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Havana: Sweltering Heat and Chicken for Fish / Ivan Garcia

August 6, 2015 Leave a comment
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Photo taken from El Lumpen

Ivan Garcia, Havana, 1 July 2015 — In a dimly lit butcher shop directly across the street from the Passionist church in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, two boys play a game of dice on the counter. An assistant calmly sharpens a pair of knives while the butcher, shirtless and sitting on a rickety stool outside, works on a year-old crossword puzzle in Bohemia magazine.

On a blackboard there is an announcement: Chicken for fish* and ground meat. A few retirees line up with their shopping bags and take shelter from the sweltering heat under an eave.

It is reminiscent of a surrealist Chagall painting. “Neither the chicken nor the ground meat has arrived but the truck could arrive at any time,” the butcher informs the customers without looking up from his puzzle.

It does not matter to the grandparents trying to take shelter from the sun. They have time on their hands. They chat aimlessly and remember back when every nine days the government distributed beef to all the members of one’s immediate family through the ration book.

“Now everything is a luxury. Beef, milk, fruit. In the 1980s beef was rationed but at least we had it from time to time. We were better off before the Revolution, when a roast beef sandwich this big (indicating the size with her fingers) cost fifteen cents,” one of them notes as she moves the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth.

The most moving image in today’s Cuba is that of the elderly. Many, abandoned by their families, live on the edge by selling plastic bags or loose cigarettes.

Others beg for money on the street or near nursing homes. For them Raul Castro’s lukewarm economic reforms are like a distant comet. They are the big losers.

It is already noon in Havana. The sun warps the asphalt. Steam rises up like wisps of smoke. The street looks like a match about to burst into flame. Only the most intrepid dare go outside to run an errand or make a purchase.

But there they are. Two dozen people wait in line to pay their phone bills at the ETECSA office. A crowd strolls among the stalls at the farmers’ market.

Antonio, a bank employee, does some mathematical calculations on his mobile phone. On a shelf in front of him lie several pork chops with flies buzzing around them. He wants to negotiate a lower price with the butcher. “Hey, forty-five pesos (two dollars) for a pound of pork chops is high. If he drops the price to forty pesos, I’ll buy fifteen pounds,” he says, describing his offer.

The vendor, wearing the green scrub shirt of a surgeon, does not even budge. “Look, tomorrow the price will probably be fifty pesos. This is all I have. If you don’t want them, some else will,” he says, puffing away on a menthol cigarette.

Even though it is the middle of a work day, streets and businesses are deserted. “No one works here. It’s a country of bums and drunkards,” says a man gazing at a sidewalk bar across the street.

By nine in the morning all the tables in the dingy bar are occupied. Several men brave the oppressive heat to down cheap rum or a light amber brew sold as beer on tap.

Everyone is talking loudly in the “distinctive” Cuban vernacular. They stop swearing long enough to call out to the bartender: “Asere, get me another round.” They place their orders with faces are marked by tragedy. Not surprisingly, there is no fan in the place and everyone is sweating buckets.

Drinking alcohol is one of the three national pastimes, along with playing dominoes and planning to emigrate.

Next door to the makeshift bar is a hard-currency cafe, which sells desserts priced like gold. The good news is their beer supply arrived two days ago. They offer imported Heineken and Bavaria for 1.80 CUC and domestically produced Cristal and Bucanero for one CUC. The bad news is all the tables are full and the air conditioning is turned off.

“This heat is melting me. Please, turn that machine on,” screams one parishioner.

“The management has ordered us not to turn it on until 3:00 P.M. to save power,” replies an employee.

“With the prices you charge, you can’t afford to pay the light bill? What is the government doing with all the money?” asks a customer. No one answers.

Just outside the seating area, summer awaits. The thermometer reads 91ºF in Havana. School holidays have already started. Families rack their brains to ensure their children have two meals a day and count their pesos in hopes of taking them on a weekend trip to the beach.

Meanwhile, La Vibora’s elderly retirees await chicken for fish.

Ivan Garcia

*Translator’s note: A common expression in Cuba which indicates ration card holders may substitute chicken for their allotment of fish, which has become nearly unavailable to average consumers.

Cuba and its Magical Realism in Politics / Ivan Garcia

August 6, 2015 Leave a comment
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Gladys Marta Galvez in front of her soon to be blown-away shack

Ivan Garcia, 4 August 2015 — In Latin American literature, magical realism has weighty authors like Alejo Carpentier, Arturo Úslar Pietri, or the genius of Aracataca, Gabriel García Márquez, who with his fictional town of Macondo portrayed a continent of rascals, loafers, and pompous leaders.

In politics, magical realism has its ultimate leader in Fidel Castro. The Cuban elder has no match when it comes to selling smoke.

Probably only the sinister Adolf Hitler overshadowed him in the art of enchanting an entire people and setting them marching and applauding. The real economy in Cuba stopped working 54 years ago.

He lived off the story, of campaigns and bursts of gunfire, which contained more optical illusion than fact. The nationalization and absurd central planning of the production of matches, croquettes, and toothbrushes, killed creativity.

We Cubans were all a coupon book. A number in the OFICODA [the government agency that distributed the coupon book every year]. Six pounds of rice per month and two cotton shirts per year. The economy was a mirage supported by a torrent of rubles coming from the Kremlin.

They designed a system of universal healthcare, vigorous and effective, with borrowed money. They intensively and irrationally exploited the land with fertilizers, oil, and tractors that arrived from Moscow or Siberia.

Cuba was a fable. A bubble. A hypertrophic country. Without butter or shrimp, but with a bunch of Olympic champions, and a sacred cow that produced 110 liters of milk.

Dazzled, twice a month Castro inaugurated works such as “the most modern textile mill in the world” in Santa Clara, a cheese factory in Cumanayagua that “would destroy the French cheese industry,” and millions of dollars sunk into building a nuclear plant in Juraguá.

When Soviet communism said “adiós,” Cuba had a hard landing. For 30 years we had been perched on a cloud, living a fairy tale. Reality was different. Production was sloppy and inefficient. And there were more political, bureaucratic, and professional commissars than workers and peasants.

Not knowing how to capitalize on the billions of rubles, we suddenly entered into a black hole euphemistically named the “special period in times of peace.” A war without bombardments or explosions.

Gone were the changes of clothing and the plastic shoes sold to us at bargain prices by the generous olive-green state.

It was every man for himself. The phone became an effective weapon: in two hours, your Miami relatives (the once hated “worms”) could toss you a hundred bucks by Western Union. And with money from the “imperialist enemy” you bought “luxury” foods such as milk powder, cooking oil, or sausage.

Cuba zigzagged between poverty and inflation. During the 80s Carlos Solchaga, adviser to the Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, came to Havana to advise Fidel Castro.

Slowly, the suspicious Castro opened up to capitalism. A strange symbiosis. To the populace, speeches of resistance, cheap nationalism, and anti-imperialism. Meanwhile, in the underground conduits of power a military-business network was being forged.

The island passed from the Castro regime’s socialism to crony capitalism run by military generals and colonels. A magical and silent change. With the arrival in Miraflores of the paratrooper from Barinas, Hugo Chavez, the best possible scenario gelled: another foreign pocket to sustain the ideological nonsense.

In any state, ideology will always be a pretext, a booby trap. If you want to function and be efficient, you must have clear accounts, work hard, and invest in education and new technologies. There is no other formula.

As long as there is money there will be capitalism. The great sin of the Castro brothers is not that they are boorish autocrats. No. Their mistake is that they are not modern dictators capable of establishing a decent economy.

The censorship of the internet for many years has taken its toll on the economy, business, and professional talent. Cuba opens itself to the world full of phobias, inaccuracies, and lies.

The economy, they tell us, is growing every year. It’s like inflating a carnival balloon. The numbers never add up to reality.

While financial czar Marino Murillo tells us in a speech that the GDP grew 4.7% in the first half of 2015, average Cubans scratch their heads at the inflated prices of food in the supermarket.

The economic prosperity that they talk about in the official media does not show up on the tables of Cuban homes. You don’t see it in increased consumption of goods.

The political magical realism of the Castros is a tale to be told. Never before has anyone sold so much without having anything.

Iván García

Note – On July 28, Jorge Bello Dominguez, of the Cuban Network of Community Communicators, reported on and photographed the living conditions of Gladys Marta Galvez, 66 years old, of Calle 82-A No. 7909 between 79th and 81st, Guira de Melena, a municipality in the province of Artemisa, about 50 kilometers east of Havana. Two days later, Dominguez Bello reported that after a storm with rain and severe winds passed through, the “apartment” collapsed and she lost the few things she had. The photo shows what remains of her wooden shack:

She was at the neighbors’ house, but due to the mental retardation she suffers, she will soon be wandering the streets, like many Cubans throughout the island, the many that ministers of the regime are unaware of or do not want to be aware of. Gladys Marta receives a monthly pension of 200 pesos (about 8 dollars); she has no family in Cuba; her only brother left on the Boatlift from Mariel in 1980 and she has never heard from him since (TQ).