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

Fidel Castro: No Comments

April 11, 2011 1 comment

We have to see Fidel Castro as a piece of living history. A stream of bright ideas. God in olive green with a beard. The only comandante. The man who never makes mistakes.

Democracy, that word so used and which has provoked so many wars, has many interpretations according to whomever is using it. Kim Il Jong plays his head in a Russian Roulette through the Juche ideology. For the satrap of Pyongyang his form of governing is the perfect definition of democracy.

Cuba isn’t far behind. The “government of the people” is practices on the island. True democracy, assert the island’s leaders. A happy people fucked after a night of reggaeton in a plaza where they buy in bulk a beverage with a taste similar to beer, early in the morning present themselves at the polls to choose the neighborhood’s delegates.

For Castro, Western democracy is a scam. Trying to sell us, from the White House, the president in office. Who seeks to impose on us by hook or crook. And if you don’t accept it, he launches intelligent missiles. It’s legitimate to think this way.

But it should set off a fundamental debate about the desirability and utility of an authoritarian government without elections. And demonstrate that ruling uninterrupted for 50 years resolves more and doesn’t cost any money on political campaigns, for administering a country for 4, 6 or 8 years.

He could do it. He’s got the time and the gift of the gab. What I see badly about the comandante, or better I should say about compañero Fidel, is that in order to express the viability of the system he represents he tells us without blushing that Cuba is the most democratic country on the planet.

I would like to believe the old leader. If Grampa Castro would allow comments on his blog of reflections on Cubadebate, then we might think he’s a novice democrat. But no. Zero arguments. I’ve tried to leave my opinions on some of his incendiary reflections and found it impossible.

With the perfect ruler, who defeated Yankee imperialism at the Bay of Pigs, and who if Khrushchev hadn’t been a fool, would have swept that infamous country with the medium range nuclear missiles, there’s no debate.

Especially if you’re Cuban. Perhaps it might be permitted of a subject of the British crown or an American congressional representative. Castro is like that. You’re under his harangues and then we all have to read them in school assemblies and committee meetings, applaud and shout fatherland or death we shall overcome.

The Internet and new times have pointed to the corrupt, cheaters and autocrats. We can’t talk about democracy outright any more. The Gazette exhausted everything they put in it. But on the wed there’s a feedback loop. Something healthy and enriching.

Apparently Fidel Castro does not like discrepancies. He considers himself above good and evil. Reading him ought to be a pleasure. After all, he’s a veteran guerrilla, a survivor of the Cold War. Thus, without comments. But always, to tell the truth, I have my doubts.

April 11 2011

“The Internet is the brainchild of the CIA,” the Cuban government tells us

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

When I started working at the independent press agency, Cuba Press, in December of 1995, internet sounded like a science fiction concept.  Very few of us knew anything about it.  In that highway of information we just saw a complicated trick of interconnections destined only for computer specialists.  And according to what the government would tell us, it was a monster of the CIA.

In 1995, the island was still not connected to the internet.  In Cuba Press, we were only about 20 correspondents, some of who had experience in State journalism.  We couldn’t even dream of having a PC or a laptop.  We would look at that kind of equipment as if it were strange creatures.  The tough guys from State Security were searching to see if we had computers to try to demonstrate that we were an active nucleus from the United States special services.

We would type up the texts with typewriters, some older than others.  Meanwhile, some of us would conserve the Robotrons, that old fossil made in Eastern Germany.  Those machines had such hard keys that they would sometimes produce strong pains in the tips of our fingers.  One day, a foreign journalist passed by Havana and left us his laptop, and we actually traded it in for a portable Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter.

My dream was to write with an electric machine with a soft keyboard, with sufficient blank sheets at hand, as well as carbon paper and black tapes.  Nearly everyone prefered not having a computer.  Using one seemed far too complicated.  It required a lot of attention and they could easily accuse you of being a “spy”.

In June of 1997, three State Security agents searched my house for a computer.  My mother told them that we did not have any, but that if we did have one we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago because a neighbor of ours had told us that State Security asked the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to keep a watch on us to see if they could catch us with our hands on… a computer!

Despite our technological backwardness, ever since Cuba Press was created on September 23, 1995, all the chronicles and articles — dictated by phone — would get published on the internet, thanks to the collaboration of Cubans living in Miami.

We would write for websites we had never seen and we couldn’t even imagine how they looked.  Every once in a while they would send us printed copies of our works.  The only way we were used to reading: touching and smelling the paper.

Granma International was the first government publication which used the internet, in 1996.  They officially initiated this move during the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998.  But the top leaders of the Communist Party continued to suspiciously observe the new tool.  They carefully analyzed the pros and the cons.  It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the ideological talibans understood that the internet could be used as an effective weapon in favor of them as well.  In matters of new technology, Fidel Castro has always tagged along.

In that silent battle between official clerks and alternative reporters, the regime was the one that lost.  And it wasn’t because we independent journalists were geniuses (we really weren’t), but simply because we were — and still are — free beings at the end of the day.

During the Black Spring of 2003, Castro was out of his wits with the opposition and the dissident press.  He hated it so much that he took 75 opposition members to prison, out of which 27 of them were independent journalists.

The Cuban regime has always considered the internet to be a dangerous enemy.  To confront it, it has created a special regiment within counter-intelligence and the University of Information Science, located in a former electronic espionage base which was used by Russia some time ago.  There, amid sex and relaxation, 8 thousand young communists prepare themselves to sabotage blogs and web pages of those who think differently.

Although they existed before, it wasn’t until 2007 that island bloggers became popular outside of Cuba.  But it’s only fair to point out that 12 years before, when internet was a rare word and having a laptop was a luxury, a group of journalists living at the margins of state control, who were technologically daring and novice, were already using the internet to publish their articles.

Postscript by Tania Quintero

In an interview with Rosa Miriam Elizalde, published in Cubadebate, one journalist spokesperson for the Castro regime affirms at the end that, “Cuba has taken a very hopeful step for the future of Cuban internet: the submarine cable which connects us with Venezuela.  We know that the cable is not the magic solution for our connectivity issues, but we do know that it will improve our communications, and upon benefiting many people, it will also strengthen our internet values.  And I sincerely believe that 11 million cyber-activists with values of the Cuban Revolution generate more panic for the United States government than the ghost of Julian Assange multiplied many times”.

The challenge is in motion.  When Cubans finally have free internet access from their homes, and not only “intranet” with the possibility of logging on to international e-mail providers like Yahoo or Gmail, then we will see if it’s true that “the revolution” will have “11 million cyberactivists”.  In today’s impoverished Cuba, maybe 1 % of the population have computers in their homes or possess laptops or “tablets” which allow them to communicate freely without having to turn to email offices, computer clubs, or state-run cybercafes where both users and their connections are controlled. 

It would be wonderful if 10% (or more) of Cubans on the island had the opportunity to buy computers and be able to pay, in foreign currency, for their home connections.  Perhaps half of those 10% are fervent defenders of the Castro brothers and their revolution.  But I doubt it. 

In fact, in 1998 when Rosa Miriam Elizalde was studying in the final year of her journalism career in the University of Havana, in order for her to train in television technologies they put her and Grisell Perez, a fellow student, in the editing office where I worked for Cuban TV.  We made a point of view show titled “Ruling women, get in your place”.  It was finished in Sancti Spiritus, the native city of Rosa Miriam.  One night she took us to met her uncles — the ones who raised her after her mother died.

On Sunday, February 21st of 1999, page 5 of “Juventud Rebelde” (“Rebel Youth”), Elizalde wrote (or signed) an attack against independent journalism titled “Mercenaries in a Rush”.  I responded with “Without Hypocrisy”, which was published in Cubafreepress on March 1, 1999, the same day I was arrested by State Security in Marianao while I was heading to the trial against four members of the Internal Dissidence Work Group.  I was locked away in a dungeon in the police unit situated on 7ma and 62 in Miramar for 29 hours. 

As a matter of fact, Rosa Miriam Elizalde and myself are the only two Cuban journalists mentioned by the Catalonian writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban in his book “And God Entered Havana”, published in 1998 (TQ).

Translated by Raul G.

April 10 2011

Cuban Mother Searches for News of her Son, Missing for 8 years in Spain

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Sixty-four year old Lilia Castaner, a calm-voiced woman who for 8 years has lost her smile, lives in an old multi-family house in the Vedado neighborhood, just steps from Havana’s Malecon.

The last time she heard any news on her only son, Omar Rivera Castaner, was on March 29, 2003.  The harrowing drama which Lilia lives is full of absurdities, careless bureaucracy on behalf of Spanish authorities, and the suspicion of macabre events.

Here’s her story.  Omar Rivera was born on July 16th, 1970.  He was a track and field athlete.  He became licensed in sports and he led a calm and routine-driven life.

“He didn’t drink alcohol and he never engaged in drug use.  His hobby was to listen to music and to watch TV with his girlfriend.  He was a calm kid.  In 1994, in the midst of the rafter crisis, my son became drawn to the idea of leaving Cuba,” says his mother while she goes through a photo album which contains pictures of Omar.

During the end of the 90’s, Rivera Castaner worked as a cook at a 5-star Havana hotel.  In 2000, he enlisted as the equipment manager of a band which was supposed to go on tour for 6 months in Spain.  He abandoned the musical group and began living his life as an undocumented immigrant.  He was the typical Third World citizen which arrives to Spain with the idea of working hard to help out his family with money.  He was one more.

After going from city to city throughout Iberia, he stops in Alicante.  There, in that Valencia Community, a fellow Cuban, Jose Luis Gonzalez Sonora became his first contact.  Sonora puts him in contact with Juan Angel Sirvent Segui, a Spanish co-owner of CELULIMP, a perfume manufacturing company.

Sirvent Segui gives him a contract through “the right”, as we say in black-talk.  He then starts working as a warehouse truck driver.  He would talk to his mother once a month on the phone and he wished to initiate the processes necessary to legalize his stay in Spain.

And that is when the story of Omar Rivera Castaner begins takes a turn, almost as if it were a soap opera.  After March 29, 2003, Lilia has not spoken to her son.  She also has had no factual news about where he might be.

After a few months of having not heard from Omar, his mother contacted some relatives of Jose Luis, the Cuban who extended a helping hand in Alicante.  “This Jose Luis, an intimate friend of Sirvent Segui, supposedly was a brick-layer in a business owned by Sirvent which sold home supplies.  He would travel to Cuba each year.  After my son disappeared, the life of Jose Luis has greatly changed.  He was able to get his family out of Cuba and even bought his brother a house in Alicante for 90 thousand Euros.  In addition, he has paid 6 thousand Euros to a Spanish citizen so that she could marry his brother”.

In her small kitchen, Lilia makes some coffee.  While she drinks it, she continues chatting with her calm voice and sad stare.  “In his trips to Cuba, Jose Luis began to avoid me.  Whenever he spoke to me, he never stared into my eyes.  He gave me a couple of versions of the story.  In one of those versions he assured me that my son was at a drug addiction center in the neighborhood of Los Angeles in Alicante.  In another version, he told me how he had personally taken him to the house of a friend, later telling me that Omar had left that house and that the last time he saw him was at a beach in Benidorm.  Many incongruities.  I always asked him why my son didn’t call me or didn’t send me a letter through the mail.  After I insisted over and over again, Jose Luis violently reacted.  He attacked me and kicked me out of his mother’s house in Havana”.

As for the Spaniard Juan Angel Sirvent Segui, it was just more of the same.  Sirvent, who was married until recently with a Cuban named Zuzel (with whom he had a son) also avoided the incisive questions of Lilia Castaner.

“In an attempt to calm me down, Sirvent sent me a letter telling me that he had submitted a complaint to the civil guard station.  Through my investigations I discovered that Sirvent had told relatives of Zuzel, his wife, that he had caught my son in bed with her.  I also found out that Zuzel had a romantic relationship with Jose Luis.  I’ve tried just about everything to obtain any news on Omar.  I have gone to the Spanish Consulate in Havana dozens of times and they have never given me an answer.  In 2008 in the offices of the Cuban Ministry of Exterior Relations a lawyer assured me that my son did not appear to be at any drug addiction center in Spain”, Lilia recounts with a lost stare.

Without an adequate judicial consultation, and with minimal attention on behalf of the Spanish consulate functionaries, Lilia has contacted various Spanish non-governmental organizations which dedicate themselves to search for missing people.

“Always the same response: nothing.  At the beginning of the year I sent a fax with a complaint to the Alicante civil guard located at District 95.  Emilio Garcia, the superintendent, promised to investigate the case.  But everything has been very slow, or hasn’t been at all.  My motherly instinct tells me that they killed my son.  Because of a woman.  Or for organ trafficking.  I feel that Jose Luis Gonzalez Sonora and Juan Angel Sirvent Segui are hiding many things.  I do not understand why the Spanish authorities cannot give me a concrete answer.  Spain is not North Korea.  I am desperate.  I am only a mother who wants to know what has happened to her son.  The pain consumes me”, Lilia says while she cries in silence.

Translated by Raul G.

April 4 2011