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The CDR: Social Control Begins in the Neighborhood or the Village

September 29, 2015 1 comment
Photo: CDR in Viñales, Pinar del Río province. Taken from My Travelling.

Photo: CDR in Viñales, Pinar del Río province. Taken from My Travelling.

Iván García, 29 September 2015 — When the bearded guerrilla Fidel Castro on the night of 28 September 1960 founded a system of collective surveillance in every neighborhood, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), civil society in Cuba was annulled until further notice.

Not even Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with its full record of social intrusions, had structured a system of neighborhood cooperatives with espionage services.

The most similar equivalent might be Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a paramilitary corps behind numerous episodes of physical or verbal violence and aggression against its political adversaries in Italy during the 1920s.

However, with the CDRs, Fidel Castro expanded the scope of action. Just as they might arrange the verbal lynching of a dissident or denounce a neighbor for suspicion of “illicit enrichment,” they might also volunteer in a children’s polio vaccination campaign or a collection of raw materials.

If the repressive action of State Security is the right hand of the regime, the CDRs comprise a legitimizing entity for government policies.

Be it out of double standards, irresponsibility, or routine, more than 7-million people in Cuba are in the CDRs. As of the age of 14, in an almost automatic fashion, the residents of a neighborhood all join the organization.

Two decades ago, besides collective vigilance, they would also have tedious political debates to dissect Castro’s latest speech, perform nighttime guard duty to protect State interests, and put on blood drives.

Every neighbor contributes a monthly quota of five Cuban pesos ($0.25 US) to the organization. In the sinister mechanism of social control devised by Castro, the CDRs are an effective weapon.

To obtain an important position at work, you must first go through the filter of your block Committee. Without a letter from your CDR or an approval following an investigation of you by the Party, the Young Communist League, or Special Services, it is impossible to climb up in the extravagant Cuban social fabric.

As of the 21st Century, the organization is in shambles. By now, the watchdog rounds are hardly ever carried out, and even the local parties, with neighbors sipping soup and dancing reggaeton, are few and far between.

But the CDRs continue to be the primary ears for the political police. Any government opponent or independent journalist is surveilled by one or more members of the Committee.

This amateur espionage includes noting the vehicle registrations of embassy cars and foreigners who visit your house. In addition, they find out your standard of living, expenses, vices and habits–even what you eat.

By now the autocratic system is in freefall, and the meddling by the CDRs in the private lives of citizens is much reduced. It is not uncommon for the president of a local organization to be close friends with a dissident and to notify him when he is being investigated by State Security, or for that president to earn a few extra pesos on the side selling tickets for the clandestine local lottery.

There are still a few old intransigents left, labeled as lunatics by many neighbors, who plead for participation in the parody of elections for the National Assembly of People’s Power, or in volunteer projects.

People pay them little mind. The CDRs’ other battle front is the census and inventory of all residents. For this, there is a book entitled the Registry of Addresses.

In this book, the names, surnames, ages and addresses of all neighbors are scrupulously noted. When a citizen moves to a new address, he is required to report to his new location’s CDR, to be inscribed in that neighborhood’s Registry. Any temporary visitor, be he Cuban or foreign, is supposed to be reported to the CDR.

Based on reports from the Committee, the police detain and return to their provinces of origin any persons from other regions who are residing in Havana illegally.

The CDRs are located on every block in the cities, and in every village of rural areas. The next organizational level up is the Zone Committee, after that the District, then the Municipal, the Provincial, and ultimately the National.

The director of the network of CDRs is known as the National Coordinator. His offices, replete with bureaucrats and fuel consumers, are funded by the State. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez instituted similar collectives–perhaps even more dangerous, being that those are armed.

The regime represents these quasi-fascist monstrosities as being NGOs. This is Fidel Castro’s great contribution to the scrutiny of individuals of divergent thinking.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Many Cubans Were Indifferent to the Pope’s Visit / Ivan Garcia

September 26, 2015 1 comment

El-Papa-con-el-Che-de-fondo-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 24 September 2015 — The best news for Celestino Cabrera, retiree, who lives in a neighborhood of low-rise houses and steep streets, was the arrival of half a kilogram of chicken per person at his area butcher shop.

“For a week now we’ve been waiting for the ration-book chicken. Lots of Pope, but zero grub,” he says with a smile while waiting in line at a ramshackle meatmarket on Font Street, in Lawton, 35 minutes from the center of Havana.

Throughout 40 years, Cabrera worked at stowing bags of sugar and wheat flour at the Havana port. His meager pension of 243 Cuban pesos (around 9 dollars) per month is just enough to purchase seven pounds of rice, five pounds of surgar, and the 20 ounces of beans that the State provides monthly via the ration book, a few vegetables, and with the rest of the money, he pays his electric bill.

To earn a few more dollars, Celestino watches cars at a farmers market adjacent to the Virgen del Camino, at a central crossroads in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality.

For Cabrera, Pope Bergoglio is a distant guy. “The Catholic Church in Cuba is a white thing. My grandparents were kids of Haitians. The religions I knew were Ñañiguism, Palo, and Santería. I respect the Pope, but his sermons are not my sermons.”

Very nearby Celestino’s apartment lives Berta Soler, leader of a faction of the Ladies in White. Every Sunday for the last five months and a half, after Mass at Santa Rita of Cascia church in the elegant Miramar neighborhood west of the capital, Soler, a woman of warm character and voice, along with three dozen other women, hoist placards demanding democracy and an amnesty law for more than 60 political prisoneres.

One wing of the Cuban opposition disagrees with the path taken by the national Church. The new scenario after 17-D*, negotiations with the US, and the goodwill between the regime and the Vatican, have not produced a democratic opening in Cuba, not even the recognition of and tolerance for differences.

Antonio Rodiles, director of Estado de SATS and member of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, says that “at times one has the impression that a sector of the dissidence is conservative or extremist. But what it’s really about is the future of a nation which, from the way events are unfolding, is heading towards a neo-Castroism, pure and simple.”

For Rodiles, the Pope’s homilies on the Island “have been rather gray in comparison to John Paul II’s Masses during his visit in January, 1998–and in particular to those words from the then-Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Msgr. Pedro Meurice.”

When speaking with the people who breakfast on coffee without milk and have only one meal per day, reactions to the visit by the Bishop of Rome fluctuate between indifference and curiosity. Few have any hopes and nobody expects that after his trip there will be a miracle.

If Francis’s Masses in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba were, for Catholics, messages that have invigorated and reaffirmed their faith, among other religious denominations the Pope was seen as a colonizer and intruder.

Right on the corner of Calzada de 10 de Octubre and Acosta streets stands a evangelical temple. When you ask the faithful their evaluation of the presence of His Holiness in Cuba, you will hear countless reproaches of the Vatican and the Supreme Pontiff.

“The Vatican and the Popes have corrupted religion. It is a marketing technique that counts on the endorsement of the world centers of power. History records the atrocities committed by Catholics in the name of God,” declares Luis Omar, evangelical pastor.

Oneida, a Jehovah’s Witness, traverses dozens of kilometers every morning, preaching her faith from door to door. “The government and the Vatican are on a honeymoon. The regime opens the door only to those religions that do not criticize the state of things,” she said.

Masons, paleros, santeros and abakuás, among other sects with many followers on the Island (about 70 per cent of the population profess syncretic or Afro-Cuban worship) also feel like they are not heard by the Holy Father.

“Up to now, the Vatican and the national Catholic Church have not demonstrated the slightest interest in meeting with the Afro-Cuban denominations. More than a slight, it exemplifies the typical racist supremacy of Catholicsm,” Nivaldo, a palero, pointed out.

Pablo Ordaz, special envoy of El País newspaper, observed that Francis did not transmit any message that was critical of the Castros, and avoided making pronouncements that would irritate the brothers from Birán [hometown of Fidel and Raúl Castro]. Ordaz recalled that John Paul II in 1998, and Benedict XVI in 2012, issued calls for political change in Cuba.

The official media did not publish even one line that veered from the Pope’s preachings. As flattering as they were, the articles by the state journalists were cloying and hardly believable. Even followers of the olive-green autocracy, such as Aleida Guevara–daughter of the Argentine Ernesto Guevara–who showed her differences with the government, for calling members of the Communist Party to the Holy Father’s masses.

And on Sunday, 20 September, while His Holiness preached his homily on the Plaza of the Revolution, to his left the image of Che on the facade of the Ministry of the Interior turned into a mute spectator of the weird scene.

The guerrilla fighter, countryman of Bergoglio, devoted Communist and one allergic to religion, must have been turning in his grave.

Photo taken from BBC World: The Pope arriving at a Mass on the Plaza of the Revolution, Sunday, 20 September. On one side, the image of Che that since 8 October 1993 has adorned the exterior wall of the Ministry of the Interior, the agency that runs the National Revolutionary Police and the Department of State Security, among other forces dedicated to vigilance and repression. The work, made of black cast steel, was created by the painter and sculptor Enrique Ávila González (Havana, 1952).

*Translator’s note: “17-D” is Cuban shorthand for 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to restore relations between their two countries.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Boom of Independent Journalism in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

September 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Periodista-cubano-discutiendo-con-Víctor-Mesa1-_ab-620x330 (1)Ivan Garcia, 8 September 2015 — A little more than 25 years ago, a handful of human rights activists began issuing weekly reports that accused the military government of Fidel Castro of violating political, economic and free-expression liberties in Cuba.

These were the hard years of the regime in Havana. The Internet was in diapers and there was no cellphone service. The Castro brothers controlled Cuban society with an iron fist.

The Island lived in another dimension. Many Cubans only learned that the Berlin Wall was knocked down by wrathful Germans from the Communist East two months after it happened.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the selective assassinations by the KGB, and the Solidarity-sponsored strikes were banned news items in Cuba. Dissident activism garnered informative and accusatory news reports.

Not to be forgotten are the names of Ricardo Bofill, Rolando Cartaya, Marta Frayde, Roberto Luque Escalona, Reinaldo Bragado and Tania Díaz Castro, pioneers of guerrilla journalism.

Others came later. Opposition groups of varying political tendencies emerged which reported on the state of affairs in the country. The 1990s saw the appearance of independent press agencies.

Despite repression and material shortages, a half-dozen agencies were founded in Havana alone. Some reporters came out of state-sponsored journalism, others were young people with a vocation and a desire to make a career out of the best job in the world.

From the start, it was the work of two crews: exiled Cubans residing in Miami, from the rear, would record the texts by telephone and upload them to primitive Web pages.  Rosa Berre, Carlos Quintela, Nancy Pérez Crespo, Juan Granados, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo and Jesús Díaz were among them.

From Cuba, almost a hundred correspondents who bet on democracy would dictate our informational pieces and columns by telephone every week. I would like to pause to recognize one particular name: the poet and journalist from Moron, Raúl Rivero Castañeda.

He was the singular figure of independent journalism. The most talented and renowned. A master. When in what came to be known as the Black Spring of 2003 an irate Fidel Castro arbitrarily ordered the arrests of 75 dissidents, among whom were 27 ungagged communicators, he purposely ordered his hitmen to apprehend Raúl Rivero.

According to Castro’s logic, if they were able to deprive the movement of the women and men who reported freely from the various provinces, and with the wave of repression be able to inflict terror, they would do away with one of the problems that most preoccupied a regime that labeled us as “traitors.” And he said that we were “mercenaries of the pen who for a fistful of dollars would discredit the great achievements of Fidelist socialism.”

It was a terrible blow. But neither Law #88, which still floats in the air of the Republic and can mete a punishment of 20 years’ or more of incarceration to a journalist, nor the jailing of 27 colleagues* in 2003, could bury the independent journalism movement in Cuba.

To the contrary. During the worst of the repression and verbal lynchings orchestrated by the political police against government opponents and independent journalists, the alternative-press boom took off with never-before-seen force.

In April, 2007, Juan González Febles and Luis Cino Álvarez created the weekly Primavera Digital [Digital Spring]. That same year, Yoani Sánchez opened the way for a dissident blogosphere that spread like fire in a cane field.

On the threshold of Autumn, 2015, there exists in Cuba diverse publications outside of State control. Around 200 independent journalists and citizen communicators publish each week in blogs, web pages and foreign newspapers.

The regime is no longer the absolute owner of information. The government’s response has been to compete. Dozens of official journalists write their vision of Cuban society in blogs, web pages, online daily newspapers and magazines, national and foreign-based.

It is healthier to settle opposing viewpoints with words (albeit at times the disqualifications** cast a shadow over the debate), than to battle over differences with beatings and jailings.

This flowering of diverse journalism has been well-received, but it is hardly transcendent. Minimal access to the Internet keeps Cubans, who breakfast on coffee without milk, from reading the magnificent columns by independent journalists such as Luis Cino or María Matienzo. Neither can they access the reports by Elaine Díaz, Michel Contreras, Carlos M. Álvarez and Carlos Alberto Pérez, State-authorized journalists and bloggers.

The olive-green autocracy is bothered by the “unofficial” work done by some official reporters. Yuris Nórido and Jonah Díaz, among others, collaborate with media from other countries. Despite their balanced and objective reporting, they are viewed with a jaundiced eye by the talibans who design the policies governing communication and information.

Although officially the government has not opened the gates, a pallid tropical perestroika is looming on the horizon. The line is still quite tenuous, however, and nobody knows for sure its boundaries.

But at least, for a year now, the special services do not bother to issue citations to well-known dissident journalists, nor do they threaten them to charge them with defamation in order to justify their intolerance.

On this obstacle course, some–including Fernando Ravsberg, former correspondent with the BBC and producer of the site Cartas Desde Cuba–present the image of the Island that they prefer. The brake on such “independent official journalists” continues to be the State.

Already, Col. Rolando Alfonso Borges, chief of the sinister ideological department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, during an assembly held on 17 May at the Cuban Journalists Union, let fly a warning to State-sponsored reporters who collaborate with foreign media without permission from the government.

May his reproach only be a threat of the verbal kind.

Translator’s notes:

*The total number arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 was 75; in addition to journalists, they included were human rights and democracy activists, and indepedent librarians.

**The regime uses the term “disqualified to speak” against its opponents, as described in this post by Yoani Sanchez, where a State Security agent told her, “We want to warn you that you have transgressed all the limits of tolerance with your rapprochement and contacts with counter-revolutionary elements. This totally disqualifies you for dialog with Cuban authorities.”

Photo: The journalist Carlos M. Alvarez (Matanzas, 1989) discussing with Victor Mesa (Villa Clara, 1960), one of the best Cuban baseball players of all time who for the fifth year will manage the baseball team of Matanzas province. Taken from On Cuba Magazine.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Free Education in Cuba? Sort of / Ivan Garcia

September 10, 2015 2 comments
Alumnos-de-primaria-de-una-escuela-rural-_ab-620x330

Primary school students in a town in the interior of the Island. Taken from PanAm Post.

Iván García, 4 September 2015 — At the beginning of August, a month before the start of the new school year, Rigoberto and his wife scoured several Havana stores in search of school supplies and a pair of shoes for their son, a student in the sixth grade.

“Do the math,” Rigoberto says, grumbling. “A pair of sneakers, 42 CUC*; a backpack, 32 CUC; 12 notebooks, 12.50; a kit containing a ruler, slide rule, and compass, 9 CUC, and covers for notebooks and books, 3 CUC. Total: 98.50 CUC. My wife and I are professionals and between the two of us, we make 1,470 Cuban pesos per month, which comes out to 60 convertible pesos (CUC). The government crows about how they provide free education, but in practice, Cuban families every day must lay out more money in hard currency for school supplies.”

Sayma, 34, a mother of two, had better luck. “Using a ’mule’**, my relatives in Miami sent me all the necessities for school, including uniforms.”

If 25 years ago the olive-green State, manager of a highly doctrinaire education organization, subsidized 100% of the material support for students and guaranteed free or very economical snacks and lunches, in this 21st Century the numbers in red on the public balance sheet are impeding the preservation of a quality school system.

More than a few schools are still functioning thanks to the support of parents and relatives. “Among other things,” declares Daniel, father of a primary school student, “we must take up a collection to purchase two fans; come up with the paint for, and do the painting of the classroom; buy chlorine and detergent to clean the restrooms; obtain writing paper and pens; and download educational content from the Internet for teachers and students. Now the schools are half-state, half-private.”

Five years ago, the regime reported that in 2010, it allocated 12.81% of the GDP to public instruction–a figure about which it still boasts, just as it does about how the system is “free.” But education in Cuba a long time ago ceased being that queen whom Fidel Castro would show off, and today she is but a cinderella.

Only during the first session of the school year are students given a dozen exercise books, damaged textbooks and a minimum of school supplies. The rest of what they need is provided by the parents from their own pockets. Lunch in the primary school cafeterias and the afternoon snack in the secondary schools are no better than slop.

For poor families such as the one headed by Dianelis, mother of three, providing the snacks is a true headache. “That’s 15 snacks per week,” she points out. “Almost always, what I fix up for them is some bread with oil and an instant drink. The lunch in the primary schools and the afternoon snack in the secondary schools are so bad that many students leave them untouched, and the enormous amount of leftovers is collected as fodder for the pigs.”

Parents with ample wallets prepare varied and high-quality refreshments. “I spend about 30 to 40 CUC per month just on my daughter’s afternoon snacks,” says Gilberto, a private entrepreneur.

These family outlays are not limited to sneakers, notebooks and snacks. After completing a school year, many parents will pay between 8 and 10 CUC per month for private tutoring to compensate fo their low quality of the instruction provided in the primary schools.

According to Juan José, a construction worker and father of 8th and 9th graders, “When the teenager gets into secondary or pre-university levels, the tutors charge one CUC per subject. It’s even more in the university.”

If for many families a new school year means more expenses, General Raúl Castro’s autocracy does not seem able to find a solution to the shortage of teachers throughout almost the entire country.

Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez recently showed her concern over how the 2015-16 school year began with only 95.2% of teaching positions filled. The situation is most problematic in Havana and Matanzas, where the teaching corps will be supplemented by 3,400 instructors from other provinces.

The main cause of why a significant number of educators prefer working as hotel doormen or pizza makers in private enterprises is simple: the miserable salaries in the education sector.

“I got a master’s degree, and as a secondary school teacher I made 700 Cuban pesos (about 32 dollars) per month,” confides Nivaldo, a former teacher from Havana. “Now, as a chef in a private cafeteria, I make 3,600 to 3,700 pesos per month (about 165 dollars). And all without hassles from students and their parents, who every day are more rude and violent. I used to have to wait till 22 December (Teachers Day) for them to give me a gift of a bottle of cologne and two handkerchiefs. Now I don’t need charity from parents; I can cover my expenses.”

The 1,790,800 students who began a new school year on September 1 will do it the same as the year before: without Internet in their classrooms. The exceptions are the university students, who in small doses and with terrible connectivity will continue having access to the Net.

The lack of Internet in Cuban schools will take its toll on future generations of professionals.

According to government predictions, computerizing the entire national education system will take until 2020. Cuba is a late and disadvantaged comer to the century of new technologies.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Translator’s Notes:

*Cuba has a dual currency system consisting of CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos, which are pegged to the U.S. dollar) and CUPs (Cuban Pesos). For more background, click here.  

** “Mule” is a slang term for couriers of goods from overseas.

Transparency, Honesty and Free Information: Exotic Ideals in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

August 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Taller-de-activismo-político-en-casa-de-Rodiles-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 21 June 2015 — When Berta Soler, leader of one of three splinter groups of the Ladies in White, convened a referendum on her continued command of the organization following a scandal in Fall 2014 regarding alleged verbal abuse of a member, it marked a milestone in dissident circles – more so for being strange than for being novel.

No culture or custom exists in Cuban society for democratic standards or referendums to balance out the longstanding human tradition of wielding power at will.

Fifty-six years of the country being run like a neighborhood grocery store, in a vertical manner and without any braking mechanisms in place to impede the creation of mini-tyrants, is the main cause of disrespect towards laws, of scant democratic habits, and of a tendency among our people to administer a factory or a dissident group after the style of a mafia cartel.

I will begin my dissection with the local opposition. Unfortunately, just like with the rest of Cuban society that has been under the autocratic boot since 1959, the majority of the dissident leaders carry within them a Fidel Castro dressed in civilian garb.

In my practice of free journalism, it has been my fate to deal with characters straight out of legend: egotistical, arrogant, and little given to responding to questions about the management of finances, or whether their charters include democratic clauses to govern their projects.

More often than not, my questions are answered with silence – which is silly, given that official United States web pages list the monies provided by American organizations to Cuban government opponents, because such data is public information.

They use discretion as an excuse. They say that if this information were known by the Department of State Security, it could be used as a lethal weapon – another trick.

The government’s special services have more moles inside the dissidence than there is dandruff on an unwashed scalp. The repressors do not want for Internet access, and just by Googling for a few minutes they can obtain these and other facts.

What is hiding behind so much secretiveness is a veil of silence with regard to managing funds, influence and resources, as dictators of the purse – which is what has been occurring in practice.

Groups are packed with relatives and friends, after the manner of the sinecures (nepotism) during the Republican era; the first thing a dissident leader does is surround himself with lackeys. Those who ask too many questions, or question their procedures, are considered “highly suspicious.” They get rid of them, or keep them at arm’s length.

Except for Antonio Rodiles, no dissident group invites me to their press conferences or debates. I am still waiting for the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum to make room for me on their agenda.

For two months now I have tried to participate in one of their activities, to write an article. Perhaps they do not invite me because I am not the typical journalist who will later knock off a simple informational item or puff piece. They do not like this.

It remains inherent to the imagination of the opposition that somebody who publishes a halfway critical article is a staunch enemy. That this is not the case is obvious – but in Cuban society, a culture of democracy and debate is a rare bird.

I will tell you a story. I have nothing personal against those men who have spent a long time behind bars, nor against the crusade for their freedom waged by the opposition.  But in investigating their cases, I observed that the majority of them are not prisoners of conscience.

In 1992, Elías Pérez Boucourt attempted to hijack a boat at gunpoint to go to the United States. Ernesto Borges Pérez, an ex-counterintelligence agent, could be a saint, but he was sentenced for having revealed classified information to the enemy. His father, Raúl Borges, is a good person.

A few weeks ago, during a conference at the home of Rodiles, I remarked that it was a grave error to try to label as political prisoners those types of inmates, even if they are against the regime.

If we were to use in such a superficial manner the definition of political prisoner or prisoner of conscience, in that list we would have to include all those sentenced for dangerousness, a legal term of fascist jurisprudence that has condemned to jail hundreds of Cubans, mostly young, who have not even committed a crime.

But such differences of opinion provoke a definitive enmity in some dissidents, who at minimum will write you off as a stinker. Of course the opponents didn’t come from another planet.

They are part of a sick society of ideological rhetoric and political manipulation bordering on delirium. They are not held accountable by anyone (a “normal” thing in a country where nobody, starting with the Brothers from Birán, is held accountable). They carry out their adversarial projects as small private islands, after the manner of the Communist Party chieftains.

Transparency is a non-existent word in Cuba. Citizens do not have access to offices that will protect them as consumers, nor where they may obtain facts and statistics – nor a venue where they may lodge complaints and be heard.

Almost everything is a secret. To try to find out the amount of the investment fund set aside to purchase urban buses following the government’s authorization to sell vehicles is a “mission impossible” – not even James Bond could unearth it.

Neither do the people have a way to find out how the revenues are used that the State raises through abusive taxation on privately-employed workers, or from the 240% surtax on goods purchased in the hard-currency stores.*

Regarding that dough, nobody says a word – even less so about salaries. People would like to know what Luis Alberto López-Callejas, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law who heads the Mariel Special Development Zone, makes.

Unlike in democratic countries, in Cuba there is no advance notice of presidential trips. Everything is hidden behind a curtain of smoke. So deeply has the submissive mindset taken hold that many citizens consider it unimportant to know how the government manages our money.

To fill the city with Starbucks, McDonald’s or Burger King outlets will not be too difficult. To form modern women and men who have a sophisticated knowledge of their legal rights and responsibilities, and who can hold their government officials accountable for their offenses, will be a task of a few years – more than we would like.

Photo: Political activism workshop organized by the Forum for Rights and Liberties, 11 June 2015, home of Antonio G. Rodiles. Photo taken by Ernesto García Díaz, Cubanet.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s Note: “Hard Currency Collection Stores” collect, via the sale of highly overpriced goods, cash from the remittances sent to Cubans by family and friends abroad.

Cuba: Wipe the Slate Clean and Start Over, or Form a Truth Commission?

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

17-de-mayo-1959-La-Plata-Sierra-Maestra1-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 July 2015 — On a leaden afternoon in 1960 that portended rain, René, 79 years old, recalls how a half-dozen militia members encased in wide uniforms and bearing Belgian weapons appeared at his uncle’s house in the peaceful neighborhood of La Víbora to certify the confiscation of his properties.

“My family owned a milk processing plant that produced white and cream cheeses. They also owned an apartment house and a country residence. In two hours they were left with just the house in La Víbora and a car. Fidel Castro’s government confiscated the rest without paying a cent. Within six months they flew to Miami. Of course, I would view it well if the Cuban state were to compensate us for that arbitrariness. But I doubt it. Those people (the regime) have never liked to pay debts,” says René, who still lives with his children and grandchildren in the big house that had belonged to his relatives.

The Bearded One’s confiscatory hurricane was intense. Residences, works of art, jewelry, automobiles, industries, stores, businesses and newspapers were nationalized in the name of Revolutionary Justice.

Later, in 1968, the pyre of expropriations extended to the frita stands, neighborhood grocery stores, and scissor-sharpening shops. “They’d arrive with their dog faces and seize everything. Later, the owner of the little shop would have to sign a form attesting that the surrender had been voluntary. As far as I know, nobody protested. There was too much fear,” recalls Daniel, formerly the owner of a shoe repair shop.

Roy Schecher, an American born in Cuba, saw his rural property of 5,666 hectares, and a 17-room, colonial-era house in Havana, expropriated by the government; it is now the residence of the Chinese Embassy.

Schechter’s daughter, Amy Rosoff, told the publication News.com that when the authorities told her parents that their properties no longer belonged to them, they escaped from the Island in a ferry, carrying their hidden jewelry.

Schecter even paid all his employees before leaving, with the hope that he would return. He spent the rest of his life working in his father-in-law’s shoe store, and reminding his daughter that the lost properties would one day be reclaimed.

Cases like these number in the thousands. The United States government alleges that the military autocracy in Cuba owes $7-billion dollars to former property owners.

Several law firms in the US and Spain expect to wage a legal battle for their clients to obtain just compensation. Nicolás Gutiérrez, a Florida resident (but born in Costa Rica after his parents, Nicolás Gutiérrez Castaño and Aleida Álvarez, were exiled) defends the idea that some day the families whose properties were expropriated by the Cuban regime will be compensated.

And it is because Gutiérrez, a lawyer by profession, characterizes Decree 890, issued on 13 October 1960, as a “theft act” by which the recently installed government stripped all American companies operating on the Island of their properties, as well as the Cuban owners of many businesses.

So, too, the Gutiérrez family was bereft of their assets, including several sugar processing plants that were valued then at more than $45-million dollars.

The Gutiérrez-Castaño family’s holdings, which were among the most affected by the expropriations law, were built on years of work by Nicolás Castaño Capetillo, a Basque immigrant who arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 and with barely a third-grade education. When he died in 1926, “he was considered among the wealthiest men in the country, according to statements by his great-grandson to Iliana Lavastida, journalist with Diario Las Américas.

While the enterprises of hundreds of families or multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola or Exxon were confiscated, thousands of Cubans purged their defiance towards the Castro regime with long prison sentences.

Still remaining to be documented is the number of compatriots who were executed as a result of extremely summary trials, for having utilized the very same methods to which Fidel Castro resorted during his confrontation with the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

To be a dissident during the first years of the Revolutionary Government was a grave crime. Thousands of women and men suffered beatings and mistreatment in the Island’s prisons. The history of Cuban political imprisonment cannot be forgotten.

Now that the final reel of the Castro brother’s saga is rolling, the subject is once again relevant. What to do? Forget the past, or form a commission to investigate the arbitrary actions committed by the government?

Much can be learned from the experience of Eastern Europe. In the Spring of 2013, a conference took place in Miami in which Cubans from both shores participated, along with dissidents from the old communist Germany.

Reconciliation is not easy, warned Dieter Dettke, professor of the BMW Center of German and European Studies at Georgetown University, as well as Günter Nooke, dissident of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR), and later commissioner of human rights in reunified Germany.

A true rapprochement requires forgiveness as much as justice, but not revenge, Dettke said, pointing out that following the GDR’s collapse, 246 of its top-level functionaries were accused of various abuses. Around half were declared not guilty.

For reconciliation to happen, “there needs to be a sinner who repents,” said Nooke, who went on to state that the German government had agreed, following the reunification, to pay reparations to victims of the STASI, the GDR’s notoriously brutal security apparatus.

It is no use to attempt to turn the page as if nothing had happened. In its defense, the regime maintains that for reasons of the embargo, the United States should compensate Cuba with $100-billion dollars.

One might then ask if the olive-green autocracy plans to ask forgiveness for having lied to the Cuban people. Never was our opinion sought as to implementing is absurd political, economic and social strategies.

When the storm blows over, Cubans, all of us, should determine how we will negotiate our future without forgetting the past –keeping in mind that hatred obscures clarity.

Photo by Gilberto Ante, 17 May 1959, La Plata, Sierra Maestra. In the country hut of peasant Julián Pérez: Fidel Castro; the economist Oscar Pinos Santos (seated in a corner, wearing glasses and a watch); and Antonio Núñez Jiménez, president of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (at the left, wearing a beret), among other members of the Revolutionary Government; giving the final touches to the first Agrarian Reform Law, which would expropriate the large estates, and would become the first legal measure of a radical nature enforced by the bearded ones in power. On 4 October 1963, a second Agrarian Reform Law was approved, which according to some specialists marked the beginning of the agricultural disaster of Cuba (TQ).

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuban Baseball: Ciego de Avila, 2015 Champion / Ivan Garcia

May 17, 2015 Leave a comment
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Ciego de Ávila Team. Taken from the blog, Playersofbeisbolcubano.

Ivan Garcia, 18 April, 2015 — 2015 is another Year of the Tiger.  The avileño* team, headed by former receiver Roger Machado, scored twice, then in the 2012 season they won their first title in the local league to unseat Industriales in five games.

Cuban baseball right now is very even.  For years it was dominated by the usual suspects: Industriales, Pinar del Río, Santiago, or Villa Clara.

It is necessary to go back to 1979, when Sancti Spiritus surprised more distinguished rivals. Or to 2001, when in a dramatic play-off to the best of seven against those Sancti Spiritus roosters when Yulieski Gourriel and Frederick Cepada, the Holguin bloodhounds, clouded the sky with the all the bottle rockets that went up after their unexpected victory.

Baseball on the Island is played shirtless. Some matches seem like jungle games, what with torn gloves, pitchers that throw more balls than strikes, and strategies that leave the experts with their mouths agape in wonderment.

For the last five years, the 9-man teams that would look down their noses at others have been diminishing, due the constant draining-away of their talented players.

Industriales, the Havana team, has suffered the most from the exodus of players. They could assemble three clubs from the members who have opted to play professionally, and easily manage their finances.

But Santiago, Villa Clara and Pinar del Río have also diminished their playing power as a result of the emigration of various budding stars from a league where they play all year, yet earn only worker’s salaries.

This is exploited by other, formerly minor, teams. Although it cannot be said that Ciego de Ávila is a team without substance. In the 90s it enjoyed a golden age with players who were brimming with talent and could never earn anything.

Two years ago they lost their coveted middle outfielder, Rusney Castillo, who went on to make the highest salary of a Cuban baseball player in Major League Baseball. A young prospect like Yozzen Cuesto climbed over the wall, and veterans such as Mario Vega and Yorelvis Charles made their exits.

As of today, the Tigers of Ciego are the best team in the playing field in Cuba. In a baseball league where the defense averages 974, the avileños come out to about 980. Their shortstop Yorbis Borroto is no great shakes moving in either direction, but very sure in those plays that are “out.”

Probably their most talented player is the wildcard Raúl González — good at defense and a thoroughbred batter. Behind the plate they have, in Osvaldo Vázquez, a consistent slugger and a clutch hitter.

If forced to choose, I would pick the right fielder José Adolis García, brother of Adonis, who plays in the Venezuelan professional league, and who at 22 has definitively exploited local baseball.

García has a cannon for a right arm and forcefully bats the ball towards all parts of the field. As the first at-bat, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 59 runs. On the bench awaiting his turn is an 18-year-old player who will make history. Make note of his name: Robert Luis Moiran.

Roger knew to request his reinforcements very tactfully. The Tigers’ bullpen, along with that of the tobacco farmers*** from Pinar del Río before being dismantled, is among the most reliable in Cuba. Three quality openers such as Yander Guevara, Vladimir García (who because of an injury did not have a good season), and the reinforcement from Villa Clara, Alain Sánchez.

Coming up on the rear, to slaughter the games, Machado showed up with a novice such as Yunier Cano, who can launch a two-seamer up to 96 mph. At zero hour, Ariel Borrero and Yoelvis Fizz produced a lot.

Ciego de Ávila was a perfect team, the team with the best performance in the second round. It was the favorite to win the title. But on the other shore, they had the Pirates of the Isle of Youth.

A team without a history and prominent names, but gutsy to no end. The isleños** were lacking pitching talent. Their openers, except for the reinforcement Yoalkis Cruz, did not make it past the third inning.

If the promising southpaw from Las Tunas, Darién Núñez, who throws a powerful fastball at 93 mph and a straight curveball, could have taken baseball seriously, the outcome for the Isle would have been different.

All of the games won by the Pirates in the playoff were thanks to their bullpen. The duo of Danny Aguilera and Héctor Mendoza was the sure one.

Their regular lineup connects almost 10 hits per game, but they lack power. In modern baseball it is very difficult to connect three hits off one pitcher of caliber. Their ability to throw sinkers justifies their fabulous salaries, for their innate capacity to change, with the flick of a wrist, the final score of a game.

But the Pirates knew how to play with commitment, timely batting, and a manager who was skilled at managing his pieces in the small game. They boast a 20-year-old shortstop with hands of silk.

His name is Alfredo Rodríguez, native of the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, and still today many Industriales fans ask themselves what Manager Lázaro Vargas’ reason was for getting rid of this player.

After Cienfuegos native Erisbel Arruebarrena (now in the Major Leagues), Alfredo is the best in the glove in Cuban baseball: spectacular at fielding, excellent throw, and a powerful arm.

At any rate, Isle of Youth faced the consequences. They lost against Ciego in a game that was going downhill from the first. With the game at three runs for two in favor of Ciego, at then end of the seventh inning, García’s error in an easy play let in two runs that cost a ton.

With the Tigers finally let loose, the rest was a walk in the park. In the final inning, Yunier Cano appeared, throwing fireballs, and the isleños put down their arms. The Pirates play an entertaining game and they go to have fun in the field. The Isle contributed color to the proceedings, and Ciego the mastery.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and Others

Translator’s Notes:

* “Avileño” denotes someone from the city of Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba.

** Similarly, “isleño” is someone from an island; in the context of this article, the island is the Isle of Youth, the second-largest Cuban island, located south of Havana.

*** Pinar del Río province is the center of tobacco farming in Cuba.