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Destination USA At Any Price

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The US Coast Guard confirms that one of every three rafters who attempts to cross the shark-infested Florida Straits dies in the attempt.

Official figures don’t exist. But in 50 years, as many as 10,000 Cubans could have disappeared in the turbulent tropical waters. Clandestine emigration is a deadly game of Russian Roulette. There is a 33% chance of being a snack for the dogfish or of perishing in bad weather.

This way, the lack of a future and despair manage to impose themselves. And one night some Cubans decide to throw themselves at the sea in a precarious wooden raft, in pursuit of the American dream. Being a Cuban citizen is an invitation to play with your life. Starting in 1966, the US Government conceded residence to those Cubans who demanded asylum from US soil. But since the migratory agreements of 1994, that changed.

Present US law rewards risk and encourages illegalities. With its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, they turn the daring passage into a more complicated and longer trip. Before ’94, if you were caught by the Coast Guard, you had a right to demand asylum.

Now they’ll return you to Cuba, with the promise of the local authorities that they won’t send you to prison, which has given a new tone to the risky adventure. When Cubans decide to throw themselves at the sea, now they consult experts in seamanship, with the intent of deceiving the Coast Guards of both nations.

Ramón, 34, could have a doctorate in illegal exits. He’s tried it twelve times. And always he has been captured by the Coast Guard off of Florida. In a short time, he returns to try again. It’s his habitual routine. He believes that liberty has its price.

Since 1994, more than 320,000 people have emigrated from Cuba in a legal and orderly manner. But those who don’t meet the requirements to travel to the United States look for other options.

It’s a drama. Illegal exits have turned into a risky business. Humberto left Cuba in 2001. His family, living in New Jersey, had real estate investments and wanted their nephew — an audacious university student — to participate in their enterprise. One of Humberto’s uncles called some guys in Miami. A week later, he met with them and agreed on a reasonable price: 8,000 dollars to bring him safe and sound to American territory.

Visiting in Havana, Humberto tells his story. “They called me one afternoon and told me that I should get in contact with an individual who lived in the Miramar district. After agreeing to terms and the date, in five days they came to get me in a bus, apparently a tourism bus, where around 35 people went.

They left them on an islet at the north of the province of Villa Clara. The trip was quick and without mishaps, in a “cigarette boat” with powerful engines. Today Humberto is a successful man in the United States. He traveled with luck.

The opposite happened to Marisela. Her family in Miami paid 42,000 dollars to take her together with her husband, a brother, and three children under the age of 12. They had a fatal accident on the high seas and one of the children lost his life. They were rescued by the gringo Coast Guard and returned to Havana. Even still, Marisela maintains her wish to go. By any means. And at any price.

In its policy to detain the waves of rafters, the Cuban authorities have used violent and reprehensible methods. On July 13, 1994, military forces assaulted and sank the tugboat 13 de Marzo, which with 72 people aboard was attempting a clandestine exit. The scorecard was tragic: 41 deaths, among them eleven minors.

If the Cuban Adjustment Act is repealed, it could reduce the number of deaths at sea. In the prisons of the island there are more than 100 Cuban-Americans dedicated to the business of illegal exits.

In this autumn of 2010, throwing oneself at the sea continues to be the ace of triumph of desperate Cubans. They pay with whatever they have on hand. They’ll sell their house or their car, if they have one. They will play it all on one card.

Not a few are defrauded by bands of scoundrels who have popped up in Cuba and in Miami. Others go to third countries, such as the Dominican Republic or Ecuador, where sometimes they get bogged down and never make the desired trip with destination USA.

Another way used a lot is through Mexico. The family on the other side of the puddle pays the accounts of the Mexican mafias, who profit from the desperation of human beings. Their relatives run great risks, having to cross the dangerous border.

It’s a reality. Cubans who emigrate are discontent with their lives and the natural shortages of a closed and authoritarian society. In them, the desire to risk their lives is stronger than to continue living without a future. They prefer to fight for their skin before going out into the streets to protest.

Ramón, the frustrated rafter, thinks about trying his luck again. For the thirteenth time. Let’s hope this might not be his unlucky number.

Translated by: JT

November 19, 2010

From Havana, Two Pieces of News

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Like every Saturday, the small twelve-band radios tuned to Spain’s Radio Exterior. Suddenly I hear the news. At age 89, the director and screenwriter Luis García Berlanga has died in Madrid.

The man who put the gold in Spanish cinema was very well-known and appreciated in Cuba. Cuban lovers of the seventh art had placed him on the altar of the world’s great directors.

I don’t know all his movies, but the four films of his I’ve seen have been enough to immortalize him in my memory: Welcome Mr. Marshall (1963), Plácido (1961), The Executioner (1963) and Everyone to Jail (1993).

The themes of these films are not beyond me. If I had ever had a chance to shoot a film, my style would have been very similar to García Berlanga’s.

The shortwave also brought me another story. Very different. Finally, the Burmese military (any resemblance to the Cuban is not mere coincidence), have freed the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after 15 years of house arrest.

Her release will not be broadcast on the island, much less in these times of waiting for the release of the political prisoners of the Black Spring of 2003 who do not wish to leave the country. Not to mention, of course, that for the Castro regime she is an “enemy,” equal to other Nobel Peace Prize dissidents: Lech Walesa, Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi and Liu Xiabo.

The news about Berlanga will be broadcast. Perhaps they will remember him in the Film Festival that opens in Havana in a few days, and even mount a retrospective of his work. Despite being inundated with pirated copies of mediocre films, the cult of good films has not disappeared in Cuba.

The celluloid artist never came to hear about it. I’m sure he would have been glad to know that Aung San Suu Kyi may leave her house.

Nothing New on the Island

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Ordinary people, exhausted from trying to put two hot meals on the table every day, haven’t heard the news they’ve been waiting for. Nor have the opposition, as they await the release of the thirteen political prisoners who have refused to leave Cuba, whose promised release date expired on November 8.

Where the news of the Cuban Communist Party’s Sixth Congress has been welcomed, has been among its militants. Despite the fact that the red card no longer has the charm of decades past, the membership of the only political party allowed on the island remains high at almost a million.

Founded in 1965, the PCC organized its first congress in 1975. Fidel Castro was elected first secretary, and Raul second in command. “In 2006, when Fidel was about to die, his brother took on the duties of the first secretary on an interim basis,” says Felix, 73, a retired militant.

Humberto, a 36-year-old truck driver, thinks that, “in practice, Fidel is still the one leading the party.” Humberto doesn’t understand why, “if in the last he has been making public appearances, it wasn’t announced by the comandante.”

Other people on the street have also noticed that Castro I missed an opportunity, to appear alongside his brother and Hugo Chavez, to make the call for an event of such supposed importance, once that hasn’t happened since 1997.

“It could be that lately, with the changes of time, he’s not feeling well, he’s an 84-year-old man,” says Rosalia, a 48-year-old housewife. According to Mario, her husband, the fact that Raul announced it, “is proof that there are no disagreements among the Castros.”

The question is whether, in the next six months, the militants will decide to keep Fidel Castro as first secretary, or to create a lifetime appointment for their “maximum leader.”

“I trust that his event will not only discuss the economy and define our socialist direction, but also be an opportunity to renew the party,” says the loyal old man, Felix.

As happened in 1991, when the Fourth Congress acted to allow religious believers to be party militants, it is hoped that the sixth will allow gays and lesbians to join. “That would be awesome,” says Ricardo, 42 and homosexual.

Wishes and predictions aside, what is certain is that the organization of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, as critical as it may be for the fate of the county, is not a topic that interests the people. Especially at this time of year.

With December just around the corner, Cubans are already thinking about how to “resolve” the Christmas Eve dinner and the 2011 New Year’s celebrations with family and friends. If their pockets stretch that far, they will buy Spanish nougat and a couple of toys for the kids.

Photo: Robin Thom, Flickr

It is Hard to Eat Black Beans With Chopsticks

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The Cuban generals converted into businessmen felt a morbid fascination with the Chinese model. It was always the “narrative” they shared with their followers on the island. But in 1968, Fidel Castro decided to play the Russian card. After diplomatic disagreements and an aggressive discourse, Havana broke with Peking and bet big on the line from Moscow.

Last night’s Maoist followers hung their heads. One of the fans had been Che Guevara. His death in Bolivia in October 1967, ended the political flirtation with the Chinese. In the civil war in Angola, quiet today, the Cuban soldiers who took part on this conflict for 15 years, supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) of Agostinho Neto, the Kremlin favorite, spraying with lead and killing the group of Holden Roberto, financed by China.

When, at the end of the seventies, the soldiers started to enter the corporate playground, with the creation of public corporations like Cubalse, CIMEX pr Gaviota, it was decided to experiment with new economic methods with these companies. The Japanese business model was taken as a guide.

Then Castro’s government wasn’t sympathetic to the direction taken by Deng Xiaoping in the 80’s. In the Cuban media and academic studies of the time, the economic opening of the Asian giant is referred to as “the Chinese treachery.”

When the Berlin wall fell and the USSR was dismantled, heads turned back toward China. The military entrepreneurs who supported the Chinese model laid low. Including speculation that Raul Castro himself is a fan of the strategy followed by the Chinese communists.

For his brother Fidel, the great problem of the Asian model is that it breaks with his public — and devastating —  discourse against capitalist production and business formulas. And if they want to copy China, unfortunately, they have to introduce market economy reforms and the worst version of savage and exploitative capitalism that operated in the 19th century.

In addition, the political conditions stand. China could take that giant step, because the United States granted it most favored nation status in the late 70’s. Cuba does not have the consent of Washington. Quite the contrary. The northern neighbor has imposed a trade embargo and has sparked a political and diplomacy battle and a dirty war over the five decades of the Revolution.

With more than 1.3 billion potential consumers, the country is an attractive market for foreign investors. And what really has attracted the world’s capitalists to invest in China are the low costs because of the government’s intentional depreciation of the currency.

Violating every kind of principle and ethics, the Chinese government exploits its enormous working masses, paying poverty wages. In its factories the usual work day is more than twelve hours, with no right to the defense of a labor union and with few labor protections.

China has become a huge factory that denigrates human beings. In pursuit of economic development it has implemented the worst methods of capitalism which, added to the disastrous totalitarian process, has resulted in a two-headed monster, lacking any ideology. With so much internal control and enough money to start a sweeping advance through the world, with the idea of creating a universal Asian empire.

To the generals who run the Cuban economy, it is attractive to take some elements from the Chinese model, so they can maintain power even if there is an economic slump For this, it’s vital to get the embargo repealed and the European Union common position unlocked.

Apparently, this is a political bet on the future economy of the island. Pockets of market economy, with no political or democratic openings. Clearly, the world in this 21st century is different. There is a brutal crisis that discourages investments and open suspicion toward the regime in Havana, which has been branded a cheat by capitalist entrepreneurs.

Obviously, the Chinese model is far from ideal for Cuba. It’s more of the same. Raul Castro’s government can try it. But it’s hard to eat black beans with chopsticks.

Trinidad’s Turn

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It remains to be seen if, in the latest shuffling of the executive furniture by Spanish president José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, the new Foreign Minister, Trinidad Jiménez (Málaga, 1962), will continue the policies set by the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) since 1982, or try something else.

The cardinal sin of the Spanish politicians, as I see it, is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. From double white to double nine. There are no nuances. The PP is committed to the style of the American west: point the six-shooters at the Castro and growl all the time like an angry neighbor.

The PSOE is blinded by the idea that they are going to court the brothers and turning their backs on the opposition will return better results. From Felipe González, the only thing the Spanish socialist have done that has worked out is the release of the political prisoners. That’s all. But it’s not enough.

In his long period of governing — and no doubt with the best of intentions — González has tried to act as a politician, a friend, and a psychologist to the single comandante. He’s tied to Fidel. And is almost always deceived.

When, in the wee hours of the Havana nights, with their Cohiba cigars and sugar cane rum, Felipe talked to him of openings, reforms, and not adopting Numantian positions, while Castro listened slyly. Then he would take as his motto, that the Cuban Revolution would be the Numancia of the Caribbean.

In the first flight from Iberia, the lawyer from Seville sent him Carlos Solchaga, to counsel the rustic island advisers in the capitalist economy. Castro took note. And Solchanga’s pile of suggestions he applied to what gave him political oxygen and did not endanger his authoritarian power.

Then the Spanish executive sent the uncharismatic José María Aznar. Hardworking and serious, he cleaned up the public finances but he fell under the pretension that the fractious Cuban president would make political and economic changes. During his two terms he used critical discourse and a diplomatic offensive offering no sweeteners to the regime in Havana.

These methods were insufficient to pressure Castro. And then something worse happened. At this stage the dialog with Spain broke off. I heard from a well-informed source, that the government had a grudge against Aznar, which became a pact among the Creole leaders not to make any gestures toward the future presidents of the PP.

Neither with dialog nor with pressure. Nor by screaming about what you think of the Castros to their face, have the Spanish politicians have their desire, to set Cuba on the democratic path.

Dealing with autocrats is not easy. Many Spanish politicians have proposed a change to the status quo on the island. For historic reasons and because, in Spain, Cuba is a topic of local interest.

Now it’s the turn of Trinidad Jimenez, the fifth foreign minister of the socialist government, since Fernando Moran in the ’80s. Her predecessor, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, scored a major political goal in negotiating the release of the majority of the political prisoners, but like a sacrifice play, it didn’t do anything for the Cuban dissidence.

We’ll see what pieces Jimenez is capable of moving. A woman who got away with it. Already she has the dream portfolio. Now she will try to succeed in her work. The Cuban issue could be one. Perhaps the jackpot. But I doubt it.

Photo: Claudio Álvarez, El País

Cuba, A Little More Corrupt

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Sixty-ninth place. That is what Cuba is on the 2010 Index of Perception of Corruption, recently released by Transparency International. It shares the same score, 3.7, with Brazil, Montenegro and Romania. The island fell eight steps: from its standing in 2009, when it ranked 61st with 4.4 points.

When I tell this to Daniel, 39 and unemployed, he says: “They have prepared this report without having set foot in Cuba.” He says this from experience. On land belonging to his family, they constructed a rental house. Three times a week the inspectors from the Housing Institute come by.

Perhaps, the agency that is the champion of corruption on the island. They are on the lookout for any irregularities. If you get caught, they get your money. Daniel already has paid 1,200 pesos convertibles (1,000 dollars) in all kinds of red tape.

The officials are insatiable, they always want more. It has become commonplace. They take your silver and look the other way. Corruption in Cuba is not one bad actor. Is endemic and is rooted in the socialist system.

If you go to trade or repair your dwelling, or build a house, get your wallet out. Through legal channels, simple paperwork could take years. But if you surreptitiously hand over 100 Cuban convertible pesos, dollars or euros, then everything works out.

The personnel working at the Housing Institute usually last in their jobs about as long as the cake lasts at a birthday party. Genevieve, a 54-year-old fat mulata, knows about the threads of handling corruption like no one else. She worked in an office at Housing.

“The traffic with property and land is tremendous. People who leave the country are the central objective of the inspectors. Good homes go into the state’s pocket, they are not given to families who lost their homes in a cyclone. Under the table there are big profits from them; they are almost always awarded to the party leaders or some minister,” says Genevieve, who lost her job in a scuffle when delivering one of those houses.

“Almost all those who work in the Housing office and have decision-making power, are involved in the trafficking of influence and money. A consultant had offered me a large sum for the mansion. When the business seemed all sewed up, some super bigwig showed up who wanted it for one of his mistresses. The mess that resulted cost me my job,” she recalls.

In her passage through the Housing Institute Genevieve got a good home and enough money to open a “paladar” (private restaurant). In addition to providing food, she rents rooms to discreet couples at 15 convertibles pesos a night.

The chain of corruption goes beyond housing. It covers all levels. From the traffic cop who stops you to fine you, and when you “touch” him (give him money) he cancels the fine, to a medical specialist who, after you give him a little “gift”, turns on the CAT scan.

Daniel just does not believe that Cuba occupies “such a high place” in the global report. “Nah, that can’t be. I’m not talking just to talk. I know it for myself.” And every day he is a victim of the leech called corruption.

The Media That Says Nothing

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The spectacular and moving rescue of 33 Chilean miners, carried out from 632 meters below the dirt after 70 days, was just another piece of news in the Cuban press.

In the online version of Granma – the main newspaper of the island – in the October 14th edition, this news was in 16th place in “relevance.”  The front page was reserved for the fourth set of Reflections of Fidel titled The Empire Within, and a report of all the floral offerings sent by the Castro brothers to the ex-Salvadoran guerrilla fighter, Shafik Handal.

Even more prominent than the news of the miners from Camp Hope, was the news of the increase of inflation in Spain, the visit of the Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez to Russia, and a national report, which was interesting and exotic, about how cows which are taken to the slaughterhouse should never be underweight.

Among the 2,000 journalists from over 300 media stations that covered the events of Chile, none of them came from our official press, despite the fact that we actually do have Cuban reporters in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, all of which are relatively close to Chile.

The opaque coverage of these events cannot be attributed to the Bureau chief editors who work in the regime’s media outlets.  In Cuba, the ones in charge of choosing what is important and what is not are the chiefs from the fierce Ideological Department of the Party (DOR), who commonly receive personal tips and orders from Fidel Castro, the real editor of the mediocre national press.

There are many layers which news must first go through on this island.  The first one is that of political affinity.  If the report is about a country which is considered our “friend,” then such news will have priority.

We must remember that when we were a satellite state of the Soviets, the Cuban media never dared to denounce their military interventions in Prague in 1968 and in Afghanistan in 1979.

Cuba also never provided coverage about the events which occurred in 1989 in Tienanmen Square, China.  Just as there have been zero criticisms of the anti-Semitic discourses delivered by Ahmadineyad in Lebanon.  For Castro, the enemy of his enemy is his friend.

The entire arsenal of analysis, criticism, and front page news in the Cuban media is strictly reserved for the axis of all evil – with the United States in first place, and then the European Union.  Any government that decides to criticize the situation in Cuba is targeted by the regime’s censors.

From that very moment, all the dark stains of that country start to be reported throughout the Cuban media: violence, unemployment, organized crime, corruption…

The flow of information is controlled personally by Fidel Castro. His power stems from this. In the case of the Chilean miners, a seemingly innocent bit of news, which consisted of tons of stories to tell, it was reduced to an insignificant event because, perhaps, president Sebastian Pinera has openly and publicly criticized Castro.

It also wouldn’t be healthy to demonstrate on national news how a capitalist society also relies on human solidarity, something which the Cuban government considers to be unique to Marxist systems.

In Cuba, any bit of important news first needs the approval of high ranking party officials or that of Fidel Castro.  They are the owners.

Photo: stereosimo, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.