A year ago, while preparing the official pomp to receive Pope Benedict XVI, elite troops from the Ministry of the Interior violently assaulted the house of the dissident Sonia Garro Alfonso, in the Los Quemados neighborhood of Marianao, in western Havana.
It was a spectacular operation. All the neighbors still remember what happened. “There were guys dressed like anti-riot troops from American movies. They used rubber bullets. They employed exaggerate violence, arresting Sonia and her husband Ramon. They took them and almost all their belongings. It was incredible. They treated them like they were terrorists,” one lady commented.
Sonio Garro’s path towards dissidence is marked by poverty and racism. “In my childhood, the happy moments could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I was the tenth daughter of a poor family of twelve siblings. I grew up in a violent slum. I never had toys at Christmas. I always had worn out second-hand clothes that were given to my mother by charity. I went to school with old broken down shoes, but with an immense will, thinking always about studying and bettering myself to change my fate,” Sonia told me in 2009.
She suffered racial discrimination while pursuing her lab technique studies. “I lived racism first hand. I remember one day I wanted to lodge a complaint at school and the vice principal of the center told me, “Go where you want, you’ll always be black.”
When I graduated, with a gold diploma, there was a ceremony in the Astral Theater. The Minister of Public Health came to deliver the award for the most outstanding student and an official came over and told me another person was going to collect it for me because my skin was so dark I wouldn’t look good in the photo. ’No offense, it’s not racism, but you’ll spoil the picture,’ he said. I never collected that award,” she told me in an interview I did with her at her home.
Later she was expelled from the polyclinic where she was working for having married an opponent to Fidel Castro’s government. She learned to sew on an old machine from the ’50s, to make a living and support her daughter, Elaine.
“And from the door of my house, while I sewed, I could see girls of 13 and 14 prostituting themselves. I also saw several accidents with children who were playing without their parents watching them. So from there was born the idea of creating a community project, where the little kids could entertain themselves, play and interact with others without danger,” Sonia said.
On February 27, 2007, Garro created the first independent center. In her home. She had some 20 kids between 7 and 15. It was free. And it didn’t matter if their parents were revolutionaries or not.
“The first rule was no talking about politics. I organized activities of drawing and sewing and my husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, a musician, was in charge of choreographing dancing and teaching the kids to play musical instruments. On the weekends we had parties and shared children’s books and toys. Foreign NGOs helped us with materials and medicines, as did embassies and individuals in a modest way, giving us what they could,” explained Sonia while showing me photos of the activities.
After that initial experience, Garro went for more. She opened another center in the slum area of Palenque, in the municipality of Marianao itself. What seemed like a noble action within society, which would bring more benefits than problems, triggered an earthquake on the part of the State Security. “The government’s response to my social work were three acts of repudiation and a couple of beatings. The last act of repudiation did not work, no one in the neighborhood attended. They left empty-handed.”
Much happened in those four years. Her community projects closed due to harassment by the Special Services. Sonia Garro then joined the marches of the Ladies in White. And also half a dozen seasoned women, who featured in street protests demanding respect for political rights and demanding democracy.
Her husband Ramon was not far behind. In May 2010, desperate because he didn’t know where Sonia was being detained, he climbed to the roof of their house, still under construction, with a machete and began shouting slogans. The indignation of this Havanan was recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Recently, from the Combinado del Este prison he wrote a letter (they are kept separate).
It has been 12 months that this couple has been in jail. They live in an authentic legal limbo. Officially they are accused of public disorder and attempted murder. But there is no trial date.
Yamilé Garro Alfonso is the mother of two young children. She was a simple housewife, who now takes the place of her sister in the marches of the Ladies in White. Every week or every two weeks, according to the visits, she loads heavy bags of food and toiletries on her shoulders and heads for sometimes to the women’s prison, Black Mantle, other times to the Combinado del Este prison. In her tenement room in San Leopoldo, she also cares for Elaine, the daughter of Sonia and Ramon who will soon turn 17.
The controversial dissident of the barricade is strongly suppressed by the tough guys of State Security. Raul Castro does not want the opposition to take to the streets as public platform for their demands. The General knows that could trigger a domino effect among ordinary Cubans, tired of living with a future in quotation marks.
The only way to pressure the regime to release Sonia Garro and Ramon Munoz is a strong international campaign. There is no other way.
22 March 2013
It is unprecedented. For the first time in Catholicism’s more than two thousand year history, we have a pope from the Americas. The news did not go unnoticed in Havana, although the faithful did not gather euphorically at the doors to the cathedral, located in the historic heart of the city.
Ricardo, a 43-year-old attorney and moderate Catholic, has other priorities. Within 72 hours he will become a Cuban emigrant. Yet another one. A few days ago he posted a hand-written sign on the balcony of his apartment announcing the sale of his furniture, a 32-inch plasma TV and a Sony Lenovo laptop. With the proceeds he hopes to buy a plane ticket to Costa Rica.
Surprised by the news, Ricardo thinks the challenges facing the new pontiff go beyond those of the Catholic faith. “Benedict XVI left behind a host of unresolved problems – from corruption within the Vatican itself to the troubling issue of pedophilia. I am happy that for the first time we will have a pope who is South American and Jesuit.”
Without access to the internet or cable TV, Ana Luisa, a 37-year-old primary school teacher, learned that the Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the new pope while watching the eight o’clock TV newscast.
“I go to mass often. I was at the ceremonies in the Plaza of the Revolution during John Paul II’s visit and last year during Benedict XVI’s. I hope Pope Francis visits Cuba too. Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s participation on these occasions has been criticized. They accuse him of not being deeply involved in political issues and they might have a point. But a priest’s job is to be a messenger of faith, not a politician,” says Ana.
In front of Iglesia de Paula, in Havana’s Sevillano district, a priest shares biographical details about the recently elected Holy Father with two neighborhood housewives. One of them notes the coincidence of Bergoglio having been born on December 17, a date charged with religious significance in Cuba.
On the eve of December 17 thousands of devout Catholics, santeros, paleros, animists and buyers of promises often walk a kilometer or more through a narrow, dark street and gather at El Rincón to venerate St. Lazarus.
It is a massive pilgrimage which people attend of their own free will. Since the Castro brothers came to power 54 years ago, official media outlets have never published a route or called upon people to venerate Lazarus, the patron saint of Cuba’s beggars.
The dissident community greeted the news of the selection of an Argentine pope coolly. Rolando, a human rights activist, recalls how in March 2012 Benedict XVI offended some by failing to meet with a single dissident or anyone from the Ladies in White.
It is not the best of times for relations between the opposition and the nation’s Catholic church. But there is no getting around the fact that Cardinal Ortega, at the request of military regime and in conjunction with Spanish ambassador Miguel Ángel Moratinos, played a decisive role in freeing almost one hundred political prisoners in 2010.
Although the majority felt compelled to flee to Spain, the jailed dissidents and their family members gave high marks to the role played by the church. A church which at a distance seems more comfortable talking to the government than to the opposition.
Cuba is by no means a country with a high percentage of Catholics. But in the last 25 years the number of people attending mass has multiplied. There is another reality – the proverbial religious syncretism. Afro-Cuban religious sects are not in agreement with Vatican policies which they consider discriminatory.
“Neither of the two popes who have visited the island have wanted to meet with practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. In a country where the number of people who practice Santería or other versions of indigenous religions is significant, I feel it is counterproductive on the part of the church not to enter into dialogue,” says a Babalawo priest from Havana.
Nevertheless, nearly all those interviewed approved of Bergoglio’s selection. “America, and Latin America in particular, is the region of the world with the greatest number of Catholics, almost 480 million. It is a good signal that the conclave in Rome took us into consideration,” says Gloria, a practicing Catholic.
Bergoglio the Argentine will have to display his diplomatic skills, patience and wisdom in a continent that is a political stew. The Castros with presumably try to keep a pope born in Buenos Aires on their side and to get him to overlook the lack of democracy and freedom in the country.
Christians who have only one meal a day and who breakfast on coffee without milk hope that the new pope might be the voice of the dispossessed. “He didn’t pick the name Francis just because he liked it. It was allusion to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor,” explains Ignacio, a retiree who, in spite of poor nutrition and material scarcity, has never wavered in his religious devotion.
These are trying times. To play the devil’s advocate, trying to banish vice and corruption within the Holy See will be a complex task. As God’s representative on earth people throughout the world will be asking him to get involved in their problems and to try to resolve them. Both Catholics and non-Catholics in Cuba believe the pope might be able to fulfill their expectations.
Neither the pope nor the church has the know-how to fill the void left by the economic disaster created by Fidel Castro, which has now been aggravated by the death of Hugo Chavez and the question mark hanging over our future. That is not its purpose. But if it could facilitate a dialogue among Cubans with different ideas and persuasions, this could begin to set a historic precedent,” says Ricardo, the attorney who in 72 hours will be flying to Costa Rica.
Perhaps the bar has been set too high for Francis, but we all believe we have the right to ask more of him than masses and prayers.
16 March 2013
“It’s too soon to be able to analyze the consequences, positive or negative, of someone new in Miraflores. Even if elections are held soon and Nicolás Maduro wins, the exchange of oil for Cuban medical specialists could be adversely affected. Being an optimist, I hope Maduro keeps sending oil to Cuba at favorable rates. On the other hand we are entering a new period of crisis within a crisis that has been going on for 22 years,” says Joel while following developments on TeleSur.
To people waiting in line at a bakery in Sevilano, a neighborhood in Havana’s Tenth of October district, the passing of the Venezuelan leader is also a concern, especially if the flow of oil to Cuba is cut off. Among ordinary people on the island the concept of Chavismo is an abstraction. Read more…
Néstor, a baker, on one of his dawn work shifts, after selling 60 lbs of hard bread to the owner of a private cafeteria, places a “missed call” from his mobile to a guy how lives in another Havana neighborhood. (He calls, lets it ring once, and hangs up.)
It’s the agreed-upon signal. Some ten minutes later, the man appears on a motorbike. Néstor makes his buy. Two “yuma” marijuana cigarettes for 10 CUC. And a stash of powered Ketamine for 100 pesos. In the reeking bakery bathroom the baker prepares a “bazooka” — he mixes the Ketamine with the grass, and after wrapping it in a cartridge colored paper, he carefully smokes it with joy. As a complement, he makes a deal with another baker and with 2 CUC they acquire a half-liter of white rum.
Not everybody hooked on strong drugs in Cuba has the 50 CUC or more that a gram of mecla (cocaine) can cost. So then other options are sought. The most common is the native marijuana, that can be bought for 20 pesos a cigarette. Or Parkinsonil tablets, offered in clandestine Havana at between 20 and 25 pesos each tab.
But there are many and varied forms of “flying”. According to Yulieski, a suburban low-life and admitted drug addict, there is a list of medications that leave the effect of euphoria just like some other drug, besides being cheaper. From Homopatrina Drops through injections for asthma. Those who work night shifts, like Nestor the baker, are already used to “pilling” themselves up or smoking pot, to chase the sleepiness and tiredness away.
But it’s among the “celebrities”, as they call the people who frequent clubs and fashionable discotheques, where drugs and psychotropics cause furor. Many of the attendees who can pay a cover of as much as 10 convertible pesos, carry a gram of cocaine in little rocks or marijuana cigarettes in the folds of their jackets or in their cigarette boxes.
“The fastest way to roll good joints is with coke in rock or powder. It’s as important as having money or a car. In general, after the disco, private parties are put on on the beach or in a house supplied with enough liquor, sex, and drugs”, explains the “celebrity” Yasmani.
“Some reggae musicians are sick on powder and grass, also sons of government officials, and intellectuals of renown,” he assures me. “Drugs and pills, together with alcohol, play important parts in the Havana night.”
The worst, besides the harmful effects on the body, is that the number of youth drug addicts is growing. At the start, it seems like such an inoffensive hobby. And they do it to “change the body,” as the baker Nestor likes to say.
Then it turns into an indispensable necessity. Nestor himself, thanks to the sale of bread, flour or oil under the table, in a morning looks to make 500 pesos. For some time now, owing to his excessive addiction to drugs, he comes home with empty pockets.
Photo: Smoking marijuana. Now and again, the authorities discover marijuana fields in any province of the island.
Translated by: JT
30 Jan 2013
It is likely that the saga of a five decades old government in which the Castro brothers have played the leading roles is now on its last reel. Please, have a seat if you want to see how the movie ends.
Fidel Castro and his revolution arouse mixed emotions. To his followers, he is an icon of rebellion and the most prominent statesman of the 20th century.
His enemies are convinced he is the quintessential autocrat, a visionary caudillo who has destroyed Cuba’s economic and institutional infrastructure.
On the island the concept of modern democracy amounts to gibberish. In the 1970s Castro set up a people’s legislature that only appears to govern the country.
The People’s Power assemblies were first tried in Matanzas province. Later, in the 1980s, the concept began to be applied throughout the country. The regime in Havana considers it to be a truly democratic system.
It is made up of delegates from districts where neighbors choose them by raising their hands. These delegates form a municipal committee. Later a commission selects those representatives with the best revolutionary credentials to form the future National Assembly and their choice of these future parliamentarians is ratified in general elections.
These deputies elect the Council of State and president by secret ballot. In practice the People’s Power assemblies have proven to be ineffective at managing the problems of their communities.
Many people, however, see their representatives simply as spineless deputies who do not use the legislative assemblies to address the concerns of the average citizen. The nation’s parliament is a monotone chorus manipulated by the Castro brothers. All its laws and regulations are approved by unanimous vote.
But it is the government which decides what must be done. The deputies might tweak some language in a proposed law, but it is Raúl Castro who lays out the direction the country will follow.
Cuba has been governed by the Castro brothers for 54 years. Many feel that their administrations are as alike as two drops of water. I do not agree. While Fidel blatantly ignored rules and regulations and was considered to be above the law, Raúl has tried to create and atmosphere of respect for institutions and legality.
The first measures taken by Castro II were intended to clean house. He changed as much of the furniture as possible. The men loyal to his brother were forced into retirement or went down in disgrace. Raúl shut down corrupt and inefficient ministries. He lifted absurd prohibitions against the sale of houses and cars. He allowed Cubans to travel within their own country and to have cell phones. And he reformed Cuba’s rigid Cold-War-era emigration law.
He did not do these things out of some democratic instinct. If he had not made some efforts at modernization, the discontent and outrage would have become unmanageable.
The general was not lying when he said in his speech at the closing session of Cuba’s eighth National Assembly that he was not put in charge of the government to see socialism destroyed.
Keep in mind that this is a socialism made up of groups of military businessmen and cronies of the regime – one that controls a 90% chunk of key sector’s of the national economy.
In Cuba there is a formidable system of state capitalism combined socialist rhetoric. Although it has been dismantling a large proportion of government subsidies, it still guarantees free public health and education, both of which show a marked qualitative decline.
The mission for Castro II is to lead his brother Fidel’s revolution into safe harbor, to perpetuate his work. In an attempt to make tropical socialism irreversible, the current government has focused on a series of economic reforms that might allow it to cast the dead weight off the swollen state system.
The optimistic economic statistics do not, however, put food on Cubans’ dining tables. The big problem with Raúl’s timid economic reforms is their genesis. The laws governing private employment are too heavily geared to keep people from accumulating a lot of money.
An economic reform plan cannot be effective if it views those who generate wealth as criminals. The changes in Cuba are taking place slowly. They are being driven by a regime that is trying not to lose control of the social and economic situation.
The reforms are like a drop in the ocean. In the last five years some things have changed, but not as much as is wanted or needed. There are more personal freedoms in the realm of property rights, and people can try to make a living outside the confines of the state system.
But in essence the autocracy remains. Opposition is illegal and critics who openly challenge the status quo come under surveillance by the political police, and are subject to a barrage of insults from the official media.
The new National Assembly is made up of 612 deputies. There are some new faces, with a greater number of women and blacks, but it has the same feeling of command and control, with decisions still being made by unanimous consent.
It is a legislature that serves as a tool. The big news is that this is General Raúl Castro last term in office, and he has chosen as his crown prince Miguel Díaz-Canel, who henceforth will be the country’s first vice-president rather than Machado Ventura.*
Invariably, Cuba’s luck will change. We will have to wait and see how things turn out. Five years is a long time in politics. The revolution’s original leaders dream of crafting a succession that will last for a hundred years.
On the island there are those who believe they are already watching the movie’s ending. Others are thinking only about how to stretch it out, the longer the better. For some, democracy is a matter of turning a corner… after the Castros’ funerals.
More than a few believe that in 2059 they will be in the Plaza of the Revolution, cheering for a Castro heir. Political forecasting is risky, but you too can place your bets.
Photo: Raul Castro and Esteban Lazo, newly elected president of the National Assembly of People’s Power. From La Infomación.
*Translator’s note: José Ramón Machado Ventura, outgoing first vice-president of the Republic of Cuba and Díaz-Canel’s immediate predecessor.