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Economic Crisis in Venezuela Leads to a Black Market Among Travelers / Ivan Garcia

December 28, 2014 Leave a comment

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It is 7:30 PM in a commercial shopping district in San Diego, Califormia. Four Venezuelan tourists approach Spanish-speaking customers browsing among tablets, smart phones, flat-screen TVs and laptops with a business proposition.

“If you are going to buy something with cash, please let me pay for it with my credit card and you can give me the money instead. The thing is that in my country, Venezuela, getting hard currency is very complicated,” says a young woman in a slow, deliberate voice.

Venezuelans can find such “swiping-the-card” transactions difficult in a country like the United States where people rarely make large purchases with cash. But on this particular warm autumn night, one Venezuelan is lucky.

A group of Latin American journalists who were attending a workshop in San Diego did some bartering. To understand the official exchange rates and the black market for US dollars in Venezuela requires a quick doctorate in economics.

According to these Venezuelan tourists there are three different exchange rates. The official one is for necessities but varies when it comes to dollars for travel or for purchasing raw materials used in products the government considers luxuries.

In the treacherous streets of Caracas the US dollar trades at a different rate of exchange on the black market. These different types of exchange have contributed to runaway inflation of almost 61% and an uncontrollable rise in prices for staple foods such as powdered milk powder and cornmeal.

Venezuelan tourists describe how an Apple laptop is two and a half times more expensive in Venezuela than in any other country in the world due to the devaluation of the national currency, the bolivar.

Because of the economic crisis, business seizures and rules governing fixed prices, many people — especially those in the middle class — have been forced to turn to the informal economy to weather the storm.

The young Venezuelan woman, a mother with a young daughter, told me that despite having both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, she takes advantage of trips abroad to “swipe the card,” or to buy merchandise on credit to resell in Caracas.

“We’re becoming nothing more than peddlers thanks to Maduro and the way he blindly copies Cuba’s inefficient socioeconomic system and its controls,” she says.

Another Venezuelan bought two Sony Play Station 3 video games. “One is for my kids; the other is to sell. I have to take advantage of the $1,800 I got at the official exchange rate. If I can lay my hands on a few hundred dollars, I can exchange them for 110 “bolos” (bolivars) when I get back to Venezuela. And with the money from the sale of the video game, I’ll probably be able to have decent Christmas dinner.”

Whether it be California, Florida or Havana, the unstoppable economic crisis has turned many Venezuelans into brokers. In central Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall Venezuelans can often be seen “swiping the card.”

Transactions involve buying a freezer, television or furniture for a client and paying for the purchase with a credit card. Later the client reimburses the credit card holder with cash in the form of convertible pesos.

They often have an angle. Joel (not his real name), a medical student, notes that “for purchases of several hundred CUCs (convertible pesos), we offer a 15% to 20% discount. Cubans, who are nobody’s fools, agree to this. Then with those convertible pesos, we buy dollars on the black market at 95 or 96 cents per CUC. Back in Venezuela, those dollars we got through transactions or the official currency exchange, we sell on the black market. It is a windfall. This way I can support my family without any problem.”

Maura, a Venezuelan on a visit to Cuba, is getting ready for her wedding to a Cuban. She wanders the markets where things are priced in Cuban pesos and buys large quantities of bath soap and detergent.

“In Havana a bar of soap costs five to six Cuban pesos, around twenty cents to the dollar at the official exchange rate. I have already bought eighty bars of soap to resell in my country.

Liudmila, a resident of Caracas’ violent Petare neighborhood, took advantage of a training trip to the island to purchase over-the-counter and prescription medications through a Venezuelan friend who is a medical student in Cuba.

“It’s the only way I have to get medications for my relatives,” she says. “For me it’s profitable because I get dollars at a favorable exchange rate since I am here on an official visit. Life is hard for everyone.”

Iván García

Photo: Increasing numbers of Venezuelans, both government supporters and opponents, travel to Havana to acquire dollars, “swipe the card” or buy merchandise intended for sale on the black market. Ríete del Gobierno. http://www.rietedelgobierno.net

Press Workshop in San Diego / Ivan Garcia

December 23, 2014 Leave a comment

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In early October, when I was invited to a workshop on investigative journalism at a university in San Diego, the first thing I did was search the internet for background information on those courses.

I knew that the speakers were superior.  It’s not every day that an independent Cuban journalist has the opportunity to dialogue with reporters from the US of high caliber, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners.

I confess that I had an attack of skepticism when I saw the schedule for the workshop.  The presentations dealt with the border conflict between Mexico and the United States, new technological tools for investigative journalism, and how to approach reporting on health and the environment in a creative and entertaining way.

How would I be able to combine those themes with the reality of my country, which for 56 years has been ruled by autocrats named Castro?  I was mindful also of the existence of a law which allows the sanctioning of an independent reporter with 20 years of incarceration, and that the internet is an expensive luxury.  In a country in which the average salary is 20 dollars a month, one hour of internet connection costs 5 dollars

With those doubts in place I enrolled in the workshop. Twenty-two colleagues from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba, all living in different contexts. Perhaps for the Venezuelans the realities are analogous. It was an honor to be the first Cuban to be invited by the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego.

I am one of those who believe that journalism is an occupation always open to new experiences. The workshop was designed in a meticulous manner. Denisse Fernandez, the assistant, was on top of every detail. From the accommodations to the transportation, even providing dinner at the hotel, foreseeing that my arrival in San Diego would be around midnight on a Sunday.

From the first presentation by reporter Andrew Becker, the workshop awoke my enthusiasm. To learn of the raw realities of the border of Tijuana, the emigration problems and drug trafficking seen from a new perspective was an impactful lesson.

I intend to adapt the tools I learned and the experiences narrated to the Cuban context. Although the cloister of the workshop presenters was not typical of academics seduced by Fidel Castro’s revolution, the state of affairs on the island obviously did not preoccupy them.

I had to repeatedly explain to them our reality. And why certain standards and tools of modern journalism are anachronisms in Cuba, where there is no requirement for an institution to disclose information or statistics.

Yes, certain web applications for use in investigative journalism were novel. But if I do not have internet access in my home, nor is there public access to the internet, not to mention that many websites are blocked, how can one use these tools?

“Can you imagine, ” I said to Lynne Walker, one of the most extraordinary journalists I have ever known, “If I were to ask my boss at Diary of the Americas for $2000 to cover a story, when they operate under a minimal budget?

“If I took eight weeks to report a story I would simply die of hunger. The independent journalism that is done in Cuba, in web pages that receive funding from foreign institutions or newspapers with scarce financial means would not allow that.

“They operate like meat grinders. You must constantly be submitting articles, and because there is no profitable business model, digital journalism becomes an establishment of survivors.”

Lynne listened to my arguments with patience. Smiling she replied, “Then we submit to defeat. Will we be stopped by the fear of being murdered by a drug cartel in Tijuana, of being unemployed in Caracas, of being poorly paid or having no internet access in Cuba? It’s all about being creative. Overcoming barriers.  And always think big. Never accept a No. Those are the basic rules.”

Besides gaining new knowledge and learning new journalism techniques, the best part were the ties of friendship made with Latin American colleagues.  Because of the slightly egocentric mentality of many Cubans, we tend to believe that our political and social problems are the most severe in the world.

But you must modify your way of thinking when you meet reporters of interior Mexico who for months have had to operate with police escort because of narcotrafficking, or men like Columbian Fabio Posada who was chief of an investigative unit of the newspaper El Espectador, or John Jairo, who frequently receives death threats since reporting a story in Cucuta.

With the six Venezuelan reporters attending the workshop I shared an almost natural chemistry. They are now living through what we experienced in Cuba 56 years ago. The compadres of the PUSV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) intend to dismantle piece by piece democratic institutions and freedom of expression.

Certainly, Cuba continues to be substandard in the exercise of freedom of the press. But the rest of Latin America is not doing much better.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: The participants of the Investigative Journalism Workshop (November 10-14, 2014) display certificates earned on the last day. Taken from the blog Journalism of the Americas.

Trip report (IV)

 Translated by: Yoly from Oly

Cuba, Waiting for the “Yumas*” / Ivan Garcia

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment
Photo source: Cubanet

Photo source: Cubanet

Dreaming does not cost anything. Lisván, a self-employed taxi driver who spends twelve hours a day behind the wheel of an old American car from the 1940s surrounded by the piercing smell of gasoline and cigar smoke, is in theory one of those people counting on the government and anti-embargo American businessmen to finally improve the perilous diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

Right now, under a tropical midday sun, the young man is analyzing how small businesspeople and private-sector workers might benefit from the new measures President Obama has outlined and a possible lifting of the economic and trade embargo.

Lisván believes that if the government authorized automobile imports and provided access to credit from US banks, he could replace his outdated, run-down car and partner with other drivers to create a freight and taxi service made up of gleaming General Motors vehicles.

“Just imagine. We would have a fleet of cars and trucks. If the government allowed it, private-sector workers would raise the quality and service of urban transport and freight. Of course, they would have to do away with unfair taxes. For a society to flourish, tax rates should be as low as possible. I think right now the government is on the right track,” he says with an optimism that is contagious.

Others are not so optimistic. Abel, a half-blind old man who is the custodian of a nausea-inducing public bathroom, smiles when asked what he hopes will result from the new political agreement with the United States.

“Nothing. You’d have to be a real asshole to believe these guys (from the regime). How can you believe people who have always demonized capitalism? If they have agreed to this change, it’s because they are desperate. It doesn’t matter if it’s socialism, capitalism or feudalism; an old man who takes care of a bathroom is just that. I don’t believe any ‘yuma’ would do his business in this filth.”

The news flash that sparked the diplomatic turnaround between the two countries has been well-received by almost all Cubans. Some with expectations bordering on science fiction.

“You’d be very naive to believe that overnight streets would be repaired, buildings would be painted, markets would offer cheap food, wages and purchasing power would skyrocket, and people would be as happy as partridges,” says Osniel, the owner of a cafe in a neighborhood west of Havana. “It’s not the American blockade that is to blame for everything going downhill; it’s the system. And as far as I can tell, the ones who created this disaster are still in power. The upside of having good relations with the Americans is that the government’s mismanagement of the economy and its failure to generate wealth will be obvious.”

The military regime has worked the story to its advantage. In the official media, front page headlines trumpet the return of the three spies imprisoned in the United States.

At the moment Cuba is talking about nothing but the future.

President Obama — mistaken or not in granting excessive concessions to a government that still does not respect freedom of expression or political liberties, that has conned half the world with its lukewarm, half-baked economic reforms, that refuses to allow Cubans to participate in the larger economy — presented a well-organized and coherent plan of what he is proposing. In contrast, General Raul Castro appeared before television cameras in an outmoded military uniform without any proposals for a people burdened with shortages, with its cities in ruins and with few prospects.

The opening of an embassy and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the former enemy is not enough. At least that is what Julia, the owner of a small hotel business, believes.

“Raul should have provided more details,” she says. “Are they now going to do away with those ridiculous customs duties that hinder private business. He didn’t say anything about that or a lot of other things. After the excitement over the release of the ‘five heroes’ (three spies) dies down, life will go on and people who own businesses will want to see their taxes reduced.”

The military regime should be pleased with itself. Apparently, it got the better deal in negotiations. As usual, all it had to offer in exchange was prisoners.

It is a strategy adopted by Fidel Castro: to always keep the jail cells filled with prisoners to be used as bargaining chips. The owners of private restaurants and cafes, people who rent out rooms and others have their doubts about a bonanza of gringo tourists on the island.

“The competition for tourists in the Caribbean is fierce but some money will stick,” says Armando, a clandestine tobacco salesman. “It’s common knowledge that American tourists are the biggest spenders but it’s yet to be seen if they will visit a country that has lost its charms. Maybe they will come out of curiosity to see an old bastion of communism ninety miles from their shores,” says Armando, black market seller of cigars.

Olivia, a sales representative for a five-star hotel in Havana, thinks the new measures will have a positive impact on the nation’s economy. “In 2012 there were 58,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 more were being projected,” she notes. “That won’t be enough to house an influx of American tourists which calculations indicate could soon top two million visitors.”

In a Council of Ministers meeting, Marino Murillo, the island’s portly economic czar, predicted that the country’s GDP would grow 4%.

To Reinier, an economist, such statistics seem ludicrous. “I now realize that the projected GDP was calculated based on diplomatic relations with the United States being restored in 2015,” he notes. “Even so, I have my doubts there will be a huge influx of tourists or that we will see multi-million dollar US investments. There is more to tourism than hotels. There is also additional hotel and roadway infrastructure, and those areas are off-limits. As far as significant investments in strategic sectors go, if there is no independent judiciary, Yankee capital will not come to Cuba.”

There is a common thread among those Cubans interviewed: The pretext of an imperialist enemy is now gone. If things go as expected and the embargo is lifted, only the regime’s “blockade” on private business, family imports and freedom of expression will remain in place.

The most optimistic believe Raul Castro’s moment has finally arrived, that he will implement changes that will lead us towards democracy. Others believe it is more likely that pigs will fly.

Iván García

*Translator’s note: “Yuma” is a term similar to “gringo” but with more friendly connotations.

Cuba and the United States Conclude the Cold War / Ivan Garcia

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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The morning of December 17 had not heralded anything new for Silvio, who is 43 years old. The previous night, after crawling a kilometer and half tied to a stone of considerable proportions along a narrow carriageway road to the Sanctuary of San Lazaro, south of Havana, to fulfill a religious vow and to pray for the health of his wife, his sons and his ailing mother, he thought that his quota of emotions was already exhausted.

“Imagine, all night under a cold damp, praying to St. Lazarus. I arrived home at dawn. About 10 o’clock in the morning I called a cousin who lives in Hialeah [Florida] and he tells me that they had made a swap between the three imprisoned Cuban agents in the United States, for Alan Gross and a spy in the CIA who had been 20 years in a Cuban prison.

“Then at noon, President Raúl Castro in a televised message announces that the relations between the two countries, the financial flow, and communications will resume, in addition to the release of the agents. It was a surprise. It suddenly appears that Americans are no longer enemies,” says Silvio while waiting for a taxi.

Undoubtedly, the news of the day in Havana, and on the island, has been that the United States and Cuba have ended its own particular Cold War.

The opponent Antonio Rodiles is still digesting the news. “Everything has been sudden, surprising. For the moment one will have to analyze it in order to understand its full scope.”

Felicia, an engineer at ETECSA [Cuban Telecommunications Company], the only telecommunications company in Cuba, says that she had a meeting in the morning with her boss, where they told her that President Obama, thanks to the management of the Government of Cuba, had freed the three spies imprisoned in United States.

“They did not tell me that it was an exchange. I learned that after listening to the words of Raúl Castro. I think this is good. After all, between the two countries, there has never been a war. It was an artificial conflict created by Fidel and fueled by each different US administration. At some point it had to conclude,” says the Havana engineer.

After 56 years of a long journey through the desert, stormy relations between both countries seem to be returning to calm. There are still loose ends. The theme of the economic embargo now is gaining ever more strength for the Olive Green Autocracy and the indefatigable and powerful anti-embargo lobby based in the United States.

But the ball is in the court of Raúl Castro. If he really wants a serious relationship, based on trust, he has to offer something in exchange so that the surly Congress, with both Houses run by the Republicans, will unravel the embargo.

That means taking a substantial 180 degree turn with respect to battered and stepped-upon Cuban dissidents. In recent decades, they have suffered 25 years, imprisonment, banishment, beatings and verbal lynchings for demanding democracy and political freedoms.

General Castro will have to do more than free dissidents. It was positive gesture, to release the peaceful opposition Sonia Garro, her husband, and a political activist.

But what must change is the current scene. It is in the hands of the Cuban Government to sign the UN covenants and legalize the differing political tendencies.

It is difficult that after a year of secret negotiations between the two nations, they have not reached an agreement on the issue. According to the Cuban President, this is only a first step.

Gradually other issues will be discussed which remain on the agenda of one and the other country. The General can make history. His brother was the creator of the Revolution and he ruled with an iron fist for 46 years.

During that time, Raul was the Minister of Defense and he supported the autocratic policies of Fidel. Now, Castro II can put Cuba on the rails along a democratic path.

He has the unique possibility of changing the course of a nation overwhelmed by a leaky economy and a population exhausted by the excess of political discourse and the long embargo, which is not the key element of the current socialized misery in Cuba, but the great pretext used by the Havana regime

Waiting for new reports about the thaw between the two countries so close geographically and so distant politically, people standing on the island hope that a change of strategy will benefit everyone.

Puzzled and surprised, freelance journalist Jorge Olivera believes that it is too early to assimilate the good news. “We have to wait to see if this translates into real change and definite openings for political dissent. I hope that all the drama that we have lived with for so long has reached its end.”

Iván García

Photo: Flags of Cuba and United States inside a private taxi that circulates around the streets of Havana. Taken from América TeVé [television from Miami].

18 December 2014

Diario de las Americas Interview with Ivan Garcia

December 14, 2014 Leave a comment

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After participating in a workshop about investigative journalism in San Diego, California from November 10 to 14, Ivan Garcia spent four days in Miami. During his stay in that city a reporter from Diario de las Americas — a Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper for which he has been a contributor since January of 2013 — did an interview with him which was prominently featured in both the publication’s digital and print editions.

Ivan Garcia, an independent Cuban journalist who writes for Diario de las Americas from Havana, notes that “there has been a change in Cuba” in terms of the types of repression that government agents use against those who dissent from the official line.

Garcia, who covers the grittier aspects of daily life in his country, admitted that the strategy of the Cuban government with respect to the dissident community “is difficult to understand.” He notes, “Some such as members of Martha Beatriz Roca’s group, who live in the provinces and don’t even have enough to eat, are being repressed very severely. These are the worst cases precisely because they are less well-known.”

“But for people like Yoani (Sanchez) and me, who write for well-known publications, we cannot say that we are being repressed, especially not since 2013 when they started granting travel permits.”

Garcia admits that working as an independent journalist means ignoring many of the rules of journalism. “I cannot introduce myself as a journalist to the people who provide the material for my stories. I hang out with and talk to hookers, drug dealers, people from the ‘other Havana.’ I practice another form of journalism because Cuba is a different country.”

He recognizes that the government’s changed attitude towards people like him who write about Cuba for independent foreign news media — even for media outlets such as Radio Martí and TV Martí — is something independent journalists have now but did not have in previous eras when they were subject to beatings or years of imprisonment.

“Many of the things they have been allowing, which might seem like openings and which the regime presents as change, is something independent journalists and opposition figures in Cuba have been asking for since the 1990s,” he says.

The Cuban government’s emigration reform law passed in 2013 makes it possible for many dissidents and most Cuban citizens to travel overseas. For some, however, the frequent trips abroad by members of the opposition are an indication that the government has become dismissive of the role they play.

“This means opponents have to find ways to get stronger politically. Since people began travelling almost two years ago, the only thing we hear about when someone comes back from visiting these places is what they were able to buy.”

Garcia believes the dissident community has been unable to find a political voice on the international stage while at the same time when the government has gained attention for its purported reforms. “It seems to me that in politics two years is enough time. I don’t think anything has been achieved. I feel I have to right to raise some questions because I think the dissident movement represents me,” he says.

The reporter, who has been subject to criticism for exposing the political situation and social degradation of his country, says many in Cuba have been deceived.

“People are tired of the Castros and the embargo, which in Cuba is called the ‘blockade’ because the government uses it as an excuse to explain why nothing works. But they don’t trust the dissidents either. The most compelling dissidents might be the Ladies in White but all the reports of internal divisions within the group have hurt their image.

“The other thing is that society has become fragmented. People have been leaving the country for three generations and this has resulted in a big intellectual gap in every speciality, in every field of knowledge and science. And people will keep choosing to emigrate as long as things are bad economically,” he adds.

In spite of this bleak analysis, however, Garcia believes that Cuba is bound to change. “I have no way of knowing this for sure but I think the country will move from a totalitarian regime to a society where democracy gets introduced little by little,” he says.

He adds that “any future American president, whether Democrat or Republican, will have to try negotiating with Cuba once the Castros are gone. By then we will have seen if there is a dissident who can assume political leadership in a democracy, someone with a serious position, because right now there are a lot of lies.”

For Garcia, the prominent dissidents from the 1990s such as Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz and Félix Bonne among others have not only grown older but “can no longer count on support from the U.S. government — which is to say resources and money — because Washington is banking on the new generation.”

“One of our problems as Cubans is that we have no respect for historical memory. We climb ahead by trampling over corpses. This should not be. There were others who came before us and others before them who were executed by the regime.”

According to Garcia, beyond regime change and the need for a political restructuring, the Cuban situation “requires a period of social recovery that will take about five or six generations because the value system does not exist as can be seen by the absence of even a vocabulary for it among younger Cubans.”

“The impoverishment of Cuba means a girl goes to bed with a man for a beer and is applauded for it. This is really what we do not know how to overcome. It is also a fact that the worship of money distracts people from confronting important issues like the violation of their own rights,” he adds.

Garcia points out that he has been witnessing with increasing frequency any number of Cubans — mostly young people — preparing to travel illegally to the United States in the hopes of benefitting from the Cuban Adjustment Act.

“It has to be amended. To me it no longer makes any sense. Refugee status should be reserved for those who actually suffer from political persecution, not for those who seek protection from the Adjustment Act only to return to the island the next year, which they supposedly had to flee due to political problems.”

“The same thing happens with the law that provides protection to those who arrive on land but returns those Cubans who are intercepted at sea (known as the drive-foot wet-foot policy). This strikes me as being pathetic, not to mention all the deaths it has caused. The Florida Straights is the biggest cemetery in the world.”

This trip to the United States was the first foreign trip in Garcia’s entire life and, although he sees an uncertain future for his country, he concludes, “I don’t see myself anywhere else but Cuba. I believe it is the place I belong. In spite of everything, I like my country.”

Iliana Lavastida Rodríguez

Diario las Américas, November 25, 2014

Photo: Ivan at the Diario las América, on Monday Nov. 17, 2014. distributed through Twitter with the caption: “The great @DesdeLaHabana showing us his from Cuba on a visit to us.”

How Cubans Make Ends Meet: What New York Times Editorials Miss* / Ivan Garcia

December 6, 2014 1 comment

vendedor-callejero-en-sagua-la-grande-F-620x330If someone told you would receive a monthly salary of 350 pesos, the equivalent of $15, for a job as a nighttime security guard at a dilapidated school in a country where credit does not exist and that you would need hard currency — currency in which the state does not pay you  — to buy beef, fish and powdered milk, or that a home appliance would cost you six month’s salary, you would probably think he was a compulsive liar, a charlatan or was just trying to find out how people in financial distress make ends meet.

Well, there is such a country. It is called Cuba, a country which for better or worse has been idealized. Some people worship Fidel Castro just for thumbing his nose at the United States.

They tout the government’s favorable statistics (which are fewer and fewer) and like trained parrots repeatedly point to achievements such as universal health coverage and education.

Certainly no one in Cuba asks whether you are a dissident or a revolutionary when it comes to receiving medical care, but differences do exist. While government ministers and generals have access to hospitals comparable to private clinics in advanced countries, most people must rise early and get in line to see a specialist at a hospital badly in need of repair and where equipment and drugs are in short supply.

Education is a controversial subject. Every Cuban knows how to read, write and do basic math. But education comes with a large ideological component. In addition to rules of etiquette such as how to say “buenos días,” high school students quickly learn how to disarm an AK 47 rifle.

Pursuing a university education means learning how to hide what you think. It is virtually impossible for a known dissident to study journalism or international relations, fields in which ideology and loyalty to the regime are essential.

But after pointing to achievements in health, education, sports and culture as well as to the tenacity of having stood up to “Yankee imperialism” ninety miles from Cuban shores, Castro’s sycophants are left without solid arguments.

Are political rights not important? Why can we not go on strike to demand better pay? Or to force the government to implement its single currency policy? Or to lower the prices of gasoline, home appliances and cars?

These questions are thorns in the sides of the regime’s defenders. But back to our original topic, let’s try to describe to a clueless foreigner how Cubans make ends meet.

Reinier is a custodian at a high school in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. He works every other night as a security guard there and is paid 352 Cuban pesos a month. [Roughly equivalent to $14-$15 US]

In reality his job is just a cover. “It’s because of the section chief (of the neighborhood police) who’s over me that I got this job. I had already received two citations for petty crimes. If these add up, they can sentence you to two years in prison. I became a custodian to keep a low profile,” says Reinier.

He talks about sleeping on the job. “I have to make sure they don’t steal the televisions, light bulbs or some old computers. If there weren’t security guards here, the place would be robbed. I also have to make sure that couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, don’t break in and make love in the school courtyard. After a few incidents like this at two in the morning, I started sleeping on a table all night,” he confesses.

“How do you make it to the end of the month on your salary?” I ask.

“Salaries in Cuba are a joke,” he says. “I get by because I work as a bookie for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery). I make the rounds twice daily. I make between 250 and 400 Cuban pesos a day.”

You might think Renier is an exception but, if you ask most Cubans, 90% would say they make extra money in shady deals and under-the-table transactions.

Yolanda, an engineer, sells coffee and fruit juice at her workplace and is thinking of expanding her business. “I am going to start offering lunches and candies. My salary is 512 Cuban pesos a month ($21). I make triple that selling juice and coffee.”

Reinier and Yolanda do not pay taxes on their earnings. To live comfortably, others dip their hands into the state safe or steal anything of value within arm’s reach.

Sixto is a business economist whose main job is to provide cover for his bosses’ embezzlement. “The books have to add up in case there is an audit. Accounting tricks and financial manipulation are routinely used to hide theft. They pay me between 5 and 10 convertible pesos a day (about $5 to $10) for my labors. I also get a basket of food whenever I need it,” he says.

Rogelio, a city bus driver, says the only way he can make ends meet “is to take 200 to 300 Cuban pesos a day from the fare box. Some take more, others less, but all the drivers do it,”  he notes.

This is how Cuba works. With unwritten rules. With theft, fraud and embezzlement from state enterprises. Just below a layer of sanctimoniousness lies the reality. People eat, relax and shop thanks to hard currency remittances sent by relatives from overseas. Or they help themselves to state resources.

That anonymous mass of Cubans — with their schemes for surviving in a country where the average wage is $20, a plasma screen TV costs $800 and a Peugeot 508 goes for $300,000 — is waiting for a New York Times editorial that acknowledges them. Now that Cuba is fashionable.

Iván García

Photo: In Sagua la Grande, a section of Villa Clara about 185 miles east of Havana, a local resident ekes out a living selling produce on the street from a converted tricycle. NBC News.

*Translator’s note: In October and November of 2014 the New York Times published a series of editorials critical of American policies and actions towards Cuba and praising Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa.

3 December 2014

An Old Castro Weapon Still in Operation / Ivan Garcia

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment
"Long Live the CDRs" (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution)

“Long Live the CDRs” (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution)

Renato’s family emigrated to the United States on October 3 but that did not stop them from having some weak communal soup, drinking cheap rum and dancing the timba on a block of Reparto Sevillano south of Havana on the night of the 27th, the eve of the anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).*

There were photos of Renato with the president of the CDR and the person in charge of surveillance, a guy with connections to the special services. As a momento of the festivities, they were shown with their cell phones.

Thanks to a stereo on loan from a bookie of an illegal lottery known as the “bolito,” or ball, a round of boleros began after midnight and ended with “Lágrimas Negras,” (Black Tears) the anthem of Cuban emigres.

Have times changed? Yes. Are the Castro brother’s quasi-state institutions more tolerant? No. The ongoing twenty-five-year-old economic crisis has led to a political sleight of hand in the strategies used by the Communist autocrats.

Now the goal is to generate enemy greenbacks that Cubans living in the United States generously send to their poor relations in Cuba. The CDR, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Young Communist League (UJC) and other state institutions have thrown off their heavy ideological ballast in favor of the political pragmatism currently being practiced in Cuba.

It is not unusual for a successful Cuban prostitute living in Europe or someone who has risked his life crossing the treacherous Florida straights to return after a few years and take part in a celebration sponsored by the CDR in his or her old neighborhood.

It was not always this way. On the night of September 28, 1960 — amid the sound of firecrackers — Fidel Castro set a system of collective surveillance on every block. Democratic civil society was dissolved until further notice.

Cuba was divided into “revolutionaries” and “worms.” Institutions were militarized. Obsessive spying into citizens’ private lives became routine. Everything was of interest to the special services, from how you lived and what you ate to the marital infidelities of members of the party and armed forces.

Betrayals and anonymous phone calls denouncing neighbors flooded the switchboards of police precincts. Cuba had entered its worst phase in the Cold War.

The CDR was and still is one of the primary instruments of control and cooperation for the Department of State Security. Thanks to its informants it was able to detain thousands of Castro opponents in April 1961 in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Though it still keeps an eye on dissidents, after fifty-four years the CDR is now an organization in obvious decline. Once upon a time its members organized scrap drives, were involved in public health campaigns, conducted nighttime neighborhood watch patrols, did volunteer work and taught political science courses.

It spite of its decline it remains the governmental institution with the largest membership in the country: around seven million people. Everyone is automatically enrolled at age fourteen.

The committee on each block maintains a book known as the “Directory of Addresses” in which the names of everyone who lives on the block are scrupulously recorded.

If you move, you are required to notify the the committee so that the new address can be registered in the book. Anyone visiting the home of a neighbor must also be reported to the CDR.

According to CDR reports the police detain and return to their provinces of origin Cubans from other areas who are living in Havana illegally.

Perhaps its most important current function is to exert civilian oversight on those suspected of illegal activities and corruption, but especially over activities by opponents and independent journalists.

Individual CDR committee heads provide data on all citizens residing their areas to the local police chief or investigators from the UJC or Cuban Communist Party (PCC), and regularly provide information to State Security.

On individual blocks there are other anonymous informers. They are responsible for checking and reporting on a dissident’s routine and visitors.

Generally, they are bored retirees or diehard Castro supporters. They take down license plate numbers of people visiting a dissident’s home and go through the trash cans of opponents looking for food containers, bottles of perfume and empty beverage bottles that might indicate “an expensive lifestyle.”

At a ceremony last year in Havana’s Convention Center, Raul Castro stated that the CDR must employ new tactics to combat dissident activity.

The general asserted that “the enemy will never stop working, will never change, so the organization must alter its strategies.” The regime is trying to carry out a bizarre course correction on a hybrid of the worst form of state capitalism combined with inefficient and authoritarian Marxist socialism.

He is trying to build bridges to the new breed of émigrés using any means possible. Though a large segment is unsympathetic to the regime, they also want nothing to do with political dissidents.

Not even megalomaniacal dictators like Mussolini or Hitler had groups of people in every vicinity who betrayed neighbors and mounted systematic acts of repudiation against opponents.

Though it has become something of a formality, the CDR remains an effective weapon for the regime. In terms of controlling those who opposed his revolution, its creation was one of Fidel Castro’s indisputable achievements.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Cubanet

Translator’s note: The CDR is a network of neighborhood committees across Cuba. Committee heads monitor the activities of every person on their respective blocks. Yearly neighborhood parties to commemorate the organization’s founding are centered around a “caldosa,” or communal soup, to which residents are expected to contribute.

22 November 2014