Archive for September, 2011

CDR, Castro’s Popular Weapon

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: Carlos Alkim, Flickr

On  September 28, 1960, while homemade bombs and firecrackers were being detonated by his political opponents, an angry Fidel Castro created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). From the balcony of the north wing of the Presidential Palace, the guerrilla commander, recently returned from a tour of New York, argued the need to monitor all the blocks in the country for the “worms and disaffected”, to protect the revolutionary process.

It was one more step in the autocratic direction in which he was now navigating the nascent revolution. Another deep stab towards the creation of a totalitarian state.

From 1959, Castro had struck a mortal blow to press freedom when, methodically, between promises and threats, the main newspapers of Cuba were shut down. He eliminated the rights of workers to strike and habeas corpus. The legal safeguards for those who opposed his regime were almost nil. He concentrated power. And he made political, economic and social policies by himself, without previously consulting ministers.

The process of establishing himself as the top pontiff in olive green culminated in 1961, with the radicalization of the revolution and the strangulation of the pockets of citizens who dissented against his government.

The CDRs are and have been one of the most effective weapons to collectivize society and get unconditional support for Castro’s strange theories. And one way to manage the nation. They were also the standard bearers at the time, shouting insults, throwing stones and punching the Cubans who thought differently or decided to leave their homeland.

The CDRs are a version of Mussolini’s brownshirts. Or one of those collective monstrosities created by Adolf Hitler. More or less. Over 5 million people are integrated into the ranks of the CDRs on the island.

Membership is not mandatory. But it forms part of the conditioned reflexes established in a society designed to genuflect, applaud and praise the “leaders”.

Although many people have no desire to take part in revolutionary events and marches, or to attend the acts of repudiation against the Ladies in White and the dissident protestors, as if they were on a safari, in a mechanical way at the age of 14, most Cuban children join the CDR.

It forms part of the greased and functional machine of the Creole mandarins. A collective society, where the good and bad must be doled out by the regime.

Two decades ago, with a state salary you could buy a Russian car, a refrigerator, a black and white TV and even an alarm clock. If you surpassed your quota in cane cutting, you were demonstrating loyalty to the fidelista cause or you were a cadre of the party or the Communist Youth.

The others, those who rebuked Fidel Castro’s caudillismo, in addition to being besieged and threatened by his special services, did not even have the right to work.

The CDRs played a sad role in the hard years of the ’80s. They were protagonists in the shameful verbal and physical lynchings against those who decided to leave Cuba.

It can’t be forgotten. The crowd inflamed by the regime’s propaganda, primary and secondary students, employees and CDR members, throwing eggs and tomatoes at the houses of the “scum”, to the beat of chanted slogans like “down with the worms” or “Yankee, you’re selling yourself for a pair of jeans”.

Among the dark deeds of Fidel Castro’s personal revolution, the acts of repudiation occupy first place. In addition to monitoring and verbally assaulting opponents, the CDRs perform social tasks.

They collect and distribute raw material. They help deliver polio vaccines. And, from time to time, less and less, they organize study circles where they analyze and vote to approve a political text or some operation of the Castro brothers.

That bunch of acronyms generated by the sui generis Cuban socialist system, CTC, FMC, MTT, UJC and FEU, among others, are “venerated NGOs”. According to the official discourse, those who by sword and shield support the regime.

In this 21st century, the CDRs, like the revolution itself, have lost steam. And their anniversaries and holidays are scarce. The night guards are rare birds. But the CDR members still keep their nails sharp.

They are the eyes and ears of the intelligence services. Snitches pure and simple. In one CDR a stone’s throw from Red Square in Vibora (which is not a square nor is it painted red), some of the species remain.

Now one has died. A lonely old man and childless, a factory worker, who was noted for his daily reports about “counter-revolutionary activities on the block”.

Two remain active. They have antagonized the neighborhood by their intransigence. All who dissent publicly in Cuba know that there is always a pair of eyes that watch your steps and then report by telephone to State Security.

Over time, you get used to their clumsy maneuvers of checking up on you and interfering with your private life. They inspect your garbage, to see what you eat or if you bathe with soap you bought in the “shopping”. Sometimes they make you laugh. Almost always they make you pity them.

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 Translated by Regina Anavy

September 27 2011

Remembering 9-11 from Havana

September 28, 2011 1 comment

Photo: Petri Setälä, Picasa. Havana in 2001.

There are dates that leave their mark forever. The attack on the Twin Towers of New York is one of them. We probably all remember what we were doing at the time. How did we learn about it? What did we experieince?

September 11, 2001 appeared to be a Tuesday like any other in Havana. Dawn had come without clouds and with a full sun. At 8:45 a.m., when the first aircraft crashed into the Word Trade Center, I was still sleeping.

Around 9:20 a.m., I began my routine. Reviewing some notes to send to Encuentro en la Red (Encounter on the Web). Combing through the news on Cuban radio. In the afternoon, listening to the news from the BBC, Radio Exterior of Spain, Radio France International or Voice of America. Then going out and talking with people on the street.

I remember that Radio Reloj was going on and on about the state of the economy on the island. About 10:00 I received the newspapers, Granma and Juventud Rebelde. With more of the same. Briefly it was recalled that September 11 was the 28-year anniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile.

I was alone in the house. My sister Tamila was working. My niece Yania was in school. My mother Tania Quintero, a freelance journalist, had gone early to “forage” for food in several agromercados.

Around 11:00 a.m., a neighbor in the hallway of my building shouted: “It looks like there was a huge accident in the United States; they’re showing it on Channel 6”. I connected the TV. National television, something unheard of, had linked to CNN, and in the background, two reporters commented on the news.

The images were horrifying. Again and again they showed the airplane hitting the structure of concrete, steel and glass, like a knife going into a stick of butter.

The telephone began to ring insistently. Friends and relatives were stunned. We could not believe what we were seeing. Those with relatives in Miami were trying desperately to call them for more information. The phone lines with Florida were jammed.

I still have on my retina the powerful images of desperate people who threw themselves to death from the top of the towers. When the buildings collapsed, leaving a huge cloud of dust and soot, and a chilling roar that the people of New York would never forget, we who followed the news knew that the world had changed.

In the space of the afternoon we knew that a plane had hit the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania forest, thanks to the courage of the passengers, who by a phone call knew what had happened in the Big Apple.

That night, Fidel Castro spoke in the Sports Coliseum to numerous medical students. The Cuban government authorized American planes to fly over Cuba and use the island’s airports and air corridors. The sole comandante offered medical aid.

The United States was under a terrorist attack. We all knew intuitively what would come next. War. In those days, a large part of world was in solidarity with the northern nation. It did not know how to capitalize on that support.

Perhaps the best option was not planes and smart bombs buried in rubble, caves and hideouts of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am one of those who think that an operation of special services, operating with close international cooperation, would have had better results.

But the Untied States wanted revenge. Some 6,000 people were injured and about 3,000 people lost their lives. Many families couldn’t recover their remains.

War will never be a good option. Ten years after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, the victims total more than one million dead and wounded. The world has not been made more secure. There are fewer dictators and rogue leaders, but democracy at gunpoint has not brought order in Afghanistan or Iraq. Quite the contrary.

Thousands of U.S. troops are bogged down in those nations. Almost a decade after the attack on New York, it took a special forces operation to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden.

Al Qaeda is still alive. The autocrats and tyrants continue trampling on the basic freedoms of their peoples. It’s good that the United States and other nations demand democracy and respect for human rights in countries where they are violated.

But not from the cockpit of an F-16. Undoubtedly, blood, devastation and fire are rather strange ways to learn lessons on democracy.

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Translated by Regina Anavy

September 9 2011

Cuba: War Against Corruption and Settling the Score at the Same Time?

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo: AP. Raúl Castro and Ramiro Valdés during the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, in April 2011.

The political and fiscal plot against corruption has obvious political overtones. Many are asking if Raul Castro is playing hard ball or leaving the road to his political and economic adversaries.

Let’s wait and see. Meanwhile, the mystery continues on the island. Detentions after detentions. Surprise audits of Gladys Bejerano’s accounts. And the Chinese padlocks on the prison cells open to welcome new groups of guests.

In their crusade against corruption and crime, for the last year almost a hundred officers of all ranks have been sleeping in triple bunk beds. From those who are on the top of the pyramid, like Alejandro Roca, to the nurses and doctors who emulated the Nazis in the way they mistreated and killed patients in a psychiatric hospital.

Now, on the threshold of autumn, Havana is not setting off firecrackers. The opposition becomes ​​increasingly bold every day and loses its fear of blows and insults.

The police know that any street protest, even a small one, can cause a spark. And they suffocate it with violence. Alarms go off everywhere. Palma Soriano, Guantánamo, or a plaza in Havana where a group of women shout for freedom and political change.

The fear of any event outside the official program is palpable. Go down Infanta Street, at the corner of Santa Marta, Centro Habana, where you find the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church. A month ago, 61 parishioners decided to lock themselves in for a spiritual retreat.

And faced with doubt and the novelty of the event, just in case, the police blocked the streets around the temple. When they saw that the “enlightened” pastor Braulio Herrera and his followers were not newly-minted dissenters, they yielded.

You can now pass through the neighboring streets. But a large number of civilian police and special services prowl the area. In addition to certain social tensions, there is the widespread discontent of the people, tired of the old government and its economic inefficiency.

Cuba is now a tinderbox. The slightest touch of a match could ignite it. If there haven’t been street explosions of any magnitude it’s because the political map of the island is so strange.

You could say that 15% of the public supports the Castro brothers. Another 15% is affiliated with the opposition. While the rest, 70%, is fearful and indifferent. They are simply spectators.

To add insult to injury we have the pitched battle, without much informative fanfare, unleashed by General Raúl Castro against corruption. The main enemy of the revolution, he said. It’s a war of survival. And the clans. The winner will have free rein to design the political road map for Cuba in the coming years.

If you analyze the chess moves of that eternal conspirator named Raúl Castro, you can deduce that, despite denying the supposed differences of opinion with his brother Fidel, in practice he has been dismantling, patiently, all the framework erected by the historic leader of the Revolution over five decades.

From grandiose mandates like the “Battle of Ideas,” schools in the countryside, the excessive use of television as a teaching method in primary and secondary schools. And, of course, he has removed almost all the men loyal to Fidel.

He has made a vast change in the furniture. From the fidelistas, there are only three important figures left: Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, 79 years old, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 80, and Esteban Lazo Hernández, 67.

Lazo is the classic loyalist. If he accepts the new direction, he will continue as vice president of the Council of State. It’s true that he won’t liven things up, but he will be guaranteed his foreign trips and the amenities that belonging to the Politburo confers. For now he’s not a threat to Raul Castro’s crusade.

With Machado something else is happening. The General wants to keep him close. Ramiro is the dangerous type. Because of his history and the influences created in his years as the Minister of the Interior and the head of special services.

The blows against the Canadian businessmen of Armenian origin, Sarkis Yacubian and Cy Tokmakjian, could be interpreted as a warning message to Ramiro.

It’s a match between two big-headed men. In my opinion, Raúl Castro and Ramiro Valdés are the most important and the most powerful men in Cuba of the 21st century. Some believe that the crusade against corruption is one of Raúl’s strategies to dethrone Valdés.

It seems to me that the upcoming party conference in January 2012 will be a reckoning. Only one of the two will remain.

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Translated by Regina Anavy

September 18 2011

The Real Enemies of Raul Castro’s Reforms

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s a war of power against power. On one side, General Raúl Castro manages military counter-intelligence, pulls the strings in the major economic sectors of the nation and has consolidated his cabinet with loyalists as bullet proof as atomic bombs.

But behind the scenes, his adversaries look at him sideways. They are high-flying bureaucrats, local business managers, heads of large wholesale storehouses for food, textile and electronics waste, construction materials, and managers of tourist facilities.

This fat layer of bureaucrats has dedicated itself to creating a dense network of diversion and theft at the expense of state resources. They have created a parallel economy.

For many years, the envelopes with thick wads of cash and all types of gifts have landed happily in the pockets of certain senior party officials and dishonest government employees. The local bureaucracy has taken root in the bone marrow at almost all levels of society.

Like the marabú weed, it will be difficult for Raúl Castro to cut them off at the root. They are enemy number one. Forget about internal dissent; for the moment, it doesn’t count. It’s a fight against the demons that provoke these systems of command and control and the military economy.

There are tangible indications that at the first sign of change, the true opponents of Castro II will go on strike to pull the floor out from under him in order to slow the economic reforms.

See for yourself. According to the official press,  in August the production of beans tripled over the past six months: 90,000 tons. This is no small thing. That figure is the amount of grain that is consumed annually on the island.

However, despite the high cost of black and red beans, which are sold in private markets at 12 and 15 pesos a pound (half-kilo), only 9% were for sale. The rest was bogged down in the warehouses.

Or they were distributed by the usual clandestine channels that permeate life in Cuba. And that work like a Swiss watch. It happens that beans are sold in the state market at 8 pesos.

The corrupt bureaucrats who control the supply chain prefer to hold onto them and sell them out the back door, to supply the black market or the private agro-markets. So they always have beans.

The marketing network is an unresovled matter for the Ministry of Agriculture. Tons of bananas, fruit or tomatoes rot after harvest, for lack of packaging or means of transport.

This leaves the door open to the czars and clans who control the food supply. Who for years have made money thanks to the inefficiency of the Ministry of Agriculture. To this add the absurd policies of the government, which stipulates that 80% of the agricultural production of private farmers  must be sold to the state.

At laughable prices. So private farmers must cheat to keep more of their crop. Or they let their cattle and oxen graze on railroad tracks or the highway, to be killed by “accident.”

Cuban farmers own the livestock, but they cannot market or sell the meat. Only the state is allowed to do that.

The pricing policy is irritating. A kilo of onions costs one peso and 30 cents in the store. With one peso in Cuba you can only buy a newspaper, take a city bus, or get a cup of coffee.

Now many farmers steal from their own production. To sell in markets governed by supply and demand. There a pound of onions sells for 10 pesos.

It’s precisely in the collection centers, refrigerated storage and warehouses where the cartels and mafias operate at full throttle, enriching themselves and profiting from the food supply.

Right now Raúl Castro is someone they can’t stand, someone who is going to fuck up their business dealings. The only thing left is to fight him.

They use devious strategies. They don’t show their true feelings. Nor do they publicly complain about the government and its policies. They are kings of pretense. They know how to pull the strings.

To create obstacles they have a panoply of excuses. From lack of oil, transport, spare parts or a shortage of workers. They know how the system works better than anyone; they have lived off it for years.

The same thing is happening with construction materials. According to the official media, industry warehouses are over-stocked with cement, slabs, floor tiles and toilets.

However, despite being sold without subsidies in the municipal markets, people who try to repair or build a house always get “No” for an answer when they ask for certain materials.

Only low-quality materials are for sale. Or something else that is so expensive that many prefer to buy it on the black market or with hard currency, for a better rate. Remember that 60% of homes in Cuba are technically in fair or poor condition.

Therefore, construction materials are in demand and urgently needed to prevent roof collapses. General Raúl Castro wants the street stalls and agricultural markets to be saturated with products. So families can have a glass of milk.

And for the disappearance of so many absurd regulations for traveling or buying a car or a house. But his wishes and reforms go cautiously forward at a turtle’s pace.

As an adversary, he has a monolithic wall of corrupt people and bureaucrats who have joined ranks. There are two options: Either he will demolish them, or they will demolish him.

Translated by Regina Anavy

September 15 2011

Capitalism in Castro’s Island

September 22, 2011 4 comments

Photo: Robin Thom, Flickr. Bar at the Hotel Melia Cohiba, Paseo and the First Street, Vedado, Havana.

The Cuba of the 21st century is split in two. The islet of the gentleman and the atoll of the comrade. The keys of capitalism are recognizable. Neon lights, fresh paint, large windows and air conditioning.

In its stores, hotels, cabarets, nightclubs, bars and restaurants charging in hard currency (with New York prices), its employees, uniformed and smiling, calling you Sir or Madam and allowing you to order them around.

It is the capitalism of the Castros. There, there are no revolutionary slogans nor murals featuring the faces of the five spies imprisoned in the U.S..

What is left is for the Cuban of the comrade. The bodegas, farmer’s markets, paperwork and municipal housing offices, lines to collect pensions and low-class bars.

People are treated badly and rarely laugh. Cheap watered rum in dirty hot places. In this slice of  tropical socialism if you say Sir or Madam they sneer at you. The appellation is compañero or compañera

Since 1993, when the enemy’s dollar was legalized, Cuba has operated at two speeds. It’s not that things are efficient in the pockets of capitalism, but one notices the difference.

In addition to Chinese goods, as everywhere in the world, there are Japanese clocks, music equipment from Germany, South Korean plasma televisions, and unrestrainedly, shoddy goods that say Made in USA, haughtily mocking the embargo fence.

If you want to live better in the Marxist capitalism of the Castro brothers, you must have dollars, euros, Swiss francs, or pounds sterling. Any first-world currency is worth its weight in gold in Cuba.

The national currency, the Cinderella, with which you are paid once a month in factories, state agencies and checkbooks of retirees, only serves to buy food, a few pounds of pork and pay the electricity bills, water and telephone, if you have one.

The death of Castro socialism began without fanfare on July 26, 1993, with the legalization of the dollar. Although the slogan of Socialism or Death and continued to be heard at the November 7th celebrations of the triumph Bolshevik Soviet Union. And cyclically, the comrades and those who have always lived like gentlemen, are seen uniformed with their AKM rifles, preparing for war against the ‘evil empire’.

Fidel Castro has been a real political contortionist. The Taliban discourse, the dictatorship of the proletariat, national sovereignty, permanent mobilizations, unlimited sacrifice, and a bright future. But behind the scenes the entrepreneurs or businessmen passing through Havana fall in love.

Their olive green revolution needs dollars for the carburetor. And many. Let them come. They are the lifeline of the last bastion of communism in the Western world.

‘Prostitutes’ by any means.  With Revolutionary and abusive taxes of 240% for consumer products sold in hard currency. Storming the pockets of tourists and Cuban-Americans with first world prices in a nation with a third world infrastructure.

The commander has only been a strategist for survival. To stay in power, anything goes. He once said that if he had not had the support of the USSR, he would have allied himself with the native bourgeoisie. They wouldn’t have packed their bags and headed north. With gifts and sophistry he paid for his revolution.

This is what is happening, with the millions that will come by way of remittances. The Brothers of Biran are a kind of Caribbean Robin Hood. Apparently, they take the money from those who have more to “give to the poor.”

The reality is that neither the poor nor the capital nor the  provinces of the island — including the vaunted social achievements such as education and public health — benefit from the billions in hard currency coming into the country annually.

Worst of all is that you cannot ask uncomfortable questions. You have to blindly trust “our leaders.” They know what they are doing. They are the “Saviors of the Fatherland.”

Now, have patience and trust in Comrade Raul. Or, the Lord? These high levels in the exotic Cuban social process, and I swear I do not understand.

September 21 2011

“House Agent”: A Very Lucrative Business in Havana

September 13, 2011 4 comments

Genovevo, age 58, has been imprisoned twice and on three occasions has been arrested for criminal dangerousness. He is a ‘house agent’, as they call those who — under the table — dedicate themselves to transmit trades, purchases, or sales of houses in Cuba. A business where there isn’t anyone to tell the tale.

“The acquisition or sale of houses was something prohibited by national law. People with money on the island or foreigners married to Cubans do whatever is possible to buy themselves a house. That’s when I appear. I have good contacts in the Housing Institute — the most corrupt of the agencies — and I manage all the legal paperwork. Besides, I’m a guy you can trust”, says Genovevo.

The housing problem in Cuba is as old as the revolution. And as complex. Until June, state enterprises had only finished 8,831 of the 23,394 houses they had promised to build in 2011. Private builders had finished 3,206 of the 19,606 (houses) forecast for this year. To that we add that of the construction materials destined for the populace to repair or extend their homes, in the first semester only 15.6% had been sold.

It’s true that 85% of the citizens are owners of their homes. But the State prohibits them from selling them. And in the case of a legal exit from the country, if a relative isn’t named who lived with them for many years under the same roof on the ownership title, the government seals the property and keeps the abode.

So it has been going until now. General Raul Castro has promised that things are going to change. In the 6th Congress of the Communist Party, which took place in April 2011, the buying and selling of houses was authorized. In the same manner, they’re thinking about abolishing a series of bureaucratic forms regarding swaps.

But in Cuba everything moves at a tortoise’s pace. And, although many citizens want to sell or buy a house, the functionaries say that they haven’t been given the green light yet.

Luisa, age 34, married to an Italian already has everything arranged to acquire a residence. She is awaiting the permit from the government. “They told me July, when the parliamentary sessions take place, they will ratify the means to do so. Meanwhile, you can’t buy nor sell houses”, she indicates in the vicinity of the Housing Institute.

But guys like Genovevo don’t stop for government prohibitions. “Now is when I have more work. The usual housing market is very active. People know that when sales are legalized, the prices will double. If today an apartment is worth 15,000 dollars, the following day it will cost 30 thousand. A mansion the same way: if now it costs 40 thousand, I don’t doubt it will reach 80 or 90 thousand dollars”, he assures.

Automobiles aren’t staying behind. In this time, in Havana a 60-year-old car in a well-preserved state can cost more than an apartment. According to the house ‘agents’, this tendency is going to revert.

“I believe that in no place in the world would a car be worth more than a house. But Cuba is a strange country, where the abnormal is normal and vice-versa. Those who want to buy houses are desperate. They know that properties are going to appreciate, the same as land”, Susana — an expert ‘agent’ clarifies.

Trading is also complicated on the island. Owing to a group of absurd regulations, the owner has to testify or justify why, for example, he wants to trade a 3-room apartment for a house with a garage and 5 rooms. The state functionaries, first-rate scoundrels, smell money under the table and begin to block or obstruct the trade, in search of a cut off the top.

“In Cuba, when a family trades its house for a better one, with more square footage, there is always money in between. If they don’t “square up” with the Housing Institute inspectors, the swap doesn’t take place. I tell you as someone who’s made enough money in this business”, says Esther, ex-functionary, who thanks to her job could make sufficient dollars to get a good residence and a good car.

The ‘agents’ of trades and houses are accustomed to collecting 10% of the money that moves in a transaction. Sometimes more. Genovevo, an ace of the deal, has closed deals with earnings up to 10 thousand dollars. And although they have caught him twice infringing laws and have put him behind bars, the money and his influence have been valuable in being placed in conditional freedom before a year has gone by.

Today he lives on a well-furnished floor, with an enormous 52 inch plasma television in the living room. He has gotten good houses for his three children. He has money for certain luxuries. “Nothing from the other world. To eat seafood in the Chinese neighborhood and occasionally lay down with a whore. That which I like most is going out to fish on the weekends. And the only way to get money is being a ‘house agent’, a job where I feel fulfilled”, he underlines while he drinks mango juice.

And if in the deal Genoveno isn’t going to earn a minimum of 2 or 3 thousand dollars, please don’t bother him.

Photo: Ketari. A section of the Paseo del Prado, in the heart of Havana, has turned into a meeting point for ‘house agents’ and for people who want to trade their home. Since no legal office exists for these exchanges, the people do it themselves, rustically, using notebooks with handwritten notation or tacking sheets with proposed exchanges on the trees, as you see in the photo.

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Translated by: JT

August 5 2011