Archive for August, 2010

The United States: A Necessary Enemy

August 31, 2010 1 comment

Fidel Castro loves to make references to the numerous economic, paramilitary, and political aggressions of the 11 administrations that have been through the White House throughout these 51 years the strong-man of Cuba has been in power.

The United States is far from being the ideal neighbor.  In the first 40 years of the revolution, it unleashed a ferocious campaign of assaults on Castro.  It was an all out fight with all the ingredients.  Dirty war, economic pressure, and anti-government propaganda.

But Castro is no saint either.  Strengthened by more then 20 million rubles that Moscow granted him, he served as the Russian’s aircraft carrier in the Caribbean.  In October of 1962, he made the unfortunate decision of accepting 42 intermediate- and medium-range nuclear missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, strategic bomber aircraft, and 43,000 Russian soldiers on Cuban territory.

He financed numerous guerrilla groups in Latin America and Africa, including some that, years later, have degenerated into terrorist gangs such as the FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru.

On top of provoking the thunderous collapse of the Cuban economy, with his absurd plans and his method of managing the country as if it were his own private estate, the extraordinary comandante maintained military troops thousands of miles away from this island.

He acted as if possessed by a tropical Napoleon complex.  Cuba got involved in the civil wars of Angola, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  The consequences of our participation in those conflicts have yet to be written about.

During the Cold War, Cuba and the United States maintained a mutually irritating political rivalry.  As a center of global power, Washington didn’t want to allow an openly Soviet military presence and, on the part of the government in Havana, support for insurgencies around half of the planet .

After Khrushchev withdrew the missiles, the now vanished USSR maintained troops on the island and a base for electronic spying on North America.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Cuba lost its steam.  Once the pipeline of Russian rubles was sealed up, we entered into a period of economic poverty.  The Americans plopped down on a recliner to await the fall.  But against all winds and tides, Castro resisted.

Now, the world isn’t the same.  Even Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales reached power through votes, not through bullets.  Ernesto Guevara’s theory of “Revolutionary Focalism” has been tossed into the sack of obscurity.  The theater of action presents a new design.

The elderly warrior that miraculously escaped death in July of 2006, has reemerged, transformed into a kind of international guru, predicting catastrophes and lending credence to any old incendiary conspiracy theory.

Only on the immigration issue is Cuba a national security problem for the United States.  A hypothetical internal crisis could unravel whereupon thousands of people would hurl themselves into the sea on any floating object to escape the island.  The White House is the most interested party in the Cuba situation not getting out of its government’s control.

In spite of Castro’s anti-yankee discourse, today the United States is the island’s fifth trading partner and first in foodstuff sales.  We hear talk of the ban on travel from the United States to Cuba being lifted.  The embargo is an absurdity.  In the foreign currency stores they sell Coca-Cola and Dell computers, among other products.

The biggest of Cubans’ problems don’t come from the North.  The enemy sleeps among us at home.  Rampant corruption and economic inefficiency are, among others, the causes the nation is treading water neck-deep.  Fidel Castro attempts to blame the gringos for many of our calamities, but sensible people here believe that bad governance and the system’s inoperability are the most responsible.

On top of being a current minor evil, the United States contributes financial liquidity to Cuba: 100 million dollars annually by way of family remittances and 50,000 Cuban-Americans who travel to the island every year and spend dollars at full throttle.

But it’s always easier to pin the blame on the same old lifelong villain.  If the United States hadn’t existed, Fidel Castro would have invented it.

Iván García

Photo: Ralph Crane, Life Magazine, October of 1962.  In a store in Los Angeles, people follow the news of the naval blockade against Cuba authorized by Pres. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

Havana Jargon

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The other crisis that exists in Cuba, besides the political and economic one, is stationary and comes from our language.  We already know that money is scarce and that food is scarce.  We live in upset, because we live under a government that controls our lives as if they were our parents. A huge share of Cubans dream of futures in Miami, Rome, or Madrid.

Very well, I understand all of that.  But I can’t wrap my head around why we daily speak an incomplete and fast-paced dialect, which only we nationals comprehend.  An example of this current “language” spoken on the island is the following dialogue.

Any random morning.  Two friends meet up at any park in Central Havana.

– What’s goin’ on, homey?

– Everythin’ and nothin’, my friend.

– I’m looking for a fool to throw in his face the couple of imported pedals my dad sent me, I don’t have a dime. I’m going to sell them for 30 dollars so I can hook up with that bitch from the neighborhood, she’s driving me crazy.

The homey, with his pants hanging well below his waist and showing off his Nike underwear, replies:

That bitch pretends to be shy. If I don’t show her the money she won’t even move her ass, once I put my dick in her mouth and afterwards I was wasted and broke and she just left me, every time I think about it, I feel like breaking her in half like a pencil.

A policeman with an evil face and a German Shepherd comes near.  The two friends decide to leave.

– I’m outta here, see ya later.

He gives his friend a kiss on the face and reminds him:

– Please do not pretend to be the “sugar daddy” (the one who pays) with that girl, that it is not good, rumors say that she’s no good in bed after all.

– Got it, responds the homey.

Even for me, who is bent on trying to understand the ins and outs of the Havana underground world, it sometimes gets confusing and I don’t understand such language.

For Cubans who have been living outside of the island for years, it will be a challenge to try to translate this conversation.

The hell with Spanish.  It’s barely spoken in Havana.  We speak gibberish.

Translated by Raul G. and Jose O.

Havana Reinvents Itself

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The family of Hector Iznaga lives hand to mouth.  His daughter, 18-years-old, was going to have a baby, and they realized that their house was very small.  They got to work.  Without permission from any state body, they quickly turned the balcony of their small two-bedroom apartment into a new bedroom.

Many families in this country are like the Iznaga family.  There are areas of Havana geography that have been turned into veritable architectural Frankensteins.  Very different from their original design.

In Cuba, the respect for rules and directives of the Housing Institute and for the municipal architects do not exist.  In general, people wipe their rear ends with the norms of urban order.

It’s like we live in an African jungle.  The disregard for the laws of coexistence is typical on the island.  People like Hector Iznaga show why.  His family has lived for 20 years in an dreadful building of five floors in the Alamar neighborhood, one of the largest and worst slums in Havana.

its upkeep, supposedly, falls to the State, but only in theory.  No official organ cares that the inhabitants of the property have carried their water for months, because the water pumps don’t function.

When it rains, the roofs leak to even the lowest floors.  The situation is the same with the sanitary services.  The stairways are dark and without handrails.  The building speaks for itself.  Filthy and dilapidated, crying out for a even a little paint.

The neighbors have complained to their local delegation of the Popular Power in their area, but nothing.  Life continues the same. So, the inhabitants, in the face of such state slacking, do as they please.

At a glance, you can see that numerous families make adaptations without legal permission.  They change the facade.  They take collective areas for themselves.  And without any knowledge of construction or engineering, they tear down load-bearing walls, putting themselves and the rest of the residents in danger.

I’ll offer you a figure.  Sixty percent of the housing in the city of Havana is in fair to poor shape.  In general, up to four generations live in one house.

In the middle of the capital, or in other overpopulated areas like Luyano, Lawton, or Vibora, it has been decades since many buildings have seen repairs.  They have not even been painted.

People who live in larger houses or chalets renovate them based on their economic situation.  It’s “save yourself if you can.” Although the State offers very little, it severely punishes urban violations.

According to the official press, just in Havana, in the first six months of the year, more than 3,500 fines have been imposed for illegal construction projects in private homes.  The fines range from 200 pesos (10 dollars) to 1,500 pesos (60 dollars).  In the case of about 500 families, newly finished construction projects have been torn down.

The issue of housing is one of the unresolved problems of the government of the Castro brothers.  The deficit of housing is enormous.  They have tried to patch this enormous gap with small patches, like allowing organizations or individuals to construct their own homes, but the supply of materials is precarious, and of poor quality.

Throughout the city, one can see buildings that have been under construction for ten years or more.  And they threaten to take longer.  In the face of such a necessity, families patch them together the best they can.

The same families construct “barbacoas,” a 100% Cuban invention.  It consists of a wooden or concrete porch inside their own house.  If later, they want to add on to the house, if they have an empty lot next door, they will take it over and expand their dwelling with no consent from the authorities.

This all serves to give a little more capacity for a relative from the country, or for a baby on the way.  Like the Iznaga family, who got rid of their balcony in favor of a new room for their future grandchild.  And they have been lucky, not having been caught by the state inspectors.  For now.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by:  Gregorio

Agent 007 Is Running Out of Time

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Chilean businessman Joel Max Marambio Rodríguez faces a deadline of August 23rd to appear before the Inspector from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Miguel Estrada Portales. If he does not appear before the time runs, the criminal proceedings initiated against him could proceed to a final judgment of guilt.

How does an intimate friend and protegé of the elder Castro reach this point, managing the business of a holding company that moves more than 100 million dollars a year? Why would a friend of the revolution for more than 40 years become its adversary?

There are still many unanswered questions, some of which will be answered in the course of the trial, where the Chilean businessman will apparently be tried in absentia and evidently he holds the key to the box of secrets. Marambio, age 63, a former bodyguard of ousted President Salvador Allende and former friend of Fidel Castro, is accused by the Cuban government of the crimes of bribery, acts detrimental to economic activity or employment, embezzlement, falsification of banking and commerce documents, and fraud.

The businessman, owner of International Network Group (ING), was a partner of the Cuban state in the joint venture “Río Zaza Foods,” specializing in the production of juices, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages for the Cuban market and abroad. In late 2009, the Auditor General, a state body subordinate to the State Council, chaired by Army General Raul Castro, began investigating the leftist entrepreneur’s businesses on the island.

Unofficially, he was linked to a corruption scandal involving the deposed director of the Institute of Civil Aeronautics of Cuba (IACC) and Major General Rogelio Acevedo.. Max Marambio and his brother Marcel, were also partners of the IACC in the Sol y Son tourist agency. Several directors of the company were arrested, accused of paying kickbacks, misappropriating funds, and diverting resources abroad. Lucy Leal, executive director of ING, was arrested and is being investigated.

Authorities have not officially said anything about the scandal. In April, however, they acknowledged that Marambio’s companies were under investigation, when one of the managers of Rio Zaza Foods, the Chilean Roberto Baudrand, age 59, under house arrest and being subjected to interrogation, was found dead in his apartment. The Cuban autopsy, accepted by the family of the deceased, said the cause of death was respiratory failure combined with the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Marambio, known in Cuba as “The Guaton” (the fat man) was summoned and questioned by Inspector Estrada Portales, in late April and early August. The officer is in charge of the investigation. The summonses were published by means of two MININT notices in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba, the agency that discloses the laws and governmental acts on the island. To date, he has not appeared.

The Summons was issued on July 19. In it, the MININT inspector summoned the Chilean businessman to appear before him on the 29th, warning him that if he did not appear on the date indicated, an indictment would be issued on August 3. Officer Estrada Portales ordered the police agencies and State Security to search for, apprehend, and present Marambio within 20 days.

The summons expires on August 23rd. If the deadline passes without his appearance or presentation, he will be declared in default. In the case of crimes against the fundamental political or economic interests of the nation, the Cuban judicial system provides that proceedings against a defendant declared in default can proceed to a final decision.

The judicial system in Cuba offers few safeguards for defendants. The criminal case against him is in the preparatory phase, when pretrial proceedings are conducted. If Marambio returns to the island he is most likely to end up in jail, as a precautionary measure to secure his appearance. Until then, he cannot appoint a legal representative for his defense.

Everything seems to indicate that the legal route will be the means of settling accounts. The publication of the summons and indictment in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba is a formal requirement. The island’s government does not intend to pursue the businessman internationally.

The aim is to declare him in default and try him in absentia. In that case, he could appoint a lawyer. He could also appear at any time and revoke the declaration. He could even void the final judgment against him and be heard in a new trial. Marambio could be a time bomb for the Castro brothers. For what he knows and for what he has been quiet about. We suspect he will not return.

Iván García y Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

The Power of Small Things

August 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Of all the independent journalists and bloggers, perhaps there are no more than 150 across the entire island.  Yet many of us should polish our style.  Sometimes we think well, but rhyme poorly.  On occasion, the words drown us.  And the majority lack resources to engage in active journalism or maintain a blog on the web.

The political prisoner and unofficial communicator, Pablo Pacheco, free in Spain since July 13, thanks to the dialogue between President Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, would update his blog from a prison 400 kilometers from Havana, recording his posts via telephone.  Pacheco never even had a computer.  Now he has one, in Málaga, where he lives with his wife and son.

With the difficulties which Pacheco wrote, many continue to write within Cuba.  On the reverse side of pages with official letterheads, recycling sheets that have some blank space.  Typewriters are still essential for residents outside of the capital.  In the agencies of Eastern Cuba, they peck away at typewriters made in East Germany.

Cuban independent journalism is worthy of commendation.  The lapses in information content and journalistic skill that we might have as free correspondents, are the very same as for the majority of official reporters.

With the difference being that official journalism is more boring than independent journalism.  Working for a State medium tends to burden creativity; and one is closer to being a tamer than a journalist.  Certain sensitive subjects are “guided” via phone by a government censor from his office.

Cuban independent journalism was born in the mid 90s.  With women and men dedicated to changing the established rules of the game, such as Indamiro Restano, Raúl Rivero, Rafael Solano, Rolando Cartaya, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Tania Quintero, Iria González Rodiles, Reinaldo Escobar and Jorge Olivera, among others who broke with the official media.  In spite of the risk of going to prison, they thought it was worth it to describe the reality of their country.

They could have been cynics and opportunists, like certain colleagues in the governmental press.  Some had official recognition.  But they didn’t want to have a car granted them by the State, nor travel to the events and social forums of the worked-up global Left.

Had they continued being followers of the regime, today they would be rubbing elbows with Fidel Castro and have to tolerate, while standing firm, the lecturing on about the unstoppable atomic war that according to Castro is upon us.

They freed themselves from having to listen in silence and chose to be free men and women.  They paid for that choice with jail time, arbitrary detentions, public acts of repudiation, and exile.

The new bunch of independent journalists, save for some exceptions, has no professional training.  Nor do they bring with them that fear in their bodies suffered by those who work in the State media.  Some of them are brilliant, like Luis Cino, Víctor E. Sánchez, Evelyn Ramos, Luis Felipe Rojas and Laritza Diversent.

Since 2007, there’s been an explosion of bloggers.  Many have an intellectual education.  It’s no longer just Yoani Sánchez.  Youth like Claudia Cadelo and Orlando Luis Pardo have very widely read blogs.

Some possess academic resumes that extend over 50 years, like Miriam Celaya and Dimas Castellanos who, in my opinion, have the best political analysis blogs written on the island.

Under all kinds of difficulties, free journalists as well as alternative bloggers, have struck an important goal.  They opened a breach in the iron wall of monopolized news that the Party and Cuban government once held.

Now their opinions and analyses count when it comes to the study of the Cuba issue.  Small things sometimes bring with them winds of hurricane force.  If you doubt it, ask one of the Castro brothers.  They’ve waged plenty of war over it.

Iván García

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

Will the Prisons be Filled Again?

August 22, 2010 1 comment

It is a likely probability.  It is known that the Castros are unpredictable.  At times, they attempt to behave like brothers respectful of international norms.  The truth is the rules of democracy and human rights agreements are instruments against which the government in Havana holds grudges.

The three-way negotiations between General Raul Castro with the Cuban Catholic Church, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and a left-wing branch of Barack Obama’s administration, which culminated in the agreement to release the 52 prisoners of conscience from la primavera negra del 2003 (the black Spring of 2003) and promises to reach out to more political prisoners on the island, could become a sterile gesture.

Since Castro II’s speech on the 1st of August, alarms were set off in the Cuban Secret Services.  The General did a 360 degree turn on the alleged easing of tensions and sent a return message to the disidencia del patio (courtyard dissidents).

He said it clearly.  Do not confuse tolerance with impunity. The street belongs to the revolutionaries.  We know what that means.  Beatings by the “pueblo indignado” (incensed citizens), acts of repudiation and thorough verbal lynchings to those who oppose the regime.

State Security took note and began work to gather the necessary pieces in the best way it knows how: repression. On the 5th of August, a date on which the sixteenth anniversary of the maleconazo* is commemorated, the political police conducted an extensive operation against dissidents and independent journalists who that day went to the United States Interests Section to surf the Internet.

Dozens of opponents where detained for up to 12 hours.  All detainees were warned that there would be no impunity.  As part of the strategy, citations and warnings have been issued to independent journalists in different provinces.

Reina Luisa Tamayo suffers fierce harassment at her home in Banes, Holguín, 700 kilometers (approximately 435 miles) from Havana.  They were not satisfied that Reina had lost her son, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, after an 86 day hunger strike, last February 23rd.

She is the Lady in White who has been treated most rudely by the political police.  They have not respected her pain as a mother nor have they allowed her to mourn as she is entitled to do.

The question that many ask today is what was the reason to unleash such a raid.  It could be that the government expects more from the European Union and from the United States.  Or, that the release of a handful of prisoners was only a measure to obtain political breathing room and some international credibility.

I have no doubt that there are factions in power with different opinions.  At this moment different springs are moving within the status quo.  He who manages to impose himself will dictate the rules of the game.

If the ‘talibanes’ (Taliban) succeed, the historic hard-line revolutionaries, we will return to the past.  Beware of economic measures and of the iron fist with dissidents.  We will have to wait.

Yet something is certain.  The hasty negotiations of Castro II, the church and Moratinos, left behind some rough edges.  What is important, without a doubt, was the promise to release 52 political prisoners who should have never been in jail.

But apparently neither Cardinal Ortega nor the Spanish Foreign Minister could get General Raul to promise to never again incarcerate someone because of their opinion.  Also not on the agenda, was the abolition of the dark Law 88, which continues to float around the air of the Republic.  With the strike of a gavel, it allows any prosecutor to put a dissident behind bars for 20 years or more.

The Castros may have decided to start playing hard and without gloves again.  A sector of the opposition knows it.  It asks itself if there will be new black summers, winters, autumns or springs.

In 51 years of revolution, prisons have always been full of political prisoners.  They are valuable bargaining chips.  If the regime wants, they could empty them.  Also if it wants, it could fill them once again.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: The Malaconazo was a riot that broke out on the Malecon, Havana’s seawall and waterfront arterial.

Translated by: Antonio Trujillo

In Cuba, Many Don’t Share the Attitude of Some Ex-prisoners in Spain

August 20, 2010 Leave a comment

The initial joy over the release and flight to Spain of some 20 prisoners and a substantial number of their relatives, has given way to a certain malaise over the news that’s reached the island from different sources on the Iberian peninsula.

It hasn’t gone over well, not within the dissident community, nor among those with the highest access to information in Havana, that many of those former political prisoners, in less than 48 hours after their arrival in Madrid, began to complain publicly.

First, it was over the accommodations, then they started demanding to be granted political asylum status, because they rejected the “assisted international protection” status, proposed by Spanish authorities.

Moreover, one group refuses to be sent to other cities, as almost a dozen already have done.  To be sure, almost all of those who accepted a move to Andalusia, Valencia, and La Rioja are professionals: doctors, dentists, nurses, art teachers…

The Madrid group has dug in its heels and, with the advice of an attorney, not only have they questioned the Spanish Constitution, they consider themselves within their rights to submit their protest to the Public Defender.

“What upsets me most is that they’re giving the impression that all of us Cubans are ungrateful, and it’s not true.  Because if there’s a people with which we’ve always sympathized with, it’s with the people of Spain”, said an indignant

María Rosa, age 56, home-maker, who stays in the know through foreign radio stations.

A dissident who preferred to remain anonymous, thinks that these prisoners and their families, on top of giving the Cuban dissidents’ and political prisoners’ movement a bad image, are being manipulated.  “According to what I’ve read, the Partido Popular (Spain’s leading right-wing party), as well as long-established Cuban exiles, has been using them.  And it’s a shame, because these men have just been freed after seven years of being locked up and they find themselves misinformed.  And that misinformation has been taken advantage of for [the Partido Popular’s and Cuba exiles’] political interests,” he stated.

Lorenzo, age 23, university student, had the opportunity to browse the Internet and was able to read commentaries left by readers of Spanish online news media.  “I felt ashamed, because you don’t spit on the hand that offers you food.  More so, when you come from a prison and a country with so much hardship.  And over there, they’re making demands, as if here they’d been living in mansions in Miramar or Nuevo Vedado.”

There are all kinds of opinions.  Yarisleidys, age 20, street-hustler, lamented not having been able to get with a political prisoner in jail, since maybe now she would’ve been able to leave with him for Spain.

When I tell her that if they release the 52 the Cuban government promised, there’d still be nearly 100 political prisoners in jail, she responds: “Oh, yeah?  Well, look here, I’m gonna get on these guys’ side, I don’t care if they’re old and sick.  What I want is to get the hell outta this country.”

In politics, as with sports, one has to wait til the game ends before chanting victory.  Those who protest today in Spain, not only should have shown themselves to be more grateful, they should’ve hung in there until the rest of the prisoners were out from behind bars, either on the island or en route to exile.

At any moment the Castro brothers may decide to blow the whistle, and declare the game ended before the clock’s time.

Iván García

Photo: EPA. Meeting held by ex-President José María Aznar with the group of former political prisoners and their relatives on July 28, 2010, in Madrid.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

Welcome to the Island of Rum!

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Drinking alcohol is one of the passions of the average Cuban. A true national sport.  Next to baseball, sex, playing dominoes, and leaving the country.

Drinking rum or beer is known in Cuba as “bending the elbow.” Or “sucking the rat’s tail.” There are various groups of drinkers. There are hard and fast alcoholics. Those whose only thought is one liter of rum.

Really, “rum” is a euphemism for what they drink. They usually ingest a kerosene distilled from molasses and charcoal in a miserable still. So it is with Pedro Marín, 56, whose only aim in life is to drink.

When he gets up at seven in the morning, he rinses his mouth with a swig of bitter 90-proof alcohol. Then he goes to carry sacks of flour in a bakery, taking along a plastic bottle full of homemade rum, with an unbearable smell, known as “Superman.”

“The guy who can take a shot of Superman without doubling over is one of us,” said Marín, a black man with few teeth and bloodshot eyes, wearing old patched clothes.

These kinds of curdas (drinkers in Cuban slang) do not read the press or care what’s happening in Cuba or in the world. Nor are they interested in their wives or husbands, if they have any, or their children and family. Every penny that goes into their pockets is invested in one liter of distilled alcohol.

They are sick men and women. Rosa Aparicio, 65, is a grimy old woman who sleeps in the doorways of any street and gets in tremendous fights every time she goes drinking.

Most of these habitual drunks do not receive specialized medical care. They don’t want it. In the interior of the country, the situation is as bad or worse than it is in the capital.

The independent journalist Osmany Borroto, of Sancti Spiritus, reported the death of Omar Ulloa, a neighbor in Jatibonico, after he had drunk a moonshine known as White Horse, produced in central Uruguay, widely consumed because of its low cost.

But there are also social drinkers on the island, who drink regularly and don’t lose their composure. They usually have good contacts and buy good-quality imported or domestic beer.  And rum or whiskey purchased with convertible pesos.

But they are in the minority. Most people drink to ward off the daily anxieties. We already know what they are: the lack of a future and the great national problem – putting two hot meals on the table every day.

They also drink to try to scare away ghosts and fears. They do not know how they will get money to take their children out on the town during the holidays. Or buy them clothes, shoes, and a backpack for the next school year.

The accumulation of problems makes them take the easy way out. Bend the elbow. “There was not enough money to repair the house, buy a car, or celebrate my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. So I don’t stress out, and when I can, I take four drinks,” says Mario Echemendía, 40 years.

“Four drinks” in Cuba means sitting with friends at a neighborhood street corner or in a dive bar, to drink cheap, mass-produced rum or beer.

The government provides a great distraction to the passion of the Cuban by means of alcoholic beverages. Every event ends with a beer truck and a kiosk for selling cheap rum.

The philosophy of the Cuban drunk can be read on posters hung in run-down taverns: “He who drinks, gets drunk. He who gets drunk, falls asleep. He who sleeps does not sin. He who does not sin goes to heaven. If you want to go to heaven . . . DRINK!”

On the island many things may be missing, but there will always be a rum drink or a glass of beer available. If you are creditworthy, you’ll drink first-rate. And if your name is Pedro Marín, ingest diabolical concoctions. This is the final step of an alcoholic. A true Hell.

Iván García

August 18 2010

Prison Rats

August 17, 2010 1 comment

The first time Valentín set foot in a jail, he was fifteen years old.  Up and down the narrow streets of Old Havana, together with a group of delinquents, he set out to steal the purses or video cameras of the unsuspecting tourists.

“I was sent to a youth reform center in 1996.  From that point on, prison has been my home.  I’ve spent 12 of the last 14 years behind the bars of a cell,” Valentín recounts to me during one of his brief stints of liberty.

When he entered the slammer for the first time, he was young, black, thin, and with a full head of hair.  In 2010, I see in front of me a bald man who lacks many teeth, with two cuts on his neck from some sharp object, and with a face and physical make-up that would inspire fear.

“In jail, I have had more than one problem.  The treatment of common criminals by the guards is violent and humiliating.  We are non-persons.  The Cuban jails are a jungle.  Only the strong survive,” he points out, as he drinks a vile beer at an improvised bar.

When Valentín is free, he returns to his old adventures.  He is a first-class anti-social.  His way of life is to rob or swindle the unwary.  He knows nothing else.

“I do not see myself living on a miserable salary.  I like weed and rum, white women, and to dress well.  My way of obtaining all that is stealing.  For me, there’s no other way,” he said, without pretense.

Eighty-eight percent of the common (non-political) prisoners in Cuba are black or mestizo.  These two groups make up 50% of the population of the entire island.  In general, they have the hardest lives.  Their families are madhouses.  Violent crimes are usually committed by blacks.

The Martell brothers are also black.  Two boys who speak rapid-fire slang.  From age 13, their lives have been one transgression after another.

Six months ago, they were on the street.  And now they’re next in line to visit prison.  “We’re awaiting a hearing, where the prosecutor is asking for 12 years,” they tell me, in an almost jocular way.  They add, “Our partners in jail are already saving us a bunk.”  To be prisoners is the natural state of being for the Martell brothers.

The worst part is that in Havana, young black, marginalized youth, who believe themselves to be tough, abound.  They are prison rats.  Roberto Dueñas, age 22, has been in jail for 7 years.  He carries a sentence of 43 years.  He entered for a minor infraction with a sentence of 3 years.

But once in the system, he killed a couple of inmates, choking them with his own hands.  And one afternoon in 2009, together with a group of prisoners, he rioted, trying to take over the jail located in the outskirts of the province of Camaguey, 600 kilometers from the capital.

If, one day, Dueñas gets out of jail, he’ll be 58-years-old.  Without a wife or family.  In a letter he mailed to a friend, full of spelling errors and in childish handwriting, he confessed that he does not regret it.

“Here in the tank (jail), what matters is force, to earn respect and the benefits that make life more bearable.  If my life is to die in jail, so be it.  I will never permit another man to be above me.  The only person above me is God,” wrote Dueñas to his friend.

The government of the Castro brothers has never offered data on the number of common prisoners on the island.  Nor on the number of jails.  The environment in which these youths grow up is fertile ground for delinquency.

The worst part isn’t the silence.  Rather, that the Cuban State doesn’t have a solution for the problem of a society that grows more unstable and violent.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by:  Gregorio

And Presenting the Names of Some Cubans

August 16, 2010 1 comment

My grandmothers were called Carmen and Andrea, and my grandfathers, Jose Manuel and Rafael. Names are given according to the era. My uncles and aunts were given common names: Luis, Mario, Candida, Teresa, Maria, Dulce, Augustine, Maximus, Adelaide, Victoria, Milagros, Lidia… The exception was Avelino, no longer in use, and Veneta, of Italian origin.

For siblings, cousins and nephews, the tradition began to change: Tamila, Yaricel, Himely, Yuri, Yania, Mathew … Of the six mentioned, three are written with a Y. A boom that began in the 70s and still continues, as with the names of stars. The most popular, Maikel, is for Michael Jackson, a national idol.

It has become common to “nationalise” foreign names. So, for Ricardo, they say Richard; Billy for Guillermo, Robert for Roberto; Tony for Antonio; Maggie for Margarita; and Elizabeth for Isabel, amongst others. We gave my daughter the name Melany, from the French Creole version of Melanie.

Many parents opt for combinations like Sarim (Sara and Manuel), Leidan (Leida and Daniel), Franmar (Francisco and Marina) and Julimar (Julio and Maria) of endless possibilities which sometimes seem like trademarks. There are some who have wanted to be more original and have given their children the name of the parent reversed: Legna (Angel), Anele (Elena), Oiluj (Julio) and Otsenre (Ernesto).

Some recall characters and conflicts in other places: Lenin, Yasser, Indira, Hanoi, Libia, Nairobi, Namibia … Some are geographic: Israel, Argentina, Africa, Asia, America … Or planetary: Luna, Sol, Venus …

Soap operas have had an influence, too. In 1984, when the Brazilian serial started, a woman was called Malú, and many girls (and also dogs and cats) were given the name Malú. Others got the nicknames of the soap opera of the day. Like Dondita, a girl whose true identity nobody knows.

Even though in Cuba you can go to the civil registry and file a change of name, those who do not like the label given them by their parents tend to change it on their own, without wasting time on paperwork. This is the case with Yanet who hates the Yanci of Charity which she is registered as. When the mail carrier changed, the new one did not know that the correspondence directed to Yanet was for Yanci.

Amongst athletes born since the 1980s, there are many names beginning with Y: Yan, Yipsi, Yadel, Yumisleidys, Yoroemis, Yunel, Yoennis, Yargelis, Yannelis, Yunidis,Yeimer, Yuniseski, Yuriorkis, Yormani, Yoerkis… And a few rare ones: Jonder, Dayan, Level, Vismay, Gelkis, Uziel, Erislandy, Salatiel, Vicyohhandri, Osbiel, Roidel, Asniel, Edisbel, Leovel, Mijaín, Idales, Eglys and Arasay, among others selected at random from a long list.

In 2004, in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, they gave the example of Rayni Rodriguez, then 11 years old, whose parents gave him the name because he was born one rainy morning: Rayni is a variation of Rainy in English. The boy confessed that he would have liked to be called David, after Bisbal “a singer whom I admire a lot.”

In that report are mentioned other cases of Cubans with unusual names: Evergreen, Mylady, Sugarcandy, Geisha, Danger, Alien y Usnavy. Perhaps none is as bizarre as Yunaiestei. It only lacks the addition of “of America.”

Iván García

Photo: Yargelis Savigne (Guantánamo, 1984), gold medalist in triple jump, World Athletics Championships Berlin 2009 .

Translated by: CIMF