Archive for April, 2011

Memories of a Retired Prostitute

April 30, 2011 2 comments

After preparing a very cold tamarind juice, she sits on the sofa. “Go play, I want to talk about things a little girl shouldn’t hear,” she tells her 11-year-old daughter.

An enormous cat, old and almost blind, by instinct, with one jump makes itself comfortable on its owner’s lap. While she strokes the feline, Yolanda, 46, begins to tell her story about being a hardened whore.

“In the mid-’80’s, after quitting school after an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, I went with a group of friends to hang out on the malecón. We used to bring a bottle of rum, and several of us decided to get dollars from the tourists.”

It was precisely in that epoch that the term “jinetero” (“jockey”, literally) was born. The first “jineteros” of Fidel Castro’s revolution were young people in search of the dollar, then prohibited by Cuban law.

“Our business was to get fulas (dollars). Later, Africans who were studying in Cuba got us a lot of stuff. Jeans, tennis shoes and shorts, that we sold on the black market. A good business. Earnings tripled, but it was risky. If the police caught you, you could spend four years behind bars.”

At that time, she was a curvy mulatta who could stop traffic. “When I walked by, all the men would turn their heads and foreigners would proposition me. I just wanted to have fun, dance and eat in restaurants forbidden to Cubans. Having hard currency was prohibited by law, the same as staying in or hanging around tourist hotels,” remembers Yolanda.

“The first time I went to bed with a gringo (foreigner) I was 21. He asked me how much it would cost for the night and I told him to give me whatever he wanted. After making love we went to the hotel shop, and the man, a Canadian tourist, bought me clothes, cosmetics and electrical appliances.”

The Canadian put two 100-dollar bills between her breasts. After that night, Yolanda was determined to make money from her well-shaped body. “I liked to fuck (screw), and besides, at the end of the day I made good money. It was worth the trouble to take up prostitution.”

In a worn book she has listed the names of all the foreigners with whom she had sexual relations. “There are more than 100 men and some 50 women. Those were the days, parties, drugs and loads of sex,” she recalls as she strokes the old cat.

Her advantage, she explains, was in hooking for herself. Never in a group. Nor did she work for any pimp. “I invested the money in buying a house and helping my mother. I was married twice. The first time to a Mexican, the second to a Belgian. But I never got used to being away from my people. I missed them a lot. From the malecón to the flirtatious comments in the streets.”

She always returned to Havana. When the men no longer turned their heads at her passing, she knew she had to hang up her shingle. And she got together with a harmless, affectionate master baker who treats her like a queen.

Of that period only memories remain. “In those times of need, given the number of women in search of money, girls of 12 and 13 years were induced to go to bed with guys who could have been their grandfathers, for 20 or 30 dollars. Previously, a high-class hooker would not fuck for less than 100 dollars.”

The cat, bored and hungry, jumps from her lap and goes off to a corner of the patio. Yolanda follows it with her eyes and sums up her existence.

“I had a good time. I went places I never could have gone if I had been a simple worker. I traveled to different countries. I tried good cocaine and shopped in expensive stores. I have three daughters, but I don’t want them to be hookers. I want them to study and be good professionals,” she says, and she gets up to prepare the family dinner. She has no regrets. “I was a party girl. And life took away the party.”

Translated by Regina Anavy

April 30 2011

Cuba: Poor but Content

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Jan Sochor

In the neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, there are people who are viewed with disdain. Waldo is one such case, chief of surveillance for the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). A neighborhood full of prostitutes and marginal people who live from what “falls off” the truck.

Due to his intransigence and zeal to enforce the guidelines from the superstructures of power, Waldo has alienated people. According to gossip, he is also a full-time informant for Special Services.

A retired saddler, Waldo’s hobby is to spy from behind a wide iron window on the movements of people marked as suspicious or conflictive.

His number one objective is a pair of “notorious counterrevolutionary” residents on his block. He feels acknowledged when the tough guys from State Security rely on him to inform them about the activities of this couple.

Waldo has never wavered in his unreserved support for Fidel Castro. Not in the most difficult times of the Special Period, when he lost teeth due to lack of protein, 12-hour blackouts and an optic neuritis that left him almost blind.

Life has treated him harshly. One of his sons deserted the boat of the Revolution and now lives on the other side. His retirement pension is just about enough to pay the electric bill and buy food provided by the ration book. Little more. He eats and dresses badly. But he still worships the Castros.

Waldo belongs to that segment of the needy to which Raúl Castro referred in his report to the Sixth Party Congress. Citizens who despite being poor as church mice are stalwarts of the revolution.

Every day they are fewer. I present to you their profile. As a rule, they are over 60, are former military, low ranking political commissioners, or retirees who feel useful to the cause, spying on their “antisocial” neighbors or at the front of a CDR meeting to discuss the latest political speech.

There are also the young, opportunistic and climbers, who enroll in the Revolutionary process to try to get a slice of material goods. Like Vivian, a poor and clever girl, who ran and, without opposition, obtained the post of delegate to the Popular Power Assembly from her constituency, which allowed her to weave a web of influences and acquire building materials free of charge when her dilapidated housing needed tobe repaired.

Or ex-officers like Jesus, a fighter pilot who participated in Castro’s adventure in Angola, who is so strict in interpreting the Marxist theories that his own party colleagues start to tremble when they see him.

These comrades, stubborn, faithful, poor, but happy with their Revolution, form a core of Talibans with a bombproof faith in the Castro brothers. They have not received any material advantage from the Revolution. Nor foreign travel nor foreign currency to buy shoddy goods. They are pure types.

Some even feel betrayed by the Castros. Not because they stopped providing an additional quota of coffee or a Chinese 21-inch TV. No. Their distrust  of the brothers is in the direction they are taking the Revolution.

Especially the permissiveness towards opponents and the weakness in fighting fight crooks and hookers. These steely communists have limited understanding, even with regards to what Comrade Fidel explains, why the ‘parasites and worms’ are greeted with a red carpet and allowed to bring their dollars to relatives in Cuba who live full speed ahead without working for the government.

Neither do these intransigents look kindly on their leaders wanting to have a dialog with the United States. They grew up hating the gringos and imperialism.

In the dead of the night, they assault ideological doubts. That vanish with the dawn. And they rise up humming “whatever it will be with Fidel, it will be.” Now they’ve changed the lyrics. Substituting Raul for Fidel. To keep up with the times.

April 28 2011

The Congress of White Guayaberas

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The first change in the Cuban mandarins at the Communist Party 6th Congress was in the look. If, in the prior congress, in 1997, the hierarchy wore the hot and intimidating olive green uniform, now the fashion of those who led the sessions and debates was the typical guayabera.

White, as well. As if to transmit purity and political transparency. Raul Castro, and his staff on combat alert intent on rescuing the dying local economy, sat at the presidential table showing impeccable guayaberas.

And says before, during the courtesy visit of the ex-president Jimmy Carter, both the American and his host exhibited this most Cuban fashion. The guayabera sits better on the General than the military uniform.

This shirt has a history. I wrote about it in “From the olive green to the guayabera” a post published in December 2010 in Tania Quintero’s blog. Anecdotes aside, Cubans have always like the guayabera for its comfort and freshness.

Among those who resisted throwing it into the trunk of memories were the peasants, who continued wearing it for weddings, baptisms and parties.

Castro II wants to return to Cuban traditions in dress. On countless occasions, his brother Fidel wore suits, well cut and with elegant ties. On foreign visits Raul has also dressed in suits from good tailors. The most striking was a white one, which he wore in July 2009 during a brief stay in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.

But from October 6, 2010, when a decree declared the guayabera to be official dress, Castro II makes a point of it. In the 6th Congress, if there was something that marked a difference from the five previous ones, it was the wearing of guayaberas. Especially all white ones.

April 22 2011

Cuban Newspaper Vendors Party

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

In these April days while the communists of the government party met for four days in the Palace of Conventions, to the west of Havana, newspaper vendors had a party.

Bartolo, a nearly blind old man, doubled sales of Granma that he offers every morning in the dirty doorways of the Calzada 10 de Octubre. Azucena, a thin lady with frog eyes, also is smiling again. He sold some 150 newspapers a day, three times what she usually sells.

The paper selling business offers meager profits. All these old people get up at 4:30 in the morning, just as the prostitutes and pimps start going to bed. After standing in line for three hours, they buy fifty Granmas and an equal number of Rebel Youth.

They buy them at 20 cents and sell them for a peso (a nickel on the U.S. dollar). They usually have clients who pay 40 or 50 pesos a week (almost two dollars), for them to put the morning papers under their doors.

That’s not the end of their suffering. Under a blazing sun, they walk daily between 5 and 10 kilometers to sell 100 copies of the boring local news. If they sell them all, at the end of the day will have earned 70 to 75 pesos. And believe me, they have to work miracles.

The Cuban press is pure lead. A pamphlet in the style of Pyongyang. Therefore, to sell a hundred papers every day they have to call on their ingenuity. In bad times, when baseball and news of interest is distinguished by its absence, these old men put all their skills into it.

In July 2010, when Raul Castro negotiated the release of political prisoners with the Catholic Church and the then Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the vendors cried: “Hey, the abuse ended. The political prisoners aren’t going home. They’re off to Madrid.”

In their effort to boost sales that even invent news. Many people on the island do not read newspapers and they just buy Granma to read the TV schedule or the sports page.The sheets also are used to wrap garbage or for toilet paper.

So to call out a striking headling is the hook so people don’t pass by without putting a paper under their arm. And the news of the Sixth Congress was a good excuse to increase sales.

On Sunday, April 17, there was no way to find a paper in all of Havana. Some vendors were offering them at three pesos. They loudly announced, “Elections are coming to Cuba, within ten years,” or “Elections for president every 5 years,” or “Starting tomorrow, sales of houses and cars.”

Bartolo prefered to shout a more complete title: “Don’t wait to hear it from others, find out for yourself, elections in Cuba, Raul Castro retires in 2021. The Yankees have nothing for us to envy.”

People flocked to buy Granma. At the bus stop, readers wondered if the ten years that the General announced as a maximum time to stay in power started in 2008, when he took over the country, or at end of the VI Congress. It did not matter.

The important thing for all these poor elderly Cubans was not the ‘good news’ they hawked, it was the winning streak they were one over the four days the Congress lasted.

The first day of the event, Bartolo ‘went to bed’ early. After 12 hours of walking and shouting out newspapers, he eats, for 20 pesos, a boxed meal with rice and black beans, yucca and pork steak and drinks almost two liters of rum bully. When it got dark, he prepared cartons that serve as his bed in a doorway of Calzada de 10 de Octubre. Until tomorrow. Good night and good luck.

April 22 2011

Raul Castro’s Legacy

April 20, 2011 2 comments

In the pantheon of history Fidel Castro will have a place. The only commander and leader of the Cuban revolution for good or evil has earned it for himself, and in the future, after his death, fables will be woven about him.

His brother Raul knows he never was the smartest in the class. He has his feet on the ground. His is to do the dirty work. To try to sort the mess and chaos created by his enlightened and fraternal brother in the 50 years he was in power.

The economy wasn’t something Fidel was good at. And look, he tried. He could read in one sitting complex theoretical books on how to create wealth and lead to the safe harbor of a nation’s economic structure.

Nobody doubts his skills as oral snake charmer, his cunning to handle military situations and his ability in foreign policy, but Castro has one major flaw: he pays little attention to the opinions of others.

In the economic sphere he failed. From when he decided to plant coffee in a ring around the capital, create a race of dwarf cows to give pints of milk for the family breakfast, or to try to grow strawberries, apples, grapes, pears and peaches in the center of the country.

His disasters in economic terms may have been more expensive than those generated by the U.S. embargo. He even tried communism in the town of San Julian, Pinar del Rio, to see how it worked.

Castro is just Castro. You can agree or not with his outlandish doctrines, but in the end you end up loving him a little. Perhaps out of pity. But if anyone in this world loves him it is his brother Raul. For many reasons.

By blood, ideas, and theories of his big brother, Raul was always in Fidel’s tow. His were not the brilliant elocutions or sweet-talking a political adversary or a lit-up crowd.

Raul was better given to administering a war zone, as he did with the Second Eastern Front in the guerillas war, and listening without interrupting his friends or those more capable.

His mission was that things should work acceptably well. And he did it. If anything in Cuba works like a Swiss watch, it is the armed forces. Also the dozens of businesses run by managers in olive green.

Castro II doesn’t have such an ego, neither does he believe himself to be a fantastically gifted military strategist. Even the Cuban wars in Africa were managed by a Havana cigar chewing brother Fidel from a house in Nuevo Vedado, replete with maps and mock-ups where the Maximum Leader moved miniature tanks and little tin soldiers with ease. Even the caramels and ice cream pots eaten by the troops in Angola and Ethiopia were administered by Fidel, with that incurable mania of a grocer that he possesses.

Then the year 2006 arrived; a tremendous year for Cuba. Fidel became gravely ill and death began to stalk him. It came Raul Castro’s turn, who for quite some time together with his battalion of military technocrats had already been trying to straighten out the path of the precarious local economy.

His steps have been timid, slow, and prolonged. We can’t expect large changes from Castro II after the 6th Congress. He is a long-time Communist and a believer in having State institutions be rational and efficient.

This much is certain: he is far from being a democrat. If he doesn’t lock up his opponents, independent journalists and bloggers right now, it is because the era of the Cold War has been left behind.

But the General wants to leave a legacy. To create the foundations on which tropical socialism can operate full steam ahead. The task is for titans, but he has no other choice.

And his biggest enemy isn’t the dissidents nor the gringo embargo. No. It is time. Without criticizing his cherished brother, he has meticulously dismantled the ludicrous way of managing and supervising the management of the country that Fidel had.

We already know how El Comandante did it; Olympically hurdling institutions, presuppositions and ordinances. Castro I did not believe in rules. He was God, and Gods do not respect the norms. His brother knows that time will run out soon. Because of that he wants to leave the rules of the future political game well-written.

Now Cuba will not tolerate yet another enlightened warlord. Therefore, the General takes his forecasts and dictates that all political offices shall be elected every five years, and no one person can stay in power for more than ten. It’s logical and makes sense — it is demonstrated that a politician has a short useful lifetime.

The sweetnesses of power are treacherous. The hard part for Castro II will be to get people who are both young and blind believers in that German jew named Marx. Marxist theories don’t sell so well in Cuba. It is a lot like wanting to go back to silent films in black and white. Jokingly, the average Cuban calls the author of Das Kapital “the guy who invented misery”.

Also, for five decades the young managers who wanted to make career paths in government fell noisily, always accused of desiring power. An urgent task for the General is to find a talented replacement who can run the Republic in the medium-term future. Another is to see if the economic plan of Castro II works. The majority thinks not; but after 21 years of touching bottom, worse off we shall not be.

When people feel more free to speak and their lives improve is when the true contradictions will start. For then, by the laws of life, the Castros won’t be among us.

Photo: AP. Raul Castro during the Jewish Hanukkah festivities in the Bet Shalom synagogue in Havana, Sunday, December 5, 2010.

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April 20 2011

Shoes in Cuba Have More Lives Than a Cat

April 16, 2011 1 comment

Photo: Used Shoe sale.

Buying a new pair of shoes is a real headache for everyday Cubans.  There are two ways to get your hands on footwear in Cuba: buying them off of a private craftsman or paying for them in hard currency at whichever state store.  There’s no other way.

Lately, there is a swarm of stores in Havana where they sell used shoes or shoes created by craftsmen.  One of the most popular spots is located in Monte street, not very far from the National Capitol.  It’s a two-floor bazaar which is always packed and where people bump into each other and breathe polluted air.  They don’t only sell handmade shoes.  They also have shoes of poor textile and of dubious origin.

Amid the constraint and chronic scarcity of the shoes, numerous craftsmen have spent years making money in the business of tailoring leather shoes.  Like Osmany, for example.  He’s a guy with bulging eyes who came from Yateras, Guantanamo, which is a thousand kilometers away from the capital, to escape his misery and lack of money and future.

Now he lives in a well furnished room in “El Calvario”, a neighborhood at the South end of the city.  He has a workshop at his house in which he fabricates shoes for children, women, and men.  “I always try to be aware of the latest trends in the shoe-world.  I daily produce 10 to 15 pairs.  I’m usually able to sell each pair for 130 pesos to a middleman who later re-sells it for double, or more, of the amount.  I have a license, I pay taxes and three people who work for me”, Osmany tells me.

The models which shoemakers fabricate are eye-catching, but generally their quality is poor.  If you want to prove it, just ask Ramon, who works at a steel factory ten hours a day to make 800 pesos a month (35 dollars).  He has three kids and his wife is a housewife.

His problems begin when he tries to get shoes for his family.  Handmade shoes cost between 12 to 40 dollars.  These are some of the least expensive in Cuba.  In stores which operate with foreign currency, they cost more.  For many, this is outrageous.

Ramon’s children often go to the Havana boutiques and remain awe-struck upon seeing the variety of models and brands.  But they can only stare.  The prices are not within reach of their father’s pocket.

“The remaining option is to get them at arts and crafts festivals, and those end up being very bad quality.  Just give them three months and their soles begin to tear off.  Whenever they get wet by rain, the leather shrinks and its color fades.  But we don’t throw them away.  None of that.  We fix them time and time again with the cobblers”, says Ramon.

In the island, the shoe-making guild was always popular, as well as furriers and shoe-shiners.  Today, fixing shoes is one of the most widespread jobs.  True magicians, like Luis who assures that Cuban shoes have more lives than a cat.

“I’ve fixed shoes which their owners thought were lost cases.  Poor people, which is the majority, try to have their shoes last, at minimum, 8 or more years.  A living hell for many families is when their kids outgrow their shoes.  I have yet to figure out a way to make them bigger”, the jocular Luis says.

And it’s true: whenever parents have to buy shoes for their kids, they wish they could just disappear.  In school, the kids destroy their sneakers in a matter of months, while on the other hand their feet grow by day.  When it comes time to buy a new pair, there are families that actually pull out a calculator and discuss where they can get enough money from to buy a shoe that would last them the longest time possible.

Perhaps that’s why the main requests from prostitutes and hustlers to tourists are for shoes.  Those who have family on the other side of the water escape this process.  Their relatives send them shoes with “mules” (the term for those people who make a living out of taking goods from Cubans outside to their relatives inside) or with the dollars that they are sent they go out and buy them at some store.

The prices are shocking.  Listen to this: a pair of Adidas that aren’t the latest model cost more than 120 dollars.  Nikes are around the same price.  Converse and New Balance range from 80 to 90.  Leather, Italian, or Brazilian shoes can cost anywhere from 50 to 130 dollars.  Remember that in Cuba, in the best of instances, a worker makes the equivalent of 20 dollars per month.

The cheapest option is to purchase hard and ugly shoes sold for 6 to 12 dollars in any store throughout the country.  And there are those people, like the retired Ernesto, that wear flip-flops most of the time in order to try to conserve his shoes as much as possible.

Raul Castro has said that food is a National Security issue.  But he forgot to mention shoes.  This is an industry that had a long history before 1959, with an ample production of shoes, purses, and leather belts (and even crocodile skin belts).

Whenever a gang of bandits robs anyone on the street, besides taking their money, they also snatch their shoes.  There are no statistics of all those young people who have been mutilated, and even killed, by the stabs of a knife just because their robbers want their Nikes or Adidas.  It’s the way those living in the margins of society replace their broken shoes.

Translated by Raul G.

April 16 2011

The World is Upside Down

April 13, 2011 1 comment

Democracy is stammering.  Let’s take a look.

I think it’s a good thing that bloodstained dictators, who savagely violate the essential freedoms of their citizens, be forced to face the bench of an international court that actually works.  Not the current one which is stuck on intentions only.

Justice should be fair for everyone.  Anything contrary is simply not justice.  First World leaders who break the law should also be sentenced.  Or, they should at least pay attention and respond to the accusations submitted by groups and social movements.

Silvio Berlusconi, ludicrous Italian president, should be forced to comply with the laws regarding the corruption of minors.  And if it is proven that he committed the crime, he should go to jail.  Like anyone else.

No one should be above the law.  If young gang members are sentenced to several years behind the bars for robbing a gas station, the same should apply to bankers, managers, financiers, or even presidents of countries if they engage in corruption.

But the law is too far out of balance.  Why are figures from the financial world, which are the main culprits of the current international economic crisis, not in jail?

In the United States, the country at the epicenter of the financial disaster, only Bernard L. Madoff, the investor who provoked the worst embezzlement in history when he magically made millions and millions of dollars disappear, has gone to jail.

I doubt that Madoff is the only one guilty of a global crisis which has affected each and every inhabitant of this planet.  I read with much horror that, instead of punishing the responsible bankers, they are instead rewarded.

The financiers sent home for doing a bad job left with shocking bonuses, as if to keep them from worrying.  And those who replaced them are making more money than their predecessors.

Talk about some binge.  They spend the money of savers and pensioners in speculative moves which result in pure illusions, and later, when the panic spreads and they are left with no cash, they run to beg the State for money.

Those who caused the current international economic disaster should pay for their errors.  The bill should not fall on the citizens of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, among other nations, which have only worked a lot and very hard throughout their entire lives.

Wherever it is they live, autocrats should not feel very safe either.  Before pulling the trigger or sending people to humid and gloomy prisons just for thinking differently, they should know that there is a world-wide organism which is making sure that governments comply with the norms and rights inherent in man.

Real democracy should involve everyone.  Large nations and small nations.  Rich and poor.  But to this day, some powerful people are evading the laws.  It’s not just.

Translated by Raul G.

April 13 2011