Archive for December 30, 2010

In 2010, Bad News Abounded in Cuba

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

When the high creole hierarchy enjoyed the arrival of the 51st anniversary of the insurrection which elevated them to power on 1 January 1959, a violent cold front was ravaging the west of the country.

In Mazorra, a psychiatric hospital located on the highway that leads to the principal airport, a major scandal was uncorking itself.

The pathetic photos that circulated by the Internet and the reports of bloggers and independent journalists obligated the regime to publish a little note. Weeks later, noiselessly, those words got the Minister of Health, José Ramón Balaguer, fired.

It was the start in a chain of bad news that marked 2010 in Cuba. In February, the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo heated up the path. After 86 days on a hunger strike claiming a handful of rights, he died in a hospital in the capital. His death provoked an avalanche of criticism towards the Castro brothers across the entire planet.

The death of Zapata launched a series of widely publicised marches by the Ladies in White, a group of women, wives, mothers, and daughters of opposition members condemned to long sentences in March 2003.

The government didn’t take the blow well. Little accustomed to those who annoy, concealed violence was used against the Ladies, by means of supposedly spontaneous mobs who were admirers of the Revolution. Aggressions against these women, who carried gladioli in their hands through Havana streets demanding freedom for their family members, threw more wood on the fire in the agitated Spring of 2010.

Civilized nations hit the roof and a series of economic restrictions were brought down to pressure the government of Raúl Castro. The General took note. This oven wasn’t for baking cakes.

Cuba lives on the edge of bankruptcy. The economy is shipwrecked. The country is taking on water on all sides. For the first time in 51 years, the government threw in the towel before the street marches of the Ladies in White and a new hunger strike, started in Villa Clara by the opposition member Guillermo Fariñas, who was demanding the release of 26 dissidents.

In a rare diplomatic pirouette, the regime obtained the help of the forgotten Catholic Church. In a hurry, Raúl Castro asked Cardinal Jaime Ortega to intercede with the bothersome women. He designed a three-phase plan. From Madrid, the ex-chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos dressed it up well. The agreement was made public on June 8, and it was made known that 52 political prisoners would be liberated.

The governors’ strategy was to build a gold-plated bridge for the freed opposition members so they’d fly to Madrid. They thought that a friendly telephone call from the Cardinal to each prisoner, inviting him to leave headed for exile, would be accepted by all the prisoners. It didn’t work out that way. As a weapon of coercion, the regime still has not freed 11 dissidents who refuse exile.

While the news of liberation of political prisoners made a trip around the world, Fidel Castro, historic leader of the Revolution, rose from his sickbed. A recuperated Castro. With a distinct look, with Adidas or Nike sporting overalls. Or a collection of shirts. He did what he knew best: Spoke and predicted. He unleashed on the world a red alert; a nuclear war was just around the corner.

Besides prophesying chaos, the ancient guerrilla is one of those convinced that capitalism’s days are numbered. He chatted about everything happening on the Earth. But he did not delve into local issues; that was a matter for his brother.

They started to play in different leagues. Raúl, hand to the grindstone, seeing exactly how 12 million Cubans bring their meals to the table. And the visionary Fidel, in charge of international affairs. One suspects disagreements, but in 2010 each stuck to his own area. For the time being.

In July, summer arrived. School vacations, beach, and fans celebrating the victory of Spain in the World Cup in South Africa. Earlier, Habeneros had celebrated that their team, the Industriales, was crowned champions in the national baseball series.

In the offices, in full heat, the technocrats worked at full throttle on a unique, new, dedicated plan to reform the disastrous economic situation. Recipes with a raft of shock therapies, similar to those applied by countries in bankruptcy.

When their vacations ended, Cubans were awaiting the news that 1.3 million people would be laid off in three phases. The first one already started in October. It was not the only one. State subsidies have to be cut back. Open the tap for self-employment. And apply a tax rate that sometimes reaches 40% of income to alleviate the terrible State budget deficit.

People aren’t expecting miracles with the opening-up of private initiative. It smells bad. The elevated taxes are disheartening. The insufficient guarantees offered by a government that openly rejects people who succeed in making money are strong elements that generate mistrust.

In different provinces there were attempted protests and the streets have become dangerous. as if the police didn’t have enough to do going after crimes and drugs. Urban transport — like housing — gets worse as time goes on. The ration book stays the same and the scarcity of products — in pesos or in cash — continues to be a source of alarm. When rice isn’t lacking, there are no beans. If there is salt, there is no sugar.

In the year that just ended, we see more beggars, drunks, prostitutes and thieves in the streets. Domestic and school violence just skyrocketed. And courtesy has continued to be something from another planet.

Despite the black panorama with its grey backstitches, Cubans continue to dance, sing, make fun of the governors and make love wherever. Television viewers were still hooked on Brazilian soap operas and little girls were dazzled by Hannah Montana.

In 2010, among others, there were three “round” anniversaries: the centennial of the birth of the actress and singer Rita Montaner, and of the writer José Lezama Lima, the 90th of the ballerina Alicia Alonzo, and the 80th of the singer Omara Portuondo. Four compatriots were honored with Grammy Latino prizes: Chucho Valdéz and Leo Brower — residents of the island — and Arturo Sandoval and Alex Cuba, settled in the United States and Canada.

The good news was that we weren’t lashed by any tropical storm or hurricane of great power. And one bit of bad news, that the hoped-for increase in tourists from the United States didn’t materialize. A consolation prize was that friends and family from the United States, once again and despite the crisis, haven’t stopped helping their families on the other side of the puddle. With money or with packages of food, clothing, medicines, and toys.

Cubans are wishing that 2011 might bring good omens. They think things probably can’t get any worse. Things have been scraping bottom for too long. Living at the edge of the abyss.

Welcome, Mules

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Eliseo, 39, is considered a public benefactor. A guy who is always welcome. For a decade, this Cuban American has been a ‘mule’. He resides in Miami and makes some fifteen trips to the island every year. Sometimes more.

Right now, from his mobile phone, he calls his usual driver to pick him up at the entrance to the Jose Marti International Airport, south of Havana. He loads a bunch of bags and briefcases.

He will be in Havana for one day. His mission is to unload the 150 pounds of food, medicine, electronics, clothing, shoes and toys, among other things, in a house that he trusts, where later they will take charge of delivering them to their destinations.

Eliseo has set up a small business operating at full throttle, especially in the month of December. He charges $5 per pound of food or medicines, and $10 per pound of other items. To move certain goods controlled in Cuba, he discretely slips a hundred-dollar bill in the pockets of the customs authorities.

In Miami he also greases the palms of air terminal officials. When George W. Bush turned the screws on the embargo against Castro, Eliseo always wrangled it to bring products and sums of money that violated U.S. laws. “Now with Obama everything is easier.” The current occupant of the White House has taken steps to facilitate family relationships.

Since December 20, you can send up to 10 thousand dollars via Western Union. On top of that, residents of the island can collect it in convertible pesos. Facing the urgent need of the “imperialist enemy’s” greenback, the Cuban government eliminated the 10% duty on the dollar.

On October 25, 2004, an angered Fidel Castro, supposedly caught laundering 3.9 billion old dollars in the Swiss UBS bank — something prohibited by the embargo — he announced a 10% tax on the dollar during a television appearance. Starting on November 8 of that year, the only currency that circulated in Cuba was the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

Remittances from family members and the sending of goods by “mules,” in large part brace up the fragile and inefficient island economy. According to international organizations, through remittances alone the government allows some billions of dollars to enter the country every year.

Darío, a 52-year-old economist, thinks it could be double that. “There is a lot of money that isn’t accounted for. It’s a source that permits the investment of money free of the State’s nets. The government knows it and won’t lose sight of it. It’s probable that in months to come they’ll stimulate it even more.”

In Miami, dozens of agencies are dedicated to the shipment of packages and money to Cuba. Meanwhile, Cubans on the island ceaselessly ask their relatives for things from disposable toilet wipes and tennis shoes to laptops and plasma televisions.

If the embargo were to end, the interchange of merchandise and capital could exceed 5 billion dollars annually. And if the Havana regime would repeal absurd laws that prevent Cuban-Americans from investing in the country of their birth, the numbers could triple.

What’s certain is that the embargo hasn’t prevented families on the island from receiving money, by one means or another. Neither foodstuffs, medicines, nor other articles.

Eliseo assures us that he earns almost 2,000 dollars in profit each month. “If it’s the end of the year, a little more. In whatever way, despite the fact that I live off of this ‘business’, it satisfies me to see the people’s joy when they receive their packages, or while you count out a bundle of bills for them. But above all what sticks with me are the hopeful faces of children when you see them unpack toys and sweets.”

Moments like those make Eliseo feel like a tropical version of Santa Claus. The families on both shores appreciate him.

Translated by Rick Schwag with a little help from JT