Ivan Garcia, 28 June 2015 — Already by noon, Óscar has downloaded two terabytes of audiovisual material from the Internet. Taking advantage of his lunch hour some place nearby, he hands over the flash drive to the person who is in charge of loading the “weekly packet,” a compendium of documentaries, serials, soap operas and sports, which later will circulate clandestinely throughout the Island at the speed of light.
Óscar has worked for a decade in a State organization where he can capture the television satellite signal. “They don’t only hack private businesses. The State is a big pirate; without paying for authors’ rights, under the pretext of the blockade (the embargo), it transmits U.S. programs on public television. I also take advantage of this and sell audiovisuals under the table, and a guy pays me 40 CUCs for two terabytes.”
Valeria, surreptitiously, also is involved in piracy. “I work in a center where they send the international cable signal to tourist centers. Sometimes they ask me to upload a series or the last part of the NBA play-offs. They pay me well and it’s something I can do without having problems.”
The powerful State control implemented by the olive-green autocracy has for 56 years found multiple fissures with the arrival of new technologies. And like dust, censured news and MLB games with Cuban baseball players spread throughout Cuba.
These information leaks come from anonymous professionals who have set up small businesses that let them get some extra money, five times more than their laughable salaries.
Rogelio works for an Internet distributor in Havana. During the day he uploads Android and Windows applications for mobile telephones, tablets and computers, which he later sells to the owner of a repair workshop for computer equipment.
Taking advantage of the high volume of calls to Florida, some have managed to divert technologies and software from ETECSA, the State telecommunications monopoly, and they have set up telephone booths in their homes for international calls, at 25 cents for one minute, 60% cheaper than what the State offers.
Frequently, forces joined with State Security and the Ministry of Communications and Computer Information unleash operatives in order to dismantle parallel Wi-Fi networks, Internet connections and clandestine international telephone calls.
For every network that is illegal, two new ones show up quickly. “It’s like cutting the head off a snake; several more grow.” As long as the Government controls, prohibits and over-prices the Internet and international calls, clandestine networks will exist,” argues Miguel, who, after several years of designing parallel networks, has become a real expert at camouflaging cables, illegal Wi-Fi connections and satellite television signals.
Orlando, an economist, considers that in addition to the absurd prohibitions typical of closed societies, the Government laws that prevent professionals from doing private work have opened a discrete revolving door that is being used to make money during the work day.
“It happens everywhere. In a hospital, a nurse or a doctor steals medications and sells them on the black market. Or a computer technician uses his work computer to create a web site for the owner of a particular business,” explains the economist.
It’s not news that some doctors consult in their own homes with trusted patients who pay them under the table. “A mutual trust is created. The doctor can take care of you personally. He writes a prescription and gets the medication for you if it’s not in a pharmacy. Or he gives you an exam that you would normally have to wait months for. People give them 20 or 25 CUCs, more if it’s a serious illness. Silently, we have passed from the family doctor created by Fidel Castro, already in low supply, to the private doctor,” says Luís, who goes to a doctor outside the hospital.
For the last six years, Norma takes her son to a dentistry professor. “For each consult, I discreetly give her 20 CUCs. First, it’s the attention. And while they don’t have anaesthetics and equipment in the dental clinics, when you pay a dentist, everything appears as if by magic.”
The low salaries of primary and secondary school teachers are the genesis of the explosion in furtive tutors. Frequently the teachers who give classes during the day, in the afternoon or nights, for 5 CUCs a month, tutor primary or secondary school students in their homes.
“Families that can do it pay for tutoring for their kids. It’s not easy to suspend a kid who is tutored by an active teacher. There are school directors who also are tutors. The lack of money forces them to do it,” says the mother of a child who attends these sessions.”
Cases have been brought to light in Havana of notorious frauds where professors and directors sell exams at prices that fluctuate between 15 and 25 CUCs. Now the fraud is more subtle.
The day before the test, the teacher whispers it into the ears of the students she tutors, so they can pass.
Photo: While she rode in a convertible along the Malecón, many Cubans were able to photograph the singer Rihanna (b. Barbados, 1988) with their cell phones. At the beginning of June 2015, Rihanna was in Havana to do a fashion shoot and make a video. Owing to the increase in smartphones, laptops and tablets in Cuba, there is a lot of business under the table for the repair of these devices. Taken from the magazine Trabajadores (Workers).
Translated by Regina Anavy
Iván García, 17 June 2015 — Amid spider webs and musty smells, in a corner of his garage where things that no longer work go to retire, Leonardo has stacked molds for making candies and desserts.
There are also three rolling pins, an electric oven outfitted with parts lifted from a state-owned factory, two chrome sandwich makers and a microwave still in its original box. Everything is now for sale.
“I didn’t realize what I was myself getting into. A relative of my wife who lives in Miami gave us $5,000 in 2012 to start a business selling pizzas, desserts and lunches on our front porch. We had to close last year because of losses. I still owe $1,500. I was never able to make the numbers add up,” says Leonardo.
Just as in sports, in any given field of business there are winners and losers. Leonardo’s frustrations stem from the Machiavellian system for private businesses designed by Cuba’s military strongmen.
They tolerate private businesses but they do not love them. The conservative state sector continues to view them as potential criminals. They are considered dangerous types. Restrictions such as high taxes, excessive regulation and corrupt inspectors make doing business an expensive proposition.
“First, the government’s rules make it very difficult to generate profits. Secondly, there is ignorance. They know absolutely nothing about marketing or publicity. The only ones who do well are those who have access to government funds or good contacts in the black market,” argues Leonardo.
According to statistics from the ONAT (National Tax Administration Office), close to seventy thousand people in recent years have forfeited their private business licenses. But if you were to ask the owners of those businesses, 90% say they are just getting by.
“You live better than working for the state. The fact is you have to work like a dog. I drive a cooperative taxi for twelve or thirteen hours a day. I earn 550 to 700 pesos a day, but the high cost of living and inflation eat up all my earnings. With what I make on the side, I can buy food for my family and own a car in good condition,” says a Havana taxi driver.
The most profitable businesses are in food, lodging and taxis. Armando, the owner of a private bar in the town of 10 de Octubre, claims that only a few have been able to make a lot of money.
“There are some who are probably millionaires, like the artists Kcho and Colomé Ibarra, the son of the interior minister. Because of their relationships with people in power, they have a clear path. Others succeed through talent, such as the owner of La Guarida or La Fontana. But most have to rely on illegalities and tricks to get ahead,” says Armando.
Nevertheless, one can detect among small business owners the emergence of a future middle class. On June 6 several travel agencies were introducing a special all-inclusive summer rate at the Havana Libre hotel.
“There was a line and most of the people in it were Cubans,” notes a public relations agent for the military-run Gaviota hotel chain. “It’s widely believed that many overseas relatives are paying for these stays in tourist resorts. But I’ve noticed that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of Cubans paying for these vacations out of their own pockets. A couple of years ago they were spending a weekend in two and three-star hotels. But now they prefer week-long stays in high-end hotels.”
From the end of 2008 — when Raul Castro decided to put an end to tourism apartheid — until 2014, roughly 127,000 Cuban tourists spent their vacations in tourist hotels across the island, spending more than ten million convertible pesos. And the numbers keep growing.
While thousands of overburdened senior citizens sell peanuts, periodicals and cigars on Havana’s streets — making a few pesos that barely allows them to eat — an elite group of private sector entrepreneurs makes money hand over fist.
Meanwhile, fear and distrust continue. Very few have faith in the banking system or in the rules of the game created by the regime.
In 2014 only 658 cuentapropistas — the government’s term for self-employed workers — applied for loans through state banking branches. Seventy-five were from Havana and the remaining 538 were from the rest of the country according to the magazine Bohemia. This represents 0.1% of the more than four-hundred thousand registered private sector workers.
The total loan amount comes to only 13,000,000 pesos (some $520,000 US). According to conservative estimates by Onelio, an economist, the amount of capital flowing to private businesses exceeds $3,000,000.
“Investments in high-end private restaurants and luxury home rentals start at $20,000. My theory is that part of this money comes from the exile community but the sources of the rest are sketchy. It could be from workplace theft, white collar crime, high-level political corruption or Medicare fraud in the United States. The money might later be laundered through private businesses in Cuba,” he speculates.
Behind the glamor and success of private restaurants where stars like Rihana and Beyoncé or U.S. senators passing through Havana dine, there are thousands of businesses on the verge of collapse.
The roadmap drafted by Obama on December 17 opened up a new political landscape between Cuba and the United States. Six months later, however, the proposals that were supposed to benefit the owners of private businesses are still a mirage.
The Castro dictatorship has not enacted a law allowing private farmers and entrepreneurs access to microcredit or to imported foodstuffs and other goods. These businesspeople must then try their luck with loans from relatives living abroad and must work more than twelve hours a day to try to achieve minimal gains.
For entrepreneurs like Leonardo things did not go well. Four years after opening a cafe with high hopes, he had to close due to losses. He has not been able to sell off the equipment he bought for the business, even at reduced prices. And he still owes money to a relative in Miami.
Iván García, 15 June 2015 — One rainy fall afternoon in 2013, a children’s coach warned me that if apathy, corruption, and bad work continued, within five years baseball could become an exotic sport for collectors and the nostalgic.
Sitting in the concrete stands in the small baseball field at Thomas Alva Edison School, in the La Vibora neighborhood of Havana, the trainer made a prediction that I thought was exaggerated.
Baseball was his passion. From age ten he had been involved in the selection process for building national teams. A serious injury ended his playing career. He graduated with a degree in physical education, and had trained and coached school teams in the 10th of October neighborhood with remarkable success. But he didn’t like what he saw.
“The Municipal Baseball Commission doesn’t give anything. Let alone pay me a salary. Only when we became champions did they come up with a box of sandwiches for the boys’ snack. The coaches and parents do everything. Weed the field and patch it, get balls, gloves and bats. And pay for making uniforms. Many parents do it for two reasons: if your son doesn’t show up here, he’s off in the street with its harmful consequences: drugs, prostitution, and gangs engaged in stealing. If by his talent he is able to succeed, then the strategy is to leave Cuba and to join any professional league in the Caribbean or the United States,” explained the coach.
Sadly he told me how many children he had trained who at age 15 or 16 left the country with their parents. “In eighteen months, more than 20 young players left the country. It’s a tragedy. If we stay on this road, baseball will become just another game. Football [soccer] will surpass it. These people (the directors) are killing the national sport,” he said sadly.
I must confess I was a bit more optimistic. I thought the steady leak would lessen after the regime authorized players to sign with foreign clubs.
I guessed that the Asian professional leagues would hire a couple dozen players, who then wouldn’t be forced to risk their lives to leave their homeland.
But the apathy among the federation officials has been like a containment dike. Two years later, only three players have been recruited in Japan. And four in an independent league in Quebec, Canada.
Already this season, after a group of scouts from Japan and other Asian leagues visited Cuba, there was speculation that they would recruit around a dozen baseball players.
But negotiations didn’t flow. You might think that Asian clubs aren’t interested in Cuban raw material. I don’t believe it. A more selective league like MLB has signed more than 40 Cuban players who left in the past two years.
National commissioner Heriberto Suárez himself acknowledged that in the past two years around 60 players have fled. And he came up short. A few days later, another group of players escaped the island.
All categories are represented: little league, youth, and adults. No second-rate players leave. No way. It’s the most talented who aspire to play in the best baseball in the world.
And the news is not which ballplayer has left, but which one hasn’t gone yet. Established stars like José Abreu, Rusney Thomas Castillo, or Yasmany Tomás are easy picks.
But the stampede has been joined by promising players like Joan Moncada, Yusnier Díaz and recently two of the best pitchers, Cionel Pérez and Norge Luis Ruiz.
Every day there’s a new rumor. The absence of big stars was notable at the old Del Cerro Stadium during preselection training looking toward the Pan American Games.
And among the standouts, fans are betting on predictions of how much longer they will remain in Cuba. The disastrous policy on contracts doesn’t only affect baseball.
Arturo Dispé, a talented young soccer player, said in a radio interview that he lost the opportunity to try out for a second division club in France because he didn’t get permission from the local federation.
Dispé had paid for a plane ticket to travel to the club at the end of the month. But the mandarins of Cuban football decided to include him on the national team that will play a “friendly” game with the New York Cosmos on June 2.
In front of the microphone the boy tried not to be pessimistic. “I hope to have another opportunity,” he said. Not everyone thinks alike. Maybe the managers of sports and the nation, accustomed to governing without an expiration date, forget that the life of a high performance athlete is fleeting.
General Raul Castro, with his timid economic reforms of coffee without milk, and his favorite slogan, “slowly but surely,” has managed to win over politicians and entrepreneurs from the United States and other countries through liberal feints and fakes. Not so the ballplayers. Slowly and surely, they are jumping the fence.
Photo: Yasmany Tomás (born Havana, 1990) now plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks. His six-year contract is worth 68.5 million dollars. Taken from “Cuban Play”
Ivan Garcia,25 May 2015 — Cubans are not as uninformed as you think. Everyone knows that the Internet is a luxury. According to the latest report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), broadband is almost nonexistent, with a penetration of less than 1%, and only 3.4% of households had internet access in 2013.
Less than 15% of Cubans have computers. Although ETECSA recently announced that the number of mobile phone users had passed 3 million, Cuba remains behind in Latin America, with only 17.7 users per hundred inhabitants and no 3G technology or smart phones.
According to the Census of Population and Housing, over 93% of households have one or more televisions and 100% have radios. The state controls information flow with an iron fist, and Radio Martí, the Miami-based broadcaster that provides feedback about the spectrum of opposition within Cuba, is electronically jammed, making it inaudible in many areas of the country.
So based on statistics, it would seem difficult for Cubans living in difficult times to inform themselves. But the numbers obscure the data. The devil is in the details.
In a personal survey of 50 people of both sexes, between 17 and 80 years of age, 85% had frequent or occasionally access to an illegal cable antenna, or rent the “package,” a clandestine audiovisual compendium circulating in Cuba, or have read articles by independent journalists in the Journal of Cuba, El Nuevo Herald, and Journal of the Americas, outlining critical analysis against the Castro regime.
If you navigate by Facebook, you’ll be amazed at the high number of Cubans who log in, even though an hour of Internet time costs a third of the minimum monthly wage.
Leyanis, a young woman with silicone breast and hip implants, spends about 40 CUCs a month on social networks. “My monthly salary as a food-packaging technician is 500 pesos (about $22). But in the underground economy, like many other Cubans, I ’score’ extra money. I use my Facebook account to contact friends living abroad. Political news doesn’t interest me. ”
Countless prostitutes access the internet to promote themselves or try to hook up with a foreigner. When you ask them about dissident leaders or inquire if they are aware of some opposition project, they respond with a forced smile.
“Antonio Rodiles, Laritza Diversent, Manuel Cuesta Morúa? I don’t know who they are, I’ve never heard of them,” admits Camila, a hundred-dollar-a-night prostitute who owns an iPhone 6, has two computers at home, and connects to the Internet three times a week.
28 of the 50 respondents remembered hearing something vague in passing about the Ladies in White, or Elizardo Sanchez, or Yoani Sanchez, usually in the pejorative terms used by the official press.
There is a great contradiction. When you talk with any Cuban, not less than 80% of them acknowledge that the system is shot, the economy does not function. And if they could, they would temporarily or permanently leave Cuba. Their favorite destination, paradoxically, is the United States, the enemy for 56 years of the olive-green autocrats.
The less glamorous dissidents, like Hildebrando Chaviano or Yuniel Lopez, elected in their neighborhoods to aspire to be municipal delegates of the National Assembly of People’s Power, thanks to their work in the community, have created strong links with their neighbors. Human-rights activists in the mold of Sonia Garro or the independent journalist Luis Cino, are respected by their neighbors, who nevertheless keep their distance out of fear.
Local dissidents still have not found the formula for connecting with the average hurting Cubans. They have failed to capitalize on popular anger.
It is very easy to avoid pointing the finger of guilt at citizen fear or repression at that distance. True, there is fear and repression. But opponents on the island have no legal means of communication that allows them to disclose their political projects. Nor they have editorial spaces on radio and television.
Since May 16, 1938, the Popular Socialist Party, the Communist Party at the time, had its own press organ. It was called “Today” and except for the years when it was closed by the government in power, it was printed until October 3, 1965. In the 40s it also had a radio station, 1010 or Mil Diez. And besides books, it published magazines such as Noonday and Dialectics.
Now dissidents can only meet in the rooms of their own homes, and when they decide to hold a peaceful action on the street or in a park, they are repressed, beaten, and arrested.
While the best-known dissidents travel halfway around the world and participate in international forums and events, in Cuba they are nearly invisible and their leadership is nil.
Of the 50 respondents, 46 were unaware of dissident projects like Manuel Cuesta Morúa’s Citizen Hour, or the Campaign for Another Cuba led by Antonio Rodiles, which calls for ratifying the UN Covenants on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that the regime signed in 2008.
Both projects seek to empower civil society and the ordinary Cuban who watches the game from the stands. But they have not yet succeeded.
Photo: Taken from Wikipedia. The station Mil Diez (Radio 1010), “the radio station of the people” was founded thanks to a popular collection of 75,000 pesos. It moved to 314 Queen Street, in the heart of Havana. It aired for the first time on April 1, 1943 and the last time on March 12, 1948, when it was closed by the government of Ramon Grau San Martin. During its five years of existence, it was not only a propaganda vehicle of the PSP, but also a means of cultural dissemination. It helped launch various styles of music, such as Cuban jazz, danzón and the tango.
The following performed on Mil Diez: Benny Moré, the Matamoros Trio, Celia Cruz, Bebo Valdés, Olga Guillot, Elena Burke, Omara Portuondo, César Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez, Leonel Bravet, Aurora Lincheta, Miguel de Gonzalo, Pepe Reyes, Olga Rivero, Pacho Alonso, Frank Emilio, Barbarito Diez, Myriam Acevedo, Zoila Gálvez, María Cervantes, Alba Marina, Miguelito Valdés, Chano Pozo, Manteca, Orlando Guerra (Cascarita), the orchestras Casino de la Playa and Arcaño and his Marvesl with Arsenio Rodríguez, Félix Guerrero, Roberto Valdés Arnau y Rey Díaz Calvet, among others. The director of the station orchestra was Enrique González Mantici, and the musical director of Mil Diez was the incomparable Adolfo Guzmán. Among its announcers were two of the best of Cuba: Ibrahim Urbino and Manolo Ortega. (Tania Quintero)
Ivan Garcia, 30 May 2015 — One hot and boring night, drinking a tear-inducing moonshine, Yosvany and a group of friends in a remote sugar-workers’ town in Yateras, Guantanamo province, more than a 600 miles east of Havana, made plans to relocate to the capital to try to change their future.
“The village where we lived isn’t even on the map. It’s in a mountainous region and there the routine for most young people is drinking alcohol, breaking horses, and going to bed early. The school dropout rate is high and many girls as young as 14 or 15 are already mothers. This hamlet is the closest thing to hell,” says Yosvany, seated on his bicycle-taxi.
Two days later, Yosvany and his partners took a train to the capital. After 22 hours of travel, including police checkpoints where they were searched for cheese, coffee or marijuana, they arrived at the supposed El Dorado.
“I had only seen Havana on television. I’d never seen so many cars or tall buildings, like the FOCSA or the Habana Libre hotel. The first pictures I sent my parents were in front of the El Capitolio, like all the peasants, and drinking beer from a can in a Havana bar. It’s true that the city is grimy and dilapidated, but compared to the eastern provinces, it’s Miami,” he says.
Like Yosvany, there are hundreds of easterners in Havana. In an unfriendly euphemism of official jargon, they are labeled a “floating population.” According to the last National Census of Population and Housing, half a million fellow citizens live in the city in true legal limbo.
Since 1997 a shameful Legislative Decree (number 217) has been in place that prohibits anyone not born in the capital from settling in it. Apartheid in its purest form.
While the campaigns of Cuban dissidents pound away against the arbitrary excesses of power, the repression of those who think differently, and the flagrant violations of political rights, this infamous legislation gets a pass.
An example. The spurious Law 88, which imposes a 20-year prison term on dissident journalists or human rights activists, remains on the books, but is not enforced. Quite the opposite occurs with Legislative Decree 217.
If you walk around in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Havana, crowded with filthy hovels made of aluminum and cardboard, without electricity or sanitation, you can find out what it means to live being hounded by a law.
These families live in no man’s land, in an undefined status. For them bureaucratic records do not exist. They are not listed in the Civil Registry or in the OFICODA, the organization that implements the rationing of housing.
14 years ago, Magda came from Mayari, in Granma province, 500 miles from the capital. Her life is comparable to that of a gypsy. “My three children are illegals at school. I’m in the paperwork to legalize a room I built in San Miguel del Padron. We don’t have a ration book to buy the official basic food basket and we can’t get work because we’re undocumented.”
Thanks to the underground economy, Magda earns money that she couldn’t even dream of in her province. “My husband collects money for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery), and together with some friends we put on a cockfight every weekend. Every month that business earns you good money. I sell what shows up, from ground-peanut bars to bath sponges. Easterners are fighters by nature. We do jobs that Havanans avoid.”
Police harassment of the illegal Easterners is constant. In the overcrowded neighborhoods of Old Havana, police officers dressed in black with German shepherds are on the lookout.
“They look like Nazis. They’ve sent me back to Santiago three times. But I managed to return. There it’s really hard. The “empty pockets” and the people don’t have the means to thrive. In the capital opportunity abounds. There are lots of under-the-table businesses,” says Ernesto, an industrial technician who spent six years living illegally in Havana.
According to Ernesto, the police are the most dangerous. “Almost all of them are Easterners, but they won’t leave their fellow countrymen alone. But because there’s so much corruption, you can take care of it with money. The other problem is that many Havanans see us as intruders, saying we’ve come to take their jobs. They call us ’Palestinians’ and have given us a reputation as drunks and snitches.”
One afternoon in 2009, Ernesto decided to burn all his bridges. He sold his house in the Chicharrones slum in Santiago de Cuba, and put up a covered corral on the outskirts of Havana where he breeds more than 50 pigs.
“I make my living selling pigs. I fatten them with feed bought in state warehouses and scraps that are available from school cafeterias. The headache is the police, who will not let you live. To be a paperless easterner in Havana is to live in constant fear. Apparently Fidel and Raul don’t remember that they are easterners too,” he says.
In every municipality of Havana, illegal eastern refugees survive underground. However they can. Driving a bicycle taxi, raising pigs, or prostituting themselves. Always on the razor’s edge.
Photo: Havana Train Terminal, arrival point for most Cubans arriving from the eastern provinces. Despite the existence of a decree-law prohibiting it, they are moving to the capital in search of a better future for themselves and their families. Taken from the blog La Santanilla.
Ivan Garcia, 2 June 2015 — When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Nearly 30 years later, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and tells anecdotes of the civil war which involved more than 300 thousand Cuban soldiers and reservists between 1975 and 1991.
Dubiel came back traumatised. It was very hard for him to see the bodies of his friends flying through the air in a minefield, and the deaths of his comrades after making friends with them in the trenches.
For a while he received psychiatric treatment and tried to adapt himself to civil life. Didn’t do any good. Alcohol and psychotropic drugs did him in. Disorientated, he fell an easy prey to dementia.
Changed into a human wreck, his family abandoned him. He survives collecting empty beer and drink cans which he then sells as raw material. He sleeps wherever the night catches him.
Smelly and starving, he wanders the streets of the La Vibora neighbourhood, with a jute bag of cut up cans over his shoulder. The last time he saw himself in a mirror he was shocked.
“I was a good-looking guy. I finished my college prep year and had some girl friends. The Angola war made me crazy. If I could, I would sue the government, which is responsible for my situation. There are others like me all over the country. Forgotten, and dropped like shit. Right now I couldn’t care less. I would prefer to die. The quicker the better” he says, as he knocks back a cheap, argumentative drink.
Dubiel is one of the 436,000 old men and women who need social help in Cuba (18.3% of the Cuban population, over 2 million people, are over 60). The authorities haven’t been able to plan a coherent strategy to bring to a halt the upsurge in begging in the country.
In the case of Havana, the government’s answer is to round them up on certain dates (the visit of the Pope or a foreign leader) and stick them in a camp in the south of the city, where they wash them with high-pressure hosepipes and give them two meals a day.
After a few days they go back to live on the streets. It wasn’t always like that. In the 1980’s, you didn’t tend to see beggars and madmen sleeping in doorways. The castros’ subsequent actions later contributed to the spreading of poverty.
Social security collapsed when the state suddenly lost the generous Soviet subsidies. In the spring of 2015, there has been an increase in the numbers of beggars and invalid senior citizens who live by begging for money in the streets or selling newspapers and old clothes.
They are the people who have lost big time from General Raúl Castro’s timid reforms. While the world’s press is praising the cosmetic changes and the glamour of a handful of private businesses, the old people and the street tramps remain forgotten.
After 40 years working as a builder’s mate, Lázaro, with the skin hanging off his bones, receives a pension of 193 pesos (about $8). His family threw him out of the house. One afternoon in 2014 he turned up at a ruinous state asylum for old people in need of shelter.
“They told me it wasn’t a serious case. It wasn’t one for the police, a family complaint. And they clarified that if I wanted to enter an old age home, starting in January 2015 I would have to pay 400 pesos a month. And my retirement is less than half that. To go into one of the church homes, you have to give them your home. And I don’t have one. For half a century, whether we wanted it or not, we were all property of the State. Now for Raul Castro we’re vermin,” commented Larazo.
Very close to Prado and Neptuno, the corner that inspired the first cha-cha-cha, between the collective taxis and the clueless tourists taking selfies in the ruins, a bearded and dirty old man sleeps barefoot on a marble bench.
“The man came from an eastern province. He usually sleeps here or around the Malecon. Eating from overflowing garbage cans. Barely speaking. The call him “The Galician.” It’s said he was in the war in Angola. I don’t think he gets anything from social security,” says a neighbor in the Colón neighborhood.
Fleeing the poverty and lack of a future in the old sugar workers’ towns, thousands of people come to Havana looking for better luck. A segregation law, Law 217, effective as of 22 April 1997, marks the easterners as pariahs. And in the face of the police harassment they spend the night in makeshift shelters of cardboard and tin on the outskirts of the city.
They are pockets of extreme poverty, squalid slums with sewage-polluted water and without electric light. Many of the old people and people who live on the street, begging or drunk, came from the east of the Island. They are illegals, they have no rights. The worst things happen to them,” a social worker explains.
The regime butchered social assistance. The policy is to bring only those citizens who demonstrate they really need it to the institutions.
The problem is that outside of this definition are thousands of elderly and needy who aren’t classified as such by official decree. Like Dubiel, a former “dog of war” in Angola.
Translated by GH
After two coats of paint and minor touch-ups on the walls, they did a thorough cleaning, and just above the door they placed a chain made of silver paper with a Welcome Home sign.
“My cousins haven’t come to Cuba for twenty years. We want to give them a reception in style. Thanks to the little money that they’ve sent us, we fixed up the entire house,” says Milena.
It’s understood in every other country that the host pays for the entertainment. But Cuba is a different story. For Gisela, a hairdresser, having relatives abroad is more than a blessing.
“I was able to start my business with the dollars that my daughter provided me. Everything I have—a 42-inch-flat-screen, a computer, a mobile phone, and air conditioning—I bought with the money she sent. Sometimes I’m assailed by a doubt: what if we Cubans didn’t have family outside?” Gisela wonders.
Well, they would fare very badly. Take for example Felix, a six-foot tall Afro-Cuban. He has no relatives abroad and has only seen euros and dollars in the movies on Saturday night.
He is the father of four children who barely gets by doing informal masonry work. “I don’t receive remittances and nobody sends me food parcels, clothing, or medicine. I have to fend for myself,” he says frankly, while drinking cheap beer in a dirty state-owned bar on October 10th Road.
Citizens like Felix are in the minority. According to some analysts, slightly more than 60% of all Cubans have a relative or friend abroad who regularly sends money or packages.
The average person calls this kind of help “throwing a Hail Mary.” In a nation where the average monthly wage is $23 (you would need six lifetimes to pay for a car, and repairing or furnishing a house is a true luxury) it is not reprehensible that migrants help their poor relatives on the island.
What is alarming is the brazenness. At the first opportunity, a large segment of Cubans send tweets, emails, or collect calls, urgently pleading for money from their relatives in exile.
“What nerve. Every month I sent a hundred dollars to an aunt and two cousins. When I could, I provided them household necessities. But a while back, my relatives started asking me for more money, using any pretext—to celebrate a daughter’s fifteenth birthday or to buy a toilet. In Cuba they think that the Cubans who live abroad are rich. I have to break my back working just to make a decent living,” said a Havanan living in Florida.
Aquino, a truck driver from Pinar de Rio who lives in New York, describes his experience. “I went twelve years without visiting my family. Truthfully, most Cubans ’throw it in your face’ (are inconsiderate). All they want to do is talk about their problems and ask you for money and things. I gave my niece a mobile phone and she disrespectfully told me that it was already an old model, that she likes the Samsung Galaxy. Young people don’t want just any cell phone or tablet, they want the latest model. They’re ungrateful,” he says.
The culture of hustling goes beyond prostitution. Many Cubans are convinced that their relatives are rolling in dough. So it is therefore OK to ask for whatever they want. Some make small requests: disposable diapers or jeans. Others believe that their family member is a real life version of Scrooge McDuck.
And they make plans at the expense of relatives living abroad. “Look what my nephew came up with. He wanted me to give him ten or twelve thousand dollars to buy an almendrón (classic American car) and turn it into a taxi. It’s amazing the number of people in Cuba who are clueless. They don’t know that almost all Cubans living abroad work two or three jobs to be able to pay the rent and debts. They aren’t satisfied with anything. They always want more without lifting a finger,” says Osvaldo, who lives in Tampa.
A considerable part of Castro’s military-controlled economy is designed to be borne by Cuban emigrants. The prices in the shops have unbelievable taxes aimed at capturing foreign currency. And the airport and postal tariffs could cause heart attacks.
The State and many Cubans milk their families like cows. And if they previously begged them for food, clothing, toiletries, and medicines, they now want them to pay absurd charges for everything from passport renewals to cell phone recharges. Not to mention pleas for next-generation smartphones, usually used as status symbols.
Natasha, employed in a commercial office of ETECSA, says that “80% of the money for recharging hours on cell phones in Cuba is paid for by relatives or friends living in other countries. ETECSA is one of the agencies that benefits most from the former gusanos (worms),” she says wryly.
More than one Cuban living abroad has asked when and how their relatives became leeches, sucking on the wallets of their families in other countries.
“One answer could be because of the perennial shortages suffered by the Cuban people for 56 years. But the real answer is Fidel Castro. He is guilty of perverting the Cuban people, creating the mindset of squeezing the exiles. In 1980 he invented the acts of repudiation against those who left from Mariel, calling them scum and saying he was glad they were getting the hell out. They’re not going to screw me over any more with such perversion. I wouldn’t think about returning to Cuba,” said an obviously upset Cuban American visiting Havana.
The economic disaster and cyclical hardships created by the Castro regime have spawned a breed of beggars. And scoundrels. By day they pretend to support the government and by night they make a call to Miami. After telling their tale of woe, they ask for money or things. It’s the easiest thing.