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Havana, Between the Scarcity of Water and the Rains / Ivan Garcia

June 10, 2015 2 comments
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Delivering water in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. Taken from the Lagarto Verde blog.

Iván García, 8 June 2015 — This is the current scenario. About 60,000 families receive their drinking water by tanker trucks. 60% of the water distributed is lost due to breakdowns in the hydraulic system. 20% of that water is wasted due to leaks within homes. Havana Water, the city’s water utility, and state industries are responsible for losing 80%.

Water is pumped in the neighborhoods on alternate days. In remote districts of the city, the supply may be provided every four days. Water scarcity causes many families to improvise to collect the precious liquid.

Substandard water storage is the leading cause of epidemics like dengue fever or chikungunya, which cause dozens of deaths every year. Or the outbreak of cholera, a disease that had been eradicated in Cuba since the early twentieth century.

Neglect and deterioration of public sewers cause flooding in the city with even light rains. In other bad news, which the regime can’t be blamed for, 63% of the country is affected by drought, with reservoirs in a critical state at only 39% capacity.

According to the engineer Antonio Castillo, deputy director of operations at Aguas de Havana, the situation is unsustainable in the medium and long term. “The supply basins are like bank accounts. If you invest, but you withdraw more than you deposit, you have less each time, and if you stop saving, one day you won’t have any money. The same thing happens with water,” he told the official press.

The lethal combination of leaks, bad workmanship, lack of foresight, and drought, has placed a red asterisk by water, not only in Havana, but also in the rest of the country.

If you walk at night in some Havana neighborhoods, you will see how water is wasted by broken pipes. At Espadero and Figueroa, in Reparto Sevillano, thousands of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the public networks. At the corner of October 10 Road and San Francisco, in Lawton, the street becomes a river.

On January 17, 2000, the National Institute of Water Resources and the Water Group of Barcelona, created Havana Water, a joint venture company. What does Havana Water do? Little or nothing. The neighbors are tired of complaining to the water system.

“One morning they come and make a sloppy repair that in a few hours is damaged again. They argue that because of the poor condition of the networks, the water pressure bursts many old pipes. All the specialists are experts at diagnosing the problem, but not at fixing it,” said Augusto, a resident of October 10th and San Francisco.

Not far away, in the building where Hiram lives on Carmen Street, also in Lawton, the tank overflows and an appreciable amount of water is wasted because they don’t have a single float.

“In multi-family buildings, painting the exterior, maintaining the water pump, and repairing the facade are supposed to be the responsibility of the state. But state agencies don’t lift a finger, so the residents have to manage everything,” notes Hiram.

Havana Water is replacing thousands of kilometers of pipes at a snail’s pace, but the poor quality of work has aggravated some within the populace. In Old Havana the water supply network is currently being replaced. It is scheduled to be completed in 2017 at a cost of more than $64 million.

The slow pace of work has led to the closure of many roads, turning the crowded streets into an obstacle course. Thoughtless people also throw garbage into the trenches, creating a foul stench that pervades the area.

But the ones who are worse off are those living in low-lying areas of the capital. In addition to water shortages, they live on the razor’s edge every time a rainstorm assaults Havana.

“I pray every time there’s bad weather. Over here everything floods. And with the rains of April 29th, because of the flooding, hundreds of families lost their belongings,” says Reinerio, a neighbor in Jesús María, a poor area in the old part of the city.

More than a month has passed since those rains and the state institutions have only given mattresses to the victims. “Nothing is free. They sell the mattresses for 900 pesos (about 45 dollars) on credit. They won’t replace refrigerators, televisions, or other ruined appliances. People are very disgusted with the government, because of the little help provided to families who have nothing and no place to go,” says Felicia, a housewife.

And there is no solution in sight. As I said at the beginning, it is a combination of factors. State negligence causes 60% of the water to be lost. The empty wallets of a large segment of the Cuban people prevent them from repairing the water system in their homes.

Many poor families live in constant fear of the rains, and now the hurricane season (June 1 to November 30). Add to the fury of nature the regime’s mismanagement. They are surrounded. And defenseless.

Cuba Tries to Constrict the Summit of the Americas / Ivan Garcia

June 4, 2015 Leave a comment

ATLAPA1-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 4 April 2015 — If the 56 years of the olive-green autocracy are analyzed using statistics or tangible results that demonstrate progress, the result can be bewildering.

An inventory of the Cuban economy in the last 25 years, and a serious analysis of comparative statistics, will confirm the thesis that the olive green regime has sold us smoke.

If we believe the official data on the growth of GDP, such as those obtained for three consecutive years (11.8% in 2005, 12.5% in 2006 and 7.3% in 2008), the economic indices of Cuba would be at the level of the Asian tigers (South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan). The supposed achievements can only be seen in the daily newspaper Granma and in EcuRed, the Cuban version of Wikipedia, where we retrieved those figures.

Real life tells us the opposite. Allotted apartments without a coherent urban layout, with ugly buildings and low-quality construction. A highway under construction for 40 years with no end in sight. And a capital that is the perfect portrait of the destruction of a city.

The three achievements of Fidel Castro—idealized education, universal healthcare, and sports—are in outright decline.

“In twenty-first century Cuba we can’t even produce a toothbrush. We have to spend more than two billion dollars on imported food, despite having wide swaths of uncultivated acreage,” says Anselmo, an elderly cigar-roller.

But if the economy is a madhouse, with arbitrary constraints by the state and a mafia-like cartel which it uses to its advantage, in political matters the Castro brothers have a doctorate.

Never in the history of the world has a small, poor nation, with an army equipped with castoffs and antiques, conquered another country. In their time, England, Belgium, Holland and Portugal had powerful fleets and solid economies.

Cuba has neither. But it has been able to conquer Venezuela without firing a shot, despite the South American country having three times the population of the Island, and large oil reserves.

Ideologically speaking, the government of Nicolas Maduro is umbilically attached to the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. The Cuban regime has always been more political than economic.

It has managed to weave a web of alliances with Third World nations selling a narrative of sovereignty, providing medical services, and advising in the fields of science, sports, technology, and military.

According to Luis Manuel, a graduate of a Soviet university, “The rules of the economics game that our leaders learned in the USSR were outdated and never worked. But the legacy of the KGB and of spymaster Marcus Wolf’s STASI, served to prop up the ineffective economy. In particular the special services, experts in manipulation, in colonizing democratic spaces, and in the art of repression.”

The structures of the State—with a lockstep Parliament that has never voted against a proposal from the executive, with no free elections for president, with one party, and without independent courts or unions—are designed to prevent discord.

According to Tamara, a retired teacher, “that civil society they are now talking about in Cuba is pure gibberish.” And she’s right.

All the intellectuals, religious, and academics are integrated into associations controlled by the State. And they have become a useful tool that the government uses as a propaganda vector or in solidarity with its allies, as is the case now in Venezuela.

After receiving government approval, they launch initiatives, sign public statements, or organize gatherings and demonstrations in “support for the revolution.” Their offices belong to the state and their magazines, conferences, and meetings depend on the public purse.

The only two sectors with their own voice in Cuba, although having little impact in the country, are the opposition (la disidencia) and independent journalism. To be fashionable, Raul Castro co-opted the term “civil society” and gave the green light to dozens of “independent” organizations, which they had already enlisted, to attend the social forum in advance of the Seventh Summit of the Americas, on April 10 and 11 in Panama.

With financial support from the state and from other countries, which paid for airfare and lodging, a section of “civil society” controlled by the Castros will meet in the Panamanian capital.

It will be an interesting battle. Across the street, paid for by private foundations and the U.S. government, according to the roadmap implemented by Obama on December 17, will be a meeting, also including opposition members, who seek to publicize the repression and lack of political freedoms for more than five decades in Cuba.

It’s always healthy when conflicting sides feel free to chat without insulting each other. It is a sign of culture, tolerance, and modernity. But these debates should be held in Havana, not in another nation.

When Cubans of whatever political inclination, divided by the discourse of fear so well managed by the Castros, decide to listen to their adversaries, we can then civilly negotiate the future of our country.

If that “civil society” sponsored by the regime, resorts to insults and deaf ears against the dissidents who attend in Panama, it would signal that the Cuban government will remain committed to canceling out opposition and to mortgaging the future.

Cubans, thinking as they think and living where they live, must learn to live in harmony. And stop, once and for all, being strangers in our own land.

Iván García

Photo: Atlapa Convention Center, home of the Summit of the Americas VII, April 10 and 11, 2015, is located in the heart of Panama City, just five minutes from the airport. There are 19 soundproof meeting rooms, with multiple entries, movable walls, and interchangeable furniture. Panama’s artistic soul is present in the decoration: colorful beads made by the Guaymi Indians; drums, ritual flutes, original blouses of the Kuna Indians, and sculptures, braided jute and baskets from the mountainous regions, contribute to beautify the interiors of the main convention center in Panama. Additional press lounges, offices for organizers of events and offset copy center. An area of tourist services provides support for meetings, receptions, and registration of delegates, among other tasks. The Plaza de las Banderas, decorated with a lush tropical vegetation, can be used for exhibitions, folk performances, and other outdoor events (TQ).

The NBA Was Always a Reference Point in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

nash-nba-cuba-28014-_mn-620x330Miguel Frómeta, a light-skinned Afro-Cuban about six feet tall and around 50 years old, will have to follow the news about the basketball clinic to be taught in Cuba by former NBA players on April 23rd, from a dirty kitchen in Valle Grande prison on the outskirts of Havana.

30 years ago Frómeta emerged as one of the most promising small forwards in national basketball. He studied at a sports school west of the city and was a rabid fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the phenomenal center of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA, just like the Beatles, was banned by the olive-green regime of Fidel Castro under the pretext of causing harmful ideological influences in a uniform and Marxist society.

Young basketball fans like Frómeta had to make do with secretly watched NBA games. In the 80s, when there was no Internet, Joel, a neighbor, remembers spending hours watching the incredible plays of guys like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson on a VCR.

During those years, in the courtyard La Vibora college prep, 25 minutes from the center of the capital, hoops fans leafed through magazines illustrated with photos and statistics of the NBA, which arrived secretly in the luggage of Cuban residents in Miami.

Every afternoon at twilight, they set up a basketball tournament under the lights, in a three-on-three format known as “guerrillas.” The court was solid cement. And up to fifty large boys took part in the improvised matches. The winning team got the right to continue playing.

The losers gathered in the shade of a leafy ceiba tree to discuss Michael Jordan’s latest moves or find out how the NBA season was progressing. All the information was oral.

The cream of the cream of Havana basketball competed in those fiery pickup games. Richard Matienzo, the power forward of the national team with the spectacular dunks, was a fixture. As was Adalberto Alvarez, Rolando Alfonso, and a dozen players from provincial and national teams.

Under a blazing sun, Luis Castellanos, a gray-haired coach who had played college basketball in the United States, trained in two sessions some thirty children and adolescents, in the methods and vision of an offensive game based on physical dominance, athleticism, aggression, and spectacle, which was a carbon copy of the basketball that is taught in the United States.

In Cuba there has always been a remarkable fan base for the sport of basketball. In the late 40s, Fidel Castro spent hours playing on the court of the stadium of the University of Havana.

Started in 1946, the NBA did not then have the same media outreach on the island as Major League Baseball. But in Havana neighborhoods such as La Vibora, Luyanó, or El Vedado, basketball of undeniable quality was played.

With the arrival of the bearded ones to power in 1959 the sport became massive. It was common for Castro to train with the national quintet in the City Sports Coliseum.

A retired basketball player says “Fidel had a good level of play. He played forward and center and was relentless on the boards. We knew about his character, at times he could be touchy, so we let him play. On average he scored 25 to 30 points. Only then would he leave happy.”

Miguel Calderón, a member of the basketball team that won the bronze medal in 1972 at Munich, and later coach of the national team, lived in La Vibora and was part of that batch of boys who became players on the neighborhood courts.

Luis, now an incurable alcoholic, recalls how in the early 90s, together with several neighbors in Santos Suarez, using a homemade antenna, they intercepted the signal of a television channel intended exclusively for foreign tourists. “Every night we followed the NBA season. I still rub my eyes when I remember those incredible moves of Michael Jordan, Johnson, or Dressler.”

Later on the court he tried to imitate those moves of that pack of great NBA players. Luis could not play at a high enough level not to be sentenced to five years in prison for “dangerousness,” a bizarre legal rule that imprisons people who the State believes “undermine the socialist society.”

In the late 1990s, Cuban television aired some tape-delayed NBA games and this led to a rebound in basketball play. In the national league tournaments interesting players emerged like Angel Oscar Caballero, Roberto Carlos Herrera, Richard Matienzo, Lazaro Borrell, and Andres Guibert, who later left the country.

Borrell and Guibert were able to break into the NBA. Right now, either by means of an illegal antenna or through matches broadcast on  Sundays by a local sports channel, basketball lovers know the NBA inside and out.

Probably Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash would be amazed at the large number of followers they have in Cuba, and by the deep knowledge of the NBA. LeBron James is a big deal, as are James Hardy, Curry, and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc.

Despite state censorship in one form or another, Cubans manage to get all kinds of sports information. You may have the impression that Cuba is more an island than ever. But thanks to popular ingenuity, increasingly we are less.

Iván García

Note – from April 23 to 26, the NBA and FIBA (International Basketball Federation) organized in Havana the first joint basketball camp for boys and girls. This agreement makes the NBA the first professional sports league in the United States to visit Cuba since last December 17, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations.

Steve Nash (pictured), twice winner of the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the NBA; Dikembe Mutombo, international ambassador for the NBA; and Ticha Penicheiro, Portuguese legend of the WNBA (the female version of the NBA), will lead the camp and community projects in collaboration with the INDER (National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation) and the Cuban Basketball Federation, presided over by former basketballer Ruperto Herrera.

The NBA and FIBA, through the NBA Cares program, rehabilitated three basketball courts and organized youth camps in two places in Havana.

Photomontage taken from Journal Gol.

21 April 2015

Between Joy and Sadness, Cubans Celebrate Mother’s Day

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Madre-cubana-con-tres-hijo-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 10 May 2015 — Although the cloudy afternoon threatened a downpour in the area south of Havana, Mark came downtown to shop for some things on the eve of Mother’s Day.

In a state-owned hard-currency store he bought clearance-priced food for 43 convertible pesos for his mother, leather sandals for his wife for 24.70, and a 16-gigabyte flash memory for his mother on the black market, paying $10 CUC.

“I spent about 80 dollars. The business of selling tamales is not going well, but I saw it coming, so a month before I began to save dollars (foreign exchange). With this money I bought plenty of postcards to send to mothers of friends and relatives, three bunches of yellow flowers for my mother, my mother-in-law, and my wife, and on Sunday May 10 between a grilled snapper, a case of beer, and two or three bottles of rum, the tab was around 100 ’chavitos’ (CUCs),” Mark says, while waiting for an old state-owned taxi.

Ricardo, unemployed, has only been able to buy five postcards for a peso at the post office. “If I can sell two sacks of cement, for twenty pesos (about a dollar) I can buy a cake that they sell in the bakery. Other years I’ve been able to give better things. But now I’m ‘arrancao’ (broke). ”

For two packs of Hollywood cigarettes and a can of Nestle’s condensed milk, Yunier, an inmate at Combinado del Este maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana, can get a fifteen-minute phone call to talk with his mother and his sisters on Sunday.

“Someone is always unavailable on Mother’s Day. Last year my husband was in jail for shoplifting. Now it’s my son, and my youngest daughter, who went to Italy with her husband. The point is that the family is never together, “says Diana, Yunier’s mother.

For various reasons, on the second Sunday of May, a day of harmony and celebration, many families in Cuba are not able to celebrate together. Emigration is one of those reasons.

People like Yosvier pay twenty-five cents (in convertible pesos) per minute at a neighborhood house where there is a cubicle for clandestine calls abroad and he can chat for a few hours with his mother who lives in Hialeah.

“In 2014 she was able to come for a visit and the whole family could celebrate together. This year she couldn’t come. My mother is saving to get me out of the country. She works two jobs in Miami so she can send a few dollars to my grandparents and me,” Yosvier says.

For Hiram, Mother’s Day is an irrefutable sign of the anthropological damage caused by 56 years of the olive-green autocracy on the island. “My mother and sister left Cuba as political refugees and as long as Fidel and Raul Castro are in power they cannot visit their homeland. It’s been eleven years since I’ve seen them. On Mother’s Day they call me by phone.”

It is harder still for Onelio. On the morning of May 10th he will go to Colon Cemetery in Vedado to place flowers at the grave of his mother, who died of an aggressive cancer two years ago.

“I’ve spent about an hour speaking quietly with her. Wherever my mother is, she is helping me and guiding me. I was raised to be a good person. That day is very sad for me. ”

As the story goes, the first celebrations of Mother’s Day date back to ancient Greece, where they paid homage to Rhea, the mother of the gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.

In Norway, it is celebrated on the second Sunday of February. In Ireland and the UK on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In 1914 US President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, a tradition that became international in several countries, including Cuba.

Although there is not agreement among Cuban historians, it is believed that in 1920 the sports writer Victor Muñoz was the promoter of that date to also be celebrated on the island.

Despite laughable wages, shortages, and daily hardships, Cubans celebrate Mother’s Day.

The regime of Fidel Castro buried old traditions, and many meals are a distant memory, but the family unit has survived the Marxist ideological nonsense and the planned economy. Luckily.

Iván García

Photo: Mother with her three children in a Havana suburb. Courtesy of EFE-TUR Travel.