Archive for February, 2012

Velazquez and the Stations of the Cross for a Cuban Family

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

“Old Woman Cooking Eggs” is the title of this painting by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), oil on canvas painted in Seville in 1618. This scene reminded me, 394 years later and thousands of miles away from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, where it is hung, of the precarious and colorless life of a Cuban family, the interior of a narrow kitchen illuminated with strong contrasts of light and shadow.

They make only one meal a day, breakfast is coffee without milk and a tasteless 80 gram biscuit without butter. And not always that. “Sometimes we eat the rationed bread at night, because we are often still hungry after eating. When this happens, the next morning, before going to work or school, we have a sip of coffee, nothing more,” says Zenaida Pena, 72 and the head of her family.

In an old house in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton, screaming for a coat of paint and a complete restoration, the Peña family lives. It consists of 7 people and they are part of that 40% of Cubans who receive neither dollars nor euros.

Three different generations under one roof. Four now, clarifies Zenaida, because a month ago the grandson of Yosbel, her youngest son, was born.

Leiden, the eldest daughter, twelve years ago divorced the father of her two children. Yara, 15, attends the ninth grade and you thinks that her future is to marry a foreigner and leave the country. Leinier, 19, is on track to be the guest of some prison for the repeated warnings of dangerousness piling up in his  pre-criminal record.

Leida, the mother of Leinier, believes that the chief of police sector ’is fucking with her son.’ “Yes it is true that he rum almost every night and no work attracts him. Imagine it, with the salaries they pay, he wants to dress in the latest fashion and go nightclubbing. With my office work I can not satisfy his tastes. Even though I want him to change, I understand the reasons my son and other boys in the neighborhood take refuge in drink.”

The problem is that Leinier not only drinks rum. Like a high percentage of young people from Havana, for whom the future feels like a bad word, they will also try stronger emotions. And on  the weekends they take up a collection from friends and acquire marijuana, pills of Parkisonil, or any other hallucinogen to put them ’in the clouds’.

Leinier has two passions, baseball and computers. Following baseball ball is easy. As his afternoons are idle, he takes the P-6 bus and goes to the old Cerro Stadium to enjoy a game of Industriales. But ’tinkering’ with a computer is not so easy. Nobody in his family has one. “Sometimes I play or learn things on the computer of a friend,” he says.

Zenaida, the grandmother, is retired and earns a pension of 197 pesos (8 dollars) which is spent to buy rice and vegetables. She is also in charge of cooking the only hot meal of the day.

Yosbel, the youngest son, sells slushies on 10 de October Avenue. On average earns 60 pesos a day. “All I do is look for food. My concern is that now I have a newborn kid. Thanks to neighbors down the street he sleeps in a crib. I would like to raise money to buy new clothes and a stroller. I try not to worry about tomorrow. But I am seriously concerned about the future of my son, my wife and family. I do not see how we can improve our situation,” he says.

Zenaida has her own theory about the shortcomings and difficulties. “The poor shall never cease to be fucked. But I want the Cuban leaders to know that there are families who never received a penny. What little they earn evaporates buying rice and we can barely feed ourselves as God intended. So, because I have no solution to our problems, from 11 in the morning I put on the radio and listen to the soap operas and do cábalas to see if I can come up with a number and I put it on the lottery and earn money help me overcome some hardships,” she says.

For her it’s a real pain on a daily basis what happens to put six plates of food on the table, soon to be seven when the grandson starts eating. Zenaida sits in a faded armchair in the room on paper with a stubby pencil, makes notes.

“Look my boy, this is not easy. The rice they give us on the ration lasts us two weeks. When that’s finished, every day I have to buy two pounds, it’s sold for 5 pesos a pound so 10 pesos in total. Throw in 18 pesos for three pounds of tomatoes, 6 pesos a pound. Two bunches of lettuce, 5 pesos each bunch, and 9 pesos for 6 eggs, at 1.50 each. All this makes a total of 47 pesos. But I don’t always that much. And I don’t have to tell you that you can’t cook without oil and tomato paste, which must be purchased in the ’shopping’ or hard currency stores. Beans and pork we eat once or twice a month when we can. I swear that I have wanted to kill myself,” she confesses.

Zenaida believes that a solution for poor families like yours, would be for the church or state to open dining rooms to offer free lunch to the homeless, the place to eat in or take away. “In Havana the lines that would form would be miles long,” she says.

The Pena family is no exception on the island. Some 40% of Cubans do not receive remittances from abroad. Or not earn and convertible pesos as a perk on their salary.

General Raul Castro often repeats that in Cuba beans are more important than cannons. But in his five-year term, he has failed to ensure that basic food prices are affordable for everyone. Nor has he stopped being a thief, who with a slash devours almost 90% of family income. Just to eat more or less well.

Nor has Castro II fulfilled his promise to put a glass of milk on the breakfast table of every Cuban. And his promises to improve the nutrition of the citizenry has not met expectations. If he has forgotten, the Peña family remembers.

February 26 2012

Could the dissidence become a valid interlocutor for the Cuban regime?

February 26, 2012 4 comments

In politics, all isn’t what it seems. Considering that there is no way out, a solution always looms. Above all and more than ever, dictators desire power. But when this isn’t possible, they negotiate the future.

Not so much for love of their country or her people. Simply to preserve their lives and their perks. Augusto Pinochet killed thousands of dissidents in Chile, but in the end, he had to open the doors to change.

The despicable racist government of Pretoria imprisoned Nelson Mandela in a tiny, narrow cell on Robbin Island for 27 years. But before the clamor of the majority of the South African people, then-President Frederik De Klerk had no option other than to negotiate a political exit with the mythical Mandela.

Those who persist in power with a knife between their teeth know the game they’re playing. The masses are unpredictable. They are capable of applauding a six-hour long speech under a fiery sun, or of unleashing their ire and furiously bludgeoning the politicians whom they consider their oppressors.

Remember Mussolini. Or the Rumanian Ceaucescu. If the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East leave us any clear lesson, it is that autocrats are no longer in fashion. Farewell to Ben Ali and Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saleh. Another tough guy, Bashar Al-Assad, has his days numbered in Syria. While the more violently they act, the worse is the fury of the governed.

Have no doubt, Fidel Castro has taken note. He is a student of modern history and every now and then he likes to remind us of it in his somber reflections.

The Castro brothers know that the economic situation in Cuba is very serious and worrying. They must have some contingency plan up their sleeve.

The system has shown itself to be lethally useless to bring food to the table and to produce quality items. We go to work to steal. Efficiency and production are at rock bottom, as are wages.

The future for many Cubans is to leave the country. Those without a future have come to be unpredictable. A time bomb. The present situation is like the sandpaper on a box of matches, at the slightest contact it can burst into flames.

The Castro brothers are maneuvering in a difficult terrain. And if the internal situation in Cuba squeezes them, it might be that they could negotiate with the dissidence. Not for all, just for a part — that which they consider convertible to their interests.

According to some veteran opposition members, it’s very probable that Cuban intelligence has designed a parallel opposition which, in some convenient moment, will serve as a wild card and political actor in a future without the Castros.

It might be paranoia. In totalitarian states, suspicion and the absurd become habit. But it isn’t insane to think that to give the dissidents a space if circumstances force their hand, could become a part of the island’s mandarin’s calculus.

Supposedly, they’re not going to hand over anything, they will have to continue dealing as they are accustomed to, using denunciations, street marches, and – above all – doing a better job with the citizenry.

If the opposition dedicates itself to work in search of its community, does proselytizing work among its neighbors, and doesn’t only offer a discourse to foreigners, it will have a part of the struggle won.

It’s important to increase the denunciations of mistreatment and lack of freedoms to the European Union, the United States, and to the international organizations that watch over human rights. But now is the time to write fewer documents, which almost no one in Cuba reads, owing to the repressive character of the regime and the low access of the populace to the internet.

It’s also time to combine all the points that unite the dissidents and to obviate the discrepancies between the different political factions. The goal of the peaceful opposition must be dialog with its counterparts, as has happened in the old Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi at its head.

To push a regime that has despised and mistreated its opponents into negotiations, there has to be a 180 degree turn away from the old tactics and strategies.

Cuba’s fate worries everyone. The destiny of our motherland will be decided in the next ten years. Or less. For that matter, the opposition could turn into a valid player.

If it is proposed, it will come about. The dissidence has points in its favor. A leaky economy, an inefficient government, and the discontent of a majority of Cubans over the state of things.

In the short term, if the chore is done well, the regime will sit down to negotiate with the opposition. Believe me, the Castro brothers don’t have many cards to play, although they’d like to make it appear otherwise. And dialog is the best option for them — perhaps the only one.

Photo: Taken from the blog Uncommon Sense. From left to right, the ex-political prisoners of the Group of 75: Oscar Elías Biscet, Ángel Moya Acosta, Guido Sigler Amaya, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, Diosdado González Marrero, Eduardo Díaz Fleitas, Félix Navarro Rodríguez, Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, Librado Linares García (in dark glasses), Pedro Argüelles Morán and Iván Hernández Carrillo. José Daniel Ferrer García could not be present. The meeting was held on 4 June 2011, in the Matanzas village of El Roque.

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Translated by: JT

February 24 2012

The Revolution of the Opportunists

February 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Viviana, 34, is a good example showing that the Revolution of Fidel Castro is losing force. She has never read any work of Marxist theorists. Not even Das Kapital.

Neither does she need to. She is very clear. She needs to get the red card of the party to rise. Improve her harsh living conditions and have opportunities and benefits. That is her goal. And it works for her.

There exists in Cuba a new breed of the supposed Castro brothers faithful with an amazing glaze of cynicism and opportunism. Forget faith. To occupy a position within the ideological sector, they see a spiral staircase to climb the ladder to the superstructure.

Their vocation us not Karl Marx, nor even Jose Marti. A little of Fidel Castro and great desires to travel the world in the name of tropical socialism.

They know the prerogatives of power. “Big Brother” is parsimonious. But he rewards fidelity. You can spend the summer in a house on the beach. Get foods and little things without spending money in State stores. Dance reggaeton without paying in hard currency, though perhaps a few pesos, at some disco in Havana.

And at the end of the road, if you pass through the trustworthiness filter, first a car, and then an address, conveyed from one of the many houses belonging to the “State reserve.”

After arriving and kissing the saint, there are other chameleon tactics. Being in the National Assembly is important. Rubbing shoulders with generals and ministers is a wonderful gateway. A good cover letter.

Wildly applauding the speech of the boss. Discreetly, suggesting the possibility of filing down certain sharp edges in the Creole Bible that is the Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution. At that time, perhaps some old military leader of a corporation or foreign firm has his eye on you and makes you the expected offer

It is the dream of the new grandchildren of the Revolution. A visa. And foreign currency in your wallet. Like pigs primed with three meals a day. Never missing the three C’s in the pantry: beef, shrimp and coffee (Carne de res, Camarones and Cafe… in Spanish). And the coffee is not mixed with peas. It’s Brazilian or Colombian.

Genuflection and bigotry are a means to ascend. Progress in the name of an old German philosopher or that hard Russian Bolshevik whom you have never read, or read without paying attention, and, of course, assimilating, or pretending to assimilate, Fidelismo, that religion that emerged in 1959.

Any methods is good to show loyalty. From the beating of a peaceful dissident, or screaming with your veins popping out at the Ladies in White, “to the machete,” or insulting and classifying independent journalists as “mercenaries.” In pursuit of reaching the goal, anything goes.

October 12 2011

’Whitening’ the children: a desire of many Cuban families

February 25, 2012 2 comments

Racism in Cuba is far from being left behind. Forget the official ideology of a single nation without races. People do not live in compartments. Whites, blacks and mestizos get on the same bus. Go to the same schools. And live in the same neighborhood.

But they know the differences.. One of the most racist variants in the 21st century that persists in Cuba is in creating a family. Yoanna, a light skinned mixed-race college student, has a black boyfriend.

Her family is black. And they do not welcome the groom. They are very concerned stability and seriousness of the relationship. Especially the future. And the likely children.

“My family is concerned, they say I have to ‘delay’. My mother married a white man. And they want this to ‘continue’, having children with whites. I won’t lie, I’d rather not have to deal with the nappy hair of a little black girl. And although I really love my boyfriend, I want to form a family with a white man,” said Yoanna.

Planning for children between blacks and mestizos is an important issue in some home environment. “To whiten” the family is the purpose. Purely from a complex, some blacks and mestizos are shying away from their blackness.

I won’t make this into a long story. We know the past. Centuries of slavery. Being nobodies and despised by the color of your skin. When Cuba became emancipated in the racial aspect, it was only in appearance.

In Gothic letters it was enshrined in the Constitution that all Cubans, no matter what the color of their skin, were equal. Not so. Blacks and mestizos are left at a disadvantage.

They came out of slavery with their belongings in a duffel bag and not a penny to their names. For decades, they have been called the ugliest. They have the worst living and working conditions. This lack of stability, bad housing and little money, has limited the number of blacks who go to college.

Also the marginal conditions in which they live has fueled crime. 88% of prisoners in Cuba are black or mixed race. Therefore, when designing the future, young blacks and mixed-race people dream in white.

Marrying a white woman or white man is the plan of many. Or a light-skinned mulatto. To keep it going. “It’s like a ladder. A dark black person, who nobody sees, can not suddenly think to be equal to a white champion. It is step by step. First a dark mixed-race person. Then the children must marry to light mixed-race person, or if they are lucky, with a white person. Such is the picture to gradually whiten the family,”says Yoni, a 34-year-old mixed race man.

There are black and mixed race women who do not like their skin color. It shows at once. It straighten their hair and in fashion mimic the patterns of white women. Miriam, black, 22, goes every month for the hairdresser to get her hair straightened.

She spends a fortune on straightening creams and shampoos. She chooses her friends. She likes hanging out with whites and light-skinned people. “Blacks only talk about problems and difficulties. They’re always complaining. They’re out of control,” Miriam says bluntly.

State media does not address the issue at length and complexity. They put it aside. Pass over it. A broad spectrum of Cuban society sees black culture and history as folklore.

But in their homes, blacks and mestizos speak without taboo of the need to ’whiten’ the family. Having children with lighter skin what the parents propose, and what their children see as a goal.

Photo: Javier Monge, Flickr.

September 28 2011

Gladys Bejerano, Cuba’s “Iron Lady”

February 23, 2012 4 comments

Eliot Ness and his group in Chicago in the 30’s were called ’The Untouchables’.  They fought head on rampant corruption in the Windy City, and through legal chicanery of tax evasion led gangster Al Capone to prison.

That group of Chicago has a female version in Cuba. Her name is Gladys Maria Bejerano Portela. She is the Minister of Audit and Control. That is, the Comptroller’s of the Republic. She has BA in Social Sciences, is vice president of the State Council and deputy for the province of Guantanamo. Her second in command also wears skirts: Alina Vicente Gainza.

According to informed sources, Gladys Bejerano is now enemy number one of the huge apparatus of bureaucracy and corruption from one end of the island to the other.

They say that the corrupt tremble when they see Bejerano’s inspectors appear. No wonder. Corruption has become a way of life in Cuba, and is rooted in all levels of island endeavors.

The most visible are the different ’clans’ created in sectors such as food, tourism, telecommunications, aeronautics, free zones and department stores and refrigerators where they blatantly run rackets with the State’s resources..

These ’cartels’, almost mafia, have become rich selling wholesale chicken, oil, tomato paste, textiles and electronics, pirated internet accounts, prepaid cell phone cards, cement and construction materials. It is composed of party cadres at the mid-level who hide their silver under their mattresses.

They are double-faced and full of double talk. They update the union murals praising Fidel and Raul, propaganda for the release of the five spies imprisoned in the U.S. And, at the request of the State Security, attend acts of repudiation and beatings against the Ladies in White.

The unseen face of corruption points to national leaders and the advisors of some ministers, who make straw figures and count on the cash balances from the dirty money generated by their business.

It is a chain. On weekends, each manager of a hotel, restaurant, cafe or club delivers an envelope to a confidence guy of the municipal director.

The figures vary according to the importance of place and the amount of money coming in. Then, the director passes on the take to some ’godfathers’ within the provincial party, the ministry of domestic trade or tourism.

With the creation of the office of Comptroller the gears of corruption have been threatened. When in August 2009 the Gazette published Law 107, creating the Comptroller General of the Republic of Cuba, administrators and directors did not take it seriously.

They thought it was one of the cyclical battles against corruption being undertaken on the island. Later forgotten about. An anonymous tipster said he was convinced that leaders of the status quo derived large profits with money and influence peddling generated by corruption. Not a few believe that financial fraud, misuse and monumental theft are designed in ministerial cabinets.

But Gladys Bejerano, 64, had other plans. She is a woman who has the absolute confidence of General Raul Castro. She received direct orders from him to play hard ball against bureaucracy and corruption. That did not stop with names or threats.

In just over a year, audits and controls have been key in sending more than 60 officers of major companies operating in foreign currencies to prison, including the Food Minister, Alejandro Roca.

In the investigations that are currently taking place in Havana and the rest of the country, to detect irregularities in ETECSA, the telecommunications company, Bejerano’s team is playing an essential role in the discovery of the whole network of corruption and bribery.

They never notify in advance when they will do an audit. Managers and leaders of higher echelons hate it. From below they call them ’incorruptible’. And “The Untouchables.”

In Raul Castro’s crusade against illegalities and corruption ithe final chapter of the investigations against senior officials ETECSA is still to come. It is the drama of the summer in Cuba because of the powerful heads that could roll. It will be a litmus test for Gladys and her protector, Castro II.

Ramiro Valdes, a former Minister of Information and Communications, now a superminister, is an “historic” leader of the revolution and one of Fidel Castro’s men. If she sees him involved in shady deals, can the Cuban ’Iron Lady’ see the game to the end?

In Chicago in the 30’s, Eliot Ness eventually destroyed Al Capone. But Ramiro Valdes in Cuba is more powerful than the American gangster. Much more.

September 5 2011

"To make a saint": A prosperous business in Cuba

February 22, 2012 2 comments

Daniel, 39, made a trip of 6,000 kilometers from Spain, to ‘hacerse santo’* in Havana. He bought a low fare ticket from Iberia and brought in his wallet his savings from ten years as a computer programmer.

It all started one night when he was reunited with a childhood friend. Things were going well with the man. He was wearing brand name clothes. And driving a 50,000 euro Mercedes.

After a few drinks, he told him that had progressed thanks to the ’santo’* he realized in Cuba. “Things looked black for my friend. On some vacations on the island met his current wife. Her mother was a priestess. And convinced him that when he made a saint’* things would change. And they did change,” says Daniel, who instead of making the Road to Santiago, he decided to to Havana, hoping to have the same fate.

According to his account, he lived a fucked life Spain. And he thought it was worth spending 10,000 euros to get ahead. Maybe it would turn things around. Today, in Cuba the ’saint’ costs a foreigner between 3,000 and 4,000 euros. Depends on the saint or orisha.

Olga, an experienced santera, clarifies that it costs the same to take Eleguá as Obatala. Or Shango. For outsiders like Daniel an entire industry of Santeria has been assembled. Swedes, Japanese or Spaniards have a wide range of options when it comes to ’hacerse santo’. Of course, They have to bring everything from their country, starting with the white clothes.

The babalaos abound on the island. There is even competition. The State, which once hindered Afro-Cuban religions, has joined the party. And if you are not a severe critic of the regime, you may belong to the Yoruba Association.

The Association has an official site at Prado and Monte. And just by picking up the phone, they serve powerful people of the Communist Party Central Committee. The Letter of the Year** of the official babalaos is even reported in the national media.

To fall into grace, at times, the make offerings to the ’pledge’ of Fidel Castro. And they pray for the health of the old guerrilla, who by the way, these days, is rumored to be in serious condition.

Then babalaos and santeros do their thing. Make money. They have hundreds of foreign godchildren. And successful Cubans. For some time here, there has been a dissenting society of the Afro-Cuban religion. They are independent of government. And their snails speak differently from those of their official counterparts.

They are critics of the status quo. Like those favored by the regime, many babalaos have the sign of the dollar on front.  It’s their star.

“To make a saint” in Cuba is a booming business. It’s no longer seen to be a “folkloric wave.” There are party leaders, esteemed musicians and intellectuals, more and more of those who have an Eleguá on the threshold of their houses.

When things go wrong, the ’godfathers’ implore their ’godchild’ to “make the saint”. And that means spending money. There are three rates. For foreigners like Daniel the ’saint’ it is expensive. For Cubans living in the U.S. it costs more, but not as much as for a clueless Finn. For Cubans on the island, the price is cheaper. Well, it depends on what you mean by cheap.

A “saint” can cost between 10,000 and 15,000 Cuban pesos (420 and 650 dollars) depending on the type of “saint” and the appreciation or ambition of his ’godfather’. That itself is nothing compared  to the $ 6,000 U.S. that was charged to Richard, a Canadian married to a mulata from Havana.

In any event, to be ’made holy’ means two years salary for a Cuban worker. And maybe more. The reasons to go to the ’throne’ vary. Health problems. Eagerness to thrive. Even trouble with the law.

Or a fashion. People who like plenty of money are ’made holy’ to have a “protection”. “And an amulet of protection,” says Miriam, an accountant by trade.

She knows what she’s talking about. She has stolen with both hands for years now. And never gone to jail. Not even had trouble with the law. Even coming out well from a close shave with the audit performed by the group of incorruptible of Gladys Bejerano, head of the Comptroller of the Republic.

That flurry of bills falling on the Afro-Cuban religions has brought its consequences. Unscrupulous people who profit from the faith. Phonies. Crooks and hustlers. But of course there are some like Horace, a recognized babalao, who continues to respect the beliefs.

You can go to see it in a rickety tenement in Cerro. Just pay one peso five centavos for the inquiry. And you don’t have to buy a live animal. Or give him a bottle of whiskey. Or a box of Robaina cigars. If your case does not look good, according to the reading of the shells thrown, Horace will give you Arosohumbe. A saint who is free. Believe it or not.

Photo: Marcus Encel. Santera cubana.

Translator’s note:
*Hacer santo: Roughly, this is a ceremony of initiation into the Santeria religion. The initiate is not “made a saint”… rather they are assigned one.
**Letter of the Year: A letter predicting events of the year to come.

September 2 2011

Havana Residents with Empty Pockets

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment

When summer starts to say goodbye, Havana is a chain of stalls selling schlocky goods, private cafes, more or less expensive private restaurants, shelves of books and religious objects, and worn or rough wood shelves where people hang fifty pirated DVDs.

You can choose from all this. If you have between 20 and 50 pesos, in Los Olivos, a cafe in the Havana neighborhood of El Sevillano, you can have breakfast a snack of cheese, a double burger or a sandwich Cuban style, with crusty bread.

A mile up the street, on Sevillano itself, The 55, another private cafe, offers malted milk supply 20 pesos and huge glasses of fruit smoothies to 10 pesos. Those earning 300 pesos a month who for breakfast have only coffee mixed with ground peas and a piece of bread with nothing on it, cannot afford these luxuries.

This segment of the population marches to their workplaces with empty bellies. By mid-morning, if they have anything, it’s a greasy flour fritter , the cheapest option, a peso apiece.

Lunch also depends on the pocket. Or what you can steal from your work. The most widely consumed snack is bread with croquette, 5 pesos or pizza at 12 pesos.

But many can only scan the menus of the private cafes, shaking their heads at the high prices, and walking on. Or have a medium glass of kool-aid for two pesos. The only recourse left is to search for a state cafeteria.

Dirty, scruffy places where employees sell a variety of breads with really bad cake. For 15 pesos you can eat ’fried rice’ colored with burnt brown sugar in place of Chinese soy sauce.

At 20 pesos you get a piece of chicken. If your change isn’t enough, the most common solution is to put away bread with chopped onion at two pesos. Or pasta with some unidentified additive at 1.50.

Right now, money is tight for many residents of Havana. People walk with their shopping bags or nylon bags and small change in their pockets.

Every day life is more expensive. And wages are frozen in time. For many families, it has become a Herculean task to prepare daily school meals for their children.

For some time, the State has failed to give snacks to students in primary schools. It’s a matter for parents. Then you will see the kids carrying two bags: one with books and other, smaller, with refreshments.

The children of poor families without resources snack on bread with oil and salt, homemade butter, or a fish croquette, the best. Sometimes they go without.

Children with parents who have hard currency or relatives abroad, are fortunate. They can take bread with ham or cheese. Canned soda or fruit juices. Through 6th grade, if they choose all-day, they are entitled to lunch at school.

Lunch is usually a mess. In school canteens they always toss out a lot of food. Urban farmers pay 40 pesos for a can of ’stew’ (waste).

When you walk through the narrow streets of any neighborhood, you will see a sea of stalls, shops, boutiques, cafes, private and state. People selling potato chips and popcorn. Peanuts roasted and salted or sugar-coated. A legion of slushie carts. Or timbiriches — tiny stalls — offering stuffed potatoes, pork sandwiches and homemade ice cream.

In Havana, the problem is not lack of places to eat. It’s that many leave home without a peso. With empty pockets.

September 9 2011

Havana: A Stab of the Navaja

February 13, 2012 1 comment

Joan, 19, wants a hectic night. After 7 at in the evening, after eating rice, beans and a couple of fish croquettes, he dresses in the style of a young Cuban of the third millennium.

Tailored Diesel jeans, tight crumpled shirt and a black leather jacket that gives him that look of a young gangster that Joan adores. Fine-pointed shoes, brightly coloured Swatch watch, fancy choker necklace and a Chinese pirate cell phone, an imitation of the 3G iPhone.

Before leaving home, if we can call home to a shack made of wood and fiber cement roof, with spartan furniture from the early 20th century – he gets the sharp barber’s navaja that he keeps under the mattress of his bed.

It is the norm for many young urbanites. Especially if you live in Mantilla, a district south of the city, located in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, the poorest and most violent of Havana with the largest number of imprisoned men in the capital.

The closest thing to the Wild West we have seen in American movies, are a few popular Havana dance styles. Between regaetton and low quality rum, a generation of teenagers who as a rule grew up with an unknown father or parents in jail in deep Cuba, usually see the young parties or low-class discos as a battlefield.

Smoking a few marijuana joints passes for fun. Cuban or “yuma” (foreign), if they have money in their pockets they take a hit of sorghum. Or buy a “magazine” of Parkisionil and head for the clouds.

Joan joins his friends in the neighborhood. Between them they buy half a dozen boxes of white rum known as “Planchao,” and pick up their “jevitas” (girls), some hookers, others marginal, who often carry knives in their synthetic leather purses where they keep the arsenal of the band.

Typical is to go out on a Saturday night with ice picks, knives, scissors, cut down machetes and some homemade gun, armed with a hammer of an old revolver.

Their effectiveness is doubtful. The stray bullet can go anywhere. But a firearm is always intimidating. The gang Joan leads this night has seized the alarms.

Last weekend, a thug from another area cut his face with two “swings” from the knives of a friend of Joan. The group is out for revenge. In the law of the capital underworld, it’s blood for blood.

In a cave-in site outside the disco they “nail” the military arsenal. Among intermittent neon flashes, run and reggaeton music from Micha, Osmany García y Los Cuatro, they dance like only they know, the reparteros, using slang for the residents of neighborhoods away from the city center.

A gang member identifies one of the youth from the rival band who disfigured the face of his homie. When the regaetton stops the war begins.

They push the dumpsters in the street and exchange heavy words. Each gang pulls out their weapons. To the rhythm of throwing rocks and bottles and the odd dangerous miss of the homemade guns, any passerby can end up with a gunshot wound.

Behind the windows the neighbors observed the fracas. At times it is more noise than anything else. Not infrequently it ends up with a teenager bleeding on the asphalt, after a relentless knife bath. The police are almost always late. Or do not arrive.

January 14 2012

Havana is Falling Down on Us

February 8, 2012 1 comment

For Rogelio, 49, the need for housing is stronger than his fear of losing his life due to a collapse. Born in Guantanamo, and he has nine years in Havana. For twelve hours a day, he frantically pedals a rickshaw under a blazing sun. He lives in one of the more than 6 thousand tenements — called “solares” in Spanish — in the capital.

Fifteen years ago, his quarters were declared uninhabitable by the authorities. The danger of collapse is real. Let’s visit the site where he resides. At the entrance, some high wooden braces barely support the crumbling structure. Between screams, reggaeton music blaring, tenants who play the lottery, chat about baseball, politics and women or simply do nothing, he spends his hours in the place.

Rogelio’s minimum room leaks when it rains. A steel bar bisects the room to prevent the collapse of the miserable hovel of concrete and gray tiles.

Not to mention the precarious living conditions. Bathing facilities, toilets and broken pipes cause a foul smell. That matters little to Rogelio.

“I have no options. I burned all my ships. I lived in a hut with a thatched roof and no future hidden location known as Happiness in Yateras. One evening I packed my bags and two thousand dollars I had saved by selling homemade rum, came to the capital. Havana is our Miami for many from the East. And a step that can be used to catapult yourself and migrate,” says Rogelio while his wife rubs ointment on his legs, trying to ease the pain after twelve hours of pedaling.

Official figures are terrifying. In a population of 11.2 million, the housing deficit is 600,000 homes and state plans for construction decreased from 150,000 to 50,000 or less per year. It is estimated that 60% of homes in Cuba are in fair or poor technical condition; of these at least 20% would be uninhabitable.

In the old and central Havana the number of dilapidated buildings increases. Julia, 56, selling pirated CDs as usual, knows the risk to the resident in an old building within walking distance of the Capitol. “But if we leave, we will end up in one of those overcrowded government shelters, which are the closest thing to a prison. Sketchy people living there and sometimes violent disputes resolved by dint of knife,” says Julia.

A collapse occurred on January 17, in a uninhabitable building, at Infanta and Salud, Central Havana, killing four young people: Yexnis Mejías Muñoz, Daniela Fleites Marchante and Rachel Labrada Mesa, the three college students, and Jorge Osvaldo Gómez González, the boyfriend of one of them. It was hidden under a heavy police deployment. The event has generated intense debate among the population, both among those waiting in lines and standing on corners as well as within the ’almendrones’ or old American cars, converted into private taxis.

Most people believe the government should take urgent measures to prevent the repeated collapses that continue to occur in several municipalities of Havana, with their costs in deaths, injuries and property damage. A medium intensity rain shower usually causes the collapse of houses and buildings in Havana.

Not to mention when the Cuban capital is shaken by the fierce winds of a hurricane. Fortunately, none have been force 5. Due to the hurricanes that hit the island in 2008, more than 647,110 houses were affected in the country, and 84,737 collapsed. In Havana, thousands of families lost their homes and many are still without them.

The prayers and charms of the babalao Gregory, 62, do not seem sufficient for the next hurricane season; adverse weather conditions erased at a stroke hundreds of buildings that still stand only due to a miracle.

So people like Rogelio from Guantanamo, or the vendor Gladys, have to sleep with a heavy heart fearing a possible collapse of their homes.

The worst thing is that the government of General Raúl Castro does not have at hand a solution to urgently rehabilitate and reform the city. Havana will have to keep waiting.

Photo: Joisy Garcia Martinez. Of a building collapse that occurred on June 29, 2010 at the intersection of 10 de Octubre and Luyano, better known as Toyo corner. Taken from his blog Creole Liberal.

Note. – On 26 January, just days after writing this work, there was a second landslide in Havana, with one fatality. After decades in ruins, the Campoamor Theatre collapsed, located as San Jose and Industria, on the side of the Capitol and one of the most important theaters in Cuba in the twentieth century.

January 27 2012

How Can the Persecutors of Laura Pollán Sleep Peacefully?

February 8, 2012 1 comment

More than one year ago, the daily newspaper El Mundo asked me to chronicle the Ladies in White. With their street protests, the women headed by Laura Pollán, gladiolas in hand, were cornering the regime.

In February 2010, after a hunger strike of 86 days, the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died. Each week, the Ladies in White began to walk through different neighbourhoods of Havana. Their walks usually culminated in a mass inside a church to the cry of Zapata Lives.

That March day, after four in the afternoon, I arrived at the house of Laura Pollán, No. 963 Neptune St., in the central plain of the capital. Pollán was the wife of the prisoner of conscience Héctor Maseda, one of the 75 peaceful dissidents incarcerated the government of Fidel Castro in the spring of 2003 and released in February of this year.

Laura’s small, stuffy living room was full. “Today we have prepared a march”, Laura told me, in a low voice. Where?, I asked her. “I only reveal the destination once we are marching”, she answered.

That was the only security measure that they used so that the political police would not cut short the planned walks. “We know that they have control of the telephones and it’s possible that they have an agent close to the group; it’s a rule that we use and it has worked”, Pollán confessed to me in the middle of the bustle in the confined kitchen while she prepared tea and coffee for the ladies that chatted and laughed, waiting for zero hour.

Laura was spokesperson and leader of the Ladies in White, European Parliament Sakharov Prize recipients in 2005. That afternoon, more than 70 women, between relatives of the prisoners and a group supporters, prepared themselves to march under the barrage of insults and karate blows of ’supposed indignant’ Castro loyalists.

None of these ladies had a history of anti-government activities. Almost none were dissident. Some of them worked in offices, workshops or factories as well as in the home. And like all Cuban women, the principal headache, was to bring two hot meals to the table each day and look after their family.

If anyone pushed them along the path of public protest it was the regime of the Castro Brothers. And they didn’t regret it. Behind bars they had sons, fathers, brothers, husbands… “We are not going to stop until they free all of the political prisoners”, said Laura Pollán, a somewhat overweight, blonde, soft spoken woman of small stature.

In the house, before leaving, the spy who came from the Isle of Pines, Carlos Serpa Maceira, was doing interviews, taking photos and seeking to attract attention with out-of-place declarations.

So, Maceira was the “reporter” covering the activities of the Ladies in White. The special services had Pollán monitored at all times. With Maceira style agents, tapping telephones or intrusive wide-angle cameras placed outside her house.

The women no more go out into the street, than the State Security officials in plain clothes call on the workers from a nearby workplace in a heartbeat and two public buses bring nearly a hundred police.

The supposed ’spontaneity’ of the people offended by the march of the Ladies in White is nothing of the sort. For the activists of the Communist Party and its Youth wing, from the shops and businesses near Laura Pollan’s house, they are mobilized immediately. Also the ETECSA employees at Aguila and Dragones streets. And of course, you can’t miss them, the irate grandpas from the combatants association.

Verbal lynchings and beatings are documented with pictures and videos on many websites. The sad part of this harassment  is that certain journalists and official bloggers make light of this campaign of intimidation.

Days before Saturday, September 24, one of them launched the Twitter tag #hoynosalen. That morning, he went so far as to incite mass murder with songs like, “we have a few machetes” or “ready, aim, fire.”

Law students attending the University of Havana participate in the revolutionary party. Young people who do not stop to think that many of these women had the age of their grandmothers, like Laura, 63.

Twenty days after the brutal assault, Laura Pollan died in a Havana hospital. I am one of those who thinks that her body must have been affected by the continued stress and humiliation to which this courageous woman was subjected for eight years.

When they were in prison, Laura shouted “Freedom!” on behalf of the political prisoners. But she was also shouting “Freedom!” on behalf of many Cubans who have the courage to go out to claim the rights that the government denies us.

If they have anything left of humanism and dignity, her assaulters owe a public apology to the family of Laura Pollan Toledo. Otherwise, mission accomplished.

October 19 2011