1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.
We returned to a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.
The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis.
The olive green government put contingency plans into action. Research institutes patented garbage food such as meat mass, soya soup, and oca paste, which were used to fool the stomach.
The government considered an extreme project called “zero option,” against the time when the people would start to collapse in the street due to hunger. It was a red alert, when military trucks would hand out rations neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
“Zero option” did not get implemented. The dollar ended up worth 150 Cuban Pesos, and a pound of rice, if you could get one, cost you 140 pesos, the same as an avocado.
That’s how we Cubans lived in 1994. A hot year. Many people launched themselves into the sea in little rubber boats, driven by desperation and hardship, trying to get to the United States.
I was 28 and four out of every five of my friends or people I knew were making plans to build boats good enough to get them to Florida. We talked of nothing else. Only about getting out.
In the morning of 5th August it was still a crime to be a boat person. If they caught you, it meant up to 4 years behind bars. In spite of the informers, the blackouts helped people build boats of all shapes and sizes. Havana looked like a shipyard.
In my area, an ex-sailer offered his services as a pilot to anyone setting out on a marine adventure. “It’s a difficult crossing. You could be a shark’s dinner if you don’t organise your expedition properly,” he said.
At that time there were red beret soldiers carrying AK-47s patrolling the streets in jeeps. The capital was like a tinderbox.Any friction could touch off a fire. Hardly a month and a half before, on 13th July, the fateful sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo had occurred.
In order to teach would-be illegal escapees a lesson, the authorities deliberately sunk an old tug 7 miles out from the bay of Havana.
72 people were on board. 37 of them died, among them, 10 children. According to the survivors’ testimony, two government tugs refused to help them. It was a crime.
At eleven in the morning of Friday August 5th, a friend of mine came up to a group of us kids who were sitting on a corner in the neighbourhood, and, stumbling over his words, said: “My relatives in Miami have phoned up. They say four large boats have left for Havana, to pick up anyone who wants to leave. There are lots of people in the Malecon, waiting for them.”
A route 15 bus driver, who now lives in Spain, invited us to ride in his bus, to get there faster. He turned off his route. And as he went along, he he picked up anyone who stuck out his hand.
“I’m going to the Malecon” he told people. Every passenger who got on had new information about what was happening. “They’ve broken shop windows and they’re stealing food, toiletries, clothes and shoes. They’ve overturned police cars. Looks like the government’s fucked.”
There was a party atmosphere. The bus was stopped by the combined forces of the police, soldiers and State security people, near the old Presidential Palace.
A group of government supporters was trying to control the antigovernment protesters and the disturbances that were breaking out. It was bedlam.
We got off the bus and we walked down some side streets going towards the Avenida del Puerto. There were lots of anxious people in the avenue with their eyes on the horizon.
There was a police car which had been smashed up by having stones thrown at it near the Hotel Deauville. Paramilitaries were arriving in trucks, armed with tubes and iron bars. They were casual construction workers hired by Fidel Castro who had been rapidly mobilised.
For the first time in my life I heard people shouting Down with Fidel, and Down with the Dictatorship. What had started off as a lot of people trying to escape to Florida had turned into a popular uprising.
The epicenter of what came to be called the Maleconazo were the poor mainly black neighbourhoods of San Leopoldo, Colón and Cayo Hueso. Places where people live in tumbledown houses and with an uncertain future.
Those areas breed hustlers, illegal gambling and drug trafficking. And the Castro brothers are not welcome there.
After 6:00 in the evening of 5th August 1994, it seemed that the government forces had taken control of the extensive area where the people had filled the streets to protest, rob, or just sit on the Malecon wall to see what happened.
Anti-riot trucks picked up hundreds of young men, nearly all of them mixed race or black. A rumour went round that Fidel Castro was having a look round the area. The soldiers had released the safety catches on their AK47s, ready to use them.
By the time it began to get dark, the disturbances were already under control. We walked back, talking about what had happened. That night, because they were afraid another revolt might break out, there was no power cut in Havana.
Translated by GH
6 August 2014
In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.
It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.
People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.
Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones.
People don’t know Alan Gross, who is kept in a cell in the hospital, just a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood. As far as Ernesto, one of the neighbourhood kids, is concerned, he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba”, he says, but he doesn’t know any details of the case. Another kid, who shows off about being well-informed, tells some of the details:
“I found out on the antenna that the American has staged a hunger strike and he says that, dead or alive, he’s going to leave this year (the antenna is an illegal construction — usually made of a metal tray and some Coke cans — and is used as a communication medium in many poor Cuban poor neighbourhoods). I don’t know why Obama doesn’t exchange him for the “three heroes” (Castro spies in jail in the States).
That is what the Cuban man-in-the-street — many of them — know about Gross, the contractor. A spy who came from the north to subvert things on the island.
Not many of them know what it was that he tried to bring into the country. And, when they know that Alan Gross had with him in his briefcases and backpacks two iPods, eleven Blackberrys, three MacBooks, six 500GB discs, three BGAN satellite phones, among other things that Castro’s government considers “illegal,” they look a bit stupid.
“But they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys,” is what Arnold says, smiling (he is the owner of a little workshop that fixes punctures on your bike or car).
The crime that the olive green State accused him of: “assembling parallel networks to gain illegal access to the internet,” is only an offence in countries with eccentric laws like Cuba or North Korea.
The official media, sporadically offer brief comments, edited in a cleaned-up kind of style, by the hacks at the Foreign Relations Department, who disinform, rather than inform.
People hear about it in the news on the radio and television and it is the main news item in the newspaper Granma. And it all backs up the Cubans’ opinion that Alan Gross was caught carrying out espionage.
Cuba is a nation that scatterbrained foreigners do not know. There are two currencies and the one which is worth more is not the one they pay to workers.
The press assures us that five decades ago they “got rid of prostitution and other capitalist scourges”, but an elderly foreigner on a beach receives more sexual proposals than Brad Pitt.
In order to understand the story put together by the Havana government’s communication experts, we need to have in mind one of its key features: from 1959, the United States is the public enemy number one.
Everything bad stems from that. Six hundred supposed attempts on Fidel Castro’s life: from planning to assassinate him by a bullet through the temple, to injecting him with a strong poison which would make his beard fall off.
The eleven Presidents who have occupied the White House during Castro’s 55 years are far from being angels. They have hatched attacks, subversions, and assaults on the first Castro. But the regime exaggerates them.
In that context, Alan Gross was a useful pawn for the island’s special services. Gross visited Cuba four times with the idea of giving unrestricted internet access to the small local Jewish community.
On December 3, 2009 the US contractor was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Cuban tribunal. Gross was not the “stupid innocent taken in by USAID,” as they said at his trial.
He was aware of the risk he was running bringing in information equipment into a totalitarian nation, where parallel communication is a crime against the state.
According to a 2012 article from the AP agency, the reports about his trip indicate that Gross knew his activities were illegal, and he was afraid of the consequences, including possibly being expelled from the country. One of the documents confirms that one of the community’s leaders “made it absolutely clear that we are playing with fire.”
On another occasion, Gross commented “There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous business. It would be catastrophic if they detected the satellite signals.”
It would be possible to appeal to Raúl Castro’s government’s better nature, asking that they set free an unwell 65-year-old man, who is mentally “out of it,” following the death of his mother the previous 18th of June in Texas.
But the criollo (Cuban) autocracy in playing its own game with the USAID contractor. There are still three spies from the Wasp network locked up in US jails, two of them on life sentences.
Alan Gross was the perfect pretext for a negotiation which the Obama administration finds morally unacceptable, as it would place the elderly Jew on the same level as the Cuban spies.
Gross is an authentic laboratory guinea pig, stuck between the United States’ ambiguous politics and Castro’s attempts to get his agents back home. An exchange which the White House is unwilling to accept.
Photo: Alan Gross (b. New York, 1949), before his detention, and now, although he is probably thinner and weaker after his last hunger strike and his depression over his mother’s death last June 18th. Taken from The Cuban History.
Translated by GH
10 August 2014
Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.
And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.
At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.
Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.
He is a cross between a tropical rogue and a guy with a nose for business. He is dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt and a pair of Timberland moccasins. A Swiss Tissot watch cost him six-hundred dollars at an airport duty-free shop.
“Money brings you neither health nor happiness but it makes you feel good, different. Knowing you have money in your wallet and enough to eat is a big deal in this country. Then, if you live in a nice house and own a car, you can afford certain luxuries, like drinking Scotch and sleeping with young girls without having to be a police informer or a senior official in the regime. Solvency raises your self-esteem,” says Humberto, who has wanted to be businessman since he was young.
“At the time of the Revolution I was the owner of an high-end apartment in Vedado. When communism came along, like everyone else I learned to fake it. I was never a member of the militia or a militant, so the goverment tried every trick it could to get me to give up my apartment. They wanted me to exchange it for an awful place in Alamar, as though I were crazy,” says Humberto. “These people,” he adds while making a gesture as though stroking an imaginary beard, “love to talk about the poor but they like to live like the bourgeoisie.”
“In the building where I live there are military officers and government leaders. During the Soviet era there were also technical specialists from the USSR, East Germany and North Korea living there. I have never known more savvy businesspeople than the ’comrades from the communist bloc.’ The used to buy and sell everything. They even set up a small bank,” he notes with a smile.
Things have not always gone so well. He was jailed in the 1980s, accused of illegal economic activity. “After my release from prison I had to sweep parks. When my children were grown, I got them out of the country. They have lived overseas for a long time. My grandchildren are foreigners. I stay here because I prefer to live in Havana, the city where I was born,” says Humberto.
During the 1990s — the tough years of the “Special Period” — Humberto began renting his apartment to foreigners. “Almost all private business was illegal, from dealing in art to buying and selling houses and cars. But after 2010 the government expanded the private sector and I got a hospitality license.”
He lives in a house with his wife and rents out his apartment. “The prices vary depending on the length of stay and the time of year. In peak season I rent it for 60 CUC a day. The apartment has four bedrooms, air-conditioning throughout, a big living room and remodeled bathrooms with hot and cold running water,” says Humberto.
In general he only rents to couples, women and older men. “I don’t like renting to young men or bachelors. They turn your house into a brothel. I don’t rent to Cubans because, on top of being messy, they walk off with things. They have stolen everything but the electricity itself from me. That’s why I only rent to foreigners.”
Humberto considers himself to be a good friend, a better father and a lousy husband. “I have never been stingy. I take care of my parents and I have discreetly helped dissident family members and friends. As long as this regime exists, business people like me will always be treated like suspects and possible criminals. To be a real small businessman you have to live in a climate of democracy.
The night has engulfed Havana. From the bar at La Torre the view is spectacular. You see all the lights but none of the misery.
Video: Views of Havana from La Torre Restaurant where Ivan talked with Humberto. The video was made by Winston Smith and uploaded to YouTube in July 2013.
2 August 2014