If you speak Spanish, it’s advisable to get to know Havana by taking private taxis. In a rented car, air-conditioned and with a map of the capital, it’s more pleasurable, but also more expensive, and you wouldn’t be able to chat with the habaneros.
If you know the city only through the guided visits to museums or cigar factories, organized by tourist agencies, you will have good photos when you return to your country, but you will only have seen a postcard of Havana.
You can decide to drink mojitos, stroll on the Malecon, flirt with prostitutes in a cafe where you need hard currency to listen to a duo singing Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan at your table. Or you can discover the other face of Havana, ignored by the official press. Then, first hand, you will know the priorities of ordinary Cubans.
The capital of Cuba has in its favor the fact that it still is not as dangerous as Caracas, Medellin or Michoacan. You can walk through rough and poor neighborhoods without fear of being assaulted (I advise you to go during the day).
Better than reserving a hotel is renting a room in some private home. For your trips around the city, the ideal thing is to move around in the old U.S. cars known as almendrones.
And talk to the passengers. There is no platform more authentic and liberal in Cuba than the private taxis. As in any capital of the world, the Havana taxi drivers possess a culture of speech and an acceptable level of information.
You will find out that many of the Cuban taxi drivers are doctors, engineers, retired military men or professionals who, after their work day, sit at the steering wheel, trying to earn some extra pesos that will permit them to complement their poor salaries.
The Havana taxi drivers seem to be dissidents when they speak, but they’re not. They, like numerous people you find in the lines or in the streets, openly criticize the government.
The list of complaints about the state of things on the island is extensive. Traveling in a 1954 Ford, with a South Korean motor and a Japanese gear box, you will know first-hand that people aren’t applauding Raul Castro’s reforms with much enthusiasm now.
Be prepared to listen to a dissertation on the daily hardships. One suggestion: before your trip around the city, in your backpack carry deodorants, tubes of toothpaste or soap to offer to the people you talk to. Right now, these articles are scarce in Cuba (see the Note at the end).
Havana taxis are a microphone open to different political opinions. And in their interior there is more democracy than in the monotone national parliament. In the almendrones there are usually people who think differently. Each reveals his opinion. Loudly and gesticulating with his hands, typical of Cubans.
Upon arriving at his destination, the passenger who supports the Regime says goodbye amicably to the one who wants profound changes in his country. Two details: the old Havana taxis don’t have air conditioning and the drivers listen to reggaeton or salsa music at exaggerated volume.
If you get into a jeep, which can fit up to 10 people, the trip is uncomfortable. But there is no better way to make people-to-people contact than to travel in private taxis. And they are very cheap. For 50 cents or a dollar on longer journeys, you can get to know the other face of Havana. It’s not recommended to take the urban omnibus: owing to the bad service and overcrowding, what should be an exploration of the city and a motive to make contact with its people can become a torture.
Photo: Taken from Panoramix.
Note. In Cuba something is always lacking. Sometimes the scarcity is most visible in the capital, but usually where you find a lack of most products, food or hygiene, is in the interior of the country. After writing this piece, independent journalists were reporting that “eggs were missing.” I don’t know if eggs have reappeared, but now salt is missing.
On March 5, Ernesto García Díaz wrote in Cubanet that salt was hard to find in the grocery stores, markets and hard currency markets (TRD), where a kilo nylon bag of Cuban salt with the stamp “Caribeña” cost 45 cents (10.80 Cuban pesos). In the Ultra TRD [the government-run "Hard Currency Collection Store"], an employee told the journalist that “it’s been some time since we’ve had Caribeña salt. We are selling a fine Andalusian salt of the brand “Aucha” at the price of 1.65 CUC ($US 1.58) a kilo.”
In Cuba there are five saltworks that supposedly should guarantee the distribution of salt for the ration book, at the rate of one kilo for a nuclear family of up to 3 people, every three months. But because they haven’t managed to extract more than 400 million tons annually, the government has had to import salt, as occurred in 2008, when they bought 30 million tons of salt at a cost of 9 million dollars (Tania Quintero).
Translated by Regina Anavy
8 March 2014
“I was in a shelter known as La Colonia, in Boyeros municipality (20 kilometers west of the center of the capital). The treatment was harsh. It looked like a jail. But at least they guaranteed lunch and food,” said the vagabond, who usually bets on an image of San Lázaro to ask for money at the entrance of a complex of exclusive shops in the Habana Libre hotel.
After being warned by the police, a group of alcoholics and beggars who usually sell used clothing and old books on the corner of Carmen and 10th of October in the slum of La Vibora, stayed away for a week.
“They told us we made the city look ugly. A police official said we should get lost until the end of the Summit. The important visits, like that of the Pope or meetings of presidents, together with the cold, are a pain in the neck for us, because we have to go to places outside the city. We live like gypsies. Almost all of us sleep in cartons in some doorway. In the neighborhood of la Calzada and 10th of October, we find a few pesos by doing metal plating, cutting stone, and some neighbors give us food,” remarked Ariel, a hopeless alcoholic.
Barely did the CELAC Summit end, when the beggars and dumpster divers returned to their work.
These events are also usually trouble for those who live on the margins on the law. Like Ramiro, a part-time transvestite, who prostitutes himself on the central avenues after work.
“During those days you walk around wound up. The police get very nervous. A client told me that they were mobilizing, since they expected groups of human rights marchers or public demonstrations. Once it was over, I returned to the struggle,” says Ramiro.
Hookers in the suburbs in the style of Gisela, pretty and with an easy laugh, also make sacrifices. “I’ve been arrested twice for prostitution. I have to be careful. When they celebrate meetings like this, I “nail myself in” (stay at home). Later I go back to the routine.
Numerous dissidents, among them the intellectual Manuel Cuesta Morúa and the attorney Veizant Boloy, should now be returning to their homes, after several days of detention in police dungeons, to prevent them from holding a parallel forum.
Other members of the opposition, independent journalists, alternative bloggers and human rights activists were prevented by State Security from leaving their homes, and their cell phones were cut off.
The Second CELAC Summit, celebrated in Havana from January 25 to 29, didn’t bring too many benefits to the people of Havana. Among the lucky ones were the residents on San Lázaro Street, from the University staircase up to the Fragua Martiana Museum, in the Cayo Hueso district.
Owing to the presence of a torch parade in honor of the 161st anniversary of the birth of José Martí, a coat of paint was given to the facades of some buildings and homes, and several streets got new asphalt.
Owners of private restaurants and family businesses in zones neighboring PABEXPO, were closed on the days of the event. “I have a cake business, for weddings and parties, that I had to close, because of the exaggerated police presence and prohibitions for the circulation of autos. The clients disappeared,” indicated Alexander, the owner of a sweetshop in Miramar.
The “fat” expected by owners of private restaurants, craft vendors, and private taxi drivers remained far below expectations.
“The truth is that almost no one who took part in the Summit came by here, unless it was one or another first lady, say,” said a seller of paintings on the Plaza de la Catedral.
Paladars of caliber like La Guarida, located in the heart of the marginal neighborhood of San Leopoldo, kept hoping for reservations by the heavyweights. In November 1999, when the Kings of Spain attended the IberoAmerican Summit celebrated in Havana, the Queen Doña Sofía dined in the famous paladar (as private restaurants are called).
Josefina had more luck, with her hair salon in Old Havana. She gave a haircut to the indifferent Secretary General of the United Nations, the South Korean Ban Ki-moon. Though how much he paid for the cut isn’t known.
Photo: Old Havana. While the woman trumpets her cone of “peanuts, toasted and hot,” very close to her are a policeman and a man having an exchange of words. Taken from Cubanet.
Translated by Regina Anavy
1 February 2014
Seeing people sweating buckets under a blazing sun and trying to crowd into a small doorway of a house is really something.
It takes 40 minutes for the P-8 to come by, one of those articulated buses belonging to Metrobus, the company in charge of moving large concentrations of people in its fleet of 469 articulated buses.
The P-8 has a route that goes from the Reparto Eléctrico, in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality, up to the Pan American Village, located in the municipality of Habana del Este.
In its journey of one hour and 20 minutes it goes through the municipalities of Arroyo Naranjo, Diez de Octubre, Cerro, Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Habana del Este.
When in late 2007 the Cuban government opened its wallet and bought 469 articulated buses in Russia, China and Belarus, the city bus service improved dramatically.
Metrobus, the company located in Nuevo Vedado, a stone’s throw from the Zoo on 26th, designed a route that covered all the important and busy roads of Havana.
There were 17 lines. And their frequency varied from 5 to 10 minutes in peak hours. Until mid-2010, with some interruptions, the system worked well.
By the last three months of the past year, bus service began to falter. At the Mulgoba terminal, where the P-12, P-13 and P-16 buses are kept, for a route between Santiago de Las Vegas, Central Havana and Vedado, 37 out of a fleet of 70 buses were out of service, for lack of spare parts, tires and batteries.
At a session of parliament held in December 2010, the Cuban economic czar, Marino Murillo, recognized the problem and pointed out that there were no financial resources for large purchases of spare parts.
According to Murillo, the bureaucrats were to blame for the collapse of the transport service, because of their erratic calculations and poor management. He didn’t promise anything. He just affirmed that it’s possible the State might stop the tourist buses to keep the peoples’ buses rolling.
But in 2011 the service continues to be in a tailspin. This summer, when thousands of people go to the eastern beaches and the playgrounds or carnivals in Havana, the malfunction of public transport will make travel by bus crowded, and it will take people several hours to reach their destination.
In the Diez de Octubre municipality, the most populous in Havana, at any time of day the bus-stops are full of angry citizens, and between the heat and the bus delays, violence can surface.
Any stray touch on the “guagua” — as buses are called in Cuba — an accidental kick or crazy comment, can unleash verbal or physical aggression among those who are daily forced to board, as if they were expert ninjas, the Metrobus company buses.
What’s worse is that there are hardly any alternatives. In Havana there is another state company, Metropolitan Omnibus, with several hundreds of Yutong buses, manufactured in China. They have been designed to fulfill a supporting role in the scheme of urban transportation.
Their frequency should be between 25 and 40 minutes. But they normally take an hour. Or more. Therefore, the major burden of responsibility for passengers belongs to Metrobus.
When people like Sara, who’s retired, have to arrive on time, they often leave home three hours in advance. And try to maintain an Asiatic calm. Sometimes the buses don’t stop at the bus-stop. And she, with her 60 years and several extra pounds, must run 100 yards, like a Jamaican sprinter, to board the bus through the back door.
Sara sees the bright side. “It gives me some exercise. And if I get on at the back door, I don’t pay.” Bus fare costs 40 cents.
But banks and service centers don’t usually have enough change. Therefore, people pay with one peso (five cents in CUCs). Those who pay. Alejo spends 60 pesos per month to move around the city ($2.50 in CUCS).
It may seem small, but it means a third of his salary as a school custodian. A trip inside one of these buses is infuriating. Their routes are extensive. From the starting point to the end, the trip usually takes between one hour, the fastest, to an hour and a half if it crosses 10 municipalities by going around the city.
If we believe sources inside Metrobus, currently there are 227 bus-stops. And problems because of a lack of spare parts or damages after an accident. To minimize the crisis, the Havana government is taking some measures, such as using workplace vehicles in peak hours and on important routes, in an attempt to alleviate the urban transport deficit.
Since Castro came to power in January 1959, transport in Havana has been a headache.
Not even in better times, when the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union existed and gave us petroleum and plumbing supplies, has Cuba had a decent transport service in its capital.
It was thought a metro would be built with the help of North Korea. But everything remained in the planning stages. Getting around the city this summer will be an ordeal. Between the heat and the bad service.
Only those who have money, thanks to remittances, working for themselves, getting good tips, having illegal businesses or stealing from their jobs, can afford the luxury of taking private taxis that for 10 or 20 pesos take you quickly to any place in the city.
About 10,000 private cars have become the best fleet of taxis in Havana. Most were made in the United States and have over 60 years of use. Their owners have had to “invent” to keep rolling. But they work. And well. In Cuba there are things that nobody can explain.
Translated by Regina Anavy
October 15 2011
It causes chills to know that the historic leader of the Cuban revolution did research on different crops to improve nutrition for the Cuban people.
I don’t want to be a harbinger of ill omen. But reviewing Castro’s “experiments” in 52 years of olive-green government, he didn’t come up with any that were successful.
Let’s review the record. Let’s leave aside his social, military or political essays, which are being published in a collection. Let’s forget that insanity of designing in vitro a communist society having the village of San Julián, Pinar del Río, as the test case.
Let’s avoid his militant manias of directing, from a distance of 10,000 kilometers, the theater of operations of the civil war in Angola. From a mansion in Nuevo Vedado, sitting in a black leather easy chair, pointer in hand, facing a massive full-scale model full of toy soldiers and tin cannons. And like a common grocer, ordering the distribution of candy, ice cream and chocolates to the troops.
Let’s overlook his promises that in 2000 we would have an industry on the level of the U.S. Still, listen to the excited masses, gullible and faithful, cheering wildly at one of the many public plazas built for him to give his speeches. Yes, that is a personal achievement of Castro: As of today, Cuba is one of the countries on the planet with the most plazas per square kilometer for political acts.
The little father of the country also embarked us on fierce media campaigns against the foreign debt in Latin America, back in the 80′s. He said that for such a financial hardship he would send the bill to the continent.
And that from the third world we would land in the fourth. He was wrong. Right now, Latin America is growing, and Brazil and Argentina – who would have thought, comandante? - are studying the option of loaning money to rescue the faltering European economies.
It’s Cuba that isn’t taking off. His list of broken promises is long. One night of revolutionary partying at the Karl Marx theater, after putting a finger in his mouth, looking at the smooth ceiling and doing the math, Castro promised that every year 100,000 homes would be built.
A troop of intellectuals, engineers and judo coaches, who never in their lives had picked up a trowel, were converted by decree into construction workers in order to build their own homes. And those of others.
Let’s jump over the shoddy workmanship and frightening design of those buildings. There was no question of style. It was sheer necessity. In the workplace, the Union and the Party gave the apartments to the most loyal, in meetings comparable to a brawl among lions in the African jungle.
You might think that we are very demanding with this old man of 85 years. In the end, anyone can make mistakes.
But the ex-president has put his foot in it many times. In all fields. The most painful has been in regard to food. A sleepless night, back in 1964, brought from France the agronomist André Voisin, to implement on the island his new concepts about agriculture and the crossbreeding of cattle.
Later Castro said that the”Frog” knew less than he. And he sent him back home. As always, he laid the ground rules. He ordered the construction of air-conditioned dairies in the Valley of Picadura, on the outskirts of Havana, and said we would be eating so much beef that we would suffer from gout.
And that we would have malanga, fruits, vegetables … And microjet bananas. He published cookbooks with Ecuadorian recipes, so that Cuban housewives could take out part of a banana and prepare fufú (mashed), ladybugs (banana chips) and tostones.
With the river of surplus milk, after exporting a few thousand tons, we would produce Camembert and Gruyere cheeses of such high-quality that France and Switzerland would pale with envy.
As for sugar, once our national pride, he was its gravedigger. The beginning of the end of a secular tradition was initiated by the comandante in 1969-70, with his harvest of 10 million tons and the introduction of new and “more resistant varieties of cane.”
So now, in the 21st century, we occasionally import sugar from abroad. And finally to put the lid on the jar, we don’t even take advantage of the many qualities of sugar cane and its derivatives. The bagasse furniture sold in hard currency is imported from Brazil.
Coffee was another one of his whims. Thousands of habaneros planted Chilean coffee along and across the capital. Together with fresh air, we would be washed with the smell of strong, sweet coffee, said the optimistic local leaders.
Yes, today the average Cuban has coffee for breakfast. But mixed with peas. The depressed state coffers can’t afford the luxury of spending 40 million dollars to import a better bean.
Therefore, it applied the fiscal scissors. For the common people, of course. Officials in their offices have thermoses with coffee of superior quality. Those who can buy it in the “shoppings” (hard-currency stores) also drink good coffee.
When in 1990 that dark period began, which still floats in the air of the republic, known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” – in fact a war without the thunder of cannons – the drawer of the bearded one’s “food solutions” was opened.
Those were hard years. The Cubans were going hungry and fell into bed with optic neuritis. The old drank tea with leaves of orange or grapefruit. Which made those with low blood pressure, like my grandmother, dizzy, so they had to lie down.
Through the ration book, they began to sell food that they knew bordered on rubbish, baptized with original names. Soy hash. Meat paste. Fricandel. Root pasta. Hollow hotdogs. Cerelac. The invasion of the palate continued with soy and chocolate yogurt.
When on the night of July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, Carlos Valenciaga (where are you, Charlie?), looking mournful, announced that his jefe was retiring, many thought that the experiments had come to their end.
But no. The incombustible leader reappeared with his gibberish and forecasts. He prophesied that the world would end in a world war. He couldn’t wait to enter the fray. Which he liked. The issue of food.
And now he’s telling us that he’s seriously investigating a solution? To nourish the “sacrificed population that is suffering the rigors of the blockade as never before.” Which are double. The gringo and the regime.
People have received his” research” with concern. If in 52 years his attempts weren’t successful, would they be now? Let’s pray that he will be a passive grandfather. That he will play with his grandchildren and take a nap. That he will write his memoirs and surf the Internet.
But please, stop the experiments. Give it up, comandante.
Translated by Regina Anavy
November 26 2011
On September 28, 1960, while homemade bombs and firecrackers were being detonated by his political opponents, an angry Fidel Castro created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). From the balcony of the north wing of the Presidential Palace, the guerrilla commander, recently returned from a tour of New York, argued the need to monitor all the blocks in the country for the “worms and disaffected”, to protect the revolutionary process.
It was one more step in the autocratic direction in which he was now navigating the nascent revolution. Another deep stab towards the creation of a totalitarian state.
From 1959, Castro had struck a mortal blow to press freedom when, methodically, between promises and threats, the main newspapers of Cuba were shut down. He eliminated the rights of workers to strike and habeas corpus. The legal safeguards for those who opposed his regime were almost nil. He concentrated power. And he made political, economic and social policies by himself, without previously consulting ministers.
The process of establishing himself as the top pontiff in olive green culminated in 1961, with the radicalization of the revolution and the strangulation of the pockets of citizens who dissented against his government.
The CDRs are and have been one of the most effective weapons to collectivize society and get unconditional support for Castro’s strange theories. And one way to manage the nation. They were also the standard bearers at the time, shouting insults, throwing stones and punching the Cubans who thought differently or decided to leave their homeland.
The CDRs are a version of Mussolini’s brownshirts. Or one of those collective monstrosities created by Adolf Hitler. More or less. Over 5 million people are integrated into the ranks of the CDRs on the island.
Membership is not mandatory. But it forms part of the conditioned reflexes established in a society designed to genuflect, applaud and praise the “leaders”.
Although many people have no desire to take part in revolutionary events and marches, or to attend the acts of repudiation against the Ladies in White and the dissident protestors, as if they were on a safari, in a mechanical way at the age of 14, most Cuban children join the CDR.
It forms part of the greased and functional machine of the Creole mandarins. A collective society, where the good and bad must be doled out by the regime.
Two decades ago, with a state salary you could buy a Russian car, a refrigerator, a black and white TV and even an alarm clock. If you surpassed your quota in cane cutting, you were demonstrating loyalty to the fidelista cause or you were a cadre of the party or the Communist Youth.
The others, those who rebuked Fidel Castro’s caudillismo, in addition to being besieged and threatened by his special services, did not even have the right to work.
The CDRs played a sad role in the hard years of the ’80s. They were protagonists in the shameful verbal and physical lynchings against those who decided to leave Cuba.
It can’t be forgotten. The crowd inflamed by the regime’s propaganda, primary and secondary students, employees and CDR members, throwing eggs and tomatoes at the houses of the “scum”, to the beat of chanted slogans like “down with the worms” or “Yankee, you’re selling yourself for a pair of jeans”.
Among the dark deeds of Fidel Castro’s personal revolution, the acts of repudiation occupy first place. In addition to monitoring and verbally assaulting opponents, the CDRs perform social tasks.
They collect and distribute raw material. They help deliver polio vaccines. And, from time to time, less and less, they organize study circles where they analyze and vote to approve a political text or some operation of the Castro brothers.
That bunch of acronyms generated by the sui generis Cuban socialist system, CTC, FMC, MTT, UJC and FEU, among others, are “venerated NGOs”. According to the official discourse, those who by sword and shield support the regime.
In this 21st century, the CDRs, like the revolution itself, have lost steam. And their anniversaries and holidays are scarce. The night guards are rare birds. But the CDR members still keep their nails sharp.
They are the eyes and ears of the intelligence services. Snitches pure and simple. In one CDR a stone’s throw from Red Square in Vibora (which is not a square nor is it painted red), some of the species remain.
Now one has died. A lonely old man and childless, a factory worker, who was noted for his daily reports about “counter-revolutionary activities on the block”.
Two remain active. They have antagonized the neighborhood by their intransigence. All who dissent publicly in Cuba know that there is always a pair of eyes that watch your steps and then report by telephone to State Security.
Over time, you get used to their clumsy maneuvers of checking up on you and interfering with your private life. They inspect your garbage, to see what you eat or if you bathe with soap you bought in the “shopping”. Sometimes they make you laugh. Almost always they make you pity them.
Translated by Regina Anavy
September 27 2011
There are dates that leave their mark forever. The attack on the Twin Towers of New York is one of them. We probably all remember what we were doing at the time. How did we learn about it? What did we experieince?
September 11, 2001 appeared to be a Tuesday like any other in Havana. Dawn had come without clouds and with a full sun. At 8:45 a.m., when the first aircraft crashed into the Word Trade Center, I was still sleeping.
Around 9:20 a.m., I began my routine. Reviewing some notes to send to Encuentro en la Red (Encounter on the Web). Combing through the news on Cuban radio. In the afternoon, listening to the news from the BBC, Radio Exterior of Spain, Radio France International or Voice of America. Then going out and talking with people on the street.
I remember that Radio Reloj was going on and on about the state of the economy on the island. About 10:00 I received the newspapers, Granma and Juventud Rebelde. With more of the same. Briefly it was recalled that September 11 was the 28-year anniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile.
I was alone in the house. My sister Tamila was working. My niece Yania was in school. My mother Tania Quintero, a freelance journalist, had gone early to “forage” for food in several agromercados.
Around 11:00 a.m., a neighbor in the hallway of my building shouted: “It looks like there was a huge accident in the United States; they’re showing it on Channel 6″. I connected the TV. National television, something unheard of, had linked to CNN, and in the background, two reporters commented on the news.
The images were horrifying. Again and again they showed the airplane hitting the structure of concrete, steel and glass, like a knife going into a stick of butter.
The telephone began to ring insistently. Friends and relatives were stunned. We could not believe what we were seeing. Those with relatives in Miami were trying desperately to call them for more information. The phone lines with Florida were jammed.
I still have on my retina the powerful images of desperate people who threw themselves to death from the top of the towers. When the buildings collapsed, leaving a huge cloud of dust and soot, and a chilling roar that the people of New York would never forget, we who followed the news knew that the world had changed.
In the space of the afternoon we knew that a plane had hit the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania forest, thanks to the courage of the passengers, who by a phone call knew what had happened in the Big Apple.
That night, Fidel Castro spoke in the Sports Coliseum to numerous medical students. The Cuban government authorized American planes to fly over Cuba and use the island’s airports and air corridors. The sole comandante offered medical aid.
The United States was under a terrorist attack. We all knew intuitively what would come next. War. In those days, a large part of world was in solidarity with the northern nation. It did not know how to capitalize on that support.
Perhaps the best option was not planes and smart bombs buried in rubble, caves and hideouts of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am one of those who think that an operation of special services, operating with close international cooperation, would have had better results.
But the Untied States wanted revenge. Some 6,000 people were injured and about 3,000 people lost their lives. Many families couldn’t recover their remains.
War will never be a good option. Ten years after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, the victims total more than one million dead and wounded. The world has not been made more secure. There are fewer dictators and rogue leaders, but democracy at gunpoint has not brought order in Afghanistan or Iraq. Quite the contrary.
Thousands of U.S. troops are bogged down in those nations. Almost a decade after the attack on New York, it took a special forces operation to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden.
Al Qaeda is still alive. The autocrats and tyrants continue trampling on the basic freedoms of their peoples. It’s good that the United States and other nations demand democracy and respect for human rights in countries where they are violated.
But not from the cockpit of an F-16. Undoubtedly, blood, devastation and fire are rather strange ways to learn lessons on democracy.
Translated by Regina Anavy
September 9 2011
The political and fiscal plot against corruption has obvious political overtones. Many are asking if Raul Castro is playing hard ball or leaving the road to his political and economic adversaries.
Let’s wait and see. Meanwhile, the mystery continues on the island. Detentions after detentions. Surprise audits of Gladys Bejerano’s accounts. And the Chinese padlocks on the prison cells open to welcome new groups of guests.
In their crusade against corruption and crime, for the last year almost a hundred officers of all ranks have been sleeping in triple bunk beds. From those who are on the top of the pyramid, like Alejandro Roca, to the nurses and doctors who emulated the Nazis in the way they mistreated and killed patients in a psychiatric hospital.
Now, on the threshold of autumn, Havana is not setting off firecrackers. The opposition becomes increasingly bold every day and loses its fear of blows and insults.
The police know that any street protest, even a small one, can cause a spark. And they suffocate it with violence. Alarms go off everywhere. Palma Soriano, Guantánamo, or a plaza in Havana where a group of women shout for freedom and political change.
The fear of any event outside the official program is palpable. Go down Infanta Street, at the corner of Santa Marta, Centro Habana, where you find the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church. A month ago, 61 parishioners decided to lock themselves in for a spiritual retreat.
And faced with doubt and the novelty of the event, just in case, the police blocked the streets around the temple. When they saw that the “enlightened” pastor Braulio Herrera and his followers were not newly-minted dissenters, they yielded.
You can now pass through the neighboring streets. But a large number of civilian police and special services prowl the area. In addition to certain social tensions, there is the widespread discontent of the people, tired of the old government and its economic inefficiency.
Cuba is now a tinderbox. The slightest touch of a match could ignite it. If there haven’t been street explosions of any magnitude it’s because the political map of the island is so strange.
You could say that 15% of the public supports the Castro brothers. Another 15% is affiliated with the opposition. While the rest, 70%, is fearful and indifferent. They are simply spectators.
To add insult to injury we have the pitched battle, without much informative fanfare, unleashed by General Raúl Castro against corruption. The main enemy of the revolution, he said. It’s a war of survival. And the clans. The winner will have free rein to design the political road map for Cuba in the coming years.
If you analyze the chess moves of that eternal conspirator named Raúl Castro, you can deduce that, despite denying the supposed differences of opinion with his brother Fidel, in practice he has been dismantling, patiently, all the framework erected by the historic leader of the Revolution over five decades.
From grandiose mandates like the “Battle of Ideas,” schools in the countryside, the excessive use of television as a teaching method in primary and secondary schools. And, of course, he has removed almost all the men loyal to Fidel.
He has made a vast change in the furniture. From the fidelistas, there are only three important figures left: Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, 79 years old, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 80, and Esteban Lazo Hernández, 67.
Lazo is the classic loyalist. If he accepts the new direction, he will continue as vice president of the Council of State. It’s true that he won’t liven things up, but he will be guaranteed his foreign trips and the amenities that belonging to the Politburo confers. For now he’s not a threat to Raul Castro’s crusade.
With Machado something else is happening. The General wants to keep him close. Ramiro is the dangerous type. Because of his history and the influences created in his years as the Minister of the Interior and the head of special services.
The blows against the Canadian businessmen of Armenian origin, Sarkis Yacubian and Cy Tokmakjian, could be interpreted as a warning message to Ramiro.
It’s a match between two big-headed men. In my opinion, Raúl Castro and Ramiro Valdés are the most important and the most powerful men in Cuba of the 21st century. Some believe that the crusade against corruption is one of Raúl’s strategies to dethrone Valdés.
It seems to me that the upcoming party conference in January 2012 will be a reckoning. Only one of the two will remain.
Translated by Regina Anavy
September 18 2011
It’s a war of power against power. On one side, General Raúl Castro manages military counter-intelligence, pulls the strings in the major economic sectors of the nation and has consolidated his cabinet with loyalists as bullet proof as atomic bombs.
But behind the scenes, his adversaries look at him sideways. They are high-flying bureaucrats, local business managers, heads of large wholesale storehouses for food, textile and electronics waste, construction materials, and managers of tourist facilities.
This fat layer of bureaucrats has dedicated itself to creating a dense network of diversion and theft at the expense of state resources. They have created a parallel economy.
For many years, the envelopes with thick wads of cash and all types of gifts have landed happily in the pockets of certain senior party officials and dishonest government employees. The local bureaucracy has taken root in the bone marrow at almost all levels of society.
Like the marabú weed, it will be difficult for Raúl Castro to cut them off at the root. They are enemy number one. Forget about internal dissent; for the moment, it doesn’t count. It’s a fight against the demons that provoke these systems of command and control and the military economy.
There are tangible indications that at the first sign of change, the true opponents of Castro II will go on strike to pull the floor out from under him in order to slow the economic reforms.
See for yourself. According to the official press, in August the production of beans tripled over the past six months: 90,000 tons. This is no small thing. That figure is the amount of grain that is consumed annually on the island.
However, despite the high cost of black and red beans, which are sold in private markets at 12 and 15 pesos a pound (half-kilo), only 9% were for sale. The rest was bogged down in the warehouses.
Or they were distributed by the usual clandestine channels that permeate life in Cuba. And that work like a Swiss watch. It happens that beans are sold in the state market at 8 pesos.
The corrupt bureaucrats who control the supply chain prefer to hold onto them and sell them out the back door, to supply the black market or the private agro-markets. So they always have beans.
The marketing network is an unresovled matter for the Ministry of Agriculture. Tons of bananas, fruit or tomatoes rot after harvest, for lack of packaging or means of transport.
This leaves the door open to the czars and clans who control the food supply. Who for years have made money thanks to the inefficiency of the Ministry of Agriculture. To this add the absurd policies of the government, which stipulates that 80% of the agricultural production of private farmers must be sold to the state.
At laughable prices. So private farmers must cheat to keep more of their crop. Or they let their cattle and oxen graze on railroad tracks or the highway, to be killed by “accident.”
Cuban farmers own the livestock, but they cannot market or sell the meat. Only the state is allowed to do that.
The pricing policy is irritating. A kilo of onions costs one peso and 30 cents in the store. With one peso in Cuba you can only buy a newspaper, take a city bus, or get a cup of coffee.
Now many farmers steal from their own production. To sell in markets governed by supply and demand. There a pound of onions sells for 10 pesos.
It’s precisely in the collection centers, refrigerated storage and warehouses where the cartels and mafias operate at full throttle, enriching themselves and profiting from the food supply.
Right now Raúl Castro is someone they can’t stand, someone who is going to fuck up their business dealings. The only thing left is to fight him.
They use devious strategies. They don’t show their true feelings. Nor do they publicly complain about the government and its policies. They are kings of pretense. They know how to pull the strings.
To create obstacles they have a panoply of excuses. From lack of oil, transport, spare parts or a shortage of workers. They know how the system works better than anyone; they have lived off it for years.
The same thing is happening with construction materials. According to the official media, industry warehouses are over-stocked with cement, slabs, floor tiles and toilets.
However, despite being sold without subsidies in the municipal markets, people who try to repair or build a house always get “No” for an answer when they ask for certain materials.
Only low-quality materials are for sale. Or something else that is so expensive that many prefer to buy it on the black market or with hard currency, for a better rate. Remember that 60% of homes in Cuba are technically in fair or poor condition.
Therefore, construction materials are in demand and urgently needed to prevent roof collapses. General Raúl Castro wants the street stalls and agricultural markets to be saturated with products. So families can have a glass of milk.
And for the disappearance of so many absurd regulations for traveling or buying a car or a house. But his wishes and reforms go cautiously forward at a turtle’s pace.
As an adversary, he has a monolithic wall of corrupt people and bureaucrats who have joined ranks. There are two options: Either he will demolish them, or they will demolish him.
Translated by Regina Anavy
September 15 2011
The Spanish businessman Sebastián Martínez Ferraté, charged with corruption of minors, pimping and illegal economic activities, will be judged on Monday July 18 at the Provincial Court of Havana, whose official seat is located on Prado, Teniente and Rey. However, trials in the presence of diplomats and the media are usually held in the 10th of October Municipal Court, on Carmen and Juan Delgado.
On a ward of La Condesa, a special prison for foreigners on the outskirts of the capital. Martinez Ferraté has been waiting for a year for a trial whose verdict is known beforehand.
The prosecution requested 15 years’ imprisonment, maybe reduced to 10 or 5. But it is clear that they will have him pay the bill for having made, or contributing to making, in 2008, a documentary showing the full extent of prostitution, including child prostitution.
It also exposed the corruption existing around prostitution on the island. The documentary was shown on Tele Cinco, a private TV channel in Spain. It was a blockbuster.
And a blow to the Cuban authorities. So they began plotting their revenge. It is known that every year the US State Department places Cuba on the list of countries where child prostitution is practiced. Something that bothers the government a lot. And the Sebastián case served to send a message to the insolent foreign visitors who might dare to show the ugly face of the country.
The documentary might be new for those who support the Castros in Spain. But for a Cuban independent journalist it is more of the same.
What the audio-visual documents continues to happen in Cuba. Each day the prostitutes are younger and almost an industry of prostitution has been erected. I’m not saying the police stand around with their arms crossed, but for every prostitute, pimp or child molester put behind bars, four more appear.
Prostitution is a social phenomenon. Dragged down by poverty, lack of opportunity and the desire to emigrate, a legion of women sell themselves to tourists for two 20-dollar bills.
The government has never offered an estimate of the number of people enrolled in prostitution. But there are thousands. The public knows about the increase in prostitution and pimping, and they mention it under their breath.
What bothers the authorities is that the subject is being put on display by the mainstream media. And with child prostitution being a sensitive issue, the director of a hotel chain in Mallorca prepared a trap for Ferraté Martinez.
According to the writer Ángel Santiesteban in his blog, The Children that Nobody Wanted, through a Cuban “friend” related to Martinez, in July 2010, they had him come to Cuba believing that he would be making a documentary about the hotel business. No sooner did he arrive in Havana then he was arrested and put into jail.
The Spaniard sinned by naiveté. The Cuban government does not forgive certain “offenses.” They punish them. Harshly. Sebastian Martinez joined the list of guinea pigs that serve the Castro regime for negotiating future deals.
He will become a currency of exchange. Like the American Alan Gross or local dissidents. There are a range of options for exchanging Martinez. From a line of credit, asking the Spanish politicians to raise support for the unique position of the EU, up to silence and complicity with the regime in Havana.Or anything else. You can figure it out.
Translated by Regina Anavy
July 18 2011
Havana is a sort of forbidden city for people from deep inside Cuba. By Decree 217, effective April 22, 1997, residing in the country’s capital is a complicated pattern of bureaucratic procedures and hours of queues at central administration. You have to meet a lot of requirements to be approved to move to the city. It’s a mess.
Unless you’re from Guantánamo, Camaguey or Santiago, and you have some responsibility in a state enterprise or within the Communist Party. Then they open the gates of Havana. And the generous resources of the State or the Party will assure you a dwelling from its vast network of housing for those situations.
If your visit to the capital is temporary, they will put you in a three-star hotel with an open bar, to eat and drink in your spare time. Without spending a cent from your own pocket.
Companies that handle foreign currency such as tourism, civil aviation and telecommunications have homes available to house specialists, engineers or administrative staff from other provinces. Or quality hotel rooms that must be paid in hard currency. It is the only legal way to settle in Havana with the permission of the authorities.
The other is to stay a few days with relatives in the capital, visit the Zoo on Avenue 26, take photos across from the Capitol and visit Chinatown or the beaches of the East. And get the ticket back to the country.
Otherwise, they will open a file on you as an illegal. In pursuit of stopping the growing exodus of Cubans from the country’s interior, desperate because of the acute economic situation and lack of a future. For fourteen years there have been controls and regulations that prevent settling in Havana to those born outside its territory.
They are foreigners in their own homeland. With Decree 217, State institutions pretend to provide a solution to overcrowding in a city that already exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, with a fourth-world infrastructure and a cruel shortage of housing, water and public transport.
There was the paradox that while they tried to stop the terrifying wave, particularly of young people in the eastern regions, who fled their villages to try to live better, they built huts with pitched roofs of asbestos cement, where they housed the builders and the police candidates.
And habaneros don’t want to be cops. Nor do they want to work hard in the construction trades, with low pay and poor working conditions. Thus the government had no choice but to hire labor in the eastern provinces for a period of two to five years.
But the provincial people find a way to leave the plow and the land behind and show up in Havana. There are several reasons. The main one is that in spite of the severe economic crisis affecting Cuba for 22 years, it’s in the capital where money flows, and products and services cost more.
It’s also a good place for girls to take the train from Bayamo or Manatí and prostitute themselves in the streets and bars of the city. There are abundant domestic customers and tourists on the hunt for fresh meat that makes sex pay a good price.
Of course, the hookers from the east of the island are frowned upon by their counterparts in Havana. The prostitutes born in the city consider that the easterners or “Palestinians” as they say, have devalued the longstanding profession, by the low prices they charge. And they hate them.
The easterners who arrive in Havana illegally do everything. From pedaling a bicycle-taxi for 12 hours, to collecting scraps of aluminum or cardboard, selling shoddy textiles, pirated discs, detergents and perfumes on Monte Street.
Those who come to work hard are worthy of admiration and respect. Others, violent scoundrels, want to make money on the fast track. And they become Creole marijuana dealers. Or pimps who get off at the railway terminal with a harem of hookers, disoriented with the lights, and put them to work in dilapidated rooms, screwing for 5 dollars a half-hour.
From El Cobre or Manzanillo, gays and lesbians are also packing their bags, coming from villages where they are frowned upon and kept in the closet. Once in the capital, they quickly adjust to the dissipated nightlife. With high heels, transvestites attend the gay or lesbian parties, without the disapproving gaze of family and friends.
It often happens that sometimes the police are from the same province, but this does not affect them. They hunt and then ride the train back in the morning. In vain. Because the illegals, marginalized by their sexual orientation, manage to evade the police cordon and controls. And they return to Havana. It’s a matter of survival.
Translated by Regina Anavy
June 14 2011