Until Wednesday, April 29, when intense rains fell on Havana, Agustin — a private-sector farmer who grows chard, lettuce and peppers on a patch of parched land on the outskirts of the capital — was looking skyward to see if he could discern storm clouds on the horizon.
“My yields are low because of the water shortage. I have had to throw out hundreds of kilograms of vegetables because they were too small and their color was bad. It hasn’t rained for months,” says Augustin, who is now worried because too much water is falling on his crops.
National meteorologist Jose Rubiera had declared that the island was experiencing record heat levels in the month of April. It seemed that the rains would have to wait.
May’s traditional downpours occurred over the course of a few days in western and central Cuba but in the eastern part of the country the widespread drought has continued to raise alarms at the Institute of Hydraulic Resources. Various dams and springs are dry or at very low levels.
In the poor neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba, Mayari and Guantanamo, water from an aqueduct arrives every nine days. Tomas, a resident of Granma province, 800 kilometers east of Havana, reports that water is delivered there by truck.
“No one goes out onto the street at noon. The city is like a desert. The ground is as hard as stone. If it does not start raining in Oriente by May, the government will have to declare a state of emergency,” he says by phone.
Countless homes in Cuba are without tap water twenty-four hours a day. Typically, families must buy it in order to drink, cook, wash dishes, do laundry and bathe.
“It is often stored in plastic containers that previously held industrial products. As a result potable drinking water can become contaminated. When storage facilities are not maintained properly, they can become breeding grounds for Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit Dengue fever, chikungunya infections and diarrheal diseases,” says an epidemiology official.
Like Augustin, Leticia, a Havana shopkeeper, was also gazing at the sky, hoping it would finally bring the blessed rain. Sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by bags of Vietnamese rice and Cuban brown sugar, she tries to relieve the summer heat by fanning herself with a piece of cardboard.
“When there is no rain, the heat is unbearable. The worst thing is when you get home, want to take a shower and the building’s water pump is broken or there is no water in the tank. The fan just gives off a stream of hot, dry air. I really envy those who have air conditioning,” she said on April 28, one day before it rained heavily in Havana.
Moraima, a retiree, no longer has to sit on her porch to listen to soap operas on the radio to see if the air is blowing. “I was thinking it would never cool off. This heat takes away your appetite. You want to eat fruits and drink milkshakes. Two large mangoes cost me 25 pesos. People wonder if it is because of the damned blockade (embargo) that there are no cheap fruits like we always used to have in Cuba,” she notes angrily.
The heat, rain and hurricanes cannot be blamed on Yankee imperialism, although in some of his periodic rantings Fidel Castro still accuses modern capitalism of altering the environment by releasing disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Air conditioning is still a luxury in Cuba. Only the cars of ministers, generals and tourists are climate controlled. It takes a strong disposition to travel by bus or public taxi, no matter the time or day. State inspectors who could pass for Luca Brasi (a character from The Godfather) ply the streets looking to see what money they can make from bribes and kickbacks.
“These people (inspectors and police) are really corrupt. They’re always walking by my stall, trying to “hustle” a few pesos off me. There’s nothing to stop them,” says Arnaldo, the owner of a produce stand in the La Vibora neighborhood.
In a country where good news is hard to come by, the newspaper Granma announced on April 20 that 80,000 induction ranges would be made available to families on public assistance. Made in China, they will cost 500 pesos and can purchased in installments.
“These stoves reduce energy consumption because of the efficiency of the electric burners,” claimed a bureaucrat of the Ministry of Domestic Trade. In 2006 Fidel Castro led his final campaign, which he called the Energy Revolution. It included the nationwide distribution of refrigerators, rice cookers and Russian air conditioners.
At the time the state offered payment plans. Nine years later, the number of people in default is in the thousands. “They break down just by looking at them. Not only that, but the state has been robbing us for fifty-six years, so my revenge is to not pay them one penny for the trinkets they’ve given me,” says Raudel, who still owes the bank for the credit it extended him.
The farmer Augustin and many Havana residents were eagerly awaiting the arrival of May, typically the rainy month in Cuba. But the weather was ahead of schedule and on Wednesday, April 29, a terrifying downpour fell, which led to three deaths, floods, landslides and the evacuation of more than two thousand people, among other damages.
“We wanted the rain to give us a break from the heat but not like this,” says Leticia, the shopkeeper. “I guess you can’t control nature.”
1 May 2015
Ivan Garcia, 18 April, 2015 — 2015 is another Year of the Tiger. The avileño* team, headed by former receiver Roger Machado, scored twice, then in the 2012 season they won their first title in the local league to unseat Industriales in five games.
It is necessary to go back to 1979, when Sancti Spiritus surprised more distinguished rivals. Or to 2001, when in a dramatic play-off to the best of seven against those Sancti Spiritus roosters when Yulieski Gourriel and Frederick Cepada, the Holguin bloodhounds, clouded the sky with the all the bottle rockets that went up after their unexpected victory.
Baseball on the Island is played shirtless. Some matches seem like jungle games, what with torn gloves, pitchers that throw more balls than strikes, and strategies that leave the experts with their mouths agape in wonderment.
For the last five years, the 9-man teams that would look down their noses at others have been diminishing, due the constant draining-away of their talented players.
Industriales, the Havana team, has suffered the most from the exodus of players. They could assemble three clubs from the members who have opted to play professionally, and easily manage their finances.
But Santiago, Villa Clara and Pinar del Río have also diminished their playing power as a result of the emigration of various budding stars from a league where they play all year, yet earn only worker’s salaries.
This is exploited by other, formerly minor, teams. Although it cannot be said that Ciego de Ávila is a team without substance. In the 90s it enjoyed a golden age with players who were brimming with talent and could never earn anything.
Two years ago they lost their coveted middle outfielder, Rusney Castillo, who went on to make the highest salary of a Cuban baseball player in Major League Baseball. A young prospect like Yozzen Cuesto climbed over the wall, and veterans such as Mario Vega and Yorelvis Charles made their exits.
As of today, the Tigers of Ciego are the best team in the playing field in Cuba. In a baseball league where the defense averages 974, the avileños come out to about 980. Their shortstop Yorbis Borroto is no great shakes moving in either direction, but very sure in those plays that are “out.”
Probably their most talented player is the wildcard Raúl González — good at defense and a thoroughbred batter. Behind the plate they have, in Osvaldo Vázquez, a consistent slugger and a clutch hitter.
If forced to choose, I would pick the right fielder José Adolis García, brother of Adonis, who plays in the Venezuelan professional league, and who at 22 has definitively exploited local baseball.
García has a cannon for a right arm and forcefully bats the ball towards all parts of the field. As the first at-bat, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 59 runs. On the bench awaiting his turn is an 18-year-old player who will make history. Make note of his name: Robert Luis Moiran.
Roger knew to request his reinforcements very tactfully. The Tigers’ bullpen, along with that of the tobacco farmers*** from Pinar del Río before being dismantled, is among the most reliable in Cuba. Three quality openers such as Yander Guevara, Vladimir García (who because of an injury did not have a good season), and the reinforcement from Villa Clara, Alain Sánchez.
Coming up on the rear, to slaughter the games, Machado showed up with a novice such as Yunier Cano, who can launch a two-seamer up to 96 mph. At zero hour, Ariel Borrero and Yoelvis Fizz produced a lot.
Ciego de Ávila was a perfect team, the team with the best performance in the second round. It was the favorite to win the title. But on the other shore, they had the Pirates of the Isle of Youth.
A team without a history and prominent names, but gutsy to no end. The isleños** were lacking pitching talent. Their openers, except for the reinforcement Yoalkis Cruz, did not make it past the third inning.
If the promising southpaw from Las Tunas, Darién Núñez, who throws a powerful fastball at 93 mph and a straight curveball, could have taken baseball seriously, the outcome for the Isle would have been different.
All of the games won by the Pirates in the playoff were thanks to their bullpen. The duo of Danny Aguilera and Héctor Mendoza was the sure one.
Their regular lineup connects almost 10 hits per game, but they lack power. In modern baseball it is very difficult to connect three hits off one pitcher of caliber. Their ability to throw sinkers justifies their fabulous salaries, for their innate capacity to change, with the flick of a wrist, the final score of a game.
But the Pirates knew how to play with commitment, timely batting, and a manager who was skilled at managing his pieces in the small game. They boast a 20-year-old shortstop with hands of silk.
His name is Alfredo Rodríguez, native of the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, and still today many Industriales fans ask themselves what Manager Lázaro Vargas’ reason was for getting rid of this player.
After Cienfuegos native Erisbel Arruebarrena (now in the Major Leagues), Alfredo is the best in the glove in Cuban baseball: spectacular at fielding, excellent throw, and a powerful arm.
At any rate, Isle of Youth faced the consequences. They lost against Ciego in a game that was going downhill from the first. With the game at three runs for two in favor of Ciego, at then end of the seventh inning, García’s error in an easy play let in two runs that cost a ton.
With the Tigers finally let loose, the rest was a walk in the park. In the final inning, Yunier Cano appeared, throwing fireballs, and the isleños put down their arms. The Pirates play an entertaining game and they go to have fun in the field. The Isle contributed color to the proceedings, and Ciego the mastery.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and Others
* “Avileño” denotes someone from the city of Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba.
** Similarly, “isleño” is someone from an island; in the context of this article, the island is the Isle of Youth, the second-largest Cuban island, located south of Havana.
*** Pinar del Río province is the center of tobacco farming in Cuba.
Ivan Garcia, 12 May 2105 — On Campanario Street, in the Havana neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo, where in the fall of 2013 tremendous downpours caused the collapse of a house and the death of its two residents, all that remains is a vacant lot.
Several boys play there, seeing who can throw a piece of stone from the old foundation the farthest. Across the street, a man surveys the scene, sitting silently on a wooden stool, smoking, listening on a battery-powered radio to the Champions League game between Real Madrid and Juventus.
“A year and a half ago my neighbors, Fidel Vega and Pastora Góngora, died when the roof of their house collapsed. There was a tremendous roar in the middle of the night, as if a bomb had gone off. Now, since the April 29th rains, many more houses and apartments in Pueblo Nuevo have suffered damage,” he says quietly.
He is silent for a few seconds. Then he suddenly raises his voice and asserts that the storm caught the Civil Defense and the authorities unprepared. “Nobody showed up here to warn us, like they did before. Any downpour will flood the area and cause building collapses. If a category five hurricane passes through Havana, it would bury the city. The government is focused on other things—on speeches and propaganda,” he says indignantly.
When you walk through densely populated areas of Central and Old Havana, you can see that 70% of the housing is in fair or poor condition. Recent rains have left their mark. Dozens of houses still show traces of moisture on their walls. On Vives Street, in Jesus Maria, some people lost all their belongings.
“They could only get out with the clothes on their backs. It was thanks to neighborhood solidarity that they were not buried by the rubble. Some people built crude boats with rubber inner tubes and pieces of styrofoam. The firefighters never came. The authorities and the provincial government were involved in preparations for May Day. That bunch of scoundrels doesn’t care what happens to the people in these poor neighborhoods. They live the high life,” says an elderly woman, visibly upset.
The Institute of Meteorology forecast heavy rains for the coming days in the western part of the country. Heavy rains have also caused flooding and landslides in Baracoa, in the eastern end of Cuba.
According to Jose Rubiera, head of the weather forecasting department, a depression that could become a tropical storm is forming in the Straits of Florida.
All of this indicates that May will be a very rainy month on the island. And the Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1. Many Havanans wonder if the city’s infrastructure can withstand rain and winds of greater intensity without collapsing.
“If with four hours of rain, and wind gusts of 98 kilometers per hour, electricity was cut in several municipalities of Havana and the low-lying areas were flooded, I have no doubt that if a hurricane hits, or if it rains for three or four days in a row, the collapses and tragedies will be even greater,” said a capital taxi driver.
Most of the city’s drains stop working with moderate downpours. And the most densely populated neighborhoods, like Centro Habana, Habana Vieja, Cerro, or the flat areas of Diez de Octubre, flood immediately with heavy rains.
The Civil Defense noted the lack of foresight for Wednesday April 29. These days, work brigades are clearing sewers and cutting tree branches that could damage power lines.
Families living in houses in danger of collapsing have been advised that during bad weather they should take refuge in sites approved by the municipal government, or in secure dwellings of neighbors or relatives.
While part of Havana Vieja has been renovated with hard-currency cafes, hotels, and shops, so that tourists will spend money and take photos, in the adjacent neighborhoods a large number of properties are held in place by a miracle.
A heavy rain or tropical storm could cause major damage to the city. State neglect is taking a toll on Havana. The only thing left is to pray.
Ivan Garcia, 7 May 2015 — The harm caused to Cubans by the military dictatorship is anthropological. We have an economy that has tanked, a fourth-world infrastructure and salaries that are a bad joke.
Chances are that we will eventually recover from the economic disaster but it will take two or more generations to overcome the damage done to ethics and civic values. The ideological madhouse Fidel Castro created in January 1959 has polarized society.
The regime has divided families and exacerbated differences. It has criminalized political differences while the special services and Communist Party propaganda have turned repression into an art form.
Among its strategies are acts of repudiation. These are basically verbal lynchings designed to suppress the opposition through the use of civilians and paramilitaries disguised as students and workers.
Cuba is a nation governed from the top down. Ordinary people do not have mechanisms that might allow them alter their circumstances. A party membership card and unconditional loyalty have become a kind of passport, allowing a person to climb the state’s ladder of success.
Twenty-five years ago a commitment to the revolution was rewarded with a television, an apartment or a week’s vacation at the beach. However, the ongoing economic crisis that has plagued the island since 1990 has drained the state’s coffers and eliminated material incentives for the most loyal workers and employees.
Now governing is not so easy for the Castros. Their narrative no longer appeals to large segments of the population. Fifty-six years of continuous rule has led to exhaustion and economic disaster has created a breach in society.
Although people now feel free to express their opinions on the streets without fear, the official strategy is to disparage dissidents and intimidate Afro-Cubans.
The Castro regime has been successful at isolating the opposition in spite of the fact that dissidents’ statements have been in tune with popular opinion. Unfortunately, the opposition has not been able to capitalize on the frustrations of the population.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the most reasonable solution would have been for Fidel Castro to sit down with his opponents and work out a joint solution.
But Fidel is not genetically predisposed to tolerate disagreement. Instead, he chose to dig in. What is despicable is not that he mortgaged Cuba’s future; it is that he has used the intelligentsia and related sectors in his confrontation with Cuba’s dissidents.
Neither potato harvests nor milk production will be increased by isolating our compatriots who hold different political positions. The bureaucracy and criminal cartels imbedded in state institutions will not disappear by intoning stanzas from genocidal anthems extolling the use of machetes.
In the peace of quiet of their own homes these people — transformed into weapons of moral destruction — will try to see that refrigerators remain empty and the future remains a question mark.
Behaving like gangsters will not improve the erratic economic performance of a failed system or put an end to material shortages. The solution to the island’s structural and political problems will only be resolved through dialogue.
The statement by Luis Morlote, a spokesperson for artists and writers, that “we as a civil society are defending what is ours, so we cannot share the same space as dissidents” is at best unfortunate.
What will they do with opponents? Ship them to an outpost on Turquino Peak? And when Castro supporters come to share the opinions of dissidents and independent journalists, what are they going to do? Run away? Ask permission to sit next to us on a bus or in a taxi?
How will the regime resolve disagreements? With imprisonment, exile, beatings and extrajudicial assassinations? There is still time to redesign the current repressive system and replace aggression with a handshake and an exchange of views.
Irascible activists, like those the Cuban government sent to the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama, could be repulsed by the prospect of sitting down with “mercenaries” who snap photos with Che’s “murderer.” Similarly, there are dissidents who would rather dine with the Borgias than have a chat with representatives of the regime.
Everyone is in his own trench, but the reality is that the problems that affect all Cubans remain unresolved.
Photo: On Friday April 10, 2015, during the celebration of the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama, the presidents of the United States, Costa Rica and Uruguay met behind closed doors with a group of human rights activists from several Latin American countries. Among them were two Cubans: the independent attorney Laritza Diversent, and politician and academic Manuel Cuesta Morua, both Afro-Cuban. From La Nación, Venezuela.
Iván García, 20 April 2015 — Hildebrando Chaviano could pass for Obama if the US president’s secret service wanted to use him as a double. At his 65 years, Chaviano shines with the ability to lead. He likes to intone with the voice of a radio announcer, and doesn’t hide his affection for politics.
Like father, like son. His father was a member of the People’s Socialist Party, the Marxist party of Republican Cuba, with a vast labor union and influence on the intellectual and cultural environment.
He came to dissent from the bosom of the Revolution. He was a member of the Young Communists and for five years worked in the Ministry of the Interior (MININT).
“With my rebellious and liberal attitude I was always a controversial person. I wasn’t guy the government had confidence in. When they threw me out directly, they showed me the door to get out. I always questioned the role of the party, the government and the union,” he says, sitting in the living room of his apartment in theFocsa Building, one of the jewels of Cuban architecture and engineering.
The living room is living and lacks furnishing. Books are piled up on cheap wooden bookcase. From the window there is a panoramic view of the city and if feels like you can reach out and touch the intense blue of the Atlantic Ocean, visible on the horizon.
“From up here, you can’t see the misery and abandonment of the city. When I ran for delegate of the People’s Power, I didn’t present myself as a political opponent. My proposal is social. I think about the growing number of elderly who are forced to beg or rummage through garbage cans. The poverty, the chaotic infrastructure and the bad public transport service that affects everyone, whether or not they support the government. I firmly believe that the dissidence should start to work within the community. We are prepared for this change.”
After Hildebrando asking MININT, he entered the University of Havana and in 1978 graduated in Law. For 15 years he worked in the State-owned Select Fruits company. But in the summer of 1994, for being the kind of guy who is uncomfortable for the regime, he was left unemployed.
“As an option they offered me a place as a stevedore in a warehouse. I declined. I no longer believed in the system. I joined the dissidence in 2006. Leonardo Hernandez, a friend from childhood, introduced me to Jose Idelfonso Velez, who I consider my political manager. I joined an opposition association that worked for racial integration along with Juan Antonio Madrazo, Leonardo Calvo and Manuel Cuesta Morúa.”
The father of three and grandfather of four, Hildebrando feels comfortable in his role as a political activist. On a rainy afternoon in 2014 he joined the proposed Candidates for Change, led by the political scientist and freelance journalist Julio Aleaga Pesant.
“The strategy was to present some possible candidates. We had six, but through legal chicaneries of the regime, or because they gave up, we ended up with only two, Yuniel Lopez and me. Yuniel ran in a hard neighborhood in Arroyo Naranjo, the poorest and bloodiest in Havana,” said Chaviano.
The opposition strategy to infiltrate the few legal loopholes left unprotected by the olive-green regime is longstanding. In the 80s a regime opponent of the Ricardo Bofill group ran in a neighborhood assembly. In 2010, in Punta Brava, a Havana municipality of La Lisa, a platform was created to insert dissident candidates into the institution of the People’s Power. The only opponent who ran got very few votes.
“The elections to choose neighborhood delegates is probably the only democratic opening that exists on the island. It is undeniable that it is very difficult to pass through the sieve created by the political police and state institutions. But with a single narrative for the outside we will never be strong enough to send our message of democratic change to ordinary Cubans,” explains Chaviano.
The Achilles heel of the opposition is its scant power and its lack of a popular base. Its message is directed more to the other side of the Florida Straits than to its next door neighbors.
Hildebrando regrets the lukewarm support of the dissidence for his run. “Some have told me that it was a betrayal. And have suggested to me that in the future I might use it as a springboard to State institutions. Solidarity has been minimal. Iván Hernández Carrillo, a former political prisoner of the Group of 75, is among the few who have supported me. Others have underestimated me and Yuniel.”
On election night he received 21 votes from his neighbors in the area where he lives in El Vededo. “Unlike the dissidence, neighbors and workers have shown me their support, openly or discreetly. I’ll take that,” said the dissident candidate.
Some hours after the neighborhood elections, Hildebrando is confident. “Several observers will supervise the vote and the counting, which is public. If I don’t win, I’ll propose to the candidate election that I will work with him to solve the innumerable social cases that are beyond politics.”
Chaviano considers that the dissent must engage the community to play a leading role in the future of Cuba. On a distant night in 2004 on an old Russian radio, he heard a speech at a Democratic convention in the United States by a guy with an unpronounceable name.
His name was Barack Obama, and after reading the books written by the former Senator from Illinois, Hildebrando Chaviano is convinced that to achieve popular support you need to wear out your shoes in your community and listen to the people.
“It is true that in a totalitarian society it is more complex. You run the risk of going to jail and suffer harassment from the political police. But it’s worth a try. ”
Text and photo: Ivan Garcia
Note: Neither of the opposition candidates won the elections.
Ivan Garcia, 29 April 2015 — The urology ward at Calixto Garcia Hospital is a bleak scene. Patients in soiled pajamas wander through the halls like zombies with serum on their hands, in search of a urologist, who hasn’t come through the intake room all morning.
Ubaldo, sitting on a granite bench outside the room, chain smoking, waits for a nurse to change his bag full of discharge and urine after emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage.
The old hospital, built in the early years of the twentieth century, is being remodeled at a snail’s pace. But work has not yet reached the urology suite. Nevertheless, Ubaldo claims that Calixto Garcia is one the best hospitals.
“Of those existing for the people, only Amejeiras Brothers is better. It’s true that many of the rooms in Calixto Garcia are dilapidated. But because it’s a teaching institution, the quality of doctors is high. I live in Manzanillo and compared to a hospital there or in another eastern province, Calixto is a five-star hotel,” he says.
Is it commonly said that patients cross their fingers when entering a hospital on the island. The people come carrying buckets, cleaning rags, bedding, electric fans, and even televisions. As if they were going on a trip.
Families with means bring lunch and dinner to the patient, and sometimes also to the attending doctor or nurse.
“Now doctors and specialists earn around 1,500 pesos a month (60 CUC, roughly US$55-60), but many are still struggling. Senior medical students who serve internship receive a paltry stipend. So you try to give them gifts in money or things; the sacrifice of our doctors is tremendous. There should be two monuments erected in Cuba: one to the people, for putting up for so long with a system that does not work; and the other to physicians, who go to work leaving behind piles of problems at home,” says Alina, whose father has been admitted to the surgical clinic.
In Turcios Limas, a specialty clinic in Reparto Sevillano, a half-hour from downtown Havana, a small line starts forming at 6:00 a.m. to check on the availability of dermatology services.
“Supposedly they have to be available every Monday. But for two weeks the specialist hasn’t come. In the last year, four or five dermatologists have passed through here. They last no longer than a marshmallow in a school door. Then they go on a mission abroad and leave the patients in the lurch. I’ve complained to the neighborhood delegate and to MINSAP (Ministry of Public Health), but neither one has done anything for me,” an elderly woman complains.
One doctor, a specialist in burns, acknowledges that it is absurd to send doctors to Brazil or Venezuela, thereby causing a shortage in Cuba. “The doctors are going to these missions to be able to improve their own quality of life. The Ministry of Public Health should guarantee relief coverage. Medical collaborations are the principal business of this country, earning between eight and nine billion dollars a year. So the result is to export doctors and screw the people,” she says.
Chile was the first country to receive medical cooperation from the newly established revolutionary government. That first medical team was sent after the strong earthquake and tsunami of May 22, 1960, which devastated southern Chile. In 1963, after seven years of war against French colonialism, Algeria asked for healthcare assistance from Fidel Castro. Flights left for Algiers carrying 28 physicians, 3 dentists, 8 technicians, and 15 nurses.
Since then, Cuba has used doctors as a spearhead in its foreign policy. In poor countries in Africa or Haiti, the costs are borne by the World Health Organization or the Cuban regime, which with these collaborations secures a safe vote in the Human Rights Council and conclaves of the UN.
“It is very difficult for those countries to accuse Raul Castro of dictatorship when Cuban doctors have saved the lives of thousands of its citizens. The strategy is to buy political will. And they have succeeded,” says Robert, a retired doctor.
Despite the olive-green autocracy appropriating 70 percent of the salary paid to Cuban doctors in Brazil and Venezuela, the signup list for missions abroad is extensive.
“In Brazil you’re left with $1,200 of the $4,200 per month that [Brazilian President] Dilma Rousseff pays [the Castro regime for each doctor]. True, it’s robbery. But with what you can save in three years, you can buy an apartment or a car when you return to Cuba. We’re probably poorest doctors in the world,” says Raciel, an anesthesiologist.
Until 1989, the health system in Cuba was a gem. In a country with blackouts and rationing, Fidel Castro strutted on the platform, statistics in hand, displaying the unquestionable level of Cuban medicine.
But it has rained a lot since then. And the reversal is remarkable. The family-doctor program, a government strategy to place one physician and one nurse in each neighborhood for primary care, is now barely functioning.
Most of the clinics that were built are closed or have become uninhabitable. The few that are functioning have to serve a large number of patients.
In recent years they have started repairing hospitals and specialty clinics, but the quality and slowness of the work leave much to be desired. The shortage of specialists requires residents of other provinces to come to the capital for medical care.
Then there are the abuses of the regime. This is the case of those serving in Brazil. As required by the Mais Doctors Plan, implemented by the Brazilian government, the doctors can live with their families. But Cuban authorities only allow the families to stay for three months, angering those serving in that country.
“Within the medical staff there are fifty or sixty guys, obviously from State Security, whose mission is to monitor what we do,” says a doctor who had to return from Brazil for health reasons.
Today Cuba has health personnel in 67 countries, and about 50,000 doctors and specialists providing their services abroad.
In “More Doctors, More Health,” an article by Frei Betto published on April 20 in Cubadebate, the author of the book Fidel and Religion says that in Brazil there are 18,247 Cuban professionals scattered over 4,000 municipalities of his country, 14,000 of them in locations that are the poorest and most distant from urban centers. He estimates that in 2015 Cuban doctors will attend to some 63 million Brazilians.
Meanwhile, in Cuba there is a significant shortage of specialists, many hospitals are filthy and dilapidated, and the quality of care is in freefall. At the same time, there are exclusive clinics for foreigners, ministers, and generals. But that is another story.
Photo: Conditions in the bathrooms of Hospital Freyre de Andrade, Centro Habana, best known for Emergency Hospital. Fernando Freyre de Andrade (Cuba 1863-1929), military, lawyer and politician, was the seventh mayor of Havana. Photo by Julio Cesar Alvarez taken from CubaNet.
Iván García, 29 April 2015 — The first time that Yumilka, a teacher, felt discriminated against because of the color of her skin she was only four years old. “It was in the daycare center. I remember coming home crying. A group of children called me ‘negritilla’ or lousy black girl. They didn’t want to share their toys with me. My parents talked to the director and she told them that this was just kid stuff, which couldn’t be classified as racism.”
Racial prejudice continued into her youth. When her boyfriend, a caucasian, took her home to his parents, their silent treatment had an overtly discriminatory overtone.
“After we broke up, I learned that his parents criticized him for not finding a ’whiter’ woman, since they were not in favor of ’combing raisins.’ His father told him that black women were for having sex with, but not for marrying. These were members of the Communist Party, who worked in foreign trade,” recalls Yumilka.
Laritza Diversent, a dissident lawyer, also suffered racist humiliations when she did her baccalaureate studies at the Lenin Vocational School, an elite center founded by Fidel Castro on the outskirts of Havana.
“Besides being black, I was very poor. Everyone looked at me like a freak when I arrived. The children of senior government officials studied at Lenin. Almost all were white and many were not only racist, but outspoken,” recalls Laritza.
In a primary school in the Havana township of Diez de Octubre in Mariana, a sixth-grade student says that humiliations based on skin color happen almost every day.
“Most black students are the poorest—those without tablets, who wear patched sneakers, and bring bread with salad oil for their snack. Not just the white kids call them names, but the mixed-race ones also,” he says.
Racism in Cuba is a phenomenon that the regime tries to hush up, or does not give the full attention it deserves. After 25 years of perpetual economic crisis, social differences have accentuated racial segregation.
During that time, worse than racial discrimination is the pervasive social control by the state, the low participation of citizens in shaping policy strategies, and the outright apartheid of the military autocracy, which excludes Cubans under the new Investment Law or prohibits them access to boats in tourist centers.
Fidel Castro did not bring racism to Cuba. More or less subtly, there were always prejudices based on skin color, facial features, or “kinky” hair. There were parks and clubs for whites only. Even the dictator Fulgencio Batista, a mestizo, was denied entry to one of those clubs.
Although slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, blacks were left at a clear disadvantage in the social order. They had neither property nor wealth. Their educational level was low.
In 1912, the Independent Party of Color, led by Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet, took up arms and about 3000 blacks and mestizos were massacred by the government of José Miguel Gómez.
At the head of the officers who executed the shooting was Colonel José Martí, son of the illustrious Cuban hero and humanist. 103 years later, the national historiography wants to soft pedal the criminal event.
There is no evidence that Fidel Castro is racist. But he had a clumsy political strategy for handling the issue. Upon establishing a system where supposedly no social classes existed, he assumed that racial discrimination had disappeared with the triumph of his revolution.
Racism did not disappear, it merely mutated. It disguised itself in various forms, and white supremacy in key state positions became permanent. Fifty-six years after his rise to power, blacks are only a majority in the crowded Cuban jails.
Finding statistics on inequality is cumbersome. The state archives contain few figures. But according to Fidel Castro himself, in a speech in January 2000, 80% of the prison population was black or mixed race.
As a rule, blacks on the island live in the worst housing, earn the lowest wages, do not finish college, and in order to move up the social ladder turn to sports, Santeria, music, or military life.
Currently, a large number of policemen are black or mixed race. So are many of the henchmen who repress dissidents. That does not stop them from having a racist modus operandi.
When conducting raids, they often detain black or mixed race youths. “It’s the operating profile. A black with a backpack is always a suspicious guy,” said a policeman.
According to the dissident Juan Antonio Madrazo, national coordinator of a citizens committee for racial integration, “in Cuba there is an ideology of whitening.”
Among blacks and mestizos, pressure has been applied to marry or have children with white people “to advance or improve the race.”
According to a sociologist consulted, the number of marriages or consensual unions between blacks and whites has skyrocketed in the last 15 years. “Racism in Cuba is most evident in the sectors of culture, the media, and companies with foreign capital and foreign trade.”
Nuria, a housewife, believes that racial taunts and humiliation during childhood are of concern. “It’s a problem of family education. It is in the home where these children hear slurs against blacks.”
The regime has created the Aponte Commission to draw up a more accurate map of racism. Intellectuals like Roberto Zurbano, Sandra Alvarez, and Victor Fowles recognize that the phenomenon is a veritable Pandora’s box.
One hundred and twenty-nine years after slavery was abolished in Cuba, blacks remain prisoners of their race. Yumilka, the teacher who suffered humiliation at just four years of age, asks, “How much longer?”