Cubans of Milkless Coffee Put Their Feet on the Ground / Ivan Garcia

February 15, 2015 Leave a comment

vendedor-de-periódico-La-habana-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, Havana, 14 December 2015 — “The truce ended,” bawled a newspaper vendor on the bustling central Calzada de 10 de Octubre, in south Havana.

Leaning against a peeling wall in the lobby of an old neighborhood movie theater, the vendor offers the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) to passersby who read, while they walk, an article by the historian Elier Ramirez calling for Cubans to be cautious about the dark intentions of the United States.

At the door of a farmers market stained with reddish earth and with stands overflowing with pineapples, sweet potatoes and yucas, Roman, a market clerk, reads the article seated on an iron chair.

“It’s more of the same. They want to crush Cubans’ widespread expectations after the 17 December accords. The other day the newspaper Granma also was marking territory, saying that our sovereignty is not negotiable. Those people (the regime) are scared shitless. If the doors really open, the system is going down. It won’t last as long as an ice cube in the sun,” says Roman.

After noon, the old newspaper seller, sitting on a cardboard box in a doorway next to an art gallery, eating a serving of rice and beans and a slice of an omelet.

In a bag he still had more than thirty unsold newspapers. “We Cubans don’t care much about the news any more, good or bad. There are people who buy the newspaper to wrap up their garbage or to use as toilet paper. The enthusiasm awakened by the December 17th news has died down. They (those in the government) want it that way. And that’s why they’re saying the Yankees are the enemy and the people want to go to the US,” says the old vendor.

At El Lateral, a private restaurant on Acosta Avenue, a group of friends were drinking Cristal beer while waiting for their Hawaiian pizzas. They preferred to talk about soccer, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or “The Flea” Messi.

The government’s political manipulation of the issue of relations with the United States. They haven’t written even a comma to implement some of the measures that could favor the owners of private businesses. They don’t want to leave the throne. They don’t want people to live their lives independently and to have a better standard of living. My advice: leave Cuba. The sooner the better,” says a boy with a quirky haircut.

In a park in the Havana neighborhood of Sevillano, Daniel, retired military, looks after his grandson riding a bicycle. “People aren’t happy with the Cuban government’s treatment of Obama’s policy toward Cuba. Most want the tensions to end. We’re tired of the same broken record. Cubans want to prosper,” he says, lighting a Popular brand cigarette.

“I wonder if the government thinks about the future. For the youngest people, the Cold War is ancient history. Our differences are not theirs. Cuban youth see the United States as an aesthetic reference and a model life,” says the ex soldier.

When asked about the issue of democracy and human rights, the silence is profound. “I don’t think you can pressure Raul Castro on that topic. That political rights aren’t respected in Cuba? It’s true. But the world, expect some dozen nations, in one way or another also violates human rights. You have to wait for this generation of leaders to die for there to be an opening in this land. The government has one last option: get on the train and normalize relations. If they don’t do it, it’s obvious to the people, who are already tired of everything,” says Daniel.

In an Internet surfing room in the old part of Havana, a twenty-something employee who sells mobile phone cars has her own therapy to escape the political.

“For my mental health, i don’t read the newspaper. I prefer to rent the “packets” with soap operas, serials and movies. My personal goal is short-term. Tonight I’m going out with a delicious “mango” (boy) who has a car and money, and enjoy a disco. It is my present and my future. In Cuba you can’t pick a fight. Otherwise those old guys (the Castros) will kill you with a heart attack,” she says laughing.

The good vibrations provoked among many ordinary Cubans by the news of December 17th is being displaced by the permanent indifference of the olive-green regime. The desire for a radical change that could transform their lives was just that: an illusion.

Photo from Cubanet

13 February 2015

Why Raul Castro Will Not Allow Political Discourse / Ivan Garcia

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

raul-castro-uniforme-de-general-620x330Ivan Garcia, Havana, 31 January 2015 — After secret negotiations with his lifelong enemy lasting a year and a half, General Raul Castro seems to have come out ahead early in the game. But Barack Obama has been shrewd.

He is playing for the long-term and has a different perspective and strategy. The United States thinks and acts in accordance with its geopolitical interests, always with its national security in mind.

Cuba is not as attractive a market as portrayed by some analysts. On the contrary. Its potential consumers have no money in their pockets and the government’s coffers are empty, not a promising scenario for big business.

Extending credit to a regime that is broke is always a risky proposition. There is nothing more cowardly than money, especially if there is a risk you won’t get it back.

Even worse, obstacles remain. There is the U.S. economic embargo as well as Castro’s embargo on his citizens. Ludicrous regulations are imposed on businessmen who, in addition to having to deal with absurd exchange rates and laws dictated by the regime, cannot contract to hire their employees directly.

The door remains open for telecommunications and private employment but communications is not among the monopolized sectors up for sale in Cuba.

It is yet to be seen if Castro II will allow a private farmer from Camajuani to directly seek credit from an Illinois bank in order to buy fertilizer, seeds or a tractor.

The embargo could be lifted in a matter of months if the general initiated political changes and promised to respect human rights, but there have been no signs suggesting political reform.

On the contrary. The government went into a panic on December 30 over nothing more than an event by a performance artist and used the weapon it knows best: repression. They could have been creative; they could have simply unplugged the microphone Tania Bruguera was using to communicate with her supporters.

The dictatorship is not about to take a turn towards democracy. No way, no how, if for no other reason than its survival.

Too often, American politicians are guilty of naiveté. The history of Cuba since 1959 shows that the Castro brothers have three sworn enemies.

One is external — the United States — and serves as fuel to preserve domestic unity and the politics of the barricade.

Another is internal — the community of dissidents — which, no matter the particular type (political, journalistic, intellectual or artistic), is always treated as a threat, targeted by the special services, whose main mission is to divide, discredit and destroy them.

The third enemy is the private sector, whose small businessmen are seen as criminals. Just check Cuba’s statutes and read the second paragraph of the legal guidelines promulgated by Raul Castro.

It is stated quite clearly: Cubans living on the island will not be allowed to accumulate capital. The statutes covering self-employment are designed as a firewall to prevent citizens from acquiring wealth.

The government knows jobs and professions are uncertain. People may earn money to feed and clothe themselves, have a beer and maybe spend a weekend in a hotel, but nothing else.

The label “small businessman,” which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce so generously bestows on someone like Pablo— a guy who sells bread with mayonnaise and churros filled with guava in the south Havana neighborhood of Mantilla — is not inappropriate according to the organization’s bylaws.

There are many examples in the United States of tiny personal businesses which go on to become major corporations. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook almost as a game while goofing off with his fellow university students.

One morning Bill Gates started a computer company in the garage of his house. LeBron James, a boy who grew up without a father and with n mother living in poverty, is now a formidable basketball player earning millions of dollars a year.

Such is the mindset of businessmen and politicians in the United States, where people are born into a society that nurtures creativity, enterprise and individuality.

But on the Island of the Castros, society is set up to thwart individual talent, competency and small businesses.

These are the laws of communism. China and Vietnam were more original, but they are not in the western orbit and their maritime borders do not hug the coast of the most powerful and affluent nation on earth.

Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that making money is not a sin is not part of Raul Castro’s strategy. The Cuban regime only allows those enterprises run by its most trusted associates, mostly men from the military, to prosper.

The key to the regime’s system is power. Did Obama therefore make a mistake by changing the rules of the game? No, it was a good move based on his own nation’s interests and its ideas about how a society should operate.

But on this side of the Florida Straits, the mindset and the maneuvering are very different. One might think that, without an enemy on which to blame the disastrous economy, Raul Castro would open the gates.

Until December 17, 2014, the regime operated best in confrontational situations, but with the ball now in their court, they are feeling uncomfortable.

They will accept new reforms and changes in the economic rules as long as these do not threaten their hold on power.

Politics will continue to be completely off-limits and for the foreseeable future they will continue to levy tariffs on the self-employed through a barrage of excessive regulations and high taxes.

They will do this for one simple reason: This is who they are.

Photo: General Raul Castro, from Lawrence Journal-World.

31 January 2015

Cuba: The Other Embargo / Ivan Garcia

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Melia-Marina-Varadero-Cuba1-_mn-620x330Last 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.

Iván García

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

Cuban Dissidents: Some in the Trenches, Others Applauding

February 3, 2015 Leave a comment

conferencia-de-prensa-en-casa-de-rodiles-viernes-23.1-_mn-620x330

Iván García, 27 January 2015 — The shifting political landscape of the Middle East is probably more complicated. No doubt it is. But given the spectacular diplomatic about-face on December 17 between Cuba and the United States — two sparring nations huddled in their respective trenches since the Cold War — the White House was not expecting a significant faction of the island’s dissident community to train its guns on the red carpet President Obama had rolled out for Cuba’s military strongmen.

Disagreements are healthy. Nothing is more harmful than fake unanimity. But if you read the proposal from the Forum for Rights and Freedoms — released by an opposition faction led by Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler, Ángel Moya, Guillermo Fariñas and Félix Navarro — and compare it to the four points of consensus agreed upon by other dissident groups, the differences are minimal.

The independent journalist Juan González Febles, director of the journal Primavera de Cuba (Cuban Spring), believes the disagreements are ideological rather than programmatic. “Individualism and the lack of historical memory is a key factor in certain dissidents’ categorical rejection of other opposition proposals,” he observes.

On Thursday, January 23 these divergent opposition views came out into the open. At a lunch attended by a dozen dissidents and Roberta Jackson, the U.S. official leading the team negotiating the reestablishment of a future embassy with the Cuban regime, the conflicting viewpoints caused a minor earthquake.

The adversary is no longer just the Castro brothers. Obama is now also in the crosshairs. The faction criticizing the steps taken by Washington is balanced out by those with a different opinion.

The schism is obvious. At 1:00 PM on Thursday a faction led by veteran opposition figures Elizardo Sánchez, Héctor Maseda and José Daniel Ferrer abruptly called a press conference.

Antonio Rodiles had previously announced a 2:00 PM press conference with independent Cuban and foreign journalists. José Daniel considers the differences to be ones of degree. “When you read the document they released, there are points of agreement with our document. We all want democracy, political freedom and amnesty for political prisoners,” he says.

Elizardo Sánchez believes that 90% of the local opposition agrees with no less than four basic points. “It’s an exaggeration to say these differences are the cause of arguments. But when you ask why not hold a joint press conference, it misses the point,” he says.

Each faction claims it represents the majority. “Those of us who agree with the changes initiated by Obama make up 70% of the dissident movement,” says Ferrer.

From the other side of the fence Antonio Rodiles paints a different picture. “Almost 80% of the opposition harbors significant doubts and does not support this new process,” he notes. “The United States is betting on neo-Castroism. Avoiding the issue of human rights and ignoring the dissident movement in the negotiating process is a doomed strategy.”

Guillermo Fariñas believes the United States is ignoring long-time dissident leaders such as Oscar Elías Biscet, Antúnez and Vladimiro Roca along with recent activists such as Sonia Garro and a significant segment of the exile community.

The new landscape undeniably confers independence on any group that questions the Obama-Castro negotiations. The Cuban regime has long accused opponents of being “mercenaries in the service of Washington.”

Like logs on the fire is how Josefina Vidal, the likely Cuban ambassador to the United States, characterizes dissidents, whom she says do not represent the Cuban people. “In Cuba there are a variety of mass movement organizations which are Cubans’ true representatives,” she notes.

The new scenario has clearly split the dissident community between those in favor and those opposed. To reach people and become an important player will require a 180-degree turn. Each faction will argue in favor of its approach and will come up with its own roadmap. The challenge is daunting.

The military regime, however, retains an ironclad control over the media. Through fear it has managed to keep a large proportion of the population — fed up with the disastrous economy — out of the fray, passively watching the game from the sidelines.

As a sign of protest against Obama’s policy, Berta Soler and ten or so opposition figures boycotted a farewell cocktail party hosted by Roberta Jacobson at the U.S. Cuban Interest Section in Havana.

But although dissidents such as Elizardo Sánchez and José Daniel Ferrer support the new measures, General Raúl Castro is not counting on them. They are out in no-man’s land.

The Cuban Adjustment Act and Future Emigrants / Ivan Garcia

January 30, 2015 Leave a comment

cola-sección-de-intereses-de-eeu-en-cuba-FM-620x330One of the few Havanans not happy with the historic agreements of December 17th between President Obama and General Raul Castro was Dagoberto, a guy approaching forty who got out of jail six months ago after serving a six-year sentence for marijuana possession.

“I have family in la yuma (US), but because of my drug possession record I don’t qualify for the family reunification program. My only option is to throw myself into the sea and make it to the Mexican border,” he said while drinking a Corona beer in a Havana bar.

A couple of times in 2014, Dagoberto tried to reach the United States. “The first time the American Coast Guard intercepted me. I spent $3,000 to buy a motor and gas and with a group of friends we prepared a wooden boat.

“The second time I boarded a plane for Ecuador. But customs in Quito sent me back to Cuba. It’s rumored that with the new policy, the Adjustment Act’s days are numbered, for people who plan to leave on a raft or enter through a third country. I have to hurry if I want to get to the North.”

In a park in Vedado, two blocks from the United States Interests Section (USIS) in Cuba, where from the early hours in the morning people line up for visas, the topic of discussion is the Cuban Adjustment Act.

In the past two years, Ihosvany has been denied a visa four times. But he keeps trying. “A cousin in Orlando invited me and they denied me a tourist visa. Now I’m doing the paperwork to leave for family reunification, to see if I have more luck.”

USIS consular officials insist that for those people who want to travel or emigrate to the United States, the strategy of applying over and over for a visa is not the best.

Yulia, desperate to leave the country, openly ignores them. In a house near USIS, she fills out the paperwork to take to the consulate again. “Three times they’ve told me no. We are going to see if the fourth time is lucky, because a friend in Chicago got me into a university program. If what they say is true, that the Adjustment Act will be repealed in 2015, there will be another Mariel Boatlift. There are tens of thousands of people who want to leave Cuba.”

Every year, the Interests Section awards more than 20,000 visas under the Family Reunification program. In the last 20 years, about half a million people have left the Island through the migration accords signed by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro in 1994.

But demand exceeds supply. Those who don’t have relatives or spouses resort to any trick or simply opt to launch themselves into the turbulent waters of the Florida Straits in a rubber raft.

In an attempt to discourage the worrying growth in illegal journeys from the Island, the US authorities have reiterated that the immigration policy and the Coast Guard operations will continue without changes and insist that only Congress can repeal the current laws on Cuban refugees.

The Coast Guard issued a government warning, after an unprecedented growth in the illegal flow of emigrants from Cuba during the second half of December and the first days of January, coinciding with President Barack Obama’s announcement of the normalization of relations with Havana.

According to analysts in the United States, the steps taken by Obama don’t alter the Cuban Adjustment Act and it is not a priori in danger of being repealed by a presidential act. It is a Federal law, Public Law 89-732/1966, approved by the U.S. 89th Congress. Being a public and general interest law — unlike a “Private Laws” — it can only be amended, revised or revoked by the Congress of the United States of America.

But the Cuban rafters appear to have deaf ears. A total of 890 Cubans have been intercepted in the Straits of Florida and in the Caribbean zone, or have managed to make it to the U.S. coast since the beginning of the 2015 Fiscal Year, last October 1. Of them, 577 have done so during December and the first days of January in an escalation that has set off alarms in Washington and Miami.

After Obama’s announcement, the Cuban side captured 421 people at sea. Everything seems to indicate that the flow could increase. Cuban-American members of Congress and Senators are questioning the letter and spirit of the law.

Many Cubans say they are politically persecuted and so they flee, invoking this when they decide to seek asylum in the United States. But in a few months they return to Cuba, as tourists. Incongruities that are difficult to explain.

A majority of Cubans, on both shores, demanded the normalization of relations with the United States and the end of the embargo. But, according to a recent survey conducted by Florida International University, 85% of Cuban-Americans in south Florida favor the continuation of the Adjustment Act. Even among the generation that left Cuba between 1959 and 1962, only 36% favor its elimination, while 64% are opposed.

It doesn’t look like a winner. If the relationship between the governments goes down the path of good neighbors, the White House will have no reason to give special treatment to Cuban citizens.

If the Adjustment Act was created to legalize the status of thousands of Cubans who fled from the Castro autocracy, then it should be applied that way. And Cubans who take shelter under this law, should only be able to travel to the Island in exceptional cases. Not to spend time with their families or have a beer with friends in the neighborhood.

This is privilege enjoyed by no other citizen in the world, to settle in the United States. Either the laws are abided by or their existence makes no sense.

Iván García

Photo: One of the lines that forms daily outside the United States Interest Section in Cuba to request visas. Taken from “Voice of America.”

20 January 2015

Obama and Castro Are Playing in Different Leagues

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment
Cartoon from El Legarto Verde. Thought bubble: "Mommy, will it be like the black man wants?"

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde. Thought bubble: “Mommy, will it be like the black man wants?”

Events are moving quickly. At least that is what Nivaldo, a private taxi driver who owns an outdated Moskovich car from the Soviet era, thinks. “Don’t slam the door or it will come loose,” he tells the passengers he drives from Playa to Brotherhood Park in the heart of Havana.

Nivaldo and a large segment of the Cuban population are trying to follow the latest news on emigration and the negotiations taking place in Havana’s main convention center.

“This (the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States) has been tremendous,” he says. “Before December 17 the United States was the evil empire and the cause of every malady afflicting the country. The first thing to  change was the tone of news coverage. It’s a healthy development that two women are leading the negotiations. Political machismo has caused a lot of harm in Cuba. People are tired of all the testosterone and the testicle-driven rhetoric.”

Nivaldo continues talking as he stops to pick up a passenger. “I don’t know if this new situation will bring immediate improvements in the lives of average Cubans or not. I hope so. I work twelve to fourteen hours a day to support my family and save money to celebrate my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. If things change, maybe I can get rid of this jalopy and buy a new Ford. The question that many on the street are asking is how and in what way will the government implement a series of measures that benefit people,” he says as he raises the radio volume to hear the evening news.

Average Cubans are following events with excessive expectations while some express a die-hard optimism.

Rogelio, an umbrella repairman, is eating a hamburger at a McDonald’s with long lines. “When the embargo is lifted,” he says, “stores will be well-stocked with quality merchandise. I hope the government allows direct imports by the self-employed and the banking system offers more generous credit terms. Stores will allow customers to pay in installments like in any modern society.”

Others are more cautious. “Yes, it’s all well and good to be able to buy rice, chicken and smart phones from the United States, but by necessity the Cuban system must change. There is too much centralization and control, which stifles the economic independence of small private businesses. Then there are the issues of low salaries and the dual currency. How much will the average citizen be able to pay for a home internet connection or an American-made computer?” asks Rosario, an automated systems engineer.

A large segment of the Cuban dissident community considers the strategy adopted by President Obama to be misguided.

At a 2:00 PM press conference announcement on January 23, the prominent opposition figure Antonio Rodiles and a sizable group of dissidents express disapproval of the White House’s recent moves. “I would like to know where they are getting their information,” he says. “I am afraid they have become disoriented. They are betting on a continuation of the Castro regime and are concerned with national security.

“They have undertaken these negotiations without input from the island’s opposition. I don’t see why a regime with a history of political rights violations should change. Obama has given up a lot and gotten very little in return. If the international community does not insist that Cuba ratify United Nation Human Rights Conventions, there will be no change in the status quo. This will translate into the arrests of activists and some opposition figures could end up back in prison.”

There are notable differences in outlook between dissidents and ordinary Cubans. The average person on the street thinks it was time to bring an end to the ongoing political chess game between the two countries.

Cuban citizens believe the new direction in U.S. foreign policy makes perfect sense and pokes through the tired pretexts used by the country’s military overlords to justify the economic catastrophe and ideological madhouse they created fifty-six years ago.

But there is one thing that “black coffee” Cubans and some members of the opposition have in common: each is looking out for its own interests. And the regime knows this. It hopes to perpetuate the system by changing its methods.

President Barack Obama and General Raul Castro are clearly playing in different leagues.

Ivan Garcia

Cartoon from El Legarto Verde.

24 January 2015

New U.S. Measures on Cuba Not Featured in the Island’s Headlines / Ivan Garcia

January 24, 2015 Leave a comment

cuba-mujer-bandera-FM-620x330On December 17 Noemi and her coworkers at the telecommunications company ETECSA were surprised to hear their boss hastily reading “the day’s top news story” to their entire workforce in a tone of voice that was intended to sound solemn.

“Comrades, after the conclusion of agreements with President Obama, three of the five heroic Cuban prisoners unjustly incarcerated by the Empire are today en route back to their homeland. They are returning as was promised by our undefeated Comandante,” he said the business manager, barely taking a breath.

At noon later that day all the employees gathered around an ancient Chinese television to listen to the speech by General Raul Castro and to hear the news about the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States after fifty-four years.

Although the news conference focused only on the return of the three imprisoned spies, ETESCA employees clandestinely copied onto flash drives online posts outlining the White House’s new direction for U.S. foreign policy, which is intended to help empower Cuba’s emerging civil society and small business sector.

The country’s military rulers reacted with astonishing indifference to Obama’s new strategy and executive actions as they relate to the embargo. The Castros live in a parallel universe.

They are not sure what to do with the ball at their feet. The best thing the Communist Party bureau that controls the news could do was to present a rosy portrait of the three espionage agents.

As the drama was quickly unfolding, it became clear that Obama was taking his landmark decision seriously. On Thursday, January 15 Washington announced a package of measures clearly intended to benefit ordinary people as well as Cuba’s emerging private business sector.

In this instance Noemi and her colleagues had to do their own searches for the information. “At first there was a sense of celebration over the return of the three spies, but not now. It’s not being talked about it. We had to secretly surf the internet and copy news articles that are important to Cubans,” she says during her lunch break. 

There were no reports on the story on national radio and television news shows. By 1PM the top headlines were the new denominations of Cuban currency, the preparations for the January 28 torchlight march and, in international news, the annual United Nations’ water conference in Zaragoza, Spain.

Despite the poor media coverage, Osmin, who owns a candy store in the Santos Suarez neighborhood, was commenting on the good news with some clients by 2PM.

“I found out about it from a neighbor who has an illegal cable antenna. It’s unbelievable that the government still has not reported the news. I get the impression they are a bit disoriented, that it has not sunk in yet. These measures open the door to small business being able to secure credit, though it won’t be an option if they don’t authorize it,” he points out.

In a shopping mall at Puentes Grandes and 26th Avenue, four young men with garishly colored headphones around their necks are surfing the web in an internet cafe. Though engrossed in the match between Real Madrid and Atletico match for the Copa del Rey, they had heard the scoop.

“I think it’s great that the Americans have changed course and adopted a new strategy. Now we’ll see what our government has to say. It’s pointless to import information technology and cell phones if the state sells them at unaffordable prices,” says one of the young men.

His comment provokes a small debate. Osvaldo, a doctor who regularly goes online once a week to send emails to his son in Ecuador, thinks the government’s reaction is deceptive.

“The focus has been only on the release of the agents. Everything else, including the measures announced today, evokes more fear than joy. It’s not in tune with the average, ordinary citizen, who is usually optimistic about each new breakthrough. For fifty-four years the government has blamed all it failures on the United States. People need the government to provide its official version of events and outline the strategy it plans to follow,” says the Havana resident.

Josefa, a housewife, heard the news during a phone call from Miami at the time she heard about the birth of her grandson: “I was told they are thinking about revoking the airlines’ licenses. I hope this lowers the cost of a ticket. Flying from Havana to Miami is too expensive: 422 CUC for a flight that lasts less than an hour. To make this happen will require good will from the Cuban side. But I am afraid these people (the regime) are only interested in money and power.”

In a small park in Casino, a neighborhood in the Cerro district twenty-five minutes from central Havana, two friends kill time playing chess. “I heard about it at breakfast,” says one. “The government couldn’t care less about Obama’s policy; they will adopt only what suits them. And, apparently, they want to retain control of the economy, finance and people’s lives. As long as this caste of elders remains in power, nothing will change. The best thing about Obama’s policy is that it unmasks them.”

It remains to be seen whether the new measures adopted by the United States will be able to destroy the Castro regime’s potent blockade of economic autonomy and political freedom for its citizens.

A month after December 17 average Cubans are no longer quite so optimistic.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: A woman wearing clothes featuring the American flag walks through Havana. At one point such actions were prohibited, so Cubans often wore hats, shirts, shorts and leggings with American symbols cautiously. As of December 17, however, they are on open display in streets throughout the island. Source: Terra, EFE.

17 January 2015

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