Archive for March, 2010

Havana, a Day Just Like Any Other

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

At whatever time, the hustle and bustle around India square, next to Fraternity Park, in front of the National Capitol, is always constant.

It is a coming and going of people from all the provinces.  Also tourists, with their hats and their cameras.  Despite the ruins and her age (she has already turned 490 years old), Havana sill preserves her enchantment.

The Cubans, as usual, in the streets.  Taking care of things.  Each one of them dealing with their own problems.  “Struggling”, “Solving”, “Surviving”: three of the most common phrases on the island of the Castro brothers.

In the former building of the Marina Newspaper, which now serves as the headquarters of the Provincial Court, the public is much different.  Cuffed prisoners, police and jailers, lawyers and judges, witnesses and onlookers all impatiently await the commencement of the trial.

A few blocks down, where El Paseo del Prado ends, one can see those who prefer to pass the time sitting on the best spot the city has to offer, the wall of the Malecon, morning, noon and night.

Text and Photos:  Ivan Garcia

Translated by Raul G.

I Consider Myself Agnostic

March 28, 2010 1 comment

Mister Editor of El Mundo America has put me in a tough spot. In a chain e-mail, he asked his colleagues throughout the continent to write about life during Holy Week in their respective countries. Fuck.

If there is anything I can brag about it is of not knowing anything about Holy Week. I will explain. I come from a communist family and was never baptized. I was born with the revolution of Fidel Castro, who, as you already know, always viewed priests with suspicion.

Especially if they were not on his side. Or were unsuccessful guerrillas, like the Colombian priest Camilo Torres, killed the first time he saw combat. Or were proponents of Liberation Theology, as was the custom of the Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto.

My ignorance of Catholicism I owe basically to my family, who never took me to a church as a child. But also to the anachronistic ideology where I was educated and became a man, and where to believe in God was a waste of time.

The revolution needed men of a new type. Those who hated religion and Yankee imperialism. Thank God, I didn’t take the bait. The artificial unanimity of opinions, the dangerous entente with the former USSR, the guerrilla focus of so many people, military mobilizations and obedience to their leader, were never to my liking.

Even though in recent years, many Cubans began to fill the churches, especially after the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998, Cuba does not have a sense of festivity during Holy Week like in Spain, Mexico, Peru or Colombia.

I grew up admiring the U.S. basketball players Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. On video, I saw the fantastic game of the “Vulture’s Cohort”  of Real Madrid of the 80s. And of course, I liked the great guys from Liverpool. But religion was always in its infancy. It is one of the subjects that I didn’t pursue.

The first time I read the Bible was at age 20 when I was drafted into military service. A friend lent it to me saying, “You read a lot but you haven’t read the principal book of life.” And it was important for me. But I was still ignorant about Easter and Holy Week. I thought it was a practice of the nations that believe in Islam.

In the Cuba of olive green, the weeks I knew about were those of defense, or the many weeks about hatred, which in a cyclical way the government generates against people, presidents, or countries that criticize the state of affairs in the island.

Speaking frankly, already being a man, a free journalist and a critic of the absurd way the Castro brothers govern destinies, Holy Week remained a matter of little importance to me. I remember that foreign friends, visiting Havana in the months of March and April, told me about the celebration of Holy Week in their homelands. It went in one ear and out the other.

I think that maybe something exists. But I have grown up in a country and a family where religion “was a distant piano playing a long way away on the horizon,” in the words of the Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto.

Not only do I not know about Catholicism, I am also a neophyte in the field of Afro-Cuban beliefs. I am not happy with my ignorance. I would have liked to have faith in a religion. I am going for the easy route. At least, I know who to blame.

My mother, a political refugee in Switzerland, in her youth had no attachment to religion. Her parents, my grandparents, were atheists. In the first 30 years of revolution, Fidel Castro always did everything possible so that people would be ignorant of faith.

It is never too late. For an aunt, who was a devotee of St. Lazarus, and before she died asked her “not to abandon the old Lazarus”, she now lights a candle the day that Cubans revere him, December 17. Before leaving Cuba, under the mattress of my bed, she left me a talisman and a picture of the saint of beggars.

Although I consider myself agnostic, I am teaching my daughter Melany to respect and understand Catholicism. She was baptized at a few months old and now, at 7, before bed I read to her from a child’s Bible that they use in catechism classes.

I do not know how to pray, but at night I pray to the Lord for the situation in my country to change; that the political prisoners can return to their homes; that fate does not require me to go to prison for writing what I think; that I see my mother before she dies in her forced exile, and that democracy and respect for differences might be possible in Cuba.

When one crosses the barrier of 40 years of age, it is sad not having faith. Either way, Mister, I don’t know what I’m going to write about Holy Week.

Iván García

Photograph: La Virgen del Camino is located in a park of the same name where two of the busiest roads of Havana meet, the Causeway and Causeway Luyano San Miguel del Padrón, on the outskirts of the capital. The work is by Cuban sculptor, Rita Longa (1912-2000).

Translated by: CIMF

Barricade Journalism

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Carlos Serpa Maceira, 43, a freelance journalist born in the former Isla de Pinos, now Isla de la Juventud, is one of the leading communicators of the activities of The Ladies in White. More than a few times the taking of photographs or the writing of notes has ended up with his being dragged along the ground by a mob, at times with physical abuse.

Serpa Maceira, a mulatto, Indian-looking, with dark eyes and medium height, is committed to journalism from the trenches. Some free journalists in Cuba have specialized in exposing all sorts of abuses.

Thanks to Caridad Caballero Batista, a freelance reporter in Holguin, from the very beginning Serpa Maceira knew and denounced the brutal beatings and mistreatment Orlando Zapata Tamayo, whom he had met in Havana in March 2003, during the fast called for the freedom of Oscar Elias Biscet and other political prisoners.

Another independent journalist, Roberto de Jesús Guerra, a young mestizo, with a stout constitution, was the first journalist who reported the deaths of 26 patients at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.

Almost all of these communicators commonly report the news on Radio Marti, a station of the U.S. government that emerged in 1984. They also write on different websites, including Cubanet, Miscellaneous of Cuba and Spring from Cuba, an electronic newspaper entirely made on the island, or in their own blogs.

The independent media emerged in Cuba in the late ’80s. At first, it was made up of reporters coming out of official circles, such as Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, or Rolando Cartaya. Then in the ’90s, others joined such as Raul Rivero, Tania Quintero, José Rivero, Tania Díaz Castro, Iria Gonzalez Rodiles and Ana Luisa López Baeza, people who had worked in the government press.

You can not ignore the work of free journalism.

There are reporters still with a simplistic style to their writing. Others label their news without much importance. But they are, have been and will remain the people who write about another Cuba that the government intends to ignore.

There are about a hundred men and women of various ages and from all provinces. Most are without resources. Several have taken the path of exile. Twenty of these journalists are serving long sentences in prison for reporting.

Through their individual prisms and from their respective locations, they make known to the world events that do not otherwise leak out of “the most democratic country on the planet”.

They have limitations. They don’t know journalistic techniques. They learn on the job, writing reports, columns and articles, recording interviews, shooting photos. In the words of José Martí, referring to the crude poets of the countryside, they rhyme badly, but they think well.

Others, like Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera, Oscar Espinosa Chepe or Laritza Diversent, could hold their own against any news or information professional.

Much of the time, they write for a small group of readers. Including for themselves.

Major media correspondents accredited in Cuba can surpass them in quality and scope. But not in immediacy. Nor in coverage of a multitude of events that the foreign press on the island overlooks.

Some risk their necks, like Carlos Serpa Maceira, a barricade reporter who is ever there. Others, like Roberto de Jesús Guerra, with the patience of a goldsmith, weaves a network of people who inform him about what is happening in a hospital or an important factory in the country.

They practice journalism as if it were the priesthood. They have only one hope. To inform. One way or another.

Iván García

Photo: Carlos Serpa Maceira, on the right, next to Orlando Zapata Tamayo, taken March 19, 2003.

Translated by: CIMF

Three Hours with the Ladies in White

March 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Ladies in White leaving Laura’s house on March 25, 2010.

I arrived just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the house of Laura Pollán Toledo, right in the middle of Cuba’s capital at 963 Neptuno Street. Pollán, is the wife of the prisoner of conscience Héctor Maseda, one of the 75 peaceful dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro’s government during what has come to be known as  the “Black Spring of 2003.”

Laura’s small hot living room is packed.  “Today, we have planned a march,” she announces in a soft voice.  Where?  “We always let everyone know while we are marching,” Laura says. Generally, that is the only security measure they take in order to prevent the political police from foiling their planned marches.

“We know that the phones are tapped and that there may be some infiltrators in our group. It is a rule that we follow to protect ourselves and it has worked,” stresses Pollán in the midst of coming and goings in her small kitchen, while she makes coffee and tea for 24 relaxed ladies talking and laughing while waiting for “zero hour.”

Ladies in White, at Laura’s house, waiting for the moment to take to the streets.

Laura is the spokesperson and leader of the Ladies in White, winners of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament in 2005. They are more than 70 women, counting amongst them relatives of those incarcerated and supporters of the group. Almost none had been previously involved in anti-government activities. None were dissidents.

Pollán Toledo was professor of Literature and Spanish. Others worked at factories and offices or simply stayed home. Their biggest headache, just as with all other Cuban women, was to prepare two hot plates of food each day and to take care of their husbands and children.

At Laura’s house waiting to leave for the march.

If anything pushed them toward government opposition and public protests, it was the government of Fidel Castro. And they do not regret it. They have their children, husbands, fathers, brothers behind bars, serving long sentences… “We will not stop until they release all of the prisoners of conscience,” stressed Pollán, a short, slightly overweight blond.

The previous week they had put the regime in a tough spot, after a series of six marches to churches located in different municipalities of the city of Havana.

“The march of Wednesday the 18th was the most violent one, marchers were pushed and beaten. During the other marches they offended us but we were not physically attacked,” observed José Alberto Alvarez, a 56-year-old independent news reporter who, together with Serpa Maceira, who is 43, serve as spoke-persons for the group of the group of women who dress in white.

Laura Pollán’s home is a headquarters of sorts.  In the afternoon of March 25, everyone milled casually around the narrow home.  They talked about the latest political happenings, about their husbands and children or the current soap opera on TV.

Laura was giving an interview on the phone. Today, March 25, a march organized in support of the Ladies in White by the Cuban-American singer, Gloria Estefan, is taking place in Miami, and the phone lines have not stopped ringing.

Around six in the afternoon, several women began handing out gladioli and a nylon bags with a white dove inside. “Be careful not to let them fly away,” a smiling Laura warns. Some foreign correspondents and independent news reporters asked what was going on. Mischievously peering out from her intense blue eyes, Pollán tells them: “Follow us and find out.”

Before heading out for one of their now habitual marches through the city, Laura Pollán rallies them and warns them.  “We are going to release the doves at one place and then we will stop at another and we will shout for Freedom. The purpose of this march is to support the march that our compatriots in Miami are carrying out. Remember, do not allow them to provoke us.”

Everyone agrees and they leave in silence. They look like ghostly figures dressed in their white clothes. As soon as they set foot on the street, an accelerated operation on behalf of State Security is unleashed. Right in front of Laura’s house there is a surveillance camera recording everyone who enters or leaves the house.

In no time at all, while the Ladies walk through Neptuno Street, several men, cell phones in hand, organize the usual government ordered counter-march against the ladies who demand freedom for their loved ones.

The destination is the Malecón, by the side of the Maceo Park.  There they free 24 doves.  They then walk about 400 meters along the Malecón and very close to the back patio of the Hotel Nacional. Holding their gladioli high, they begin to shout “Freedom, Freedom…”

Ladies in White by the Malecón. Photos taken March 25, 2010.

By this time, the police have finished organizing their shindig. Two public buses filled with police officers park near them, as well as numerous police cars and the motorcycles of State Security. Even an ambulance.

The hostile presence of the government can be felt next to the foreign correspondents whom the government tries to intimidate, by taking their photographs and filming them.

As soon as the Ladies in White begin to chant Freedom, suddenly, like a typhoon, a group of about forty people show up shouting insults: “sell-outs, traitors, mercenaries.”

The two groups are so close to each other that it looks like a brawl is about to explode. But nothing happens.  The group called together by the government just tries to counteract the Ladies’ call for freedom.

Passersby stare at these marches with surprise, and more than a few with admiration.

Occasional tourists snap pictures. Many in Havana have already become used to the marches of The Ladies in White.

In 51 years of strong-man revolution, acts of public street criticism against the government have been non-existent.

Today, in this Spring of 2010, the women who demand freedom for their loved ones, have turned public criticism into an important weapon for peaceful protests. A stamp from home.

Text and photographs: Iván García

Translated by: Ondina Felipe and Raul G.

Congratulations, Jorge!

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Our dear old friend, the composer Jorge Luis Piloto, born in Cardenas, Matanzas, Miami resident since 1980, received on March 23 in Los Angeles, the Golden Note Award, given by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

It was in appreciation of his contribution to Latin music and to his career over 25 years as a composer.

In the first picture. he is next to Puerto Rican Tommy Torres and Joan Sebastian, who shared the Songwriter of the Year award, and Armando Manzanero (Mexico 1935), honored with the Latin Heritage Award, for his great contribution to world music. In the second photo, Piloto is saying a few words of thanks. And in the last, he is next to the little big man who is Manzanero.

For those wishing to learn more about the Cuban-American composer, I suggest you read  The Jorge Luis Piloto I knew“, “Manufacturing Fantasies” and “Forbidding Celia or Los Van Van is a weakness“.

Iván García y Tania Quintero

Translated by: CIMF

Calle 13 and their Havana Megaconcert

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The megaconcert started at 5 p.m. sharp. The one in charge of warming up the 100,000 people crowding into the “Anti-Imperialist Rostrum,” popularly known as the “Protestodrome,” was Cuban singer Kelvis Ochoa.

For nearly an hour, in warm spring sun and a gentle breeze, Ochoa went through his repertoire from top to bottom. He heated the place up. A poor audio that could barely be heard more than 350 meters from the stage did not prevent people from enjoying themselves, jumping and dancing, as only those born in this corner of the world can.

With their bottles of sugar-cane rum, or cans of Cristal beer, the mass of youth made it a date, enjoying the concert. After 6 in the evening the music of the Boricuan* band Calle 13 broke out.

The Puerto Rican musicians, who boast several Grammy awards, have many followers on the island. And from the first hit, the Protestódrome exploded. Despite a heavy police presence, thousands of tourists had joined the wild dancing and the hip hop tropical holiday.

The good feeling continued even after Calle 13 played their final note after two hours of contagious rhythm and fiery lyrics. Thousands of people, eager to prolong the event, gathered in the parks of Vedado to pass around brandy and, accompanied by an Mp3 or an old broken-down guitar, to sing until they were hoarse, throughout the night.

Others stood in long lines at the Coppelia ice cream parlor, to ease the heat with an ice cream of modest quality available for purchase with national currency. There were only a couple of flavors, and they didn’t include strawberry or chocolate.

Opposite the capital-city ice creamery, there were long lines to buy hot dogs for ten pesos. The places that accept only convertible currency were also packed.

It turns out that in Havana the people are thirsty for good concerts and high-quality cultural activities. And when there are some, like the concert by Juanes and Miguel Bosé, September 20, 2009 at Revolution Plaza, or this one by Calle 13 at the edge of the Malecon, people will turn out however they can.

They forget about poor transportation and bad food. They even set baseball aside, although the national title is being decided, and Industriales, the local team, is in contention.

“Baseball can wait, but shows like Calle 13 only happen once in a while,” says Yuri, a 23-year-old black young man, outlandishly dressed and wearing heavy 14 karat gold chains . Nonetheless, Yuri and his friends are constantly keeping an eye on their watches; they don’t wait for the end of the show and rush to catch a packed bus to their homes.

They wanted to arrive in time to watch the final match on tv between Industriales and Villa Clara for the championship. If they succeeded, they could kill two birds with one stone. They enjoyed good music and they could see on tv the conclusion of a sizzling tournament.

And in an expensive Havana, with few recreational options, to be able to enjoy two high-level events on one day is a luxury. And for free.

Iván García

*Puerto Ricans refer to themselves using the Taino word “boricua”

Translated by: Tomás A.

Transport in the Capital: An Unresolved Issue

March 26, 2010 1 comment

Public transport has always been an unresolved issue for Fidel Castro’s government.  In Havana, in particular, where after the trams were taken out in the early 1950s, the bus service was among the best of all the most important cities in the world.

In the 1980s, when the county had a direct pipeline to the resources of the Kremlin, Hungary and other countries of the old socialist block, in the village of Guanajay, 60 kilometers from the capital, they set up a factory to assemble Ikarus buses. This did not prevent movement from one part of the city to another being a disaster.

At the time of the greatest material abundance of the olive-green Revolution, when you could buy yogurt and milk without a ration card, 2,500 buses and about 5,000 taxis circulated in the capital. But even still the deficit in public transport was not eased.

With the arrival of the silent war called “the special period,” after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, traveling around the city was a feat worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. There were times when some bus routes operated only twice a day. Then they made their appearance with the famous “camels,” trucks towing large trailers that could fit up to 300 people, squished in like sardines. Real saunas, and places for pickpockets and sexual perverts.

People walked up to 20 kilometers a day to conduct their business, visit a friend or family member. The main streets were deserted and dark as the power was cut off up to 16 hours a day. On that chaos, the heavy Chinese bicycles were introduced, which caused fatal traffic accidents to skyrocket.

Not to mention the escalating violence. The streets of Havana were competing with those of Medellin or Rio de Janeiro. In order to steal your bicycle, the thieves were just as likely to chop you with a machete or slit your throat, as they caught you by stretching a rope across the dark street, when you passed on your bike.

With the passing of time, to the buses and “camels” they added “Haley’s comet.” Castro 1, preoccupied with his delusions of helping Third World countries, and squandering the meager public funds in economic nonsense and meaningless plans, landed to reality in 2004. And looking stupid in the Assemblies of People’s Power, he asked what the Minister in charge was doing to resolve the transport crisis.

As always, el comandante blamed the failure on others. But he realized that if he wanted the economy to grow, he would have to take some money from the bank to buy buses, trucks and locomotives. From China and Russia they bought about 5,000 buses and an equal number of trucks.

Urban transport, starved, saw the manna when they started to roll out 460 Yutong, Liaz and Maz buses throughout the city. The bus company began to operate 17 routes designated with the letter P, that today run on Havana’s main arterials.

In peak hours, the P routes run every 5 to 10 minutes. They are always full to bursting and hot as an oven. But for want of bread, cassava. The much vaunted improvement that the city’s leaders boast about is pure mirage.

Today, one-third as many buses are operating in the city as in 1988.  It makes sense that a city of more than two million people, like Havana, if you want it to function even minimally, must have bus service capable of carrying a million people who move around the city every day.

Lacking a subway or suburban train, and where taxi service in national currency has disappeared, the only viable option for the citizenry is to take the congested P routes. Still, moving from the main central avenues to a marginal neighborhood on outskirts is a complicated story.

The bus service in the major neighborhoods and peripheral areas is a calamity. With the downturn in the economy due to the two crises, the world financial crisis and the one we have suffered for 21 years as a result of the Special Period, the plans to expand public transport have been shelved.

With the cutting of the frequency of trips, heading out with the family on the weekend is quite inconvenient. The buses known as the P routes are packed and run up to 30 minutes late on Saturdays and Sundays.

To make matters worse, among the staff of the bus company it is rumored that the due to the usual default on part of the Cuban government, the providers will not guarantee to supply parts for the years to come.

To go from one zone to another in the city could become an inferno. And the hard years of the 1990s, when a bus was as rare as a spaceship, could return. Although never, to be perfectly honest, has a bus ride in Havana been easy or pleasant.

Iván García

Photo: DCvision2006, Flickr. One line of trams in Havana in the 40s.