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Five Years of the Blog "From Havana" / Ivan Garcia

March 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Ivan Garcia, 8 March 2015 — When I decided to write a blog, at the end of December 2008, my pretensions were minimal.

I had decided to take a break in order to dedicate my time to my daughter, Melany, who was then two years old. Although I wasn’t writing, mentally I continued to be focused on journalism. Those were difficult times. Repression from the hard liners of State Security was at its highest point.

In March 2003, a choleric Fidel Castro had ordered the imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents. Among them, 27 free journalists. Independent journalism was going through its worst phase.

The best writers — Raúl Rivero, Ricardo González and Jorge Olivera —  were sleeping in uncomfortable and dirty cells. Others had gone into exile, like my mother, Tania Quintero. The rest of us journalists who were writing without State authorization and who decided to remain in Cuba were afraid.

A fear that didn’t prevent me from continuing to report for Cubaencuentro, Cubanet and the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (Inter-American Press Society), among other online sites. In the middle of 2007, Juan Gonzalez Febles and Luis Cino decided to start a weekly. They formed Primavera Digital (Digital Spring) in a house in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton.

My intention was to join Primavera. But upon rereading an article that appeared in 2014 in Newsweek in Spanish, about the reach of blogs, I decided to change my plans. I liked the idea of writing and publishing, without a censor or an editor, those daily stories that many times are not news in the main media and that go into the recycling bin.

My technical deficiencies (I didn’t have a computer, digital camera or cell phone) delayed the project. At the beginning of 2007, a foreign journalist gave me an old Dell laptop. It’s been one of the best gifts I’ve received in my life.

Since 1996, when I began to write regularly for Cuba Press, until 2003, I wrote in a lined notebook. Later, Tania, also an independent journalist, would transcribe my work on a Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter.

Some months after Tania went into exile in Switzerland, the Olivetti broke. A mechanic told me: “Throw it in the trash and buy another one.” The laptop revived my dream of creating a personal blog. However, problems followed.

One hour of Internet cost between 5 and 10 CUCs per hour in a hotel. In the U.S. Interests Section they offered free turns, but the paperwork was expanded and the telephones were always occupied.

I decided to open the blog with a part of the money that my mother sent me. In January 2009, I contacted Laritza Diversent, lawyer and independent journalist, and I proposed that she write about judicial matters. Luis Cino authorized me to publish her texts on Cubanet.

On January 28, 2009, on the portal Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices), appeared the first post of the blog Desde La Habana (From Havana). It was entitled, “My Young Country” (see note at the end). The first administrator was Ernesto Hernandez Busto, an exiled Cuban who lived in Barcelona.

Beginning in January 2010, Carlos Moreira, a Portuguese friend, impresario and webmaster, altruist and in solidarity like few are, would be in charge of its administration and design. Until today.

The blog From Havana is a space dedicated to the marginal neighborhoods and to sports commentary, among other subjects. Also, it’s the site where I or other colleagues pour out our assessments about that Island that the government wants to ignore.

In a short time we had a million visitors. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think that some day the blog From Havana would reach that figure. There are so many blogs and web sites about Cuba that I sometimes think the subject of democracy and lack of freedom on the Island can become banal.

I try to tell stories in a pleasant way. It’s difficult to get figures and information. Doing investigative journalism in Cuba is foolish. I post by writing about what surrounds me, people of the barrio with whom I speak daily. Journalism and the blog have brought me many friends. And some enemies.

Believe me, I hope some day we can get to know one another in Havana. And if some post hurts your feelings or doesn’t agree with your point of view, understand that it’s nothing personal.

The blog has allowed me to grow as a journalist, even without the advice of my mother and my teacher, Raul Rivero, whose stories and articles are masterful. Now I learn from a distance.

No one graduates from journalism. While there are people like Moises Naim, Vargas Llosa or Gay Talese, to make art of this profession, we must still climb a few steps.

To you, readers and friends, my greetings and respects for using part of your time to read these stories from a guy who lives in La Vibora and signs From Havana.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: View of La Vibora, with the church of Los Pasionistas, one of the most beautiful in Havana and which I see every day from my house. It remains very close. From ojitoaqua, Panoramio.

See: My Neighborhood, My Little Country

Translated by Regina Anavy

Cuba: Potatoes from the Ration Book (When Available) / Ivan Garcia

March 22, 2015 Leave a comment

policia-controlando-cola-de-papas-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2015 — The dirty, dilapidated produce market — its floor covered with red dirt and its shelving rusty — in Cerro’s crowded El Pilar neighborhood is ten minutes by car from the center of Havana. Sandra, a housewife, has spent two nights in line here waiting for potatoes.

“At three in the afternoon the truck arrived. It took an hour to unload them and, when they went on sale, the line was a block long. The commotion was incredible. The police had to come to restore order. There was a ton of people in line and I ended up not being able to buy potatoes. The manager and his employees kept a lot of bags for themselves to sell on the side,” Sandra says, who was able to buy twenty pounds of potatoes two days later after spending another night in line.

Neither American comedian Conan O’Brien’s show in Havana nor the selfies of Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell with the local playboys nor the predicaments of President Nicolas Maduro have kept the average Cuban from attending to her pressing daily needs.

Especially when it comes to finding food. With spring upon us, the potato has returned to the Cuban kitchen. It is a food that has acquired special status since 1959.

Marta, a retired teacher, has been waiting in line for four hours under a scorching sun to buy potatoes. “The Cuban diet is very poor so it helps round things out. You’ve got rice, sometimes soup, chicken from time to time, a lot of egg and — most commonly when it comes to meat — pork. The potato is the perfect filler,” she points out. “It stretches your meals. If you make meat and potatoes or add it to chicken fricassee, you can feed more people. It adds substance to omelettes. And if you run out of rice before the end of the month, you can make mashed potatoes to fill you up,” she points out.

Until 2009 potatoes were sold through the ration book, but Fidel Castro came up with a plan that was supposed to keep produce markets stocked with potatoes all year long.

Castro ordered the construction of dozens of hub markets with refrigerators for preservation. He said everyone would be able to buy a certain quantity of potatoes every month through the ration book.

On November 1, 2009, potatoes and peas went on sale through the book throughout the island. The potato, a peso a pound. Within three years, the tuber had become an exotic product.

“You have to wait for the winter and spring harvests to buy potatoes, which leads to long lines. Or you have to buy them on the black market, where a three to five pound bag of potatoes costs 25 pesos,” say Agustín, a laborer.

“I get there, dead tired from work, and have to wait in line all afternoon in the hot sun or at dawn. I prefer fries but, when I have potatoes, I don’t have the oil to fry them,” he laments.

Those who receive remittances or who own private businesses do not have to wait in line. “For 70 pesos a guy delivers potatoes to my doorstep. If I had to wait in line, I wouldn’t eat them. Luckily, I have a daughter overseas who sends me money every month. When potatoes disappear from store shelves, I buy a package of ready-cut frozen fries,” explains Samuel.

Osmelio, the owner of a café offering food and sandwiches in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood, bought twenty sacks of potatoes at 50 pesos each. “I’m selling a plate of fries for 15 pesos. After going so long without potatoes, ” he says, “people with the means buy them at any price.”

After fifty-six years of military dictatorship, traditional Cuban dishes have increasingly become distant memories. Beef, shrimp, snapper and fruits such as anón (sugar-apple) and guanábana (soursop) are now luxury items in the national diet. The potato is on the waiting list.

Iván García

Photo: The police monitoring the line to buy potatoes at El Milagro, a market owned by the Youth Work Army (EJT), located in the Tenth of October district. Photo by Manuel Guerra Pérez, Cubanet.

Note: In response to the perennial shortage of agricultural products on an island with good soil and a tropical climate, a friend told me, “People in Cuba complain about shortages, but it doesn’t occur to them to solve the problem by planting tomatoes or other vegetables, even if it’s in pots and small beds. Or bananas, potatoes and garlic in plastic buckets like we used to do at home in Havana. I will never forget how a neighbor mocked my mother, telling her she didn’t do this because she wasn’t a peasant. She was not one to stand up to the dictatorship, so gardening would have helped her to eat.”

And he’s right. In many countries, some more developed than others, people yearn for a piece of land to grow vegetables and flowers. Monday through Friday, I watch a BBC program called Escape to the Country in which they show three houses in the countryside to city residents of the UK. In the end, the guests settle on one based upon what they can afford. Not all of their guests are retirees or people about to retire. There are young couples who are not only looking for the peace and beauty of the country, but also want the chance to have a garden, orchard and even a chicken coop. All this love of nature is being lost in Cuba, along with jobs for seamstresses, tailors and shoemakers among others. —Tania Quintero

Translated by W 

The Ladies in White Should Change Their Political Profile / Ivan Garcia

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

damas-de-blanco-por-la-quinta-avenida-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 March 2015 — During the hot summer of 2013 I remember Blanca Reyes, wife of the poet and journalist Raul Rivero, writing letters to the pope in the Vatican, to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, reminding them that Fidel Castro had sentenced Rivero to twenty years behind bars for writing without approval.

Reyes was speaking on behalf her husband and seventy-four other prisoners of conscience detained in March 2003. I saw up close the suffering of these women. At mid-morning, armed with baskets of food and toiletries, they traveled hundreds of kilometers to visit their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in jail.

They were also prisoners of the system. Later they decided to organize. They were like a clan. Laura Pollán was a natural leader who began acting as the spokesperson for the group.

Never before in the history of Cuba’s peaceful dissident movement has there been an organization with as much international reach as the Ladies in White. They have compelling reasons for marching gladiolas in hand, demanding freedom for their loved ones.

They were subjected to physical assaults, humiliations and verbal abuse by paramilitaries. Their symbolism and courage were key considerations in leading the Castro regime to ask the Catholic church to act as intermediary with the women after the death of Orlando Zapata in prison from a hunger strike.

With participation of Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Spain’s Chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos the Ladies in White forced the government to negotiate the release of prisoners arrested during the 2003 crackdown on dissidents known as the Black Spring.

They wrangled another concession from the regime: the right to march on Sundays through an area of Fifth Avenue in Havana’s Miramar district. But with most of the prisoners of conscience having gone into exile, the time has come for the Ladies in White to refocus and reorganize themselves.

There are several options available. One would be to form a political party and focus their efforts on addressing other issues. In today’s society it is not only those who are imprisoned for criticizing the regime who suffer. Prostitution and violence in general have increased.

In Cuba working women are paid poverty-level wages. They, like housewives, have to struggle daily just to survive, especially when it comes to looking for food. Besides handling domestic chores and seeing to their children’s education, they must also care for elderly and sick parents and relatives.

The Ladies in White might become an advocacy organization for Cuban women by trying to address the many problems they have today.

Their current platform includes a demand for democracy and freedom for so-called prisoners of conscience. This is something that should be better defined since it is not at all clear whether a former counter-intelligence official and someone who hijacks a boat belong in the same category. Nevertheless, there are already groups within the dissident movement who fulfill this function.

What is lacking are organizations which can serve as voices of the community. Dilapidated and dark streets, poor public transportation, water and food shortages, low salaries, and health care and educational systems in free fall affect both supporters and critics of the regime.

These are areas in which the Ladies in White might focus their efforts. In the regime’s farsical elections scheduled April 19 to select municipal and neighborhood delegates, the Ladies in White could encourage citizens to vote blank ballots.

Under the current election law any citizen can monitor the vote count. The day that the number of citizens voting blank ballots reaches a high percentage is the day that we have the potential to gain real power to foster change.

These days the dissident movement is all smoke and mirrors. It is more media-savvy than effective. It cannot expect to play a role in future negotiations if it is not capable of mobilizing people in the thousands. Given their ability to organize, the ideal situation would be for the Ladies in White to concentrate their efforts in neighborhoods.

I do not believe focusing on conversations between Cuba and the United States is the right strategy. Political lobbying should left to those dissidents who are better prepared.

Berta Soler is a woman to be reckoned with. She is not, however, comfortable in front of a microphone. Engaging in politics, travelling overseas and riding the information wave are more rewarding.

But what is needed on the island are boots on the ground working at the grassroots level. Raising awareness of issues among the large silent majority of non-conformists who prefer to sit on the sidelines is what is required. This is something the Ladies in White and other dissident organizations could do.

The row between Berta Soler and Alejandrina García was badly handled.* Using an act of repudiation to undercut García was unfortunate. I applaud Soler’s decision to hold internal elections within the group.

It is a healthy practice and the rest of the dissident movement should take note. If they want credibility, the political opposition should adopt bylaws and practice transparency.

Most conflicts within the Cuban opposition are results of nepotism, trafficking in favors and corruption. There are opposition leaders who talk like democrats but who act quite differently. Meanwhile, their followers often serve as a chorus of extras whose only purpose is to provide applause and adulation.

The genesis of the Damas de Blanco was collectivism and authenticity. Without a strategic change course, the movement — founded twelve years ago — may simply peter out. That would be a shame.

*Translator’s note: A video from December 16 was released showing a group of Ladies in White surrounding Garcia, a founder of the organization, and shouting “down with traitors” at the movement’s headquarters. As a result, sixteen exiled founders of the movement signed a letter asking Soler to resign and hold elections to give the group a new direction. They called the incident “an abominable act of repudiation” and described it as a “communist” and “fascist” reaction. Source: Miami Herald

The Conversations and Aspirations of Many Cuban Students / Ivan Garcia

March 14, 2015 Leave a comment

cuba-estudiantes-de-secundaria-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 13 March 2015 — For a group of sixth grade students at the elementary school named after Juan Oscar Alvarado — a 19-year-old underground fighter, assassinated in 1958 in a house in the Sevillano neighborhood where they hid arms — located in that peaceful Havana neighborhood, their plans for the future are far from Cuba.

For them, the country is a disposable object to be thrown out when it is no longer useful. During recess, at ten in the morning, several girls gathered in the school’s courtyard to have a snack.

While snacking, they chat idly about fashion, material aspirations and what happened in the day’s Brazilian soap opera. Although dressed in their ugly uniforms with burgundy skirts and white shirts, designed by a distasteful dressmaker, when you look at their feet you see Nikes, Adidas, New Balance, Converse or Reebok.

They talk about their shoes, brands and prices. “My mom bought me a part of Adidas tennies at a boutique in Miramar that cost 91 chavitos (CUCs),” said one girl proudly. Another talked about where her family was thinking of going in the symmer “We still haven’t decided if we’re going to Cayo Coco or Varadero.”

Another group, males and female, showed off their portable videogames and talked about makes and computer systems. “Android is superior to Windows. Apple is the best, neither HP nor ASUS can touch it in quality,” said a boy.

Under a tree, trying to shelter from the sun, several students discuss the European football leagues. “Madrid has won ten European Cups, Barcelona doesn’t come close. CR7 is better than Messi, he makes header goals, with and without both legs. Also he’s faster and stronger,” says one.

“You’re wrong. Barça plays the best football in history. Messi has a better goal average than Cristiano Ronaldo and four “Botas de Oro” to Cristiano’s three,” ripostes another, upset. The controversy rises in pitch and threatens to come to blows. A teacher intervenes and sends them back to the classroom.

Melisa, a sixth-grader, says that “to emigrate or study abroad is a fixed theme in my classroom. To dream of being a millionaire, pulling out all the stops and having an Audi or a Ferrari. Few know the history of Cuba, of Carlos Manuel Cespedes and the Revolutionary Party founded by Marti. Their aspiration is to leave Cuba and reunite with their relatives who live in Miami or Madrid.

The principal and a teacher at Juan Oscar Alvarado tries to stop the differences. “We tell the parents to be careful that their children don’t bring flashy backpacks or shoes. This creates an inferiority complex in other kids. Students whose parents have few resources and bring bread with oil or a croquette for snack. They have cheap tennies and sometimes they’re made fun of.”

The differences in the purchasing power of some families stimulate privilege and fraud among the teachers. “There are students who bring the teachers good snacks. Others, their parents take them lunch or give them expensive gifts. It’s a way to buy them, so they’ll give their children good grades on tests,” says an Education official in the municipality of 10 de Octubre.

One could think these student conversations are an isolate phenomenon and usually happen in areas that are middle class and higher, like Sevillano, Casino Deportivo, Víbora Park, Fontanar, Nuevo Vedado, Vedado and Miramar.

But if you tour the elementary, junior high and high schools in the poor neighborhoods of Centro Habana and Habana Vieja,the conversations and aspirations are very similar.

“It’s the fashion, talking about what we have. In the classrooms they stuff us full of slogans and tell history in their way. But for us, it goes in one ear and out the other. What it’s about is a struggle for a baro (money) to be able to go to a good nightclub or buy brand name clothes. Almost everyone in my school wants to leave Cuba,” says a high school student in the colonial area of the city.

Something it going on. It’s well-known that due to the quality slump in education, especially because of the low teacher salaries, the level of instruction has gaps. “We have students with deficiencies in math, spelling and reading. Reading is no longer a pastime. They prefer reggaeton, TV shows and talking about life in capitalism,” says a high school teacher.

Nor do university graduates escape the desire to emigrate. “Or at least to get a scholarship to do a master’s or doctorate in a first world university. If you can’t leave, because you don’t have money or family abroad, you fight for a job abroad,” says Yasniel outside the Canadian embassy, where he want to deliver a required document, with the hope of being chosen for one of five thousand skilled jobs offered by that nation.

With that future in sight, parents contribute by paying monthly, in many cases an amount that represents half their salary, so their children can learn good English.

On 14 January 2013, migratory reform approved by Raul Castro went into effect. The Cuban Department of Immigration and Foreigners still has not reported the number of citizens who have left the country, temporarily or permanently, in those two years.

The latest available data are from 2013, when 184,787 people traveled to the United States, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Mexico, Panama and Ecuador, among other countries. As of November 30, 2013, 55.2% had not returned and about 3,300 Cubans had requested to return to live in their homeland. Unofficially it is known that most travelers are young and professional.

Meanwhile, a line of hopeful teenagers is already forming in the rear. It’s like a Mariel Boatlift, but legal.

Photo: Three junior high students in Habana Vieja. Taken from the blog Blondie NY

13 March 2015

Radio Marti: The Voice of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

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Iván García, 24 February 2015 — One summer during a stay in Camaguey — a province 340 miles east of Havana — the owner of a house where I was staying listened from early morning to Radio Marti, a network created in 1985 under the administration of Ronald Reagan with the goal of providing Cubans with information uncensored or manipulated by the Castro government.

The woman told me that since 1985 she has been listening to radio soap operas, news and a morning program geared to a rural audience. When I travelled to other provinces, nearly all the people with whom I spoke said they got their information from or followed big league baseball on Radio Marti, which is probably heard more in the countryside than in the capital.

There is a logical explanation: the regime jams the station’s broadcasts less here. In Varadero, located on the Hicacos Peninsula and along the northern coast of Cuba, Radio Marti’s programming can be clearly heard.

Given the new geo-political dynamic between Cuba and the United States — two Cold War adversaries — various voices within the U.S. Congress are questioning the effectiveness and impact of the “Martis,” as they refer to an entity that includes a radio station, a television channel and a website.

Among the conditions for normalizing relations with the United States, Raul Castro asked that the media conglomerate be dismantled. Since the first broadcast in 1985 the government in Havana has used electronic jamming to block its radio and television signals. And readers cannot access the Marti Noticias website from Cuba.

Using the radio as a vehicle for informing citizens in totalitarian countries, where news, films and books are controlled by a dictatorship, is nothing new. During the Soviet era, the United States created Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, broadcasters which disseminated information the Kremlin was trying to suppress.

The so-called “asymmetrical war,” which according to the regime is an attempt by the United States to destabilize Cuba, is something of an exaggeration.

With Fidel Castro’s arrival in power in January 1959, revolutionary propaganda became a powerful instrument of social control. One year earlier, in February 1958, Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) had already begun broadcasting from the Sierra Maestre, which contributed to the dissemination of the insurgents’ message.

A few months after becoming president, Fidel Castro completely did away with a free press, nationalizing newspapers and magazines, and establishing Prensa Latina and Radio Havana Cuba — media outlets that would later have the task of selling the world on the alleged benefits of the Cuban system, alternating between true and false propaganda.

Official radio networks in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Spain often make use of these tools to their advantage too, but the storyline is different. In spite of being government entities, Voice of America, BBC, Radio France International and Radio Exterior de España air dissenting opinions.

I speak from personal experience. I have been a regular contributor to Radio Marti since 1996. I have been a guest on its radio shows and have had articles published in which I criticized both Cuban dissidents and the government of the United States without any form of censorship.

If Radio Marti were shut down, dissidents and independent journalists would not have a feedback channel to reach those living in Cuba. If the government allowed dissident voices to be heard in the media, the station nestled in Florida would lose its reason for being.

Before returning home after attending a workshop on investigative journalism in San Diego in November 2014, I spent a few days in Miami. There I met producers, directors and journalists who work for the Martis.

I have had frank conversations with Karen Caballero, a presenter on TV Marti. I have debated with Alvaro Alba, Ofelia Oviedo, Hector Carrillo, Amado Gil, Jose Luis Ramos, Rolando Cartaya, Margarita Rojo, Omar Montenegro, Luis Felipe Rojas and Juan Juan Almeida about the future of network.

I had a very productive meeting with Carlos Garcia Perez, director of both Radio Marti and Television Marti, and with officials Humberto Castello and Natalia Crujeiras. I argued that this broadcaster’s radio programs are crucial in providing a platform for the opposition and an outlet for articles by Cuba’s independent journalists.

It is a shame that jamming by the regime prevents TV Marti from being seen on the island. Ideally, it should have a wider audience. We all know the power of images.

In my opinion any reorganization that the Martis might go through should be for the better. Giving a broader platform to independent journalists and alternative bloggers is something that should be considered.

Programs on leisure and recreation could be improved. International news programs could be made more attractive, especially in regards to Venezuela, a country of great interest to some sectors within Cuba.

Thousands of housewives are regular listeners of soap operas. The variety of programming could be increased to offer more shows for women. Sports shows always gets high ratings so it should be given more air time.

Independent journalists in Cuba surely have entertaining stories. This is the 21st century. Never before have humans had access to so many sources of information as today. To reach them means having to be innovative.

The government of Raul Castro prohibits the free flow of news and information. It fears Radio Marti. That’s why it is censored.

Travel Notebook VIII

Photo: Cuba Day, a Radio Marti news show that airs Monday through Friday from 3 to 4 PM. Produced by Ofelia Oviedo, it is directed by Tomás Cardoso, Omar Lopez Montenegro and journalist Cary Roque. Freelance journalist Iván García is often invited to report from Havana. In his last appearance on Friday, February 6, he talked about what Cubans can expect from talks between Cuba and the United States (TQ).

With Raúl Castro, Are the Poor Poorer? / Ivan Garcia

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

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Iván García, 26 February 2015 — José lives with his wife and five kids, crammed into a nine by twelve foot space with a wooden platform, in a shack in Santos Suárez, a slum south of Havana.

The tenement is a precarious spot where the electric cables hang from the roof,  water runs down the narrow central passage from the plumbing leaks, and a disgusting smell of sewage hangs in your nose for hours.

That shack forms part of a group of ramshackle settlements where more than 90 thousand Havanans live, according to Joel, a housing official in the 10 de Octubre municipality.

There are worse places. On the outskirts of the capital, shantytowns are spreading like the invasive marabou weed. There are more than 50 of them. Houses made of sections of aluminium and cardboard, without any sanitation, where the occupants get their electricity supply by “informal” means.

But, going back to Santos Suárez. José says he is forty, but his sickly pale skin and his face puffed up from excessive drink, not enough to eat and poor quality of life make him look like an old man.

José is in that part of the population which doesn’t receive remittances and can’t get convertible pesos. He works at anything. Looking after flowerbeds, carrying debris, or ice cubes. On a good day, he makes 70 pesos, about $3. “All of it goes on food. And the rest on alcohol”, he says.

His family’s typical diet consists of two spoons of white rice, and a large spoon of stew once a week, a boiled egg and a quarter chicken or chopped beef mixed with soya which is distributed once a month via his ration book. “I just have a coffee for breakfast. My bread from the ration book I give to my kids.”

Ten years ago, he was imprisoned for stealing light bulbs and armchairs from houses in his area. “I stole from pure necessity. I sold the light bulbs or daylight colour tubes for 30 pesos. The iron chairs went for 10 CUC. I once got 25 chavitos (CUC)  for a wooden chair. I was able to buy a cot for my daughter with that money”, José remembers, sitting in the doorway of a pharmacy in Serrano Street.

When you ask him about Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, or what he hopes for from the new diplomatic change of direction between Cuba and the United States, he puts on a poker face.

“What changes? With Raúl we poor people are even poorer. Here anyone who hasn’t any connections with the system or a family in Miami is in a difficult situation. I don’t even want to talk about the old people. There are a lot of things wrong about Fidel, but when he was in charge, the social services and what you could get through your ration book allowed you to live better. Not now. Every day Cubans like me get less from the government. Many people are happy to be on better terms with the Americans, but what can Obama do? He isn’t the president of Cuba,” he points out, while he takes a long swig of the worst possible alcohol out of a plastic bottle.

The streets of Havana swarm with hundreds of people like José asking for change, pulling out scraps from rubbish bins, or sleeping on cardboard boxes in uninhabitable buildings.

In the entrance of a building in Carmen Street, on the corner of 10th of October, about 10 people are there selling second-hand books, old shoes and junk. Nelson, a gay man about 60 years old, suffers from chronic diabetes. He sells old magazines. As far as he is concerned, the revolution can be summed up in a word: “shit”.

“It’s all just speeches. They said it was a revolution of humble people and for humble people, but it was a lie. Poor people were always badly off, but now we are more fucked than ever. What Raúl has brought us has been capitalism, of the worst kind. Fidel didn’t tolerate many things, including the homosexuals, but we lived a little better. The poor will always be poor, in a dictatorship or in a democracy”, asserts Nelson.

Like in the film Goodbye Lenin, directed by Wolfgang Becker, where the East Germans feel nostalgic about the Communist era, in Cuba, those whose lives are stuck in a tale of poverty, feel longing for the decade from 1970 to 1980, when the state gave you every nine days a pound of beef per person, through your ration book, a can of condensed milk cost 20 centavos and the shelves in the stores were full of Russian jams.

For Havanans like Nelson and José, you can’t eat democracy.

Photo: The conditions Yumila Lora Castillo, who is 8 years old and has a malignant tumor, is living in. Marelis Castillo, her mother, told Jorge Bello Domínguez, from the Cuban Community Communicators Network (who took the photo), that they haven’t even authorised the diet of meat and milk that people with cancer in Cuba are entitled to. A mother of two other children, Marelis lives in this inhuman situation in El Gabriel, in the municipality of Güira de Melena, Artemisa province, some 85 kilometers southwest of Havana.

Translated by GH

Seven Hours with Jorge Luis Piloto in Miami

February 24, 2015 Leave a comment
Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Iván García, 4 February 2015 — For the prolific and noteworthy Cuban composer, Jorge Luis Piloto Alsar, born in the winter of 1955 in Cárdenas in the town of Matanzas, some 145 kilometers north of Havana, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his songs would achieve international fame.

Let’s get into the time machine. An ordinary day in the ’70’s. Cuturally speaking, Cuba was going through a rough period. Writers, poets and composers are being administered by the state, following Fidel Castro’s decree.

The cinema, novels, la guaracha, and sound must highlight the exploits of the revolution. The government controls all of it. In your profile, you have to indicate how many marches you have been on and how much voluntary work you have participated in, if you want to pass the summer in a house on the beach, have a Russian fridge, or reserve a table in a restaurant.

The Communist party membership card and loyalty to the “bearded one” [Fidel] are more important than talent. In the middle of all this greyness, where ideas, and the future, are whispers from on high, Jorge Luis Piloto was a social misfit.

He arrived in the capital at the age of 15, his cajón over his shoulder, and plans for the future. With his mother, Beba, he ended up in a room in an old apartment building in Romay 67 between Monte and Zequeira, in Pilar, in the Cerro district of Havana.

Looking like a long-haired freak, devoted to rock and caring nothing about Castro’s lengthy speeches. He took refuge among his friends, like the black man William (may God rest his soul) or his girl friend, who suspected that Cuba was not the place for them.

He distracted himself by going to Latino Stadium to watch his baseball team, the Industriales, play. Or by sitting in a corner or on the Malecón, dreaming of a different future.

1980 was an amazing year. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Cubans, including Piloto, took advantage of the opportunity to leave their country. Before they left, they had to put up with the regime’s vendettas, camuflaged in fascist-style acts of repudiation.

Or personal humiliations. Before getting on the boat to go to Florida, they had to sign a document in which they admitted that they were delinquents, prostitutes or homosexuals. The government owes a public apology to the honest Cubans who emigrated in the Mariel Boatlift

Piloto arrived in Miami on a rainy day in May 1980. Without either his guitar or any money. He only had his wishes. He worked very hard doing different things, not much of it playing music. One morning his wife reminded him that he hadn’t left Cuba to live as a labourer.

“Where is the Jorge who dreamed of being a composer?” she asked him. With his next wage he bought a cajón. His first song, La Noche, co-written with Ricardo Eddy Martínez, was recorded with Lissette Álvarez in 1983.

Jorge Luis Piloto was A & R with Sony Music (1988 – 1996) and was nominated nine times for Grammy Latino. He gained the first one with his song Yo no sé mañana, co-written with Jorge Villamizar and recorded by the Nicaraguan Luis Enrique. In 2010, the Society of American Authors, ASCAP, awarded him the Golden Note prize for his 25 years of work and his musical contribution to the Hispano-American repertory.

His ballads have been interpreted by singers of the calibre of Gilberto Santa Rosa, Christina Aguilera and the incomparable Celia Cruz. In 2012 he wrote a song for the Damas de Blanco which was played when they marched through the streets of the island.

On Monday, November 17, after 34 years, I met Jorge, my neighbour from the Pilar neighbourhood, in Miami. We chatted for seven hours. He still had a youthful physique, although he was almost 60. “There is no way I can put on any weight”, he says. He remembers his past in Cárdenas and Havana and his friends from that time.

But he is fond of Miami. His pride in this south Florida city is apparent. We drive along in his car, through every space, residential development, and places of interest, like the Marlins Stadium, the cruise ship port, the Ermita de la Caridad and the tunnel which goes under the port.

He showed me the only statue there is in the city and we ate in a tourist cafe on the banks of the Miami River. I asked him if he has thought about returning to Cuba the democratic future which we are all hoping for.

“No, I belong here, with my son, my wife, and my mother. I could contribute to whatever needs doing. But Miami is my home now,” he points out, while he talks in English  to his son on his cellphone about Giancarlo Stanton’s fabulous contract with the Marlins. The Industriales aren’t his team any more.

Travel journal (VII)

Translated by GH

4 February 2015

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