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Cuba: Its Silent Conquest of Venezuela / Ivan Garcia

May 20, 2014 1 comment
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

February 2006. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

Not in his wildest dreams did Fidel Castro think he would gain political control of and derive economic benefit from a nation nine times bigger than Cuba, with two and a half times the population and with the biggest oil reserves on the planet.

Cuba’s ideological colonisation of Venezuela could go down in history as a work of art in terms of political domination. The bearded chap never ceases to surprise us.

He wasn’t a minor autocrat. For better or worse, he was always a political animal. Charlatan, student gangster and manipulator, and always audacious.

He showed his clear inability to create riches and establish a solid and coherent economy. Before he came to power, at the point of a rifle in January 1959, Cuba was the second largest economy in Latin America.

Fifty-five years later, with its finances in the red, meagre GDP, and scant productivity, the island now vies with Haiti for the lowest place in the continent.

In terms of political strategies, Castro is an old fox. He always liked planning revolutions and wars. In the ’80’s, from a big house in the Havana suburb of Nuevo Vedado, he remotely controlled the civil war in Angola.

He is an incorrigible maniac. He likes to know everything that’s going on. From the soldiers’ meals, and livestock cross-breeding, to forecasts of the path of a hurricane.

Castro was unpredictable. He was not a comfortable Soviet satellite. He plotted conspiracies, guerilla warfare, and indoctrinated some star performers of Latin American youth. Some of them now holding power, constitute a formidable political capital for the regime.

An excellent talent-spotter, when, on February 4th 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez led a rabble in a coup d’etat in Venezuela, before anyone else did, Fidel Castro, from Havana, saw the potential of the parachutist from Barinas.

He invited him to Cuba as soon as he stepped out of jail. He was his full-time political manager. Just as in any alliance or human relationship, one person always tries to dominate the other.

Castro was subtle. For health reasons, he was already back. His strategy with Chavez was low profile. He didn’t overshadow him. On the contrary. The project was to create a continental leader.

Chávez had charisma and Venezuela had an interesting income stream from oil. Cuba was in the doldrums after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crisis with a stalled economy and the disappearance of the USSR.

The guerrilla wars in America were not yet a way forward. The “disgusting bourgeois democracy”, of which the “Comandante” was so critical, was the means by which the political groups related to the Cuban regime would gain power.

Those groups came in by the back door in broken countries, where corruption and poor government prevailed. Fidel Castro’s great achievement was to colonise Venezuela without firing  a single shot.

In the annals of history there have existed different forms of domination. Imperial powers were not always very large countries. Denmark, Belgium and Holland had overseas possessions.

But, in the background, there was an economic strength or a fearful military machine. Great Britain, in its golden age, could count on an impressive naval strength.

These days, the United States is the possessor of a nuclear arsenal and military technology never seen before. Castro’s Cuba is an economy heading for the fourth world.

Its previous military power, which allowed it to get involved simultaneously in two military campaigns in Ethiopia and Angola, has now reduced, following the Soviet collapse, to an army equipped with obsolete weapons.

The geopolitical logic taught in schools, that the countries which are economically and militarily strong dominate the ones which are poor and weak, has been blown to bits by the case of Cuba and Venezuela.

Castro’s trick for occupying Venezuela has been ideological complicity. According to the Venezuelan journalist Cristina Marcano — joint author with Alberto Barreras of the biography Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: una historia personal (Hugo Chávez without a uniform: a personal history) — everything started in 1997.

General Antonio Rivera, who worked as Head of Telecommunications for the President and was National Director of Civil Protection, points out that in that year 29 Cuban undercover agents established themselves in the Margaritas Islands and helped Chávez with intelligence, personal security and information areas in the election campaign.

After that the interference increased. About 45 thousand Cubans now work in the Venezuelan public administration, the presidential office, ministries and state-owned companies.

Or as bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, dentists, scientists, teachers, information officers, analysts, agricultural technicians, in the electrical services, and cultural workers and developers. Also in security, intelligence and in the armed forces.

When the Cuban collaborators arrive at the Maiquetía airport in Caracas, all the immigration formalities are dealt with by the island´s military personnel.

Cuban Ministry of the Interior specialists run the Venezuelan identification system, the ID cards and passports, commercial registers and Notary Publics.

They know what properties they have and what transactions they carry out. They also jointly manage the ports, are involved in the airports and immigration entry control points, where they can go about their business as they please.

The Cuban company Albet SA, from the University of Information Science (UCI), which runs the Information Service of Identification, Immigration and Emigration (SAIME), is so powerful that they don’t allow Venezuelans into the top floor of the headquarters of SAIME in Caracas.

The Presidential information systems, ministries, social programmes, police services and those of the state oil company PDVSA are also Cuban, by way of the joint venture, Guardián del Alba,* according to the journalist Marcano

The political influence of Cuba, as much in relation to the government of the late Hugo Chávez as now with that of Nicolás Maduro, is decisive. The strategic strings are pulled from Havana.

The Castro brothers benefit to the tune of more than 100 thousand barrels a day of oil and financial assistance estimated at $10B annually.

The PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) is so dependent on them, that the Cuban big-wigs, including General Raúl Castro, fly around in luxury executive jets with Venezuelan plates.

No other empire in the world has ever been able to conquer another nation without the benefit of economic power, or having to send troops. Cuba is the first. In private, Fidel Castro must be very proud.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: Cuban- Venezuelan information software company in support of the oil industry established to maintain the country’s independence in this field.

Translated by GH

15 May 2014

Soviet Cuba Remains in the Official Imagination / Ivan Garcia

May 20, 2014 1 comment

Dmitri-Medvedev-Raúl-Castro-620x330It’s hard to bury faith in any God, ideology, or vices. For others, like Vladimir, the passion for the Soviet era, like old rockers, never dies.

Son of Communist parents, he studied at universities in the former USSR. He speaks Russian like a Muscovite and still reads Gorki or the poems of Yevstushenko in the original language.

On a pine shelf he has a bunch of Soviet writers in the style of Borís Polevói, Nikolái Ostrovski, Mijaíl Shólojov or Ilya Ehrenburg, who wrote the epic of the Red Army in World War II.

Vladimir is not considered a fanatic. In his room there are no canvases of Stalin, Marx or Lenin . “The USSR may seem like an old newspaper. But it is not dead yet. In Cuba people don’t find Russian cartoons or corned beef strange. It is in the power structures where still latent are certain mechanisms of the Soviet era.”

Dismantling this shed is an arduous task. A vertical government, omnipresent secret police, a broad sector of the planned economy and the usual unanimity of approving laws in the boring national parliament, are vestiges of the official Soviet Cuba that resists death.

Cubans like Vladimir worked for years on building institutions modeled on the Soviet Union. From the Constitution to the Pioneer organizations.

“All of us who believed in the USSR assumed that the short-term future was Communism. And that the disappearance of capitalism was a question of time. But it wasn’t. Now Putin’s Russia is as imperialistic as the United States,” says the nostalgic Havana Communist

There is very little left of the USSR among ordinary Cubans. Some Slavic names, drinking vodka and orange juice, and hundreds of marriages that still remain from that Red era.

Not a few of regime’s officials feel nostalgia for the past. It was a golden era where rubles were wasted and the armies had the most current versions of conventional Russian armaments.

From the USSR came oil, fertilizers and tractors. Magazines, books and movies flooded the country. Then, it was in good taste to hang portraits of the current Soviet leader at the same level as those of Fidel Castro.

The current president, Raul Castro, had an enormous portrait of Stalin, the butcher of Georgia, in his office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

What remains to be seen is if the Castros were Communists of convenience, or chose the ideology to cling to power. The quirky Euro-Asiatic system had irresistible charms for any apprentice autocrat.

There were no presidential elections. Nor free press. Nor independent unions. Justice was administered by the State. And they created a competent political police, dissident citizens could complain only in their own living rooms, or leave on a raft.

The love story between the USSR and an intellectual and political sector of Cuba is longstanding. Many who swear they are firm nationalists, accuse those who admire the U.S. lifestyle are accused of being “annexationists.”

But Communism is the first of all annexations, the importing of Marxism-Leninism and wanting to clone the Soviet model on a Caribbean island 6,000 miles from Moscow.

And it wasn’t the illiterate or stupid who were applauding the theory of a Soviet Cuba. Within the ranks of the People’s Socialist Party (PSP), intellectuals such as Juan Marinello, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Salvador García Agüero and Nicolás Guillén stood out.

With the coming to power of Fidel Castro, political opportunism coupled the Communist imagination of tanned men of Cuban unionism, and the Marxist proselytizing in various academic and intellectual sectors.

Before 1959, the PSP branded Castro a gangster, sucker, and petty bourgeoisie. According to Anastas Mokoyan’s son, who accompanied his father on the visit of a Soviet delegation to Havana in February 1960, witnessed the following dialog between Fidel and Ernesto Guevara:

“They (Castro and Guevara) said that they could only survive with Soviet help and would have to hide this from the capitalists in Cuba… Fidel said: We have to cope with these conditions in Cuba for five or ten years. Then Che interrupted him: If you don’t do it in two or three years, it’s over.”

The rest of the story is known. Castro Sovietized the island and 55 years alter, the main political institutions of the State continue using their methodology. From the special services to diplomacy, which when it aligns itself with a partner, approves political expansionism like Putin in Crimea, or joins with repugnant dictatorships only because they are the enemies of their enemy.

The current labor legislation — which still hasn’t been officially published — or the aberrant Foreign Investment Law, demonstrated that the current Cuban government only considers its people as an instrument to legitimate their tepid economic reforms and not to benefit them.

Separating from an ideological faith is too costly. Even when the reality shows its inefficiency.

Iván García

Photo: January 2009. Then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev buttoning the coat that he had just put on his counterpart, Raul Castro, before the beginning of the informal talks at a residence in Zavidovo, north of Moscow. It had been 24 years since a high Cuban leader had visited the former Soviet Union. Taken from Listín Diario.

18 May 2014

Cuba: The Numbers Don’t Add Up / Ivan Garcia

May 8, 2014 2 comments
A young woman admiring items for sale at at hard-currency shopping mall in Havana. Source: Secretos de Cuba.

A young woman admiring items for sale at hard-currency shopping mall in Havana. Source: Secretos de Cuba.

Olga, a 62-year-old engineer, spends 11.50 CUC a month (about US $13.00) on two bags of powdered milk for herself and her family.

“I don’t consider a glass or two of milk in the morning for breakfast a luxury. My 93-year-old father drinks as much as four glasses. A relative in Switzerland sends me 100 euros a month so I can provide the old man with beef, milk and cheese. On my 512 peso salary (about $22.00) I would never be able to afford it,” says Olga.

The new price increases set by the government of President Raul Castro mean that the Havana engineer will have to pay 13.20 CUC for two one-kilogram bags, an increase of 1.70 CUC.

The problem in Cuba is that from 2005 until now prices for a variety of goods that can only be bought with hard currency have risen between 20% to 60%.

In 2005 beef, chicken, cheese, milk, yogurt, oil, sausages and toiletries for a family of three cost $100. Nine years later the price has almost doubled.

Some increases happen without any warning. “One fine day you go to the store only to discover that cheese which cost 4.40 CUC the day before now sells for 4.95. It’s really galling. Everything is blamed on the economic crisis, on the U.S. blockade (embargo) and rising food prices worldwide,” says a woman outside a store on San Rafael Boulevard.

It is true that since 2007 the prices of certain foods have soared in the global marketplace. But Cubans wonder if this has also caused the prices of plasma TVs, computers and refrigerators to go up.

A 32-inch television that cost a little over $200 in Miami is priced between $640 and $750 at hard-currency stores in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is no more than $20.

An LG dual-temperature refrigerator cost $571 in 2004. The same model is now worth 760 CUC, about $850 at the official exchange rate.

Detergent, oil and soap have also risen between 20% and 35% in the last ten years. These actions were taken by an irate Fidel Castro after the United States discovered in 2005 that the Swiss bank UBS had been retiring old banknotes in an account worth more than $4 billion controlled by the Cuban government.*

Castro then imposed a 20% tax on the Yankee dollar. With an innkeeper’s mindset, he jacked up prices on items sold in hard currency by 200% to 500% in order to subsidize his social programs.

It proved to be a windfall. Following Robin Hood’s playbook, dollars were taken from those who had them in order to finance government programs such as school lunches, the energy revolution and the “Battle of Ideas.”

With abject hatred towards Cubans who have left their homeland for political or economic reasons, the military autocrats have (now underhandedly) imposed outrageous fees on goods and services purchased with remittances from overseas. These include telephone services, internet access and exorbitant surcharges on car sales.

With the recent price rise powdered milk is the latest to be added to this list. But the explanation for this does not stand up to scrutiny. If we go online, we find that the price trend worldwide is down.

According to the Uruguayan daily El Observador prices for powdered milk have dropped 10% over the last two months from $5,005 to $4,439 a ton. The decline is expected to continue until year’s end when it could reach as low as $4,200. That would amount to a roughly 16% drop from the beginning to the end of 2014.

Recently, a reporter for Martí News, Pablo Alfonso, published an article which exposes the Cuban regime. Alfonso reports that Global Dairy Trade — an auction platform for internationally traded commodity dairy products which holds an auction twice a month in which over 90 countries participate — reported that in the last twelve months sales of milk powder fell 8.4%. In the latest transactions the commodity sold for $4,033 a ton.

In the case of skim-milk — the kind sold on the island — the decline was 9.6%, equivalent to $4,126 per metric ton. Global Dairy Trade’s figures also indicate that the price for powdered skim-milk on the international market was $4,372 a ton in January 2014 and $4,452 in February.

According to official figures released in Cuba, however, the price for a ton of powdered skim milk was set to increase from $4,720 to $5,563. One might ask the country’s foreign trade officials where they are buying powdered milk because what they are paying does not match the published purchase price.

Even the official Cuban newspaper Granma has published comments highly critical of the price increase for powdered milk. A Cuban doctor serving in Saudi Arabia noted that a one-kilogram bag of the best quality powdered milk costs her only about five dollars.

Orestes, a Cuban living in Hialeah, is at a loss for words to describe the regime’s arbitrary pricing schedule.

“It’s robbery,” says Orestes. “In Brazil, bus fares rose 20 cents and people took to the streets. Here in the U.S. not many people buy powdered milk. A gallon (3.8 liters) of fresh 2% fat milk or skim-milk costs $3.89. All these price increases are designed to get emigrants to pay up.”

In Cuba only children up to seven-years-old and people on medically prescribed diets have the right to consume milk at the modest prices set forth in their ration books. In a speech in 2007 in Camaguey, Raul Castro stated, “We have to erase from our minds this up-to-age-seven idea that we have been carrying around for fifty years. We have to produce enough milk so that anyone who wants a glass of milk can have it.”

Seven years later Cubans are still waiting for this promise to be fulfilled.

Iván García

* Translator’s note: U.S. officials discovered that UBS had allowed countries such as Cuba, Iran and Libya to retire old banknotes by replacing them with new ones. This was a violation of an agreement with the Federal Reserve which stipulated that the bank would not accept cash from or transfer cash to countries on which the United States had imposed sanctions. (Source: The New York Sun)

25 April 2014

Cuba: Challenging the Future Mounted on a Raft / Ivan Garcia

May 8, 2014 2 comments
Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

It’s like playing Russian Roulette. Although the numbers are terrifying– one in three rafters is a snack for the sharks — many people in Cuba take the issue with a lightness that causes chills.

Probably the Straits of Florida is the largest marine cemetery in the world. There are no hard figures of the children, young people, adults, and elderly who lie under its turbulent waters.

It’s a human drama with obvious political overtones. The regime wants to tell the story their way. People leave the island, they say, encouraged by the Cuban Adjustment Act that awards automatic residence to Cubans who step on United States soil.

It’s true. The frivolity of the U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy, seems like a macabre game. If the gringo coast guard catches you at sea, you’re returned to Cuba. If you manage to touch land, you won the lottery.

Although absurd, the share of moral responsibility remains with the olive green autocracy. Only the despair, the lack of a future, and the economic burden could drive a person to plan this dangerous journey across the sea.

People leave Cuba because things are going badly. Those who don’t have relatives in the United States, or who put off the family reunification paperwork, risk their future on a raft.

Let me tell you a story of rafters that happened in my neighborhood. Since Christmas 2013 Gregorio (name changes) was persuading relatives and friends disposed to change their fate with a marine adventure.

After 1994 when the Fidel Castro regime decriminalized illegal departures to the North, the future rafters plan their projects without too much discretion.

Gregorio was obsessed with the idea of leaving the country. Part of his family lives in Miami. He spent years doing the legal paperwork: “I don’t want to get to Florida when I’m 60.”

Finding allies for such an undertaking is not hard in Cuba. Young people without a future swarm every corner of the island. A priority: people with nautical knowledge.

Guys with experience who failed in other attempts. People with money to build the safest craft possible. Human traffic from Cuba to the United States is a buoyant industry.

But not everyone can afford the $10,000 for a ticket. There are different kinds of immigrants. There are those who choose to cross land borders, jumping from one nation to another in long and dangerous journeys from Ecuador, or paying cash to a Mexican coyote to put them across the border.

Then there are the rafters. According to José,”We are the most desperate. I have friends who have tried dozens of times. If they’re caught by the Cuban or U.S. coast guard, they always intend to try again. Many have become old salts.”

Gregorio had never tried. After recruiting twelve partners (everyone brought something, one sold a Moskovich car, another, two HP computers), they contacts an expert in designing marine craft.

The job isn’t cheap. A powerful and reliable engine is no less than four or five thousand dollars on the black market. They got three GPS for a possible localization, among other goods.

Friends were being added to the adventure. In April 2014 they were 22 people. Gregorio alerted family and friends who have yachts in Miami, so at any given moment, if they washed up on a key, they could be towed to the shore.

The GPA is essential. The artisanal craft designer had to be top of the line. They chose an ex-mechanic of a merchant boat who boasted he knew remote river passages in the Florida keys.

Before departing, at 2:30 in the morning on Wednesday, April 23, they said goodbye to their loved ones with a couple quarts of cheap whiskey.

They were carrying food and water for two weeks in case of shipwreck. A chessboard, Spanish cards and a game of dominoes. As if instead of a risky sea journey they were going on a peaceful safari.

Family in Havana tracked them through an illegal antenna on the cable news updates on Miami TV. Apparently, on Friday at lunchtime good news arrived.

The mother of one of the rafters called his family to say that Channel 23 had aired a story about the supposed boat with a child traveling. The rumor spread like wildfire. The Miami family of the rafters called Krome and other immigration detention centers in Florida. They could not confirm the event. They toured hospitals and coast guard offices. Nobody knew anything of the rafters. They began to panic.

The family members in Cuba called the rafters cellphones insistently. For now, the only signal is a laconic request from a recorded voice saying, “The number you are calling is turned off or outside the coverage area.”

Neighbors and friends try to encourage the rafters’ relatives. “An uncle was twelve days at sea until landfall in Key West.” Or, “You have to wait, they’ve only been at sea for 6 days.” Family members on both sides of of the Strait sleep poorly, eat little and suffer from nerves. They pray to their saints and pray for the lives of their own. Each day that passes without news is synonymous with bad omens. And the death of a rafter, usually, no one can confirm it.

Photo: One of the many rickety boats that came from the Havana coast towards the coast of Florida during the so-called “Rafter Crisis” in August 1994. In these twenty years, despite an increase in the chances of emigrating by legal means , Cubans continue to jump into the sea to try to reach the United States. Taken from Latin American Studies Group.

Iván García

6 May 2014

Cuba-United States: Focusing on Transparency / Ivan Garcia

May 7, 2014 Leave a comment

ivan cuba us 4-abril-beyonce2-620x330There are not always good arguments for trampling on the jurisdiction of a foreign nation. The Cold War mentality is still latent in the behavior of certain U.S. institutions.

If a government believes in democracy and political freedom, it shouldn’t go around hiding its peaceful efforts to support the democrats in autocratic countries like Cuba.

The performance of USAID in the case of the contractor Alan Gross, jailed for clandestinely introducing satellite internet connections, or of Zunzuneao, the so-called Cuban Twitter, have been burdened by a lack of transparency and professionalism.

Freedom of expression, information and access to the internet are inalienable rights of any citizen. If the government of a country denies them, it is not a punishable crime to allow another person to inform them in some way.

Authoritarian and vertical societies like Cuba possess a bunch of rules that allow them to manage the flow of information at will. This control allows them to govern without hiccups, manipulating adverse opinions or hiding them.

The White House can implement policies that contribute to Cubans having diverse sources of information. But with transparency. And not designing strategies that could be interpreted as interference.

It is positive that the United States Interest Section in Havana operates two free internet rooms, where anyone can go, dissidents or otherwise.

Washington’s policy toward Cuba is generally public and transparent. On the internet it is not difficult to find help or money awarded to opposition groups on the island. A good way to bury this obsessive mania for espionage and mystery.

It must be a goal of the United States that the Radio Martí programming is becoming more enjoyable, analytical and professional. Since the 1960s, the Cuban regime used Radio Havana Cuba as an instrument to sell its doctrines to foreign countries.

With the petrodollars of the late Hugo Chavez, Telesur was created, television dedicated to openly spreading and supporting the most rancid of the Latin American left. That’s their right.

But each person should also be respected, according to his opinions, able to freely access the TV channel he desires, listen to the radio station he prefers, and read his favorite newspapers and digital sites.

For the olive-green autocracy, the 21st century is an ideological struggle. And it has orchestrated a campaign called “the battle of ideas.” But on the national scene, opinions that diverge from the official line are not accepted.

Cable antennas are illegal. Internet costs a price unattainable for most ordinary people. Foreign newspapers and books critical of the status quo are censored.

All that’s left is to listen to shortwave. Or sit in the bar of a hotel, spend four dollars to drink a mojito and watch Spanish CNN. The censorship even goes beyond politics.

Although it’s fair to recognize that Raul Castro has allowed Cubans to see NBA and MLB games, foreign games in which players from the island participate are still banned.

It’s the same in the literary, intellectual and musical fields. The singing Willy Chirino, the composer Jorge Luis Piloto, the poet Raul Rivero, the columnist Carlos Albert Montaner, or the writer Zoe Valdez, are prohibited from visiting their homeland for being convinced anti-Castroites.

The Castro brothers suffer from a rare mania: they consider themselves the legitimate owners of the nation. And know how to sell themselves as victims. And mor than a few times, U.S. and European institutions, with their Cold War mentality, give them ammunition.

Iván García

Photo: Flags of Cuba, United States, United Kingdom and the European Union, among others, waving on the balcony of the Hotel Saratoga, where in April 2013 Beyoncé and her husband , rapper Jay -Z stayed. The pretext for the couple to spend three days in Havana was celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. It was speculated that behind the visit could be Barack Obama, friend of the artists. True or not, the journey was questioned in Cuba and in the United States. Taken from Cubanet .

29 April 2014

Blacks and Mixed-Race Still Marginalized in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

May 5, 2014 7 comments
Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo.

Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo.

Every summer since 2009, in line with the economic openings of General Castro, Gerald, the owner of a photography business, has rented a room in a hotel in Varadero for 5 nights.

Gerald, a white man married to a mixed-race woman, authoritatively calls attention to the small number of black or mixed-race Cuban tourists. “There are very few. I stay in four and five-star hotels and the blacks that I’ve seen are either employees, or partners of foreigners.”

“Last year I went to the hotel Memorie, which has a thousand rooms, and they had only 8 black or mixed-race guests, and half of them were the spouses or companions of foreigners,” said Orestes, a tall, well-dressed black man who manages a hard-currency cafeteria in Havana, and knows first-hand the disguised racism of the privileged economic sectors.

“For every black or mixed-race person who manages an important place there are 50 whites. In hotels or strategic positions in the economy, the managers are white. There the blacks are helpers, kitchen assistants, chamber maids, pool cleaners, or grass cutters. In the meetings of managers from over 400 Havana hard-currency cafes, nightclubs, and restaurants you see only about twenty in attendance who are darker skinned or black,” said Orestes.

Twice a week, Yamila and Melisa, a pair of lesbian prostitutes, come to a restaurant called Las Piedras, in Vedado, hunting for foreign tourists or Cubans with extra cash. “I can assure you that 70% of young prostitutes are mixed-race or black,” says Jamila.

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that racism in Cuba may not be the problem it is in the U.S. or Europe. “But there are strong prejudices and the social pyramid is designed so that very few blacks can succeed. Differences have remained since 1886 when slavery was abolished. Blacks are less fortunate. They live in the worst houses, receive fewer dollars or euros in remittances, and can’t vacation in first-rate tourist facilities. They remain marginalized. And that results in a large number of prostitutes and criminals in the prisons.”

Eleven years ago, in a speech to police officers and the Interior Ministry, Fidel Castro revealed that 80% of the prisoners in Cuba are blacks and mixed-race.

Joel, a black man who has spent 12 of his 34 years behind bars, believes that that reality has not changed. “In all prisons in Cuba—there are more than 200 prisons on the island according to human rights activists—the number of blacks far exceeds that of whites. Even the offenses are different. While most whites are in prison for killing cows, scams, financial crime or corruption, blacks tend to commit more violent crimes, such as fighting with knives, arson, theft, pickpocketing, assault, home invasion robbery, rape, and murder” says Joel, for whom prison is a second home.

A police investigator acknowledges that the usual pattern used by the police during operations is based on racial factors. “Young black men are more likely to be arrested. This modus operandi has not changed,” he says.

In 2013, Roberto Zurbano, the former director of the Publishing House of the Americas, was dismissed for acknowledging, in an interview with the New York Times, the significant differences between whites and blacks in Cuba.

According to the Census of Population and Housing completed in 2012, in one decade, based on the previous census of 2002, the mixed-race population in Cuba grew from 24.9 percent to 26.6 percent. The white population decreased from 65 percent to 64.1 percent, and blacks decreased from 10.1 percent to 9.3 percent.

The worst news for black and mixed-race Cubans is that there are no independent legal institutions that protect them in the face of government neglect.

Among the dissidents there is an anti-racist organization, CIR (Citizens for Racial Integration Committee) led by Juan Antonio Madrazo, which from an intellectual perspective studies and tries to give solutions to the current racial divides.

But the regime does not recognize them. Quite the contrary. It has accused black historian Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a CIR adviser, of promoting disorders “affecting international peace and security.” His freedom of movement is restricted by the state. He cannot travel abroad, and every Tuesday he has to report in at a police station.

Blacks and mixed-race members of the peaceful opposition often receive degrading treatment and racist abuse from counterintelligence officers.

Right now, Sonia Garro Alfonso and Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, a dissident black couple, sleep in damp dungeons. They have spent two years waiting for trial.

Iván García

Translated by Tomás A.

3 April 2014

The Commandante Is Left Without Friends / Ivan Garcia

May 2, 2014 2 comments

García-Márquez-y-Fidel-Castro-620x330When it comes to Gabriel García José de la Concordia Márquez (Aracataca, Colombia, 1927) myth and reality merge. The first time he heard the name Fidel Castro, Gabo believed, was in the Latin Quarter in Paris, in 1955.

It’s said that the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén spoke to him of an inexperienced lawyer recently released from jail. He was called Fidel and had assaulted a barracks in Santiago de Cuba. What isn’t known is in what terms Guillén referred to Castro.

The author of Negro Bembón, convinced Communist and member of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), probably described the seditious man from Birán as a petty bourgeois, a screw-up, or a baby gangster. At least that was the PSP profile that  fit the then unknown Castro.

One morning in April 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Bogotazo, the bearded one, mythomaniac, published what was perhaps his best journalistic chronicle, intending to demonstrate that a young reporter who stubbornly insisted on kicking an Underwood typewriter, after the death of Eliécer Gaitán in Bogota, was Gabriel García Márquez.

Castro, according to his chronicle, went to help him and solved the problem in the easiest way: slamming it against the wall. In the many late nights that Fidel Castro and García Márquez chatted with a thermos of coffee in Protocol Residence No. 6, in Laguito to the west of Havana, the Comandante always tried to sneak in his outlandish theories.

The Colombian, who only made revolution with a pen, out of courtesy, didn’t contradict the guerrilla. Of far off Bogota, he only remembered the literary circles, the editing of The Spectator newspaper, the whores and the three nights and four days of partying drinking like a fish with his friends, between vallenatos and boleros.

Gabo said that he first saw Castro at the airport in Camaguey, a province 500 kilometers east of Havana. Be that as it may, the reality is that the two men were friends.

In 1959, Gabriel made a living through journalism, and from Caracas made landfall on the island, looking for fresh news about the Revolution. García Márquez had not yet given birth to Macondo, nor Aureliano Buendia. Some minor stories and a novella, Hojarasca, were his entire literary opus.

With his friend Plineo Apuleyo he was a correspondent for Prensa Latina. Later, already a giant, after his Nobel in 1982, when extolling magical realism in Latin America and showing that Macondo wasn’t an invention, but a continent that was born in real time after Rio Bravo and extending to Patagonia, more than friends, Fidel and García Márquez were accomplices.

A couple of times Castro used his favors to send messages to Bill Clinton. To Gabo’s residence on the outskirts of the capital, Castro would arrive without warning. It’s said that the author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold gave his writings to the Comandante to edit.

In exchange, the Cuban strongman offered the choice bits that a first-rate journalist like Gabo knew how to use. Operation Carlota, about the Cuban troops in Angola, or Shipwreck on Dry Land, about the child rafter Elián González, were the fruits of these confidences.

Criticized by his adversaries for his friendship with an autocrat, against all the storms, Garcia Marquez maintained his affection for Fidel Castro. But he wasn’t too keen on the new caudillos and revolutions of the 21st century. He kept his distance from Chavez, Evo Morales and friends.

Gabo did not like clones. He preferred the original. And Castro, like it or not, was. His death hit the island. Although there might be the impression that people carried on. Trying to buy potatoes, milk powder or engage in polemics about the end of the baseball season. But no. His departure hurt.

Ordinary Cubans had the privilege of reading his books at affordable prices. The man from Aracataca always donated his copyright to Cuba.

When Love in the Time of Cholera was sold in Havana the lines to purchase it were a block and a half long. In not a few of the slums, three glasses of brown sugar, two packs of cigarettes and a can of condensed milk (all luxuries in a Cuban jail), rented in prison News of a Kidnapping or No One Writes to the Colonel.

Cubans saw him as theirs. He was a friend of Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. He had a retrospective collection of Cuban music. In December 1986, in San Antonio de los Baños, he inaugurated the International School of Film and Television, a subsidiary of the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, his legacy in Cuba.

Fidel Castro loses another friend. In one year, God has taken Nelson Mandela and Hugo Chavez. And now Gabo goes. A friend in every meaning of the word.

The only known argument was a denial that Castro demanded when García Márquez said that one afternoon under a blazing sun, Fidel arrived at his house and after devouring a huge sea bass, without stopping for breath, ate 18 scoops of ice cream.

Fidel Castro didn’t like it. And he asked that the page be amended. Gabo didn’t do it. Like he didn’t ask him to correct the historical mistake, wanting to introduce it in the scene of the Bogotazo riots.

The Comandante’s life was long ago. Partners and adversaries of the Cold War are already in the other world. And he ’s still here, in the capital of the Caribbean Macondo.

No one better than Gabo profiled a continent of loafers, the lit-up, revelers and drunkards. Around here, whoever doesn’t know how to dance, sings without crying on hearing a bolero or a ranchera, drinks a liter of spirits without getting drunk , tells stories of whores and respects only the wife of his friends, obviously, is not a native of Hispanic America.

A place where democracy is often a faded word that everyone manipulates at will. The State, a hunting trophy. And watching the clock or half hour appointments are things of gringos and Europeans.

García Márquez asked old Europe for patience. In a speech on receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, he recounted that democracy and its institutions were established in Europe after 300 years of barbarism. Switzerland, he said, is what it is today after centuries of mercenary soldiers and crushing poverty.

The world lost one of its best Spanish-speaking writers. A reference for journalists and for his readers. Fidel Castro lost more. Perhaps his last friend.

Iván García

Photo: Havana, 3 March 2000. Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez talk animatedly during the dinner for the Havana International Festival. Taken from the Dominican paper Hoy.

20 April 2014