Ivan Garcia, 28 October 2015 — The smell of pine and varnish permeates the narrow building where Idelfonso and his three assistants sculpt a collection of bowls, amulets and gadgets used in Santeria initiations rituals
The studio is air-conditioned and the high quality of his work has allowed Idelfonso to renovate his house and buy a fourteen-thousand-dollar Soviet-era car with a diesel engine and German automatic transmission.
And he has no shortage of clients. “I have Russian, Swiss, Cuban-American and even Japanese buyers. Santeria is expanding all over the world. And it has given rise to an industry to satisfy locals and foreigners who want to be initiated,” he says as he places a recently varnished figure of San Lazaro (St. Lazarus) in a closet next to other religious objects to be sold wholesale to an intermediary.
Although an autocratic Fidel Castro took a particularly belligerent stance towards the Catholic church, syncretic religions, Masonic associations and Afro-Cuban secret societies in the early years of the revolution, Cubans never stopped worshiping their saints.
In the houses of some of Castro’s most diehard supporters it was common to find an image of the Virgin of Charity and a small cabinet filled with offerings to some African deity right under a photo of Fidel.
Syncretism — the blending of one or more religions — is widespread in Cuba. Many Afro-Cubans have their children baptized in the Catholic church and later perform an itá,* consulting with their Santeria godfather by tossing pebbles and shells onto a wooden tablet.
When Fidel Castro was hanging by a thread after the fall of the Soviet empire, which brought down the satellite regimes of Eastern Europe in its wake, he devised a political strategy to bring Cuba’s various religious denominations into a new and powerful alliance.
The plan made perfect sense. The Americas has the largest number of Catholic followers in the world while many people in Central America, South America and the Caribbean worship indigenous deities or gods of African origin.
There began to be less talk of Lenin and Marx in Cuba. The national stage was opened up to a variety of religious beliefs, provided they were in communion with the regime.
The rise of Santeria and other religious beliefs that come to us from Africa has been augmented by a booming private-sector industry that arose to meet the demand for fetishes, sacrificial animals, religious imagery, prayers and potions.
Just in Tenth of October — a Havana district of more than two-hundred thousand residents which has become the most populous in Cuba — there are roughly a hundred religion-related businesses
The self-employment regulations adopted by the government in 1993 and expanded in 2010 by General Raul Castro allow herbalists, fortune-tellers and babalaos, or priests, to provide consultations, read Tarot cards and sell religious images.
Abdiel is one of them. For ten years he has been selling herbal medicines and Santeria necklaces in a stall a stone’s throw from the old bus terminal in La Vibora.
“I also sell wood carvings and animals specifically for religious sacrifice. Sales are good. I pay relatively little money in taxes to the state,” he says while sitting on a small wooden bench.
In the courtyard of a big house with high ceilings in San Miguel del Padron, Arturo makes money by selling goats, roosters and pigeons, animals commonly used in Santeria “endeavors.”
“I have been in this business since 1998. You can’t imagine the number of people in Cuba who are adopting Santeria. It might seem like a primitive sect for black people, but most of my clients are white and affluent,” says Arturo.
Jose Ignacio, a babaloa with thirty-five years experience, claims that followers of African rites outnumber local Catholics by a wide margin. “None of the three popes who have visited Cuba met with leaders of the Yoruba religion, even though the two faiths share the same saints.”
This Havana babaloa believes the Catholic hierarchy looks upon them with disdain. He notes that there are as many if not more white people practicing Santeria as there are black or mestizo followers. “It’s only logical,” he observes. “Whites often live better and have more money.”
In Cuba “becoming a saint,” or being initiated, is an extremely costly proposition. Reinaldo, a well-known follower points out that it can cost four to eight thousand dollars depending on the type of saint. “It shouldn’t be that way but many unscrupulous people have turned Santeria into a very lucrative business,” he says.
For a foreigner the cost is even higher. For Frank, a Canadian who is married to a Cuban woman, getting initiated cost him $13,000. “And what’s worse, I’m still spending money,” he complains.
Becoming a saint in Cuba has gone from being a spiritual need to being a fashion statement, a socially acceptable way of displaying a person’s affluence. Behind the scenes an empirical and highly profitable industry makes it all possible.
*Translator’s note: A ceremony conducted on the third day of consecration in which the past, present and future is discussed with the initiate and shells tossed on a table are believed to carry meaning.
Ivan Garcia, 31 October 2015 — It seems much time has passed since the ’80s, when a stern official from State Security, dressed in civilian clothing, solemnly intimidated us, a group of fresh youngsters, who were studying at La Vibora’s pre-university.
I was 16 years old. I don’t remember having felt more fear in my life than that afternoon, when the agent showed us his document with a red stamp and green lettering: DSE. The initials of the feared Department of State Security.
The guy manipulated our youthful fear like an expert. Perhaps he learned that in a KGB counterintelligence academy, or in the STASI of Marcus Wolf.
He asked for discretion from the school director, known as “the Fly,” more intransigent than an Afghani Taliban. And he led us half-dozen kids with intellectual airs like a submissive flock toward the school library.
Our crime was watching movies and documentaries not shown in Cuba on Betamax videos, reading the prohibited books of Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges and brushing up on Herberto Padilla’s poems.
The severe reprimands still resound in my ears. Some of us were crying and others were begging for forgiveness for their “sins.” The man, like someone all-powerful, waited to hear my plea for clemency.
I don’t know how I armed myself with valor before such authority, but with a trembling voice I let out a tirade about personal liberty and reading what one wanted.
“Can you imagine what would happen if your mother heard about this?” (She was an official journalist.)* What you’re reading is counter-revolutionary, and in Borges’ case leans toward Pinochet’s dictatorship,” the political policeman told me.
Before the “evidence” and, fearing that my mother would know, I also called up a mea culpa. Some years later, in 1991, I was detained for 15 days in a walled cell in Villa Marista**. Probably my libertarian sedition cost my mother her job at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) and in 1995, she left official journalism to write for Cuba Press, an alternative press agency.
She had a catharsis: after 20 years of being an independent journalist in Havana, she knew about the pressure that all those who disagree with the Regime’s narrative suffer.
There are two paths to take: suffer or shut up. And two ways out: continue living in your country like a zombie or scurry off to another nation. One is free to choose. No one has to be a martyr.
In Cuba there are laws that sentence you to 20 or more years in prison for writing without permission. But the times are different, even if the same people are in power.
The Castros’ autocracy has passed from being a totalitarian system, where the State controlled the flow of information, cinema, literature and any other intellectual facet with an iron fist, to an authoritarian nation that is opening slowly, with one foot anchored behind the door.
The Soviet paranoia, the acts of repudiation — veritable verbal lynchings — the wacky accusations and the shameful spewing of insults directed at someone’s integrity still continue.
But the desire of many communicators to express their way of thinking through a blog, a website or a digital newspaper has grown thanks to the new technologies.
When, at the end of the ’80s, ex-State reporters like Rolando Cartaya and Tania Díaz Castro started spreading the news generated by pro-human rights groups, they defined a road that Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano and Raúl Rivero would follow later.
In an error of calculation, Fidel Castro’s government thought that incarcerating 27 free journalists in March 2003 would curtail the independent press. What happened was the opposite: it multiplied.
Now there are dozens who, on their own and at daily risk, report from every province. Furthermore, official journalists have to take into account the fact that these reporters collaborate with the foreign media. Or they are like Elaine Díaz, who has founded her own weekly, Journalism from the Barrio.
The difference between writing freely and editing boring news about supposed economic growth is abysmal. In their eagerness to head off the alternative bloggers who were led by Yoani Sánchez, the Regime authorized official and professional journalists to open blogs.
The plan was to create on the Internet a sphere for the Battle of Ideas***. It generated a full network of bloggers. There are those who are trained and vitriolic. Others are respectfully obstinate and convinced about the oliive-green Revolution. Or they are critical about the state of things, although their intent is to perfect the System.
But autonomy and liberal thinking engender distrust in a country where the orientation always comes from a central command post. The Government lost focus again.
There is no guided freedom or half-freedom. Binary education of “revolutionaries” against “dissident mercenaries” is very simple. But in the actual panorama of the Island, the “enemy” isn’t the dissident movement. It’s the discontent of a large segment of Cubans because of inefficient institutions, a crazy economy and corruption.
So journalists who are honest take their own pulse on reality. They aren’t official or independent. They work for the people.
Photo of Elaine Díaz taken from “Fear of the Rain,” one of the articles with which Journalism from the Barrio had its debut, on October 18, 2015.
*Tania Quintero Antúnez, who has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee since 2003.
**Formerly a Catholic schools for boys, under the Revolution it became (and remains) a prison, known for detaining political prisoners.
***Fidel Castro’s effort to reinforce his ideology and power.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Ivan Garcia, 7 October 2015 — According to Francisco Valido González, 47, a dissident who works in a transit bus cooperative, his association, in theory, can ask for credit from a U.S. bank in order to acquire new buses.
His cooperative’s buses have more than 200,000 kilometers on them, and 15 years of use. In his narrow apartment, a stone’s throw from Calzada de Güines, in the municipality of San Miguel del Patrón in the southeast of Havana, he keeps the auto parts he bought in the informal market under the bed where he sleeps.
From overuse of the buses, breakdowns are constant. “Almost always, between 10 to 12 days a month, I have to stop because of a breakdown,” he told me in December 2014.
Taking a page from Barack Obama’s book on “empowering small businesses and private workers,” Validio wrote a missive to the Minister of Transport soliciting authorization for his cooperative to obtain credit, which would permit it to buy 50 new microbuses.
Nine months later, he’s received silence for an answer. Since 17 December 2014, when both nations surprised the world with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the opinions of Cubans on the street have gone from exaggerated expectation to lassitude and pessimism.
Hundreds of business owners rubbed their hands in anticipation of the new panorama that was approaching. Noelvis, a mechanic in a bus cooperative on Avenue Santa Catalina, made grandiose plans.
His cooperative had been visited by Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If the Government approves, our cooperative can request credit from a U.S. bank and buy a couple of car washes and modern tools,” he commented last March.
Six months later, Noelvis isn’t so optimistic. “The game of dominoes is stalled. Up above (the Government), they’re not getting off their high horse. They don’t even answer our questions. Total silence.”
Francisco Valido drives a collective taxi 12 hours a day, and in spite of earning 2,500 Cuban pesos a month (a little more than 100 CUCs — equal to about the same in US dollars), to make ends meet at the end of the month he repairs footwear for the residents of the neighborhood.
In the cooperative, Noelvis earns a salary of 2,000 Cuban pesos (about 80 CUCs). “But it’s not enough. Because of the high cost of living in Cuba, you need at least 400 CUCs a month to be able to have two meals a day and pay the rent, light and telephone.” Outside work hours, he fixes old American and Soviet cars. This extra money allows him to live without big worries.
David, a computer specialist, has been embroiled for the last three months in bureaucratic procedures to open a private cybercafe in Havana.
“My project was to buy 12 computers with credit that my family in Miami was going to arrange with a computer company in the U.S. In the cafe there would be a bar. Everything would be air-conditioned with a space for nightly downloads of jazz and trova music. It would have Wi-Fi, and I’m sure that the people who connected sitting on the sunny sidewalk would appreciate it.”
If you walk around Havana and chat with private entrepreneurs, you will hear more or less the same stories. Even the cooperatives, legal entities that appeared under the mantle of the State and which theoretically can invest with foreign companies, are under the governmental magnifying glass.
Marino Murillo, the obese czar of the island economy, has expressed caution in the approval of new cooperatives. “In fact, the Government put the hand brake on,” says a cooperative member in Havana.
On two occasions, December 17, 2014, and September 18, 2015, Obama released a range of measures to dismantle, brick by brick, the codified financial and commercial embargo toward the government of Havana.
Washington emphasizes the spread of Internet service, telephone calls, construction materials, and sea and air travel. The White House is interested in favoring small businessmen, and in allowing Cubans access to new technologies.
But the Palace of the Revolution is not opening its mouth. The shifty ancients in the Government observe the course of events without opening a door or a window.
The Communist regime is interested only in transactions with State companies, 75 percent of which are administered by the military. After nine and a half months of the new agreement between the two countries, which live their particular Cold War, the harvest is meager.
IDT, a U.S. telecommunications company, negotiates with ETECSA, its Cuban State-owned counterpart; Airbnb allows the rental of houses in Cuba from the U.S., and this has increased the number of flights and American visitors to the Island.
But General Raúl Castro keeps the ramparts fortified. There is no Government strategy for private workers to get credit or buy food and foodstuffs from the neighbor to the north.
On the financial terrain, the field continues clogged with the bizarre double currency system, which complicates any commercial transaction. In an arbitrary manner, the Regime implements an artificial exchange rate with the dollar, which makes it more expensive for travelers from the U.S.
The only move on the chess board that the military Government has is giving bombastic speeches and asking for something without offering anything in return.
Up to now, neither Obama nor Pope Francis has been able to handle it.
PHOTO: Raúl Castro and Barack Obama, during their meeting on Tuesday, September 29, in New York. Photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Note from TranslatingCuba.com: The video is not translated into English. The gist of message (other than what is obvious from the images) is that things in Cuba haven’t changed for ordinary people since the announcement of the reestablishment of relations.
Ivan Garcia, 16 October 2015 — Seated at the helm of his polished 1958 Impala convertible, Eduardo Colón, a private taxi driver, listens to Adele’s concert on his player, while he waits for the marriage of an American couple outside the Saratoga Hotel, very close to the National Capitol in the heart of Havana.
The couple arrives with relaxed tourist faces, wide-brimmed sombreros, video camera in hand, and before climbing aboard the ancient Chevrolet, they take a selfie with the car in the background.
If anyone has benefited from the more than 100,000 Americans who have visited Cuba since the December 17 thaw, there’s no doubt that private taxicab drivers are at the top of the list.
“Speaking economically, since the Day of San Lázaro* last year, things have gone better for me. Especially with the Americans. For a couple of hours’ drive around the city, they pay me up to 60 chavitos (65 CUCs, “dollars”), Eduardo pointed out.
The owners of homes for rent and private restaurants in the medium- to high-price range in the usual tourist zones in the capital are earning more money.
“I rent three rooms at 30 CUCs a night. And in 2015, of the 17 people who rented from me, 11 were from the U.S. When the bonanza begins, the infrastructure of hospitality, gastronomy and transport is going to collapse. For me I’m doing well, but I admit that the markets continue to be short on supplies and telephone calls to the U.S. are still very expensive,” said Elsa, the owner of a spacious house.
For Onilio, almost ten months after the Americans, neighbors to the north, stopped being enemy número uno, the balance of positive things is little.
“I work hard at selling illegal cigars to tourists. I notice that there are more Americans, who are cooler and who help the clandestine cigars-and-rum business. But it still isn’t very good,” said a seller in the Hotel Inglaterra vicinity.
Kirenia, a prostitute, doesn’t think that Amercian affluence has caused an increase in prices. “It’s still the same: 50 or 60 bucks for a night. If the client looks like he’s well-heeled, you can ask for a hundred. But up to now the Americans I’ve seen aren’t coming in waves to link up with whores.”
For most of the people interviewed, the scene hasn’t changed too much. “It’s more peel than potato. For those who do business downtown, where the rich foreigners are, things are going better. But for those who live far from the center of Havana, life is the same,” states the proprietor of a private bar.
Still Yasmani has noted benefits. He has a bar that offers tapas, and he rents out five rooms with a spectacular view of the Malecón for 35 CUCs a night.
“I do business with Airbnb, and I almost always have clients,” he affirms. The State hotels, mainly administered by military companies, can’t complain either. “This year we are cheek to jowl (full), comments Eusebio, a receptionist at a hostel in Old Havana.
In restaurants like Los Nardos, a joint venture between home hotels and the State at kilometer zero** in Havana, it’s almost impossible to get a reservation for dinner.
“I notice there are better opportunities. Although at the moment they haven’t fallen into my pocket. I’m still earning 10 CUCs a day, like always,” says Joel, the doorman.
Those who haven’t seen any benefit are the majority of Cubans who own nothing. “I’m still earning the same shit (550 pesos/month, around 23 dollars) as before December 17. And as far as food goes, buying it takes almost my whole salary, and when I need a bottle of cooking oil, I have to save in order to buy CUCs so I can get it in a “shopping”***,” notes Manuel, a bus mechanic.
A wide segment of the population complains about the shortage of food and the sky-high prices. “No one understands that now that we Cubans can buy food from the U.S., the markets are empty,” says Rosa, a housewife who prowls the shelves of Ultra, one of the large dollar stores in the capital.
According to a recent article by Juan Juan Almeida in Martí Noticias, in a journalistic investigation among foreign businessmen in Cuba, the Regime has a silent strategy to reduce the buying of food and merchandise in the U.S. as a way of putting pressure on the U.S. business lobby to force a more energetic campaign for repeal of the embargo.
Almost 10 months after December 17, not too many benefits are felt in Cuba. The olive-green autocracy continues without implementing a road map that would please private workers, to whom, supposedly, Obama’s measures are directed.
The official sinuous politics awakens resentment and mistrust in Cubans on the street. “Before, the Government complained that we couldn’t access the Internet because of the blockade. Now U.S. businesses offer us free Internet, and the State says that they prefer to be in charge. They are interested only in exploiting Cubans with steep prices and abusive taxes,” comments Reinier, sitting on a sidewalk under the sun on Calle 23 in Vedado, while he tries to communicate by IMO**** with his relatives in Florida.
A few meters away, Diosbel waits in a Havana Tour office to buy a ticket to Miami. “We thought that after December 17, the price of airline tickets was going to go down. The flight to Miami is as expensive as the one to Colombia. And the Government doesn’t give us any news about the ferry. They’re saying that the U.S. Post Office is going to negotiate with the Cuban Post Office. What for? Those sons of bitches only permit you to send something that weighs one and a half-kilogram, and if you go over, each kilo costs 20 CUC. The reestablishment of relations hasn’t brought anything that’s good for Cubans,” he says, annoyed.
In Havana opinions are divided. Some believe that in 2016 gaps will inexorably open up, and there will be better conditions for those Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast and who don’t receive hard currency.
Others are more pessimistic. And they’re certain that the Regime won’t move its chess pieces until the Americans lift the embargo. And if the Regime is good at something, it’s inertia.
*One of the more popular saints in Cuba, venerated on December 17.
**The location from which distances are measured and from which you can set your odometer, usually in a capital city.
***Special stores that take only Cuban Convertible Pesos, which can be bought in exchange for Cuban Pesos; these stores carry food items not found in the Cuban Peso shops.
****Popular program for audio and video chat.
Translated by Regina Anavy
16 October 2015
Ivan Garcia, 25 October 2015 — The eyes of eighty-four-year-old Roman Galvan come alive as he remembers the dark days of October 1962 when it seemed that Cuba would be erased from the map following what appeared to be an impending nuclear conflagration between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Fifty-three years later, Galvan lives in a dilapidated state-run nursing home in La Vibora, a neighborhood half-an-hour’s drive from downtown Havana.
“In 1962 I was a militiaman. In October I was called to serve in a military unit in the east. Like a lot of Cubans, I had no idea what a nuclear war was. I was willing to die for what I believed to be a just cause. We were young and immature. What Fidel said was law,” recalls Roman.
He later fought in wars in the Escambray mountains and in Africa. While fighting to defend Marxist ideology and Fidel Castro’s ego, his family fell apart.
“My wife and I separated, my son spends more time in jail than on the street and I have lost track of my daughter. It wasn’t worth giving up my life for Fidel or the missile crisis or these other wars. But it’s too late now. I am old and counting down the hours,” he says as his blurry eyes fill with tears.
More than a million Cubans were mobilized in October 1962. According to official accounts, Nikita Khrushchev was planning to deploy twenty-four rocket launchers, forty-two R-15 rockets, about forty-five nuclear warheads, forty-two Ilyushin IL-28 bombers, a squadron of fighter aircraft, including forty MIG-21 aircraft, two Soviet air defense divisions, four mechanized infantry regiments and other military units; some 47,000 soldiers in total.
The operation was code-named Anadyr by the Kremlin. Castro, then thirty-six-years-old, was aware of the consequences he could face from the United States as a result of his reckless strategy.
It marked the height of the Cold War. Seventeen years had passed since the defeat of Nazi Germany at the hands of allied troops. By then, the destructive power of nuclear weapons was well-known.
Some 195,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after President Harry Truman ordered the Enola Gay to drop two atomic bombs on these Japanese cities.
By 1962 the destructive power of these weapons was fifteen times greater. They were not mere toys. A responsible statesman would have calculated the severe consequences of initiating a baptism of fire by the world’s two nuclear superpowers.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the country’s secret intelligence archives were opened and the stupidity of Fidel Castro and his leadership became clear for analysts and historians to see.
In letters to Khrushchev, Castro urged the Soviet leader to pull the nuclear trigger. At the time, Ernesto Che Guevara, the firebrand guerrilla from Argentina, wrote an article praising the attitude of the revolutionary government and challenging the Soviet leaders.
“It is a chilling example of a people willing to sacrifice themselves in a nuclear conflagration so that their ashes might serve as the foundations of new societies. When this happens and a covenant is made to remove nuclear missiles without consulting them, there will be no sigh of relief, no thanksgiving for the truce. They will jump into the fray to provide their own unique voice, their battle stance and their willingness to fight, even if it is alone,” wrote Guevara.
There were aspects to the missile plot of which Fidel Castro and his cabinet were unaware. Oleg Penkovsky, a lieutenant-colonel in Soviet military intelligence, code-named Agent Hero by the CIA, had informed the West of the Soviets’ strategic nuclear inferiority and Moscow’s plans for deploying missiles in Cuba.
As a result of the crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to set up a direct telephone link, known as the “hotline,” between the White House and the Kremlin.
When subsequent negotiations to remove nuclear weapons from Cuba were conducted, Khrushchev sidelined the swashbuckling Fidel Castro. The October Crisis is a compelling parable about the irresponsibility of the island’s military regime.
The main actors in this drama are either dead or awaiting God’s call. The supporting players, like Roman Galvan, are living out their last days in ramshackle homes for the elderly.
Photo: Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev meet for the first time at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 1962. From Pinterest.
Ivan Garcia, 2 October 2015 — While waiting for the intermittent autumn drizzle to stop, Cecilio, a housing-swap* broker in Havana, watches the re-broadcast on a local sports channel of a bio about Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan on his 42-inch flat screen TV.
He glances at his watch from time to time and peers out the shutters to see if the rain has stopped. “I’m waiting for a client who wants to sell a two-bedroom apartment with a garage. We have a four o’clock appointment to look at it, but the rail will cause a delay,” he says, annoyed.
Cecilio has been engaged in buying and selling homes for 23 years. “This business works if you are serious and businesslike. And you can earn good money. When it was illegal I looked for one or two thousand dollars for every sale. Now less, but I have enough clients to never stop. The sale of homes in Havana is an irregular market. There are fat times and thin times,” he confesses.
According to this master of swaps, “people are not stupid. They ask a price for an apartment as if it were in New York. But if the house is in El Vedado, Mirarmar, Fontanar, Sevillana or Casino Deportivo and has a garage, the sale is a sure thing,” and says, puffing on a menthol cigarette.
“A house with a garage in ordinary condition will sell for no less than $50,000 dollars. And an apartment in a building with a parking lot around $30,000.” says Cecilio.
Why does a garage raise prices so much in a real estate transaction? I ask a specialist at the Housing Institute in the 10 de Octobre district.
“For years, in Havana, there has been a marked lack of garages for cars. Dormitory-cities ahve been built, like Alamar, Mulgoba or San Agustin, without garages or parking spaces. Vehicle owners have had to make do. So you see improvised garages in public spaces or in doorways. Having a garage in Cuba is worth 30 CUC a month (around $27 US), simply for the idea of renting it to store cars. If it is used for a snackbar, bar or other business, the earnings can be higher,” says the specialist.
Herminda, a talkative and amiable old woman lives in a large house a stone’s throw from Monaco, the commercial area between the Havana neighborhoods of Sevillano and Casino Deportive. And for 5 CUC a day she rents her garage to a private entreprenuer who sells bread and pastries.
“That’s 150 chavitos (convertible pesos) a month. Fifteen times what the government pays me for my pension. With this money I’m not a burden on my children. I can go to the theater and every now and then eat in a private restaurant,” she says laughing while petting the ears of her restless dachshund.
Three years ago Lourdes took advantage of the boom in 3-D cinemas and on returning from a visit to Miami brought a more than 70-inch TV and professional audio equipment.
With two dozen black leather armchairs, fifty pairs of polaroid glasses and air conditioning to keep the room at 62 degrees fahrenheit, she reconverted the ramshackle garage filled with household junk into a 3-D cinema.
“But those people (the regime) banned it. I had invested more than $8,000 and I still haven’t recovered the money. Then the cinema went underground. I charge 2 CUC a person. And sell a cup of popcorn and a soft drink for 1 CUC,” says Lourdes.
If you walk around Havana you’ll see hundreds of garages transformed into small private businesses. From snackbars, bars, candy stores, barber shops, beauty salons, photo or video studios or even artisan shops where the trader, discreetly, whispers to you that he or she sells fashionable clothes under the table and perfumes at bargain prices.
Eleonora and Carlos Manuel, a couple living in Nueva Vedado, jokingly say they should ask for an offer on their garage.
“Thanks to the garage we could set up a photo or video studio for quinces (girls’ 15th birthday celebrations) or weddings. The garage is what lets us give ourselves a few luxuries, like staying in a hotel two weeks a year in an all-inclusive package in Varadero,” they point out.
Yosvany lives in a two-bedroom apartment, facing Cordoba Park, in La Vibora neighborhood. He is selling it for 30,000 CUC (about $27,000). “Several buyers have told me to the price is too high. But I tell them my apartment has a large private underground garage.”
If you have patience, says Cecilio, the housing-swap broker, “You can sell with no problems: the apartment can be restored and improved, but the garage is insurance money they exceeds the $24 a month that the State pays a worker.
Following the broker’s advice, Yosvany prefers to wait for a better offer. If there is one thing a Cuban knows how to do it is to wait.
Photo: Roofed Garage in a house near Avenida de Acosta, in Lawton, 10 de Octubre district in Havana. Built in 1945, it is in excellent condition. Like many in Cuba, it is fully gated and among other amenities has a 24-hour water supply. It was on sale for 35,000 thousand. Photo taken from Havana Keys, real estate agency specializing in the buying, selling and renting in Havana.
*Translator’s note: Until recently it was illegal to buy and sell housing in Cuba and transactions had to be arranged as trades, which gave people a chance to trade up or down according to their needs and finances.
Ivan Garcia, 20 October 2015 — In Guanabacoa, a town southeast of Havana, you still hear stories about Gilberto Martinez Suarez, alias Gilbert Man. Though told with a pinch of exaggeration and myth, they are largely true.
This mediocre reggaeton musician was known in Guanabacoa with his frequent parties in a villa renovated in record time, generous tips in bars and private restaurants, monumental orgies and flashy cars.
“To tell the truth, he wasn’t much of a singer. But all the girls’ jaws dropped when he drove by in cars we had only seen in American movies. The man seemed to be from another planet, what with all the gold chains and necklaces he wore,” says Giselle, a university student.
Liudmila, a hooker who drums up customers in Havana nightclubs, recalls, “One night some very big black guys came in wanting to hire me for a wild party. They told me to find four or five really good-looking girls. Three days later we were taken to Gilbert Man’s house. The guy paid us 200 CUC each to dance naked.”
If you talk to marijuana and cocaine dealers in Havana, almost everyone agrees that “Gilbert was something else,” as one dealer in the old part of town put it. “The Man spent more than a thousand on powder and weed every weekend,” he notes.
In the winter of 2015, Gilbert Man was arrested at his home in Guanabacoa in a full-blown sting operation. The reggaeton musician was wanted by US authorities for credit card fraud, identity theft and forgery in two Florida counties.
With the money he stole, he was able to build a flashy mansion in Guanabacoa, acquire four cars and spend money hand over fist. He liked to be noticed.
After the Revolution a bearded Fidel Castro tried to construct a different kind of society, one which swept away the scourges of the past. The new government passed laws that eradicated casinos, prostitution and drug use.
It was not just that the military regime adopted an outlandish ideology. It also tried to create a “New Man,” described by Argentine communist Che Guevara as “a cold and ruthless machine for killing Yankees in every corner of the globe.”
Ideological eugenics dictated that these children of the Revolution have their emotions excised. Loyalty to Fidel Castro was sacred. As modern Frankensteins, they were supposed to work without material incentives. They had no religious beliefs — the church was supposedly the opiate of the masses — and liquor and rumba were considered to be vices of degenerates.
As it turned out, the experiment did not work. Those who remain from that batch are liars who parrot every slogan and feign loyalty to the “Revolutionary cause” while stealing from their jobsites.
When they leave the island, they behave and act with the same duplicity they learned in Cuba: stealing, lying and climbing the social ladder by trampling over others.
In January of this year an in-depth investigative report by a Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, documented how several Cuban criminal organizations living in the United States embezzle public funds.
Their crimes include Medicare fraud, traffic accidents staged to cheat insurance companies and marijuana production. According the Sentinel article, 9% of marijuana trafficking offenses and federal insurance scams are committed by Cuban criminals.
At the end of its investigation, the Florida daily came to the conclusion that there is a revolving door that allows thieves easy access to the country and a safe means of escape to Cuba when the situation starts to look dangerous for them.
It is estimated that over the last twenty years Cuban criminals have stolen more than two million dollars from US businesses and taxpayers.
There are about three-hundred people living in Cuba who have embezzled money from US government programs. Under permissive conditions of the Castro regime, they have set up private businesses using other individuals as proxies.
An attorney for ONAT (National Office of Tax Administration), the agency in charge of regulating private sector employment, states that “several thousand businesses in the hospitality, food and transportation sectors — which happen to be the most profitable — are funded by money from the United States that was obtained illegally. I know of privately owned restaurants that have been reporting losses for years but which are still doing business. These are money laundering operations.”
The owner of a fleet of five cars and three jeeps used as taxis admits that his business is bankrolled by a relative in Miami. “Both he and I live off the proceeds from the business. Every month I get five or six thousand dollars from couriers he sends from Miami,” says the man.
When you inquire about the legitimacy of these funds, he becomes evasive. “What do I care if the money is clean or not? It’s how I get by and it allows me to have a decent life in Cuba,” he replies.
Cuban-born criminals take advantage of special provisions of the Cuban Adjustment Act. Between 2009 and 2014 fourteen people were arrested in Miami and charged with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud in order to illegally acquire permanent residency status under the Adjustment Act.
Let’s call him Eduardo. He is almost six feet tall and in 1980 officials at the Combinado del Este prison complex sentenced him to deportation through the Port of Mariel*. He belongs to a group of so-called “excludables,” criminals that the government of the United States considers dangerous. After reaching an agreement with the Castro government, the US repatriated them to Cuba.
Eduardo returned to the island seven years ago and still makes his living from illegal activities. Although he spent most of his time in the United States behind bars, he knows how to function in American society. He says someone living in Miami hired him “to teach some Venezuelans and Central Americans how to pass for Cubans by using the speech, gestures and the particular quirks of Havana neighborhoods. These people later travel to the US with photo IDs and documents from here.”
There’s no stopping Cuba’s “New Man.” He is still out there, defrauding America.
Diario de las Americas, October 12, 2015.
Photo: Reggaeton singer Gilberto Martinez Suarez, alias Gilbert Man, posted on Facebook these two photos of himself posing next to his car and his house in Guanabacoa on the outskirts of Havana. Martinez was wanted by US authorities for using with fake credit cards, identity theft and forgery in two Florida counties. From Diario las Américas.
*Translator’s note: The Castro regime took advantage of the Mariel Boatlift to send many convicted criminals from Cuban prisons to the United States.