Archive for August, 2013

The New School Term in Cuba: Teachers Hoping for Raises

August 30, 2013 Leave a comment

escuela-cuba620-620x330The Minister of Education, Ena Elsa Velázquez, is hoping to turn corruption and academic fraud in Cuban schools around.

In her tour through several provinces to check on preparations for the new school term beginning on September 2, Velázquez highlighted the “social commitment of teachers and professors” to address illegalities and acts of corruption.

She spoke of strengthening families’ confidence in the educational system and confronting “scholastic fraud and other more subtle and nefarious distortions.”

This requires great political and oratorical skill in analyzing the conditions that for years have affected education on the island, to say nothing of the low salaries paid to teachers.

As always in Cuba, one must separate demagoguery from reality. The complacency of government officials causes them to suffer from an irreversible myopia.

They only see the successes. And they do exist. For a third-world country, it is laudable to be able to provide free education and public health. We may be better than Burma or Haiti, but there has been a qualitative reversal in sectors which once were showpieces of the Revolution.

There are schools but they lack good instructors, teaching material has to be recycled, the merienda* has been eliminated in primary schools, and lunch for boarding students is wretched.

And we have not even talked about the extreme politicization and ideological content in course material and extracurricular activities. These include everything from classes on how to load an AKM assault rifle to fundraising for self-defense militias.

Too often the Cuban government likes to remind us that education and health care are free. These are the cornerstones of the socialist model that the world sees.

They are, however, distortions of reality. The state can subsidize the health and education system thanks to the high tax rate it imposes on workers. In countries where students pay not one penny towards the cost of their education, the money to fund this “privilege” must come out of the taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

But this is not the case with Cuba. A percentage of the ridiculously low salaries paid to workers and employees, excessive taxes on the self-employed and import duties of up to 300% on hard-currency remittances subsidize a significant portion of the national educational system.

However, everyone who one way or another contributes to society — whether it be by cutting cane or spending dollars they have received from relatives in Miami — can and should demand a better education for their children.

For a decade primary, secondary and pre-university education has been in marked decline. Because of poor wages and low social status many instructors go to work as porters in five-star hotels or as fry cooks in a street-side stalls.

It is inconceivable that a policeman or armed forces officer would make close to 900 Cuban pesos a month — not counting their ability to acquire groceries, cleaning supplies and clothing at low prices, or to stay in exclusive recreational villas — while a professor at a secondary school makes only Cuban 350 to 400 pesos a month.

The teaching profession is one that is not highly valued in Cuba. It is not an attractive alternative for university graduates. Only when there is no other option, or when men are trying to evade military service, do young people choose to study pedagogy.

The new school term will begin on Monday, September 2 in schools which have received a fresh coat of cheap paint, whose furniture and windows have been repaired and whose families have put aside some money for their children’s meriendas. Believe me, it is not easy to provide five meriendas a week. Children’s backpacks resemble those of mountain climbers.

The school uniform presents another problem. Some sadistic bureaucrat decided that each student would get a new uniform every two terms. The dim-witted technocrat did not stop to think that in their primary school years children grow quite rapidly. Or that given the heat and the carelessness typical at this age, students often return home with their uniforms in tatters.

The solution was for families to buy uniforms on the black market for five convertible pesos apiece. These are not their only expenses.

In case a child gets a mediocre professor — something now quite common in primary and secondary education — parents must pay ten convertible pesos a month to a retired teacher to tutor him after school.

As the Minister of Education follows her road map through the country, checking on preparations for the next school term, teachers are hoping the official will agree with them and announce a salary increase.

Teaching remains the worst paid profession in Cuba.

Iván García

Photo: Cubanet

*Translator’s note: A traditional afternoon snack or light meal somewhat comparable to tea time.

28 August 2013

Varadero is no longer a prohibited city, but…

August 24, 2013 Leave a comment

varadero9In a country such as Cuba not known for its middle class, few are the families who can give themselves the luxury of paying between 300 and 800 convertible pesos for a three or four night package in an “all included” hotel of Varadero.

Even though an employee at a Havana tourism bureau mechanically repeats a string of numbers and statistics, to reinforce the thesis of the increase in Cuban tourists in 4 and 5-star hotels, behind the numbers are different hidden matrices.

Nothing is black and white.  Less so in Cuba, where an average citizen receives a monthly salary in pesos equivalent to 15 or 25 dollars.  According to predictions of the Ministry of Tourism for 2013 almost 1.5 million Cubans could take a dip in Varadero.

This is good news.  But the fabulous beach and the comfort of its hotels are still not within the reach of the majority.  One and a half million Cubans represents 10% of the total population.

A not so gratifying percent for a government that shouts their heads off with populist discourse in favor of the poor.  Behind a series of nationalizations, decrees and expropriation of businesses, mansions and works of art of the Cubans who generated riches, the middle class suddenly disappeared.

Many felt obligated to flee to the South of Florida.  The number of doctors and engineers on the island dropped by more than half.  With a base of voluntarism and utopias, a frenzied Che Guevara buries the rules of the economy underground.

All the summer properties that upper and middle class people possessed in Varadero became the summer homes of the heavyweights in the revolutionary state.  Other homes swelled the real estate funds of the Workers Central Union of Cuba (CTC), in charge of giving a week of rest to the most loyal and dedicated workers.

The carelessness, lack of maintenance, looting and robbery of vacationers in the hotels and villas, caused the best beach in Cuba to enter a stage of destitution.  It was pitiful to see the splendid chalets destroyed by the salty air and state apathy. Sometime in the 80s, when the soviet paradise of workers and peasants cut the subsidies to the island, Fidel Castro decided to bet on capitalist tourism.

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the shabby Soviet communism, Castro maintained his anti-Yankee discourse and continued brandishing a sermon agreeable to the ears of the dispossessed.  But, in practice, they started dismantling the “benefactor state.”

The houses owned by the unions were expropriated and renovated by the State. They rented them in dollars, the money of Castro’s enemy.  But the generals, ministers, and functionaries maintained their residences and floated their yachts in Varadero.

The “dedicated compatriots” had no other choice than to spend their vacations in the country, swim in rivers and shores or beaches without conditions.  Varadero turned into a prohibited city.  Only the inhabitants and workers of the town had access.  A police control station was put up on a bridge entering the city.

Chubby Europeans or Canadians went arm in arm with male and female prostitutes who target tourists.  The families and friends of the “worms” and “scum” also had the green light.  Cuban-Americans who, thanks to their buying power, were now received by the regime with a red carpet.

It was an era of embarrassing apartheid. The Cubans could not dine in a restaurant of a hotel or enter the room of a foreigner. We were 3rd class citizens in our own country.

Raul Castro, appointed to the presidency by his brother, overturned the absurd anti-constitutional norms.  Since 2008 any Cuban with hard currency can enjoy a stay in tourist installations anywhere in the country.

However banned zones exist.  Exclusive.  Reserved areas to hunt wild boar, golf courses and villas designated for high officials.  But they are becoming fewer. From 2008 to the date, gradually, national tourism is growing.

Varadero is the preferred enclave for the majority of Havana’s residents, for its proximity to the capital–some 80 miles–its 52 hotels and dozens of private homes for rent.

Those with less money, for 70 or 80 pesos (3 dollars) a head, rent a bus and spend eight hours on the beach.  They bring water, food and cheap rum.  These tend to be day trips arranged under the table, and the bus driver and the transport boss of some company split the profits evenly.

There are families who save the whole year and in summer rent a private home. The costs are not within reach for the average Cuban: 40 CUC (the cheapest) and 100 CUC, daily.

And then there’s the “all included” option.  The preference of those with certain purchasing power.  First of all, they reserve and pay in one of the various tourist travel agencies (Cubatur, Cubanacan, Gaviota, Isa Azul or Gran Caribe).

Each agency has a variety of offers. Cubanacan, Gran Caribe and Gaviota are the most expensive. They offer rooms in 4 and 5-star hotels.  A 3 or 4-night stay costs around 600 convertible pesos.

Cubatur and Isla Azul are the most affordable.  For 300 cuc you can enjoy 4 days of sun and sea.  The difference in price marks the quality of service.  In the hotels grouped under Cubanacan, Gran Caribe and Gaviota you find the Spanish names Melia and Barcelo and the food is more varied and elaborate.

A brief survey of 30 Cubans, pertaining to this 10% who can spend a mini vacation in Varadero, found that 14 could enjoy this thanks to money sent by family in the United States or Europe.  Eight were discreet prostitutes.  Four, worked for themselves and saved the money.

The other four Cubans had been voluntary workers overseas and with savings, or certain under the table services, such as illegal abortions or plastic surgery, this allowed them to repair their house, acquire a car and enjoy a stay in Varadero.

In the “all included” hotels it is very difficult to find a professional or worker who can manage a vacation with their miserable salary of 15 to 25 dollars a month.

With this mess in the media, Cuba has fragmented into castes. And the hotels of Varadero have been converted into recreational sites for a few.

Ivan Garcia.

Photo:  Until 1976 the city or town of Varadero, where the most famous beach in Cuba is found, was a municipality.  But since 2010 it was reincorporated into Cardenas, one of the 13 municipalities that today form the province of Matanzas.

24 August 2013

The Day After Fidel Castro / Ivan Garcia

August 15, 2013 1 comment

Libro-Fidel-Castro-620x330Never has the life or death of one man awakened such dissimilar expectations. Fidel Castro, who turns 87 on August 13, has been given up for dead so many times that when death does come for him, many will believe it’s a joke.

Castro, aware of the countless times he has cheated death, has woven a legend around himself. After the 1953 assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, several newspapers of the time published the news of his demise.

The military escapade of trying to take a military fortress with a troop of inexperienced amateur soldiers armed with dove-hunting rifles ended, of course, in a complete rout.

Most of the young assailants were killed in battle or executed by the repressive forces of the Fulgencio Batista regime. In those days, the life of Fidel Castro wasn’t worth much.

But the 26-year-old lawyer, born 500 miles east of Havana on a farm in the Birán region of Holguin, managed to avoid being executed by a bullet to the head thanks to Lieutenant Sarria, a Republican Army officer who saved his life.

Then in prison, according to the official history, they tried to poison him.

When on December 2, 1956 he landed with an army of 82 men on the beach at Las Coloradas, a rugged area infested by swamps, Batista’s Air Force, which was aware of the landing site in advance, made target practice of the bewildered guerrillas.

Everyone gave Fidel Castro up for dead. They were so sure of his death that the troops shut down their actions against the guerrilla. Once again the “subversive one” had escaped death.

You already know the story. He regrouped with the survivors of his band, and with the help of peasant farmers, the inefficiency of the army, and collections of money and weapons from political parties opposed to Batista, he managed to seize power in January 1959.

Two years earlier, in the Sierra Maestra, he escaped by a complete miracle. His right-hand man, who slept 15 feet from his hammock, was an Army plant. But the guy lacked the guts to kill him, as had been planned. The “traitor” was caught by the guerrillas and executed.

Once in power, he was left unscathed by various attempts conceived by former comrades-in-arms, a German lover, the CIA, and anti-Castro exiles. He exaggerates this. He says the U.S. special services tried to kill him more than 600 times.

Castro and the official media aggrandize everything, from production statistics to attacks on his life. What is documented is that at least twelve times the CIA and opposition groups planned to kill him.

On a visit to Chile in 1973, an anti-Castro commando was about to execute him. A gun fastened to a television camera was pointed at his head. But without a safe path of escape, the organizers decided to abort the attempt.

On Monday, July 31, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, his personal secretary, announced that due to serious health problems Fidel had delegated power to his brother Raul, the government began to prepare his funeral ceremony, and on a massive mountain in the Sierra Maestra they urgently built a monumental tomb.

From that date, the international press has had his obituaries at the ready. A foreign reporter told me that his agency had sent him to Havana for the sole purpose of reporting the day of death of the leader of the revolution.

Until then, he was asked to maintain a low profile while waiting for the big news. He has now lost count of the number of times Castro has been “killed” in Florida.

Seven years after Fidel Castro’s retirement for health reasons, Cubans barely speak of the former president. No one on the street takes seriously what he says or writes. He’s like a grandfather with dementia who in his lucid moments likes to tell tales of his epic exploits.

After arriving in “death’s waiting room,” as he confided to a journalist from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, he has dedicated himself to: prophesying the end of the world after a nuclear war; alerting the world to an alleged conspiracy by the Bilderberg Club; and investigating the moringa, a plant that, in his opinion, “could save the starving Third World.”

To this day, on television roundtables and news reports, any crazy pronouncement by the Commander-in-Chief is read in a serious tone. Today, more than ever, you can see in the state media his cult of personality.

In celebration of his birthday, songfests, sports marathons, and book releases are anticipated. But due to the daily grind of hardship without letup, a broad segment of the public does not have pleasant feelings toward its former top leader.

They blame him for the delays, the shortages, and the precarious standard of living in the country today. They see him as a distant ship sailing toward the horizon. Few ask anymore what it will be like the day after his death.

And the direction taken by the General suggests that the legacy of his brother will endure after his physical disappearance. Predictions about the future of Cuba are bleak.

For many on the island, at a time when the developed world remains embroiled in a financial and political crisis with no end in sight, the desired democratic change seems unlikely.

All they can see in the picture is more Castroism. Without Fidel Castro.

Iván García

Photo: Fidel Castro during the presentation of the book Warrior of Time, by Cuban journalist Katiuska Blanco, in February 2012. Taken from El Nuevo Diario de Nicaragua.

Translated by Tomás A.

13 August 2013

Alvarez Guedes: Let’s Keep Everything Among Cubans

August 13, 2013 1 comment

alvarez-guedesIn spite of being censored on the island, the Cuban comedian who passed away on July 30 in Miami at the age of 86, left us a saying indelibly etched upon all of our lives.  If someone was trying to be a wiseguy, you would say: “Hey, don’t get cute.  The only one capable of making a living telling stories is Álvarez Guedes.”

After Fidel Castro closed the daily papers and reigned in freedoms of expression in 1960, those of us born after know well how the secret police pursued and banned the humorists who, with laughter, criticized the daily comings and goings of the olive green madhouse.

It got to the extremes.  One evening, a retired reporter once told me that an urgent meeting was called in the offices of Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, to disclose and analyze an erratum that occurred in the previous day’s print run.  In a column of newsbriefs, a humorist had drawn a skull and crossbones that, when held up to the light, ended up transposed on the chest of a photo of Fidel Castro.

This stirred up the hornet’s nest.  The ideological censors never had much imagination.  The poor type-setter was interrogated by the counterintelligence hounds, seeking out a double-meaning that he swore on his mother he hadn’t intended.

More than a few times, from his office in the Palace of the Revolution, the Comandante would walk down a secret hallway that led to Granma’s editorial department and review the features, news, and articles that sat on the starting grid awaiting publication.

Believe me, these aren’t simple rumors.  Ask any Cuban comedian about the difficulties and censorship they’ve encountered in their work.  Some were let go.  If it hadn’t been so serious, it could’ve been thought of as a farce.

During their performances, while the public laughed, a dour agent of the secret police would take note of the jokes supposedly harmful to “the figures and institutions of the Revolution”.

Of course, the man who transformed jokes into an artform was thoroughly banned from the Cuban media.  Considered “counterrevolutionary” by the regime, his tales reached us as contraband from the other side of the Straits.

Guillermo Álvarez Guedes was born on June 8, 1927, in Unión de Reyes, a town full of troubadours and rumberos in the province of Matanzas, just over 140 kilometers east of Havana.  He was the second-to-last of seven children produced by the marriage of Conrado Simeón Álvarez Hernández and Rosa Guedes Fernández.  Eloísa, his eldest sister, who passed away in 1993, was a magnificent radio, theater, film, and television actress.

Guillermo’s first public performance was at the age of six, in a neighborhood cinema house.  At 13 he left home, doing odd jobs for a theatrical circus.  At 19 he went to New York, where he earned a living washing dishes, cutting grass in a cemetery, and as a porter in a hotel.  In 1949 he was deported back to Cuba and began working first for Unión Radio, and then for Radio Progreso, on the Poor Man’s Attorney show.

He was 22 years old when he was signed on by Gaspar Pumarejo.  He played an improvisational singing peasant with three giants of Cuban humor: Germán Pinelli, Aníbal de Mar and Leopoldo Fernández.  But the role that would make him famous was that of The Drunk, beginning in 1951, on the stellar Casino of Joy on CMQ-TV.  That’s when he teamed up with the one and only Rita Montaner on Rita and Willy, short-lived due to differences between Montaner and the producers.  Then, on Fridays at 8:00, he would have a lead role at the side of Minín Bujones.  In 1953, he was a cast member of the musical review The Courtyard, sharing the stage with Carlos Pous, Luis Carbonell, Benny Moré, Rita Montaner, and Olga Guillot.  That was also the year of his cinematic debut as an actor and producer.  Let’s Keep Everything among Cubans would be his last film (1993).

In 1957, Álvarez Guedes and his brother, Rafael, partnered up with the pianist and composer Ernesto Duarte and founded Gema Records, the label responsible for the international launch of Cuban artists of such stature as Bebo Valdés, Chico O’Farrill, Rolando Laserie, Elena Burke, Celeste Mendoza, and Fernando Álvarez, and of groups like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.

He made his last show in Cuba with Rosita Fornés.  On October 23, 1960, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and two daughters.  Celia Cruz was a passenger on that same flight.

The first LP of his jokes, of the more than 30 that he recorded, was premiered in Madrid in 1973, as an homage to the Sevillian flamenco-dancer Pastora Imperio.  His only LP in English, How To Defend Yourself From The Cubans, has sold more copies than all of the ones recorded in Spanish.  In 1983, at age 56, he packed the house at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

An anecdote: in the 80s, as a teenager, at the home of a classmate, on a beat-up, old tape recorder on a very low volume setting, almost inaudible, I heard a collection of jokes by Álvarez Guedes for the first time.

My friend’s relatives, who lived in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Central Havana, had managed to sneak the cassette through customs by hiding it inside a cookbook.  Álvarez Guedes’ stories, like the athletic feats of one Atanasio Pérez, always reached us as contraband.

With the death of Álvarez Guedes, we’ve lost one of the best exponents of Cuban theatrical humor, an innovator of modern comedy; but we’ve especially lost a human being who knew that his countrymen on the island lived between hardship and Orwellian single-mindedness, and we needed to laugh.

We’re grateful for his legacy of stories, preserved today in so many Cuban homes on cassettes, CDs, DVDs, or flash drives.

Like no one, Sir Guillermo knew how to leap over the walls of censorship.  Humor and laughter can never be contained.  Álvarez Guedes proved it.

Iván García

Translated by Yoyi el Monaguillo

1 August 2013

CUBA Journalism in the street

August 9, 2013 1 comment
Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Owing to the lack of statistics and figures, independent Cuban reporters have to reinvent certain rules when providing information. We don’t have access to government press conferences and no minister gives interviews or comments.

Nor can we rival the foreign agencies accredited in Havana. Not having technology, 24-hour internet access, being unable to cover official events, it is impossible to compete with the speed of the foreign press.

There are certain types of news which an independent journalist can put out faster than a correspondent from the BBC, EFE, or AP. Above all in relation to the world of opposition: a dissident’s hunger strike, an eviction, or one of the Ladies in White being beaten up.

But that’s not the best side of the field to be playing on. Cuba is an area full of stories that the regime tries to ignore. In the streets and shanty towns, chatting to ordinary folk, we always find good reports.

We have something to thank the poor work of the state journalists for. If Granma and Juventud Rebelde were in the habit of providing information about marginalization, ruinous infrastructure, or how Cubans manage to survive inside the socialist madhouse, there would not be much reason for independent journalism to exist.

We would limit ourselves to writing boring opinion pieces. Or cover opposition meetings. The official journalists have left the battle-field and left it open to the dissident journalists.

It was a major error not to provide information about day-to-day life, nor about the ills that afflict society, like drugs, prostitution and corruption at all levels.

The ideological Taliban like to sell their account of how the island is different from the rest of the poor capitalist nations of the American continent.

At one time it was. There wasn’t freedom of expression or of association, but the state, supported by the inflow of millions of Soviet rubles, guaranteed a grey kind of life with health and free education.

In return, we were supposed to be “Revolutionaries”. To applaud speeches about the “Maximum Leader” and condemn Yankee Imperialism. That was the deal. Political disagreements were restricted to our living rooms.

It was prohibited to ventilate them in public. Any criticism, we were told, had to be “constructive”. You were allowed to complain about poor food service or inefficient officials.

What you could never do was indicate that Fidel Castro was responsible for the economic disaster and the failure of a social project. The Comandante was like Zeus. God of gods. Untouchable.

The independent journalists crushed that myth. Not to be seen as heroes. Or martyrs. Just that one morning we crossed the borderline of what we were supposed to talk about or say laid down by the government.

And we know what enormous courage was required and that  there is a price to pay. From libel to jail. But here we are. Telling the stories of the man in the street. Everyday I talk to workmen, kids, the old and the marginalized, the tired and those disillusioned by 54 years of autocracy.

I am not writing about the human misery experienced by some of the people in order to damage the image exported by the government. Describing the lives of the losers, the ignored and forgotten is part of the commitment of a free journalist.

If the mandarins who control the media consider that “disseminating human misery helps the enemy”, that’s their problem.

It’s up to me to relate what happens in the place where I live and in the city where I was born. To give a voice  to citizens who don’t exist as far as the official press is concerned, And they are there. You only have to go out into the street.

Fat Antonio said “I’m fed up with it.”

(This anecdote was published 14 September 2009 in the blog Desde Havana.)

Antonio Mateo, felt he was about to go mad. Monday August 3, 2009 he woke up early, took his usual sip of bitter coffee and decided that on that Monday he would do something different. He wrote an open letter telling about his boring life and the bad state of his home.

Antonio, 46 years old, and 280 pounds, living next to Malecón 655, had had enough. The long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes for dealing with his problems were now just too much. For years he wanted to do an exchange — trade his home for someone else’s — but the rigid and absurd laws applied by the Housing Institute did not permit people to exchange in certain neighbourhoods.

Not even if they own their own houses, as in Antonio’s case. He knows very well that in Cuba the word proprietor is a bad joke. People who own their own homes, lose their rights if they decide to leave the country and have to go through long processes when they decide they want to exchange it. Selling the house to someone else is prohibited by the anachronistic Soviet-style statutes which still exist in Cuba.

Desperate, Antonio decided to cut things short. He moved his old bed into the middle of the public street and deposited his 280 pounds in it. It was his way of protesting. The fearless police were there for three hours, trying to find a way out of the conflict, unused to these signs of rebelliousness in a population that was generally very peaceful.

Of course, he was taken off to the police station. It is not known what sanction or fine was imposed. In one part of his letter, with a dose of anguish and anger Antonio says: “I address myself to you to set out my problem, in view of the fact that I have applied to other levels and had no reply. I live in a room, which I own, and when the Malecon Plan started, the zone was frozen, and I can’t move, or carry out maintenance, or have a wife and children living with me. I have realized that everything is an argument with lies and more lies. I don’t want a palace, I only ask that they come up with a solution. I am a sick man who needs peace and a place where I can live with my loved ones who could look after me and help me.”

Simple people, like Fat Antonio or Pánfilo, famous for exploding with anger a few months ago in front of the foreign press cameras, and as far as we knew, have been sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of “being dangerous”, show that something is changing in some people’s mentality in Cuba. For the moment, Fat Antonio says “I’m fed up with it”.

Translated by GH

14 July 2013

Did Fidel Castro Make a Revolution Of the Humble, By the Humble and For the Humble? / Ivan Garcia

August 8, 2013 1 comment

ivan fidel humblecuba-mendigosOn April 16, 1961, just before the end of a fiery speech at the speech delivered during the funeral for the victims of the bombardments that marked the prelude of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro exclaimed:

“Comrades, workers and peasants, this is the Socialist and democratic Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble. And for this Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble, we are willing to give our lives. Workers and peasants, humble men and women of the country do you swear to defend to the last drop of blood this revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble?”

Those words were spoken on the corner of 12th and 23rd, in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado. Fifty-two years later, less than five miles from that place, every night, at the break of dawn a trio of beggars begin their task in a rickety abandoned school in the neighborhood of La Vibora.

Armed with a chisel and a small sledgehammer, they take almost a hundred bricks manufactured before 1959. “Given their quality, we sell them for two pesos each. People buy these recovered bricks and use them in the construction of their houses or to make a closet. We work for hire,”  explains one of the beggars.

Later, with their profits, they sit in a wide, airy doorway to drink domestic alcohol filtered with industrial carbon, the drink of the forgotten. The indigent trio cries for a good bath and medical attention. They are alcoholics cubed. Emaciated and dirty, they drink the infamous homemade rum.

“I shower once or twice a week. When some important guy visits Havana — like when Pope Benedict XVI came in 2012 — they collect us and put us in a camp where we have two meals a day.  We can also wash up more often. Once the personage has left, they throw us out in the street again. We sleep in the courtyard of the House of Culture in the 10 de Octubre municipality, or in a building in danger of collapse facing Red Square in Vibora. We did fine when we were healthy. We never got sick,” confessed another of the beggars.

The beggars have transformed the busy corner of Carmen and 10 de Octubre into a hardware store of old things.

René, 32, lived with eight people crammed into a room without a bathroom in a tenement in Central Havana. “I decided to live as a nomad. I earn some money cleaning up flowerbeds and gardens. For lunch I eat leftovers that people throw in the trash. Pick up empty cans of beer and soda. When I accumulate several bags, I go to an office where I paid raw materials according to how many pounds I collect. I live day to day. If I have money I stay in a motel. If I’m broke I forage for dinner in the trash cans. I used to be ashamed, people shouted names at me, but every day there are more of us beggars in the capital. The social service? They don’t even remember that we exist.”

When the sun gets hot, several beggars put down a filthy blanket with old objects and used books. For a few pesos, you can get a 206 VEF radio from the Soviet era. Some raggedy sandals from the now disappeared East Germany. Or Socialist Realism novels like “Here we Forge Iron,” “Nobody is a Soldier at Birth,” or “August 1944” from Russian writers. They also have faded copies about Marxism-Leninism and collections of speeches by Fidel Castro.

Arnaldo, a habitual in the doorways of Calzada de Octubre, says the things go for very little. “People buy from us to help us. But these Soviet books sell less than Fidel’s speeches.”

Next to Vento street is Casino Deportivo, belonging to Cerro municipality. Before the bearded ones came to power, it was an upper middle class neighborhood. It remains an attractive development, despite the five-story buildings badly designed and shoddily built after the Revolution next to some buildings of quality architecture.

In Casino Deportivo, in the full light of day, three vagrants searched the trash. “In places where people with resources and “favored” by the government live, they find pleasant surprises in the trash cans. Remains of shrimp or beef, almost new clothes, pieces of computers and foreign magazines. These tennis shoes that I’m wearing I found in one of the bins,” said one of them.

According to Havana beggars, the best neighborhoods to ’fight a buck’ (make money) or get good food from the trash are Miramar, Nuevo Vedado, Vedado and Casino Deportivo.

“What happens is that in those neighborhoods the police pick us up. Before, they took us to the station and gave us a bath with a pressure hose. They gave us food and we spent the night in the cells, which to me, seemed like a palace. But for some time here, they’re detained us for a few hours and then sent us on our way with nothing to eat,” said a homeless man.

Others prefer begging for change and with the proceeds to buy food. Around the Capitol, elderly people with physical limitations beg for coins from tourists. Some Japanese shooting photos turn their backs when a lady comes over and asks them to buy a quart of oil.

“It makes money. There are tourists stingy, but most give you ’chavitos’ (convertible pesos). Sometimes even a five or ten convertible peso note. Thanks to panhandling, I can buy soaps and canned food in hard currency stores,” says an old woman with trembling hands by Alzheimer’s.

Forced by their parents, children are also asking for money from tourists and passersby. But it is on the busy Obispo Street, in the old part of the city, where begging has become a business. Women beggars proliferate.

Police and political authorities seem to have no effective response to this scourge plaguing Havana. Those years of the Revolution, where beggars could be counted on the fingers of one hand, are over.

As tens of Habaneros walk around carrying smart phones, oblivious to reality, hundreds of countrymen dig through the trash to survive, without social help from the State. In a revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble, announced by Fidel Castro in 1961, today we have a bad copy of the worst capitalism: every man for himself.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from The Beggars of Fidel Castro.

28 July 2013

Cuba Maintains Silence About North Korean Ship / Ivan Garcia

August 7, 2013 Leave a comment

cuba-barco-norcoreanoIf, from the island, a person wants to read about the rusty North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang, where the Cuban regime was caught with obsolete Russian weaponry, they must pay 4.50 CUC an hour — ten days of a worker’s wages — in one of the 118 Internet rooms opened on June 4.

They can also learn through a shortwave radio. But the daily worry about getting food and the indifference of many people to the comments from politicians, results in a soft landing for the-olive green autocrats.

The control is simple. It’s enough to silence the official media with regards to the news of the soap opera that occurred in the Panama Canal.

After Tuesday July 16, the Foreign Ministry issued a terse note, published in the State media, information about the cache of weapons on a North Korean ship, hidden behind a mountain of raw sugar, has been made invisible.

Cuban officials did not hold a press conference, explaining the reasons for the government to violate the arms embargo established by the UN on the impoverished Kim dynasty.

On July 26, contrary to what some Cubanologists expected, Raul Castro did not address the issue in his speech to mark the 60th anniversary of the assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

The internal information policy, for now, is to bear up under international criticism without replying. Even the multinational television broadcaster, Telesur, created with Venezuelan capital generously donated by the late Hugo Chavez, has given little impact to the event.

The news in Cuba must be learned by reading between the lines. Expecting on August 5th that the UN will impose a penalty on the island, the ideological Taliban who control the media, preferred to highlight the military parade held in Pyongyang July 27, celebrating 60 years of the Panmunjom armistice. Among the delegations invited to the celebrations for the ’end of the Korean War’ (1950-1953) was one from the Cuban government, led by José Ramón Balaguer, the ousted Minister of Public Health and the current head of the department of foreign relations for the Communist Party Central Committee.

It is a coded message intended for world public opinion. The regime in Havana doesn’t regret smuggling weapons into the rogue state of North Korea. Two weeks before the incident, a North Korean military delegation, headed by General Kyok Sik Kim was on the island and was received by Raul Castro. “I visit to Cuba to meet with colleagues in the same trench, which our Cuban comrades are,” said Kyok.

Democratic nations should take note. The tepid and insufficient Cuban economic reforms apply only to maintain the status quo.

It’s purely cosmetic. Political oxygen facing the international gallery. A strategy to attract investment and capital from foreigners or moderate Cuban residents in Florida.

A lifesaver to perpetuate the regime. The changes are not driven by an urgent need to push for democracy. No. They are a mechanism to buy time, recapitalize and strengthen state finances and reinforce the regime’s institutions.

The Castro philosophy remains. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Therefore, news of North Korean ship and its weapons will never occupy the island headlines.

While the Castro brothers hold power, Cuba can change some things, but its anti-imperialist essence remains: America is the enemy.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Search of one of the containers with weapons from Cuba, hidden under thousands of sacks of raw sugar on the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang, detained in the Panama Canal since July 10. Taken from EuropaPress.

6 August 2013

Cuba: Eases Travel to the United States / Ivan Garcia

August 7, 2013 Leave a comment

parquecito-la-habana-cubaTwo days before multiple entry visas good for five years, for Cubans with relatives in the United States, I walked around the outside of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba (USIS), a few feet from the Havana Malecon.

In the small triangular park located in front of the Rivero Funeral Home, at Calzada and K, where hundreds of people with appointments gather from Monday to Friday, the news spread like wildfire, despite not yet been released by the official media. People had heard through Radio Martí or emails and calls from family and friends across the pond.

As of August 1, Washington decided to extend from six months to five years the period of non-immigrant visas granted to residents on the island to visit the country as tourists. Until now, they had to apply for a permit for each trip and the process could take up to two years.

“With this visa, Cubans who qualify to be granted one would not have to renew and pay $165 each year, as was previously the case for a visa to the United States,” an official located in Florida who requested anonymity said by telephone.

With the new visa, Cubans could travel from the U.S. to a third country. The measure does not include business travel, cultural exchanges or other from Cuba to the United States.

For years, the little park at Calzada and K, has become a gauge of the opinions of many Cubans about the push and pull between the governments of Cuba and the United States.

Not only because every day there are hundreds, and because they come from all provinces. The number of those waiting to be approved for emigration to the United States, under the heading of family reunification, in force since 1994, is significant.

The place also is filled with citizens seeking temporary visas, with the intention of visiting relatives or wanting to settle in the northern nation as political refugees.

The daily grind has transformed the blocks surrounding the Interests Section into an emerging local industry for many residents, who have opened fast food cafes. Eating a lunch of rice and pork I met Eugenio, 43, and asked his opinion on the new measure.

“For two months I have been arranging to visit my daughter and my mother, who have lived in Hialeah for 15 years. It’s the first time I’ve tried. They say that for those who want to visit for three months and are under 45,  the Consulate automatically denies the visa. Apparently, it is for fear they will seek asylum on American soil. Young people are often not granted a visa. In the morning my mother called from Miami, she had read the story in the Journal de Las Americas. I’ll wait a few days and see if I can opt for a multiple entry visa.”

Among those waiting to be interviewed, are also those who say that the USIS officials are too demanding when granting visas to Cubans who are going to visit.

Jorge, 38, has another argument. “It’s because of the Cuban Adjustment Act. I’m crazy for them to repeal it. For three years I have been trying to visit my family in Tampa and have been rejected twice for potentially being a migrant, although I am married and I have two children. But when they look at my age, they are deaf to my reasoning.”

According to Jorge, among USIS officials there is an unwritten rule: to catalog all those who are younger than 50 as prospective emigrants. “I just want to see my family and return. I understand them, but repealing the Adjustment Act would make it easier. I hope this new measure makes the requirements easier for people who request temporary visas regardless of age.”

But also in line are citizens who travel unhindered repeatedly to see their children and grandchildren in Miami. “I guess it’s because of my age. I am 74 and the first time I traveled I had turned 50. The Americans know that I live in one of the best buildings in Havana and it would be crazy not to return,” he smiles.

Coinciding with this relaxation of U.S. immigration authorities, the National Bureau of Statistics and Information has reported that 46,662 people have permanently left the island (in the last year), the highest number since 1994, when due to the so-called “boat people crisis,” 47,000 Cubans took to the sea.

Meanwhile, according to data provided by the USIS, in the first half of 2013 they granted 16,767 temporary visas, versus 9,369 granted in 2012. The 79% increase is directly related to the entry into force on 14 January, a new Cuban migration law.

Although you have to give it time to see the results, respondents applaud the new measure. “Anything that is done to lower costs and facilitate family reunion is positive,” says Clara, a woman in her 60s queuing for free internet browsing on one of the two rooms fitted by the USIS that accommodates anyone requesting access.

In the August 2 online edition of the newspaper Granma, in an article titled New Tools, two specialists appeared, giving their points of view. “It’s a pragmatic decision that lightens the work of the Consular Office of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana”, said the researcher and former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray. For political analyst Ramon Sanchez-Parodi, “It does not change one iota the hostile policy toward Cuba, which remains the same. This measure does not cover ’people-to-people exchanges’ at all, nor does it address prohibitions on Americans traveling to Cuba. However, it can’t be described as a measure openly hostile; it’s convenient, practically and politically for the U.S. government.”

In the squabble that the olive-green autocracy has maintained for five years with eleven leaders in the White House, common sense has been a rare bird. And the openings and relaxations of both sides have been scrutinized with suspicion. Now, it couldn’t be any different.

In the scuffle that for five decades has remained olive-green autocracy with eleven leaders of the
Ivan Garcia

Photo: Miguel Iturria Savon. The little park Calzada and K and in the background the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba. Taken from Cubanet

Iván García

5 August 2013

A Survivor Named Fidel Castro

August 2, 2013 1 comment
Fidel Castro and Cecilia Sanchez

Fidel Castro and Cecilia Sanchez

It is said that in his childhood he liked listening to news on the radio about the Spanish Civil War alongside the family cook. At the height of WWII he sent a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt letting him know that in an area near his house there were enormous deposits of nickel.

In exchange for this information he asked Roosevelt for a ten-dollar reward. There was no reply. His adolescence and youth were free of poverty. He liked to leave his father’s farm to scale the mountains. His mother would call him to lunch with two shots of a rifle.

He got his diploma from a strict Jesuit school in Havana. Even then he was obsessed with being a political leader. He would practice fiery speeches in front of his bedroom mirror. He dreamed of being president.

By the time he entered the University of Havana’s law school, he had not yet developed a fixed ideology. He read voraciously — everything from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to the writings of José Ingenieros and Machiavelli.

He joined the university gangs of the times, the kind whose members had short fuses and were prone to settling their affairs with guns. He tried to enter the republican political stage through the back door. One morning in the 1940s he went into the offices of Dr. Eduardo Chibás — that rare specimen, an honest politician — to join the Orthodox Party.

When his secretary, Conchita Fernández, told him Castro wanted to see him, Chibás reacted like a frightened child who had seen a ghost. “Conchita, please, don’t let that gangster in here,” he said according to Fernández, who died in 1998.

He was not put off by this insult. To reach the political summit, he had to look for other shortcuts. He found allies, godfathers and people with deep pockets such as his father-in-law, Rafael Díaz-Balart, who had been the political manager of a certain army sergeant and stenographer named Fulgencio Batista.

And although Díaz-Balart did not like the way his son-in-law bragged, he was the father of his grandson. Some people who knew Fidel in the 1950s describe him as being visionary, adventurous, crazy. His political ambitions could withstand hurricanes. He knew how to seduce.

Journalism was his next step. He wrote articles denouncing the corruption of the Carlos Prío Socarrás government and took part in student marches. He was participating in one of these when on March 10, 1952 Batista led a coup d’état. This action served as the perfect pretext for Fidel to turn to armed struggle.

There are crucial moments in history. One way or another Hitler was going to achieve absolute power in Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag fire only sped up his plan. Castro would have been Castro even if there had not been a coup d’état.

Power was in his genes and the only way to achieve it was through the use of force. After the coup Castro organized a paramilitary group, later known as the July 26 Revolutionary Movement. He had the qualities of a leader. He recruited the humble: laborers, bookkeepers and the unemployed.

He did not recruit intellectuals or politicians. Castro wanted obedient soldiers. The group was not a school for democratic debate or a fledgling political party with a plan for gaining power through the popular vote. It was a private army. His shield.

With this group he launched an assault sixty years ago on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, 500 miles east of Havana. He took advantage of the fact that the city was celebrating its Carnival. On July 26, 1953 they attacked. The operation was a military disaster. In the span of a few hours fifty-five attackers died in combat or were later executed by government forces.

Not even the Socialist People’s Party — the Communist party of its time — applauded this hare-brained action. In a press release it condemned the attack, characterizing it as a “small bourgeois putsch.”

Looking back, if there is one thing that is most telling in Fidel Castro’s personal story, it is that he was an expert at turning defeats into victories. Disasters do not frighten him.

After the failed attack and his capture by army forces, Fidel drafted a document entitled “History Will Absolve Me” based on remarks he made as part of his self-defense at the trial. He was sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

The intercession of his father-in-law, Díaz-Balart, led to the Batista regime proclaiming a general amnesty, and Castro, his brother Raúl and the rest of the rebels were freed after only two years.

It is while in prison at the Presidio Modelo that the outline of his political profile emerges and he develops the chameleon-like abilities that will distinguish him in the future. In a letter to Melba Hernández, one of his most loyal collaborators, on the future of other political players he writes, “Let them talk. Later, when we are in power, we will squash them like roaches.” As so it was.

Before his triumphant entrance into Havana on January 8, 1959 surrounded by cheering crowds, Fidel Castro had led a three-year-long guerrilla war in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. His victory was due to his own skill and the military ineffectiveness of Batista’s army.

Once in power he systematically went about doing away with any vestige of democracy and freedom of expression. He has been on the crest of the information wave many times. His decision in 1962 to install nuclear warheads on the island pushed the world to the brink of catastrophe. In a daring letter he told Nikita Khrushchev he should be the one to first pull the nuclear trigger.

Under Castro’s leadership a formidable apparatus of subversion was launched in America and Africa. Cuba was the school for guerrillas, Basque ETA members and revolutionaries transformed into terrorists. He turned the country into a fortress, with a million men under arms. More than 3000 tanks. And a fleet of 200 fighter planes.

For the first time in history, the Cuban regular army moved beyond its borders. In the conflicts in Angola and Ethiopia — and earlier in Algeria and Syria — he ignored the directions coming from the Kremlin, asking him not to intervene.

In the ’80s he established a command post at his residence in Nuevo Vedado. From there he drove much of the civil conflict in Angola and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale against the army of South Africa. Lounging on a black leather swivel chair, pointer in hand, he led major battles from Havana. He was aware of everything: the exact amount of rations to be distributed among the troops or the infidelities of the wives of senior officers.

Economically he’s amassed failures. So many that they could fill several anthologies. He did everything on his own. At the cost of a depressed economy.

Fidel Castro has survived 54 years. Only an illness could part him. He has escaped numerous attacks and the stagnating economic crisis that has lasted 22 years has failed to pulverize his revolution.

The effectiveness of his Special Services is one of the keys to the permanence in office of the brothers from Biran and the Communist Party. Despite the exhaustion of power, Raul designs the succession. The Castro Clan pulling the strings of everything that moves in Cuba.

He will make changes that must be made to make his work endures. No matter the name and surname of the future president. Nor the ideology. Fidel Castro was always a political chameleon. His only vocation is power. And he is one for the history books.

27 July 2013