Archive for July, 2010

The Castros, Each One on His Own Side

July 29, 2010 1 comment

Those who expected some clues about the needed economic and political reforms that the island is crying out for were left disappointed. General Raul Castro sent them a message: you will have to wait.

Castro II did not even speak at a ceremony held in the province of Villa Clara, 180 miles from Havana, to mark the 57th anniversary of the assault on a military barracks in eastern Cuba.

He delegated the speech to Vice Minister Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, one of the many elderly men who occupy significant positions in the administration of the country. He said almost nothing.

More of the same. A boring recitation of successes, slogans, clichés, the occasional anti-imperialist bravado, and a spirited defense of Venezuela in the ongoing affair with neighboring Colombia over the issue of the alleged involvement of Caracas in supporting the FARC.

In one brief line, the vice president said that Cuba would not follow the advice of the international media, and that changes would be made at the pace and at the time that they decide.

The General saved his speech, short as always, for the close of a Cuba-Venezuela ministerial summit. He made no reference to topics of interest to ordinary Cubans, who have many unanswered questions about the economic crisis that has existed in the country for 21 years.

Fidel did not want to be left behind. This July he became a media star. After four years in bed, the Commander in Chief is doing piece work.

He has returned changed into a guru – prophesying nuclear wars and environmental disasters, and reading news dispatches. If anything has changed about the angry Fidel, it is his tone. Now he is moderate and measured. He seems like a political advisor. But he is not.

On July 26, at a meeting he held with a group of American Protestants, intellectuals, and Cuban journalists, the old fox Castro sent a message back and forth.

It seemed like another one of his speculations. But it wasn’t. Before finishing his far-fetched theories about the future of the planet, he let drop the news that perhaps before the end of the year, the five spies imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998 could return home.

In Cuba, information must be read between the lines. The government is a specialist in speaking about important issues cryptically or remaining silent.

But if Castro I delivered his message it is because something is cooking behind the scenes. It is almost certain that the operation to free 52 political prisoners is an exchange: 52 in return for 5. Remember that Cardinal Jaime Ortega traveled to Washington.

But the real message from Castro is to put fear in the gut of the leaders and influential intellectuals in the country who are trying to create a window with the West on their own.

In such closed societies, fear and suspicion is a constant rule. You can see with your own eyes a Castro who overcame death is always an arm of pressure.

Clearly, each Castro brother goes his own way. It might be a concerted tactic. Or a sign of differences between them. The truth is that Fidel is back. And many will have to retrieve candles.

Iván García

ETESCA Down on its Luck

July 28, 2010 1 comment

One day before collecting their bonus in convertible pesos, known as CUCs, which the Cuban government usually pays to certain institutions, close to sixteen thousand employees from ETECSA, the only telecommunications company on the island, got their second piece of bad news for the month of July.

In the previous days, the company had already started discreetly “downsizing.” This is a nice way of saying they started firing the first few hundred employees so that, according to the company’s executives, “it becomes more efficient and streamlined.”

This new unemployment shock – euphemistically known in Cuba as “relocation” – is part of the plan for strengthening the economy drawn up by General Raúl Castro, the country’s president, who in April during a speech to the Congress of Young Communists, said it would affect more than a million workers.

The unemployment phenomenon, which is vehemently denied by high officials in the government, is nothing new. In 2002, the last year for which there is data, unemployment was 3.3%, but independent economists say the real rate was much higher and is currently over 25% of the Cuban workforce.

Years ago, the government used to pay 60% of their last salary in Cuban pesos to the unemployed during the first 3 months, and offer them training courses. Now, according to the recently downsized employees from ETECSA, they’ll be paid 60% of their former salary just for one month, and then they’ll be on their own.

Besides “downsizing,” the other piece of bad news arrived the day before they collected their CUC bonus, when a memorandum notified them that due to a coordination failure, starting in April, the needed amount of convertible money had not been assigned to ETECSA by the responsible government institutions.

Until July the company had been able to make payments drawing from its reserves of hard currency. But in July there was nothing left. Many employees are angry. On the island, the convertible peso is essential when it comes to buying the basics, such as food, cooking oil, and clothes.

Alejandro, 32, tells how discussions between the workers and their bosses have turned into arguments. “Insults, openly criticizing the government, and calls to stop work until we are paid in hard currency.”

A white collar ETECSA worker earns between 400 and 800 Cubans pesos plus 27.50 in hard currency. Adding it all up it’s less than 60 USD per month. Until the year 2009, the company was a joint venture between the State and an Italian partner.

The Italian partner paid all salaries to a government institution, in hard currency. “For instance, for an engineer the government received up to 2 thousand euros from its foreign partner, and then the state paid 50 the equivalent of fifty CUCs in a combination of hard currency and Cuban pesos. If that is not exploitation, I don’t know what is.”, says Diana.

But it might not be as bad as all that. Company executives have taken notice. According to office rumors they expect there to be a meeting in August where the government would give them the hard currency.

Together with the Tourism Ministry and the Institute for Civil Aviation, ETECSA forms the small group of Cuban institutions which make a profit. This is the reason many employees can’t understand the lack of money to pay their July salaries. The don’t know if they’ll ever be paid either.

Ivan García

Picture: ETECSA main office, in Aguila y Dragones, La Habana. Built in 1927, this building housed the Cuban Telephone Company.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

While Waiting for Raúl Castro’s Speech . . .

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

San Rafael Boulevard was swarming with pedestrians on Wednesday, July 7. Braving insufferable heat and humidity, an old newspaper vendor, his face unshaven, his clothes patched, loudly announced the news of the moment.

“Learn about the release of the political prisoners,” the old man shouted, while a line of fifteen or sixteen people bought the official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde.

“That day I set a personal sales record.  I sold 340 newspapers; usually I don’t sell more than 80,” recalled the sidewalk news hawker. Two weeks later, news of the release of the dissidents is still being discussed.

Although the official media reported only a brief note, the ordinary people in those places of regular dialogue between Cubans – neighborhood corners, parks, workplaces, and taxicabs – continue to make comments, guesses and predictions about what might happen after the release of the political prisoners.

The best informed are those who pay 10 convertible pesos for an illegal cable antenna. And as is the norm in Cuba, they then activate “Radio Bemba,” a peculiar way of transmitting news by word of mouth, which usually functions best in closed societies.

In an antiquated jeep with eight seats, converted into a private taxi, a young man who identifies himself as Alberto, confesses to being connected to the cable channels. “Yes, I am informed,” he says, and starts telling about the freed dissidents. The passengers listen attentively. Alberto relates how the 11 political opponents who had arrived in Madrid spent their first few hours of freedom.

“They were going to be spread throughout different cities in Spain, some in Valencia, others in Málaga. One of them, named Normando, is not satisfied with the treatment received from the Spanish authorities, and believes that they are being treated like African immigrants. These Spaniards are for shit. When they emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the last century, here we treated them like royalty,” said Alberto, unleashing a wave of opinions.

A middle-aged woman thinks that the dissidents went wrong. “I am a state official and I have traveled the world. The life of emigrants is difficult in any country. They’ll have to work hard if they are to thrive, because Spain also is in deep economic crisis. If they were such patriots they should have stayed in their country.”

Some respond in raised voices. Passions run high. On the island, these freed dissidents were completely unknown. The average Cuban, who has only coffee for breakfast and a hot meal once a day, often admires the Damas de Blanco and the value of the dissidents. “They say out loud what we don’t have the courage to say,” says one student.

But so much bad propaganda by the regime has had an impact in a certain sector of the population, which sees dissenters as part of the street-wise who have turned their differences with the regime into a cottage industry.

In a quick survey of 29 people – family members, friends, and neighbors, of both sexes, aged between 19 and 67, and different political affiliations – 26 welcome the release of the political prisoners from incarceration.

“It’s a positive sign, it could be the beginning of a new stage, where finally disagreements are decriminalized,” argues Robert, an engineer.

The news of the releases have had an unexpected competition, with the repeated appearance of Fidel Castro in public life. Since July 31, 2006, when he made his exit and was about to die, Castro I had been forgotten.

Few people read his routine “Reflections” in the press, where he addressed international political issues, and avoided the difficult economic, political, and social situation in the country.

Cubans have followed his appearances carefully. “He keeps on talking nonsense and prophesying misfortune, but he looks good physically,” says Armando, a cook.

His supporters are where he left them. “With the appearance of the Comandante things will get back to normal. The people follow him more than Raúl. Internationally, Fidel is a meaningful spokesman. With him we’ll put the crisis behind us and take a leap forward,” exults Luis, a retired military veteran.

On the street some doubt his mental capacities. “Yes, he looks in good health, but we don’t give a damn about the war in Iran. I think the old man has lost his marbles,” said César, who is unemployed.

In the middle of African heat, summer vacations, and the typical lack of material, either one of these news stories – the release of the political prisoners or the reappearance of the Comandante – would have aroused interest by itself.

Now, most expect that on July 26 in Santa Clara, in commemoration of the assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, General Raul Castro will launch a series of measures anticipated by the public, including repeal of permits to travel abroad, the possibility of buying cars and houses, and expanded self-employment.

Things do not look good in the lives of Cubans. To clean up the inefficient local economy, hundreds of thousands of workers have begun to be fired. Raul Castro could be the messenger of good tidings. Or bad.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Fidel Castro Counterattacks

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The bearded Castro is a loose cannon. He always has been. His behavior is unpredictable. Foreseeing his next move on the political chessboard is unimaginable even for people with the abilities of Nostradamus.

But something on the Cuban scene smells like it’s burning. There is a sort of forced cohabitation. Two-headed power. His brother, General Raul Castro, governs, but Fidel does everything possible to distract his management.

Castro I resists retirement. The only word is “Comrade Fidel.” In fact and law he remains the Only Commander. The glorious old man with delusions of being father of his country. The guy who sees more than anyone else. The world-class statesman.

A Caribbean soothsayer who equally predicts the path of a hurricane, the decline of U.S. imperialism, or his proverbial ability to foretell slaughters.

Now his laser points to a nuclear war between Iran and the Western nations. He is watching for it. Castro is a textbook narcissist. His gloomy reflections on the Middle East conflict interests no one in Cuba.

Ordinary people are focused on other things. On their own struggle. Trying to get two decent meals a day. And getting money however they can to buy clothes and shoes for their children and to repair their house.

Castro reappeared just at the moment everyone had forgotten him. For the first time since 2006 he hit the streets. The strategy was to overshadow the real news: the release of 52 political prisoners. He returned to fray at the same time that news was announced.

Then, when seven prisoners of conscience were flying towards Madrid, the old guerrilla came to the fore in a television interview, chatting and predicting misfortune in his new role of necromancer.

In local circles the emergence of Castro I is being called a desperate gesture of leadership. And it is evidence of tensions and disagreements with his brother Raul.

The signs are not new. The rebellious and unrestrained language of Fidel has placed the government of Castro II in more of a problem. He is like the senile grandfather that the family tries to give the best care, but at the first opportunity manages to put them through a public embarrassment with his incoherent behavior.

I have no doubt of the respect that Raul feels for the historical figure of Fidel. The General tries to manage the island in his image. But when he wants to disconnect from the policies of his predecessor, the ghost of Fidel appears.

Now the Single Commander counts for little in the real politics of Cuba. Or anything. His brother had the foresight to fire two dozen ministers, officials and secretaries of the party in different provinces. He replaced them with leaders who had his full confidence.

Unlike Fidel, Raul is known to have much lower political talent. But he is a team player and appreciates his unconditional friends. Fidel only had interests. He was above everything. Raúl bases his government on the spirit of clan.

There is a key point that causes friction between the two brothers. In essence, both have the mentality of a dictator and Olympic contempt for democracy and the rule of law.

The brothers born on a farm in Biran, Holguin, like and want power. The means that each of them use to keep it is what raises concern in Castro I.

Fidel is convinced that his younger brother is inept, that without his help he would never succeed in the arena of political subtleties. And Raul intends to show the contrary.

It is time to let him govern. For Fidel to rest in a clinic and be devoted to writing about the topics of his choice or a memoir. But the One is reluctant to go out of style.

He does not want the authoritarian power with which he ruled for 47 years (1959-2006) to go to waste. The old Castro no longer has the support of the armored divisions and the salute of the generals.

But he mastered the art of words and knew how to manipulate the media. It is an uncomfortable burden. Especially at this time, when the General savored his political triumph with the release of 52 political prisoners. A couple of things can result.

As has often happened, the younger brother bows his head and let’s his idol take the reins of power. The General has already adapted and apparently feels comfortable as second fiddle.

The other is that Raul Castro wants to leave a legacy to the country and a consolidated power in the future for his immediate circle. And these are the upstarts in local politics who really hate the unpredictable output of Fidel Castro.

Although they only say it quietly. For now.

Iván García

Photo: European Pressphoto Agency.

Who Benefits From the Release of the Cuban Political Prisoners?

July 15, 2010 Leave a comment

The recent release by the Cuban government of the 52 detained prisoners in the spring of 2003 can be interpreted in several ways. We shall examine some possible strategies or possibilities. And in all of them, the one gaining the most is General Raul Castro’s regime.

Certain national and international analysts think that the release of the nonviolent opponents displaces the fragmented internal dissidence. Maybe they are right.

In any case, the national opposition is weak, with a political project unknown to the majority of the population on the island and it is infiltrated to its marrow by the intelligence services.

To make things easier for the Castro government, in the last decade certain opponents have been focused on strife, nepotism, excessive profanity and an immeasurable protagonist role.

Among so much quarrel, corruption of certain leaders, warlordism and messianic projects that do not correspond with the reality of the country, and serve only so that American agencies give them money, which evaporates into questionable conduct, one can reach the conclusion that the release of the 52 opponents did not score points, nor will it pave the way for a possible dialogue between the government and the dissidence.

The Cuban dissidence is not at its best. It’s a trivial opposition. It hurts to say it, but that’s the way I see it. Its aims and premises are the same that the majority of the Cuban population wish. But its working methods have devalued.

The clever ones who work with General Castro did their math. The death of the dissident Orlando Zapata and the constant walks of the brave Ladies in White, together with the hunger strike of Guillermo Farinas, warmed the track and instigated critics across half the world.

Something had to be done. And it was Raul Castro’s loyal generals who lead the country. All the enterprises which function and generate an income one way or another are controlled by the olive-green entrepreneurs.

The antiquated Russian tanks have been, for many years, falling apart in the underground shelters. Just like the outdated MiG fighters and the antiaircraft guns. In the absence of a war against the North, which will never happen, the Cuban nomenklatura dedicated itself to business.

They learned marketing, costs and benefits. So that they could improve their financial situation on the island, they received big commissions and abundant diets from capitalist entrepreneurs. When they look at themselves in the mirror, they notice how much better they look in tailor suits, rather than in their rough military uniforms.

To these generals, who like to say Sir rather than colleague, who prefer the good table, Spanish wines and Scottish whisky to the sugarcane rums, they are the ones who encouraged Castro II to launch a truce.

They made a deal with the Cuban Church and the Vatican. With Spain, and underneath the table, with some sectors of the Obama administration.

They are willing to talk to any actor inside or outside the country, except with the national opposition, for the simple reason that our dissidence, between the harassment of the State Security, its foul language and inertia, has been digging its own political tomb.

Another possibility wisely thought by those who rule the country’s destinies, is that the economy is helplessly sinking.

If the people keep thinking that their future is in Miami or in Madrid, that working is not worthwhile because the wages are a joke, that the pantries and wallets are empty and that the chagrin of the ordinary citizen towards the regime is on an upward trajectory, then the political change imposes itself in an accelerated manner.

Because of a logical and compelling reason. If the depressed levels of Cuban lives are not improved, they will lose power. And they bet on controlled changes. They look at Vietnam and China. Whilst they take advantage of the oil offered at a bargain price by the impertinent Hugo Chavez.

Then they have to empty the prisons. It’s a first step. Improve the language as well. Insults will be kept for better occasions. The generals think they have the situation under control with respect to the opposition. They conclude that if they can bring to the table a glass of milk, vegetables and some meat, other than pork, they can reinforce their principal role.

A bolder dissidence could be a more fertile land for new proposals, in line with the people’s realities. Even if it didn’t have access to the media nor public participation.

The government will continue to look at them with a dog’s face. But there are interesting gaps. If 52 non violent dissidents were released, from now on there will be no rational argument to incarcerate anyone for writing or for organising a political party.

The ball is in the opposition’s court. They will have to raise the stakes. They are losing 1 – 0.

Ivan Garcia

Photograph: Reuters. General Julio Casas Regueiro, Minister of Defence, one of Raul Castro’s trustee. Facing the junta directive of the Enterprise Management Group S.A (GAESA), to which the chief executive is his son in law, colonel Luis Alberto Lopez-Callejas.

Translated by: Ladis Beeharry

Double Dealing

July 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The Cuban revolution ceased to exist in 1976. The death certificate was signed when they put into force a rigid constitution and institutionalized the country with a questionable political-administrative division.

Farewell to the romantic phase of improvisation and a charisma-laden Fidel Castro, who in his uniform, travelled through fields and towns. And with a small group of escorts lunched at any cheap Chinese restaurant. With an everlasting Vueltabajo cigar and rough-framed glasses, the bearded one ruled the island from an olive-green jeep made in Russia.

What came next was pure political marketing. Castro continued to administer the country as a landowner manages his farm. But the republic entered the era of the gray five-year plans. With a mammoth bureaucracy hindering, rather than helping, the performance of Cuba.

He wove a dense network of myths and hackneyed speeches. Except for the commander, who has always been above the institutions and laws, the island lost spontaneity, the alleged generosity and that humanism which had shamed European intellectuals.

With the death by decree of the Revolution, and an absurd and inefficient regime, the stampede of the former flatters of the Fidelista project began.

Castro no longer walked the streets of the old part of Havana nor breakfasted in second-rate cafes. Already, he was no longer a human being. He was thought of as a God. Surrounded by the largest entourage any leader up to then had ever had.

Fidel spoke of the exploitation of man by man and the paying of poverty wages to their workers. He condemned the predatory imperialist wars of the U.S. against Third World nations, but in 1978, during the civil war in Ethiopia and Somalia, he supported the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Only because this was in line with Moscow, then the faithful ally.

He intervened in civil and tribal wars in Africa. In the name of the revolution and proletarian internationalism, he enrolled thousands of Cuban soldiers in numerous military adventures.

Wanting to be the flag of the world’s left, Fidel Castro and the leaders under his command were unconcerned with the economy. Following a rigid political and economic plan, exported from the former USSR, the island became one of the poorest nations in the Americas.

In theory, tropical socialism is generous, productive and humane. But in practice, it does not work. World revolution is a joke in bad taste for ordinary Cubans who daily breakfast with coffee without milk.

Cuba today is a virtual game. The reality is spoiled with so much demagoguery. People live badly and want to live well. They have an empty fridge and want it full. In the wardrobe are old clothes and shoes, and at night the heat does not let them sleep.

The Cubans of the third millennium aspire to have air-conditioning, cable television, the ability to buy computers, connect to the Internet 24 hours a day or travel abroad without needing permission to leave. The regime does not want, or know how, to ensure that people have a decent life.

Gen. Raul Castro, the current president, has been given a real hot potato. A bankrupt country, thousands of Cubans unhappy with the status quo, and a luggage cart of slogans and mottos that have become worn-out clichés.

To change the state of things you must tear down the building. Leave it in ruins. Castro II is trying. He has sat down to negotiate with the Catholic Church. And he has opened the floodgate a little, trying to deport the majority of the dissidents who were incarcerated in 2003.

Cuba is pure mirage. Many of the native petty bureaucrats demand sacrifice and saving, but drink Diet Coke in their air-conditioned homes. The only thing that is different is that the Cuban system was not implemented by Russian tanks.

After Fidel Castro aligned himself with the communist ideology, the island started to march backwards.

The cry of the current Cuban leadership is about the “evil” U.S. and European Union. While talking about the longed-for world-wide leftist insurgency, they try to do business with Western businessmen and send to Tokyo, New York, London or Madrid to buy the latest thing in electronics.

The Cuban Revolution died in 1976. In 2010, it still maintains photos of Fidel Castro and Karl Marx in official dispatches. But secretly, they read the advice of gurus like Alan Greenspan or George Soros. In Cuba, one lives by double-dealing.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: CIMF

The Castros’ Chess Game

July 13, 2010 Leave a comment

After sorting through various possibilities, the Spanish journalist Lali Kazas and I agreed to rent a car and head to Ciego de Avila.

It’s the day they’ve announced the releases and extraditions to Spain of five political prisoners of conscience, among them is Pablo Pacheco, who used to call me from the prison to talk about baseball and football, among other things.

We got to the town on April 9, and went to the home of Oleyvis Garcia.  A few minutes later, without even wiping off the dust from the road, we knocked on the door.  A soldier in olive drab introduced himself and addresses Lali and me by name.

It was Colonel Mesa, from the Department of State Security.  When I call my mother to tell her this, she says to me, “Ivan, Mesa is the one who dealt with me in Villa Marista, the day after you were arrested on March 8, 1991.  He was a captain then, thin and not very tall.”

“I don’t remember.  The one I remember is Chaple, the one who was in the little room they sent me to the two times you visited me.”

“Mesa was in charge of your case and perhaps you didn’t speak with him.  How did he treat you and Lali?”

“He was very friendly.  He wanted to know how we knew about Pacheco’s release and we told him that we heard it on the radio.  Before he left, he gave us a telephone number to reach him in case a problem arose.”

And a problem did arise not long after the colonel left.  Oleyvis needed to go to the Western Union office to get money sent from the United States by Pacheco’s family.  The office closed at 4pm, so we drove her there.  But despite it not being 4 yet, it was closed. We checked and were told that the employee had not gone in to work that day.

We called Colonel Mesa and in a few minutes, the issue was resolved.  We don’t know where they found someone, but they opened up Western Union and paid Oleyvis the money, that very same night she had to travel to Havana with her son.  On Monday, July 12, when they’re already in the air, is the day that they will finally be with Pacheco.

My mother interrupts me.  She wanted to know if I was able to get any more information from the colonel concerning this odd process of prisoner releases, decided on by the hierarchy of the Catholic church, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Cuban government.

“Yes”, I told her, “But he told me that he didn’t know; that he just follows orders and the one that is responsible for them is General Raul Castro.”

At 6 in the morning on Sunday, I was awoken by my cell phone’s ring.  It was Pablo Pacheco, who had called me to say that he was with a military unit on the outskirts of Havana.  He was with other political prisoners who were being given medical checks and they were giving them first-rate care.  “The food is excellent; they’ve even given us beef.  We slept two to a room with air conditioning,” he told me.

I went back to sleep.  Four hours later, my cell phone went off again.  It was Oleyvis, Pacheco’s wife.  At that moment, both she and Jimmy, their son, along with other relatives, were being given a medical examination in a clinic of the Ministry of the Interior, on G and 19th Street, in the neighborhood of Vedado.

“We’re all being booked in the Instituto Superior Capitan San Luis, belonging to MININT (Ministry of the Interior), in Valle Grande, on the outskirts of the city.  We are being well fed and well treated, but we haven’t been able to see our husbands.  I think that before going to the airport, we are going to be greeted by Cardinal Ortega; I’m not sure if only the relatives or also the political prisoners”.

While he was still in Canaleta prison, Pacheco dreamed he was back home with his wife and son, watching the final match of the World Cup.  The three could watch it together and jump in celebration of Spain’s victory.

On the other hand, while not from there, it is in Havana that the Castros have begun their game of chess; with all of the pieces well controlled and well-played, among them the dissidents.  This is so nobody would even dare to take their king, and they will be the ones to declare checkmate.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Andrew Cuan