Cuba: Internet in Your Home from September / Ivan Garcia

March 15, 2014 4 comments

cuba_internet_0-620x330According to a spokesman for ETECSA, the only telecoms company in Cuba, they are going to start marketing internet in peoples’ homes, with ADSL included, from the first half of September.

We don’t yet know what the price of the installation will be. What has come to light in a document which we have seen are the different tariffs for national and international internet surfing.

The document, put out by Ibis Díaz Silva, commercial executive of ETECSA’s Oficina de Pequeños y Medianos Usuarios (Office of Small and Medium Users ), indicates that the 20 hour internet package will cost 10 convertible pesos a month, 50 hours 15 cuc (Cuban convertible currency), 100 hours 30 cuc, 180 hours 50 cuc, and 220 hours 60 cuc. There will be a 90 hour package, usable between 8 pm and 7 am which will be offered at 20 cuc. They will sell additional hours at 30 convertible pesos.

Additionally, starting from September, they will market the local intranet network at a lower price, where you can find official media. The connection speed will be between 2 and 4 megabytes.

Gradually, Raúl Castro’s government has taken some steps forward to provide internet access for Cubans. On 4th June 2013, ETECSA opened 116 navigation rooms in 15 provinces of the country.

Up to this month, according the ETECSA spokesman, about 600,000 customers have connected to the network. Last February 25th, the Gaceta Oficial de la República (Official Gazette of the Republic) announced new cellphone internet tariffs. And from 2013, ETECSA workmen have been busy putting in place wireless networks in different parts of Havana.

The prices of these new services have generated a lot of controversy. The point is that the Cuban man in the street, with an average salary of $20 a month, can’t afford the luxury of connecting to the internet while he has no chicken, fish or meat in his pantry.

One way or another, nearly everybody is complaining. Whether they are unknown citizens, like the private shoemaker Alfonso Ayala, who has never surfed the net, or official journalists like Elaine Díaz or Alejandro Rodríguez, who have criticised the excessive prices in their blogs.

“One hour at 4.50 cuc (Cuban convertible currency) is equivalent to 112 Cuban pesos. Repairing shoes, I make between 80 and 100 Cuban pesos a day. All my income is for buying food and supporting my wife and kids. As far as I can see the internet continues to be out of my reach,” says Ayala.

As far as the regime is concerned, the internet is an invention of the US special services with the aim of colonising information and culture. Only the inescapable necessity of not continually putting the brakes on Cuban professional development has forced the government to authorise access to the internet.

It all started in 1998, when the island was connected up, via satellite, more slowly and with a narrower band than a public university in New York. The official press blamed the technological backwardness on the trade embargo imposed by Washington, which forbids connection to the underwater cables owned by US companies, which surround the green Cayman Islands. And we know that Cuba and the USA are continuing with the Cold War. And truth is the first casualty of any war.

According to the ETECSA spokesman, in 2010, some gringo companies located in Florida were authorised by the Obama government to negotiate with Cuba to recommission an old unused underwater cable.

“The project was viable. It cost $18m with a bandwidth right for our requirements. But the government preferred to bet on the so-called digital self-government and designed a project jointly with Venezuela called ALBA1, stated the source.

At a cost of $70m, the submerged cable connected the twin cities of La Guiara and Siboney in the east, in Santiago de Cuba. There is a spur off it which goes off to Kingston, Jamaica.

There is a structure of corruption around the cable in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Communications and Information, which led to the desertion of a high-up manager of ETECSA in Panama in 2012.

There was no news about ALBA1 until 4 June 2013, following the government decision to open new navigation rooms. There is no doubt that the famous cable clearly improved the connection speed.

Before that, in a five-star hotel like the Saratoga, where Beyoncé stayed last year with her husband JayZ, the connection speed was slow and expensive. At best it didn’t get past 100Kb. And 2 hours of internet cost a bit over $15.

From September 2014 on, things are going to change, according to specialists I have spoken to. It could be that not many Cubans will be enthusiastic about the new provision, on account of its irrational pricing. But the ETECSA functionary referred to is optimistic and considers that the opening up of cyberspace will bring more positives than negatives.

Iván García

Photo: A Cuban surfs the net in one of the cyber cafes opened by ETECSA all over the island in June 2013. Taken by El Universal.

Translated by GH

9 March 2014

Cuban Dissidents Prepare for the Future / Ivan Garcia

March 12, 2014 Leave a comment
Carlos Millares, Frank Abel García y Tamara Rodriguez

Carlos Millares, Frank Abel García y Tamara Rodriguez

While 17 young Cuban dissidents attend advanced courses to master the tools of leadership and business at a university center in Miami, in Havana, the newly formed Fundación Sucesores, imparts courses to the civil society in Havana. Run by sociologist Carlos Millares, 65, Fundación Sucesores has been giving classes to the nascent civil society since December of 2013.

“We told students the location at the last minute, so that the State Security wouldn’t put any obstacles in our way, preventing classes,” said Millares. The group has a collegiate direction. Besides Millares, the group is integrated by Frank Abel García, Daniel Palacios, Tamara Rodríguez, William Cácer, and Luis Alberto Diéguez. With the exception of Millares, everyone is between 26 and 40 years old.

“Since the second half of January, we’ve been teaching two courses: one for the formation of leaders, and another one for journalists and photo journalists. Each course has 10 students,” said Frank Abel.

Most of the participants are young people that recently became involved with political activism or independent journalism. The classes are ambulatory and secret.  One week, they can be at a room in ruins at the old part of the city and outside the capital limits the following week.

The leadership course lasts six months and among other subjects teaches history, law, social media, and public speaking. Intellectual dissidents such as Manuel Cuesta Morúa, lawyer René López, Julio Negrín, Arturo Torrecillas, Daniel Palacios and Carlos Millares, teach the classes.

Desks consist of seats at a dinner table or a bed. The students copy the content of the classes in flash drives. Professors only have one laptop. “We don’t have all the necessary resources, but the lack of resources cannot be an impediment to create and prepare people within the incipient society in Cuba,” said Millares.

The course of journalism lasts four months and includes 20 topics. Four of the six members from the board of directors from Successors Foundation became dissidents after they worked in State institutions.

Millares has the most experience of all. He has been part of different dissident organizations for the last 25 years. He was a curious and polemic general secretary for the Union of Young Communists in the faculty of medical science in the University of Havana.

His journey to the pacific opposition was a slow and painful process, like surgery without anesthesia. Frank Abel worked as chief of staff in Radio Rebelde, a radio station symbolic of the revolution. Abel became a provincial delegate at the radio station. He was involved in a case orchestrated by the cultural authorities against young intellectuals from OMNI Free Zone. His sense of justice made him break from the regime.

For eight years, Daniel Palacios was a sports chronicler from the official newspapers Trabajadores and Juventud Rebelde. He had a spot in the capital radio station COCO, in which along with other reporters, he tried to break with the government censorship. Palacios gave out the results from the games of the Major Leagues during his time on air in radio, and remembered that before the Castro dictatorship from 1962, there was a glorious past in baseball, Cuba’s national hobby.

“One afternoon, I received a call from Pelayo Terry’s office, who was then director of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Two men from the State Security threatened me and showed me mail that I had exchanged with Wilfredo Cancio Isla, a Cuban reporter from Miami. After my expulsion from my position as a journalist, they have continued to harass me,” Palacios said.

His exit from official journalism had repercussions for his family life. He lives away from his wife and daughter because he doesn’t have a place of his own. Most of his colleagues from within the state journalism have turned their backs on him.

“It has been hard but I feel good about myself, which is the most important thing,” Palacios said. Now, besides teaching journalism classes, he writes for Café Fuerte and Diario de Cuba.

Tamara Rodríguez was a commercial specialist at CIMEX, a military corporation that collects convertible pesos for the government. They tried to embroil her in a corruption case after she started to make friends with women from the Ladies in White.

After she broke ranks with the government, she became part of the group. Since the beginning of 2013, Frank Abel went to the home of sociologist Carlos Millares and told him about his interest in turning young dissidents into leaders.

Through different paths, opposition organizations in Cuba or in the United States decide to take dissidence as an option. Perhaps, today’s dissidence is uncomfortable for many exiled people from Cuba, due to their distinct pacifism and inability to create a powerful lobby group in the neighborhoods of the island.

Havana is far from being Kiev or Táchira. In Cuba, the opposition from the barricades suffers the worst. But the future could be different.

When new times arrive, nongovernmental organizations would have materialized the initiatives toward young Cuban dissidents, who have had trouble accessing a college education because of their political views. Some of these organizations are the Human Rights Foundation from Florida, in collaboration with Miami Dade College, which work with funding from private donations and the United States government.

From this side of the world, some people do not sit back. They start initiatives to promote values of democratic leadership and the use of journalistic tools among young activists.

The Fundación Sucesores is one of those initiatives. According to its members, this initiative is about a new Cuba, who above all, needs people qualified in the art of politics, democracy, and modern journalism

And that future is around the corner.

Iván García

Photo : Frank Abel García, Carlos Millares and Tamara Rodríguez talking to Iván García. Fundación Sucesores is also the name of the blog they have created.

3 March 2014

Havana: A Guide for Tourists / Ivan Garcia

March 11, 2014 1 comment
Useful advice for tourists who visit the last bastion of the Cold War in the Caribbean

Useful advice for tourists who visit the last Communist barricade of the Cold War in the Caribbean

If you speak Spanish, it’s advisable to get to know Havana by taking private taxis. In a rented car, air-conditioned and with a map of the capital, it’s more pleasurable, but also more expensive, and you wouldn’t be able to chat with the habaneros.

If you know the city only through the guided visits to museums or cigar factories, organized by tourist agencies, you will have good photos when you return to your country, but you will only have seen a postcard of Havana.

You can decide to drink mojitos, stroll on the Malecon, flirt with prostitutes in a cafe where you need hard currency to listen to a duo singing Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan at your table. Or you can discover the other face of Havana, ignored by the official press. Then, first hand, you will know the priorities of ordinary Cubans.

The capital of Cuba has in its favor the fact that it still is not as dangerous as Caracas, Medellin or Michoacan. You can walk through rough and poor neighborhoods without fear of being assaulted (I advise you to go during the day).

Better than reserving a hotel is renting a room in some private home. For your trips around the city, the ideal thing is to move around in the old U.S. cars known as almendrones.

And talk to the passengers. There is no platform more authentic and liberal in Cuba than the private taxis. As in any capital of the world, the Havana taxi drivers possess a culture of speech and an acceptable level of information.

You will find out that many of the Cuban taxi drivers are doctors, engineers, retired military men or professionals who, after their work day, sit at the steering wheel, trying to earn some extra pesos that will permit them to complement their poor salaries.

The Havana taxi drivers seem to be dissidents when they speak, but they’re not. They, like numerous people you find in the lines or in the streets, openly criticize the government.

The list of complaints about the state of things on the island is extensive. Traveling in a 1954 Ford, with a South Korean motor and a Japanese gear box, you will know first-hand that people aren’t applauding Raul Castro’s reforms with much enthusiasm now.

Be prepared to listen to a dissertation on the daily hardships. One suggestion: before your trip around the city, in your backpack carry deodorants, tubes of toothpaste or soap to offer to the people you talk to. Right now, these articles are scarce in Cuba (see the Note at the end).

Havana taxis are a microphone open to different political opinions. And in their interior there is more democracy than in the monotone national parliament. In the almendrones there are usually people who think differently. Each reveals his opinion. Loudly and gesticulating with his hands, typical of Cubans.

Upon arriving at his destination, the passenger who supports the Regime says goodbye amicably to the one who wants profound changes in his country. Two details: the old Havana taxis don’t have air conditioning and the drivers listen to reggaeton or salsa music at exaggerated volume.

If you get into a jeep, which can fit up to 10 people, the trip is uncomfortable. But there is no better way to make people-to-people contact than to travel in private taxis. And they are very cheap. For 50 cents or a dollar on longer journeys, you can get to know the other face of Havana. It’s not recommended to take the urban omnibus: owing to the bad service and overcrowding, what should be an exploration of the city and a motive to make contact with its people can become a torture.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from Panoramix.

Note. In Cuba something is always lacking. Sometimes the scarcity is most visible in the capital, but usually where you find a lack of most products, food or hygiene, is in the interior of the country. After writing this piece, independent journalists were reporting that “eggs were missing.” I don’t know if eggs have reappeared, but now salt is missing.

On March 5, Ernesto García Díaz wrote in Cubanet that salt was hard to find in the grocery stores, markets and hard currency markets (TRD), where a kilo nylon bag of Cuban salt with the stamp “Caribeña” cost 45 cents (10.80 Cuban pesos). In the Ultra TRD [the government-run "Hard Currency Collection Store"], an employee told the journalist that “it’s been some time since we’ve had Caribeña salt. We are selling a fine Andalusian salt of the brand “Aucha” at the price of 1.65 CUC ($US 1.58) a kilo.”

In Cuba there are five saltworks that supposedly should guarantee the distribution of salt for the ration book, at the rate of one kilo for a nuclear family of up to 3 people, every three months. But because they haven’t managed to extract more than 400 million tons annually, the government has had to import salt, as occurred in 2008, when they bought 30 million tons of salt at a cost of 9 million dollars (Tania Quintero).

Translated by Regina Anavy

8 March 2014

What Is Happening in Venezuela Worries Cuba / Ivan Garcia

March 10, 2014 1 comment
"If the media stops talking, let the streets talk"

“If the media stops talking, let the streets talk”

In one way or another, Cuba is taking note of the street protests occurring these days in Venezuela. The most nervous are the olive-green autocrats.

According to a low-level party official, since the death of Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013, the regime has had various contingency plans filed away in case the situation in Venezuela did not turn out to be favourable to the interests of the island.

The official states, “If Maduro falls, we have a plan B. In the different groups, at least at the level where I work, it was taken for granted that Maduro would be a short-lived president. Although the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) controls most of the strings of power, there are divergent opinions among Chávez’s own followers about Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba. This type of socialism, with a democratic streak, is not to be trusted. Maduro can lose power both due to a plebiscite repeal or in six years. In our group meetings, it has been said that Maduro’s mandate only serves to gain time”.

The onslaught of opposition marches, barricades, and protests is shaking up different regions of Venezuela, but this force is also reaching the branches of power in Havana.

The Castro brothers still have much at stake in Venezuela. But just in case, Raúl Castro has opened a new window with Brazil in constructing the new port of Mariel and a Special Development Zone with a different jurisdiction.

And they almost begged the United States, enemy number one, to sit down to negotiate. Meanwhile, the Castro regime diplomacy crosses over to Florida, trying to seduce wealthy businessmen of Cuban origin. But the sensible businessmen continue to think about it.

When they look at the recent past, they only see shady management and a mysterious associate who changes the rules of the game at the first opportunity. Therefore, the Caribbean autocracy is going to fight mercilessly and to the teeth in order to keep its strategic position in Venezuela.

The key, as everyone knows, is petroleum. 100 thousand barrels a day acquired at sale prices keep Cubans from suffering 12-hour daily blackouts. When the skydiver from Barinas moved into Miraflores in 1998, Fidel Castro understood that after 9 years travelling through the desert, with finances in the red and exotic sicknesses devastating the country, the hour of his resurrection had arrived.

Cuba entered in a “light” Special Period. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the island had experienced a deep-rooted economic crisis, but the faithful Bolivarian shared his chest of treasure. And this was an important part of the anti-imperialist project that so deluded the Commander.

The death of Chávez was the beginning of the end of the honeymoon. Maduro is faithful and he is allowed to lead. But he has no charisma. And after 14 years of economic insanity aimed at winning support among the most disadvantaged, all of the doubts, violence, and inflation have now exploded in the face of the PSUV.

Instead of letting go of the uncomfortable and parasitic burden that is Cuba, governing for all and looking after Lula and Dilma more than the Castros, Maduro, clumsy and stubborn, moved his tokens badly.

He professed to follow the Joropo and Pachanga of comrade Chávez. He designed a simple strategy: he shouldered his friend’s coffin and tries to govern Venezuela in his name.

And he is failing. In Cuba, either because of egoism or short-term mentality, the people on their feet, tired after 55 years of disaster, are crossing their fingers that the Venezuelan crisis does not shut off the petroleum faucet opened by the PDVSA (Petroleum of Venezuela, S.A.).

In a park in the Víbora district in Havana, a 70-year-old retiree expresses his opinion about the situation in Venezuela. “If that guy screws up, the effects on us will be tremendous. The power outages will continue, paralyzing the industries again and we will return to a situation equal to or worse than the beginning of the Special Period in 1990.”

Others are more optimistic. “It’s true, it will be hard. Since the Revolution, we have gotten used to living at the cost of someone else’s sweat. Before it was the USSR, now it’s Venezuela. If the worst happens there, we will have to accelerate the reforms here. Although this is already capitalism, but with low salaries”, states a lady identifying herself as a housewife.

A university student adds to the conversation. “Seeing the marches or strikes on the TV is something I envy. That freedom to protest before governmental institutions, such as in Ukraine or Venezuela… we need it here in Cuba.” And he added that “in FEU (University Student Federation) meetings, the situation in Venezuela is a primary theme, but I have heard rumors that there is more alarm in some Party groups.”

In this hot February, in spite of the news arriving from Caracas, the people on the street continue with their lives. Waiting in long lines to buy potatoes, which were lost in the battle. Going to the markets in search of food, vegetables, and fruit. Or sitting on the corner in the neighborhood to talk about films, fashion, football, or baseball.

And this is because for many on the Island, Venezuela is not in their agenda.

Iván García

Photograph: “If the media stops talking, let the streets talk”, says this banner painted by students marching on 13 February in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, some 172 km (107 mi) west of Caracas. Photo by Luis Turinese, taken from Global Voices Online.

Translated by: M. Ouellette

24 February 2014

Havana Hustling / Ivan Garcia

February 25, 2014 1 comment

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

The Silent Successes of the Cuban Dissidence / Ivan Garcia

February 7, 2014 1 comment

Gustavo-Arcos-Bergnes-620x330Before the olive-green autocracy designed economic reforms, the peaceful, illegal opposition was demanding opportunities in small businesses and in the agricultural sector as well as repeal of the absurd apartheid in the tourist, information and technology spheres that turned the Cuban into a third class citizen.

General Raul Castro and his entourage of technocrats headed by the czar of economic reform, Marino Murillo, were not the first to demand changes in national life. No.

When Fidel Castro governed the nation as if it were a military camp, the current “reformers” occupied more or less important positions within the army and the status quo.

None raised his voice publicly to demand reforms. No one with the government dared to write an article asking for immediate economic or social transformations.

If within the setting of the State Council those issues were aired, we Cubans did not have access to those debates. The tedious national press never published an editorial report about the course or changes that the nation should have undertaken.

Maybe the Catholic Church, in some pastoral letter, with timidity and in a measured tone, approached certain aspects. The intellectuals who today present themselves to us as representatives of a modern left also remained quiet.

Neither did Cuban followers of Castro-ism in the United States and Europe question the fact that their compatriots on the island had no access to mobile telephones, depended on the State for travel abroad or lost their property if they decided to leave the country.

Who did publicly raise a voice was the internal dissidence. Since the end of the 1970’s, when Ricardo Bofill founded the Committee for Human Rights; in addition to demanding changes in political matters and respect for individual liberties, he demanded economic opportunities and legal changes in property rights.

Independent journalists have also, since their emergence in the mid-90’s and, more recently, the alternative bloggers. If the articles demanding greater economic, political and social autonomy were published, several volumes would be needed.

Something not lacking among the Cuban dissidence is political discourse. And they all solicit greater citizen freedoms, from the first of Bofill, Martha Beatriz’s, Vladimiro Roca’s, Rene Gomez Manzano’s and Felix Bonne ’s Fatherland is for All, Oswaldo Paya’s Varela Project, to Antonio Rodiles’ Demand for Another Cuba or Oscar Elias Biscet’s Emilia Project.

The local opposition can be criticized for its limited scope in adding members and widening its community base. But its indubitable merits in the submission of economic and political demands cannot be overlooked.

The current economic reforms established by Castro II answer several core demands raised by the dissidence. No few opponents suffered harassment, beatings and years in prison for demanding some of the current changes, which the regime tries to register as its political triumphs.

The abrogation of absurd prohibitions on things like the sale of cars and houses, travel abroad or access to the internet has formed part of the dissidents’ proposals.

Now, a sector of the Catholic Church is lobbying the government. A stratum of intellectuals from the moderate left raises reforms of greater scope and respect for political differences.

But when Fidel Castro governed with an iron fist, those voices kept silent. It will always be desirable to remind leaders that Cuba is not a private estate and that each Cuban, wherever he resides, has the right to express his policy proposals.

But, unfortunately, we usually ignore or overlook that barely a decade ago, when fear, conformity and indolence put a zipper on our mouths, a group of fellow countrymen spent time demanding reforms and liberties at risk even to their lives.

Currently, while the debate by the intellectuals close to the regime centers on the economic aspect, the dissidence keeps demanding political openings.

One may or may not agree with the strategies of the opponents. But you cannot fail to recognize that they have been — and continue to be — the ones who have paid with jail, abuse and exile for their just claims.

They could have been grandparents who run errands and care for their grandchildren. Or State officials who speechify about poverty and inequality, eating well twice a day, having chauffeured cars and traveling around the world in the name of the Cuban revolution.

But they decided to bet on democracy. And they are paying for it.

Iván García

Translated by mlk.

6 February 2014

Mariel, Brazil, Havana and Washington / Ivan Garcia

February 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Lula-Castro-Puerto-Mariel-655x337-620x330Miami would like to remain Latin America’s main commercial port. In June 2013 President Barack Obama toured the $1.2 billion renovation and expansion now being carried out at the port of Miami.

Commercial interest is reflected in large-scale investments in the ports of Norfolk, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville and Savannah. According to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), public-private partnerships will invest up to $46 billion in port infrastructure.

With the expansion of the Panama Canal and the introduction of a new generation of container ships know as post-Panamax, which can pass through the canal with almost three times as much cargo, commercial trade in the Americas will experience a profound change.

The numbers dazzle the experts and countries in the region do not want to be left behind. Their primary interest is, of course, the vast market to the north that Canada and the United States represent.

But no less important is being positioned as a leader in the interregional port trade. This has unleashed a veritable “port war,” which has led to multimillion-dollar investments and higher concentration, with fewer ports for maritime traffic. These will have to be both larger and deeper to accommodate ships which will be bigger and can carry more goods.

Experts agree that post-Panamax traffic is likely to be concentrated in trans-shipment ports, as was the case with air transport. With that in mind, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Cuba are investing heavily in improvements and modernizations to their major port facilities.

The Cuban government has placed special emphasis on developing the port of Mariel, located 45 kilometers west of Havana, due to its excellent natural conditions. The project is backed with 682 million dollars from public and private Brazilian investors.

The first stage could be completed by the end of this month to coincide with the visit of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to the CELAC conference, which will take place on January 28 and 29.

Construction is being carried out by the Brazilian firm Odebrecht. Management of the port and its container terminal, which in the future will be able to handle up to three million containers, will be provided by a Singapore-based firm.

Nine-hundred million dollars have been invested in the first phase. And in keeping with the trade demands of the future port, the Cuban regime has designated it a special economic development zone with its own special jurisdiction.

In the area surrounding the port of Mariel, an area of some 465 square kilometers, the government has begun making direct investments to benefit economic sectors such as biotechnology and textiles, among other areas.

The port of Mariel is geographically well-positioned for regional commerce. Under normal conditions, without an embargo by the United States, it would be a formidable competitor to its counterpart in Miami.

But under current circumstances, given the burden of the U.S. trade embargo, it is not unreasonable to ask if such a monumental investment would be beneficial to the Cuban economy.

In the past Fidel Castro came up with irrational economic schemes such as the plans for harvesting ten million tons of sugar, intensive farming or the construction of a nuclear power station in Juraguá, Cienfuegos, 300 kilometers east of Havana, where he wasted billions dollars with no results.

Castro II has abandoned the colossal volunteerism of his brother. With the usual paucity of information, the regime has yet to set forth the operational strategy it plans to deploy after the inauguration of the port of Mariel.

If one thing is clear, it is that as long as there is an embargo, whose rules stipulate a six-month prohibition from entering U.S. ports for ships which have dropped anchor in Cuba, the docks of Mariel will come out the loser, even without ever having engaged in the regional competition of post-Panamax ports.

The largest share of interregional trade is with the United States, Canada and Mexico, which are economic partners. The twenty-eight E.U. countries will think twice before making large investments in Mariel.

China is only an ideological partner of the Castros. In trade and finance it is tied to the United States. With characteristic pragmatism Beijing will keep placing its bets where the  money is.

And the money is in the north or in regions of Latin America such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela and Peru. I do not believe many ships flying a Chinese flag and trading with the United States will anchor in Mariel as long as the embargo remains in place.

Carrying a weight like that around one’s neck makes it difficult to attract large amounts of capital from leading companies. Of course, neither Raul Castro, Brazil’s former president, Lula da Silva — whose government authorized the expenditure — nor its current president, Dilma Rousseff, are fools.

A year ago the Brazilian foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, offered some clues when he publicly stated that the decision to invest in the port of Mariel was based on a post-embargo scenario.

The political strategy of Cuba’s autocrats is also moving in that direction. Regime officials are wearing out the soles of their shoes travelling the world in an attempt to attract fresh capital for the Mariel development zone.

And working through the U.S. Interests Section in Washington, they are lobbying to create and business-friendly atmosphere with the powerful clan of Cuban-American entrepreneurs.

Seeking the repeal of the embargo is perhaps the number one priority of the Cuban Foreign Ministry. The timid economic reforms and requests for dialogue with the United States by General Castro are made in hopes of lifting the embargo.

Except a few statements on Cuba by Obama and a handshake with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the White House has so far not been seduced by the aging president.

Cuba is not China. It does not have that country’s huge market and a significant portion of its economy depends on remittances from Cubans living on other shores.

Washington continues to demand that Cuba respect human rights and democracy, and hold free elections — something it did not do with China or Vietnam —  but in this regard the island has very little to offer.

The political retirement of Castro II could change the political dynamic between the two countries. But as long as the embargo is in place, a sizable project, such as the port of Mariel, makes little sense. Any real uptick in the Cuban economy — whether in trade, tourism or new technologies — will always be diminished by the negative impact of the embargo.

At this stage of the game, if the military government really wants to undermine the foundation for the embargo and offer its citizens its citizens a prosperous society, it must come up with some clear-cut political changes. Otherwise, we will remain stuck in a time-out.

Iván García

Photo: President Raul Castro and former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during his visit in January 2013 which marked the start of the expansion to the port of Mariel, which was made possible by a major investment from Brazil. From Infolatam.

18 January 2014

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