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Why Isn’t the Dissident Movement Relevant to the Average Cuban

July 28, 2013 1 comment

20130128-620x330My neighbors think exactly the same way as many in the opposition. They are as unhappy with the government of the Castro brothers as any dissident. Many a night I have to listen to loud complaints and criticisms leveled against the regime of General Raúl Castro.

The causes for this disgust are numerous. They vary from the cost of putting food on the table, low wages and the absurdity of having two currencies to sky-high prices for basic commodities and corruption at every level.

At least people have not taken to the street to protest as in Brazil. In Cuba the escape valve is the living room of your house, where people never tire of grumbling and bemoaning their bad luck.

When workers are asked why they do not form independent trade unions or housewives are asked why they do not bang their pots and pans in the street to complain about overpricing, they look at you as if to say, “Do you think I am stupid?” Invariably the response is almost always, “I’m not going to play the hero,” or “If others do it, I will too.”

“Why don’t you join an opposition group,” I ask. No one admits to being afraid; they prefer to say they do not want to put their families at risk. Others claim they do not trust dissidents. Or that no one from the opposition has approached them with a proposal.

This is an interesting point. It is odd that in no neighborhood of Havana — I should mention I happen to live in the capital — can anyone find a dissident, especially since most of the opposition suffers from the same shortages as the average citizen. Actually, they suffer even more if you consider they are often harassed by the special services.

In my opinion the opposition has not figured out how to take advantage of this obvious discontent to attract followers. They live in their own world — one of discussions, meetings, debates among themselves and now trips overseas. Their initiatives are unknown inside Cuba. The average Cuban is not even aware of what they do.

Meanwhile, the inefficient public transport system continues to be a popular source of discontent. People complain about the poor quality of bread. Trash cans overflow with garbage yet trucks do not come by to pick it up. And every night broken water pipes turn the city’s streets into rivers.

I do not believe that official journalists — steadfast defenders of the regime — are unaware that their neighbors are irritated by the qualitative decline in public education or by the professional incompetence of many doctors.

Eight out of ten people with whom I speak on the street do not support the Castro regime, but the opposition has not figured out a way to capitalize on this anger. It is more concerned with promoting its agenda overseas.

By harassing them, infiltrating their ranks with secret agents and sowing divisions, State Security has made dissidents’ work difficult. The official media has never given them a platform to make their viewpoints known. Nor will it. This can only be done through hard work.

The business of an opposition party is to recruit members. I believe it would not be too difficult for the opposition to find people willing to listen in parks and on the street, or while waiting in line and at bus stops. Dissidents would have to do community outreach, focusing more on the problems of a neighborhood and its residents, their natural allies.

Certainly, enlisting a skeptical people is not an easy task. Politics are not fashionable and many of those feeling outraged also view the opposition as “a band of moochers and opportunists.”

This is the message the government has been putting out for years. Undoing this image will be difficult and the behavior of certain dissidents hardly helps matters. Some join the opposition in order to gain political refugee status and move to the United States.

This vagabond dissident movement has no shortage of people who battle the regime with their ideas but remain bookish narcissists. The problem is that political initiatives have validity only if they are group endeavors, not individual ones.

Among certain dissidents there is also a disturbing tendency to believe that the initiatives of others do not count. They use the same weapons as the government; you are either with them or against them.

False accusations and condemnations are used frequently. If someone does not share another’s opinions, the first impulse is often to say that “this guy is an agent of state security” without providing any evidence.

It is the fastest way to brand an adversary but no one comes out of it looking good. When dissidents fight among themselves, only the regime benefits.

The opposition simulates a catwalk of vanities. I am sorry to say this but every time I attend an event or have a conversation with some of them, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

If up until now they have not been relevant to the average Cuban, the fault is in part theirs. The future of Cuba should take precedence over egos and garnering the spotlight. Tactics should be changed. The Creole autocracy meanwhile does its thing, mapping out its strategies and trying to colonize the opposition.

My neighbors want a change of government as well as systemic change. They have grown up in an ideological insane asylum which is not capable of providing a glass of milk for the breakfast table or producing a decent pair of shoes. They do not trust the Castro brothers.

Or the dissidents. The Cuban opposition has done very little to win them over.

Iván García

Photo: One of the many lines Cubans form every day. From the blog by Tania Quintero.

23 July 2013

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An Interview with Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White / Ivan Garcia

July 28, 2013 1 comment

Berta-Soler-620x330(Exclusive, Iván García in Havana)

If you want confirmation that socialism does not work, do yourself a favor and visit Alamar. This community, twenty minutes east of Havana, is an example of real urban chaos. A place without rhyme or reason, ugly, poorly constructed buildings rise four, five, even eighteen stories high along poorly paved, winding roads.

I spent more than an hour trying to find building number 657 where Berta Soler lives. She is the leader of the brave women known as the Ladies in White, a group founded in April 2003 in response to the imprisonment of seventy-five peaceful activists opposed to the Cuban regime.

For the last 28 years, Berta has lived in Alamar, a bedroom-community created in 1970 to alleviate Havana’s housing shortage. Her convoluted neighborhood, with its run-down interior alleyways, is known as Siberia.

Soler shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with her two sons and husband, Ángel Moya, one of the twelve Black Spring dissidents who opted to continue his opposition work from inside the country. In her ivory-colored living room there is a photo of Pope Francis greeting Berta during a public audience at the Vatican.

When I arrive, she and her husband are washing a large batch of clothes. “We have to take advantage of the break in the rain,” Berta explains, looking at the items and throwing them into the washer. Before sitting down in a red vinyl sofa for an interview with Diario de las Américas, she prepares coffee in her tiny kitchen.

“I was born in Jovellanos, Matanzas province. I came to Havana when I was nineteen. I am a microbiological technician and worked in the América Arias maternity hospital. Before becoming a Lady-in-White, I belonged to a dissident group called the Leonor Pérez Mothers’ Committee.

“It was the beginning of the 2003 wave of repression. In the foyer of Villa Marista — the barracks of the political police — there was Blanca Reyes, the wife of poet Raúl Rivero, Claudia Márquez, Gisela Delgado, Miriam Leyva and Laura Pollán, among others. By order of Fidel Castro we had been separated from our husbands, fathers and sons. We decided to demand their release by carrying out a march every Sunday outside St. Rita’s Church in Miramar.

“From that moment Laura excelled at being the leader. She was my sister, my comrade-in-arms. Those were years of marches, verbal attacks and beatings by paramilitary mobs. On October 14, 2011, when she died under circumstances that I find suspicious, I felt as though a part of me had been ripped out. In one week the regime planned Laura’s death. One day what really happened will come to light.

“In the beginning there were forty-eight Ladies in White. Most of us had never been dissidents. We were workers, technicians and housewives who were forced by Castro’s dictatorship to protest, demanding the release of our loved ones.

“In 2010 the repression against us intensified. Most of us are monitored by the regime’s special services. In front of what had been Laura’s residence in Central Havana, they still maintain an intelligence command post with cameras and listening devices. In an apartment across from mine they have installed a permanent operative.

“Every time we go out into the streets of any province to march — gladiolas in hand, demanding freedom for political prisoners still in detention and asking that human rights be respected — the state ’generously’ spends resources that it does not invest in the people on tracking and repressing us. There are always police patrol cars, two city buses (in spite of the shortages in the urban transport system), hundreds of agents with communication equipment and even an ambulance. I would like to know how much money is spent on repressing us.

“After Laura’s death it was decided that I should be the group’s spokeswoman. We don’t have many secrets except logistical details such as the hour, day and location of a march. Since November 2011 we have had a standing rule. Any woman may join the group.

“We keep growing. Currently we have 240 women working on seven fronts: Havana, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Villa Clara and Matanzas. Soon we will add Ciego de Ávila. But, like I always say, we prefer quality to quantity,” notes the leader of the Ladies in White.

Berta Soler was a key player in a negotiation in April 2010 between the government of General Raúl Castro and Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino.

“We have to thank the cardinal and the Catholic church for their role as mediator in the conflict which arose after the death of Orlando Zapata from a hunger strike. Those were difficult months. The repression was fierce. Jaime Ortega himself witnessed a savage attack and verbal assaults against the Ladies in White from the doorway of St. Rita’s Church.

“It was then that Ortega decided to write a letter to Raúl Castro to negotiate a release. The cardinal acted as go-between. The regime wanted us to expel the Ladies in Support.* We refused. We reminded General Castro that, when they were imprisoned after the assault on the Moncada Barracks, his mother sought support from people who were not relatives.”

They then gave in. It was historic. For the first time the military rulers allowed them to march along Fifth Avenue without being harassed by paramilitaries. Mediation by Ortega and Spanish chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos led to the release of all the prisoners arrested for their support of the seventy-five and most of the other political detainees.

“But these days the Catholic church and the cardinal remain silent, continues Berta.” Other dissidents and I have even been the subject of strong criticism in Espacio Laical, the clergy’s own publication. Right now, even as we speak, there is a Lady in White who has been held for over a year without trial.

“She is the only member of the group in prison. Her name is Sonia Garro. She and her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, were detained in March 2012 as though they were terrorists. The Ladies in White demanded their immediate release,” says Soler.

It started pouring down rain in Alamar. Berta went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. As she peeled sweet potatoes, she continued.

“One member of the group, Berta Guerrero — a resident of Holguín — went through an extensive interrogation in which she suffered physical torture in her hands and was held in a room whose temperature had been set very low. We learned that State Security asked her to collaborate with them in exchange for a new house. When she refused, they issued a blunt warning: ’We have been ordered to put an end to the Ladies in White by July 26.’

“None of this intimidates us. We will continue to grow stronger. Even if the regime frees those close to the fifty political prisoners who remain in jail, we will keep marching in support of democracy and human rights.

“And to clear up the legal gibberish looming over the twelve dissidents who decided to remain in their homeland, among them my husband. Technically they are not free men. The regime can overturn their cases and send them back to jail. None of them has been issued a passport so they can travel,” Berta points out.

The leader of the Ladies in White sees the value in dissidents’ recent overseas trips. “I believe they have been positive,” she say. “They have exposed the deplorable economic and social conditions and the lack of political freedom in our country. We have learned how civil society functions in democratic countries. When you return, you realize how much there is left to be done in every area, especially in community work.”

In response to the accusations by eighteen members of Ladies in White Laura Pollan Movement in the eastern provinces, Berta states, “On June 30 the Ladies in White issued a declaration. It was a painful decision. We can accept any opinion, whether it be from someone in exile or any other dissident in Cuba. And we respect that. But we believe the internal affairs of the group should be left to us to manage. In my opinion the evidence is not strong enough to accuse Lady-in-White Denia Fernández Rey of being an agent of Cuban special services. You cannot condemn a person on the basis of reasonable doubt.”

Berta Soler is a woman of character. Her group’s vociferous demands for freedom during their peaceful protest marches over the course of ten years cannot be ignored.

“We have made great personal sacrifices. These include family members dying from poor medical attention while we were marching. Children like my daughter who have not been accepted to universities due to our political positions. Years in jail from which our relatives never recovered. Sisters like Laura Pollan who are no longer with us. And other Ladies in White who had to go into exile. No, Iván, this struggle has cost too much. No one is going to divide us, especially not the divisions hardened by the Castro special services.

Text and photo by Iván García

*Translator’s note: The Ladies in Support was organized to support the cause of the Ladies in White. Its members generally do not have relatives in prison but they often join in the group’s peaceful marches.

Translation by Irish Sam and Cuban Nellie

16 July 2013

Cuba: What’s Behind the Arms Smuggling? / Ivan Garcia

July 19, 2013 1 comment

El-buque-norcoreano-620x330Reinaldo’s family had finished dinner when, in passing — it wasn’t headline news on the nightly broadcast — Rafael Serrano, the histrionic presenter, read an official press release from the Ministry of External Relations revealing the regime’s point of view with regards to the North Korean cargo ship Chong Chon Gang, intercepted at the port of Colon, Panama, with conventional weapons and anti-aircraft missile systems belonging to the Cuban armed forces.

“The information isn’t clear, Reinaldo speculates. “Supposedly the army sent that batch of obsolete weapons to be modernized in Pyongyang. It seems that the grandson of Kim Il Sung, the current leader in the isolated nation, has factories to modify and renovate Russian weapons. I do not know what’s behind it. Or of Cuba is selling old weapons to North Korea to strengthen them militarily, or if the Cuban State is in full modernization of their old weapons and if so, I wonder what the goal it.”

The regime’s version says that the batch of obsolete weapons manufactured in the last century traveled to North Korea to be renovated. As a rationale, it invokes  sovereignty and national security. A former soldier consulted explained that whenever a nation is caught in such an action it justifies itself with external threats.

“In any government, democratic or autocratic, there are authorized groups within the sewers of power who do the dirty work. An example is the case of former CIA analyst Edward Snowden. The young man has brought to attention the broad U.S. electronic eavesdropping on global communications. Barack Obama is left with the evidence. And it’s the case in Spain with Luis Barcenas, former treasurer of the Popular Party, who with his explosive statements can blow up the executive of Mariano Rajoy. But in both countries there is freedom of expression, journalists investigate things and publish them. In Cuba, thanks to the absolute power exercised by the government over the media, it is easier to manipulate citizens,” argues the former soldier.

According to the retired soldier, it is true that Cuba’s weaponry is defensive and outdated. “The armed forces’ most modern technology, such as the MIG-29, T-62 tanks and anti-aircraft missile systems ,are antiquated. The topic of discussion is why Cuba now decides to modernize its weaponry. There is no threat from United States: against its power and advanced technology, it would mean little or nothing to renovate existing arsenals. I think it’s a matter of business and they were selling those weapons under the table to North Korea.”

In the quiet Sevillano neighborhood south of Havana, people didn’t pay much attention to the North Korean ship detained in Panama. The youngsters, on vacation, played football with stones marking the goals.

On the streets, vendors hawked onions at a good price. A tall gray-haired man was engaged in buying gold jewelry. And two burly men were repairing old mattresses in the garage of a house.

What the North Korean ship also caught by surprise was ordinary Cubans. And if something caught my attention it was the fact that old weapons were hidden under 10,000 tonnes of sugar, a product in decline on an island that was once the ’world’s sugar bowl.’

Iván García

Photo and computer graphics taken from La Prensa of Honduras.

18 July 2013

Che Guevara: Hero or Villain / Ivan Garcia

July 18, 2013 Leave a comment

libro_CheThe life of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is most like a legend.  The truth is simmered over a slow flame along with countless inaccuracies.  Since the date of his birth until the date of his death in the Bolivian village of La Higuera, mix-ups abound.

According to the official Cuban historiography, Ernesto Guevara, alias Che, was born on 14 June of 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, and was assassinated on 8 December of 1967 in Bolivia.

The American biographer and journalist John Lee Anderson offers another version, by pointing out that the date listed on Che’s birth certificate is false. He alleges that the reason must have been to cover up the pregnancy of Celia de la Serna, Che’s mother.  At the time of her marriage to Ernesto Guevara Lynch on 10 December of 1927, she was three months pregnant.

Anderson’s version is supported by the Argentine biographer Julia Constenla, to whom Celia personally confirmed Che Guevara’s true birth date and the circumstances of her pre-marital pregnancy.

As far as the official Cuban media are concerned, Che was born a month later.  As such, the 85th Anniversary of his birth was celebrated last Friday, 14 June.  Surrounding his death, another curious bit arises.

In Cuba’s elementary and high schools it is taught that Che was assassinated on 8 October of 1967 in the Bolivian hamlet of La Higuera.  Scholarly texts highlight that he could have been captured in Quebrada del Yuro, after being injured in the leg due to an automatic rifle malfunction.

The Castros regime loves epic odes.  They speak little of how José Martí died in an absurd skirmish dressed like a wedding guest and trotting along on a white horse.  A perfect target for the colonial Spanish army.

When a security guard at the Peruvian embassy, Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, died on 1 March of 1980, the official Cuban press blamed the driver of the bus that crashed violently against the embassy gates with the intention of requesting asylum.

It was never mentioned that the true cause was the ’friendly fire’ of his own comrades.  During the United States occupation of Grenada in 1983, the Cuban media got ridiculous.

In a fervent paean of praise, in the best North Korean style, an official  announcement told us that the valiant Cuban collaborators who defended the airport they were building in Granada died embracing the Cuban flag in battle against the U.S. 82nd Division.

A few days later it became known that there was no such fight.  Nor did anyone die gripping the national flag: the supposed officer in command of the troops ran away and requested asylum in the embassy of the erstwhile USSR.

Thus, historians should read the official versions of the “legendary guerrilla expedition in Congo or Bolivia” led by Che with a magnifying glass.

Ernesto Guevara has as many followers as he has detractors.  To the extent that in May of 1968 in Paris, disgruntled students utilized his image as the guardian of their protests.  His photo (taken by Alberto Korda in March of 1960 in the port of Havana, at the site of the explosion of a Belgian freighter that was transporting light arms) has been seen around the world.

Che has become a marketing icon.  The “disgraceful capitalists” that he so hated sell countless products with his image.  And his relatives in Havana collect copyright royalties.

Guevara, also nicknamed el Chancho (“the pig”) for his scruffiness and lack of personal hygiene, which gave him the air of a Buenos Aires hippy, was the archetype exalted dogmatist.  His motorcycle tour throughout various countries of the Southern Cone and Guatemala, defined his harsh, gloomy, and ascetic character.  His trip etched into his mind a one-way theory: the only way to be sovereign in Latin America was through armed struggle.

And by November of 1956, when he joined 81 Cuban expeditionaries on their voyage on the Granma yacht, he was a convinced communist.

He became a commander in Fidel Castro’s rebel army thanks to his temerity in battle and his discipline under the threat of atomic bombs.  There are various documented witness accounts of his exaggerated disposition toward violence during that era.

He was a soulless tyrant during many executions.  He pulled the trigger without regret against those he considered enemies and traitors of the cause.  Once the revolution triumphed, Che Guevara took control of La Cabaña, a military fortress adjacent to Havana Bay.

One of the first measures undertaken by the new government was to establish a judicial committee, charged with investigating citizens who were associated with the Batista dictatorship, supposed war criminals, and nascent political opponents.

Between January and April of 1959, approximately one thousand persons – other sources cite several thousands – were sentenced to death or lengthy prison terms in summary trials without due legal process.

The figures of those executed by firing squad vary.  Between 550 and 3,000.  In his post as military chief of La Cabaña, Che was responsible for the trials and executions.  He expressed his opinion on the executions publicly before the United Nations on 11 December of 1964:

“We have to say here that which is a known truth, that we have expressed always before the world: executions, yes, we have executed; we execute and will continue to execute as long as it is necessary.  Our struggle is a struggle to the death.  We know what the result of a defeat would be, and the gusanos* also must know what the result of the defeat in Cuba is today.”

Guevara was assigned various ministerial portfolios.  His performance was dismal.  He was convinced that, in order to eradicate the “bourgeoisie vices inherited from the old society”, a “New Man” must be forged.

That is, the prototype of a robot made of flesh and bone, obedient to orders from above, focused on his work like a slave, and barely given to rumba and alcohol.  Of course, with a license to kill “Yankees in any corner of the world”.

From his posts among sectors of the Cuban economy, Che launched the confiscation of national and foreign businesses, central planning, and “volunteer” labor.  He internationalized the armed struggle.  From the Congo in Africa to an uprising in Salta, Argentina, and the failed rebellion in Bolivia.

Personalities from diverse ideological and professional backgrounds have expressed their admiration for Che, like Domingo Perón and Jean Paul Sartre; the soccer players Diego Armando Maradona, Leo Messi, and Thierry Henry; the boxer Mike Tyson; the musician Carlos Santana, the actor Pierre Richard; the writer Gabriel García Márquez; the Chechen leader Shamil Basayev; the rock group Rage Against the Machine; the Sandinista leader Edén Pastora and presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.

His motto, “Ever onward to victory” was used as a crutch by the deceased Venezuelan head of state Hugo Chávez.

Among progressives and subversives of half the world, with a discourse that favors the poor against gringo hegemony, there is never a lack of someone with a tee-shirt or a protest sign with his image.

Perhaps Che Guevara’s greatest achievement was that he risked his own hide to demonstrate his truths.  The shadows of his personality are better forgotten.

Iván García

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

30 June 2013