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Havana Hustling / Ivan Garcia

February 25, 2014 2 comments

oficios-de-buscavidas-620x330This time the phone call came in the middle of the night and the message was grim.

Edania, a retired teacher who has set up a small business of making phone calls and taking messages for the neighborhood, hurried to give the bad news to a family that lives two doors down from her house, in the rundown neighborhood of La Cuevita in San Miguel del Padrón, in the northern part of Havana.

“The thing is taking off like wildfire,” says Edania. “The retired people can’t afford it, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that I’m one of the few people with a phone in the neighborhood. I started charging one Cuban peso to pass on messages and two pesos for local calls in Havana. If the call is outside the city, I charge 3  pesos per minute. Many people are providing this service, which is one of the officially recognized self-employment businesses, but I have no intention signing up at the tax office. I only get 150 or 200 Cuban pesos per month [$6-8 USD], which barely supplements my meager pension. I don’t charge for funeral news.”

In the interior of the island as well as in the capital it has become common for neighbors who have telephones to charge for calls. Richard, a retired resident of the Diez de Octubre district of Havana, has a small money box next to his phone with a list of the various call charges.

“I also sell mobile phone cards. I buy them for 10 CUCs [about $11 USD] and sell them for 11; the ones that cost 5 I resell for 6. But apparently someone in the neighborhood has been talking, because the state inspectors have visited me, demanding that I legalize the business. I told them to go to government offices and demand better pensions for the old people, and then come back and see me,” says Richard.

After the vaunted economic reforms in Cuba—an exotic blend of wildly exploitative state capitalism mixed with Marxist speeches and slogans by Fidel Castro—a torrent of quirky trades flooded the Havana neighborhoods.

The elderly are the losers in this wild mixture of everything from sidewalk pastry vendors to high-quality eateries. In the world of self-employment, everything is available.

From people who offer pirated DVDs of Oscar-nominated movies for 25 Cuban pesos, to elderly public-restroom attendants.

In this spectrum of emerging trades, you find “experts” in umbrella repair, button-covering, funeral cosmetology, matchbox-refilling, and shoe repair. For 50 Cuban pesos they’ll carry buckets of water and fill your 60-gallon tank.

Havana is a tropical bazaar. A hive of hustlers. On the avenue that encircles the old port of Havana, a diverse group of citizens converges to try to earn a living.

Right next to Maestranza children’s playground, Delia, decked out in a floral costume, works as an itinerant fortune teller. “I charge ten Cuban pesos for each card-reading. If you want an in-depth session then the price goes up to 25. It’s even more expensive for foreigners, who can afford more.”

Several tourist buses stop at Avenida del Puerto. As the visitors take photos of the Bay and the Christ of Casablanca statue, street musicians sing old boleros and guarachas, trying to attract their attention.

Leonel is one of them. “For 20 years I’ve devoted myself to making soup (singing while the customers ate). There have been good and bad days. But I’ve always made more than the wages the state paid. When no one in Cuba remembered Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, or Pio Leyva, God rest their souls, they also had to work as lunchtime entertainers, and to sing in seedy bars. They were lucky that a producer like Ry Cooder lifted them out of poverty,” Leonel said, playing a ranchera as he approached some Mexican tourists, hoping to pass the hat.

A dilapidated port-a-potty, serving as a urinal for the customers of three bayfront bars, is looked after by two rickety old men.

They charge one peso to urinate, three to defecate. “It’s because the toilet is clogged. We have to carry a greater quantity of water,” they say. They get the water for flushing right out of the bay, with a can tied to a rope.

“It’s hard work. We’re here up to twelve hours. But when I get home with 10 or 15 CUCs, I ask the Lord to give me strength to live a few more years so I can help my wife, who’s bedridden after a stroke,” says one of the old men.

The buses are now gone. A quartet of street musicians, all elderly, lean against the sea wall, waiting for new tourists.

“It’s been a long journey to return to the beginning. Before the Revolution I was already a soup peddler. For me nothing has changed. Except that life is more expensive and I’m older,” says the singer and guitarist. His dream is that on some tourist bus, a guy like Ry Cooder will come and rescue him from oblivion.

Iván García

Photo: In central areas of Santiago de Cuba, which like Old Havana are usually frequented by tourists, musicians also look for a living in streets and parks. Taken from Martí News.

Translated by Tomás A.

17 February 2014

Cuba Professionalizes Sports / Ivan Garcia

October 4, 2013 Leave a comment

deporte-cuba-620x330Now we know why the national baseball season didn’t start in October. The delay was not due to the rains, as reported by the sports authorities.

The plot was different. Technocrats and political mandarins put the finishing touches on a project that would allow better wages for athletes. The new rules will apply starting November 3rd, when the winter baseball season begins.

It was imperative to change the concepts governing sports in Cuba. After Fidel Castro abolished professional sports in 1961, a pyramid of schools and training centers was created to fashion high-performance athletes.

Funded by a deposit of rubles, material resources, and coaches from the now-vanished USSR and other Eastern European nations, the sports movement in Cuba experienced a spectacular increase in quality.

The island was always a pool of talent in baseball and boxing. But after 1959, sports that were exotic to Cuban fans, such as water polo, handball, Greco-Roman wrestling, or judo - thanks to coaches who arrived from the cold or from the thug state of North Korea - made it possible for Cuba to win Olympic, PanAmerican, and World medals in those disciplines.

Others like basketball or volleyball, greatly accepted in the university and school setting, took off dramatically. Like the litter of communist countries with the USSR at the head, Cuba used sport as a showcase trying to prove the superiority of the Marxist-Leninist system over modern Western capitalism.

There were plenty of champions. They came in series, like sausages, from the sports schools. Beef was missing and misery was socialized, but the average Cuban was proud of their achievements in sports.

They labeled the entire feat with the term “amateurs.” Something that was false. By amateurs only they had a salary. They played, trained, and competed throughout the year just as their professional counterparts.

But they earned workers’ wages. With the arrival in 1990 of the “special period,” a static economic crisis lasting 23 years, sports took a nose dive. The propaganda bubble burst, in which Fidel Castro saw the athletes as warriors and the competitions as battlefields.

Low wages – an athlete earned a salary according to his or her profession – was the key to nearly a thousand athletes leaving their homeland, from 1991 to now.

To this was added the stupid policies that prohibited athletes from playing on professional teams and managing their finances without official authorization. The six-figure salaries that some Cuban ball players earn in the Major Leagues was and remains an incentive for young talents who want to try their luck in the best baseball in the world.

The bleeding had to be stopped. The new regulations can certainly reduce the desertions in sports like volleyball and others, where the main circuits are in Europe and are not affected by the laws of the U.S. embargo, and the athletes don’t have to defect from Cuba in order to compete.

But it remains to be seen whether the signing of athletes will be handled by a representative designated by the player or by the state enterprise Cubadeportes, charging very high fees.

Either way, it is a leap forward. A first step. A positive one, if we see that 70% of elite athletes live in poverty.

It is good that a player earns a salary in line with the cost of living in Cuba. They contribute to the major national entertainment for five months of the year. Doctors, teachers, and other professionals, should be similarly compensated, but that’s another story.

The new regulations do not say how training conditions will be improved, stadiums will be repaired, or athletes will be provided with a balanced diet.

Neither do they explain how the whole new salary framework of the National Series will be funded. Will they create companies that see the sport as a business or will the state continue to subsidize the sport?

It is already a fact that the regime of General Raul Castro has buried a hundred meters underground the “amateur sports” falsehood. It was logical. It constituted a burden on the impoverished local economy.

These new measures also send a message to the magnates of the Major Leagues in the United States: Cuba wants to participate in the Big Show. They have now opened the gate.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from Martí Noticias

Translated by Tomás A.

1 October 2013

Cuban Sport Fades Away / Ivan Garcia

September 23, 2013 1 comment

cubag-620x330
The defection of Cuban athletes is no longer news. And gone are the front-page headlines announcing epic victories and world championships.

The state coffers are empty. The sports schools no longer turn out strings of champions like sausages. In the last Olympic Games in London 2012, we finished in 16th place.

Underline that result. It is likely that from now on the performance will get worse. The problem is not that the population has become sedentary or obese. Or that Cubans have given up their love of sports.

No. What has happened is a quiet revolution within the sports movement in Cuba. Athletes have become tired of being handled like puppets for the regime’s propaganda.

They also want to earn lavish salaries like their peers in the world, to be free to sign with any major team, and to manage their earnings without state interference.

So they leave Cuba. And will continue leaving: baseball players, boxers, volleyballers, track and field athletes, and competitors from other disciplines.

The government of General Raúl Castro does not want to open the gate. From now on, it is the State that designates who will compete in a foreign league, and how much money they should be paid.

The olive green mandarins have again miscalculated. They are trying to design a structure similar to that of Cuban contractors abroad — to manage contracts and pocket the lion’s share. Like doctors and civilian advisers, athletes will be a commodity. A way to bring dollars into the government’s deflated accounts.

They have forgotten Fidel Castro’s once fierce speech against professionalism. Rent-an-athlete is now welcome, as long as the athlete is as meek as a sheep.

But times are different. Olympic champion Dayron Robles has gotten tired of being manipulated by remote control. Robles has charted a new course: that of the independent athlete. He has the intransigent national sports directors against the ropes.

Taking advantage of loopholes in the January 13 immigration reform, Dayron intends to compete freely in the Diamond League, without having to defect from his homeland or give up competing in future international tournaments under the Cuban flag.

The Cuban authorities are unwilling to accept his decision or negotiate a way out. Dayron Robles will mark a turning point in the Cuban sports movement.

The authorities are at a crossroads. If they yield to him, they could set a bad precedent, and in the short-term lose control of the salaries of athletes allowed to compete in foreign leagues.

That’s the key. The regime knows that it can bring in several hundred million dollars annually by hiring out athletes. The ideal would be to levy a reasonable tax on wages for athletes competing on foreign clubs. And allow athletes to manage as they see fit the money they earn with their sweat and talent.

It would be good for both sides. No one would be forced to leave Cuba. But in an autocracy, reasonableness is a bad word. The government’s intransigent position led to this quagmire.

Due to wrong policies, about a thousand athletes have been forced to defect. Athletes on the island are not unaware of the success of Yasser Puig, Yoennis Céspedes and Osmany Juantorena, among many others.

They also want to compete with the best and earn wages commensurate with their athletic caliber. In their country they earn the salaries of laborers. Few can start a restaurant when they retire, like Mireya Luis, Raúl Diago, or Javier Sotomayor.

They only have two choices: become coaches or political commissioners in the style of the sinister Alberto Juantorena. The downward spiral of Cuban sport is attributable to the stubbornness of the regime, which seeks to control sports contracts from a desk and only with its consent.

Already in the last Olympics Cuba was not represented in team sports. The performance of the men’s volleyball team in the World League, with one win and seven defeats, is the price paid for this intolerance.

Every year sports stars leave. The fans cheer. But there are other avenues to explore. The country does not belong to the Castros. It is everyone’s. Each of us born on this island must reclaim what we consider our inalienable rights.

It is a hard choice. The scribes of the official press defame those athletes who freely decide to separate from the Cuban sports movement. The IOC and the international federations can and should mediate the dispute.

Athletes like Robles are entitled not to be slaves. Congratulations to Dayron.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from Últimas Noticias, Venezuela.

Translated by Tomás A.

12 September 2013

The Day After Fidel Castro / Ivan Garcia

August 15, 2013 1 comment

Libro-Fidel-Castro-620x330Never has the life or death of one man awakened such dissimilar expectations. Fidel Castro, who turns 87 on August 13, has been given up for dead so many times that when death does come for him, many will believe it’s a joke.

Castro, aware of the countless times he has cheated death, has woven a legend around himself. After the 1953 assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, several newspapers of the time published the news of his demise.

The military escapade of trying to take a military fortress with a troop of inexperienced amateur soldiers armed with dove-hunting rifles ended, of course, in a complete rout.

Most of the young assailants were killed in battle or executed by the repressive forces of the Fulgencio Batista regime. In those days, the life of Fidel Castro wasn’t worth much.

But the 26-year-old lawyer, born 500 miles east of Havana on a farm in the Birán region of Holguin, managed to avoid being executed by a bullet to the head thanks to Lieutenant Sarria, a Republican Army officer who saved his life.

Then in prison, according to the official history, they tried to poison him.

When on December 2, 1956 he landed with an army of 82 men on the beach at Las Coloradas, a rugged area infested by swamps, Batista’s Air Force, which was aware of the landing site in advance, made target practice of the bewildered guerrillas.

Everyone gave Fidel Castro up for dead. They were so sure of his death that the troops shut down their actions against the guerrilla. Once again the “subversive one” had escaped death.

You already know the story. He regrouped with the survivors of his band, and with the help of peasant farmers, the inefficiency of the army, and collections of money and weapons from political parties opposed to Batista, he managed to seize power in January 1959.

Two years earlier, in the Sierra Maestra, he escaped by a complete miracle. His right-hand man, who slept 15 feet from his hammock, was an Army plant. But the guy lacked the guts to kill him, as had been planned. The “traitor” was caught by the guerrillas and executed.

Once in power, he was left unscathed by various attempts conceived by former comrades-in-arms, a German lover, the CIA, and anti-Castro exiles. He exaggerates this. He says the U.S. special services tried to kill him more than 600 times.

Castro and the official media aggrandize everything, from production statistics to attacks on his life. What is documented is that at least twelve times the CIA and opposition groups planned to kill him.

On a visit to Chile in 1973, an anti-Castro commando was about to execute him. A gun fastened to a television camera was pointed at his head. But without a safe path of escape, the organizers decided to abort the attempt.

On Monday, July 31, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, his personal secretary, announced that due to serious health problems Fidel had delegated power to his brother Raul, the government began to prepare his funeral ceremony, and on a massive mountain in the Sierra Maestra they urgently built a monumental tomb.

From that date, the international press has had his obituaries at the ready. A foreign reporter told me that his agency had sent him to Havana for the sole purpose of reporting the day of death of the leader of the revolution.

Until then, he was asked to maintain a low profile while waiting for the big news. He has now lost count of the number of times Castro has been “killed” in Florida.

Seven years after Fidel Castro’s retirement for health reasons, Cubans barely speak of the former president. No one on the street takes seriously what he says or writes. He’s like a grandfather with dementia who in his lucid moments likes to tell tales of his epic exploits.

After arriving in “death’s waiting room,” as he confided to a journalist from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, he has dedicated himself to: prophesying the end of the world after a nuclear war; alerting the world to an alleged conspiracy by the Bilderberg Club; and investigating the moringa, a plant that, in his opinion, “could save the starving Third World.”

To this day, on television roundtables and news reports, any crazy pronouncement by the Commander-in-Chief is read in a serious tone. Today, more than ever, you can see in the state media his cult of personality.

In celebration of his birthday, songfests, sports marathons, and book releases are anticipated. But due to the daily grind of hardship without letup, a broad segment of the public does not have pleasant feelings toward its former top leader.

They blame him for the delays, the shortages, and the precarious standard of living in the country today. They see him as a distant ship sailing toward the horizon. Few ask anymore what it will be like the day after his death.

And the direction taken by the General suggests that the legacy of his brother will endure after his physical disappearance. Predictions about the future of Cuba are bleak.

For many on the island, at a time when the developed world remains embroiled in a financial and political crisis with no end in sight, the desired democratic change seems unlikely.

All they can see in the picture is more Castroism. Without Fidel Castro.

Iván García

Photo: Fidel Castro during the presentation of the book Warrior of Time, by Cuban journalist Katiuska Blanco, in February 2012. Taken from El Nuevo Diario de Nicaragua.

Translated by Tomás A.

13 August 2013

Agent 007 Is Running Out of Time

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Chilean businessman Joel Max Marambio Rodríguez faces a deadline of August 23rd to appear before the Inspector from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Miguel Estrada Portales. If he does not appear before the time runs, the criminal proceedings initiated against him could proceed to a final judgment of guilt.

How does an intimate friend and protegé of the elder Castro reach this point, managing the business of a holding company that moves more than 100 million dollars a year? Why would a friend of the revolution for more than 40 years become its adversary?

There are still many unanswered questions, some of which will be answered in the course of the trial, where the Chilean businessman will apparently be tried in absentia and evidently he holds the key to the box of secrets. Marambio, age 63, a former bodyguard of ousted President Salvador Allende and former friend of Fidel Castro, is accused by the Cuban government of the crimes of bribery, acts detrimental to economic activity or employment, embezzlement, falsification of banking and commerce documents, and fraud.

The businessman, owner of International Network Group (ING), was a partner of the Cuban state in the joint venture “Río Zaza Foods,” specializing in the production of juices, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages for the Cuban market and abroad. In late 2009, the Auditor General, a state body subordinate to the State Council, chaired by Army General Raul Castro, began investigating the leftist entrepreneur’s businesses on the island.

Unofficially, he was linked to a corruption scandal involving the deposed director of the Institute of Civil Aeronautics of Cuba (IACC) and Major General Rogelio Acevedo.. Max Marambio and his brother Marcel, were also partners of the IACC in the Sol y Son tourist agency. Several directors of the company were arrested, accused of paying kickbacks, misappropriating funds, and diverting resources abroad. Lucy Leal, executive director of ING, was arrested and is being investigated.

Authorities have not officially said anything about the scandal. In April, however, they acknowledged that Marambio’s companies were under investigation, when one of the managers of Rio Zaza Foods, the Chilean Roberto Baudrand, age 59, under house arrest and being subjected to interrogation, was found dead in his apartment. The Cuban autopsy, accepted by the family of the deceased, said the cause of death was respiratory failure combined with the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Marambio, known in Cuba as “The Guaton” (the fat man) was summoned and questioned by Inspector Estrada Portales, in late April and early August. The officer is in charge of the investigation. The summonses were published by means of two MININT notices in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba, the agency that discloses the laws and governmental acts on the island. To date, he has not appeared.

The Summons was issued on July 19. In it, the MININT inspector summoned the Chilean businessman to appear before him on the 29th, warning him that if he did not appear on the date indicated, an indictment would be issued on August 3. Officer Estrada Portales ordered the police agencies and State Security to search for, apprehend, and present Marambio within 20 days.

The summons expires on August 23rd. If the deadline passes without his appearance or presentation, he will be declared in default. In the case of crimes against the fundamental political or economic interests of the nation, the Cuban judicial system provides that proceedings against a defendant declared in default can proceed to a final decision.

The judicial system in Cuba offers few safeguards for defendants. The criminal case against him is in the preparatory phase, when pretrial proceedings are conducted. If Marambio returns to the island he is most likely to end up in jail, as a precautionary measure to secure his appearance. Until then, he cannot appoint a legal representative for his defense.

Everything seems to indicate that the legal route will be the means of settling accounts. The publication of the summons and indictment in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba is a formal requirement. The island’s government does not intend to pursue the businessman internationally.

The aim is to declare him in default and try him in absentia. In that case, he could appoint a lawyer. He could also appear at any time and revoke the declaration. He could even void the final judgment against him and be heard in a new trial. Marambio could be a time bomb for the Castro brothers. For what he knows and for what he has been quiet about. We suspect he will not return.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

While Waiting for Raúl Castro’s Speech . . .

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment


San Rafael Boulevard was swarming with pedestrians on Wednesday, July 7. Braving insufferable heat and humidity, an old newspaper vendor, his face unshaven, his clothes patched, loudly announced the news of the moment.

“Learn about the release of the political prisoners,” the old man shouted, while a line of fifteen or sixteen people bought the official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde.

“That day I set a personal sales record.  I sold 340 newspapers; usually I don’t sell more than 80,” recalled the sidewalk news hawker. Two weeks later, news of the release of the dissidents is still being discussed.

Although the official media reported only a brief note, the ordinary people in those places of regular dialogue between Cubans – neighborhood corners, parks, workplaces, and taxicabs – continue to make comments, guesses and predictions about what might happen after the release of the political prisoners.

The best informed are those who pay 10 convertible pesos for an illegal cable antenna. And as is the norm in Cuba, they then activate “Radio Bemba,” a peculiar way of transmitting news by word of mouth, which usually functions best in closed societies.

In an antiquated jeep with eight seats, converted into a private taxi, a young man who identifies himself as Alberto, confesses to being connected to the cable channels. “Yes, I am informed,” he says, and starts telling about the freed dissidents. The passengers listen attentively. Alberto relates how the 11 political opponents who had arrived in Madrid spent their first few hours of freedom.

“They were going to be spread throughout different cities in Spain, some in Valencia, others in Málaga. One of them, named Normando, is not satisfied with the treatment received from the Spanish authorities, and believes that they are being treated like African immigrants. These Spaniards are for shit. When they emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the last century, here we treated them like royalty,” said Alberto, unleashing a wave of opinions.

A middle-aged woman thinks that the dissidents went wrong. “I am a state official and I have traveled the world. The life of emigrants is difficult in any country. They’ll have to work hard if they are to thrive, because Spain also is in deep economic crisis. If they were such patriots they should have stayed in their country.”

Some respond in raised voices. Passions run high. On the island, these freed dissidents were completely unknown. The average Cuban, who has only coffee for breakfast and a hot meal once a day, often admires the Damas de Blanco and the value of the dissidents. “They say out loud what we don’t have the courage to say,” says one student.

But so much bad propaganda by the regime has had an impact in a certain sector of the population, which sees dissenters as part of the street-wise who have turned their differences with the regime into a cottage industry.

In a quick survey of 29 people – family members, friends, and neighbors, of both sexes, aged between 19 and 67, and different political affiliations – 26 welcome the release of the political prisoners from incarceration.

“It’s a positive sign, it could be the beginning of a new stage, where finally disagreements are decriminalized,” argues Robert, an engineer.

The news of the releases have had an unexpected competition, with the repeated appearance of Fidel Castro in public life. Since July 31, 2006, when he made his exit and was about to die, Castro I had been forgotten.

Few people read his routine “Reflections” in the press, where he addressed international political issues, and avoided the difficult economic, political, and social situation in the country.

Cubans have followed his appearances carefully. “He keeps on talking nonsense and prophesying misfortune, but he looks good physically,” says Armando, a cook.

His supporters are where he left them. “With the appearance of the Comandante things will get back to normal. The people follow him more than Raúl. Internationally, Fidel is a meaningful spokesman. With him we’ll put the crisis behind us and take a leap forward,” exults Luis, a retired military veteran.

On the street some doubt his mental capacities. “Yes, he looks in good health, but we don’t give a damn about the war in Iran. I think the old man has lost his marbles,” said César, who is unemployed.

In the middle of African heat, summer vacations, and the typical lack of material, either one of these news stories – the release of the political prisoners or the reappearance of the Comandante – would have aroused interest by itself.

Now, most expect that on July 26 in Santa Clara, in commemoration of the assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, General Raul Castro will launch a series of measures anticipated by the public, including repeal of permits to travel abroad, the possibility of buying cars and houses, and expanded self-employment.

Things do not look good in the lives of Cubans. To clean up the inefficient local economy, hundreds of thousands of workers have begun to be fired. Raul Castro could be the messenger of good tidings. Or bad.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Ricardo’s Smile

May 30, 2010 1 comment

It was an ordeal to go from La Vibora, my neighborhood, to Miramar, where Ricardo González Alfonso lived. There were only two options: catch Route 69, which could take two or three hours. Or the 100, with more buses, but with many more passengers, for its extensive run.

The 69 stops near Ricardo’s house. But if you took the 100 you had to get off at the Comodoro hotel stop and walk several blocks, in the sunshine or the rain. When you arrived, Ricardo would greet you with a smile. Even if he had just received a subpoena from State Security.

Once inside his ramshackle home, he would offer you a glass of cold water, from his even more dilapidated refrigerator. And tea from a plastic thermos, because he couldn’t be brewing coffee at all hours in the old coffee maker. Sometimes he served tea in a plastic cup, which he didn’t throw out: he rinsed it and returned it to use. But typically he would offer it to you in a glass jar, from when they sold Russian jam in Cuba, and which are still used as “cups” for tea or coffee in many homes.

Ricardo was one of the first to be hauled in on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18, 2003. An operation with olive-green uniforms, similar to what was carried out against other dissidents. In the crosshairs of the repression there were more than a hundred dissidents and independent journalists, but in the red dot of the gunsight was Ricardo González Alfonso.

Not because of his good character. And not because, practically by himself, with very little help, he brought to fruition an idea of Raúl Rivero: founding the Márquez Sterling Journalists Society, a purely professional association.

Ricardo was also able to assemble and print two issues of the magazine De Cuba, the only two that State Security allowed to circulate (Claudia Márquez managed to do a third in September 2003, with the help of Vladimiro Roca and Tania Quintero, among a few others who risked it in those dark days).

Ricardo did all that without ceasing to smile. But above all, without ceasing: to issue denunciations and write stories and poems; to serve visitors – from other provinces or other countries; to give interviews to the international media; to organize journalism workshops in his home; and to act as a correspondent for Reporters Without Borders in Cuba .

When Ricardo was arrested, at his home were his two sons, Daniel and David, then just boys, today young men. Two of the things he loves most in this world. Also left behind was Alida Viso Bello, an independent journalist like himself and his partner in life.

Hopefully among those to be released as a result of those negotiations between the government of Raul Castro and the Cuban Catholic Church will be my friend Ricardo González Alfonso, who has turned 60, and his health, as with nearly all political prisoners, is quite impaired. Not so his perennial smile.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

The Special Period Returns

May 17, 2010 Leave a comment

If we Cubans thought that our hardships and shortages of all kinds had hit bottom, forget it. It is the twentieth anniversary of the most severe and extensive economic crisis that the island suffered in all its history. Those were hard years. Very hard.

It is still fresh in my memory. Blackouts of up to 16 hours. Undernourished people with tattered clothes, lining up at cafes to drink a vile brew made from orange and grapefruit peels. My mother, how could I forget, thinned down greatly, lost some teeth, and had to sell her most precious treasure — a fabulous collection of Brazilian music — for only $40, so she could shop for some food.

In 1989 in Cuba a violent decline in people’s daily lives had begun. Not that we had lived well. No. We were deprived of all kinds of essential freedoms, and we were third-class citizens in our own country.

But we had a relatively efficient health system, and the ration card had a bit more variety. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the door was closed to Fidel Castro for oil and Soviet rubles. Then we entered the age of indigence.

The economy shrank by 35 percent, and Castro clung even tighter to power, in the style of Kim Il Sung. Faced with the prospect of people dropping like flies in public view, he made lukewarm reforms. He legalized the currency of his enemy, the United States, and allowed some work to be opened to self-employment.

That was the lifesaver, because Havana is not Pyongyang. Everything good that happened to us in those years came at the hand of dollars or foreign capital investment. Then the government of the Castro brothers, amid fears that economic reforms could cost them the presidential chair, put on all kinds of brakes.

Foreign companies have declined to a minimum. And just as we’ve marked two decades since the dire national situation, the world is brought down by a deep economic crisis. No one has been spared. In order not to cause panic, the official media have started a mild campaign about how much the global crisis has affected us.

Already several nickel companies have closed, because of the depressed price of that metal on the world market. Those affected talk of the fall in tobacco exports and how few tourists are coming to the island. Obviously, these are not times for vacationing.

The solution, as always, is to ask for more sacrifice — and still more — from the exhausted Cuban population. Another turn of the screw. There is no mention that the culprit is the monumental economic inefficiency of a system that runs counter to human nature. Nor is there talk of allowing Cubans to set up small and medium-sized businesses.

They are entrenched in their far-fetched theories of sovereignty and two-bit nationalism. And of course we ordinary Cubans are to blame for the disaster, we who are asked to cut back, not to think about the future and, instead, “to be loyal to the supreme leader.”

According to an economist, there is so little money in the state coffers that “about two hundred thousand barrels of the oil that Venezuela sells us at preferential prices are being resold on the world market, because of the lack of liquidity.”

It is the height of folly. It’s like being hungry and selling food. Under the state of affairs emerging on the Island, this summer the majority of citizens will have to punch a new hole in the already tight belt. Another one.

Iván García

Photo: almamagazine, Flickr.

Translated by: Tomás A.

An Act of Repudiation from Within

April 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The sun beats down hard on the grey and white building located on Aguila street at the corner of Dragones, next to Chinatown in Havana. On that piece of real estate which was long ago given up by the Cuban Telephone Company, are the offices of ETESCA, the Empresa Cubana de Telecomunicaciones (the Cuban Telecommunications Company).

On his morning walk (a brief revolutionary act), the section leader chooses a group of workers to take part in the siege on Laura Pollan’s house next Saturday.  She is one of the key members of the Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), who this spring of 2010 have aroused fear and loathing within the agents of the government.

The marches by the Damas, who demand freedom for their imprisoned loved ones, has driven the regime of the Castro brothers to mount a permanent operation in front of Pollan’s house.

To deter the Damas, they use shock troops made up of employees from the stores and workplaces located near Laura Pollan’s house at 963 Neptuno, between Aramburu and Hospital, in Central Havana.

The story I am about to tell you happened two weeks ago.  A group of workers from ETESCA, almost all of them youth or communist party militants, were chosen to prevent the Ladies in White from leaving Pollan’s house.

In order to get out of having to participate, some of the women in the group claimed that they were sick or had family problems.  They just wanted to evade the issue.  But they are people who are prepared, with access to the Internet or illegal cable antennas in their homes.

They have seen what happens.  The offenses and the violence.  The boss gets strict:  “You all represent the organizations of the Party and the youth at the core, this isn’t a favor we are asking of you, it’s an order.”

They go without really wanting to.  For Lucrecia, a young woman recently graduated in telecommunications engineering, its an adventure of sorts.  She’ll see for the first time the “mercenaries” who make the news that she stealthily reads on the Internet.

The people who have been chosen for this task walk to Pollan’s house with feelings of anxiety.  If there’s a row, they won’t know what to do.  Rosario has never hit anyone in her life.  Much less women who demand freedom for their husbands, sons or brothers.  “If a family member of mine were being held prisoner, I would do the same thing they are doing,” she confesses.

More than hatred, they feel a certain admiration.  Some of them, the most uninformed, say that the Ladies in White are paid 20 dollars for each march.  “If that’s the way it is, some day I’ll join them,” says Elena smiling.

A dark-haired obese female, reminiscent of a Sumo Wrestler, leads the women. “She looked like a thug, with thick features, and never smiled,” remembers Lucrecia.

Other women who work in the neighborhood gather around the female employees of ETECSA.  Not a single man is around.  “What happens if there is a fight?” asks a girl.  The female soldier dressed in civilian clothing responds: “That’s our problem.” Referring to the security forces.

They are there for twelve hours sitting around the fence in front of Laura Pollan’s house.  Soldiers dressed as civilians moving about on Suzuki motorcycles constantly telling people where to go.

After three in the afternoon, when they are very hungry, some soldiers arrive with cardboard boxes containing disgusting cold black beans and rice with a boiled egg on top for the women.  Most of them protest.  “This is a mess, if all we get for participating in this shit and risking being hit is this crappy food, don’t count on me anymore” says one of the women.

An official tries to calm them down.  “Please, remember the difficult economic situation our country is experiencing.”  Just about all of the women throw the food in the garbage can.  As night falls, they mobilize.  The next day, the Damas de Blanco did not go out or do their march.

The next day all the ETESCA employees who took part in the harassment at Laura Pollán’s house complained to their bosses. “Don’t even think about asking me to go back for another act of repudiation; don’t count on me, go yourselves,” says one of them, insulted. The bosses are silent in the face of the flood of curses. They have no choice.

The government wants to sell the image that the people, acting spontaneously, are the ones who suppress the Ladies in White. Many people participate out of fear and for various considerations. Whether they are political or want to maintain that appearance. Nobody in a major company wants to be identified as “disaffected with the government.” Everything is staged. In the best Cuban style.

Iván García

Translated by: Hank and Tomás A.

The Cuban Economy Is Sinking

April 27, 2010 1 comment

And not because of an earthquake. Quietly, one business after another is closing. Although the official Cuban press, the most optimistic in the world, ignores this, from 2000 to the present you can count on one hand the number of foreign investors who have kept their businesses in Cuba.

Italian businessmen in the telecommunications sector, who invested in ETECSA, the only company on the island in that industry, said goodbye a year ago. Israeli businessmen who bought the citrus production of Jaguey Grande, in Matanzas, and produced fruit juices, have also gone.

According to a source who prefers to remain anonymous, investors from the largest foreign investor in Cuba, Canada’s Sherritt, specializing in the mining business, are conducting a feasibility study. If they get red numbers, they will pack their bags.

The building construction sector has been immobilized for seven years on the direct orders of Fidel Castro. So what remains are a few companies in the field of tourism. China and Russia, the candidates sought by the leaders of the island, look askance at the proposals offered to them.

They know that Cuba’s ability to pay is almost nil. Russia is already owed several billion rubles. And China, with a similar ideological outlook, will donate a couple million dollars in the event of a hurricane, but if you don’t have money to pay them, see you later.

The trump card that the Castros play is the Venezuela of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. It is a bet on foolishness and voluntarism. More of the same. But there are not many options for a government that has a grudge against the market economy because a group of people got rich.

In 2010 the economic alliance with Caracas is all that remains. And it’s barely working. The only benefit is being able to buy oil at bargain prices, without having to pay for it in hard currency. Cuba pays for the black gold with human capital: military or civilian, medical and sports trainers.

There will not be an abundance of food on the tables of the poor on this island or in Venezuela, nor will life be better because of this alliance. For one thing, both nations manage their economies on the fly. In the case of Cuba, it is striking how they continue to bet on the centralized economy.

Having coinciding ideologies, as is the case with Castro and several presidents of the Hemisphere, is not the same as creating a coherent strategy for designing a sustainable economy. Virulent and polarizing speech does not count in economics. What matters is to save and work hard to get out of the deep hole of poverty.

To justify their failures, the Castros have their favorite weapon: the Yankee embargo. But no one but a fanatic or a moron could seriously blame only the U.S. embargo for the poor performance of the local economy. It doesn’t take a think-tank, or an expert in economic matters, to point out those responsible for sending the Cuban economy back to the stone age.

If Fidel Castro is credited with the glory of the vaunted successes in education, sports, and public health, then he should also be charged with the failures. His experimental manner of managing the island’s economy would fill several volumes of nonsense.

Inflating numbers and lying while making annual financial reports is not going to solve our problems. Now, General Raul Castro and his advisers are seeking a range of solutions to break the deadlock in which they find the economy.

As an experiment they are thinking of renting business places, such as barber shops, cafes, and taxis, to groups of workers. A kind of cooperative, where if they do well, the people will earn more money.

It remains to be seen if this formula works. So far, Roberto Guerra, manager of a dilapidated Havana pizzeria, has his doubts. “If they don’t free up the prices of products, and if we are bound to sell at the price assigned to us by the State Committee on Prices, this recipe will not work.”

The government knows better than anyone that people on the street are very upset with the performance of the economy and lack of future in their lives. Cubans want change in economic matters. They want them to allow unlimited self-employment and to reduce taxes.

But they want more. They want to invest in medium-sized enterprises with their relatives residing in the United States if the regime will authorize it. Raul Castro knows that something must be done, but like his brother, he is afraid that a series of economic reforms will be uncontrollable by the government.

The Cuban revolution has been more political than economic. And now what preoccupies the leaders on the island is hanging onto power. If in the future a leader or political group manages to get on track and makes the Cuban economy thrive, they will be awarded a gold medal.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

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