Archive for January, 2015

The Cuban Adjustment Act and Future Emigrants / Ivan Garcia

January 30, 2015 Leave a comment

cola-sección-de-intereses-de-eeu-en-cuba-FM-620x330One of the few Havanans not happy with the historic agreements of December 17th between President Obama and General Raul Castro was Dagoberto, a guy approaching forty who got out of jail six months ago after serving a six-year sentence for marijuana possession.

“I have family in la yuma (US), but because of my drug possession record I don’t qualify for the family reunification program. My only option is to throw myself into the sea and make it to the Mexican border,” he said while drinking a Corona beer in a Havana bar.

A couple of times in 2014, Dagoberto tried to reach the United States. “The first time the American Coast Guard intercepted me. I spent $3,000 to buy a motor and gas and with a group of friends we prepared a wooden boat.

“The second time I boarded a plane for Ecuador. But customs in Quito sent me back to Cuba. It’s rumored that with the new policy, the Adjustment Act’s days are numbered, for people who plan to leave on a raft or enter through a third country. I have to hurry if I want to get to the North.”

In a park in Vedado, two blocks from the United States Interests Section (USIS) in Cuba, where from the early hours in the morning people line up for visas, the topic of discussion is the Cuban Adjustment Act.

In the past two years, Ihosvany has been denied a visa four times. But he keeps trying. “A cousin in Orlando invited me and they denied me a tourist visa. Now I’m doing the paperwork to leave for family reunification, to see if I have more luck.”

USIS consular officials insist that for those people who want to travel or emigrate to the United States, the strategy of applying over and over for a visa is not the best.

Yulia, desperate to leave the country, openly ignores them. In a house near USIS, she fills out the paperwork to take to the consulate again. “Three times they’ve told me no. We are going to see if the fourth time is lucky, because a friend in Chicago got me into a university program. If what they say is true, that the Adjustment Act will be repealed in 2015, there will be another Mariel Boatlift. There are tens of thousands of people who want to leave Cuba.”

Every year, the Interests Section awards more than 20,000 visas under the Family Reunification program. In the last 20 years, about half a million people have left the Island through the migration accords signed by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro in 1994.

But demand exceeds supply. Those who don’t have relatives or spouses resort to any trick or simply opt to launch themselves into the turbulent waters of the Florida Straits in a rubber raft.

In an attempt to discourage the worrying growth in illegal journeys from the Island, the US authorities have reiterated that the immigration policy and the Coast Guard operations will continue without changes and insist that only Congress can repeal the current laws on Cuban refugees.

The Coast Guard issued a government warning, after an unprecedented growth in the illegal flow of emigrants from Cuba during the second half of December and the first days of January, coinciding with President Barack Obama’s announcement of the normalization of relations with Havana.

According to analysts in the United States, the steps taken by Obama don’t alter the Cuban Adjustment Act and it is not a priori in danger of being repealed by a presidential act. It is a Federal law, Public Law 89-732/1966, approved by the U.S. 89th Congress. Being a public and general interest law — unlike a “Private Laws” — it can only be amended, revised or revoked by the Congress of the United States of America.

But the Cuban rafters appear to have deaf ears. A total of 890 Cubans have been intercepted in the Straits of Florida and in the Caribbean zone, or have managed to make it to the U.S. coast since the beginning of the 2015 Fiscal Year, last October 1. Of them, 577 have done so during December and the first days of January in an escalation that has set off alarms in Washington and Miami.

After Obama’s announcement, the Cuban side captured 421 people at sea. Everything seems to indicate that the flow could increase. Cuban-American members of Congress and Senators are questioning the letter and spirit of the law.

Many Cubans say they are politically persecuted and so they flee, invoking this when they decide to seek asylum in the United States. But in a few months they return to Cuba, as tourists. Incongruities that are difficult to explain.

A majority of Cubans, on both shores, demanded the normalization of relations with the United States and the end of the embargo. But, according to a recent survey conducted by Florida International University, 85% of Cuban-Americans in south Florida favor the continuation of the Adjustment Act. Even among the generation that left Cuba between 1959 and 1962, only 36% favor its elimination, while 64% are opposed.

It doesn’t look like a winner. If the relationship between the governments goes down the path of good neighbors, the White House will have no reason to give special treatment to Cuban citizens.

If the Adjustment Act was created to legalize the status of thousands of Cubans who fled from the Castro autocracy, then it should be applied that way. And Cubans who take shelter under this law, should only be able to travel to the Island in exceptional cases. Not to spend time with their families or have a beer with friends in the neighborhood.

This is privilege enjoyed by no other citizen in the world, to settle in the United States. Either the laws are abided by or their existence makes no sense.

Iván García

Photo: One of the lines that forms daily outside the United States Interest Section in Cuba to request visas. Taken from “Voice of America.”

20 January 2015

Obama and Castro Are Playing in Different Leagues

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment
Cartoon from El Legarto Verde. Thought bubble: "Mommy, will it be like the black man wants?"

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde. Thought bubble: “Mommy, will it be like the black man wants?”

Events are moving quickly. At least that is what Nivaldo, a private taxi driver who owns an outdated Moskovich car from the Soviet era, thinks. “Don’t slam the door or it will come loose,” he tells the passengers he drives from Playa to Brotherhood Park in the heart of Havana.

Nivaldo and a large segment of the Cuban population are trying to follow the latest news on emigration and the negotiations taking place in Havana’s main convention center.

“This (the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States) has been tremendous,” he says. “Before December 17 the United States was the evil empire and the cause of every malady afflicting the country. The first thing to  change was the tone of news coverage. It’s a healthy development that two women are leading the negotiations. Political machismo has caused a lot of harm in Cuba. People are tired of all the testosterone and the testicle-driven rhetoric.”

Nivaldo continues talking as he stops to pick up a passenger. “I don’t know if this new situation will bring immediate improvements in the lives of average Cubans or not. I hope so. I work twelve to fourteen hours a day to support my family and save money to celebrate my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. If things change, maybe I can get rid of this jalopy and buy a new Ford. The question that many on the street are asking is how and in what way will the government implement a series of measures that benefit people,” he says as he raises the radio volume to hear the evening news.

Average Cubans are following events with excessive expectations while some express a die-hard optimism.

Rogelio, an umbrella repairman, is eating a hamburger at a McDonald’s with long lines. “When the embargo is lifted,” he says, “stores will be well-stocked with quality merchandise. I hope the government allows direct imports by the self-employed and the banking system offers more generous credit terms. Stores will allow customers to pay in installments like in any modern society.”

Others are more cautious. “Yes, it’s all well and good to be able to buy rice, chicken and smart phones from the United States, but by necessity the Cuban system must change. There is too much centralization and control, which stifles the economic independence of small private businesses. Then there are the issues of low salaries and the dual currency. How much will the average citizen be able to pay for a home internet connection or an American-made computer?” asks Rosario, an automated systems engineer.

A large segment of the Cuban dissident community considers the strategy adopted by President Obama to be misguided.

At a 2:00 PM press conference announcement on January 23, the prominent opposition figure Antonio Rodiles and a sizable group of dissidents express disapproval of the White House’s recent moves. “I would like to know where they are getting their information,” he says. “I am afraid they have become disoriented. They are betting on a continuation of the Castro regime and are concerned with national security.

“They have undertaken these negotiations without input from the island’s opposition. I don’t see why a regime with a history of political rights violations should change. Obama has given up a lot and gotten very little in return. If the international community does not insist that Cuba ratify United Nation Human Rights Conventions, there will be no change in the status quo. This will translate into the arrests of activists and some opposition figures could end up back in prison.”

There are notable differences in outlook between dissidents and ordinary Cubans. The average person on the street thinks it was time to bring an end to the ongoing political chess game between the two countries.

Cuban citizens believe the new direction in U.S. foreign policy makes perfect sense and pokes through the tired pretexts used by the country’s military overlords to justify the economic catastrophe and ideological madhouse they created fifty-six years ago.

But there is one thing that “black coffee” Cubans and some members of the opposition have in common: each is looking out for its own interests. And the regime knows this. It hopes to perpetuate the system by changing its methods.

President Barack Obama and General Raul Castro are clearly playing in different leagues.

Ivan Garcia

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde.

24 January 2015

New U.S. Measures on Cuba Not Featured in the Island’s Headlines / Ivan Garcia

January 24, 2015 Leave a comment

cuba-mujer-bandera-FM-620x330On December 17 Noemi and her coworkers at the telecommunications company ETECSA were surprised to hear their boss hastily reading “the day’s top news story” to their entire workforce in a tone of voice that was intended to sound solemn.

“Comrades, after the conclusion of agreements with President Obama, three of the five heroic Cuban prisoners unjustly incarcerated by the Empire are today en route back to their homeland. They are returning as was promised by our undefeated Comandante,” he said the business manager, barely taking a breath.

At noon later that day all the employees gathered around an ancient Chinese television to listen to the speech by General Raul Castro and to hear the news about the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States after fifty-four years.

Although the news conference focused only on the return of the three imprisoned spies, ETESCA employees clandestinely copied onto flash drives online posts outlining the White House’s new direction for U.S. foreign policy, which is intended to help empower Cuba’s emerging civil society and small business sector.

The country’s military rulers reacted with astonishing indifference to Obama’s new strategy and executive actions as they relate to the embargo. The Castros live in a parallel universe.

They are not sure what to do with the ball at their feet. The best thing the Communist Party bureau that controls the news could do was to present a rosy portrait of the three espionage agents.

As the drama was quickly unfolding, it became clear that Obama was taking his landmark decision seriously. On Thursday, January 15 Washington announced a package of measures clearly intended to benefit ordinary people as well as Cuba’s emerging private business sector.

In this instance Noemi and her colleagues had to do their own searches for the information. “At first there was a sense of celebration over the return of the three spies, but not now. It’s not being talked about it. We had to secretly surf the internet and copy news articles that are important to Cubans,” she says during her lunch break. 

There were no reports on the story on national radio and television news shows. By 1PM the top headlines were the new denominations of Cuban currency, the preparations for the January 28 torchlight march and, in international news, the annual United Nations’ water conference in Zaragoza, Spain.

Despite the poor media coverage, Osmin, who owns a candy store in the Santos Suarez neighborhood, was commenting on the good news with some clients by 2PM.

“I found out about it from a neighbor who has an illegal cable antenna. It’s unbelievable that the government still has not reported the news. I get the impression they are a bit disoriented, that it has not sunk in yet. These measures open the door to small business being able to secure credit, though it won’t be an option if they don’t authorize it,” he points out.

In a shopping mall at Puentes Grandes and 26th Avenue, four young men with garishly colored headphones around their necks are surfing the web in an internet cafe. Though engrossed in the match between Real Madrid and Atletico match for the Copa del Rey, they had heard the scoop.

“I think it’s great that the Americans have changed course and adopted a new strategy. Now we’ll see what our government has to say. It’s pointless to import information technology and cell phones if the state sells them at unaffordable prices,” says one of the young men.

His comment provokes a small debate. Osvaldo, a doctor who regularly goes online once a week to send emails to his son in Ecuador, thinks the government’s reaction is deceptive.

“The focus has been only on the release of the agents. Everything else, including the measures announced today, evokes more fear than joy. It’s not in tune with the average, ordinary citizen, who is usually optimistic about each new breakthrough. For fifty-four years the government has blamed all it failures on the United States. People need the government to provide its official version of events and outline the strategy it plans to follow,” says the Havana resident.

Josefa, a housewife, heard the news during a phone call from Miami at the time she heard about the birth of her grandson: “I was told they are thinking about revoking the airlines’ licenses. I hope this lowers the cost of a ticket. Flying from Havana to Miami is too expensive: 422 CUC for a flight that lasts less than an hour. To make this happen will require good will from the Cuban side. But I am afraid these people (the regime) are only interested in money and power.”

In a small park in Casino, a neighborhood in the Cerro district twenty-five minutes from central Havana, two friends kill time playing chess. “I heard about it at breakfast,” says one. “The government couldn’t care less about Obama’s policy; they will adopt only what suits them. And, apparently, they want to retain control of the economy, finance and people’s lives. As long as this caste of elders remains in power, nothing will change. The best thing about Obama’s policy is that it unmasks them.”

It remains to be seen whether the new measures adopted by the United States will be able to destroy the Castro regime’s potent blockade of economic autonomy and political freedom for its citizens.

A month after December 17 average Cubans are no longer quite so optimistic.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: A woman wearing clothes featuring the American flag walks through Havana. At one point such actions were prohibited, so Cubans often wore hats, shirts, shorts and leggings with American symbols cautiously. As of December 17, however, they are on open display in streets throughout the island. Source: Terra, EFE.

17 January 2015

Miami: The Havana That Could Not Be / Ivan Garcia

January 18, 2015 Leave a comment

miami_aerial_view_f-620x330As the plane begins its descent towards Miami on a flight from San Diego, the first thing a resident of Cuba notices is the incredible number of lights that at this hour, five-thirty in the morning, can be seen from plane.

As big US cities go, Miami is one of the smallest in terms of land mass. Its 35.78 square miles accommodates more than 400,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country, comparable to New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

This is no small thing. It has been only 501 years since the morning of April 1513 when Juan Ponce de Leon set foot on a Florida beach and claimed this entire swath of land and its adjacent keys for the kingdom of Spain.

That is not long period of a time for a city. Rome has been around for millennia, while Babylon, Egypt and Jerusalem were architectural marvels long before Miami, or even the thirteen colonies, first appeared on a map.

This is the wonder of the United States. Along with its magnificent constitution, democratic system, and economic and military might, this society’s greatest strength is its ability to reinvent itself and assimilate cultural differences.

There is no other nation on earth where the child of immigrants can aspire to a seat in the Senate or consider a run for the presidency. While in other countries foreigners might remain foreigners for generations or perhaps for their entire lives, in the United States if you work hard and are daring, talented and creative, you have a 99% chance of success.

No one in the United States questions these qualities of being in the forefront and uniqueness. Ask any Cuban, Colombian, Brazilian or Russian resident in Miami.

Things can go badly, but it is always possible for those with dedication and talent to get ahead. Cubans fled to this warm coastal town after Fidel Castro took power at gunpoint in January 1959.

Members of Cuba’s elite — distinguished architects, accomplished physicians, people who knew how to generate wealth — arrived here in the 1960s.

They turned a peaceful swampland where retirees came to live out their days into the proud city that is today’s Miami. Of course, immigrants from around the world also made their own contributions.

But numbers and statistics do not lie. Several members of the US Congress are from Cuba. Florida legislators as well as numerous mayors and public officials are also of Cuban descent.

The ascent of Miami’s Cubans is a palpable demonstration of the centrifugal forces that are unleashed by political and economic freedom. Ninety miles from Miami lies Havana.

It is a metropolis which fifty-six years ago was beyond comparison to Miami or any other city in Latin America.  Havana always was and still is a beguiling city despite its decay.

Havana has an urban layout better than that of Miami. It is a pedestrian-oriented city with miles of colonnaded arcades impossible to find in the sunny American city.

Downtown Miami, replete with skyscrapers, recalls Havana’s Vedado district in the 1950s, when construction began on a slew of technologically advanced tall buildings.

At that time Havana had three tunnels as well as several casinos and bars where the likes of Bebo Valdes sang boleros and played piano.

Whether you like it or not, the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution brought on a regression in the urban order. If Castro come to power in 2014 rather than 1959, Havana would have been a magnificent capital, with skyscrapers all along its coast and examples of its unique architecture mixed in, much like San Juan.

But it was not to be. By cutting off generations of riches at their roots and centralizing the economy, Castro opened the floodgates, so that the most talented people abandoned the country. The strength of all that creativity and hard work planted the flag in Miami.

As you tour the city and see Miami Beach, the Marlin’s baseball stadium, the Heat’s American Airlines Stadium, the Brickell financial center and the recent additions to the port, you cannot help but be impressed with the vitality of its inhabitants.

Clean, well-lit streets, a lot of greenery and quality infrastructure. There are always flaws. Urban transport is disgusting; there are beggars and Little Haiti is scary.

Neighborhoods look like designs in the Sims game. Pretty, tidy and recently painted. Although not as solid as those residences in Miramar, Jaimanitas and Fontaner in Havana which were built by the relatives of those Cubans who today live in Coral Gables, Hialeah or Doral in Miami.

Miami is the key to the survival of the olive-green autocracy. The billions of dollars and the merchandise are a blood transfusion for the regime and poor relatives in Cuba.

Cubans on the other side of the Straits, shortly after arriving, notice the difference. They are still talking with that crazy accent that mistreats the Castilian language.

They still talk too loud and some have taken with them, to the Florida media the bad taste and kitsch inherited from a system that spread mediocrity. But they are free citizens.

They rant equally about the Castros and Obama. About learning how to manage economically and legally in capitalism. Because the United States is a not a country, it’s a business. And the newcomer is taught how to deal with debts and taxes.

Miami is what Havana couldn’t be. With an excess of light, an abundance of food, and without Fidel Castro.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Aerial view of Miami. Taken from the blog Gorge Mess.

Notebook of a Journey (VI)

30 December 2014

Raul Castro’s Pyrrhic Victory / Ivan Garcia

January 17, 2015 Leave a comment
Photo: From the internet

Photo: From Cubanet

After the jubilation over the arrival in Cuba of the three spies imprisoned in the US comes to an end, when the campaign of tributes in the official media is over and the lights installed on the stands for government agents to hear the people’s applause are turned off, the government of Raúl Castro will have to draw up plans for the future.

An unknown future. The US trade and financial embargo has yet to face a real legislative battle in Congress. But, on President Obama’s orders, the Cuban state is now able to buy US goods from overseas-based companies and make telecommunication deals to allow ordinary Cubans to connect to the Internet at a reasonable cost.

One way or another, the regime’s state-owned companies, when they had money available, always bought merchandise in the US. If you look around the hard currency shops, you will see domestic appliances made in the USA, Californian apples and Coca Cola soft drinks.

Henceforth, buying “Yankee” products will be simpler. Cuba could buy hundreds of GM buses to improve the dismal urban public transport.

Also, thousands of Dell or HP computers so that Cuban schools may renew their equipment and access the Internet. Except for universities, the remainder of Cuban public schools on the island lack Internet connection.

The government can already buy, by applying for a licence, tons of drugs to fight childhood cancer, which government propaganda told us were unavailable because of the strict embargo.

As well as tiles, sanitary fittings, quality building materials, so people can renovate their dilapidated houses.

The list of what the government can do to improve Cubans’ quality of life is a long one. Curiously, the state press hasn’t printed a single line about the road map set out by Obama for helping Cubans.

Nothing but intolerance and a do-nothing attitude towards dissidents was to be expected. Let us accept that beatings, mistreatment and verbal assaults on the peaceful opposition will continue.

But let us hope that, beginning in January 2015, the regime will devise a strategy to allow Cubans to live under a “prosperous and sustainable Socialism.”

That will involve building no fewer than 100,000 homes a year. Repairing destroyed hospitals and medical centres. Increasing the production of beans, foodstuffs and fruits, among other things.

Finally, and best of all, the promised glass of milk for everybody will land on our tables and Cubans will be able to have a proper breakfast. My mouth is watering thinking of being able to buy beef, shrimp and fish at reasonable prices.

The government can already start repairing the old aqueduct which, according to official information, fails to deliver 60% of its drinking water to its users.

And one would be able to go to a “Gringo” bank to apply for a loan to build housing in the more than 50 insalubrious neighborhoods existing in Havana.

I hope that Castro II will not place restrictions on the self-employed to be able to directly arrange for a credit line with US financial institutions.

And, in passing, expand the Foreign Investment Act, by authorizing Cubans on the Island to invest in small or medium-sized businesses.

After making peace with the enemy, the costly procedures for Cubans living overseas should be revoked when they visit their homeland.

Fortunately, on the opposite side of the pavement the “evil Americans” are no longer lying in wait, threatening the little Caribbean island merely for having chosen a different political model.

Something else to think about is that exile Cubans should have the right to dual citizenship, should be able to vote in local elections from their countries, and be able to run for the boring and tedious national Parliament.

The bottom line is that, except for “mercenaries” like Carlos Alberto Montaner, Raúl Rivero or Zoé Valdés, the great majority of emigrants are crying out for an end to the embargo and peaceful relations between both nations, according to the official media.

Then, the argument of being an embattled country will become old news. Now the US are a brotherly country. A neighbor that, since the XIX century, shared with our freedom fighters their right to independence from Spain, as a Cuban female journalist movingly mentioned on Cuban TV.

By domino effect the price of powder milk will go down, as well as the tax on the dollar, a tax levied by Fidel Castro in 2005.

I shall awake any morning in 2015 with the news that the hard-currency shops would have stopped implementing the abnormal tax of up to 400% on items.

It can be expected that the government will review prices à la Qatar for the sale of cars. And now that we will be able to hook up with any underwater US cable bordering our shores Internet will be the cheapest in the world.

Since self-employed workers are not criminals or counterrevolutionaries, it would be desirable for the magnanimous regime to listen to them and implement a reduction of the absurd taxes levied.

This time, for sure, the sought after wholesale market for private business owners will be opened. And, probably, hastily but surely, there will be a review to increase all salaries of workers and employees, that 90-odd-per-cent which voted in favor of the perpetuity of Castro-style Socialism.

As Castro II is convinced that the revolution can be stretched out for an additional 570 years with such citizens as Cubans, a substantial increase of the retirement benefits for our long-suffering senior citizens, the greatest losers of the timid reforms undertaken, must be in the offing.

The new rules of the game are a test for Raúl Castro and his government. It will now remain to be seen whether the embargo or the system is to blame for the disappearance of beef and seafood from the national diet.

Let us grant the autocracy in olive-green fatigues 100 days to implement improvements in the Cubans’ quality of life. The clock is already ticking.

Iván García

Translated by la Val-Davidoise

Fidel Castro, the Starring Actor / Ivan Garcia

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

When Norge, a nightclub manager, heard from a friend who has internet at home about the international media frenzy regarding the alleged death of the bearded Fidel Castro, the news caused him mixed feelings.

“For the world, the great headline could be Fidel’s death. But for Cubans, the day after his death will add an unbearable burden of the personality cult and constant evocations in the press. Can you imagine?

“A minimum of one month of national mourning, long lines at the Jose Marti Memorial in the Plaza of the Revolution to sign the condolence book, and special programs all day on national TV and radio.

“Endless tirades in the Granma and Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspapers, books, conferences about his life and work. Probably a museum opening, several effigies throughout the country and its cities, and important speeches everywhere.

“His intangible presence would once again be imposed on Cuban life, and we already have too little money, food, and lack a future,” said Norge, gesticulating with his hands.

Fidel Castro is a controversial figure. He is loved and hated with the same intensity. To his devotees, he is beyond good or evil. To his detractors, is to blame for the economic disaster in Cuba, the housing shortage and the fourth world infrastructure.

For 47 years he ruled the destiny of the Island with an iron fist. His revolution put more emphasis on politics than economics. He curtailed freedom of speech and press and eliminated habeas corpus.

He administered the country like his private ranch. He had unlimited powers. Without consulting the ministers, the bland national parliament, or his citizens, he opened the public coffers to build a center for biotechnology, bomb shelters or to buy in Africa a herd of buffaloes and experiment with their milk.

He led the nation at the blow of campaigns. One morning he would mobilize the country to sow coffee, bananas, and to build a hundred nursery schools.

In foreign policy his was a subversive strategy. Until he came to power, a Latin American leader never spent so much money and resources trying to export a social model.

Between 1960 and 1990, Castro sent troops or advisers to a dozen African countries. Also a tank brigade to Syria in the Yom Kippur War with Israel in 1973.

He had a huge reserve of cars, trucks or canned sardines. From a mansion in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, sitting in a black leather swivel chair, he directed from a distance the civil war in Angola. Like a neighborhood bodega owner, he was fully informed about the ranch consumed by the troops who took part in the battle of Cuito Canavale, south of Angola.

He was punctilious. His interlocutors, simple wax sculptures maintaining a parallel government at his orders, diverting the nation’s funds to achieve some of his whims.

Frequently walking through an underground passage that connected his office with the newsroom of the newspaper Granma, he wrote extensive reports, changed the layout, or edited the news.

In times of hurricanes, he moved to the Institute of Meteorology, in Casablanca, across the bay of Havana, and from there predicted the likely direction of a cyclone.

Or he moved aside the manager of the national baseball team to personally outline strategies to follow in a game of Cuba against the Baltimore Orioles.

For 47 years, Fidel Castro was undisputed star in the administration of Cuba. In all its facets. After his retirement due to illness in 2006, he dedicated himself to writing extravagant reflections which augured the end of the world and investigating the ‘exceptional’ properties of moringa..

The latest news of Fidel Castro was written in the newspaper Granma analyzing a New York Times editorial on Cuba. After three months of silence, in recent days rumors of his death have filled the international media.

Perhaps the dither started in Twitter when the former Kenyan minister and leader of that country’s opposition, Raila Odinga, on 4 January announced the death of this 41-year-old son, named Fidel Castro Odinga.

But the truth is that the old guerrilla has not publicly opined on the landmark agreement of 17 December between Havana and Washington. And he hasn’t even taken a photo with the three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States, whose return to the island has been one of his political priorities since 1998.

While the world sounds the alarms, the sensation among many ordinary Cubans is that they prefer a low-news-profile Fidel Castro.

“Let him die when God wills. Quietly is better. He already talked a lot. He was too intrusive and the protagonist in our lives for nearly 50 years,” says Daniel, driver of urban buses in Havana.

The stressful daily work in Cuba offers little room for speculation about the health of the former commander-in-chief. Juliana, retired, expects the news any moment. “He’s probably not in good health. But they’ve killed him so many times in Miami, that when he does really die people are not going to believe it.”

In the past nine years, Castro I has passed to being a minor player in national politics. Many people appreciate it and wonder what would change in Cuba’s situation after his death.

If there’s something the regime knows how to sell, it is that Castroism will persevere after Fidel.

Iván García

Photo: Fidel Castro on January 8, 2014, when he attended the inauguration of Kcho’s art in the Romerillo neighborhood in the Playa municipality, Havana. Taken from Giornalettismo.

13 January 2015

Obama’s new policy toward Cuba could mark the end of the olive-green autocracy / Ivan Garcia

January 7, 2015 Leave a comment


I understand the discontent of an important sector of Cubans in exile and within the internal dissidence.

On 17 November, just one month before the momentous diplomatic turn of events between Cuba and the United States, I was charring in Brickell, Miami, with a gentleman who explained to me his reasons for hating the Castro brothers. That day, a fine rain fell over Miami. The bitter cold wasn’t the welcome one expects to receive in that thriving city of the sun.

The man had lost a lot. In 1959, his father was shot after a summary trial in the La Cabaña Fortress by order of Ernesto Che Guevara. His “crime,” had been being a police officer under Batista.

“He hadn’t committed any crime. He did not torture any member of the 26th of July Movement. He was shot only for political revenge and the hatred of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. Later they shot my uncle who was raised in the Escambray. And many friends and relatives were imprisoned, in subhuman conditions, just for thinking differently,” he recalled with tears in his eyes.

In one of the pavilions at Miami’s International Book Fair, Hector Carrillo, Radio Marti producer, told me about his father, a notable architect, who lost all his properties and one autumn night died far from the country that saw his birth.

His “sin” had been to create riches and design architectural spaces that once made Havana a cosmopolitan city. Carrillo was born in the United States, but he felt Cuban. He eats black beans and drinks Cuban-style coffee.

The film critic Alejandro Rios, a more recent immigrant, who probably didn’t lose any family member at the execution wall or in a Castro-regime dungeon, also has his demons in tow. He grew up and became a man in a Havana neighborhood, breakfasting on coffee without milk and with a mother who darned his father’s old socks so his brothers could go to school.

Unlike the previous compatriots, Juan Juan Almeida grew up as an olive-green bob vivant. Shops and entertainment at his fingertips. When, in the ’90s, people were suffering malnutrition and daily 12-hour black outs, the families of the nomenklatura, among whom was Almeida’s father, continued drinking Scotch, sleeping with high-class prostitutes, and fishing from yachts. That did not prevent Juan Juan from suffering the despotism of Raul Castro.

Four generations that have come to dissent against the Castro’s by different paths. And with different narratives, bet on a democratic future for Cuba.

The most important thing is not what viewpoint should prevail. In these 56 years, in one way or another, we have lost something. From our condition as free men to irrelevant citizens.

The government never asked us permission when the time came to trace their grotesques policies. We always should accept, without question, their strategies. Boarding schools in the countryside. African wars, verbal lynchings towards people who left Cuba, and systematic campaigns against the “enemies of the people”: nothing more and nothing less than ten White House administrations.

Ask any Cuban if they didn’t applaud the promises and illusions of a deceit.

President Obama’s new policies will not change the rabidly totalitarian mentality of a litter of old men who rule our destinies. But there are several Trojan Horses.

The United States needed to throw overboard that weighty and counterproductive foreign policy ballast. In the world, they ask others to support their crusade for democracy.

The United States has been, and is, a paradigm of freedoms. The mambises generals of the War of Independence asked the United States for help to free themselves from Spanish colonialism.

The United States thinks and acts according to its geopolitical interests. I will continue to bet on democracy and human rights on the planet, but behind it is the stage of the gunboats or installing satraps at the convenience of Washington.

The new rules of the game open up a formidable framework of options for the Island’s dissidence. That can take advantage. Now the regime has no pretext as a country under siege.

The time for the Cuban opposition to pass on the offensive is past. And trace a coherent political strategy which it can shout out to a wide segment of the population.

It’s time to demand a place in the political establishment. It has every right in the world to govern. Especially when 56 years of Castro regime socialism has been a disaster.

There are many issues that affect the citizenry, the dissidence could wave them as a political flag. How can the government now justify excessive taxation on private work. Or the prohibitions on 3D cinemas and private stores.

There is almost unanimous agreement among Cubans, that the prices in the convertible peso stores are absurd and exaggerated for a working population that, on average, collects a monthly salary of $20.

Yes, there is a United States embargo. But why not debate the internal blockade against creativity, freedom of expression, politics and economy in our society.

Will they lower the science-fiction level prices of cars for sale? Will the lower the five-dollar-an-hour cost of navigating the internet? Will they eliminate the irrational customs taxes and fees.

Will the repeal the dark gag law, that calls for 30 years in prison for dissidents and free journalists?

Now the dissidence can, joining the clamor of the majority, be a sounding board and force the State to raise the miserable wages, authorize independent unions, the right to strike, and allow free contracting for labor and direct payment of wages by foreign businesses.*

If they are in tune with the feelings of ordinary Cubans, the dissidents will add followers and gain spaces. It’s quite probably that the government, still intoxicated by their diplomatic triumph, will not cede. And it will maintain control of the media and harass the opposition.

According to Raul Castro’s latest discourse at the closing of the monotone national parliament, nothing will change.

The regime is not going to give anything. It never did. Certain rights will have to be grabbed.

*Translator’s note: Under current law, foreign-owned businesses must contract with the government for labor and workers are paid only a small portion of what the businesses pay the government.

4 January 2015

Adiós, San Diego / Ivan Garcia

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

san-diego-de-noche-f-620x330The San Diego international Airport is not as excessive as that of Miami or New York. Everything is fast. When you check in they welcome you with friendly service and an attempt at fractured Spanish: Bienvenido a San Diego!

If you arrive on a weekend you notice the nightlife in the center and the old part of the district. On weekdays San Diego is a quiet town. Nothing like Miami, where the bars, the casino on Indian territory, and the discotheques spill over the beach area.

Around 10 at night the streets of San Diego’s suburbs are desolate. The bars close at that time. Near the Holiday Inn Hotel a liquor store sells beer, rum and Scotch. The owner is Iraqi.

A sympathetic guy who spoke horrible Spanish. When he learned we were journalists, four from Venezuela and one from Cuba, he said: “Chavez, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein what characters.”

On weekends the city comes to life. Downtown San Diego is beautiful, well-lit and active. At the entrance to the Old Spaghetti Factory a beggar with a long beard and a military coat calmly ate a serving of boiled spaghetti without tomato sauce or cheese.

“He likes it like that. He is a man who barely speaks. Probably a crazy war veteran. We give him food and at the end of the shift he takes out the trash,” and Argentinian who has spent five years in San Diego tells me.

Not far from Petco Park, the fabulous baseball stadium, site of the San Diego Padres, there are businesses, bars and a boulevard. At a sports shop you can buy caps and shirts from this club. The shirt of the Cuban pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne cost $96.

The seller, a Padres fan, believes that Despaigne will be a lethal weapon in the upcoming season. “He has everything. A good fastball, a change-up and intelligent command of pitching. His style and balance is like Duque Hernandez’.”

He wanted to know Odrisamer’s numbers in Cuba. And all the possible information about future baseball stars on the island. Cuban baseball players, after the performance of Yasiel Puig and José Dariel Abreu, are all the rage in major-league baseball.

After the workshop in investigative journalism at the University of California San Diego, we Latin American colleagues wanted to say goodbye with a toast. That night I forgot my passport in the hotel. At every bar we were asked, in the correct manner, to show our IDs.

In the United States you are only allowed to drink alcohol if you’re over 21. “But I am clearly over 21 (I am 49),” I told the clerk, but he was unfazed. “Those are the rules. And if there is something this society has it is citizens who comply to the letter,” an American journalist told me.

This respect for the rules is evident in everyday life. People wait for the light to indicate when pedestrians can cross. Drivers respect the rules of the road.

“On all the highways there are electronic surveillance systems. If you’re caught drinking while driving, in addition to losing your license, you can go to jail, because it is considered extremely dangerous. When you exceed the speed limit, the next day they send you a $500 fine with the radar photo where you can see your car. People follow the rules: the penalties are severe and hit your wallet,” a San Diegan explained to me.

I was struck by the pride toward military institutions. In a café in the old part of the city a group of sailors entered. On seeing them, people started to clap. The owner of the café treated them to a drink.

When you tour the battleship Missouri, now a museum docked in the bay, you know the interest of people towards the armed forces. There is a United States Naval base in San Diego. Also an institution that takes care of war veterans.

In Balboa Park, on the outskirts of the city, an area of 100 acres, is the fabulous San Diego Zoo, one of the most important in the world. At the entrance there is a life-sized sculpture of an elephant covered in grass. The zoo has more than 4,100 animals of 800 different species. Some like a giant panda, in danger of extinction.

A little further south is the beach. It is the several mile-long stretch of sand with dark-toned water and unpredictable waves. In its favor, San Diego has a Mediterranean climate and the infrastructure of a first-world city.

Notable is the architecture of the University of California San Diego located in La Jolla, or that of the Petco Park Stadium. But its beach, which kisses the Pacific Ocean, falls short compared to a Cuban beach. Varadero compares favorably to the beach of San Diego

Iván García

Photo: Ariel view of San Diego California. Taken from the website: El Latino de San Diego

Notebook of a Journey (V)

29 December 2014

2015 could be a different year for Cubans / Ivan Garcia

January 2, 2015 Leave a comment
Havana Street

Havana Street

Although Yaumara, a psychologist, spent three nights in line at the food fair in the municipality of 10 de Octubre, to see if she could buy a small turkey for 170 Cuban pesos (eight dollars) for her end of year dinner, she expects great things from 2015

Amid the bustle of street vendors, portable canvas stalls selling pork sandwiches, toilet paper or paint, surrounded by rusted shelves with sweet potatoes, yuca and other tubers, and a floor of red earth, Yaumara does not lose faith in her ability to buy a turkey and to celebrate the New Year with her family.

“If we didn’t have this market, I couldn’t buy a turkey. In the hard currency stores a frozen turkey costs between 42 and 55 CUC (44 and 60 dollars), which represents two and a half months of my wages. I’m optimistic, I think things are going to change for the better in 2015. It can’t get any worse.”

Among several ordinary Cubans consulted, no one could offer a coherent narrative for why the next 12 months will be different. Perhaps a conditioned reflex. A hunch.

A fat and sweaty truckdriver, shirtless and sitting on his vehicle’s fender offered a clue. “In 2015 things change or we’re fucked. I believe that what happened on December 17 is the certification of the death of the revolution. I don’t know how the pieces fit into place. But Socialism and the New Man are on their way to the cemetery. Capitalism arrived, sneakily, and administered by the usual suspects. In the coming year important things will happen,” he predicts. He takes a sip of Mayabe beer and bets 20 CUC with a friend, that his premonition will come true.

The majority of Cubans are overflowing with optimism. Unlike December 2013, the principal topic of conversation is not the unattainable pork, at 35 pesos a pound, the Spanish nougat at 3.50 and four CUC, and a bottle of red wine costing of week’s wages.

According to Anselmo, retired military, “We are heading to democracy. I don’t know what the road will be. But Raul Castro is the undertaker of a system that didn’t work. There will be no more disproportionate army and spending so much money on the defense of the country for a supposed threat from the United States. The day after the door opens, I promise you they will not be able to close it.”

Nancy, economist, draws the future in her mind. “The coming year they are going to unify the two currencies. 90% of the service units (government enterprises) will become private sector or cooperatives. According to the level of foreign investments, a portion of the workers will receive six times their current salary. It’s still not perfect, But what matters is that we are starting to move. The stage of everything being a disaster and blaming all the economic failures on the Yankee blockade (embargo) is over.”

Despite the expectations, many Havanans continue working on the paperwork for their final departure from the country. Even more urgently than before. Sergio, self-employed, is one of them. “In 2015 Obama can repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. Then we are going to be up the creek without a paddle. If it is the will of the government on the island, things can get better. But I prefer to be on the other side looking back at the scene. If the Cuban reality changes and there are options created to progress, I will return. I hope that the regime will change some of the immigration laws. And that we will never lose our status as Cubans.”

Evening falls in Havana. And the movement of people buying gifts, drinks and food to celebrate 2015 with their families continues. It has always been this way

What’s new is that for the first time, the new year could bring a positive turn to their lives. You can judge it according to how you see it. For some the glass is half empty. For others half-full.

The sensation that is palpable when you walk through the city and talk with people is that hope has returned.

Iván García