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New Chapter in the Saga of the Snitches

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Just like 8 years ago. The ghosts of the Black Spring of 2003 seem to fly again over the skies of Havana. On a Cuban television program, the regime’s Special Services unveiled two of their moles inside the peaceful opposition.

These are the cases of the “independent journalist” Carlos Serpa Maceira and the “dissident” Moses Rodriguez. For 25 minutes, the two of them painted a pathetic picture of internal dissent and independent reporting on the island.

They accused several opposition leaders of being corrupt and serving the United States. Nothing new.  In addition to mediocrity and the small ability of the Cuban dissidence to call people together, Castro’s Secret Service has always penetrated various opposition groups to do its dirty work.

These episodes, which occur from time to time in Cuba, are far from being a brilliant spy operation. Dissident groups on the island work openly and publicly, and there is no need to be a spymaster to infiltrate any of their organizations.

It’s as simple as knocking on the door of any opposition party and saying that you want to join.  Already by the spring of 2003, it had come to light that various agents of the political police served as witnesses for the prosecution in the summary trials carried out against the 75 imprisoned dissidents.

Everyone who disagrees with the Castro government knows that in one way or another, they are being monitored by the toughs of State Security. They can listen in on your phone calls. Read your email. And they have complete dossiers on your personal life.

That’s not something that overly bothers the independent journalists, human rights activists, bloggers and dissidents. The striking thing about this, and what could be the real purpose of the message released by the regime in Havana that night, is to transmit fear and paranoia to the opposition.

These are difficult times for the regime. Excepting North Korea, China and Cuba, the tide is turning for nations governed by autocrats with many years on the throne.

Poor people, hungry for freedom and democracy have taken to the streets and squares in almost all the aged Middle Eastern governments. Despite the distance, the bullets are hitting near the island. No totalitarian government feels safe.

And as usual with the Castros, they are fleeing forward.  Well-informed,  the Cuban Special Services knows the majority of the population is disgusted with the critical economic performance and lacks confidence in their leaders.

The Castros are deflecting the blow, isolating the short circuits in the system.  And in these cases, dissent is always an opponent to be reckoned with. Therefore, they make a special emphasis to discredit it.

The soap opera of informers, and imputations against opposition leaders and prominent figures in the blogosphere and alternative journalism, will likely continue.

What is at issue, is whether these revelations of the moles are an isolated episode.  Maybe not.

It is not unusual that when internal problems worsen in Cuba, the Castros launch an onslaught of repression against all dissent. They have in their hands laws enacted to protect them. Especially now that they have emptied the jails of political prisoners.

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Translated by Rick Schwag

March 3 2011

Welcome, Mules

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Eliseo, 39, is considered a public benefactor. A guy who is always welcome. For a decade, this Cuban American has been a ‘mule’. He resides in Miami and makes some fifteen trips to the island every year. Sometimes more.

Right now, from his mobile phone, he calls his usual driver to pick him up at the entrance to the Jose Marti International Airport, south of Havana. He loads a bunch of bags and briefcases.

He will be in Havana for one day. His mission is to unload the 150 pounds of food, medicine, electronics, clothing, shoes and toys, among other things, in a house that he trusts, where later they will take charge of delivering them to their destinations.

Eliseo has set up a small business operating at full throttle, especially in the month of December. He charges $5 per pound of food or medicines, and $10 per pound of other items. To move certain goods controlled in Cuba, he discretely slips a hundred-dollar bill in the pockets of the customs authorities.

In Miami he also greases the palms of air terminal officials. When George W. Bush turned the screws on the embargo against Castro, Eliseo always wrangled it to bring products and sums of money that violated U.S. laws. “Now with Obama everything is easier.” The current occupant of the White House has taken steps to facilitate family relationships.

Since December 20, you can send up to 10 thousand dollars via Western Union. On top of that, residents of the island can collect it in convertible pesos. Facing the urgent need of the “imperialist enemy’s” greenback, the Cuban government eliminated the 10% duty on the dollar.

On October 25, 2004, an angered Fidel Castro, supposedly caught laundering 3.9 billion old dollars in the Swiss UBS bank — something prohibited by the embargo — he announced a 10% tax on the dollar during a television appearance. Starting on November 8 of that year, the only currency that circulated in Cuba was the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

Remittances from family members and the sending of goods by “mules,” in large part brace up the fragile and inefficient island economy. According to international organizations, through remittances alone the government allows some billions of dollars to enter the country every year.

Darío, a 52-year-old economist, thinks it could be double that. “There is a lot of money that isn’t accounted for. It’s a source that permits the investment of money free of the State’s nets. The government knows it and won’t lose sight of it. It’s probable that in months to come they’ll stimulate it even more.”

In Miami, dozens of agencies are dedicated to the shipment of packages and money to Cuba. Meanwhile, Cubans on the island ceaselessly ask their relatives for things from disposable toilet wipes and tennis shoes to laptops and plasma televisions.

If the embargo were to end, the interchange of merchandise and capital could exceed 5 billion dollars annually. And if the Havana regime would repeal absurd laws that prevent Cuban-Americans from investing in the country of their birth, the numbers could triple.

What’s certain is that the embargo hasn’t prevented families on the island from receiving money, by one means or another. Neither foodstuffs, medicines, nor other articles.

Eliseo assures us that he earns almost 2,000 dollars in profit each month. “If it’s the end of the year, a little more. In whatever way, despite the fact that I live off of this ‘business’, it satisfies me to see the people’s joy when they receive their packages, or while you count out a bundle of bills for them. But above all what sticks with me are the hopeful faces of children when you see them unpack toys and sweets.”

Moments like those make Eliseo feel like a tropical version of Santa Claus. The families on both shores appreciate him.

Translated by Rick Schwag with a little help from JT

Cubans Celebrate Christmas, In Their Way

December 23, 2010 4 comments

In Havana you will not see men dressed as Santa Claus, dressed in red, fat and friendly, handing out sweets to children at the entrance of shopping malls. In the rest of the island, you will not find a special Christmas atmosphere either.

The tourist hotels and the foreign exchange shops and cafes do displays trees with ornaments and wreaths.  Not so in the national currency establishments, which prefer to dismiss all this paraphernalia. In these service centers, gloomy and in need of paint, portraits of Fidel Castro usually hang, along with slogans of the Revolution.

If it is a neighborhood store, you might see a handwritten list, sometimes with spelling errors, reminding people who have not paid for the appliances, four years after the State distributed them, to replace the American refrigerators from the 50’s and the black and white televisions manufactured in the Soviet Union.

Although the city does not have a Christmas atmosphere, ordinary citizens prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve at home on December 24. Those who have family abroad or profitable black market businesses can afford to buy a pig and roast it in the backyard, sipping beer or some good aged rum.

For those for whom things were not so bad in 2010, at 12 pm on December 31, they can eat candies, apples and grapes, and make a toast with cider.  But most people wear out their shoes visiting the farmers’ markets in search of pork, black beans, yucca, tomatoes, lettuce …They will listen to salsa or reggaeton music at the highest volume, while drinking unbottled beer and lesser quality rum.

Those who live near a church usually attend a midnight Mass.  In their way, Cubans celebrate Christmas. It was not always so. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he slowly and intentionally threw aside one of the most deeply rooted traditions of Cuban families.

The final blow was given in 1970, when during the Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest, with the pretext that the festivities interrupted the work in the cane fields, he removed December 25th from the holiday calendar.  Those days off disappeared from the island by decree.

Because the triumph of the revolution coincided with January 1st, the first and second of January were declared to be days off.  Thank goodness. If the bearded ones had taken power in March or August, for sure, we would not celebrate the arrival of the new year.

The absence of Christmas from the Revolutionary calendar lasted 27 years. In 1997, in honor of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, Castro re-introduced December 25 as a national holiday. It is an official holiday, but the authorities do not feel motivated to create a Christmas atmosphere for the population. Although it is celebrated in private.

As a child, I went with my grandmother and my sister to the house of Blas Roca, an old communist now deceased and a relative on my mother’s side.  At that time, Roca was one of the heavyweights in the political hierarchy. I remember how my eyes opened, when I saw a whole pig roasting and a significant amount of other delicacies.

These were difficult years for almost all households, including ours. Because of a deadly swine fever, pig meat was a luxury. I do not know now, but then Castro trusted men like Blas Roca, and would give them giant baskets of fruit, candies, sweets and bottles of Spanish wine.

It was a time when people wore work shirts and plastic shoes. Beef was distributed according to the ration book. And very few dared to celebrate Christmas Eve, as forbidden as jazz and the Beatles.

Decades later, something has changed. True, Castro remains in power. The economy is adrift. Certain freedoms are denied. But today there is no fear that someone will make a report to “the appropriate authorities” for celebrating Christmas.

Obviously, one wants more.  And while celebrating with his family, hopes that in the coming year, good things will happen. Cubans still have not lost their optimism. Fortunately.

Translated by Rick Schwag

Promise Keepers

December 19, 2010 Leave a comment

They are already arriving and being noticed. Afternoon comes to Santiago de las Vegas, a town south of Havana, with low houses and dusty streets. The followers of Saint Lazarus move along the road, dressed in clothes made of jute bags and dragging huge stones.

A person with a bunch of leaves goes before them, making a gesture as if cleaning the road.  In a rough wooden cart, a good sized image of the saint of lepers. And a piggy bank for the curious to put small coins in.

They are the promise keepers.  People who feel they owe their life and happiness to the miraculous saint. Anecdotes abound. A fat lady does an act on the road. She has dragged herself from a neighborhood of Marianao to El Rincón, where the church dedicated to the worship of Saint Lazarus is found.

The woman walked over 15 kilometers. According to her, she was condemned to die from cancer.  She entrusted herself to “to the old Lazarus,” as he is known in Cuba, and the cancer disappeared.

From that moment, she promised that every December 16 she would crawl on her knees to offer her tribute to the saint. And today is the day. It is freezing.

During the week in that area, the thermometer fell to 44 degrees Fahrenheit. An unusual temperature in Cuba. If you add the high humidity, the wind chill is 33 degrees or less. But those who are fulfilling their promises are not stopped by cold or by distance. Ubaldo comes from Bayamo, a city over 500 miles from Havana.

On arriving, together with a few with relatives at the train station in the old part of town, he put together a great four-wheeled wagon. He placed a dazzling portrait of the saint inside. He put on a pair of short pants made out of a sack, and without a shirt, at the risk of catching pneumonia, began to drag himself towards el Rincón.

At times he stops and takes a big swig of cheap rum. People encourage him. One of his sons says the old man had suffered paralysis in his legs. The doctors assured him that he would never walk again. Ubaldo went to the parish of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba. There, as he made his pleas, a pious man commended him to Saint Lazarus. “In a few months my father could run.”

Since then, every year he makes the pilgrimage from Bayamo to el Rincón.  On the way to Saint Lazarus you always hear miracle stories. The atheists, who go out of curiosity or snobbishness, don’t believe all the legends heard in the journey. It is admirable to see so many people, many of them elderly, making a considerable physical effort to keep their promises.

Thousands of Cubans show up spontaneously for an appointment with St. Lazarus. They arrive in Santiago de Las Vegas, and along a narrow dark road about a mile long, they walk towards the temple.  Along the way they sell soup, a broth made with vegetables and pig’s head. Also corn tamales, bread with pork and hot chocolate.

The government does not interfere. Nor does it encourage. The official media do not publicize this. Nor invite the followers that attend the parish. Although it attempts to pretend otherwise, the State does not agree with the Church. Of course, it does reinforce public transport and schedules a train at three o’clock in the morning  to facilitate the return home.

It was not always like that. Romelio has been going to Rincón for thirty years. “At that time, we had to manage as best we could. The police were always on alert and watched us like dogs,” he says sitting on the tarmac after walking a long stretch on his knees.

As tradition dictates, the promise keepers rush to arrive before 12 pm in the sanctuary, to deposit their contributions and listen to the Mass. Outside, a concentration of pilgrims sing and warm themselves with mouthfuls of rum from a plastic bottle that is passed amongst them. Every time someone arrives crawling, they open a path, yell and cheer him on like a marathon runner reaching the finish line.

Sweating despite the cold, the promise keepers throw themselves on their backs almost breathless. No wonder. They have fulfilled their vow to Saint Lazarus.

Translated by Rick Schwag

December 19 2010

The Sinister Ones

December 17, 2010 1 comment

There is too much perversion in the world.  It is a feature of serial murderers, pedophiles and sexual deviants. Or of the ETA (Basque) terrorists and those irrational people who crashed two planes into the Twin Towers in New York on September 11.

But there are — and there have been — sinister governments.  In the name of whatever cause.  The most handy, from October 1917 until the present, has been imperialism, the bourgeoisie and the exploitation of man by man.

I’ve always wondered if Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu and Idi Amin, among others, already had macabre governing designs in mind when they began their careers as politicians.

I would like to think not.  That these were once dreamer types who wanted the best for their people. And maybe a mental condition, not yet studied in depth by the scientists, converted all of them into miserable satraps.

All these dictators have a common stamp. They speak in the name of the dispossessed and in the name of nationalism. They believe they have a redemptive mission to fulfill. They consider themselves to be enlightened. The Little Fathers of their countries.

Without exception, they are manipulators with an ego that is beyond reason. They do not tolerate disagreements. And it is just at that moment when sinister politicians pull the trigger, the tortures, concentration camps, summary trials and unsanitary prisons.

In the end, history chooses them as the best example of what not to do in the exercise of power. In the 21st century there are few who remain alive.

One of them is now a sick old man who writes his memoirs in a hurry. And in his raptures of lucidity, he still believes he has something to say to his people.  And he scribbles pathetic reflections about any event in the world, except that which he should write about: The complicated and uncertain future of his country.

I hope that all these caudillos, before they died, recognized that they were arrogant despots; that they made monumental errors, destroyed nations and were detested by millions.

Photo: Stalin, from the photographic archives of Life Magazine

Translated by ricote

Cubans on the Verge of an Anger Breakdown

December 8, 2010 1 comment

You can cut the social tension with a knife. You can see it at a glance. Let me tell you.  On a bus on the P-3 line, full of passengers, a skinny black man blew up, furious, and got into a heated brawl with a student. Just because he had been stepped on.

In addition to kicks and punches, each swing of the man’s huge machete, totally out of control, caused a fearful roar of the nearly 200 people who crammed the bus. People escaped through the windows to avoid being hurt.

A little later, two drivers of state vehicles came to blows in the street. The trigger was that one of them had abruptly made a dangerous turn and almost caused a collision. Those who were in the cars also took part in the street fight.

On the same night, a few guys, drunk to the gills, started a ‘war’ with stones, cold steel, and loud cursing, for no apparent reason, in a quiet neighborhood in the Diez de Octubre municipality. The residents, terrified, watched the brawl from their windows.

Too much violence for one day. As usual, the police arrived late. As if that were not enough violent incidents in various parts of Havana, reports came of others in different locations on the island. Some ended up in acts of protests against the regime. The most notorious example was in the city of Santa Clara. The spark that started the scuffle was not showing the awaited Barcelona-Real Madrid soccer match in a theater.

In Bayamo, famous because in 1868 many villagers set fire to their houses and properties before giving them up to the Spanish army, a group of drivers created a ruckus over what they considered unfair taxation.

A freelance journalist told me that in October, in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo alone, the number of cases of excessive violence was about 100, among family members, and in the worst kind of bars, nightclubs and slums.

A sociologist who was consulted explains that increases in social tension and discontent which have recently occurred on the island are caused by unemployment, lack of any future, and high taxes on self-employment. Previously, the government used to open the door to emigration to the U.S. when the social situation became ugly.

In 1963, 1980 and 1994 hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Florida to escape a hopeless life. But now the Castros know that they can not open the valve of the pressure cooker that is Cuba, triggering a massive wave of migration.

Senior Pentagon officials have said publicly they would consider this to be an act of war.  Therefore, the way to drain the high tensions of the beleaguered Cubans could be serious and profound political and economic reforms.

Meanwhile the sensible locals search for effective answers to the outbreaks of violence, the ordinary people who, for whatever reason, get into brawls.

This is a serious matter. A time bomb with incalculable consequences. Believe me, what’s to come is not exactly good news for the Castro brothers.

Photo: Roly63, Panoramio. Street Brawl in the Havana neighborhood of Cerro

Translated by ricote.
December 8 2010

The State and Me

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, I called different ministries of the economic sphere asking for facts and figures. In a humiliating manner they told me that these issues were not my concern. “Trust Fidel and Raul, they always do the best for the country,” replied a technocrat in a lecturing tone.

I was born in 1965 and since I learned to read, all the textbooks contained the worn Marxist slogan, that the people were the true and sole owner of the property and means of production.

That made me feel like an important child. When I was a high school student, I naively thought that I was entitled to seek information on the economy and finances of my country. It was all a scam. As an adult, I realized that in a Marxist socialist society, the state’s role is similar to that of a 18-century feudal lord.

To me, democracy means that leaders are elected and removed by the votes of their citizens. And a president, parliamentarian or minister must do his public work as  transparently as possible, and is obliged to render accounts.

In “proletarian dictatorships” like Cuba, this is not the case. The leaders are above good and evil. They are a kind of deity.  They report half. Hide numbers. Tweak the tally. Or do not inform us about anything.

If a guy, supposedly brighter than an entire nation, is considered superior to the rest of its citizens, and believes it is possible to design a new economic and social model, outlandish and better than any other known, and once in power thinks that he individually can meet the needs of the people, would it not be easier to proclaim a monarchy and rule the destiny of a nation forever and ever?

In Cuba, because the State is the owner of all industries and assets of the country, it ruinously imposes taxes and heavy burdens on money, property, and consumption.  Without explanation.

I’ll give examples. First, they raise prices for high-demand products such as oil, soap and gasoline, without consulting the population. “Damn, I’m the owner of the farm,” they think.  Thus, pondering like ordinary landowners and without blushing, they impose a consumption tax on items that the State considers luxuries.

“These economic illiterates do not understand my strategy,” they contemplate. Now, in the case of new taxes on self-employment, they can be up to 40%. They have arbitrarily decided, arguing that this will improve the performance of the state bureaucracy and streamline its colossal expenses.

It has been demonstrated. The Cuban State is highly inefficient. It fails to generate profits. And in pursuit of maintaining certain social achievements, it puts the enterprising people who create wealth between the hammer and the anvil. It punishes them for their talent.

Politicians rule the world. They are a necessary evil. But it should be clear that they owe their people, and not vice-versa. And I remember what this bureaucrat told me, that I must trust in Fidel and Raul.

I’d rather go the wall on that.  Demand that they not conceal figures or financial budgets. Otherwise, I can not believe in the good intentions of the Castro brothers. And that is what is happening. Starting long ago.


Translated by ricote

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