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What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

July 31, 2014 1 comment
Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself.

She doesn’t know what her future vocation will be. But, in he,r the Party has a good prospect of a political commissar. Wanting to investigate other aspects less publicized in the national media, I posed the following questions.

What could you tell me about Stalin’s brutal purges, that cost the Soviet people millions of lives? Did you know that the application of agricultural collectivization caused a famine and between 7 and 10 million deaths in Ukraine, the so-called Holodomor? Have you read about the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact where in a secret clause Hitler and Stalin shared out the Baltic republics and the Eastern European zone?

Have you read or heard about the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish soldiers by elite Soviet troops. Did you know that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, like many other intellectuals, was imprisoned in the Gulag just for thinking differently?

Don’t you think that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic nation, because it occupied a part of Eastern Europe as a trophy of war and installed puppet governments? Have you studied the Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in 1970?

Did they ever tell you that by the decision by Nikita Kruschhev and Fidel Castro, 42 medium-range atomic missiles that would have provoked a nuclear war were installed in Cuba? Did you know that, just like the United States has a military base against the will of the Cuban people, Fidel Castro without consulting the people authorized a military training center with Soviet troops and an electronic espionage base on the outskirts of Havana?

To each of the questions, the young woman answered evasively, “No, I don’t know that. No, I haven’t read that or they didn’t teach us that in school?”

It’s well-known that the teaching methods in Cuba try to equip its students with a Marxist vision and exalt Fidel Castro and his Revolution. In rigorously tested subjects, the method used is not lying, but no admitting that you have the information or not telling the whole truth.

Although the Soviet Union disappeared from the map more than 20 years ago, and said adios to its bizarre ideology, the education on the island continues to zealously hold to the Soviet narrative.

Manuel, who graduated in philosophy, recognizes that in his university history studies there was no emphasis on Perestroika and Glastnost. “The teachers slide over that stage. They tell us that Gorbachev was a traitor, that he dismantled the Soviet power and influence stone by stone. Communism’s undertaker. A pariah.”

In the Cuban power structure there is a powerful nucleus that still remembers the Soviet period with nostalgia. General Raul Castro, at the head of Cubans’ destiny, is a great admirer of Russian communism.

In a visit to the apartment of Juan Juan Almeida, soneof the guerrilla commander, when he lived in Neuvo Vedado, Juan Juan told me that in the anteroom of General Castro’s office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces, there was a painting of Stalin, the butcher of Georgia.

In the discourse of the old “apparatchiks” (leaders), raised in the severe Party schools, the old Soviet Cuba persists.

Joel, a retired officer, longs for the trips to Moscow and visit the Kremlin mausoleum, where Lenin lies embalmed. At his house, on a wooden shelf, there’s a collection of books by Boris Polevoi, Nicolai Ostrovski and Iliá Ehrenburg, among others who wrote about the exploits of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War.

Carlos, sociologist, considers “that the Soviet Union might seem like an old newspaper, but it is not dead yet. People no longer remember the corned beef, the applesauce or the nesting dolls. It is in the power structure where the Soviet era is missed.

The love story toward the USSR among the intellectual and political sector is long-standing in the country. Many who swear to be nationalists standing firm, accuse people who admire the lifestyle and institutional structure of the United States of being annexationists.

But where annexationism really exists is in Communism. Not only did they import the ideology, they also tried to clone the Soviet model in a Caribbean archipelago 6,000 miles away.

And those who applauded the theory of a Soviet Cuba weren’t stupid or illiterate. Among them were intellectuals of stature like Nicolás Guillen, Salvador García Agüero and Juan Marinello, members of the People’s Socialist Party.

With the coming to power of Fidel Castro, the political opportunism of the bearded ones coupled with the communist imagery of skilled men in labor unions and the Marxist proselytizing in various academic and intellectual sectors of the nation.

Despite the Cuban government’s affinity for the Soviets, among a wide segment of the citizenry, the Russian culture doesn’t go down well. Nor are they cool with their fashions and customs, their food and religious beliefs.

What the Soviet Union left was were hundreds of marriages between Russians and Cubans. And names like Ivan, Tatiana, Vladimer, Irina, Boris, Natasha… Little else.

Although the stale political dinosaurs treat Russia royally in the media, and the nomenklatura endeavors to reactivate new pacts, the Eurasian company remains a distant and exotic music for ordinary people.

But, by geography and culture, Cubans continue to look north.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966) and the American communist politician Earl Browder (1891-1973), on sale in bookstores in Havana, taken in Cuba in 1945

25 July 2014

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New Measures by Cuban Customs Service Coming in September / Ivan Garcia

July 22, 2014 2 comments
Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

On September 1, 2014 the Customs Service of the Republic of Cuba will begin enforcing new regulations intended to combat illegal trafficking of merchandise by relatives, friends and “mules”* through airports and port facilities.

It’s one more turn of the screw. Every year since 2011 new regulations have been put in place designed to halt the illegal importation of goods destined for families and private businesses on the island.

In Spring 2012 the customs service began charging ten dollars for every kilo above the twenty-kilo limit for personal baggage. For parcel post the charge was ten dollars per kilo above the five-kilo limit.

According to Onelia, a customs official, “The new measures are intended to halt the trade in goods brought in by mules.”

The military regime quite often resorts to demagogic rhetoric. It eschews the military uniform and takes on the role of victim when talking about the economic and financial embargo that the United States has imposed on Cuba since 1962.

But the embargo does not justify establishing a string of regulations that affect family well-being, private businesses and the quality of life for a wide segment of the population.

Simply put, they are applying a set of prohibitions and laws in order increase sales in the chain of hard-currency stores operated as military businesses. It is a disgrace.

It is monopoly in its purest form. The government would now find itself hard pressed to explain how these measures are benefitting its citizens. Its aberrant customs rules, prohibitions on retail sales of imported clothing and high taxes on the self-employed are anti-populist edicts.

I asked twenty-eight people — friends, neighbors, taxi drivers, public and private sector workers — if they approved of these regulations. Regardless of their political beliefs, the verdict was unanimous: all twenty-eight were opposed to the current measures as well as to those scheduled to take effect on September 1.

Some 80% of Cubans have a relative or friend in the United States or Europe. Some benefit from regular shipments of clothes, food, appliances, video games, computer tablets or smart phones. Others receive occasional shipments.

But it is black market commerce, driven scarcity and a system of economic production that does not satisfy demand, the most important provider of the things people need.

HP laptops, plasma-screen TVs, instant soups and even major league baseball hats arrive on the island from Miami, as do Russian car parts and cloned satellite TV cards, which are banned by the Cuban government.

What businessmen, politicians and exiles living in the United States do not mention when expressing support for relaxing or repealing the embargo is the regime’s obsession with controlling our private lives.

We must navigate an internet packed with filters, watch TV channels that the government authorizes, read books over which the mullahs of censorship pass judgment and pay extortionist prices for cell phone service.

We should be talking more often about the internal blockade the government imposes on its citizens.

Is it legal for a nation to stifle illegal commerce? Yes, it is. But before punishing people, it should provide by offering range of products and prices for the domestic market, living wages and efficient services.

This is not the case in Cuba. State workers earn around twenty dollars a month. The “basic basket” of goods that a ration book covers barely lasts ten days. Putting two meals a day on the table is a luxury in many homes.

The State has become an insatiable overseer. It owns industries that provide us with overpriced mayonnaise, canned tuna and queso blanco.

At no meeting of the boring and monotonous National Assembly did I hear any delegate demand that the state set fair prices. Food prices in Cuban hard currency stores are higher than those in New York.

The price of flat-screen TV or a computer is two and a half times what it is in Miami. Tiles and bathroom fixtures are five times as expensive. And a Peugeot 508 sells for an exorbitant price, comparable to that of a Ferrari.

Thanks to mules, relatives in Florida send us everything from powdered milk to sanitary pads because the state cannot satisfy the monthly demand of women or offer such products for sale at affordable prices.

This is what it’s about. The new measures attempting to stop trafficking by mules are intended to benefit state enterprises and businesses, and to increase their sales, though what becomes of the profits is never revealed.

They are only hampering the transfer of small ticket items, however, not of dollars. Greenbacks are still welcome. The more, the merrier.

Before the Obama administration relaxes that relic of the Cold War called the embargo, those speaking on behalf of the Cuban people should ask Raul Castro for greater freedom and economic independence for his citizens.

And don’t get me started on the denial of political rights. That’s another story.

Photo: From Univision Colorado.

 *Translator’s note: Slang term for couriers of goods from overseas.

18 July 2014

Cuba: Is Varadero for People of Another Social Class? / Ivan Garcia

July 10, 2014 7 comments

Under a brightly colored umbrella, a representative of Gaviota, a tourism chain, the property of businessmen in the Cuban military, offers an inclusive leisure package for the summer.

The bureau of reservations is nestled in an old parking lot of a strip mall in 5th Avenue and 42nd, Miramar, to the west of Havana.

It is Saturday. There is a festive atmosphere: Kiosks selling popcorn, sandwiches, and frozen pizzas that are heated in the microwave and taste like plastic. Meanwhile, flat screen televisions are airing the World Cup soccer matches in Brazil.

There has to be music. Randomly situated speakers amplify too loudly the current hit, Bailando, by Enrique Iglesisas, Descemer Bueno, and People of the Zone.

In the tourism bureau everything is a hustle. Over a table, public pamphlets of “all-inclusive” hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco, or Santa Lucia.

Past nine-thirty in the morning they begin to see clients. The personnel are friendly with Colgate smiles and a commercial diction learned through quick marketing courses.

The representatives of each chain wear differently colored shirts: Gaviota, green; Cubanacan, red; Havanatur, yellow, and Isla Azul, white. Why speak of the price? Two nights in the hotel Bella Costa de Varadero, 240 CUC. A weekend in the beach Ancon, Sancti Spiritus, 380 cuc. Recall that the average monthly salary in Cuba is 20 convertible pesos.

Like anywhere else in the world, the hotels cost according to their glamour and five-star rating. In a queue to make reservations of nine people  there is only one black woman.

The rest are white. Two foreigners with Cuban “girlfriends” with extremely long nails, tiny shorts, and high heels, probably prostitutes, choose the Pesquero Beach, in the eastern province of Holguin, where they hope to drink mojitos and relax in beach chairs.

A Cuban-American residing in Coconut Grove, Miami-Dade, wishes to rent in a four-star hotel in Varadero for a week. “My family is from a mountainous area in Santiago de Cuba. Everything is going well for me in the United States. There is no one better with whom to share my vacations than with them.”

When it is his turn, the shrewd representative of Gaviota makes an offer: “Almost impossible, this is a hotel that specializes in family services. It is ranked second in preference within Varadero. You will thank me,” signals the vendor with engrossing confidence.

It has been ten years since she has visited Cuba and she debates between the unplanned expenses and her poor parents, who spend their vacations watching TV and relieving themselves from the heat with a chinese fan. She gives in to the commercial coaxing of the type of expert who draws money from clients.

“By the end I wasted two thousand CUC for eight nights and four rooms in El Patriarca, a five-star hotel. It is worth distracting my family. Cuba is not doing well. Whatever one does for the family will be too little,” she says, and stores away her reservation in her bag.

Natacha, from the Cubanacan chain, knows how to handle all types of clients. “We win our commission for every sold package. The cheapest are the Spanish, they always have been, but now with their financial crisis they like to buy cheaply. The Canadians and the Russians pay without joking. The Cuban-Americna or other American we attract once in a while, will even leave tips.”

Two married doctors who worked for two years in South Africa, while drinking Corona beers, are enthralled while listening to a tourism operator who proposes an offer in Cayo Coco, Ciego de Avila, 500 kilometers from Havana.

“After working in such alienated places we deserve a good vacation. With the money we collected we could repair the house and buy appliances for the house. We thought of acquiring a car, but after the government annulled the special right to doctors, it is impossible to buy a car with the current prices. We therefore decided to rent 4 nights in Cayo Coco,” recounts the married couple.

The black woman is an engineer. Since 2010 she tends to stay two or three days in an “all-inclusive” hotel in Varadero. This season she could rent 5 nights in Melia Marina Varadero. This cost here 822 cuc.

“With my salary of 500 Cuban pesos and 27.50 CUC monthly I would never be able to. Thanks to the grandmother of my daughter who resides in Europe and my husband, who is working for himself, we can spend some time in a hotel in Varadero,” she expresses.

If you leave the commercial complex in 5th and 42, Miramar, and arrive at the center of Havana, in corners within dangerous neighborhoods you will see young people chatting about soccer or making plans to make money.

They are hardened by their marginal existence. They know where drugs are sold and often spend nights throwing dice in an illegal gaming house. They are also experts in proposing sex with boys or girls and sell fashionable clothes. When you ask them where they will spend their vacations they look at you as if you were an alien.

“Are you kidding, brother? Vacations for us mean having money in our pockets, drinking beer, talking about nothing or going out with an American. If we can lunch or dine as God wishes we are happy. We entertain ourselves watching sports on the television and when it is hot we go the beaches in the east, we take a shower and down a whole liter of white rum. Neither Varadero or Cayo Coco is in our plans. That is for people of higher social standing.”

Ivan Garcia

Notes by Tania Quintero

The five-star Hotel Melia Marina Varadero was inaugurated in July 2013 and included in its attractions is a harbor with a capacity to dock 1,200 yachts, which will grow to 3,000 boats of small, medium, and large sizes.

Situated in the Hicacos Peninsula, Matanzas, 150 kilometers east of Havana, expect 423 rooms and one condominium with 126 one- and two-bedroom apartments.  This hotel is the 26th establishment by the firm Melia Hotels International, which in May 10 1990 inaugurated in Varadero as its first hotel in Cuba, the Sol Palmeras. Melia is the foreign hotel chain with greatest presence in Cuba. In 2016 it will open a hotel in the colonial city of Trinidad, in the central south of the island.

Currently, 60 hotels are administered by 16 foreign chains, among which is the Portuguese Pestana, which in August 2013 started its operations in Cuba with the opening of Pestana Cayo Coco Beach Resort, a four-star hotel located in the Jardines dle Rey, keys which are north of the province, Ciego de Avila.

The last one to join the list is the Swiss empire, Kempinski Hotels, founded in 1897, and with more than 80 luxury hotels in the world. Kempinski acquired the rights to administer and commercialize the hotel that was constructed in the old Manzana de Gomez, in the heart of Havana, to be inaugurated in October 2016.

The main national operator is the Group of Tourism Gaviota S.A., property of the Ministry of the Armed Services. As of 2008, the Cubans can stay in any hotel or tourism facility…. as long as they pay in Cuban convertible pesos, the Creole hard currency. Three years later, in 2011, BBC World informed that after the Canadians, the main group of tourists in Cuba were the Cuban citizens from the islands and the immigrants who visit.

We recommend the lecture series in 10 posts dedicated to Varadero, that during October 7-28, 2013 was published on “The Blog” by Ivan Garcia and his friends, among these the last two, “Memories” and “Varadero, where Benny found peace.”

Translated by: Bianca Martinez

25 June 2014