Ciro Diaz, 33, guitar player for the group Porno for Ricardo and musical producer, had all the ingredients to be a jet setter of the Revolution. He was born and raised in the heart of a family who listened to Fidel Castro’s long speeches and went to the Revolutionary celebrations cyclically generated by the olive green government.
Diaz, a guy of a medium height, brown eyes and incipient baldness, studied at the elite Vladimir Ilyich Lenin High School, south of Havana, Cuba. One of those labs where the regime tried to mold the future “New Man.”
With Ciro the experiment didn’t work. Between rock music and political discrepancies, Diaz never fully understood the Prussian logic of the one and only commander. And he withheld the free applause for the father of the Cuban Revolution.
His idols were others. Nirvana, Metallica and Aerosmith. Since his first year of High School, he was the composer of songs that, later and without pretensions, he performed in the different bands at his school, which would form and disband in a period of a few months. In between octaves and complex theorems, Diaz graduated in mathematics on a sunny afternoon on July of 2004.
Earlier, starting in 1998, he was the guitar player for the band “Porno para Ricardo,” led by Gorky Aguila. Music was a serious business. “I had my first performances with a big audience playing for “Porno.” We had critical opinions about the regime. It was especially perceived in our concerts, where we told jokes against the government,” says Ciro, seated in front of a console table in an independent recording studio built in Gorki’s house.
The rebel attitude of the rock band set off the red alarms of the island censors. The musicians in Cuba know very well what price they will have to pay for certain positions that break away from the guidelines dictated by the troop of bureaucrats who rule the national culture. “It’s simple. As if it was a part of a magic trick, you disappear from artistic life. They ban your concerts. And you can not record in the state’s recording studios,” Ciro explains.
Then, another life begins. In the underground world. Like an armadillo. Offering special concerts to your fans in a concrete factory backyard or in the park of your neighborhood.
Several times, running to escape from the cops, they left behind some musical instruments. By then, the Special Services came to the conclusion that they had to raise the bar for “Porno para Ricardo,” whom they already labeled as “a disturber of the public order,” the step before sticking you with the label “counterrevolutionary.”
In 2004, the band leader, Gorki Aguila, was sentenced to 4 years in jail. “They made up false charges of drug possession. That’s precisely when the band started to have a notorious anti-governmental stance. Thanks to international support, Gorki only served two years in jail.”
The harassment of the members of “Porno” became a nightmare. The bad news came down over their heads. In 2008, The government pulled several judicial tricks out of its sleeve to open a new case against Gorki. In an almost desperate act, the members and some of the band followers, decided to use the peaceful protest method.
At a Pablo Milanes concert, on August 28 of 2009 in the Anti-imperialist Bandstand, known by everybody as the “protest-drome,” they tried to pull out a banner demanding the release of Aguila, who was detained at a local precinct.
“That became a battle ground. We were attacked physically and verbally by law enforcement agents,” remembers Ciro. Starting from this period, when the group couldn’t interact with its followers or record compact discs, the idea of having their own recording studio was born.
Such a crazy idea developed after the musician Gorki Aguila sold one thousand CDs during his trip to United States. “To that money, we added the help from friends in Europe and Central America. Building the recording studio was an odyssey indeed. We were under the microscope of the Cuban State Security forces, and for that reason we took the precaution of buying the materials and the equipment with their respective paper work. Everything by the book,” Ciro points out.
The dream came true a year and a half later. In June 2010, La Paja (“Jerk off”) Records was inaugurated. A studio built by the members of the band that allow them to make their own CDs.
“I got an audio operator’s license, and I pay taxes for it. The idea is not only to record our music . Also help to produce discs of marginalized groups regardless of genre, it can be rock, punk, salsa or hip hop. Any musicians whom the State closes their recording doors on can count on us,” said Diaz.
Independent recording studios flourish today in Havana. “There’s a dozen. But there are very few with the professionalism and rigorous standards of ours.” In ten months, they have produced seven discs. Two of them complete. The principal producer of the “Jerk off Records” is Ciro Diaz, a guitar player for “Porno para Ricardo” and for a group called “La Babosa Azul” ( The Blue Slug).
Although in reality he considers himself a composer. He has written hundreds of songs and composed themes for short films and documentaries. He spends half of the day between the console and the computer, producing music.
Right now, he is frantic. He had to repeat six times the recording of a string group, that didn’t come out the way he wanted. “Production steals a lot of time from my work as a composer. But it is something I enjoy. My dream is to give a mega-concert on the same square where one day we were repressed.”
Translated by Adrian Rodriguez
June 25 2011
The fiery debate and emotions around the reforms of General Raul Castro were circumscribed to the air-conditioned rooms of the Palace of Conventions, where between April 16-19 the five commissions of the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party were in session.
Cubans warily followed the central report and saw on the TV news the abstracts of the linguistic, rather than political, debates of the different commissions debating the future of Cuba. At the end, as a common practice, the 986 delegates unanimously approved the economic policies proposed by Castro II to straighten the bow of the already cracked olive green ship, which with 52 years of sinuous navigation is at great risk of sinking.
The communist delegates can feel the sublime over-enjoyment of the spectrum of supposed controversies surrounding the economic plan to be executed in the next five years.
A lot of delegates, probably, believe without any doubt in the project designed by the economic tsar Marino Murillo and his troop of technocrats who, during four days, traded the military uniforms for elegant white guayabera shirts.
Some of them preferred to remain silent. Maybe they have a lot of doubts and decided to wait to know the amount of truthfulness involved in the Castro II proclaimed democracy in the Cuban Communist Party. In Cuba it is always right to be cautious in political matters.
Not always when the bosses fire the starting gun so that the political commissioners, official journalists and partisans will talk and unreservedly criticize the status quo, is it a signal of a change in the leaders mentality.
On the island naivety is a sin you can’t commit. Because the mandarins who today say that not everybody has to raise their hands at the same time to support one of the revolution’s projects, it is still the same ones who are written on a black list of those who criticized their decrees and those who, in their eagerness to be creative, contributed with their own ideas.
The people on the street are not fools neither. The VI Congress touched interesting points and the regime anticipated opening a little the iron fist that monitors citizens’ lives.
But everything here is still the same. Maybe worse. The money doesn’t want to land in the wallets. The food is more expensive every day. And the salaries are still frozen in time, in spite of inflation and the shortages.
Out of the party’s meeting, the common person got as a result the imminent authorization allowing him to buy and sell cars and homes. The homes part of the deal sounds weird: although on the island 90% of the families own their homes, by official decree they couldn’t transfer them and if they left the country, the government took ownership of their properties.
Amending the front page (it seems), now the common Cuban citizen waits for more concessions. Like the permission to come and go from the national territory, the decriminalization of political dissent or, at last, access to the internet from home.
I doubt that Castro II will fulfill those wishes. He is not Aladdin. He is only a politician who turns back, knowing that opening the fist too much may trigger a cataclysm that may end the personal revolution made by his brother Fidel.
This, socialism, has to be preserved by all means. Making controlled changes heavily reined in, therefore the beast don’t run away out of control.
Then, at the end of the day, people who for breakfast have coffee without milk, who are the majority in Cuba, didn’t see themselves represented by the “polemic” delegates, who either keep on silent or ignore the bunch of rights and civil liberties claimed, not only by the dissidents, but by the Cuban citizens while waiting in the long lines at the local grocery stores, or in the interior of the collective gypsy cabs.
The regime’s propagandistic marketing wants to sell us the idea that the Congress happened in a rush of constructive criticism, a kind of tropical Perestroika and the new popular ideas that will nurture the homeland’s economic future.
I am afraid not. Certain things had changed. There’s a glaze of blackness and more skirts in the Central Committee. There will be fewer revolutionary marches and empty political speeches. They will issue more permits to open small variety stores or to sell bread and mayonnaise and pirated compact discs without so much effort. And that’s it.
Photo: Jutta Winkhaus. Playing dominoes at the side of the stairs leading to La Guarida: the famous “paladar” (a private home restaurant with a few seats) which is located in and old run down mansion in a poor Havana neighborhood.
Translated by Adrian Rodriguez
April 27 2011
The administration of General Raul Castro has known how to improvise with the car in motion. Castro II, who this past June 3rd turned 80 years old, has had a trajectory as a warrior, soldier, and politician, always crouching under the shadow of his media star brother who governed the island for 47 years with a self-centered power and long anti-imperialist speeches
General Castro knows his limitations. He doesn’t have the gift of gab to capture his world political counterparts or fill plazas with fiery harangues. He is used to working as a team. And he listens without interrupting the statements of others.
He also never had the complex of a world statesmen. He never was the top of the class. But he has taken on guiding the fate of a nation impoverished by 52 years of crazy economics, ferocious bureaucracy, military campaigns, and subversion in the Third World. He knows that his mission is trying to save the historic legacy of the revolution and attempting to create ideological continuity after his death and that of his brother.
Before starting to renovate the building on a weak foundation, he did an evaluation of the dangers. The diagnosis was correct. There were more than enough bureaucrats; the communist party is an intruder in the subject of business administration; there was a need to stimulate self-employment and also send more than a million workers to the unemployment lines.
He emphasized belt-tightening to not go over the budget, something sacred. No more taking money from public funds just to fulfill whimsical ideas like the construction of a biotechnology center outside of the annual planning. That was his brother’s way, who jumped over the rules as easily as drinking a glass of water.
Still Castro II believes in Marxist theories. But he is realistic. And when he opens on his desk the world map, he observes that no communist nation moved forward using quinquennial plans and a centralized economy. But he is cautious.
Still he has the jealous and vigilant eye of his brother taking note. He is trying to buy time. The erosion of power when he lets people act on their own disgusts Fidel Castro. He always preferred to keep the herd tied up. Let the state give the good and bad news. The awards or the punishments.
But the General and his military partners think differently. It doesn’t matter how you call the ideology, what it is essential is to have the power. And that people drink milk, eat well, and get enough money to consume and have fun.
Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz has always been a plotter. His reforms will be at a Danzón pace. Slow, sure, and anticipating disasters. But decidedly, at the end of the tunnel, the model Cuba tries to follow is a mixture of Vietnam and China, beautified with components from Latin-American folklore, like the nonsense of the new socialism of Chavez or the pragmatism of a modern left like the Brazilian one.
He plays three ways. From China he needs money and experience on handling a market economy and an inflexible control over the dissidents. Vietnam is a good example on how a nation can come back from a bloody war.
There are similarities between Cuba and Vietnam. Excepting the million deaths that the conflict between USA-Vietnam left behind, the almost 50 years of Castro I’s government left the nation financially and economically as if it was coming from a catastrophe.
The General is reluctantly supporting Chavez: he is an ally of his brother. An obnoxious political inheritance. The one from Barinas has no brakes. Not even a clutch. Ignores discretion. He has the brain directly connected with the tongue. A capital sin for a statesman.
But the Venezuelan commander has oil. Which is expensive, and Cuba needs it to restart its economy. Raul Castro doesn’t go all the way out, he prefers to follow him from a prudential distance. He uses logic. If Chavez has won the power through elections once, the same electoral system will take him back home.
That’s why he goes all the way out for Brazil. It is not a bad option. The green giant is the number ten economy of the world. The left, that governed and currently governs, has demonstrated a capacity beyond its third world political discourse against poverty and in favor of the social justice, being guests at the White House galas and in world economic summits.
Moreover, Brasil has the necessary technology to extract the possible crude oil deposited in the sea bed of Cuban waters, and its exploitation will end the Cuban dependency on the Venezuelan oil.
In fact, right now, Brazil is an important economic partner for the government. 800 million dollars on the Mariel project speaks for itself. The already started construction west of Havana promises. And promises a lot. According to the figures of local analysts, it will be the biggest harbor in the Caribbean, with capacity to store more than a million containers, and with factories and duty-free zones in the near future
When the embargo is finally lifted and Castro’s heirs are welcomed in Washington, Miami’s cove as a door to the Americas may pass to a second place. It is the opening of Castro II’s play. He knows that no USA politician in office will dialogue with him or his brother.
And in advance he prepares a dolphin. Therefore, the current reforms of the General have several steps. And at the end the balance will be leaning towards a market economy. He hasn’t been dogmatic either.
When he notices that something does not work, either excessive taxation or absurd rules, as in the case of increasing the number of chairs in a ‘paladar‘ (a private home restaurant), lowering the taxes on gypsy cabs or increasing the amount of acres and the lease time for small farmers, he changed all of these without hesitation.
To maintain the Biran dynasty, the General will cede anything he has to. Including, to design an opposition to meet his needs. Remember, Raul is a full-time conspirator. Of course, the real reforms will begin after the death of Fidel.
Photo: EFE, La Habana.
Translated by Adrian Rodriguez
June 17 2011
They Threaten to Prosecute Opponent Sonia Garro and Six More Women for Marching Against the Government in Havana, Cuba.
According to opponent Sonia Garro, intelligence officers let her know that they may open a court case against her and six more women who several times organized peaceful marches of protest on the streets of Havana.
Garro commented that in one of the interrogations, agents of the State Security told her that “President Raul Castro himself wants to know who is the woman organizing protests on the streets. It may be possible that we won’t put all seven in prison, but for sure the leader or leaders will end up in a prison”.
Like the rest of the group, Sonia belongs to the Ladies supporting the Ladies in White. She, also, is a member of an Afrocuban independent association Led by Mercedes Fresneda, who is another of the ladies threatened with prosecution if they insist on engaging in anti-government protests.
Garro is one of the few opponents who is dedicated to do communitarian work in the island. Since 2007 she has led a project to help poor children, without taking into consideration the political affiliation of their parents. The project is operating where she lives, in the Los Quemados neighborhood, in the Marianao municipality in Havana,Cuba
Graduated as a nurse, in 2008 she was terminated from her job because of her political activities against the regime. She is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter and she is married to another dissident, Ramon Alejandro Munoz, who as an answer to the beatings given to Sonia by the police, in May of this year, chained himself on the roof of his home, machete in hand, yelling anti Castro slogans. Still today he goes out to the street with one arm chained, as a protest against police brutality.
“I feel harassed by the State Political Police. In front of my window there are constant repudiation rallies of mobs egged by the authorities. I received severe beatings and I suffer from a right knee contusion. On Thursday June 9, 2011, at a protest at the Anti-Imperialist Stage paying respect to Orlando Zapata, we were battered. They arrested me and kept me for two days in the police precinct of Aguilera, in the municipality of 10 de Octubre. The other six ladies were also arrested in different precincts. They opened a case against us for insult to patriotic symbols, disrespect and disorderly conduct”, Garro points out sitting on a ramshackle sofa.
The seven Cuban women who monthly go out to the street asking for democratic changes are Mercedes Fresneda, Ivonne Malleza, Niurka Luke, Yaquelin Bonne, Rosario Morales, Leidi Coca and Sonia Garro. Recently and separately, they have been taken to Cuban Intelligence’s “visiting house,” in order to intimidate and scare them.
“They offer you everything. From improving your way of life to becoming one of their agents. Officers of Cuban Intelligence with ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and Major talk with us. In charge of this harassment is a man called Tamayo, second chief of Section 21, the department dedicated to watch and to repress the opponents”, explain Mercedes Fresneda.
Garro adds that she has been threatened by the political police that if she continues with the street marches, her daughter will not longer continue studying.
These women promised to keep on in a public way expressing their grievance about the ways of the Cuban government. They believe it is their right. All of them have in common that they are poor, almost all are black or mestizo, and they were born with the revolution.
They are longing for profound and serious changes in the policies of their country. They are rooting for a democracy. And they shout for it.
Translated by Adrian Rodriguez
June 22 2011
Being old in Cuba is a problem. Check this, if a young family have to work miracles to bring three meals a day to the table, buy clothing for their children and try to make money from who knows where to repair their shack, you can imagine how hard can be for an elder. It becomes harder if you are black.
The quality of life of the Cuban grandparents has been decreasing for a long time. They are the biggest victims for this war without thundering cannons that lasts for already 22 years, ludicrously called “The Special Period”. The new fiscal adjustments to balance out the finances has been striking hard at those of the third age. And it will keep pounding them. The General Raul Castro pretends to give another turn to the screw. He promises to end the old subsidies and throw in the trash the ancient ration card.
The most affected by these new measures are the elderly. In 2006 the government established a raise for the pensions. As an average, a retiree gets between 186 and 300 pesos (from 8 to 13 dollars a month). In everyday life, these amounts are very little. The inflation of some food products and the electricity bills, among others, it’s a bite that takes a big chunk out of the tiny increase in the pensions.
Ask Julia, an 82-year-old black woman, feeble and emaciated, if her retirement dough is enough to live her life with dignity. Her answer will be a pathetic grimace.
From the time she gets up, early in the morning, her life is hard. “I buy 100 newspapers in a news stand. Later I resell them for one peso each. Not always all of them are sold, so I have to sell loose cigarets and peanuts wrapped in paper cones. If I get lucky, I can have lunch and dinner. But most of the time I get money only for the dinner. I have no descendants and my family is in the same situation or worst. Being black and old is a curse”, she points out at dusk in a central avenue of Havana.
It is not officially known how many elders actually live as indigents. Cuba is a nation where the numbers and statistics are only known by the big shots. But what you are seeing in the streets is frightening.
The majority of the people looking in the trash containers, who pick pieces of discarded aluminum or sell any other junk at a city corner, are older than 60 years.
It is no longer unusual to see a drunk elder with home-made moonshine sleeping on cardboard. Or an abandoned old lady panhandling on the streets. And there’s not a government solution in sight for this sector of the population.
According to the data offered by the official news, the population of Cuba is getting inexorably older.
The pension system that guarantees a tranquil and safe retirement is bankrupt. The majority of elders who are wandering all over the city in search for food and money are humble working class people who once worked in the “construction of socialism”. Some are like Juan, 79 years old, who, in the Escambray mountains, chased the groups fighting against Castro. He also fought in Angola as a reservist.
For some years now he sleeps on the streets, in any place, wherever he is when the night falls. A porch, a funeral home or the staircase of any building.” A long time ago my family got rid of me. The same happened with the State. What they offered me was a position as school night-time security. I work alternate nights. I lost the sight of one eye. I escaped the seniors home, it’s better be dead than to live in such an asylum. Bad treatment and worst food. The only thing I wish is that God takes me with him as soon as possible,” expressed Juan while in a run down restaurant managed by the State he eats an order of white rice, black beans and boiled fish full of bones.
The senior citizen homes in Cuba in most cases are impoverished. They are run down buildings with a depressing look, and the people who pass by look the other way. On San Miguel St. almost at the corner of Acosta St., in the Diez de Octubre municipality, there’s one of them.
In the winter it is sad to look at a group of elderly wearing coats from the fifties to get warm. Swinging frantically on a rocker asking the passers-by for cigarettes and money. In the summer they sweat and stink. They pass the time playing dominoes on the asylum’s porch and watching TV. They eat little and bad. They talk nostalgically about the past, when they were young and strong. Many of them wish to die soon.
Most of these elders are black. The African descendants are living in an extreme poverty. The ones who live the worst. Dwellers of the prisons cells.
And when they arrive to the third age, the little hell where they grew up, their scarce preparation and family violent environment takes a toll. Along comes the insanity and the dole. They take refuge in alcohol. Or prefer to commit suicide. Decisively, Cuba is not a country for the elderly. Especially if they are black.
Translated by Adrian Rodriguez
June 20 2011
Havana is a sort of forbidden city for people from deep inside Cuba. By Decree 217, effective April 22, 1997, residing in the country’s capital is a complicated pattern of bureaucratic procedures and hours of queues at central administration. You have to meet a lot of requirements to be approved to move to the city. It’s a mess.
Unless you’re from Guantánamo, Camaguey or Santiago, and you have some responsibility in a state enterprise or within the Communist Party. Then they open the gates of Havana. And the generous resources of the State or the Party will assure you a dwelling from its vast network of housing for those situations.
If your visit to the capital is temporary, they will put you in a three-star hotel with an open bar, to eat and drink in your spare time. Without spending a cent from your own pocket.
Companies that handle foreign currency such as tourism, civil aviation and telecommunications have homes available to house specialists, engineers or administrative staff from other provinces. Or quality hotel rooms that must be paid in hard currency. It is the only legal way to settle in Havana with the permission of the authorities.
The other is to stay a few days with relatives in the capital, visit the Zoo on Avenue 26, take photos across from the Capitol and visit Chinatown or the beaches of the East. And get the ticket back to the country.
Otherwise, they will open a file on you as an illegal. In pursuit of stopping the growing exodus of Cubans from the country’s interior, desperate because of the acute economic situation and lack of a future. For fourteen years there have been controls and regulations that prevent settling in Havana to those born outside its territory.
They are foreigners in their own homeland. With Decree 217, State institutions pretend to provide a solution to overcrowding in a city that already exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, with a fourth-world infrastructure and a cruel shortage of housing, water and public transport.
There was the paradox that while they tried to stop the terrifying wave, particularly of young people in the eastern regions, who fled their villages to try to live better, they built huts with pitched roofs of asbestos cement, where they housed the builders and the police candidates.
And habaneros don’t want to be cops. Nor do they want to work hard in the construction trades, with low pay and poor working conditions. Thus the government had no choice but to hire labor in the eastern provinces for a period of two to five years.
But the provincial people find a way to leave the plow and the land behind and show up in Havana. There are several reasons. The main one is that in spite of the severe economic crisis affecting Cuba for 22 years, it’s in the capital where money flows, and products and services cost more.
It’s also a good place for girls to take the train from Bayamo or Manatí and prostitute themselves in the streets and bars of the city. There are abundant domestic customers and tourists on the hunt for fresh meat that makes sex pay a good price.
Of course, the hookers from the east of the island are frowned upon by their counterparts in Havana. The prostitutes born in the city consider that the easterners or “Palestinians” as they say, have devalued the longstanding profession, by the low prices they charge. And they hate them.
The easterners who arrive in Havana illegally do everything. From pedaling a bicycle-taxi for 12 hours, to collecting scraps of aluminum or cardboard, selling shoddy textiles, pirated discs, detergents and perfumes on Monte Street.
Those who come to work hard are worthy of admiration and respect. Others, violent scoundrels, want to make money on the fast track. And they become Creole marijuana dealers. Or pimps who get off at the railway terminal with a harem of hookers, disoriented with the lights, and put them to work in dilapidated rooms, screwing for 5 dollars a half-hour.
From El Cobre or Manzanillo, gays and lesbians are also packing their bags, coming from villages where they are frowned upon and kept in the closet. Once in the capital, they quickly adjust to the dissipated nightlife. With high heels, transvestites attend the gay or lesbian parties, without the disapproving gaze of family and friends.
It often happens that sometimes the police are from the same province, but this does not affect them. They hunt and then ride the train back in the morning. In vain. Because the illegals, marginalized by their sexual orientation, manage to evade the police cordon and controls. And they return to Havana. It’s a matter of survival.
Translated by Regina Anavy
June 14 2011
Until the last minute, I was hoping to interview you before your final departure from the country. On several occasions I tried to travel to your town and couldn’t, for reasons beyond my control. Once I talked to you over the phone but the conversation was not as deep as I would have liked.
I’m left with the satisfaction that you were always within reach, I wrote about you and your son. The last time, the day Zapata died. In my blog is the testimony of martyrdom during the seven years Zapata spent in prison.
You are leaving the island sheltered by close relatives. At your age, one might think you’re going to enjoy some peace, that you have not had since Orlando was arrested in March 2003. You are an ordinary Cuban, but not ordinary at all. And from exile, your voice will continue to be heard, as though you were there in your beloved Banes.
Hopefully the ashes that you are now taking to Miami will not be too long delayed in returning to Cuba, which is and will always be the home of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and all Cubans!
June 9 2011