Ivan Garcia, 23 November 2015 — On these hot nights in Havana, when nostalgia, that silent thief that robs you of strength, strikes without warning, Raúl Rivero, the poet, sneaks through my window and offers me a workshop specifically on the latest news from modern journalism.
The art of teaching still doesn’t accept journalistic lectures by telepathy. But I confess that I have grown as a reporter by brushing up on the lessons of the poet from Morón, Ciego de Ávila.
I met him one day before Christmas in 1995. There was an unusual cold spell in Havana. The sun didn’t poke out, and the greyness made the streets simmer with grime.
Raúl lived with his wife, Blanca Reyes, in an apartment building surrounded by tenements and braced-up houses in the La Victoria district, just in the heart of the capital.
A complicated district. Formerly a zone of pleasure and whorehouses and, after the olive-green Revolution, the cradle of prostitution, drugs and cheating by the deformed “New Man” that Fidel Castro intended to mold.
Spanish is reinvented in La Victoria, sprinkled with jargon that sounds like the Buenos Aires lunfardo. At the foot of the staircase, in the building where Rivero lived, they offer you bath soap and detergent, stolen the night before from the shops in Sabatéss, or a leg of homemade ham.
In that itinerant market, among mothers who gossiped about soap operas and husbands, resided the best living poet in Cuba. I had just turned 30, and journalism wasn’t alien to me.
When I was a kid, my mother — who since 2003 has been living in Switzerland as a political refugee — took me around the whole country while she prepared reports for Bohemia magazine or the Points of View program on national television.
A journalist friend of my mother told us: “That fat guy, Rivero, is organizing an independent press agency. Go there.” On September 23, 1955, the poet founded Cuba Press.
On the day I went to see him, Rivero received me in shorts and without a shirt, smoking one cigarette after another. Absorbed, he heard my proposal and spit out, laconically: “Write something, then we’ll see.”
Cuba Press was pure journalistic abstraction, but it had a marked intent of telling stories in another way. It would be very pretentious to call it a press agency, when the writing took place in a kind of office in the living room of Blanca and Raúl’s house.
There were no computers or teletypes. Only a fixed telephone and an Olivetti Lettera typewriter. There were times when the journalistic texts were read over the phone, and the Internet sounded like a fable.
Cuba Press was a factory for journalists, in particular for those who dreamed of doing it the best — riskier in the case of autocratic countries — in service to the world.
Together with reporters who were disenchanted with State journalism, like Rivero himself, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Iria González Rodiles, Tania Quintero Antúnez, José Rivero García and Ricardo González Alfonso, I learned how to be an independent journalist.
The Black Spring came later, in March 2003. And by Fidel Castro’s express order, 75 peaceful dissidents went to prison. Raúl Rivero was one of them. In 1999, when the Cuban Regime approved a gag law that harshly restricted freedom of expression and condemned whoever violated it to up to 20 years of prison, he wrote an anthology piece, Monologue of the Guilty:
“No one, no law could make me assume the mentality of a gangster or a delinquent because I report the arrest of a dissident or give the prices of basic food products in Cuba, or write an article where I say that it seems a disaster to me that more than 20,000 Cubans go into exile every year to the U.S., and hundreds more are trying to leave to go anywhere. No one can make me feel like a criminal, an enemy agent or unpatriotic by any of those idiocies that the Government uses to degrade and humiliate. I’m only a man who writes. And I write in the country where I was born, and where my great-grandparents were born.”
His imprisonment provoked a resounding international disgust. On April 1, 2005, he went to Madrid with his mother and wife as a political exile from the Castro Regime. One more.
Now Raúl publishes his weekly articles in the daily newspaper El Mundo, and friends say he sleeps with Cuba underneath his pillow.
Over here, on this side of the Malecón, when I get together with Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera and Victor Manuel Domínguez, we remember anecdotes about Rivera (they could fill a book). Or those press workshops that he taught, shooting words at us from an old armchair. And every time, we review his poetry and dissect our newspaper articles.
Some are authentic and masterful for professionals of the word. Read the introduction of this chronicle after the death of Gabo [Gabriel García Márquez]:
“For me the death that hurts is that of Gabriel García, that old reporter from Aracataca who let his mustache grow to resemble the singer, Bienvenido Granda. A man who liked to dream and write novels, clever and generous, who discovered beauty whenever he saw a woman for the first time, treated you to words and to whom life gave all the literary glory of the world — even a Nobel Prize — but let him die without permitting him to write the lyrics of a bolero.”
Or more recently, when in “None appeared to go to Cuba” he says: “None of those famous media people have been to Cuba. That zone in the Caribbean where they were and where others went to stay and photograph isn’t a country. It’s a reality imposed by a group in power who reclaim the money from foreign investment to leave their heirs in the Palace in command of that entelechy.
On November 23, Raúl Rivero will be 70 years old. We, his friends, are going to toast him with a drink of rum. Meanwhile, on an old turntable, we will listen to “Gray Rain,” the Spanish version of “Stormy Weather,” which launched Olga Guillot to fame in 1945.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Iván García, 16 November 2015 — In the depths of the peeling, unpainted building where the journalist and independent writer Víctor Manuel Domínguez lives, a lady, who is waiting for customers behind a display counter of cheap Chinese jewelry, is reading a well-used copy of a book by Corín Tellado.
On a rusty, narrow vertigo-inducing staircase, a dirty abandoned dog urinates hastily and without pause. Dominguez has lived in that ruinous building, in the very heart of Havana, for thirty years.
In the living room there are more books than furniture. With some music of Gal Costa in the background, Victor Manuel looks over dozens of manuscripts which will compete in the Vista-Puente de Letras competition [ed. note: for Cuban writers resident in Cuba] which it is anticipated will in the future be divided between Havana and Miami.
The writer looks through a mountain of papers which overflow his black briefcase, and explains: “Exactly on December 17th, when the world received the news about the change of direction between Cuba and the United States, in Miami the Writers’ Club awarded the Gastón Baquero prize for independent literature to the poet and free journalist Jorge Olivera,” talking without leaving off from smoking one cigarette after another.
“There have been changes. This invitation is also extended to writers in exile. But the Club’s work is not treading water. Last Saturday, November 7th, we presented the Vista Puente de Letras project, a tribute to the Puente publication, censored by the government in 1965, and to writing as a vehicle of communication,” says Victor Manuel, and he adds: “Fidel Castro’s government has always treated as anathema any outbreak of autonomy. There are plenty of examples of intolerance of free thought. Like the banning of Puente, the Stalinist decision of the court against Herberto Padilla, or the suppression of María Elena Cruz Varela’s Criterio Alternativo, who was made to retract her poems in an openly-Fascist move.”
Domínguez explains that in 1996 a diminished group of independent journalists, those who had had books published, “decided to finance a literary project which was discredited by the government’s scribes. Typical of any totalitarian regime: they attack the person, not the work. What with the repression and exile, the group dissolved. On May 7th 2007, Jorge Olivera and I started the Independent Writers Club. We didn’t have anywhere to arrange literary gatherings. We were like gypsies. Some embassies and consulates, including Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Norway, Poland and the US, opened their doors so we could read poems and fragments of our writings”.
But the best was still to come. “2013 was a watershed. The new migration regulations permitted club members to travel abroad and carry out some exploratory lobbying in different places, in order to find a publisher who would put out our work. Before 2007 specific works by imprisoned dissidents or writers were published. But the contact with foreign publishers, especially Neo Club Press in Miami has been fundamental,” emphasised Victor Emanuel.
He goes to his tiny kitchen and makes some coffee. “It was a giant leap forward. Last year we published six books. and in 2015 we are going for ten, and in the Vista Puente de Letras edition, coming out in Miami next December we have planned another five works. Right now we have about 50 writers who have joined our club. Among them more than 15 have come from official institutions or are still in them. Qualitatively the project is in very good health and is addressing bluntly and without prejudice all Cuba’s social and political issues”.
I ask him why have so many writers who belonged or belong to the UNEAC (Writers and Artists Union of Cuba) have decided to join the project. Victor Manuel thinks before answering.
“For various reasons. 17– D [ed. note: 17 December 2014, the date of decision to re-establish US-Cuban relations] marked a before and after in the national life. It was the starting pistol for many intellectuals to have new hopes and see new possibilities. Also the state publishers are in clear decline, since every year they publish works very punctually. They accord more importance to committed writers and to political tomes. Any writer’s desire is to be published and they see the Club as an open window to achieve that. Also, Cuban society is slowly losing its fear,” added Domínguez.
The dissident journalists and intellectuals consider that an important dam has been breached. “Dividing walls have been blown up, which, as a result of fear and control of intellectuals had prevented us crossing to the other side of the street. The government understands the power of the written word. Doctor Zhivago, the Gulag Archipelago or Three Trapped Tigers have more ability to make you think than an ideological tract. That’s why they censor poets like Raúl Rivero, political scientists like Carlos Alberto Montaner or novelists like Zoé Valdés.”
From January 2016, Writers Club is thinking of publishing a magazine every four months. The first number will be dedicated to the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero, who lives in Madrid and who will be 70 on 23rd November. Intellectuals and journalists who aren’t gagged want to pay homage to Rivero’s life-long work. His work cannot be hidden by distance, official censorship or exile.
For Victor Manuel, Raúl Rivero is like an incorporeal spirit. “He is always with us in Havana”. Our job is to multiply talent and give free rein to the literary creativity of Cubans in and outside of the island”. That is what the Writers Club is trying to do.
Translated by GH
Ivan Garcia, 19 November 2015 — One hour before noon, the bus stops on Calzada 10 de Octubre are flooded with irritated people who want to transfer to other neighborhoods in the capital.
Hundreds of old cars reconverted into collective taxis full of passengers roll in the direction of Vedado or Centro Habana. The autumn heat and sense of urgency cause those waiting to despair.
Public transport continues to be a popular subject in a magical and flirtatious city, which, in spite of its grime and ruins, will be 496 years old on November 16.
Orestes, a bus inspector, receives a spout of critical resentment from citizens who are disgusted with the precarious urban transport.
“I’m the one who has to take the ass-kicking. The directors travel in cars. But I’m on the street having to put up with people’s complaints. The worst part isn’t the poor management of the transport, it’s that you can’t see a short- or long-term solution,” he says.
In a city of two and a half million people, where only one percent own a private auto, there is no Metro and the suburban trains barely function, public bus service is vitally important.
Yoel, an employ of the sector, says that “the demand is double the number of passengers transported every day. The ideal would be to have an allotment of 1,700 to 2,000 buses. But there are barely 670 in circulation. There is a master plan out to 2020 to improve service, but I don’t think it will solve very much. In addition to the deficit in buses, there is the problem of the poor state of the streets and avenues, which cause breakdowns in the city bus service. And the vandalism of Havanans who shred the buses, destroy the seats or break the windows with stones. Ninety-eight buses were out of service because of acts of vandalism.”
Traveling at rush hour on a bus in the capital is an Indiana Jones adventure. Fights, pickpockets and deranged sexual advances. People with their nerves on the point of exploding at the least touch.
Some day they’ll have to erect a monument to the old cars that serve as taxis in the city. For the average worker, making a round trip by taxi costs one day’s wages.
But the cyclical crisis of urban transport has converted the taxis into a remedy. They carry 200,000 people daily, although not always under good conditions. Of the more than 12,000 private cars for rent in Havana, half of them don’t have the required technical specifications.
“The owners put them to work even without painting them or covering the roof. With what they earn they improve them,” says Renán, who owns an old 1955 Ford.
And yes, they all have disk players that they keep on high volume, which assault the passengers with timba or reggaeton music.
But the talkative Cubanos convert them into a permanent chronicle and a rostrum where people unload their disappointment at the state of things and the appalling government management.
Transportation is only one among many problems suffered by Havanans. The list of things that cause stress is long, and solutions are nowhere to be seen. There is a clamorous need for housing.
Just ask Zaida. She’s 23 years old and lives in a state hostel in the department of Miraflores, at the south of the city. “My house fell down after a hurricane. I lost count of the letters and futile steps I took to have access to housing. Everything remained only as promises and lies on the part of the State agencies. Staying in a hostel means living at the limit; it’s like a prison. They give you a rough time for anything. Here a simple discussion can become a matter of blood.”
In Havana, more than 3,000 nuclear families live in propped up buildings in danger of collapse. According to figures from the last Census of Population and Housing, more than 40,000 domiciles in the province are evaluated as being in grave condition. Seventy percent of these houses require total demolition.
Add to this the precarious living situation in more than 10,000 tenements of different types, the existence of 109 “transient communities” — that is, homeless shelters — where 3,285 nuclear families who have lost their homes or fear a collapse are sheltering, as well as 20,644 housing units in unhealthy neighborhoods and precarious places.
Before Fidel Castro came to power, there were two unhealthy neighborhoods in the capital: Las Yaguas y Llega y Pon. [ed. note: notorious shantytowns in Havana]. Now there are around 60. To maintain and repair housing in the capital, the Government dedicates only 86 million pesos ($3.5 million US).
This figure contrasts with the more than one billion dollars that is being invested in the construction of eight golf courses.
While a large segment of people must live under the same roof with three and even four different generations, more than 50 percent of the potable water is lost through breaks in the hydraulic system.
The Regime only refurbishes or constructs buildings in the tourist sector or the State institutions. Like the repairs of the Theater of Havana and the National Capitol: according to engineers in charge of the works, the cost will exceed 200 million dollars.
In the ancient Chamber, where the political representatives of the Republic debate, the monotone Communist parliament is expected to begin its session at the end of 2016, if it is ready on time.
Visually, some 90 percent of Havana has an architectural platform similar to the one of 1959. Only older and more neglected. It’s not hard to figure out who’s guilty.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Iván García, 12 November 2015 — Liudmila and Sheila are prostitutes and they don’t know about business or cutting-edge technology. But a colleague sent them a text message telling them, “Come here, the yumas (foreigners) are wild.”
They put on stunning high heels, tight clothing and perfume with an anesthetizing fragrance. Their plan was simple: to prowl around the stands for Canada, South Korea, France and Germany, and see how the fishing was at the International Fair of Havana.
“I can speak pretty good English. Let’s go to each pavilion and ask about the products on display or the possibility of working in a company. When we see some foreigner checking us out, we can go on the attack,” says Sheila, who has seven years of experience in prostitution.
They were in luck. Two Spanish businessmen invited them for drinks and disco dancing that night in Miramar. “At the least the romance will be only a joke. But it could end in a courtship and a definitive exit from the country,” reflects Liudmila, while she drinks a Bucanero beer in a temporary bar at the recently-concluded Havana International Trade Fair (FIHAV) of November 2015.
Of course prostitutes are a minority among those who visited Expocuba, the site of commercial fairs since 1989 (the first one was celebrated in 1982 with a few exhibits from Spain, Panama and Cuba).
At the end of the ’80s, just as the almost-perpetual economic crisis was beginning, you might think it wasn’t a good idea to waste millions of dollars building a space for a fair 25 kilometers southeast of the center of the capital.
Excited by what he had seen on his trip to Pyongyang in 1986, Fidel Castro wanted Cuba to also have a permanent exposition, where it could exhibit the “achievements of the Revolutionary Process.” And on January 4, 1989, Castro inaugurated Expocuba, a space much too large for an economy that was shrinking.
The disintegration of the USSR caused the loss of millions in subsidies, which pointed out the deficiencies in local industry. Ricardo Ortiz, a retiree who for 10 years worked in a food import business, says that Expocuba was transformed into a children’s amusement park and a place where, in the hard years of the Special Period, people could find products.
“As transport was scarce, you had to go on bicycle, and when you got to Expocuba, they gave you the right to buy two packages of fried chicken, 10 breadfruits and flavored yogurt. This was in the same epoch when, for lack of fuel, oxen were used for plowing instead of tractors,” remembers Ortiz.
In the Cuban autumn of 2015, Expocuba shows an obvious deterioration. On one afternoon, a strong downpour obliged hundreds of people to seek refuge under the pavilion roofing. “It rained more inside than outside,” said a Spanish tourist. Visitors to the Fair complained about the lack of informative posters.
“Everything had been organized in a slapdash way. You walked around disoriented, not knowing where the exhibit you wanted to see was located,” says Juliana, an English professor, who was looking for the South Korean stand to find the latest version of the Samsung Galaxy.
When the Havana Fair opened its doors to the public on Friday, throughout the neighborhood dozens of private and collective taxis were calling out their services. For Cubans, a round trip could cost 40 CUC (roughly $40 US).
“For a foreigner, 60 CUC or more,” points out Reinerio, the owner of a ramshackle Lada 2105 from the Soviet era. “But I offer a price of 20 CUC, since my car has a gas engine. Fewer people came to this fair than before.”
The suffocating heat invited people to drink cold beer in the bars, cafeterias and restaurants located in Expocuba. At a glance, it was apparent that a lot of attendees were lunching on Creole food or drinking beer, which ran through the pavilions.
According to Marcia, a Fair employee, “the most happening stands were those of South Korea, Canada and Japan. A few businessmen and book publishers from the U.S. exhibited their wares. For 2016 we expect an avalanche of American businessmen.” When you inquire from foreign businessmen about business prospects in Cuba, opinions go from optimism to prudence.
An official from a Swiss tourist agency explained that they now have a permanent office in Havana. “We might not make a big profit right now. But you have to open a way, occupy a space. I’m afraid that when the Americans arrive, the businesses of other countries are going to have to pack their bags.” An investor, also Swiss, is even more bold and claims he’s building a high-class hotel in the Cojimar district.
With more doubts than enthusiasm, Fabian Koppel and Jakub Brzokoupil, from the German firm Optimum, which specializes in industrial machinery, say that in 2012 they did business on the Island. “But because of various difficulties we had to leave. In Cuba everything is very complicated. But our company thinks that now there are better possibilities,” says Fabian.
The perception among businessmen is that 2016 could be a decisive year. A manager of Egyptian origin from Mercedes Benz hasn’t lost hope. In 2014 they sold only 30 multi-purpose trucks to Cuban companies, and in 2015 that went up to 110. As for luxury cars, from 25 in 2014, they hope to sell 200 in 2016.
This is timid growth, but unofficial calculations show that when the State floodgates open, sales can shoot up. Although a Cuban with an average monthly salary of 23 dollars could never buy a car valued at 70 or 80 thousand dollars.
Liudmila and Sheila, the prostitutes from Havana, didn’t lose the opportunity to take a selfie in front of three Mercedez Benz, as if they think it’s possible. “But we would never buy a car in Cuba,” they say, smiling.
Text and photo: Iván García
Translated by Regina Anavy
Iván García, 9 November 2015 — One warm evening in September, a scrapping brigade arrived from Habaguanex* and, in a little more than two hours, dismantled the aluminum tubes and awnings of three open-air bars on the Avenida del Puerto, where habaneros and tourists drank beer or ate fried chicken among the ambling musicians and prostitutes on the hunt.
The smell of fritanga** combined with the street-sellers’ cries and the nauseating odors from the contaminated Havana Bay. The spillage of waste matter was the pretext for the mandarins, who control the strongbox in the old part of the city, to disassemble the gastronomic shed, a couple of outhouses and, in passing, put some three dozen workers out of work. But the real reasons were something else.
Let’s call him “Mario,” a bureaucrat from the Habaguanex corporation, and he says: “The businesses adjacent to the port are controlled by military companies, who receive rent and fees from the old warehouse of San José, which has been converted into a handicraft market and even hostels, cafes, restaurants and shops. There is a master plan*** for converting the port into a tourist plaza that would offer recreation facilities and services for the cruise ships.”
In 2014, another old market in the port zone was transformed into a beer hall. And the inauguration of a maritime esplanade just in front of the Alameda de Paula is imminent.
They also have repaired and expanded sections of the road, planted palm trees and put up modern lighting on the street median. The area where the mobile bars were has been cleared to have more space for future tourists.
“They’re going to relocate them to other sites. They don’t want the view of the Bay entrance and the Christ of Casablanca to be obscured. By 2016 they hope to have more than 70,000 tourists from the cruise ships,” pointed out Mario.
The Regime is betting a lot on cruise-ship tourism in Cuba. President Obama, according to his roadmap, is interested in empowering private entrepreneurs and regular Cubans. But to the autocracy, only those businesses where the State is the manager are important.
Or to be more exact, the military businesses. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law (although some rumors indicate that he separated from Raúl’s daughter, Deborah), is a kind of tropical Martin Bormann, who handles the treasure of the business network of the Army, which controls the holding company GAESA****.
There is no way to probe into or know the volume of money they handle and how these funds are used: It’s a State secret. The generals, now converted into businessmen, have substituted white guayaberas for their uniforms. Eighty percent of the Council of State and the principal posts in the national economy are controlled by the Armed Forces.
After the U.S. Department of Treasury granted licenses to authorized cruise companies so they can go into Cuban ports, the falcons rubbed their hands together.
Raúl Castro is an expert at camouflaging his intentions. He also has been clever in dismantling, stone by stone, his brother’s pernicious voluntarism. He has changed the furniture, but he keeps up the décor.
Like Fidel Castro, he has boosted parallel mechanisms in the economy and the private reserves where the budgets are not discussed in the docile local parliament.
Castro the First was a staunch enemy of cruise ships, and he prohibited them in 2005. He argued that a horde of drunken tourists with little money would dirty up the Bay (even more than it is) with beer bottles and other garbage.
But Commando Raúl Castro thinks differently. The mid-term plan is for U.S. tourists to become an engine of growth that will catapult Cuba into the greatest tourist spot in the Caribbean.
But the present hotel infrastructure isn’t satisfying demand. “Every time a cruise ship comes into port, the beer, rum and mineral water disappear from the shops in Old Havana. We’re hallucinating if we think that four or five million Americans will come to the island, when we haven’t invested enough in lodging or services,” points out Fernando, a tourism officer.
December 17, 2015 — the day the United States and Cuba announced a resumption of relations — left in shreds Castro’s propaganda apparatus. For decades, it sold the narrative that the Revolution was of the people, by the people and for the people.
But a group of measures dictated by Raúl Castro put it into question. If anyone has been the big loser from the timid economic reforms of the last eight years it’s been the most poor, especially the elderly.
Without blushing, the olive-green autocracy has implemented unpopular measures that harm the population.
The Customs tax rates, the stratospheric assessments on commodities sold in the dollar stores and the favoring of cruise-ship tourism over ferry transport between Havana and Florida, which would permit a large transfer of assets and alleviate the poverty of many Cuban families, are evidence that the Regime governs only by thinking about its corporate benefits.
The White House has issued more than 15 “specific licenses” for passenger ferry service to Cuba, but they can’t operate immediately because of a lack of infrastructure on the island, sources from the Ministry of Transport confirmed at the beginning of October.
In a clear stalling tactic, the authorities allege that they need time to create an adequate infrastructure to receive ferries. José Ignacio, an expert in port services, thinks differently.
“It’s a contradiction that the Government says it doesn’t have the infrastructure to receive ferries and jumps for joy at the future arrival of cruise ships. The reality is simple: the cruise ships constantly leave behind dollars in cash. The ferries, to be more economical and transport up to 200 pounds per passenger, would boost trips for Cubans located in Miami, who would benefit their relatives with their packages. The official strategy is that they send all the money they want, so that people are obligated to buy in the State shops,” says José Ignacio.
Quietly, a State mercantilism is being built in Cuba, governed by silence and the lack of transparency. The worst possible capitalism.
Photo: Academic cruise ship M.V. Explorer from the United States. After a journey through 17 countries, the final destination for the 624 students coming from 248 U.S. universities was the Port of Havana. Taken from Martí News.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 5 November 201 5 — Daniela Sarmiento, 61, has exhausted all the legal options with State institutions to complete the process for a new home She lives with her three children in a house cracked because of a partial collapse or roofs and walls, putting their lives in danger.
“Since 1988, following the construction of a bomb shelter built by the government near my house, they damaged the foundations. Specialists of all kinds have come by here. They evaluated the housing as uninhabitable but no one resolved anything. I have written letters to the president of the country, the national assembly, the armed forces. But by case has no solution,” she says.
When you tell her there are dissident groups that can help her, the woman opens her eyes and says, “But can these people (the opponents) resolve anything if they are as much victims than we are.”
In El Calvario, a village of dusty streets and low houses south of Havana, the dissident attorney Laritza Diversent, since August 2010, has managed a legal clinic that has looked at around 140 files of humble people who have exhausted all legal paths.”
Because of the anachronistic Cuban laws, Diversent and her group of lawyers can not represent their clients. Their only option is to advise them.
“Eighty percent of the cases we serve are from people who are not dissidents. Very poor people who feel that the courts or state institutions do not represent them,” says Diversent sitting in her living room converted into an office.
Aside from the independent legal collectives and a few opposition strategies to connect to ordinary Cubans, dissident leaders live in another dimension.
Raul Castro’s autocracy has cleverly hijacked the opposition’s demands. The first factions of democracy activists arose in the mid 1970s, reclaiming spaces that the olive-green government has been discreetly implementing.
It wasn’t in a session of the monotone Cuban parliament, or in an editorial of the State newspaper Granma, or in a union debate, where the demand is made for niches for private work, access to the internet, the buying and selling of houses and cars, being able to travel abroad, or the elimination of tourist apartheid.*
It was peaceful opponents and independent journalists who raised their voices. In their writings and documents such as The Homeland Belongs to All. For demanding political openings and changes, hundreds of dissidents, alternative communicators and human rights activists have gone to jail or into exile, including 75 during the Black Spring of 2003.
Many of these demands are now part of the package that the government of General Raul Castro sold as “updating the Cuban economic model,” scoring a political victory and presenting himself as a reformer.
The unquestionable merits of the dissidence in Cuba cannot be ignored. It is a feat to be an opponent in a totalitarian society where those who think differently are repressed and there is no legal space to undertake their work.
They could be gentle grandparents, father or mothers who read the boring midday national press and care for their children and grandchildren. But the value of dissent in an autocratic society does not exempt them from being judged for their incompetence.
“Why,” I ask a neighbor who every morning complains about things in Cuba, “don’t you join an opposition group?”
“Apart from the fear, I feel that the dissidence in Cuba doesn’t meet my expectations I don’t seem them chatting with people in the community to learn about their problems. They don’t have a strategy to put the government up against the wall, they just denounce the repression, they could be important, but what affects all Cubans, whatever we think, is the low quality of life, a chaotic infrastructure, and seeing what we have to do just to find food every day. Political freedoms are paramount, but you can’t eat them,” he confesses.
Yamil, a Havana taxi driver, thinks similarly. “I believe it’s more about a media show than communicating with ordinary Cubans, and we are the most fucked. Most of them don’t even work. Ninety percent of the people in Cuba agree with the demands of the dissidents, but they don’t know how to win over the people Their work isn’t going in this direction.”
Raudel, a university student, makes a comparison, “In the street you see the religious denominations, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are persecuted by the government, proselytizing house to house. The dissidents just meet, have discussions and travel abroad.”
In the last 25 years, except for Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas’ Varela Project that managed to get 11,000 signatures, the dissident strategies don’t count on popular support. The excessive role of some of them doesn’t help either.
Every opposition leader manages their projects as if it were their own property. The lack of transparency, intolerance, and shenanigans condemn them to a poor performance.
Eight of every ten Cubans want change and not just economic ones. People want more freedoms, But there are not many regime opponents who are doing the work of paying attention to them. It is a thankless task to walk under the sun without public recognition.
But that is the silent work that adds supporters, When they are able to call a march with 10,000 people the regime will take them into account.
They don’t have to convince the United States or the European Union about the economic disaster and the lack of freedoms in Cuba. They have to talk to their neighbors and tell them that a free and developed society depends on them.
Photo by Ernesto Garcia Diaz of the press conference convened by the United Democratic Action Roundtable (MUAD) last August in Havana.
*Translator’s note: Until recent years, ordinary Cubans were not allowed to step foot in tourist hotels, tourist beaches, and other tourist facilities (except as employees).
Ivan Garcia, 28 October 2015 — The smell of pine and varnish permeates the narrow building where Idelfonso and his three assistants sculpt a collection of bowls, amulets and gadgets used in Santeria initiations rituals
The studio is air-conditioned and the high quality of his work has allowed Idelfonso to renovate his house and buy a fourteen-thousand-dollar Soviet-era car with a diesel engine and German automatic transmission.
And he has no shortage of clients. “I have Russian, Swiss, Cuban-American and even Japanese buyers. Santeria is expanding all over the world. And it has given rise to an industry to satisfy locals and foreigners who want to be initiated,” he says as he places a recently varnished figure of San Lazaro (St. Lazarus) in a closet next to other religious objects to be sold wholesale to an intermediary.
Although an autocratic Fidel Castro took a particularly belligerent stance towards the Catholic church, syncretic religions, Masonic associations and Afro-Cuban secret societies in the early years of the revolution, Cubans never stopped worshiping their saints.
In the houses of some of Castro’s most diehard supporters it was common to find an image of the Virgin of Charity and a small cabinet filled with offerings to some African deity right under a photo of Fidel.
Syncretism — the blending of one or more religions — is widespread in Cuba. Many Afro-Cubans have their children baptized in the Catholic church and later perform an itá,* consulting with their Santeria godfather by tossing pebbles and shells onto a wooden tablet.
When Fidel Castro was hanging by a thread after the fall of the Soviet empire, which brought down the satellite regimes of Eastern Europe in its wake, he devised a political strategy to bring Cuba’s various religious denominations into a new and powerful alliance.
The plan made perfect sense. The Americas has the largest number of Catholic followers in the world while many people in Central America, South America and the Caribbean worship indigenous deities or gods of African origin.
There began to be less talk of Lenin and Marx in Cuba. The national stage was opened up to a variety of religious beliefs, provided they were in communion with the regime.
The rise of Santeria and other religious beliefs that come to us from Africa has been augmented by a booming private-sector industry that arose to meet the demand for fetishes, sacrificial animals, religious imagery, prayers and potions.
Just in Tenth of October — a Havana district of more than two-hundred thousand residents which has become the most populous in Cuba — there are roughly a hundred religion-related businesses
The self-employment regulations adopted by the government in 1993 and expanded in 2010 by General Raul Castro allow herbalists, fortune-tellers and babalaos, or priests, to provide consultations, read Tarot cards and sell religious images.
Abdiel is one of them. For ten years he has been selling herbal medicines and Santeria necklaces in a stall a stone’s throw from the old bus terminal in La Vibora.
“I also sell wood carvings and animals specifically for religious sacrifice. Sales are good. I pay relatively little money in taxes to the state,” he says while sitting on a small wooden bench.
In the courtyard of a big house with high ceilings in San Miguel del Padron, Arturo makes money by selling goats, roosters and pigeons, animals commonly used in Santeria “endeavors.”
“I have been in this business since 1998. You can’t imagine the number of people in Cuba who are adopting Santeria. It might seem like a primitive sect for black people, but most of my clients are white and affluent,” says Arturo.
Jose Ignacio, a babaloa with thirty-five years experience, claims that followers of African rites outnumber local Catholics by a wide margin. “None of the three popes who have visited Cuba met with leaders of the Yoruba religion, even though the two faiths share the same saints.”
This Havana babaloa believes the Catholic hierarchy looks upon them with disdain. He notes that there are as many if not more white people practicing Santeria as there are black or mestizo followers. “It’s only logical,” he observes. “Whites often live better and have more money.”
In Cuba “becoming a saint,” or being initiated, is an extremely costly proposition. Reinaldo, a well-known follower points out that it can cost four to eight thousand dollars depending on the type of saint. “It shouldn’t be that way but many unscrupulous people have turned Santeria into a very lucrative business,” he says.
For a foreigner the cost is even higher. For Frank, a Canadian who is married to a Cuban woman, getting initiated cost him $13,000. “And what’s worse, I’m still spending money,” he complains.
Becoming a saint in Cuba has gone from being a spiritual need to being a fashion statement, a socially acceptable way of displaying a person’s affluence. Behind the scenes an empirical and highly profitable industry makes it all possible.
*Translator’s note: A ceremony conducted on the third day of consecration in which the past, present and future is discussed with the initiate and shells tossed on a table are believed to carry meaning.