Archive for August, 2012

On the Day After, Who Could Replace the Castros?

August 27, 2012 1 comment


Some people in Cuba are already placing bets. Everyone knows that within five to ten years power could change hands. The unknowns are whether the successor will have the last name of Castro, and if the inefficient political and economic system will be preserved.

Raúl Castro crafted a law limiting time in political office to two five-year terms. If he were to apply this to himself, he would have to retire from national politics in 2016. If one assumes his official rise to power occurred in 2008, then his retirement would begin in 2018.

But autocrats often do not abide by their decrees. Rules are for others, not for themselves. And many on the island believe that as long he is of sound mind and enjoys good health the general will continue to rule the nation.

Cubans like to prognosticate. And to bet. The underground lottery is a popular pastime. For example, baseball fans are making predictions about the World Classic in 2013. On questions of politics, however, they are cowardly. Fidel Castro always considered it a crime to be politically ambitious, and his subordinates were always careful about saying anything that might be construed as a declaration of a future possible presidential candidacy.

More than a few heads have rolled for coveting the throne. Roberto Robaina, a former foreign minister, has become the owner of a successful private restaurant. Others, such as Felipe Pérez Roque y Carlos Lage, fell from grace and are now two obscure, low-level bureaucrats. In the last Communist Party Congress, the younger Castro warned of the dearth of young politicians and functionaries, and stated that, in the future, no president would be able to rule for more than a decade.

An eighteen-person survey a group of well-informed people, who have access to the internet and illegal cable antennae, believe that, if the nation continues on its present course, Raúl himself will handpick the next president.

Who might be the successors? Seven believe it will be Alejandro Castro, coordinator of the secret services. He is young and has the Castro name, which would allow for the continuation of the family dynasty. Four believe the next president will be someone from Raúl’s old guard and point to Leopoldo Cintras Frías, minister of the armed forces.

Two of those surveyed think that, in a Cuba of the future, a military junta will rule. Five believe that Mariela Castro, Lázaro Expósito, Marino Murillo, Luis Alberto López-Callejas or Miguel Díaz Canel might be president given their family ties or political affinities with Raúl Castro.

What would the political landscape look like? Those surveyed could not even imagine, but speculated a bit and wagered some guesses. Nine felt that, if Fidel Castro were no longer alive, the successor would opt for a market economy and a strong government run by a committee with the presidency rotating among its members.

They could craft a country with a democratic veneer like Russia. If the United States negotiates, dialogs with and accepts whoever might be Castro’s successor — shielding itself from security concerns over illegal immigration, terrorism and drug trafficking — it might prefer an authoritarian government. It would not be overly concerned if such a government discreetly violated individual freedoms, provided it controlled its borders. This would be preferable to a weak or corrupt democracy, which might turn the island into a giant raft or a fertile ground for international narco-trafficking.

They also believe that Castro’s successor would seek a relationship with Washington that casts aside the Cold War diplomacy crafted by Fidel Castro. Several of those interviewed felt that the United States would not tolerate a “Castro light”government and would continue to press for real democracy with the participation of all the political actors.

If it came to pass, which opposition politicians or dissident leaders could govern the country the day after the Castros? Those surveyed felt that, given the level of repression and lack of leadership, no one figure stood out at the moment.

Some believe that Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas would have been a good candidate, but after his unexpected death, they now favor Oscar Elías Biscet. Others mention Manuel Cuesta Morúa because he has more experience and a longer resumé than Eliécer Ávila or Antonio Rodriles.

Although unknown by the general public, the blogger Yoani Sánchez was mentioned by one person as a possible candidate. However, in an extensive interview I did with Yoani, published in two parts — the first in February, the second in September — she indicated she was neither an opposition figure nor a dissident, and did not see herself in a political role. She rejected it because she finds politics repulsive.

All eighteen of those surveyed think the opposition should focus its work on the community and developing a viable, inclusive and coherent political platform. They feel the future president of Cuba need not necessarily be an opposition figure or someone tied to the current regime. He or she could be an ordinary citizen, now walking among us, who, at a given moment, could become a leading figure. Or a Cuban exile with good political connections in the United States and to the financial world. Someone brought up in a democratic and transparent environment. Whichever version Cuba becomes after Castro, all agree that the role Cuban exiles play will be fundamental.

Personally, I am leaning towards a woman, provided it is not Mariela Castro or Aleida Guevara, who are too closely tied to the Castros. Cuba is in need of the female soul. I would not mind if it were Miriam Celaya, Laritza Diversent or Rosa María Payá. I am quite fed up with all the chest thumping. There’s been enough testosterone.

Photo: Rosa María Payá Acevedo, twenty-three years old, reading a few words at Havana’s Saviour of the World church on July 24, 2012 during a funeral mass for her father, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, shortly before his internment at Cementerio de Colón. Taken from the blog, Razones de la Palabra, Radio Netherlands.

August 26 2012

Series on Pablo Escobar a Hit in Cuba

August 19, 2012 1 comment

For the last thirty years Cuba has been a big market for foreign soap operas and mini-series. When state television decided in the 1980s to broadcast the Brazilian telenovela, Isaura the Slave, it ignited a great national passion for melodramas. During evening hours Brazilian telenovelas, almost all produced by Globo TV, alternate with melodramas produced in Cuba.

The audience is in the millions. It is not just bored housewives and retired people who enjoy them. There is a wide range of professionals, poor people and baseball fans who sit down to watch the Brazilian series, which extend for one hundred episodes or more. Because of the impact mini-series and soap operas have had, and given the limited financial resources available, TVCuba offers a wide line-up of foreign programming on its four television channels.

Some 70% of Cuban television programming comes from overseas. Almost 90% of films are from the United States. Because of the trade embargo these are broadcast freely without any worry about having to pay royalties. Of course, if anything deals with a Cuban theme in a way that the government considers offensive or tendentious, its distribution is prohibited.

Enter the vendors who sell pirated CD’s and the thousands of people involved in the business of renting telenovelas. For only five pesos a day (the equivalent of a twenty-five US cents) you can rent programs from Television Martí that showcase comedians who have left Cuba, or Oscar Haza interviewing military officials, spies and deserters.

You can also rent Colombian soap operas that deal with drug trafficking such as The Cartel of Informers or The Dolls of the Mafia, which for reasons unknown are not broadcast on state television.

Right now the most popular new show in Cuba, especially Havana, is a mini-series on the life of the drug trafficker and head of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar. The series, El Patrón del Mal (The Boss of Evil), is also a Colombian export. It was produced by Juana Uribe, whose mother, Maruja Pachón, was kidnapped by Escobar, who also masterminded the assassination of her uncle, the politician Luis Carlos Galán.

This is one of the reasons that led Uribe and Camilo Cano – son of Guillermo Cano, editor and journalist for the daily El Espectador, who was killed at gunpoint by hitmen on December 17, 1987 in Bogotá – to buy television rights to the book, The Parable of Pablo Escobar, by Alonso Salazar, a writer and former mayor of Medellín.

The series has 63 episodes and a market share of more than 60% of the viewing audience in Colombia, where it became very controversial over concerns that it idealized the life of a drug lord. It is one of the most ambitious and expensive productions ever made, with each episode costing more than $170,000.

Since July it has been broadcast in the United States from Monday to Friday on Telemundo. Those involved in the business of renting films, TV series and telenovelas copy programs from illegal cable antennas, which have sprouted like flowers over the entire country. “I have up to episode 44, but my customers are impatient and have managed to get hold of every episode,” says Roberto, who sells pirated CD’s along an avenue in Havana.

A formidable competitor like the Olympic Games has not kept El Patrón del Mal from circulating at full speed through the Cuban underground. The Colombian actor, Ángel Parra, brilliantly embodies the role of Pablo Escobar. Some episodes deal with alleged business ties between Escobar and the government of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

“Perhaps this is why it is not being broadcast on national TV. The references to Cuba have generated a lot of interest among young people, who have no memory of the summary drug trafficking trials of high-ranking  military officials such as Arnaldo Ochoa y Tony de La Guardia,” says Eugenio, who rents out films and telenovelas.

The series’ screenwriter, Juan Carlos Ferrand, has said that ninety percent of the what is portrayed is based on actual facts. As a result the spectre of complicity of the Castro government with international narcotrafficking has been brought back to life.

August 19 2012

The Lucrative Anti-Imperialism of Fidel Castro

August 18, 2012 4 comments

According to historical accounts  —  which in this case are obviously told by the victors  —  one morning in December of 1958 Fidel Castro observed from his command post in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra a ruthless attack by the air force of Fulgencio Batista. After the aerial raid he wrote a letter to his secretary, Celia Sánchez, in which he described the destruction caused by the bombs, which had been provided by the United States, and issued a prediction: Henceforth, his fight would be against “Yankee imperialism.”

The relationship between Castro and the neighbor to the north is a story of love and hate. During the Second World War, when he was still a beardless boy, he wrote a letter to the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing him of large deposits of nickel and copper in eastern Cuba. In exchange for this information, which the adolescent Castro considered confidential, he demanded ten dollars. Roosevelt did not acknowledge receipt of the letter. According to some psychologists such scorn can cause feelings of long-term hatred in people with inflated egos.

Narcissists are complex. Fidel Castro grew up on a farm far from the city, where the affections of his harsh father  —  a former Spanish soldier who fought against the forces of Cuban independence  —  were doled out in droplets. By the time Ángel Castro legally married his wife and formally recognized his son, the boy was then more than six years old. His mother used to call them to lunch by firing off a shotgun. It was in an atmosphere of stories about the Spanish Civil War, which he heard from the family cook, and passionate interest in the world’s great warriors that the young Castro grew up.

At university he was a gunman, agitator and guerrilla fighter. He later became the longest serving president of any modern country. Doubts remain as to whether his fifty-year autocratic rule was the result of a carefully thought-out plan or an accident of history. In interviews he has confessed that he was always a committed communist but, given the fierce anti-communism of the times, had to camouflage his political aspirations.

I don’t believe it. The ideology of Fidel Castro belongs to Fidel Castro. There is no other like it. He wears Marxism like a ring on his finger. It is a system run by a single party without presidential elections and with almost absolute power. He has exercised authority as though Cuba were a guerrilla camp. He operates from campaign to campaign. Ever on the lookout for Yankee aggression. Promising a shining future. Building a tropical socialism that has never gotten past the foundations.

He has a bad record as an economic administrator. Not even his apologists can defend it. Today Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the continent and the one with the lowest GDP. The one-and-only comandante’s most essential political weapon, both internally and externally, has been anti-imperialism.

The enemies of the United States became his enemies. Their cruelty and tactics did not matter. From Shining Path in Peru, MR-19 and the FARC to the bloodthirsty Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Pol Pot in Cambodia, they all at various times received political support.

The fuel that sustains his autocratic rule is the confrontation, real or imaginary, with the gringos. On the other side of the Florida Straits there have certainly been some American administrations which have resorted to destabilizing actions in an effort to overthrow him. But Castro has been no angel either. From the earliest years of his rule he has supported groups and individuals with dubious reputations.

Some such as ETA, FARC and Carlos the Jackal were trained in Cuban military camps or became terrorists. Positioning Soviet nuclear weapons on the island in 1962 was a colossal error that almost provoked a nuclear catastrophe. In letters to Nikita Khrushchev he suggested that the Russian leader fire the missiles first.

During his golden age, Fidel supported numerous armed groups in Africa and the Americas  with men, weapons and logistics. From a house in Nuevo Vedado he directed the wars in Ethiopia and Angola from afar using a large-scale model with tanks and toy soldiers. He was so meticulous that he knew the exact quantity of chocolates and the number of cans of sardines distributed to his troops. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was over, Fidel Castro had to bid farewell to subversion and war games.

There was no longer any Soviet money for such undertakings. The domestic economy collapsed and those who were fed up took to the seas in rubber rafts in an effort to escape to Florida. Although the anti-Yankee harangues never disappeared from official discourse, there was a change of strategy. At the end of the 1980s high-ranking military officials, who were committed to bringing goods to the island that were prohibited by the U.S. embargo, engaged in drug trafficking and held talks with the Medellín cartel.

Castro’s friendship with the Panamanian strongman, Manuel Antonio Noriega, known for his support of narcotics trafficking, was solid. If Castro used a barrage of narcotics as means of destabilizing American society, it has yet to be shown. Many people believe, however, that someone who carried a notebook that tracked the rations distributed to his soldiers could not have been unaware that various military chiefs under his command were involved in cocaine trafficking. 

Today his strongest allies are in the south. Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa are authoritarian leaders in the making who came to power through democratic elections. They form a relief unit that helps guard against the alleged overseas ambitions of the United States.

Raging against the gringos sells. It is natural to want to root for the underdog. It is the key point in the anti-imperialist discourse. When promoting global revolution, it is politically useful to speak on behalf of the world’s poor and weep for those starving in Somalia, even if you yourself are living like a sheik.

Castro is no longer a threat. Retired and now eighty-six years old, his vitriolic pen still occasionally attacks the “imperial perversion.” It is what remains of his lucrative anti-imperialism. 

Photo: Kroutchev Planet Photo. Fidel Castro, photographed sometime in the 1990s, contemplates a mural of questionable artistic merit showing the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.

August 17 2012

Cuban "Cuadros"

August 13, 2012 Leave a comment

“A square is always a square.”* Cartoon by Garricha from Los Miquis de Miami.

We are not talking about the “cuadros” or canvases done by Cuban painters. This has nothing to do with art. This is about someone who is a combination office manager and sleazy ideologue. Someone who often veers between being a bored bureaucrat and a white collar criminal. In the peculiar jargon of the party such a person has come to be known as a “cuadro”*  — a guy who is half Creole rogue, half state functionary. Out of convenience they parrot the official party line like clowns.

Given the chance, they become informants for the police or the special services. Many ordinary Cubans view them as true degenerates; others simply consider them to be opportunists.

One thing is clear. If anyone has been able to take full advantage of the system designed by the Castro brothers, it is the administrative “cuadros.” Take the case of two such “compañeros” who work for the bulging governmental bureaucracy.

Let’s call them Roberto and Fermín. They do not know each other, but they behave like twin souls. They both carry black suitcases, each containing a stack of papers with official letterheads. By the time they head for home, these are packed with goods and cash obtained over the course of a normal work day.

Within the “cuadro” caste system there is a low, medium and high class. The closer one is to the pinnacle of power, the greater the cash and benefits one receives. Robert and Fermín belong to the middle class, the one that does not call too much attention to itself.

Robert is the manager of a nightclub. When summer comes, he begins his “dance for the millions.” He is a member of the Communist party and leader of a squad that, in the event of disturbances, heads to the barricades to beat up dissidents. Like most Cuban men he has spent time in the military, and is ready to do his part in a hypothetical war against the American marines.

One day a week he meets with his party cell. In his suitcase Roberto carries three bottles of premium rum. After a tedious meeting, he and his pals drink the rum. A little while later he suggests they kick back a little. From his mobile phone he calls a quartet of statuesque, bisexual girls, and in a house near the beach they engage in a boisterous orgy.

Roberto refers to such squandering of financial resources as “the cost of doing business.” It is a way of keeping high-level political bosses on his side. From time to time he “soaks” them with money, letting them in for free to his discotheque, where their tabs are on the house.

A clever “cuadro’ weaves a web of influential friendships. Among Roberto’s friends are members of the military and state security. The Havana resident knows, however, that, in the event he one day he finds himself behind bars, they will be of little use to him.

But while he still can, Roberto takes full advantage of these friendships to intimidate his bosses and take care of small matters. Having a guy with three-stars is like having a guard dog at your side. It’s a guarantee.

That’s why it matters little that one of his military buddies swings by the nightclub with some regularity to fill his Chinese-made vehicle with two cases of beer, several bottles of whiskey, chorizo sausages from Spain and half a leg of ham.

Roberto recovers these costs by night. It is key for an administrator in the tourism and restaurant industry to have someone who specializes in covering up graft. One’s accountant must be a magician. That’s what makes embezzlement work.

Coming off as a member of the khaki green power structure is essential to maintaining an expensive lifestyle. Roberto owns two cars and each of his sons drives a motorcycle. He has more than one lover and a reasonable amount of cash hidden away in different locations. He never passes up the chance to make some money. If the Ladies in White need to be roughed up, you can count on him.

But his main adversaries now are not these female “mercenaries.” It is President Raúl Castro and his circle, especially the Comptroller General of the Republic, Gladys Bejerano. Her audits are making things difficult for him. Every day he is able to steal less and less.

“Cuadros” like Roberto ask themselves how far the General, who doesn’t seem to be playing games, is determined to go. Roberto feels screwed by a form of persecution being carried out against the middle and lower classes, the ones who support the “system” — a word synonymous with government, revolution and socialism.

Meanwhile, as long as they don’t get caught, they have immunity and can carry around suitcases full of cash. The crime mobs within the restaurant and tourism industry are still mapping out their strategies. They are still stealing. They have always done it, and they see no reason why they should stop now.

Fermín is another one of the system’s “cuadros.” He works in a department at the Union of Young Communists. He graduated from a party-run school where he memorized numerous treatises by Karl Marx and stretches of speeches by Fidel Castro.

This young “cuadro” was so indoctrinated that, when he spoke, he sounded like a Castro clone giving a harangue. He has forgotten neither the Marxist textbooks nor the speeches. He now employs them discreetly. As the need arises.

One morning, while imploring factory workers to increase production, Fermín raises his voice and allows himself to be swept away by revolutionary fervor and heated rhetoric. After the requisite applause he heads off to a poor neighborhood, changing his oratorical style and adapting it to the marginalized audience.

That afternoon Fermín meets with a friend from childhood, who moves through the underworld like a fish through water. This is the person who pays him in convertible pesos for invitations to discotheques and nightclubs that Fermín has stolen.

It is a “legal” way to obtain hard currency. With this money and the diversion of shipments of chicken and cheese intended for his organization’s “recreational activities,” Fermín has opened a private cafe using his friend as a front man.

The profits are high. He gets most of his supplies for free or at very low price. Fermín has already renovated his house, and is making plans to set up a cozy love nest at a girlfriend’s place.

Unlike Roberto, Fermín is not worried about Raúl Castro’s offensive against corruption and out-of-control bureaucracy. Time is on his side. He is 29 years old and there is a promising political future ahead.

His goal is to climb the winding staircase of the status quo. When God calls the Castros and the other elderly leaders home, he wants to be well-positioned. Power likes nothing better than money.

*Translator’s note: The cartoon makes use of a pun. The cartoonist and author are referencing three separate meanings for the Spanish word cuadro, which can mean either a square, a painting, or in Cuba the type of person discussed in this blog post.

August 12 2012

Cuban Prisons: History Repeats Itself

August 12, 2012 Leave a comment

One cold evening with a persistent drizzle, the poet and journalist Raul Rivero in his apartment in the Havana neighborhood of La Victoria, told me that the worst thing in prison was when it came time to sleep.

Every night, while sleeping in his damp prison cell Canaleta, Ciego de Avila, he was a free man. In those late nights he would fantasize jumping the wall and quietly drawing back the Chinese bolts.

Then he drank coffee with friends, and suddenly relaxed and happy moments shared with his mother, wife and daughters returned

All the charm was broken when the bell went off and the passage of military boots hitting the floor or announcing a search deep into the cell. For Rivero sleep was the hardest.

To the 75 prisoners from the Black Spring of 2003, those years in prison seemed like centuries. They were not criminals. Or terrorists. They had not broken any law that would endanger national security.

In summary trials they fabricated a string of nonsense useful to the government of Fidel Castro. Their weapons were the pen and the word. The incriminating evidence presented to the prosecution were books, typewriters and laptops.

Oscar Elias Biscet, slept many years in a dreadful punishment cell. Upon release, the independent journalist Jorge Olivera looked to be twenty years older and carried a string of illnesses. Orlando Zapata died in prison as a result of a prolonged hunger strike. Ariel Sigler crossed the threshold of his cell turned into a human wreck.

When a straight and honest man knows who has committed no crime and the truth is on his side, it is very difficult to break him. And usually he is not bent by questioning in the style of the KGB, with threats, humiliation and corporal punishment.

In the prisons where they served their sentences, the dissidents never failed to report the brutalities that occurred within the prisons. I remember Pablo Pacheco, from his galley in Canaleta and with the help of friends, started a blog where he told stories had seemed taken from a book of horror.

The history of political imprisonment in Cuba is terribly painful. Someday, an important day, we will hold a minute of silence for the political prisoners who died in prison on the island.

If jail is rigorous for the opponents, what about the abuses common criminals receive. Yoilán, 26, has suffered from the severity of the Cuban penal system since age 14.

Yoilán does not consider himself to be innocent. He was a thief. He was stealing money or items of value to tourists. Being a teenager he was in a juvenile rehabilitation center.

“The prison guards, for any discipline, handcuffed you to the fence and kicked and beat you with batons. Sometimes using high-voltage electrical appliances. No matter that we were barely children,” recalls Yoilán.

In adult prisons, beatings and abuse are almost a norm. One would like to know the number of common prisoners killed as a result of beatings by the prison guards.

Prisons are not hotels. But corporal punishment and verbal abuse by those who care for the punished should be prohibited. It is enough that these men and women who committed crimes serve their punishment behind the bars of a cell.

If we speak of activists like Sonia Garro, Ramón A. Muñoz or Niurka Luque, imprisoned since mid-March, then the injustice is twofold. Their only ’crime’ was to claim a handful of rights in peaceful street protests.

Fortunately, in most nations of the planet you cannot go to prison for being a political opponent. China, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Burma and some African country or other as well as Cuba. It’s a shame.

Photo: Taken from the web Cuba Democracia y Vida.

August 12 2012

Can You Be Happy in Cuba?

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Photo: Taken from “The sea of happiness”, published in the Venezuelan blog “Oido en la Chata” on 30 May 2011.

There are lots of things that can make a person happy. A sunset. Contemplating a full moon. Chatting with friends. Reading a good book. Watching a baseball game. Enjoying a favourite meal. Playing Monopoly with the kids. Sitting on the Malecon* with a guitar, half a litre of run and breaking down the musical offerings of Joaquín Sabina or Pablo Milanés

Some are happy when they go to the theatre on the weekend. Or to the cinema. Talking in a park with their other half. Or walking round their neighbourhood, their home town. It doesn’t take a lot to make us happy.

We have all had happy moments. Even though you might have lived all your life in a country where due to its inefficiency, it does everything possible to embitter your existence, right from waking up in the morning.

We see how material shortages cause an unhappy marriage in Havana. Today they are meant to be filling a dozen buckets with water from the tank to wash: the pump motor in the building is broken.

As if that wasn’t enough, due to one of the many repairs to the electricity grid in the area, there won’t be any power from 9am to 3pm. The bread in the state rations is more acidic than ever. There’s no way you can eat it.

Breakfast was just a coffee. Well, if you can call that substitute bulked out with peas, “coffee”. Before morning is over, “those damned Cuban circumstances” have added a dose of bile to the liver.

Later comes the other odyssey. Getting on a city bus to go to the park to amuse the kids this Sunday. Two hours at the stop. Hand-to-hand combat to get on the bus. Shouts, bad smells and the kids crying and uncomfortable.

At this moment you call for the heads of the leaders. You want to get a rubber boat to Florida. And angrily wonder why Cubans put up with such a bad government.

But the hatred, like the happiness, is also passing. You get to the Maestranza park, with an impressive view of El Morrow, and despite the sun and the lines your kids are happy again.

When it’s better a drenching downpour lets loose. On the run. The umbrella is half broken and they all arrive soaked, but happy, at a hard currency cafe. The kids look at the display case and want an ice cream snack or a chocolate Nestles.

“We don’t have enough money” says the father sharply. “Not even enough to buy a packet of M&Ms”. And he ends up feeling frustrated and unhappy again.

He wants the earth to swallow him. For his lack of money. He detests the regime’s inability to make two currencies work: one that counts but you don’t get paid in it, and the other useless, with which you can’t buy good treats for your kids.

At night-time, a more or less decent meal. The ration of chicken arrived yesterday. Rice, red beans, salad. And a delicious little custard tart. A good spread for a family that is used to only getting to eat pork on the weekends.

When the couple goes to bed, relaxed in the half-light, they ask themselves, “Are we happy in Cuba?” They discuss it and come to the conclusion they’re not. They want another way of live. And they dream.

“When can we change this old furniture that came from our grandparents? Or fix the house? Or buy a 42 inch TV. Watch foreign channels? Have a computer? Surf the internet? Be able to eat, right now, what we want and not the repugnant fish croquettes?

The couple can’t even think of having a new car. With the heat it’s better to have an air conditioner. They prefer an efficient public transport system. Streets and parks that are lit and clean. And drinkable water in the pipes 24 hours a day.

They recognize that the Castro brothers won’t bring the change they desire. The optimum would be a slate of politicians with new ideas, honest and transparent, who rotate in power and work for a civil society, tolerant and without repression. But, where are these future politicians?

Perhaps it’s asking a lot. Since their future and that of their children lies in leaving Cuba. They believe they would be happier off of the island.

The British actor Charles Chaplin once said “true happiness is the closest thing to sadness”. Perhaps this is what he was talking about.

Translator’s note:
*The stone wall along Havana’s seafront.

Translated by: Alex Cook

August 8 2012

Raul Castro Knows That Food is a Time Bomb

August 7, 2012 3 comments

General Raúl Castro acknowledges that beans are more important than canons. For the green khaki overlords food is a matter of national security.

Since taking power on July 31, 2006, Castro II has tried to revitalize agricultural production. But, so far, nothing. The efforts of the enormous and inefficient Ministry of Agriculture have not allowed people to dine on meat, eat malanga*, or purchase fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.

Nothing has come of leasing out the land to increase harvests. Nor of paying three pesos for every liter of milk. Nor of raising the prices paid to private farmers. It is a structural problem. Never, not even when the former Soviet Union spent billions of rubles to subsidize the Cuban economy, has anyone been able to resolve the issue of food production.

With some regularity Fidel Castro liked to remind us that he was an expert in the field of agro-technology. Since the early years of the revolution he has invested time and resources to increase agricultural and livestock production.

In France he looked to livestock experts like André Voisin. He wanted the Frenchman to apply his thesis of rational grazing to the tropics. The then young and arrogant comandante assured Cuba that it would harvest so much malanga that it would be able to export it.

He said the same thing about citrus. In Valle de la Picadura on the outskirts of Havana the guerrilla leader designed immense air-conditioned dairies where he dedicated himself to crossbreeding livestock to obtain superior breeds which might provide greater amounts of beef and milk.

I do not believe any president in the world has been so intimately involved with the problem of food production is his country, or with such paltry results.

He planted coffee throughout the island. He introduced new and more resistant varieties of sugar cane. He planted strawberries, peaches and apples in a mountainous area of Sancti Spiritus province that had a special microclimate.

In spite of his successive failures, Castro never quit. In the 1990s, without the subsidy from Moscow, he established fifty agricultural camps to plant a strain of bananas called “microjet.” He was so excited with the abundance of bananas that he ordered cookbooks to be printed so that housewives might learn to prepare new recipes.

One night he asked his consultants to ship some McDonald’s hamburgers to him by air. He wanted to compare them with some burgers he had created and christened “Zas.” After trying the gringo hamburgers, he declared the Cuban versions better. The Zas burgers were sold in cafes that were converted into hamburger restaurants, two per person.

He acquired some freezers from Argentina. Once in Cuba they were used to manufacture non-dairy ice cream whose flavors were derived from lemon, orange and grapefruit concentrates. He then said that the citrus products would provide a person’s daily recommended dose of vitamin C. Such was his passion for farming and livestock that he produced beans, cattle and buffalo, as well as cheese and ice cream products on his vast estate known as Zone 0.

But the end result was that he destroyed the nation’s sugar industry. If there was one thing Cubans knew how to do, it was how to grow cane and produce sugar. The production of the sweet granule is now comparable to what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Cuba has gone from being “the world’s sugar bowl” to be being an importer of sugar.

The number of heads of cattle has dropped to a minimum. Here’s a fact for you: More cattle are slaughtered on Cuban fields than in state slaughterhouses. All the projects of the comandante  end in farce. Today we have neither cows nor milk, nor coffee, nor bananas, nor beef, nor fish or shellfish.

His brother Raúl knows that the food issue is a time bomb. If the regime could stuff the grocery store shelves, it would be able to more comfortably govern a population whose bellies were full. But a cudgel cannot coax crops from the soil. Cuba spends almost $500 million annually to purchase food. Castro II’s plan is to reduce imports.

Furthermore, the measures put in place are incomplete. Leasing out land for ten years and prohibiting someone who works the land from building a home on it is utter stupidity. Ideally, the land would be leased for ninety years or more, and farmers would be allowed to build houses on it.

If the regime wants to significantly reduce prices, it should close state distribution facilities. Theft and fraud in these facilities have made some people millionaires. Raúl Castro himself acknowledges that embezzlement at Havana’s agricultural markets totals 12 million pesos.

The ludicrous prices the state pays for products does not provide farmers with an incentive to increase production. Those who work the land prefer to sell what they produce to private middlemen who offer them better prices.

A private farmer must sell 80% of his harvest to the state. If this figure were between 20 and 25%, and producers could commercialize their surpluses, the exorbitant prices of meat, fruits and vegetables would fall.

Another hurdle is the inability of owners to sell their animals. They may only do so to the state, which pays less than 10 convertible pesos ($11) per cow. The solution is to cut the animal’s throat and pretend it was an accident. Or to arrange with a slaughterer to sacrifice the animals at night and then report them as having been stolen.

Absurd laws lead to pitfalls. If the government were to create wholesale markets, the prices for food prepared and sold by private sector workers would fall. Five years ago a pizza cost 5 to 7 pesos in the capital. Now the cheapest one costs between 12 to 15 pesos. A glass of juice that used to cost two pesos has risen to three. A small snack from one peso to two. Meanwhile, workers’ salaries remain frozen in time.

General Castro knows that the food shortage is like a sleeping volcano. It it were to erupt one day, it could blow the regime to pieces.

There is no more effective opposition than the significant and growing segment of the population that has no money, the people who eat little and poorly. In an attempt to halt the discontent and fill the empty pots, Castro II has tried to introduce a series of measures to raise food production while lowering its cost.

So far, it has not worked. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro watches events unfold from his perch in political retirement. He assures us that he is looking into a plant called the moringa that will, once and for all, solve the nation’s food problems. Believe me, this is no joke.


*Translator’s note: A subsistence crop which produces starchy cormels similar in size to potatoes and cooked in similar ways.

August 6 2012

Cuba, Ten Years From Now, What Will It Be?

August 2, 2012 2 comments

“How much longer?”

In 2022, Fidel Castro will be 96. His brother Raul, 91. If God still hasn’t come to collect them, it’s likely they’ll be two demented old people in the care of a gang of military nurses who every now and then will change their diapers and give them spoons of jam and baby food.

Castro I could still be writing some somber Reflection about the end of the human race. But that date, his collected works would be in the final niches. The commander would rest in a magnificent tomb in Santiago de Cuba or in the Sierra Maestra. The General would be buried on Holguin or on the Second Front. The best sculptors of the island would have designed an impressive mausoleum that would provide a pilgrimage site for the revolutionary world tourists.

It’s not clear to me how long the national mourning would extend on the death of Fidel Castro. Fifteen days, a month… They would open a book of condolences at the base of the Jose Marti Monument in the Plaza of the Revolution. A lot of Cubans believe that Fidel would be embalmed. Raul no, he’s more ordinary.

But what we can all agree on and take for certain is that within ten years, whether the brothers from Biran are still alive or already resting in peace in their eastern tombs, the future of Cuba will still be an unknown.

There are four possible scenarios. The children of Castro II, Mariela, Alejandro, or the son-in-law Lopez Callejas, will consolidate their power. They will expand economic reforms. They will permit businesses of Cubans living in the United States. They will tear down the absurd immigration laws. They will legalize opposition parties previously colonized or penetrated by the special services. They will sign an agreement with the United States to fight international drug trafficking and terrorism. And they will extend the migratory agreement of 1994, to prevent Cubans from illegally leaving their country.

It would be a good move. But the powerful Cuban-American lobby would not swallow this pill of Castro-Regime-Light, and the U.S. Government would continue to maintain the economic and financial embargo.

Let’s move to another scenario. Olive-green entrepreneurs might seek a deal with the politicians to the north and make a deal for democracy half-measures. For the “politically correct.” They would respect human rights and authorize all political parties in exchange for control of power and the repeal of the embargo.

U.S. analysts and political pragmatists would welcome it, knowing that a week government could provoke a huge wave of immigrants. And without a strongman, Cuba could be fertile ground for the Mexican drug traffickers, and for Colombians and Latin Americans in general.

If by this date the dissidence would have done a thorough job in the communities and doesn’t accept royalties or compromises with the old power recycled, it would become a formidable adversary and guarantee an authentic democracy.

The third variant is the emergence of a tropical Jaruzelski. A decent and honorable soldier who establishes a civic-military junta, with the support of the Catholic Church (note: another important actor in the future), dissolving the boring and monotonous parliament and convening general elections within a year.

With all parties, this junta would develop a new Constitution. Of course, in exchange they would ask for immunity and formulate a law that prohibits prosecuting the violations of human rights of the previous government.

The fourth variant would be one led by the poor of some Havana slum. People tired of socialism, without a future, and with great material needs, would take to the streets and start robbing the hard currency stores.

The disturbances would become stronger and in powerful markets on the Paseo de Prado and in Central Park they would put an end to the autocracy. These unexpected political actors would play a fundamental role when it came time to negotiate a deal.

In any of the variants, the role of the exile will be fundamental. In the diaspora could arise crooks and opportunists who would make a deal even with the devil to set up their businesses and weave an alliance with the new leaders.

Whatever happens, within ten years the problem to solve in Cuba will be continuing to generate robust economic growth. And there will still be unavoidable issues. Like the compensation to U.S. Businesses and Cuban owners who were dispossessed of their property by Fidel Castro’s Revolution. This will have to be negotiated: by that date the public coffers will be empty.

If betting on real democracy, it’s important that the banks and world financiers contribute to this new State by returning the millions resting peacefully in secret foreign accounts.

The path of the island could be something else. No one knows. But its fate will be decided in a decade. Right now we’re watching the last roll of the movie. Are you optimistic about the future of Cuba? I’m skeptical.

Photo: Grafitti that appeared in a sports center wall Pontoon, Centro Habana, in July 2012. “Hasta cuando” — How much longer?

August 2 2012