Archive for February, 2010

Martha Beatriz Roque Remembers Orlando

February 28, 2010 2 comments

On the afternoon of February 27th, Havana looked run-down.  A persistent rain engulfed the worn out streets of the Santo Suarez neighborhood with mud.  The sky, with its rat-like color, added a sad touch to the city.

Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Laritza and I arrived to the house of the house of the opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabella, a 64-year-old economist, and a woman with a chubby face and with deep bags under her eyes.  Roque Cabella lives in a narrow inner corridor.  Right in front of her door, agents from the political police have placed a large drawing of Fidel Castro, embedded into a grayish wall which has been deteriorating with time.

The veteran dissident received us in her small living room.  She is one of the most active voices for change in Cuba.  She has had to pay a high price for choosing to oppose the Castro government.  She has lived through innumerable detentions and abuses.  On two occasions she was even condemned to long years in prison.

The last time she “visited” the woman’s jail called Manto Negro, in the town of Guatao, was actually the 20th of March 2003, during the so-called Black Spring.  Through a medical parole, thanks to a string of illnesses and the pressure of the civilized world, the Castro regime was forced give in and free her.

“I am drained from my exhausting trip to Banes, where I attended the burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo — a trip in which I was 24 hours without sleep,” comments Martha, who is wearing a house dress the orange color of the mamoncillo fruit.

According to Roque Cabello, the town of Banes was completely taken over by State Security forces.  “It looked like a military fort, there were dozens of high-ranking officials, fearful and alert.  Reina Tamayo, the mother of the dissident who lost his life due to a prolonged hunger strike, resides in a poor concrete hut.  Walking in the streets filled with patches of misery was almost an adventure.”

She continued to explain to us, “There was a chain of soldiers and members of the political police.  There was a tense atmosphere, one could slice it with a knife.  In her living room, the body of Tamayo resided, along with a group of dissidents and the Ladies in White.  We placed a flag in the coffin,” she recalls with a calm voice.

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello half closes her eyes and meditates.  “It was around the year 2002 when I first met Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  He was a very humble guy, very respectful and disciplined.  One had to extract words from him.  On December 2002 he was detained simply for participating in an act of protest in the Lawton neighborhood — a protest organized by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.”

She adds: “During the first days of January 2003, almost on the eve of the Black Spring, he visited my house and acknowledged the personal support that I had given him, as well as our group, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society.  Zapata had no desire to assume a leading role, he did not desire to leave his country — he was just a common brick layer who felt that his country needed changes immediately,” she says with vehemence.

Martha then answers a phone call and later returns to the dialogue.  “In March of 2003 a group of dissidents of our organization initiated a hunger strike in the house of Marieta, the wife of the deceased dissident, Jesus Yanes Pelletier, in Humboldt, Vedado.  Orlando Zapata Tamayo participated with us.  I clearly remember that it was in that hunger strike where I held a full conversation with him and he told me about his miserable lifestyle, about his childhood which lacked material goods, and his dreams.  He was a simple person with a very firm idea in his mind: that Cuba move towards democracy”, she says in a low voice.

One of the principal leaders of the Cuban dissidence, Martha continues telling us:

“On March 20th 2003, they detained Orlando along with 86 other dissidents.  At first, the government of Fidel Castro detained that number of people and later, I suppose to round off the numbers and so the totals could match, in other words, 15 imprisoned dissidents for each one of the 5 spies jailed in the US, then he reduced the number of those arrested to 75.  Zapata spent a few days in a cell.  A few weeks afterward they let him go.  Then, after a few days, during an act of protest in favor of the liberation of the 75 arrested dissidents, which he carried out in Havana’s Central Park, he was again detained and sentenced 3 years in prison for disrespect.  Then he started his ordeal, the beginning of the end for this humble mestizo from Holguin.”

During the initial 3 years, because of different protests and complaints, they held various trials where they accused him of acting out in prison and his sentence was lengthened to 43 years.  Later, the court combined a sanction and his sentence was reduced to years in prison. In all the jails where Orlando Tamayo Zapata stayed, he was tortured and brutally beaten by the prison authorities. I recall that in one of the trials they staged, he arrived with his mouth all bruised up, handcuffed, and with shackles on his feet.  During his fateful hunger strike, the soldiers of the jails denied him water for 18 days…it wasn’t an accident or suicide…it was a crime,” an indignant Mara Beatriz declares.

She then grabs the Granma newspaper, dated February 27th, and with her fingers points out an article by the journalist, Enrique Ubieta:

“Besides lying without blushing, in his article there are many inconsistencies.  To try to vilify Zapata Tamayo, he tries to fabricate a background of dangerous delinquency.  Without a doubt, it is an obvious contradiction, for according to Ubieta, he was sentenced 3 times for supposed grave crimes in 2000, but already towards the end of 2001 he was free.  If there is no bad blood, then Ubieta is lying and the crimes couldn’t have been so grave,” points out Marta.

And she adds that for the government of the Castros it is inadmissible for a person who has had common crimes on their record to have the right to demand political changes.

“In his protests, in the hunger strike he carried out for 86 days, Orlando only asked for decent food cooked by his mother, to have water, and the freedom of the political prisoners.  It seems that for the government these demands were exaggerated.  Then they would have to deal with the outpouring of protests throughout the world and the accusing finger of the world media.  It is still too early to derive lessons from the death of Zapata Tamayo.  At this time, 7 other prisoners of conscience have initiated their own hunger strikes and the journalist, Guillermo Farinas, who resides in the city of Santa Clara, a man whose body has already been debilitated by prior hunger strikes, if he and the others do not give up, the bad news could pile up for the regime,” finishes Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, who promises that the internal dissidency will not stand by with their arms crossed.

The government of the Castro brothers may think it has reason in saying that nothing needs change in Cuba, that everything marches along just fine, and that the people are happy.  But it should be difficult to sleep with a peaceful conscience when, in their country, a man has lost his life simply for reclaiming a bunch of rights during the 7 years he was in jail.

The case is not about ideology, it is about humanity.  At least that is what many Cubans on the island believe.

Ivan Garcia y Laritza Diversent

Photos: Martha Beatriz, to the right, honoring Orlando Zapata Tamayo next to his coffin, together with various Ladies in White.

Translated by Raul G.

Lula Did Not Want His Party With the Castros to be Spoiled

February 27, 2010 2 comments

The story of Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva seems to be taken straight out of a Globo TV soap opera.  Despite the fact of having only studied up to the 5th grade, Lula is a guy of natural intelligence, skillful statesmanship, and clever strategies when it comes to political moves.

He became a giant in trade union struggles back in the 70’s in the industrial belt of Sao Paulo, where he worked in a steel plant.  Lula is the Latin-American version of the Polish Lech Walesa and his Solidarity syndicate.  He never was communist and has been a firm critic of the former totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe.

An active Catholic, he created the Worker’s Party in 1982, and thanks to his work, this organization became one of the principal actors on the political map of Brazil.  As a good Brazilian, he likes the ‘Cachaca’ drink, festivals, and soccer.  He is a fan of the Corinthians football [soccer] team and bets on DT Dunga returning the sixth Cup back home from the World Cup this coming June in South Africa.

He was elected to the government after three failed candidacies.  In his case, he succeeded after the fourth try.  He contracted with the number 1 campaign advisor in Brazil to run his campaign.  This choice took him straight to the Planalto Palace.  Of course, Lula did alter his discourse.  He realized that in order to run a country it would take much more than workers, people from villages,  life-long shanty town residents, and people without land.  He didn’t threaten the rich and he allied himself with International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whom he has never failed to pay up to the last centavo of Brazilian debt.

Lula is a product created by political surgery.  He is a fruit produced by marketing.  He is an elite of political necromancy and transvestim.  His Zero Hunger campaigns have not achieved much.  Brazil continues to be among the countries in the world with the greatest inequality.  And such beautiful cities as Rio de Janeiro are also one of the most violent in the world.

Blacks and mestizos account for very little of the social and political life of the country, unless they are maybe soccer players, religious caretakers, or Rio musicians.  This year, Lula returns home to Sao Bernardo do Campo, with a Brazil that is amongst the 25 most economically powerful countries of the planet, yet it has a very uneven distribution of wealth and very few financial opportunities for those at the bottom.

As for the international realm, he has won success.  He is Obama’s right hand at international summits and representatives of the most richest countries have a soft spot for the working man who rose to be president.  Although Fidel Castro and his buddies, Chavez and Morales, have pulled the rug out from under the bearded Brazilian.

At times, Lula has turned away from the ideology of the left, but blood is thicker than water and before finishing his term he wanted to take a trip to Havana to say goodbye to his friend, Fidel, and to do some business with the Cuba of General Raul Castro.

He is within his rights as president of a sovereign country.  The bad side of Lula in his Havana trip, though, was to ignore the death of the peaceful opposition figure Orlando Zapata Tamayo due to a long hunger strike.  He was asked about the situation but he spoke about something else.  He turned a deaf ear.

Perhaps Lula was unaware that the 42 year old mestizo who, on February 25th, was buried in Banes, Holguin (an Eastern town about 850 km from the capital), was a bricklayer, and like him, a supporter of democracy and human rights.

His advisors did not want to spoil the party he was having with the Castros.  And Lula preferred silence.  The Brazilian president of the poor failed to point out that during that same day of his visit to Havana, a simple Cuban man died only because he was demanding the same thing that he (Lula) had demanded his entire life as a trade unionist, opposition politician, and statesman.  But despite having lived through periods of military dictatorship in Brazil, Lula had much more luck than Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

One night, while he is alone in his house drinking a Brazilian coffee, perhaps Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva will recognize how contemptible and cowardly he was to refuse to speak even a few words of condolence to the tormented mother of a man who, like himself, wanted the best for his country.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

There are Deaths that End up Being Very Expensive.

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

There are some deaths that could avoided.  Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death, for instance, was one of these.  It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the Cuban government.  The fact that in the 21st century a man has died as a result of an extensive hunger strike whose sole purpose was to demand a handful of rights, will always be a slap in the face of the most elemental principles of humanity.

It is not a problem of pride or of clearly establishing who is right.  The implacable power of a state should not, and could not, squash, without consideration, the life of a human being.  Especially when that person was purging an unjust sanction of 36 years behind bars.

The strength of those who have power lies in knowing how to make good use of the same.  The government of the Castro brothers is not going to accomplish any merits with situations like those of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  All the contrary.  In many ways, they should have, and could have, stopped his death.

Now, this cadaver has a symbolism attached to it that is far too great.  There are deaths that end up being very expensive.  It is not possible to talk to politicians of other latitudes and look them in the eye when you very well know that you have over 200 prisoners of conscience behind bars.

You can’t chat about ethics and humanity when in a prison cell in the depths of Cuba, a 42-year-old black and humble man like Orlando Zapata Tamayo, has died.  The point is not to discuss ideologies or to talk nonsense about groups and individuals who think differently.

What the government of my country should make a note of, with un-erasable ink, is that stupidity and caprice are not appropriate weapons for governing the destiny of a nation.

Zapata Tamayo is no longer with us.  He stopped existing on the 23rd of February at 3:15 pm in the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, where he was taken by the penal authorities when his decease was already imminent.

His death is a message of coming and going, of should not be done in the politics of a state.  Before, they had an opponent without any weapon who demanded things that could have been negotiated, but now they have a martyr.

It is not the first time that a peaceful opponent dies, product of a hunger strike, in a Cuban cell.  On the May 24, 1972, the student leader, Pedro Luis Boitel, ex-comrade of Fidel Castro, died of the same causes.

While I type this note on the morning of February 24, others who are dead come to mind.  The 4 pilots of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, shot down over international waters by the Revolutionary Combat Air Force in 1996.  From Havana, and with that action, Fidel Castro gave the pen to then president Bill Clinton so he could sign the unjust Helms-Burton Law.

I feel indignation.  I didn’t even know Orlando Zapata Tamayo.  From chatting with some of his companions from the Alternative Republican Movement, I sense that I am far from sharing his ideology.  But at this point in the Revolution, the machinery of hate and violence should be dropped.

It resolves nothing.  It only increases the scale of resentments and polarizes political rationalizations.  The government of Raúl Castro, whose second anniversary of being named president happens to coincide with this death, lacks sense, dialogue, and the desire to fix the shameful economic and political situation in Cuba, that system for which both he and his brother are primarily responsible.

I think it was the icon of civil rights struggles, Mahatma Gandhi, that said that hunger strikes are an effective weapon when they manage to soften the hearts of your enemies.  It seems, though, that the hunger strike carried out by Orlando Zapata Tamayo could not soften the hearts of the Castros.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

On the Edge of the Precipice

February 21, 2010 1 comment

In Cuba we live on the edge of a precipice. If you want to get by, you have to take risks. In almost every sector of Cuban life you have to resort to illegal activity to be able to survive.

Market shortages in freely convertible currencies have become a frequent prospect. Furthermore, its normal to turn to to the black market to obtain the best selection and prices of goods.

In the street, hidden under a cloth you can even find a coffin if you need one, but you cannot forget that you are committing a crime by obtaining these goods. In Cuba, almost everything is illegal. If you sell or buy with the intention of re-selling the item afterwards, depending on the case you could be brought before the Commission for crimes involving the acquisition or the hoarding of goods.

The same thing can happen to you where you live. In each area a committee watches people 24/7. A culture of suspicion has been created, which doesn’t accept any proof of innocence. The reality is that no worker can live on just their monthly salary alone. You have two options, you live off remittances from your family or you improvise, you hustle and in Cuba this means you turn to the black market, like the illegal trade during the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

On Castro’s Island you can draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons simply by painting your house, buying a television, eating meat from time to time, throwing a good birthday party for your children or owning 3 or 4 pairs of shoes. This would be considered as having a quality of life which is too high, which is enough to result in the confiscation of your possessions for making money illegally. In this case, the responsibility to provide evidence is reversed, as it is up to you to prove that your “riches” are not a result of illegal activity.

It’s rare not to know what certain neighbours are up to in your area; not out of curiosity, but mainly out of necesity. You return from work and you discover that your cooking oil has run out, so you can take an empty bottle and ask around the neighbourhood. Straight away someone informs you who is selling oil. The same thing happens if you don’t have the right money when you’re out shopping and you need to buy detergent, soap or sausages or if you need to get hold of a chicken for your child who is ill.

Despite having spent 51 years basically living illegally, Cubans allegedly have to denounce all acts which go against the law. A failure to do so is considered a crime under the penal code; in other words turning a blind eye is also illegal.

Could you imagine turning in the person who sells you chicken for a lower price than the state or pointing the finger at the people who enable you to buy food, clothes and shoes at prices which you can afford? These people let you pay in two or three installments with other advantages which the state-run businesses do not offer. As the people consider this law unfair, you will find that in Cuba today there is a great social tolerance towards illegal activities.

The government is also aware of this situation so as a result a complex network of anonymous informants has been set up. People are betrayed not only due to strict vigilance or a desire to obey the law, but also due to jealousy, quarrels or sexual passions. This demonstrates the loss of morals in Cuban society and above all, the way in which the government can interfere in the private lives of citizens with complete impunity.

The wealth of a neighbour can worry one person or irritate another, including those “Revolutionaries,” who over the years have become frustrated with a life which seems to be going nowhere. An argument about loud music, a fight between brothers, a confrontation over the boundaries of an adjacent patio or simply just being proud and not saying hello to anyone can be the catalyst for a tip-off.

In other cases, you can give information in return for being left alone by the authorities. In all the neighbourhoods there is no lack of unscrupulous people who say “I am involved in illegal activities, but I will also inform on what others are doing.” These type of people have become the main source of information for the authorities, to fight against the “new rich,” the Cubans who supposedly represent a real danger to the political power of the communists. This is a twisted way of looking at things, but the informers are also acting out of necessity.

Despite these areas of 24 hour vigilance and denunciations, the number of people breaking the law increases every day. This is normal when you forbid a person from doing something against their natural survival instinct. All the individuals who flout the penal code do so for this reason and come from all walks of life.

There are acts which do not represent a danger to society, as they already classified as illegal in the legislation. It is certain that the only thing that is legal in Cuba is to work in a state owned enterprise, study and go shopping with your ration card in the warehouse. To do anything else means to cross over into illegality.

What damage does it do to a society when a citizen cannot sell eggs and advertise his goods in the street? What kind of feeling is created when the government prevents its citizens from going into private business when it is unable to meet their individual needs? The state knows that it is irrational to maintain a ban on something which it cannot provide a substitute for. The authorities are also aware that the citizens need to resort to illegal activities to survive, and the economic situation makes sure that this vicious circle prevails.

Illegal activities and corruption are closely linked. The shortage of resources encourages the black market and all this contributes to the collapse of the economy, hinders law and order of the state and removes the necessary social consensus which legitimizes the state’s power. By allowing individuals to live like barbarians in an uncivilised society without rules which must be obeyed, the state contributes to the breakdown of the fundamental components of education and the moral code.

if there are so many disadvantages from the illegal sector and rational measures are not taken to stop them either, what is the real purpose of the Cuban government? Their intention is not clear except to remain loyal at any cost to a system built upon illegal activity.

From this point of view, the illegal actions suit the government as their excessive bans help them to completely control the population who are suffocated by a repressive police presence and the population will be loyal as they need to survive. Under these conditions their power could last for another half a century.

For people in countries where a government of laws and rights exist, it is very difficult to understand why Cubans have to break the law in order to achiveve their aspirations or realize a dream. You commit a crime whilst accepting the crimes of others or run the risk of being turned in simply on a whim or out of spite.

This is an incomprehensible and surreal situation, but this is how we have lived in Cuba for 51 years since Fidel Castro came to power.  Without civic values.

Ivan Garcia and Laritza Diversent

Photo: juanmrivas, Flickr

Translated by : Ellie Edwards

The Fortress, the Books, and the City

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Havana from La Cabaña fort

From Feb 11-22, Havana is the center of the 19th International Book Fair.  Then, the Book Fair will tour the major Cuban cities for a month.

The Book Fair will take place at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña.  This is  a building in the form of a polygon, composed of numerous bulwarks, moats, barracks, and warehouses.  Its construction was started in 1763, and finished 11 years later in 1774.  Of the military buildings Spain constructed in America, it is the largest.  As well as lodging for the best units of the Spanish Army in Cuba, it served to protect Havana from pirate attacks.

By order of Fidel Castro on January 3, 1959, Ernesto Che Guevara occupied La Cabaña and established his command headquarters there.  From that date, it was transformed into a military unit for the guerilla fighters.  And also into a giant prison.  In its humid cells, the same ones where they happily sell literary titles,  hundreds of political and common criminals used to be crowded together.

Serial executions took place in the yards where now the fascinated children run and play hide-and-seek behind the solidly built canons of the 18th century.  Stories are told that in the first days of the revolution, Che personally supervised the executions of the Batista party members accused of crimes.  In those same pits, the opponents of Castro were executed.  In 1991, after various years of remodeling, the old fortress was converted to the Military Morro-Cabaña Historical Park.

The 19th edition of the Book Fair is devoted to Russia.  In various pavilions, a heap of books by authors like Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, and Pushkin are sold.  I didn’t see books from Solzhenitsyn, Pasternack, or Nabokov.  If there is one whose books should have been sold, it is Yevgeny Yevtushenko, symbol of the post-Stalinist thawing, because the controversial poet is one of the more than 200 Russian intellectuals, writers, and artists, among them the Bolshoi Ballet, that traveled to the Island like special guests, purposely for the Fair.

Eighteen Years ago, Russia said goodbye to the communist ideology, but in Cuba, such a trustyworthy ally of Moscow that in 1976 a paragraph was included in the Constitution highlighting the “indestructible relations between both nations,” certain Russian literature, music, and movies are still considered dissident.

Having been dedicated to Russia, this Fair has brought loads of nostalgia to supporters of the Castro brothers.  Opened by the president, who has never hidden his veneration for the Soviet feat during World War II.  According to professor Jaime Suchlicki, from the University of Miami, “the Soviet army seemed to have always fascinated Raul, who exhibits photos and statues of soviet generals in his office in Havana.”

Together with the Russian Chancelor Sergei Lavrov, the general Raul Castro presided over the inauguration on Thursday, the 11th.  In subsequent days, people turned out en masse to the different areas of The Cabaña.

Havana – Book Fair 2010

With an impressive and unique view of Havana, and a multitude of books and kiosks with an ample gastronomic offering in the two currencies that circulate on the Island (the Cuban Peso and the Convertible Cuban Peso), thousands of people crowded the pavilions in search of literary novelties.

In pesos, the national currency, they sold a few tattered books.  More of the same.  At the entrance, they gave out the title Niños del Milagro (Children of the Miracle) published April 2004, about the eye operations of Venezuelan children, written by the Cuban journalists Katiuska Blanco, Alina Perera, and Alberto Ñúñez. By means of a human wall and with a little luck, you could acquire novels from universal pens or police procedurals from the Spaniard Juan Madrid.

There were ample offerings in strong currency.  Above all, for children.  Ricardo Rojas, 43 years old, seated with his back to the sea and with his daughter, under a bright sun and an irritating wind commented: “I spent 54 Cuban Convertible Pesos (some 50 dollars) in books for my daughter.  When I got back home, I will have to put up with the argument from my wife, for the money wasted only on books.  But they are didactic works that will serve in her education.”

At least Rojas can give himself this luxury.  The majority think about it twice when it comes time to open the wallet. The books are expensive, even the ones sold in pesos, as well as those sold in convertible currency. Nora Diaz, spent five hours with her 3 kids spinning like tops by all of the pavillions.  In her purse she had 120 pesos (4 dollars) and 6 convertible pesos (5 dollars) to spend between books and something to eat.

At the end she bought a pair of infant stories from a Russian author, a cookbook, and 4 apples that she and her kids ate seated on the heights of the Fortress of the Cabaña, looking at the still intense blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and scant anchored boats, waiting to enter the Havana port.  Nora does not believe that it was a lost day.  “It is an oasis of tranquility to see from the city from here.  We will go back with few books, but hopeful,” she said captivated by the splendid scenery.

In spite of its shady past, the vision offered from the grounds of La Cabaña offers is fabulous.  If only to look at Havana from the other side of the bay it is worthwhile to challenge the lines, the empty wallets, the daily disgust, and the deficient public transport.  Book Fair or no Book Fair.

Iván García

Photos: CalQBN, Flickr and Iván García

Translated by BW

Ballplayers Longing For Six Figure Salaries

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

They can’t sleep easy at night.  The millionaire salaries that they pay the ballplayers in the Big Leagues of the United States give the Cuban players a migraine.  It’s no small wonder.

Every time a newspaper from the other side of the pond falls in their hands, or they watch it through Florida TV Channels, they see the Angel’s great hitter, Kendry Morales, who had a dream career, or when they see that the lefty Aroldis Chapman pitching 100 miles per hour signed six seasons with the Cincinnati Reds for 30.25 millions dollars (he will make a minimum of 5 millions dollars per season). It is inevitable that the young local baseball stars like Aramis Mendez sighs to play one day in the big arena.

The drip drip drip of desertions from the national sports increases. When in 1991 the right handed pitcher René Arocha from the Havana town of Regla, from the other side of the bay, opened the spigot of baseball players that preferred to play as professionals and manage their money without the inference of the State, since then the number grows year by year

A little more than 300 baseball players have left the country. At the first opportunity, however it might be, by abandoning the team in the middle of a game, or throwing themselves onto the sea in any floating object. They want to leave behind their modest lives of playing the whole year just to get the salary of a simple worker.

In Cuba a baseball player plays in the national classics, he does not work, and he competes the whole year like his counterparts, the professionals, do. When he goes to the pay window he collects super modest salary. Noelvis Rodríguez, a shortstop with good hands and a hot batting average, makes 278 Cuban pesos a month (around 12 dollars) as an exterminator even though he has never done this job before.

It is an old trick of the countries with totalitarian societies. They say that the athletes are amateurs, but actually, since infancy they are groomed as sportsmen of high efficiency. Since the now-extinct USSR appeared in the sports arena, back in 1952 in the Olympic games of Helsinki. The hierarchy of the communist states was eager to obtain great results in the sport arena to be able to show the superiority of the socialist system over undesirable and wild capitalism.

In all these nations, including Cuba, they could go without butter and beef but they will have plenty of Olympic winners; since an early age, their athletic abilities are manufactured like sausages and polished in the sporting schools.

In the quest for Olympic glory, they even practice dirty tricks. The biggest cheaters were the East Germans. To a swimmer like Cornelia Ender or an arrogant runner like Marita Koch, they were stuffed with forbidden substances to achieve results that border science fiction.

On the Island they also resorted to doping, although not with the same intensity as the East European athletes who had shining scores, like the disk thrower Luis Mariano Delis, or the weight lifter Daniel Núñez, they incurred in the use of forbidden substances to place themselves among the best of the world

The main sports of all times in Cuba are boxing and baseball. Before 1959 baseball players, the size of Adolfo Luque, Orestes Miñoso and Martin Dihigo, and pugilist like Kid Chocolate.

After the arrival of the bearded ones, sport was diversified, and they were great winners, like Las Morenas del Caribe in volleyball, track and field athletes, headed by the phenomenal runner of the 400 and 800 meters Alberto Juantorena, double Olympic champion in Montreal in 1976.

But the unexhaustible quarry was always in baseball and boxing. In the first years of the Revolution, the athletes who ran away from their Country to make money and compete for whichever country would take them were few. After 1991 when René Arocha started the stampede, the exodus of boxers and baseball players has increased

Mediocre athletes do not leave, no way. They want to make juicy salaries, Olympic boxing champions like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yan Bartelemí, and Odlanier Solís. Baseball players the caliber of the brothers Liván Hernández, José Ariel Contreras, Kendry Morales, Dayán Viciedo and Aroldis Chapman.

That is the reason why young talents like Noelvis Rodríguez watch mesmerized from home at the spectacular plays of their idols. If one day they make it to the Major Leagues, they also expect six figure salaries, and to be able to rescue their relatives out of their poverty. The government of the Castro brothers maintains a sterile struggle with its athletes.

The Castros plead that they compete in the name of honor and the love of the motherland. That money is not important but the love of their compatriots. Baseball stars like Kendry Morales and Aroldis Chapman got tired of hearing the string of patriotic rhetoric, while living in their humble concrete shacks

Their meager salaries disgust many Cuban baseball players. A long time ago, they glanced to the north. They wait for the opportunity to escape from the Island and make their dreams come true.

By the request of those interviewed, the names has been changed.

Translated by: Mari Mesa

A Calvary of Problems

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

El Calvario (Calvary) is a dusty and steep village, with many half-paved streets. It is located south of Havana, in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, the poorest and the one with the greatest number of imprisoned men in the entire city.

It was once a major town. When it was founded in 1753 by a family of Canary Islanders it had pretensions of being a middle-class neighborhood. There were three sugar mills, a municipal park, a church and a cemetery.

It is even said that the Cuban national hero José Martí had a girlfriend in the village. This is a typical claim of inhabitants of lost villages, inventing fables to add prestige to the soil of their birth.

In this January of 2010 in the 21st century, the village is a collection of sad one-story houses. Some have roofs of palm fronds and dirt floors. At the local cemetery a sallow, mentally-challenged guy acts as gatekeeper and gravedigger. Like something out of a horror movie.

In the space between graves, he grows squash, which he offers to the mourners and the curious who visit the rundown cemetery. The fool, which is what he really is, takes advantage of the ground and its possibilities.

A few days ago, between swigs of cheap rum, filtered with molasses and the smell of pork barbecued over charcoal on the grill, in the squalid old town they held the Assembly of Accountability.

What kind of assembly is that? It’s a review of what has been done by the delegate (a kind of council member) before the people who elected him. That night the atmosphere was warm. At the meeting, under the stars and surrounded by marabou weed and banana plants, the rotund president of the People’s Power in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo and his deputy were present.

The People’s Power emerged in 1974. It is a poor imitation of a Western parliament, where they play at practicing democracy. People go and raise a long list of complaints, which are very rarely solved.

That night, someone tape-recorded the Calvary Assembly. The local chiefs expressed themselves so badly,  mixing lies with the prepared government speech and partisan jargon, that it seemed like it was taken from a film script by Berlanga. They appear to propose ideas. The reality is that they impose them. They discussed issues such as lack of doctors, the possibility of having a market, and what to do to get a phone.

If it were not for the poor audio, it would have been worth listening to. It is a sample of Cuban democracy. The best in the world. According to Fidel Castro.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Love in the Time of the Special Period

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Julia Romero, a 20-year-old university student, will never forget the day she lost her virginity. Forget the fairy tale of a magical night, surrounded by a pleasant environment.

“My first night of love was terrible. It was in the middle of spring, we left a mediocre disco and had sex in a pitch-black park, surrounded by onlookers and in a heavy downpour that surprised us. The only pleasurable thing was that we were two people in love.”

And so it is that to make love in decent conditions in 21st century Havana is a luxury. Before 1989, there was an extensive network of motels, known in Cuba as posadas or inns. They were discrete, inexpensive, and air conditioned. They offered sandwiches and alcoholic beverages. They were open 24 hours. And for young couples, unfaithful spouses, and others who lived in overcrowded conditions and enjoyed no privacy, the only option they had to engage in sexual relations was to go to these motels.

But in 1990, with the arrival of the special period, a crisis that has lasted 21 years, among many other things, the inns quietly disappeared. The most common situation on the island is for up to four generations to live together under one roof. Having a single room is a convenience that few enjoy. Even young couples, when they have children, tend to sleep with them in the same room.

Ask the married couple Jose Ramirez and Delia Iznaga, about the problems they face when having sex. And with a frown, they will give you a long list of calamities. The Ramirez marriage produced two sons, 8 and 11 years old.

“They sleep in the same room. We barely have time for married life, it’s been a month since we had sex. And although we’re both 35, when we go out at night, my wife and I look like a couple of teenagers. We’ll make love in a staircase, the courtyard of a school, or a vacant lot. Several times we have surprised the custodians of the place or the police. We were shamefaced when we had to go pay a fine for ‘obscene acts in public.'”

With the legalization of the dollar and self-employment, private houses proliferated that rented to couples. They are comfortable and offer a wide assortment of food and beverages. But they are very expensive for the average Cuban.

Rudy Ramos, 43, owns one of these “tryst houses.” “The business is not going badly. I have expanded to 9 rooms, air conditioning, television, refrigerator, and shower with hot and cold water. The charge is 5 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) for two hours. And 10 CUC for the entire night. My papers are in order.

It happens that 10 CUC (250 Cuban pesos) is the minimum monthly wage in Cuba. These kind of houses for rent by the hour arose with foreigners in mind. It is well-known that one of the attractions of the island is sex tourism. But Cubans who work in hotels, or in cafes for CUCs, or who receive remittances from abroad, can with some frequency lie on a good mattress with a girlfriend, while drinking Crystal beer, and can shower with warm water after making love.

But they are the minority. Most, such as the Ramirez couple, or the college student Julia Romero, have sex without spending a dime, in a park under the stars or on any staircase of some building in the city. And believe me, in Havana there are many of these places.

Iván García

Photo: la imagen, Flickr

Translated by: Tomás A.

Revolutionary Tax

February 11, 2010 1 comment

It’s like a casino.  Pure gambling.  Cuban government economists don’t have to envy the financial wizard George Soros. Since October 25, 2004, when Fidel Castro levied an 18 percent tax on the U.S. dollar and 8 percent on other currencies, from this source alone Cuba has banked more than 600 million dollars a year in hard currency.

Let me explain. There is no trick whatsoever. Of the one billion dollars in remittances sent every year by Cuban exiles in Florida, the government pocketed 200 million. Without investing a dime.

If we accept as valid that two million visitors enter the island every year — naive northern Europeans, horny Spaniards hunting dark-skinned girls, relaxed Canadians fleeing the cold, and thousands of Cuban-Americans who come to visit their families — to all without exception, when they exchange money, the government applies the revolutionary tax.

As good Galician descendants, the Castros are reluctant to give figures, especially when it comes to money. So one has to keep accounts on paper. To the 600 million dollars, add 200 million for the tax applied to tourists, assuming that each of them, on average, exchanges 3 thousand U.S. dollars or euros.

And to complete Operation Robin Hood as implemented in Cuba, let’s add another 200 million dollars from high prices charged in establishments that sell goods or offer services for foreign exchange. Since 2004, commodities like oil, soaps, detergents and garments are sold exclusively for Cuban convertible pesos or CUC, the straw currency that hides the Yankee dollar.

$100 in 2002 translates to $60 in the newly released 2010. It’s simple arithmetic. You lose $20 when you change money in the state banks and another twenty when they mercilessly suck your taxes, sometimes in excess of 240 percent, when you go shopping at hard-currency stores.

At the time, the Comandante only justified that kind of abusive tax because the U.S. Department of Treasury, with its regulations resulting from the embargo, had made it impossible to trade with Yankee money. It was really because the Americans discovered four billion U.S. dollars deposited in the Swiss bank UBS from transactions with Cuba, which the Havana government claimed came from sales in hard-currency stores.

I’ve always wondered why they saved so much. Then came the plucking operation. Including Castro’s “good one”; one sunny morning in 2005, told the foreign press that this money was paying for the vaunted “energy revolution”, as he called the replacing of millions of electric appliances from the prehistoric era in most Cuban homes.

Forty-year-old American refrigerators, home cooling fans with industrial motors that made as much noise as an airplane taking off, and Russian television screens in black and white. He distributed poor-quality Chinese rice cookers, televisions and refrigerators. In addition to paying for the new equipment, people had to surrender the old. And the best of it was that the operation to save fuel and to replace archaic appliances was paid for by Cuban exiles, as well as tourists and foreign visitors, with the government tax on foreign exchange. Business full-circle.

Alan Greenspan had to be green with envy. With a government that does not take money from the rich, as did the hero of Sherwood Forest. No. It punishes the Cuban emigre who has to work two jobs in Miami and live in a cheap apartment and make sacrifices to send money to his family in Cuba.

The government always makes a monumental miscalculation, when it supposes that by having a second-hand car, an Apple Computer, a Motorola phone, air conditioning and a satellite dish, a Cuban is a rich guy. Maybe they should look in the mirror. Because they usually have all that paraphernalia and the rest of the people don’t, they presume that the “worms” in Miami are rolling in greenbacks.

It is not new to impose a revolutionary tax that the people don’t want. The Basque terrorist group ETA, made it fashionable for entrepreneurs and bankers to pay large sums of money, as one of the ways to maintain their terror campaign against the Spanish government. Leftist groups have also robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy people, and then demanded a lot of money. Anything goes in pursuit of the conquest of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Of the many omissions that the Castro brothers are silent about, the revolutionary tax on foreign exchange is one of them. As it is also obvious that for 16 years the exiles and their relatives in Cuba have to a large extent maintained the stunted island’s economy.

It is well-known that the Cuban economy is in bankruptcy. And with these reprehensible practices they keep it afloat. The least that the Castros should do, as fond of museums and statues as they are, is to erect a great monument in the heart of Havana to those Cubans in the diaspora who give oxygen to their economy.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Independent Journalists’ Avatars

February 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Damn.  What do I do now?  I had planned an interview with a lady from the Marianao neighborhood who does community service with needy children.  Because of reasons beyond my control I had to postpone it.

It’s 8:00 in the morning of an unusual and cold month of January in 2010.  I look at the wallet, 28 cuc’s left.  I have to improvise for the failed interview.  Already inside an “almendrón” (antique American car in use as a shared taxi), I decide to share with you the avatars and dreams of an Independent Cuban Journalist.

When, in October, 2009, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, in its digital version, asked me to write a debate blog titled 90 Miles in partnership with Max Lesnik, the idea seamed brilliant.  Also, if I could, the Mister of Editing with his Madrid accent asked me, some stories.  Great!  Hands to work.  But — there’s always a but — to write in Cuba is a task worthy of Tarzan.

I’ve seen Robert Redford’s film about Watergate seven times.  Incarnates the famous Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, and his celebrity source, Deep Throat.  A majestic case of journalism.  With avidity the stories get published in the magazines Time or Newsweek.  Also reports in El Mundo or the Sunday edition of El País.  They’re over the top.  To be a journalist in the First World must be gratifying.

No bureaucrat can deny you public information.  Nor dangling over your head is a horrific law that can condemn you to 20 years in jail.  Also no one in the neighborhood where you live can mount a “repudiation act,” a verbal lynching, German fascist style, where the least they’ll scream at you is a verbal assault on the mother who gave you birth.

Never, in that First World where for breakfast there’s a variety of dishes and with frequency you can eat meat, will a candid intelligence agent pay you a visit to threaten you, that if you continue to write you could be processed.  Must be good to be a journalist in the First World.

In the civilized, because in Colombia or Mexico, a paid thug of a drug cartel can spray you with bullets.  Or in the Venezuela of the delirious Hugo Chavez where the Bolivarian, without contemplations can fill you with improprieties on his television program Aló Presidente.

I have the habit of reading the comments left me.  I like to be criticized.  More so when they are views with weight in them.  If I adore something from the 21st Century is it’s feedback.  I write what I think, be it in a chronicle or in an opinion piece.  For the government, I’m a mercenary.  A traitor to my people and the Socialist Revolution.

I don’t frighten.  I take the work seriously.  Believe me.  And I’m a dreamer, who believes that deep down inside people are good.  For this 2010 I’ve got my plans.  I’d like for Raul Castro to give me the answers he denies blogger Yoani Sanchez.  Also I’d like to interview Fidel Castro in his private clinic.

The encounters list continues.  With Cuban athletes Kendry Morales and Dayron Robles.  And afterward have them sign their autographs for me.  I’d be happy if Usain Bolt, the man who came from another planet, the Swiss Roger Federer, the Argentine Lionel Messi or the Spaniard Pau Gasol, would grant me a few minutes.  Of the politicians, apart from the Castros, with pleasure I’d talk for El Mundo or for my blog, Desde La Habana, with the prisoner of conscience Oscar Elias Biscet or with the exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner.  Of foreign statesmen, I’d pour off with Lula or a polemic interview with the Father Christmas of Caracas.

Well, why not?  Also with the charismatic Barack Obama and the insipid Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who I’d ask to explain his government’s position with respect to Cuba.  I would miss a fist-full of artists and my little right eye, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s good to dream.  But I’ve arrived at the Parque Central Hotel.  An Internet card for one hour costs 8 cuc, a ton of money.  I tuck away well in my wallet the rest of the 20 cuc’s.  For next time.

I’d give what I don’t have to try out extensive reports, controversial and balanced and with good pictures.  And because someone from the said list granted me an interview.  But that’s jerking off.  Now I have to put my feet on the ground.  And besides this chronicle, see what else I can write for El Mundo and my blog Desde La Habana.  Afterwards I can continue dreaming.

Iván García


Translated by: Mickey Garrote