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.
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.
Translated by: Tomás A.
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.
Translated by: Tomás A.
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.
Photo: almamagazine, Flickr.
Translated by: Tomás A.
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.
Translated by: Hank and Tomás A.
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.
Translated by: Tomás A.
Life for Juan Domeq, age 69, is a vicious cycle. He gets up every morning at 5:30 am and slowly hobbles to a newsstand to buy 50 issues of the newspaper Granma, and the same number of Juventud Rebelde. Domeq spends 20 pesos (less than US$1) for the hundred copies. If he can sell them at 1 peso each, he gets 80 pesos profit, but he doesn’t often sell that many issues.
“People on the street are not very interested in what our press says. Also, the clerk at the newsstand can’t can’t always sell me 100 newspapers. I usually sell between 40 and 50. Then, if I have a good day, I buy some fruits or vegetables for my wife who has been bedridden four years from paralysis; I must also buy milk or yogurt. The little money I earn selling newspapers is spent on food, and I have to keep my eyes open, because several times the police have fined me 40 pesos for selling the newspaper without a license,” says Juan, a sad old man full of aches, who lives in a filthy tenement in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana.
At the same time that Domeq rises to buy the newspaper, Antonio Villa, 64 years old, physically disabled, wakes up and has a cup of hot coffee for breakfast. He goes in his wheelchair to the Monaco bakery, where at the entrance he sells bags (purses) made of nylon for one peso (5 cents U.S.) each.
According to Antonio, a person can sell a hundred nylon purses for 35 pesos. “Selling bags usually takes between 10 and 12 hours a day. Sometimes I have a good day and manage to sell 200 bags, but I usually sell only 80 or 90. With what I get — between 65 to 120 pesos (about 3 to $5) — I buy food and save some pennies to pay a woman who washes my clothes. The police have taken me to the station many times, and in addition to fining me they have confiscated my bags. But when they set me free, I go back to the only thing I can do to earn an honest living,” says Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war in Angola in 1987, and lives in a wooden shack with an aluminum roof.
Also not having much luck trying to scrounge a handful of pesos, Clara Rojas, age 70, old, dirty, and poorly dressed, lives in a decrepit nursing home in the La Vibora neighborhood. Clara sells cigarettes at retail. “In the home they give us lunch and dinner, but so poorly prepared that many old people who live there prefer to find some money on our own and eat in the street.”
After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, the money earned her enough to eat a serving of rice, pea soup, and an unidentified fish full of bones, in a state joint where the prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the rest home to sleep.
Juan, Antonio, and Clara are three old people burdened with infirmities, with mild senile dementia, and without a family to care for them. They have to perform miracles to survive in the harsh conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not unique.
Translated by Marlise Lohmann and Tomás A.
With money in hand, there’s something for every taste. A Chevy from the ’40′s or a well-kept ’54 Ford. A fin-tail Cadillac or a ’56 General Motors truck that looks like it just came from the factory. Cuba is the only country in the world in whose streets run thousands of American cars, jeeps, and trucks from the mid-twentieth century.
No doubt it’s the largest outdoor museum in existence for cars of that age. And because you can’t buy cars unless you have a state permit, in light of the poor state of public transportation, people with money have decided to buy a car manufactured in the workshops of Detroit several decades ago.
Jose Santiago, 42, calculator in hand, runs the numbers. He believes he will recoup his investment in seven years. Santiago wants to engage in the business of taxis for hire. It’s probably the only stable means of transportation on the island, although the government doesn’t sell so much as a screw to repair private cars.
In Cuba, buying and selling cars is only allowed for those owners who have a transfer certificate. So it is with the “big almonds”, as the old American cars are known on the island, because their owners bought them before the Castros came to power.
According to Roberto Diego, 34, it is common for a Chevrolet or a Ford to have had a dozen owners. Prices have gone through the roof. “In the ’80s, you could buy a ’57 Chevrolet for 3,000 pesos (when that amount was equivalent to 3,000 dollars, as the currency was illegal and the government swapped one for one with the dollar). Now, in 2010, it can cost 20,000 Cuban Convertible pesos (18,000 U.S. dollars), if it’s been kept like a jewel,” said Diego, who drives a Ford Austin from the ’40′s whose condition provokes envy.
Not that the drivers of the island are lovers of antique cars. They just have no other option. Luis Valle, 52, would prefer driving an Audi or a Cherokee “air-conditioned and with a computer, but I’m realistic; here, that’s impossible.”
State tourism agencies annually hold antique car parades, where you can see everything from a 1918 Ford, to rare versions of cars that had a limited production. On the interior streets bordering the steep steps of the National Capitol, dozens of old “jalopies” belonging to the Gran Caribe company are rented, for hard currency, to tourists who want to take a ride in an antique car through a city frozen in time.
For the ordinary citizen, when racing against the clock, the cheapest and fastest method is to take one of the “big almonds” that circulate on the various downtown streets of the capital. They charge 10 pesos, or 20 if the trip is longer. And they work four times better than the state-owned taxis, which have been missing in action for some time.
The ingenuity that keeps these cars running is worthy of admiration. General Motors engineering pales in comparison to the unique native solutions for the vintage cars. Without spare parts, and with a touch of fantasy, Cuban mechanics are able to keep these cars rolling.
Real monsters. Mechanical Frankensteins. With engines from Russian cars, transmissions from Spanish cars of the Franco era, and gear boxes from Italian Alfa Romeos from the ’70s. Their hard bodies, made from the abundant steel of World War II military equipment, have been painted and massaged numerous times.
Some are as beautiful as that of Javier Cueto, 65, owner of a 1958 Chevrolet, intact and without modification. “I’ve been offered 21,000 Cuban convertible pesos (19,000 U.S. dollars), but I pay no attention.” And he amiably shows the good conditions under which he keeps his car.
When you take an old taxi in the streets of Havana, the first thing the driver says is “please don’t slam the door.” While some cars have been rolling for nearly 70 years, faced with the uncertain future that is emerging in Cuba, the drivers of mid-twentieth-century American cars know they should continue taking care of them in detail. They may have to continue “boteando” (renting) them for a long time.
And if despair knocks on the door, it won’t be the first time that a Chevrolet is converted into a boat with an outboard motor. En route to Miami.
Translated by: Tomás A.
This April 1st, we forgot about the lack of food and the tragedy of living without a future. We set aside our empty refrigerators, as well as all the anachronistic internal politics that don’t work. We ignored the bad taste left by an inoperative government, and the empty wallets.
It is Thursday of Holy Week, but Havana is partying. Yes. This Havana of columns and porches, of the Prado and the Malecon, is enjoying the victory of its baseball team, which was just crowned National Champion.
Baseball, a sport introduced during the 19th century by Cubans residing in the U.S., is a passion in Cuba. It’s play became widespread and resonates deep within the country. Before 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, a series of winter championship games, which were followed by millions of fans from all the provinces, would take place throughout the island.
These games were made up for four teams: Almendares, Havana, Marianao, and Cienfuegos. The majority of the people would root for the Almendares “Blues” or the Red Lions of Havana. Huge stars who later became popular in the US, such as Orestes (“Minnie”) Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, and Adolfo Luque, debuted in our very own local classics.
The oldest fans can remember that final match in 1944 between the eternal rivals, Havana and Almendares, won by the latter when no one believed it possible. Industriales, the new lions of Havana, now wear blue. And in the 2010 finals, the Blues of the capital and the Oranges of Villa Clara brought back the same drama from that 1944 series.
Industriales are not just the icons of the capital, but also of the entire country. Since 1959 they have won the most, with 12 titles. It is a team that is either hated or loved, but never unnoticed.
It is also the team that, without a doubt, has lost the most players, thanks to the ceaseless trickling of desertions. Players who leave the island, tired of their worker salaries and full of dreams of becoming millionaires in the best baseball in the world, the Major Leagues in the United States.
Industriales were three-time champions with the New York Yankees’ pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, a great among the greats. Their ranks also yielded some who showed promise, and now actually shine in the majors, like Yunel Escobar with the Atlanta Braves and Kendry Morales with the California Angels.
In the last twenty years, Industriales have lost more than 40 first-rate players. All decided to go to the United States, the baseball world’s mecca. Despite this, those who have remained are always in the mix. From 2003 to date, they have won four crowns. First with manager Rey Vicente Anglada and now with Germán “The Wizard” Mesa.
Germán Mesa is considered the best shortstop of all time in Cuban baseball. He was removed in the late 90s, per government decree by Fidel Castro, who accused him of being part of a network of players and major league scouts who instigated the defection of native players. For three years “The Wizard” was absent from the baseball fields. Until he was redeemed in 1999 and authorized to play again.
In this championship, Industriales’s chances of taking the title were slim. In 2009, the ninth pair of their most outstanding pitchers left: Yadel Marti and Dennis Suarez, who were central to the team. If to them you add the whole litter of its members who have defected since 2003, Industriales had no chance of winning.
The year before, they had occupied 12th place. They didn’t even qualify for the post-season playoffs. It was expected that this campaign would straggle into mediocrity. True, they had been reinforced with young talent, but it was felt that they were still very green.
Hence the great merit of this team. They were never favored in the final three games, against Sancti Spiritus, Havana, and Villa Clara. But the men did it and defeated the Spiritus, the best team of the season, Havana, with the best pitching, and then the Orange of Villa Clara, the most consistent in the last dozen years.
The final best-of-seven-games with Villa Clara were full of suspense. They were a drama. And are regarded as the most tense and hotly contested games since 1959.
When after two in the morning, Industriales won the crown in Augusto Cesar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara, at that hour, 300 kilometers away in the capital, they beat the drums and, in the absence of cava or champagne, uncorked bottles of rum. Hundreds of fans lined the streets between rumba steps and mouthfuls of rum, to celebrate the title of their Blues.
In swirling lines they marched to Central Park – the Havana version of La Cibeles – and until well into the morning they celebrated the win. About 3 p.m., in convertible cars, the Industriales players made their entry into the capital, cheered by hundreds of thousands of fans who lined the route of the procession.
Cars horns honked furiously all day long, and many people didn’t go to work. People were exulting on the rock in Central Park, the same one often visited by Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the political prisoner who died after a prolonged hunger strike on February 23rd, and a rabid lover of baseball.
In this Holy Week, Havana is celebrating. People have brought large speakers to the balconies, and with loud reggaeton music they revel in the victory. I’m also out in it. Since I was three years old – and I’m now 44 – I’ve been a fan of Industriales.
I have pity for Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, the dissident journalist and psychologist on a hunger strike in Santa Clara, a follower of the Oranges. According to his friends, was glued to the TV until late in the game. I feel for you, Coco.
Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.
The megaconcert started at 5 p.m. sharp. The one in charge of warming up the 100,000 people crowding into the “Anti-Imperialist Rostrum,” popularly known as the “Protestodrome,” was Cuban singer Kelvis Ochoa.
For nearly an hour, in warm spring sun and a gentle breeze, Ochoa went through his repertoire from top to bottom. He heated the place up. A poor audio that could barely be heard more than 350 meters from the stage did not prevent people from enjoying themselves, jumping and dancing, as only those born in this corner of the world can.
The Puerto Rican musicians, who boast several Grammy awards, have many followers on the island. And from the first hit, the Protestódrome exploded. Despite a heavy police presence, thousands of tourists had joined the wild dancing and the hip hop tropical holiday.
The good feeling continued even after Calle 13 played their final note after two hours of contagious rhythm and fiery lyrics. Thousands of people, eager to prolong the event, gathered in the parks of Vedado to pass around brandy and, accompanied by an Mp3 or an old broken-down guitar, to sing until they were hoarse, throughout the night.
Others stood in long lines at the Coppelia ice cream parlor, to ease the heat with an ice cream of modest quality available for purchase with national currency. There were only a couple of flavors, and they didn’t include strawberry or chocolate.
Opposite the capital-city ice creamery, there were long lines to buy hot dogs for ten pesos. The places that accept only convertible currency were also packed.
It turns out that in Havana the people are thirsty for good concerts and high-quality cultural activities. And when there are some, like the concert by Juanes and Miguel Bosé, September 20, 2009 at Revolution Plaza, or this one by Calle 13 at the edge of the Malecon, people will turn out however they can.
They forget about poor transportation and bad food. They even set baseball aside, although the national title is being decided, and Industriales, the local team, is in contention.
“Baseball can wait, but shows like Calle 13 only happen once in a while,” says Yuri, a 23-year-old black young man, outlandishly dressed and wearing heavy 14 karat gold chains . Nonetheless, Yuri and his friends are constantly keeping an eye on their watches; they don’t wait for the end of the show and rush to catch a packed bus to their homes.
They wanted to arrive in time to watch the final match on tv between Industriales and Villa Clara for the championship. If they succeeded, they could kill two birds with one stone. They enjoyed good music and they could see on tv the conclusion of a sizzling tournament.
And in an expensive Havana, with few recreational options, to be able to enjoy two high-level events on one day is a luxury. And for free.
*Puerto Ricans refer to themselves using the Taino word “boricua”
Translated by: Tomás A.