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Havana: The Poverty Behind the Glamour / Ivan Garcia

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment
El-Fanguito-uno-de-los-barrios-marginales-de-La-Habana-620x330

View of El Fanguito, one of Havana’s slums

Just across from Cordoba park, in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora, is nestled a luxury cafe called Villa Hernandez.  It is a stunning mansion built in the early 20th century and renovated in detail by its owner.

At the entrance, a friendly doorman shows clients the menu on a black leather-covered card.  A pina colada costs almost five dollars.  And a meal for three people not less than 70 cuc, the equivalent of four months’ salary for Zaida, employed by a dining room situated two blocks from the glamour of Villa Hernandez which attracts retired people, the elderly, and the poor from the area.

“It is not a dining room, it is a state restaurant for people of limited means. They call it ’Route 15,’ and the usual menu is white rice, an infamous pea porridge, and croquettes,” says Zaida.

Like the majority of the area’s residents, she has never sat on a stool in the Villa Hernandez bar to drink a mojito or to “nibble” tapas of Serrano ham.

A block from the dining room, on the corner of Acosta and Gelabert, in a house with high ceilings in danger of collapse, live 17 families crowded together.  The people have scrounged in order to transform the old rooms into dwellings.

The method for gaining space is to create lofts with wooden or concrete platforms between the walls. Each, on his own or according to his economic possibilities, has built bathrooms and kitchens without the assistance of an engineer or architect.

Even the old basement, where there once existed an animal stable, has been converted into a place that only with much imagination might be called a home.

The neighbors of the place see the Villa Hernandez restaurant as a foreign territory. “They have told me that they eat very well. I am ashamed to enter and ask about the menu. What for, if I have no money? At the end of the year they put up pretty decorations and a giant Santa Claus. I have told my children that this kind of restaurant is not within the reach of our pockets,” says Remigio.

Like small islets, in Havana there have emerged houses for rent, gymnasiums, tapas bars, cafes and private restaurants much like those that a poor Cuban only sees in foreign films.

There exists a nocturnal Havana with many lights, elegant designs and excess air conditioning which is usually the letter of introduction for the apparent success of the controversial economic reforms promoted by Raul Castro.

It is good that little private businesses emerge. The majority of the population approves cutting out by the roots dependence on the State, the main agent of the socialized misery that is lived in Cuba.

But old people, the retired, professionals, and state workers ask themselves when fair salary reforms will happen that will permit a worker to acquire a household appliance or drink a beer in a private bar.

“That’s what it’s about. Almost all we Cubans approve of people opening businesses. After all, in economic matters, the government has shown a lethal inefficiency. But there are two discussions: one is sold to potential foreign investors and another internal that keeps crushing the commitment to Marxism and to governing in order to favor the poorest,” says Amado, an engineer.

In the business field, the government has opened the door, but not completely.  In the promulgated economic guidelines, it is recognized that the small businesses are designed such that people do not accumulate great capital.

A large segment of party officials and the official press believes it sees in each private entrepreneur a future criminal.

At the moment, self-employment is surrounded with high taxes, the expansion of the opening of a wholesale market, and a legion of state inspectors who demand a multitude of parameters, as if it were anchored in Manhattan or Zurich and not in a nation that has short supplies of things from toothpaste and deodorant to even salt and eggs.

The regime takes advantage of the poor to sell the Cuban brand. “Marketing has been created that shows an island interspersed with images of tenements, mulattas dancing to reggaeton, happy young people drinking rum, US cars from the ’50’s, the National Hotel and luxury restaurants,” says Carlos, a sociologist.

Successful managers, like Enrique Nunez, owner of La Guarida, situated in the mostly black neighborhood of San Leopoldo in downtown Havana, also benefit from the environment in order to grow their businesses.

La Guarida was one of the locations in the film Strawberry and Chocolate by the deceased director Tomas Gutierrez Alea. There, among many others, have dined Queen Sofia of Spain, Diego Armando Maradona and US congressmen.

The dilapidated multifamily building where it is located, with sheets put out to dry on interior balconies and unemployed mulattos and blacks playing dominoes at the foot of the stairway, has become the particular stamp of La Guarida.

“Yes, it’s embarrassing. But to carry on culinary or hospitality businesses in ruinous neighborhoods replete with hustlers and prostitutes, is an added value that works.  Maybe that happens because Havana is still not a violent or dangerous city like Caracas. And the naive Europeans like that touch of modernity surrounded by African misery,” points out the owner of a bar in the old part of the capital.

While the governmental propaganda exaggerates the economic opening, Zaida asks if someday her salary in the State dining room will permit her to have a daiquiri in Villa Hernandez. For her, for now, it would be easier for it to snow in Cuba.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  El Fanguito, old neighborhood of indigents in El Vedado, Havana, arose in 1935, at the mouth of the river Almendares, in the now-disappeared fishing village of Bongo and Gavilan. With Fidel Castro’s arrival in power, this and other Havana slums not only did not disappear but were growing. At any time, El Fanguito, La Timba, Los Pocitos, La Jata, Romerillo, El Canal, La Cuevita, Indalla, and La Corea, among others, are included in sightseeing tours through the capital, in order to be in tune with the fashion of mixing glamour with poverty, as occurs in Rio de Janeiro with the slums. The photo was taken from Cubanet (TQ).

Translated by mlk.

Spanish post
10 April 2014

Cuba Opens the Gates to Foreign Capital / Ivan Garcia

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

cuba-contenedores-620x330When a government’s financial figures are in the red, everything takes on new urgency. By now the formulas to address the problem are well-known. Often new tax measures are imposed while bloated public spending is slashed.

But if the goal is to attract American dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency, then any reforms must tempt likely foreign investors and Cuban exiles alike.

The situation is pressing. Venezuela, the spigot from which Cuba’s oil flows, is in a firestorm of criminal and political violence and economic chaos. China is an ideological partner but only makes loans if it can reap some benefit.

The Cuban government does not have a lot of room to maneuver. Its solution has been to open things up a little but not completely. Except in the areas of health, education and defense, Cuba is for sale.

The communist party’s propaganda experts have been trying to sugarcoat the message to its audience. In recent months government officials have been working to attract foreign capital by offering investors a more important role in the Cuban economy.

“Foreign financial resources would do more than provide a complementary role to domestic investment initiatives and would play an important role, even in areas such as agriculture, where foreign investment has been rare,” said Pedro San Jorge, Director of Economic Policy at the Ministry for Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, in January.

In an interview with the newspaper Granma on March 17, José Luis Toledo Santander, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly of People’s Power for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, said the new law “will also provide for a range of investments so that those who wish may know the areas of interest in the country.”

“This action will also be a breakthrough in terms of the paperwork required to make an investment by creating a more streamlined process,” the official added in response to a common complaint by business people that the Cuban bureaucracy is too slow.

Toledo Santander said the new law “also includes incentives and tax exemptions in certain circumstances, as well as an easing of customs duties to encourage investment.”

He stressed that “the process of foreign investment will be introduced without the country relinquishing its sovereignty or its chosen social and political system: socialism. This new law will allow foreign investment to be better targeted so that it serves the best interests of national development without concessions or setbacks.”

On Saturday March 29 the national television news broadcast reported sometime after 1 PM that the single-voice Cuban parliament had unanimously passed a new foreign investment law without providing more details

The new law provides for an exception to one passed in 1995 which assigned foreign capital a “complimentary” role in Cuban state investments. This meant that foreign investors could hold no more than a 50% stake in any joint venture.

The proportion was higher when it came to technology and retail businesses but only because of a strong interest in these sectors on the part of military autocrats. Between 1996 and 2003 roughly 400 firms in the mining, hospitality, food, automotive and real estate sectors were created in Cuba with foreign capital.

All were small-scale and supervised closely by authorities. Now it’s a choice of life or death. Fidel Castro’s revolution generated many promises and speeches, but these did nothing to foster the economic development that the country needed.

Cuba imports everything from toothbrushes to ball-point pens. Large areas of arable land are overrun with the invasive Marabou weed, and produce little or nothing. In 2013 the government imported almost two billion dollars worth of food.

Since 1959 government leaders have continuously promised ample harvests of malanga, potatoes and oranges coffee as well as a glass of milk per person per day, but the inefficient economic system hampers any such nationial initiatives.

Finally the last trump card was played. It involved opening the gates by luring foreign investors with generous tax exemptions. They included Cubans living in the United States and Europe but not virulent anti-Castro Cuban-Americans from Florida.

If they toned down their strident anti-Castro rhetoric, then perhaps Alfonso Fanjul, Carlos Saladrigas and company might come under consideration also.

Of course, it is not all clear sailing. The U.S. embargo presents a powerful obstacle to any business venture on the island. And the Castro brothers are not serious business partners.

On the contrary. They have changed or corrected course at whim in response to shifting political dynamics. Of the roughly 400 foreign firms that existed in 1998, only about 200 remained in operation as of spring 2014.

Several foreign businessmen, including Canadians, have been threatened with imprisonment while others, like Chilean Max Marambio*, have had arrest warrants issued against them by Cuban prosecutors.

Raul Castro, who inherited power by decree from his brother Fidel in 2006, has tried to clean up government institutions and establish more legal coherence, abolishing absurd laws that prevented the Cubans renting hotel rooms, having mobile phones and selling their own homes and cars.

In January 2013 a new emigration law was adopted that made it easier for Cubans, including dissidents, to travel abroad. Internet access became available, though at jaw-dropping prices, and Peugeot cars went on sale, though priced as if they were Lamborghinis.

For many European and American politicians, Cuba is in the process of becoming a modern nation whose past sins as well, as it’s the lack of democracy and freedom of expression, must be forgiven. Others say it’s just a ploy to buy time.

The average Cuba, whose morning coffee does not include milk, who has only one hot meal a day and who wastes two hours a day commuting to and from work on the inefficient public transport system, is not likely to be impressed with the much hyped opportunities.

Those who open private restaurants or receive remittances from overseas can weather the storm. Those who work for the state — in other words, most people — are the ones having it the worst.

Although the regime may try to camouflage its new policies by resorting to various ideological stunts, the person on the street realizes that the new Cuban reality is nothing more than state capitalism painted over in red.

For a wide segment of the Cuban population, the new investment law is a distant echo. It is yet to be see if it bring them any benefits.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Container ship entering Havana’s harbor. Operations at the Port of Havana will move once the port at Mariel is fully operational. Photo from Martí Noticias.

*Translator’s note: In 2010 Cuban prosecutors accused Marambio and his firm, Río Zaza, of corruption. Marambio claimed the actions were retribution on the part of Fidel and Raul Castro for his support for Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a candidate in Chile’s 2009 presidential election. Marambio filed suit with the International Court of Arbitration in Paris against his Cuban business partner, Coralsa, a state-owned juice and dairy company. On July 17 the court found in favor of Marambio and ordered Coralsa to pay over $17.5 million dollars in damages “for refusing to cooperate in good faith” in the process of liquidating Rio Zaza.

30 March 2014

Major League Stars in Havana / Ivan Garcia

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment
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Ken Griffey Jr, with young ballplayers in Havana

Monday night, February the 10th, two Cuban journalists were invited to the welcoming reception Mr. John Caulfield–head of the USA Interest Section in Cuba–offered in his residence to three major league baseball players, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin y Joe Logan.

The journalists who had opportunity to talk with these three legends of  American baseball  were Daniel Palacios Almarales, former sports writer for Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth) and collaborator on the website Café Fuerte, and me, who started in independent journalism in 1995 writing about sports. In addition to journalists we are bloggers. Palacios has a blog, Visor Cubano, and I have two, From Havana and The blog of Iván García and his friends.

Among the guests there were also grand old names from Cuban sports, such as Tony Gonzalez, a shortstop of great scope who in the 60s played with the Industriales team.

For two and a half hours, in a free-flowing environment, those present not only could greet Griffey, Larkin and Logan, but also take advantage of the fact that they were signing balls and books. And, certainly, to leave with graphic witness of an unrepeatable occasion. By request of my colleague Palacios, I shot a couple of photos of him next to Larkin and Griffey.

Thanks to an official from the Interest Section, I was able chat brief with Ken Griffey Jr., the most enjoyed of the night for his amiability and simplicity. And for his elegance, in spite of being dressed in a simple long sleeved white shirt and black trousers.

Griffey was satisfied with his trip to Havana. He enjoyed everything: the spontaneous meeting with dozens of fans at Central Park; talking baseball with people and participating in the training of a group of baseball playing kids in Liberty City, and in the Havana municipality of Marianao.

With regards to the Cuban players in the Big Leagues, he said when he played a season with the Chicago White Sox, he met the shortstop Alexia Ramirez, “and excellent person and a great professional, very meticulous in his training.”

The former stars of the Big Leagues, return to the United States on Thursday,  13 February. Before leaving, they will probably be received by Antonio Castro.

Apart from being a son of his father, Tony Castro, as he is called, is the vice-president of the Cuban Federation of Baseball and principal strategist of the new government policy of authorizing Cuban athletes to play in professional clubs of different countries and continents.

Though the topic was not mentioned in the conversation, both Griffey Jr. and I are aware that in these moments, due to  the United States embargo on Cuba, players living on the island cannot be signed by Major League teams in the U.S.

Maybe the diplomacy of the baseball will contribute to a political thaw, an inheritance of the Cold War, which for over more than five decades has maintained tense and at times aggressive relations between Cuba and the United States.

Iván García

Video: Ken Griffey Jr during with a group of children, in Liberty City, Marianao, Havana. Taken by Cubadebate.

Translated by: Rafael

15 February 2014

Thank You, Eusebio / Ivan Garcia

April 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Eusebio-born-in-Mozambiqu-006With the unexpected death of Eusebio da Silva Ferreira on the morning of January 5, the soccer world lost one of its greatest players and an extraordinary ambassador for the sport, an honest and simple man, who never forgot his humble origins despite his fame.

Sports columns of the five continents have dedicated reviews and reports to him. Photos and videos have flooded the internet. Hundreds of condolences have made their way to his widow, Flora, and to his children and grandchildren. And millions of messages have circulated on social media sites remembering The Black Panther, as he was known, for his speed and skill.

Eusebio was born in the suburb of Mafalala, in the city of Lourenço Marques, now Maputo, Mozambique. He was the fourth son of seven born to Mozambican Elisa Anissabeni with her husband, the Angolan Laurindo Antonio da Silva Ferreira, a railroad worker. His father died of tetanus when Eusebio was eight years old. He and his siblings were left in the charge of their mother, in a situation of extreme poverty. As a boy, Eusebio often escaped his classes to play barefoot soccer with his friends in improvised playing fields.

Carlos Toro dedicated an article to him in El Mundo: “On the 25th of January, he would have turned 72-years-old and Portugal would have rendered him, like it is doing today, high sports and patriotic honors. ’Wherever I go, Eusebio is the name that people mention to me,” Mario Soares, president of Portugal from 1986-1996, once said.

“Forget about Cristiano Ronaldo, the young mythical figure of Portuguese sport, and about Luis Figo, who has the greatest number of international attendance for his country. The king of Portuguese football was, is Eusebio da Silva Ferreira. Eusebio. The International Federation of History and Statistics considers him to be ninth among the 50 best players in the twentieth century.

“A mulato, the son of a white father and a black mother, born in Mozambique, won the right to be saluted as one of the best soccer players of all time, including those we have in the 21st century, thanks to his performances in the imposing Benfica and with the magnificent Portuguese national team of the 1960s”.

Pelé in his Twitter profile said: “I regret the death of my brother Eusebio. We became friends during the World Cup of 1966 in England and last met in the game between Brazil and Portugal in Boston (in September 2013). My condolences to his family and may God receive him with open arms”.

Jaime Rincón wrote in Marca: “Eusebio’s career was unique from the start. His arrival in Europe was full of the mystery and emotion that usually accompanies great figures. At 17 years old, Eusebio was smuggled through the airport of Maputo on course to Lisbon. There, Benfica hid him in a small hotel room in the Algarve under a false name. No precaution was too small to secure the soccer player and prevent his ending up in the Sporting Club of Portugal.*

“With a small salary given his sporting achievements until then, Eusebio soon demonstrated that soccer was seeing a different type of player. Capable of doing 100 meters in eleven seconds, the Panther had power and ability, speed and definition. He possessed a veritable cannon in his right leg, a lethal weapon that made all the difference.

“At only 18-years-old, Eusebio dazzled on the day of his debut in Paris. Before another great such as Pelé, the Panther left the field with 3-0 on the scoreboard. With an insulting audacity, the pearl of Mozambique achieved a hat-trick that not even the subsequent goals of The King could erase”.

Sir Bobby Charlton, a living legend of British football and ex-player for Manchester United and England, remembered him like this: “Eusebio was one of the best soccer players I have had the privilege to play. I met him on numerous occasions after our sports careers were finished. I’m proud to have had him as both an opponent and a friend”.

Eusebio never came to Cuba, but we Cubans who love football and sports knew him. And we thank him for having shot down prejudices and taboos. And for proving, in any country and in any sphere of life, whether you be man or woman, white, mulatto or black, young or old, what matters is dignity and the spirit of excellence.

Iván García and Tania Quintero

Photo: Eusebio da Silva Ferreira. Taken by The Guardian, from an interview on June 6th, 2010.

*Translator’s note: There was fear that he would be kidnapped by a rival team.

 Translated by LW

6 January 2014

Is Baseball Finished in Cuba? / Ivan Garcia

March 26, 2014 1 comment

Jackie-Robinson-1919-1972-620x330Fidel Castro has been an effective gravedigger. He buried sugar crops and the agricultural abundance of old. Recently, Cuba had to import sugar from Brazil and the Dominican Republic to meet the consumption needs of international tourists.

With this type of negative aura that has always surrounded Castro, it makes sense these days what baseball fans were saying after the dismal failure of Villa Clara in the Caribbean Series on Margarita Island: we are currently living through the last days of baseball.

I think not. We have the genes of baseball players in our DNA. Has it been dealt a fierce blow? It is true. Due to the obstinate and stupid policies of the state, baseball finds itself stationary, mired in crisis.

But we can make progress. If, for example, Cuban coaches could absorb the latest advances in the development of baseball via clinics (courses) with seasoned trainers from the United States. If the academies of the Major League organizations were allowed and if our players could play in the MLB without having to leave their homeland.

Although this would be the ideal, this nightmare of five and a half decades remains. In that sense, I am not optimistic. Because of the insane system established in Cuba, what could change within two years could equally extend for another fifty-five.

The methods used by autocrats to remain in power are known. Fear and repression inhibit many Cubans from publicly disagreeing. So people opt for a life raft. Marrying a foreigner. Or an offer letter of work anywhere in the world.

There are two possible scenarios. In the first, Raul Castro becomes a kind of tropical Jaruzelski and democratizes the island – I am skeptical – and the embargo is repealed. Perhaps, working hard, in around five or six years, Cuban ball players developed under modern methods would skyrocket into Major League teams.

The other option, the way we are going now, is that Cuba transforms into a discrete monarchy, where relatives, sons and compadres pull on the threads of the piñata and divide the loot amongst themselves.

The regime is engaged in unprecedented ideological spin. A mixture of family capitalism, few opportunities, micro-businesses and pure Stalinism.

The Castros want to negotiate, but with the gringos. Face to face. Seated at a table, dividing up the island as if it were their property. Under one of these scenarios, Antonio Castro, son of Fidel, would represent baseball and manage the future contracts of Cuban players.

The mouths of the Castro clan must be watering just thinking about that possibility. It has not yet arrived, but it looms, in backroom negotiations with businessmen of the style of Alfonso Fanjul.

If we want to raise the capacity of baseball, change must happen urgently. If the creole mandarins were sensible – 55 years have shown otherwise – they would design a new structure for the National Series. 16 teams seems to me too many.

Right now, according to the proven quality of local baseball, the right number would be a season with 6 teams and a minimum of 100 games.

The season should begin in September. You could have three stages. Six innings in the first 60 games. A round robin with 40 games and 4 teams. And ending with play offs between the top two in a best of seven matches.

The season would end in late January, so as not to overlap with the Caribbean Series or the World Baseball Classic. The few classy players that are left us, such as Alfredo Despaigne, Yulieski Gourriel, Frederick Cepeda, Norge Luis Ruiz, Freddy Asiel Álvarez or Vladimir García, if they are contracted to foreign leagues, it is preferable that they not to take part in the National Series.

The current level of our baseball only serves to stall us. Of course, before reforming the National Series, we should strengthen all of baseball’s development structures. From childhood to youth categories.

If the development categories of cadets and youth are still playing with limited quality balls, poor quality equipment, and bad playing fields, then the jump to premier level will not be achievable.

Cuba’s best trainers must work in the minor levels. All the people qualified to train players must have unlimited internet access to the latest information and game statistics.

Also, we should participate in academic and training camp baseball exchanges with the United States, Japan, South Korea and those Caribbean countries that play baseball. Cuban television should more frequently broadcast Major League games. Without the complex absurdities of broadcasting innings during the time that baseball-playing Cubans have to be on the move.

All that policy reorganisation would have to include selling affordable gloves and balls for children. Similarly, it would require the reconditioning and recuperation of those baseball fields that have been lost in the country.

The task is arduous and expensive. It remains to be seen if the state would find the resources or contemplate an agenda to improve the quality of the current game. If it’s smart, it would be the most practical idea. Then, in the unlikely event that Antonio Castro sits down to negotiate with MLB managers, we would have a greater amount of talent to offer.

Although I see the vision, insight has not been the greatest quality of the olive green autocracy.

Iván García

Photo: During the cold months in the United States, many players moved to the Caribbean to play baseball, including Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), who is pictured signing autographs at a stadium in Havana in 1947. A few weeks later, Robinson made history in his country by breaking the barrier that barred black players playing in the majors, thereby paving the way for other African-American, Caribbean and Latin American players. Taken by AARP Magazine.

Translated by: CIMF

18 March 2014

The Havana That the Castros are Going to Leave Us / Ivan Garcia

March 23, 2014 2 comments
Sixty percent of the buildings cry out for basic repairs

Sixty percent of the buildings cry out for basic repairs

Autocrats always want to transcend their own times. The Roman emperors, Hitler, Mussolini and the communist dictators Stalin, Honecker or Ceaucescu, bequeathed their own styles of architecture.

In Rome they still retain coliseums and palaces. Mussolini left hundreds of works, constructed under the label of fascist rationalist architecture, rolled out in Italy at the end of the 1920s in the last century.

Hitler also put up buildings and spaces in the Nazi cult, with the patronage of Albert Speer, in an original architectural style inspired by neo-classicism and art deco.

Sixty-nine years after the psychopathic Führer shot himself in his Berlin underground bunker, just before the defeat of the Third Reich, the Germans are still driving along the magnificent autobahns built in the Hitler period.

A serial criminal like Stalin left us socialist realism – horrible, certainly – which encompassed all the arts. Nicholas Ceaucescu, another dictator doing it by the book, demolished a fifth of Bucharest and put up new buildings.

His greatest project was the Palace of the People, the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington.

Fidel Castro won’t leave any timeless architectural works. He put up thousands of schools and hospitals, but, apart from the Instituto Superior de Arte, in the Playa Council area of Havana, the rest of his designs disfigure the landscape.

And forget about quality of construction. Most of the buildings put up after the bearded people came to power look older than many built at the beginning of the 20th century.

In Havana, capital of the first communist country in America, the architectural legacy will be irrelevant. You’d have to search with a magnifying glass to spot any high calibre work.

Among them would be the Coppelia ice cream shop, designed by Mario Girona in the centre of Vedado, or Antonio Quintana’s Palacio de Convenciones in the suburb of Cubanacán. You could also make an exception of Camilo Cienfuegos city, in East Havana, and Lenin Park, a green lung provided on the outskirts of the city.

But architectural design from 1959 onwards is, to say the least, odd. If you could demolish the dormitory suburbs of Alamar, Mulgoba, San Agustín, Bahía, or the twenty or so horrible apartment blocks built with Yugoslavian technology in Nuevo Vedado, you would partly put right some clumsy construction mistakes.

Havana, a city which is pretty and conceited with its several kilometers of gateways and columns, and a splendid esplanade among its architectural offerings, maintains the greatest variety of styles.

It was designed for 600,000 inhabitants. Today 2.5 million people live there. The regime has neither modernised nor widened its streets or avenues or a site as important as the Albear aqueduct.

They have only patched and asphalted the principal arteries. They have not improved the roads of Las calzadas de Monte, Diez de Octubre, Luyanó, Cerro, Infanta, Avenida 51 or Puentes Grandes to deal with the increase in vehicular traffic.

Some 70% of the side streets are full of potholes and water leaks. 60% of the buildings are crying out for fundamental repairs.

Let me give you a fact. According to an official of Physical Planning in Havana, 83% of works carried out are done privately. The urgent need for homes to be built has resulted in constructions all over the length and breadth of Havana without benefit of professional advice.

Thousands of home-made cast-iron windows with hideous grills make the capital look even uglier. The impression you get is of a large prison. Without any order or harmony, desperate families refurbish buildings and houses of great architectural value, trying to improve their lives a little.

The once cosmopolitan Havana, at the forefront of new technologies like the telephone, radio, or long distance TV transmissions, has now turned its back on globalisation.

The internet is a science fiction dream for many of its citizens. And what was once a beautiful colonnaded city, which would inspire Alejo Carpentier, is, in the 21st century, a heap of ruined buildings and ancient automobiles.

The Castro brothers haven’t even been able to leave any legacy in the city where they have been governing for years.

Iván García

Photo:  Taken from Juan Valdés César’s blog where you can see more images showing the current state of Havana.

Translate by GH
23 March 2014

A Conversation with the Consul General of the United States in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

March 20, 2014 1 comment
Timothy P Roche, U.S. Consul General in Cuba

Timothy P Roche, U.S. Consul General in Cuba

The old United States embassy in Havana, today the headquarters of the United States Interest Section (USIS, also known as SINA for its Spanish acronym), is a seven-story building with a surfeit of glass windows located a stone’s throw from the Malecon. Built in 1953 and designed by the architect Wallace K. Harrison, it is similar in style to New York City highrises.http://desdelahabanaivan.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2592&action=edit

In spite of not having had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1960, the United States has the second largest diplomatic headquarters on the island, surpassed only by the monumental edifice of the Russian delegation.

The U.S. Consul General in Cuba, Timothy P. Roche, has served since August 2012. This reporter’s primary reason for requesting an interview with him was to solicit his views on granting visas applications for family reunification and tourism.

Before arriving at the consul general’s rather sober office, one must go through the usual searches and electronic checkpoints typical of embassies almost anywhere in the world. In hostile countries, U.S. embassies are targets of attack by Islamic terrorists, but not in Cuba.

There are other risks. Without high fences, heavy doors with electronic locks, patrols by Cuban security agents and a squad of stern Marines, thousands of people eager to emigrate to the United States — pursuant to the current Cuban Adjustment Act — might be tempted to break into the building.

Lynn Roche, a public affairs officer and wife of the consul general graciously guided this reporter to Mr. Roche’s office, which was flanked by map of the island and the Stars and Stripes.

Since 1994, following the emigration agreements signed by Cuba and the United States during the Clinton administration, at least 20,000 Cubans each year have left the country permanently in a legal, orderly and safe manner to be reunited with their families.

The impact has been dramatic. In the last two decades, nearly 450,000 Cubans have left their homeland, including a high percentage of educated young people. “In fiscal 2013, we issued over 24,000 visas for permanent emigrants to the United States,” says Roche.

The length of time to process a visa varies. Oscar Rojas, for example, spent five years trying to get to Florida to reunite with his mother. Others, like Susana Mateo, were luckier. After just a year and a half she received a visa to settle with relatives in Hialeah.

The consul general acknowledges that granting a permanent visa request takes time. “There is a very high demand from applicants and we have a limited number of U.S. consular officials in Havana who can interview them. It is true that the interview process takes more time for some types of visas, but we are working to reduce the wait time.”

He adds, “It depends on the category but in some cases involving permanent relocation, such as for a bride or groom, the waiting period is four or five months. For spouses, minors and parents of U.S. citizens, there is no waiting period at all. Once your casework is complete in the United States, you receive the next available appointment. Before the Cuban Family Reunification Program it could take up to eleven years for an adult. Now it takes just over three. And in the case of tourist visas, we managed to substantially reduce the wait. It used to take almost 5 years. We are now granting permission within six months and we are working to further reduce this time.”

With regards to the new multiple entry visas, valid for five years, which they begin to offer as of 1 August 2013, the official clarifies, “This visa is not to stay and live in the United States for five years. Nor is it to work or study in the United States. And it’s given at the discretion of the consular official.”

Cubans older than 45 who have traveled to the United States up to four times and recently had their visas denied, qualify as “inconsistent with the policies of the United States Interest Section” when asking for a tourist visa.

With regards to this, the diplomat said, “Every case is different. It’s difficult to explain a case without knowing the specific characteristics of each one. Now, for us it’s better to offer a multiple-entry visa to cases made up of people who travel and return to Cuba, because it’s a better service for the client and more efficient for us.”

Mr. Roche didn’t have at hand the number of multiple-entry visas awarded from 1 August 2013 to date. In any event, on the issue of tourist visas — which are also good for cultural and academic exchanges — the number is huge: from 8,745 to more than 33,000 in 2013.

For Cubans who complete the procedures to travel to the United States, the high prices in hard currency charged by the Cuban government for routine procedures or simple medical check ups are a problem. This is the case with Roiniel Vega, who started the procedures to travel to Miami to visit his son seven months ago, and doesn’t understand why USIS doesn’t have printed forms with the procedures for asking for a non-immigrant visa.

“To the more than 500 convertible pesos (CUC) you have to pay to the government for a passport, medical check up, and other paperwork for those who want to travel to the United States, you have to add 20 CUC to pay for filling out the forms electronically in areas around the Interests Section. I wonder why USIS doesn’t have printed forms, to lower the costs of the paperwork,” says Roiniel.

The U.S. Counsul says that, “There are three steps to asking for a tourist visa. And the first step is filling in form DS-160 on our web page. We know that the majority of Cubans don’t have access to the Internet, but we’ve seen that many people arrange to get access to the web in various ways. We don’t have the capacity and resources to do it any other way.”

Iván García

8 February 2014

Cuba: Internet in Your Home from September / Ivan Garcia

March 15, 2014 4 comments

cuba_internet_0-620x330According to a spokesman for ETECSA, the only telecoms company in Cuba, they are going to start marketing internet in peoples’ homes, with ADSL included, from the first half of September.

We don’t yet know what the price of the installation will be. What has come to light in a document which we have seen are the different tariffs for national and international internet surfing.

The document, put out by Ibis Díaz Silva, commercial executive of ETECSA’s Oficina de Pequeños y Medianos Usuarios (Office of Small and Medium Users ), indicates that the 20 hour internet package will cost 10 convertible pesos a month, 50 hours 15 cuc (Cuban convertible currency), 100 hours 30 cuc, 180 hours 50 cuc, and 220 hours 60 cuc. There will be a 90 hour package, usable between 8 pm and 7 am which will be offered at 20 cuc. They will sell additional hours at 30 convertible pesos.

Additionally, starting from September, they will market the local intranet network at a lower price, where you can find official media. The connection speed will be between 2 and 4 megabytes.

Gradually, Raúl Castro’s government has taken some steps forward to provide internet access for Cubans. On 4th June 2013, ETECSA opened 116 navigation rooms in 15 provinces of the country.

Up to this month, according the ETECSA spokesman, about 600,000 customers have connected to the network. Last February 25th, the Gaceta Oficial de la República (Official Gazette of the Republic) announced new cellphone internet tariffs. And from 2013, ETECSA workmen have been busy putting in place wireless networks in different parts of Havana.

The prices of these new services have generated a lot of controversy. The point is that the Cuban man in the street, with an average salary of $20 a month, can’t afford the luxury of connecting to the internet while he has no chicken, fish or meat in his pantry.

One way or another, nearly everybody is complaining. Whether they are unknown citizens, like the private shoemaker Alfonso Ayala, who has never surfed the net, or official journalists like Elaine Díaz or Alejandro Rodríguez, who have criticised the excessive prices in their blogs.

“One hour at 4.50 cuc (Cuban convertible currency) is equivalent to 112 Cuban pesos. Repairing shoes, I make between 80 and 100 Cuban pesos a day. All my income is for buying food and supporting my wife and kids. As far as I can see the internet continues to be out of my reach,” says Ayala.

As far as the regime is concerned, the internet is an invention of the US special services with the aim of colonising information and culture. Only the inescapable necessity of not continually putting the brakes on Cuban professional development has forced the government to authorise access to the internet.

It all started in 1998, when the island was connected up, via satellite, more slowly and with a narrower band than a public university in New York. The official press blamed the technological backwardness on the trade embargo imposed by Washington, which forbids connection to the underwater cables owned by US companies, which surround the green Cayman Islands. And we know that Cuba and the USA are continuing with the Cold War. And truth is the first casualty of any war.

According to the ETECSA spokesman, in 2010, some gringo companies located in Florida were authorised by the Obama government to negotiate with Cuba to recommission an old unused underwater cable.

“The project was viable. It cost $18m with a bandwidth right for our requirements. But the government preferred to bet on the so-called digital self-government and designed a project jointly with Venezuela called ALBA1, stated the source.

At a cost of $70m, the submerged cable connected the twin cities of La Guiara and Siboney in the east, in Santiago de Cuba. There is a spur off it which goes off to Kingston, Jamaica.

There is a structure of corruption around the cable in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Communications and Information, which led to the desertion of a high-up manager of ETECSA in Panama in 2012.

There was no news about ALBA1 until 4 June 2013, following the government decision to open new navigation rooms. There is no doubt that the famous cable clearly improved the connection speed.

Before that, in a five-star hotel like the Saratoga, where Beyoncé stayed last year with her husband JayZ, the connection speed was slow and expensive. At best it didn’t get past 100Kb. And 2 hours of internet cost a bit over $15.

From September 2014 on, things are going to change, according to specialists I have spoken to. It could be that not many Cubans will be enthusiastic about the new provision, on account of its irrational pricing. But the ETECSA functionary referred to is optimistic and considers that the opening up of cyberspace will bring more positives than negatives.

Iván García

Photo: A Cuban surfs the net in one of the cyber cafes opened by ETECSA all over the island in June 2013. Taken by El Universal.

Translated by GH

9 March 2014

Cuban Dissidents Prepare for the Future / Ivan Garcia

March 12, 2014 Leave a comment
Carlos Millares, Frank Abel García y Tamara Rodriguez

Carlos Millares, Frank Abel García y Tamara Rodriguez

While 17 young Cuban dissidents attend advanced courses to master the tools of leadership and business at a university center in Miami, in Havana, the newly formed Fundación Sucesores, imparts courses to the civil society in Havana. Run by sociologist Carlos Millares, 65, Fundación Sucesores has been giving classes to the nascent civil society since December of 2013.

“We told students the location at the last minute, so that the State Security wouldn’t put any obstacles in our way, preventing classes,” said Millares. The group has a collegiate direction. Besides Millares, the group is integrated by Frank Abel García, Daniel Palacios, Tamara Rodríguez, William Cácer, and Luis Alberto Diéguez. With the exception of Millares, everyone is between 26 and 40 years old.

“Since the second half of January, we’ve been teaching two courses: one for the formation of leaders, and another one for journalists and photo journalists. Each course has 10 students,” said Frank Abel.

Most of the participants are young people that recently became involved with political activism or independent journalism. The classes are ambulatory and secret.  One week, they can be at a room in ruins at the old part of the city and outside the capital limits the following week.

The leadership course lasts six months and among other subjects teaches history, law, social media, and public speaking. Intellectual dissidents such as Manuel Cuesta Morúa, lawyer René López, Julio Negrín, Arturo Torrecillas, Daniel Palacios and Carlos Millares, teach the classes.

Desks consist of seats at a dinner table or a bed. The students copy the content of the classes in flash drives. Professors only have one laptop. “We don’t have all the necessary resources, but the lack of resources cannot be an impediment to create and prepare people within the incipient society in Cuba,” said Millares.

The course of journalism lasts four months and includes 20 topics. Four of the six members from the board of directors from Successors Foundation became dissidents after they worked in State institutions.

Millares has the most experience of all. He has been part of different dissident organizations for the last 25 years. He was a curious and polemic general secretary for the Union of Young Communists in the faculty of medical science in the University of Havana.

His journey to the pacific opposition was a slow and painful process, like surgery without anesthesia. Frank Abel worked as chief of staff in Radio Rebelde, a radio station symbolic of the revolution. Abel became a provincial delegate at the radio station. He was involved in a case orchestrated by the cultural authorities against young intellectuals from OMNI Free Zone. His sense of justice made him break from the regime.

For eight years, Daniel Palacios was a sports chronicler from the official newspapers Trabajadores and Juventud Rebelde. He had a spot in the capital radio station COCO, in which along with other reporters, he tried to break with the government censorship. Palacios gave out the results from the games of the Major Leagues during his time on air in radio, and remembered that before the Castro dictatorship from 1962, there was a glorious past in baseball, Cuba’s national hobby.

“One afternoon, I received a call from Pelayo Terry’s office, who was then director of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Two men from the State Security threatened me and showed me mail that I had exchanged with Wilfredo Cancio Isla, a Cuban reporter from Miami. After my expulsion from my position as a journalist, they have continued to harass me,” Palacios said.

His exit from official journalism had repercussions for his family life. He lives away from his wife and daughter because he doesn’t have a place of his own. Most of his colleagues from within the state journalism have turned their backs on him.

“It has been hard but I feel good about myself, which is the most important thing,” Palacios said. Now, besides teaching journalism classes, he writes for Café Fuerte and Diario de Cuba.

Tamara Rodríguez was a commercial specialist at CIMEX, a military corporation that collects convertible pesos for the government. They tried to embroil her in a corruption case after she started to make friends with women from the Ladies in White.

After she broke ranks with the government, she became part of the group. Since the beginning of 2013, Frank Abel went to the home of sociologist Carlos Millares and told him about his interest in turning young dissidents into leaders.

Through different paths, opposition organizations in Cuba or in the United States decide to take dissidence as an option. Perhaps, today’s dissidence is uncomfortable for many exiled people from Cuba, due to their distinct pacifism and inability to create a powerful lobby group in the neighborhoods of the island.

Havana is far from being Kiev or Táchira. In Cuba, the opposition from the barricades suffers the worst. But the future could be different.

When new times arrive, nongovernmental organizations would have materialized the initiatives toward young Cuban dissidents, who have had trouble accessing a college education because of their political views. Some of these organizations are the Human Rights Foundation from Florida, in collaboration with Miami Dade College, which work with funding from private donations and the United States government.

From this side of the world, some people do not sit back. They start initiatives to promote values of democratic leadership and the use of journalistic tools among young activists.

The Fundación Sucesores is one of those initiatives. According to its members, this initiative is about a new Cuba, who above all, needs people qualified in the art of politics, democracy, and modern journalism

And that future is around the corner.

Iván García

Photo : Frank Abel García, Carlos Millares and Tamara Rodríguez talking to Iván García. Fundación Sucesores is also the name of the blog they have created.

3 March 2014

Havana: A Guide for Tourists / Ivan Garcia

March 11, 2014 1 comment
Useful advice for tourists who visit the last bastion of the Cold War in the Caribbean

Useful advice for tourists who visit the last Communist barricade of the Cold War in the Caribbean

If you speak Spanish, it’s advisable to get to know Havana by taking private taxis. In a rented car, air-conditioned and with a map of the capital, it’s more pleasurable, but also more expensive, and you wouldn’t be able to chat with the habaneros.

If you know the city only through the guided visits to museums or cigar factories, organized by tourist agencies, you will have good photos when you return to your country, but you will only have seen a postcard of Havana.

You can decide to drink mojitos, stroll on the Malecon, flirt with prostitutes in a cafe where you need hard currency to listen to a duo singing Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan at your table. Or you can discover the other face of Havana, ignored by the official press. Then, first hand, you will know the priorities of ordinary Cubans.

The capital of Cuba has in its favor the fact that it still is not as dangerous as Caracas, Medellin or Michoacan. You can walk through rough and poor neighborhoods without fear of being assaulted (I advise you to go during the day).

Better than reserving a hotel is renting a room in some private home. For your trips around the city, the ideal thing is to move around in the old U.S. cars known as almendrones.

And talk to the passengers. There is no platform more authentic and liberal in Cuba than the private taxis. As in any capital of the world, the Havana taxi drivers possess a culture of speech and an acceptable level of information.

You will find out that many of the Cuban taxi drivers are doctors, engineers, retired military men or professionals who, after their work day, sit at the steering wheel, trying to earn some extra pesos that will permit them to complement their poor salaries.

The Havana taxi drivers seem to be dissidents when they speak, but they’re not. They, like numerous people you find in the lines or in the streets, openly criticize the government.

The list of complaints about the state of things on the island is extensive. Traveling in a 1954 Ford, with a South Korean motor and a Japanese gear box, you will know first-hand that people aren’t applauding Raul Castro’s reforms with much enthusiasm now.

Be prepared to listen to a dissertation on the daily hardships. One suggestion: before your trip around the city, in your backpack carry deodorants, tubes of toothpaste or soap to offer to the people you talk to. Right now, these articles are scarce in Cuba (see the Note at the end).

Havana taxis are a microphone open to different political opinions. And in their interior there is more democracy than in the monotone national parliament. In the almendrones there are usually people who think differently. Each reveals his opinion. Loudly and gesticulating with his hands, typical of Cubans.

Upon arriving at his destination, the passenger who supports the Regime says goodbye amicably to the one who wants profound changes in his country. Two details: the old Havana taxis don’t have air conditioning and the drivers listen to reggaeton or salsa music at exaggerated volume.

If you get into a jeep, which can fit up to 10 people, the trip is uncomfortable. But there is no better way to make people-to-people contact than to travel in private taxis. And they are very cheap. For 50 cents or a dollar on longer journeys, you can get to know the other face of Havana. It’s not recommended to take the urban omnibus: owing to the bad service and overcrowding, what should be an exploration of the city and a motive to make contact with its people can become a torture.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from Panoramix.

Note. In Cuba something is always lacking. Sometimes the scarcity is most visible in the capital, but usually where you find a lack of most products, food or hygiene, is in the interior of the country. After writing this piece, independent journalists were reporting that “eggs were missing.” I don’t know if eggs have reappeared, but now salt is missing.

On March 5, Ernesto García Díaz wrote in Cubanet that salt was hard to find in the grocery stores, markets and hard currency markets (TRD), where a kilo nylon bag of Cuban salt with the stamp “Caribeña” cost 45 cents (10.80 Cuban pesos). In the Ultra TRD [the government-run "Hard Currency Collection Store"], an employee told the journalist that “it’s been some time since we’ve had Caribeña salt. We are selling a fine Andalusian salt of the brand “Aucha” at the price of 1.65 CUC ($US 1.58) a kilo.”

In Cuba there are five saltworks that supposedly should guarantee the distribution of salt for the ration book, at the rate of one kilo for a nuclear family of up to 3 people, every three months. But because they haven’t managed to extract more than 400 million tons annually, the government has had to import salt, as occurred in 2008, when they bought 30 million tons of salt at a cost of 9 million dollars (Tania Quintero).

Translated by Regina Anavy

8 March 2014

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