Ivan Garcia, 2 January 2016 — Joel Castillo, 19, passed from expectation to frustration in 12 months. After graduating in 2014 in electronics from a technology school south of Havana, he still hasn’t been able to work in his specialty.
“With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, I thought there would be better options for people. But things remain the same. And I haven’t gotten a job that fits my profile,” says Castillo.
It’s precisely the youngest who are the most disillusioned with the inertia of the olive-green Regime. A government with almost six decades in power and an executive faction whose combined age adds up to more than 300 years should have better policies for its youth.
Above all, it should take into account that Cuban society is rapidly aging and that in the fiscal year which just finished, in an irregular way, 43,059 compatriots left the Island, an increase of 77 percent in relation to 2014.
Among the irregular emigrants are the terrestrial rafters who, leaving from Ecuador, cross eight countries and different time zones, in order to try to get to the border of the U.S. with Mexico, and those who throw themselves into the sea in precarious embarkations.
If to this quantity we add the more than 20,000 visas for family reunification that the U.S. embassy in Havana grants, in 2015, around 65,000 Cubans abandoned their country in one form or another to go to the U.S.
Other thousands leave for any country. Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, Alaska, Kazakhstan….Cuba is emptying of young and talented people. In almost all the branches of knowledge, jobs, sports or culture there exists a worrisome deficit.
For many residents on the Island, the future is to “jump the fence.” Ask a Cuban between 15 and 40 years old what his life goal is. Planning an illegal exit or finding a way to emigrate has become a national sport.
Why are Cubans leaving? It’s obvious: The economy continues to be down. It’s not a situation or a period of thin cows. It’s a stationary crisis that has extended for 25 years.
The “Special Period,” that war without the roar of tanks which began in 1990, still hasn’t ended. The inflation is more mundane, but it continues to devour the worker’s salary, and the dual currency is a liability for productivity and economic reasoning.
Economic logic in Cuba is a headache. Whoever works for the State does it eight hours a day, from Monday to Friday, and earns a salary that doesn’t exceed 23 dollars a month. And to have a dignified life, with breakfast and two decent meals, at a minimum you need 250 dollars a month.
Thanks to the taxes, the exaggerated assessments on private entrepreneurs and the poverty wages, the State pays for public health (going downhill) and a highly doctrinaire education.
But no one can repair a house or buy a car. A fundamental repair of a dwelling costs no less than 8,000 dollars. And a Peugeot 508 is worth 300,000 dollars at a State agency. Which is six lifetimes of work for a professional.
With the ration book, every citizen receives monthly, at subsidized prices, seven pounds of rice, 20 ounces of black beans, five pounds of sugar, a pound of chicken and half a pound of soy picadillo. And daily, an insipid bread roll of 80 grams.
These meager rations last for 10 days. The rest of the month you have to take out money and rack your brains. According to the autocrats’ optimistic predictions, in 2015 the Cuban economy grew 4.0 percent, but this growth hasn’t landed on the family table.
On the contrary. Pork, cheese, yogurt, milk, vegetables and fruits went up in price in the State peso markets and in the convertible money shops.
If you have only coffee for breakfast and one hot meal a day, you can understand why more than 65,000 Cubans abandoned their country in 2015. But the economic crisis can’t be summed up by the alimentary arrangement.
Every day life is more uncomfortable. Public transport is a calamity. The streets are torn up, dark and full of water. Garbage accumulates on the corners. Any personal matter occupies several hours or months owing to the lethal bureaucracy.
The hospitals have deteriorated. It’s easier to find a Martian that a medical specialist. In the primary, secondary and high schools, the low quality of teaching is alarming.
The loss of values, family violence, machismo and homophobia are reaching worrisome levels. An important segment of the population barely reads or informs itself. They master around 500 words; when they speak it sounds like they’re barking, and they gesticulate like apes.
They talk by screaming, as if people were deaf, and they listen to loud music. The lack of education has taken root with many Cubans. The most harmful thing isn’t the disorder, the precariousness and the ruins. The worst is living in a nation where you can’t plan for the future.
If you try to change the status quo by political channels, you run risks. Being a dissident in Cuba is illegal. Political parties are prohibited, except the Communist Party, and the institutions of civil society are rigorously controlled by the State.
In 2015, short-term detentions of dissidents multiplied. The beatings of the Ladies in White and peaceful opponents in a park in the neighborhood of Miramar are repeated Sunday after Sunday.
Not even moderate political tendencies are accepted, nor those that flirt with autocracy. Nor alternative press media. The economic and political situations have pushed thousands of Cubans to pack their suitcases and get far away from their country.
Despite the socialized poverty and the lack of freedoms, beginning with December 17, 2014, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the reestablishment of relations, Cuba became fashionable.
More than 50,000 Americans and famous Anglo-Saxons visited the Island. Among them Conan O’Brien, Rosario Dawson, Paris Hilton, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, Mick Jagger, Katy Perry, Anne Leibovitz, Frank Gehry, Floyd Mayweather and sports groups from the NBA and the MLB.
Also, representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties, among them Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, and delegations of governors from the States of New York, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina and Missouri, all accompanied by entrepreneurs and businessmen.
The thaw, a much-used work in the international press, has brought to Cuba tourists and people who want to take a selfie in a Havana full of propped-up houses, to ride in an almendron (old American car) and eat in a paladar (private restaurant). Ordinary Cubans see them coming and going. They form part of a thaw that is foreign to them.
Fed up with the hardships and limitations, devoid of hope for a change with the reestablishment of relations between Cuban and the U.S., and noting that in 12 months except for wifi connections in parks and public spaces barely nothing has changed, thousands of Cubans have opted to leave. For any other country.
Photo: The photographer, Gerry Pacher, named it “Reading Newspaper,” but of the thousands of images on the Internet that are taken in Havana, we selected it to reflect the decadence of one of the most cosmopolitan cities that existed in the western hemisphere prior to 1959. Taken from the graphic report, “From the Malecón until Ernest Hemingway,” published on Taringa.net.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 4 January 2016 — José Manual Cordoví keeps his savings in a rusty cookie tin. He runs a business forging windows, doors and iron in a suburb of low hovels in Arroyo Naranjo, a municipality 40 minutes by car from the heart of Havana.
Cordoví has no relatives or friends who are close to the olive-green mandarins who could give him information. But incessant rumors have encouraged him to change his savings in convertible pesos (CUCs) into U.S. dollars.
“I think that in December or January, those people (the Government) will unify the money and the Cuban convertible will disppear into thin air. They say they’ll respect the money that people have deposited in the bank. But those of us who do business under the table or keep our money under our mattresses could be screwed with a unification of money if it’s accompanied by a depreciation of the CUC,” says José Manuel.
In Havana, those who have legal or clandestine businesses prefer to bet on the dollar. While the State’s official rate is 87 cents per dollar in face of the convertible peso, people like Obdulio, an illegal jobber, say: “The green bills from 50 to 100 dollars get 95 or 96 cents. I bought others at 93 or 94.”
Every morning, six days a week, Obdulio prowls around the State exchange houses (CADECAs) in hunt of dollars.
“We independent money changers quote a higher price than the Government. Cubans who live in Miami and those who cooperate in Venezuela or Ecuador prefer to sell them to guys like me. Every day I buy 2,000 or 3,000 dollars that I sell later to a buyer at one to one against the chavito (the CUC). Since a month ago, I’ve increased the buying of dollars. Now few want to sell and many want to buy. It seems they smell something in the air,” said Obdulio, seated in a cafe on a central Havana avenue.
Doctors, engineers and sports trainers who render services in Ecuador, Venezuela or Brazil buy important amounts of dollars to get trashy goods, smart phones and home appliances that they later resell on the Island.
Also, occasional “mules” who live in Cuba and travel to the duty-free zone of Colón in Panama or a flea market in Peru or Miami buy dollars by the thousands.
But is there any foundation for the popular intuition of a coming monetary unification and devaluation of the convertible peso (which now is redeemed at one convertible peso for 24 Cuban pesos)? I asked an economist and university professor.
“In 2013, Raúl Castro’s government planned to implement the unification of the two currencies over a term of 18 months. But they haven’t accomplished it. The double monetary system creates distortions in the finances and future business deals with foreign businessmen. There are at least three exchange rates in Cuba. Certain businesses and cooperatives value the CUC at 10 pesos. Others change the CUC at one versus a dollar. And the private businesses and State exchange houses evaluate the CUC at one for 24 or 25 pesos,” says the economist.
And he adds: “Cuban finances are trapped in an unreal bubble. Our two currencies, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC) don’t float on the international exchange market. Their appreciation is artificial, an extremely harmful State policy, since it doesn’t motivate tourists who bring dollars to change a lot of money because of the tax that Fidel Castro placed on the dollar in 2005. The low salaries in Cuba are a brake on the consumer. The unification of the money is not a caprice; it’s a measure that shouldn’t be delayed any more.”
“What could happen when the money is unified?” I asked him.
“There can be three possible scenarios. One: It could cause inflation. Two: And this is already happening, many people would change their savings or find refuge in the dollar due to little confidence in the national currencies. Three: If the unification doesn’t come preceded by a significant devaluation of the convertible peso against the peso, the monetary union would resolve little. They have taken some measures, like issuing bills of high denomination, and sectors like Public Health and ETECSA raising the salaries of their employees. But 1,500 or 1,600 pesos (65 or 70 dollars) continues to be an insignificant salary in proportion to the actual cost of living,” emphasizes the economist.
The expert considers that simultaneously with the monetary unification, they should reduce the inflated mark-ups of up to 300 percent in the State dollar (CUC) stores.
“But the key is in the low productivity which, combined with the laughable salaries, constitute a brake on the consumer, an important base for emerging from the crisis. While there are no transparent norms, a single currency and an exchange rate that is governed by the international standard, growth in the volume of investments and foreign businesses will not be spectacular,” says the university professor.
In such a closed society as Cuba, where a small group of people issue directives, it’s very complicated to know when and how the monetary unification will be carried out.
But there are interesting indications. A recent declaration by the Republican congressman of Illinois, Rodney Davis, accelerated expectations. Davis recently visited the Island on a trade mission, and he declared that Cuban officials informed him that the monetary reform would occur “within a month.”
This past May, Marino Murillo, the obese czar of the Cuban economy, offered some hints at a conference with students at the University of Havana. He told them that at the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016, the expected monetary unification could happen.
“Don’t ask me what day because I can’t say anything, but keep everything you save in Cuban pesos,” said Murillo.
Although people like the blacksmith, José Manuel Cordoví, prefer to keep their money in dollars.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 14 December 2015 — In a basement blackened by humidity and soot, Leonardo Santizo and two workers make cookies, candy and peanut nougat, as a private enterprise.
At the back of the room, piled up in nylon sacks, are hundreds of kilograms of unroasted peanuts, bottles of vegetable oil and all-purpose flour. On a damaged and dirty table, a thermos of recently-made coffee. While they work, they chain-smoke.
“We’ve been on our feet since five in the morning and we work until four in the afternoon. Every day we make 600 cakes, 100 packages of biscuits and 400 tablets of ground peanuts. The average pay is some 400 pesos daily. Sometimes a little more. We sell the cookies and sweets for the most part to private retail businesses,” says Leonardo.
As in every private business, they apply a double accounting and buy the raw material on the black market. “There’s a balance sheet that is rigged by ONAT (the institution that manages private work in Cuba) and another that they give the business owner, with the real gains and losses. This is the way that all the independent businesses work.”
On December 17, 2014, remembers Leonardo, “The three of us were eating lunch and listening to salsa music on a portable radio when an announcer said that President Raúl Castro would make an important speech.
“We were left without words. After so many years of rattling on about Yankee imperialism, both presidents squared off on their differences. In the afternoon we took up a collection and bought a bottle of aged Havana Club rum, and we began to make plans. We thought that things would get better and we would be able to get raw material from the North. A year has passed and things are still fucked up,” Leonardo confesses.
After drinking a bit of coffee, he continued unloading. “And we can thank God that in one day we earn what a professional earns in a month. I’m not an optimist. Those guys (the Government) don’t intend for people to live better. They want to run all the businesses themselves.”
December 17 was a watershed moment in the national life. It’s hard for Cubans to not remember what they were doing just at noon when the information bomb exploded.
Luis Carlos, a private taxi driver, was driving one of the thousand hybrid autos that circulate in Havana, with a chassis made in the Detroit factories in the 1940s to 1950s, and now rolling with motors and pieces of modern cars.
“Like everyone in Cuba, I believed certain things. I told myself, damn, now the fuckup is over and the idle talk between the Yankees and the Government. That night at home, I thought that soon fast-food restaurants would arrive; they would lower the airfare to Miami and the shops would overflow with food and rubbish from the U.S. One year later, the domino game is still going on,” says Luis Carlos.
If you chat with Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast, this is more or less the register of opinions. In 12 months they have passed from exaggerated expectations to the worst pessimism.
The balance after one year of diplomatic relations and President Obama’s road map to empower the Cuban people and extend the use of new technologies is thin.
There are 40 public plazas where, for two convertible pesos an hour (two days’ salary for a professional), you can have wireless access to the Internet.
There is a contract between the U.S. telecommunications company IDT and ETECSA (Cuba’s telecommunications company). A flurry of famous Americans have visited Cuba and little more.
For the obstruction, because in one year there hasn’t been a larger commercial interchange, the olive-green Regime blames the economic embargo, the military base of Guantánamo, Radio and TV Martí, the Cuban Adjustment Act or any other wildcard.
In those 12 months, the autocracy on the Island has only known how to complain. Or to listen only to proposals about future business with state groups, almost all of them in the orbit of military companies.
The genesis of Plan Obama, to offer a bridge with private entrepreneurs and other Cubans, has been dynamited by Raúl Castro’s government.
It’s no secret that the Island executive has no sympathy for small family businesses. In one of the first sections of the Regime’s economic bible, the so-called Economic Guidelines, it says that the State would not accept the concentration of capital in the hands of individuals.
From here comes the strategy of not permitting Cubans on the Island to invest in their own country or private workers to establish imports or trade with foreign companies.
While private businesses are perceived as nests of criminals, good intentions after December 17 remain only that.
Most Cubans feel prepared for the framework of an economic reform, access to modern capitalism and market economics.
Yohanna, an engineer, was convinced of the benefits of Marxist socialism, and she believed in the utopias of scientific communism. The night before December 17, she was walking on her knees to the entrance of the sanctuary of San Lázaro (Saint Lazarus), south of Havana, to pay a promise to one of the most popular saints in Cuba.
“I asked him that in addition to health he would bless us, since my husband and I had plans to walk to the U.S. by land from Ecuador. The following morning, after hearing the news of the reestablishment of relations, we postponed our plans thinking that things would get better. But seeing the current scenario, the only door that remains open is to emigrate. How and when I don’t know, but I’m convinced that while the same people govern, I have to get out of Cuba,” Yohanna says.
The divide between popular desire and the official narrative is evident. While the optimistic official news tells us that the country is growing, a wide segment of disillusioned Cubans feel trapped in a dead-end street with no way out.
The economy continues leaking, salaries are a joke and having two hot meals a day is an act of prestidigitization. And the Government doesn’t learn.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Iván García, Costa Rica, 29 November 2015 — In the last two weeks, the authorities in Costa Rica have been forced to open new shelters to care for the more than 3,000 Cubans trying to reach the U.S. who are stranded on the border with Nicaragua.
Since November 15, thousands of Cubans have been sleeping in temporary shelters because of the decision by Daniel Ortega’s government to deny passage to Cubans, after an outbreak of violence between the Cuban “land rafters” and riot forces from Nicaragua.
In spite of this measure, the number of Cubans arriving in Costa Rica through Panama continues to increase. In general they arrive at night, in groups of 50 or 100 people, in a village named Paso Canoas, more than 600 kilometers south of San José.
There they stay in hostels that charge between 5 and 50 dollars a night. Those who don’t have money, after being fleeced by coyotes and traffickers in Colombia, sleep on a boarding platform used by interprovincial buses.
The number of Cubans who have entered Costa Rica by Paso Canoas now exceeds 3,000, and it’s said that more than 300 would be waiting in Panama to cross the border. The shelters in the towns of La Cruz, Peñas Blancas and San Ramon are spilling over with emigrants from the Island.
Days earlier, Costa Rican authorities, in cooperation with the Catholic Church in San Ramon, an hour’s drive from San Jose, decided to open another shelter with the capacity of 280 people.
Cubans arriving by bus from Paso Canoas must pay 15 dollars for the ticket. But at least three dozen migrants find themselves sleeping on cardboard on the floor of the bus station. The uncertainty is the biggest worry for the Cubans.
After 2:30 in the afternoon, an Immigration official returned passports to the Cubans who wanted to go to one of the shelters, where the authorities are guaranteeing them three hot meals a day. While some wait in hostels or outdoors for a decision that is out of their hands, others, who now are counting their money in pennies, decided to stay in a shelter set up in the parish of La Pastoral, in the county of San Ramón.
During the six-hour journey, through steep hills and a mountainous landscape crowned by dormant volcanoes, many of the Cubans were snoozing, listening to music on their cell phones or talking with family members in Cuba using the Internet from the telephone lines they access locally.
Halfway there, the bus was stopped at a checkpoint. A Costa Rican policeman reviewed the passports and, in a respectful tone, warned the group not to try to enter Nicaragua illegally.
The other bus stop was at a business on the side of the road. This allowed the immigrants to stretch their legs and look at the merchandise that few could buy because of the high cost.
Around 10:00 at night, local time, the group of Cubans arrived at the hostel. There, some 30 volunteers from the church, the Red Cross and the priest, Gravin Hidalgo, were waiting to take care of them and offer them a dinner (soup, white rice, scrambled eggs, salad, bananas, bread and orange juice). Then they were shown to rooms with four individual beds in each.
According to Father Hidalgo, they “want famlies and groups of friends to stay together.” But the unstoppable influx of Cubans escaping the Castros’ “tropical socialism” worries the Costa Rican pastor.
“We already have more than 280 people here. We’ve had to set up bunk beds in a room to be able to take care of them.” The exquisite treatment and the detail of locating an image of the Virgen de la Caridad, the patron saint of Cuba, brought congratulations on the part of the emigrants.
“Some, moved, have commented to me that they made the crossing with necklaces of the Virgen de la Caridad as amulets. One of the Cubans gave me a stone chosen by him in the Santuario del Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba. A very valuable gift for me. We hope to take care of them the whole time they stay in San Ramón. The civil society of the city, the Church and the authorities are happy to give this help,” the priest pointed out.
But good will can flood humanitarian assistance in a small country, which doesn’t count on an army and has limited financial resources at its disposal.
Meanwhile, in Paso Canoas, Cubans continue arriving.
Iván García, from Costa Rica
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 25 November 2015 — When Alex Sigler, 22, landed in the Quito airport in an African heat with thunderclouds that presaged a tropical shower this past November 11, he began his own journey to achieve the American dream.
In five days of passing through the Colombian jungle, Alex encountered hitmen of few words and with twitchy trigger fingers.
“The police, who supposedly are there to preserve citizen order, are the first to rob us. Almost all Cubans have been fleeced at Colombian checkpoints. The coyotes are frightening. They traffic cocaine the same as people. They talk about their criminal exploits like a group of friends in the neighborhood commenting on football and a penalty,” explains Alex, lying on top of some tattered cardboard in an inter-provincial bus terminal in the Costa Rican town of Paso Canoas, a stone’s throw from the border with Panama.
On the platform about 30 Cubans are sleeping, having been robbed or conned by drug traffickers in Colombia. They have lost everything.
They find themselves without money, waiting for some relative or friend in Miami to urgently spin a few hundred dollars their way so they can pay for the rest of the crossing, if the authorities in Nicaragua will finally let them pass through their territory.
They burned all their bridges. On the Island, they sold everything. Or almost everything. The hazardous journey through eight countries to reach the U.S. is much harder than they thought.
But they’re not sorry. “I was already worn out. In Cuba we’re just a number. People count only for voting in the elections or supporting the Government. Maybe things will be bad for me in la Yuma (the US), but at least I’ll be a free man,” says Alex, who in Caibarién, some 350 kilometers east of Havana, left his wife and a four-month-old daughter.
The village of Paso Canoas is a township of one-story houses and ambulatory stalls where they sell every possible commodity. At night it’s deserted. The more than 300 Cubans who arrive in unstoppable dribbles from Panama have several options at hand for lodging. Those who arrive without a cent sleep in the old Canoas bus terminal.
Others pay five dollars a night, the lowest price for lodging, in a sweltering hostel without windows that is run by Pepe Restoi, a Catalán, who says with two raised hands that he is voting for Catalán independence.
“Man, it’s not that I’m uncaring; obviously I’m aware of the drama of the Cuban emigrants. But I’m a businessman. In Paso Canoas, between hotels and guest houses, there are about twenty. What you have to do is keep your property occupied,” says Restoi in the door of the El Azteca pension.
It would be very pretentious to call “hotels” a chain of houses adapted for guests or enlarged to be rented to the more than 3,125 Cubans who, since November 15, have walked through Paso Canoas.
Prices are expensive for a segment of terrestrial balseros (rafters) who, in tune with the closing of the Nicaraguan border, have to dig out bills and scratch their heads to stretch their money after having spent between three and four thousand dollars on their trip through Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.
“You have to be very farsighted with your money. You have to hide it in unsuspected places so that the Colombian hitmen don’t fleece you. You still have to cross four countries before reaching the U.S., and the dough is going to run out,” says Alfredo Ávila, 28, an electrical engineer who lives in the eastern province of Holguín.
Among the island emigrants there are different hierarchies. Those of extreme poverty are the ones who spend the night on the unpolished cement floor in the bus terminal and, for lack of a bathroom, urinate in a garbage dump site.
“This is hard. The majority eat only once a day. They only have their clothing left from their baggage. On the road, to lighten up, they left their belongings or sold them to be able to eat,” indicates Alex.
Gabriel, a young man who recently left military service in Cuba, says that while crossing Colombia a compatriot had to improvise a fishing rod to be able to eat.
The emigrants who have a more substantial economy spend the night in third- or fourth-class hotels, which in Costa Rica rent at first-class prices. The El Descanso hostel doesn’t calculate how many it’s received. A large grocery store is sometimes a restaurant, a bar and, occasionally, the Cubans who wait to cross the border drink beer without too much moderation.
One night, in a monumentally drunken episode in the swimming pool, some Costa Rican guests were wounded.
“They had to call the police. Many Cubans behaved inappropriately. Particularly those from Havana, who believe they deserve everything. They steal the towels, destroy the electrical outlets and are always complaining, even though the hotel management decided to reduce the tariff for them to nine dollars a night,” says Rey Guzmán, the manager of the El Descanso.
The lack of money has caused several girls to prostitute themselves or ask for money from the ticos (Costa Ricans). “In the Peñas Blancas encampment, two or three girls offered me sex in exchange for 20 dollars. Another asked me for two dollars to buy cigarettes,” says Jorge, a Costa Rican taxi driver.
Past midnight, Yadira, a willowy morena (brown-skinned woman) of 22 years, a native of Las Tunas, some 600 kilometers from the capital, was dancing a Dominican merengue surrounded by a chorus of drunken men who were whistling at her.
“She’s happy. If she’s looking for a man to save her (offer her money) she’ll do well. All the Cubans who are here have had trouble crossing, but for women it’s been worse. I have a friend who was raped seven times in Colombia,” says Magda, a blond who, in Cuba, owned a small manicure business.
Among the wandering emigrants from the Island there are those with sufficient money to stay in the best hotel in Paso Canoas, a two-floor building, painted an ivory color, that rents for 50 dollars a night.
Where are some Cubans getting so much money that they can pay between 10 and 12 thousand dollars in a country with an average salary of 23 dollars/month? I asked the engineer, Alfredo, at the entrance of the El Azteca pension.
“Many sold their car, their house or gold. Others earned money thanks to private business. Or they receive enough money from their relatives in the U.S. But most travel with their own money, which a family member abroad sends them, little by little, after a reunion, so they can come. It’s not recommended to travel with so much cash,” he answers.
Gabriel made an agreement with a sister who lives in Miami. “She offered me a loan and when I get to the U.S. I will pay her back,” he confesses, worried. He has spent the three thousand dollars and is still stranded in Paso Canoas.
Even far from Cuba, not a few emigrants are panicked at the thought of talking before the cameras or answering questions from journalists. “If I talk more, in case they send me back, I wouldn’t even be able to belong to the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution),” says a shirtless young man in the bus terminal.
On the contrary, a black man with a rugged complexion unloads his frustration, blaming the government of the Castros. “It’s their fault that people have to leave their country. Not even dead will I return.”
That’s the perception of the Cubans stranded in Puerto Canoas. There’s no way back.
Iván García, from Costa Rica
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 23 November 2015 — On these hot nights in Havana, when nostalgia, that silent thief that robs you of strength, strikes without warning, Raúl Rivero, the poet, sneaks through my window and offers me a workshop specifically on the latest news from modern journalism.
The art of teaching still doesn’t accept journalistic lectures by telepathy. But I confess that I have grown as a reporter by brushing up on the lessons of the poet from Morón, Ciego de Ávila.
I met him one day before Christmas in 1995. There was an unusual cold spell in Havana. The sun didn’t poke out, and the greyness made the streets simmer with grime.
Raúl lived with his wife, Blanca Reyes, in an apartment building surrounded by tenements and braced-up houses in the La Victoria district, just in the heart of the capital.
A complicated district. Formerly a zone of pleasure and whorehouses and, after the olive-green Revolution, the cradle of prostitution, drugs and cheating by the deformed “New Man” that Fidel Castro intended to mold.
Spanish is reinvented in La Victoria, sprinkled with jargon that sounds like the Buenos Aires lunfardo. At the foot of the staircase, in the building where Rivero lived, they offer you bath soap and detergent, stolen the night before from the shops in Sabatéss, or a leg of homemade ham.
In that itinerant market, among mothers who gossiped about soap operas and husbands, resided the best living poet in Cuba. I had just turned 30, and journalism wasn’t alien to me.
When I was a kid, my mother — who since 2003 has been living in Switzerland as a political refugee — took me around the whole country while she prepared reports for Bohemia magazine or the Points of View program on national television.
A journalist friend of my mother told us: “That fat guy, Rivero, is organizing an independent press agency. Go there.” On September 23, 1955, the poet founded Cuba Press.
On the day I went to see him, Rivero received me in shorts and without a shirt, smoking one cigarette after another. Absorbed, he heard my proposal and spit out, laconically: “Write something, then we’ll see.”
Cuba Press was pure journalistic abstraction, but it had a marked intent of telling stories in another way. It would be very pretentious to call it a press agency, when the writing took place in a kind of office in the living room of Blanca and Raúl’s house.
There were no computers or teletypes. Only a fixed telephone and an Olivetti Lettera typewriter. There were times when the journalistic texts were read over the phone, and the Internet sounded like a fable.
Cuba Press was a factory for journalists, in particular for those who dreamed of doing it the best — riskier in the case of autocratic countries — in service to the world.
Together with reporters who were disenchanted with State journalism, like Rivero himself, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Iria González Rodiles, Tania Quintero Antúnez, José Rivero García and Ricardo González Alfonso, I learned how to be an independent journalist.
The Black Spring came later, in March 2003. And by Fidel Castro’s express order, 75 peaceful dissidents went to prison. Raúl Rivero was one of them. In 1999, when the Cuban Regime approved a gag law that harshly restricted freedom of expression and condemned whoever violated it to up to 20 years of prison, he wrote an anthology piece, Monologue of the Guilty:
“No one, no law could make me assume the mentality of a gangster or a delinquent because I report the arrest of a dissident or give the prices of basic food products in Cuba, or write an article where I say that it seems a disaster to me that more than 20,000 Cubans go into exile every year to the U.S., and hundreds more are trying to leave to go anywhere. No one can make me feel like a criminal, an enemy agent or unpatriotic by any of those idiocies that the Government uses to degrade and humiliate. I’m only a man who writes. And I write in the country where I was born, and where my great-grandparents were born.”
His imprisonment provoked a resounding international disgust. On April 1, 2005, he went to Madrid with his mother and wife as a political exile from the Castro Regime. One more.
Now Raúl publishes his weekly articles in the daily newspaper El Mundo, and friends say he sleeps with Cuba underneath his pillow.
Over here, on this side of the Malecón, when I get together with Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera and Victor Manuel Domínguez, we remember anecdotes about Rivera (they could fill a book). Or those press workshops that he taught, shooting words at us from an old armchair. And every time, we review his poetry and dissect our newspaper articles.
Some are authentic and masterful for professionals of the word. Read the introduction of this chronicle after the death of Gabo [Gabriel García Márquez]:
“For me the death that hurts is that of Gabriel García, that old reporter from Aracataca who let his mustache grow to resemble the singer, Bienvenido Granda. A man who liked to dream and write novels, clever and generous, who discovered beauty whenever he saw a woman for the first time, treated you to words and to whom life gave all the literary glory of the world — even a Nobel Prize — but let him die without permitting him to write the lyrics of a bolero.”
Or more recently, when in “None appeared to go to Cuba” he says: “None of those famous media people have been to Cuba. That zone in the Caribbean where they were and where others went to stay and photograph isn’t a country. It’s a reality imposed by a group in power who reclaim the money from foreign investment to leave their heirs in the Palace in command of that entelechy.
On November 23, Raúl Rivero will be 70 years old. We, his friends, are going to toast him with a drink of rum. Meanwhile, on an old turntable, we will listen to “Gray Rain,” the Spanish version of “Stormy Weather,” which launched Olga Guillot to fame in 1945.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 19 November 2015 — One hour before noon, the bus stops on Calzada 10 de Octubre are flooded with irritated people who want to transfer to other neighborhoods in the capital.
Hundreds of old cars reconverted into collective taxis full of passengers roll in the direction of Vedado or Centro Habana. The autumn heat and sense of urgency cause those waiting to despair.
Public transport continues to be a popular subject in a magical and flirtatious city, which, in spite of its grime and ruins, will be 496 years old on November 16.
Orestes, a bus inspector, receives a spout of critical resentment from citizens who are disgusted with the precarious urban transport.
“I’m the one who has to take the ass-kicking. The directors travel in cars. But I’m on the street having to put up with people’s complaints. The worst part isn’t the poor management of the transport, it’s that you can’t see a short- or long-term solution,” he says.
In a city of two and a half million people, where only one percent own a private auto, there is no Metro and the suburban trains barely function, public bus service is vitally important.
Yoel, an employ of the sector, says that “the demand is double the number of passengers transported every day. The ideal would be to have an allotment of 1,700 to 2,000 buses. But there are barely 670 in circulation. There is a master plan out to 2020 to improve service, but I don’t think it will solve very much. In addition to the deficit in buses, there is the problem of the poor state of the streets and avenues, which cause breakdowns in the city bus service. And the vandalism of Havanans who shred the buses, destroy the seats or break the windows with stones. Ninety-eight buses were out of service because of acts of vandalism.”
Traveling at rush hour on a bus in the capital is an Indiana Jones adventure. Fights, pickpockets and deranged sexual advances. People with their nerves on the point of exploding at the least touch.
Some day they’ll have to erect a monument to the old cars that serve as taxis in the city. For the average worker, making a round trip by taxi costs one day’s wages.
But the cyclical crisis of urban transport has converted the taxis into a remedy. They carry 200,000 people daily, although not always under good conditions. Of the more than 12,000 private cars for rent in Havana, half of them don’t have the required technical specifications.
“The owners put them to work even without painting them or covering the roof. With what they earn they improve them,” says Renán, who owns an old 1955 Ford.
And yes, they all have disk players that they keep on high volume, which assault the passengers with timba or reggaeton music.
But the talkative Cubanos convert them into a permanent chronicle and a rostrum where people unload their disappointment at the state of things and the appalling government management.
Transportation is only one among many problems suffered by Havanans. The list of things that cause stress is long, and solutions are nowhere to be seen. There is a clamorous need for housing.
Just ask Zaida. She’s 23 years old and lives in a state hostel in the department of Miraflores, at the south of the city. “My house fell down after a hurricane. I lost count of the letters and futile steps I took to have access to housing. Everything remained only as promises and lies on the part of the State agencies. Staying in a hostel means living at the limit; it’s like a prison. They give you a rough time for anything. Here a simple discussion can become a matter of blood.”
In Havana, more than 3,000 nuclear families live in propped up buildings in danger of collapse. According to figures from the last Census of Population and Housing, more than 40,000 domiciles in the province are evaluated as being in grave condition. Seventy percent of these houses require total demolition.
Add to this the precarious living situation in more than 10,000 tenements of different types, the existence of 109 “transient communities” — that is, homeless shelters — where 3,285 nuclear families who have lost their homes or fear a collapse are sheltering, as well as 20,644 housing units in unhealthy neighborhoods and precarious places.
Before Fidel Castro came to power, there were two unhealthy neighborhoods in the capital: Las Yaguas y Llega y Pon. [ed. note: notorious shantytowns in Havana]. Now there are around 60. To maintain and repair housing in the capital, the Government dedicates only 86 million pesos ($3.5 million US).
This figure contrasts with the more than one billion dollars that is being invested in the construction of eight golf courses.
While a large segment of people must live under the same roof with three and even four different generations, more than 50 percent of the potable water is lost through breaks in the hydraulic system.
The Regime only refurbishes or constructs buildings in the tourist sector or the State institutions. Like the repairs of the Theater of Havana and the National Capitol: according to engineers in charge of the works, the cost will exceed 200 million dollars.
In the ancient Chamber, where the political representatives of the Republic debate, the monotone Communist parliament is expected to begin its session at the end of 2016, if it is ready on time.
Visually, some 90 percent of Havana has an architectural platform similar to the one of 1959. Only older and more neglected. It’s not hard to figure out who’s guilty.
Translated by Regina Anavy