Archive for January, 2011

Fans of Barça Are Growing in Havana

January 31, 2011 1 comment

With top tier baseball laughable, when at times the teams seem to be playing waterpolo or handball, fans are abandoning it to watch a more attractive spectacle.

And of the available spectacles, the best is the games of the Football Club from Barcelona aired on national television.  Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, the eleven Catalans have captured the attention of football lovers in Cuba and around the world.

At the bar of the El Conejito restaurant, at the corner of 17 and M in Vedado, not 200 meters from the quiet blue waters off the Malecon, the fans of the Catalans are out in force. With an atmosphere more like a 19th century English pub, small and warm, it’s a fixed point for Barça’s fans in Havana.

Before a match of the Spanish or European Champions league, dozens of people fill the place and pop the tops on a Bucanero beer at 1.30 convertible pesos a can. They are gearing up for the after-game celebration of the almost sure-win of the star Catalonian team.

The Havana fans have displaced from El Conejito the foreign travelers who swarm the area during this high season for tourism. For the Spanish followers of Barcelona passing through the capital, the occasion is stupendous. They mix in with the fun and noise, vuvuzelas included, and in fits of generosity pay for rounds of beer for their friends.

That fateful Monday in November, when the Guardiola machinery pulled ahead by a “hand” (5-0) against the Real Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo, a Catalan exalted with a fat Mexican beer treated almost fifty people watching the match to a round of beer. From a sense of dignity, the Madrid followers didn’t accept the invitation.

At a later game, after the crushing of Deportivo de La Coruña, another club with thousands of supporters in Cuba (it’s said that nearly all Cubans are part Galician), a group of ecstatic Spanish Barça fans uncorked a couple of bottles of champagne.

Many Habaneros have become bigger fans than ever. It’s a fad. The bathroom of good football and the touch of luxury of the eleven Catalans, have caused a number of defections. Followers of the English, Italian or German leagues have been seen hopping on one foot with incredible work on the field of the army led by Lionel Messi, who won the Ballon d’Or for a second consecutive year, as the best player in the world.

But also on the Island are those who won’t switch allegiances. A real stiff upper lip. Real Madrid has a history already written. It is the team that has won the most European Cups. And the most titles in the Spanish League.

When Barça matches this record, then you might start to argue with those passionate followers, who have an exaggerated way of claiming that the current Barcelona F.C. is the best team in the history of football.

To watch Barça play is an indescribable feast. May the local Catalans continue to enjoy it. But it’s still February. Perhaps by spring the fanatics will be brought down a peg. There is a lot of fabric still to be cut.

Reporting in real time: Habanero followers of Real Madrid don’t accept defectors.

Translated by Ariana

January 31 2011

It’s Easier to Buy Apples Than Tropical Fruit

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Lately in Havana, it’s easier to buy apples than tropical fruits. Strange things happen in countries where the economy is in chaos. Guavas, mameys, mangoes and oranges are missing in action. It’s more expensive to buy a box of orange juice made in Cuba than an imported apple, pear or peach.

Although now, even the apples are missing. It’s cyclical. Like everything. Sometimes there’s rice, black beans and melons in the markets. Then for weeks they disappear, bringing on hoarding, rumors and this optimism that spills over the inhabitants of an island where scarcities get worse: confidence that the ship is just about to put into port.

In any event, an apple is a luxury in Cuba. They usually sell for 0.50 to 0.60 centavos each in convertible pesos (some 70 cents in dollars). They have red, yellow and green ones. I always ask what country they come from and no one knows for sure. Some say Albania, others China, Spain or California.

The source doesn’t matter to the resellers. Their job is to buy apples in quantity, to later offer them at 10 Cuban pesos or 0.50 CUCs each, in the doorways of public places of entertainment, children’s parks and busy streets. Due to the chronic shortage of Cuban fruit, the palates of some children are more adapted to apples than to pineapples and sugar apples.

The capital also abounds in another kind of apple. Those with the Apple logo. Meanwhile the Castros carry on about the toughness of the embargo. But in the slums you see prostitutes, pimps and gigolos proudly carrying their iPhones.

Around the Capitol building, I’ve seen girls who look more like prostitutes than intellectuals with their shiny Apple laptops, which make any independent journalist’s mouth water.

Recently a Spaniard told me, “I’ve been more Apple products in Havana than in Andalusia, and yet the government goes on about the crisis of the embargo.”

Cuba is like that. An atypical country. The normal is abnormal and vice versa. Anyway, I prefer guavas and Creole mangoes to the apples sold on the island; we don’t even know where the fuck they came from.

Spanish post
January 30 2011

Transportation in Havana Goes Backwards

January 28, 2011 1 comment

It takes Esteban, 43 years old, four hours every day for the round trip to his job on the outskirts of Havana. Around 7 am, along with a bunch of people, he tries to board the P-8 bus on the Acosta P-8 and Calzada 10 de Octubre line.

“For several months, the city bus service has taken a dive. I don’t know why. Every day going to work is a disaster,” he points out, sweating after running 60 meters to catch a bus that paused beyond the bus stop.

In Cuba, the only means of cheap public mass transit are the city buses (they cost less than a nickel U.S.). State taxi service has disappeared. It’s a fleet of Ladas manufactured in the mid-80’s in Russia.

These cars have seen 20 to 25 years of service and generally are in poor technical condition. The state has leased them to the drivers, who must pay for repairs and extra fuel after serving half a day providing assistance to hospitals, funeral homes and air terminals.

The fee is ten pesos (0.50 U.S. cents, the average salary for a day), the same as private taxis. But there are very few Ladas in service. And it doesn’t occur to anyone who uses public transport to spend part of his daily wage to get to work on time.

So the only option is the bus. In 2008 the government bought around 750 buses from China, Russia and Belarus to improve the disastrous service in the capital. It designed a main line of 17 routes identified with the letter P, which usually run along the main thoroughfares of the city.

These buses are articulated and initially arrived every 5 to 10 minutes during peak hours. There was also a support network of buses, to transport people to the inner neighborhoods and suburban areas, where the main lines often did not go. They have the letter A and run every 25 minutes.

But by mid-2009, with the policy of conserving fuel and tightening the screws on the local economic crisis, they stopped purchasing the buses, and improvements in the quality of urban transport suffered a setback.

Everything went to hell. In December 2010, the situation became precarious. Media predictions of half a million people unemployed prompted an increase in the number of people taking the bus every day.

At all hours the bus stops are filled with people who are anxious and desperate to get to their destinations. The main lines like the P-12 or the P-16 can take up to 45 minutes to arrive.

The frequency of the rest of the P line has also deteriorated. And this leads to overcrowded buses all day. Alberto, an employee of the company Metrobus, which is in charge of transportation in Havana, asserts that more than 80 buses are out of service. “For lack of financing and debts with China and Russia, it hasn’t been possible to get batteries, tires and other essential parts for the maintenance of these vehicles,” he points out.

Given this reality, habaneros like Esteban will have to keep suffering every morning to try to get to work on time. The same as with most economic sectors on the island, investments in urban transport are paralyzed. Until further notice.

Photo: Martijn Vrenssen

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 28 2011

José Martí , a Hero for New Generations to Discover

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Daniel, Picasaweb

José Julián Martí y Pérez was born on January 28, 1853 and died on May 19, 1895. For Cuban politicians, he is what Christ is to the Catholic Church. No matter the ideology or leaning. Everyone prides themselves on knowing him inside out.

It is politically correct for any official or dissident document to be preceded by a phrase from the great man. Even in my blog we have put one: “Nothing comes from hypocrisy.”

On the island, they really like taking photos with his picture in the background. In the independent libraries of the opposition and on shelves in government offices, you can see thick volumes of his complete works crammed together. It’s rare not to find a bust of him in a Cuban public school.

On the ideological propaganda billboards that surround the main arteries of the country, developed by unimaginative designers from the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, epic sentences from the hero appear on top of gloomy colors, where Martí always looks very serious, dressed in a funereal black suit.

The government likes to sell the image of a sad guy, committed to the independence of his homeland. Martí was much more. It’s not wise to sanctify men of such stature. Nor advisable.

It often causes hives in the new generations, who are not pleased with this frozen image of José Martí . Nobody likes to contemplate statues of ice.

Two Cuban intellectuals have tried to remove him from his pedestal. One was the late writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who won the Cervantes Prize in 1997. In various chronicles, Cabrera Infante offered us a flesh-and-blood Martí. The other who gave us ‘Pepe’ unwrapped is the filmmaker Fernando Perez, in his film The Eye of the Canarian.

158 years after his birth, José Martí is still an indispensable paradigm. But a re-reading of his work is needed. A disclosure without a cover-up that demystifies for us the undeniable greatness of this habanero, the son of a Spanish soldier, who lived his childhood in a small house on Calle Paula.

As a political genius ahead of his time, he was misunderstood. Rough military leaders of the jungle watched him closely. Guys who had strong arms to launch brutal machete charges against the Spanish troops, but of limited intellect.

They were people who were quick to take up arms, believing that they would win stripes by shooting or by collecting their enemies’ heads as trophies. And Marti was a scholar, a humanist and political strategist. In spite of everything, he won prestige working tirelessly for a different, democratic Cuba. In 1892 he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in Tampa, Florida.

On February 24, 1895, he landed on a beach in eastern Cuba, to start what he called a “necessary war.” Which it was. Although according to some historians, his presence was not needed on the battlefield.

But “Pepe” Martí wanted to prove he was more than a brilliant pen. He wanted to put himself to the test. He fell into the trap of his political enemies, who pejoratively called him “Captain Spider.”

Some scholars of his work agree: It was a real political suicide to join the insurgents. Three months later, on May 19, 1895, he was killed in an absurd skirmish, near the village of Dos Rios.

In this 21st century, the mandarins of the regime keep the island full of his images. At the first move, they place wreaths on him. But when the time comes for state policy, they value the guts and courage acquired in the trenches of combat more than men of ideas.

Martí was also a universal Cuban. The best ever. A precursor that serves as a catch-phrase for politicians from both sides, inside and outside Cuba. But the reality is that Marti is not yet fully known. They all take advantage of the aspect that best reflects their interest. The rulers and the opposition take the spoils of the national hero for their own ends.

Everyone believes they deserve Marti. One more useful dead man. A cliché. When the undercurrent of these stormy times passes, the work of rediscovering the Apostle, as they called him before 1959, will fall into the hands of Cuban intellectuals. Debt and obligation.

Those young people who have taken up the banner of banalities and whose goal is a passport and an exit permit need to do that. That decaffeinated figure of José Martí annoys them a lot.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 27 2011

Dégas in Havana

January 27, 2011 3 comments

The new policies of flexibility in the U.S. embargo against Cuba have permitted an exhibit, provided by the MT Abraham Center for Visual Arts in the United States to be displayed at the National Museum of Fine Arts.

Nestled in Zulueta Street, a stone’s throw from the Spanish embassy in Havana Vieja, the Museum shows a complete collection of sculptures by Edgar Dégas (Paris 1834-1917), one of the key figures of world art.

The exhibition is part of the tributes that in 2010 were conducted in different institutions and countries to mark the 90th birthday of the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (Havana 1920).

Under the title “All the sculptures of Edgar Dégas,” the exhibit consists of 74 pieces, shown previously in Athens, Tel Aviv and Sofia. It will remain in the Cuban capital until the end of January and then continue its tour in Spain.

The star of the collection is The Little Ballerina of 14 Years, sculpted between 1878 and 1881, the only sculpture that this controversial and contradictory Frenchman showed while he was alive. Praised and reviled, Dégas is known as one of the founders of Impressionism. He was considered by Renoir as the best modern sculptor, ahead even of Rodin.

Despite the heavy and persistent rain over the weekend in Havana, the show has had an extraordinary reception. Cubans who advocate ending the embargo and normalizing relations with the United States are grateful for the possibility of cultural exchanges between the two countries and also the measures taken for the benefit of the families on both sides.

Now, from the United States, you can send through Western Union up to $10,000 and receive it on the island in convertible pesos with a 10% tax. Soon, direct flights to Havana will depart from several U.S. airports, not only from Miami, New York and California.

Raul Castro’s government is rubbing its hands. The Dégas exhibit can be a beginning. The icing on the cake would be to end the old, obsolete embargo and have droves of Yankee tourists arriving. It would not be bad for an economy that is leaking. Despite the drought.

Photo: Cubarte. Alicia Alonso contemplates The Little Ballerina of 14 Years, by Edgar Dégas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 27 2011

Thank you!

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

When I invited a group of friends in December to send messages for the second anniversary of the Desde La Habana blog, I didn’t expect that so many would reply, much less with such praiseful greetings to the blog and to me.

In my style, I’ll continue reflecting the reality of my country and its people, without asking anyone for permission, be it from the opposition or from the regime.  That’s the freedom I’ve earned in these 15 years I’ve been writing as an independent journalist.

Nor will I stop going to troubled neighborhoods or tenement courtyards.  Nor will I stop talking to hustlers, pimps, gays, transvestites, drug addicts, pickpockets and common ex-cons, among others marginalized by society.

I received 19 messages in total.  Here go the senders:

Delphine Bougeard and her Spanish-language students at the Julliot de la Morandière high school in Normandy, France; Zoé Valdés; Raúl Rivero; Jorge Luis Piloto; Charlie Bravo; Joan Antoni Guerrero Vall; Alberto Sotillo; Isis Wirth; Jorge A. Pomar; Camilo López-Darias; Carlos Alberto Montaner; Pablo Pacheco; Luisa Mesa; Carlos Hernando; Manuel Aguilera; Rolando Cartaya as well as Regina, Helen and María, translators of my posts into English.

To them and also to Carlos Moreira, Tania Quintero and all the readers of the Desde La Habana blog, I give thanks and send my most sincere embrace.

Painting: Catedral, oil on canvas painted in 1972 by René Portocarrero (Havana, 1912-1986).

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

January 27 2011

Signed in Havana

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The blog Desde La Habana is an adventure that today, January 28, is two years old. It has not been easy to get here. The idea of creating a blog came to me in the winter of 2006.

From the end of the 90s, I had been collaborating regularly with the online site of the Interamerican Press Society and the digital version of Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, a project of the deceased Cuban writer Jesús Díaz that was launched in Madrid in 1996. Also with the Revista Hispano Cubana, funded in the spring of 1998 in the Spanish capital.

But there were difficulties for un-official journalism. In the spring of 2003, as is well known, Fidel Castro’s government unleashed a raid that put 75 dissidents in prison, among them 27 alternative communicators.

Between the fear that some late night the guys from State Security would knock on my door and arrest me without words, and the desire to try new paths, I decided to try my luck with other tools.

In an issue of Newsweek in Spanish I had read an incredible report about the blogger phenomenon. Just what I was looking for. An instrument where I would be writer and editor. But to make it a reality cost more than I’d hoped. I didn’t know the techniques to create a blog. Nor, at that time, were there public sites to connect to the Internet in Havana.

I didn’t lose faith. Three people signed on to the idea of my having my own blog. On March 25, 2007, my mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist and also a neophyte in the management of technology, Magia, and a Cuban living in Spain, opened a blog. Since November of 2003 Tania has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee. Her computer is old but it has 24/7 DSL.

Yoani Sánchez and Reinaldo Escobar were essential for enabling me to open my blog. Through a Swiss journalist I met the Sánchez-Escobar couple in December of 2004. On certain crisp and starry nights, in their apartment on the 14th floor, drinking Guayabita from Pinar del Rio and eating pizzas made by Yoani, several of us friends would talk about the state of things in Cuba.

And then Escobar, with his degree in journalism, had the idea for the magazine Consensus, he was thinking could be produced by our own effort. He invited me to write about sports, but I wanted something else.

Over the end of the year I continued visiting the couple now and again, and Yoani told me about the blog she had opened in April 2007. But it wasn’t until December of 2008, when Yoani lent me a hand. By this date in Havana one could navigate the Internet, paying a lot and in hard currency.

In my personal project, for the collaboration with me, I involved Luis Cino, in my opinion the best independent journalist on the island at that time, and Laritza Diversent, a recently graduated young lawyer. From Madrid my mother would write and from Madrid would come the stories of Raul Rivero published in El Mundo.

I remember going crazy managing a webmaster who charged $ 60 for designing a page layout and $ 5 extra every time he hung your posts. In a café in central Havana I met with Reinaldo and Yoani and they told me I didn’t have to spend a dime. On 28 January 2009 they were thinking of opening a platform they were thinking of calling Voces Cubanas — Cuban Voices.

I joined the party. To ease my ignorance in the management of a blog, they invited me to participate in an accelerated course that Sánchez offered twice a week in her house. I was in the first of six bloggers inaugurating Voces Cubanas.

For me, it was easy to write the posts. But I needed a person abroad to post them for me, because the rising cost of doing the task was unaffordable. Tania talked with Ernesto Hernandez Busto and he accepted. But the blog wasn’t going as I wished.

Starting on 1 January 2010, an extraordinary Portuguese friend, Carlos Moreira, despite having a lot of work, incredibly took on this function in his free hours. Like my mother, who spends up to eight hours a day in front of the Computer, revising texts, verifying dates, selecting photos and videos for the posts written in Havana that I send.

On 22 October 2009 I started to collaborate with the Spanish digital newspaper El Mundo/América. They pay me for my work and topped off with what my family sends with a million sacrifices, they help me to pa the 60 Cuban Convertible pesos I spend each month in Havana hotels to connect to the Internet.

I’ve had bitter moments. After cyber attacks against my blog and the disappearance of the archive with all the posts published in 2009, after I was thrown off Voces Cubanas without a convincing explanation.

Even today, the only argument I’ve been given as a cause for my exclusion as been articles critical of Guillermo Fariñas written by my mother (see the final note). I don’t share this argument. Personally I disagree with the form and content of some of the work written by Tania.

But at her 68 years, living in exile with more than thirty years of experience in journalism, first official and then dissident, she is completely within her right to publish what she thinks in my blog.

We talk enough about democracy and freedom of expression. A discourse in vogue. But in practice, we behave like bigots and censors. An basic evil we Cubans don’t manage to pull out at its roots. Neither those on the island nor those abroad.

I still don’t know if Voices Cubana threw me out because of my mother or if the one to blame is me. During the time I was a part of this platform I never had a serious incident with any blogger, to the point of spoiling the deal we kept. If I had enemies in this group, I didn’t know it.

If I’ve addressed this topic it is because many friends, Cubans and foreigners, have asked me and I don’t know what to say. The one who knows is Yoani.

I hope for an honest answer. I appreciate Yoani Sanchez, and more her husband, Reinaldo Escobar. I have nothing against Orlando Luis Pardo and Claudia Cadelo, two of the most active bloggers.

This adventure of creating a blog is marvelous, like raising a child. I have many material limitations and to top it off I can report enmities to you. But I don’t do journalism to please anyone. That’s the point.

Either way, 2011 appears promising to me. I have a ton of ideas to grow the blog in quality and content. For now, my posts from Havana will continue to appear on time.

*I took the title from a poem borrowed from Raul Rivero (Editorial Sibi, Miami 1996)

Photo: Stathis, Panoramio. Central Park in Havana where the principal statue dedicated to José Martí inHavana is found. The colonial style building is the Hotel Inglaterra, founded on 23 December 1875.

Translated by RST

January 27 2011

Papa’s Boys

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The children of certain heads of the nomenklatura have their own style. They wear designer clothes. Drink cognac or whiskey. They have their own cars. Internet at home. They’re fond of good food and spend nights dancing in the best discotheques in the city.

They have a passport to travel abroad. And in private they inhale more cocaine than a vacuum cleaner. They’re fans of lesbian pictures and sex with several girls. To obey form and follow in the footsteps of their parents, they study at military colleges.

They study either administration or marketing at prestigious schools abroad. Their double standard is exquisite. In front of strangers, they parrot the typical nationalistic and anti-American speech.

Among friends, they await the final outcome of the revolution to see which side wins. Until the moment arrives, their parents position them in good jobs.

When there is real change in Cuba, not the artificial one designed by the gurus in olive-green, Papa’s children will be the future managers of the companies, banks, hotels, golf courses or any other business that makes money in post-Castro Cuba.

Now they go about under cover. They waste fuel and spend hard currency on Havana nightlife. They live well and eat three hot meals a day. They dance salsa at night clubs like the Red Room of the Capri or the River Club, a discotheque in Miramar, a few meters from the Almendares River.

The always leave smiling, with a full wallet. They end the night in cafes that are a stone’s throw from the Malecón. Drinking Heineken beer and snorting a mixture of drugs in the back seat of their cars. They usually go to bed at the time that many people are going to work. They lunch on meats and seafood while they watch the latest world news on giant plasma-screen televisions.

Their parents are allowed to have satellite dishes and ADSL (high-speed Internet access). They are trustworthy revolutionaries. The cream of the socialist revolution. When the official discourse calls on simple Cubans to tighten their belts, these offspring, the sons of important men, sleep for ten hours, have central air conditioning in their homes and spend their weekends fishing on the old man’s yacht.

The good thing about being the son of a “big-shot” (leader) in Cuba is that they don’t have to worry about paparazzi or scandals in the tabloids. Their dirty laundry stays at home. Their parents have the power. They control the army, the communications media and production.

These young people have a free hand to lead a dissipated, easy life. And their parents? They prefer to look the other way.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 23 2011

Havana without water, another headache for the regime

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Martha Beatriz Roque

“Not even by paying 10 CUC (12 dollars) can a family get a pipa (water truck) in order to fill buckets, tanks and containers,” says Liudmila, a resident of El Calvario, a desolate hamlet south of Havana. Although there have been deliveries of water lately, shortages continue.

In the first week of January, in El Calvario there were 5 days without water. The lack of pipas to alleviate the water shortage created a very tense situation for people. The same thing has happened in other places, where there have been no lack of protests.

The drought that has affected the Cuban capital for 7 years has caused a deficit of more than 328 thousand cubic meters of water. The dramatic shortage has led to reductions in the delivery of the precious liquid to 10 of the 15 municipalities of Havana.

If you add to the disastrous drought the fact that 60% of potable water distributed in the city is lost due to breaks and leaks in the pipes, and that 128 major industrial centers in the capital use three times what they need, then in addition to being serious, the problem becomes complex.

Excessive exploitation of surface and ground water has resulted in the collapse of different supply points to the capital, with water quantities well below their capacity.

From 2003 to date, the average rainfall for Havana was as high as 89%. This has been the driest period in the last 49 years.

The provincial supervision of water resources in the capital has activated a Code Red. Five years ago, the company Aguas de La Habana, with hard currency financing from a Catalan society, began to restore the deteriorating distribution networks, but the work has been slow and insufficient.

Only 20% of the pipes in the city have been repaired, due to their age and a chronic lack of maintenance, which has left them severely damaged. The broken pipes in turn make a mess of the public roads, which are full of holes, due to torrential water flows daily in the streets.

Then there is the main aqueduct, the Albear, which was built in the 19th century and designed for a population of 400,000. Today Havana is a city of over 2,500,000 inhabitants. The most critical situation in the water supply occurs in the municipalities of Arroyo Naranjo, Habana Vieja and Centro Habana.

In the late 80’s the El Gato water main, on the outskirts of the city, began to function. But between the severe drought, the absence of systematic repairs and the lack of spare parts, it is working at less than 50% capacity.

To reverse the delicate situation, the Institute of Hydraulic Resources intends to quickly implement 14 investments to alleviate the crisis. They are valued at 7.5 million convertible pesos (about $9 million) and involve placing 22 kilometers of pipes. If these works are not carried out soon, for spring, the deficit of water will reach 493,640 cubic meters of water.

In Havana, more than 70,000 families have no direct access to drinking water. They have to carry it in buckets, tanks and other containers. When stored, it becomes a dangerous breeding ground for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a transmitter of deadly diseases such as dengue hemorrhagic fever.

Due to the scarcity of water in poor neighborhoods, there are people who are paid 100 pesos (5 dollars) to fill a 55-gallon tank. “In addition to earning money, I get exercise,” says Philip, a bodybuilder engaged in the business of carrying water.

If in the coming months the powerful drought continues, if water is squandered and doesn’t reach households and production centers, the government of General Raúl Castro will have a new headache. Another one.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 25 2011

Cuban Dissidents: Looking Inward

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The WikiLeaks revelations have shown the Cuban opposition in a bad light. What a sector of U.S. diplomacy thinks about the poor performance of traditional dissent is the same thing that independent journalists and foreign correspondents talk about.

If a series of shameful acts of corruption, nepotism and caudillismo committed by the leaders of opposition groups haven’t been brought to light, it’s because of that old straitjacket that makes alternative journalists think that making such issues public is a favor to the island’s secret services.

I don’t share that opinion. It’s time for the local opposition groups to change their tune. If they don’t turn 180 degrees and plot their strategies looking inward, they will remain simply a movement of courageous people who openly challenged the Castro brothers’ regime.

To their credit, many opponents must have passed through the harsh island prisons without breaking. It’s admirable that Cubans who could have been peaceful parents or grandparents had the courage to establish political parties and organizations that the government considers illegal and that Cuban laws punish by several years in prison.

But being brave is not everything. Inside the traditional dissent there are quite a few autocrats who pretend to be civil. They are intolerant and dishonest gossip mongers. They have become accustomed to living off U.S. government agency aid or groups and people of different political leanings in Europe.

I am one of those who thinks it’s not healthy to accept money from any government. I could be wrong. Years ago, in a public and transparent manner, the opposition had to tackle that uncomplicated issue.

It’s true: when they take the path of dissent against Castro, as a rule, dissidents lose their jobs and stop collecting a paycheck. It’s also true that they need money to do any political work.

Hiding the issue of money has led to the unfortunate rise of corruption. By not having effective controls, internal democracy and transparency at the heart of many dissident organizations, certain group leaders have shamelessly appropriated money and material assistance.

The list is long of heavyweights inside the dissident movement who steal hand over fist. Out of decency I will not reveal their names. In addition to being corrupt, with some exceptions, the Cuban opposition is mediocre and ineffective. A banana dissidence. You can count on one hand their political projects that try to involve citizens.

The local opposition is directed toward the Exterior. From their living rooms, small groups of people write a document, quote the foreign press, read it on Radio Marti and then feel they’ve accomplished something.

Ordinary people in Cuba don’t even hear about it. It’s painful. The number of people upset by what the government does, I assure you, is broad. If the opposition parties started proselytizing, they would be known in their own country.

There is unexplored territory for the dissident movement. The lack of materials and services in Cuba affects everyone, loyal to the regime or not. Both sides want to repair their children’s schools, the hospitals and streets of the neighborhood. Both sides want to have clean water every day, and not lose 60% due to leaks.

Regardless of ideology, every one suffers from having to travel like sardines in a can on the crowded buses of chaotic urban transportation. Think like they think. Cubans want more and better food. Decent wages. Clean cities. A single currency. To be able to travel without state permission. To have Internet access and satellite dishes for reasonable sums.

In 52 years, the Castros have failed to solve these problems. If the dissidents would do community work in the neighborhoods, they could inspire a number of small and modest projects that would involve and benefit the people. You hardly ever meet activists like Sonia Garro, a black woman living in a slum in Mariano, who helps children living in homes that are small hells.

It’s good to demand democracy and freedom from the regime. But it’s also good to look for options – and solutions – for the women and men deep inside Cuba.

Of course, the secret services do everything in their power to make sure the dissent doesn’t forge a real social base. It’s also true that the traditional opposition has adapted to living from unrealistic projects, better known in Miami than in Havana.

It’s healthy to have different political tendencies and discrepancies inside the dissent. But there are four or five points of agreement between the opponents that would allow them to design joint projects.

Disagreements do not mean the opposition groups are enemies. It’s what happens. But so many quarrels and hatreds have diminished coherent and serious political work.

The current opposition, if it’s not recycled and doesn’t democratize the rules of the game, will be a political corpse. But it’s never too late to change.

Photo: EFE. Press conference of the Agenda for the Transition, Havana, April 2010.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 23 2011