Archive for November, 2012

Independent Journalists Live on the Razor’s Edge in Cuba

November 25, 2012 1 comment

Aini Martin Valero, independent journalist. The photo is by Gustavo Pardo and was taken from Cubanet.

Every day when they go out to report or write some story about daily reality, invisible to official media, the murky Gag Law that can land them in jail for 20 years or more floats over their heads.

It’s not just the legal harassment.  There is also their ration of slaps, subtle taekwondo blows in the ribs, insults by fanatics spurred on by the special services, threatening phone calls at the break of dawn or arbitrary detentions.

The further they live from Havana, the more brazen and open is the intimidation.  Independent journalists of deep Cuba, after spending several hours in a pestilent cell, are released in the night, far from home, on a hidden roadway surrounded by sugar cane plantations.

None of the free journalists can collate his information with State institutions.  All the officials shut the doors in their faces.  Nor do they offer you facts or figures.  But there is always a way of getting them.  Sometimes, employees of state agencies, sick of Fidel Castro’s inefficient socialism, whisper to you first hand information or numbers.

Anonymous people bring you internal regulations, figures about suicides or the analysis of the latest meeting of the provincial Party.  In exchange for nothing.  They just want to broadcast aspects of the sewers of power.  Nonconformist technocrats, beat cops, low ranking military soldiers, prostitutes with years in “office,” marginalized slum dwellers and budding athletes are the true architects of any story or news.

Each text that goes out from the mature laptops of many independent journalists has a dose of review filtered by those deep throats desirous of changing the Cuban political compass.  Years of writing under the hostile barrage of fire and harassment have polished the style of these lone wolves.

When one speaks of journalism on the margin of state control in Cuba, some indispensable names must not be forgotten.  From human rights activists Ricardo Bofill and Adolfo Rivero Caro, who in years of hard repression reported about the violations of essential rights of man, to Yndamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, Rolando Cartaya, Raul Rivero, Ana Luisa Lopez Baeza, Iria Gonzalez, Tania Quintero and Ariel Tapia, among others.

Rivero Caro is no longer with us.  The rest sleep far from their homeland, anguished about the future of Cuba, dreaming that they walk along the Malecon or drink coffee brewed in their Havana homes.  The repression, the jail and the harassment by the regime forced them into exile.  We have had to get by without them.

There is Luis Cino.  I present him to you if you are not familiar with harassment.  He has a blog, Cynical Circle and writes high quality chronicles on Cubanet and Digital Spring, a newspaper managed in a Lawton apartment.  It is a reference.  For the quality of his work and his human condition.

In Downtown Havana, surrounded by empty lots and buildings that scream for repair, cradle of prostitution and con artists, of people who think twice as fast as the average Havanan, bastion of misery, prohibited games, children induced by their parents to beg for coins, stronghold of the sale of melca and imported marijuana, here, in the heart of the capital resides Jorge Olivera.

Tall and quiet mulatto.  A softy in every sense of the word.  He was one of the defendants of the Black Spring.  Not even a walled cell could erase the perennial smile from his face.  Seventeen years after beginning as an independent journalist, Olivera has not lost hope of greeting his friend Raul Rivero again and together founding a new kind of daily in a future Havana.

Meanwhile, Jorge keeps firing with his pen.  Stories, opinion pieces and poetry drafted at night.  In Santa Fe, surrounded by cats, we can find Tania Diaz Castro with a long track record in the Cuban opposition movement.  In Regla, among quacks and religious syncretism, a reporter from the barricades, Aini Martin Valero also has a magnet for news.

Juan Gonzalez Febles is another sharpshooter, he currently directs Digital Spring.  The lawyer Laritza Diversent lives in a village in keeping with its name:  Calvary.  According to a state decree, the majority of its inhabitants, natives of eastern provinces, are illegal.  They survive in overcrowded cardboard and aluminum shacks.

To relieve legal illiteracy, Diversent opened in the dining room of her home a legal consultancy, Cubalex.  And for various digital sites she writes articles on legal topics, without jargon.  Some are very popular in her neighborhood.

If he ever aspired to be a councilor, Roberto de Jesus Guerra would succeed. There is no need to know the address of his home.  The locals indicate to you the home of this communicator born in the east of Cuba, agile and tireless in the search for information.  He ably manages the audiovisual equipment and has the instincts of a detective.  It was Roberto de Jesus who got the scoop about the medical brutality that may have cost the lives of 27 psychiatric patients in January of 2010.

Miriam Celaya a reporter of the race.  She resides near the “mall” of Carlos III in Downtown Havana.  We independent journalists, who agree on almost nothing, do agree that Celaya is one of the best columnists of that other Cuba that the government tries to ignore.

On all the island there are independent journalists, some are better known and have more experience than others.  But all report the vision of their community and their country.  They are the cry of the citizens who have no echo in the official press.

Translated by mlk

November 24 2012

After Food, What Most People in Cuba Are Talking About

November 20, 2012 1 comment

God willing, before spring of 2013 arrives, Ernesto, thirty-five years old and the owner of a small confectionery business in the Havana neighborhood of Santo Suárez, will probably be able to travel to Madrid. He will stroll along the Plaza de Cibeles, and buy something in an outlet store or a Chinese street market. And if his brother-in-law buys him a ticket, he will sit in the south end of Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and see Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the gang play. It is his lifelong dream.

If, in spite of the monstrous crisis devastating the Iberian peninsula, his sister in Vallecas* is able to advance him a few hundred euros to buy the tickets and the Spanish consulate in Havana does not deny him an exit visa at the last minute, he will send an email to his relatives and friends in Spain saying, “Meet me at Barajas Airport.”

Right now the much discussed emigration reform is the second most important topic of conversation among Cubans after the headache brought on by trying to find enough to eat every day. The desire to emigrate to find temporary work overseas to make a few decent dollars or euros, whether it be cutting down trees in a dense Canadian forest, clearing snow in Berlin or selling ice cream in Seville, plays a part in the future plans of many Cuban families.

Some are able to do it because they have relatives who were part of the first red-blooded group to reach the other side of the Florida Straits. After spending money on medical exams and waiting for the green light from US authorities, they manage to finally arrive in the sun-drenched city. Each year more than 20,000 people are able to realize their own American dream in this orderly, legal and secure way.

But not everyone in Cuba has relatives in Miami. There are other ways to enter the United States. As a result of the Cuban Adjustment Act, a bizarre federal law that grants automatic residency to any Cuban who manages to set foot on American soil, people on the island find ways to reach El Dorado. They include tales of heroic exploits such as transforming a 1950s Ford truck into a motorboat, leaving on a surf board or hiding within the landing gear of a commercial jet.

Hundreds of Cubans have lost their lives trying to escape the Communist autocracy. There are no exact figures. According to the U.S. Coast Guard one in three balseros ends up as shark bait. The Cuban Adjustment Act is like a marathon; not everyone makes it to the end. It is like a game of Russian roulette in which you could lose your raft or your life. There are stories circulating on the web of people being swindled by bands of human traffickers. Numerous countrymen have seen their hopes dashed, dying of hunger and thirst on a mountain in Colombia while trying to get to Panama or to a desert on the Mexican border.

If we add to these the regime’s absurd restrictions, which grant it the right to authorize or deny Cubans permission to leave and reenter the country, we arrive at a devastating conclusion: In the past fifty-three years we have lived under a perpetual state of siege. There is always a sense of gratitude when some of these perverse prohibitions are lifted, but General Raúl Castro’s proposed reforms have the whiff of moldy cheese.

The imagination of foreign correspondents comes as a surprise, when they write headlines that starting in January of 2012, Cubans can go sightseeing. How many in Cuba will be able to do that? I assure you that they are the minority. The mandarins and their kin, those yes. They’ve already been doing it. They go to Margarita Island in Mallorca. These “tourists” are the exception.

Most Cubans who travel abroad and whose stay is longer than twenty-four months want to work hard and save money to repair their dilapidated houses, or buy new furniture and a 24-inch plasma screen TV.  Only if things are going really well will they think about staying.

We Cubans cannot travel abroad because, in the first place, the money the state pays us is worthless. Even if you worked and saved for several years, it would not be enough to buy a round-trip ticket. Unlike Paco from Andalucia, John from Nebraska or Pepe from Mantilla, we can only travel if an uncle from Hialeah sends us one or two thousand dollars.

Economic dependence on relatives living in the diaspora is almost total. Any good that comes to a middle-class families in Cubans who do not receive handouts from the government, or who are not famous writers or musicians, is dependent on those who live in the “Yuma**,” from where almost all the shoddy material entering the island comes. Improvement in the quality of life for the average citizen is intimately linked to the remittances and aid sent by family and friends living in exile. The same applies to one’s ability to travel. The expenses are covered by residents on the other shore.

We have not even talked about the restrictions contemplated in the new emigration reform with respect to professionals or dissidents. For Raúl Rivero or Carlos Alberto Montaner the regime will continue to deny them permission to visit their homeland. And a telecommunications engineer’s ticket will be cancelled by a grim emigration official alleging issues of national security.

The government washes its hands like Pontius Pilate by lifting restrictions on people like Ernesto the confectioner, with his plans to travel to Madrid. Professionals and dissidents, meanwhile, remain on the black list.

Photo: A street in central Havana, Laritza Diversent

*Translator’s note: A working-class neighborhood of Madrid.
**Colloquial name for the United Staes.

November 17 2012

Obama’s Victory Shores Up The Cuban Regime

November 9, 2012 1 comment

It was not only Barack Obama’s supporters in Chicago’s Democratic party circles who celebrated the close victory over his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, with champagne. Though without as much rejoicing, the club of Communist businessmen, who together control 80% of Cuba’s feeble national economy, probably also spent midnight on November 6 calmly celebrating the Obama victory with a toast.

In the last four years the measures approved by the Democratic administration have caused the cash registers in Cuba to ring out joyfully. Since January 2008, when the “Hawaiian hurricane” captured the attention of half the world with his restrained conversational style and promises of change, the issue of Cuba has never been among his political priorities.

Obama came to the U.S. presidency buffeted by a terrible crisis which shook the foundations of the world’s largest economy, two ongoing wars and a trail of international condemnation for the aggressive and unilateral policies of his cowboy predecessor, George Jr.

In his first term he rescued Detroit’s automotive industry which, alongside Coca Cola, Apple and McDonald’s, is a symbol of American greatness. Against all odds he got Congress to approve “Obamacare” and brought American troops stationed in Iraq home. Obama is perhaps the best president the United States could have had in these times.

According to a poll by the Elcano Institute 70% of Europeans approve of his administration. In Africa, Asia and Latin America the numbers are similar. Only in Israel is Romney favored over Obama. His list of unfulfilled promises is short. Within the first two years of his presidency a Republican-majority Congress became a formidable opponent, blocking all his legislative initiatives.

Because of China’s economic expansion, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the euro zone crisis, the diplomatic squabble with Washington, which the regime in Havana often stages as a publicity stunt, is not high on the Obama agenda.

In terms of Cuba the first black president has fulfilled his election promises. He re-instituted family-related trips to the island as well as cultural and academic exchanges, and increased the amount of money that could be sent to Cuba to $10,000. But the Castro brothers wanted more. They wanted Obama to rescind the economic embargo and grant political pardons to five Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.

The White House’s spokesmen were emphatic. The ball was in Cuba’s court. It was Raúl Castro’s turn at bat. Pressured by the death of the dissident Orlando Zapata after an 82 day hunger strike, the government negotiated the release and exile of almost a hundred political prisoners.

Castro II was also committed to a pallid economic reform plan and to getting rid of absurd restrictions that prohibited Cubans from having mobile phones, buying and selling cars, and renting hotel rooms. And although officials in the White House saw the reforms in Cuba as a step forward, the bar was not raised with new liberalizing initiatives. They demanded democracy, respect for human rights and the political opposition, and that the general remove the padlock from the internet.

The official press, the voice of party that had controlled the destiny of Cuba for 53 years, called off the brief honeymoon with Obama. Fidel Castro cast the first stone with a barrage of attacks on the American leader and on “Yankee imperialism.”

But behind the curtains, where real politics take place, the mandarins can feel satisfied. In the last four years, thanks to family reunification measures adopted by Obama, remittances have doubled from one billion dollars to a little more than two billion in 2011. The value of commercial goods brought in by agencies and “mules” hovers at around three billion. After Canadians, Cuban-Americans make up the second largest group of visitors to the island.

The autumn of 2012 was critical for General Castro. If Hugo Chávez and Barack Obama had lost their elections, regime officials in the Palace of the Revolution would have been forced to dust off emergency contingency plans, which would have quickly led to changes more serious and profound than the current ones.

The victories by Chavez and Obama are a dose of oxygen for the Cuban autocrats. The purchase of one hundred million barrels a day of Venezuelan petroleum at wholesale prices, combined with the deep pockets of the Bolivian comandante and the continuation of Obama’s policy of family re-unification, will allow fresh funds to flow into government coffers, and the Castros will be able to sleep soundly.

It is not that inside Cuba everything is rosy. Far from it. But Obama’s re-election has given Castro II significant room to maneuver.

More importantly, it buys time, especially if we remember that Fidel is 86 and Raúl is 81. At their ages, having four more years to steer the ship through calm waters in a country that survives on charitable donations and remittances from overseas is good news. It warrants opening a bottle of champagne.

Photo by Pete Souza, official White House photographer. Born in the United States in 1954, Sousa is of Portuguese background. 

November 8 2012

Cuba Needs a Constitution That Serves Everyone

November 7, 2012 2 comments

Some dissidents believe the best place for the current constitution is a waste basket. Laura Diversent, an independent attorney, is more circumspect.

“Certainly, today’s constitution has innumerable shortcomings. I don’t believe it would be adequate in a democratic Cuba. But in the early stages, as part of a serious and profound process of reform, the constitution ratified in 1992 could be applied. Shortly thereafter, a constitutional convention could be called to draft a new Fundamental Law that is sober, has a solid legal foundation, and that covers the social and political rights of all Cubans,” says the legal expert.

Diversent does not see re-instituting the 1940 constitution as a option. “It is inappropriate, overly meticulous and obsolete for these times,” she claims. For a few years now, intellectuals and Cuban legal scholars from the moderate left, participating in open debate forums sponsored by various online organizations and the Cuban Catholic church, have echoed this theme.

The constitutional challenge cannot be put off. Setting aside their differences, lawyers, academics and political experts who have analyzed the issue have expressed their belief that a vigorous popular democracy is essential. For them, the future of Cuba must, by necessity, be a socialist one.

Voices such as those of Roberto Veiga, a legal expert and director of the publication Espacio Laical*, would prefer a less ideological system of government – one that is inclusive and more effective at managing the country. Veiga, who could accept either a new constitution or the current one with some corrections, foresees a socialist state but would prefer to opt for a moderate form of capitalism with a strong social program.

According this viewpoint the people should decide this at the ballot box. The debates, discussions and forums on the future of the Fundamental Law is a sign that many intellectuals on the island are not idly standing by.

The level of judicial ignorance among Cubans is appalling. In 1976 people obediently went en masse to vote for a new constitution that few had barely even skimmed. In communities and neighborhoods in the Cuban heartland a significant segment of the citizenry is unaware of its anti-democratic precepts. At the end of the 1980s I participated with Tania Quintero in the production of a national television program called Disrepect for the Law. In on-the-street interviews an overwhelming majority ignored what was “the first law of the Republic.”

In an article published in the journal Espacio Laical, the attorney Julio Antonio Fernández reports the results of a study carried out by te National Assembly of People’s Power in 1987 on “the factors that most affect the  development of a culture of respect for law” in which people were asked, “What do you consider to be the law most important to a citizen?” Of the 1,450 who responded, 1,046 did not cite the constitution. Of the 44 who did cite it, 5 were political figures.

And it is the government of Fidel Castro that has been the most flagrant violator of the Constitution. For years it infringed Article 43, where it says that, “The State recognizes the right won by the Revolution of citizens, without distinctions of race, color of skin, sex, religious beliefs, national origin or any other damage to human dignity.” Among its statements it established that they “are served in all restaurants and other public service establishments” and “enjoy the same resorts, beaches, parks, social services and other cultural, sports, recreation and relaxation centers.”

Cubans were third class citizens in their own country. They had no right to stay in or enjoy hotels and facilities designed exclusively for foreigners. A shameful tourist apartheid.

The current Constitution is a complete farce. It needs urgent reforms. Or to be replaced by another. A Basic Law that most people don’t know should not be endorsed in the future. Currently, many do not see it as a protector of their inalienable rights. The current Constitution recognizes several social rights. But excludes political rights and freedom of expression, association and movement outside the authorized olive green autocracy.

In the hands of academics, political scientists, dissidents and citizens remains the task of deciding what do with the current Constitution.  If the current one should be rewritten or a new one created. The future of Cuba needs a Constitution that serves all of us.

Photo from Martí Noticias.

*Translator’s note: Espacio Laical (Lay Space) is a journal published by the Archdiocese of Havana and officially tolerated by the Cuban government, whose articles and editorials discuss alternate proposals for social, political and economic change in Cuba.

November 4 2012