Ivan Garcia, 20 February 2015 — Fifty Cuban and foreign journalists attended the press conference that a delegation of congressional Democrats headed by Nancy Pelosi held on the afternoon of Thursday, February 19 outside the residence of Lynn Roche, the U.S. Interest Section’s public affairs officer.
Nancy Pelosi, born in Maryland in 1940, traveled to Havana with representatives Eliot Engel, Nydia Velazquez and Steve Israel (New York), David Ciciline (Rhode Island), Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut), Collin Peterson (Minnesota), Anna Eshoo (California ) and Jim McGovern (Massachusetts). Pelosi and members of her delegation support removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and permanently lifting the U.S. embargo.
Other issues of mutual interest discussed at the conference included increased access to telecommunications, empowering small businesses, agricultural development and human rights.
Jim McGoven believes reconciliation between the two governments is the best way to reach an agreement on human rights. “I think that we can probably accomplish a lot more if we have a relationship based on mutual respect,” said McGovern.
Pelosi agreed with her colleague, adding, “Both countries need to rebuild mutual trust.”
During their three-day visit to Havana, the U.S. delegation stayed at the centrally located Hotel Saratoga and held meetings with chancellor Bruno Rodriguez, National Assembly president Ana Maria Machado and about twenty deputies, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a group small private-sector business owners and Josefina Vida, Cuba’s lead negotiator in talks with the United States.
As of this writing, neither Nancy Pelosi nor any members of her delegation have met with Cuban dissidents. The new political landscape has divided the opposition. Activists such as Elizardo Sanchez and Jose Daniel Ferrer approve of the approach taken by President Obama. On the other hand, dissidents such as Antonio Rodiles and Berto Soler disagree with the White House policy.
The exchange with congressional Democrats was attended foreign correspondents as well as official and independent Cuban journalists. It was the third time that representatives of state and independent media outlets met at a press conference since December 17, when a historic diplomatic development was announced between two governments whose differences seemed irreconcilable.
The visit led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took place a week before officials from Cuba and the United States begin a second round of negotiations on Friday, February 27 in Washington. The first round took place in Havana in January.
Meanwhile, average Cubans have lowered any expectations they may have had over the improvement in relations between the two countries. To Yosuan, a Havana taxi driver, “it all sounds very nice but it’s unrelated to the needs of people on the street.”
Ivan Garcia and Celeste Matos reporting from Havana.
Photo: Marti Noticias.
Ivan Garcia, 18 February 2015 — Fidel Castro appeared. The bearded old man spoke in an elliptical address that sowed fear of future relations between the two Cold War enemies.
The message was meant to cool the enthusiasm of the young. The old guerilla, bellicose as ever, gummed up the works and dampened the festive atmosphere of a large segment of the island’s population who want to see an end to the longstanding dispute between Cuba and the United States.
You need not be a code breaker to decipher the meaning. It was a storm warning: The Yankees are still at the gate, only now with different weapons.
The hackneyed theory of ripe fruit. The gringos want to clog us with McDonald’s, broadband internet and smartphones. This time the Trojan horse is not a missile; it’s a computer.
Then it’s back to the trenches. The “barbarians from the North” want to take your money, apply their technology and do business, but only with the state. Castro I is sounding the alarm.
We do not yet know — perhaps we will in the future — if this was a concerted media offensive or if the old comandante is acting on his own. What we do know is that his brother Raul put on his boxing gloves at a summit in Costa Rica and made an offer.
The demands could have filled a basket. Some were unrealistic and over-the-top. Castro II was probably bluffing but it was an audacious move. The trick was knowing how far to test the limits of President Obama’s patience.
White House eagerness to arrive in April at Summit of the Americas in Panama with negotiations well underway, embassies reopened and an ongoing dialogue taking the burden of Cuba off its relationship with the rest of the continent is the Castro brothers’ secret weapon.
The playing field is uncertain. Venezuela is taking on water and Cuba’s finances are in the red. But in its favor the military regime has managed to maintain social and political control over an anesthetized nation.
However, they are stretched to the limit. In spite of being octogenarian, the Castros have more time to spare than Obama. Almost two months after the surprising diplomatic turn of events on December 17, Cuban authorities have decided to dampen the enthusiasm of Afro-Cubans.
The party propaganda machine is working at full speed. Editorials in government-run newspapers tell us the enemy is still out there. Negotiating with the Castros is an exercise in pure abstraction. They are always playing with marked cards. Or with nothing. But this time they have slipped up. Times have changed.
People are tired of all the mess, of the embargo, of a system that does not work, of the fear-mongering speeches. The narrative is no longer having its effect. When you ask eighteen- to thirty-year-old Cubans to where they would most like to emigrate, most say the United States.
The Castros’ policies have boomeranged. Never before in Cuba have so many people idolized the United States’ culture, consumerism and lifestyle as today.
It is a trivialized version of American society. Due to a lack of information — or simply because they suspect that the regime is lying — adolescents, young people and even many adults believe that in the United States dollars fall from the sky in parachutes.
Private sector workers think applying for a micro-credit loan from a New York bank is as easy as ordering a lemonade in Pinar del Rio or Cienfuegos. Since December 17 many Cubans have come to believe in political science fiction.
The Castro brothers have not outlined a strategy in which a street vendor or a private farmer can get a small loan from the United States.
Obama has also been blowing smoke. After eighteen months of secret negotiations and with information provided by the CIA, the White House should have foreseen that — as has always been the case — the Cuban regime would defend itself by going on the attack.
The philosophy of survival is a favorite for the brothers from Biran. From the perspective of the average Cuban, however, Obama is the winner. On the streets of Havana it is Fidel and Raul who are blamed for slowing down negotiations.
But the Castros are only interested in holding onto power and controlling every future diplomatic move. President Obama’s roadmap was merely a shovel for digging his own grave. They are no fools. They have pulled the emergency brake.
18 February 2015
Iván García, 2 February 2015 — It is half past noon and Saul is collecting bets for the clandestine Cuban lottery known as bolita (little ball) or charada, (charade) which was legal before 1959 and has always been very popular.
Under a scorching sun that provides a tint of summer to what passes for winter on the island, he walks along the steep backstreets of La Víbora, a neighborhood south of Havana. At seventy-six he has found no better way of making money than as a bookie.
“It didn’t matter that I fought at the Bay of Pigs and Escambray. I retired with a monthly pension of 207 pesos (around eight dollars). I make twice that amount taking bets for the bolita every day,” he says as he records a wager by the manager of a farmers’ market in a school notebook.
Around noon he collects the bets of his best clients. It is a varied group that includes the owner of a private restaurant, business directors, a police academy instructor and the manager of state-owned cafe that charges in hard currency.
“They are big players, from 150 to 500 pesos. And since I make two runs a day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — some of them bet twice a day. I get ten percent of the take, which on a normal day is more that two-thousand pesos,” says Saul.
Although it is illegal, with convictions carrying sentences of two to five years in prison, the game has been played with increasing openness in cities and towns across the island since the 1980s.
In Cuba’s heartland, organized clandestine cock fights bring in a lot of money. In the capital there are a dozen such organized fight rings, each with three bouts a week.
Cock fighting has become an industry. There are people who buy and train aggressive roosters, veterinarians who care for the birds, the owners of rings and others.
Dog fights have also been increasing. It is a bloody and horrific spectacle that generates thousands of convertible pesos at every event.
Houses are routinely being converted into illegal gaming parlors known as burles. Another form of gambling involves car and motorcycle racing on the outskirts of Havana. Often the lookouts for these races are the police themselves.
But the oldest and most popular betting game is the bolita, a system that operates like a Swiss watch.
Modesto has been a bookie since the 1980s, when times were hard. “I was arrested a couple of times,” he says. “The police used to pester you a lot. If the bolita were legal, there wouldn’t be so much police corruption. If they catch you, they fine you. But if you want your operation running at full steam, you have to pay money under the table to a police chief or a tidy sum to the institution itself. People who run illegal operations make friends with the military and police in order to protect their business.”
There are many forms of the illegal lottery known as the bolita, from serious, established operations to impromptu scams. The range of payouts varies. Modesto’s operation pays out 90 pesos for every winning first number, 25 for the straight and 900 for the “parlé,” a combination of two numbers.
It’s simple. The numbers run from 1 to a 100, each with a corresponding symbol. The Cuban operations are based on the Florida Lottery. Other bolita operators such as Rodolfo, a resident of Old Havana, pay out 1,000 pesos for the parlé and 100 pesos for winning first numbers.
According to Saul there are three types of clients: “The regulars are housewives or low-income people who play every day with the hope of landing a parlé to help pay for a daughter’s fifteenth birthday party or to renovate a bathroom. Then there are the people with some extra dough who like to gamble and hope to make a lot of money. The third type are those who play occasionally, who have had a dream or a hunch and bet a wad of money on those numbers.”
The Bolita or “charada” has 100 numbers. Each has its own meaning; some have two or more. For example, 2 is a butterfly or money, 5 is a nun or the sea, 15 is a dog or a pretty girl, 37 is a witch, a hen or an ant and 100 is a toilet or a car.
Sometime after 3 PM Josuan arrives at his neighborhood butcher shop to find out the results of the drawing. “For two months I have been betting on #45, the president, and #14, the cemetery, because of rumors about the death of Fidel. If those two are the winning numbers and I land a parlé, I will throw a party,” he says.
Maria Luisa, a housewife, prefers to bet on #64, big death, and #1, the horse, since “we have always said Fidel was the horse.”
At the moment the bolita is a national obsession, even though the odds are not favorable. It will never be a good business proposition to bet money on a list of one-hundred numbers from which there is a payout on only three. But people keep trying. The last thing to go is hope.
2 February 2015
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 8 February 2015 — No one wants to know him except the readers of his blogs. Jose Varela is out there on his own. He is the type of humorist that public figures from both sides of the Florida Straits want to keep at a distance, the farther the better.
He is an outlaw squared. The Cuban regime has tried to co-opt his posts and cartoons when they ridicule dissidents. But when Varela trains his canons on the Palace of the Revolution, the curtain of censorship comes down.
Word has it he lives on a farm outside of Miami and that in 2006 — I do not know why — he broke into the offices of El Nuevo Herald, where he worked as a cartoonist, with a toy machine gun.
It was like a movie. News of the event made it all the way to Havana. “Pepe Varela got all hot and bothered. After a dirty trick by the Herald’s editors, he held the paper hostage. The riot police had to intervene. I love his blog. It’s irreverent and quite funny. On top of that, he writes well. That’s a lot to ask these days,” says a neighborhood friend who lives in Hialeah.
The first time I heard about Varela was in 2009. I had a blog on a website run by Yoani Sanchez called Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices). One night someone mentioned that Varela had telephoned Sanchez asking if he could interview her or just meet her.
She turned him down. He was known to take pot shots at her in his posts (and still does). Some said he was with State Security, the perfect pretext in both Cuba and Miami for dismissing free thinkers and guys who are out there in left field.
I started reading his posts out of professional curiosity. They are written in the style typical of emails, without capital letters or proper punctuation. They are well-paced and entertaining, and anyone might end up being the target of his biting sarcasm.
For some time now a Google banner has warned visitors to his site that they are entering “enemy territory,” an affront to America’s vaunted freedom of speech.*
Neither the Inter American Press Association nor Reporters Without Borders nor any of the other high priests of press freedom has condemned this act of censorship by the U.S. search engine.
Varela could make a killing if he invoked the Fifth Amendment. Like it or not, he is an American citizen who pays his taxes.
It is quite understandable that a blog like his would be banned in Cuba. The country’s military rulers don’t have much of a sense of humor.
Political satire on the island is banned. In fact, the first press outlet to be banned — it happened in 1960 — was a weekly humor magazine: Zig Zag.
This reached an extreme in the 1980s when a cartoonist from the newspaper Granma was fired for showing a skull with a pirate’s hat in the middle of a photo of Fidel Castro. When the page was held up to the light, the overlay became visible.
It was probably a fatal coincidence that cost this man his job and several hours of interrogation by scowling counterintelligence officials.
In Cuba officials rarely smile, not even for the camera, but they are very adept at discerning insults or jokes considered “counter-revolutionary.”
Being a humorist in Cuba is an act of masochism. You have to craft jokes with double meanings if you want to escape the party’s guillotine.
The New Man that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro tried to create was a robot who killed yankees, planted bananas and worked as a volunteer without pay. Dancing to guaguanco, being unfaithful, reading novels and Corin Tellado and following major league baseball were petit bourgeois pursuits.
For a Cuban dissident to be considered a democrat, he presumably must defend freedom of expression and accept figures like Varela.
After the attack in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the government and the opposition in Cuba denounced the savage murder of twelve people, including several of the publication’s cartoonists.
It was an empty gesture because neither the regime nor the dissidents tolerate criticism or jokes at their expense.
There is a Cuban Charlie Hebdo. His name is Jose Varela. He laughs at everyone. He lives on the other side of the pond and his weapon is his pen.
Translator’s note: In the U.S. a visit to the cartoonist’s blog site begins with a content warning that states, “Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog’s content is objectionable. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.” To enter the site, readers must then click a button that reads, “I understand and I wish to continue.”
Leaning against a peeling wall in the lobby of an old neighborhood movie theater, the vendor offers the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) to passersby who read, while they walk, an article by the historian Elier Ramirez calling for Cubans to be cautious about the dark intentions of the United States.
At the door of a farmers market stained with reddish earth and with stands overflowing with pineapples, sweet potatoes and yucas, Roman, a market clerk, reads the article seated on an iron chair.
“It’s more of the same. They want to crush Cubans’ widespread expectations after the 17 December accords. The other day the newspaper Granma also was marking territory, saying that our sovereignty is not negotiable. Those people (the regime) are scared shitless. If the doors really open, the system is going down. It won’t last as long as an ice cube in the sun,” says Roman.
After noon, the old newspaper seller, sitting on a cardboard box in a doorway next to an art gallery, eating a serving of rice and beans and a slice of an omelet.
In a bag he still had more than thirty unsold newspapers. “We Cubans don’t care much about the news any more, good or bad. There are people who buy the newspaper to wrap up their garbage or to use as toilet paper. The enthusiasm awakened by the December 17th news has died down. They (those in the government) want it that way. And that’s why they’re saying the Yankees are the enemy and the people want to go to the US,” says the old vendor.
At El Lateral, a private restaurant on Acosta Avenue, a group of friends were drinking Cristal beer while waiting for their Hawaiian pizzas. They preferred to talk about soccer, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or “The Flea” Messi.
The government’s political manipulation of the issue of relations with the United States. They haven’t written even a comma to implement some of the measures that could favor the owners of private businesses. They don’t want to leave the throne. They don’t want people to live their lives independently and to have a better standard of living. My advice: leave Cuba. The sooner the better,” says a boy with a quirky haircut.
In a park in the Havana neighborhood of Sevillano, Daniel, retired military, looks after his grandson riding a bicycle. “People aren’t happy with the Cuban government’s treatment of Obama’s policy toward Cuba. Most want the tensions to end. We’re tired of the same broken record. Cubans want to prosper,” he says, lighting a Popular brand cigarette.
“I wonder if the government thinks about the future. For the youngest people, the Cold War is ancient history. Our differences are not theirs. Cuban youth see the United States as an aesthetic reference and a model life,” says the ex soldier.
When asked about the issue of democracy and human rights, the silence is profound. “I don’t think you can pressure Raul Castro on that topic. That political rights aren’t respected in Cuba? It’s true. But the world, expect some dozen nations, in one way or another also violates human rights. You have to wait for this generation of leaders to die for there to be an opening in this land. The government has one last option: get on the train and normalize relations. If they don’t do it, it’s obvious to the people, who are already tired of everything,” says Daniel.
In an Internet surfing room in the old part of Havana, a twenty-something employee who sells mobile phone cars has her own therapy to escape the political.
“For my mental health, i don’t read the newspaper. I prefer to rent the “packets” with soap operas, serials and movies. My personal goal is short-term. Tonight I’m going out with a delicious “mango” (boy) who has a car and money, and enjoy a disco. It is my present and my future. In Cuba you can’t pick a fight. Otherwise those old guys (the Castros) will kill you with a heart attack,” she says laughing.
The good vibrations provoked among many ordinary Cubans by the news of December 17th is being displaced by the permanent indifference of the olive-green regime. The desire for a radical change that could transform their lives was just that: an illusion.
Photo from Cubanet
13 February 2015
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 31 January 2015 — After secret negotiations with his lifelong enemy lasting a year and a half, General Raul Castro seems to have come out ahead early in the game. But Barack Obama has been shrewd.
He is playing for the long-term and has a different perspective and strategy. The United States thinks and acts in accordance with its geopolitical interests, always with its national security in mind.
Cuba is not as attractive a market as portrayed by some analysts. On the contrary. Its potential consumers have no money in their pockets and the government’s coffers are empty, not a promising scenario for big business.
Extending credit to a regime that is broke is always a risky proposition. There is nothing more cowardly than money, especially if there is a risk you won’t get it back.
Even worse, obstacles remain. There is the U.S. economic embargo as well as Castro’s embargo on his citizens. Ludicrous regulations are imposed on businessmen who, in addition to having to deal with absurd exchange rates and laws dictated by the regime, cannot contract to hire their employees directly.
The door remains open for telecommunications and private employment but communications is not among the monopolized sectors up for sale in Cuba.
It is yet to be seen if Castro II will allow a private farmer from Camajuani to directly seek credit from an Illinois bank in order to buy fertilizer, seeds or a tractor.
The embargo could be lifted in a matter of months if the general initiated political changes and promised to respect human rights, but there have been no signs suggesting political reform.
On the contrary. The government went into a panic on December 30 over nothing more than an event by a performance artist and used the weapon it knows best: repression. They could have been creative; they could have simply unplugged the microphone Tania Bruguera was using to communicate with her supporters.
The dictatorship is not about to take a turn towards democracy. No way, no how, if for no other reason than its survival.
Too often, American politicians are guilty of naiveté. The history of Cuba since 1959 shows that the Castro brothers have three sworn enemies.
One is external — the United States — and serves as fuel to preserve domestic unity and the politics of the barricade.
Another is internal — the community of dissidents — which, no matter the particular type (political, journalistic, intellectual or artistic), is always treated as a threat, targeted by the special services, whose main mission is to divide, discredit and destroy them.
The third enemy is the private sector, whose small businessmen are seen as criminals. Just check Cuba’s statutes and read the second paragraph of the legal guidelines promulgated by Raul Castro.
It is stated quite clearly: Cubans living on the island will not be allowed to accumulate capital. The statutes covering self-employment are designed as a firewall to prevent citizens from acquiring wealth.
The government knows jobs and professions are uncertain. People may earn money to feed and clothe themselves, have a beer and maybe spend a weekend in a hotel, but nothing else.
The label “small businessman,” which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce so generously bestows on someone like Pablo— a guy who sells bread with mayonnaise and churros filled with guava in the south Havana neighborhood of Mantilla — is not inappropriate according to the organization’s bylaws.
There are many examples in the United States of tiny personal businesses which go on to become major corporations. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook almost as a game while goofing off with his fellow university students.
One morning Bill Gates started a computer company in the garage of his house. LeBron James, a boy who grew up without a father and with n mother living in poverty, is now a formidable basketball player earning millions of dollars a year.
Such is the mindset of businessmen and politicians in the United States, where people are born into a society that nurtures creativity, enterprise and individuality.
But on the Island of the Castros, society is set up to thwart individual talent, competency and small businesses.
These are the laws of communism. China and Vietnam were more original, but they are not in the western orbit and their maritime borders do not hug the coast of the most powerful and affluent nation on earth.
Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that making money is not a sin is not part of Raul Castro’s strategy. The Cuban regime only allows those enterprises run by its most trusted associates, mostly men from the military, to prosper.
The key to the regime’s system is power. Did Obama therefore make a mistake by changing the rules of the game? No, it was a good move based on his own nation’s interests and its ideas about how a society should operate.
But on this side of the Florida Straits, the mindset and the maneuvering are very different. One might think that, without an enemy on which to blame the disastrous economy, Raul Castro would open the gates.
Until December 17, 2014, the regime operated best in confrontational situations, but with the ball now in their court, they are feeling uncomfortable.
They will accept new reforms and changes in the economic rules as long as these do not threaten their hold on power.
Politics will continue to be completely off-limits and for the foreseeable future they will continue to levy tariffs on the self-employed through a barrage of excessive regulations and high taxes.
They will do this for one simple reason: This is who they are.
Photo: General Raul Castro, from Lawrence Journal-World.
31 January 2015
Last summer, 48-year-old Lisván, owner of a small photographic studio in a neighbourhood in the east of Havana, personally suffered the consequences of the absurd prohibitions that the Castro regime imposes on its citizens.
With the profits made from his business and after saving a part of the money sent to his family from abroad, he stayed for five nights with his wife and daughter in the hotel Meliá Marina Varadero, for 822 pesos convertibles.
“On the beach I struck up a friendship with a group of Canadians. One morning they wanted to invite me to come fishing on a yacht they had rented. But, in spite of being a guest at the hotel, the marina hotel management did not allow it. No Cuban citizen, resident in the island, is allowed to get on a boat with a motor, without government permission” said Lisván.
Ten years ago, the prohibitions were even stranger. Cubans could not stay in luxury hotels, rent cars or have a cellphone line.
If you sit down in a hotel lobby, you become a suspicious person in the eyes of State Security. With Raúl Castro’s coming to power, following his brother Fidel’s executive with its fingers in everything, various discriminatory regulations were repealed.
The Cubans were third class citizens in their own country. Óscar, a barman in a five star hotel in Havana, fought as a private soldier in the civil war in Angola.
“The ones who supported Fidel, who hardly could eat anything in our country because of the scarcity, we were not allowed to go into a foreign friend’s apartment. And the Cubans who went off to Florida, called ’worms’ by the government, had the right to enjoy the tourist centres. It was an Olympic-sized contradiction”, recalls Óscar.
In the winter of 2015 these prohibitions no longer exist. But various regulations which breach the inalienable rights of the island’s citizens remain in force.
They talk a lot about the the US economic and financial embargo on the Raúl Castro regime, with arguments for and against, but not much is said in the international forums about the olive green state’s embargo on its people.
The internal embargo has become more flexible, but we Cubans still don’t have the right to open an internet account at home, travel or fish in a motor boat or access certain health services reserved exclusively for foreigners.
Civil rights hardly exist. They forbid the formation of political parties. Demonstrations in the street. Workers’ strikes. independent trade unions, free popular elections to elect a president. Independent newspapers or arranging to watch cable TV.
It’s an imprisonable crime to personally offend the President. And, since 2002, following a campaign by Fidel Castro, no civil groups may introduce a proposal to change the Constitution.
The system is perpetual. The Cuban leaders are an untouchable caste. The people owe duties to them, not the other way round. Only the state can put out news, books and movies.
Although independent journalists do exist, as well as dissident parties and an emerging civil society, the government maintains legislation which allows the sanctioning of political disagreement with years in jail.
Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where political opposition is illegal. Making fun of or caricaturing executives of the autocracy is not permitted. A magazine like Charlie Hebdo is impossible in the island.
Discriminatory rules which prohibit Cubans going where they want in their own country are still in force. Like decree 217 of 1997. the Ministry of the Interior dismantles small local wifi networks where youngsters play on the internet, send movies, or chat.
And some of these perverse regulations have gained a new lease of life. The customs service has implemented a group of measures to to stop Cuban travellers bringing things in.
These rules affect the quality of life and the pockets of Cuban families. Ask Migdalia, an engineer, about this. In the last two months she has spent 75 CUC to receive parcels exceeding the one and a half kilos authorized by the customs.
There weren’t any “counter-revolutionary” leaflets or luxury items in the suitcases. Just clothes and presents for her daughter’s birthday. It is the Castro government’s embargo that is the more damaging to the Cuban in the street. The other one, the US one, gets the media attention but is less effective.
Photo: Cubans can’t rent or get into yachts or other types of boats in Meliá Marina Varadero, or other hotels or places on the coast. Taken by Cuba Contemporánea.
Translated by GH
6 February 2015