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, 21 August 2015 — When you tell Felicia, aged 76, a housewife, that with that “strange and complicated gadget” which you operate with your fingertips she can make an audiovisual connection with her son who lives in Miami, she shakes her head as if to say you are pulling my leg.
Tablets, laptops and smartphones, seem to her like things from science fiction. She is convinced that her rough fingers can destroy those little toys with their flat screens.
Felicia prefers to sit down on the sofa in her house and watch five hours of Brazilian, Turkish and South Korean soaps or costume dramas produced in the States.
Right now, she is waiting anxiously for the local messenger who is going to let her rent various episodes of Game of Thrones. The weekly packet is an audiovisual collection of films, serials and foreign soaps downloaded by private entrepreneurs and then marketed; it’s a primitive local leisure industry.
“Two years ago, a neighbour who had an antenna, let me use the signal for 8 CUC a month, with a listing of programmes from Miami and comedy items from Spain. But since the police shut down her business, I rent videos or the “weekly packet.” It’s because Cuban TV is so bad that people have no option but to spend money on other alternatives,” Felicia explains.
The reports in the national and foreign press emphasis the increase in internet services in the island, but they say little about any opening up of cable TV.
In a survey of 15 people, of both sexes and aged between 14 and 76, all of them approve of improved access to the internet, but are waiting for some news about an opening-up of prepay television channels.
Yudelis, aged 16, would like to have a “bundle” of available channels to see documentaries like discovery Channel, different news analysis in CNN or HBO serials.
Eusebio, 27, prefers a cable channel so he can watch live broadcasts of NBA and MLB games and international Tennis Opens. “Cuban television is making an effort on its sports channel, but it falls short. Many events are delayed. And when they transmit them, you already know the result.”
There are huge fanatics of the channels from Florida. Ileana, 34, obsessively consumes Caso Cerrado or Belleza Latina. “If they permitted cable TV you could choose your favourite programmes”.
Sergio, 41, an economist, thinks that opening up a television signal would be a really good deal for the government. “It could be more profitable than the internet. Remember that in Cuba it’s only a minority that has a computer or smartphone, but almost everybody has a television.”
Carlos, 59, a sociologist, thinks that the political prejudices of the military autocrats count for more than economic profit. “In cable TV there are poor quality programmes which add nothing to general culture. But every person is able to make their individual decision as to preferences and what to do with their free time. An opening like this would short-circuit the State’s monopoly on information. The problem for the government is not that people would be able to see recorded crap, but that they would know, for example, about Antonio Castro’s vacations in Greece and Turkey.”
In President Obama’s 17th December 2014 roadmap to empower the Cuban people, there was no mention of the intention to market the US prepay Spanish TV service.
And this isn’t mentioned either in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms. The olive green government has only committed itself to digitise TV by 2021.
If you are interested in the Florida channels, you have to pay the equivalent of $10 a month to shady people who market the service, or rent the “weekly packet.” There’s no choice.
Photo: Two Cubans watching a South Korean soap in their house. Taken by Panamericana.
Note: After more than three decades of the Brazilian reign, South Korean soaps have gained ground with the Cuban public. The boom in “doramas” (Asian dramas) on the island exploded after the successful transmission of The Queen of the Wives. That was followed by My Beautiful Woman, You are Beautiful, Unlimited Dreams and Secret Garden, but some 30 or so are going round from hand to hand, nearly all of them from Miami, where the “doramas” are very popular with the Cubans and Latinos living in Florida.
On a visit to the island, the actor and singer Yoon Sang Hyun, known in Cuba for his interpretation of the butler Seo in the My Beautiful Woman soap, said that the success of the South Korean series was down to their showing real life personal relations, and including some comedy, romance and drama, but without over-dramatising it.
The South Korean soaps follow a similar model to the Brazilian, Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan TV dramas, and show the Cubans an unknown country, although for a while they have been selling Made in South Korea appliances (Samsung is the best-known brand). Seoul and Havana have had no diplomatic relations since 1959 due to the historic political and ideological alliance between the Castro regime and the Kims in Pyongyang. According to the Yonhap agency, “Cuba and South Korea can normalise their diplomatic relations in the very near future.”
Lately, the Cubans have also latched onto the Turkish soaps, although the Brazilian ones remain the favourites. Cuba is a precursor country of the genre: it was a Cuban, Félix B. Caignet (1892-1976), author of the famous radio serial The Right to be Born, in the ’40’s, who fixed the srructure later adopted by television for its melodramas (Tania Qunitero).
Translated by GH
Ivan Garcia, 2 June 2015 — When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Nearly 30 years later, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and tells anecdotes of the civil war which involved more than 300 thousand Cuban soldiers and reservists between 1975 and 1991.
Dubiel came back traumatised. It was very hard for him to see the bodies of his friends flying through the air in a minefield, and the deaths of his comrades after making friends with them in the trenches.
For a while he received psychiatric treatment and tried to adapt himself to civil life. Didn’t do any good. Alcohol and psychotropic drugs did him in. Disorientated, he fell an easy prey to dementia.
Changed into a human wreck, his family abandoned him. He survives collecting empty beer and drink cans which he then sells as raw material. He sleeps wherever the night catches him.
Smelly and starving, he wanders the streets of the La Vibora neighbourhood, with a jute bag of cut up cans over his shoulder. The last time he saw himself in a mirror he was shocked.
“I was a good-looking guy. I finished my college prep year and had some girl friends. The Angola war made me crazy. If I could, I would sue the government, which is responsible for my situation. There are others like me all over the country. Forgotten, and dropped like shit. Right now I couldn’t care less. I would prefer to die. The quicker the better” he says, as he knocks back a cheap, argumentative drink.
Dubiel is one of the 436,000 old men and women who need social help in Cuba (18.3% of the Cuban population, over 2 million people, are over 60). The authorities haven’t been able to plan a coherent strategy to bring to a halt the upsurge in begging in the country.
In the case of Havana, the government’s answer is to round them up on certain dates (the visit of the Pope or a foreign leader) and stick them in a camp in the south of the city, where they wash them with high-pressure hosepipes and give them two meals a day.
After a few days they go back to live on the streets. It wasn’t always like that. In the 1980’s, you didn’t tend to see beggars and madmen sleeping in doorways. The castros’ subsequent actions later contributed to the spreading of poverty.
Social security collapsed when the state suddenly lost the generous Soviet subsidies. In the spring of 2015, there has been an increase in the numbers of beggars and invalid senior citizens who live by begging for money in the streets or selling newspapers and old clothes.
They are the people who have lost big time from General Raúl Castro’s timid reforms. While the world’s press is praising the cosmetic changes and the glamour of a handful of private businesses, the old people and the street tramps remain forgotten.
After 40 years working as a builder’s mate, Lázaro, with the skin hanging off his bones, receives a pension of 193 pesos (about $8). His family threw him out of the house. One afternoon in 2014 he turned up at a ruinous state asylum for old people in need of shelter.
“They told me it wasn’t a serious case. It wasn’t one for the police, a family complaint. And they clarified that if I wanted to enter an old age home, starting in January 2015 I would have to pay 400 pesos a month. And my retirement is less than half that. To go into one of the church homes, you have to give them your home. And I don’t have one. For half a century, whether we wanted it or not, we were all property of the State. Now for Raul Castro we’re vermin,” commented Larazo.
Very close to Prado and Neptuno, the corner that inspired the first cha-cha-cha, between the collective taxis and the clueless tourists taking selfies in the ruins, a bearded and dirty old man sleeps barefoot on a marble bench.
“The man came from an eastern province. He usually sleeps here or around the Malecon. Eating from overflowing garbage cans. Barely speaking. The call him “The Galician.” It’s said he was in the war in Angola. I don’t think he gets anything from social security,” says a neighbor in the Colón neighborhood.
Fleeing the poverty and lack of a future in the old sugar workers’ towns, thousands of people come to Havana looking for better luck. A segregation law, Law 217, effective as of 22 April 1997, marks the easterners as pariahs. And in the face of the police harassment they spend the night in makeshift shelters of cardboard and tin on the outskirts of the city.
They are pockets of extreme poverty, squalid slums with sewage-polluted water and without electric light. Many of the old people and people who live on the street, begging or drunk, came from the east of the Island. They are illegals, they have no rights. The worst things happen to them,” a social worker explains.
The regime butchered social assistance. The policy is to bring only those citizens who demonstrate they really need it to the institutions.
The problem is that outside of this definition are thousands of elderly and needy who aren’t classified as such by official decree. Like Dubiel, a former “dog of war” in Angola.
Translated by GH
Iván García, 26 February 2015 — José lives with his wife and five kids, crammed into a nine by twelve foot space with a wooden platform, in a shack in Santos Suárez, a slum south of Havana.
The tenement is a precarious spot where the electric cables hang from the roof, water runs down the narrow central passage from the plumbing leaks, and a disgusting smell of sewage hangs in your nose for hours.
That shack forms part of a group of ramshackle settlements where more than 90 thousand Havanans live, according to Joel, a housing official in the 10 de Octubre municipality.
There are worse places. On the outskirts of the capital, shantytowns are spreading like the invasive marabou weed. There are more than 50 of them. Houses made of sections of aluminium and cardboard, without any sanitation, where the occupants get their electricity supply by “informal” means.
But, going back to Santos Suárez. José says he is forty, but his sickly pale skin and his face puffed up from excessive drink, not enough to eat and poor quality of life make him look like an old man.
José is in that part of the population which doesn’t receive remittances and can’t get convertible pesos. He works at anything. Looking after flowerbeds, carrying debris, or ice cubes. On a good day, he makes 70 pesos, about $3. “All of it goes on food. And the rest on alcohol”, he says.
His family’s typical diet consists of two spoons of white rice, and a large spoon of stew once a week, a boiled egg and a quarter chicken or chopped beef mixed with soya which is distributed once a month via his ration book. “I just have a coffee for breakfast. My bread from the ration book I give to my kids.”
Ten years ago, he was imprisoned for stealing light bulbs and armchairs from houses in his area. “I stole from pure necessity. I sold the light bulbs or daylight colour tubes for 30 pesos. The iron chairs went for 10 CUC. I once got 25 chavitos (CUC) for a wooden chair. I was able to buy a cot for my daughter with that money”, José remembers, sitting in the doorway of a pharmacy in Serrano Street.
When you ask him about Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, or what he hopes for from the new diplomatic change of direction between Cuba and the United States, he puts on a poker face.
“What changes? With Raúl we poor people are even poorer. Here anyone who hasn’t any connections with the system or a family in Miami is in a difficult situation. I don’t even want to talk about the old people. There are a lot of things wrong about Fidel, but when he was in charge, the social services and what you could get through your ration book allowed you to live better. Not now. Every day Cubans like me get less from the government. Many people are happy to be on better terms with the Americans, but what can Obama do? He isn’t the president of Cuba,” he points out, while he takes a long swig of the worst possible alcohol out of a plastic bottle.
The streets of Havana swarm with hundreds of people like José asking for change, pulling out scraps from rubbish bins, or sleeping on cardboard boxes in uninhabitable buildings.
In the entrance of a building in Carmen Street, on the corner of 10th of October, about 10 people are there selling second-hand books, old shoes and junk. Nelson, a gay man about 60 years old, suffers from chronic diabetes. He sells old magazines. As far as he is concerned, the revolution can be summed up in a word: “shit”.
“It’s all just speeches. They said it was a revolution of humble people and for humble people, but it was a lie. Poor people were always badly off, but now we are more fucked than ever. What Raúl has brought us has been capitalism, of the worst kind. Fidel didn’t tolerate many things, including the homosexuals, but we lived a little better. The poor will always be poor, in a dictatorship or in a democracy”, asserts Nelson.
Like in the film Goodbye Lenin, directed by Wolfgang Becker, where the East Germans feel nostalgic about the Communist era, in Cuba, those whose lives are stuck in a tale of poverty, feel longing for the decade from 1970 to 1980, when the state gave you every nine days a pound of beef per person, through your ration book, a can of condensed milk cost 20 centavos and the shelves in the stores were full of Russian jams.
For Havanans like Nelson and José, you can’t eat democracy.
Photo: The conditions Yumila Lora Castillo, who is 8 years old and has a malignant tumor, is living in. Marelis Castillo, her mother, told Jorge Bello Domínguez, from the Cuban Community Communicators Network (who took the photo), that they haven’t even authorised the diet of meat and milk that people with cancer in Cuba are entitled to. A mother of two other children, Marelis lives in this inhuman situation in El Gabriel, in the municipality of Güira de Melena, Artemisa province, some 85 kilometers southwest of Havana.
Translated by GH
Iván García, 4 February 2015 — For the prolific and noteworthy Cuban composer, Jorge Luis Piloto Alsar, born in the winter of 1955 in Cárdenas in the town of Matanzas, some 145 kilometers north of Havana, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his songs would achieve international fame.
Let’s get into the time machine. An ordinary day in the ’70’s. Cuturally speaking, Cuba was going through a rough period. Writers, poets and composers are being administered by the state, following Fidel Castro’s decree.
The cinema, novels, la guaracha, and sound must highlight the exploits of the revolution. The government controls all of it. In your profile, you have to indicate how many marches you have been on and how much voluntary work you have participated in, if you want to pass the summer in a house on the beach, have a Russian fridge, or reserve a table in a restaurant.
The Communist party membership card and loyalty to the “bearded one” [Fidel] are more important than talent. In the middle of all this greyness, where ideas, and the future, are whispers from on high, Jorge Luis Piloto was a social misfit.
He arrived in the capital at the age of 15, his cajón over his shoulder, and plans for the future. With his mother, Beba, he ended up in a room in an old apartment building in Romay 67 between Monte and Zequeira, in Pilar, in the Cerro district of Havana.
Looking like a long-haired freak, devoted to rock and caring nothing about Castro’s lengthy speeches. He took refuge among his friends, like the black man William (may God rest his soul) or his girl friend, who suspected that Cuba was not the place for them.
He distracted himself by going to Latino Stadium to watch his baseball team, the Industriales, play. Or by sitting in a corner or on the Malecón, dreaming of a different future.
1980 was an amazing year. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Cubans, including Piloto, took advantage of the opportunity to leave their country. Before they left, they had to put up with the regime’s vendettas, camuflaged in fascist-style acts of repudiation.
Or personal humiliations. Before getting on the boat to go to Florida, they had to sign a document in which they admitted that they were delinquents, prostitutes or homosexuals. The government owes a public apology to the honest Cubans who emigrated in the Mariel Boatlift
Piloto arrived in Miami on a rainy day in May 1980. Without either his guitar or any money. He only had his wishes. He worked very hard doing different things, not much of it playing music. One morning his wife reminded him that he hadn’t left Cuba to live as a labourer.
“Where is the Jorge who dreamed of being a composer?” she asked him. With his next wage he bought a cajón. His first song, La Noche, co-written with Ricardo Eddy Martínez, was recorded with Lissette Álvarez in 1983.
Jorge Luis Piloto was A & R with Sony Music (1988 – 1996) and was nominated nine times for Grammy Latino. He gained the first one with his song Yo no sé mañana, co-written with Jorge Villamizar and recorded by the Nicaraguan Luis Enrique. In 2010, the Society of American Authors, ASCAP, awarded him the Golden Note prize for his 25 years of work and his musical contribution to the Hispano-American repertory.
His ballads have been interpreted by singers of the calibre of Gilberto Santa Rosa, Christina Aguilera and the incomparable Celia Cruz. In 2012 he wrote a song for the Damas de Blanco which was played when they marched through the streets of the island.
On Monday, November 17, after 34 years, I met Jorge, my neighbour from the Pilar neighbourhood, in Miami. We chatted for seven hours. He still had a youthful physique, although he was almost 60. “There is no way I can put on any weight”, he says. He remembers his past in Cárdenas and Havana and his friends from that time.
But he is fond of Miami. His pride in this south Florida city is apparent. We drive along in his car, through every space, residential development, and places of interest, like the Marlins Stadium, the cruise ship port, the Ermita de la Caridad and the tunnel which goes under the port.
He showed me the only statue there is in the city and we ate in a tourist cafe on the banks of the Miami River. I asked him if he has thought about returning to Cuba the democratic future which we are all hoping for.
“No, I belong here, with my son, my wife, and my mother. I could contribute to whatever needs doing. But Miami is my home now,” he points out, while he talks in English to his son on his cellphone about Giancarlo Stanton’s fabulous contract with the Marlins. The Industriales aren’t his team any more.
Travel journal (VII)
Translated by GH
4 February 2015
Last summer, 48-year-old Lisván, owner of a small photographic studio in a neighbourhood in the east of Havana, personally suffered the consequences of the absurd prohibitions that the Castro regime imposes on its citizens.
With the profits made from his business and after saving a part of the money sent to his family from abroad, he stayed for five nights with his wife and daughter in the hotel Meliá Marina Varadero, for 822 pesos convertibles.
“On the beach I struck up a friendship with a group of Canadians. One morning they wanted to invite me to come fishing on a yacht they had rented. But, in spite of being a guest at the hotel, the marina hotel management did not allow it. No Cuban citizen, resident in the island, is allowed to get on a boat with a motor, without government permission” said Lisván.
Ten years ago, the prohibitions were even stranger. Cubans could not stay in luxury hotels, rent cars or have a cellphone line.
If you sit down in a hotel lobby, you become a suspicious person in the eyes of State Security. With Raúl Castro’s coming to power, following his brother Fidel’s executive with its fingers in everything, various discriminatory regulations were repealed.
The Cubans were third class citizens in their own country. Óscar, a barman in a five star hotel in Havana, fought as a private soldier in the civil war in Angola.
“The ones who supported Fidel, who hardly could eat anything in our country because of the scarcity, we were not allowed to go into a foreign friend’s apartment. And the Cubans who went off to Florida, called ’worms’ by the government, had the right to enjoy the tourist centres. It was an Olympic-sized contradiction”, recalls Óscar.
In the winter of 2015 these prohibitions no longer exist. But various regulations which breach the inalienable rights of the island’s citizens remain in force.
They talk a lot about the the US economic and financial embargo on the Raúl Castro regime, with arguments for and against, but not much is said in the international forums about the olive green state’s embargo on its people.
The internal embargo has become more flexible, but we Cubans still don’t have the right to open an internet account at home, travel or fish in a motor boat or access certain health services reserved exclusively for foreigners.
Civil rights hardly exist. They forbid the formation of political parties. Demonstrations in the street. Workers’ strikes. independent trade unions, free popular elections to elect a president. Independent newspapers or arranging to watch cable TV.
It’s an imprisonable crime to personally offend the President. And, since 2002, following a campaign by Fidel Castro, no civil groups may introduce a proposal to change the Constitution.
The system is perpetual. The Cuban leaders are an untouchable caste. The people owe duties to them, not the other way round. Only the state can put out news, books and movies.
Although independent journalists do exist, as well as dissident parties and an emerging civil society, the government maintains legislation which allows the sanctioning of political disagreement with years in jail.
Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where political opposition is illegal. Making fun of or caricaturing executives of the autocracy is not permitted. A magazine like Charlie Hebdo is impossible in the island.
Discriminatory rules which prohibit Cubans going where they want in their own country are still in force. Like decree 217 of 1997. the Ministry of the Interior dismantles small local wifi networks where youngsters play on the internet, send movies, or chat.
And some of these perverse regulations have gained a new lease of life. The customs service has implemented a group of measures to to stop Cuban travellers bringing things in.
These rules affect the quality of life and the pockets of Cuban families. Ask Migdalia, an engineer, about this. In the last two months she has spent 75 CUC to receive parcels exceeding the one and a half kilos authorized by the customs.
There weren’t any “counter-revolutionary” leaflets or luxury items in the suitcases. Just clothes and presents for her daughter’s birthday. It is the Castro government’s embargo that is the more damaging to the Cuban in the street. The other one, the US one, gets the media attention but is less effective.
Photo: Cubans can’t rent or get into yachts or other types of boats in Meliá Marina Varadero, or other hotels or places on the coast. Taken by Cuba Contemporánea.
Translated by GH
6 February 2015
1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.
We returned to a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.
The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis.
The olive green government put contingency plans into action. Research institutes patented garbage food such as meat mass, soya soup, and oca paste, which were used to fool the stomach.
The government considered an extreme project called “zero option,” against the time when the people would start to collapse in the street due to hunger. It was a red alert, when military trucks would hand out rations neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
“Zero option” did not get implemented. The dollar ended up worth 150 Cuban Pesos, and a pound of rice, if you could get one, cost you 140 pesos, the same as an avocado.
That’s how we Cubans lived in 1994. A hot year. Many people launched themselves into the sea in little rubber boats, driven by desperation and hardship, trying to get to the United States.
I was 28 and four out of every five of my friends or people I knew were making plans to build boats good enough to get them to Florida. We talked of nothing else. Only about getting out.
In the morning of 5th August it was still a crime to be a boat person. If they caught you, it meant up to 4 years behind bars. In spite of the informers, the blackouts helped people build boats of all shapes and sizes. Havana looked like a shipyard.
In my area, an ex-sailer offered his services as a pilot to anyone setting out on a marine adventure. “It’s a difficult crossing. You could be a shark’s dinner if you don’t organise your expedition properly,” he said.
At that time there were red beret soldiers carrying AK-47s patrolling the streets in jeeps. The capital was like a tinderbox.Any friction could touch off a fire. Hardly a month and a half before, on 13th July, the fateful sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo had occurred.
In order to teach would-be illegal escapees a lesson, the authorities deliberately sunk an old tug 7 miles out from the bay of Havana.
72 people were on board. 37 of them died, among them, 10 children. According to the survivors’ testimony, two government tugs refused to help them. It was a crime.
At eleven in the morning of Friday August 5th, a friend of mine came up to a group of us kids who were sitting on a corner in the neighbourhood, and, stumbling over his words, said: “My relatives in Miami have phoned up. They say four large boats have left for Havana, to pick up anyone who wants to leave. There are lots of people in the Malecon, waiting for them.”
A route 15 bus driver, who now lives in Spain, invited us to ride in his bus, to get there faster. He turned off his route. And as he went along, he he picked up anyone who stuck out his hand.
“I’m going to the Malecon” he told people. Every passenger who got on had new information about what was happening. “They’ve broken shop windows and they’re stealing food, toiletries, clothes and shoes. They’ve overturned police cars. Looks like the government’s fucked.”
There was a party atmosphere. The bus was stopped by the combined forces of the police, soldiers and State security people, near the old Presidential Palace.
A group of government supporters was trying to control the antigovernment protesters and the disturbances that were breaking out. It was bedlam.
We got off the bus and we walked down some side streets going towards the Avenida del Puerto. There were lots of anxious people in the avenue with their eyes on the horizon.
There was a police car which had been smashed up by having stones thrown at it near the Hotel Deauville. Paramilitaries were arriving in trucks, armed with tubes and iron bars. They were casual construction workers hired by Fidel Castro who had been rapidly mobilised.
For the first time in my life I heard people shouting Down with Fidel, and Down with the Dictatorship. What had started off as a lot of people trying to escape to Florida had turned into a popular uprising.
The epicenter of what came to be called the Maleconazo were the poor mainly black neighbourhoods of San Leopoldo, Colón and Cayo Hueso. Places where people live in tumbledown houses and with an uncertain future.
Those areas breed hustlers, illegal gambling and drug trafficking. And the Castro brothers are not welcome there.
After 6:00 in the evening of 5th August 1994, it seemed that the government forces had taken control of the extensive area where the people had filled the streets to protest, rob, or just sit on the Malecon wall to see what happened.
Anti-riot trucks picked up hundreds of young men, nearly all of them mixed race or black. A rumour went round that Fidel Castro was having a look round the area. The soldiers had released the safety catches on their AK47s, ready to use them.
By the time it began to get dark, the disturbances were already under control. We walked back, talking about what had happened. That night, because they were afraid another revolt might break out, there was no power cut in Havana.
Translated by GH
6 August 2014