The Ladies in White Should Change Their Political Profile / Ivan Garcia

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

damas-de-blanco-por-la-quinta-avenida-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 March 2015 — During the hot summer of 2013 I remember Blanca Reyes, wife of the poet and journalist Raul Rivero, writing letters to the pope in the Vatican, to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, reminding them that Fidel Castro had sentenced Rivero to twenty years behind bars for writing without approval.

Reyes was speaking on behalf her husband and seventy-four other prisoners of conscience detained in March 2003. I saw up close the suffering of these women. At mid-morning, armed with baskets of food and toiletries, they traveled hundreds of kilometers to visit their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in jail.

They were also prisoners of the system. Later they decided to organize. They were like a clan. Laura Pollán was a natural leader who began acting as the spokesperson for the group.

Never before in the history of Cuba’s peaceful dissident movement has there been an organization with as much international reach as the Ladies in White. They have compelling reasons for marching gladiolas in hand, demanding freedom for their loved ones.

They were subjected to physical assaults, humiliations and verbal abuse by paramilitaries. Their symbolism and courage were key considerations in leading the Castro regime to ask the Catholic church to act as intermediary with the women after the death of Orlando Zapata in prison from a hunger strike.

With participation of Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Spain’s Chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos the Ladies in White forced the government to negotiate the release of prisoners arrested during the 2003 crackdown on dissidents known as the Black Spring.

They wrangled another concession from the regime: the right to march on Sundays through an area of Fifth Avenue in Havana’s Miramar district. But with most of the prisoners of conscience having gone into exile, the time has come for the Ladies in White to refocus and reorganize themselves.

There are several options available. One would be to form a political party and focus their efforts on addressing other issues. In today’s society it is not only those who are imprisoned for criticizing the regime who suffer. Prostitution and violence in general have increased.

In Cuba working women are paid poverty-level wages. They, like housewives, have to struggle daily just to survive, especially when it comes to looking for food. Besides handling domestic chores and seeing to their children’s education, they must also care for elderly and sick parents and relatives.

The Ladies in White might become an advocacy organization for Cuban women by trying to address the many problems they have today.

Their current platform includes a demand for democracy and freedom for so-called prisoners of conscience. This is something that should be better defined since it is not at all clear whether a former counter-intelligence official and someone who hijacks a boat belong in the same category. Nevertheless, there are already groups within the dissident movement who fulfill this function.

What is lacking are organizations which can serve as voices of the community. Dilapidated and dark streets, poor public transportation, water and food shortages, low salaries, and health care and educational systems in free fall affect both supporters and critics of the regime.

These are areas in which the Ladies in White might focus their efforts. In the regime’s farsical elections scheduled April 19 to select municipal and neighborhood delegates, the Ladies in White could encourage citizens to vote blank ballots.

Under the current election law any citizen can monitor the vote count. The day that the number of citizens voting blank ballots reaches a high percentage is the day that we have the potential to gain real power to foster change.

These days the dissident movement is all smoke and mirrors. It is more media-savvy than effective. It cannot expect to play a role in future negotiations if it is not capable of mobilizing people in the thousands. Given their ability to organize, the ideal situation would be for the Ladies in White to concentrate their efforts in neighborhoods.

I do not believe focusing on conversations between Cuba and the United States is the right strategy. Political lobbying should left to those dissidents who are better prepared.

Berta Soler is a woman to be reckoned with. She is not, however, comfortable in front of a microphone. Engaging in politics, travelling overseas and riding the information wave are more rewarding.

But what is needed on the island are boots on the ground working at the grassroots level. Raising awareness of issues among the large silent majority of non-conformists who prefer to sit on the sidelines is what is required. This is something the Ladies in White and other dissident organizations could do.

The row between Berta Soler and Alejandrina García was badly handled.* Using an act of repudiation to undercut García was unfortunate. I applaud Soler’s decision to hold internal elections within the group.

It is a healthy practice and the rest of the dissident movement should take note. If they want credibility, the political opposition should adopt bylaws and practice transparency.

Most conflicts within the Cuban opposition are results of nepotism, trafficking in favors and corruption. There are opposition leaders who talk like democrats but who act quite differently. Meanwhile, their followers often serve as a chorus of extras whose only purpose is to provide applause and adulation.

The genesis of the Damas de Blanco was collectivism and authenticity. Without a strategic change course, the movement — founded twelve years ago — may simply peter out. That would be a shame.

*Translator’s note: A video from December 16 was released showing a group of Ladies in White surrounding Garcia, a founder of the organization, and shouting “down with traitors” at the movement’s headquarters. As a result, sixteen exiled founders of the movement signed a letter asking Soler to resign and hold elections to give the group a new direction. They called the incident “an abominable act of repudiation” and described it as a “communist” and “fascist” reaction. Source: Miami Herald

The Conversations and Aspirations of Many Cuban Students / Ivan Garcia

March 14, 2015 Leave a comment

cuba-estudiantes-de-secundaria-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 13 March 2015 — For a group of sixth grade students at the elementary school named after Juan Oscar Alvarado — a 19-year-old underground fighter, assassinated in 1958 in a house in the Sevillano neighborhood where they hid arms — located in that peaceful Havana neighborhood, their plans for the future are far from Cuba.

For them, the country is a disposable object to be thrown out when it is no longer useful. During recess, at ten in the morning, several girls gathered in the school’s courtyard to have a snack.

While snacking, they chat idly about fashion, material aspirations and what happened in the day’s Brazilian soap opera. Although dressed in their ugly uniforms with burgundy skirts and white shirts, designed by a distasteful dressmaker, when you look at their feet you see Nikes, Adidas, New Balance, Converse or Reebok.

They talk about their shoes, brands and prices. “My mom bought me a part of Adidas tennies at a boutique in Miramar that cost 91 chavitos (CUCs),” said one girl proudly. Another talked about where her family was thinking of going in the symmer “We still haven’t decided if we’re going to Cayo Coco or Varadero.”

Another group, males and female, showed off their portable videogames and talked about makes and computer systems. “Android is superior to Windows. Apple is the best, neither HP nor ASUS can touch it in quality,” said a boy.

Under a tree, trying to shelter from the sun, several students discuss the European football leagues. “Madrid has won ten European Cups, Barcelona doesn’t come close. CR7 is better than Messi, he makes header goals, with and without both legs. Also he’s faster and stronger,” says one.

“You’re wrong. Barça plays the best football in history. Messi has a better goal average than Cristiano Ronaldo and four “Botas de Oro” to Cristiano’s three,” ripostes another, upset. The controversy rises in pitch and threatens to come to blows. A teacher intervenes and sends them back to the classroom.

Melisa, a sixth-grader, says that “to emigrate or study abroad is a fixed theme in my classroom. To dream of being a millionaire, pulling out all the stops and having an Audi or a Ferrari. Few know the history of Cuba, of Carlos Manuel Cespedes and the Revolutionary Party founded by Marti. Their aspiration is to leave Cuba and reunite with their relatives who live in Miami or Madrid.

The principal and a teacher at Juan Oscar Alvarado tries to stop the differences. “We tell the parents to be careful that their children don’t bring flashy backpacks or shoes. This creates an inferiority complex in other kids. Students whose parents have few resources and bring bread with oil or a croquette for snack. They have cheap tennies and sometimes they’re made fun of.”

The differences in the purchasing power of some families stimulate privilege and fraud among the teachers. “There are students who bring the teachers good snacks. Others, their parents take them lunch or give them expensive gifts. It’s a way to buy them, so they’ll give their children good grades on tests,” says an Education official in the municipality of 10 de Octubre.

One could think these student conversations are an isolate phenomenon and usually happen in areas that are middle class and higher, like Sevillano, Casino Deportivo, Víbora Park, Fontanar, Nuevo Vedado, Vedado and Miramar.

But if you tour the elementary, junior high and high schools in the poor neighborhoods of Centro Habana and Habana Vieja,the conversations and aspirations are very similar.

“It’s the fashion, talking about what we have. In the classrooms they stuff us full of slogans and tell history in their way. But for us, it goes in one ear and out the other. What it’s about is a struggle for a baro (money) to be able to go to a good nightclub or buy brand name clothes. Almost everyone in my school wants to leave Cuba,” says a high school student in the colonial area of the city.

Something it going on. It’s well-known that due to the quality slump in education, especially because of the low teacher salaries, the level of instruction has gaps. “We have students with deficiencies in math, spelling and reading. Reading is no longer a pastime. They prefer reggaeton, TV shows and talking about life in capitalism,” says a high school teacher.

Nor do university graduates escape the desire to emigrate. “Or at least to get a scholarship to do a master’s or doctorate in a first world university. If you can’t leave, because you don’t have money or family abroad, you fight for a job abroad,” says Yasniel outside the Canadian embassy, where he want to deliver a required document, with the hope of being chosen for one of five thousand skilled jobs offered by that nation.

With that future in sight, parents contribute by paying monthly, in many cases an amount that represents half their salary, so their children can learn good English.

On 14 January 2013, migratory reform approved by Raul Castro went into effect. The Cuban Department of Immigration and Foreigners still has not reported the number of citizens who have left the country, temporarily or permanently, in those two years.

The latest available data are from 2013, when 184,787 people traveled to the United States, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Mexico, Panama and Ecuador, among other countries. As of November 30, 2013, 55.2% had not returned and about 3,300 Cubans had requested to return to live in their homeland. Unofficially it is known that most travelers are young and professional.

Meanwhile, a line of hopeful teenagers is already forming in the rear. It’s like a Mariel Boatlift, but legal.

Photo: Three junior high students in Habana Vieja. Taken from the blog Blondie NY

13 March 2015

Radio Marti: The Voice of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

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Iván García, 24 February 2015 — One summer during a stay in Camaguey — a province 340 miles east of Havana — the owner of a house where I was staying listened from early morning to Radio Marti, a network created in 1985 under the administration of Ronald Reagan with the goal of providing Cubans with information uncensored or manipulated by the Castro government.

The woman told me that since 1985 she has been listening to radio soap operas, news and a morning program geared to a rural audience. When I travelled to other provinces, nearly all the people with whom I spoke said they got their information from or followed big league baseball on Radio Marti, which is probably heard more in the countryside than in the capital.

There is a logical explanation: the regime jams the station’s broadcasts less here. In Varadero, located on the Hicacos Peninsula and along the northern coast of Cuba, Radio Marti’s programming can be clearly heard.

Given the new geo-political dynamic between Cuba and the United States — two Cold War adversaries — various voices within the U.S. Congress are questioning the effectiveness and impact of the “Martis,” as they refer to an entity that includes a radio station, a television channel and a website.

Among the conditions for normalizing relations with the United States, Raul Castro asked that the media conglomerate be dismantled. Since the first broadcast in 1985 the government in Havana has used electronic jamming to block its radio and television signals. And readers cannot access the Marti Noticias website from Cuba.

Using the radio as a vehicle for informing citizens in totalitarian countries, where news, films and books are controlled by a dictatorship, is nothing new. During the Soviet era, the United States created Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, broadcasters which disseminated information the Kremlin was trying to suppress.

The so-called “asymmetrical war,” which according to the regime is an attempt by the United States to destabilize Cuba, is something of an exaggeration.

With Fidel Castro’s arrival in power in January 1959, revolutionary propaganda became a powerful instrument of social control. One year earlier, in February 1958, Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) had already begun broadcasting from the Sierra Maestre, which contributed to the dissemination of the insurgents’ message.

A few months after becoming president, Fidel Castro completely did away with a free press, nationalizing newspapers and magazines, and establishing Prensa Latina and Radio Havana Cuba — media outlets that would later have the task of selling the world on the alleged benefits of the Cuban system, alternating between true and false propaganda.

Official radio networks in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Spain often make use of these tools to their advantage too, but the storyline is different. In spite of being government entities, Voice of America, BBC, Radio France International and Radio Exterior de España air dissenting opinions.

I speak from personal experience. I have been a regular contributor to Radio Marti since 1996. I have been a guest on its radio shows and have had articles published in which I criticized both Cuban dissidents and the government of the United States without any form of censorship.

If Radio Marti were shut down, dissidents and independent journalists would not have a feedback channel to reach those living in Cuba. If the government allowed dissident voices to be heard in the media, the station nestled in Florida would lose its reason for being.

Before returning home after attending a workshop on investigative journalism in San Diego in November 2014, I spent a few days in Miami. There I met producers, directors and journalists who work for the Martis.

I have had frank conversations with Karen Caballero, a presenter on TV Marti. I have debated with Alvaro Alba, Ofelia Oviedo, Hector Carrillo, Amado Gil, Jose Luis Ramos, Rolando Cartaya, Margarita Rojo, Omar Montenegro, Luis Felipe Rojas and Juan Juan Almeida about the future of network.

I had a very productive meeting with Carlos Garcia Perez, director of both Radio Marti and Television Marti, and with officials Humberto Castello and Natalia Crujeiras. I argued that this broadcaster’s radio programs are crucial in providing a platform for the opposition and an outlet for articles by Cuba’s independent journalists.

It is a shame that jamming by the regime prevents TV Marti from being seen on the island. Ideally, it should have a wider audience. We all know the power of images.

In my opinion any reorganization that the Martis might go through should be for the better. Giving a broader platform to independent journalists and alternative bloggers is something that should be considered.

Programs on leisure and recreation could be improved. International news programs could be made more attractive, especially in regards to Venezuela, a country of great interest to some sectors within Cuba.

Thousands of housewives are regular listeners of soap operas. The variety of programming could be increased to offer more shows for women. Sports shows always gets high ratings so it should be given more air time.

Independent journalists in Cuba surely have entertaining stories. This is the 21st century. Never before have humans had access to so many sources of information as today. To reach them means having to be innovative.

The government of Raul Castro prohibits the free flow of news and information. It fears Radio Marti. That’s why it is censored.

Travel Notebook VIII

Photo: Cuba Day, a Radio Marti news show that airs Monday through Friday from 3 to 4 PM. Produced by Ofelia Oviedo, it is directed by Tomás Cardoso, Omar Lopez Montenegro and journalist Cary Roque. Freelance journalist Iván García is often invited to report from Havana. In his last appearance on Friday, February 6, he talked about what Cubans can expect from talks between Cuba and the United States (TQ).

With Raúl Castro, Are the Poor Poorer? / Ivan Garcia

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

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Iván García, 26 February 2015 — José lives with his wife and five kids, crammed into a nine by twelve foot space with a wooden platform, in a shack in Santos Suárez, a slum south of Havana.

The tenement is a precarious spot where the electric cables hang from the roof,  water runs down the narrow central passage from the plumbing leaks, and a disgusting smell of sewage hangs in your nose for hours.

That shack forms part of a group of ramshackle settlements where more than 90 thousand Havanans live, according to Joel, a housing official in the 10 de Octubre municipality.

There are worse places. On the outskirts of the capital, shantytowns are spreading like the invasive marabou weed. There are more than 50 of them. Houses made of sections of aluminium and cardboard, without any sanitation, where the occupants get their electricity supply by “informal” means.

But, going back to Santos Suárez. José says he is forty, but his sickly pale skin and his face puffed up from excessive drink, not enough to eat and poor quality of life make him look like an old man.

José is in that part of the population which doesn’t receive remittances and can’t get convertible pesos. He works at anything. Looking after flowerbeds, carrying debris, or ice cubes. On a good day, he makes 70 pesos, about $3. “All of it goes on food. And the rest on alcohol”, he says.

His family’s typical diet consists of two spoons of white rice, and a large spoon of stew once a week, a boiled egg and a quarter chicken or chopped beef mixed with soya which is distributed once a month via his ration book. “I just have a coffee for breakfast. My bread from the ration book I give to my kids.”

Ten years ago, he was imprisoned for stealing light bulbs and armchairs from houses in his area. “I stole from pure necessity. I sold the light bulbs or daylight colour tubes for 30 pesos. The iron chairs went for 10 CUC. I once got 25 chavitos (CUC)  for a wooden chair. I was able to buy a cot for my daughter with that money”, José remembers, sitting in the doorway of a pharmacy in Serrano Street.

When you ask him about Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, or what he hopes for from the new diplomatic change of direction between Cuba and the United States, he puts on a poker face.

“What changes? With Raúl we poor people are even poorer. Here anyone who hasn’t any connections with the system or a family in Miami is in a difficult situation. I don’t even want to talk about the old people. There are a lot of things wrong about Fidel, but when he was in charge, the social services and what you could get through your ration book allowed you to live better. Not now. Every day Cubans like me get less from the government. Many people are happy to be on better terms with the Americans, but what can Obama do? He isn’t the president of Cuba,” he points out, while he takes a long swig of the worst possible alcohol out of a plastic bottle.

The streets of Havana swarm with hundreds of people like José asking for change, pulling out scraps from rubbish bins, or sleeping on cardboard boxes in uninhabitable buildings.

In the entrance of a building in Carmen Street, on the corner of 10th of October, about 10 people are there selling second-hand books, old shoes and junk. Nelson, a gay man about 60 years old, suffers from chronic diabetes. He sells old magazines. As far as he is concerned, the revolution can be summed up in a word: “shit”.

“It’s all just speeches. They said it was a revolution of humble people and for humble people, but it was a lie. Poor people were always badly off, but now we are more fucked than ever. What Raúl has brought us has been capitalism, of the worst kind. Fidel didn’t tolerate many things, including the homosexuals, but we lived a little better. The poor will always be poor, in a dictatorship or in a democracy”, asserts Nelson.

Like in the film Goodbye Lenin, directed by Wolfgang Becker, where the East Germans feel nostalgic about the Communist era, in Cuba, those whose lives are stuck in a tale of poverty, feel longing for the decade from 1970 to 1980, when the state gave you every nine days a pound of beef per person, through your ration book, a can of condensed milk cost 20 centavos and the shelves in the stores were full of Russian jams.

For Havanans like Nelson and José, you can’t eat democracy.

Photo: The conditions Yumila Lora Castillo, who is 8 years old and has a malignant tumor, is living in. Marelis Castillo, her mother, told Jorge Bello Domínguez, from the Cuban Community Communicators Network (who took the photo), that they haven’t even authorised the diet of meat and milk that people with cancer in Cuba are entitled to. A mother of two other children, Marelis lives in this inhuman situation in El Gabriel, in the municipality of Güira de Melena, Artemisa province, some 85 kilometers southwest of Havana.

Translated by GH

Seven Hours with Jorge Luis Piloto in Miami

February 24, 2015 Leave a comment
Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Iván García, 4 February 2015 — For the prolific and noteworthy Cuban composer, Jorge Luis Piloto Alsar, born in the winter of 1955 in Cárdenas in the town of Matanzas, some 145 kilometers north of Havana, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his songs would achieve international fame.

Let’s get into the time machine. An ordinary day in the ’70’s. Cuturally speaking, Cuba was going through a rough period. Writers, poets and composers are being administered by the state, following Fidel Castro’s decree.

The cinema, novels, la guaracha, and sound must highlight the exploits of the revolution. The government controls all of it. In your profile, you have to indicate how many marches you have been on and how much voluntary work you have participated in, if you want to pass the summer in a house on the beach, have a Russian fridge, or reserve a table in a restaurant.

The Communist party membership card and loyalty to the “bearded one” [Fidel] are more important than talent. In the middle of all this greyness, where ideas, and the future, are whispers from on high, Jorge Luis Piloto was a social misfit.

He arrived in the capital at the age of 15, his cajón over his shoulder, and plans for the future. With his mother, Beba, he ended up in a room in an old apartment building in Romay 67 between Monte and Zequeira, in Pilar, in the Cerro district of Havana.

Looking like a long-haired freak, devoted to rock and caring nothing about Castro’s lengthy speeches. He took refuge among his friends, like the black man William (may God rest his soul) or his girl friend, who suspected that Cuba was not the place for them.

He distracted himself by going to Latino Stadium to watch his baseball team, the Industriales, play. Or by sitting in a corner or on the Malecón, dreaming of a different future.

1980 was an amazing year. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Cubans, including Piloto, took advantage of the opportunity to leave their country. Before they left, they had to put up with the regime’s vendettas, camuflaged in fascist-style acts of repudiation.

Or personal humiliations. Before getting on the boat to go to Florida, they had to sign a document in which they admitted that they were delinquents, prostitutes or homosexuals. The government owes a public apology to the honest Cubans who emigrated in the Mariel Boatlift

Piloto arrived in Miami on a rainy day in May 1980. Without either his guitar or any money. He only had his wishes. He worked very hard doing different things, not much of it playing music. One morning his wife reminded him that he hadn’t left Cuba to live as a labourer.

“Where is the Jorge who dreamed of being a composer?” she asked him. With his next wage he bought a cajón. His first song, La Noche, co-written with Ricardo Eddy Martínez, was recorded with Lissette Álvarez in 1983.

Jorge Luis Piloto was A & R with Sony Music (1988 – 1996) and was nominated nine times for Grammy Latino. He gained the first one with his song Yo no sé mañana, co-written with Jorge Villamizar and recorded by the Nicaraguan Luis Enrique. In 2010, the Society of American Authors, ASCAP, awarded him the Golden Note prize for his 25 years of work and his musical contribution to the Hispano-American repertory.

His ballads have been interpreted by singers of the calibre of Gilberto Santa Rosa, Christina Aguilera and the incomparable Celia Cruz. In 2012 he wrote a song for the Damas de Blanco which was played when they marched through the streets of the island.

On Monday, November 17, after 34 years, I met Jorge, my neighbour from the Pilar neighbourhood, in Miami. We chatted for seven hours. He still had a youthful physique, although he was almost 60. “There is no way I can put on any weight”, he says. He remembers his past in Cárdenas and Havana and his friends from that time.

But he is fond of Miami. His pride in this south Florida city is apparent. We drive along in his car, through every space, residential development, and places of interest, like the Marlins Stadium, the cruise ship port, the Ermita de la Caridad and the tunnel which goes under the port.

He showed me the only statue there is in the city and we ate in a tourist cafe on the banks of the Miami River. I asked him if he has thought about returning to Cuba the democratic future which we are all hoping for.

“No, I belong here, with my son, my wife, and my mother. I could contribute to whatever needs doing. But Miami is my home now,” he points out, while he talks in English  to his son on his cellphone about Giancarlo Stanton’s fabulous contract with the Marlins. The Industriales aren’t his team any more.

Travel journal (VII)

Translated by GH

4 February 2015

Do Cuba and the United States Need to Rebuild Trust?

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment
Nancy Pelosi and fellow US Congress Democrats at a press conference in Havana

Rep. Nancy Pelosi and fellow US Congress Democrats at a press conference in Havana

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.

The Castro Brothers Pull the Emergency Brake

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment
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Fidel and Raul Castro in December, 2001. NBC News.

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

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