Archive for February, 2011

Playing to Kill

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Right now, the personal enemy of Edna is an Xbox. A single mother of 43, she thought to resolve by great problem of few recreational opportunities for her son, so she asked her relatives in Miami to send him a superb and sophisticated computer game.

“I thought my son Michael, 11, could spend more time at home. He was addicted to video games and in one month and he would sometimes pay up to 50 convertible pesos (60 dollars) to play on the floor of a neighbor who rented his equipment for a “chavito” (one dollar) per hour, “says Edna.

The good idea has turned into adversity. The boy is connected to Xbox from the moment he comes home from school. He has no social life. With his friends, who come in bunches to sit in the room, they take the controls to compulsively play the ultra-violent games proliferating in the market.

Michael has little interest in school. During class hours, he doesn’t concentrate on his school work but spends his time talking about the latest version of a bloody game. Or he escapes to the house, to improve his assassination skills as a virtual killer.

Michael’s aim to be the best ‘killer’ among his peers in the neighborhood. According to Edna, she’s gotten up in the middle of the night and found him stuck to his Xbox.

Her child’s manias greatly concern her. She has taken him to see a psychologist, who unsuccessfully tried to wean him from the addiction. Such virtual violence is taking its toll on Michael.  He has become impulsive and a boy of few words.

Video games are not a serious problem in Cuba, as often happens in first world countries. But it is a phenomenon to consider.

The entertainment industry is a shocking business. They take in 48 billion dollars a year, which leaves the eight billion spent on movies in the dust. And they want to earn more money.

According to think tanks, analysts and experts in the field, in just five years the industry could become the seventh-largest, surpassed only by arms, drugs, prostitution, casinos, food and medicine.

Geographically, Cuba is closer to the United States than Fidel Castro would have liked. Despite being a nation commercially embargoes by the Americans and ruled for 51 years by an authoritarian government that denies freedoms, the latest in American technology comes to the island immediately.

Such is the case of Apple computers, the iPhone or the next-generation Xbox. The worst and most violent video games also arrive. Many children and teams eat them up.

Some parents do not believe that virtual fanaticism is harmful. Maybe not. But addiction to games of blood and death has led to many tragic events in America.

In Cuba, youth violence does not go that far, but it has quietly been increasing. Due to the many material shortages, there needs to be a sharp eye on the harmful consequences addiction to violent video games can have on children.

Edna does not think her son is capable of taking a sharp knife from the kitchen and stabbing anyone. But when she sees his aggressive behavior she has her doubts. You never know.

February 28 2011

The High Cost of Death in Cuba

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Colon Cemetery in Havana


The crematorium located in the town of Guanabacoa is a clean building with an amiable and personalized treatment. Anabel, 49, has no complaints. The last wish of her mother, who died of a terminal cancer, was that they cremate her body.

But the crematorium price made Anabel jump like a spring. “A couple of years ago, when they incinerated my father, we paid 50 pesos (2 dollars). Now the service raised its price to 300 pesos (13 dollars), which seems excessive to me”.

The silent rise in prices of funeral services promises to grow. On an island where the rumors are more credible than the news published by the press, the possible announcement of the readiness of the State to collect for wakes — until now, gratis — are attracting strong comments.

In his zeal to make meticulous reductions in these awkward official subsidies, which according to its auditors are burdening the good function of the Cuban economy, President Raul Castro hopes to eliminate — all of a sudden — the ‘gratuities’, one of the flags flown 52 years ago by Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In that future designed by technocrats in olive green, we’ll say goodbye to the ration book and 1,300,000 workers will be laid off. Also, benefits subsidized by the State, like the movie theaters, sports events, and funeral services will have a price increase.

The clue was given by the independent journalist Moises Leonardo Rodri­guez in a note published in Cubanet. According to Rodri­guez, there would be a charge between 1,500 and 1,800 pesos (65 to 75 dollars) for funeral assistance.

That quantity of money is equivalent to seven times the minimum monthly salary of 225 pesos. Sources consulted in the Rivero Funeral Parlor, situated in the Vedado section of Havana, confirmed the news.

“Besides the caskets, they’ll charge for veils, lights, and they will rent out the chairs and armchairs. The hearse will also be more expensive”, the funeral home employees assured.

During the 60s, the Castro government, who by then had a populist argument in favor of the poor, intervened in funeral parlors and their services were presented for free.

Those were other times. The urgent needs to slow the fall of the fragile Cuban economy have provoked heavy-handed and Draconian measures, similar to shock therapies applied in capitalist societies.

The news from the independent journalist spread fast among Cubans with internet access. Elena, employed by a food manufacturer, commented that the State tourniquet to contain the hemorrhage of this crisis is too tight.

“In one year, it’s difficult to change the mentalities of people accustomed to living with their mouths open, waiting for the State to give you your pablum. The sudden elimination of numerous subsidies, besides bringing discontent, might transform itself into a spark that could set off open, massive protests. The cases of Egypt and Tunisia are an example”, Elena underlines.

Another big problem that’s been noticed is that the government makes no mention of a rise in salaries, which would compensate in part for the suppression of subsidies and dangerously shooting prices.

In a country where two currencies circulate, replete with material shortages and where the workers’ salaries are a joke, it is not only difficult now to confront the cost of living. Now death also has a high cost.

February 26 2011

Social Garbageman

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Lithograph on paper, 1999, by Bezier, Cuban artist


Yamil, 22 years old, earns his living by rummaging through dumpsters. For him, a good day means filling three sacks to the brim with empty, flattened-out beer and soda cans, which he earns by walking 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) daily.

He gathers the sacks in a corner of his shack made of wood planks and cardboard. When he has 15 or 20 bundles, he puts them on a rustic wheelbarrow and takes them to a local junkyard where he exchanges them for packs of cookies, candy, chocolates, and plastic soda bottles.

The transaction ends once he manages to sell all the knickknacks. His earnings come to about 1,000 pesos (45 dollars). Half of this money doesn’t reach his poor home. On the way, he stops at a market to buy pork, vegetables, beans, and rice. At the black market he gets oil and soap, which his family uses for bathing as well as washing their hair and doing laundry.

Now I present to you his family. The mom sleeps ten hours a day on a dirty cot surrounded by cockroaches and mosquitoes. She spends the rest of her time drunk, drinking a rum so rough it’s scary. Once drunk she falls unconscious on her cot.

Because of this, Yamil is in charge of the house. He has four siblings: three girls, 7, 9, and 12 years old, and an older brother of 25, professional pickpocket serving 15 years in jail for forced robbery of an occupied home. “Thank God he’s in jail. When my brother Oscar was home, the fights were endless. He would hit my sisters and eat all the food.”

Yamil dreams of making money to be able to build a brick house. “For that I need to get together six or seven thousand pesos (250 or 300 dollars) and besides collecting junk material, start buying it wholesale. Then, I would gain 200 dollars in the exchange for candy. If I saved up half of that, in two years I would have 200 dollars. With that money I could start putting in the foundation for the new house.”

His 12-year old sister wants to help out; leave school and start turning tricks on the National Highway. But Yamil would rather wait until she’s older. “When she’s 15 she could start hustling. She’s not ugly and has a nice figure. That’s why I try to keep her and my other two sisters eating well, so their bodies will develop well. They are essential for building this house and having a better life in the future.”

Yamil barely managed to finish sixth grade. Life has made him tough. His latest struggle is against the government, which wants to have junk collectors pay taxes. “It’s abuse. If I pay taxes, I’ll barely have money to maintain my family.”

In his shack of cardboard and wet rotted wood, surrounded by thick shrubbery, with a single light bulb, without a radio, fridge, or TV, the mother wakes up and looks around. Without a word she takes a large gulp of homemade rum; “As you can see, she can’t be counted on to change our luck.”

February 26 2011

The Building That Resembles a Galician Apothecary

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

If you want to know the soul of the Cuban people, you must live in a solar or tenement building. That’s where you’ll find diversity. Stories of prostitutes, pimps, gays, hustlers, thieves and dissidents.

I invite you to visit a building in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton. It consists of a ground floor and an upper floor with a total of with apartments, some larger than others. Four interior and four exterior terraces on the street.

It was ordered built in 1957 by Rosara, a pharmacist originally from Galicia. After saving coins and crumpled bills under his mattress for years, the Galician decided to take a leap in his life and become a landlord.

The idea was good, but times were bad. It was inaugurated in 1958. A year later, Fidel Castro and his bearded ones took over and did not take long to nationalize factories, sugar mills, refineries and buildings. Rosara could never recover the money he invested.

It’s been 53 years. The facade of the building has not been fully repainted. The letters R and O have fallen off and it reads now only SARA. But compared with the 19-century filthy tenements in the old part of Havana, which collapse under a passing shower or medium-intensity winds, Rosara is a five-star hotel.

I present to you its tenants. Along a narrow hallway four families live. A mother with three children, unemployed and mentally imbalanced, eating whatever comes along and living like a gypsy.

In another apartment, a neighbor devoted to Santeria. Above, a couple of old people loyal to Castro. In their old age they survive  on their retirement checks and remittances sent from the United States.

Next, a family maintained by their daughter. From Europe, she sends euros, so they can eat two meals a day and sleep with air conditioning.

In one of the apartments on the ground floor with a terrace, lives a couple with good manners and a son in college. Next, the classic generous type, who constantly disturbs the neighbors to offer his various trades. On the top floor, a specialist in sports statistics, serious and quiet.

It is a building where people usually say good morning, something rare in the island. And they do not ask for money, or to borrow sugar or rice, as is customary in most rooming houses and buildings of the capital.

Nor do they often have violent family quarrels over trivial matters like who ate the bread the brother got on the ration book, or who sold the parents’ egg ration, which have occasioned more than one bloody encounter in the country.

The building Rosara is a piece of Cuba today. Neighbors who have gone into exile, people who disagree publicly and good workers who answer summonses from the government.

The final tenant lives in one of the apartments above. He is a freelance journalist and has two blogs. For two years he’s trying to repair his floor. One day he wants to live with his daughter and his wife.

February 26 2011

A Death That Could Have Been Avoided

February 24, 2011 1 comment

Every time I pass by the sports fan club in Parque Central, right in the heart of Havana, I think I hear Orlando Zapata Tamayo debating baseball matters.

Baseball was more than a passion for him. It was a style of life. The dissident — jailed for three years in 2003 for the crime of contempt, and then later the sentence was extended to 32 years for his rebellious attitude inside the prison — was a Cuban in its purest form.

I prefer the simple type of Banes, who like thousands of fellow countrymen born in the eastern regions of the island, flee from the ‘obstine‘ (frustration) and poverty in their villages and try to find better luck in the capital.

Zapata was one of those. In Havana he worked as an assistant bricklayer in the construction of Parque Central hotel, where at this very moment I’m composing this note. His political concerns were identical to those of the silent majority of Cubans, drivers with old cars for hire, fritura (fried food) vendors, or bicitaxistas who pedal twelve hours a day.

For several years Orlando was an anonymous dissident. It’s possible to investigate how his personal political transition started and when, openly and publicly, he began to desire a collection of freedoms for all citizens.

Zapata was similar to the front balcony neighbor that criticizes the state of affairs in the country.  A desperate man of the street who doesn’t see a way, since constitutionally it doesn’t exist, to move Cuba on a democratic path.

There are many on the island like Zapata. Or in Cairo. Ideally this mulatto, who died at age 42, could be shouting slogans in Liberation Square. Or be Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who set himself on fire in a Tunisian town far from the tourist brochures.

A memory comes to me of a chat I had on a cold night in February 2010 with one of his Republican Alternative Movement friends. He described to me those days, when unhappy with the arbitrary laws of the government that had imprisoned 75 dissidents in March of 2003, they left the Estadio Latinoamericano and, without a leader to exhort them, they marched from the baseball debating club in Parque Central along the streets, protesting the arrests.

And of course, I remember a short and sturdy opponent, who had suffered in prisons and hidden her emotions like everyone else, crying in silence in the living room of her house, remembering the young man, quiet, almost invisible, who was together with her on a fast, days before the raid of 2003.

I cannot forget the giant that is Reina Luisa Tamayo, his mother, who will not see Orlando, with his duffel bag in tow, coming down the alley of the poor neighborhood section of Banes where she lives.

A year after his death the message of Zapata Tamayo has force. It was precisely his death which led to a series of marches heard through the streets of Havana by the Ladies in White, shouting “Zapata lives.”

The repercussion and global condemnation over his death forced General Raul Castro’s government to negotiate a solution with the Catholic Church.  If today a majority of the Black Spring dissidents can walk freely through the streets of Spain, Chile, the United States, or Cuba, it is thanks to this forceful weapon that was the death of Zapata.

A death that could have been prevented.  Due to arrogance the regime did not stop it.  They gained nothing. A maxim which every statesman must remember is that they should never use the relentless forces of power against an individual, healthy or dying.

It is not about ideology. It is a matter of humanity. The government of Cuba would gain credibility if, at one year after the death of Zapata, they would apologize publicly.  Out of respect and decency they owe it to his mother, so shamefully harassed.

Reina Luisa will never recover her son. But it might be an initiation of the unavoidable dialogue that Cuba needs. The Castros should use leniency as a shield. It would be a way to atone for their faults. And believe me, they need it.

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Translated by DoDi 2.0

February 24 2011

The Day Orlando Zapata Died

February 24, 2011 2 comments

Photo: Laritza Diversent. Symbolic vigil at Laura Pollán's house, 23rd and 24th February 2010.

An event of such magnitude always leaves its mark. The death of Orlanado Zapata Tamayo, at the age of 42, is indelibly engraved on my memory.

In the afternoon of 23 February 2010 I was at the home of the independent lawyer and journalist Laritza Diversent, reviewing some legal cases which might be of journalistic interest.

I already knew about Zapata’s hunger strike. About the physical abuse he had suffered. About the reports that spoke of his rapidly deteriorating health, after more than 80 days without food.

My mobile phone didn’t stop ringing. On the 20th of February, three days before his death, I got a text message from another informant, letting me know that Reina Luisa Tamayo, his mother, had been summoned urgently to Section 21 of Cuban Intelligence. They wanted her to talk to her son to get him to give up the hunger strike.

The sequence of events was very rapid. That Tuesday, while I was discussing work matters with Laritza, I received a deeply moving text. It was from the blogger Claudia Cadelo. She said that at 3:27 in the afternoon, in the hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, Orlando Zapata had died.

Laritza and I were dumbstruck. Then, everything happened very quickly, like scenes from a video clip. I tried to get a plane ticket for Banes, a town in the province of Holguín, more than 700kms from Havana.

José Martí airport appeared to be under siege. A foreign journalist told me that he had not even been able to get a ticket by bribery. Incredible for Cuba. Politely, the woman at the information desk gave out that there would be no tickets for Holguín for a week.

An airport worker called me to one side and told me in a whisper, “Brother, this is a tough one. You won’t get a ticket for a thousand dollars. Some guys from Security said that if you get on a plane, all of us who work this shift will be sacked.”

I tried to get a bus ticket, I worked out that the journey would take 14 hours, but I couldn’t manage that either. All the options were closed.

I don’t want to be self-important and imagine that Security was responsible for my not being able to get to Banes. The opposition leader Martha Beatriz Roque, and Laura Pollán one of the leading members of the Damas de Blanco, hired a car to Holguín, but when I called Martha, they had already left.

I felt beaten. As a journalist I couldn’t get the latest news out. And as a man, I wanted to be at his family’s side at that terrible time.

Walking through the city with Laritza, we met the independent journalist Jorge Olivera, one of the 75 dissidents jailed in the spring of 2003. Olivera told us stories about Zapata, they were together in some godforsaken prison, and he said that at Laura Pollán’s house, on Neptune Street, a book of condolences had been opened.

It was almost twelve midnight when we reached the house, headquarters of the Damas de Blanco. Next to a Cuban flag and a photo of Orlando, around twenty people were gathered in the small room.

There we spoke with members of the movement that Zapata belonged to. Outside the house we could see the political police.

When I arrived home at about 4 in the morning I was nearly exhausted. Before I was overtaken by sleep, I went over the notes I had taken that day about Orlando Zapata Tamayo. We had a great deal in common. Our love of baseball, and our race. I wish I had known him.

Photos: Laritza Diversent. Symbolic vigil at Laura Pollán’s house, 23rd and 24th February 2010.

Translated by: Jack Gibbard

February 24 2011

Cuba Bets on Japanese Baseball

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Responding to the alarming deterioration of baseball in the largest of the Antilles, the Cuban hierarchy that governs the sport of balls and strikes shouted for help from Japanese consultants.

This news has raised indignation among fanatics of the sport.  No one doubts the quality of Japanese baseball.  They won the championship in both versions of the World Baseball Classic, an event of the highest quality, where the best players on the planet compete.  And in the Big Leagues, baseball players with slanted eyes play with great skill.

The local debate centers on the manner of interpretation of baseball in the land of the rising sun.  The Japanese philosophy of play, its strategy, and training are completely distinct from those of the nations of the American continent.

According to sources within the Cuban Federation, the directors are most interested in Japanese style of pitching coaching and preparation.  Although, the possibility was left open for instruction in areas of hitting and field play, as well.

After Fidel Castro abolished professional baseball in 1962, many players of paid clubs left for the United States.  Those that stayed on the Green Alligator, like Gilberto Torres, Fermín Guerra or Conrado Marrero, began to coach new amateur players.

This assessment gave fruit. In the span of a few years, the amateur player elevated his quality of play, and towards the end of the 70s and through the 80s, possessed a level of play comparable to a AAA player in the United States.

But the old stars have died, or are home-bound, like Conrado Marrero, who will turn 100 on August 11, 2011.  A significant number of valuable coaches, formed in the sporting institutes after 1959, have fled Cuba or are sharing their coaching knowledge in other countries.

Some experts see the Japanese assistance as an affront. It is as if the Spanish soccer league, La Liga, for the brutal difference in skill existing between Barcelona and the rest of the clubs, were to ask the assistance of The Netherlands to increase the competitiveness of the league.

All baseball lovers recognize that Cuban development methods and training are old-fashioned.  The ideas of the managers are from the middle of the twentieth century.

Lack of information, bibliographic works, and internet access, and inability to follow the Big Leagues, the best league in the world, on TV, has created a lethal ignorance among pitching and other coaches, who, on occasion fail to recognize the latest techniques and statistics of baseball, in the United States and other elsewhere.

In light of this crisis that has rocked the national sport, with more than 350 baseball players deserting in the last 15 years, directors of baseball have approached the Japanese, who, in my opinion, have little to offer, in terms of history or methods.

I do not see a Cuban pitcher adopting the draconian methods of training to which Japanese pitchers are subjected.  In Japan, a pitcher throws 120 pitches daily, with no regular downtime between sessions.  Japanese pitchers have a limited shelf life, eight or ten years maximum.  Those who arrive and perform well in the United States, in the span of five years, fall into mediocrity.

This rigorous work forms part of the Japanese philosophy, and the Asian philosophy in general.  It has given them results, but on this continent there are different ideas about the game.

Cuba needs to adapt to the new techniques of baseball. We must look to the United States. The embargo impedes open assessment of the Cuban game. If the Castros would change their absurd politics and lift the clauses that prohibit Cubans from competing in the big tent, the story could be different.

This lack of vision has transformed the national pastime of baseball into a low-quality spectacle. Before 1959, Cuba was the country that sent the most players to the Big Leagues. That title is now held by the Dominican Republic, with nearly 400 players.

The culture of the island has always been one of sugar and of unbridled passion for baseball.  Fidel Castro buried the industry of the sweet grain, and baseball is heading down the same path.

Photo:  New York Times.  Japan defeated Cuba in the first World Baseball Classic, played in cities of Japan, the United States, and Puerto Rico in March of 2006.

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Translated by:  Gregorio

February 15 2011