Edania, a retired teacher who has set up a small business of making phone calls and taking messages for the neighborhood, hurried to give the bad news to a family that lives two doors down from her house, in the rundown neighborhood of La Cuevita in San Miguel del Padrón, in the northern part of Havana.
“The thing is taking off like wildfire,” says Edania. “The retired people can’t afford it, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that I’m one of the few people with a phone in the neighborhood. I started charging one Cuban peso to pass on messages and two pesos for local calls in Havana. If the call is outside the city, I charge 3 pesos per minute. Many people are providing this service, which is one of the officially recognized self-employment businesses, but I have no intention signing up at the tax office. I only get 150 or 200 Cuban pesos per month [$6-8 USD], which barely supplements my meager pension. I don’t charge for funeral news.”
In the interior of the island as well as in the capital it has become common for neighbors who have telephones to charge for calls. Richard, a retired resident of the Diez de Octubre district of Havana, has a small money box next to his phone with a list of the various call charges.
“I also sell mobile phone cards. I buy them for 10 CUCs [about $11 USD] and sell them for 11; the ones that cost 5 I resell for 6. But apparently someone in the neighborhood has been talking, because the state inspectors have visited me, demanding that I legalize the business. I told them to go to government offices and demand better pensions for the old people, and then come back and see me,” says Richard.
After the vaunted economic reforms in Cuba—an exotic blend of wildly exploitative state capitalism mixed with Marxist speeches and slogans by Fidel Castro—a torrent of quirky trades flooded the Havana neighborhoods.
The elderly are the losers in this wild mixture of everything from sidewalk pastry vendors to high-quality eateries. In the world of self-employment, everything is available.
From people who offer pirated DVDs of Oscar-nominated movies for 25 Cuban pesos, to elderly public-restroom attendants.
In this spectrum of emerging trades, you find “experts” in umbrella repair, button-covering, funeral cosmetology, matchbox-refilling, and shoe repair. For 50 Cuban pesos they’ll carry buckets of water and fill your 60-gallon tank.
Havana is a tropical bazaar. A hive of hustlers. On the avenue that encircles the old port of Havana, a diverse group of citizens converges to try to earn a living.
Right next to Maestranza children’s playground, Delia, decked out in a floral costume, works as an itinerant fortune teller. “I charge ten Cuban pesos for each card-reading. If you want an in-depth session then the price goes up to 25. It’s even more expensive for foreigners, who can afford more.”
Several tourist buses stop at Avenida del Puerto. As the visitors take photos of the Bay and the Christ of Casablanca statue, street musicians sing old boleros and guarachas, trying to attract their attention.
Leonel is one of them. “For 20 years I’ve devoted myself to making soup (singing while the customers ate). There have been good and bad days. But I’ve always made more than the wages the state paid. When no one in Cuba remembered Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, or Pio Leyva, God rest their souls, they also had to work as lunchtime entertainers, and to sing in seedy bars. They were lucky that a producer like Ry Cooder lifted them out of poverty,” Leonel said, playing a ranchera as he approached some Mexican tourists, hoping to pass the hat.
A dilapidated port-a-potty, serving as a urinal for the customers of three bayfront bars, is looked after by two rickety old men.
They charge one peso to urinate, three to defecate. “It’s because the toilet is clogged. We have to carry a greater quantity of water,” they say. They get the water for flushing right out of the bay, with a can tied to a rope.
“It’s hard work. We’re here up to twelve hours. But when I get home with 10 or 15 CUCs, I ask the Lord to give me strength to live a few more years so I can help my wife, who’s bedridden after a stroke,” says one of the old men.
The buses are now gone. A quartet of street musicians, all elderly, lean against the sea wall, waiting for new tourists.
“It’s been a long journey to return to the beginning. Before the Revolution I was already a soup peddler. For me nothing has changed. Except that life is more expensive and I’m older,” says the singer and guitarist. His dream is that on some tourist bus, a guy like Ry Cooder will come and rescue him from oblivion.
Photo: In central areas of Santiago de Cuba, which like Old Havana are usually frequented by tourists, musicians also look for a living in streets and parks. Taken from Martí News.
Translated by Tomás A.
17 February 2014
Before the olive-green autocracy designed economic reforms, the peaceful, illegal opposition was demanding opportunities in small businesses and in the agricultural sector as well as repeal of the absurd apartheid in the tourist, information and technology spheres that turned the Cuban into a third class citizen.
General Raul Castro and his entourage of technocrats headed by the czar of economic reform, Marino Murillo, were not the first to demand changes in national life. No.
When Fidel Castro governed the nation as if it were a military camp, the current “reformers” occupied more or less important positions within the army and the status quo.
None raised his voice publicly to demand reforms. No one with the government dared to write an article asking for immediate economic or social transformations.
If within the setting of the State Council those issues were aired, we Cubans did not have access to those debates. The tedious national press never published an editorial report about the course or changes that the nation should have undertaken.
Maybe the Catholic Church, in some pastoral letter, with timidity and in a measured tone, approached certain aspects. The intellectuals who today present themselves to us as representatives of a modern left also remained quiet.
Neither did Cuban followers of Castro-ism in the United States and Europe question the fact that their compatriots on the island had no access to mobile telephones, depended on the State for travel abroad or lost their property if they decided to leave the country.
Who did publicly raise a voice was the internal dissidence. Since the end of the 1970’s, when Ricardo Bofill founded the Committee for Human Rights; in addition to demanding changes in political matters and respect for individual liberties, he demanded economic opportunities and legal changes in property rights.
Independent journalists have also, since their emergence in the mid-90’s and, more recently, the alternative bloggers. If the articles demanding greater economic, political and social autonomy were published, several volumes would be needed.
Something not lacking among the Cuban dissidence is political discourse. And they all solicit greater citizen freedoms, from the first of Bofill, Martha Beatriz’s, Vladimiro Roca’s, Rene Gomez Manzano’s and Felix Bonne ’s Fatherland is for All, Oswaldo Paya’s Varela Project, to Antonio Rodiles’ Demand for Another Cuba or Oscar Elias Biscet’s Emilia Project.
The local opposition can be criticized for its limited scope in adding members and widening its community base. But its indubitable merits in the submission of economic and political demands cannot be overlooked.
The current economic reforms established by Castro II answer several core demands raised by the dissidence. No few opponents suffered harassment, beatings and years in prison for demanding some of the current changes, which the regime tries to register as its political triumphs.
The abrogation of absurd prohibitions on things like the sale of cars and houses, travel abroad or access to the internet has formed part of the dissidents’ proposals.
Now, a sector of the Catholic Church is lobbying the government. A stratum of intellectuals from the moderate left raises reforms of greater scope and respect for political differences.
But when Fidel Castro governed with an iron fist, those voices kept silent. It will always be desirable to remind leaders that Cuba is not a private estate and that each Cuban, wherever he resides, has the right to express his policy proposals.
But, unfortunately, we usually ignore or overlook that barely a decade ago, when fear, conformity and indolence put a zipper on our mouths, a group of fellow countrymen spent time demanding reforms and liberties at risk even to their lives.
Currently, while the debate by the intellectuals close to the regime centers on the economic aspect, the dissidence keeps demanding political openings.
One may or may not agree with the strategies of the opponents. But you cannot fail to recognize that they have been — and continue to be — the ones who have paid with jail, abuse and exile for their just claims.
They could have been grandparents who run errands and care for their grandchildren. Or State officials who speechify about poverty and inequality, eating well twice a day, having chauffeured cars and traveling around the world in the name of the Cuban revolution.
But they decided to bet on democracy. And they are paying for it.
Translated by mlk.
6 February 2014
Commercial interest is reflected in large-scale investments in the ports of Norfolk, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville and Savannah. According to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), public-private partnerships will invest up to $46 billion in port infrastructure.
With the expansion of the Panama Canal and the introduction of a new generation of container ships know as post-Panamax, which can pass through the canal with almost three times as much cargo, commercial trade in the Americas will experience a profound change.
The numbers dazzle the experts and countries in the region do not want to be left behind. Their primary interest is, of course, the vast market to the north that Canada and the United States represent.
But no less important is being positioned as a leader in the interregional port trade. This has unleashed a veritable “port war,” which has led to multimillion-dollar investments and higher concentration, with fewer ports for maritime traffic. These will have to be both larger and deeper to accommodate ships which will be bigger and can carry more goods.
Experts agree that post-Panamax traffic is likely to be concentrated in trans-shipment ports, as was the case with air transport. With that in mind, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Cuba are investing heavily in improvements and modernizations to their major port facilities.
The Cuban government has placed special emphasis on developing the port of Mariel, located 45 kilometers west of Havana, due to its excellent natural conditions. The project is backed with 682 million dollars from public and private Brazilian investors.
The first stage could be completed by the end of this month to coincide with the visit of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to the CELAC conference, which will take place on January 28 and 29.
Construction is being carried out by the Brazilian firm Odebrecht. Management of the port and its container terminal, which in the future will be able to handle up to three million containers, will be provided by a Singapore-based firm.
Nine-hundred million dollars have been invested in the first phase. And in keeping with the trade demands of the future port, the Cuban regime has designated it a special economic development zone with its own special jurisdiction.
In the area surrounding the port of Mariel, an area of some 465 square kilometers, the government has begun making direct investments to benefit economic sectors such as biotechnology and textiles, among other areas.
The port of Mariel is geographically well-positioned for regional commerce. Under normal conditions, without an embargo by the United States, it would be a formidable competitor to its counterpart in Miami.
But under current circumstances, given the burden of the U.S. trade embargo, it is not unreasonable to ask if such a monumental investment would be beneficial to the Cuban economy.
In the past Fidel Castro came up with irrational economic schemes such as the plans for harvesting ten million tons of sugar, intensive farming or the construction of a nuclear power station in Juraguá, Cienfuegos, 300 kilometers east of Havana, where he wasted billions dollars with no results.
Castro II has abandoned the colossal volunteerism of his brother. With the usual paucity of information, the regime has yet to set forth the operational strategy it plans to deploy after the inauguration of the port of Mariel.
If one thing is clear, it is that as long as there is an embargo, whose rules stipulate a six-month prohibition from entering U.S. ports for ships which have dropped anchor in Cuba, the docks of Mariel will come out the loser, even without ever having engaged in the regional competition of post-Panamax ports.
The largest share of interregional trade is with the United States, Canada and Mexico, which are economic partners. The twenty-eight E.U. countries will think twice before making large investments in Mariel.
China is only an ideological partner of the Castros. In trade and finance it is tied to the United States. With characteristic pragmatism Beijing will keep placing its bets where the money is.
And the money is in the north or in regions of Latin America such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela and Peru. I do not believe many ships flying a Chinese flag and trading with the United States will anchor in Mariel as long as the embargo remains in place.
Carrying a weight like that around one’s neck makes it difficult to attract large amounts of capital from leading companies. Of course, neither Raul Castro, Brazil’s former president, Lula da Silva — whose government authorized the expenditure — nor its current president, Dilma Rousseff, are fools.
A year ago the Brazilian foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, offered some clues when he publicly stated that the decision to invest in the port of Mariel was based on a post-embargo scenario.
The political strategy of Cuba’s autocrats is also moving in that direction. Regime officials are wearing out the soles of their shoes travelling the world in an attempt to attract fresh capital for the Mariel development zone.
And working through the U.S. Interests Section in Washington, they are lobbying to create and business-friendly atmosphere with the powerful clan of Cuban-American entrepreneurs.
Seeking the repeal of the embargo is perhaps the number one priority of the Cuban Foreign Ministry. The timid economic reforms and requests for dialogue with the United States by General Castro are made in hopes of lifting the embargo.
Except a few statements on Cuba by Obama and a handshake with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the White House has so far not been seduced by the aging president.
Cuba is not China. It does not have that country’s huge market and a significant portion of its economy depends on remittances from Cubans living on other shores.
Washington continues to demand that Cuba respect human rights and democracy, and hold free elections — something it did not do with China or Vietnam — but in this regard the island has very little to offer.
The political retirement of Castro II could change the political dynamic between the two countries. But as long as the embargo is in place, a sizable project, such as the port of Mariel, makes little sense. Any real uptick in the Cuban economy — whether in trade, tourism or new technologies — will always be diminished by the negative impact of the embargo.
At this stage of the game, if the military government really wants to undermine the foundation for the embargo and offer its citizens its citizens a prosperous society, it must come up with some clear-cut political changes. Otherwise, we will remain stuck in a time-out.
Photo: President Raul Castro and former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during his visit in January 2013 which marked the start of the expansion to the port of Mariel, which was made possible by a major investment from Brazil. From Infolatam.
18 January 2014
They are hard neighborhoods. Their priorities run toward having containers full of potable water: it’s been decades since the precious liquid arrived in their precarious dwellings through the obsolete pipes.
Residents of these slums, like Gerardo, who pedals a bike-taxi 12 hours a day through Central Park environs, feel satisfied when they have food for a week, deodorant, tooth paste and detergent.
Poverty in Cuban is not just overwhelmingly material. It is also mental. A sine qua non for a wide segment of the population. It does not matter if you proudly hang an engineering or law degree in the living room of your house.
The system designed 55 years ago by Fidel Castro has been a champion in socializing poverty. For almost everyone. He is to blame for salaries being symbolic and unworthy.
But the worst is not the crude material poverty that shames you when, for example, you travel through one of the more than 60 destitute neighborhoods, real slums, that arm themselves on a night on the outskirts of the city.
The big problem for the majority in Cuba is that they do not have legal tools for changing the state of things. That’s they way it is. And people know it.
That’s why the solution for many is to emigrate. Or to do political juggling acts, pretending to applaud the official discourse, legal snares and to steal all they can on their jobs.
The wear and tear of a regime that still governs after five decades of economic failures disgusts a growing segment of the citizenry.
It is already known that in autocratic Marxist societies networks of commitments, information censorship, fear and police effectiveness are woven in an effort to contain the internal dissidence.
But the power of Fidel Castro, almost absolute until the 1980’s. has been eroding. Now the people do not keep quiet about their disagreements or unease about the State’s gross mismanagement.
Today on the island, in any line, park, corner or public transport, you hear racy criticism of the Castro brothers. And an interminable list of complaints. Nevertheless, those querulous debates go no further.
A high percentage of the population does not trust the mechanisms of government. People power is a mere adornment. Letters to a newspaper, a minister or any Central Committee office that attends citizen complaints do not usually solve or manage the disparate problems raised.
For some years Cuba has been living in a time out. Many believe that the solution to societal and economic structural problems is biological, and that they will be resolved by magic, when the Castros die.
As bad as they live and for lack of a future, a wide segment of Cubans is indifferent to meetings like the recently completed CELAC Summit. They feel like a tropical political comedy.
In the modern world forums and meetings between nations abound and lack concrete actions and practices. Right now, politicians of the whole world live at a low ebb. They have not learned to manage the needs and desires of their people.
On the American continent corruption and extreme neo-populism abound. To their credit they are democratically elected presidents. Except Cuba. A contrasting difference.
Also striking is the anachronistic discourse of the Cuban regime when compared with that of other regional politicians.
The speeches of the island’s representatives seem like outputs from the age of the dinosaurs. You listen to how Pinera, Humala, Santos or Rousseff openly express needs that affect their countries and their tangible bet on democracy and human rights.
Raul Castro, out of focus in his inaugural speech, analyzed poverty, inequality and other phenomena in Latin America as if Cuba did not also suffer from them. He tried to seem like a teacher holding class for a group of students.
The future of the world is increasingly of blocs. It is positive that Latin America is seen as an inclusive entity. The great merit of the Second Summit was declaring Latin America a Zone of Peace.
But there are many challenges ahead. The continent continues to be the most unequal and violent region on the planet. Caracas, Michoacan or Tegucigalpa are true slaughterhouses.
Neither can one get around the tendency of the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela or Nicaragua to reform the Constitution at their convenience. It creates a harmful precedent: that of politicians endorsed by institutions saturated by colleagues and buddies from the party that are perpetuated in power.
Demagoguery floats in several nations of the region. Political honesty and frankness is a rare bird.
It is not possible that none of the 31 governors that were at the Summit in Havana, elected in democratic plebiscites, with opposition parties and free press, have not questioned the Cuban regime about its lack of freedoms and its repression of the dissidence.
Like a Russian doll, the olive-green autocracy tries to regenerate itself and govern without respect to the democratic clauses of CELAC.
If they are committed to integrating the Cuba of the Castros into the Latin American and Caribbean community, ethically, some leader should let them know. And not exactly in a quiet voice.
Translated by mlk.
3 February 2014
“I was in a shelter known as La Colonia, in Boyeros municipality (20 kilometers west of the center of the capital). The treatment was harsh. It looked like a jail. But at least they guaranteed lunch and food,” said the vagabond, who usually bets on an image of San Lázaro to ask for money at the entrance of a complex of exclusive shops in the Habana Libre hotel.
After being warned by the police, a group of alcoholics and beggars who usually sell used clothing and old books on the corner of Carmen and 10th of October in the slum of La Vibora, stayed away for a week.
“They told us we made the city look ugly. A police official said we should get lost until the end of the Summit. The important visits, like that of the Pope or meetings of presidents, together with the cold, are a pain in the neck for us, because we have to go to places outside the city. We live like gypsies. Almost all of us sleep in cartons in some doorway. In the neighborhood of la Calzada and 10th of October, we find a few pesos by doing metal plating, cutting stone, and some neighbors give us food,” remarked Ariel, a hopeless alcoholic.
Barely did the CELAC Summit end, when the beggars and dumpster divers returned to their work.
These events are also usually trouble for those who live on the margins on the law. Like Ramiro, a part-time transvestite, who prostitutes himself on the central avenues after work.
“During those days you walk around wound up. The police get very nervous. A client told me that they were mobilizing, since they expected groups of human rights marchers or public demonstrations. Once it was over, I returned to the struggle,” says Ramiro.
Hookers in the suburbs in the style of Gisela, pretty and with an easy laugh, also make sacrifices. “I’ve been arrested twice for prostitution. I have to be careful. When they celebrate meetings like this, I “nail myself in” (stay at home). Later I go back to the routine.
Numerous dissidents, among them the intellectual Manuel Cuesta Morúa and the attorney Veizant Boloy, should now be returning to their homes, after several days of detention in police dungeons, to prevent them from holding a parallel forum.
Other members of the opposition, independent journalists, alternative bloggers and human rights activists were prevented by State Security from leaving their homes, and their cell phones were cut off.
The Second CELAC Summit, celebrated in Havana from January 25 to 29, didn’t bring too many benefits to the people of Havana. Among the lucky ones were the residents on San Lázaro Street, from the University staircase up to the Fragua Martiana Museum, in the Cayo Hueso district.
Owing to the presence of a torch parade in honor of the 161st anniversary of the birth of José Martí, a coat of paint was given to the facades of some buildings and homes, and several streets got new asphalt.
Owners of private restaurants and family businesses in zones neighboring PABEXPO, were closed on the days of the event. “I have a cake business, for weddings and parties, that I had to close, because of the exaggerated police presence and prohibitions for the circulation of autos. The clients disappeared,” indicated Alexander, the owner of a sweetshop in Miramar.
The “fat” expected by owners of private restaurants, craft vendors, and private taxi drivers remained far below expectations.
“The truth is that almost no one who took part in the Summit came by here, unless it was one or another first lady, say,” said a seller of paintings on the Plaza de la Catedral.
Paladars of caliber like La Guarida, located in the heart of the marginal neighborhood of San Leopoldo, kept hoping for reservations by the heavyweights. In November 1999, when the Kings of Spain attended the IberoAmerican Summit celebrated in Havana, the Queen Doña Sofía dined in the famous paladar (as private restaurants are called).
Josefina had more luck, with her hair salon in Old Havana. She gave a haircut to the indifferent Secretary General of the United Nations, the South Korean Ban Ki-moon. Though how much he paid for the cut isn’t known.
Photo: Old Havana. While the woman trumpets her cone of “peanuts, toasted and hot,” very close to her are a policeman and a man having an exchange of words. Taken from Cubanet.
Translated by Regina Anavy
1 February 2014
“It’s more of the same. They talk about poverty, integration and social inclusion while in Cuba inequality grows. It is a cheeky that our president Raul Castro speaks about those topics. He should blush, in country where people have salaries of less than 20 dollars a month. The worst part is not earning little money, the food shortages or their high prices, the worst part is that we have no way of changing the state of things,” points out Zoila, at a bus stop in Vedado.
Osniel, 33 years old, bartender at a bar that sells exclusively in foreign currency, while he prepares daiquiris and mojitos, unenthusiastically and from the side watches a flatscreen installed on the premises, which broadcasts news about the roll out of the CELAC Summit.
“Whether they are Latin Americans, from the Americas or from ALBA, these summits are only useful for presidents and foreign ministers, who take advantage of them to talk face to face. For everyone else they are ineffective. There’s a lot of talk about eliminating poverty, respecting human rights, and creating grandiose economic projects. But with the passage of time, it almost all stays on the drawing board,” the barman emphasizes.
On the streets of Havana, it is increasingly difficult to find people who are optimistic or who are not angry. The Diario de las Américas spoke with some twenty citizens about the Summit’s news interest.
For sixteen it is a real annoyance, and four said that after 55 years, they are used to it. “It is what Castro’s boat* brought,” says Eugenio, 73 years old, retired. The Cubavision channel dedicates 12 hours a day to the Summit. ”There’s no option but to rent films and soap operas. Or change to the sports channel; I don’t like baseball or soccer, but I prefer it over seeing such people giving speeches,” confesses Onelia, 56, housewife.
“The oven is not ready for the cakes. The news that started the year, the astronomical prices of cars for sale, has created too much distress. Then this optimistic discourse from the national press that contrasts with the hard reality that most of us live. In Cuba it seems that there are two planets. One artificial, highlighted by the government media, and the real one where disenchantment and uncertainty about the future worry many,” says Rogelio, 47, bank employee.
While the television harps on news about the Summit, Junior and a group of friends, after each ingests two Parkinsonil pills, buy a bottle of Mulata rum for 5 cuc, a week’s salary for a professional. They drink it all, to see if they can “change their bodies.”
“That ’molar’ (speech) does not interest me. The horde of old men in charge of Cuba does not notice that they are boring. Since I was born, in 1994, the same ’size’ (spiel), that if the Yankees, that if the ’blockade’ (embargo). But we continue the same or worse, above all the young. Without a future and ’stuffing tremendous cable’ (going through hardship). We escape taking pills with rum,” says Junior, hairless in the style of Brazilian soccer player Neymar.
Without intending it, Bruno Rodriguez was the one who knew best how to define the air of apparent political placidity that lives in the Summit. In a press conference, the Cuban foreign minister emphasized that he had never seen in an international forum an air of such harmony and consensus as he observed in Havana.
For the common Cuban, it all seems rehearsed. If there were discrepancies, they aired them discreetly. “It is shameful that the attendees of the Summit in their pronouncements have tried not to displease a host who is a dictator,” says a taxi driver.
Certainly, one has to chalk up a political goal for General Raul Castro. Not even his brother Fidel could agree with or attenuate the critics of his regime at international events held during the time that he was head of the country.
Whatever their ideological tendencies, the regional politicians seem like disciplined children. All facing the gallery. That strategy of extending the red carpet for the olive-green autocracy leaves the Cuban dissidence increasingly alone and isolated.
As of the moment of this writing, no one had met with opposition figures. Not even Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OEA. The ridiculous level of commitment by Latin American democrats to a handful of women and men who claim political space and freedom of expression left the road clear for State Security forces to harass the opposition, independent journalists and human rights activists.
Jorge Olivera, 52-years-old, reporter, writer, and ex-prisoner of the Group of 75, on the night of January 23 two counterintelligence agents warned him not to participate in any dissident events during the Summit.
“They were emphatic. They told me they were not going to permit parallel meetings during the Summit. The cynicism of the Latin America politicians attending the event is worrying. No one has made a gesture or wanted to meet with us. They have a double standard. They speak and demand democracy, including in the CELAC charter, and they look away when it comes to the Cuban dissidence,” says Olivera.
A parallel forum sponsored by the Argentine organization CADAL (Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America) and dissidents on the island probably cannot be held due to the strong repression. They did not even permit the director of CADAL to enter the capital.
Manuel Cuesta Morua, co-sponsor of the forum, was detained in a Miramar police unit. The mobile phones of numerous opponents were cut off and others were not permitted to leave their homes or provinces. Dozens of arrests of activists were reported all over the island.
In Cuba, depending on who looks, the glass is half full or half empty. And there is not only one reality, but many and very different.
But it would be presumptuous to say that the harangues of the regime or the debates in the Summit are a news priority for the common people. Rather it is the opposite.
Photo: Before and during the CELAC summit, the main avenues and streets of Havana were taken by police officers like this one, of the special brigade, who are distinguished by the black uniform and always walk with a dog. The photo, by Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, was taken very close to Havana’s Central Park.
*Translator’s note: Fidel Castro and his associates started the Revolution by sailing on a small yacht from Mexico to Cuba. The yacht was purchased from an American who had named it “Granma,” which subsequently became the name of one of Cuba’s provinces and the country’s daily newspaper.
Translated by mlk
29 January 2014
Under a warm sun and unusually cool breeze, a worker puts the final touches on the exterior of PABEXPO, an exposition and meeting center of 60,000 square yards, located in the Siboney neighborhood, to the west of Havana.
There, from Saturday the 25th to Tuesday the 29th of January, experts, foreign ministers and presidents will meet at the 2nd Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The tourist group Cubatur S.A., obviously, is the most favored. Two weeks ago, in a document from the Minister of Foreign Relations loaded to the internet as a PDF, offers detailed information.
It consists of 116 pages and is titled Operations Manual for the 2nd CELAC Summit. The Cuban Organizing Committee offered free housing to every Head of State, one of the Foreign Ministers and another to the Head of the Delegation to the Meeting of National Coordinators.
Six other rooms, guaranteed at the same hotel and floor established for each attending country, will be paid by the delegations requesting them. The prices range between 170 and 340 CUC per night, in the case of doubles, and include transportation from and to the airport, breakfast, internet, and personalized assistance. If they want rooms superior to the standard, the price will be higher. [Ed. note: The CUC, Cuban Convertible Peso, is pegged one-to-one to the U.S. dollar but exchange fees increase its cost to about $1.10.]
Six hotels have been selected for the invited VIPs. Three five-star hotels (Hotel Nacional, Meliá Cohiba and Meliá Habana) and three four-star superior (Hotel Quinta Avenida, Occidental Miramar and Panorama).
Some 2,500 to 3,000 foreign reporters are expected to return. At their disposal there will be twelve hotels with room prices ranging from 90 to 400 CUC a night.
Cubatur also will make bank renting cars or other types of tourist transport. For three to six days an economy car will cost 51 CUC a day, a premium model 181 CUC and a van 185 CUC.
The organizers are offering six vehicles to each delegation. The foreign press and other participants will have to pay “an adequate collective transport.”
ETECSA, the only Cuban telecommunications company, will also have its harvest. Calls within the island cost 0.35 CUC. To the United States or another Latin American country, 1.60 CUC (to Venezuela is 1.40), and 1.80 CUC a minute to the rest of the world.
To install a fixed telephone line, ETECSA will charge 100 CUC, plus the price of the calls. The cost of renting links to navigate the internet depends on the speed. If it is 64 Kbps, the participants will have to pay 150 CUC for the installation plus 7 CUC a day.
For the fastest connection, at 2,048 Kbps, the installation price rises to 200 CUC and the daily cost of service is 186 CUC.
In addition, ETECSA will charge one convertible peso for every sheet received by fax, while an hour of access from PABEXPO will cost 4.50 CUC, the same price we Cubans pay when we go to a state internet room.
The media who intend to use a satellite phone will have to pay a 1,000 CUC license fee, and if they want satellite Internet the figure doubles. The current regulations in Cuba establish that it is mandatory to obtain a credential to work temporarily as a journalist in the country at a cost of 100 CUC, with the exception of the Presidential Press, which will receive credentials from the Organizing Committee.
The Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) will charge 200 CUC for an hour of editing, including the editor, and the same fee for an hour of using a transmission position. According to a source from ICRT, the multinational Telesur, financed with Venezuelan and Ecuadorian capital and Cuban advice, is exempt from these payments. And, in addition, it will also have privileged locations in the conference rooms.
A consulting economist estimated that the CELAC SUMMIT, in barely a week, fattened the coffers of the regime with between 180 and 220 million dollars. Not bad for some finances in the red.
25 January 2014
For a Cuban reporter, in addition to mastering the narrative techniques of modern journalism, it’s good to have in hand Oriana Fallaci’s book. To read the chronicles of Gay Tallese or Rosa Montero. These days, seems essential to own a laptop, tablet, and a digital recorder and camera.
But, please, keep in mind you are engaging in journalism in an autocratic country, where according to its laws the professions of spy and unauthorized reporter are almost synonymous.
Yes, we must learn to use 21st century tools, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, but in Cuba it’s ore useful to have a network of friendships located in different strata who can give you first hand information.
Not being able to confront the information, or verify it through other sources, we have to have confidence in our intuition. We’re always going to lack a specific date, or a concrete figure that could round out the note.
Not having access to official statistics, it’s impossible to contrast the news and look for other points of view to balance the story. In my experience, after working as an independent journalist for 18 years, on the island we have to throw in the trash certain rules established like canons of the profession.
Let me give an example. If we try to have a hooker tell you about her life, it’s advisable not to show her a microphone or camera. Or she’s not going to tell you a story. Then the most sordid stories flow.
Not being able to record, take notes, or take photos, a good memory is fundamental. When an interviewee quotes outside the law, what is important is to get across the essence of their opinions.
To do journalism inside Havana’s marginal world comes with its risks. One journalist note can bring down a police operation on a guy who sells drugs or a girl who sells herself. So you have to be very careful to camouflage the identity, place of residence or where there person usually operates.
I’ll tell you an anecdote. In the past year, Diario de las Americas published a story of mine about transvestite prostitutes. Every night they sit in a doorway on 10 de Octubre avenue. After I published the work, the police discretely evacuated the place.
These unadorned stories carry a risk in Cuba: any person mentioned could be arrested and end up behind bars.
An old butcher told me about a common method among the DTI (Technical Investigations Department) officials when they detain someone, to avoid a conflict, is to say they got the information from an article by an independent journalist.
Although at times the publication of a story helps the affected. In December, as a result of strong downpours assaulting Havana, a neighbor, living in a destroyed room in a tenement, told me he’d been asking for decent housing for his family for 20 years.
“After you mentioned my case, the authorities talked to me. They told me that if I stopped offering statement, they could resolve my problem,” the neighbor said.
On Friday, 10 January, the independent journalist León Padrón Azcuy published on Cubanet a report about the private restaurant Starbien, owned by José Raúl Colomé, son of Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, Army General and Minister of the Interior.
On Monday the 13th, Colomé Jr. visited the journalist at his home. He told him he was very annoyed with what was reflected in the article and promised to take charge of the matter personally. On 15 January Cubanet revealed that the minister’s son’s restaurant had been entered on Spain’s Merchant Register as Starbien Investment SL.
When you do journalism outside the State, you have to be well-informed and can’t try to wield the “journalistic stick” or compete against the international news agencies stationed in the country.
A journalist, according to Kapuscinski (Poland 1931-2007), above all must be a good person. To do good reporting work and, in the case of Cuba, to describe this reality hidden by the regime with objectivity.
Photo: All the independent journalists who live in Havana, at least once a week go to the Esquina de Tejas, by foot, bus or taxi; this is where four of the most important streets of the capital meet: Monte, Infanta and the Calzadas del Cerro and Diez de Octubre. Taken from Primavera Digital.
22 January 2014
They are not as ostentatious as the new Russian rich who buy compulsively and empty the shelves of Marbella. Nor do their lifestyle and expenses have to do with a Qatar millionaire who for pure pleasure buys a bankrupt European soccer club.
The new Cuban rich have a different stripe and behavior. “There are several castes. There are the life-long privileged: ministers, managers of healthy businesses or generals who have exchanged the olive-green uniform for a crisp white guayabera. They may eat shrimp and drink Spanish red wine,” says an ex-official.
In his opinion, it is a very special class. “It is accessed by family genes, loyalty or sycophancy. But it is an exclusive preserve. Depending on their rank, these revolutionary burghers may have a yacht or even a Hummer.”
A person who knows about power says they usually go to Ibiza or Cancun on vacation. “They are above the law and the Constitution. By divine decree, they can have cable antennas, internet at home and several cars. They don’t need to turn off the air conditioning to save energy, and when the dollar was prohibited, the supposed enemy’s banknotes were in their wallets.”
There were and still are other kinds of “rich.” People call them “flowerpots.” It is a colorful fauna of petty thieves with white collars who swipe a few million pesos and abound in various levels of government ministries.
“They carry the party card for convenience or pull you into a lecture replete with revolutionary slogans. This caste has learned how to spin the system,” says a lady who was a servant in the home of a manager.
Common and ordinary Cubans know that they ride in State cars, with gasoline from the State and that they steal from the State. That they invest in family businesses. And under the mattress they keep dollars and euros, among other currencies. “The most intelligent defect on an official trip and with stolen money set up a discreet business in Florida,” asserts the ex-official.
The man on the street also knows that the number of private entrepreneurs who are earning quite a bit in their businesses is rising. Also, that in Cuba there exist the “body smugglers.” People who have always lived on the margin of the law. Selling drugs, brand name clothes, pirated perfumes, houses or cars.
And with the money saved, the ’body smugglers’ open a cafeteria or rent rooms to foreign tourists for 30 dollars a night. Other privileged people are the rich “de flay,” that is, “the Cubans who thanks to remittances sent by relatives in Miami, who in order to sustain the way of life of these bloodsuckers, often have two jobs,” says a retired teacher.
They all, from the olive-green caste to the rich “de flay,” demonstrate the difference from that vast majority of the population that eats a hot meal once a day and relieves the heat with a Chinese fan.
The new rich can afford the luxury of dining three times a week in a private restaurant and paying 150 CUC for a set menu at the Plaza de la Catedral in order to eat delicacies and await the new year listening to Isaac Delgado.
Some envy them. But, in general, Cubans accept the new rules of the game. They see well that their neighbor may have a business, make money and stay at a Varadero hotel.
And that the State may sell cars and permit you to travel abroad. They applaud the elimination of the absurd double currency and ask for better salaries, with the hope that someday they too might eat in expensive restaurants or visit Cayo Coco.
What people reproach is the hypocrisy of the regime’s leaders. That they speak in the name of the poor while they live and dine like the new rich from Russia. That’s why, when many Cubans see Raul Castro, it seems to them that they are observing Vladimir Putin. Maybe it is an optical illusion.
*Dinner Menu — In 2012 the set menu cost 100 CUC per person (about $110 US), but in 2013 the business Habaguanex raised it to 150 CUC, a worker’s salary for seven and a half months. What was offered on the menu would have filled the stomachs of the residents of any block from Central Havana, Marianao, Arroyo Naranjo or San Miguel del Padron.
Welcome cocktail: Creole mojito or San Francisco (without alcohol). Large chef’s assortment plate: mixed salad of fillet of beef, fired pork bun a la Camagueyana, marinade of three cheeses and cured ham crepes. First plate: main: Tower of turkey and glazed fruits, green and black olives over marinated vegetables. Main plate: Center cut beef tenderloin with extra virgin olive oil, plum and rosemary sauce and Crianza Cabernet wine. Side dish: Creamed potatoes.
Variety of rolls and breadsticks accompanied by pate with cheese flavored with basil and pimento. Desserts: Cheesecake and guava with candied apple and coffee caramel sauce. Assortment of Spanish nougats and good luck grapes. Brews: Cuban coffee and varieties of tea.
Beverages of your choice all night: Mineral water, fruit juices, soft drinks and national beers, white, rose, red and sparkling wines, anejo rum, whiskey and from Cuban mixology, Mojito, Cuba Libre, Cubata and Habana Especial. Also: Mixed grill of pork, turkey and roasted vegetables, creole stew with red mangrove, three kinds of paella (shrimp, rabbit or vegetable) and grand cake flambe with cognac. As amusement, a Magnum of champagne opened with a saber.
Translated by mlk.
11 January 2014
Walter had his doubts. He was vacillating between a US-made Willys Jeep from the ’50s, with a Toyoto diesel engine, German air brakes, recently painted and restores, for 32,000 convertible pesos (about $35,000), or wait until January 3, to see if the State would sell the jeep more cheaply.
“I don’t think they’re going to sell a Cherokee or a Hummer, because of the blockade (embargo), but perhaps the government will offer something French- or British-made. I’m thinking perhaps I would like to use it as a taxi. And with the bad state of the roads on the island, I don’t think the modern jeeps can stand up to it like the suspensions of the American cars from the ’40s and ’50s, which are true war tanks,” says Walter.
The official announcement of the marketing of cars by the government still has not led to a substantial lowering of prices in the private market where 95% of the cars sold are used. Aurelio, after showing his 1957 Chevrolet which he maintains like a jewel, says “I won’t sell it for less than 35,000 chavitos (convertible pesos or CUCs).”
If you check on the capital’s car market, you’ll see that any antique out of Detroit from six decades ago, right now costs between $12,000 and $30,000, depending on how well it’s preserved.
If it’s one like Aurelio, which still has its factory engine and the original upholstery, you’ll have to pay at least $40,000. On on-line sites like Revolico.com, new or second-hand, fluctuate between 25,000 and 50,000 CUC.
In Havana, it’s common for an old car to cost more than a new two-bedroom apartment. The prohibition against selling cars, except those made before 1959, raised the prices in an absurd way.
Between 1970-80, the authorities sold Russian cars at 4,500 pesos, less than 200 CUC in current values. These same Ladas or uncomfortable Moskovich today cost between 10,000 and 15,000, depending on their technical state. Then they couldn’t change hands. Their owners couldn’t sell them. In the case of death, the child or other family member inherited the car, and they could not sell it either.
Of course, in the underground Cuban economy Ladas and Moskoviches were sold and even tractors were sold by the piece. In 2011 the regime understood that so many misguided prohibitions contributed to feeding the exaggerated prices.
And they authorized the sale of cars. But established a bureaucratic hurdle: you could only buy and sell old cars, US- or Russian-made. New and second-hand cars could only be acquired through a letter granted by an official.
Which is what happened. On no few occasions, the letters cost more than the vehicle you were going to buy at a state agency. A colossal web of corruption emerged. To put the brakes on the dance of notes under the table, as of 3 January 2014 the regime will involve itself in the business.
According to the official notice, the government will open agencies at current market prices in Cuba. Daniel, a self-employed worker who wants to buy “an economical little South Korean car, nothing spectacular,” put his hands to his head when a friend tells him that a model that costs no more than $3,000 in the U.S. or Brazil, sells in Havana for 9,000 CUC, almost $10,000.
The pretext of the regime for maintaining inflated prices is that the earnings will be dedicated to buying buses. In 55 years of “revolution,” the country has never had decent but service. It could seem like a good idea to subsidize public transport through the sale of cars.
Suppose the regime will undertake some market research. Perhaps 200,000 Cubans can buy new cars costing between 9,000 and 30,000 CUC. Let us assume that 200,000 citizens can purchase at an average of 10,000 CUC. That would be a net sale of 2 billion CUC.
Excluding the purchase and freight, the profit would be a billion dollars. With this money we could acquire 10,000 articulated buses at 100,000 dollars each. It would seem to be a magic solution; a handful of people, let’s call them the middle class, would provide the public transport that for 55 years of the Castro regime has always been a disaster.
Will they also allocate money to repair and expand the worn out roads. But we live in an autocracy that answers to no one. And to demand transparency from its institutions is synonymous with “counterrevolution.” So we will never know how they are going to invest the earnings that come from the sale of cars.
Walter was one of the first to tour the places where they are displaying the different car models. When he saw the prices, it was clear: he will by the restored Willys jeep for 32,000 convertible pesos (CUC).
Photo: Cubans look in one of the parking lots in Havana turned in to retail auto lots. the cheapest sold the first day was a 1997 BMW at 14,457.60 CUC, and the most expensive, a 2010 Hyundai minibus at 110,000 CUC .
Official price list
2013 PEUGEOT for sale in convertible pesos (CUC)
- PEUGEOT EXPERT TEPEE 2013 ………………… 212,940.00
- PEUGEOT 4008 2013 ………………………………… 239,250.00
- PANEL PEUGEOT PARTNER TEPEE 2013….. 145,612.50
- PEUGEOT 206+ 2013 ……………………………….. 91,113.00
- PEUGEOT 301 2013 ………………………………….. 108,084.00
- PEUGEOT 301 2013 ………………………………….. 109,684.00
- PEUGEOT 301 2013 ………………………………….. 109,699.00
- PEUGEOT 5008 2013 ………………………………. 232,193.50
- PEUGEOT 508 2013 ………………………………… 263,185.50
Other NEW VEHICLES for sale in convertible pesos (CUC)
- GEELY CK T/A 2010 ……………………. 26,550.00
- GEELY CK T/M 2009 ……………..…….. 25,950.00
- GEELY FC 2009 ……………………………. 37,500.00
- GEELY MK 2009 …………………………… 30,000.00
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/A 2011 ………… 45,000.00
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/A 2009-2010.. 37,500.00
- HYUNDAI ATOS 2009 …………………… 21,450.00
- HYUNDAI 110 T/A 2009 ……….……… 29,250.00
- HYUNDAI 110 T/A 2009 ………….…… 31,500.00
- HYUNDAI 110 T/M 2009 ………….….. 25,000.00
- HYUNDAI 110 T/M 2009 ………….….. 28,500.00
- KIA RIO 2011 ………………………………. 42,000.00
- SEAT ALTEA 2008 …………………….. 45,000.00
- VW JETTA 2010 …………………..…….. 51,000.00
USED VEHICLES for sale in convertible pesos (CUC)
- MICROBUS HYUNDAI TQ12 2009-2010 ……. 110,000.00
- JEEP HYUNDAI SANTA FE 2009-2010 ……. 90,000.00
- JEEP SUZUKI JIMNY 2008 …………………….. 69,195.00
- JEEP SUZUKI JIMNY 2008 …………………….. 30,000.00
- AUDI A4 2000 ……………………………………….. 45,000.00
- BMW SMOD 1997 ……………………………………. 14,457.60
- CITROEN C3 2008 …………………………………. 46,025.10
- CITROEN SAXO 2003 …………………………….. 26,431.65
- CHANA-ALSV ALSVANA 2010 …………………. 31,950.00
- DAIHATSU GRAND MOVE 2000 ……..……… 22,000.00
- FIAT PUNTO 2008 …………………………………. 28,950.00
- FIAT UNO 2002 ……………………………………… 18,000.00
- GEELY CK 2010 ……………………………………… 26,149.95
- GEELY CK 2010 ……………………………………… 26,150.10
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/M 2007 ………………… 35,000.00
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/A 2011 …………………. 45,000.00
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/A 2009-2010 ……….. 37,500.00
- HYUNDAI ACCENT T/M 2011 ……………….. 45,000.00
- HYUNDAI ATOS 2007-2009 …………………. 21,450.00
- HYUNDAI AZERA 2009 ……………………….. 75,000.00
- HYUNDAI GETZ 2009 ………………………….. 32,250.00
- HYUNDAI SONATA 2009-2010 …………….. 60,000.00
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ……………………………….. 38,285.40
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 40,854.60
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 41,486.40
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 37,189.80
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 37,782.45
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 35,000.00
- KIA PICANTO 2008 ……………………………… 28,000.00
- KIA PICANTO 2011 ………………………………. 42,000.00
- KIA PICANTO 2009 ……………………………… 35,000.00
- MERCEDES BENZ 2006 ………………………. 60,000.00
- MITSUBISHI LANCER 1997 …………………. 20,000.00
- PEUGEOT 406 1999 …………………………….. 28,000.00
- PEUGEOT 106 2003 …………………………….. 16,222.95
- PEUGEOT 206 2008 …………………………… 85,227.60
- PEUGEOT 206 2004 …………………………… 30,000.00
- PEUGEOT 407 2004 …………………………… 30,000.00
- PEUGEOT PARTNER 2008 ………………… 25,600.00
- RENAULT CLIO 2005 ……………………….. 25,000.00
- RENAULT SM3 2008 ……………………….. 46,116.30
- RENAULT SM3 2008 ……………………….. 30,000.00
- RENAULT SM3 2008 ……………………….. 31,500.00
- RENAULT SM7 2008 ……………………….. 90,000.00
- SEAT ALTEA 2008 ………………………….. 45,000.00
- SEAT CORDOVA 2008 …………………….. 31,500.00
- TOYOTA COROLA 2006 …………………… 39,224.80
- TOYOTA YARIS 2003 ………………………. 25,000.00
- TOYOTA YARIS 2002 ………………………. 25,000.00
- VW JETTA 2010 ………………………………. 51,000.00
- VW PASSAT 2008 ……………………………. 54,000.00
- VW PASSAT 2010 ……………………………. 67,500.00
- VW POLO 2007 ………………………………. 25,000.00
- VW POLO 2007 ………………………………. 25,000.00
4 January 2014