Archive for November, 2010

The 50th Season of Cuban Ball Starts

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment


Millions of Cubans are beside themselves with delight. The biggest sporting competition in Cuba starts on Sunday, November 28th in the old Cerro Stadium, today called the Latinamerican Stadium. And they’re celebrating the 50th season of baseball, the King of Sports on the island.

January 14, 1962, in his inseparable olive green uniform and a pair of cheap sunglasses, Fidel Castro inaugurated the first national series with amateur players. On that day, he said “it is a triumph of free ball over slave ball”, referring to professional baseball which before 1959 was played in the country.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. The Latinamerican, the biggest stadium in the country, the home stadium of the Industriales, Havana’s home team and current champion, has no artificial lights and presents a lamentably deteriorated state.

The national series is surrounded by debate. Like the case of Frederic Cepeda, one of the best ballplayers who mysteriously wasn’t a member of the national team which took part in the 17th World Cup celebrated in Taipei, and afterwards, stayed off his team, the Roosters of Sancti Spiritus.

Such was the resulting hullabaloo, that some days before the inauguration of the new season the sporting hierarchy decided that Cepeda would be a member of the team from Sancti Spíritus. One interview with the ballplayer was published in the local newspaper, Escambray.

One would hope that in the press conference called for Tuesday the 25th, they’d give more details and clear up the situation of other players excluded from the national series. The lack of information usually makes of all classes of rumors and speculations explode among fans.

It is then when people try to find out what is said or published in Miami. From the Miami press some recent declarations of Antonio Castro, son of el Comandante, an orthopedic doctor by profession and vice president of the Cuban Baseball Federation were extracted.

According to his comment, during the celebration of the World Cup in Taipei, Castro made a proposal to permit that Cuban ballplayers could play in the professional leagues of other countries.

In the other ear also arrived the name of the latest “deserter”: Yasiel Balaguer, 17 years old, who excelled as a first caliber batter.

“Ball”, as the Cubans call baseball, is the only spectacle capable of filling a place made for 55,000 people not called together by the government. But owing to official censure, its millions of fans cannot follow the best leagues in the world, like those of the United Stats, Japan, South Korea, the Dominican, Mexico, or Venezuela.

Ball, besides, is a question of State. The teams for the national series correspond to the seats of the provincial communist parties. Among the tasks of the First Secretary of the Party in any province is that of attending to the material needs of his territory’s team.

Although more than 350 ballplayers have deserted in the last twenty years, the governmental press maintains its usual silence. The people find out from foreign newspapers; e-mails from friends who live abroad, or on Radio Martí — United States government broadcaster — which since 1985 transmits to the island and whose signal is strongly jammed by Cuban military engineers.

To try to stop the incessant flow of desertions, they’ve made living conditions better for the players during the national campaign. They travel in air-conditioned buses, sleep in comfortable hotels, and eat their fill. Even so, they earn laborers’ salaries. And because of that, at the first sign of change, they abandon their Fatherland to play as professionals, and in not few cases, earn salaries with six zeros*.

Secrecy and mystery surround matters related to baseball in Cuba. Nobody questions the professionalism of the official journalists, but  their lack of cojones is criminal when it’s time to communicate and debate the red-hot themes, with the exception of some radio announcers.

In the middle of this grey outlook, at last comes the best time of the year — baseball season. And with it, the enthusiasm and noise in the stadiums. Good news for the ordinary Cuban.

Iván García

Photo: Getty Images, 2009. Fans seated around the statue raised in the bleachers of the Latinamerican Stadium, in homage to the late Armando Luis Torres. Better known as Armandito “El Tintorero”, for years he was the leading cheerleader or fan of Cuban baseball.

*Translator’s note: a salary with “six zeros” is, in English, a “seven-figure” salary.

Translated by: JT
November 28 2010

Who is Arnaldo Ramos?

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

He arrived home on Saturday. After 7 years and 8 months behind the bars of a cell and the creaking of locks, the dissident economist Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, 68, at 6:30 in the morning of his first Sunday in freedom, sat in the park facing the modest apartment where he lives in the neighborhood of Central Havana.

He wanted to watch the sunrise, breathe the fresh air and see ordinary people carrying plastic bags for Sunday shopping.  He wanted to feel like a free man. After two hours of meditation, the sun began to warm the Havana morning and the sound of children with their bats, balls, skates and soccer balls, broke through his personal spell.

Then Arnaldo Ramos began what was always his daily routine. Joining the long line to buy the official press in a tobacco shop. It is one of his hobbies. Collecting the daily papers and filing them in boxes.

“When I was arrested on 19 March 2003, it was around 9 in the morning, and State Security spent five hours demanding papers and documents,” he says sitting in a mahogany chair.

Ramos, a thin mulatto, short in stature, is well preserved.  He is hyper-kinetic, with a fixed gaze and acute analysis. His apartment is furnished in a Spartan style. For the last 45 years he has been married to the doctor Lydia Lima, who is now retired. He is the father of two, with two grandchildren.

He has an extensive history as a dissident. Like other leaders of the current opposition, in the first years of the revolution he had hopes for the project of Fidel Castro. Before realizing they were applauding a fraud, Arnoldo worked in that factory of technocrats that formed the central planning board, JUCEPLAN, an institution that governed the island’s economy and ordered the number of boots, combs and toothbrushes that were to be fabricated every year.

“After graduating in economics in 1971, I started working in JUCEPLAN, with the cream of the economic gurus of Cuban socialism, like Irma Sanchez and Humberto Perez. There I lived, in its entirety, the financial lie, how to doctor the figures to coincide with the interests of Fidel Castro, who skipped all the rules and when some plan occurred to him, however crazy, he sent the draft and the agency had to carry it out to the letter.”

His first problems with the system began with the economic analysis done for the JUCEPLAN newsletter, in which there were some underhanded criticisms. “It was the era of the billions of rubles that the USSR sent us. Waste and improvisation. Burying money in imaginary projects or making purchases in the capitalist countries with super modern factories, which did not accord with the logical development of the country. I remember that in 1978, when thousands of taxicabs were purchased in Argentina, I made the report without ever having traveled to that country,” said Arnaldo, while sipping a powdered orange soft drink .

By 1987 things were already clear to Arnaldo Ramos. The economic system, including the political system, was not working. In 1991 he retired. The following year he began working with another dissident economist, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. Together they organized an institute of independent economists. “In 18 years in the opposition, my main contribution was theoretical: to dismantle the government’s complacent discourse and point out the real background of the supposed economic successes.”

On a leaden gray April afternoon he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for insisting in his articles, studies and investigations that the Cuban economy was heading towards the ravine.

Seven years were very hard for a person who was already 60. “Except in Holguín prison, where they beat me, I did not receive physical punishment. Harassment and verbal abuse, yes. It was also a punishment for my family, who had to travel nearly 500 miles loaded with crates, to visit me. Still, I never thought to leave my country.”

He was in two of the toughest prisons on the island. That of Holguin and Nieves Morejón, in the province of Sancti Spiritus. In the past six months, the authorities transferred him to 1580, a prison on the outskirts of Havana.

He was released on parole, a sort of legal limbo that technically allows the government to send him back to jail whenever it wants.” An official of the State Security told me I was free to engage in any activity, and they would not imprison me again. But that was a verbal commitment. There is no document that confirms that.”

Of the alleged economic reforms of the government of General Raúl Castro, the independent economist does not expect anything positive. Nor does he believe that anything important will come out of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, scheduled for April 2011.

The one thing of which he is indeed convinced is that profound changes must occur in Cuba in order to make a leap forward in the economy. And Arnaldo Ramos will be one of those voices for change. Count on it.

Text and photo: Ivan Garcia

Translated by ricote

November 25, 2010

Reforms to Raúl Castro

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Goodbye to the Chinese model or that of Vietnam. Forget about copying Russia or Serbia. General Raul Castro, president of Cuba, is about to introduce one hundred percent home-grown changes.

Those who dreamed of a market economy, please, back down to earth. Cuba’s move is “new and native” — in the words of the leaders. It has nothing to do with the methods used in other places.

In a meeting of the Communist Party leaders at the Ñico López School in Jaimanitas, to the west of Havana, Marino Murillo, head of economics, said it loud and clear, “We are not going to opt for a market economy, we are going to continue with the planned economy.”

The results of the new regulations and economic reforms remain to be seen. Those already implemented have achieved very little. The 2008 granting of land in usufruct to individual farmers has not produced significant results in the chaos of food production. Nor did the relaunch of self employment this October encourage hundreds of thousands of unemployed to take out licenses to earn money working for themselves.

At bottom, there is a sickness. Structural and ideological. Trying to step on the gas of an economy that’s taking on water, applying methods not proven to give results, with an excess of audits, controls and high taxes, is a check on the progress of an economy at the margin of the State.

Given their fear — that people can make money and generate wealth — the changes in economic matters proposed by the historic leaders of the Revolution will never be serious.

Trying to invent or experiment at this stage of the game is more than daring, it’s a political blunder. With the exhaustion 52 years of power would produce in any government, what would make sense now for the moribund island economy would be to use processed that have been proven successful in other countries and adapt them to our own characteristics.

In five decades of State central planning and control in every area of national life, Cubans have never achieved the strong growth and living standards that would validate these concepts. Just the opposite.

Now, when the shoe pinches and time is our worst enemy, the expert recyclers offer no guarantees, trying to test their concepts in a country in urgent need of profound change, and Cuba is not Venezuela, sitting on one of the major oil reserves of the world. Chavez has guaranteed income with which to try his populist methods. The Castros do not.

A nation like Cuba must and can opt for radical changes in the economic sphere. Why have the only methods that have worked with a certain efficiency been those of the capitalists?

China and Vietnam have successfully proved that the market economy and strict political control work in communist countries. That touch of savage capitalism linked with Marxist discourse and the watchful eye of the Police State would not be desirable on the island.

What is feasible is that economic changes would be accompanied by political transformations. Democracy, a multi-party system, free elections, and a tripartite division of powers. But we know that none of this meets the approval of the brothers from Biran.

Either way, watch. If the “economic update” they intend to launch doesn’t work, the almost absolute power of the Castros could be in danger. It wouldn’t be the first time that the government dug its own grave.

November 21, 2010

Would Communism be Good for Cubans?

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment


In theory, to live under communism should be a nice little number for Cubans. As money doesn’t exist, you don’t have to pay bills for rent, electricity, water or the phone. If we had internet connections, they would be free, too.

If you’re hungry, you go to the supermarket and fill a trolley with groceries. No check-outs or security cameras. If you get tired of your old American car, you pop down to the showroom and swap it for a Russian or Chinese model.

In practice, the idyllic communist society that we’ve had to listen to them banging on about for half a century is completely crazy. And unsustainable. An incredible dogma. A trap to catch out the gullible.

Religions involve individuals. But the worst thing about the theories of Karl Marx is that they involve the society as a whole and condemn it co-exist with dictators, tyrants and patriarchs who, with a firm hand, are meant to lead us to a system in which everything is free. Quite a tale!

The reality is very different. To achieve unanimity, laws are made which send those who disagree to prison. Parties with other shades of ideology are forbidden. And those who defend the Western lifestyle are contemptuously called ‘unpatriotic’.

In closed regimes, the clever people insist that socialism, the prelude to communism, is better than capitalism. So far no one has been able to prove this. Look at the case of Cuba. An island with an unstable economy that lives like a beggar, going cap-in-hand around the world.

The worst thing is that after 50 years of deprivation the local ideologues tell us that with the new policies of sackings, private enterprise and the removal of state subsidies, now, really, truly, we are going to start… the construction of socialism!

A bad joke. The US embargo of Cuba is no excuse for the fact that fruit and vegetables have disappeared in this country. That the fields are filled with the invasive marabou weed [Dichrostachys cinerea- a plague in Cuba]. That the cows give little milk and the hens have gone on strike.

The leaders in Cuba survive with the millions sent back home by emigrants and with the dollars and euros spent by the capitalist tourists. With this ‘enemy’ money they want to build their communist utopia.

They’re stubborn. Not even the example of the late USSR — which fell after 74 years of gross stupidity and brought the Berlin Wall down with it — makes them doubt Marxism.

Iván García

Translated by: Jack Gibbard

Coins and Birthday Wishes for Havana

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

After going through a black iron gate, hundreds of Habaneros, tourists and religious, calmly wait to take three turns around an ancient ceiba, throw a handful of coins at its roots and quietly ask for their desires or make promises.

It is the ritual with which every November 16 marks the anniversary of Havana. This city, humid, hot and noisy and is 491-years-old. With its cracked streets and drinking water lost to the sea due to the deplorable state of the pipes. With a terrible infrastructure and urban transport that is a calamity.

Despite all these disasters, the Cuban capital has a ceiba tree located in The Temple, its true icon. Every good Habanero, once in their life, has visited it. Just outside the old Palace of the Captains General, next to the Castillo de la Fuerza and the Santa Isabel hostel.

Very near the Cathedral and the Bodeguita del Medio with its scrumptious black beans, these days the Havana ceiba welcomes thousands of people who yearn for a better luck for their city. And almost in a prayer they supplicate their God, Catholic and Yoruba, to bring improvements to their lives.

People do not go to the ceiba of the Temple people because the State called them to do it, nor do they listen, there, to inflammatory speeches. No. People go from genuine and natural impulses. Here, for a few minutes, they cast aside the mask of mendacity and hypocrisy. They forget the party slogans and clichés. While they make their three orbits, they park their enmity and hatred.

All cities have their hymns, songs and shrines. In this old part of this mixed Havana of Joseíto Fernandez and his famous Guantanamera, of the masterful Ignacio Jacinto Villa — nicknamed “Snowball” — and of politicians and humanists such as José Martí, there is a historical ceiba waiting for their wishes and coins.

Cuba: To Believe or Not to Believe, That is the Question

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

The question is not if you believe in Afrocuban religion or in Catholicism, if not in the Revolution and its leaders. In Cuba, you never know if the last thing they say is what they are really going to do. They’ve carried on more than 50 years talking, but in practice there are not many tangible results. Or they have been limited.

As has happened in agriculture, livestock, fishing, the sugar industry, transport, among other sectors of the economy. Or in health, education, sport and culture. To mention one example, who remembers the ten basic cultural institutions, that great project of the 1980s?

“The Revolution has lived by the force of slogans, pamphlets and speeches. In a word, improvising. So the latest statements of Raul and Fidel slip by some people. Their credibility has fallen a lot, above all among the poorest Cubans, for those who watch one year pass and start the next one the same or worse off,” says Ernesto, 46.

You already know. Man doesn’t live by politics and propaganda alone. And when it is hard to eat, clothe yourself, fix the house, catch a bus, know the news, that abroad they can make headlines, but ordinary Cubans are rarely interested.

“One is very cujíao (chastened). And it’s a joke that at this point they tell you, ‘now we are going to construct socialism.” We’ve had 52 years with more of the same,” says Mario, 65 and retired.

Also lacking are individual liberties. The Internet is not for everyone and if you want to travel to another country you need a government permit. Realities that few Cubans mention, unless they are dissidents.

“What matters to me is if Fidel is going to continue at the head of the Party. I’m not moved by his too-late regrets. He and his brother spend too much time making mistakes. And they still try to make you continue applauding them,” opines Alberto, 18 and a student.

Things may be about to change on the island. But if people only read and hear promises, and don’t see facts, they’ll continue not to believe. Trying to resolve their own and their family’s problems. And the nation? Good luck.

The Castro government could use a vote of confidence. But they would find it difficult among ordinary citizens. Where they are assured of getting it is among the more than one million Party members and the members of the armed forces and the ministry of the interior.

A power sufficient to carry forward the envisaged economic reforms. Believe in them or not.

November 21 2010

Fidel Castro in his Element after Half a Century

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

On the overcast morning of September 28, the historic leader was in his favourite environment. Public events. The adulation of the masses. His natural state. It is in big gatherings where Castro has given speeches of up to 14 hours, true Guinness records, and where he whipped them up into a state of delirium.

The 50th anniversary of the CDR (the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution), an organization he founded, on the 28th September 1960, on returning from a 10 day trip to New York, where he had attended the 15th group of sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was a date that the old warrior could not let pass unmarked.

The CDR is one of his monsters. Created originally to keep an eye on people labelled “worms and counter-revolutionaries”, it has lasted five decades. As well as having a social function, its prime purpose is still the same: to watch out for dissidents.

The balcony was installed in the old Presidential Palace, today the Museum of the Revolution, 300 m from the Havana promenade, on one side of the Spanish Embassy. Castro spoke after the national coordinator of the CDR, Juan José Rabiloero, had read an inflammatory text in which he warned that the “counter-revolution would not be allowed to take over the street, squares and parks”, in a veiled threat to the Damas de Blanco.

Beforehand, the singer of the moment on the island, Haila María Mompié, sang one of her hits, and as she finished, she wished him good health, said she loved him, and kissed him. Then the aged leader, in his trademark clothes — the olive green jacket and starred cap — read for 42 minutes excerpts of the speech given 50 years ago on the same spot.

Seeing that the heat was not overpowering, Castro spoke on what has become one of his favourite subjects, the possibility of nuclear war. Local observers had hoped the occasion would be an opportunity for a U-turn in his political discourse.

Up until now his public appearances have always been about international matters. Some predicted he might speak about the failure of parliamentary elections in Venezuela, or about the new economic reforms already under way, which require a great sacrifice for the average Cuban, with a million workers unemployed and high taxes for the self-employed.

But it was not to be. In this, his second outdoor appearance, he went on raving about things that were of no interest to Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast and eat one hot meal a day. Those who hoped for a dynamic Castro were disappointed.

For the sole Commander the harsh reality of the country is an insignificant matter. Somebody else’s problem. He holds himself to be above right and wrong. And that’s how he behaves.

Translated by: Jack Gibbard