could see several hundred thousand people desert if Maduro does not govern with complete independence.
It has been a Pyrrhic victory. It is possible to discern a maze of confrontations. The atmosphere could keep heating up. Maduro is obligated to govern for the good of all Venezuelans and to develop the country. It would be a big mistake if he continued his predecessor’s practice of bleeding the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to provide bonuses to other countries on the continent.
Cuba’s autocrats know that the alarm bells from Caracas could sound at any moment. Raul Castro will “slowly but steadily” continue with his tepid economic reforms. Nicolás Maduro’s victory has provided a burst of political oxygen. It has bought time. What no one knows is how much.
17 April 2013
For someone from Havana, the best thing is to walk the streets in spring. These March days, Jorge Olivera Castillo, 52, poet and journalist, is delighted by the green of the trees, the salty aroma, and the gentle sun.
On any weekday morning, he traces his own journey. Aimlessly wandering through a maze of alleyways crammed with the facades of propped up tenements: in these sites reside in the subjects of his stories and poems. He likes to walk the streets of Central Havana, and places not on the tourist postcards.
It was in another spring, that of 2003, when the State wanted to break a handful of peaceful men and women, making arbitrary use of its absolute power. And sentences were handed out to Cubans, like Jorge Olivera, who disagreed and disagree with a regime that confuses a nation with a farm, and democracy with loyalty to a commander.
Olivera was one of 75 prisoners of the Black Spring. Ten years later, without drama, he recalls those days. “About two o’clock in the afternoon of March 18, 2003 I was arrested. I had returned from the hospital, to be seen for a gastrointestinal problem, when a troop of about twenty violent soldiers appeared. At that time I was director of Havana Press, an independent press agency. They conducted a thorough search of every piece of paper I had. They seized books of literature and my stories and articles. An old Remington typewriter. Family photos, letters from friends, electric bills and even my phone bill. A clean sweep. Everything was confiscated by state decree.”
When a government says that a man who writes must be prosecuted, something is wrong with this society. The weapons of free journalists like Jorge Olivera, Ricardo Gonzalez, Raul Rivero and other reporters sentenced to 24 years in prison, were the words, typewriters and landline telephones through which once a week they read the news and their texts about the other Cuba the regime tries to ignore.
In April 2003, a Summary Court sentenced him to 18 years’ imprisonment. “The trial was a circus. Without legal guarantees. The defense attorneys were more afraid than we were. The definitive evidence showing that I was a public threat were my scattered internet writings and recordings of my participation in programs of Radio Martí,” says Jorge.
He slept 36 nights in Villa Marista, headquarters of the secret police, a former religious school transformed into custody for opponents. Located in the Sevillano neighborhood, in the 10 October municipality, Villa Marists is a left over from the Cold War. A Caribbean imitation of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison from the Communist period. In March 1991, He was there thirteen days, accused of ’enemy propaganda’. When you enter the two-story building, with walls painted bright green, a watch officer sitting behind glass receives you.
They use techniques of intimidation and psychological torture. You’re not a human being. You become an object. A property of special services. Before a gray dress uniform they undress and humiliate you in front of several officers. They force you to do squats and open your anus. As in Abub Ghraib or imprisonment in Guantanamo Naval Base. But in Cuba it has been applied much earlier.
“They were terrible days. In the cells minimum of four people were boarded. The beds were a zinc plate fixed to the wall with a chain. The medicines are placed on a ledge outside the cell. You are called by a number. I was not Jorge, but the prisoner 666. You sleep with two light bulbs that never go off. At any time of day or night you can be called for lengthy interrogations. They lead you through long and gloomy passageways of packed cells where you do not see any other detainee. It’s like being in the mouth of the wolf,” says Olivera.
Some dictators often have a macabre sense of humor. After extensive tortures, Stalin used trials and self-incriminations as a spectacle. Sometimes there was no show. They put your back to a wall and gave you one shot to the temple. If they wanted to prolong the agony and break as a human being, they sent you to a Gulag.
In Cuba, the agents of the State Security have modeled these methods. Except the shot to the temple. One of those strokes of ridicule that the repressive apparatus of the Castro likes, Olivera keeps fresh in his memory. The condemned of the Black Spring were spread out among the island’s prisons in comfortable air-conditioned coaches, the same ones used for tourists.
“The height of cynicism. We traveled that day watching movies and they gave us good food. We were treated like royalty as we deposited in prisons hundreds of miles from our homes. I was detained in Guantanamo Provincial Combined, six hundred miles from where my wife and my children live,” he recalls.
The worst experience Jorge Olivera lived through was the prison. “The food was a mess. Officers beating common prisoners in common. Inmates self-mutilate. Or commit suicide. Poetry saved me from madness.” It was in prison where Olivera began writing poems. In 2004, due to a string of illnesses, he was granted a parole.
Technically he is still not a free man. If the government decides, the Black Spring prisoners remaining in the island can go back behind bars. Of the 27 independent journalists imprisoned in March 2003, Jorge Olivera is the only one left in Cuba. Abroad he has published four books of poetry and two of short stories.
Right now he gives shapes to his latest poems. “Systole and Diastole”is the working title. He writes for Cubanet and Digital Spring, a weekly where for six years the best independent journalists have performed.
Along with fellow journalist Víctor Manuel Domínguez, he leads a writers club. He is an honorable member of the Pen Club of the Czech Republic and the United States. If people could receive a grade for the human condition, I wouldn’t hesitate to shake his hand to give a ten to Jorge Olivera. His priorities remain information, describing the reality of his neighbors in Central Havana, the crisis of values, prostitution and official corruption.
The author of “Surviving in the Mouth of the Wolf” rejects the ’amnesia’ of newly minted dissidents. “You can not forget history. The rebellious generation that dominates the new technologies is welcome. But they should be honest and admit that before them, we were there. Looking at news on hot news and under constant police harassment. We did not have Twitter or Facebook, we wrote with pens on the back of recycled paper. But we never stopped reporting on the precarious life and lack of a future for the people in Cuba. That can not be relegated or forgotten. The history of dissent is very long. And before us, were those who were sentenced to death in La Cabaña. If we forget these stages, mutilate or distort an important part of the peaceful struggle against the Castro regime,” says Jorge Olivera.
His dream is to do radio, be healthy and live in a democracy. He hopes the day is not too far off when he can reunite with Raul Rivero and Tania Quintero, two fellow exiles. Not in Switzerland or Spain, but walking the streets of Havana in the spring.
31 March 2013
2003 was an incredible year. Harassment, arbitrary detentions, acts of repudiation and verbal assaults against the opposition by the government were rising.
There was an escalation by the government against peaceful dissidents and independent journalists. Castro called a referendum to shore up his olive-green socialism. It was a response to the Varela Project petition, which had been submitted to the National Assembly by the opposition figure Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. The petition was backed up by more than ten thousand signatures and, following procedures enshrined in the constitution, called on the legislature to undertake constitutional reforms.
In 1999 Castro had promulgated Article 88, a legal hodgepodge that mandated sentences of more than twenty years for dissidents and independent journalists under the pretext they were undermining the status quo.
Fidel Castro himself appeared on television and read a list with names of opposition figures who allegedly had contact with diplomats from the United States and the Czech Republic.
One could see that something was brewing in the sewers of power. The regime’s attacks in the media were missiles specifically directed at opposition leaders Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Martha Beatriz Roque, Oscar Elías Biscet, and the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero.
Months before the raid on dissidents, a furious Fidel Castro threatened the opposition in a speech at the Karl Marx Theater. “Don’t say later that you were not warned,” he told them. “We will not allow mercenaries to carry out their work with impunity, though we won’t kill butterflies with cannon fire.”
On March 18, 19 and 20, 2003 violent lightning raids were launched on the homes of more than eighty dissidents across the island, marking the beginning of surgical detentions intended to destroy the opposition.
It was a well-designed move. The international press corps was lining up to go to Iraq, where all signs indicated that war was imminent. According to Castro’s calculations, the administration of George W. Bush would soon be bogged down in a costly and exhausting war with the dictator Saddam Hussein.
It did not happen that way. In a devastating offensive lasting little more than a month, troops from the United States and its allies pulled down a statue of the tyrant in Baghdad. In spite of the clamor of war, the imprisonment of dozens of the island’s opposition figures did not go unnoticed by the world’s press.
International criticism was considerable. The government in Havana had not anticipated such a reaction. Some of Castro’s friends such as Portuguese writer José Saramago and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano criticized the detentions. Saramago’s reaction was extreme. “This is as far as I go,” he said, abandoning ship and the fellow travellers who supported the bearded Cuban.
Initially up to a hundred dissidents were detained. Later the number was reduced to seventy-five. Settling accounts like an old wine merchant, Castro’s calculations were based on the assumption that the Bush administration would negotiate the release of ’his mercenaries’ by exchanging them for the five Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.
To Castro this seemed like a reasonable exchange — fifteen “wretched worms” for each spy. Perhaps he was thinking back to 1961 when Kennedy exchanged baby food and cereal for more than two-thousand anti-Castro fighters imprisoned on the island after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The move came back to bite him. It was a crude political error. World leaders demanded the dissidents’ freedom, and the United States and the European Union further tightened the screws on the economic sanctions against Cuba.
Castro upped the ante. Taking advantage of the case of three Cubans who had commandeered a transport vessel, he decided to send a message to frighten the population. At the time, in their eagerness to reach the Florida coast, people were escaping any way they could. At a summary trial three black youths, who were living in poor neighborhoods of Havana, were sentenced to death.
It was bad. Dissidents and ordinary Cubans alike thought Castro had lost his mind. Meanwhile, dissidents and independent journalists like us lived in a constant state of anxiety. I walked around with a spoon and toothbrush in my back pocket.
I felt that at any moment I could be arrested. Luckily, this did not happen, though the phone was cut off for several days. We were all afraid. I still remember a distressed Blanca Reyes, wife of Raúl Rivero, describing his arrest and subsequent detention.
The evidence against him consisted of his articles and poems, an Olivetti typewriter, books by universally acclaimed authors and photos of his children, friends and family members. He was arrested in his apartment in La Victoria, where he had lived since his wedding. It is a rough neighborhood, a breeding ground for hookers, pimps and hustlers. People with no future who do not enthusiastically applaud Castro’s rants. It was in one of these poor central Havana neighborhoods where the disturbances of August 1994, known as the Maleconazo, the Malecon uprising, broke out.
On the afternoon of March 20, when Raúl Rivero was arrested, the street was filled with neighbors and onlookers. When he was put into a Russian car, his hands shackled as though he were a terrorist, some outraged neighbors began to shot “abusadores” and “libertad.”
Ten years after the Black Spring, efforts to destroy opposition groups, independent journalists and alternative bloggers have increased. Those of us who have worked for democracy and freedom of expression press on. Here we are.
Photo: Neighbors from the block where Raúl Rivero lived — on Peñalver between Franco and Oquendo streets in Central Havana — witnessing the arrest of the director of Cuba Press, an agency for independent journalism established on September 23, 1995. Among its founders are Iván García and Tania Quintero.
6 April 2013
The statistics are troubling. For more than thirty years the average Cuban woman has given birth to less than one daughter during her entire reproductive life. A population that does not regenerate gets old. And decreases. This means that in absolute terms Cuba has begun to lose inhabitants.
There was a report issued by the National Office of Statistics in 2011 which notes that the cumulative age of the country’s three strongmen - Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl and José Machado Ventura – is 250 years.
More dramatically, more than twenty thousand people between the ages of 10 and 45 emigrate each year. One of the government’s solutions to counteract the aging and decline of the population has been to raise the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men.
A pension in Cuba – between 150 and 300 pesos (6 to 12 dollars) — barely covers even 25% of a retiree’s basic needs. If a citizen hopes to have breakfast and two decent meals a day, he will need at least 2,600 pesos (100 dollars) a month.
Added to this is the serious housing problem. Some 62% of homes in Cuba are in a fair to poor state of repair. Three or four generations must live together under the same roof. When more space is needed, it is often the aged person who is displaced. The best option is for grandparents to live with their grandchildren. The worst is for families to send them to some decrepit state institution.
With its lack of sanitation, poor treatment and even worse food, death’s worst waiting room is a state-run hospice.
By 2012 more people were dying than were being born in the country. The weak economy does not guarantee a comfortable life for the two million people over the age of sixty. Today the median age is 38 years. By 2025 it will rise to 44 and almost 26% of the population will be over the age of 60. By 2030 more than 3.3 million people will 60 or older.
Currently, the percentage of Cubans over the age of 60 is 17.8%. The segment of the population 14 years or younger is 17.3%. The ideal solution would be to adopt policies that encourage women to have two or more children.
European countries with a welfare state pay a stipend to mothers who have more than one child, but public funds for this in Cuba are minimal.
Since Raúl Castro inherited power from his brother, the number of construction projects that do not turn a profit, such as social service and leisure facilities, has declined to almost zero. Investments are made only in buildings that generate hard currency, like those in the tourism industry, or which are strategically important, such as petrochemical plants and waterworks projects in the eastern region.
We should not have to wait for a session of the one-note national legislature to announce financial incentives to encourage women to have more than one child. Otherwise, Cuba’s accelerated aging problem will be an issue that a future government will have to address.
Life dictates that by 2025 the Castros will be either resting in some mausoleum or will be two very sickly old men nearing the century mark. In addition to encouraging spectacular economic growth, the next president will also have to renegotiate the country’s external debt and try to create a coherent, inclusive and democratic society
All such efforts will have to be taken up with an aging human capital. A growing segment of women, both professional and non-professionals, are postponing starting families due to material shortages. Convincing them that Cuba needs to rejuvenate itself by increasing the number of girls will be a vital task.
It is yet to be seen if within ten years leaving for Florida will still be the chief priority for many Cubans. We hope not. Otherwise, if you are the last one to leave, please turn out the light in El Morro.*
Photo from 100 Photos of the Older Generation
*Translator’s note: The iconic lighthouse at the Morro fortress overlooks the Havana harbor.
2 April 2013
A year ago, while preparing the official pomp to receive Pope Benedict XVI, elite troops from the Ministry of the Interior violently assaulted the house of the dissident Sonia Garro Alfonso, in the Los Quemados neighborhood of Marianao, in western Havana.
It was a spectacular operation. All the neighbors still remember what happened. “There were guys dressed like anti-riot troops from American movies. They used rubber bullets. They employed exaggerate violence, arresting Sonia and her husband Ramon. They took them and almost all their belongings. It was incredible. They treated them like they were terrorists,” one lady commented.
Sonio Garro’s path towards dissidence is marked by poverty and racism. “In my childhood, the happy moments could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I was the tenth daughter of a poor family of twelve siblings. I grew up in a violent slum. I never had toys at Christmas. I always had worn out second-hand clothes that were given to my mother by charity. I went to school with old broken down shoes, but with an immense will, thinking always about studying and bettering myself to change my fate,” Sonia told me in 2009.
She suffered racial discrimination while pursuing her lab technique studies. “I lived racism first hand. I remember one day I wanted to lodge a complaint at school and the vice principal of the center told me, “Go where you want, you’ll always be black.”
When I graduated, with a gold diploma, there was a ceremony in the Astral Theater. The Minister of Public Health came to deliver the award for the most outstanding student and an official came over and told me another person was going to collect it for me because my skin was so dark I wouldn’t look good in the photo. ’No offense, it’s not racism, but you’ll spoil the picture,’ he said. I never collected that award,” she told me in an interview I did with her at her home.
Later she was expelled from the polyclinic where she was working for having married an opponent to Fidel Castro’s government. She learned to sew on an old machine from the ’50s, to make a living and support her daughter, Elaine.
“And from the door of my house, while I sewed, I could see girls of 13 and 14 prostituting themselves. I also saw several accidents with children who were playing without their parents watching them. So from there was born the idea of creating a community project, where the little kids could entertain themselves, play and interact with others without danger,” Sonia said.
On February 27, 2007, Garro created the first independent center. In her home. She had some 20 kids between 7 and 15. It was free. And it didn’t matter if their parents were revolutionaries or not.
“The first rule was no talking about politics. I organized activities of drawing and sewing and my husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, a musician, was in charge of choreographing dancing and teaching the kids to play musical instruments. On the weekends we had parties and shared children’s books and toys. Foreign NGOs helped us with materials and medicines, as did embassies and individuals in a modest way, giving us what they could,” explained Sonia while showing me photos of the activities.
After that initial experience, Garro went for more. She opened another center in the slum area of Palenque, in the municipality of Marianao itself. What seemed like a noble action within society, which would bring more benefits than problems, triggered an earthquake on the part of the State Security. “The government’s response to my social work were three acts of repudiation and a couple of beatings. The last act of repudiation did not work, no one in the neighborhood attended. They left empty-handed.”
Much happened in those four years. Her community projects closed due to harassment by the Special Services. Sonia Garro then joined the marches of the Ladies in White. And also half a dozen seasoned women, who featured in street protests demanding respect for political rights and demanding democracy.
Her husband Ramon was not far behind. In May 2010, desperate because he didn’t know where Sonia was being detained, he climbed to the roof of their house, still under construction, with a machete and began shouting slogans. The indignation of this Havanan was recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Recently, from the Combinado del Este prison he wrote a letter (they are kept separate).
It has been 12 months that this couple has been in jail. They live in an authentic legal limbo. Officially they are accused of public disorder and attempted murder. But there is no trial date.
Yamilé Garro Alfonso is the mother of two young children. She was a simple housewife, who now takes the place of her sister in the marches of the Ladies in White. Every week or every two weeks, according to the visits, she loads heavy bags of food and toiletries on her shoulders and heads for sometimes to the women’s prison, Black Mantle, other times to the Combinado del Este prison. In her tenement room in San Leopoldo, she also cares for Elaine, the daughter of Sonia and Ramon who will soon turn 17.
The controversial dissident of the barricade is strongly suppressed by the tough guys of State Security. Raul Castro does not want the opposition to take to the streets as public platform for their demands. The General knows that could trigger a domino effect among ordinary Cubans, tired of living with a future in quotation marks.
The only way to pressure the regime to release Sonia Garro and Ramon Munoz is a strong international campaign. There is no other way.
22 March 2013