Archive for October, 2014

Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment
Britannia School, Havana

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams.

The faculty is first rate. And although it costs 20 CUC to register and another 10 CUC a month for tuition, the school is no longer accepting new students due to lack of capacity.

Adriana, a civil engineer, enrolled her eleven-year-old daughter in the school. “It’s quite expensive,” she says, “but thanks to help from the girl’s grandmother, who lives overseas, I can afford to pay for these English classes.”

It costs Osvaldo, a private-sector worker, a bit more. “I enrolled my two sons,” he says. “The sacrifice is worth it; they get a lot of personal attention and the teaching methods are excellent.”

Each student is given an 8-gigabyte flash drive with learning materials, textbooks, exercise books, pencils, pens and a light blue bag. Erasmus, who teaches classes for children, notes, “In the two years the school has been operating, the reception has been tremendous. Over 80 people attend the Monday and Friday evening classes. We guarantee students will learn both forms of English — the UK and the US versions — as well as idioms used in cities like New York and Miami.”

In a spacious porticoed house with a carefully tended rose garden half a mile from the  Britannia private school, Adela teaches English to children, adolescents and adults for 10 CUC per month.

“I give classes three times a week in two different time slots. On September 10 I had to stop enrolling students. In addition to the 10 CUC a month, the first month costs 8 CUC, which covers textbooks, specialized DVDs and other material,” explains Adela.

In Tenth of October alone — with 213,000 inhabitants, it is Havana’s most populous district — there are sixty private English language schools.

“In addition to these there are eleven or twelve state-run schools that offer language classes at night,” says Gregorio, a local high school English teacher. “In addition to price, the main difference between these and the private schools is quality. The classes taught at the private schools are much better than those at state schools.”

Havana probably has more English language classes per capita than any other city on the planet. This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a few state-run foreign language schools in English, German, French or Russian.

By the mid-1980s English language classes were being suppressed in Cuban schools. “It was crazy,” recalls Renato, a philologist. “Russian was adopted but it didn’t enjoy widespread acceptance in spite of the fact that Radio Rebelde broadcast Russian courses.”

But with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, English language instruction returned to school curricula. With new regulations in 1994 providing greater options for self-employment, hundreds of teachers, interpreters and translators of the language of Shakespeare began giving classes as a way to earn money and improve their quality of life.

Twice a week, Marlén gives English lessons to about twenty students, all under the age of twelve. “I charge 5 CUC a month. I worked as part of a team translating books and articles for Fidel Castro. But I am retired and my 300 Cuban peso a month pension is not enough to live comfortably.”

You wil find that prices run the gamut in Havana, from 1 CUC per class, or 3 CUC a month, to 10 or 15 CUC a month in private academies or well-equipped homes.

According to Carlos, a sociologist, the demand for classes in English and other foreign languages for younger kids and adolescents is driven by the desire of many parents to prepare their children for emigration in the future.

“Not since before 1959, when there were schools throughout Havana offering free English language classes, have so many students of all ages been studying English in such a serious and in-depth way. It is taught in state schools but the classes are poor quality. Behind the high-demand is a desire to be prepared to work, study or live in the United States, Canada or some other English-speaking country. No self-respecting professional — whether he or she is an engineer, programmer or high-tech worker — can avoid the study of the English language. Knowing how to speak English is essential in today’s world.”

Juan Antonio, a Cuban-American living in Miami, knows firsthand the importance of English. “I spent four years working in low-paying jobs because I had not mastered the language. That’s why I send money to my nephews and nieces, so that they can learn English from an early age,” he says. “When it comes time to leave, they will have opportunities for better jobs.”

With the new winds blowing through the island, among the goals a bright young man like Jonathan has is to learn English well enough to attend an American university.

“Young Cubans are always preparing because we hope to get scholarships to study at American or European universities. A degree from any prestigious university is an advantage that will allow us to find good-paying jobs. It’s no longer enough just to emigrate. After arriving, I want to thrive,” says Jonathan.

Comfortable schools with modern teaching methods, such as Britannia in Havana’s Santa Catalina Avenue, offer the quality that those who see their future in an English-speaking country are looking for.

Iván García

Photo from Martí Noticias

23 October 2014

Crisis Among Cuban Dissidents? / Ivan Garcia

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

The egos and grandstanding are projecting an uncertain outlook within the peaceful opposition in Cuba. It’s like a symphony orchestra without a conductor, where musicians play their own tunes.

It’s not for lack of political programs that Cuban activists cede space. They are overflowing with ideas, projects and platforms aimed at democratic change. Some are more consistent than others.

And although all platforms and political parties are entitled to have their doctrines and programs, the reality in Cuba has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of dissident theses.

Born deformed as a matter of genesis. They have no popular support. There are ever fewer reports about them in the Florida media, the Spanish press and the BBC.

Indeed, to be an opponent on the island is an act of unquestionable value. Hanging in the air of the Republic is a dark law that sanctions with up to twenty years behind bars those who oppose the regime or write without permission.

But the repression, fierce or subtle, the lack of public space, has transformed the dissidents into a group of coffee klatchers, without support in their neighborhoods.

The evidence of their incompetence is that they’re out of sync with the average Cuban. Never before in the 55 years of the Castro brothers’ government, has the percentage the citizenry who disapprove been higher.

Any survey or conversation with people on the street serves to confirm it. But political proselytizing has failed to organize that anger.

Their interests are different although they sound analogous. Carlos, a carpenter, also wants democracy. He feels that the military autocracy has hijacked the future of his family with unfulfilled promises. Be he has no confidence in the discourse and narrative of the Cuban opposition.

In the old taxis in Havana, in the lines for bureaucratic paperwork, or at a baseball stadium, people talk to you without hesitation about a radical change to improve the economy and the precarious quality of life.

Some have read or heard about an opposition paper. But it does not excite them. They see it as distant as a government minister. Although the dissidents are neighbors on their same block, they have done little for his district or municipality.

They are disconnected, like a cosmonaut from the Earth. The particular world of dissent is to generate news, report meetings, make suggestions or report police abuse, but they lack a basic foundation to become legitimate actors for the future that is upon us.

The fate of the Island will be decided in the next five years. Perhaps earlier. The great majority of those in European Union, the United States and Latin America also want a democratic Cuba.

But the opposition’s raw material to manage the future is tenuous. So the strategy of the international community is to agree to a bizarre transition from totalitarianism to authoritarianism with Castro supporters. According to their perception, it is the least bad way.

On issues ranging from the repression to the shamelessness, the opposition has degenerated into a “swallow” dissent who at the first change ask for political asylum, preferably in the United States.

Those who remain are tough, but have adapted to the rules dictated by the regime.

There is an unwritten law of what can be done within the magical realism of autocracy.

The elderly rulers have gone from an anachronistic and authoritarian totalitarian system to another with a veneer of modernity and more flexible laws.

In 2014 you won’t be sent to prison for writing articles critical of the government. The most that will happen is a short detention in a police dungeon, an act of repudiation, or screams on the public street from an enraged assassin.

Depending on the circumstances, the dissidence is allowed to hold discussions, forums and debates in private homes. For two years, just for dissenting, Sonia Garro and her husband Ramón Alejandro Munoz, both black, have been held in jail. Another dozen activists are also prisoners or awaiting sentencing.

But the playing field is much wider today than before 2003. Since February 2013, most opponents and independent journalists are allowed to travel abroad.

A golden opportunity for more effective political lobbying. And they are not taking advantage of it. Everything stays in sterile encounters. Probably the most consistent program is led by Antonio G. Rodiles with his Citizen Demand For Another Cuba.


It is reasonable, because it has a grip on reality and not in the political science fiction of other groups with their outlandish appeals. Rodiles uses a primary logic.

If we want Cuba to change, the government must ratify the United Nations’ international covenants signed in 2008. This is the gateway to legalizing a future civil society where, in addition to freedoms and human rights, there is political pluralism.

All opponents should support Rodiles and the Campaign for Another Cuba. But egos and grandstanding prevails. Each dissident leader is surrounded by a cloud of minions who defend their project as if it were an island under siege.

In turn, they attack and discredit contrary proposals. The worst of these brawls is that they don’t generate any credible proposals. Just bluster and platitudes. And behind them are the special services with their strategy of division.

Unfortunately, the Lades in White, an organization whose street marches in 2010 forced the government to release the 75 dissidents imprisoned in the 2003 Black Spring, has been split by intrigues and intemperate personalities.

This scrapping also extends to other dissident groups. More than an internal crisis or one of leadership, the Cuban opposition suffers from paralysis and the inability to join with the citizens.

When I read that some opposition groups claim to have the support of thousands of followers, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. An event that triggers a massive protest needs capable leaders Any event that triggers a massive protest only need capable leaders. And that is what we’re lacking.

Iván García

Photo: Antonio G. Rodiles, Coyula Regina and Ivan Garcia in a panel of independent journalism in Cuba organized by Estado de SATS in Havana on September 4, 2014.

9 October 2014

Of Jails In Cuba / Ivan Garcia

October 13, 2014 1 comment
A "combatant" as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

A “combatant” as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a free man since April.

According to a former prison official, 90 percent of detainees in Cuba work with scarce security and are paid poverty wages.

“I am convinced that the work of prisoners is one of the main productive engines of the country. Exploiting them allows high profits. Until 2006, when I worked in a Havana jail, they were paid 150 or 200 pesos a month for working up to 14 hours (remember that the minimum salary in Cuba is 484 pesos) or they were paid not a cent. Those who were paid also had deducted expenses like food and lodging. The government gives degrading treatment to the majority of common Cuban prisoners,” says the ex-official.

Throughout the green alligator it is calculated that there exist more than 200 prisons. Cuba is the sixth nation on the planet in per capita prisoners. In 2013, the regime recognized that the penal population is around 57 thousand inmates.

The internal dissidence claims that the figure might approach 100 thousand. Cuban jails are rigorous. Physical mistreatment and abuses by the penitentiary guards are standard.

Suicides, mutilations and insanity within the prisons are a secret statistic that the government handles with clamps. Prestigious companies, like the Swedish Ikea, have been accused of complicity in prisoner slave labor in Cuban factories.

In the 1980’s, Ciro was a prisoner for five years for illegal exit. In his pilgrimage through the detention centers, he worked in a transportation parts warehouse for the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) in the Lawton slum, some 30 minutes from downtown Havana.

“MININT is the main beneficiary of cheap prison labor. In Workshop One I worked with hardly any protection on an assembly line for cars with plastic bodies and VW German motors. I also worked in an upholstery shop where fine furniture was given its varnish. Years later, I learned that they were for Ikea. They never paid me a cent,” says Ciro.

Thousands of inmates participate in construction of hospitals, schools, housing, food production and the most dangerous work. “We do what no one wants to do. Clean streets, sewers and cut the invasive marabou weed,” says Evelio, who is completing a two-year sentence scrubbing urban buses.

Military or state enterprises like Provari are at the head of labor exploitation and captive work. In a brochure published in 2001, the firm Provari was said to have 150 production installations on the island.

In the prison Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, Provari produces insecticides. A report published in the daily Guerrillero in 2013, said that the Provari branch office in Pinar del Rio in 2010 had sales valued at 200,000 dollars.

According to that report, the Pinarena branch production included chlorine and muriatic acid, beach chairs, baby cribs, concrete and clay blocks, paints, paint brushes, plastic tubes and ornamental plants.

In a workshop in the women’s prison in Havana, jeans are made for export by different brands, as well as uniforms for police, armed forces and the prisoners themselves.

Provari also produces the insecticide Lomate, anti-bacterials for lice and ticks, as well as other products destined for sanitary hygiene. And there are plans to build a solar water heater of 170 liters according to official media.

In that 2001 brochure, among other activities of Provari was mentioned carpentry with precious wood, sale of textiles under the brands Oeste and Hercules and upholstery of office furniture by the Ofimax brand.

“The most worrying thing is that they work without special uniforms, adequate for producing chemical substances.  We prisoners do not have options or a legal representative where we can complain and make demands of the government,” comments the former prisoner Saul.

And he adds that almost all the prisoners work voluntarily. “It’s a way to get air, eat better and escape the abuses of the jailers.”

While the autocratic Castro government prepares “tours” for credentialed western diplomats and correspondents in Cuba to model prisons like La Lima in Guanabacoa, a township to the southeast of the capital, thousands of inmates work in precarious conditions and without the required remuneration.

The odd thing is that state enterprises in the style of Provari, with all signs of participating in slave prison labor, expect a foreign partner to expand their businesses.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  A “combatant,” as jailers in Cuba are called, poses together with several prisoners who with new uniforms were selected for display during the visits that in April 2013, a group of foreign correspondents and journalists for official media made to Cuban prisons previously chosen by the regime.  Taken from Cuba opens the jails to the press.

Translated by mlk.

7 October 2014

Well-Being in Cuba Hides Behind a Visa / Ivan Garcia

October 7, 2014 1 comment

Cuba-Tourist_Card (1)Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.

Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.

“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.

This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years.

The poet Virgilio Piñera blamed Cubans’ misfortune on our insularity. “The damned circumstance of water everywhere,” he wrote in “The Isle in Weight.”

He was probably right. Not having control over one’s future and with an average monthly salary of twenty dollars a month means that for some people the only option for improving their quality of life is to obtain a visa.

Regardless of ideology, race or education, almost no one wants to travel abroad to visit museums and learn about other peoples and cultures.

Whether they be members of the regime or the opposition, their purpose in travelling is to come back with lots of stuff and a decent amount of money.

When you talk to some dissidents who have travelled to the United States or Europe, they describe how comfortable their hotels were, how much they ate and how advanced the technologies they encountered were.

They go into great detail when talking about the luxurious stores or the prices of home appliances. Government officials do this as well; it is only in speeches and public forums that they condemn capitalism.

A year and a half after passage of an emigration law allowing Cubans to travel overseas more easily, fifty independent journalists have been to various countries.

I am waiting to read more reports on Cubanet from the likes of David Canela and Alberto talking about what they have seen in American cities they have visited. A lot of people have been to Florida but I have not anything on the aspirations of the latest generation of Cubans living on the other shore. And those who go to Madrid don’t usually venture out to Cañada Real, preferring Lavapies or Chueca instead.*

They cite a lack of time, though they always find time to visit the Ño que Barato store in Miami. I do not know if it is from apathy or spiritual poverty but, with rare exceptions, independent journalists do not write about the men and women from the places they have had the privilege to visit.

Preoccupied with academic get-togethers, my colleagues are missing a golden opportunity by not reporting on life and local customs of the populations in these localities.

You can’t ask an ordinary Cuban to join the activism in support of a democratic society, when the supposed dissident and journalist leaders, dazed by trips abroad, have disengaged from political proselytizing in their communities.

The merit now is in accumulating flight hours and visas. It is important to participate in academic events and economic forums or to pass courses at prestigious universities.

But I wonder who will support guys like Cecilio, medical specialist, to learn to fight for his rights to a fair wage, or to convince him that if the Castro autocracy approves the UN covenants, it will open a door to a democratic society.

Not even in the most difficult years of the so-called Special Period have we seen so many Cubans dreaming of leaving the country on either a permanent or temporary basis. They see the future outside their homeland.

A visa to the developed world is their priority. Cuba is hurting. It is a real tragedy that every year more than twenty thousand of our fellow citizens leave in a legal and orderly way for the United States.

In the first months of 2014 fourteen thousand Cubans crossed the border between Mexico and the United States. No one knows if the forty thousand people who have left the island since the new emigration law took effect on January 14, 2013 will return.

In addition to these numbers, there are also the hundreds if not thousands of people who take to the sea in rubber rafts. We are more of an island than ever.

At this rate, there will be no one to defend the hijacked rights and face off with the Castro brothers. The regime could win the case by default. It is already winning.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: Cañada Real is a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid known for crime and drug trafficking. Lavapies is a neighborhood in central Madrid with a large immigrant population. Chueca is a square in central Madrid popular with members of the gay community.

20 September 2014