Archive for July, 2012

Elderly Havanans Living on the Edge

July 31, 2012 Leave a comment

In spite of his osteoarthritis and mild senile dementia, Demetrio, 76-years-old, works as a night watchman at a primary school four nights a week. On his days off he get up before 5 AM to buy bread for the owners of various private cafes.

He is paid 480 pesos per month to purchase the bread, which combined with his 280 peso custodian’s salary and his 211 peso pension brings in a total 971 pesos a month. From this Demetrio takes 500 pesos to a currency exchange and buys 20 convertible pesos, or CUC’s, at the exchange rate of 25 pesos per CUC. With these CUC’s he then buys cooking oil, canned tomatoes, soap and other essential items.

With the remaining 471 pesos he must think up ways to pay for light and groceries. As a result there is no way this old man, burdened by ailments, can prepare two hot meals a day. This senior citizen no longer thinks about repairing his dilapidated apartment. Or about buying clothes or shoes.  A widower of six years, his mission is simply to survive the harsh conditions of olive green socialism.

What concerns him most is being able to have four dishes for dinner: rice, beans, a salad or vegetable, and some form of protein, such as eggs, chicken, pork or catfish. Before going to bed, he prays that the Lord will take him. He wants to be together again with his wife.

Compared to Raudel, another one of Havana’s unfortunates, Demetrio is “rich.” Raudel is 73-years-old and sleeps at night when and wherever he can — a park, a doorway or an abandoned building. He is part of the herd of homeless vagrants whom the official press ignores.

Raudel is a “buzo,” as they call those who search through trashbins and garbage cans. He usually “dumpster dives” in Reparto Sevillano. In a frayed and dirty bag he collects “cucumbers” (liter and a half plastic bottles) and empty glass bottles. Those who sell vinegar and tomato concentrate pay him a peso for each bottle.

On a good day, Raudel can make 50 to 60 pesos — enough to pay 30 pesos for a small plate of rice, boiled vegetables and a slice of meat in some little privately owned cafe.

He spends the rest of the money on the drink of the forgotten — homemade rum manufactured from household alcohol filtered through a coil with industrial charcoal and horse shit.

Sometimes he gets a free meal when, while rummaging through garbage, he finds a can of food and the remnants of a meal. The “grand prize” is when he comes across an alarm clock that works, circuit boards for computers or televisions and foreign magazines in good condition. He knows people who will pay good money for these things.

He sleeps six to seven hours when and wherever he can. He lays out an old, dirty bedspread and goes to sleep, drunk and unwashed. The worst thing for a homeless Cuban is when the weather turns cold or a storm is approaching. Then Raudel pays 10 pesos to the custodian of a state garage who lets him sleep in a Russian truck.

Don’t even ask about his health. He doesn’t remember the last time he caught a cold. The future? He just lives day to day. He is happy when the trashcans have lots of plastic bottles and plenty of food, and Vincente has “train spark” (cheap rum) for sale. Everything else is nonsense.

Photo: The elderly are not the only ones living on the edge in Havana today. There are also men and women under 50, such as this couple photographed by Yuri Valle Roca at the corner of 12th and 23rd streets in Vedado.

July 30 2012

From Daddy State to Every Man For Himself

July 17, 2012 14 comments

“Jesus against the universe,” the Austrian Hermann Nitsch performance. XI Biennial of Havana, May 14, 2012. From Diario de Cuba: (AP)

Otilio’s house is a museum of artifacts from behind the Iron Curtain. Retired for 21 years, the single, childless octogenarian lives surrounded by anachronistic objects and starving cats.

On one wall once the color of ivory, hanging sideways is an award for 45 years as the head of a gang of plumbers. As a reward for his labor exploits and for have been an exemplary revolutionary the also awarded him bronze medals and various articles that, three decades later, refuse to die.

In his collection of objects from the Soviet area there is a chrome Poljot clock, an Aurika washer lying in a room full of obsolete junk, a two-speed Karpaty scooter which is only a skeleton, and old Selena radio which, after he hits it, will tune in to the baseball game.

“It was another era. The State gave you everything from a house on the beach to a Russian fan. I don’t know if these changes now are better or worse. What’s happening is that a lot of people aren’t prepared. From depending totally on the State to doing it however you want. Lucky for me, I’m past that,” commented Otilio, seated in the doorway of his house with a cat on his lap.

At that stage it was essential to be pro-Fidel to be bomb proof. Otherwise, you had to go 90 miles north and know that the recognition and the opportunity to acquire certain goods was denied you.

It’s been more than three decades since those years, when candy for your birthday and beer for weddings was free on the ration book. For a lot of workers and officials they still live anchored in the mentality of waiting for orders and rules from Daddy State. It’s been learned over 53 years. Personal initiative was always seen badly and considered dangerous.

Although rationed and of poor quality, the State guaranteed the minimum necessary to live. But if yo applauded Fidel Castro’s speeches, went to the rallies at the Plaza of the Revolution, and to the Marches of the Fighting People and participated in Red Sundays, you could win a coupon to buy some Soviet article.

It was a kind of social contract based on blind faith and redemption. The Golden Age of Castro, who ruled in an almost absolute way and with few brave crazies who dared to dissent.

They should put up a monument to the first peaceful opponents who, loudly and openly, criticized the state of things in Cuba.

In 2012, while retirees like Otilio, who gave everything for the construction of a luminous socialism that never rose above the foundations, wait to die, General Raúl Castro and his pals with three stars on their epaulets talk about updating the economic model and criticize the benefactor State.

The worst part of the new discourse is blaming the people for their stagnant mentality and laziness in production. And that disgusts many. Ernesto, an engineer with 30 years experience, is insulted when, in meetings at this workplace to reduce the workforce, the bosses criticize the lack of creativity and the dependence of so many on the State.

“They sit there with a straight face. They blame the people for not working much and being used to living off the ration book. I remember one night, it was five years ago, Fidel mocked people who had fans and home appliances because they were high consumers of electricity. As if we had chosen to be poor and had all this shit in our homes. Now they throw you out of work and tell you to start a business and figure it out for yourself. It’s cynicism in its pure state,” says Ernesto.

The fashion now is to work for yourself. In whatever. Taking the fleas off dogs, covering buttons, or dealing cards. But there’s a problem. Those who work for a salary of 20 dollars a month don’t have any capital to start a small business if they don’t have family abroad. The most they can do is refill lighters, fix shoes or paint houses.

They don’t have hard currency to open a snack bar or to buy an old American car from the‘50s to use as a taxi, nor does their house have the conditions to rent to tourists for $35 a night.

For the unemployed from the State sector, used to waiting for manna from heaven and robbed of their jobs, the options aren’t many.

Cuba is decapitalized, The government doesn’t want to hear about subsidies. Save yourself however you can. In the private sector, competition is tough and the consumers’ wallets are thin.

One example: on 600 years of October 10 Avenue, from Santa Catalina Avenue to Gertrudis Street, there are 6 pizzerias, 8 snack bars, and 2 private hamburger stands. Half of them are doing well. The other half are planning to give back their licenses. To open a decent snack bar costs at least 1,500 CUCs (about $1,700), over six years salary for a worker.

Also, you have to know the unwritten rules. Know the guys who sell flour, pork, or stolen mayonnaise, at prices lower than in the official market. You have to give the corrupt inspectors something under the table. And perform financial tricks to pay the least possible annual taxes.

According to Albert, a Havana taxi driver, this new version of the olive green revolution is “they kick you out on the street without a latchkey. You have to look for pesos however you can, but cautiously, like walking a tightrope. If they catch you at something considered a crime, which is almost everything according to Cuban law, then you won’t only lose your license, you’ll go to jail,” he says while driving.

The Government already spoke loud and clear: Look for a few pesos but don’t even think about trying to amass a fortune because we’ll come and get you. Private work, says the State, should be just enough to survive.

If in the ‘70s men like Otilio shows pride in an award earned by participating in volunteer work, a coupon that allow them to buy a two-speed Russian scooter after having cut thousands of tons of cane, now the likes of Alberto know that the State won’t even give them the time of day/Its mission is to collect taxes and watch them so they don’t cross the line.

The most optimistic think that it’s a good way to train for the day when the worst version of savage capitalism comes to Cuba. Which is where we’re going.

From Diario de Cuba

16 July 2012

New Tariffs in the Regime’s Hunt for Hard Currency

July 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Advertising sign for a new package delivery service — by ship — from Miami to Havana. Source: Cubacel

When a government’s finances are in the red, everything’s a big rush. So they usually rush to grab the scissors. And butcher public expenditures. Or raise taxes.

Which is what the government of General Raúl Castro is doing. With the difference that the Cuban citizens have miserable salaries, and so they resort to charging fees for money or packages sent by relatives living in other countries, particularly in the U.S..

They do so for several reasons. One, the system designed by Fidel Castro was never able to generate wealth. Another, their deep hatred for emigrants. They see them as traitors. Guys who did not believe in the “Little Father of the Nation” and fled on a raft or plane, to take refuge in the land of their number one enemy.

Fidel Castro, the great culprit of Cuba, borrowed the future of the nation with wars in Africa and preposterous economic plans. So many that it would take more than anthology to compile them.

His brother Raul came in as a relief pitcher. With a financial and economic situation on the brink of decapitalization. Perhaps not the most advisable to rule.

But that’s another story. You already know we live in a real autocracy. In Cuba, the decisions are made by the usual suspects. And those of us down below, as a consolation, we only must accept and applaud.

As anti-American discourse produces no money, no food, no housing and no higher wages, the olive green regime has mounted a full throttle industry around the dollars sent by the “worms” of Florida.

The companies that control the malls or stores in hard currency are all run by the military. It’s the same for the hotels and resorts where Cubans will happily spend the allowance that comes from relatives abroad.

And at what cost. To fill those stores, a closed circuit has been created within the national economy that at the price of gold supplies basic items such as oil, milk powder and tomato puree.

Clearly the intention of the regime is to milk the exiles, because the taxes on these items exceed 240%.

In the fall of 2005, very angry that the Americans caught him swapping old dollar bills in one of his accounts in Switzerland (leading the Swiss bank UBS to end its operations with Cuba in 2007, after paying a huge fine to the United States), Fidel Castro placed a revolutionary tax on 20% on the U.S. dollar.

One morning, during those years, before casting their vote in the shadowy popular elections shadowing put on by the regime, he told foreign reporters that this was one of the ways that his government had to fund the energy revolution and to help poorest.

The Robin Hood theory. That if you really help the poorest, it is welcome. But no. It was another bluff by Castro No. 1. The tax on foreign exchange and sales at shopping malls has not served to fix the streets or repair the 60% of homes in poor conditions in the capital.

Nor has served to make agriculture more efficient. Or raise wages. No one knows exactly where that money ends up. That if we do the shopkeeper’s accounts, roughly, we see that since the dollar was legalized in 1993, in remittances and profits from high prices of the items in the shops for hard currency alone, the figure could reach 35 billion dollars in 19 years.

In this time, they have been created a series of businesses, led by military entrepreneurs financed by the capital from exile. Proceeds rise to the order of two billion annually.

For a poor country like Cuba it’s a lot of money. Concerned, I called the head of TRD Caribe, a corporation that capitalizes most of the shops on the island. I wanted to investigate what is done with the money.

No answer. Attempts to frighten.

“Who are you?” said a guy with the voice of a political commissar.

“Someone who contributes hundreds of dollars monthly to the public purse. I live in Cuba, I’m Cuban and I have a right to know how the money is used that my family sends or that I get for my work as a journalist,” I replied.

A thud, dropping the phone on the other side, they hung up.

Is usual. No answer, no accountability. With this procedure they will only get suspicious. In what suitcases are those earnings stores? Or in what ghost bank accounts have they been deposited?

When a government is not transparent about the income and expenditure of money, you can not think positively about their management. You can throw in the wastebasket everything the Marxists say about capitalist surplus value.

The Cuban state is more voracious than the heartless capitalist entrepreneur. And the party continues. In their eagerness to put dollars in the State’s coffers, they impose a new taxes on packages and goods from abroad.

They don’t care at all about family reunification or alleviating the shortages of many Cuban families through the packages sent by relatives from abroad. They only care about their business. Due to the thousands of individual stalls where they sell all kinds of cheap goods all over the island, sales in state hard currency stores have plummeted.

The reasons, among others, are the high prices and poor quality of the clothing. To curb private sales by the self-employed of goods that are cheaper and better made, they resort to the tax stick.

It is the language they dominate best. They don’t stop to think about making a large reduction in prices of scarce items in the hard currency stores. For example, an obsolete Chinese television, which should already be gone in the world market, sells in the malls for 300 CUC. That’s two year’s pay for an ordinary worker.

If you want to buy a plasma TV you’re going to have to pay between 700 and 1,000 CUC (about $800 to $1200), depending on the inches of your screen. A modern plasma does not exceed $300 in Miami. So, being cheaper, Cubans living in Florida, the vast majority of whom are not rich, choose to send one to their family from there.

Across the pond, the regime responds to this movement of goods with new tax measures that really hurt ordinary Cubans. You should see the tantrums when hard-line Cuban-American politicians or a president like George W. Bush tighten the embargo.

Then they rehearse a speech in defense of the Cuban immigrants who can not travel or send money to their grandmother or their cousins in Cuba. After Carter, no American president has been more flexible with Castro than Barack Obama.

If they thought reasonably, the ideal would be to respond with gestures of goodwill. Not with chimeric demands. Not by applying the blade of tariffs.

Finally, in this diplomatic beat of the Cuban regime with the White House, those who have the greatest interest in keeping the embargo and a state of constant confrontation are the Castro brothers. It is the fuel that sustains them politically. Their only trump card.

From Diario de Cuba.

7 July 2012

Summer Came

July 12, 2012 2 comments

La Habana Vieja, July 2012. (AP)

Swallow hard. Or take a sedative. Break the piggy bank and withdraw the money. It’s summer. For parents it is not good news.

In the months of July and August electricity bills multiply. Fans and TVs are running all day. And if you have air conditioning, your children, overwhelmed by a suffocating heat, turn it on before the appointed time.

To hell with the savings. Let’s look at the Romero couple. In July of 2011 the electric bill was 600 pesos. This year the cost could give them a heart attack. And they’re already making plans. “We have a new air conditioner, a microwave oven. So, on the low side, we’re looking at a thousand pesos,” says Felipe.

Then come the other expenses. Planning outings with two boys of 9 and 11. An extra daily meal for two months, which means more money spent on eggs, chicken, pork, rice, beans and fruits.

Also a lot of cleaning and detergent. “Children with this heat is usually bathe twice a day. And we must be constantly washing their hands given dengue and communicable diseases. Throw in their street games and their clothes get dirtier,” says Sara with her eyes wide open.

At least the Romero couple have relatives across the puddle who send them $300 to $400 regularly. So they can bear it, with a song in their heart.

It is true that in the summer of 2012, $100 doesn’t buy what it bought in the 90’s. The government imposes a tax of 13%.

And when the Romeros go to the hard-currency stores, they shake their heads, perplexed by rising prices. “Everything costs more than it did five years ago. Milk powder is now 5.75 CUC, which is up from 5.25 last month. Also the personal hygiene supplies and other essentials. I do not know where to the Government’s going. When it’s time to squeeze pockets they are experts,” says Philip angrily.

In these summer holidays there will be no weekend in Varadero. His relatives in Miami are also struggling to make ends meet. The solution is to go to free outdoor spaces or pay 30 pesos per person to “under the table” bus companies who make charter trips to the beaches east of Havana.

Or visit museums. And buy books in pesos. But if the Romero couple is living in hard times, what about the Pedrazas. Well, if we can call them a family. There are so many of them they could make up a squad in the army. They live in two damp unpainted rooms in a tenement in the Colon neighborhood of Central Havana.

Fidel Castro is better friends with George W. Bush than with a Pedraza. It’s a dysfunctional family. Some of the masculine sex have the fixed address of a cell in a maximum security prison.

Half of their lives have been behind bars. The periods of freedom are a small oasis. Between robberies and scams they have left behind several children whom they don’t maintain.

That job is for mothers, grandmothers and aunts. People who are not exemplary. On the contrary. Due to alcohol and hard times. The money they make selling cheap goods they spend on smoking marijuana and drinking cheap rum.

Their dwelling is a small cave. The women are prostitutes. And the men plan petty thefts. The street has no secrets for them.

And the boys left school. Looking to live life on their own terms. Selling fruits and beans from a wheelbarrow. Or pedaling a bike-taxi for ten hours. The worst of them have it easier, thanks to pimping or selling “yuma” (foreign) marijuana.

Badly raised, the Pedrazas eat separately. And take it in turns to use the kitchen. It is not uncommon that family squabbles will escalate to machetes in hand and throwing bottles.

They are a social case. The youngest children think like adults. And from the earliest ages they go for a swim off the reefs along the Malecon. Or ask tourists for gum and money.

Overcrowded they sleep on dirty mattresses. Luckily they don’t pay a penny for light. Someone with electrical knowledge “hung” a line from a state agency.

To ask them what they do in the summer is to provoke a laugh. “The same. Every morning we think about how to get some pesos. It’s what floats the boat. Perhaps the novelty is that this summer on TV we’ll watch the Olympic Games,” said Eugenio.

At least in 2012, there’s something different for the Pedrazas.


5 July 2012