The sun beats down hard on the grey and white building located on Aguila street at the corner of Dragones, next to Chinatown in Havana. On that piece of real estate which was long ago given up by the Cuban Telephone Company, are the offices of ETESCA, the Empresa Cubana de Telecomunicaciones (the Cuban Telecommunications Company).
On his morning walk (a brief revolutionary act), the section leader chooses a group of workers to take part in the siege on Laura Pollan’s house next Saturday. She is one of the key members of the Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), who this spring of 2010 have aroused fear and loathing within the agents of the government.
The marches by the Damas, who demand freedom for their imprisoned loved ones, has driven the regime of the Castro brothers to mount a permanent operation in front of Pollan’s house.
To deter the Damas, they use shock troops made up of employees from the stores and workplaces located near Laura Pollan’s house at 963 Neptuno, between Aramburu and Hospital, in Central Havana.
The story I am about to tell you happened two weeks ago. A group of workers from ETESCA, almost all of them youth or communist party militants, were chosen to prevent the Ladies in White from leaving Pollan’s house.
In order to get out of having to participate, some of the women in the group claimed that they were sick or had family problems. They just wanted to evade the issue. But they are people who are prepared, with access to the Internet or illegal cable antennas in their homes.
They have seen what happens. The offenses and the violence. The boss gets strict: “You all represent the organizations of the Party and the youth at the core, this isn’t a favor we are asking of you, it’s an order.”
They go without really wanting to. For Lucrecia, a young woman recently graduated in telecommunications engineering, its an adventure of sorts. She’ll see for the first time the “mercenaries” who make the news that she stealthily reads on the Internet.
The people who have been chosen for this task walk to Pollan’s house with feelings of anxiety. If there’s a row, they won’t know what to do. Rosario has never hit anyone in her life. Much less women who demand freedom for their husbands, sons or brothers. “If a family member of mine were being held prisoner, I would do the same thing they are doing,” she confesses.
More than hatred, they feel a certain admiration. Some of them, the most uninformed, say that the Ladies in White are paid 20 dollars for each march. “If that’s the way it is, some day I’ll join them,” says Elena smiling.
A dark-haired obese female, reminiscent of a Sumo Wrestler, leads the women. “She looked like a thug, with thick features, and never smiled,” remembers Lucrecia.
Other women who work in the neighborhood gather around the female employees of ETECSA. Not a single man is around. “What happens if there is a fight?” asks a girl. The female soldier dressed in civilian clothing responds: “That’s our problem.” Referring to the security forces.
They are there for twelve hours sitting around the fence in front of Laura Pollan’s house. Soldiers dressed as civilians moving about on Suzuki motorcycles constantly telling people where to go.
After three in the afternoon, when they are very hungry, some soldiers arrive with cardboard boxes containing disgusting cold black beans and rice with a boiled egg on top for the women. Most of them protest. “This is a mess, if all we get for participating in this shit and risking being hit is this crappy food, don’t count on me anymore” says one of the women.
An official tries to calm them down. “Please, remember the difficult economic situation our country is experiencing.” Just about all of the women throw the food in the garbage can. As night falls, they mobilize. The next day, the Damas de Blanco did not go out or do their march.
The next day all the ETESCA employees who took part in the harassment at Laura Pollán’s house complained to their bosses. “Don’t even think about asking me to go back for another act of repudiation; don’t count on me, go yourselves,” says one of them, insulted. The bosses are silent in the face of the flood of curses. They have no choice.
The government wants to sell the image that the people, acting spontaneously, are the ones who suppress the Ladies in White. Many people participate out of fear and for various considerations. Whether they are political or want to maintain that appearance. Nobody in a major company wants to be identified as “disaffected with the government.” Everything is staged. In the best Cuban style.
Translated by: Hank and Tomás A.
And not because of an earthquake. Quietly, one business after another is closing. Although the official Cuban press, the most optimistic in the world, ignores this, from 2000 to the present you can count on one hand the number of foreign investors who have kept their businesses in Cuba.
Italian businessmen in the telecommunications sector, who invested in ETECSA, the only company on the island in that industry, said goodbye a year ago. Israeli businessmen who bought the citrus production of Jaguey Grande, in Matanzas, and produced fruit juices, have also gone.
According to a source who prefers to remain anonymous, investors from the largest foreign investor in Cuba, Canada’s Sherritt, specializing in the mining business, are conducting a feasibility study. If they get red numbers, they will pack their bags.
The building construction sector has been immobilized for seven years on the direct orders of Fidel Castro. So what remains are a few companies in the field of tourism. China and Russia, the candidates sought by the leaders of the island, look askance at the proposals offered to them.
They know that Cuba’s ability to pay is almost nil. Russia is already owed several billion rubles. And China, with a similar ideological outlook, will donate a couple million dollars in the event of a hurricane, but if you don’t have money to pay them, see you later.
The trump card that the Castros play is the Venezuela of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. It is a bet on foolishness and voluntarism. More of the same. But there are not many options for a government that has a grudge against the market economy because a group of people got rich.
In 2010 the economic alliance with Caracas is all that remains. And it’s barely working. The only benefit is being able to buy oil at bargain prices, without having to pay for it in hard currency. Cuba pays for the black gold with human capital: military or civilian, medical and sports trainers.
There will not be an abundance of food on the tables of the poor on this island or in Venezuela, nor will life be better because of this alliance. For one thing, both nations manage their economies on the fly. In the case of Cuba, it is striking how they continue to bet on the centralized economy.
Having coinciding ideologies, as is the case with Castro and several presidents of the Hemisphere, is not the same as creating a coherent strategy for designing a sustainable economy. Virulent and polarizing speech does not count in economics. What matters is to save and work hard to get out of the deep hole of poverty.
To justify their failures, the Castros have their favorite weapon: the Yankee embargo. But no one but a fanatic or a moron could seriously blame only the U.S. embargo for the poor performance of the local economy. It doesn’t take a think-tank, or an expert in economic matters, to point out those responsible for sending the Cuban economy back to the stone age.
If Fidel Castro is credited with the glory of the vaunted successes in education, sports, and public health, then he should also be charged with the failures. His experimental manner of managing the island’s economy would fill several volumes of nonsense.
Inflating numbers and lying while making annual financial reports is not going to solve our problems. Now, General Raul Castro and his advisers are seeking a range of solutions to break the deadlock in which they find the economy.
As an experiment they are thinking of renting business places, such as barber shops, cafes, and taxis, to groups of workers. A kind of cooperative, where if they do well, the people will earn more money.
It remains to be seen if this formula works. So far, Roberto Guerra, manager of a dilapidated Havana pizzeria, has his doubts. “If they don’t free up the prices of products, and if we are bound to sell at the price assigned to us by the State Committee on Prices, this recipe will not work.”
The government knows better than anyone that people on the street are very upset with the performance of the economy and lack of future in their lives. Cubans want change in economic matters. They want them to allow unlimited self-employment and to reduce taxes.
But they want more. They want to invest in medium-sized enterprises with their relatives residing in the United States if the regime will authorize it. Raul Castro knows that something must be done, but like his brother, he is afraid that a series of economic reforms will be uncontrollable by the government.
The Cuban revolution has been more political than economic. And now what preoccupies the leaders on the island is hanging onto power. If in the future a leader or political group manages to get on track and makes the Cuban economy thrive, they will be awarded a gold medal.
Translated by: Tomás A.
They’re like pirates on the highway. And they act with total impunity. On the stretch between Kilometer 10 and the first ring of the National Autoroute, a road with 8 lanes, dark as a wolf’s mouth and where the poor condition of the pavement makes drivers reduce their speed, it’s the propitious moment for a new breed of delinquents, known as “ninjas,” who use scooters and ski masks, to force open the trunk of a car, and, lickety split, plunder what’s inside.
Later, a car, an accomplice of the Cuban “ninjas,” collects the bags, and they divide the booty somewhere else. Their favorite target is autos rented by tourists. Fermín Escobar, 45 years old, who drives his own taxi, earning his living by charging 15 Cuban convertible pesos (13 dollars) per person, going between the bus terminals from Havana to the city of Santa Clara, some 300 kilometers away, firmly suspects that these highway robbers operate with the complicity of the police.
According to Escobar, on the Autoroute, there are numerous control points and police cars that detain you at each pass to inspect travelers’ luggage, in search of shrimp, beef or cheese, the favorite products of the people who are dedicated to the lucrative business of the black market.
“Then it’s not possible for these delinquents to carry out the robberies in peace. I have friends who are drivers, who have told me that some police alert the “ninjas” by cell phone about the license plates of the tourist cars, which are the ones they prefer. Although they also misappropriate whatever auto they suspect has valuable things in their suitcases. If the driver notes the presence of the “ninjas” and stops the car, there is a big uproar because those thieves can be armed,” reports Fermín, who counsels that the best thing to do is to accelerate as fast as possible and to not stop.
Boarding and ransacking moving cars in the middle of the night is work that carries a high risk. It’s already known that the highway “ninjas” have an impressive dominion of scooters. For which reason the police barely detain them, and it’s a good question for the chief of the national Police. Or police ineffectiveness exists or they are “greased” with hard currency. The drivers who use the National Autoroute every day are waiting for a response.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Clara Fuentes, 39-years-old, was never very bright. She was a headstrong girl, raised in a small house of 15 meters without bathrooms or drinking water. Her father was a zombie-like sign painter; most days he was on strike, trying to scare up some money to raise his two daughters.
The mother was a fat, careless woman of mixed race. They lived like gypsies, off the charity of neighbors and state support. Thanks to God, or Fidel Castro, she was born in a period of the Cuban revolution in which milk was not scarce and the ration book assured them average but vital nourishment.
Later this was not the case. With the arrival of the perennial economic crisis that the nation has lived in for 21 years, known officially as the “Special Period,” Clara’s family saw dark times.
The father began to poke about among the rubbish containers, in search of valuable articles. But there was nothing. It was a time when not even empty bottles were thrown away.
Clara and her sister grew up dirty and unkempt. They were pretty and had good figures. But they dressed in old, recycled clothes that were handed down. In the barrio they were called the “miserable ones.”
To their material poverty was added mental stupidity. Clara gave birth to three sons by a boy who lived in the eastern provinces. Her sister did the same. Clara had her sons between the ages of 16 and 20. And they didn’t have enough food for four, so you can imagine how much they had for eight.
The honorable exit Clara Fuentes found was to enroll in the system. Abandoned by the biological father, and without a cent for her sons, she enlisted as a recruit in the army.
She passed a course to become a sergeant and began to work in a military unit. Although the salary was scarcely enough, her situation improved. But she continued being taken care of by the state.
The three children slept in one bed. She slept on the floor, on a grubby mat among nocturnal cockroaches and lizards. She started to take care of an old woman, who died three years later.
The state granted her the old woman’s house. It was small, with two suffocating rooms and minimal sleeping quarters. For Clara, it was a palace.
She left the army and started working as a custodian for a business. She worked 12 hours a day and rested for two days. She was on duty at sunrise three days in the week. They paid her 300 pesos (12 dollars) and 18 Cuban convertible pesos (20 dollars).
In addition, they gave her an equivalent basket of goods. One-half box of chicken a month, four packages of ground turkey, 24 cans of soft drinks, four liters of cooking oil. With this, Clara was assured of food, administered with a hard hand in the middle of the month. The other half she got from the ration book.
She always lacked money, and her sons grew up without being well-nourished and dressed poorly. Clara is honest. She never stole anything at work, and, although she is critical of the revolution, in an ingenuous way, she believes that the guilty party is “the difficult situation,” and she does not hold Fidel Castro nor his brother responsible.
“They don’t know what is happening,” she asserts. She is contaminated by official propaganda. “We are living badly, but compared to living in a country like Haiti or in an African nation, I prefer our system.” She doesn’t question the lack of political liberties, nor do they matter to her, because “you can’t eat those things.”
At the last meeting in the barrio to elect candidates or delegates to Popular Power, they proposed her as a candidate. In order to end the meeting quickly so they could go home and watch the latest soap opera on television, and because there wasn’t a better option, the neighbors elected her unanimously.
On Sunday, April 25, Clara Fuentes was one of the two candidates running in her district. In this year of 2010, a delegate’s work is barely noticeable in the shanty town. If she has sufficient influence, she can get some construction materials at an average price for the most needy.
In general, for every five complaints that are presented to the delegates, one is resolved. Sometimes none. Not because they don’t want to satisfy their community. No. It happens because the solution is out of their hands.
The powerful state bureaucracy and material scarcity dilute any good intention. And although Clara Fuentes does not have the intelligence to solve the innumerable problems of her barrio, beginning with her own, she thinks about trying. She has confidence in her management ability. She asks those who know her to vote for her.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Nothing will be solved with the hard discourse. There will be no solution because General Raul Castro launches the call to slaughter against the dissidence. Neither will there be a way out of the deep crisis that Cuba inhabits, with the usual television Roundtables, where four rigid guys share their uniform opinions.
Cuba needs a dialogue, more than ever, not with the European Union or the United States, no. A national serious debate is urgent with our own people. Courageous. And once and for all, talk with the dissidents, government people and the opposition, official journalist and independent ones, bloggers of any tendency, without exceptions.
Now in these days when Cuba celebrates the 49th Anniversary of the Victory of Bay of Pigs, with Fidel Castro at the front, when in only 72 hours they defeated the troops consisting of Cuban exiles, backed by the Eisenhower government, I remember that in March 2001, a debate was held in Havana as a result of the 40 years anniversary of the Bay of Pig Invasion, with the participation of the protagonist of both countries.
Face to face, looking each other in the eye, were ex-CIA agents, former US officials and Cuban exiled fighters defeated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces. It was a civilized conversation, without hatred, with the military officials from the Island, political analysts and Fidel Castro in the flesh.
It was an enriched debate. Nine years later we need other kinds of dialogues, profound and necessary. With monologues and insults, the economy does not function full steam ahead. With calling people who do not agree mercenaries, traitors or paid by the Yankee’s gold, the nation will not be proud of the performance of its government.
The ills that affect the country are someone’s fault. They are not orphans. Let us give credit to the almost 50 year’s embargo from the United States. But the biggest responsibility for the lethal inefficiency of the system belongs to the leaders. I will mention their names: Fidel and Raúl Castro.
The solution to the problems of the Nation belongs to everyone. Because those of us born in Cuba wish and want our country to come out of this motionlessness.
Of course, there will be heated controversies. Passions will be stirred, and everybody will hunker down in their respective ideologies, but from those differences, the measures that will change the status quo will emerge.
From my point of view, the problems of the Island could be remedied with dialogue. At a table. Everyone. Those who live on one shore or the other. Seated. Smoking as if possessed, or drinking coffee. Carlos Alberto Montaner, Raúl Rivero, Max Lesnik, Zoë Valdes, Enrique Patterson and other intellectuals or high level economists who live in exile.
Together with the opposition like Martha Beatriz Roque, Elizardo Sánchez, Oswaldo Payá, René Gómez Manzano, Vladimiro Roca, Dagoberto Valdés, the independent journalist such as Reynaldo Escobar y Luis Cino will offer their arguments, the Bloggers Yoani Sanchez and Miriam Celaya, among others.
From the side of the government, along with the maximum leaders, intellectuals, and journalist of caliber would participate, in a civilized way, a series of right measures for the future.
Although some want to stand on the way, there are many things that unite us. I think that the journalist Pedro de La Hoz gets upset like me, when he has to wait three hours to make a simple legal procedure.
I suppose that Rosa Miriam Elizalde the reporter will be indignant when every night she watches the way that 50 percent of the drinking water distributed every day in the city is wasted.
I figure that the disastrous state of the hospitals, the lack of construction materials to repair the housing, the unknown future of the motherland, and the absurd laws not only awake the rage of the dissident lawyer Laritza Diversent, but also of the government attorneys.
We can change this and more, one way, dialoguing among all, I hope we do not have to wait 40 years to realize a profound debate like the one in 2001, among the protagonist of the Bay of Pigs. Now we are working against the clock.
Translated by: Mari Mesa Contreras
Life for Juan Domeq, age 69, is a vicious cycle. He gets up every morning at 5:30 am and slowly hobbles to a newsstand to buy 50 issues of the newspaper Granma, and the same number of Juventud Rebelde. Domeq spends 20 pesos (less than US$1) for the hundred copies. If he can sell them at 1 peso each, he gets 80 pesos profit, but he doesn’t often sell that many issues.
“People on the street are not very interested in what our press says. Also, the clerk at the newsstand can’t can’t always sell me 100 newspapers. I usually sell between 40 and 50. Then, if I have a good day, I buy some fruits or vegetables for my wife who has been bedridden four years from paralysis; I must also buy milk or yogurt. The little money I earn selling newspapers is spent on food, and I have to keep my eyes open, because several times the police have fined me 40 pesos for selling the newspaper without a license,” says Juan, a sad old man full of aches, who lives in a filthy tenement in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana.
At the same time that Domeq rises to buy the newspaper, Antonio Villa, 64 years old, physically disabled, wakes up and has a cup of hot coffee for breakfast. He goes in his wheelchair to the Monaco bakery, where at the entrance he sells bags (purses) made of nylon for one peso (5 cents U.S.) each.
According to Antonio, a person can sell a hundred nylon purses for 35 pesos. “Selling bags usually takes between 10 and 12 hours a day. Sometimes I have a good day and manage to sell 200 bags, but I usually sell only 80 or 90. With what I get — between 65 to 120 pesos (about 3 to $5) — I buy food and save some pennies to pay a woman who washes my clothes. The police have taken me to the station many times, and in addition to fining me they have confiscated my bags. But when they set me free, I go back to the only thing I can do to earn an honest living,” says Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war in Angola in 1987, and lives in a wooden shack with an aluminum roof.
Also not having much luck trying to scrounge a handful of pesos, Clara Rojas, age 70, old, dirty, and poorly dressed, lives in a decrepit nursing home in the La Vibora neighborhood. Clara sells cigarettes at retail. “In the home they give us lunch and dinner, but so poorly prepared that many old people who live there prefer to find some money on our own and eat in the street.”
After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, the money earned her enough to eat a serving of rice, pea soup, and an unidentified fish full of bones, in a state joint where the prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the rest home to sleep.
Juan, Antonio, and Clara are three old people burdened with infirmities, with mild senile dementia, and without a family to care for them. They have to perform miracles to survive in the harsh conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not unique.
Translated by Marlise Lohmann and Tomás A.
For Yamil Domínguez Ramos, 37 years old, October 13, 2007 was an unlucky day.
Yamil, a Cuban man who emigrated in 2000 to the United States and who has been a U.S. citizen since 2003, is serving a sentence of 10 years in a maximum security prison in Cuba, the Combinado del Este, accused of “human trafficking.”
But the case is contaminated. I will tell you his story. On October 12, 2007, with a tourist map, Yamil left from a marina in Florida to go to Cancún, México, in a 26-foot boat, a Róbalo fast boat, with two outboard motors and a GPS system.
According to Yamil’s story, “I was thinking of spending a couple of days in Cancún and then taking a boat to Havana.” Bad weather obliged him to change his course toward the Hemingway Marina, a center of free access for international tourist boats on the outskirts of Havana.
Then began the witch hunt of the Cuban authorities, pressuring him and his family to admit he came for the purpose of human trafficking.
From the time he arrived in the United States in 2000, Yamil had visited the island seven times. To see his mother and other relatives, and because he had begun a sentimental relationship with Marleny González, a neighbor in his family’s building, in the district of Miramar.
He had plans to marry her. Since 2004 he had asked for a visa so his fiancée could leave for Miami. But by the time the United States Consulate in Havana gave him a satisfactory response on October 27, 2009, he was already a prisoner.
So the question floats in the air: “Why would Yamil Domínguez need to leave Cuba illegally, and run the risk of being caught?
Yamil isn’t immaculate. “Several times I thought about getting my fiancée and family members out secretly, but I always gave it up, not wanting to risk my security and theirs.”
As far as I know, no civilized law can condemn someone for thinking about a supposed crime. Yamil is a classic story of a Cuban who triumphed in the United States. On this island he never was part of the opposition. He formed part of that anonymous tide of people who attended, purely by compromise, the government marches or the neighborhood meetings.
His family was what is known in Cuba as “integrated,” or rather, revolutionary. Politically correct. In his fatherland he worked in tourism and rented out his car illegally to gain a fistful of pesos that would make his life more bearable. The same as thousands of Cubans, he lived on the border of legality.
But Yamil wanted something else. A society where to prosper and have ambition wasn’t seen as a crime. And thus he left. In a legal and orderly way, after having won the lottery. In the month of Christmas, he arrived in Miami, with an extravagance of lights and consumption that surprised him.
He started as an apprentice bricklayer, and thanks to the level of education he received in Cuba, a path was opened to him. In 2007, Yamil became a licensed contractor. He generated a business worth several million dollars, and this same year he hoped to earn an annual salary of one million dollars.
Life for Yamil was beautiful. He came to Cuba every time love and homesickness touched his heart. That was his weakness. Nostalgia. That feeling that after time becomes a thief that robs us of our strength. He commuted between Havana and Miami. His unlucky day was October 13.
“Every day I ask myself if what happened is just a nightmare. I spent two months in a cell of two square meters that was 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Villa Marista (seat of the political police). I was sentenced to 10 years, in hard prison conditions, where they applied different types of humiliation and torture to me. I saw my family every 45 days. At times when I wake up, I open my eyes slowly, thinking that I’m going to find myself in my home in Florida,” Yamil recounts with a sad voice on one of his family visiting days in prison.
His life changed into a Calvary. For non-payment, the bank foreclosed on his house in Florida. He lost his business. And lawyers fees came to more than five thousand dollars. It happens that by Cuban law, when it comes time to pay, Yamil is a North American citizen.
According to the Constitution of the Republic, Cuban citizenship is lost when you gain citizenship in another country. And the government of the United States, which is capable of unleashing a war on behalf of any United States citizen, in the case of many Cuban Americans, has a very weak position. Yamil Domínguez is in no man’s land.
According to a law firm of independent lawyers that Wilfredo Vallín directs, who have studied in detail the transcript of the case brought against Yamil Domínguez by the prosecutor, there’s a procedural error in the instructions in the case.
As is usual in the islands’ legal system, the accused are guilty from the start and must demonstrate their innocence in the course of the investigation.
In addition, for these independent lawyers, the type of crime is badly applied. “The only thing that can apply is illegal entry into the country. The penalty is two years, and they can’t confiscate your boat,” explains Laritza Diversent, one of the attorneys.
According to Yamil, the trial was a circus. He refused to sign any document that incriminated him, and he does not accept the confiscation of his boat.
An ex-functionary of the Ministry of the Interior, analyzing his case, says, “It could appear subjective, but the key to all this is the boat. Many bigwigs and generals lean over backwards for good boats. If you find out where the boat actually is, you will have your answer. It’s easier to sentence you to 10 years for human trafficking, and you can confiscate the boat, than to give a sentence of two years for illegal entry, a punishment where, after you get out of prison, you can ask for your boat back.”
The United States Consul in Cuba visits him every three months, and Yamil is not satisfied with his treatment. “To save medication they open the pills for me and leave me only a daily dosage. They allege that they don’t want to have a diplomatic conflict because of the Cuban Americans who are prisoners on the island,” Domínguez said.
And they do little. Or nothing. Meanwhile, Yamil does not remain with his arms crossed. He has opened a personal blog, Notorious Injustice, which is updated by his wife and his sister. He writes not only about his drama but also about life in prison, politics, or Orlando Zapata.
After two-and-a-half-years in prison, Yamil Domínguez is convinced that his only crime is having been born in Cuba and having chosen the option of emigrating. He believes that he’s paying for that. No more.
Note: Since April 14, Yamil decided to stop eating food and to take only liquids, so that his case will stop being a notorious injustice.
Translated by Regina Anavy