Transparency, Honesty and Free Information: Exotic Ideals in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

August 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Taller-de-activismo-político-en-casa-de-Rodiles-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 21 June 2015 — When Berta Soler, leader of one of three splinter groups of the Ladies in White, convened a referendum on her continued command of the organization following a scandal in Fall 2014 regarding alleged verbal abuse of a member, it marked a milestone in dissident circles – more so for being strange than for being novel.

No culture or custom exists in Cuban society for democratic standards or referendums to balance out the longstanding human tradition of wielding power at will.

Fifty-six years of the country being run like a neighborhood grocery store, in a vertical manner and without any braking mechanisms in place to impede the creation of mini-tyrants, is the main cause of disrespect towards laws, of scant democratic habits, and of a tendency among our people to administer a factory or a dissident group after the style of a mafia cartel.

I will begin my dissection with the local opposition. Unfortunately, just like with the rest of Cuban society that has been under the autocratic boot since 1959, the majority of the dissident leaders carry within them a Fidel Castro dressed in civilian garb.

In my practice of free journalism, it has been my fate to deal with characters straight out of legend: egotistical, arrogant, and little given to responding to questions about the management of finances, or whether their charters include democratic clauses to govern their projects.

More often than not, my questions are answered with silence – which is silly, given that official United States web pages list the monies provided by American organizations to Cuban government opponents, because such data is public information.

They use discretion as an excuse. They say that if this information were known by the Department of State Security, it could be used as a lethal weapon – another trick.

The government’s special services have more moles inside the dissidence than there is dandruff on an unwashed scalp. The repressors do not want for Internet access, and just by Googling for a few minutes they can obtain these and other facts.

What is hiding behind so much secretiveness is a veil of silence with regard to managing funds, influence and resources, as dictators of the purse – which is what has been occurring in practice.

Groups are packed with relatives and friends, after the manner of the sinecures (nepotism) during the Republican era; the first thing a dissident leader does is surround himself with lackeys. Those who ask too many questions, or question their procedures, are considered “highly suspicious.” They get rid of them, or keep them at arm’s length.

Except for Antonio Rodiles, no dissident group invites me to their press conferences or debates. I am still waiting for the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum to make room for me on their agenda.

For two months now I have tried to participate in one of their activities, to write an article. Perhaps they do not invite me because I am not the typical journalist who will later knock off a simple informational item or puff piece. They do not like this.

It remains inherent to the imagination of the opposition that somebody who publishes a halfway critical article is a staunch enemy. That this is not the case is obvious – but in Cuban society, a culture of democracy and debate is a rare bird.

I will tell you a story. I have nothing personal against those men who have spent a long time behind bars, nor against the crusade for their freedom waged by the opposition.  But in investigating their cases, I observed that the majority of them are not prisoners of conscience.

In 1992, Elías Pérez Boucourt attempted to hijack a boat at gunpoint to go to the United States. Ernesto Borges Pérez, an ex-counterintelligence agent, could be a saint, but he was sentenced for having revealed classified information to the enemy. His father, Raúl Borges, is a good person.

A few weeks ago, during a conference at the home of Rodiles, I remarked that it was a grave error to try to label as political prisoners those types of inmates, even if they are against the regime.

If we were to use in such a superficial manner the definition of political prisoner or prisoner of conscience, in that list we would have to include all those sentenced for dangerousness, a legal term of fascist jurisprudence that has condemned to jail hundreds of Cubans, mostly young, who have not even committed a crime.

But such differences of opinion provoke a definitive enmity in some dissidents, who at minimum will write you off as a stinker. Of course the opponents didn’t come from another planet.

They are part of a sick society of ideological rhetoric and political manipulation bordering on delirium. They are not held accountable by anyone (a “normal” thing in a country where nobody, starting with the Brothers from Birán, is held accountable). They carry out their adversarial projects as small private islands, after the manner of the Communist Party chieftains.

Transparency is a non-existent word in Cuba. Citizens do not have access to offices that will protect them as consumers, nor where they may obtain facts and statistics – nor a venue where they may lodge complaints and be heard.

Almost everything is a secret. To try to find out the amount of the investment fund set aside to purchase urban buses following the government’s authorization to sell vehicles is a “mission impossible” – not even James Bond could unearth it.

Neither do the people have a way to find out how the revenues are used that the State raises through abusive taxation on privately-employed workers, or from the 240% surtax on goods purchased in the hard-currency stores.*

Regarding that dough, nobody says a word – even less so about salaries. People would like to know what Luis Alberto López-Callejas, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law who heads the Mariel Special Development Zone, makes.

Unlike in democratic countries, in Cuba there is no advance notice of presidential trips. Everything is hidden behind a curtain of smoke. So deeply has the submissive mindset taken hold that many citizens consider it unimportant to know how the government manages our money.

To fill the city with Starbucks, McDonald’s or Burger King outlets will not be too difficult. To form modern women and men who have a sophisticated knowledge of their legal rights and responsibilities, and who can hold their government officials accountable for their offenses, will be a task of a few years – more than we would like.

Photo: Political activism workshop organized by the Forum for Rights and Liberties, 11 June 2015, home of Antonio G. Rodiles. Photo taken by Ernesto García Díaz, Cubanet.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s Note: “Hard Currency Collection Stores” collect, via the sale of highly overpriced goods, cash from the remittances sent to Cubans by family and friends abroad.

Cuba: Wipe the Slate Clean and Start Over, or Form a Truth Commission?

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

17-de-mayo-1959-La-Plata-Sierra-Maestra1-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 July 2015 — On a leaden afternoon in 1960 that portended rain, René, 79 years old, recalls how a half-dozen militia members encased in wide uniforms and bearing Belgian weapons appeared at his uncle’s house in the peaceful neighborhood of La Víbora to certify the confiscation of his properties.

“My family owned a milk processing plant that produced white and cream cheeses. They also owned an apartment house and a country residence. In two hours they were left with just the house in La Víbora and a car. Fidel Castro’s government confiscated the rest without paying a cent. Within six months they flew to Miami. Of course, I would view it well if the Cuban state were to compensate us for that arbitrariness. But I doubt it. Those people (the regime) have never liked to pay debts,” says René, who still lives with his children and grandchildren in the big house that had belonged to his relatives.

The Bearded One’s confiscatory hurricane was intense. Residences, works of art, jewelry, automobiles, industries, stores, businesses and newspapers were nationalized in the name of Revolutionary Justice.

Later, in 1968, the pyre of expropriations extended to the frita stands, neighborhood grocery stores, and scissor-sharpening shops. “They’d arrive with their dog faces and seize everything. Later, the owner of the little shop would have to sign a form attesting that the surrender had been voluntary. As far as I know, nobody protested. There was too much fear,” recalls Daniel, formerly the owner of a shoe repair shop.

Roy Schecher, an American born in Cuba, saw his rural property of 5,666 hectares, and a 17-room, colonial-era house in Havana, expropriated by the government; it is now the residence of the Chinese Embassy.

Schechter’s daughter, Amy Rosoff, told the publication News.com that when the authorities told her parents that their properties no longer belonged to them, they escaped from the Island in a ferry, carrying their hidden jewelry.

Schecter even paid all his employees before leaving, with the hope that he would return. He spent the rest of his life working in his father-in-law’s shoe store, and reminding his daughter that the lost properties would one day be reclaimed.

Cases like these number in the thousands. The United States government alleges that the military autocracy in Cuba owes $7-billion dollars to former property owners.

Several law firms in the US and Spain expect to wage a legal battle for their clients to obtain just compensation. Nicolás Gutiérrez, a Florida resident (but born in Costa Rica after his parents, Nicolás Gutiérrez Castaño and Aleida Álvarez, were exiled) defends the idea that some day the families whose properties were expropriated by the Cuban regime will be compensated.

And it is because Gutiérrez, a lawyer by profession, characterizes Decree 890, issued on 13 October 1960, as a “theft act” by which the recently installed government stripped all American companies operating on the Island of their properties, as well as the Cuban owners of many businesses.

So, too, the Gutiérrez family was bereft of their assets, including several sugar processing plants that were valued then at more than $45-million dollars.

The Gutiérrez-Castaño family’s holdings, which were among the most affected by the expropriations law, were built on years of work by Nicolás Castaño Capetillo, a Basque immigrant who arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 and with barely a third-grade education. When he died in 1926, “he was considered among the wealthiest men in the country, according to statements by his great-grandson to Iliana Lavastida, journalist with Diario Las Américas.

While the enterprises of hundreds of families or multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola or Exxon were confiscated, thousands of Cubans purged their defiance towards the Castro regime with long prison sentences.

Still remaining to be documented is the number of compatriots who were executed as a result of extremely summary trials, for having utilized the very same methods to which Fidel Castro resorted during his confrontation with the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

To be a dissident during the first years of the Revolutionary Government was a grave crime. Thousands of women and men suffered beatings and mistreatment in the Island’s prisons. The history of Cuban political imprisonment cannot be forgotten.

Now that the final reel of the Castro brother’s saga is rolling, the subject is once again relevant. What to do? Forget the past, or form a commission to investigate the arbitrary actions committed by the government?

Much can be learned from the experience of Eastern Europe. In the Spring of 2013, a conference took place in Miami in which Cubans from both shores participated, along with dissidents from the old communist Germany.

Reconciliation is not easy, warned Dieter Dettke, professor of the BMW Center of German and European Studies at Georgetown University, as well as Günter Nooke, dissident of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR), and later commissioner of human rights in reunified Germany.

A true rapprochement requires forgiveness as much as justice, but not revenge, Dettke said, pointing out that following the GDR’s collapse, 246 of its top-level functionaries were accused of various abuses. Around half were declared not guilty.

For reconciliation to happen, “there needs to be a sinner who repents,” said Nooke, who went on to state that the German government had agreed, following the reunification, to pay reparations to victims of the STASI, the GDR’s notoriously brutal security apparatus.

It is no use to attempt to turn the page as if nothing had happened. In its defense, the regime maintains that for reasons of the embargo, the United States should compensate Cuba with $100-billion dollars.

One might then ask if the olive-green autocracy plans to ask forgiveness for having lied to the Cuban people. Never was our opinion sought as to implementing is absurd political, economic and social strategies.

When the storm blows over, Cubans, all of us, should determine how we will negotiate our future without forgetting the past –keeping in mind that hatred obscures clarity.

Photo by Gilberto Ante, 17 May 1959, La Plata, Sierra Maestra. In the country hut of peasant Julián Pérez: Fidel Castro; the economist Oscar Pinos Santos (seated in a corner, wearing glasses and a watch); and Antonio Núñez Jiménez, president of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (at the left, wearing a beret), among other members of the Revolutionary Government; giving the final touches to the first Agrarian Reform Law, which would expropriate the large estates, and would become the first legal measure of a radical nature enforced by the bearded ones in power. On 4 October 1963, a second Agrarian Reform Law was approved, which according to some specialists marked the beginning of the agricultural disaster of Cuba (TQ).

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

U.S. Government Snubs the Independent Cuban Press

August 29, 2015 1 comment
Obama responding to the news media at the White House. Taken from Zoom News.

Obama at a White House press conference

Iván García, Havana, 10 August 2015 — The U.S. Embassy in Havana, the State Department, and the administration of Barack Obama, have intentionally mapped out a strategy to prevent independent Cuban journalists from covering the visit of John Kerry and the official reopening of the diplomatic headquarters on Friday, August 14.

For the the four-day historic event, no independent journalist, dissident, or human rights activist has been invited to participate in the ceremony, or the press conference by Kerry.

Since July 22nd I have made a dozen calls to the U.S. Public Affairs Office in Havana to request a press pass that would allow me to cover the event for Diario las Americas, El Periodico de Catalunya, and Webstringers LCC, a Washington-based media communications company, and I have not received a response from any official.

According to a diplomatic source, effective July 20th, the process changed for obtaining a credential to cover events or press conferences of politicians, business organizations, or Americans visiting the island.

Before that date, when Lynn W. Roche was head of the Public Affairs Section, I could get credentials in record time. I was able to cover the visit of Roberta Jacobson, congressmen, senators, businessmen, and officials from the State Department, among others.

Now, according to this source, accreditation must be obtained at the International Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located at 23rd and O, in Vedado. A rather crude strategy designed to get rid of independent journalists.

The worst part is not the disrespect or indifference. The U.S. government has the sovereign right to invite to its events those people it deems appropriate.

But out of respect, at least have the courtesy to speak face-to-face with independent journalists and inform them of the new policy. Don’t beat around the bush.

The U.S. government, which is not stupid, knows that for 54 years Cuba has been ruled by a military autocracy that prohibits political opposition and independent journalism.

Leaving press accreditation to the Cuban regime for events that the United States puts on in Cuba is like putting a child molester in charge of a Boy Scout camp.

Armed with a letter from Maria Gomez Torres, director of content for Webstringers, I personally went to the International Press Center. The official who vetted me, after reading the letter, looked through her papers and said with mock surprise, “Mr. García, you do not appear as an accredited journalist in Cuba.”

“And how can I be accredited?” I asked her.

“You must have an operating license and a permit from the Center,” she replied.

“Fine. Can you handle that for me?”

“No, because you do not qualify,” she replied with a tone of mystery.

“Why don’t I qualify, since I’ve collaborated with newspapers in Spain and the United States since 2009?” I inquired.

“Our Center reserves the right to give permission to reporters as we see fit,” snapped the bureaucrat.

After the unsuccessful attempt, I again called on the U.S. Embassy to request an appointment with an official who could tell me why an independent journalist cannot be accredited to the August 14 event.

But no one would take my call. December 17 marked a new era between Cuba and the United States. That noon, Barack Obama promised to empower the Cuban people and to promote respect for human rights on the island.

Pure demagoguery. The government that claims to promote democratic values, shamelessly tramples the spirit and letter of its Constitution, where the right to inform is sacred.

The U.S. government is trying not to tarnish its August 14 gala, knowing that if it accredits independent journalists and invites dissidents, then officials of the regime will not attend.

The olive-green autocracy has a rule that it will not take part in any event with Cuban dissidents, whom it considers “mercenaries and employees of the U.S. government.”

This time, the Obama administration is going to pander to them.

Translated by Tomás A.

We Cubans Need to Solve Our Own Problems / Ivan Garcia

August 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Hombre-cargando-agua-en-Santiago-de-Cuba-_ab-620x330Fifty-four years, seven months and eleven days after that January 3, 1961— the day on which American diplomatic personnel closed their embassy — seventy-three year old Denis Sentizo, a heavy-set African-Cuban with an easy smile, did not want to miss a historic moment: seeing the stars and stripes waving again against his country’s intense blue sky.

“Right now I can’t help but think about my father, may he rest in peace,” says Santizo. “He worked as a kitchen helper at the US embassy in the 1950s. In 1961 the embassy closed and he couldn’t find another job, so he had to go cut sugarcane in Camagüey (500 kilometers east of Havana). He died in 1991 and would have wanted to live to see this moment. Given our geography and history, this promises more advantages than disadvantages.”

At 6:30 in the morning dozens of Havana residents begin to casually congregate in the streets surrounding the embassy, a six-story building clad in Cuban limestone and large sheets of green glass that first opened its doors in 1953, a stone’s throw from the Malecon.

Teresa Contreras, a store clerk, is one of those who decided to get there early. “I don’t know if the government of Raul Castro is planning economic or political reforms, but the situation is already changing. Things will get better for Cubans, God willing ” she says, making the sign of the cross with a plastic water bottle towards the people around her.

Waking up from a fifty-four-year slumber in which the two nations have been crouched in their respective trenches will be a litmus test for politicians from both sides.

There are those within both the dissident community and the Palace of the Revolution who look askance at the new agreement. Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban opposition leader, is not expecting anything from the thaw.

“Obama gave up a lot without getting anything in return. There were no calls or demands that human rights be respected,” says Rodiles. He and Berta Soler, founder of the Ladies in White, decided not to attend an event hosted by Kerry to which ten other dissident figures had been invited.

One segment of the opposition feels out of place in the new environment. “I see more opportunities under the new scenario for new political dialogue with the government. But as Cubans we must resolve the problems ourselves,” says Vladimir Romero, a human rights activist.

And since December 17, 2014 everyone in Cuba has been anticipating for more to eat, large-scale investment and broadband internet.

Never before has the opening of an embassy aroused so many expectations.

Last of a three-part series by Ivan Garcia on John Kerry’s twelve-hour visit to Havana. Previous blog posts in the series: Welcome, Mr. Kerry and Reporting from Havana without Press Credentials.

Photo: A man waits for the sun to go down to transport two buckets of water, Chinese-style, in Santiago de Cuba. From El Pais, July 2015.

Away from the media spotlight, Cubans on the outskirts of Havana and in towns in the country’s interior lack drinking water in their homes. A lack of rain due to a weak storm season has led to a fierce drought, a cause of concern throughout the island. The drought is forecast to worsen after November, the beginning of Cuba’s traditional dry season.

19 August 2015

Cuba: Waiting for Cable TV / Ivan Garcia

August 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Cuba-viendo-telenovelas-coreanas-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 21 August 2015 — When you tell Felicia, aged 76, a housewife, that with that  “strange and complicated gadget” which you operate with your fingertips she can make an audiovisual connection with her son who lives in Miami, she shakes her head as if to say you are pulling my leg.

Tablets, laptops and smartphones, seem to her like things from science fiction. She is convinced that her rough fingers can destroy those little toys with their flat screens.

Felicia prefers to sit down on the sofa in her house and watch five hours of Brazilian, Turkish and South Korean soaps or costume dramas produced in the States.

Right now, she is waiting anxiously for the local messenger who is going to let her rent various episodes of Game of Thrones. The weekly packet is an audiovisual collection of films, serials and foreign soaps downloaded by private entrepreneurs and then marketed; it’s a primitive local leisure industry.

“Two years ago, a neighbour who had an antenna, let me use the signal for 8 CUC a month, with a listing of programmes from Miami and comedy items from Spain. But since the police shut down her business, I rent videos or the “weekly packet.” It’s because Cuban TV is so bad that people have no option but to spend money on other alternatives,” Felicia explains.

The reports in the national and foreign press emphasis the increase in internet services in the island, but they say little about any opening up of cable TV.

In a survey of 15 people, of both sexes and aged between 14 and 76, all of them approve of improved access to the internet, but are waiting for some news about an opening-up of prepay television channels.

Yudelis, aged 16, would like to have a “bundle” of available channels to see documentaries like discovery Channel, different news analysis in CNN or HBO serials.

Eusebio, 27, prefers a cable channel so he can watch live broadcasts of NBA and MLB games and international Tennis Opens. “Cuban television is making an effort on its sports channel, but it falls short. Many events are delayed. And when they transmit them, you already know the result.”

There are huge fanatics of the channels from Florida. Ileana, 34, obsessively consumes Caso Cerrado or Belleza Latina. “If they permitted cable TV you could choose your favourite programmes”.

Sergio, 41, an economist, thinks that opening up a television signal would be a really good deal for the government. “It could be more profitable than the internet. Remember that in Cuba it’s only a minority that has a computer or smartphone, but almost everybody has a television.”

Carlos, 59, a sociologist, thinks that the political prejudices of the military autocrats count for more than economic profit. “In cable TV there are poor quality programmes which add nothing to general culture. But every person is able to make their individual decision as to preferences and what to do with their free time. An opening like this would short-circuit the State’s monopoly on information. The problem for the government is not that people would be able to see recorded crap, but that they would know, for example, about Antonio Castro’s vacations in Greece and Turkey.”

In President Obama’s 17th December 2014 roadmap to empower the Cuban people, there was no mention of the intention to market the US prepay Spanish TV service.

And this isn’t mentioned either in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms. The olive green government has only committed itself to digitise TV by 2021.

If you are interested in the Florida channels, you have to pay the equivalent of $10 a month to shady people who market the service, or rent the “weekly packet.” There’s no choice.

Iván García

Photo: Two Cubans watching a South Korean soap in their house. Taken by Panamericana.

Note: After more than three decades of the Brazilian reign, South Korean soaps have gained ground with the Cuban public. The boom in “doramas” (Asian dramas) on the island exploded after the successful transmission of The Queen of the Wives. That was followed by My Beautiful Woman, You are Beautiful, Unlimited Dreams and Secret Garden, but some 30 or so are going round from hand to hand, nearly all of them from Miami, where the “doramas” are very popular with the Cubans and Latinos living in Florida.

On a visit to the island, the actor and singer Yoon Sang Hyun, known in Cuba for his interpretation of the butler Seo in the My Beautiful Woman soap, said that the success of the South Korean series was down to their showing real life personal relations, and including some comedy, romance and drama, but without over-dramatising it.

The South Korean soaps follow a similar model to the Brazilian, Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan TV dramas, and show the Cubans an unknown country, although for a while they have been selling Made in South Korea appliances (Samsung is the best-known brand). Seoul and Havana have had no diplomatic relations since 1959 due to the historic political and ideological alliance between the Castro regime and the Kims in Pyongyang. According to the Yonhap agency, “Cuba and South Korea can normalise their diplomatic relations in the very near future.”

Lately, the Cubans have also latched onto the Turkish soaps, although the Brazilian ones remain the favourites. Cuba is a precursor country of the genre: it was a Cuban, Félix B. Caignet (1892-1976), author of the famous radio serial The Right to be Born, in the ’40’s, who fixed the srructure later adopted by television for its melodramas (Tania Qunitero).

Translated by GH

Reporting from Havana, without Press Credentials / Ivan Garcia

August 19, 2015 1 comment
Photo: A few of the many Cubans who gathered along the Malecon its side streets on Friday, August 14 to witness the flag raising ceremony at the US embassy hosted by John Kerry, American secretary of state and head of the US State Department. The Daily Mail.

Photo: A few of the many Cubans who gathered along the Malecon its side streets on Friday, August 14 to witness the flag raising ceremony at the US embassy hosted by John Kerry, American secretary of state and head of the US State Department. The Daily Mail.

Ivan Garcia, 16 August 2015 — Twenty-three-year-old Liudmila spent the evening of August 13 dancing the guanicheo —Cuba’s latest dance craze — at a discotheque in the quiet neighborhood of Miramar in western Havana with her latest romantic conquest: a tall young man from Kansas with a wispy red beard who came to Cuba to collect information for a documentary on marine species and ended up falling for a lighthearted and cheerful girl from a tough neighborhood in the old part of the city.

“It was great. First we went to the Casa de la Musica in Miramar and then to a jazz set at the La Zorra nightclub on La Rampa. Now we’re here, waiting for the flag raising ceremony and Kerry’s speech,” says Liudmila, seated on a sidewalk along the Malecon. Her American boyfriend, Roger, is trying to take some photos of the crowd gathered here to celebrate the historic event.

Hundreds of Cubans converge on the areas surrounding the US embassy in Havana, a six-story building clad in Cuban limestone and large sheets of green glass. Designed by American architects Max Abramovitz and Wallace K. Harrison, the building began operations in 1953.

Elena — a slender, talkative woman with auburn-tinted hair — is trying to block out the sun with a parasol. A space opens up in the crowd and suddenly she can more clearly see the arrival of the delegation headed by the Secretary of State John Kerry.

“When I came here before to welcome foreign dignitaries, I did it because I was under orders from union officials and party bosses where I worked. Now I’m retired, so I’m here voluntarily,” she says. “It would have seemed impossible back then that Fidel or Raul and the United States would end up ’balancing the books’ (negotiating).”

A little after six in the morning people begin to gather. Everyone wants to witness the official opening of the diplomatic mission. The public has been granted access to Calzada Street, as well as to the thoroughfare bordering the Malecon. Barricades mark off the area and security personnel maintain a low profile.

It is a novelty to see Cuban security officers working with Secret Service agents, who are responsible for protecting the secretary of state.

One of Kerry’s bodyguards, who could pass for a player in the NBA, is wearing a navy blue suit that clearly is too small for him. In spite of the intense heat, he tries to keep up appearances and gamely poses for journalists not accredited by the US government, as is the case with me.

Teresa, the daughter of a former political prisoner, also wants to see the stars and stripes being raised. “My father lives in Miami and he does not agree with the new policy. But we Cubans are fed up. With the (Castro) government, with the blockade (embargo) and with US policy towards Cuba because it affects the average citizen, not the government leaders,” she says, dressed in white and wearing religious bracelets on her right wrist.

A woman who lives nearby arrives, carrying her shopping bag, to watch the historic moment. “After I left the produce market, I came straight here,” she says. “I have faith. I hope relations with the United States improve our quality of life. And that the government lifts the blockade,” she says.

Chat with almost anyone watching events from the sidelines — dissidents, revolutionaries or average citizens — and you will find that, in one way or another, they believe it is Obama’s responsibility to involve himself in Cuba’s future.

However, opposition figures such as Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler and Jorge Luis Perez Garcia blame the US president for “legitimizing the Castro brothers’ dictatorship and encouraging repression.”

They spent seventeen consecutive Sundays being beaten and insulted while protesting at a park a stone’s throw from Fifth Avenue in Miramar. Another faction of the dissident community — this includes Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Laritza Diversent y Miriam Leiva — support the new accord.

But it is not easy to cut the umbilical cord of fear. Talking with Havana residents such as Josue, a taxi driver, and listening their expectations of future relations between the two countries, one might think Cubans are either naive dreamers or simply misguided.

They live in a world of science fiction. Josue already foresees fast food restaurants on every corner, Apple stores and a rejuvenated Havana filled with skyscrapers.

“Miami will go back to being a country town. Havana was always a cosmopolitan, seductive city,” he says after watching the flag of broad stripes and bright stars being raised.

Many believe that a generous Uncle Sam will open his checkbook and rescue the ruined buildings and third-world infrastructure that now characterize Cuba, a country with a million college graduates but streets like those in Zimbabwe.

Whether you are talking about people phoning relatives in Florida to ask for a hundred dollars or the plethora of dissidents who think nothing of hopping on a plane to Miami to discuss things they cannot talk about openly in Havana, countless Cubans think it is the responsibility of Americans to build a new and better country.

Meanwhile, the quaint perceptions of Americans who visit the Castros’ ideological madhouse have changed little. If Cuba before 1959 was viewed as a giant casino where everyone smiled, played maracas and danced the rumba, the island is now synonymous with vintage American cars and buildings in ruin, a country disconnected from the modern world.

A good example of this symbolism were the three Chevrolets intentionally parked on the Malecon, directly facing the rostrum where Kerry was to deliver his speech.

The intended message was clear: the United States has come to save Cuba. And in one way or another many on the island believe it.

 

Welcome, Mr. Kerry / Ivan Garcia

August 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Kerry-paseando-por-La-Habana-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 15 August 2015 — In Luis García Berlanga’s impressive 1953 film, Welcome Mr. Marshall, the mayor, priest and townspeople of Villar del Río await the visit of George Marshall, the American secretary of state from 1947 to 1949. In the film, Marshall is believed to be carrying in his briefcase a blank check, drawn on funds from his famous plan, to promote the recovery of dictator Francisco Franco’s Spain. On August 14, 2015, at eight-thirty in the morning, John Forbes Kerry, the man from Obama’s team who is responsible for conducting US foreign policy, landed at José Martí Airport in Havana.

It is yet to be seen what Kerry is carrying in his suitcase. It is very likely he will not be coming to Havana just to hoist the Stars and Stripes, have a few of mojitos and recite the usual mechanical speeches and diplomatic niceties so common in modern politics.

According to some diplomatic sources, Kerry will be toting his verbal shotgun, loaded with subtle rebukes to violations of human rights and political freedoms by the Castro brothers’ military dictatorship.

Of course, he will also be selling promises: visions that a market economy and financial capital will bring two hot meals a day and a better quality of life.

It is suspected that Kerry will further deflate the US economic and financial embargo with a package of new proposals. To make up for brushing off dissidents and independent journalists, he will host an afternoon event for a dozen or so opposition figures.

The move leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some in the dissident community. Obviously, they do not expect Mr. Kerry treat them like royalty. His visit is governmental in nature and the Cuban opposition, repressed and harassed, is a loose bundle of associations and political parties without a large base of supporters.

But at the same time they do not want to just have a chat in the kitchen. This somewhat reflects the feelings of Antonio Rodiles and Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, who declined his invitation.

“I do not believe just having a polite conversation is enough to address the serious and responsible debate we are seeking. That is why Berta and I have decided to decline the US embassy’s invitation,” said Rodiles said in a telephone interview.

Other invitees, including Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Miriam Leiva, will attend. It will be seventy years since Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Franklin Roosevelt’s last foreign secretary, visited Havana in the spring of 1945 and the first visit by an American political heavyweight to the communist island.

Since the December 17 thaw, when both nations climbed out of their Cold War trenches, congressional representatives, senators and members of the American media jet set have been given tours of Havana.

The presence of academics, politicians and journalists — interested in analyzing who the winners and losers are in the new diplomatic deal, or in predicting whether the Obama doctrine’s new formula can establish democracy in Cuba through investment, tourism, and mutual respect — have relegated the voice of the street to the background.

As usual, Afro-Cubans are the big losers in this new environment, though not through any fault of the White House. The political wariness of President Raul Castro, who after eight months still has not implemented a policy to benefit entrepreneurs or create economic opportunities, has shifted the mood from anticipation to resignation.

The regime knows that it is entering uncharted territory. Reinventing Marxist socialism after fifty-six years of economic disaster while running the country as though it were a military barracks is no small thing.

One misstep and the fragile house of cards collapses. The general’s government knows this, so it plays defense and lowers the shade. What is at stake is the continuity of the Castro system and its grip on power.

To contain the erosion of five and half decades of economic follies, it needs dollars and a legion of Yankee businessmen who can bring with them a new Marshall plan. But in moderation.

This is why official media outlets, circumspect and dull as usual, have barely covered Kerry’s historic visit.

On the afternoon of August 13, while television reporters commemorated Fidel Castro’s eighty-ninth birthday, near the US embassy in Havana the hustle and bustle of the national and international press as well as heightened security measures were clearly in evidence.

Nearby streets were closed to vehicular traffic and Cuban flags hung from some balconies. Area businesses, most privately owned, were also closed.

“I can’t wait for Kerry to leave. I’ve gone three days without any business,” says Julian, the owner of a small cafe near the embassy, which will is closed from August 3 to August 18.

The bustling triangular park where people wait to apply for American visas was deserted. There were only policemen in blue uniforms and people in civilian clothes or on bicycles. Some foreigners tried to pass themselves off tourists, but their physical build gave them away as US Secret Service agents.

Around 9:45 am on Friday 14, fifty-four years after it came down, the US embassy in Cuba once again hoisted the flag of broad stripes and bright stars.

After the celebration, many jaded Havana residents with no future asked themselves how improved relations with the United State will improve their lives. They expect more of the same from the Cuban government.

Breaking through the wall of stagnation and gaining the trust of a regime that focuses more on political and social controls that generating a powerful middle class will be a formidable task for the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, the townspeople will be watching as the procession goes by, just like in Berlanga’s film.

Iván García

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