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Havana: Bread, Pills, and Weed

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Néstor, a baker, on one of his dawn work shifts, after selling 60 lbs of hard bread to the owner of a private cafeteria, places a “missed call” from his mobile to a guy how lives in another Havana neighborhood. (He calls, lets it ring once, and hangs up.)

It’s the agreed-upon signal. Some ten minutes later, the man appears on a motorbike. Néstor makes his buy. Two “yuma” marijuana cigarettes for 10 CUC. And a stash of powered Ketamine for 100 pesos. In the reeking bakery bathroom the baker prepares a “bazooka” — he mixes the Ketamine with the grass, and after wrapping it in a cartridge colored paper, he carefully smokes it with joy. As a complement, he makes a deal with another baker and with 2 CUC they acquire a half-liter of white rum.

Not everybody hooked on strong drugs in Cuba has the 50 CUC or more that a gram of mecla (cocaine) can cost. So then other options are sought. The most common is the native marijuana, that can be bought for 20 pesos a cigarette. Or Parkinsonil tablets, offered in clandestine Havana at between 20 and 25 pesos each tab.

But there are many and varied forms of “flying”. According to Yulieski, a suburban low-life and admitted drug addict, there is a list of medications that leave the effect of euphoria just like some other drug, besides being cheaper. From Homopatrina Drops through injections for asthma. Those who work night shifts, like Nestor the baker, are already used to “pilling” themselves up or smoking pot, to chase the sleepiness and tiredness away.

But it’s among the “celebrities”, as they call the people who frequent clubs and fashionable discotheques, where drugs and psychotropics cause furor. Many of the attendees who can pay a cover of as much as 10 convertible pesos, carry a gram of cocaine in little rocks or marijuana cigarettes in the folds of their jackets or in their cigarette boxes.

“The fastest way to roll good joints is with coke in rock or powder. It’s as important as having money or a car. In general, after the disco, private parties are put on on the beach or in a house supplied with enough liquor, sex, and drugs”, explains the “celebrity” Yasmani.

“Some reggae musicians are sick on powder and grass, also sons of government officials, and intellectuals of renown,” he assures me. “Drugs and pills, together with alcohol, play important parts in the Havana night.”

The worst, besides the harmful effects on the body, is that the number of youth drug addicts is growing. At the start, it seems like such an inoffensive hobby. And they do it to “change the body,” as the baker Nestor likes to say.

Then it turns into an indispensable necessity. Nestor himself, thanks to the sale of bread, flour or oil under the table, in a morning looks to make 500 pesos. For some time now, owing to his excessive addiction to drugs, he comes home with empty pockets.

Iván García

Photo: Smoking marijuana. Now and again, the authorities discover marijuana fields in any province of the island.

Translated by: JT

30 Jan 2013

Cuban Baseball: Open the gate

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

As a result of the next baseball season, the State press and fans have unleashed a debate, looking to raise the level of ball played on the island. There were more than 170 proposals to design a new competitive structure.

In a meeting with the national press, the Cuban Federation let it be known how the next tournament will be structured. The league will open on 25 November in José Ramón Cepero Stadium with a matchup between the present champions, Ciego de Ávila and the runner-up Industriales. Sixteen sides will participate, one for each province plus the special municipality Isla de la Juventud. The Metropolitanos team is eliminated, with their 38 years of history in the local classic.

The schedule will consist of two stages. In the first, 45 games will be played in a round-robin to find the best 8 teams. The sides that go on to the next round will be able to draft up to five players from the teams that didn’t qualify. This phase will be of 42 games. In two playoffs of the best of seven, the four winners will play for the national championship.

It might be that the old structure of 4 divisions and two zones, East and West, was already inadequate. In the last twelve years, the level of baseball has declined a lot. The problem isn’t about a team. Many remain. The keys to elevating the quality of play happens to have a new structure. But the worst evil isn’t that of structure.

The design of the Cuban baseball system used to work. It was a pyramid of skills that included little league, Pony leagues, Youths, and provincial series, culminating in the national classic.

Sports schools perfected and trained the best talent nominated by coaches. Afterwards the harvest was brought in. Until 2006, Cuba won most of the International Baseball Federation’s organized tournaments in every one of its categories.

Now we barely win championships. And that worries fans and specialists. In world tournaments of Pony or Youth Leagues, it’s understandable. The best talents of Asia and the United States take part. But at the highest level, except for the Classics, those authentic discards with skills of little caliber enroll for their respective countries.

In my opinion, there’s a glaring error on the Federation’s part. And it is to implement changes thinking only about the national team. The series on the island cannot be a satellite that circulates outside that orbit. It must be independent. When the season has more quality, the higher the level that will be achieved by the Cuban team.

What we’re talking about is how to really raise the level of ball played. The options are many. But all will happen by opening the gate and allowing the best ball players to compete in foreign leagues. The ideal would be to arrive at an agreement with the Major Leagues such that Cuban players can sign contracts without having to abandon their country.

But current laws complicate the proceedings. As such, other destinations would have to be chosen. Japan and South Korea, due to the high level of their leagues, would be the best.

Another step that can’t be overlooked is pay and material conditions for the players. It’s a failed subject. Local idols who were sometimes Olympic champions got 300 convertible pesos — about 340 dollars — a ridiculous amount for a first-rank sportsman; although in the difficult economic conditions this country lives in, it’s a ’fortune’.

An effort should be made so that players in the national series can earn salaries greater than 3000 pesos ($130). The solution might be to raise the price of tickets to stadiums from one peso to five, with part of the proceeds distributed between players. Not equally. The regulars would earn more. The extra class, much more. Local and foreign companies based in Cuba, with its productions, could be sponsors.

It should not be possible that a national champion, as in the case of the Industriales in 2010, should motivate its players through gifts of cement shingles to repair the roofs of their houses, or microwave ovens, defective on top of it.

The majority of Cuban ball players live in precarious conditions. Only a handful of stars live in good houses or have cars. When they look at their colleagues who’ve left the country, they know that playing in a mediocre league they will earn enough to help their own and live decently.

Then they decide to leave. It’s true that few reach the Big Leagues. But they try to integrate themselves in whatever Caribbean, European, or Asian league. Another big problem is the little attention paid by the Federation to the farm systems that feed the national series.

Provincial tournaments of the big leagues are very short. Many games are suspended for lack of balls, bats, and transportation. Ball players are playing out of uniform and don’t even have a snack. You have to love baseball a lot to play in 92 (Fahrenheit) degree heat under these conditions. To this, add that the official press barely covers them — they’re almost clandestine.

In the lower categories, the evil is worse. The fields are true potato fields. The quality of the balls and equipment is terrible. In the stands we’ll find parents, loaded down with lunches and snacks for their kids. When a boy decides to play baseball, his parents have to buy his equipment in hard currency. Cash must also be paid for the making of uniforms.

On a radio sports show called Sports Tribune, on the capital’s COCO station, every night official honest journalists such as Yasser Porto, Daniel Demala or Ivan Alonso go at it bare-knuckled, attacking the evils that afflict Cuban baseball. And they offer solutions.

It’s obvious that their claims have fallen on deaf ears. The COCO journalists weren’t invited to the last meeting where the announcement was made about the structure of the next season.

The Federation is walking a tightrope. It doesn’t wish, want or cannot, address the theme with all of its artists. The solution offered is pure makeup. Cuban baseball’s difficulties won’t be resolved in this manner, nor will the ceiling of competence be raised, because it’s not only a problem of structure. There are many others.

Photo: Taken from The Cuban History. René Arocha, first ball player to desert, 18 July 1991. Since then, more than 150 baseball players have left Cuba and with major or minor success have managed to compete (or still compete) in professional leagues in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Caribbean countries, Europe and Asia, such as Rey Ordóñez, Liván Hernández, José Ariel Contreras, Rolando Arrojo, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, Kendry Morales, Aroldis Chapman, Osvaldo Fernández, Ariel Prieto, Alex Sánchez, Vladimir Núñez, Danny Báez, Michael Tejera, Yuniesky Betancourt and Yoenis Céspedes, among others.

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Translated by: JT

October 7 2012

Cuba: Baseball and Rumors

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

If you want to see first hand how the syndrome of secrecy works in Cuba, visit the office of the commissioner of baseball. Such is the lack of information, that not even the managers of the teams know for sure the day and month the new season will start. No one knows what the new structure will be nor the amount of equipment. Or the number of games that will be played.

It’s all rumors. According to reliable sources, the next National Series might field 16 teams. One for each province and the municipality of Isla de la Juventud. They would do away with the Metropolitan team, the second of the capital, despite being at the bottom of the standings in the last five years, its exit could cause many talented players to be without a team.

The amazing thing is that for a couple of weeks, Metropolitan began its preparation for the upcoming season, as officially no senior official from the baseball federation has spoken on the subject. In any organized league, the schedule is known months in advance as is the start date of the season. Last season, two weeks before opening day the details were still unknown.

Another absurdity is the transfer of players. In order to respect territoriality, players must play for their provinces. Only in prominent cases are they allowed to compete in other teams. It has set up a summer soap opera with the alleged departure of the excellent player Yulieski Gourriell from the Sancti Spiritus team. For personal problems, Yulieski’s family decided to settle in Havana.

The All-Star third baseman said in an interview that he intends to play with the famous Cuban baseball team, the Industriales. But the case was handled like a top state secret. On September 3rd the suspense ended. The sports authorities refused Gourriell permission to wear the blue jersey.

In 52 seasons there have been major players moving to different situations. Most striking was the case of the national team starter, Antonio Muñoz, who moved from Sancti Spiritus to Cienfuegos.

Or Villa Clara’s Alejo O’Reilly who decided to play for Ciego de Avila.

If it’s decided to remove Metropolitan, the selection of The Industrialists would have a team full of stars in the batting, but after a few years, young talent stagnates if it’s not able to play regularly. It happens that the current structure of Cuban baseball has a pronounced slump. Many youth who complete their category does not have a tournament where they develop their skills.

Before they competed in a league championship parallel to the local championship. Now that tournament disappeared. In the last 12 years Cuban baseball has seen its quality fall into a tailspin. The causes are known. The principal is the departure of about 250 players who have chosen to play as professionals abroad. Another problem is the outdated concepts of preparing pitchers and batters.

With just five months to the World Classic III, even the baseball authorities still are not clear what kind of tournament is going to be played. In November, the national team will probably stumble a couple of times with its peer from Taipei, China as a warmup for the Classic. Ideally, the local season breaks in October. But it is very likely that due to the stop in Asia the championship will open in late November. If so, there would be a break in the series to prepare the players who participate in the Classic III.

If in questions of baseball there is a lack of information and mystery abounds, what can we expect on important issues like immigration reform or internet marketing. Cuba is a country of riddles and rumors. Learn to read between the lines. The press, rather than inform, misinforms. And those who must make decisions mock the media and citizens. It happens in everyday life. In politics and in baseball.

Photo: Logos of provincial baseball teams in 2010

Translated by: JT

September 15 2012

Could the dissidence become a valid interlocutor for the Cuban regime?

February 26, 2012 4 comments

In politics, all isn’t what it seems. Considering that there is no way out, a solution always looms. Above all and more than ever, dictators desire power. But when this isn’t possible, they negotiate the future.

Not so much for love of their country or her people. Simply to preserve their lives and their perks. Augusto Pinochet killed thousands of dissidents in Chile, but in the end, he had to open the doors to change.

The despicable racist government of Pretoria imprisoned Nelson Mandela in a tiny, narrow cell on Robbin Island for 27 years. But before the clamor of the majority of the South African people, then-President Frederik De Klerk had no option other than to negotiate a political exit with the mythical Mandela.

Those who persist in power with a knife between their teeth know the game they’re playing. The masses are unpredictable. They are capable of applauding a six-hour long speech under a fiery sun, or of unleashing their ire and furiously bludgeoning the politicians whom they consider their oppressors.

Remember Mussolini. Or the Rumanian Ceaucescu. If the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East leave us any clear lesson, it is that autocrats are no longer in fashion. Farewell to Ben Ali and Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saleh. Another tough guy, Bashar Al-Assad, has his days numbered in Syria. While the more violently they act, the worse is the fury of the governed.

Have no doubt, Fidel Castro has taken note. He is a student of modern history and every now and then he likes to remind us of it in his somber reflections.

The Castro brothers know that the economic situation in Cuba is very serious and worrying. They must have some contingency plan up their sleeve.

The system has shown itself to be lethally useless to bring food to the table and to produce quality items. We go to work to steal. Efficiency and production are at rock bottom, as are wages.

The future for many Cubans is to leave the country. Those without a future have come to be unpredictable. A time bomb. The present situation is like the sandpaper on a box of matches, at the slightest contact it can burst into flames.

The Castro brothers are maneuvering in a difficult terrain. And if the internal situation in Cuba squeezes them, it might be that they could negotiate with the dissidence. Not for all, just for a part — that which they consider convertible to their interests.

According to some veteran opposition members, it’s very probable that Cuban intelligence has designed a parallel opposition which, in some convenient moment, will serve as a wild card and political actor in a future without the Castros.

It might be paranoia. In totalitarian states, suspicion and the absurd become habit. But it isn’t insane to think that to give the dissidents a space if circumstances force their hand, could become a part of the island’s mandarin’s calculus.

Supposedly, they’re not going to hand over anything, they will have to continue dealing as they are accustomed to, using denunciations, street marches, and – above all – doing a better job with the citizenry.

If the opposition dedicates itself to work in search of its community, does proselytizing work among its neighbors, and doesn’t only offer a discourse to foreigners, it will have a part of the struggle won.

It’s important to increase the denunciations of mistreatment and lack of freedoms to the European Union, the United States, and to the international organizations that watch over human rights. But now is the time to write fewer documents, which almost no one in Cuba reads, owing to the repressive character of the regime and the low access of the populace to the internet.

It’s also time to combine all the points that unite the dissidents and to obviate the discrepancies between the different political factions. The goal of the peaceful opposition must be dialog with its counterparts, as has happened in the old Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi at its head.

To push a regime that has despised and mistreated its opponents into negotiations, there has to be a 180 degree turn away from the old tactics and strategies.

Cuba’s fate worries everyone. The destiny of our motherland will be decided in the next ten years. Or less. For that matter, the opposition could turn into a valid player.

If it is proposed, it will come about. The dissidence has points in its favor. A leaky economy, an inefficient government, and the discontent of a majority of Cubans over the state of things.

In the short term, if the chore is done well, the regime will sit down to negotiate with the opposition. Believe me, the Castro brothers don’t have many cards to play, although they’d like to make it appear otherwise. And dialog is the best option for them — perhaps the only one.

Photo: Taken from the blog Uncommon Sense. From left to right, the ex-political prisoners of the Group of 75: Oscar Elías Biscet, Ángel Moya Acosta, Guido Sigler Amaya, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, Diosdado González Marrero, Eduardo Díaz Fleitas, Félix Navarro Rodríguez, Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, Librado Linares García (in dark glasses), Pedro Argüelles Morán and Iván Hernández Carrillo. José Daniel Ferrer García could not be present. The meeting was held on 4 June 2011, in the Matanzas village of El Roque.

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Translated by: JT

February 24 2012

Laura Pollán Risked her Neck to Demonstrate her Truths

October 24, 2011 1 comment

Right now Wednesday, the 28th of September is coming to my mind, when I spoke to her daughter to coordinate an interview with Laura. She was feeling badly already, her daughter told me that she’d taken a little lime and was laying down for a while in bed. Some days later, her state of health got a lot worse. The news left me astonished.

Without doubt, the effects of the verbal violence and the blows of the 24th of September were just a few of the causes.

Bad times are approaching for Raúl Castro. It pains me to think that the enemy hordes who, that day, were already shouting “to the machete, they are small” or “ready, aim, fire,” comforted them. What a sad role! I wonder if from this moment forward their consciences will remain calm.

Laura Pollán was a third age woman who stuck her neck out along with her integrity to demonstrate her truths.

If Orlando Zapata was a motor that pushed the opposition to protest shirtless, Laura had a great convincing power. Her doubtless merit was going out in the street and yelling for the freedom for herself and her people. May God bless her!

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Translated by: JT

October 16 2011

“House Agent”: A Very Lucrative Business in Havana

September 13, 2011 3 comments

Genovevo, age 58, has been imprisoned twice and on three occasions has been arrested for criminal dangerousness. He is a ‘house agent’, as they call those who — under the table — dedicate themselves to transmit trades, purchases, or sales of houses in Cuba. A business where there isn’t anyone to tell the tale.

“The acquisition or sale of houses was something prohibited by national law. People with money on the island or foreigners married to Cubans do whatever is possible to buy themselves a house. That’s when I appear. I have good contacts in the Housing Institute — the most corrupt of the agencies — and I manage all the legal paperwork. Besides, I’m a guy you can trust”, says Genovevo.

The housing problem in Cuba is as old as the revolution. And as complex. Until June, state enterprises had only finished 8,831 of the 23,394 houses they had promised to build in 2011. Private builders had finished 3,206 of the 19,606 (houses) forecast for this year. To that we add that of the construction materials destined for the populace to repair or extend their homes, in the first semester only 15.6% had been sold.

It’s true that 85% of the citizens are owners of their homes. But the State prohibits them from selling them. And in the case of a legal exit from the country, if a relative isn’t named who lived with them for many years under the same roof on the ownership title, the government seals the property and keeps the abode.

So it has been going until now. General Raul Castro has promised that things are going to change. In the 6th Congress of the Communist Party, which took place in April 2011, the buying and selling of houses was authorized. In the same manner, they’re thinking about abolishing a series of bureaucratic forms regarding swaps.

But in Cuba everything moves at a tortoise’s pace. And, although many citizens want to sell or buy a house, the functionaries say that they haven’t been given the green light yet.

Luisa, age 34, married to an Italian already has everything arranged to acquire a residence. She is awaiting the permit from the government. “They told me July, when the parliamentary sessions take place, they will ratify the means to do so. Meanwhile, you can’t buy nor sell houses”, she indicates in the vicinity of the Housing Institute.

But guys like Genovevo don’t stop for government prohibitions. “Now is when I have more work. The usual housing market is very active. People know that when sales are legalized, the prices will double. If today an apartment is worth 15,000 dollars, the following day it will cost 30 thousand. A mansion the same way: if now it costs 40 thousand, I don’t doubt it will reach 80 or 90 thousand dollars”, he assures.

Automobiles aren’t staying behind. In this time, in Havana a 60-year-old car in a well-preserved state can cost more than an apartment. According to the house ‘agents’, this tendency is going to revert.

“I believe that in no place in the world would a car be worth more than a house. But Cuba is a strange country, where the abnormal is normal and vice-versa. Those who want to buy houses are desperate. They know that properties are going to appreciate, the same as land”, Susana — an expert ‘agent’ clarifies.

Trading is also complicated on the island. Owing to a group of absurd regulations, the owner has to testify or justify why, for example, he wants to trade a 3-room apartment for a house with a garage and 5 rooms. The state functionaries, first-rate scoundrels, smell money under the table and begin to block or obstruct the trade, in search of a cut off the top.

“In Cuba, when a family trades its house for a better one, with more square footage, there is always money in between. If they don’t “square up” with the Housing Institute inspectors, the swap doesn’t take place. I tell you as someone who’s made enough money in this business”, says Esther, ex-functionary, who thanks to her job could make sufficient dollars to get a good residence and a good car.

The ‘agents’ of trades and houses are accustomed to collecting 10% of the money that moves in a transaction. Sometimes more. Genovevo, an ace of the deal, has closed deals with earnings up to 10 thousand dollars. And although they have caught him twice infringing laws and have put him behind bars, the money and his influence have been valuable in being placed in conditional freedom before a year has gone by.

Today he lives on a well-furnished floor, with an enormous 52 inch plasma television in the living room. He has gotten good houses for his three children. He has money for certain luxuries. “Nothing from the other world. To eat seafood in the Chinese neighborhood and occasionally lay down with a whore. That which I like most is going out to fish on the weekends. And the only way to get money is being a ‘house agent’, a job where I feel fulfilled”, he underlines while he drinks mango juice.

And if in the deal Genoveno isn’t going to earn a minimum of 2 or 3 thousand dollars, please don’t bother him.

Photo: Ketari. A section of the Paseo del Prado, in the heart of Havana, has turned into a meeting point for ‘house agents’ and for people who want to trade their home. Since no legal office exists for these exchanges, the people do it themselves, rustically, using notebooks with handwritten notation or tacking sheets with proposed exchanges on the trees, as you see in the photo.

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Translated by: JT

August 5 2011

Cuba, Another Parade

July 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In 52 years of Revolution, Cubans have become used to attending parades and events. Not always spontaneously. The members of rapid response brigades — paramilitary shock troops — are called to hold repudiation rallies and verbal lynchings against opponents, in particular against the Ladies in White.

Two weeks after the military parade in the Plaza de la Revolución on 16 April, Havaneros were called into mobilization again. This time at 7:30 in the morning, for International Workers’ Day, which has been observed for more than a century throughout the world, Cuba included.

Before 1959, the parades were combative and proper symbols of the anniversary were hung, or perhaps workers’ and unions’ demands. Now, since only one central workers’ union exists and other unions have been converted into administrative appendices and nuclei of the Communist Party — the only one permitted — the celebration of May Day has a clear and defined political tone.

It might be enough to read the official convocation: “The workers’ parade will be the expression of the unity of all the people and of its will to contribute to develop the implementation of the Cuban economic model through the strategies in accordance with the 6th Party Congress, and to establish the compromise of supporting and actively participating conscientiously in the transformation that this process demands to guarantee the continuity of socialism and the preservation of our independence and our national sovereignty”.

The cost of living has risen ferociously in the country, but those who parade in Havana and the rest of the provinces won’t be able to complain. Neither will they be able to shout or raise signs demanding raises in their salaries or claiming a series of measures in favor of self-employment. No. Among other political signs, some will certainly demand the liberation of the five Cuban spies condemned to long US prison sentences, and that Washington end its commercial embargo, in effect since 1962.

Despite the closeness to the World Press Freedom Day, on 3 May, to think that on the First of May it should occur to someone on the island to demand free traffic of information or internet for everyone.

In Cuba, one can march. Always and when one keeps to the time and date called by the government, the Party, or the Ministry of the Interior. Under this heading private initiatives are forbidden*.

Photo: Iván Castro, Flickr

(*) Recently, the police detained Darsi Ferrer, his wife and three more dissidents, who, outside the Coppelia Ice Cream shop, on the corner of L and 23 in Havana, were stopped while carrying signs demanding they be granted permits to travel overseas.

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Translated by: JT

May 1 2011

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