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Cuba: Inconvenient Journalism

June 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Although they say abroad that the government of General Raúl Castro is urgently calling for a different period – one that is critical, controversial, appealing and lively – in practice the official reporters are not rushing to drop the burden of language loaded with slogans and pieces from speeches by Fidel Castro.

Journalists working in the state media are thinking twice before producing a hot story containing the reality of the street, which they see in their neighborhoods filled with prostitutes and guys cautiously selling powdered milk, vegetable oil or jeans stolen from some store.

We shouldn’t expect that this bold crowd of “revolutionary journalists,” who look more like scribes or ordinary letter-writers, will decide to write about political aspirations or publicly request the stopping of the acts of repudiation against the Ladies in White and the beatings of those who think differently. It would be asking too much.

The polemical reflections are from a handful of bureaucrats, who, from an office in the Palace of the Revolution, dictate what should be news. For now, it’s possible to transmit these things only on the Web, after passing them through a sieve that shows the editor the authors identify with socialism and are loyal to the Castro brothers. Without that confession of faith, writing for yourself is equivalent to having them open a file on you in the Department of State Security.

There is an open space of criticism and discussion for journalists and intellectuals accepted by the regime, but only on the Internet. They consider it unhealthy or undesirable for Cubans, those who drink breakfast coffee mixed with peas and eat bread without mayonnaise, to be able to read opinions that differ from the official discourse, which is tiresome and repeatedly published by the national newspapers.

The government’s interest is that these talented and fresh writers be read only abroad. So that those who romanticize the Revolution from a distance, and the Latin American and European Left, believe that something on the island is changing.

These inconvenient journalists, who Cubans on the island would like to read in the newspaper, are assigned to publish on personal blogs or websites. Then the guy deep in the Cuban countryside can’t read Elaine Diaz, Sandra Alvarez, Boris Leonardo Caro or gay Paquito, unless he has access to the Intranet.

For people in the real Cuba, lunching on pizzas in self-run cafeterias, after spending two hours at the P-7 bus stop to get home to the Alberro neighborhood, they have no choice but to spend a peso for an 8-page tabloid trying to be a newspaper and usually more useful for wrapping garbage or as a substitute for expensive toilet paper.

Controversy is served up….but exclusively for an elite.

It’s not just Raul Castro’s government that has inconvenient journalists. A sector of the internal opposition also has them. If you’re a foreign correspondent or freelancer and you don’t cover or write a few pages praising some of the events, conferences or projects that the local dissidents invent by the bushel, then they put you on a blacklist.

The least they accuse you of is being a Castro supporter. And in their frequent gatherings in the rooms of their houses, where vulgar dissidents gossip without factual information, you are labeled as an agent of G-2 (State Security).

Doing unfettered journalism in Cuba is like walking a tightrope. It will always awaken the capacity for intrigue and mistrust on both sides. But I prefer it that way. Or I wouldn’t be a journalist.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 7 2011

In Havana There Are State, Illegal and Hard Currency Pharmacies

June 7, 2011 3 comments

Every time that Niurka needs vitamin C or an albutamol (albuterol) inhaler for her asthma, she knows where to find it. First, before asking Fermin, a medicines peddler, she tries to get it by slipping a 20 pesos bill over the closest state-owned pharmacy counter.

If the pharmacist opens her eyes incredibly wide, it means the deal is going bad, then she goes and looks for the illegal medicine peddler. Most of the time she finds what she looks for.

Fermin works for an old and central Havana hospital’s apothecary. His salary of 300 pesos (16 dollars) a month is a joke. But with the medicines he carries out of the hospital in his backpack every afternoon, he multiplies his salary by ten.

“I use to steal vitamins, asthma inhalers and, when I can , donated foreign medicines. Also I take orders, if someone asks me for a specific medicine and it’s in stock in the hospital, it will magically disappear from the shelf,” confesses Fermin.

The public health standards on the island are lower today in comparison to the decade of the 80’s, but either way, Cuban public health is still giving a notable service in spite of being a third world nation.

But certain medicines are scarce. The Cuban government blames it on the USA embargo, which impedes Cuba from buying latest generation medicines. It may be. But in the foreign currency pharmacies you can find vitamins, antibiotics or analgesics from renowned pharmaceutical brands of capitalist countries. To make up for the medicine deficit, the Cuban state approves humongous amounts of American dollars to increase its national production

Sonia, a pharmacist, believes that Cuban-made medicines have a low quality, a good portion are also limited by a ration card given out by the family doctor or by a specialist.

Those who suffer from respiratory illnesses are the ones who suffer most. There are two classifications. Type I and II. The first ones are entitled to one inhaler a month and the second ones, to one every two months.

“Most of the time I have to buy asthma inhalers on the side, in the black market. Either by bribing a hospital employee or a pharmacist with 20 pesos, or buying from one of the hundreds of existing medicine peddlers in Havana,” Rogelio, a chronic asthmatic, makes clear.

Cuba being a tropical island, with high humidity, the number of persons suffering respiratory illnesses is significant. For this reason, all illegal medicine vendors have a guaranteed market.

Denis, one of these vendors, says that in addition to the vitamins, antibiotics and inhalers, a product with a great demand are the sanitary napkins women called “intimas.”

“Women of fertile age are entitled to buy a package of ten sanitary napkins–“intimas“–a month. And because it isn’t enough, the sanitary napkins are a colossal business. Each package is sold for ten pesos (half a dollar). Thanks to the sale of female sanitary napkins, vitamins and asthma inhalers, in the twelve years I have in this business, I repaired my room,” says Denis with pride.

Cuban health care is free and its doctors–as a general rule–have a good preparation and are committed. But when it comes the time to get a drug the patient has three options.

First, acquire in the local pharmacy the ones prescribed by the doctor, if they have it in stock. Second, if you have “hard currency,” in an international pharmacy you can buy a fifth generation antibiotic or Johnson & Johnson syrups. And the third option, buy from an illegal vendor, who for dollars (fulas in Cuban slang) will bring the medicines to your door.

Ivan Garcia

Note- This article was written in March 2011, but I have a lot of articles to publish, from Ivan and other authors, and it was left behind. (TQ)

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Translated by: Adrian Rodriguez

June 7 2011

Coppelia Ice Cream Turns 45… Without Strawberry or Chocolate

June 4, 2011 1 comment

Coppelia, the most famous ice-cream parlor in Havana and in Cuba, turned 45 on June 4. Located on the corner of Calle 23 at L on the central avenue La Rampa, its architecture is one of the most beautiful and best-designed since the olive-green revolution led by Fidel Castro.

The design, by Mario Girona (1924-2008), one of the most important Cuban architects of the 20th century, was done with the collaboration of planners Rita Maria Grau and Candelario Ajuria. The structural calculation was carried out by engineers Maximiliano Isoba and Gonzalo Paz.

Girona formerly completed a successful project baptized with the indigenous name Guamá, established in 1962 in the Zapata Swamp, Bay of Pigs, Matanzas, about 140 kilometers southeast of the capital. Those 10 wooden huts in a circular motion in the manner of a Taino village (aboriginal), on the edge of a lagoon infested with crocodiles, remain one of the favorite places for tourists.

When they entrusted Mario Girona to design the gigantic ice-cream parlor, he was somewhat taken aback. In an interview done a few years ago, he emphasized, “There were no global benchmarks for such an immense ice-cream parlor.” In record time, the architect Girona and his team drew the rough sketch of Coppelia, strongly influenced by the style of the tourist complex of the Zapata Swamp. In this respect he stated: “Guamá was the starting point for the new work. To give some privacy, we designed five small spaces, a large court divided into three sections and a floor on top. We provided ample parking and lush natural vegetation, which would not intrude.”

The hospital Reina Mercedes, built in 1886, formerly was situated on this spot. The land had cost 3,000 pesos. When it was demolished in 1954, the land was worth 250,000 pesos. The idea was to erect a 50-story skyscraper, even taller than the Focsa, the tallest building on the island, with 36 floors.

But the project didn’t materialize because of the arrival of the bearded ones. Before, a recreation center called “Nocturnal” and a tourist pavilion had functioned in the ample space. In 1966, during the celebration of an international congress in the Hotel Habana Libre, situated on the opposite corner, Fidel Castro, a great lover of ice cream, decided to erect Coppelia, whose name and image – the legs of a ballerina – pay homage to one of the great performances of the National Ballet of Cuba.

When, on June 4, 1966, the Coppelia ice-cream parlor opened, it offered a menu with 26 flavors and 24 combinations. A scoop of coconut with almonds or cream cost 50 cents, a Copa Melba (vanilla ice cream with a slice of mango, strawberry syrup and marshmallow), one peso. That day they sold more than 3,000 tubs of ice cream, and during the 12 hours it was open, the line was several blocks long.

Ice cream is one of the favorite treats for Cubans of all ages and eras. The first ice-cream shop was installed in 1807. Due to a climate that averages around 30 degrees (Celsius) annually, people like to cool off with ice cream, alone or with cake, cookies and syrup. Or a milk-shake with ice.

Before the comandante took power, there were several prestigious brands of ice cream in Havana: Hatuey, Guarina, San Bernardo and El Gallito. They were sold in ice-cream parlors and cafes or in vehicles located in crowded spots in the city. “I preferred waiting for the seller ringing a bell in a cart with wheels or pulled by horses. For a peseta (20 cents) you could buy an iced coconut,” remembers Humberto, a retired man of 82 years.

Those ice creams, produced with milk in factories, competed with the artisanal fruit ones, produced by the Chinese without milk. According to Josephine, a housewife, 70, “I have never tasted ice cream as rich as the ones made by the Chinese.”

After Castro they continued to make good ice cream. The Coppelia brand was sold in the ice-cream parlor of the same name. It was very creamy and came in 20 different flavors.

With the arrival of the “Special Period,” an economic crisis that has lasted 22 years, ice cream became a luxury. And its quality diminished tremendously. In those hard years, the ice-cream parlor was open two hours a day. There were only two or three flavors, and because of a lack of milk, the ice cream was watery and tasteless.

Ice-cream resellers bought tubs of ice cream from Coppelia. And in their homes or the vicinity of hospitals and playgrounds, they sold a plastic cup of ice cream for 10 pesos. This was one of the many illegal business that existed in Havana.

With the legalization of the dollar, imported ice cream with the brand-names Word or Nestlé arrived. One Nestlé Extreme was worth 2.50 cuc (3 dollars), the 4-day salary of a worker. For hard currency you could also buy first-rate Cuban brands, like Flamingo.

Forty-five years after its opening, the ice-cream parlor Coppelia is only the shadow of its former self. Sunday, May 22, there were only three flavors: vanilla, orange-pineapple and mint. Although ice cream is not expensive, at one peso a scoop (5 cents), its quality leaves much to be desired. Of course, the long lines continue. Once, going to the “Cathedral of Ice Cream” constituted the main week-end outing for many Havana families.

Today, weary travelers, students, workers, prostitutes, pingueros, gays, transvestites and lesbians, among others swarming around the clock by the central ice-cream parlor, form a line by sheer force of habit. There are almost never the flavors you want. Like almond or moscatel. Strawberry or chocolate.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 4 2011

Raúl Castro: 80 Candles Against the Clock

June 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The man who as a child liked to play with toy soldiers, and now is General of the Army and President of Cuba, turned 80 on June 3, 2011. Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz has just entered the club of octogenarian Cuban leaders.

He was the third son from the marriage formed between the Galician Ángel Castro and the Cuban Lina Ruz, and, having been born with distinct physical features, one didn’t have to wait for the rumors about his real father. Speculation aside, the truth is that he always idolised his brother Fidel, five years older than he.

Since then, he has followed him everywhere and has been faithful to him.

But 52 years later, with the country socially and economically in ruins and with the hands of the clock against him, the younger brother knows that if he wants to save the revolution, a mountain of things have to be taken apart and re-done or made in a new way.

And there he is. Trying to paddle upstream. With too many elderly sailors, and very few young ones energetic and with fresh ideas. Although perhaps the greatest danger is not in the sea. But in the nearly 12 million Cubans stranded on land and whose patience may be about to end. The people are fed up of listening to Castro say, once and again, “Now we are going to build socialism.”

An unrealistic slogan, because everywhere socialism has failed. And as the chances of its construction on the island are almost nil, it would be welcomed if they defined it ideologically and began to build the foundations of capitalism. Asian or European style. But just take concrete steps — and fast — for Cuba to once again be a modern and prosperous republic, as it was before 1959.

A year ago, the Spanish journalist Vicente Botín, presented in Madrid, the book Raúl Castro: The Flea that Rode the Tiger. In the final paragraph, the author sums up a truth:

“A Chinese proverb says that ‘the best way to keep a tiger from devouring you is to ride on it.’ But in the salvation is the condemnation. The rider cannot dismount, because when he does, the tiger will eat him. Destiny sentenced Raul Castro to ride all his life on the back of a tiger and the tiger has devoured him, even though he never climbed down from it.”

June 3 2011