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Arturo Sandoval: I Have Fulfilled My Dreams / Ivan Garcia

November 23, 2013 1 comment

Arturo-SandovalTo speak about music in Cuba is an analogy. Cuba is the music. There are nice people, splendid weather, the smell of salty residue, and there’s always a reason to party. Other things, like the shrimp, tropical fruits, or beef are a luxury after 54 years of misrule. Cuba lacks essential liberties, but the music goes on.

Fidel Castro tried to scrap the Sunday calls to retreat and replace them with arrhythmic marches calling for combat. The olive-green regime planned to transform music. To bury guaguancó, toque de santo, and jazz.

But he couldn’t. In addition to inventing parameters to measure the quality of a music, in the medias sent to censure the greats like Mario Bauzá, Celia Cruz, or such a Lupe, only because they chose to observe from the distance the ideological folly established in the island.

And the music, like poetry, doesn’t let you break. The trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval (Artemeisa, 1949), knows this very well. In the flesh has lived the holy war that political and cultural commissioners, scribes and historians, unleashed in 1990 when he decided to move away from the Communist madhouse. According to official decree, Sandoval was to die.

It’s rained a lot since then. The times are different. It’s been 24 years, indignant Berliners in the night demolished the wall that divided a same nation. Castro had to change politically. He spoke of socialism or death on a Havana platform, but from the sewers of power, sent especially trying to make negotiations with magnates of capitalism. He had to make accords. With the Catholic Church, the Afro-Cuban religion and with the selfsame devil. He cracked the social discipline and the fear was lost.

And in full view you could find blacks on a Cayo Hueso lot, in downtown Havana, between rounds of rum and dominos, daring to listen, at full volume, to Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Paquito D’Rivera. or A Time for Love, disco from 2010 by Arturo Sandoval. I was a witness.

On November 6th the Cuban trumpeter turned 64. On the 21st of this month his name may be announced in Las Vegas as the winner of a Grammy, the tenth in his career, to go along with 6 Billboard Awards and an Emmy. Although the most moving of all will be the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which will be presented to him in December by Barack Obama, along with fifteen other figures, including former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Mexican scientist and Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Mario Molina. Despite his busy schedule, Arturo Sandoval graciously answered a questionnaire from Diario de Cuba.

Arturo, I was a boy when your name rang out with force on the island. I remember you taking complete notes on the trumpet while Irakere was making Bacalao with bread. Would you be able to summarize your artistic trajectory?

“I have to give thanks to God every day because in my career I’ve been able to accomplish my dreams. Look, coming from a dirt-poor family, where nobody was linked to art, and me having been able to be in the best situations and share with the musical greats. I think that sums up my trajectory: a dream come true.”

He doesn’t say it out of modesty, but another dream come true is the Arturo Sandoval Institute, proud institution of Cuban music on two shores.

Looking back, Arturo, what did Irakere mean to you?

“Before belonging to Irakere I was a member of the famous Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music. When I joined the orchestra, I was 16. I started at the bottom, being the sixth trumpet, until I made first. Without a doubt, the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music has been one of or the best ever formed in Cuba, with musicians of great magnitude, like Luis Escalante, El Guajiro Mirabal, Paquito D’Rivera, Chucho Valdés, Guillermo Barreto and Juan Pablo Torres, among others. I and some of these latter would form the group Irakere. To me, Irakere was a source of inspiration. The combination of rhythms that we could make gave new sounds to Cuban music. Through Irakere we had the chance to make ourselves known throughout the entire world, including winning a Grammy.”

Was Dizzy Gillespie the musician that influenced you most?

“Definitely. Dizzy has influenced me the most, and not just as a musician, also as a person and friend. We struck up a great friendship, we got to be like father and child. His teachings have been and continue being standards to follow in my life. I’ve had other musicians who’ve influenced my professional life such as Duke Ellington, Clark Terry and Clifford Brown, among others. The list would be unending, for I’ve also had classical influences like Rachmaninov, Ravel and many more.”

Your records arrive on the island on flash memory or pirated CDs. I know a DJ in Carraguao who, for 10 CUC, will copy your discography. How do you feel, knowing that despite censorship, Arturo Sandoval stays alive in the memories of many compatriots?

“It’s very sad to think that somebody has to sneak around to buy a record by an artist from his own country, that my music is forbidden and that in the land where I was born and continue to love, nobody can hear it. I feel proud that my compatriots want to hear my music, but at the same time I’m saddened that they have to hide out to do so. It’s sad that the music of a lady like Celia Cruz or a Willy Chirino and many more have to be listened to in the shadows, as if it were a crime. This shows not only political ineptitude, but also social and cultural incapacities of this regime.”

In Cuba, some criticized your opposition at the performance of Juanes in the Plaza of the Revolution in 2009. Do you still maintain that while democracy does not exist in Cuba, all cultural interchange is propaganda for the communist autocracy?

“I continue to hold the same opinion. I believe that cultural exchange cannot be one-sided. If Juanes could play in the Plaza of the Revolution and was received with fanfare, why can’t Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Andy García and others — including myself — do the same? Stopping off in the Plaza of the Revolution and freely expressing our feelings through music. The obsolete regime of the Castros is afraid, and by that I don’t mean of cultural exchange. They’re afraid we’ll speak before the people and might say that which Juanes and others did not say when they had that opportunity: the truth of what this communist regime represents and has represented for 54 years.”

Would you support an authentic cultural exchange, political or sporting where the Cubans from both shores might be able to offer concerts, games, or debates in their country without permission from the regime? With the Castros in power, do you see yourself giving a concert in the Karl Marx theater or in a plaza in your native Artemisa, now a province?

“Without the Castros and with a democratic government, I suppose so. With the Castros and without democracy, NO.”

Do you believe the shipwreck of the national economy has reduced the quality of Cuban music?

“There is a lot of talent in Cuba. Cuba has always been an inexhaustible source of musical talent, with and without communism. But look, since the triumph of the Revolution there aren’t specialized houses where a musician might go to buy an instrument or a music book. Nothing. Luckily, in Cuba music grows wild, but it’s sad that a person who wants to study music should have these kinds of limitations, not a single place to go and buy a book with staves.”

When you lived in Cuba, the people spoke against Fidel Castro, muttering in their living rooms. Now no. In many places they carry on about the malfunctioning of the government. There are those who continue seeing the game from the bleachers, but cases like Robertico Carcassés’ happen. What kind of value do you place on the controversies and public criticisms against the regime that take place today among the intellectuals and also the everyday Cubans?

“I am proud of all of them and believe that it’s going to be the only form the world will come to know; that Cuba does not assent to continue being dominated by a group of inept opportunists and crazy people.”

Your opinion about the intention of Chucho Valdés to regroup the musicians of Irakere and offer a nostalgic concert.

“Chucho supports the communist regime in Cuba. I am a US citizen and I defend the liberty and democracy. Irakere is not just him, to be the authentic Irakere, he’d have to count on all the musicians who are alive. Speaking for myself, they won’t count on me.”

How do you see this post-mortem homage that they want to give to Bebo Valdés in the next Havana Jazz Festival?

“Bebo deserves all kinds of recognition, but in this case it’s a flagrant act of demagoguery and hypocrisy. Bebo was a bitter enemy of this system and never came back to Cuba because he did not agree with the regime. They had to have recognized this while he was alive, for this they’ve had enough time.”

What have you got new for the next few months?

“I just finished the score for three movies, in one of them with Andy García and Vera Farmiga in the protagonist’s role, and in another the actor Beau Bridges is appearing. I finished producing the last record of the great Peruvian singer and composer Gianmarco, it’s a jewel and it’s nominated for the 2013 Grammy as Best Album of the Year. I finalized another record, “A Century of Passion”, that I dedicated to the Fuente family, famous Cuban-American tobacconists, nominated at the Latin Grammys as the Best Tropical Album. I recently concluded a tribute to Armando Manzanero and now I’m starting two more projects for film scores, but I still can’t say their names while we’re in the midst of contract negotiations.”

Arturo, with your hand over your heart, are you coming back to a democratic Cuba one day, or do you believe it will continue being a utopia to whomever it’s worth the trouble of continuing to struggle?

“Hope is never lost, our country deserves something better. I believe it is not a utopia. It’s worth the trouble to keep struggling, I know that Cuba will shake off the dead weight of the Castros and their henchmen.”

Iván García

Video: Havana, 1985. Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval in Night in Tunisia, composed by Gillespie en 1942.

Translated by Boston College Cuban American Student Association – Carlos Fernandez

16 November 2013

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Antonio Castro, or the Diplomacy of Baseball / Ivan Garcia

November 18, 2013 Leave a comment


Antonio Castro, son of the bearded man who governed Cuba for 47 years and nephew of the president hand chosen by his brother, told U.S. channel ESPN, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that our baseball players leave the country to go play in the best league in the world.”

Tony Castro, of course, isn’t a dissident or dumb. He’s trained to be an orthopedist and is a lover of beautiful women, the good life and baseball. He grew up without a ration book in Zone Zero (the residential complex where his father lives, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood west of Havana), with a cow in the yard where each child of the commander could drink fresh milk. He got first-class medical attention and had the possibility to go see the World Series, while the rest of Cuba’s baseball fans were forbidden to do so.

“He’s a good guy,” his party-going friends assure. He likes to play golf, a sport that his father and the Argentinian Ernesto Guevara banned, ostensibly because it was bourgeois and racist: they said that the caddies were always black.

The talk of Cuban autocrats is a complex exercise of deciphering messages. To those who look at the Revolution with nostalgia, the only things that remain are the sporadic Reflections (as Fidel’s articles in the newspaper are titled), where the leader announces atomic disasters, the end of capitalism or that the moringa tree would be the food of the future.

If you aren’t an ideological fanatic and interpret daily life in Cuba in a reasonable way, we reach the conclusion that each step in the timid reforms of Raúl Castro or pronouncements of his relatives, the real mandarins, have buried Fidel Castro’s wilfulness a hundred meters under the ground.

Maintaining the bored phraseology and ideological symbols has been a masterpiece of political witchcraft by Castro II. Without celebrating a Stalinist opinion, he has shifted all of the ruses enacted by his brother.

The furniture changed drastically. Fidel’s confidantes are either prisoners or have easy jobs. Or, like Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage, they’re working in a factory, the biggest punishment for any ex-minister.

For some time now, homosexuals are revolutionaries. The boarding schools in the countryside were suppressed, because they intended to supplant the family. The security guards at the borders opened the gate and allow us to travel abroad.

We also stay in hotels, buy American cars from the ’50s or old Russian Ladas. We sell the house and legally engage all of those businesses that previously we engaged in on the side, yes we have money, of course.

They have told us why all of this was forbidden for so many years. It’s nobody’s fault. But the specialists in dissecting the magic realism inside the power in Cuba know that the mud continues flooding Fidel Castro, the promoter of this political jargon.

Even his son jumps at his precepts. And he announces that the old “traitors, deserters, and stateless people of the Cuban exodus” are now welcome. Surely they could be enlisted in future national teams and begin businesses, while they pay the tax collector, of course.

The olive branch, in any light, is a capitalism of the family. A technocracy. Now the problems of government can be spoken about in a taxi or bar in the neighborhood. But you go to jail if you evade taxes.

Tony doesn’t want to get left behind when the cake gets divided up. The ex son-in-law of Raul Castro and his generals control 80% of the actual economy, not the one of bread and croquettes, that never will ruin the country, but rather the one of oil and of the port of Mariel, tourism, exporting of medical services, and other tax collecting and hard money businesses.

Behind Tony Castro’s words there is no light or rebuff. The leaders are sending a message: we want to negotiate with the United States. Taking as a model Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy of the 70s with China, Tony intends to seduce the market of the Big Leagues. He has the cards in his favor.

In 2013, the Cuban baseball players have left as a group. They have had their best season. If we add up their salaries, we see that it adds up to about $600 million. And the smart ones back in Havana send in their bills.

If one day the embargo disappears, around 300 Cuban baseball players, who learned in academies patronized by the MLB, can nurture baseball organizations. For all of them, the economic blade will tax them with high fees. And the zeros in the banks of relatives and friends will grow.

Of course, to reach that dance of the millions and sell the loot of a nation, you need the obstinate gringos to lift the embargo. Therefore, it’s time to pull levers.

Diplomats wear out the soles of their shoes in Florida to convince Cuban-American business owners of the favorability of a new investment law. For the fifteenth time, the chancellor of the ONU has said that the bad guys of this movie are the Yankees, who don’t want to get rid of the “criminal blockade” and refuse to sit down and civilly chat about business like a good capitalist.

In this piñata that Cuba has turned into, Antonio Castro pretends to be the boss of professional baseball’s future on the island. Well, that’s the way it is now.

Iván Garciá

Video: Interview from October 27, 2013 with journalist Paula Lavigne and Antonio Castro in Havana for the show Outside the Lines of ESPN.

Translated by: Boston College Cuban American Student Association 

11 November 2013

United States: Famous People with Cuban Roots / Ivan Garcia

November 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Eugene Salazar

Alberto Salazar, who was one of the most distinguish runners in the United States, today is a highly paid trainer in long distance running around the world.

The best informed on the island know that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Executive Director and owner of the Washington Post Newspaper, had a stepfather born in Santiago de Cuba. Ryan Lochte’s mother is from Havana. Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah’s trainer, was born August 7, 1958 in Havana.

Or that Isabel Toledo, the designer of the dress that Michelle Obama wore in January 2009 at her husband’s first presidential inauguration, is from Las Villas where she was born in 1961.  And that the first lady has wore models from Narciso Rodriguez, son of Cuban immigrants that arrived in New Jersey in the 1950’s.  Narciso was raised in a family very attached to their roots.

Due to the lack of access to the internet, magazines or foreign newspapers, many in the island would be surprised to discover that Dudley, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s grandfather was a Barbado’s native and that in 1936 je traveled to the island and there fell in love and married a Cuban.  After her passing, Dudley wanted to remember his love’s homeland naming their son Cuba, who at the same time continued the tradition naming his first descendant Cuba.

Another actor, Steven Bauer, Melanie Griffith’s ex-husband, was born in Havana in 1956, and his real name is Esteban Echevarria.  Marcia Presman, Miami’s socialite, is the mother of Brett Ratner, movie director and musical producer.  She was born in Cuba, in the center of a Jewish family which in 1960 immigrated to the United States.  The famous blogger Perez Hilton (Mario Armando Lavandeira) also has Cuban roots.

Baseball fans follow the news related to Cuban baseball players who decided to compete and earn seven figure salaries in the MLB (Major League Baseball), like Yasiel Puig, Kendrys Morales, Yoennis Cespedes or Aroldis Chapman

But not all know that the Puerto Rican Jorge Posada, ex player with the Yankees is son of a Cuban father and a Dominican mother.  Pitcher Gio Gonzalez is son to two Cuban fans.  Jon Jay, center field for the St Louis Cardinals was born in Miami; his father was from Santiago de Cuba and his mother from Matanzas.  Since his first and last names tend to offer confusion he has said:  “Yes, I am Cuban.  Of rice and black beans, palomilla steak and cafe con leche”.  Perhaps Justo Jay, Jon’s father, might be related to Ruperto Jay Matamoros (Santiago de Cuba 1912-Havana 2008) the largest exponent of naif painting in Cuba.

Of course, Cubans know about the saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, both American citizens today; they were born on the island. That Andy Garcia came into this world in Bejucal, a town 26 km south of Havana. That Eva Mendez (Miami, 1975) is the youngest of four siblings, all children to Cuban immigrants. And that Cameron Diaz (California, 1972) is the daughter of the American Billy Early and Emilio Diaz, now dead, famous entrepreneur whose parents settled in Tampa.

Also Carlos Leon, the father of Lourdes Maria, Madonna’s daughter, was born in Cuba in 1966. Armando Christian Perez, alias Pitbull, son of Cubans who immigrated to Florida, is heard among toques de santo parties, with white rum and marijuana in the poorest and largely black neighborhoods in the capital.

Willy Chirino (Pinar del Rio, 1947) is almost an “asere” from the neighborhood.  His hit, “New Day is Coming” has become a hymn in Cuba. People rent gossip magazines to read about the model and actor William Levy, born in Havana in 1980.  Or about Gloria Estefan (Havana, 1957) and her husband Emilio (Santiago de Cuba, 1953).

On the island there are some people who believe that the Cuban-American composer Jorge Luis Piloto is related to the binomial author Piloto & Vera. Which doesn’t stop people from El Pilar, the neighborhood where he lived in the capital, from knowing the lyrics of his songs sung by Luis Enrique or Chayanne.

The regime, in his campaign to discredit Cubans in the exile and their descendants, hide their triumphs in the United States. When they mention names of the ex-president of The Coca-Cola Company, Roberto Goizuete; the Bacardi family or the Fanjul, among others, they link them to the national bourgeoisie or the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The politicians with Cuban origins that swarm mayor positions or other institutions in Florida or other states or the US Congress, are target of criticism from the regime. Disparagingly they call them the “Miami Mafia”.

The message is understood.  Since 1959, when Fidel Castro gained power and started piecing together the most successful autocracy of the continent, the immigrants are considered enemies.  Those that choose to leave the ideological madhouse had to endure humiliations, delays in their immigration dealings, go to work in agriculture, or withstand insults and eggs at barbaric acts of repudiation.

Fifty-four years later, the Castro government attempts to masks their treatment of the exiles, wielding an inclusive and moderate speech. They need it. That’s an important source of their economic support.

1,785,547 Cubans or 0.6% of the United State’s population, per the 2010 census, generates ten times more riches than Cuba’s GDP, one of extreme poverty, with a population of eleven million.  It’s an  incontrovertible statistic.

Iván García

Translated by LYD 

11 November 2013

Antonio Rodiles: Creating an Opposition Movement Within Cuba? / Ivan Garcia

November 16, 2013 1 comment

Antonio-Rodiles-620x330Far from being an association of think tanks or elite academics, Estado de SATS (State of SATS) is a project which brings together the various political and civic points of view to be found within the tiny illegal world of Cuban dissidents.

At one of their gatherings a highly regarded opposition figure like Manuel Cuesta Morúa might offer a talk on racial issues, a panel of independent attorneys might discuss legal matters with the audience, or a rapper named Raudel might give an hour-and-a-half long concert.

Estado de SATS often serves as a point of cultural, social, political and even sports contact for Cuba’s opposition. The physicist and mathematician Antonio Enrique González-Rodiles Fernández (born 1972 in Havana) is its most visible face.

His home in Havana’s Miramar district, with its spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, serves as the headquarters for Estado de SATS activities. Once an event is announced, the security services begin mobilizing. 

A surveillance camera has been placed very indiscreetly along one side of the house. Suzuki motorcycles — the sturdy type used by counter-intelligence agents — prowl the surrounding area. And not infrequently one or two dissidents are detained. Harassment has become part of the landscape.

On the evening of Thursday, October 11, Rodiles was screening El Súper, a classic 1978 Cuban exile film by Orlando Jiménez Leal and León Ichaso. It tells the story of a  family which has recently arrived in New York from the Caribbean.

Antonio Rodiles is perhaps Cuba’s most promising dissident by virtue of his extensive education as well as his formal manner of speaking and interacting with people. Dressed in a short-sleeve Prussian blue shirt and black slacks, and amid the din of houseguests and audio equipment, Rodiles spoke with me.

“The repression and harassment of Estado de SATS is cyclical,” he tells me. He mentions the detention of the former political prisoner José Díaz Silva and his wife, who is a member of the Ladies in White. Both were collecting signatures for Citizens’ Demand For Another Cuba. On the following day a Miami-based newspaper, Diario de Cuba, reported the couple had been released.

Demand For Another Cuba was launched in Havana in 2012. Among other things the petition publicly calls for a debate on the country’s dual currency system, the right of workers to a living wage, the right of all Cubans — no matter where they live — to launch financial projects in their own country and free [open] access to the internet.

Demand For Another Cuba also calls upon the regime to the ratify the United Nations’ Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which were signed by Cuba on February 28, 2008 in New York.

Rodiles is not optimistic. “I don’t believe the will is there to ratify them. It was a tactic meant to make a good impression in the eyes of the world. Remember that in 2008, when Barack Obama became president of the United States, the government of Raul Castro was trying to take on a reformist profile.”

Estado de SATS began operations in the summer of 2010. In the past three years arbitrary arrests and harassment by State Security have become routine. Last year Rodiles himself was detained for nineteen days in a foul-smelling jail cell in Havana’s Tenth of October district. 

“We have gone through some bad times,” he says. “There are cycles. It’s like a wave, with stages in which the level of repression is low and others when it spikes. It is a surgical kind of harassment. Repressing twenty opponents is not the same as having to repress ten thousand disgruntled people. Special services is trying to patch the wound before it occurs.”

A series of actions carried out by Estado de SATS in the private employment sector has raised alarms with some of those in charge of keeping tabs on them. Any attempts to build bridges with non-dissident groups often makes agents of the secret police very nervous.

Rodiles knows this. He is convinced of the necessity to build a more effective opposition movement within Cuba. Leaky pipes which waste fifty-eight percent of the country’s drinking water, the chaotic state of public transport, a low-quality educational system, and dilapidated hospitals affect Castro loyalists as well as opponents.

This is why Rodiles is trying to be more inclusive. “There are many ordinary Cubans among the 4,200 people who have signed the Demand For Another Cuba petition. Mismanagement by the state harms everyone, whatever that person’s ideology.”

I ask him how he sees himself in five years. Antonio Rodiles looks at the intense blue sea, which he can almost touch with his hand and answers, “I like politics. Economics too. It’s not that I am capable of giving up everything for politics, but I believe it is one path.”

Iván García

Photo: From “Cubans Are Losing Their Fear,” and interview published in ABC on September 20, 2013.

Further reading: Opposition in Cuba: The Opposition in Cuba: Calling Ourselves to Account

14 November 2013

The Long-Awaited End to Cuba’s Two-Currency System / Ivan Garcia

November 2, 2013 1 comment

526ae183c9902-617x330Danilo, an illegal hard-currency speculator, has had a busy week. “I buy dollars, euros and convertible pesos. But after the government announced it would move to a single currency, I am without funds,” he says from a centrally located Havana boulevard.

Some of the CADECA currency exchanges have closed early because they did not have enough “chavitos”  to carry out transactions in convertible pesos, the stronger of Cuba’s two currencies.

Although the regime is trying to ward off panic by issuing an official statement indicating that the measures to be implemented will have no effect on savings, there were long lines to be found at branches of Banco Metroplitano.

“In only five hours fourteen customers closed their hard-currency accounts at the bank where I work” said an employee. The news comes as no surprise to one segment of the population.

An avalanche of rumors in mid-August about a possible devaluation of the convertible Cuban peso, or CUC, led hundreds of people to exchange their Cuban pesos, or CUPs, for hard currency.

“Two months ago I withdrew all the chavitos from my bank account and bought pesos. It isn’t clear how currency unification will be implemented but rumors are that, before it disappears, the convertible peso will be gradually devalued,” says a self-employed worker.

In Cuba rumors are often more credible than information found in the state-run media. Eusebio, an economist, believes the dual-currency system leads to distortions in prices, accounting practices and domestic commercial transactions.

“Many local businesses are profitable because they sell their merchandise in convertible pesos. For example, domestically produced mayonnaise sells for between 3.0 and 5.5 CUC, or roughly 75 to 132 CUP. Once currency unification occurs, this disparity will disappear and inflated prices, which result from the stronger currency, will have to be adjusted. Nothing will be solved by replacing the chavito with the Cuban peso if stores maintain rigid price structures in CUC or CUP. The real price of rationed rice is not 20 centavos a pound, nor is 800 CUC — or 20,000 CUP — the real price for a plasma screen TV. Currency unification will be complicated. Businesses will be affected and could suffer losses,” he claims.

Some chain stores are already selling products in pesos tied to the exchange rate of the convertible peso. Magaly, a high school teacher, does not believe this will solve anything. “If a large segment of the population cannot afford to pay 25 chavitos for food, they won’t have 625 pesos for it either,” she notes.

An official with a state agency asks for patience. “The salaries of employees who work in profitable industries which generate income in hard-currency (such as tourism, healthcare, Cubana de Aviación or ETECSA*) will begin earning salaries based on the new paradigm relatively soon. Their buying power will be increased. It will be healthy for the consumer as well as for society to re-emphasize the value of work. The inverted pyramid, where professionals earn salaries lower than that of a garbage collector, will gradually change,” though he did not provide details.

The convoluted announcement published in Granma raises more questions than it answers. People hope that by year’s end the guidelines for creating a single currency will begin to take effect.

When Fidel Castro made it legal to possess dollars on June 26, 1993, the Cuban peso and the U.S. dollar went into circulation. In May 2004 the United States fined the Swiss bank UBS for violating the embargo and for having “laundered” almost four billion dollars destined for Cuba. Fidel Castro was furious. Six months later, in November 2004, the dollar was replaced with the convertible peso. But for Castro it was not enough to remove the dollar from circulation. In March 2005 he imposed an 18% surcharge on dollars sent to the island.

When his brother Raul came to power in 2006, the goal became to attract more greenbacks, so he reduced the surcharge on the dollar to 10%. In spite of this undue financial burden, high food prices in hard-currency retail stores and slow turnover of hundreds of inventory items in state-run stores, the volume of remittances from family members overseas has grown phenomenally.

In the year 2000 the country brought in 986 million dollars in remittances. By 2013 it had grown to 2.6 billion. It is estimated to surpass 2.8 billion in 2013. This does not include almost three billion additional dollars in the form of food, clothing, cell phone account payments, household appliances and medications that enter the country through “mules” and travel agencies based in Florida.

A casual poll of twenty or so Havana residents, who these days argue passionately over the ramifications of currency unification, suggests that the main problems will continue to be poverty-level salaries and excessive regulation in an inefficient system.

According to the National Office of Statistics and Information the average salary in Cuba is about 466 pesos or some 20 dollars a month. In spite of lukewarm economic reform efforts, agriculture has yet to take off and industry needs something more than good intentions to be efficient.

Cuba imports everything from fruit for the tourist industry to toothbrushes for sale to the public. No one believes for a moment that the doing away with the dual-currency system will improve his or her quality of life. Rather, it will represent the beginning of a new set of challenges.

Iván García

Photo: Diario de las Americas

*Translator’s note: The state-owned telecommunications company.

29 October 2013

Civil Disobedience Cuban Style / Ivan Garcia

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment

cuba-people-beyonce-620x330In Cuba people seldom go to extremes. Here you will not find a Mohamed Bouazizi ready to turn himself into a human bonfire in front of the Ministry of Housing to protest excessive taxes.

There are, however, a lot of Bouazizis around. Their way of rebelling is different. Cubans do not take to the streets to express their discontent. Nor do they organize massive demonstrations with signs or set up protest camps.

They protest at a snail’s pace or with sit-down strikes. Or they steal what they can from their workplaces. Or they behave inappropriately in public or they fail to pay their taxes.

During this month of October the tension within one segment of the population has been palpable. Private taxi drivers are furious. Many have received a notice from the tax office telling them of new levies they must pay.

“I have to pay $15,000 pesos ($740 US). And I know of cases in which taxi drivers have to pay $30,000 pesos ($1,300 US). There is one thing you can be sure of: Just like the rest of them I will not pay one cent,” says one Havana taxi driver, the veins in his neck bulging.

It’s obvious that the regime wants everyone to pay their taxes. They explain that is not an invention by Raul Castro. And like fearful parrots, the official media repeats that “our citizens should learn to have a tax-paying culture, those tax revenues become social benefits”.

The arguments fall on deaf ears.  The resentment that prevails among the self-employed workers sees that the States sees them as the enemy.

I’ll give a little bit of history. Throughout the years, the regime harassed the self-employed.  One night in 1968 all small businesses were closed. From grocery stores and hamburger vendors to Chinese restaurants and shoe repairers.

When in 1994 Fidel Castro opened the faucet to certain private initiatives he didn’t do it to slowly introduce liberal methods or a market economy.  No. It was a matter of political survival.

The public accounts were in red.  The State had to deflate if it wanted to be profitable.  Then it loosened its grip and permitted minor trades like umbrella repairers, peanut sellers or raw material collectors.

You could also sell coffee, rent a room or set up a restaurant with twelve chairs.  Always with the imposing high taxes to slow the capital accumulation.

At the end of 1999 Hugo Chavez came to the Miraflores Palace in Venezuela. A Santa Claus with petro-dollars. Castro took a step back and self-employed work was marginalized. Between 1995 and 2003, the number of self-employed dropped from 170,000 to 150,000.

But in the national landscape there was news. Fidel departed from power in July 2006 due to illness. The natural heir, his brother Raul, is almost the same although with different strategies.

He eliminated absurd prohibitions that classified Cubans as fourth class citizens. He allowed the rent of land, made it legal for Cubans to frequent tourist facilities, and legalized cell phones, the purchase and sell of homes and cars, and as of January, travel abroad.

Currently there are more than 436,000 self-employed workers.  According to the government, self-employment “has come to stay”.  But ordinary Cubans seem to be distrustful.

Other economic openings were cut off at the root with legal penalties and scorn in the public media.  Naturally, people think that the story could repeat itself.  Even more when they know that the government allows self-employment as long as they don’t make too much in profits.

Small businesses are controlled by an army of inspectors and harassed by high taxes. Therefore, the escape door of many self-employed workers is tax evasion.

In the island, citizens’ dissatisfaction is not a synonymous of strikes, indignant marches or street protests. The Cuban Bouazizi prefers the passive disobedience, either by stealing at work or not paying taxes.

 Ivan Garcia

Photo: Under the rain, people wait in front of the Saratoga Hotel to get a glance of Beyonce and her husband, rapper Jay-Z during their April 2013 visit in Havana to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.  Taken by NY Daily News.

Translated by LYD

2 November 2013