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

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

Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: From Univision Colorado.

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

18 July 2014

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

July 10, 2014 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Garcia

Notes by Tania Quintero

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Bianca Martinez

25 June 2014

Not Everything About a Cuban Athlete is Worthwhile / Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 May 2014

Cuba: The Tricks of the Embargo / Ivan Garcia

June 22, 2014 2 comments

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Cartoon taken from The Canal, blog The PanAm Post.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Garcia

Translated by mlk.
21 June 2014

Fidel Castro’s Undesirables / Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

8 June 2014

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

June 10, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by GH

29 May 2014

Cuba: Its Silent Conquest of Venezuela / Ivan Garcia

May 20, 2014 1 comment
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

February 2006. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

Not in his wildest dreams did Fidel Castro think he would gain political control of and derive economic benefit from a nation nine times bigger than Cuba, with two and a half times the population and with the biggest oil reserves on the planet.

Cuba’s ideological colonisation of Venezuela could go down in history as a work of art in terms of political domination. The bearded chap never ceases to surprise us.

He wasn’t a minor autocrat. For better or worse, he was always a political animal. Charlatan, student gangster and manipulator, and always audacious.

He showed his clear inability to create riches and establish a solid and coherent economy. Before he came to power, at the point of a rifle in January 1959, Cuba was the second largest economy in Latin America.

Fifty-five years later, with its finances in the red, meagre GDP, and scant productivity, the island now vies with Haiti for the lowest place in the continent.

In terms of political strategies, Castro is an old fox. He always liked planning revolutions and wars. In the ’80’s, from a big house in the Havana suburb of Nuevo Vedado, he remotely controlled the civil war in Angola.

He is an incorrigible maniac. He likes to know everything that’s going on. From the soldiers’ meals, and livestock cross-breeding, to forecasts of the path of a hurricane.

Castro was unpredictable. He was not a comfortable Soviet satellite. He plotted conspiracies, guerilla warfare, and indoctrinated some star performers of Latin American youth. Some of them now holding power, constitute a formidable political capital for the regime.

An excellent talent-spotter, when, on February 4th 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez led a rabble in a coup d’etat in Venezuela, before anyone else did, Fidel Castro, from Havana, saw the potential of the parachutist from Barinas.

He invited him to Cuba as soon as he stepped out of jail. He was his full-time political manager. Just as in any alliance or human relationship, one person always tries to dominate the other.

Castro was subtle. For health reasons, he was already back. His strategy with Chavez was low profile. He didn’t overshadow him. On the contrary. The project was to create a continental leader.

Chávez had charisma and Venezuela had an interesting income stream from oil. Cuba was in the doldrums after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crisis with a stalled economy and the disappearance of the USSR.

The guerrilla wars in America were not yet a way forward. The “disgusting bourgeois democracy”, of which the “Comandante” was so critical, was the means by which the political groups related to the Cuban regime would gain power.

Those groups came in by the back door in broken countries, where corruption and poor government prevailed. Fidel Castro’s great achievement was to colonise Venezuela without firing  a single shot.

In the annals of history there have existed different forms of domination. Imperial powers were not always very large countries. Denmark, Belgium and Holland had overseas possessions.

But, in the background, there was an economic strength or a fearful military machine. Great Britain, in its golden age, could count on an impressive naval strength.

These days, the United States is the possessor of a nuclear arsenal and military technology never seen before. Castro’s Cuba is an economy heading for the fourth world.

Its previous military power, which allowed it to get involved simultaneously in two military campaigns in Ethiopia and Angola, has now reduced, following the Soviet collapse, to an army equipped with obsolete weapons.

The geopolitical logic taught in schools, that the countries which are economically and militarily strong dominate the ones which are poor and weak, has been blown to bits by the case of Cuba and Venezuela.

Castro’s trick for occupying Venezuela has been ideological complicity. According to the Venezuelan journalist Cristina Marcano — joint author with Alberto Barreras of the biography Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: una historia personal (Hugo Chávez without a uniform: a personal history) – everything started in 1997.

General Antonio Rivera, who worked as Head of Telecommunications for the President and was National Director of Civil Protection, points out that in that year 29 Cuban undercover agents established themselves in the Margaritas Islands and helped Chávez with intelligence, personal security and information areas in the election campaign.

After that the interference increased. About 45 thousand Cubans now work in the Venezuelan public administration, the presidential office, ministries and state-owned companies.

Or as bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, dentists, scientists, teachers, information officers, analysts, agricultural technicians, in the electrical services, and cultural workers and developers. Also in security, intelligence and in the armed forces.

When the Cuban collaborators arrive at the Maiquetía airport in Caracas, all the immigration formalities are dealt with by the island´s military personnel.

Cuban Ministry of the Interior specialists run the Venezuelan identification system, the ID cards and passports, commercial registers and Notary Publics.

They know what properties they have and what transactions they carry out. They also jointly manage the ports, are involved in the airports and immigration entry control points, where they can go about their business as they please.

The Cuban company Albet SA, from the University of Information Science (UCI), which runs the Information Service of Identification, Immigration and Emigration (SAIME), is so powerful that they don’t allow Venezuelans into the top floor of the headquarters of SAIME in Caracas.

The Presidential information systems, ministries, social programmes, police services and those of the state oil company PDVSA are also Cuban, by way of the joint venture, Guardián del Alba,* according to the journalist Marcano

The political influence of Cuba, as much in relation to the government of the late Hugo Chávez as now with that of Nicolás Maduro, is decisive. The strategic strings are pulled from Havana.

The Castro brothers benefit to the tune of more than 100 thousand barrels a day of oil and financial assistance estimated at $10B annually.

The PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) is so dependent on them, that the Cuban big-wigs, including General Raúl Castro, fly around in luxury executive jets with Venezuelan plates.

No other empire in the world has ever been able to conquer another nation without the benefit of economic power, or having to send troops. Cuba is the first. In private, Fidel Castro must be very proud.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: Cuban- Venezuelan information software company in support of the oil industry established to maintain the country’s independence in this field.

Translated by GH

15 May 2014

Soviet Cuba Remains in the Official Imagination / Ivan Garcia

May 20, 2014 1 comment

Dmitri-Medvedev-Raúl-Castro-620x330It’s hard to bury faith in any God, ideology, or vices. For others, like Vladimir, the passion for the Soviet era, like old rockers, never dies.

Son of Communist parents, he studied at universities in the former USSR. He speaks Russian like a Muscovite and still reads Gorki or the poems of Yevstushenko in the original language.

On a pine shelf he has a bunch of Soviet writers in the style of Borís Polevói, Nikolái Ostrovski, Mijaíl Shólojov or Ilya Ehrenburg, who wrote the epic of the Red Army in World War II.

Vladimir is not considered a fanatic. In his room there are no canvases of Stalin, Marx or Lenin . “The USSR may seem like an old newspaper. But it is not dead yet. In Cuba people don’t find Russian cartoons or corned beef strange. It is in the power structures where still latent are certain mechanisms of the Soviet era.”

Dismantling this shed is an arduous task. A vertical government, omnipresent secret police, a broad sector of the planned economy and the usual unanimity of approving laws in the boring national parliament, are vestiges of the official Soviet Cuba that resists death.

Cubans like Vladimir worked for years on building institutions modeled on the Soviet Union. From the Constitution to the Pioneer organizations.

“All of us who believed in the USSR assumed that the short-term future was Communism. And that the disappearance of capitalism was a question of time. But it wasn’t. Now Putin’s Russia is as imperialistic as the United States,” says the nostalgic Havana Communist

There is very little left of the USSR among ordinary Cubans. Some Slavic names, drinking vodka and orange juice, and hundreds of marriages that still remain from that Red era.

Not a few of regime’s officials feel nostalgia for the past. It was a golden era where rubles were wasted and the armies had the most current versions of conventional Russian armaments.

From the USSR came oil, fertilizers and tractors. Magazines, books and movies flooded the country. Then, it was in good taste to hang portraits of the current Soviet leader at the same level as those of Fidel Castro.

The current president, Raul Castro, had an enormous portrait of Stalin, the butcher of Georgia, in his office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

What remains to be seen is if the Castros were Communists of convenience, or chose the ideology to cling to power. The quirky Euro-Asiatic system had irresistible charms for any apprentice autocrat.

There were no presidential elections. Nor free press. Nor independent unions. Justice was administered by the State. And they created a competent political police, dissident citizens could complain only in their own living rooms, or leave on a raft.

The love story between the USSR and an intellectual and political sector of Cuba is longstanding. Many who swear they are firm nationalists, accuse those who admire the U.S. lifestyle are accused of being “annexationists.”

But Communism is the first of all annexations, the importing of Marxism-Leninism and wanting to clone the Soviet model on a Caribbean island 6,000 miles from Moscow.

And it wasn’t the illiterate or stupid who were applauding the theory of a Soviet Cuba. Within the ranks of the People’s Socialist Party (PSP), intellectuals such as Juan Marinello, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Salvador García Agüero and Nicolás Guillén stood out.

With the coming to power of Fidel Castro, political opportunism coupled the Communist imagination of tanned men of Cuban unionism, and the Marxist proselytizing in various academic and intellectual sectors.

Before 1959, the PSP branded Castro a gangster, sucker, and petty bourgeoisie. According to Anastas Mokoyan’s son, who accompanied his father on the visit of a Soviet delegation to Havana in February 1960, witnessed the following dialog between Fidel and Ernesto Guevara:

“They (Castro and Guevara) said that they could only survive with Soviet help and would have to hide this from the capitalists in Cuba… Fidel said: We have to cope with these conditions in Cuba for five or ten years. Then Che interrupted him: If you don’t do it in two or three years, it’s over.”

The rest of the story is known. Castro Sovietized the island and 55 years alter, the main political institutions of the State continue using their methodology. From the special services to diplomacy, which when it aligns itself with a partner, approves political expansionism like Putin in Crimea, or joins with repugnant dictatorships only because they are the enemies of their enemy.

The current labor legislation — which still hasn’t been officially published — or the aberrant Foreign Investment Law, demonstrated that the current Cuban government only considers its people as an instrument to legitimate their tepid economic reforms and not to benefit them.

Separating from an ideological faith is too costly. Even when the reality shows its inefficiency.

Iván García

Photo: January 2009. Then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev buttoning the coat that he had just put on his counterpart, Raul Castro, before the beginning of the informal talks at a residence in Zavidovo, north of Moscow. It had been 24 years since a high Cuban leader had visited the former Soviet Union. Taken from Listín Diario.

18 May 2014

Cuba: The Numbers Don’t Add Up / Ivan Garcia

May 8, 2014 1 comment
A young woman admiring items for sale at at hard-currency shopping mall in Havana. Source: Secretos de Cuba.

A young woman admiring items for sale at hard-currency shopping mall in Havana. Source: Secretos de Cuba.

Olga, a 62-year-old engineer, spends 11.50 CUC a month (about US $13.00) on two bags of powdered milk for herself and her family.

“I don’t consider a glass or two of milk in the morning for breakfast a luxury. My 93-year-old father drinks as much as four glasses. A relative in Switzerland sends me 100 euros a month so I can provide the old man with beef, milk and cheese. On my 512 peso salary (about $22.00) I would never be able to afford it,” says Olga.

The new price increases set by the government of President Raul Castro mean that the Havana engineer will have to pay 13.20 CUC for two one-kilogram bags, an increase of 1.70 CUC.

The problem in Cuba is that from 2005 until now prices for a variety of goods that can only be bought with hard currency have risen between 20% to 60%.

In 2005 beef, chicken, cheese, milk, yogurt, oil, sausages and toiletries for a family of three cost $100. Nine years later the price has almost doubled.

Some increases happen without any warning. “One fine day you go to the store only to discover that cheese which cost 4.40 CUC the day before now sells for 4.95. It’s really galling. Everything is blamed on the economic crisis, on the U.S. blockade (embargo) and rising food prices worldwide,” says a woman outside a store on San Rafael Boulevard.

It is true that since 2007 the prices of certain foods have soared in the global marketplace. But Cubans wonder if this has also caused the prices of plasma TVs, computers and refrigerators to go up.

A 32-inch television that cost a little over $200 in Miami is priced between $640 and $750 at hard-currency stores in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is no more than $20.

An LG dual-temperature refrigerator cost $571 in 2004. The same model is now worth 760 CUC, about $850 at the official exchange rate.

Detergent, oil and soap have also risen between 20% and 35% in the last ten years. These actions were taken by an irate Fidel Castro after the United States discovered in 2005 that the Swiss bank UBS had been retiring old banknotes in an account worth more than $4 billion controlled by the Cuban government.*

Castro then imposed a 20% tax on the Yankee dollar. With an innkeeper’s mindset, he jacked up prices on items sold in hard currency by 200% to 500% in order to subsidize his social programs.

It proved to be a windfall. Following Robin Hood’s playbook, dollars were taken from those who had them in order to finance government programs such as school lunches, the energy revolution and the “Battle of Ideas.”

With abject hatred towards Cubans who have left their homeland for political or economic reasons, the military autocrats have (now underhandedly) imposed outrageous fees on goods and services purchased with remittances from overseas. These include telephone services, internet access and exorbitant surcharges on car sales.

With the recent price rise powdered milk is the latest to be added to this list. But the explanation for this does not stand up to scrutiny. If we go online, we find that the price trend worldwide is down.

According to the Uruguayan daily El Observador prices for powdered milk have dropped 10% over the last two months from $5,005 to $4,439 a ton. The decline is expected to continue until year’s end when it could reach as low as $4,200. That would amount to a roughly 16% drop from the beginning to the end of 2014.

Recently, a reporter for Martí News, Pablo Alfonso, published an article which exposes the Cuban regime. Alfonso reports that Global Dairy Trade — an auction platform for internationally traded commodity dairy products which holds an auction twice a month in which over 90 countries participate — reported that in the last twelve months sales of milk powder fell 8.4%. In the latest transactions the commodity sold for $4,033 a ton.

In the case of skim-milk — the kind sold on the island — the decline was 9.6%, equivalent to $4,126 per metric ton. Global Dairy Trade’s figures also indicate that the price for powdered skim-milk on the international market was $4,372 a ton in January 2014 and $4,452 in February.

According to official figures released in Cuba, however, the price for a ton of powdered skim milk was set to increase from $4,720 to $5,563. One might ask the country’s foreign trade officials where they are buying powdered milk because what they are paying does not match the published purchase price.

Even the official Cuban newspaper Granma has published comments highly critical of the price increase for powdered milk. A Cuban doctor serving in Saudi Arabia noted that a one-kilogram bag of the best quality powdered milk costs her only about five dollars.

Orestes, a Cuban living in Hialeah, is at a loss for words to describe the regime’s arbitrary pricing schedule.

“It’s robbery,” says Orestes. “In Brazil, bus fares rose 20 cents and people took to the streets. Here in the U.S. not many people buy powdered milk. A gallon (3.8 liters) of fresh 2% fat milk or skim-milk costs $3.89. All these price increases are designed to get emigrants to pay up.”

In Cuba only children up to seven-years-old and people on medically prescribed diets have the right to consume milk at the modest prices set forth in their ration books. In a speech in 2007 in Camaguey, Raul Castro stated, “We have to erase from our minds this up-to-age-seven idea that we have been carrying around for fifty years. We have to produce enough milk so that anyone who wants a glass of milk can have it.”

Seven years later Cubans are still waiting for this promise to be fulfilled.

Iván García

* Translator’s note: U.S. officials discovered that UBS had allowed countries such as Cuba, Iran and Libya to retire old banknotes by replacing them with new ones. This was a violation of an agreement with the Federal Reserve which stipulated that the bank would not accept cash from or transfer cash to countries on which the United States had imposed sanctions. (Source: The New York Sun)

25 April 2014

Cuba: Challenging the Future Mounted on a Raft / Ivan Garcia

May 8, 2014 2 comments
Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

It’s like playing Russian Roulette. Although the numbers are terrifying– one in three rafters is a snack for the sharks — many people in Cuba take the issue with a lightness that causes chills.

Probably the Straits of Florida is the largest marine cemetery in the world. There are no hard figures of the children, young people, adults, and elderly who lie under its turbulent waters.

It’s a human drama with obvious political overtones. The regime wants to tell the story their way. People leave the island, they say, encouraged by the Cuban Adjustment Act that awards automatic residence to Cubans who step on United States soil.

It’s true. The frivolity of the U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy, seems like a macabre game. If the gringo coast guard catches you at sea, you’re returned to Cuba. If you manage to touch land, you won the lottery.

Although absurd, the share of moral responsibility remains with the olive green autocracy. Only the despair, the lack of a future, and the economic burden could drive a person to plan this dangerous journey across the sea.

People leave Cuba because things are going badly. Those who don’t have relatives in the United States, or who put off the family reunification paperwork, risk their future on a raft.

Let me tell you a story of rafters that happened in my neighborhood. Since Christmas 2013 Gregorio (name changes) was persuading relatives and friends disposed to change their fate with a marine adventure.

After 1994 when the Fidel Castro regime decriminalized illegal departures to the North, the future rafters plan their projects without too much discretion.

Gregorio was obsessed with the idea of leaving the country. Part of his family lives in Miami. He spent years doing the legal paperwork: “I don’t want to get to Florida when I’m 60.”

Finding allies for such an undertaking is not hard in Cuba. Young people without a future swarm every corner of the island. A priority: people with nautical knowledge.

Guys with experience who failed in other attempts. People with money to build the safest craft possible. Human traffic from Cuba to the United States is a buoyant industry.

But not everyone can afford the $10,000 for a ticket. There are different kinds of immigrants. There are those who choose to cross land borders, jumping from one nation to another in long and dangerous journeys from Ecuador, or paying cash to a Mexican coyote to put them across the border.

Then there are the rafters. According to José,”We are the most desperate. I have friends who have tried dozens of times. If they’re caught by the Cuban or U.S. coast guard, they always intend to try again. Many have become old salts.”

Gregorio had never tried. After recruiting twelve partners (everyone brought something, one sold a Moskovich car, another, two HP computers), they contacts an expert in designing marine craft.

The job isn’t cheap. A powerful and reliable engine is no less than four or five thousand dollars on the black market. They got three GPS for a possible localization, among other goods.

Friends were being added to the adventure. In April 2014 they were 22 people. Gregorio alerted family and friends who have yachts in Miami, so at any given moment, if they washed up on a key, they could be towed to the shore.

The GPA is essential. The artisanal craft designer had to be top of the line. They chose an ex-mechanic of a merchant boat who boasted he knew remote river passages in the Florida keys.

Before departing, at 2:30 in the morning on Wednesday, April 23, they said goodbye to their loved ones with a couple quarts of cheap whiskey.

They were carrying food and water for two weeks in case of shipwreck. A chessboard, Spanish cards and a game of dominoes. As if instead of a risky sea journey they were going on a peaceful safari.

Family in Havana tracked them through an illegal antenna on the cable news updates on Miami TV. Apparently, on Friday at lunchtime good news arrived.

The mother of one of the rafters called his family to say that Channel 23 had aired a story about the supposed boat with a child traveling. The rumor spread like wildfire. The Miami family of the rafters called Krome and other immigration detention centers in Florida. They could not confirm the event. They toured hospitals and coast guard offices. Nobody knew anything of the rafters. They began to panic.

The family members in Cuba called the rafters cellphones insistently. For now, the only signal is a laconic request from a recorded voice saying, “The number you are calling is turned off or outside the coverage area.”

Neighbors and friends try to encourage the rafters’ relatives. “An uncle was twelve days at sea until landfall in Key West.” Or, “You have to wait, they’ve only been at sea for 6 days.” Family members on both sides of of the Strait sleep poorly, eat little and suffer from nerves. They pray to their saints and pray for the lives of their own. Each day that passes without news is synonymous with bad omens. And the death of a rafter, usually, no one can confirm it.

Photo: One of the many rickety boats that came from the Havana coast towards the coast of Florida during the so-called “Rafter Crisis” in August 1994. In these twenty years, despite an increase in the chances of emigrating by legal means , Cubans continue to jump into the sea to try to reach the United States. Taken from Latin American Studies Group.

Iván García

6 May 2014

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