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Not Many Black or Mixed-race Businessmen in Havana / Ivan Garcia

November 24, 2014 1 comment

Cuba-Mar-2011-620x330Just as with most successful businesses in Cuba, the owners of Leyenda Habana, an elegant restaurant in El Cerro, surrounded by ranch houses, are white.

Two miles to the east of Leyenda Habana, in the poor and mostly black neighbourhood of San Leopoldo, the iconic private La Guarida restaurant, where US congressmen and the Queen of Spain have dined, also has a white proprietor. And, unless something has changed, the chef is black.

I invite you to visit glamorous bars like El Encuentro in Linea and L, Vedado: Shangrilá, in Playa, or El Slopy’s in Vibora Park, very near to La Palma; central crossroads in Arroyo Naranjo.

Apart from being comfortable and with efficient service, the common denominator is that the owners are white. Black people work in the kitchen, or, if they are very qualified, and look good, they dispense daiquiris and mojitos behind the bar.

The waitresses usually are white, young girls with beautiful faces and spectacular bodies. Could be pale-skinned mulattas who spend a fortune on straightening their hair to be similar to many white women.

The owners of rental properties with swimming pools or luxury apartments are also white. Or the owners of fleets of American cars and jeeps from the 40’s and 50’s, fitted with modern diesel engines, used as private taxis in Havana.

Ignacio, who has sun-tanned white skin, owns six automobiles and three Willys jeeps, made sixty years ago in the Detroit factories. Every day he turns over 600 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC).

“Part of the money I invest in gasoline and in maintenance of the cars. I make juicy profits, but my business is in a judicial limbo as it is not something envisaged in the self-employment regulations. For the moment, the government lets us do it,” he indicated while he drinks a German beer.

When you ask him why it is that in the most successful private businesses, 90% of the owners are white, he replies: “Several reasons, ranging from subtle or open racism on the part of many business people, to economic reality, in that black Cubans are the ones with the lowest standard of living and receive fewer remittances from family abroad.”

Carlos, a sociologist, considers that not all of the blame for negroes and mestizos not occupying prominent positions in private businesses can be attributed to the Fidel Castro regime.

“This is a long-running story. When in 1886 they abolished slavery in Cuba, the negroes and mestizos started off at a disadvantage. They didn’t have property, knowledge or money to invest in businesses. They moved from being slaves to wage earners. They gained prestige and a better position in society by way of sport, music and manual trades.”

According to the sociologist, “The Revolution involved the negroes in the process, dressing them up in olive green and sending them to risk their lives in African wars. But in key positions in the economy, politics or audiovisual media, there was an obvious white supremacy.”

For Orestes, an economist, “We cannot overlook the detail that 80% of the Cubans who have done well in exile are whites. The first wave of emigrants to Florida were educated white people, nearly all business people with capital. And those who left without money, thanks to their knowledge and hard work, moved forward and triumphed in the US society.

And he adds that, in the subsequent waves in 1965, 1980 and 1994, there was a larger percentage of negroes and mestizos, but they were ill-prepared and they worked in poorly paid jobs in the  United States. “And because of that, they sent less money to their poor families in Cuba,” the economist explained.

The situation was capable of change. Now, dozens of sportsmen, mulattos and negroes, play abroad and some earn six figure salaries.

Although José Dariel Abreu, who plays for the Chicago White Sox and earns $68 million over seven years, in theory cannot invest one cent in Cuba, because of the embargo laws, one way or another, thousands of dollars get to his relations in the island and they are able to open small businesses in their provinces.

In spite of the fact that the majority of the owners of currently successful businesses in the capital are white, reggaeton singers, jazz players, musicians who commute between Cuba, the United States and Europe, have opened businesses or have provided finance for their family members.

The reggaeton performer Alexander, the write Leonardo Padura or the volleyball player Mireya Luis, among others, have opened bars, restaurants and private cafes with part of their earning in hard money.

But they are the few. Most of the negroes or mestizos who have permits to work for themselves, work twelve hours filling matchboxes, repairing shoes or open up a small shop in the the entrance to their house, with no grand pretensions, trying to earn 200 or 300 pesos a day.

Nearly always the competition from white people with bigger wallets gobble up the self-employed negroes or mulattos. Leonardo, a negro resident in La Vibora, in 2010 put up a jerry-built stall made of sheet metal painted ochre in the garden of his house.

“Things went well. Until in the corner, by the house, a relation of a general opened a modern, well-stocked cafeteria. From then on, my earnings have collapsed. I am thinking of closing,” he says. The owner and employees of the business competing with Leonardo are white.

Although in this case, the advantage didn’t lie in skin colour. Because in Cuba, if, apart from having money, you have a relative who has the medals of a general, that will open many doors. Including those which should remain shut.

Iván García

Translated by GH

13 September 2014

Reporting from San Diego / Ivan Garcia

November 18, 2014 Leave a comment
The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

There are Cuban dissidents and independent journalists who, since the emigration and travel reform was enacted by Raul Castro in 2013, have already accumulated some trips abroad. This has not been the case with Ivan, who agreed to travel to the United States because it was for a workshop about investigative journalism, organized by the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, San Diego, California. And he accepted because it was a short stay of one week. We offer the first of three reports sent from San Diego. (Tania Quintera [Ivan’s mother]). 

Monday, November 10

I made the trip from Havana to Miami without problems. The Miami is airport is a city, I had to walk nearly a kilometer from the gate to passport control. At both customs I was treated well. At the Miami airport I met a former neighbor from La Vibora who worked there.

I took advantage of having to wait three hours for the flight to San Diego to buy a laptop at one of the airport stores (I left mine in Cuba because it is defective). It cost me $200, has Windows 8 and an English keyboard.

The flight to San Diego was long. The plane, a little uncomfortable. The seats were too close together. This is the best way I’ve found for airlines to make money: put people in a tube as if they were cattle. Although the service and food were good.

I found the San Diego Airport more functional than Miami’s. What I liked best so far is San Diego. A gorgeous city, with clean streets and well cared for houses. For those who have been accustomed to living in a barely lit capital, I was impressed with the great amount of light.

The temperature was 66F degrees, but there was little humidity, the climate was agreeable.

In the hotel rooms there is free internet, but there are computers only in the lobby. The rooms are comfortable. A television with a lot of channels, large bathroom, microwave, dryer, iron, coffee maker, refrigerator and an air conditioner I had to turn down.

Tuesday, November 11

Since the Institute of the Americas started these workshops in 2009, it’s the first time a reporter from Cuba came. The professors’ curriculum is very high level. Yesterday in the afternoon there was a debate about the difficulties of engaging in journalism. It was enriching. The 25 participating journalists are anti-Castro, Venezuelans stand out, with whom I have very good chemistry.

There’s little time for writing. The agenda is packed. When I return to Havana I have thought of writing a dozen stories. I was wrong about what I might expect from the workshop. For years to come, they will think to include subjects related to Cuba. It happens that our country is the ugly duckling of the continent.

The breakfast is too much. In matters of food, the gringos overdo it. We had a good time on Coronado, an island that was and still is a military base, they have a World War II aircraft carrier that is a museum. We dined there. The pizzas gigantic, and the servings of shrimp, it was painful to toss them out when there is so much hunger in the world.

We are going to visit the weekly newspaper Zeta in Tijuana, where in the last 14 years the drug cartels have murdered five journalists.

Wednesday, November 12

Tijuana is a city bordering San Diego and two million people live there. The border crossing seems like a maximum security prison. It is a bad copy of San Diego. There are developments with the same architecture as their neighbors, with the difference that in Tijuana there six thousand well-capitalized factories and businesses.

The interior streets are dark and pot-holed, like Havana. From the border crossing the border the difference is notable. You can smell it in the air. On a narrow boulevard there is a cluster of shops and fast food joints.

I didn’t like the city. It looks like a stage set. It seemed to me that people hide more than they say. You walk the streets and they look at you like you’re a freak. There are many unemployed with apparently nothing to do, but they are doing something: selling a devastating drug called Crystal. It’s a drama. The poor and hopeless people use it to the point of madness. A dose costs some four dollars.

We had lunch at a top restaurant. Excellent food, slow service. By late afternoon we were in a “tolerant” neighborhood. We went with a police patrol and city official. Prostitution is legal. There are around ten blocks of nightclubs and brothels. The prostitutes pay taxes and have to keep their health cards current. In the clubs there are a lot of Chinese, spending dollars on go-go girls.

I was the only one in the group who had to stumble back to San Diego. The immigration official didn’t understand why I presented several gringo visas and was entering the United States from Tijuana. I suppose it must have been a red alert, as nearly 15,000 Cubans a year enter the United States through Mexico.

I replied that if I had wanted to stay I would have done it in Miami and not gone to San Diego. “I like your country, but I have one, it’s called Cuba, I was born there and my family is there,” I told him, and asked him if would have abandoned his.

The guy smiled and answered, “All journalists are the same, they love to turn the tables, but the reality is that Cubans in Mexico stay at the first opportunity.” “I’m not one of those,” I answered. “I think the United States is at fault, they should repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act to end that problem.”

He waved goodbye cheerfully and told me he hoped I wouldn’t write a report accusing him of racism (I’m black) or intolerance towards Latinos, because, “I’m also of Latino descent, it’s nothing personal, but it is my work.”

Colleagues who were waiting in the bus to take us back to the hotel applauded when I got in. In a few days they have learned certain Cuban realities they didn’t know. After the myth of Che Guevara, healthcare for all and good education, here is an autocratic regime.

Iván García

13 November 2014

Old dissidents in Cuba: Between homelessness and forgetting / Ivan Garcia

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment
Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

The elderly are the big losers in the timid economic reforms of Cuba’s General-President. Thousands who once applauded Fidel Castro’s long speeches in the Plaza of the Revolution, or fought in the civil wars in Africa, today survive however they can.

There they are. Selling newspapers, peanuts, or single cigarettes. Others have it worse. Senile dementia has overtaken them and they beg for alms or dig through the dumpsters.

But even harder is life for an old dissident. Do the names Vladimiro Roca Antunez, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Felix Bonne Carcassés mean nothing today? In the 90s they were the most active opponents betting on democracy and political and economic freedoms. In the summer of 1997 they drafted a lucid document titled “The Nation Belongs to Everyone.”

For this coherent and inclusive legacy they received verbal and physical violence on the part of the regime and its secret police. And they went to jail. Seventeen years after the launch of “The Nation Belongs to Everyone,” already old and with a litany of ailments, they are barely surviving.

Vladimiro, son of the Communist leader Blas Roca, had to sell his house in Neuvo Vedado. With the money he bought a crappy apartment and with the rest he survives. He’s about to turn 72, has never received the pension that he has a right to because he flew MIGs and worked in State institute.

Fidel Castro was implacable with the first waves of dissent. In addition to jailing them, he expelled them from the dignified and well-paid jobs And refused them a check on retirement. Others were forced to live in exile.

Bonne, the only black person in the group, was a university professor and prominent intellectual. He is almost blind and between the memory loss and shortages, waits for God to take him in his house in the Rio Verde neighborhood.

Martha Beatriz, a distinguished economist, is trying to weather the storm at the front of a network of social communicators, for which she receives insults and violence from State Security.

If the autocratic state doesn’t care about historical dissidents, who should watch over them? The younger dissidents? The current opponents should find ways to help the elderly dissidents.

It is just and humane. And is not acting like the government with the hundreds of thousands of men and women who, in their youth, didn’t hesitate to offer their energies and even their lived to his Revolution, and when they get old they are abandoned to their fate, with few exceptions.

To repair the unjust reality in the ranks of the dissidents, independent journalists Jose A. Fornaris and Odelin Alfonso are trying to do something. “We are working on how to create a support fund destined to the older opponents so they will receive at least 50 convertible pesos a month. Also this fund would cover a stipend for colleagues who are incapacitated by accident or illness,” said Fornaris, head of an association of free Cuban journalists.

For his part, Alfonso thinks that a kind of pension fund, “Every journalist who publishes his works and is paid, will voluntarily donate a portion. It’s sad how older dissidents are living.”

Implementing the project would allow dozens of opponents in their seventies to squeak by with dignity. Tania Diaz Castro, poet and journalist, was in the front lines in the hard years of the 1980s, when few dared to dissent against Castroism.

Their names should not be forgotten. Ricardo Bofill, Reinaldo Bragado, Rolando Cartaya and Marta Frayde, among others, gave birth to a party in favor of human rights.

Díaz Castro, a member of that party, never imagined that many years later Cuba would remain a totalitarian country. She lives in Santa Fe, to the west of Havana, surrounded by books and dogs. She survives writing reports for digital sites and with the dollars her children are able to send her from abroad.

And she is not the worst off. A few blocks from her home lives Manuel Gutierrez, in the opposition since the 1980s and founder of a dissident party. Now over 70, he earns a living working the land and tending goats.

He lives in a miserable hut of tiles and rough cement. But he does not complain. “That’s what happened to me. Worse off than me are the less known dissidents. It was my choice, to stay in Cuba and fight for change,” he said, trying to hide the tremor in his hands, due to unaddressed Alzheimer’s.

The current dissidence cannot and must not forget the past. When the current dissidents were afraid and silently accepted the regime’s public verbal lynchings of those brave opponents, they were speaking for all Cubans.

Now, we dissidents and independent journalists who don’t yet have grey hair, should concern ourselves with those who came before and opened the way for us. If the present is less repressive on the island, it’s precisely because of the old dissidents.

Iván García

Photo: Gladys Linares Blanco, 72, a teacher by profession, is a prominent opponent who thanks to her conversion to an independent journalist, can more or less survive in Havana, where she lives. Another who survives thanks to his collaborations in digital media is the lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano, a former colleague of Felix Bonne Carcasses, Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca Antunez in the Working Group of the Internal Dissidence, the four writers of The Nation Belongs to Everyone. Unlike Gladys, René has been invited to events in the US and Spain, among other countries. The photo was taken from a Cuban Una cubana fuera de serie.

5 November 2014