A Glance at Cuba in 2015 / Ivan Garcia

January 6, 2016 1 comment

Reading_Newspaper_Gerry_Pacher-_ab-620x330Ivan 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.

Iván García

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


The Dollar Gains Strength in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

January 5, 2016 Leave a comment
Photo: A branch of Western Union on Obispo Street, Old Havana. According to a manager of this company, 62 percent of Cuban homes receive remittances from the United States. Western Union has offices in 140 of the 158 municipalities in Cuba.

Photo: A branch of Western Union on Obispo Street, Old Havana. According to a manager of this company, 62 percent of Cuban homes receive remittances from the United States. Western Union has offices in 140 of the 158 municipalities in Cuba.

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.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Cuba, One Year After December 17, 2014 / Ivan Garcia

January 3, 2016 1 comment

Photo: Taken from BBC World.

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.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Why Do Cubans Emigrate? / Ivan Garcia

December 22, 2015 1 comment
 Cartoon by Osval, from On Cuba magazine

Cartoon by Osval, from On Cuba magazine

Ivan Garcia, 16 December 2015 — Laying the blame on “Yankee imperialism” or the “perverse and criminal” Cuban Adjustment Act will not stem the flow of people escaping poverty and bleak futures.

The national debate should be of a different nature. A responsible and reasonable government would ask itself what went wrong. Seeing Cuban migrants within the broader context of third-world emigration would amount to de facto recognition that the island’s vaunted economic and social model had failed.

Ask a Mexican or a Syrian fleeing the civil war if he approves of the government of Enrique Peña Nieto or Bashar al-Assad.

People emigrate to other countries for a life with dignity, a better salary or the opportunity for professional development. The Cubans who are leaving now are trying to change their circumstances.

I spoke with dozens of Cuban citizens stranded in Costa Rica after the decision by Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, to close the border at Peñas Blancas.

Not one was a political dissident or felt persecuted by the government. But they will tell you quite frankly that they are tired. Tired of everything. Tired of the aged and ineffective Castro government. In spite of guaranteed universal health care and a highly politicized public education, they are tired of their dull gray lives, the social controls, the rationing and the question mark hanging over their futures. And they have lost faith in those running the country.

Most of the more than four thousand migrants in Costa Rica want to be free men and women, to be themselves and not someone else’s tool.

It is a heterogeneous and diverse group. Most are professionals or technical workers who in Cuba had to put away their college degrees and take up burning pirated discs, driving taxis or selling mass-produced junk.

Of course, there are also the low-lifes — prostitutes, drug dealers and deadbeats — as in any human group, but they are in the minority. Their political leanings are not comparable to those of their compatriots, who were outcast by decree and whose property was seized.

But they should not be looked down upon because they are not dissidents or because they silently go along with the Castros’ edicts. Cubans do not have what it takes to be martyrs. Autocratic regimes are very efficient at devising systems of social control. That is a fact.

There is no country in which a communist regime been overthrown through mass uprising. The Berlin Wall came down because East Germans wanted to get out. The only large-scale protest to take place in Havana was in 1994 and at issue was the desire to emigrate.

In societies with tyrannical policies towards opponents such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam — societies in which a market economy serves as an escape valve, providing some degree of prosperity — it is unlikely that regime change will come about through popular revolt.

The option for Cubans who cannot afford milk in their morning coffee is to leave the country by any means and at any price. And preferably via Miami. But even in Ecuador or Spain, where there is no Adjustment Act, there are tens of thousands of Cuban residents.

Emigration in Cuba has political overtones. Even before the Cuban Adjustment Act took effect, Fidel Castro was branding any Cubans who wanted to leave the country as “worms.” They were demonized by the system.

They were fired from their jobs and, while waiting for an exit visa, had to work on collective farms. When they left, they were stripped of their property.

Setting sail on a raft from the island’s coastline was a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. After being tried, an irritable Fidel Castro would insult them, calling them “scum.”

In 1980 the regime introduced the infamous acts of repudiation — fascist-inspired verbal and physical public assaults — against those planning to emigrate. Before going overseas, emigres were forced to leave behind their jewelry and other personal possessions.

As Hitler similarly did to the Jews, they were marked by a scarlet letter. Such practices were later abandoned but there was never a public apology made to those who had been humiliated.

The new strategy represents an accommodation to new political circumstances and the urgent need of an unproductive state economy to bring in dollars to sustain itself.

It is an economy in which the “worms” now provide remittances, replenish telephone accounts, travel to Cuba and send packages. Their contributions constitute the island’s largest industry after the export of medical services.

The Adjustment Act is a pretext, not the real cause of Cuba’s madness. In any case, it is a problem for the United States, which should either revise it or strictly apply its provisions.

Responsibility for the current out-of-control migration rests with the country’s military dictatorship. Before 1959 Cuba was a country of immigrants. Between 1910 and 1925 the island took in one-third of all Spanish immigrants to the Americas. In 1902 it absorbed 11,986 immigrants and it 1920 the figure grew to 174,221.

Some 9,571 Cubans emigrated to the United States between 1931 and 1940; 26,313 emigrated between 1941 and 1950; 208,536 emigrated between 1961 and 1970. According to U.S. census figures there were 1,213,418 Cubans living in Florida, an increase of 45.6% over the year 2000 census figures.

According to U.S. Customs Service statistics for the current fiscal year, more than 45,000 Cubans have entered the country by crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders, and even the Russian border with Alaska.

In spite of the 2013 emigration reforms, Cubans who leave the country must pay extremely high fees to renew their passports. And they lose their properties if they reside for twenty-four months outside the country.

Furthermore, the government does not recognize dual citizenship, so overseas Cubans must request permission to visit their homeland. And they have no political or social rights when they are living outside of Cuba.

The Cuban government maintains its own version of the Adjustment Act, directed at Cubans living overseas, because that is the way Fidel Castro wanted it.

Ivan Garcia

Hispano Post, December 7, 2015

Cuba: Christmas-by-Caste and Without Discounts

December 21, 2015 1 comment
Employees of private restaurants, i.e. "paladares," dressed as Santa Claus, distribute menus and price listings of holiday meals on offer. Photo credit: El Comercio

Employees of private restaurants, i.e. “paladares,” dressed as Santa Claus, distribute menus and price listings of holiday meals on offer. Photo credit: El Comercio

Ivan Garcia, 21 December 2015 — December is a month of summing up and partying. And of opening the purse. Yusmel, a private entrepreneur, believes that the tropical winter and the holidays lend a different air to Havana.

“It’s not so hot as in the summer, and the atmosphere smells different. After the government authorized the celebration of Nochebuena [Christmas Eve], decorations are put up in many homes, shops, private businesses and hotels. The capital is in a deplorable physical state, but the decorations and the lights in the Christmas trees beautify it somewhat,” says Yusmel while he drinks a Presidente beer in the cafeteria of the Carlos III Shopping Center.

Esther, a housewife, received US$250 via Western Union from a daughter who lives in Miami. “Thanks to that money, I will be able to have milk, fish and beef, and prepare a feast on 24 December. But the dollars buy less all the time.”

According to Esther, ten years ago, US$100 dollars sufficed to buy a large amount of food. “But since Fidel put a tax on the dollar, and because of constant price increases, the money drains like water between the fingers. And these (government) people don’t offer discounts, not even at Christmas or New Year’s,” she says, annoyed. She proceeds to list the scandalous prices of beef, cheeses, sausages and seafood that are sold in the state stores in CUCs [Cuban convertible pesos].

In Cuba there are no Black Fridays nor sales. Merchandise remains on the shelves for years. Nor are there special offers for Christmas, or for the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro taking power.

Jorge, an economist, thinks that business sense in collective societies such as Cuba’s is atrophied. “State corporations don’t care that products aren’t moving. And they do not put on sales even though the majority of those products are obsolete. One example is that of home electronics and television sets. A plasma TV costs 400 CUCs, despite the fact that 100,000 units are assembled per year in Cuba. That same TV in Miami would cost less than US$200.

Eugenia, a history major, sees it from another perspective. “After the triumph of the Revolution, Christmas, Three Kings Day, Holy Week, and other feast days of the Christian Western world were cancelled in Cuba for being considered bourgeois traditions. And if people were allowed to celebrate New Year’s Eve, it was because this coincided with when Fidel assumed power, on 1 January 1959. Now, despite the changes that have been introduced, there is no Christmas culture in State institutions. The official press barely mentions Christmas. And the pricing policy remains intolerable.”

Until Pope John Paul II’s visit in January, 1998, Christmas celebrations on the Island did not have the blessing of the regime. There was a period during which standards copied from the Soviet Union were applied with more rigor. Back then, families such as Luis Alberto’s, would put up their Christmas tree in a back room, so that the little lights wouldn’t give them away to the intransigent president of their local CDR.

“My parents were part of the system. Therefore, they were careful to hide the tree. But the aroma of roast pork on 24 December would give us away. When the CDR members would inquire, we would tell them that we were celebrating early the triumph of the Revolution,” says Luis Alberto, grinning.

Now things have changed. Since 1997, 25 December is a feast day in Cuba. As happens in countries with Catholic traditions, Christmas celebrations can take place with more or less luster, depending on the socioeconomic situation of each family.

On the Island, castes are political. The olive-green mandarins live in another dimension and are untouchable. During the difficult years of the Revolution–which have been almost all of them–the bigwigs would roast pigs on spits and bake stuffed turkeys on 24 December.

While they ate and drank in big style, the majority of the population was cutting sugarcane and saw themselves as forced to hide their old Christmas decorations, and–with the blinds closed–dined on rice and black beans, boiled yuca (the people did not always have garlic, onion and lemon for the mojo sauce) and, maybe, a small piece of pork.

Those were the days when Fidel Castro would gift his inner circle with roast pigs, boxes of beer, bottles of wine and baskets filled with apples, grapes, and bars of turrones** from Spain. Today those who retain power continue to celebrate the holidays in full finery.

Lately to the government elite has been added another: the embryo of an upper middle class. These personages buy frozen turkeys at $45 or $50 apiece, wines, and high-quality turrones.*

Most are prosperous private entrepreneurs, artists and famous sports figures, citizens who receive remittances greater than $200/month, or members of a caste of white-collar thieves who steal from the state purse.

Next are those who can prepare a more or less decent Christmas feast, because their small businesses (legal or not) provide them the means to do so. They are employees or managers of mixed enterprises and tourist attractions, or underground workers in the black market.

And last, the same old poor. That majority segment of the population, inheritors of the socialized misery implanted by Fidel Castro, who humbly celebrate Nochebuena.

Iván García

Originally published in HispanoPost.Com, 20 December 2015.

Translator’s Notes:

* Plural of turrón, a Christmas sweet made of almonds and honey, similar to marzipan or nougat.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison


The Cuban Odyssey on the Overland Route to the US / Ivan Garcia

December 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Photograph: BBC Mundo.

Ivan García, Costa Rica, 11 December 2015 — One summer night in a private bar in Havana the deal was done. Miladis, 25, together with her boyfriend, would be responsible for travelling to Quito and Guayaquil to buy hundreds of kilograms of cheap clothes, knocked-off cell phones and domestic appliances to be resold later in Cuba.

Already in Ecuador the trouble started. “My boyfriend lost a lot of money in Ecuador gambling at cards and cockfighting. To settle the debt I was the payment. A coyote living in the neighbourhood of San Bartolo in Quito kept me from leaving until I paid $1,500. The option was to prostitute myself for $40 for two hours. After paying him I left with a group of eleven Cubans for the United States.

A soldier of the guerrillas in Colombia, when I was unable to pay the $400 charged per person, raped me. Please God that when the passage between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is opened I will not have to live another nightmare”, said Miladis indifferently, sitting on an outdoor concrete bench in a shelter for immigrants in the Costa Rican village of La Cruz, a few kilometers from the border with Nicaragua.

When you chat with any of the women who decided to abandon the Cuban economic madhouse, you will hear shocking life stories.

Magda, a plump woman in her forties, sitting in the dining room of the hostel El Descanso, in the Costa Rican town of Paso Canoas, says: “We left Ecuador on a night that threatened rain. In the Colombian jungle the Coyotes halted to rest. A little later some dangerous looking guys arrived with firearms. In addition to demanding a cash payment, they took a young 19-year-old woman that was traveling with the group. Another they raped several times. ”

Among the more than four thousand Cubans stranded in Costa Rica following the decision of the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega to close the border at Peñas Blancas, there are women with infants and mothers who made the journey with young children.

“It’s irresponsible. I am the father of two children and would never allow my wife to have to suffer the hardships of a difficult and risky journey”, muses Alex, a fourth-year law student, sitting on dirty cardboard on the platform of a dilapidated bus terminal in Pasos Canoas, waiting for a bus that for $15 will take them to San Ramon, a one hour drive from the Costa Rican capital.

In the town of La Cruz there are only six shelters for Cuban migrants. The largest of these is nestled in Colegio Nocturno and of the 631 persons accommodated, 185 are women and 16 are children. They sleep on foam rubber mattresses strewn in the classrooms and throughout the gym.

The Costa Rican authorities guarantee them breakfast and two hot meals a day. Until ten p.m. they can move around freely. But those who have enough money prefer to rent a room in one of the hostels in Paso Canoas, Peñas Blancas, Liberia, San Ramón or La Cruz.

The Cubans, shipwrecked on dry land, have a temporary visa for 15 days. According to Norberto Fumero, 34, there are compatriots who prostitute themselves for $20 a night. “If they hook a Costa Rican client they ask them 40 or 50 dollars. Some were prostitutes in Cuba and moved their way of life here. They can’t do anything but streetwalk. ”

Jorge, a Costa Rican taxi driver, says that several Cuban women have propositioned him with sex. “It’s pitiful. They are young and beautiful. I have been asked $30 or $40 because they have no money to continue the journey. The older ones ask for money, cigarettes or the price of a few beers”.

Many travel with their husbands. Others make the journey alone and travel with groups of people whom they know from Cuba. Yanira, a stylish brunette, worked in a food processing centre in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas province, 700 kilometers from Havana.

Yanira decided to leave the island to reunite with her boyfriend who lives in Orlando, Florida. “I traveled with little money, less than two thousand dollars. When I arrived in Panama I was already broke. How do you obtain the money?”, she asks while drinking a beer in a hostel in Paso Canoas. It takes little imagination to know how.

Translated by Araby

Electoral Defeat in Venezuela Could Accelerate Reforms in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Cuban soldiers at a mass celebrated in January 2013 at Havana’s Jesus of Miramar church to pray for the health of Hugo Chavez. From “Praying for Chavez” by Ivan Garcia.

Iván García, Diario de las Américas, 8 December 2015 — Just past midnight, when Cuba’s military bigwigs heard the president of the Venezuelan electoral college, Tibisay Lucena, confirm the loss of Nicolas Maduro’s PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) in the December 6 parliamentary elections, alarm bells went off in the offices of Cuba’s Palace of the Revolution.

The epicenter of the Venezuelan political earthquake shook official Cuba, the one made up of timid statesmen, irresponsible officials and radical ideologues who try to govern a nation by adding one plus zero.

The virtual country designed by Raul Castro’s advisors — those who have hidden Cuba’s structural, political, economic and social problems — is a double-edged sword.

Maintaining an iron fisted-control over the island’s media has allowed them to present to the world the image of a society made up of a pleasant, committed people by means of a publicity stunt called the Cuban Revolution.

It did exist, but after 1976 it became a nation with an institutionalized Soviet court that used Marxism as its political guidebook.

Thanks to an efficient intelligence apparatus, the Castro brothers have governed the country without having to deal with popular protests by suppressing a tiny domestic dissident movement whose tactical errors have shown it does not known how or has not been able to connect with the average Cuban.

Cuba managed to export its inane economic ideology to Venezuela. When Colonel Hugo Rafael Chavez was nothing more than the leader of a coup, Fidel Castro saw in him a future statesman.

After Chavez was released from prison, Castro welcomed him to Havana with the pomp and circumstance befitting a president. Chavez’ mentor monitored his every move. Given Castro’s skill, he was able to install in Caracas’ presidential palace something better than an ideological and strategic ally. He installed a ventriloquist.

The Castro brothers can claim one unquestionable accomplishment: they now exert remote control over a nation with three times the population, GDP and natural resources of their own.

When corruption, popular discontent and uncontrolled poverty allowed Hugo Chavez to enter Venezuelan politics through the back door, he carried a portfolio whose outlines had been drawn by his mentor, Fidel.

The biggest mistake of Chavez, Maduro and the Castros has been to govern only for the benefit of their supporters. There have been other major blunders, such as the ideologization of education, the nationalization of private businesses and the dismantling of the machinery of a functioning economy.

Caracas’ response has been to blame the eternal enemies: Yankee imperialism, the bourgeoisie and the local business community. In spite of his corruption scandals, Brazil’s President Lula and Uruguay’s President Mujica showed themselves to be  different kinds of leftists.

Like good travel companions, the Brazilian and Uruguayan presidents supported or quieted the excesses and absurdities of their ideological partners on the international stage. But they did not fracture their societies like Chavez or the Castros did.

Chavez’s megalomania became a hindrance. The death of the paratrooper from Sabaneta de Barinas, like that of any leader, left an insurmountable power vacuum.

If Maduro had been prudent, he would have formed alliances with the opposition in order to get through the downturn. By the time he came to power, conditions had changed. The export boom in raw materials was over and oil prices had plunged, but he failed to properly assess the situation.

Nicolas Maduro’s frequent foolish statements, profanity and insults will not put an end to inflation, currency depreciation, organized crime, food shortages or social tensions in Venezuela.

More than the Venezuelan opposition, the PSUV’s main contender is the people, and on December 6 they spoke. What could happen going forward?

If Maduro does not alter his political strategy, disaster awaits him, either through some form of recall before 2019 or through a substantial and continuing loss of power.

If he had any decency, he would resign as president. After countless missteps in running the country, record violence, official corruption and two relatives of his wife accused of drug trafficking, the best way out for Maduro, and for preserving Chavez’ legacy, would be for him to leave office.

But I do not think this will happen. People like him derive their authority by going against the tide. Diplomacy is not their strength. Quite the opposite with Raul Castro. When he became president in 2006, few would have bet a penny on him.

He had a reputation as a drunkard and a shadowy conspirator. He came to power only because he was Fidel’s brother. The relief pitcher came along at a critical moment. He faced a stagnant economy in crisis and a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who had died in jail from a hunger strike.

Raul was besieged in the international arena by the United States and the European Union due to his brother’s disastrous policy decision to jail seventy-five dissidents in the spring of 2003.

But the Cuban autocrat knows how to negotiate a favorable treaty with the White House and the EU without easing up on his repression of dissidents or changing the status quo too much.

Raul Castro is an expert at blowing smoke. A year after December 17 he has not implemented a strategy in response to President Obama’s road map.

Perhaps the electoral drubbing in Venezuela on December 6 combined with the unstoppable exodus of Cubans will encourage him to adopt of serious reforms. Though you never know with the Castros.