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Obama Bolsters His Popularity in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment
A Cuban boy playing in the street in central Havana. From El Nuevo Herald.

A Cuban boy playing in the street in central Havana. From El Nuevo Herald.

Ivan Garcia, 14 April 2015 — While a marathon of presidential speeches takes place at Panama City’s Atlapa convention center, back in Cuba the real civil society — the one about which many talk but to which few listen — is biting its nails in front of the television, watching the Cuban baseball playoffs between the Tigers from Ciego de Avila and the Pirates from Isla de la Juventud.

Yordan, a steel worker from the outskirts of Havana, was one of them. It was while sitting down to play dominoes and drink rum with neighborhood friends one night that he learned about the meeting between Obama and Castro.

Suddenly in the role of armchair analysts, they speculated a bit about what a future partnership with the U.S. might hold.

“Listen, in spite of fifty-five years of being bombarded by negative press about the Yankees, most Cubans who decide to emigrate choose to go to the Yuma*. In Cuba everyone goes wild for American brands. Those old, worn-out theories and that stuff about annexation have nothing to do with what you see. Relatives and friends come back fatter and better dressed. They take you out for a beer, they show you photos of their cars and later they send you a tablet or smart phone. That is more powerful than any propaganda,” says Yordan, ebullient after downing half a liter of cheap rum.

Havana residents interviewed for this article all had an opinion on this topic. Sergio, a retired soldier, wonders if the decades-long rhetoric against the United States was worth it.

“I fought in the Angola civil war. Like others, I did it in the name of international proletarianism. At the time I thought Yankee imperialism would be ancient history by decade’s end. It’s been twenty-six years since I came back from Angola and the reality is quite different. If we don’t negotiate with the old enemy, the Cuban revolution won’t be sustainable. I feel sorry for the more than two thousand soldiers who lost their lives in someone else’s war,” says the former soldier.

Among the wide range of opinions held by average Cubans, there are enthusiastic optimists like Raudel, a young university student. “Now we will really build socialism. It will be by the shortest route, which is through capitalism. When we have three million tourists, fast food restaurants and broadband internet, come back and ask if people still believe in Fidel Castro and his boring anti-imperialist rallies,” he says in a jocular tone, sitting in a park and listening to Joaquin Sabina on a MP3 player.

It is not easy to find “Talibans” (extremists) who believe “negotiating with the enemy is a strategic mistake.” The vast majority of Cubans enthusiastically approve of the new agreement.

But there are also people such as Moises, a hard-core follower of Fidel Castro, who have their doubts. “I worry that Raul suffers from naiveté. Obama can be very charming and a large segment of the population is seduced by the American lifestyle. If we spread our legs too wide, Havana could end up being a suburb of Miami.”

Since the Obama-Castro policy change was announced on December 17, there has been a good vibe in Cuba. “Besides being our neighbor, the United States has always been a reference point for music, movies, sports and lifestyle,” notes Manuel, a historian.

“Twenty percent of the population lives in Florida. Miami is the country’s second city. Only Havana has a larger Cuban population. Russian cuisine and Venezuelan arepa never caught on here. But if you opened a McDonald’s or a Cafe Versailles, the line to get in would go on for miles. Our national heroes were dazzled by the American revolution. Despite our grievances and the Platt Amendment, Cubans admire the United States, which is not the case with some other Latin American countries.”

There are no television ratings in Cuba for the Summit of the Americas, but the only coverage for which people did not change the channel were the speeches by Obama and Raul Castro.

The Summit of the People and the tiresome rhetoric of Nicolas Maduro attracted little attention. The official narrative — accusing dissidents of being mercenaries and terrorists — was a distant echo.

“At the rate things are going, don’t be surprised if within five years the government feels like talking to the human rights people (as dissidents are referred to in Cuba). If we can talk to the Yankees, why not talk to them?” asks Eugenio, a self-employed taxi driver.

In spite of sudden shifts in optimism and suspicion after the December 17 announcement, it is clear that Obama is more popular in Cuba than in the United States. And his popularity far exceeds that of Raul Castro according to a recent survey.

This comes as no surprise. Since an African-American won the U.S. presidential elections in 2008, Afro-Cubans have felt some empathy for Obama. Even the Castros have thrown themselves at his feet.

Initially, Fidel tried to seduce him but, after being rebuffed by Obama, he once again took up the sword. And shedding a few tears was the only thing Raul failed to do in a speech at the summit in which he expressed his admiration for the current resident of the White House.

“I would not complain if the Americans wanted to trade Obama for Raul Castro. Or we could give them Fidel and Miguel Diaz-Canal. We’ll consider any offers,” says a young man who is listening to a rock performance at the park on G Street in Vedado.

If anyone’s popularity in Cuba has been bolstered, especially after the Summit of the Americas, it is Barack Obama.

*Translator’s note: Cuban slang for the U.S.

 

Summit of the Americas: Inconsequential to the Average Cuban / Ivan Garcia

April 13, 2015 Leave a comment
Source: Cubanet

Source: Cubanet

Ivan Garcia, 9 April 2015 — After the Sunday hangover drinking beer with various friends, Jose Pablo reluctantly tends to his stall where he sells pirated CDs with Hollywood films and Mexican and Colombian narco-novelas. At his stand you can find 2015 Oscar winners and in a worn black backpack, a collection of national and foreign pornography.

Jose Pablo is a talkative type. But when you ask him what benefits the upcoming Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama April 10-11, would bring, with a sneer he responds, “Nothing. All these summits, be they Latin American, or CELAC, are more of the same. Speeches full of promises that in the end resolve nothing. It’s all rhetoric. It is an unnecessary waste of money.

While the official press is increasing the news coverage of the Summit, where the island will be seated in a meeting where supposedly nations must have full democratic requisites to participate, among ordinary Havanans, exhausted by the daily grind to put food on the table, these events are no more than strange far-off echoes.

For Daniel, repairing an old Dodge from the ’40s in his slightly grubby overalls, the bottom line is to keep the car on the road so it will continue to generate money to support his family.

“Politics in Cuba suck, The government goes one way and the people go the other. We Cubans no longer have any faith in our leaders. But we don’t have the mechanisms to change things. Then people do the best they can. With a quart of rum or a trip to the beach. I don’t plan to watch the Summit on TV. I don’t have time to watch those crappy speeches,” he says smiling.

Even bullet-proof optimists like Raisa, an engineer who hoped after December 17 that Cuba would finally change and become a normal country, four months later and with no roadmap from General Raul Castro has returned to her routine.

Reading newspapers that disinform rather than inform and, in order to complement her salary, she sells fruit juices at her work. “Only the retired or people interested in politics watch these televised rants. Cuban politicians float in another dimension. They don’t have to wrack their brains thinking about what they’re going to cook and how to make the money last to the end of the month. They are a Cuban and Venezuelan caste of self-proclaimed socialists,” she says in a biting tone.

If you wander down Avenida Santa Catalina, twenty minutes from the center of Havana, where the start of spring has brought out the brilliant red and orange flowers of the flamboyant trees flanking the road, and chat with the small business owners in the doorways of their homes or the retirees who sit in the park killing time, the upcoming Summit is not a priority.

The presidential talks, the historic photo of Obama and Castro II shaking hands, or the verbal boxing ring that star in the social forum preceding the Summit, only interest political actors and their hangers-on, in the official and dissident sector

Although their coffers are in the red, the State will pay the expenses of more than a hundred activists camouflaged as “civil society” — a buzzword. With their slick narrative, they will try to dismantle the plans of the opponents present in Panama.

The dissidents who will be traveling have prepared parallel summits throughout the Island. Despite the triumphalist headlines of the regime’s media, that the 7th Summit will offer a stage to accuse the United States of past, present and future tragedies, it would take a lot to convince people like Jose Pablo that forums like the one in Panama can mark a before and after in the nation’s life.

“With Raul Diaz-Canel, Elizardo Sanchez or any of the others who will someday become president, the poor will remain poor. Cuba isn’t going to change. No matter who governs. The option is to get out of here. The farther the better,” says Jose Pablo.

The daily drams, after decades of lines, rationing and shortages, and the powerlessness of the powerless to change things, has led a majority of Cuban society into apathy.

The escape valve is a raft, a visa, or spending a few hours watching South Korean soap operas. The present is worrisome. The future is scary.

Cuba-USA: Enthusiasm Has Been Waning / Ivan Garcia

April 12, 2015 Leave a comment

habana-bicitaxi2-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 28 March 2015 – It feels like a lot of time has gone by since noon on December 17 when Rogelio Horta’s family sat dumbfounded in front of the television listening to Raul Castro announce that Cuba and the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations.

Everything seemed perfect. There would be improved telecommunications and internet. Self-employed workers and cooperatives would have access to credit. If differences between the two countries were patched up, the economic situation would improve. But as time passed, people’s expectations changed,” admits Rogelio, the owner of a cafe southwest of Havana.

Three months after the newsflash, the feeling among average Cubans is that the new developments will not significantly change their lives.

The government of Raul Castro has not formulated a policy that would allow the private or cooperative economic sectors to sign business or financial deals with U.S. institutions.

“It’s all just propaganda. Americans tour cooperative farms and sugar plantations, celebrities film TV shows in Havana and take selfies with Fidel Castro’s children. But there are no actual results. Direct telephone calls are the same as before,” notes Armando, a scriptwriter for radio soap operas.

People have been edging from optimism to anger. Such is the mood of Josuan, an independent taxi driver who was excited by Obama’s words. Perhaps a bit too much.

On Christmas Eve, three months ago, Josuan envisioned a dream-like future: “I thought the Cuban economy would open up and self-employed workers would have more opportunities. The topic of conversation was how we could take advantage of the new situation. But the government has brought us down from the clouds. Now with the soap opera that is Venezuela, the press doesn’t even mention the third round of (US-Cuban) talks being held in Havana,” he says.

The official media barely even noticed Roberta Jacobson’s second visit to Cuba. Nor were a swarm of foreign journalists seen in the streets of Havana and nothing has emerged on the meetings between Jacobsen and her counterpart, Josefina Vidal.

The media hoopla has morphed into a mysterious silence, which is probably the perfect setting to achieve agreements that will satisfy both parties.

For better informed Cubans such as Ortelio, a former government official, the concern is that any shift in U.S. foreign policy could derail the process.

“Negotiating with the Castros is very complex,” says Ortelio. “They’re like spoiled children. Any action by American policy makers that displeases them could endanger the negotiations. The official line is that Obama’s sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials will not interfere with the process. I hope that’s the case and that our government shows intelligence and responsibility. For twenty-five years Cuba has experienced an ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight. If we don’t develop our economy and improve our standard of living, the exodus from the island will continue. There is a limit to how much people will tolerate.”

Danilo, an architect, believes it is all stage managed. “The speeches by Cuban officials are meant to please the Latin American and European left,” he believes. “Raul Castro will not miss this chance with the U.S. to pass by, but he needs Venezuelan oil. If Venezuela were to steal the show at the next Summit of the Americas, it would be a good smokescreen to continue negotiating behind the scenes. Maduro has an expiration date. He’ll lose power before too long. He is a useful idiot.”

While strategies are drawn up in the corridors of power in Havana and Washington, the initial enthusiasm among Cubans over the surprising diplomatic shift has been eclipsed.

Since December 17 owners of private lodgings and restaurants, taxi drivers, the poor, prostitutes and hustlers have benefitted from the presence of affluent Americans with fat wallets, especially in the oldest part of the city, which is the section most visited by tourists.

Havana residents hope that within two years broadband internet and U.S. dollars will extend across every neighborhood in the capital. Maduro is not welcome here. Long speeches and a litany of grievances are all he has to offer. People have been listening to this narrative more many years now. And they are tired of it.

Photo: In spite American tourists, U.S. flags and movie stars turning up in Havana, Cubans’ enthusiasm for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States has been waning. Prensa de Nicaragua.

Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba

March 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Fotos-y-Videos-para-Quinces-bachecubano-620-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 28 February 2015 — Fourteen-year-old Yanisbel has one hot meal a day and the roof of her house leaks but her mother and grandparents have been saving for a decade to stage a traditional quinceañera, a celebration of her fifteenth birthday.

“All the women in my family celebrated their fifteenth birthdays,” says her mother. “My daughter should too. Maybe we won’t be able to throw a blow-out party. We don’t have relatives in government or in Miami but at least we’ll have photos taken, buy her three new outfits and throw a little party for her school friends.”

Yanisbel’s grandparents sell prepared lunches and milk caramels. They keep some of their earnings in a ceramic jar. “Fifteenth birthday parties get more expensive every day. An album of one photo session and a video is going to cost us 200 CUC. Then there are the costs for the dress, the buffet and beverages for the party. More than 600 chavitos (convertible pesos) in total,” her grandfather explains. “That’s the equivalent of five-years’ worth of pension for a retired person.”

South of the capital in the town of Casino Deportivo, Jennifer’s family will celebrate her birthday in high style. Accompanied by her parents, Jennifer visits the studio of a well-known photographer. Seated on a high bench, surrounded by strong lighting, a mirror and a white hat, she poses as if she were a model.

After a light dinner and a bath, she waits with her parents and boyfriend for a video to be shot. On the eve of the party she goes shopping with her mother and two girlfriends at a boutique in Miramar.

The climax is a four-night stay at a five-star Cayo Coco hotel in Ciego de Avila six hours by car from Havana. “The hotel and clothing expenses are being paid for by relatives who live in Miami. They’re flying to Cuba on the day of the party,” says Jennifer’s father, a mid-level bureaucrat at a state enterprise.

When asked about the costs, the father waves his hand and smiles. “What can I say? It’s a family secret. We have been putting away money since she was born. I stopped counting after about two-thousand convertible pesos.”

While Jennifer looks forward to the celebration, Octavio — an assistant bricklayer whose daughter’s fifteenth birthday is twenty days away — does not have a bank account or a wad of cash stashed under the mattress. “I will think of something. I plan on buying some new clothes and taking some pictures. Maybe I’ll pawn the TV or the fridge. I don’t know,” says Octavio as he waits in line at a bakery.

A photo session with the subject dressed like an actress and a DVD with photomontages ranges from 120 to 350 CUC. Poor girls like Ileana cannot celebrate their fifteenth birthdays by going out on the town with their friends. “But I do have a photo album and my parents gave me a pair of high-heeled shoes,” she notes.

Yamila, a sociologist, believes fifteenth birthday parties like this are a long-standing tradition in Cuba. “I cannot pinpoint exactly when this Latin American custom melded with the European tradition of ballroom dances,” she says. “In Spain, when a boy reached adolescence, they would put a goat in a sack and throw it off the top of a bell tower. I don’t know if they still do that but every July 7 on the Feast of San Fermin people in Pamplona run through the streets with bulls.”

She explains that in the United States the president even spares the life of turkey on Thanksgiving. “Every country has its customs and traditions. Purists in Cuba look upon fifteenth birthday parties as being tacky, extravagant wastes of money. But in the popular imagination they remain cherished events,” the sociologist points out.

A profitable private-sector industry has grown up on the island around these celebrations. Pablo, a professional photographer, alternates his time between working for a foreign press agency and shooting fifteenth birthday parties. “If you are a high-caliber photographer, you can make good money. Thanks to weddings and quinceañeras, I have been able to buy a 1956 Cadillac in good condition and spend a few days in Varadero every year. I find these parties cheesy but, as long as they pay well, long live the fifteenths.

Cuba’s fifteenth birthday celebrations have crossed the Florida Straits and have taken root among the hundreds of thousands of compatriots living there. Although many families have little to eat and live in poverty, the arrival of girl’s fifteenth birthday is an important event. Some people like Jennifer’s parents can afford to break the bank.

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

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