Archive for December, 2013

What do Cubans Hope For in the New Year? / Ivan Garcia

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

b12951-620x330December is a month of epilogues.  2013 brought new things for Cubans.  After the 14th of January, those born on the island could travel abroad without so much government oversight.

Even the dissidents.  Although with exceptions.  Opponents, hostages of the Black Spring of 2003 who are considered by the olive green-autocracy as being on parole, cannot leave Cuba.

In business new legal concepts have emerged.  Service cooperatives have been created and the State leases premises to individuals.  In the Mariel port there will be a special zone with a different wage and tax system.

In 2013 Hugo Chavez and Nelson Mandela died.  The two had repercussions on the island.  If Mandela is on an altar, the death of the Venezuelan leader brought worries.

And if the national industries work and do not produce extensive blackouts, it is thanks to the agreement that Chavez initialed with Fidel Castro, by which Cuba pays with doctors and advisors for more than 10 thousand barrels of oil a day.

And although Chavez does not have even a trace of Mandela’s symbolism and the people on the street are not loyal to that social experiment that the Bolivarian called as 21st Century Socialism, typical human selfishness to not lose benefits make many Cubans, simply to keep the status quo, prefer the unseemly Nicolas Maduro.

Maybe Maduro would get votes in Cuba than in his country.  And when people have lived 12-hour periods without light and someone offers it to them, in spite of Venezuela being mired in chaos and Caracas being a jungle of violence, people are capable of voting for Satan.

In 2013 Cubans continued on their own.  News of the protests in Kiev, the gag law in Spain, the re-election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the global electronic espionage by the United States denounced by the analyst Edward Snowden or the apprentice dictator of North Korea executing his uncle, passed almost unnoticed.

Through illegal satellite antennas, SMS or those that pay 4.5 convertible pesos for an hour of internet — finally commercialized in 2013 — people prefer to be up to date on the latest record by their favorite singer, to see Brazilian soap operas, the films that are chosen for the Oscar, to see who will win the Soccer World Cup, to see the games of LeBron James’s Miami Heat or MLB baseball games in which Yasiel Puig or Arnoldis Chapman are playing.

Although for three years Cubans have enjoyed more economic liberties and now can stay in a hotel, buy or sell a house or get a car, in relation to political matters, people prefer to stay on the sidelines.

The ready arrests of dissidents, beatings of the Ladies in White or the acts of repudiation they keep watching from the sidewalk across the street.

The opposition continues being a particular clan.  They say and write things that the majority desire or lack, but the average Cuban sees it from as a great a distance as an Australian tourist.

In the syndicate meetings they get mad about the miserable salaries and ask out loud for a change in the system.  But if you suggest creating an independent syndicate, they look you up and down as if you were a strange insect.

Ask any Cuban what he wants for 2014 and he will tell you a better life for himself and his family.  Earning a decent wage and being able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

The workers for their own account want more autonomy, a wholesale market, lower taxes and less State interference.  That 3D cinemas return and cheesy shops re-open.

The dissidents long for the Castro era to end.  For Cuba to enter the ring of democracy.  And that liberties be respected.

They have spent decades demanding it.  But they dedicate very little time to political proselytizing of their neighbors, which is whom they must convince.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by mlk.

20 December 2013

Cuba: Diplomacy and Repression / Ivan Garcia

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

cuba-damas-644x362-620x330While General Raul Castro, a president handpicked by his brother Fidel, squeezed the hand of the United States’ leader Barack Obama at the State funeral of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, the special services and combined forces of the police mounted a strong operation around the home of dissident Antonio Rodiles, director of the Estado de Sats, a project where diverse political and civic strands that coexist in the illegal world of Cuban opposition come together.

Also on December 10, while the headlines of the dailies of the world media highlighted on their front pages the leaders’ unprecedented handshake, the hard guys of the State Security were repressing activists in the eastern region of Cuba and detaining some twenty Ladies in White in Havana and dozens of opponents in the rest of the country.

All this happens under the indifferent gaze of ordinary Cubans, whose central objective is to try to get two plates of food to the table each day. Neither for the corner grocer, the individual taxi driver or people waiting for the bus at a busy stop was the greeting newsworthy.

The regime knows that an elevated percentage of the population remains in the bleachers, observing the national political panorama. What is of the people is to subsist, emigrate or see the way to set up a small shop that permits one to earn some pesos.

Meanwhile, the olive green autocrats clamor to negotiate. But with the United States. It does not matter to them, for now, to sit down to dialogue with an opposition that has unquestionable merit: the value of publicly dissenting within a totalitarian regime.

It has paid its price. Years in jail, exile, and repression. But neither the right which it should enjoy — of being considered a political force — nor the acts of repudiation and beatings, have cemented a state of favorable opinion within a majority of citizens disgusted with the lousy governmental management by the Castros for 55 years.

Here is the key.  By being focused on the exterior, the dissidence does not count on popular support, on men and women who before the regime’s gross injustices throw themselves into the street to protest.  That weakness is what permits the authorities to not take it into account.

I do not believe one owes a handshake to a ruler who represses those who think differently.  This December 10 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a signatory, turns 65.

No high flying political strategy has paid off after a series of steps that democratic countries have taken trying to push Cuba.

Neither the Ibero-American Summits or leading CELAC pro tempore have impeded the Havana Government in continuing to repress the dissidents with laws and physical violence.

Fidel and Raul Castro have dismissively mocked everyone and everything.  They initialed the Economic, Cultural, Political and Civil Rights Pacts in February 2008, and later did not ratify them.

Cuba is the only country in the western hemisphere where the opposition is considered illegal.  And the only nation that does not hold free elections to elect its presidents.

Cuba is not a democracy.  Obama well knows it.

If behind that handshake, the second in a half century by a president of the United States (the first was that of Bill Clinton with Fidel Castro at the Millennial Summit in New York, September 6, 2000), there exists a discrete message about future negotiations to repeal the embargo or improve relations between the countries, ordinary people and a sector of the dissidence would not see it as a bad thing.

Maybe the greeting does not come to be something more than ceremonial and isolated.  Or maybe a change of policy by the White House.  The gringos have always been very pragmatic.

In a serious negotiation, both sides must give.  The bad news is that the regime feigns change, but continues repressing the opposition.  Diplomacy on one hand, clubs on the other.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  One of the Ladies in White detained Tuesday, December 10, during a peaceful demonstration for the Day of Human Rights on the downtown corner of 23 and L, Vedado, Havana.  Taken by ABC.

Translated by mlk.

17 December 2013

When Cuba Had No Christmas / Ivan Garcia

December 18, 2013 Leave a comment

The first time Juan Carlos saw a Christmas tree, he was 43-years-old and working as a bricklayer inside the house of a top counterintelligence officer.

“That was 19 years ago.  Those were the harsh years of the so-called Special Period. People had nothing to eat.  Avocado was a luxury and a pound of rice was 60 pesos.  Due to all sorts of vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, men and women succumbed to illness and some even lost their natural teeth.  Back then, I was a civilian worker for the Department of the Interior and our crew was asked to work on painting and remodeling the home of a State Security bigwig.  The guy was living at full throttle luxury.  His kitchen was a quarter size bigger than the tenement room where I was living.  That was the first place I ever saw a Christmas tree.

Cubans are not atheists or Muslims.  No, sir.  Before Fidel Castro’s autocratic regime, the poor and rich celebrated Christmas if on different budgets.

The same could be said for Three Kings Day (Epiphany), and Easter celebrations.  But our radical commander launched a crusade against reproducing the slightest hint of the bourgeois lifestyle.  He opened fire on the Church, on free thought and on abstract painting.  Down with the Three Kings.  Now, our New King Magus dressed in olive green fatigues.

In 1959, Fidel climbed aboard an aircraft and made it rain toys for children of the Sierra Maestra who’d never owned such a thing.  But in one fell swoop, by the end of the 60s, he eliminated all mom and pop shops and Christmas.

Gustavo, a 72-year-old retiree, remembers, “Only New Year’s Eve parties were left standing, and even those came to be used to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution.  The pretext used to eliminate Christmas and the Carnivals of February was that such events shut down sugar cane production.  In his madness, Castro had invested all of Cuba’s resources to attempt the production of ten million pounds of sugar per year.  The effort failed.  Cuba’s economy payed dearly for such folly.

Just like the State openly frowned on the Afro-Cuban and Catholic religions — Castroism was the only acceptable religion — Christmas had to be suspended until further notice.  Of course, you can’t really change anyone’s beliefs by edict.

“Some neighbors would very discretely place Christmas trees in their family rooms.  They’d also shut the windows so neighborhood whistleblowers who patrolled for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) couldn’t see any of the tiny Christmas lights.  When pig was roasted, the aromas were carefully masked and Christmas Carols were barely audible,” reported Aida, a 69 year-old housewife.

It was a long journey through the desert.  Even parties had to be authorized by the state.  The government tried to micromanage every detail of your life.

To avoid being singled out as a counterrevolutionary, you had to attend political meetings and participate in government parades.  If you aspired to housing, a Soviet TV or an alarm clock, you had to list accumulated merits in the workforce and enumerate your revolutionary accomplishments.

You gained points if you’d fought in Angola or Ethiopia, if you were militia, if you worked lots of volunteer hours, and if you could quote good chunks of the Maximum Leader’s (Fidel’s) speeches by heart.

You lost points, if you owned a Bible, went to church, got mail from relatives in Miami, listened to the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, liked Levis blue jeans; with these characteristics you did not qualify to buy an Inpud refrigerator or two-speed Karpaty motorcycle.

To blacklist you, any envious neighbor or political extremist could turn you in to Special Services if you were caught celebrating Christmas or giving your kids any toys on January 6 to celebrate the day the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men) arrived at Jesus’ manger.

To keep himself in power, Fidel had to do all kinds of ideological backflips.  In Europe, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the U.S.S.R. — the mecca of Communist looney wards — had disappeared.  Somehow, he had to cling to whatever branch could sustain him.

The regime eventually sealed a pact with a docile Catholic Church.  People who once professed a belief in Yoruba syncretic spiritualism (Santería) again nailed old and familiar amulets on their doors.

In December 1997, Pope John Paull II visited Cuba and Christmas returned.

But all along, the official Nomenklatura never stopped celebrating Christmas if you take into account all the roast pork, all the traditional sweet Spanish nougat and all the wines consumed.

Maybe those folks could indulge because they thought of themselves as being above the rest.

Iván García

Photo Credit: Front cover of winning lottery number sporting a Criollo Christmas image and published in the magazine Carteles in 1959.  Up until 1959, we had Christmas cheer on the Island.  You could find the popular A Cuban Merry Christmas postcard celebrating the Cuban book and reading fair, and the advertising sign for A Boy’s Cuban Christmas printed by the Ministry of Culture and with pictures of the Three Magi done by René Portocarrero.  The Book of Cuban Recipes, launched for Christmas and edited by the Ministry of Education, carried a special introduction: “This Christmastime, a book of traditional Cuban recipes was especially created so every young city-dwelling housewife can come to know and enjoy the traditional cooking that forms part of our national heritage and still endures in various parts of the country.”

But during the 60s, Christmas started to disappear from the life of Cubans, and only a few kept up with the tradition from behind closed doors (Tania Quintero).

Translated by: JCD and others
17 December 2013

Obama – Raul Handshake Overlooked On The Island

December 17, 2013 1 comment

Obama-Raul-castro-SudafricaIn Cuba, most news reaches us via Miami.  Look, given such limited access to the internet where one official hour puts us back a whopping 4.50 convertible pesos (i.e., the equivalent of one week’s pay for a laborer), people resort to foreign short wave radio or whatever illegal cable connection the neighbor down the street managed to set up but charges 10 cuc to let you listen to the news.

Don’t ever think you’ll get any real news about Cuba from local newspapers.  Out of the six pages of dull newspaper made from sugar cane pulp, the national press only publishes Pollyanna stuff and overly compliant economic indicators.

Out on the street, we think of our newspapers as pure science fiction. Good for nothing except to help keep track of the baseball season, to get a peek at the TV guide, or as a good substitute for toilet paper.

The cut and paste ordeal to get information is a lengthy process.  While Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro were shaking hands in the Johannesburg soccer stadium, Rebel Radio a.m. (Radio Rebelde) went on and on about the sugar cane harvest and the great and successful efforts made by our cooperative social service units.

Moraima, a 29 year-old housewife found out about the event because she’d been watching TV through some illegal cable connection.  She comments, “every day, I watch channel 23 News and a few Oscar de Haza programs.  That’s how I get a whiff of unreported local Cuban news ranging from the latest crime, to another dissenter arrest, to the North Korean ship in Panama or to the handshake between Obama and Raúl.”

While the Obama-Raúl thing sent a large part of the exiled Cuban-American community living in Miami into an uproar, in Havana the whole thing was little more than just another bit of news.  Gerardo, a 74 year-old retiree thought the encounter was positive, but his main morning concern was being able to buy a leg of pork.

“Pork meat is sold in agro-markets for 24-25 pesos per pound.  But I was hunting for the 21 peso bargain I’d get if I could find a state slaughterhouse carrying it.  I was in line for an hour and a half, but I finally got my pork leg for Christmas Eve dinner.  Maybe the handshake will bode well for the future — I’m not really certain — but the good news is that I’ll have food to last me for a few days.  Politics is a dirty game.  Government reforms do not benefit retirees.  I don’t have relatives in Yankeeland, so no one sends me dollars. Whether those two shake hands or tell each other off doesn’t really matter to me.”

Common folks in Cuba are just tired, that’s all. Tired of a bunch of stuff.  Of bad government.  Of the now ancient embargo used as a pretext by the regime to justify depriving us of scarce goods and services.  And worst of all, tired of not having any political voice or say.

A 38 year-old teacher, Zoila feels like a pawn for the State.  “Whatever we think about the future we’d like to have is nothing the government cares to take into account.  Any one act like Obama’s handshake can easily morph into cheap and superficial politics. Our government leaders don’t want to change.  All they are doing is stalling for time.”

In Parque Central located in the heart of Havana, people could be seen rushing around stuffing plastic bags with whatever they could find.  A loaf of bread.  Two and a half pound of tomatoes.  Maybe some dry fruit.

On baseball hill just next to the statue of José Martí, countless fans argued over baseball or predicted results for the European Champions League soccer matches.

At the Payret, about fifty people queued up waiting for the movie theater to let them in to see an Argentine flick brought in by the International Festival of New Latin American Film.

Meanwhile, beggars were sorting through garbage cans.  And a pair of very old people begged for money right next to the Inglaterra hotel.  And workers hired to repair the Capitol building were selling their own lunch for 25 pesos.

Obispo street was a beehive of pedestrians swarming in and out of stores.  Some discreet street vendors offered cigars.  Others, girls.  Blondes, mulatto, black. Young men were also an option.

Our bus service is still in crisis.  Bus stops are stuffed to the gills, and people feel antsy and are upset about not being able to get where they need to go.  And even at the cusp of winter, temperatures in Havana still hover at unbearable 86 degrees of Fahrenheit humidity.

When people are forced to live like this, it is logical that a greeting between two heads of State might be overlooked.  That’s a fact even if the two men happen to be Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.

Iván García

Photo Credit: Martí Noticias.

By request, we are resubmitting the article, “Nothing To Do With Mandela” taken from Spain’s newspaper, El País on December 11, 2013.

At Nelson Mandela’s funeral service, more world leaders came together in one fell swoop than world history can recall.  Despite rainy weather, one hundred world leaders collectively sat on bleachers at Soweto’s soccer stadium to pay tribute to a man of principles.

The man had the strength to fight in the name of freedom, the level-headedness to redress his thinking, the courage to disagree among his own rank and file, the empathy to step into his opponents’ shoes, the magnanimity to embrace forgiveness, the brains to build bridges, and finally, the decency to accept a timely retirement.

In light of Mandela’s track record, why would leaders stomping on the core ideals of the South African leader wish to render tribute?  Case in point, the three ogres: Raúl Castro, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang.  Front-row-center, the fearsome threesome certainly hardened the mood and turned all the magic in the air sour.

Right on cue, Obama drove the point home: “There are leaders here today who praise Mandela but silence protest.”  The words were intended for iron-fisted leaders who gravely overstep to crush human ideals, religious beliefs or the acceptance of gender preference.  Only official protocol could possibly explain how despots were invited to attend and got the opportunity to grandstand for absolution under Mandela’s glow.  Tyrant and apprentices filled the gallery.  Simply review the list of shameful human right violators from anywhere: All were in Soweto.

Well, almost all human rights violators went to the funeral.  A few hardliners stayed at home.  For instance, the President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir was absent, but probably due to the fact that the International Criminal Court is hot on his trail.

Fortunately, Caucasus strongmen ignored the news and the event.  Also absent (for reasons of their own) were big human rights abusers like Russia, China and Iran.

But it was Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Rusnok, whose silent microphone was on long enough to record him saying that a full agenda made going to a funeral out in the “boondocks” inconvenient and something for which he was not in the mood.  No way to save face with mourners after that kind of faux pas.  Rusnok apologized, of course.  But he, at least, certainly expressed an honest opinion.

Translated by: JCD

14 December 2013

All Pay Homage to Mandela in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Mandela-600x330For Josefina, a 71 year-old housewife and south-of-Havana local, first comes Jesus Christ then Mandela.  She’d been cooking supper when the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s death broke through on the radio.

“Among books set by my bedside, I have a biography of Mandela which I’ve read three times.  Jesus Christ, Mandela and Martí are the three men whose principles and convictions I most respect,” is what Josefina tells us while sifting for the best grains of rice to make her supper dish.

On the island, authorities have officially declared three days of national mourning following Mandela’s death, and President Raúl Castro has sent his message of condolence to South African President Jacob Zumba.  In the missive, Castro II noted that, “one must not refer to Mandela in the past tense.”  During our three days of national mourning, all government buildings and military compounds will fly the Cuban flag at half-mast.

Produced by Telesur Network, Cuban television station channel 6 aired a documentary about Mandela’s life.  And just after 10 p.m., the station also broadcast the film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman in the role of Mandela.

On a scale from one-to-ten, if you ask any Cuban to pick and rate any idol, few would mention a modern political figure.  Most would bet on celebrities, musicians, or sports figures like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

In Cuba like in most nations around the world, politicians are rated very low. But when you speak about Mandela that is another thing.

Look, some people are loyal to Castro while others idolize Che.  Ask anyone and many just simply hate both of them.  But with Mandela something unique happens: Irrespective of ideology and religion, all revere him.

Niurka a Cuban doctor, spent two years volunteering her medical expertise in South Africa. “I was deep in South Africa, a great nation very rich and where people from different ethnicities coexist with different beliefs and different cultures. In spite of the differences everyone respects Mandela. After my return in 1997, I was involved in an event where Mandela shared a few words of gratitude with us. He was a cordial man who would look at a person’s eyes while he spoke to them. His diction was perfect and he was soft spoken which is something that caught my attention. I belong to that Cuban generation who grew up with Fidel Castro shouting slogans from a soapbox using sometimes profane language. Mandela’s image is forever engraved in my sight.

Even at the heart of his opposition, Mandela was able to gain considerable ground.  And in Cuba, Antonio Rodiles — Director of Estado de Sats, a cultural and social project where diverse aspects converge, and perhaps the most promising Cuban dissident — considers that Nelson Mandela’s political legacy is nothing less than remarkable.

Rodile comments, “Following 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s message was about constructive dialogue and remained free of hatred.  We could all stand to learn from him.  Cuba is Mandela’s friend, but what’s more, he might also become the example our government needs so opposing factions can learn to mend ways and work on behalf of the Cuban nation like Mandela did when confronted with critical moments in South Africa’s development.”

At night on Avenida G in Vedado, youth of any sort — emo rockers, freaks, hard rockers, haggard hippies, reggaetoneros and Joaquín Sabina, Pablo Milanés or Fito Páez groupies — are loaded on Parkisonil pills and cheap rum but what they celebrate with irreverence and spontaneity is Mandela.

A life-long self-ascribed friki, Osmany, 36, hums a popular 80s tune which demanded the South African leader be set free, and also takes the opportunity to show me a tattoo on his back quoting the first black President of South Africa:     ’What kind of freedom can you offer me when as people we are not granted the right to public assembly? Only a free assembly of men can negotiate.’  “Like Mandela, I too want to be a free man,” says Osmany.

Cuba is a country where no one agrees on anything and everyone insists on being right.  But men like José Martí and Nelson Mandela are examples that live beyond the good and evil in us.

Iván García

Photo credit: Greg Bartley Camera Press, taken from the New York Times.

Translated by: Adriana Correa and JCD

7 December 2013

In Cuba We Would Have Needed a Nelson Mandela / Ivan Garcia

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment

The greatness of Nelson Mandela clearly shows the deficiencies of the world’s current political class.

If the Fab Four from Liverpool revolutionized music, and the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin one morning in 1928, which definitely slowed the deadly pandemics, Madiba leaves as a legacy a master class of how to do politics in difficult times.

The current statesmen should take note. Given the hesitations and weaknesses of Obama (who does not want, does not know how, or is unable to deal with a hostile Congress and is overwhelmed by the worldwide spying of his special services around the globe), the gross mismanagement of Mariano Rajoy in Spain, or a dyed-in-the-wool autocrat like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who continues to slaughter his own people, every self-respecting statesman should learn from the political strategies of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was not perfect. He was labeled a communist and disruptive, and until 2008 the FBI had him on their list of “terrorists.” But he knew how to maneuver in the turbulent waters of a nation where state racism prevailed, in the intrigues of his party, the African National Congress, and to achieve the miracle of national unity in South Africa.

The colossal undertaking began in jail. From a cell in Robben Prison, where for 27 years he was behind bars, until 1994 when Madiba became president, he understood that in conditions of political fragility, his mission was to make sure that everyone saw themselves represented in the first democratic government of their country.

He was a president for all South Africans. Not just for his supporters. He could have taken revenge. He had the majority. He controlled all the levers of power that would have allowed him to polarize society and adopt strategies of retaliation on behalf of justice for his people, where a majority of 27 million blacks were excluded and oppressed for decades by a regime that represented 3 million whites. He did not. He overcame hatred. He learned to forgive.

In his five years in office, Mandela sat chair of his magnificent policy. His ethics, honesty, and transparency were his hallmark. He was a partner of one and all, without ever compromising his political perspective. A man of diplomacy and respect for others.

His great friend in the Americas, Fidel Castro, retired from power, could also learn some lessons in transparency from Mandela’s conduct.

No one can doubt the sincere friendship that joined Castro with Madiba. Months after leaving prison, in July 1991, he visited Cuba. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, where Cuban and Angolan troops destroyed several South African columns, was the final blow to the hateful apartheid regime.

But the two statesmen are nothing alike in their methods of achieving national harmony. If Fidel Castro had been like Nelson Mandela, he long ago would have been sitting at the table to negotiate with his political opponents.

First he would have visited with the dissidents. Then with the White House. If Mandela had been Castro, the embargo would be ancient history. That ability of Mandela’s — to adapt to changing times and live with democratic rules — is something the former Cuban president does not have.

The first Castro still thinks like a fossil of the Cold War. The current dissidents should also take note of the attitude and strategies of Mandela.

If Madiba had been leader of the opposition on the island, he would have done more than send messages to the outside world denouncing violations of human rights. After analyzing the internal situation, he would have opted for a bigger and better job of social and political campaigning in neighborhoods and communities.

What could a guy like Mandela not have accomplished, if upon talking to ordinary people he had noticed that 8 out of 10 Cubans are tired of the old government and disgusted with the economic mismanagement of the Castros?

In Cuba we would have needed a Nelson Mandela. His precepts should be written in Gothic letters. And the devalued Criollo politicians, or those who aspire to be, should read them once a week. As if it were a Bible.

Iván García

Video: On June 27, 2008, Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel attended the celebration of the 90th birthday of the man who changed history in South Africa. Fifty thousand people gathered in Hyde Park in London. At the outset, actor Will Smith spoke this phrase by Peter Gabriel: “If the world could have a father, the man who we would choose would be Nelson Mandela.” A highlight was the presence of Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). She sang “Free Nelson Mandela,” by Jerry Dammers, released on March 5, 1984, by the English group The Specials A.K.A., and which circled the world seeking the release of political prisoner 46664. It is one of the most famous songs dedicated to him. The others are: Ordinary Love (U-2), Mandela (Hugh Masekela), Nelson Mandela (Youssou N’Dour), Public Enemy (Prophets of Rage), Mandela (Carlos Santana) ; Freedom Now (Tracey Chapman) and Asimbonanga, by Johnny Clegg, written in English and Zulu. In this video you can see Mandela dancing and waving to the author and to the public in 1999, when he was 81 years old. — Tania Quintero

9 December 2013

Cuba: Drawing Room Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment

ucraniaNever before have Cuban dissidents had it so easy. Fifteen or twenty years ago publishing a political document was a sure path to jail.

If you were an intellectual — I can recall professor Ricardo Boffill, the writer and poet Raul Rivero and the poet María Elena Cruz Valera — it was not enough for them just to disparage you with an editorial in the newspaper Granma.

You would lose your job. Your friends would not even say hello to you. You would begin to live clandestinely. Harassment by cowboys from State Security would make you paranoid. It was unbearable. They would disturb you at all hours, you would receive nasty calls in the middle of the night and, since they had absolute power, they could detain you as often as they saw fit.

Certainly, we still live under the Republic’s absurd “Gag Law,” a legal tool that allows the government to sentence you to twenty or more years in prison just for writing a newspaper article without state approval. However, from 2010 until now, 95% of arrests have been of short duration, lasting hours or days.

Of course, dissidents are still subject to karate kicks from plainclothes policemen dressed as peasants, beatings and verbal assaults in front of their homes.

Being a dissident in an autocracy while supporting democracy and political freedom carries a cost. Being subject to insults and death threats is never pleasant, but Cuban dissidents accept them.

But even if the repressors’ behavior seems savage and intimidating — which it is — fifty years ago you would have gotten the death penalty for the same things they are doing now. It isn’t much, but it’s something. The island’s dissident movement now enjoys recognition by democratic nations.

Outside the island they are more visible today. They communicate using blogs, websites, Twitter, Facebook and other digital tools. Some have received awards for their activism, and as of January 2013 they can travel and lobby American and international institutions. They chat with and take have their pictures taken with politicians.

They can also take classes that increase their knowledge. This is all positive but current circumstances in Cuban society require something more than speeches, periodic reports on human rights violations and drawing room meetings among dissidents.

The local opposition should try to reach agreement among themselves and devise a coherent political program that is inclusive and modern. Disagreements, egos and posturing should be set aside.

All dissidents agree on one point: Cuba must change. We must then work towards a common goal. It seems to me that this is the moment to be of one mind and to focus our efforts within the country.

Eight out of ten people with whom I spoke disagree with the regime. Even in official blogs by such writers such as Alejo, Gay Paquito and Elaine Díaz the complaints against previously sacred institutions reveal unhappiness within the society.

The things on which the opposition and a wide segment of the population agree are significant. Dissidents, whether they be workers or professionals, all suffer from the same material shortages caused by poor management by the government.

In our neighborhoods plumbing lines are broken and streets are full of potholes. The buildings where we live are in need of repair, the hospitals were we are treated are decrepit and in our children’s schools the poor quality of education is palpable.

It is necessary, however, to prioritize work within communities and neighborhoods. Although a high percentage of the population is in agreement with the dissidents, the divide between the population and the opposition is clearly evident.

Because of negative government propaganda directed against dissidents, many ordinary Cubans do not trust opposition figures. They see them as opportunists and demagogues.

Political proselytizing by dissident activists must be directed to the Cuban on the street. There is no point in publishing an article in a foreign newspaper, making statements on Radio Martí or giving a seminar at an American university when the audience we must convince is at our doorstep or on the sidewalk in front.

Another issue on which the dissident movement must focus is the subject of money and aid provided by foreign institutions. Transparency is paramount. It would be beneficial if they were to account for every centavo spent or resource received.

On official US government websites you can find out about contributions made by American agencies to the Cuban opposition. I am in support of this aid but not of the silence from dissidents who accept it without providing information on how it is being used.

The Cuban dissident movement should also try to find its own means of financial support. For example, it might start small, legally approved businesses that could subsidize its efforts as well as help others by providing employment.

Sometimes dependence on foreign institutions leads to undesirable compromises. A drawing room dissident movement is necessary but, I believe, now is the time to go out and look for followers in the streets.

Iván García

Photo: Unlike Cubans, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest a political decision by their government. A majority of Ukrainians want to join the European Union rather than be affiliated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. From La Jornada de México.

4 December 2013

Fashion and Reality in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

moda-cubaIf, like 22-year-old Yoan, you consider it a priority to dress in the style of a male fashion model and you spend all your spare time in the gym sculpting your body, then the bill could exceed your income.

Yoan maintains a lifestyle similar to an average middle-class guy in any developed country thanks to his family in Florida.

A European fiancé and a Canadian lover allow him certain whims and niceties such as frequent lunches in good privately owned restaurants and mojitos in exclusive bars.

Bisexual and discreet, he prides himself on being a high-end male prostitute. He does not work as a gigolo nor does he have a Hummer parked in his garage, though this is his dream.

He has a closet filled with expensive jeans, Italian loafers and athletic shoes. He is well-stocked with Chanel No. 5, Heno and Prava soaps and American-made Colgate toothpaste, which he acquired for six dollars on Obispo Street.

He likes to buy brand-name clothing in high-end stores in Havana’s Miramar district and the Hotel Saratoga, places whose prices rival those of Manhattan. He just bought a pair of Diesel jeans for 120 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), a pair of Nikes for 127 CUC and a Puma pullover for 93 CUC.

This comes to 340 CUC, the equivalent of a year and a half’s salary for a professional on the island. And believe me, his story is not some surrealist portrait of Havana in the 21st century. Yoan is not the son of that privileged class made up of the Communist Party politburo elite. By no means.

There is in Cuba a segment of young people of both sexes who can can afford to dress stylishly and polish their figures with the money they earn selling their bodies to foreign tourists.

Successful artists, communist businessmen and slackers supported by a constant flow of dollars from relatives in Miami are also able to maintain their wardrobes, but they are the minority.

Most Cuban families try to buy clothing and shoes at a discount. The state does not give them many options. After Fidel Castro took power, he introduced two types of ration cards in 1962, one for food and one for manufactured goods. Every Cuban was allowed a yearly pair of shoes, a skirt or pair of slacks, and two shirts or blouses made of unremarkable fabric. Their prototypes were created by decree, without originality or quality.

It was the period of social equality and uniformity. This socialist form of poverty provided Cuba with Minsk refrigerators, Aurika washing machines, Selena radios and Lada cars, all from the former Soviet republics. Other manufactured goods came from Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Albania.

At the end of the 1970s the Cuban exile community in the United States began travelling to Cuba, packing their luggage with jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes, things that were novelties in the island of the Castros.

Trafficking of clothing has always been good business on the underground market. The 1980s saw the emergence of a network of speculators who bought dollars at a time when possession of foreign currency was illegal and then used them to purchase inexpensive fabric from shops intended for diplomats and foreign technical workers.

Prices were high. At the time the lowest salary did not top 120 pesos. However, a pair of denims cost 150 pesos, a pair of Cast shoes was 120 and a “bacteria” shirt went for about 130 pesos.

After 1959 dressing fashionably in Cuba was an aspiration whose costs could not be defrayed with the average monthly salary. After it became legal to possess dollars in 1993, shopping malls were opened that sold clothing bought in bulk from free trade zones in China and the Carribean.

A high-powered segment of the consumer market has access to boutiques with heart attack inducing prices. They carry brands such as Mango, Zara, Dolce and Gabbana and — in a mockery of the embargo — Guess jeans and items by Nike, Reebok and New Balance.

The average Cuban often has to turn to hard-currency stores where the regime sells low-end clothing at high-end prices.

A pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of jeans of questionable quality costs a total of 60 CUC, three-month’s salary for the average worker. The now-outlawed private clothing stalls provided some relief. Cubans with family members overseas continue to benefit from the packages they receive, which contain essential items such as shoes.

Cubans care for their footwear as though they were precious jewels. Shoes are expensive so, when they wear out, people take them to shoe repair shops. In any given neighborhood you will find people who specialize in recycling and refurbishing shoes that in another country would be thrown in the trash. Athletic shoes have uses their designers never imagined.

They are repaired several times and are usually worn by kids, teenagers and young people who play baseball or football in the street. Yoan the hooker knows. So when they get new shoes they give the old ones to the neediest neighbors.

Except for the revolutionary aristocracy, who live in exclusive enclaves, one finds in Cuba hookers, johns, police officers, doctors, self-employed workers, dissidents and agents from State Security all living in the same block. And all know first hand of the cost of dressing decently.

Iván García

1 December 2013