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Cuba: Living to Eat / Ivan Garcia

July 31, 2015 Leave a comment
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Photo: White rice with fried eggs, chili sauce, tamales wrapped in leaves, fried plantains, guava shells and Baracoa-style cucuruchos (palm leaf cones filled with sweetened coconut) are typical Cuban dishes Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, enjoys.

Iván García, 28 July 2015 — Juliana, a seventy-three-year-old housewife, devotes much of her time to tasks related to feeding her family. “I spend eight hours cleaning rice, picking through beans, which are very dirty, buying bread, scouring produce markets, butcher shops and corner stores to see what is available and making lunch and dinner,” she explains while preparing black bean soup.

Julia and those like her do not fit the national pattern: They still have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. “My daughters make good salaries and I get dollars from relatives in the United States, but it evaporates in trying to eat as best we can.”

In Cuba people live to eat. Food costs eat up 90% of the average salary. “And it’s not enough,” notes Renier, a laborer. “The only reason I don’t spend my entire salary on food is because I have to pay the light, water and gas bills.”

The average monthly salary is around twenty-three dollars. The state provides a meager amount of foodstuffs each month at subsidized prices through the ration book. It includes seven pounds of rice, three pounds of refined sugar, two pounds of brown sugar, twenty ounces of dried beans, a pound of chicken and half a kilogram of ground beef mixed with soy. The cost per person does not exceed twenty pesos (less than a dollar). Everyone also has the right to a daily 2.8 ounce bread roll once a day for five cents.

“It doesn’t last for more than ten days. The rest of the month is a problem,” says a Cuban doctor. “The biggest tragedy for Cubans is the issue of food. Even if you have money, you can’t find what you want. Not in the hard-currency store, not on the black market. Finding enough to eat is a very stressful.”

In hospital clinics it is customary to give doctors presents in exchange for good treatment. “Patients often give us food like ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken thighs or pork legs. Many doctors have a more comfortable life thanks to these gifts,” he adds.

The big debate in Cuba is when the country’s vaunted economic growth will reach Cuban dinner tables. According the the regime, the country’s GDP trend line has been moving upward for fifteen years.

However, this incremental growth has not translated into lower food prices or an increase in production. If you look at the figures for meat, poultry, fish or produce production, you will see that any increase has been minimal and in many cases it has  actually gone into reverse.

The former sugar supplier to the world now produces less than two million tons of sugar a year. Fresh milk is a luxury, as are beef, fish and shellfish.

Fruits like guava, chirimoya, sugar apple and orange are distant memories to the Cuban palate. Behind a slight increase in certain legumes and vegetables lies skillful manipulation. The government is blowing smoke.

In no sector of the food industry does the increased growth match the highpoint of 1989. While it was also an era of shortages, the production of bread, milk, eggs and potatoes did meet demand.

But not now. There is a joke that, before the nightly news, people place baskets under their televisions to collect the harvests of fruits, vegetables and meat which only grow in the official media.

The average family in Cuba has only one hot meal a day. “For lunch I heat up something from the night before,” says Regla, a professor who cooks meals at home for her husband and two children. “On Sundays I often make a nice lunch with pork or chicken and at night we eat something light. The regular Monday-to-Saturday menu consists of white rice or congrí (rice cooked with black beans), eggs in some fashion, and a cucumber, cabbage, avocado or tomato salad.”

Except when there are visitors, everything is served on one plate to avoid having too many dishes to wash. Rice makes up the largest portion. Some people do not even sit at the table anymore, preferring to eat while watching television.

Prices in hard currency stores are shocking. A kilogram of domestically produced white cheese costs 3.75 CUC and 8.10 CUC for Gouda. Ham goes for more than 8 CUC while a half-kilogram steak is about 10 CUC. A packet of chicken thighs costs 2.40 CUC. A thousand-gram can of tuna is 8.90 CUC and a liter of cooking oil is 2.10 CUC.

Produce markets accept Cuban pesos but inflation has also impacted the national currency. A pound of pork chops costs 45 pesos. A pound of black beans goes for 12 pesos, 14 pesos for the colored variety. Chickpeas are the most expensive at 18 to 20 pesos a pound. A pound of tomatoes is 15 pesos. An avocado is 10. A pound of mango costs 5 to 6 pesos, while a pound of peanuts goes for 16 pesos.

“I go shopping at the produce market once a week for my household,” says Gerardo, a private sector worker. “I spend 1,200 pesos (55 dollars), which buys enough to last four or five days. No matter what we do, we are always blowing through money.”

Poor people, who make up the majority, and those with low incomes who do not have relatives on the other side of the pond, eat little and poorly. “My main course is often croquettes made from ’poultry’ (chicken, according to the government), sausages they sell for 1.10 CUC a packet or eggs, the national dish par excellence,” says Carmen, a retiree.

Those with fatter wallets eat better. They shop with hard currency, which on the black market buys them shellfish, fresh fish and beef. But everyone — those with more money and those with less money — spends most of his or her income on food. In Cuba you do not eat to live, you live to eat.

Photo: White rice with fried eggs, chili sauce, tamales wrapped in leaves, fried plantains, guava shells and Baracoa-style cucuruchos (palm leaf cones filled with sweetened coconut) are typical Cuban dishes Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, enjoys.

Cuba-USA: Embassies and Average Cubans / Ivan Garcia

July 27, 2015 1 comment
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Source: Telemundo

Ivan Garcia, 19 July 2015 — Norge imagines himself sipping Cuban coffee at the Versailles restaurant in Miami on July 20 as officials of the Castro regime in white guayaberas and Americans in jackets and ties listen to their national anthems being played and watch flags being hoisted at their respective embassies in Washington and Havana.

For a couple of months he has been planning an illegal escape from the northern coast of the island with a group of friends. Days before setting off to sea in a metal boat outfitted with a diesel engine, Norge consults his Santeria priestess to see if luck is on his side.

The woman throws several snails onto a wooden board and says, “Now is the time.” The rafters then accelerate their plans.

“Once diplomatic relations are reestablished between Cuba and the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act’s days will be numbered. I don’t have family in the yuma* and it isn’t getting any easier here. As usual, things keep going downhill, so I hope to be playing dominos in Miami on July 20,” Norge says optimistically.

He and his friends have played their last cards. “Some sold their cars and other valuables to raise money so we could build the safest boat possible. We’ve gotten GPS and some members of the group also have maritime experience,” he notes.

No sooner had President Obama and General Castro concluded their respective speeches on December 17, 2014 in which they announced their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations than Cubans who had been thinking about emigrating, legally or illegally, to the yuma began speeding up their plans.

If you talk to people who have been waiting since dawn in a park across the street from the future U.S. embassy in Vedado for a consular interview, you will find that the new diplomatic landscape has made them more dubious than happy.

A significant number of Cubans are planning to leave permanently or are applying for temporary visas before the United States turns off the spigot.

“I can already see it coming. For every ten people interviewed for tourist visas, nine are turned down. I think that, after relations are restored on July 20, they’ll only approve family reunification trips. Temporary visas will be reserved for government officials and dissidents,” claims Servando who, in spite of being twice denied  a visa to visit his daughter, keeps on trying.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Immigration Service almost nineteen million Cubans have entered the country by sea or overland from Mexico since the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1, a figure equivalent to the total for the previous year. Since the diplomatic thaw was announced, the figure is two-thirds that.

The increase in the number of undocumented Cubans arriving in the United States due to the resumption of diplomatic relations is so high that social service agencies in Florida cannot cope. They are near collapse, with two month-long waiting lists, as press reports indicate.

This situation is hindering resettlement of people in other states as well as delaying work permits and emergency financial relief. Newcomers fear the resumption of diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level will put an end to immigration laws favorable to Cubans.

Analysts have said that the steps taken by the Obama administration do not alert the Cuban Adjustment Act, which is not in danger and which cannot simply be repealed by a presidential decree.

In essence it is what is referred to as a public law (Public Law 89-7320). It was passed by the 89th Congress and has the status of a federal statute. In contrast to so-called private laws, it deals with issues of general interest and can only be amended, revised or revoked by the Congress of the United States.

Several Cuban-American politicians have called for it to be repealed or at least amended to reflect current realities. A significant number of Cubans granted protection under the Cuban Adjustment Act have been visiting the island in recent months on a kind of spree.

Curiously, their views coincide with those of the aged military regime. Cuba is the only country on the planet which seeks repeal of a law whose outcome would adversely impact its citizens’ emigration prospects and federal protections.

If the prospects are troubling for those with dreams of emigrating to the United States, for new private-sector entrepreneurs the political shift of two nations caught up in their own Cold War looks promising.

Onelio, the owner of a four-car fleet of cars and jeeps used as collective taxis, believes the reestablishment of diplomatic relations represents a golden business opportunity.

“If the government wants people to live better, then things have to change. First they have to lift the internal embargo on small business owners and stop being afraid that Cubans might make a lot of money. Then they will have to come up with a strategy to make Obama’s proposals effective so that the people can benefit from them. If they keep singing the same old tune (outdated rhetoric), the mask will fall and the world will see who is really responsible for poverty in Cuba, “says Onelio.

The majority of the population applauds the new political script. “It’s better to live in peace and harmony,” says a Havana taxi driver. “People are tired of the scary rhetoric against the United States. The Americans are our neighbors and have always been seen as an example by the average Cuban, both before the revolution and now. The rest is cheap political jockeying.”

Afro-Cubans move at a different pace compared to their nation’s leaders. Seven months after the historical accord, the island’s population aspires to more than a name change for the U.S. Interests Section.

“People want to see concrete things,” notes Rosario. “More food, the city and its housing renovated, improvements in transport, broadband internet, inexpensive international phone calls, cheaper airline tickets and for private business people to be able to import directly from the United States. None of that is happening. We don’t want more blather; we want to see advances.”

Even the dissident community is divided. One group supports the new policies while another believes too much has been given up without getting anything from an autocratic regime clinging to the past.

Cuba’s ruler live in another galaxy. They have a sense of vertigo. They plan on taking things slow so as not to lose control.

For now, the benefits of change exist only in the analyses and the conjectures of academics, politicians and journalists. Therefore, the plans of those such as Norge, who are fleeing the country on makeshift rafts, are taking on added urgency. “God willing, I will watch the embassy ceremonies on television. From Miami. ”

Ivan Garcia

 *Translator’ note: Cuban slang for the United States.

Cuba: From Soviet Comrades to Yankee Misters / Ivan Garcia

July 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Raúl-Castro-y-Obama-caricatura-de-Michel-Kichka2-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 July 2015 — For the time being the brutish hunk of concrete that was the Soviet embassy and now serves as the headquarters of the Russian Federation — located on beautiful Fifth Avenue in Miramar, a neighborhood in western Havana — will remain the largest foreign chancery building in Cuba.

Perhaps at some point in the future, after the US Congress has approved funds, the White House will solicit bids from cutting-edge architects to design a unique and wonderful embassy building in Havana.

For now Secretary of State John Kerry will have to hoist the Stars and Stripes on the site of the building designed by Max Abramowitz and Wallace Harrison, of the firm Harrison & Abramowitz, has occupied since 1953.

The six-story building features large windows along one side of Havana’s Malecon, with blue-green glass to filter the strong sun. It has central air-conditioning but its windows can still be opened to take advantage of the sea breeze.

The walls are clad in rose gray Jaimanita limestone. The gardens are the work of California architect Thomas D. Church. In 1997 the building underwent extensive renovations.

The once and future embassy is small given the fifty-thousand tourist and family reunification visa applications it processes every year.

A cluster of small businesses have set up shop in the neighborhood around the US Interests Section. They range from food service to lodging to filling out electronic forms.

In the basement of a three-story building, a stone’s throw from the embassy, is a burger joint frequented by US officials and diplomatic personnel.

In anticipation of changes to come, the restaurant’s owner has decided to expand the menu and change the look of the place. “I will have US flags hanging and jazz videos playing on a wide screen TV,” he says.

The American flag was a design motif on the clothing of no small number of Cubans, even before December 17, 2014. Leggings, jeans and T-shirts sporting the bald eagle along with fifty stars on a field of red, white and blue have been a fixture of the capital as well as cities further inland. It is also quite common to see the Cuban and American flags on pedicabs, taxis and private cars.

The re-opening of embassies on July 20 was not a surprise for the average Cuban. It was a foregone conclusion.

“We were just waiting for the date. Some thought it would be July 4th because that is Independence Day in the United States. In the bolita (underground lottery) many were betting on numbers and symbols that had something to do with what’s going on between the two countries,” says a bolita bookie.

Although Afro-Cuban expectations have dimmed in light of the reluctance of Raul Castro’s government to lay out a roadmap that would allow private entrepreneurs to take out loans or import supplies from the United States, people have overwhelmingly approved of the thaw.

There is palpable sense of affinity and admiration for anything that comes from the yuma*. A smart phone, tablet, computer or electronic device with a “Made in USA” label is guaranteed to sell for a good price on the black market.

“It’s always been that way. Before and after the Revolution, when we were allies of the Soviets and when the Berlin Wall fell. Cubans were still big fans of American products. We never got into Russian food or their fashions and customs, even though you still see some Russian names and some very uncomfortable cars like Ladas, Volgas and Moskoviches. We even like the American national anthem,” says a shopkeeper in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton as he hums a line from “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It has been a 180 degree turn. From the screaming people, incited by the regime, and slogans against the United States to an unsuccessful Communist Party media campaign against North American consumer society.

“There are headlines in the paper every day about the rise in poverty and homelessness in American cities. In the 1970s I was convinced the Ku Klux Klan was lynching negroes on virtually every street corner of New York. Fidel even boasted that within ten years Cuba would  have a higher standard of living than the United States. It was really too much!” says Eulogio, a retiree.

While the new state of affairs may have caught the government off guard and without a coherent strategy, Cubans themselves are getting ready for D-Day. Films, TV series and pirated music videos are being sold by the ton in homes throughout the island.

Both private and state-owned English-language schools have been proliferating and the favorite destination for future emigres is still the United States. All that remains of onetime Soviet influence is a sinking economy, central planning, bureaucracy and ideological madness.

The former USSR left behind a trail of unsightly cars and a hideous building in Miramar that is the antithesis of architecture. And that’s it.

Ivan Garcia

Cartoon by Michael Kichka (Belgium, 1954). From i24News.

 *Translator’s note: Cuban slang for the United States.

Making Love the Way God Intended Is a Luxury in Cuba / Ivan Garvia

July 17, 2015 Leave a comment
Photo caption is at end of post

Photo caption is at end of post

Ivan Garcia, 25 June 2015 — Alberto works at a fresh produce market. On weekends he makes an advanced reservation for a room with a big soft bed surrounded by mirrors and a refrigerator stocked with beer.

“The deal costs me 10 ’fulas’ (convertible pesos) per night, but it’s the only way to have an intimate moment with my girlfriend. Luckily I have my own business. Otherwise, we’d have to do it (make love) in a park like the majority of young people of my generation,” he says while weighing two pounds of beans.

In Cuba, anything can be a problem. It’s common to wait an hour for a city bus that’s not too full to board. A lot of people cannot afford to eat two meals a day, and having coffee with cream is somewhat exotic.

Having sex in private can become a luxury, too. Ask Yasmani, a university student who has to improvise wherever he is in order to have intimate relations with his girlfriend.

“My parents aren’t able to give me the five CUC that it costs to rent a room for three hours in a private residence*. At home, I share a bedroom with my sister and my grandmother. To have sex with my girlfriend, we have to be creative and find a place in the park or the stair well of the building where I live, or in a schoolyard. I don’t recommend dark parks. In addition to the regular masturbators, they are teeming with gangs that assault you to steal the clothes off your back or your cell phone. Once a custodian caught us in the classroom of a school and we ended up at the police station. We’ve discovered a ’love nest’ in an abandoned neighborhood building. Let’s see how long our good luck lasts,” confesses Yasmani.

“The lack of housing on the island is the primary cause of four different generations living under the same roof. “This itself is a problem. Sharing a bedroom with other relatives also makes it complicated to have a space for intimacy,” notes Carlos, a sociologist.

“On Saturdays, when I have enough money, I give my brother 50 national pesos (two dollars) so he he’ll rent me his room for a couple of hours, and I can have some privacy with my girlfriend,” explains Jorge, a construction worker.

Even married couples have to be creative if they want to have an intimate space. “There are eight of us living in my house: my in-laws, my wife and I, and our four sons. We’ve had to share our bedroom with the kids. I sleep on the living room sofa. When my wife and I want to have sex, we have to wait until my in-laws go to bed, which they tend to do after one o’clock in the morning. It’s an odyssey,” says Erasmo.

In Havana, the hundreds of comfortable residences that rent out rooms are multiplying rapidly. Yusmila is the owner of a mansion that she’s converted into short-term, rentable rooms for couples. “The place is always full. I charge seven CUC per hour and twenty for the whole night. I offer food and drinks and the rooms have a jacuzzi.”  In the lobby, there’s a bar with an assortment of alcohol and a pool table.

But not everyone can afford places like this. Twenty five years ago in Cuba, there was a network of inexpensive inns run by the state.

“It’s true that they were dilapidated with walls full of obnoxious graffiti and holes that delighted voyeurs, but anyone could afford to stay in one for three to four hours. Outside of Havana, there were high quality inns, but you had to have your own car or go in taxi,” recalls Gustavo.

Nowadays for a night of privacy you need enough money to buy food and drink in addition to the minimum ten CUC, which is half of the average monthly salary.

“A good time with your ’jevita’ (girlfriend) easily costs you thirty or forty ’chavitos’ (thirty-five or forty dollars). Nobody’s budget can endure that, but it’s fun: hot and cold water, a movie star bed, and a TV with pornographic videos. But it’s a luxury. Normally, couples make love in a corner or in the brush like animals,” stresses Osvaldo, a technician in a factory.

Amid the tentative economic reforms of General Raúl Castro, there’s no mention of opening affordable lodging for students and laborers. His master plan doesn’t even consider a solution to the urgent housing deficit across the country.

Therefore, couples of little means will keep having sex wherever they can. Hooking up isn’t what’s hard in Cuba, it’s paying for a decent bed and three hours of privacy.

Iván García

Photo: Some Cubans turn their home into a business by renting a bedroom to couples seeking a private space to be intimate. This photo is one of the many rooms for Cuban couples that are found on Revolico, a website for announcements, rentals, services, and ads to buy or sell items, houses, and cars. In this case, a room with a private entrance, air conditioning, bathroom with hot and cold water, and a place to park. Located across from the Capri Hotel on 21st Street between N and O Streets in the Vedado area of Havana. Prices: 5 CUC for 3 hours (one CUC per additional hour); 10 CUC for the entire night, 8:00 pm to 8:00 am; and 15 CUC for the entire day.

 Translated by: Kathy Fox

“If You Keep Bothering Me, I’ll Have Them Call the Police,” Says Cardinal Jaime Ortega / Ivan Garcia

July 6, 2015 Leave a comment
Photo: A smiling Jaime Ortega next to Raul Castro, with whom he is apparently well attuned.

Photo: A smiling Jaime Ortega next to Raul Castro, with whom he is apparently well attuned.

Ivan Garcia, 4 July 2015 — Diplomacy does not seem to be Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s strongpoint. The archbishop of Havana behaved badly to a group of anti-Castro activists who were distributing a statement on a proposed amnesty law for political prisoners to diplomats attending 4th of July ceremonies at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, head of the US Interests Section in Havana.

The cardinal’s harsh comments came shortly after a musical group — clad in colorful Prussian blue uniforms with white caps — had finished playing the last notes of the national anthems of Cuba and the United States on their wind instruments and after a brief welcome by Mr. DeLaurentis.

Relaxed officials and accredited diplomats working in Havana were chatting with dissidents, musicians and Cuban intellectuals — they had been invited to Independence Day celebrations — as waiters served red wine, beer, fruit juice and canapés.

Activists Egberto Escobedo and Jose Diaz Silva approached Ortega, who was chatting with a group of bishops, to hand him a list of fifty-one political prisoners whose release the Forum for Rights and Liberties — a group led by Antonio Rodiles, Angel Moya and Berta Soler — had been requesting every Sunday for twelve weeks in the face of intense harassment by police.

“I don’t want you handing me another list. Send it to the ’worms’* broadcasting on the radio from Miami. If you keep bothering me, I’ll have them call the police,” responded Ortega angrily.

Diplomats, guests and foreign journalists were taken aback. His outburst was the talk of the evening.

“He seemed more like a Stalinist commissar than a compassionate agent of the Lord. We assumed the Catholic church was supposed to welcome all of us. But for some time now there has been a faction of the Cuban church that has not only turned its back on dissidents but has attacked us nearly as forcefully as the government,” said Victor Manuel Dominguez, a poet and freelance journalist.

An official from a western embassy, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed the opinion of his mission that “all that is being asked of Ortega is that he at least listen to a person’s demands, even if he does not agree with them.”

The Cuban archbishop’s verbal hostility stems from statements he made on June 5 to Cadena Ser, a Spanish radio station, in which he said that there are no longer political prisoners in Cuba.

This statement provoked a harsh response from activist Jose Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez. Antunez and other activists — including Rodiles, Guillermo Fariñas, Angel Moya and Berta Soler — were present during the cardinal’s tantrum.

“This is what one would expect from a society in which religious institutions that supposedly welcome all believers turns its back on dissidents. But this is what is happening. Intellectuals and a certain segment of the clergy remain suspiciously silent in the face of Sunday assaults on activists and the Ladies in White,” said Rodiles.

The Forum for Rights and Liberties convened a press conference for Friday to announce a request for amnesty and for the release of people imprisoned for other reasons but which, as Rodiles stated, “are widely known to be of a political nature.”

While the island’s Catholic hierarchy ignores the opposition, Havana and Washington agreed to open embassies on July 20.

Although the White House has stated that it will continue to advocate for respect for human rights and freedom of expression in Cuba, a member of the local dissident community is skeptical about the current environment.

“I fear that the US embassy will not invite any dissidents on July 4, 2016. Or they will only invite those from the moderate opposition,” said a freelance journalist.

The country’s military dictators have indicated that dissidents and government officials cannot co-exist under the same roof. If opposition activists are invited to embassy receptions, they will not attend. It’s one or the other.

Ivan Garcia

*Translator’s note: Gusanos, or worms, is a derogatory term coined by Fidel Castro and once widely used by his supporters to describe Cuban emigres and exiles.

 

Ana Belen Montes, The Spy Unknown in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

July 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Ivan Garcia, 30 June 2015 — In a maximum-security prison in Texas, more than 900 miles from Cuba, Ana Belén Montes, former Pentagon military-intelligence analyst, is serving 12 years, incarcerated with some of the most dangerous women in the United States.

She shares a cell with a disturbed housewife who strangled a pregnant women to take her baby, a nurse who killed four patients, and a follower of Charles Manson who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

According to a report written in 2013 by Jim Popkin, life in a harsh Texas prison has not softened the aging child prodigy of the Defense Department. Years after she was caught spying for Cuba, Montes maintains a defiant attitude. “I don’t like being in prison, but certain things in life are worth the price of going to jail,” writes Montes in a 14-page letter to a relative. “Or are worth the price of committing suicide after doing them, in order not to have to spend all that time in jail.”

Ana Belén, like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen before her, surprised the intelligence services with her audacious acts of treason. By day, she was a buttoned-down GS-14 agent in a Defense Intelligence cubicle. By night, she worked for Fidel Castro, receiving encoded messages by shortwave radio that she then passed on to her contacts in crowded restaurants, and making secret trips to Cuba when she was able to leave the United States, with a wig and false passport,

Montes spied for Cuba for 17 years. She passed on many secrets about her colleagues, defense strategies, and advanced listening platforms that the American special services had installed in Cuba, so that experts in the field consider her one of the most damaging spies in recent times.

You would think that a spy of such stature would be a national hero in Cuba. When the urbane British double agent Kim Philby defected to the old Soviet Union, the KGB treated him royally for his valuable services rendered.

Until his death in Moscow, Philby wore fancy clothes and drank his favorite malt whiskey. Richard Sorge, the Soviet agent who from Tokyo whispered to Stalin the date and time of the Nazi attack on the USSR, continues to receive posthumous honors as a hero and red carpet ceremonies in Russia.

But Castro’s intelligence service has cast its elite spy aside. Right near Obispo Street, the noisy and crowded commercial artery in the old district of Havana, lives a man who worked for Cuban counterintelligence for 25 years.

Following the defection to the United States of the intelligence officer Florentino Aspillaga on June 6, 1987, like the domino effect, many agents in Aspillaga’s circle were retired.

The man who lives near Obispo Street was one of them. Diario las Americas (a Miami daily) was interested in knowing why the case of Ana Montes was handled with complete secrecy and scant media coverage in Cuba.

“The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said in his famous book The Art of War, that a spy network has five levels. There are the provocateurs, the disposables, others that do dirty work, the propagandists, and the ace of aces are those that are planted in the heart of the enemy. Those, like Ana Belén Montes, are a top priority. By the media coverage of the press, led by the Communist Party, one might think that the work of the five agents of the Wasp Network was important for Cuban intelligence and Montes was a disposable spy. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The former officer goes on to explain. “Espionage services are a game of mirrors. The reality is that the Wasp Network was truly sloppy in intelligence matters. Its mission was to penetrate anti-Castro groups in Miami. That has only propaganda value. Anyone in Florida can enroll in one of those groups. Usually they are open and joining is very simple. The Network also had among its objectives to work on military bases in Florida to send information from military and air movement in the area. These investigations were of little value. With intelligence estimates obtained through electronic eavesdropping through the Russian base in Havana, Fidel Castro and military counterintelligence knew that information.” He adds:

“The greatest merit of the five spies is that they weren’t traitors. The Wasp Network consisted of twelve or thirteen. All of them except the five made deals with the FBI. That is their value. Everything else is a smokescreen. The important spies are those like Ana Belen Montes. But when they are caught, the intelligence services they sent information to will never acknowledge them.”

I asked him how the new situation could influence the world of espionage. “I think that despite the thaw with the United States, Cuban intelligence will continue to have a high number of active agents in that nation. Interests have shifted. The Cuban community in Florida continues to be important. But most important are the agents of influence in the academic and business communities, and in the political lobby. They are the ones plotting strategies and they can change strategic policies. Hector Pesquera, a former FBI official in Florida, was not far off when he calculated that 3,000 of Castro’s agents are spread throughout the United States. I bet there are more.”

Senior officials of the Obama administration revealed that during the 18 months of secret negotiations to exchange prisoners, the Cubans never once requested the release of Ana Belén Montes. They had simply abandoned her.

While the headline and stories in the national press go to former agents of an incompetent spy network, Ana Belén Montes, the former “Queen of Cuba,” sleeps surrounded by criminals in a maximum security penitentiary in Texas. A complete unknown on the island. Those are the perks of the job.

Iván García

Image: Artwork accompanying reporting about Ana Belén Montes published in 2013 in The Washington Post Magazine.

Cuban Professionals do Business Under the Table / Ivan Garcia

June 29, 2015 Leave a comment

La-visita-de-Rihanna-_ab-620x330Ivan 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.

Iván García

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

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