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Alan Gross, the Ultimate Currency of Exchange

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Reuters. Alan Gross with his wife, Judy, during a visit to Jerusalem in Spring 2005.

 

He had bad luck, this American engineer with his nice grandfatherly face. December 3, 2009, as he was about to board a plane to the United States, he was arrested. And there he sits today.

After 14 months in detention without charges, through a brief note in the newspaper Granma, the people on the island learn that he will soon have his trial and the Prosecutor is asking for a sentence of 20 years for “acts against independence or territorial integrity.”

Alan Gross, 61 and Jewish, will be tried under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code, the same one used against the 74 dissidents tried in April 2003 who were sentenced to between 13 and 28 years imprisonment.

Independent Cuban journalists have barely written about his case. According to leaks, Gross had traveled to Cuba as a subcontractor of USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), to bring modern equipment to the not very numerous Jewish community. There’s also speculation that he helped a group of dissidents. For more than 25 years, Alan Gross had dedicated himself to humanitarian work and development around the world.

In general, it’s not easy to access foreigners who, for one reason or another, are imprisoned on the island. But it’s nearly impossible when it’s an American who, from the beginning, the authorities have kept in isolation in a special prison regime.

The prosecutor’s request for 20 years could be reduced to 5 or 10 years. He could also be acquitted. But I doubt it. Gross is valuable exchange currency for the Castro brothers, in particular for Fidel, who already said last December, to several intellectuals, that the “Five Heroes” or the “Five Spies” (depending on your point of view), would soon be home.

The detention of Alan Gross has been a source of fiction between the governments of Cuba and the United States. For the regime in Havana, it’s become a question of honor and an obsession, to get the five agents out of prison.

Accustomed as they are, on the island, to the president’s being able to decide when a person should enter or leave prison, they think Obama’s signature would be enough to spring their “heroic spies.”

And as things don’t work like that in the United States, Alan Gross could become the man who would permit them to negotiate a trade. Five for one.

February 6 2011

Sugar Cane in Three Chunks

February 6, 2011 1 comment

In the space of twenty years, Cuba ceased to be the world’s sugar factory and began to import the sweet grass and turn its main national industry into heaps of scrap metal in forgotten sugar refineries.

The great culprit for the shortage of sugar—and for the sugar tradition becoming an anecdote—is a man who now wears checked-shirts, writes reflections and gives talks to those who want to listen about the nuclear catastrophe now lurking over us.

His name is Fidel Castro Ruiz. And if the shut-off Cuban system insists in giving him its blessing for being the father of the great successes of the Revolution (education, sports, public health) then it should also blame him for its failures.

And they are many. And loud. The extinction of basically all of the sugar industry is a sample of the brutal inefficiency of the government in its role as administrator or the lands and wealth of the nation.

For over two centuries, sugar was king on the island. Sugarcane would get the best lands. From the time of the colony. During the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, local land-owning creoles bought hundreds of thousands black slaves brought over from Africa to undertake the rough job of cutting cane.

Elaborating sugar, honey and other derivatives—with high yield and productivity—was an indubitable merit of the local tycoons. It was the trade by excellence of a huge part of our population.

From 1926 to 1958, the sugar harvests were regulated by the State. There were production fees. In average, 5.5 million tons of sugar, per harvest, would be raised during short, four-month periods.

With the arrival of Castro into power, sugar continued to be the main industry. Harvests of up to 8 million ton were produced, but the quality, yield, cost and productivity became unsustainable. The disastrous campaign of the 10 Million in 1970 marked the start of the end of the Cuban sugar industry.

Although the government mechanized the cutting process, and modernized old refineries, large yields were never possible again. With the start of the “Special Period” and the fall of the USSR, gasoline disappeared and so did parts for all the Russian-made machinery.

In the twenty-first-century, producing sugar in Cuba is thorny. It is cheaper to buy it in the global markets. Today, many refineries have become museums of useless machinery, where people in the surrounding areas practice a ferocious, predatory act.

Visit any of these refineries and you will witness the “cannibalism” to which they have been subjected. Even the screws have vanished. Old towns are now dead and still in time. Only the older folks remain, their children gone to the cities.

The present neighbors of these countryside Cuban urban projects do whatever they can manage to find to make a living. They usually try to appease that sense of a lack of a future by hitting their fourth-grade rum bottles under the coconut trees or right under the scorching sun.

The Regime created a plan called “Álvaro Reinoso Task” to relocate the workers that were left jobless. But, like almost everything in the island, it still remains unfulfilled.

Most people have preferred to earn a few pesos selling plantains, guava bars, ice cones and white cheese on the National Highway. There are good days, but some of them are not. To them, sugar cane is only available in chunks. Three chunks.

February 6 2011

Cubans Are Neither Arabs Nor Muslims

February 6, 2011 2 comments

This isn’t to reject or alienate those who, from abroad, across the internet and social networks are calling for a people’s uprising or a general strike in Cuba. It’s a question of reality.

Despite the fear and the inertia that has kept the population paralyzed for 52 years, Cubans are no more brave nor less cowardly than other peoples. Nor is it a problem of streets. The regime has made people think that “the streets belong to the revolutionaries”. And that in them, there is no room for those who are disaffected or “counterrevolutionary.”

That ‘state property’ of the public spaces, be they streets, avenues, or parks, the day least expected can be taken by an unstoppable multitude of discontented citizens, who peacefully or violently decide to protest, like they’re doing right now in Liberation Plaza, in the center of Cairo. For whatever fact, whatever spontaneous form in whatever moment, to follow the actual state of things, one can be produced.

But not because nobody from other countries tells Cubans that they must (or must not) do away with the Castro Brothers’ dictatorship, one of the longest-lived and repressive in the world. More than those of Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

That is a reality. The other is that Cuba is an island, a nation without borders, surrounded by sea. A geographic particularity that allows almost absolute control and they wish they it now had in the revolt area of the Magreb.

It is also a fact that the Cuban dissidence is very divided, some are barely known and don’t number more than a couple hundred in all the country. That is not the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations, with thousands of followers who don’t fear death. With an amazing calm they set themselves on fire, like that young Tunisian, who ended up being the match that lit the fire of rebellion that today crosses North Africa.

The Cubans are westerners. Life is important to us, and we are not willing to give it up at the first opportunity. Since that stage of “to die for the Fatherland is to live”, as stated in a verse of our national anthem, has long passed.

The new generations think it’s already enough, what with the number of dead compatriots in African wars, thousands (of kilometers) away from Cuban shores. Or that Che’s slogan is already past, to create “one, two, three Vietnams” to defeat “Yankee imperialism.”

Another real fact. Barely 3% of the Cuban population has access to the internet. Of that minimal percentage, almost all are official journalists and representatives of the governmental elite. Or independent journalists, opposition members, and bloggers. Even now in telephone service the panorama is changing. Right now, in Cuba there are more than a million cell phones, a number greater than landlines.

When one acquires a cell phone, he can receive and transmit SMS. Nonetheless, the immense majority of the owners of cell phones use that service to transmit personal messages, because it’s not free. Neither is it free to have Twitter on a mobile.

On Facebook the few who have ADSL in their houses, legally or illegally, can participate. Or artists and intellectuals who travel abroad and people with relatives and friends who sign them up abroad. Until this date, the social networks have constituted neither a massive means of communication nor an effective one among the average Cuban.

And it could be that it will not reach a peak in the future, either. Not even after that fiber optic cable is connected between Venezuela and Cuba. It reinforces a fact: at the head of the Ministry of Computing and Communications they named another military officer, General Medardo Díaz, 48-years-old, professional engineer.

Nor can we forget the existence of the Defense Center of Computing Studies, directed by Jesús Bermúdez Cutiño, a retired division General, born in Las Tunas in 1935. Before occupying this post, Bermúdez was head of Intelligence of the Ministry of the Interior, and head of the Military Intelligence section of the Armed Forces.

I mention it because it’s the organism in Cuba which studies in depth and follows closely all the wars and popular uprisings that are being produced in Myanmar, Iran, Tunisia, or Egypt.

While these analysts of the minute have the latest events happening in regions of conflict on the planet, Cubans continue to depend on the scarce and manipulated news that the official media offers them. When they offer it to them.

Photo: EFE. Youths demonstrate in Yemen with photos of Che.

Translated by: JT

February 6 2011