If you were an intellectual — I can recall professor Ricardo Boffill, the writer and poet Raul Rivero and the poet María Elena Cruz Valera — it was not enough for them just to disparage you with an editorial in the newspaper Granma.
You would lose your job. Your friends would not even say hello to you. You would begin to live clandestinely. Harassment by cowboys from State Security would make you paranoid. It was unbearable. They would disturb you at all hours, you would receive nasty calls in the middle of the night and, since they had absolute power, they could detain you as often as they saw fit.
Certainly, we still live under the Republic’s absurd “Gag Law,” a legal tool that allows the government to sentence you to twenty or more years in prison just for writing a newspaper article without state approval. However, from 2010 until now, 95% of arrests have been of short duration, lasting hours or days.
Of course, dissidents are still subject to karate kicks from plainclothes policemen dressed as peasants, beatings and verbal assaults in front of their homes.
Being a dissident in an autocracy while supporting democracy and political freedom carries a cost. Being subject to insults and death threats is never pleasant, but Cuban dissidents accept them.
But even if the repressors’ behavior seems savage and intimidating — which it is — fifty years ago you would have gotten the death penalty for the same things they are doing now. It isn’t much, but it’s something. The island’s dissident movement now enjoys recognition by democratic nations.
Outside the island they are more visible today. They communicate using blogs, websites, Twitter, Facebook and other digital tools. Some have received awards for their activism, and as of January 2013 they can travel and lobby American and international institutions. They chat with and take have their pictures taken with politicians.
They can also take classes that increase their knowledge. This is all positive but current circumstances in Cuban society require something more than speeches, periodic reports on human rights violations and drawing room meetings among dissidents.
The local opposition should try to reach agreement among themselves and devise a coherent political program that is inclusive and modern. Disagreements, egos and posturing should be set aside.
All dissidents agree on one point: Cuba must change. We must then work towards a common goal. It seems to me that this is the moment to be of one mind and to focus our efforts within the country.
Eight out of ten people with whom I spoke disagree with the regime. Even in official blogs by such writers such as Alejo, Gay Paquito and Elaine Díaz the complaints against previously sacred institutions reveal unhappiness within the society.
The things on which the opposition and a wide segment of the population agree are significant. Dissidents, whether they be workers or professionals, all suffer from the same material shortages caused by poor management by the government.
In our neighborhoods plumbing lines are broken and streets are full of potholes. The buildings where we live are in need of repair, the hospitals were we are treated are decrepit and in our children’s schools the poor quality of education is palpable.
It is necessary, however, to prioritize work within communities and neighborhoods. Although a high percentage of the population is in agreement with the dissidents, the divide between the population and the opposition is clearly evident.
Because of negative government propaganda directed against dissidents, many ordinary Cubans do not trust opposition figures. They see them as opportunists and demagogues.
Political proselytizing by dissident activists must be directed to the Cuban on the street. There is no point in publishing an article in a foreign newspaper, making statements on Radio Martí or giving a seminar at an American university when the audience we must convince is at our doorstep or on the sidewalk in front.
Another issue on which the dissident movement must focus is the subject of money and aid provided by foreign institutions. Transparency is paramount. It would be beneficial if they were to account for every centavo spent or resource received.
On official US government websites you can find out about contributions made by American agencies to the Cuban opposition. I am in support of this aid but not of the silence from dissidents who accept it without providing information on how it is being used.
The Cuban dissident movement should also try to find its own means of financial support. For example, it might start small, legally approved businesses that could subsidize its efforts as well as help others by providing employment.
Sometimes dependence on foreign institutions leads to undesirable compromises. A drawing room dissident movement is necessary but, I believe, now is the time to go out and look for followers in the streets.
Photo: Unlike Cubans, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest a political decision by their government. A majority of Ukrainians want to join the European Union rather than be affiliated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. From La Jornada de México.
4 December 2013
If, like 22-year-old Yoan, you consider it a priority to dress in the style of a male fashion model and you spend all your spare time in the gym sculpting your body, then the bill could exceed your income.
Yoan maintains a lifestyle similar to an average middle-class guy in any developed country thanks to his family in Florida.
A European fiancé and a Canadian lover allow him certain whims and niceties such as frequent lunches in good privately owned restaurants and mojitos in exclusive bars.
Bisexual and discreet, he prides himself on being a high-end male prostitute. He does not work as a gigolo nor does he have a Hummer parked in his garage, though this is his dream.
He has a closet filled with expensive jeans, Italian loafers and athletic shoes. He is well-stocked with Chanel No. 5, Heno and Prava soaps and American-made Colgate toothpaste, which he acquired for six dollars on Obispo Street.
He likes to buy brand-name clothing in high-end stores in Havana’s Miramar district and the Hotel Saratoga, places whose prices rival those of Manhattan. He just bought a pair of Diesel jeans for 120 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), a pair of Nikes for 127 CUC and a Puma pullover for 93 CUC.
This comes to 340 CUC, the equivalent of a year and a half’s salary for a professional on the island. And believe me, his story is not some surrealist portrait of Havana in the 21st century. Yoan is not the son of that privileged class made up of the Communist Party politburo elite. By no means.
There is in Cuba a segment of young people of both sexes who can can afford to dress stylishly and polish their figures with the money they earn selling their bodies to foreign tourists.
Successful artists, communist businessmen and slackers supported by a constant flow of dollars from relatives in Miami are also able to maintain their wardrobes, but they are the minority.
Most Cuban families try to buy clothing and shoes at a discount. The state does not give them many options. After Fidel Castro took power, he introduced two types of ration cards in 1962, one for food and one for manufactured goods. Every Cuban was allowed a yearly pair of shoes, a skirt or pair of slacks, and two shirts or blouses made of unremarkable fabric. Their prototypes were created by decree, without originality or quality.
It was the period of social equality and uniformity. This socialist form of poverty provided Cuba with Minsk refrigerators, Aurika washing machines, Selena radios and Lada cars, all from the former Soviet republics. Other manufactured goods came from Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Albania.
At the end of the 1970s the Cuban exile community in the United States began travelling to Cuba, packing their luggage with jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes, things that were novelties in the island of the Castros.
Trafficking of clothing has always been good business on the underground market. The 1980s saw the emergence of a network of speculators who bought dollars at a time when possession of foreign currency was illegal and then used them to purchase inexpensive fabric from shops intended for diplomats and foreign technical workers.
Prices were high. At the time the lowest salary did not top 120 pesos. However, a pair of denims cost 150 pesos, a pair of Cast shoes was 120 and a “bacteria” shirt went for about 130 pesos.
After 1959 dressing fashionably in Cuba was an aspiration whose costs could not be defrayed with the average monthly salary. After it became legal to possess dollars in 1993, shopping malls were opened that sold clothing bought in bulk from free trade zones in China and the Carribean.
A high-powered segment of the consumer market has access to boutiques with heart attack inducing prices. They carry brands such as Mango, Zara, Dolce and Gabbana and — in a mockery of the embargo — Guess jeans and items by Nike, Reebok and New Balance.
The average Cuban often has to turn to hard-currency stores where the regime sells low-end clothing at high-end prices.
A pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of jeans of questionable quality costs a total of 60 CUC, three-month’s salary for the average worker. The now-outlawed private clothing stalls provided some relief. Cubans with family members overseas continue to benefit from the packages they receive, which contain essential items such as shoes.
Cubans care for their footwear as though they were precious jewels. Shoes are expensive so, when they wear out, people take them to shoe repair shops. In any given neighborhood you will find people who specialize in recycling and refurbishing shoes that in another country would be thrown in the trash. Athletic shoes have uses their designers never imagined.
They are repaired several times and are usually worn by kids, teenagers and young people who play baseball or football in the street. Yoan the hooker knows. So when they get new shoes they give the old ones to the neediest neighbors.
Except for the revolutionary aristocracy, who live in exclusive enclaves, one finds in Cuba hookers, johns, police officers, doctors, self-employed workers, dissidents and agents from State Security all living in the same block. And all know first hand of the cost of dressing decently.
1 December 2013
To speak about music in Cuba is an analogy. Cuba is the music. There are nice people, splendid weather, the smell of salty residue, and there’s always a reason to party. Other things, like the shrimp, tropical fruits, or beef are a luxury after 54 years of misrule. Cuba lacks essential liberties, but the music goes on.
Fidel Castro tried to scrap the Sunday calls to retreat and replace them with arrhythmic marches calling for combat. The olive-green regime planned to transform music. To bury guaguancó, toque de santo, and jazz.
But he couldn’t. In addition to inventing parameters to measure the quality of a music, in the medias sent to censure the greats like Mario Bauzá, Celia Cruz, or such a Lupe, only because they chose to observe from the distance the ideological folly established in the island.
And the music, like poetry, doesn’t let you break. The trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval (Artemeisa, 1949), knows this very well. In the flesh has lived the holy war that political and cultural commissioners, scribes and historians, unleashed in 1990 when he decided to move away from the Communist madhouse. According to official decree, Sandoval was to die.
It’s rained a lot since then. The times are different. It’s been 24 years, indignant Berliners in the night demolished the wall that divided a same nation. Castro had to change politically. He spoke of socialism or death on a Havana platform, but from the sewers of power, sent especially trying to make negotiations with magnates of capitalism. He had to make accords. With the Catholic Church, the Afro-Cuban religion and with the selfsame devil. He cracked the social discipline and the fear was lost.
And in full view you could find blacks on a Cayo Hueso lot, in downtown Havana, between rounds of rum and dominos, daring to listen, at full volume, to Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Paquito D’Rivera. or A Time for Love, disco from 2010 by Arturo Sandoval. I was a witness.
On November 6th the Cuban trumpeter turned 64. On the 21st of this month his name may be announced in Las Vegas as the winner of a Grammy, the tenth in his career, to go along with 6 Billboard Awards and an Emmy. Although the most moving of all will be the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which will be presented to him in December by Barack Obama, along with fifteen other figures, including former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Mexican scientist and Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Mario Molina. Despite his busy schedule, Arturo Sandoval graciously answered a questionnaire from Diario de Cuba.
Arturo, I was a boy when your name rang out with force on the island. I remember you taking complete notes on the trumpet while Irakere was making Bacalao with bread. Would you be able to summarize your artistic trajectory?
“I have to give thanks to God every day because in my career I’ve been able to accomplish my dreams. Look, coming from a dirt-poor family, where nobody was linked to art, and me having been able to be in the best situations and share with the musical greats. I think that sums up my trajectory: a dream come true.”
He doesn’t say it out of modesty, but another dream come true is the Arturo Sandoval Institute, proud institution of Cuban music on two shores.
Looking back, Arturo, what did Irakere mean to you?
“Before belonging to Irakere I was a member of the famous Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music. When I joined the orchestra, I was 16. I started at the bottom, being the sixth trumpet, until I made first. Without a doubt, the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music has been one of or the best ever formed in Cuba, with musicians of great magnitude, like Luis Escalante, El Guajiro Mirabal, Paquito D’Rivera, Chucho Valdés, Guillermo Barreto and Juan Pablo Torres, among others. I and some of these latter would form the group Irakere. To me, Irakere was a source of inspiration. The combination of rhythms that we could make gave new sounds to Cuban music. Through Irakere we had the chance to make ourselves known throughout the entire world, including winning a Grammy.”
Was Dizzy Gillespie the musician that influenced you most?
“Definitely. Dizzy has influenced me the most, and not just as a musician, also as a person and friend. We struck up a great friendship, we got to be like father and child. His teachings have been and continue being standards to follow in my life. I’ve had other musicians who’ve influenced my professional life such as Duke Ellington, Clark Terry and Clifford Brown, among others. The list would be unending, for I’ve also had classical influences like Rachmaninov, Ravel and many more.”
Your records arrive on the island on flash memory or pirated CDs. I know a DJ in Carraguao who, for 10 CUC, will copy your discography. How do you feel, knowing that despite censorship, Arturo Sandoval stays alive in the memories of many compatriots?
“It’s very sad to think that somebody has to sneak around to buy a record by an artist from his own country, that my music is forbidden and that in the land where I was born and continue to love, nobody can hear it. I feel proud that my compatriots want to hear my music, but at the same time I’m saddened that they have to hide out to do so. It’s sad that the music of a lady like Celia Cruz or a Willy Chirino and many more have to be listened to in the shadows, as if it were a crime. This shows not only political ineptitude, but also social and cultural incapacities of this regime.”
In Cuba, some criticized your opposition at the performance of Juanes in the Plaza of the Revolution in 2009. Do you still maintain that while democracy does not exist in Cuba, all cultural interchange is propaganda for the communist autocracy?
“I continue to hold the same opinion. I believe that cultural exchange cannot be one-sided. If Juanes could play in the Plaza of the Revolution and was received with fanfare, why can’t Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Andy García and others — including myself — do the same? Stopping off in the Plaza of the Revolution and freely expressing our feelings through music. The obsolete regime of the Castros is afraid, and by that I don’t mean of cultural exchange. They’re afraid we’ll speak before the people and might say that which Juanes and others did not say when they had that opportunity: the truth of what this communist regime represents and has represented for 54 years.”
Would you support an authentic cultural exchange, political or sporting where the Cubans from both shores might be able to offer concerts, games, or debates in their country without permission from the regime? With the Castros in power, do you see yourself giving a concert in the Karl Marx theater or in a plaza in your native Artemisa, now a province?
“Without the Castros and with a democratic government, I suppose so. With the Castros and without democracy, NO.”
Do you believe the shipwreck of the national economy has reduced the quality of Cuban music?
“There is a lot of talent in Cuba. Cuba has always been an inexhaustible source of musical talent, with and without communism. But look, since the triumph of the Revolution there aren’t specialized houses where a musician might go to buy an instrument or a music book. Nothing. Luckily, in Cuba music grows wild, but it’s sad that a person who wants to study music should have these kinds of limitations, not a single place to go and buy a book with staves.”
When you lived in Cuba, the people spoke against Fidel Castro, muttering in their living rooms. Now no. In many places they carry on about the malfunctioning of the government. There are those who continue seeing the game from the bleachers, but cases like Robertico Carcassés’ happen. What kind of value do you place on the controversies and public criticisms against the regime that take place today among the intellectuals and also the everyday Cubans?
“I am proud of all of them and believe that it’s going to be the only form the world will come to know; that Cuba does not assent to continue being dominated by a group of inept opportunists and crazy people.”
Your opinion about the intention of Chucho Valdés to regroup the musicians of Irakere and offer a nostalgic concert.
“Chucho supports the communist regime in Cuba. I am a US citizen and I defend the liberty and democracy. Irakere is not just him, to be the authentic Irakere, he’d have to count on all the musicians who are alive. Speaking for myself, they won’t count on me.”
How do you see this post-mortem homage that they want to give to Bebo Valdés in the next Havana Jazz Festival?
“Bebo deserves all kinds of recognition, but in this case it’s a flagrant act of demagoguery and hypocrisy. Bebo was a bitter enemy of this system and never came back to Cuba because he did not agree with the regime. They had to have recognized this while he was alive, for this they’ve had enough time.”
What have you got new for the next few months?
“I just finished the score for three movies, in one of them with Andy García and Vera Farmiga in the protagonist’s role, and in another the actor Beau Bridges is appearing. I finished producing the last record of the great Peruvian singer and composer Gianmarco, it’s a jewel and it’s nominated for the 2013 Grammy as Best Album of the Year. I finalized another record, “A Century of Passion”, that I dedicated to the Fuente family, famous Cuban-American tobacconists, nominated at the Latin Grammys as the Best Tropical Album. I recently concluded a tribute to Armando Manzanero and now I’m starting two more projects for film scores, but I still can’t say their names while we’re in the midst of contract negotiations.”
Arturo, with your hand over your heart, are you coming back to a democratic Cuba one day, or do you believe it will continue being a utopia to whomever it’s worth the trouble of continuing to struggle?
“Hope is never lost, our country deserves something better. I believe it is not a utopia. It’s worth the trouble to keep struggling, I know that Cuba will shake off the dead weight of the Castros and their henchmen.”
Video: Havana, 1985. Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval in Night in Tunisia, composed by Gillespie en 1942.
Translated by Boston College Cuban American Student Association – Carlos Fernandez
16 November 2013
Antonio Castro, son of the bearded man who governed Cuba for 47 years and nephew of the president hand chosen by his brother, told U.S. channel ESPN, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that our baseball players leave the country to go play in the best league in the world.”
Tony Castro, of course, isn’t a dissident or dumb. He’s trained to be an orthopedist and is a lover of beautiful women, the good life and baseball. He grew up without a ration book in Zone Zero (the residential complex where his father lives, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood west of Havana), with a cow in the yard where each child of the commander could drink fresh milk. He got first-class medical attention and had the possibility to go see the World Series, while the rest of Cuba’s baseball fans were forbidden to do so.
“He’s a good guy,” his party-going friends assure. He likes to play golf, a sport that his father and the Argentinian Ernesto Guevara banned, ostensibly because it was bourgeois and racist: they said that the caddies were always black.
The talk of Cuban autocrats is a complex exercise of deciphering messages. To those who look at the Revolution with nostalgia, the only things that remain are the sporadic Reflections (as Fidel’s articles in the newspaper are titled), where the leader announces atomic disasters, the end of capitalism or that the moringa tree would be the food of the future.
If you aren’t an ideological fanatic and interpret daily life in Cuba in a reasonable way, we reach the conclusion that each step in the timid reforms of Raúl Castro or pronouncements of his relatives, the real mandarins, have buried Fidel Castro’s wilfulness a hundred meters under the ground.
Maintaining the bored phraseology and ideological symbols has been a masterpiece of political witchcraft by Castro II. Without celebrating a Stalinist opinion, he has shifted all of the ruses enacted by his brother.
The furniture changed drastically. Fidel’s confidantes are either prisoners or have easy jobs. Or, like Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage, they’re working in a factory, the biggest punishment for any ex-minister.
For some time now, homosexuals are revolutionaries. The boarding schools in the countryside were suppressed, because they intended to supplant the family. The security guards at the borders opened the gate and allow us to travel abroad.
We also stay in hotels, buy American cars from the ’50s or old Russian Ladas. We sell the house and legally engage all of those businesses that previously we engaged in on the side, yes we have money, of course.
They have told us why all of this was forbidden for so many years. It’s nobody’s fault. But the specialists in dissecting the magic realism inside the power in Cuba know that the mud continues flooding Fidel Castro, the promoter of this political jargon.
Even his son jumps at his precepts. And he announces that the old “traitors, deserters, and stateless people of the Cuban exodus” are now welcome. Surely they could be enlisted in future national teams and begin businesses, while they pay the tax collector, of course.
The olive branch, in any light, is a capitalism of the family. A technocracy. Now the problems of government can be spoken about in a taxi or bar in the neighborhood. But you go to jail if you evade taxes.
Tony doesn’t want to get left behind when the cake gets divided up. The ex son-in-law of Raul Castro and his generals control 80% of the actual economy, not the one of bread and croquettes, that never will ruin the country, but rather the one of oil and of the port of Mariel, tourism, exporting of medical services, and other tax collecting and hard money businesses.
Behind Tony Castro’s words there is no light or rebuff. The leaders are sending a message: we want to negotiate with the United States. Taking as a model Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy of the 70s with China, Tony intends to seduce the market of the Big Leagues. He has the cards in his favor.
In 2013, the Cuban baseball players have left as a group. They have had their best season. If we add up their salaries, we see that it adds up to about $600 million. And the smart ones back in Havana send in their bills.
If one day the embargo disappears, around 300 Cuban baseball players, who learned in academies patronized by the MLB, can nurture baseball organizations. For all of them, the economic blade will tax them with high fees. And the zeros in the banks of relatives and friends will grow.
Of course, to reach that dance of the millions and sell the loot of a nation, you need the obstinate gringos to lift the embargo. Therefore, it’s time to pull levers.
Diplomats wear out the soles of their shoes in Florida to convince Cuban-American business owners of the favorability of a new investment law. For the fifteenth time, the chancellor of the ONU has said that the bad guys of this movie are the Yankees, who don’t want to get rid of the “criminal blockade” and refuse to sit down and civilly chat about business like a good capitalist.
In this piñata that Cuba has turned into, Antonio Castro pretends to be the boss of professional baseball’s future on the island. Well, that’s the way it is now.
Video: Interview from October 27, 2013 with journalist Paula Lavigne and Antonio Castro in Havana for the show Outside the Lines of ESPN.
Translated by: Boston College Cuban American Student Association
11 November 2013
The best informed on the island know that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Executive Director and owner of the Washington Post Newspaper, had a stepfather born in Santiago de Cuba. Ryan Lochte’s mother is from Havana. Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah’s trainer, was born August 7, 1958 in Havana.
Or that Isabel Toledo, the designer of the dress that Michelle Obama wore in January 2009 at her husband’s first presidential inauguration, is from Las Villas where she was born in 1961. And that the first lady has wore models from Narciso Rodriguez, son of Cuban immigrants that arrived in New Jersey in the 1950’s. Narciso was raised in a family very attached to their roots.
Due to the lack of access to the internet, magazines or foreign newspapers, many in the island would be surprised to discover that Dudley, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s grandfather was a Barbado’s native and that in 1936 je traveled to the island and there fell in love and married a Cuban. After her passing, Dudley wanted to remember his love’s homeland naming their son Cuba, who at the same time continued the tradition naming his first descendant Cuba.
Another actor, Steven Bauer, Melanie Griffith’s ex-husband, was born in Havana in 1956, and his real name is Esteban Echevarria. Marcia Presman, Miami’s socialite, is the mother of Brett Ratner, movie director and musical producer. She was born in Cuba, in the center of a Jewish family which in 1960 immigrated to the United States. The famous blogger Perez Hilton (Mario Armando Lavandeira) also has Cuban roots.
Baseball fans follow the news related to Cuban baseball players who decided to compete and earn seven figure salaries in the MLB (Major League Baseball), like Yasiel Puig, Kendrys Morales, Yoennis Cespedes or Aroldis Chapman
But not all know that the Puerto Rican Jorge Posada, ex player with the Yankees is son of a Cuban father and a Dominican mother. Pitcher Gio Gonzalez is son to two Cuban fans. Jon Jay, center field for the St Louis Cardinals was born in Miami; his father was from Santiago de Cuba and his mother from Matanzas. Since his first and last names tend to offer confusion he has said: “Yes, I am Cuban. Of rice and black beans, palomilla steak and cafe con leche”. Perhaps Justo Jay, Jon’s father, might be related to Ruperto Jay Matamoros (Santiago de Cuba 1912-Havana 2008) the largest exponent of naif painting in Cuba.
Of course, Cubans know about the saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, both American citizens today; they were born on the island. That Andy Garcia came into this world in Bejucal, a town 26 km south of Havana. That Eva Mendez (Miami, 1975) is the youngest of four siblings, all children to Cuban immigrants. And that Cameron Diaz (California, 1972) is the daughter of the American Billy Early and Emilio Diaz, now dead, famous entrepreneur whose parents settled in Tampa.
Also Carlos Leon, the father of Lourdes Maria, Madonna’s daughter, was born in Cuba in 1966. Armando Christian Perez, alias Pitbull, son of Cubans who immigrated to Florida, is heard among toques de santo parties, with white rum and marijuana in the poorest and largely black neighborhoods in the capital.
Willy Chirino (Pinar del Rio, 1947) is almost an “asere” from the neighborhood. His hit, “New Day is Coming” has become a hymn in Cuba. People rent gossip magazines to read about the model and actor William Levy, born in Havana in 1980. Or about Gloria Estefan (Havana, 1957) and her husband Emilio (Santiago de Cuba, 1953).
On the island there are some people who believe that the Cuban-American composer Jorge Luis Piloto is related to the binomial author Piloto & Vera. Which doesn’t stop people from El Pilar, the neighborhood where he lived in the capital, from knowing the lyrics of his songs sung by Luis Enrique or Chayanne.
The regime, in his campaign to discredit Cubans in the exile and their descendants, hide their triumphs in the United States. When they mention names of the ex-president of The Coca-Cola Company, Roberto Goizuete; the Bacardi family or the Fanjul, among others, they link them to the national bourgeoisie or the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The politicians with Cuban origins that swarm mayor positions or other institutions in Florida or other states or the US Congress, are target of criticism from the regime. Disparagingly they call them the “Miami Mafia”.
The message is understood. Since 1959, when Fidel Castro gained power and started piecing together the most successful autocracy of the continent, the immigrants are considered enemies. Those that choose to leave the ideological madhouse had to endure humiliations, delays in their immigration dealings, go to work in agriculture, or withstand insults and eggs at barbaric acts of repudiation.
Fifty-four years later, the Castro government attempts to masks their treatment of the exiles, wielding an inclusive and moderate speech. They need it. That’s an important source of their economic support.
1,785,547 Cubans or 0.6% of the United State’s population, per the 2010 census, generates ten times more riches than Cuba’s GDP, one of extreme poverty, with a population of eleven million. It’s an incontrovertible statistic.
Translated by LYD
11 November 2013
Far from being an association of think tanks or elite academics, Estado de SATS (State of SATS) is a project which brings together the various political and civic points of view to be found within the tiny illegal world of Cuban dissidents.
At one of their gatherings a highly regarded opposition figure like Manuel Cuesta Morúa might offer a talk on racial issues, a panel of independent attorneys might discuss legal matters with the audience, or a rapper named Raudel might give an hour-and-a-half long concert.
Estado de SATS often serves as a point of cultural, social, political and even sports contact for Cuba’s opposition. The physicist and mathematician Antonio Enrique González-Rodiles Fernández (born 1972 in Havana) is its most visible face.
His home in Havana’s Miramar district, with its spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, serves as the headquarters for Estado de SATS activities. Once an event is announced, the security services begin mobilizing.
A surveillance camera has been placed very indiscreetly along one side of the house. Suzuki motorcycles — the sturdy type used by counter-intelligence agents — prowl the surrounding area. And not infrequently one or two dissidents are detained. Harassment has become part of the landscape.
On the evening of Thursday, October 11, Rodiles was screening El Súper, a classic 1978 Cuban exile film by Orlando Jiménez Leal and León Ichaso. It tells the story of a family which has recently arrived in New York from the Caribbean.
Antonio Rodiles is perhaps Cuba’s most promising dissident by virtue of his extensive education as well as his formal manner of speaking and interacting with people. Dressed in a short-sleeve Prussian blue shirt and black slacks, and amid the din of houseguests and audio equipment, Rodiles spoke with me.
“The repression and harassment of Estado de SATS is cyclical,” he tells me. He mentions the detention of the former political prisoner José Díaz Silva and his wife, who is a member of the Ladies in White. Both were collecting signatures for Citizens’ Demand For Another Cuba. On the following day a Miami-based newspaper, Diario de Cuba, reported the couple had been released.
Demand For Another Cuba was launched in Havana in 2012. Among other things the petition publicly calls for a debate on the country’s dual currency system, the right of workers to a living wage, the right of all Cubans — no matter where they live — to launch financial projects in their own country and free [open] access to the internet.
Demand For Another Cuba also calls upon the regime to the ratify the United Nations’ Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which were signed by Cuba on February 28, 2008 in New York.
Rodiles is not optimistic. “I don’t believe the will is there to ratify them. It was a tactic meant to make a good impression in the eyes of the world. Remember that in 2008, when Barack Obama became president of the United States, the government of Raul Castro was trying to take on a reformist profile.”
Estado de SATS began operations in the summer of 2010. In the past three years arbitrary arrests and harassment by State Security have become routine. Last year Rodiles himself was detained for nineteen days in a foul-smelling jail cell in Havana’s Tenth of October district.
“We have gone through some bad times,” he says. “There are cycles. It’s like a wave, with stages in which the level of repression is low and others when it spikes. It is a surgical kind of harassment. Repressing twenty opponents is not the same as having to repress ten thousand disgruntled people. Special services is trying to patch the wound before it occurs.”
A series of actions carried out by Estado de SATS in the private employment sector has raised alarms with some of those in charge of keeping tabs on them. Any attempts to build bridges with non-dissident groups often makes agents of the secret police very nervous.
Rodiles knows this. He is convinced of the necessity to build a more effective opposition movement within Cuba. Leaky pipes which waste fifty-eight percent of the country’s drinking water, the chaotic state of public transport, a low-quality educational system, and dilapidated hospitals affect Castro loyalists as well as opponents.
This is why Rodiles is trying to be more inclusive. “There are many ordinary Cubans among the 4,200 people who have signed the Demand For Another Cuba petition. Mismanagement by the state harms everyone, whatever that person’s ideology.”
I ask him how he sees himself in five years. Antonio Rodiles looks at the intense blue sea, which he can almost touch with his hand and answers, “I like politics. Economics too. It’s not that I am capable of giving up everything for politics, but I believe it is one path.”
Photo: From “Cubans Are Losing Their Fear,” and interview published in ABC on September 20, 2013.
Further reading: Opposition in Cuba: The Opposition in Cuba: Calling Ourselves to Account
14 November 2013
Danilo, an illegal hard-currency speculator, has had a busy week. “I buy dollars, euros and convertible pesos. But after the government announced it would move to a single currency, I am without funds,” he says from a centrally located Havana boulevard.
Some of the CADECA currency exchanges have closed early because they did not have enough “chavitos“ to carry out transactions in convertible pesos, the stronger of Cuba’s two currencies.
Although the regime is trying to ward off panic by issuing an official statement indicating that the measures to be implemented will have no effect on savings, there were long lines to be found at branches of Banco Metroplitano.
“In only five hours fourteen customers closed their hard-currency accounts at the bank where I work” said an employee. The news comes as no surprise to one segment of the population.
An avalanche of rumors in mid-August about a possible devaluation of the convertible Cuban peso, or CUC, led hundreds of people to exchange their Cuban pesos, or CUPs, for hard currency.
“Two months ago I withdrew all the chavitos from my bank account and bought pesos. It isn’t clear how currency unification will be implemented but rumors are that, before it disappears, the convertible peso will be gradually devalued,” says a self-employed worker.
In Cuba rumors are often more credible than information found in the state-run media. Eusebio, an economist, believes the dual-currency system leads to distortions in prices, accounting practices and domestic commercial transactions.
“Many local businesses are profitable because they sell their merchandise in convertible pesos. For example, domestically produced mayonnaise sells for between 3.0 and 5.5 CUC, or roughly 75 to 132 CUP. Once currency unification occurs, this disparity will disappear and inflated prices, which result from the stronger currency, will have to be adjusted. Nothing will be solved by replacing the chavito with the Cuban peso if stores maintain rigid price structures in CUC or CUP. The real price of rationed rice is not 20 centavos a pound, nor is 800 CUC — or 20,000 CUP — the real price for a plasma screen TV. Currency unification will be complicated. Businesses will be affected and could suffer losses,” he claims.
Some chain stores are already selling products in pesos tied to the exchange rate of the convertible peso. Magaly, a high school teacher, does not believe this will solve anything. “If a large segment of the population cannot afford to pay 25 chavitos for food, they won’t have 625 pesos for it either,” she notes.
An official with a state agency asks for patience. “The salaries of employees who work in profitable industries which generate income in hard-currency (such as tourism, healthcare, Cubana de Aviación or ETECSA*) will begin earning salaries based on the new paradigm relatively soon. Their buying power will be increased. It will be healthy for the consumer as well as for society to re-emphasize the value of work. The inverted pyramid, where professionals earn salaries lower than that of a garbage collector, will gradually change,” though he did not provide details.
The convoluted announcement published in Granma raises more questions than it answers. People hope that by year’s end the guidelines for creating a single currency will begin to take effect.
When Fidel Castro made it legal to possess dollars on June 26, 1993, the Cuban peso and the U.S. dollar went into circulation. In May 2004 the United States fined the Swiss bank UBS for violating the embargo and for having “laundered” almost four billion dollars destined for Cuba. Fidel Castro was furious. Six months later, in November 2004, the dollar was replaced with the convertible peso. But for Castro it was not enough to remove the dollar from circulation. In March 2005 he imposed an 18% surcharge on dollars sent to the island.
When his brother Raul came to power in 2006, the goal became to attract more greenbacks, so he reduced the surcharge on the dollar to 10%. In spite of this undue financial burden, high food prices in hard-currency retail stores and slow turnover of hundreds of inventory items in state-run stores, the volume of remittances from family members overseas has grown phenomenally.
In the year 2000 the country brought in 986 million dollars in remittances. By 2013 it had grown to 2.6 billion. It is estimated to surpass 2.8 billion in 2013. This does not include almost three billion additional dollars in the form of food, clothing, cell phone account payments, household appliances and medications that enter the country through “mules” and travel agencies based in Florida.
A casual poll of twenty or so Havana residents, who these days argue passionately over the ramifications of currency unification, suggests that the main problems will continue to be poverty-level salaries and excessive regulation in an inefficient system.
According to the National Office of Statistics and Information the average salary in Cuba is about 466 pesos or some 20 dollars a month. In spite of lukewarm economic reform efforts, agriculture has yet to take off and industry needs something more than good intentions to be efficient.
Cuba imports everything from fruit for the tourist industry to toothbrushes for sale to the public. No one believes for a moment that the doing away with the dual-currency system will improve his or her quality of life. Rather, it will represent the beginning of a new set of challenges.
Photo: Diario de las Americas
*Translator’s note: The state-owned telecommunications company.
29 October 2013
There are, however, a lot of Bouazizis around. Their way of rebelling is different. Cubans do not take to the streets to express their discontent. Nor do they organize massive demonstrations with signs or set up protest camps.
They protest at a snail’s pace or with sit-down strikes. Or they steal what they can from their workplaces. Or they behave inappropriately in public or they fail to pay their taxes.
During this month of October the tension within one segment of the population has been palpable. Private taxi drivers are furious. Many have received a notice from the tax office telling them of new levies they must pay.
“I have to pay $15,000 pesos ($740 US). And I know of cases in which taxi drivers have to pay $30,000 pesos ($1,300 US). There is one thing you can be sure of: Just like the rest of them I will not pay one cent,” says one Havana taxi driver, the veins in his neck bulging.
It’s obvious that the regime wants everyone to pay their taxes. They explain that is not an invention by Raul Castro. And like fearful parrots, the official media repeats that “our citizens should learn to have a tax-paying culture, those tax revenues become social benefits”.
The arguments fall on deaf ears. The resentment that prevails among the self-employed workers sees that the States sees them as the enemy.
I’ll give a little bit of history. Throughout the years, the regime harassed the self-employed. One night in 1968 all small businesses were closed. From grocery stores and hamburger vendors to Chinese restaurants and shoe repairers.
When in 1994 Fidel Castro opened the faucet to certain private initiatives he didn’t do it to slowly introduce liberal methods or a market economy. No. It was a matter of political survival.
The public accounts were in red. The State had to deflate if it wanted to be profitable. Then it loosened its grip and permitted minor trades like umbrella repairers, peanut sellers or raw material collectors.
You could also sell coffee, rent a room or set up a restaurant with twelve chairs. Always with the imposing high taxes to slow the capital accumulation.
At the end of 1999 Hugo Chavez came to the Miraflores Palace in Venezuela. A Santa Claus with petro-dollars. Castro took a step back and self-employed work was marginalized. Between 1995 and 2003, the number of self-employed dropped from 170,000 to 150,000.
But in the national landscape there was news. Fidel departed from power in July 2006 due to illness. The natural heir, his brother Raul, is almost the same although with different strategies.
He eliminated absurd prohibitions that classified Cubans as fourth class citizens. He allowed the rent of land, made it legal for Cubans to frequent tourist facilities, and legalized cell phones, the purchase and sell of homes and cars, and as of January, travel abroad.
Currently there are more than 436,000 self-employed workers. According to the government, self-employment “has come to stay”. But ordinary Cubans seem to be distrustful.
Other economic openings were cut off at the root with legal penalties and scorn in the public media. Naturally, people think that the story could repeat itself. Even more when they know that the government allows self-employment as long as they don’t make too much in profits.
Small businesses are controlled by an army of inspectors and harassed by high taxes. Therefore, the escape door of many self-employed workers is tax evasion.
In the island, citizens’ dissatisfaction is not a synonymous of strikes, indignant marches or street protests. The Cuban Bouazizi prefers the passive disobedience, either by stealing at work or not paying taxes.
Photo: Under the rain, people wait in front of the Saratoga Hotel to get a glance of Beyonce and her husband, rapper Jay-Z during their April 2013 visit in Havana to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Taken by NY Daily News.
Translated by LYD
2 November 2013
From 1962-1970 the suicide rate on the island ranged between 10.5 and 12.6 per 100,000 inhabitants. Back in the 80s, the rate of self-destruction among Cubans exceeded 21 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the PanAmerican Health Organization, Cuba has the highest suicide rate in the hemisphere, with 18.1 per 100,000 population, followed by Uruguay (15.9).
Figures from the Ministry of Public Health tell us that for every 2000 patients seen in GPs’ offices, at least one commits suicide during the first two years of being seen, 10 attempt suicide each year and about 50 are suicidal.
It is rare that in a neighborhood for its residents not to know dramatic anecdotes of suicide. From an old man hanging himself naked in his home or a young woman who burns herself up, to politicians loyal to the regime who committed suicide by shooting themselves, as did Eddy Sunol, Osvaldo Dorticós and Haydee Santamaria.
In 1964, after Fidel Castro dismissed him as Minister of Labor and accused him of corruption, the commander Augusto Martinez Sanchez, then at 41, attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He never returned to public life. In 2010 they allowed him to visit his eldest son in Miami. He died in Havana on February 2, 2013, at age 90.
In June, the independent attorney Veizant Boloy wrote in Cubanet that “suicide was the cause of death of at least 5 people between April and May 2013 in the municipality of Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba.” The most common methods were hanging, jumping into space from a high place, catching fire, poisoning with drugs and gun shots, “mainly young men who are forced, against their will, to do their military service.”
Several interviewees told Boloy that the situation the eastern provinces found themselves in after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, which left more than 100,000 houses partially or totally destroyed, has been one of the causes of the increase in non-natural deaths in Palma Soriano.
Also in June 2013, but in Havana, independent journalist Carlos Ríos reported the suicide of the former police captain Romerico Berenguer, 69, who hanged himself at his home in Santos Suarez. The motive would have been that after four decades of service in the Interior Ministry, they retired him with 211 pesos per month ($9). Later they increased his pension to 300 pesos ($12), but it still wasn’t enough to live on. Ríos finished his Cubanet note clarifying that in less than a year, in that same block, there had been three more suicides, all men over 60.
In Mujeres (Women), a revolutionary rag, in a report published in October in Worldcrunch, Felina, one of the interviewees, told the journalist, “Last week a friend of mine burned herself up. She was a whore, like me. Her daughter said that she was watching television and suddenly her mother kissed her and went to the bathroom. She came out running, burning like a live torch. I think about suicide every day. But I don’t like to suffer. If I do it, I’m going to jump off the balcony.
After these terrifying tales, one question comes to mind: if the official media assures us that Cuba is perceived as the greatest paradise for workers, why is the suicide rate so high?
A medical specialist consulted said that the causes of suicide are varied. “From the persistent economic crisis and the lack of prospects, to mental breakdown. Many young people don’t see any prospects for their lives. They don’t persevere when they face their professional future. Personal problems overwhelm them. The same thing happens with adults and the elderly when there has been a family, political or social breakdown. There have been months when I’ve seen up to 20 cases of potential suicides.”
Suicide is a global phenomenon. It is the second cause of death after traffic accidents. Not even the experts agree on the causes that push an apparently sane person to self-destruct. In his book Anatomy of Melancholia, Robert Burton (1577-1640) defined suicide as an expression of a severe depressive state. Pierre de Boismont, in 1856, tried to be more exact: “The suicide is wretchedly unhappy or crazy.”
This concept was later refined by Sigmund Freud from the point of view of psychoanalysis, defining it as a manifestation of the soul induced by the context or of the individual. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work The Suicide (1897) notes that suicides are individual phenomena essentially responding to social causes. If we give credence to these arguments, suicide is a social fact.
It’s clear that economic, personal, romantic, family or health crises often become the trigger that sets off a suicide. The Cuban government, which is proud of its achievements in social, educational or health matters, finds it difficult to digest how the frustration of a segment of the population leads them to want to end their existence.
Behind the statistics of suicides on the island are hidden stories of people who for one reason or another, consider sacrificing themselves to evade the uncertain future, broken families or a life of weakly applauding the cheats.
The regime handles the suicide statistics with tweezers. They have become a state secret.
20 October 2013
An autocracy’s efficiency can be measured by, among other things, its immutable capacity for controlling information. Everything passes through an ideological filter. Some guys sitting in an air-conditioned office minutely evaluating it to determine what people can see, hear or read.
Books, records, news, novels, films and television programs must be approved by the Cuban Communist Party’s censor. Anything the regime has not approved can be considered illegal.
Granma, Juventud Rebelde, Trabajadores and all the other party organs must play the same tune. Everything is planned. Very little is left to chance.
Once the order from on high goes out, docile reporters must write about the economic crisis in Europe, the lack of social discipline on the island or the private middle men who are blamed for the high price of agricultural products.
Fidel Castro has always said that the Cuban press serves as one of the weapons of the revolution, one it does not hesitate to use. And while you can find examples of good reporting and sharp social commentary, it is never of a heatedly controversial or political nature.
The most talented official journalists play in the minor leagues. They are not highly visible. Obedience takes precedence. The local press — a synonym for mediocrity — is designed to misinform. The color of its style manual is olive green.
Fidel Castro used to stride through a secret passageway that connected his office in the Palace of the Revolution to that of the director of the newspaper Granma a few yards away. It allowed him to review news stories or change a layout.
It is said that he personally wrote its most inflammatory editorials. Unless an official journalist has been accredited by the communist party, a government minister might not respond to his phone call or might even hang up on him. Officials and institutions — if you can call them that — bury information and statistics. Raúl Castro would like to turn the this situation around.
Awhile back, some provincial media outlets, local broadcasters and TV talk shows initiated a discreet and very cautious form of tropical glasnost. One can now read crime reports, sports writers criticizing the policies of INDER,* and one daring reporter accusing a state agency of bureaucratic foot-dragging.
While it is good thing that the national press is beginning to reflect the opinions of the average Cuban, it’s a bit too little, too late. By our count a handful of men and women began to write in the mid-1990s about the side of Cuba that the regime was trying to hide.
Almost all of us were empirical journalists, educated by daily life. Twenty or so — I was one of them — had the good fortune to attend workshops led by the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero. We were reasonably well-educated and had an enormous desire to learn and get ahead.
Journalism for us meant going out and looking for news in the neighborhood and in the ranks of the dissidents. It meant reporting daily using old typewriters and, because there were no computers, filing our stories by phone.
As in every aspect of life, there are independent journalists who are good, average and poor. And people who think clearly but write badly. Whether good or bad, they go on reporting on areas of national life that the official media ignores.
The credibility of independent journalists has grown since 1995. Their points of view and social critiques have influenced opinions outside the island. The regime knows this, which is why it is begun trying to compete without mentioning its competitor.
It is independent journalism that has caused official journalism to rethink its role and forced its reporters to go out into the street.
It is not a battle for information. Completely independent journalists are swimming against the current; their reports will never be published in state-run newspapers. Their colleagues — independent journalist licensed by the state — are monitored, harassed or accused of alleged crimes.
This is because there is a gag law which allows a reporter working outside the control of the state to be sentenced to more than twenty years in prison. The official press operates on an uneven playing field. Nevertheless, it is losing to the competition.
Photo: Cover of the first issue of a magazine that has remained a symbol of alternative journalism and that in the mid-1990s gave independent journalists their start. The regime allowed only two issues to be circulated. It blamed their publication on Raúl Rivero y Ricardo González Alfonso, who were later convicted and sentenced to jail. From “Remembering the Revista de Cuba.”
*Translator’s note: Acronym for The National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation.
17 October 2013