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

June 10, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

Translated by GH

29 May 2014

Cuba: Its Silent Conquest of Venezuela / Ivan Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translated by GH

15 May 2014

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

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

Sixty percent of the buildings cry out for basic repairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translate by GH
23 March 2014

Cuba: Internet in Your Home from September / Ivan Garcia

March 15, 2014 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iván García

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

Translated by GH

9 March 2014

Cuban Fast Food / Ivan Garcia

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Churros-a-secret-history-1-400x330As there is no McDonald’s or Burger King, Cuban fast food is flour fritters and home-made pizza.

Bread with croquettes of uncertain origin are also popular, and donuts filled with guayaba, condensed milk or chocolate. A vast number of families on the island only prepare one hot meal a day, at night.

They have strong black coffee with sugar for breakfast. And some plain bread, or with oil and garlic. Lunch is whatever appears, depending on what money is available. It could equally be a snack in a private cafe or a disgusting bread and pork in a state eatery.

The star “fast foods” in the Havana streets are the croquettes and fritters.  A perfect “wild card”.  Since they are cheap, they have become the “peoples’ food”.  You can serve it for breakfast or lunch and for dinner for the poorest folk.

Noelvis has become and expert fritter-maker. He works 12 hours a day. “I sell up to 900 fritters a day. My profits are around $400 or $500 pesos. I also sell loose croquettes for a peso or bread with two croquettes for five.  A fritter costs a peso. I prepare some dough with white flour and add well-chopped chives, garlic and some off-the-shelf seasoning.  The secret is that I don’t use yeast to make the pastry rise.  I fry them in boiling oil and when I spoon them into a pot, I try to make sure they aren’t very big. I let them fry long enough so that when they cool they don’t go sticky and caramelized. After some hours they are crispy.

A packet of ten croquettes sells for 5 pesos in the state-owned fish shops. The fritter sellers buys them for resale. “I get a profit, half and half.” says Noelvis. Their ingredients are unknown. The nylon bags where they come in don’t tell the ingredients. Cubans call them “croquettes to be deciphered”.

Ricardo works in a factory where they make croquettes and gives an assurance that they are chicken based. “They use all of it, from the skin to the bones. They grind it well and make a dough. The hygiene measures are good. The people who prepare food wear rubber gloves.”

Their flavor varies. Sometimes they have a distant aftertaste of chicken, other times fish. Or they taste of nothing. They seem like plastic, artificial croquettes. But if they are eaten fully fried they don’t taste bad.

Before she leaves her house, Diana drinks a coffee and when she walks to her pre-university institute she religiously breakfasts on two flour fritters and a croquette. “To keep my figure I eat just one croquette without bread. Although with so much saturated fat it’s a little difficult. My parents give me six pesos a day, and with this money I can only buy croquettes and fritters. The lifesaver for many people.”

Another staple of “fast food” are the churros.  They were always sold thin, long and powered in sugar.  Yamila, who owns a churro station in the Luyano town, says that they are made of wheat flour and if you add a “yucca mixture they taste better. But right now the trend is to prepare them in a fatter mold and two fingers in width.  After, they are filled with a thick marmalade, condensed milk or chocolate syrup.  The profits increase significantly due to the flavors”.

Filled churros are the latest trend in Havana.  Their prices are expensive for the middle class pocket.  A churro filled with guava, mango, coconut or chocolate is approximately $5 pesos and $10 for the ones filled with condensed mild or tuna fish.

“Children are the best customers, although adults also buy often.  If you want good sales you have to get a place in a central avenue or close to a children’s park as is my case”, says Eusebio.  The market competition is aggressive.  In his zone, there are three churro posts; so they have to become creative.  “I have family in the United States and they have told me that at McDonald’s they don’t only sell hamburgers, they also do promotions.  They offer children’s menus and they give toys or balloons so that gave me an idea.  In my post, I will install a TV and the clerks will be dressed as clowns.  If you buy three churros, you’ll get another one free”.

Perhaps you can’t compare the “fast typical Cuban food” with a Big Mac or a Pollo Tropical meal in Miami, but we can also sell ours in bulk.

Ivan Garcia

Picture – Filled churros which are now in trend in Cuba, they also like them in.  countries like Spain, Mexico, Peru, USA and England.  These were taken from “Los Churros: A Secret History”.

Translated by GH

21 September 2013

About the Screening of a North Korean Movie in Havana / Ivan Garcia

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment

cine-norcoreano-620x330Autocrats and Commanders like the cinema. Fidel Castro tried to convince the US director Roger Donaldson to act his part in the film 13 Days, about the 1962 missile crisis.

According to Castro’s security people who deserted to Florida, on his property of more than 40 houses, known as Zone 0, to the west of Havana, the only Comandante also had acres of land where they tried out new varieties of beans and vegetables, he had an ice cream factory, another for cheese and a private cinema.

Although he didn’t take matters as far as his North Korean opposite number Kim Jong-il, who, in 1978, gave an order to capture the South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok to try and establish a movie industry which would reflect an artistic vision of the communist madhouse and the Juche ideology.

The dictator of Pyongyang treasured an archive of more than five thousand films. And he appears as the executive director in the credits of seven of them. We know that in the “command and control” countries art is the property of the state.

This means that the supreme leader can censor a work, approve the budget of a production which praises the regime, or send a dissident intellectual to the slammer.

When many cinema enthusiasts in Cuba assumed the grey chapter of socialist realism was closed, when movie posters only announced Soviet and East European films, these days in Havana they are showing North Korean films.

For the last two decades, 80% of the movies seen on television and in the cinemas have come from the States. That’s the positive part of the gringo embargo. Both the ICAIC and ICRT openly pirate American serials, films and documentaries without paying a cent for the author’s rights.

For the new generation of Cubans, the films they shoot in Pyongyang are a mystery. From 10th to 13th of September, the children’s cinema in Central Havana was the centre of an exhibition of North Korean movies. Not the first in the island. In the 60’s and 70’s they also presented crap there from the Asian country.

The first day, I couldn’t get in. It was invitation only. But I did notice a mob of functionaries and diplomats, dressed in grey tones with small pins of Kim Il-sung on their shirt lapels, looking after the invitees.

Who were not many. Fifty official journalists and ideologues from the Communist Party who, for reasons of protocol attended the premiere of a film in a bellicose style with little artistic merit.

The next day, entrance was open to everyone. It rained at intervals in Havana. At 5:00 in the afternoon they announced the showing of a movie about martial arts. At 8:00, another, about war, the favorite theme of North Korean cinema.

In spite of the fact that entry was 3 pesos (15 cents), people weren’t too enthusiastic. They looked sideways at the poster and asked which Korea the movie was from. When they realized it was from the north, they walked on.

At the entrance, a group of bored pensioners waited for  the start of the performance. Two passing peanut and popcorn vendors moved on somewhere else as a result of poor sales.

The woman selling the tickets looked me up and down when I bought two. I told her I was thinking of watching both films showing that day. “I don’t think you have the stomach to watch all the way through both of them”, she predicted.

I have watched dozens of soporific movies from the former Soviet Union and the old East European countries, but the North Korean one topped the list: it was an artistic genocide.

At my side sat a scrawny North Korean diplomat who had forgotten to use deodorant. It seemed that his role was to assess the level of acceptance of the exhibition on the part of the people of Havana.

The man look shocked when people walked out in the middle. Me with them.

by Iván García

Photo: Scene on Wolmi Island, a war movie projected at the premiere of the exhibition of North Korean cinema in Havana. Shot in 1982, lasting 92 minutes and, in North Korea it is forbidden for kids of under 16. It is based on what took place on the Island of Wolmi in September 1950. In order to respond to the general counter-attack of the Korean popular army, the US army tries to land on Inchon Beach in the Yellow Sea. The Wolmi Island soldiers resist for 3 days in the face of 50 thousand soldiers and 500 ships led by Gen. MacArthur. It  also shows the role played by the Korean women in the war. It is the star movie of the Pyongyang regime and, in spite of having been shot 31 years ago, it features in the North Korean film weeks in other countries, like in 2010 in London. Taken from the website Movie Firearms Database.

Translated by GH

19 September 2013

CUBA Journalism in the street

August 9, 2013 1 comment
Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Owing to the lack of statistics and figures, independent Cuban reporters have to reinvent certain rules when providing information. We don’t have access to government press conferences and no minister gives interviews or comments.

Nor can we rival the foreign agencies accredited in Havana. Not having technology, 24-hour internet access, being unable to cover official events, it is impossible to compete with the speed of the foreign press.

There are certain types of news which an independent journalist can put out faster than a correspondent from the BBC, EFE, or AP. Above all in relation to the world of opposition: a dissident’s hunger strike, an eviction, or one of the Ladies in White being beaten up.

But that’s not the best side of the field to be playing on. Cuba is an area full of stories that the regime tries to ignore. In the streets and shanty towns, chatting to ordinary folk, we always find good reports.

We have something to thank the poor work of the state journalists for. If Granma and Juventud Rebelde were in the habit of providing information about marginalization, ruinous infrastructure, or how Cubans manage to survive inside the socialist madhouse, there would not be much reason for independent journalism to exist.

We would limit ourselves to writing boring opinion pieces. Or cover opposition meetings. The official journalists have left the battle-field and left it open to the dissident journalists.

It was a major error not to provide information about day-to-day life, nor about the ills that afflict society, like drugs, prostitution and corruption at all levels.

The ideological Taliban like to sell their account of how the island is different from the rest of the poor capitalist nations of the American continent.

At one time it was. There wasn’t freedom of expression or of association, but the state, supported by the inflow of millions of Soviet rubles, guaranteed a grey kind of life with health and free education.

In return, we were supposed to be “Revolutionaries”. To applaud speeches about the “Maximum Leader” and condemn Yankee Imperialism. That was the deal. Political disagreements were restricted to our living rooms.

It was prohibited to ventilate them in public. Any criticism, we were told, had to be “constructive”. You were allowed to complain about poor food service or inefficient officials.

What you could never do was indicate that Fidel Castro was responsible for the economic disaster and the failure of a social project. The Comandante was like Zeus. God of gods. Untouchable.

The independent journalists crushed that myth. Not to be seen as heroes. Or martyrs. Just that one morning we crossed the borderline of what we were supposed to talk about or say laid down by the government.

And we know what enormous courage was required and that  there is a price to pay. From libel to jail. But here we are. Telling the stories of the man in the street. Everyday I talk to workmen, kids, the old and the marginalized, the tired and those disillusioned by 54 years of autocracy.

I am not writing about the human misery experienced by some of the people in order to damage the image exported by the government. Describing the lives of the losers, the ignored and forgotten is part of the commitment of a free journalist.

If the mandarins who control the media consider that “disseminating human misery helps the enemy”, that’s their problem.

It’s up to me to relate what happens in the place where I live and in the city where I was born. To give a voice  to citizens who don’t exist as far as the official press is concerned, And they are there. You only have to go out into the street.

Fat Antonio said “I’m fed up with it.”

(This anecdote was published 14 September 2009 in the blog Desde Havana.)

Antonio Mateo, felt he was about to go mad. Monday August 3, 2009 he woke up early, took his usual sip of bitter coffee and decided that on that Monday he would do something different. He wrote an open letter telling about his boring life and the bad state of his home.

Antonio, 46 years old, and 280 pounds, living next to Malecón 655, had had enough. The long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes for dealing with his problems were now just too much. For years he wanted to do an exchange — trade his home for someone else’s — but the rigid and absurd laws applied by the Housing Institute did not permit people to exchange in certain neighbourhoods.

Not even if they own their own houses, as in Antonio’s case. He knows very well that in Cuba the word proprietor is a bad joke. People who own their own homes, lose their rights if they decide to leave the country and have to go through long processes when they decide they want to exchange it. Selling the house to someone else is prohibited by the anachronistic Soviet-style statutes which still exist in Cuba.

Desperate, Antonio decided to cut things short. He moved his old bed into the middle of the public street and deposited his 280 pounds in it. It was his way of protesting. The fearless police were there for three hours, trying to find a way out of the conflict, unused to these signs of rebelliousness in a population that was generally very peaceful.

Of course, he was taken off to the police station. It is not known what sanction or fine was imposed. In one part of his letter, with a dose of anguish and anger Antonio says: “I address myself to you to set out my problem, in view of the fact that I have applied to other levels and had no reply. I live in a room, which I own, and when the Malecon Plan started, the zone was frozen, and I can’t move, or carry out maintenance, or have a wife and children living with me. I have realized that everything is an argument with lies and more lies. I don’t want a palace, I only ask that they come up with a solution. I am a sick man who needs peace and a place where I can live with my loved ones who could look after me and help me.”

Simple people, like Fat Antonio or Pánfilo, famous for exploding with anger a few months ago in front of the foreign press cameras, and as far as we knew, have been sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of “being dangerous”, show that something is changing in some people’s mentality in Cuba. For the moment, Fat Antonio says “I’m fed up with it”.

Translated by GH

14 July 2013

Venezuela: Maduro Digs In

June 10, 2013 4 comments

The PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) brothers have divided the country into two trenches. Their followers — in petrocasas (mass-produced small houses) and medical practices painted in red and white with images of Chavez hanging from the roof — if they show absolute loyalty, gain the right to a position as a minor official, where they can earn thousands of bolivars extra.

Those who are against — half the Venezuelan population — are treated as enemies. Nicolás Maduro is governing in virtually a state of siege. The army in the streets. And his comrades turn up in Parliament with gauntlets hidden in their pockets in case they need to hit their opponents.

Maduro has drawn the short straw. The man has a short fuse. He has little room to manoeuvre. As a statesman, he leaves a lot to be desired. His public speaking is a disaster.

He pulls three or four phrases out of the drawer and repeats them to the point of tedium about his love for Hugo Chávez . It doesn’t look as if the old Caracas bus driver is able to more Venezuela forward with his government drawn from the street, where only his own followers turn up.

A country is not a party. You should govern for everybody. Listen to the others. And respect their opinions in the parliament. Many people believe that the advice that Fidel Castro is whispering from Havana is seeking to polarise and radicalise a Bolivarian revolution which is deflating.

That’s how Castro governed in Cuba. The bearded guerilla humiliated the priests and any religion which was not Marxist. He nationalised all property. And provided an air bridge which allowed his enemies and the middle class to flee to Miami. But that was in the time of the cold war.

In the 21st century, to put together an almost scientific autocracy, with a parliament in the Cuban style in which they vote unanimously, is impossible. Following Castro’s strategies is the shortest route for the PSUV to dig its political grave. For many reasons. One of them: Castro’s government is a monument to inefficiency.

It survives on exile dollars and passing the collection box in Venezuela. Productivity is at rock bottom. Salaries are laughable. The infrastructure is dysfunctional. Even the much-trumpeted successes of the revolution in public health, education and sport are going backwards.

Politically, guaranteeing basic rights and employment while sacrificing liberties will never be worthwhile. Those rights and duties which a modern state must fulfil. Without asking for votes in exchange.

Maduro isn’t Chávez. The man from Barinas had charisma. Ability to manoeuvre, and, in spite of his major screw-ups, with his oratory he was able to convince his supporters.

Maduro creates distrust even in typical Chavistas. The position of President is too big for him. Rushing forward is not the right decision.

Whipping up the political differences between Venezuelans is putting out a fire with gasoline. Entrenching himself in institutions which respond to the interests of his party is not the correct solution.

He should offer political breathing room and participation to the opposition. It represents 50% of the electorate. It’s not a small thing. If you could grade Maduro’s performance in his first month of government on a scale of one to ten, he would get a zero.

As President he has not been up to scratch.

Iván García

Translated by GH

4 June 2013

The Cuban Style of “Dumping”

January 16, 2013 1 comment

cuba-construccionIn the south of Havana, underneath a burning sun, half a dozen men are working in a precarious workshop making blocks using a machine made up out of odd bits and pieces. It’s hard work. For twelve hours a day they put in cement, stones and clay, filling up a mold which the Frankenstein machine then, with tired wheezing noises, coughs up again as blocks for use in construction. In a typical month they earn 1,600 pesos (64 cuc – Cuban Convertible Currency). Four times more than the average Cuban salary.

In theory, these precarious factories, put up in a hurry in a deserted recreation area or in the middle of a field, close by heavy industry, could be the key to increasing production of construction materials. For many families, it allows them to repair their dilapidated houses, especially now, following the passing of the devastating hurricane Sandy through Santiago de Cuba and other eastern provinces.

Alfredo’s target, working in the improvised workshop, is to produce 8,000 blocks a month. He usually manages that, working at half-speed, in the space of 10 days. The rest of the blocks he produces, between 750 and 900 a day, are carefully stored in an old state warehouse.

In accordance with the instructions of their senior manager, those blocks aren’t mentioned in the monthly report. They are for “under the counter” sales. If you add the more than 20,000 blocks which Alfredo’s workshop can produce — and there are hundreds of these little mobile establishments throughout the country — to the output of heavy industry, it is reasonable for people to ask themselves why then are the prices of bricks and building blocks so high.

Each one costs 10 pesos on the black market (0.5 cuc). Demand exceeds supply. And if you go to try to buy them in one of the state flea-markets, you never find any. Nevertheless, the yards of several stores are overflowing with cement, paving stones, aggregate, bricks and blocks.

According to an official of the Ministry of Internal Trade, managers in companies and stores collude in artificially maintaining the scarcity, in order to keep prices up. And that doesn’t only apply to construction materials.

Acopio, whose role is to acquire 80% of the harvests of co-operatives and individual farmers, has transformed itself into a stronghold of predatory corruption. Factories and branches of Internal Trade selling products for hard currency have set up a formidable mafia profiting from the prices of food products.

The regime is in the habit of favoring and turning a blind eye to this sort of activity. A can of beer, a soft drink, or a malt-whiskey, for example, including shipping and unloading, doesn’t cost more than 10 centavos in cuc. But then the foreign currency tax collectors see to it that the shops sell them with a 10-fold markup on the price.

The double currency has created a closed market in the national economy, above all in the companies which sell oil, mayonnaise, tomato paste, soap and detergent, which are among the most profitable, thanks to the elevated income from sales in convertible pesos

These mafia groups, which have taken hold in the local commercial and distribution channels, have amassed fortunes. Information is circulating in the internet about the case of the manager of a factory producing preserves, who has a cupboard full of dollars in his house. Nearly all the corrupt people are bureaucrats. With a red party card in their pocket. And when they speak, like robots, in everything they say they repeat two or more times the words Revolution, Fidel and Raul. An absolute bunch of opportunists.

They make up a compact group, with a monopolistic control over the prices of food, and essential items. Someone who used to work in a state-owned grocery store told me that in the month of April last year they received instructions from the provincial government to supply all the state outlets with black beans at the price of 8 pesos a pound.

Good news for the mafia rings. At that moment in the non-state farms, a pound of black beans cost between 15 and 18 pesos. The answer was to delay the distribution. By the back door, trucks full of beans started to deliver to private houses, which were converted into temporary stores. Then later, the beans went out again from these houses to supply the private farmers’ markets.

They sold the beans wholesale to private sector agents for 12 pesos a pound. And with the profit, 4 pesos a pound, they oiled the wheels of corruption: truck drivers, stevedores and senior managers. In this way they sold tons of black beans. And in official reports it was recorded that a pound of beans was selling for 8 pesos — which it never was.

Apples are another good example. In the hard currency shops, they cost between 35 and 45 cuc centavos each, according to size and quality. Right now you can go around the shops and cafes in Havana and you won’t find any apples for sale. Nevertheless all over town hundreds of people pushing barrows are offering apples at 15 to 20 pesos each.

Behind all this Cuban-style “dumping” there exists a clockwork mechanism which carefully manages the availability of foodstuffs and prices. General Raul Castro has created an army of anti-corruption  inspectors, headed by Gladys Bejerano, Controller General of the Republic. The idea is to put the brakes on this multi-headed monster which affects the life of the whole nation.

But for every vermin’s head that Bejerano gets close to, five more spring up. It’s totally evil. People think that we are dealing with something quite weak. They only go after the low and mid-level swindlers and crooks. Certain individuals, referred to as the “bosses of the bosses” carry on in their air-conditioned offices, calmly and unconcernedly watching what’s going on.

Iván García

Photo: Collecting bricks from a building which collapsed in the path of Hurricane Gustav in Havana in August 2008

 Translated by GH

January 14 2013

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