Cuba, Remittances, and Scrooge McDuck / Ivan Garcia

June 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Rico-McPato-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 10 June 2015 — A week before her Miami relatives landed in Havana, Milena hired a crew to paint the interior and the facade of her home in the bucolic Casino Deportivo neighborhood.

After two coats of paint and minor touch-ups on the walls, they did a thorough cleaning, and just above the door they placed a chain made of silver paper with a Welcome Home sign.

“My cousins haven’t come to Cuba for twenty years. We want to give them a reception in style. Thanks to the little money that they’ve sent us, we fixed up the entire house,” says Milena.

It’s understood in every other country that the host pays for the entertainment. But Cuba is a different story. For Gisela, a hairdresser, having relatives abroad is more than a blessing.

“I was able to start my business with the dollars that my daughter provided me. Everything I have—a 42-inch-flat-screen, a computer, a mobile phone, and air conditioning—I bought with the money she sent. Sometimes I’m assailed by a doubt: what if we Cubans didn’t have family outside?” Gisela wonders.

Well, they would fare very badly. Take for example Felix, a six-foot tall Afro-Cuban. He has no relatives abroad and has only seen euros and dollars in the movies on Saturday night.

He is the father of four children who barely gets by doing informal masonry work. “I don’t receive remittances and nobody sends me food parcels, clothing, or medicine. I have to fend for myself,” he says frankly, while drinking cheap beer in a dirty state-owned bar on October 10th Road.

Citizens like Felix are in the minority. According to some analysts, slightly more than 60% of all Cubans have a relative or friend abroad who regularly sends money or packages.

The average person calls this kind of help “throwing a Hail Mary.” In a nation where the average monthly wage is $23 (you would need six lifetimes to pay for a car, and repairing or furnishing a house is a true luxury) it is not reprehensible that migrants help their poor relatives on the island.

What is alarming is the brazenness. At the first opportunity, a large segment of Cubans send tweets, emails, or collect calls, urgently pleading for money from their relatives in exile.

“What nerve. Every month I sent a hundred dollars to an aunt and two cousins. When I could, I provided them household necessities. But a while back, my relatives started asking me for more money, using any pretext—to celebrate a daughter’s fifteenth birthday or to buy a toilet. In Cuba they think that the Cubans who live abroad are rich. I have to break my back working just to make a decent living,” said a Havanan living in Florida.

Aquino, a truck driver from Pinar de Rio who lives in New York, describes his experience. “I went twelve years without visiting my family. Truthfully, most Cubans ’throw it in your face’ (are inconsiderate). All they want to do is talk about their problems and ask you for money and things. I gave my niece a mobile phone and she disrespectfully told me that it was already an old model, that she likes the Samsung Galaxy. Young people don’t want just any cell phone or tablet, they want the latest model. They’re ungrateful,” he says.

The culture of hustling goes beyond prostitution. Many Cubans are convinced that their relatives are rolling in dough. So it is therefore OK to ask for whatever they want. Some make small requests: disposable diapers or jeans. Others believe that their family member is a real life version of Scrooge McDuck.

And they make plans at the expense of relatives living abroad. “Look what my nephew came up with. He wanted me to give him ten or twelve thousand dollars to buy an almendrón (classic American car) and turn it into a taxi. It’s amazing the number of people in Cuba who are clueless. They don’t know that almost all Cubans living abroad work two or three jobs to be able to pay the rent and debts. They aren’t satisfied with anything. They always want more without lifting a finger,” says Osvaldo, who lives in Tampa.

A considerable part of Castro’s military-controlled economy is designed to be borne by Cuban emigrants. The prices in the shops have unbelievable taxes aimed at capturing foreign currency. And the airport and postal tariffs could cause heart attacks.

The State and many Cubans milk their families like cows. And if they previously begged them for food, clothing, toiletries, and medicines, they now want them to pay absurd charges for everything from passport renewals to cell phone recharges. Not to mention pleas for next-generation smartphones, usually used as status symbols.

Natasha, employed in a commercial office of ETECSA, says that “80% of the money for recharging hours on cell phones in Cuba is paid for by relatives or friends living in other countries. ETECSA is one of the agencies that benefits most from the former gusanos (worms),” she says wryly.

More than one Cuban living abroad has asked when and how their relatives became leeches, sucking on the wallets of their families in other countries.

“One answer could be because of the perennial shortages suffered by the Cuban people for 56 years. But the real answer is Fidel Castro. He is guilty of perverting the Cuban people, creating the mindset of squeezing the exiles. In 1980 he invented the acts of repudiation against those who left from Mariel, calling them scum and saying he was glad they were getting the hell out. They’re not going to screw me over any more with such perversion. I wouldn’t think about returning to Cuba,” said an obviously upset Cuban American visiting Havana.

The economic disaster and cyclical hardships created by the Castro regime have spawned a breed of beggars. And scoundrels. By day they pretend to support the government and by night they make a call to Miami. After telling their tale of woe, they ask for money or things. It’s the easiest thing.

Havana, Between the Scarcity of Water and the Rains / Ivan Garcia

June 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Delivering water in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. Taken from the Lagarto Verde blog.

Iván García, 8 June 2015 — This is the current scenario. About 60,000 families receive their drinking water by tanker trucks. 60% of the water distributed is lost due to breakdowns in the hydraulic system. 20% of that water is wasted due to leaks within homes. Havana Water, the city’s water utility, and state industries are responsible for losing 80%.

Water is pumped in the neighborhoods on alternate days. In remote districts of the city, the supply may be provided every four days. Water scarcity causes many families to improvise to collect the precious liquid.

Substandard water storage is the leading cause of epidemics like dengue fever or chikungunya, which cause dozens of deaths every year. Or the outbreak of cholera, a disease that had been eradicated in Cuba since the early twentieth century.

Neglect and deterioration of public sewers cause flooding in the city with even light rains. In other bad news, which the regime can’t be blamed for, 63% of the country is affected by drought, with reservoirs in a critical state at only 39% capacity.

According to the engineer Antonio Castillo, deputy director of operations at Aguas de Havana, the situation is unsustainable in the medium and long term. “The supply basins are like bank accounts. If you invest, but you withdraw more than you deposit, you have less each time, and if you stop saving, one day you won’t have any money. The same thing happens with water,” he told the official press.

The lethal combination of leaks, bad workmanship, lack of foresight, and drought, has placed a red asterisk by water, not only in Havana, but also in the rest of the country.

If you walk at night in some Havana neighborhoods, you will see how water is wasted by broken pipes. At Espadero and Figueroa, in Reparto Sevillano, thousands of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the public networks. At the corner of October 10 Road and San Francisco, in Lawton, the street becomes a river.

On January 17, 2000, the National Institute of Water Resources and the Water Group of Barcelona, created Havana Water, a joint venture company. What does Havana Water do? Little or nothing. The neighbors are tired of complaining to the water system.

“One morning they come and make a sloppy repair that in a few hours is damaged again. They argue that because of the poor condition of the networks, the water pressure bursts many old pipes. All the specialists are experts at diagnosing the problem, but not at fixing it,” said Augusto, a resident of October 10th and San Francisco.

Not far away, in the building where Hiram lives on Carmen Street, also in Lawton, the tank overflows and an appreciable amount of water is wasted because they don’t have a single float.

“In multi-family buildings, painting the exterior, maintaining the water pump, and repairing the facade are supposed to be the responsibility of the state. But state agencies don’t lift a finger, so the residents have to manage everything,” notes Hiram.

Havana Water is replacing thousands of kilometers of pipes at a snail’s pace, but the poor quality of work has aggravated some within the populace. In Old Havana the water supply network is currently being replaced. It is scheduled to be completed in 2017 at a cost of more than $64 million.

The slow pace of work has led to the closure of many roads, turning the crowded streets into an obstacle course. Thoughtless people also throw garbage into the trenches, creating a foul stench that pervades the area.

But the ones who are worse off are those living in low-lying areas of the capital. In addition to water shortages, they live on the razor’s edge every time a rainstorm assaults Havana.

“I pray every time there’s bad weather. Over here everything floods. And with the rains of April 29th, because of the flooding, hundreds of families lost their belongings,” says Reinerio, a neighbor in Jesús María, a poor area in the old part of the city.

More than a month has passed since those rains and the state institutions have only given mattresses to the victims. “Nothing is free. They sell the mattresses for 900 pesos (about 45 dollars) on credit. They won’t replace refrigerators, televisions, or other ruined appliances. People are very disgusted with the government, because of the little help provided to families who have nothing and no place to go,” says Felicia, a housewife.

And there is no solution in sight. As I said at the beginning, it is a combination of factors. State negligence causes 60% of the water to be lost. The empty wallets of a large segment of the Cuban people prevent them from repairing the water system in their homes.

Many poor families live in constant fear of the rains, and now the hurricane season (June 1 to November 30). Add to the fury of nature the regime’s mismanagement. They are surrounded. And defenseless.

Cuba Tries to Constrict the Summit of the Americas / Ivan Garcia

June 4, 2015 Leave a comment

ATLAPA1-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 4 April 2015 — If the 56 years of the olive-green autocracy are analyzed using statistics or tangible results that demonstrate progress, the result can be bewildering.

An inventory of the Cuban economy in the last 25 years, and a serious analysis of comparative statistics, will confirm the thesis that the olive green regime has sold us smoke.

If we believe the official data on the growth of GDP, such as those obtained for three consecutive years (11.8% in 2005, 12.5% in 2006 and 7.3% in 2008), the economic indices of Cuba would be at the level of the Asian tigers (South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan). The supposed achievements can only be seen in the daily newspaper Granma and in EcuRed, the Cuban version of Wikipedia, where we retrieved those figures.

Real life tells us the opposite. Allotted apartments without a coherent urban layout, with ugly buildings and low-quality construction. A highway under construction for 40 years with no end in sight. And a capital that is the perfect portrait of the destruction of a city.

The three achievements of Fidel Castro—idealized education, universal healthcare, and sports—are in outright decline.

“In twenty-first century Cuba we can’t even produce a toothbrush. We have to spend more than two billion dollars on imported food, despite having wide swaths of uncultivated acreage,” says Anselmo, an elderly cigar-roller.

But if the economy is a madhouse, with arbitrary constraints by the state and a mafia-like cartel which it uses to its advantage, in political matters the Castro brothers have a doctorate.

Never in the history of the world has a small, poor nation, with an army equipped with castoffs and antiques, conquered another country. In their time, England, Belgium, Holland and Portugal had powerful fleets and solid economies.

Cuba has neither. But it has been able to conquer Venezuela without firing a shot, despite the South American country having three times the population of the Island, and large oil reserves.

Ideologically speaking, the government of Nicolas Maduro is umbilically attached to the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. The Cuban regime has always been more political than economic.

It has managed to weave a web of alliances with Third World nations selling a narrative of sovereignty, providing medical services, and advising in the fields of science, sports, technology, and military.

According to Luis Manuel, a graduate of a Soviet university, “The rules of the economics game that our leaders learned in the USSR were outdated and never worked. But the legacy of the KGB and of spymaster Marcus Wolf’s STASI, served to prop up the ineffective economy. In particular the special services, experts in manipulation, in colonizing democratic spaces, and in the art of repression.”

The structures of the State—with a lockstep Parliament that has never voted against a proposal from the executive, with no free elections for president, with one party, and without independent courts or unions—are designed to prevent discord.

According to Tamara, a retired teacher, “that civil society they are now talking about in Cuba is pure gibberish.” And she’s right.

All the intellectuals, religious, and academics are integrated into associations controlled by the State. And they have become a useful tool that the government uses as a propaganda vector or in solidarity with its allies, as is the case now in Venezuela.

After receiving government approval, they launch initiatives, sign public statements, or organize gatherings and demonstrations in “support for the revolution.” Their offices belong to the state and their magazines, conferences, and meetings depend on the public purse.

The only two sectors with their own voice in Cuba, although having little impact in the country, are the opposition (la disidencia) and independent journalism. To be fashionable, Raul Castro co-opted the term “civil society” and gave the green light to dozens of “independent” organizations, which they had already enlisted, to attend the social forum in advance of the Seventh Summit of the Americas, on April 10 and 11 in Panama.

With financial support from the state and from other countries, which paid for airfare and lodging, a section of “civil society” controlled by the Castros will meet in the Panamanian capital.

It will be an interesting battle. Across the street, paid for by private foundations and the U.S. government, according to the roadmap implemented by Obama on December 17, will be a meeting, also including opposition members, who seek to publicize the repression and lack of political freedoms for more than five decades in Cuba.

It’s always healthy when conflicting sides feel free to chat without insulting each other. It is a sign of culture, tolerance, and modernity. But these debates should be held in Havana, not in another nation.

When Cubans of whatever political inclination, divided by the discourse of fear so well managed by the Castros, decide to listen to their adversaries, we can then civilly negotiate the future of our country.

If that “civil society” sponsored by the regime, resorts to insults and deaf ears against the dissidents who attend in Panama, it would signal that the Cuban government will remain committed to canceling out opposition and to mortgaging the future.

Cubans, thinking as they think and living where they live, must learn to live in harmony. And stop, once and for all, being strangers in our own land.

Iván García

Photo: Atlapa Convention Center, home of the Summit of the Americas VII, April 10 and 11, 2015, is located in the heart of Panama City, just five minutes from the airport. There are 19 soundproof meeting rooms, with multiple entries, movable walls, and interchangeable furniture. Panama’s artistic soul is present in the decoration: colorful beads made by the Guaymi Indians; drums, ritual flutes, original blouses of the Kuna Indians, and sculptures, braided jute and baskets from the mountainous regions, contribute to beautify the interiors of the main convention center in Panama. Additional press lounges, offices for organizers of events and offset copy center. An area of tourist services provides support for meetings, receptions, and registration of delegates, among other tasks. The Plaza de las Banderas, decorated with a lush tropical vegetation, can be used for exhibitions, folk performances, and other outdoor events (TQ).

The NBA Was Always a Reference Point in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

nash-nba-cuba-28014-_mn-620x330Miguel Frómeta, a light-skinned Afro-Cuban about six feet tall and around 50 years old, will have to follow the news about the basketball clinic to be taught in Cuba by former NBA players on April 23rd, from a dirty kitchen in Valle Grande prison on the outskirts of Havana.

30 years ago Frómeta emerged as one of the most promising small forwards in national basketball. He studied at a sports school west of the city and was a rabid fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the phenomenal center of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA, just like the Beatles, was banned by the olive-green regime of Fidel Castro under the pretext of causing harmful ideological influences in a uniform and Marxist society.

Young basketball fans like Frómeta had to make do with secretly watched NBA games. In the 80s, when there was no Internet, Joel, a neighbor, remembers spending hours watching the incredible plays of guys like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson on a VCR.

During those years, in the courtyard La Vibora college prep, 25 minutes from the center of the capital, hoops fans leafed through magazines illustrated with photos and statistics of the NBA, which arrived secretly in the luggage of Cuban residents in Miami.

Every afternoon at twilight, they set up a basketball tournament under the lights, in a three-on-three format known as “guerrillas.” The court was solid cement. And up to fifty large boys took part in the improvised matches. The winning team got the right to continue playing.

The losers gathered in the shade of a leafy ceiba tree to discuss Michael Jordan’s latest moves or find out how the NBA season was progressing. All the information was oral.

The cream of the cream of Havana basketball competed in those fiery pickup games. Richard Matienzo, the power forward of the national team with the spectacular dunks, was a fixture. As was Adalberto Alvarez, Rolando Alfonso, and a dozen players from provincial and national teams.

Under a blazing sun, Luis Castellanos, a gray-haired coach who had played college basketball in the United States, trained in two sessions some thirty children and adolescents, in the methods and vision of an offensive game based on physical dominance, athleticism, aggression, and spectacle, which was a carbon copy of the basketball that is taught in the United States.

In Cuba there has always been a remarkable fan base for the sport of basketball. In the late 40s, Fidel Castro spent hours playing on the court of the stadium of the University of Havana.

Started in 1946, the NBA did not then have the same media outreach on the island as Major League Baseball. But in Havana neighborhoods such as La Vibora, Luyanó, or El Vedado, basketball of undeniable quality was played.

With the arrival of the bearded ones to power in 1959 the sport became massive. It was common for Castro to train with the national quintet in the City Sports Coliseum.

A retired basketball player says “Fidel had a good level of play. He played forward and center and was relentless on the boards. We knew about his character, at times he could be touchy, so we let him play. On average he scored 25 to 30 points. Only then would he leave happy.”

Miguel Calderón, a member of the basketball team that won the bronze medal in 1972 at Munich, and later coach of the national team, lived in La Vibora and was part of that batch of boys who became players on the neighborhood courts.

Luis, now an incurable alcoholic, recalls how in the early 90s, together with several neighbors in Santos Suarez, using a homemade antenna, they intercepted the signal of a television channel intended exclusively for foreign tourists. “Every night we followed the NBA season. I still rub my eyes when I remember those incredible moves of Michael Jordan, Johnson, or Dressler.”

Later on the court he tried to imitate those moves of that pack of great NBA players. Luis could not play at a high enough level not to be sentenced to five years in prison for “dangerousness,” a bizarre legal rule that imprisons people who the State believes “undermine the socialist society.”

In the late 1990s, Cuban television aired some tape-delayed NBA games and this led to a rebound in basketball play. In the national league tournaments interesting players emerged like Angel Oscar Caballero, Roberto Carlos Herrera, Richard Matienzo, Lazaro Borrell, and Andres Guibert, who later left the country.

Borrell and Guibert were able to break into the NBA. Right now, either by means of an illegal antenna or through matches broadcast on  Sundays by a local sports channel, basketball lovers know the NBA inside and out.

Probably Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash would be amazed at the large number of followers they have in Cuba, and by the deep knowledge of the NBA. LeBron James is a big deal, as are James Hardy, Curry, and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc.

Despite state censorship in one form or another, Cubans manage to get all kinds of sports information. You may have the impression that Cuba is more an island than ever. But thanks to popular ingenuity, increasingly we are less.

Iván García

Note – from April 23 to 26, the NBA and FIBA (International Basketball Federation) organized in Havana the first joint basketball camp for boys and girls. This agreement makes the NBA the first professional sports league in the United States to visit Cuba since last December 17, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations.

Steve Nash (pictured), twice winner of the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the NBA; Dikembe Mutombo, international ambassador for the NBA; and Ticha Penicheiro, Portuguese legend of the WNBA (the female version of the NBA), will lead the camp and community projects in collaboration with the INDER (National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation) and the Cuban Basketball Federation, presided over by former basketballer Ruperto Herrera.

The NBA and FIBA, through the NBA Cares program, rehabilitated three basketball courts and organized youth camps in two places in Havana.

Photomontage taken from Journal Gol.

21 April 2015

Between Joy and Sadness, Cubans Celebrate Mother’s Day

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Madre-cubana-con-tres-hijo-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 10 May 2015 — Although the cloudy afternoon threatened a downpour in the area south of Havana, Mark came downtown to shop for some things on the eve of Mother’s Day.

In a state-owned hard-currency store he bought clearance-priced food for 43 convertible pesos for his mother, leather sandals for his wife for 24.70, and a 16-gigabyte flash memory for his mother on the black market, paying $10 CUC.

“I spent about 80 dollars. The business of selling tamales is not going well, but I saw it coming, so a month before I began to save dollars (foreign exchange). With this money I bought plenty of postcards to send to mothers of friends and relatives, three bunches of yellow flowers for my mother, my mother-in-law, and my wife, and on Sunday May 10 between a grilled snapper, a case of beer, and two or three bottles of rum, the tab was around 100 ’chavitos’ (CUCs),” Mark says, while waiting for an old state-owned taxi.

Ricardo, unemployed, has only been able to buy five postcards for a peso at the post office. “If I can sell two sacks of cement, for twenty pesos (about a dollar) I can buy a cake that they sell in the bakery. Other years I’ve been able to give better things. But now I’m ‘arrancao’ (broke). ”

For two packs of Hollywood cigarettes and a can of Nestle’s condensed milk, Yunier, an inmate at Combinado del Este maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana, can get a fifteen-minute phone call to talk with his mother and his sisters on Sunday.

“Someone is always unavailable on Mother’s Day. Last year my husband was in jail for shoplifting. Now it’s my son, and my youngest daughter, who went to Italy with her husband. The point is that the family is never together, “says Diana, Yunier’s mother.

For various reasons, on the second Sunday of May, a day of harmony and celebration, many families in Cuba are not able to celebrate together. Emigration is one of those reasons.

People like Yosvier pay twenty-five cents (in convertible pesos) per minute at a neighborhood house where there is a cubicle for clandestine calls abroad and he can chat for a few hours with his mother who lives in Hialeah.

“In 2014 she was able to come for a visit and the whole family could celebrate together. This year she couldn’t come. My mother is saving to get me out of the country. She works two jobs in Miami so she can send a few dollars to my grandparents and me,” Yosvier says.

For Hiram, Mother’s Day is an irrefutable sign of the anthropological damage caused by 56 years of the olive-green autocracy on the island. “My mother and sister left Cuba as political refugees and as long as Fidel and Raul Castro are in power they cannot visit their homeland. It’s been eleven years since I’ve seen them. On Mother’s Day they call me by phone.”

It is harder still for Onelio. On the morning of May 10th he will go to Colon Cemetery in Vedado to place flowers at the grave of his mother, who died of an aggressive cancer two years ago.

“I’ve spent about an hour speaking quietly with her. Wherever my mother is, she is helping me and guiding me. I was raised to be a good person. That day is very sad for me. ”

As the story goes, the first celebrations of Mother’s Day date back to ancient Greece, where they paid homage to Rhea, the mother of the gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.

In Norway, it is celebrated on the second Sunday of February. In Ireland and the UK on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In 1914 US President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, a tradition that became international in several countries, including Cuba.

Although there is not agreement among Cuban historians, it is believed that in 1920 the sports writer Victor Muñoz was the promoter of that date to also be celebrated on the island.

Despite laughable wages, shortages, and daily hardships, Cubans celebrate Mother’s Day.

The regime of Fidel Castro buried old traditions, and many meals are a distant memory, but the family unit has survived the Marxist ideological nonsense and the planned economy. Luckily.

Iván García

Photo: Mother with her three children in a Havana suburb. Courtesy of EFE-TUR Travel.

Occupations (?) You Can Find in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

recoge-todo-lo-que-se-encuentra-en-la-calle-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, Havana, 4 May 2015 — In a wide, dusty, half-paved alleyway very near an old slaughterhouse with a faded sign that reads “Socialism or Death,” lives Reinerio, a gentleman who, in addition to repairing zippers and umbrellas, also sells earthworms.

In the corner of a dark room, with a piano in need of tuning and a molting parrot who reluctantly drinks water from a soda can cut in half, sits a mountain of umbrellas, pants and handbags, all thrown into a pile, waiting to be repaired. Wearing crudely made eyeglasses, Reinerio expertly unlocks the zipper of a purse.

“Professions like mine are typical in poor countries where people have to recycle things out of necessity and extend their use beyond what would normally be possible. It seems foolish but many handbags, umbrellas and pants cannot be used once the zipper is broken or the parasol’s spring clip splits,” he explains.

He is a man who knows a little about everything. Reinerio makes a living solving people’s problems. “A few pesos here, a few there, but I take pride in repairing things that would normally be tossed in the trash,” he says while handing over half a kilogram of earthworms to some neighborhood kids.

On the streets of Republican Cuba, a legion of vendors — among them knife and scissor grinders, tamale makers, ice-cream sellers — hawked their wares with inventive sounds and cries.

In 1968 Fidel Castro outlawed informal small businesses by decree. No longer to be heard were the cries of street vendors and cobblers, who were forced to go underground.

With the collapse of communism in Russia, however, the island saw the return of old-fashioned professions which extended the lives of cigarette lighters and disposable razors.

Havana has more in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional Macondo than with a modern metropolis. Daniel, who repairs cigarette lighters in the city’s Tenth of October neighborhood, explains, “A friend who lives in Costa Rica sends me compressed natural gas and flints. When a disposable lighter is empty, I make a tiny, microscopic hole in the bottom and refill it. Then it’s as good as new.”

Remberto restores plastic disposable razors. “With a special file I sharpen the edges of the razor blades. People thank me, remember that a package of these little razors costs up to 11 CUC.”

Wherever you look in the national geography, you find people whose “business” is the purchase of empty glass containers, plastic bottles, used clothing or gold jewelry, be it a piece of a chain or a single earring. Also, mattresses repairers, sellers of saints and plaster figures, or of ice cream scoops.

Jose sells bags of ice for five pesos apiece. “Almost everyone has a refrigerator and a lot of people like to buy ice to make milkshakes, fix drinks or treat an inflammation,” he notes.

Teresa, a half-blind hunched-backed old woman, supplements her meager monthly pension of $8 selling fruit popsicles for two Cuban pesos. “The children buy an incredible amount from me. In this frightful heat a popsicle is always welcome.”

Rosa, a former seamstress, collects old towels and sheets. After cutting out the most worn parts, she takes the best pieces remaining and with her old Singer machine constructs a towel or blanket. “I try to combine fabrics and colors. I don’t throw away what’s left over, I sell it to a mattress repairer who uses it as padding “.

For a while, Luisa cleaned rice at home. “She charged two Cuban pesos for every pound of rice. Now I devote myself to washing and trimming dogs, the price ranges between 50 and 100 Cuban pesos.”

But none are as popular as Magalis. Though her face was not shown, she became famous on January 9, 2009 when the online edition of Cubaencuentro published a photo of  a window in her home with a sign that read, “Fleas and ticks removed. Magalis.”

It is likely there are “lice removal experts” in all the captial’s neighborhoods if not in the rest of the country. Keep in mind that in Cuba high temperatures, a shortage of water and shampoo, and poor scalp hygiene have led to the proliferation of these insects.

Havana looks like a giant bazaar of bizarre trades. In the corners, there are carts with avocados, sweet potatoes and bananas. And everywhere, old men are selling roasted peanuts and single cigarettes.

An interest in the occult has led to an explosion in the number of Cubans adopting Santeria. Dunier quit his first year of university studies to sell animals that babaloas, or priests, use in their rituals.

In a multi-colored dress Eulalia has made a living through tarot cards. She uses them to consult with passers-by on busy Obispo Street in the old section of the city.

“People want to hear good news, that they will come into some money, that they will travel overseas or hook up with a yuma (foreigner). A glimpse into the future costs twenty pesos, or two CUC (fifty pesos) for tourists.” And with the agility of a professional poker player, she then lays out a deck of cards.

It has also become common in the capital to see middlemen known as buquenques, referred to as “travel managers” by government bureaucrats. These are guys who organize lines of people waiting for privately owned taxis. Reinaldo earns 200 pesos a day on Acosta Avenue, hawking and soliciting customers for the Viper-Vedado route.

A water shortage in many Havana neighborhoods has led to the proliferation of aguateros or water vendors. Niosber is one of them. He came to Havana six years ago, fleeing from rural poverty and a bleak future in a mountain hamlet in Santiago de Cuba.

“It’s a job I inherited. My father worked as a waterboy on the sugar plantations and now my oldest son and I are in the business of selling water,” he explains while seated  outside a convenience store.

Niosber’s tool is a primitive contraption with ball bearing wheels and two blue plastic tanks that were originally cooking oil containers but which have been recycled to carry water.

“At five in the morning I get to an old sports complex in La Vibora and hook my machine up to a spigot on the side of the building. I walk three or four kilometers every day from the building where I live. I can’t keep up with the demand,” he says.

It would be a stretch to describe those who survive by working in informal occupations, whether secretly or legally, as small business people.

It would be a stretch to describe those who survive by working in informal occupations, whether secretly or legally, as small business people.

Throughout Havana there are swarms of street musicians serenading tourists having dinner. Or guys like Reinerio who fix zippers and umbrellas. Or those who treat lice like Magalis.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: In Cuba many people live off what they find in the trash and on the street, including plastic bottles, empty soda and beer cans, or old clothing and underwear, such as this man, photographed by Juan Suarez for an article on the collection of raw materials published in Havana Times.

Cuba: May Downpours Arrive Ahead of Schedule in Havana / Ivan Garcia

May 19, 2015 Leave a comment

One of many streets and avenues inundated when torrential rains fell on Havana on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. From El Heraldo de Honduras.

Until Wednesday, April 29, when intense rains fell on Havana, Agustin — a private-sector farmer who grows chard, lettuce and peppers on a patch of parched land on the outskirts of the capital — was looking skyward to see if he could discern storm clouds on the horizon.

“My yields are low because of the water shortage. I have had to throw out hundreds of kilograms of vegetables because they were too small and their color was bad. It hasn’t rained for months,” says Augustin, who is now worried because too much water is falling on his crops.

National meteorologist Jose Rubiera had declared that the island was experiencing record heat levels in the month of April. It seemed that the rains would have to wait.

May’s traditional downpours occurred over the course of a few days in western and central Cuba but in the eastern part of the country the widespread drought has continued to raise alarms at the Institute of Hydraulic Resources. Various dams and springs are dry or at very low levels.

In the poor neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba, Mayari and Guantanamo, water from an aqueduct arrives every nine days. Tomas, a resident of Granma province, 800 kilometers east of Havana, reports that water is delivered there by truck.

“No one goes out onto the street at noon. The city is like a desert. The ground is as hard as stone. If it does not start raining in Oriente by May, the government will have to declare a state of emergency,” he says by phone.

Countless homes in Cuba are without tap water twenty-four hours a day. Typically, families must buy it in order to drink, cook, wash dishes, do laundry and bathe.

“It is often stored in plastic containers that previously held industrial products. As a result potable drinking water can become contaminated. When storage facilities are not maintained properly, they can become breeding grounds for Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit Dengue fever, chikungunya infections and diarrheal diseases,” says an epidemiology official.

Like Augustin, Leticia, a Havana shopkeeper, was also gazing at the sky, hoping it would finally bring the blessed rain. Sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by bags of Vietnamese rice and Cuban brown sugar, she tries to relieve the summer heat by fanning herself with a piece of cardboard.

“When there is no rain, the heat is unbearable. The worst thing is when you get home, want to take a shower and the building’s water pump is broken or there is no water in the tank. The fan just gives off a stream of hot, dry air. I really envy those who have air conditioning,” she said on April 28, one day before it rained heavily in Havana.

Moraima, a retiree, no longer has to sit on her porch to listen to soap operas on the radio to see if the air is blowing. “I was thinking it would never cool off. This heat takes away your appetite. You want to eat fruits and drink milkshakes. Two large mangoes cost me 25 pesos. People wonder if it is because of the damned blockade (embargo) that there are no cheap fruits like we always used to have in Cuba,” she notes angrily.

The heat, rain and hurricanes cannot be blamed on Yankee imperialism, although in some of his periodic rantings Fidel Castro still accuses modern capitalism of altering the environment by releasing disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Air conditioning is still a luxury in Cuba. Only the cars of ministers, generals and tourists are climate controlled. It takes a strong disposition to travel by bus or public taxi, no matter the time or day. State inspectors who could pass for Luca Brasi (a character from The Godfather) ply the streets looking to see what money they can make from bribes and kickbacks.

“These people (inspectors and police) are really corrupt. They’re always walking by my stall, trying to “hustle” a few pesos off me. There’s nothing to stop them,” says Arnaldo, the owner of a produce stand in the La Vibora neighborhood.

In a country where good news is hard to come by, the newspaper Granma announced on April 20 that 80,000 induction ranges would be made available to families on public assistance. Made in China, they will cost 500 pesos and can purchased in installments.

“These stoves reduce energy consumption because of the efficiency of the electric burners,” claimed a bureaucrat of the Ministry of Domestic Trade. In 2006 Fidel Castro led his final campaign, which he called the Energy Revolution. It included the nationwide distribution of refrigerators, rice cookers and Russian air conditioners.

At the time the state offered payment plans. Nine years later, the number of people in default is in the thousands. “They break down just by looking at them. Not only that, but the state has been robbing us for fifty-six years, so my revenge is to not pay them one penny for the trinkets they’ve given me,” says Raudel, who still owes the bank for the credit it extended him.

The farmer Augustin and many Havana residents were eagerly awaiting the arrival of May, typically the rainy month in Cuba. But the weather was ahead of schedule and on Wednesday, April 29, a terrifying downpour fell, which led to three deaths, floods, landslides and the evacuation of more than two thousand people, among other damages.

“We wanted the rain to give us a break from the heat but not like this,” says Leticia, the shopkeeper. “I guess you can’t control nature.”

Ivan Garcia

1 May 2015


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