Ivan Garcia, 9 August, 2015 — Although the official narrative is still full of tiresome rhetoric about a prosperous and sustainable socialism and General Raul Castro often repeats the slogan “Cuba is a revolution of the humble for the humble,” real life is following another path.
While kingpins and warlords in epaulets do linguistic somersaults in an attempt to promote a society supposedly created for the people, those who work for the state are the ones whose lives are hard.
The man or woman on the street sees it all as ancient history: the long speeches by Fidel Castro, the pugilistic rhetoric of ten US administrations, the heroic and frightening language, the improvisation and an economy based on rationing.
In conversations with family and friends, Cubans are often harsh in the judgments of fifty-six years of Castro rule. But fear of raising one’s voice and demanding restoration of civil rights still persists. The average citizen does not have what it takes to be a martyr. Becoming part of the dissident community is not seen as an option. Nor is joining the Communist Party.
The era when many of them believed the assurances of Fidel Castro — so many lies, so many dashed hopes — who promised more affluence than New York and more milk and cheese than Holland, is over.
Caribbean socialism, or what was promoted under that name, elicits forced smiles from the average person.
’What socialism?” asks Sergio, a professional who does not consider himself an opponent of the regime. “The one that offers internet access for a third of the average wage? Or which requires you to work for ten lives just to buy a car? Is this paradise, where your wages don’t provide you enough to eat or allow you to stay at a hotel in Varadero? A country where people cannot choose their leaders or get foreign television channels or buy the books they want? The Revolution is a hoax. The saddest thing is that we have squandered our best years supporting it.”
Raul Castro has buried Communist voluntarism and other follies of his brother Fidel a hundred meters underground. He has opted for tepid reforms that have sparked more enthusiasm among foreign businessmen and politicians than among Cubans.
People no longer trust their elderly leaders, who speak of social justice and equality but who live extravagantly. They remain unaccountable and manage public money as though they were casino owners.
Cubans are fed up. With broken promises, with idyllic visions and with a prosperity which never comes. After each pipe-dream fails, the setback is even greater.
Governmental reluctance and a phobia of democracy have led to cosmetic, tightly controlled reforms which — marked by excessive taxation and an absence of wholesale markets — have hindered small business.
For Cuba’s autocratic leadership being rich is a crime, though not for those in its small inner circle. Nine years after Fidel Castro personally transferred power to Raul, there have been some changes and some things have even gotten a little better.
But you get the feeling that Raul’s reforms have only gone halfway. They approach the swamp but do not cross it. They are spurious, reticent transformations that do not benefit most people.
While these changes and others were necessary, they have fallen short in their application. Pessimism among Cubans is rampant. No one expects miracles from the government of Raul Castro.
Things continue to worsen. The smoke signals and rhetoric of change are intended for a foreign audience. Islands of investment are off limits to Cubans, whose only contribution — even in best-case scenarios — is their cheap labor.
There is no yardstick to measure the ideology of power in Cuba. It is not Marxism. The state levies incredible fees on private workers like a mafia chieftain.
Property belongs to the people only in textbooks. The profits of state businesses are obscene. Worker exploitation in the form of poverty-level wages is a sign of an avaricious capitalism in its infancy.
The regime slows and hinders the expansion of universal internet access at affordable prices. Almost everything is a fraud. An opportunity to earn hard currency does not translate into a better quality of life.
What the island has is a form of state capitalism run by family members and military officials, who alone control 80% of profitable businesses. Reforms and legislation that encourage foreign investment are intended to benefit this group.
In republican Cuba, during the administration of José Miguel Gómez (1909-1913), there was a popular saying: “When the shark swims, he splashes.” (Meaning: When the president steals, he provides opportunities).
The Castro brothers, not so much.
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 1 July 2015 — In a dimly lit butcher shop directly across the street from the Passionist church in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, two boys play a game of dice on the counter. An assistant calmly sharpens a pair of knives while the butcher, shirtless and sitting on a rickety stool outside, works on a year-old crossword puzzle in Bohemia magazine.
On a blackboard there is an announcement: Chicken for fish* and ground meat. A few retirees line up with their shopping bags and take shelter from the sweltering heat under an eave.
It is reminiscent of a surrealist Chagall painting. “Neither the chicken nor the ground meat has arrived but the truck could arrive at any time,” the butcher informs the customers without looking up from his puzzle.
It does not matter to the grandparents trying to take shelter from the sun. They have time on their hands. They chat aimlessly and remember back when every nine days the government distributed beef to all the members of one’s immediate family through the ration book.
“Now everything is a luxury. Beef, milk, fruit. In the 1980s beef was rationed but at least we had it from time to time. We were better off before the Revolution, when a roast beef sandwich this big (indicating the size with her fingers) cost fifteen cents,” one of them notes as she moves the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth.
The most moving image in today’s Cuba is that of the elderly. Many, abandoned by their families, live on the edge by selling plastic bags or loose cigarettes.
Others beg for money on the street or near nursing homes. For them Raul Castro’s lukewarm economic reforms are like a distant comet. They are the big losers.
It is already noon in Havana. The sun warps the asphalt. Steam rises up like wisps of smoke. The street looks like a match about to burst into flame. Only the most intrepid dare go outside to run an errand or make a purchase.
But there they are. Two dozen people wait in line to pay their phone bills at the ETECSA office. A crowd strolls among the stalls at the farmers’ market.
Antonio, a bank employee, does some mathematical calculations on his mobile phone. On a shelf in front of him lie several pork chops with flies buzzing around them. He wants to negotiate a lower price with the butcher. “Hey, forty-five pesos (two dollars) for a pound of pork chops is high. If he drops the price to forty pesos, I’ll buy fifteen pounds,” he says, describing his offer.
The vendor, wearing the green scrub shirt of a surgeon, does not even budge. “Look, tomorrow the price will probably be fifty pesos. This is all I have. If you don’t want them, some else will,” he says, puffing away on a menthol cigarette.
Even though it is the middle of a work day, streets and businesses are deserted. “No one works here. It’s a country of bums and drunkards,” says a man gazing at a sidewalk bar across the street.
By nine in the morning all the tables in the dingy bar are occupied. Several men brave the oppressive heat to down cheap rum or a light amber brew sold as beer on tap.
Everyone is talking loudly in the “distinctive” Cuban vernacular. They stop swearing long enough to call out to the bartender: “Asere, get me another round.” They place their orders with faces are marked by tragedy. Not surprisingly, there is no fan in the place and everyone is sweating buckets.
Drinking alcohol is one of the three national pastimes, along with playing dominoes and planning to emigrate.
Next door to the makeshift bar is a hard-currency cafe, which sells desserts priced like gold. The good news is their beer supply arrived two days ago. They offer imported Heineken and Bavaria for 1.80 CUC and domestically produced Cristal and Bucanero for one CUC. The bad news is all the tables are full and the air conditioning is turned off.
“This heat is melting me. Please, turn that machine on,” screams one parishioner.
“The management has ordered us not to turn it on until 3:00 P.M. to save power,” replies an employee.
“With the prices you charge, you can’t afford to pay the light bill? What is the government doing with all the money?” asks a customer. No one answers.
Just outside the seating area, summer awaits. The thermometer reads 91ºF in Havana. School holidays have already started. Families rack their brains to ensure their children have two meals a day and count their pesos in hopes of taking them on a weekend trip to the beach.
Meanwhile, La Vibora’s elderly retirees await chicken for fish.
*Translator’s note: A common expression in Cuba which indicates ration card holders may substitute chicken for their allotment of fish, which has become nearly unavailable to average consumers.
Ivan Garcia, 4 August 2015 — In Latin American literature, magical realism has weighty authors like Alejo Carpentier, Arturo Úslar Pietri, or the genius of Aracataca, Gabriel García Márquez, who with his fictional town of Macondo portrayed a continent of rascals, loafers, and pompous leaders.
In politics, magical realism has its ultimate leader in Fidel Castro. The Cuban elder has no match when it comes to selling smoke.
Probably only the sinister Adolf Hitler overshadowed him in the art of enchanting an entire people and setting them marching and applauding. The real economy in Cuba stopped working 54 years ago.
He lived off the story, of campaigns and bursts of gunfire, which contained more optical illusion than fact. The nationalization and absurd central planning of the production of matches, croquettes, and toothbrushes, killed creativity.
We Cubans were all a coupon book. A number in the OFICODA [the government agency that distributed the coupon book every year]. Six pounds of rice per month and two cotton shirts per year. The economy was a mirage supported by a torrent of rubles coming from the Kremlin.
They designed a system of universal healthcare, vigorous and effective, with borrowed money. They intensively and irrationally exploited the land with fertilizers, oil, and tractors that arrived from Moscow or Siberia.
Dazzled, twice a month Castro inaugurated works such as “the most modern textile mill in the world” in Santa Clara, a cheese factory in Cumanayagua that “would destroy the French cheese industry,” and millions of dollars sunk into building a nuclear plant in Juraguá.
When Soviet communism said “adiós,” Cuba had a hard landing. For 30 years we had been perched on a cloud, living a fairy tale. Reality was different. Production was sloppy and inefficient. And there were more political, bureaucratic, and professional commissars than workers and peasants.
Not knowing how to capitalize on the billions of rubles, we suddenly entered into a black hole euphemistically named the “special period in times of peace.” A war without bombardments or explosions.
Gone were the changes of clothing and the plastic shoes sold to us at bargain prices by the generous olive-green state.
It was every man for himself. The phone became an effective weapon: in two hours, your Miami relatives (the once hated “worms”) could toss you a hundred bucks by Western Union. And with money from the “imperialist enemy” you bought “luxury” foods such as milk powder, cooking oil, or sausage.
Cuba zigzagged between poverty and inflation. During the 80s Carlos Solchaga, adviser to the Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, came to Havana to advise Fidel Castro.
Slowly, the suspicious Castro opened up to capitalism. A strange symbiosis. To the populace, speeches of resistance, cheap nationalism, and anti-imperialism. Meanwhile, in the underground conduits of power a military-business network was being forged.
The island passed from the Castro regime’s socialism to crony capitalism run by military generals and colonels. A magical and silent change. With the arrival in Miraflores of the paratrooper from Barinas, Hugo Chavez, the best possible scenario gelled: another foreign pocket to sustain the ideological nonsense.
In any state, ideology will always be a pretext, a booby trap. If you want to function and be efficient, you must have clear accounts, work hard, and invest in education and new technologies. There is no other formula.
As long as there is money there will be capitalism. The great sin of the Castro brothers is not that they are boorish autocrats. No. Their mistake is that they are not modern dictators capable of establishing a decent economy.
The censorship of the internet for many years has taken its toll on the economy, business, and professional talent. Cuba opens itself to the world full of phobias, inaccuracies, and lies.
The economy, they tell us, is growing every year. It’s like inflating a carnival balloon. The numbers never add up to reality.
While financial czar Marino Murillo tells us in a speech that the GDP grew 4.7% in the first half of 2015, average Cubans scratch their heads at the inflated prices of food in the supermarket.
The economic prosperity that they talk about in the official media does not show up on the tables of Cuban homes. You don’t see it in increased consumption of goods.
The political magical realism of the Castros is a tale to be told. Never before has anyone sold so much without having anything.
Note – On July 28, Jorge Bello Dominguez, of the Cuban Network of Community Communicators, reported on and photographed the living conditions of Gladys Marta Galvez, 66 years old, of Calle 82-A No. 7909 between 79th and 81st, Guira de Melena, a municipality in the province of Artemisa, about 50 kilometers east of Havana. Two days later, Dominguez Bello reported that after a storm with rain and severe winds passed through, the “apartment” collapsed and she lost the few things she had. The photo shows what remains of her wooden shack:
She was at the neighbors’ house, but due to the mental retardation she suffers, she will soon be wandering the streets, like many Cubans throughout the island, the many that ministers of the regime are unaware of or do not want to be aware of. Gladys Marta receives a monthly pension of 200 pesos (about 8 dollars); she has no family in Cuba; her only brother left on the Boatlift from Mariel in 1980 and she has never heard from him since (TQ).
Iván García, 7 July 2105 — In the Cuba of the Castros one thing is certain: the role of the people is to applaud, accept, and await the executive edicts. So long as the boring newspaper Granma does not confirm a news item, then reports about it are false.
The secretive handling of the press by the autocracy has far exceeded the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its official news agency TASS. If in Moscow it took three days after Brezhnev’s death to announce it to the people, in Cuba some news can take a month to be acknowledged.
In other cases, the people never find out. Cubans know little or nothing about the transfer of weapons to North Korea, or that Antonio Castro, Fidel’s son and playboy of the olive-green bourgeoisie, won a golf tournament in Varadero. As far as the state media is concerned, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Paris Hilton did not visit the island.
Researchers charged with collecting information about the Special Period, a static economic crisis that lasted for 25 years, can gather nothing by reviewing the official press: the news of the time overflowed with optimism; it did not report on shortages, but only highlighted popular support for the Revolution.
In the field of information, Cuba is stuck in a third dimension. The rumor mill has become a science. On the street, the average Cuban can expect to learn of the arrest of a minister, that another baseball player jumped over the wall, and that the general has a journalist girlfriend. They learn these things by other means.
This summer’s drama is the case Yulieski Gourriel, probably the last great star of Cuban baseball. By numbers, Gourriel is the best player on the Island. A five-tool player.
In 2014 he was hired by the Japan Professional League where he performed remarkably. But this season he breached his contract by not reporting in to the organization, claiming injury.
Officials of the Yokohama DeNa BayStar nine asked Gourriel to travel to Japan to be evaluated by team doctors. Yulieski did not show up, simply preferring to recuperate at home.
They imposed a heavy fine and canceled the contract. Yulieski himself started feeding rumors when on April 5 he posted on his Facebook wall a cryptic note that said “Things happen for a reason. What is coming could be better. “
Because everything in Cuba is covered by a shroud of mystery, little can learned about Gourriel’s intentions. According to ball players in Havana, Yulieski married a granddaughter of Raul Castro.
For reasons unknown, Yulieski withdrew from participating in the selection of the national team for the upcoming international events. Something unprecedented. And that could result in his being sanctioned by the Cuban Baseball Federation.
On the Panorama Sports program of Radio Rebelde, reporters of the caliber of Ramon Rivera and Luis Alberto Izquierdo received emails and phone calls from fans asking about Gourriel.
The state journalists belong to the ideological sector and are considered “soldiers of the Revolution.” Rivera and Izquierdo did some semantic juggling to try to please their listeners. They called Yulieski’s house and the phone is out of service.
Clearly, the State, its ministers, spokespeople, and leaders disparage the official press. They hide information, don’t offer interviews, and cavalierly ignore them.
This is silly, because if the partisan press is unable to meet the people’s expectations of the news, the people will seek information through other channels. And that’s been happening for a long time.
Gourriel’s case serves to connect to another issue that leaves the official press dangling. On Friday June 19, the national television news announced with great fanfare the opening, on the 23rd, of 35 new Wi-Fi access points in several localities.
On the appointed day I went to La Rampa, where according to the news report there would be a wireless zone from the Yara Theater to the Malecon. It was all a hoax. Zero connections.
I went to the ETECSA commercial office in the basement of the Focsa Building on M Street between 17th and 19th in Vedado, to investigate the matter. Most of the employees were unaware of the information.
An engineer told me that the service would began on July 1. So why did the news announce its start on June 23? “Those people are clueless. They say what the uninformed officials say. Because of technical problems, the network still isn’t up,” he replied.
They are still selling internet-browsing cards at 4.50 CUC an hour, although it was announced that as of June 23 they would be reduced to 2 convertible pesos. “No one has told us about this reduction. Until it’s printed in the Gazette it’s not official,” said an employee.
The regime leaves the press that it sponsors in a very bad way.
Yulieski, the State, and Raul Castro should learn that public information is not a private preserve. It is a civil right.
Translated by Tomás A.
Ivan Garcia, 30 July 2015 — Browsing the internet outdoors in 90 degree heat could be classified as an extreme sport. If you stroll through downtown 23rd Street in the Havana district known as La Rampa, you will observe about a hundred adolescents and adults clustered under a covered walkway, in a stairway or on a low wall updating their Facebook pages or reading a notice in a Florida newspaper.
The introduction of the internet in Cuba was accompanied with absurd prices. The state telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, is like a dinosaur trying to cross a suspension bridge while swing dancing.
To speak of its incompetence, bureaucracy and poor service is to be redundant. I advise those who are angry, high-strung or violent to avoid doing business with one of the company’s offices.
After two hours waiting in line, putting up with the rudeness of its employees and paying a king’s ransom for internet service, you begin to see sense how one could become a serial killer.
On any given day an unbalanced person with a machete, angered by the sluggish pace, might take things out on the exasperating executives, managers and drones of a company that has succeeded in making ineptitude a way of life.
At least that is how it seemed to me when, at noon on an intolerably hot day, an out-of-control customer could not take it anymore. Striding in with loose cables and in full crisis mode — a bit like Clint Eastwood’s vengeful gunslinger, William Munny, drinking a shot of whiskey before riding into town — he began cursing at a female employee, who nervously ran to call a security guard.
The guy had his reasons. His account had a balance of 70 CUC. But when he tried to use the wireless network at 23rd Street from his tablet, an error message informed him he did not have the money to access the service.
“The apathy and sloppiness of ETECSA is astounding. Every month I have to come in and wait in line for an hour to clean up the email inbox on my cell phone. I don’t know why the company doesn’t find a technical solution to this problem,” said Rosario, who was sympathetic to the man with smoke coming out of his ears.
The minister of communications, a guy with the rather odd name of Maimir Mesa, boasted of the government’s intention to computerize Cuban society. Without a hint of embarrassment, he described in almost poetic terms recent price cuts for internet access. While previously Cubans had to spend 112 CUC a month just to get online, the kind-hearted state would now lower the price to a mere 50 CUC.
The problem is that no Cuban worker makes more than two CUC a day. The average monthly salary is 23 CUC. To access the internet for one hour a day, a person would need 60 CUC. But a Cuban’s passivity is enormous.
And so here we are, on a sidewalk at 23rd Street, surfing the internet under an unrelenting sun, uploading photos to Facebook and “sugar-coating the pill” destined for a relative in Miami or a foreign friend in order to ask for money, an Apple ipad or Nike sneakers.
Heberto, an entrepreneur, discusses how he and a friend, who lives in La Rampa, decided to open a cybercafe together. “The idea was to sell food and cold beverages,” he says. “We were going to buy half a dozen computers but we needed ETECSA to set up the internet and wifi. When we approached a company director about it, he told us they were not authorized to provide this service to private businesses. In reality private-sector workers are just a calling card the government uses to sell the illusion of openness to the outside world.”
At Havana’s state-run cafes, the ones that only accept hard currency, access to wireless networks is not available. At the one on the ground floor of the Miramar Trade Center, the manager asked ETECSA to remove the wifi because, according to a waitress there, “a bunch of users sat down to browse the internet but only one bought a soda.”
Cubans’ patience and resignation know no bounds. Even having to pay astronomical prices does not move us to demand our rights.
It would not surprise me if in 2059 a million Havana residents gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate the centenary of Fidel Castro’s rise to power. I hope to be dead by then.
Photo: These users were smart. They took advantange of a sliver of shade under a tree outside the Cuba Pavilion in La Rampa. At that time of day the sun is not as punishing on that side of 23rd Street, one of the most centrally located thoroughfares in Havana. From Daily News.
Iván García, 28 July 2015 — Juliana, a seventy-three-year-old housewife, devotes much of her time to tasks related to feeding her family. “I spend eight hours cleaning rice, picking through beans, which are very dirty, buying bread, scouring produce markets, butcher shops and corner stores to see what is available and making lunch and dinner,” she explains while preparing black bean soup.
Julia and those like her do not fit the national pattern: They still have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. “My daughters make good salaries and I get dollars from relatives in the United States, but it evaporates in trying to eat as best we can.”
In Cuba people live to eat. Food costs eat up 90% of the average salary. “And it’s not enough,” notes Renier, a laborer. “The only reason I don’t spend my entire salary on food is because I have to pay the light, water and gas bills.”
The average monthly salary is around twenty-three dollars. The state provides a meager amount of foodstuffs each month at subsidized prices through the ration book. It includes seven pounds of rice, three pounds of refined sugar, two pounds of brown sugar, twenty ounces of dried beans, a pound of chicken and half a kilogram of ground beef mixed with soy. The cost per person does not exceed twenty pesos (less than a dollar). Everyone also has the right to a daily 2.8 ounce bread roll once a day for five cents.
“It doesn’t last for more than ten days. The rest of the month is a problem,” says a Cuban doctor. “The biggest tragedy for Cubans is the issue of food. Even if you have money, you can’t find what you want. Not in the hard-currency store, not on the black market. Finding enough to eat is a very stressful.”
In hospital clinics it is customary to give doctors presents in exchange for good treatment. “Patients often give us food like ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken thighs or pork legs. Many doctors have a more comfortable life thanks to these gifts,” he adds.
The big debate in Cuba is when the country’s vaunted economic growth will reach Cuban dinner tables. According the the regime, the country’s GDP trend line has been moving upward for fifteen years.
However, this incremental growth has not translated into lower food prices or an increase in production. If you look at the figures for meat, poultry, fish or produce production, you will see that any increase has been minimal and in many cases it has actually gone into reverse.
The former sugar supplier to the world now produces less than two million tons of sugar a year. Fresh milk is a luxury, as are beef, fish and shellfish.
Fruits like guava, chirimoya, sugar apple and orange are distant memories to the Cuban palate. Behind a slight increase in certain legumes and vegetables lies skillful manipulation. The government is blowing smoke.
In no sector of the food industry does the increased growth match the highpoint of 1989. While it was also an era of shortages, the production of bread, milk, eggs and potatoes did meet demand.
But not now. There is a joke that, before the nightly news, people place baskets under their televisions to collect the harvests of fruits, vegetables and meat which only grow in the official media.
The average family in Cuba has only one hot meal a day. “For lunch I heat up something from the night before,” says Regla, a professor who cooks meals at home for her husband and two children. “On Sundays I often make a nice lunch with pork or chicken and at night we eat something light. The regular Monday-to-Saturday menu consists of white rice or congrí (rice cooked with black beans), eggs in some fashion, and a cucumber, cabbage, avocado or tomato salad.”
Except when there are visitors, everything is served on one plate to avoid having too many dishes to wash. Rice makes up the largest portion. Some people do not even sit at the table anymore, preferring to eat while watching television.
Prices in hard currency stores are shocking. A kilogram of domestically produced white cheese costs 3.75 CUC and 8.10 CUC for Gouda. Ham goes for more than 8 CUC while a half-kilogram steak is about 10 CUC. A packet of chicken thighs costs 2.40 CUC. A thousand-gram can of tuna is 8.90 CUC and a liter of cooking oil is 2.10 CUC.
Produce markets accept Cuban pesos but inflation has also impacted the national currency. A pound of pork chops costs 45 pesos. A pound of black beans goes for 12 pesos, 14 pesos for the colored variety. Chickpeas are the most expensive at 18 to 20 pesos a pound. A pound of tomatoes is 15 pesos. An avocado is 10. A pound of mango costs 5 to 6 pesos, while a pound of peanuts goes for 16 pesos.
“I go shopping at the produce market once a week for my household,” says Gerardo, a private sector worker. “I spend 1,200 pesos (55 dollars), which buys enough to last four or five days. No matter what we do, we are always blowing through money.”
Poor people, who make up the majority, and those with low incomes who do not have relatives on the other side of the pond, eat little and poorly. “My main course is often croquettes made from ’poultry’ (chicken, according to the government), sausages they sell for 1.10 CUC a packet or eggs, the national dish par excellence,” says Carmen, a retiree.
Those with fatter wallets eat better. They shop with hard currency, which on the black market buys them shellfish, fresh fish and beef. But everyone — those with more money and those with less money — spends most of his or her income on food. In Cuba you do not eat to live, you live to eat.
Photo: White rice with fried eggs, chili sauce, tamales wrapped in leaves, fried plantains, guava shells and Baracoa-style cucuruchos (palm leaf cones filled with sweetened coconut) are typical Cuban dishes Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, enjoys.
Ivan Garcia, 19 July 2015 — Norge imagines himself sipping Cuban coffee at the Versailles restaurant in Miami on July 20 as officials of the Castro regime in white guayaberas and Americans in jackets and ties listen to their national anthems being played and watch flags being hoisted at their respective embassies in Washington and Havana.
For a couple of months he has been planning an illegal escape from the northern coast of the island with a group of friends. Days before setting off to sea in a metal boat outfitted with a diesel engine, Norge consults his Santeria priestess to see if luck is on his side.
The woman throws several snails onto a wooden board and says, “Now is the time.” The rafters then accelerate their plans.
“Once diplomatic relations are reestablished between Cuba and the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act’s days will be numbered. I don’t have family in the yuma* and it isn’t getting any easier here. As usual, things keep going downhill, so I hope to be playing dominos in Miami on July 20,” Norge says optimistically.
He and his friends have played their last cards. “Some sold their cars and other valuables to raise money so we could build the safest boat possible. We’ve gotten GPS and some members of the group also have maritime experience,” he notes.
No sooner had President Obama and General Castro concluded their respective speeches on December 17, 2014 in which they announced their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations than Cubans who had been thinking about emigrating, legally or illegally, to the yuma began speeding up their plans.
If you talk to people who have been waiting since dawn in a park across the street from the future U.S. embassy in Vedado for a consular interview, you will find that the new diplomatic landscape has made them more dubious than happy.
A significant number of Cubans are planning to leave permanently or are applying for temporary visas before the United States turns off the spigot.
“I can already see it coming. For every ten people interviewed for tourist visas, nine are turned down. I think that, after relations are restored on July 20, they’ll only approve family reunification trips. Temporary visas will be reserved for government officials and dissidents,” claims Servando who, in spite of being twice denied a visa to visit his daughter, keeps on trying.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Immigration Service almost nineteen million Cubans have entered the country by sea or overland from Mexico since the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1, a figure equivalent to the total for the previous year. Since the diplomatic thaw was announced, the figure is two-thirds that.
The increase in the number of undocumented Cubans arriving in the United States due to the resumption of diplomatic relations is so high that social service agencies in Florida cannot cope. They are near collapse, with two month-long waiting lists, as press reports indicate.
This situation is hindering resettlement of people in other states as well as delaying work permits and emergency financial relief. Newcomers fear the resumption of diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level will put an end to immigration laws favorable to Cubans.
Analysts have said that the steps taken by the Obama administration do not alert the Cuban Adjustment Act, which is not in danger and which cannot simply be repealed by a presidential decree.
In essence it is what is referred to as a public law (Public Law 89-7320). It was passed by the 89th Congress and has the status of a federal statute. In contrast to so-called private laws, it deals with issues of general interest and can only be amended, revised or revoked by the Congress of the United States.
Several Cuban-American politicians have called for it to be repealed or at least amended to reflect current realities. A significant number of Cubans granted protection under the Cuban Adjustment Act have been visiting the island in recent months on a kind of spree.
Curiously, their views coincide with those of the aged military regime. Cuba is the only country on the planet which seeks repeal of a law whose outcome would adversely impact its citizens’ emigration prospects and federal protections.
If the prospects are troubling for those with dreams of emigrating to the United States, for new private-sector entrepreneurs the political shift of two nations caught up in their own Cold War looks promising.
Onelio, the owner of a four-car fleet of cars and jeeps used as collective taxis, believes the reestablishment of diplomatic relations represents a golden business opportunity.
“If the government wants people to live better, then things have to change. First they have to lift the internal embargo on small business owners and stop being afraid that Cubans might make a lot of money. Then they will have to come up with a strategy to make Obama’s proposals effective so that the people can benefit from them. If they keep singing the same old tune (outdated rhetoric), the mask will fall and the world will see who is really responsible for poverty in Cuba, “says Onelio.
The majority of the population applauds the new political script. “It’s better to live in peace and harmony,” says a Havana taxi driver. “People are tired of the scary rhetoric against the United States. The Americans are our neighbors and have always been seen as an example by the average Cuban, both before the revolution and now. The rest is cheap political jockeying.”
Afro-Cubans move at a different pace compared to their nation’s leaders. Seven months after the historical accord, the island’s population aspires to more than a name change for the U.S. Interests Section.
“People want to see concrete things,” notes Rosario. “More food, the city and its housing renovated, improvements in transport, broadband internet, inexpensive international phone calls, cheaper airline tickets and for private business people to be able to import directly from the United States. None of that is happening. We don’t want more blather; we want to see advances.”
Even the dissident community is divided. One group supports the new policies while another believes too much has been given up without getting anything from an autocratic regime clinging to the past.
Cuba’s ruler live in another galaxy. They have a sense of vertigo. They plan on taking things slow so as not to lose control.
For now, the benefits of change exist only in the analyses and the conjectures of academics, politicians and journalists. Therefore, the plans of those such as Norge, who are fleeing the country on makeshift rafts, are taking on added urgency. “God willing, I will watch the embassy ceremonies on television. From Miami. ”
*Translator’ note: Cuban slang for the United States.