Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs, Cuba is a long way from its socialist revolution
The government is preparing to transform the country's economy as Fidel Castro says the Cuban model no longer worksRory Carroll in the Bay of Pigsguardian.co.uk, Friday 15 April 2011 15.54 BST
Bay of Pigs anniversary celebrationsA truck in Havana carries a photograph of Fidel Castro jumping from a tank near the Bay Of Pigs in 1961. It was to feature in a parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of the failed invasion. Photograph: Franklin Reyes/AP
These days the battle is for shade as pink tourists hop across baking sands seeking refuge from the sun, but half a century ago a more momentous struggle unfolded in the Bay of Pigs.
Cuba's infant revolution routed a US-backed invasion force in what Fidel Castro termed the first defeat for American imperialism in the western hemisphere. Amid the drama, he declared for the first time that the revolution was socialist.
A museum in the bay, with more guides than visitors, has frozen in time the moment euphoric revolutionary forces took over farms and industries. "The victory of socialism," says a banner.
Drive north to Havana, however, and the landscape tells of a bleak sequel: idle fields abandoned to weeds and derelict tractors. The capital too reeks of decay. Ancient cars putt-putt past crumbling buildings. Obsolete machinery gathers dust in factories.
Evidence, as Castro himself said in a recent interview, that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more". Which is why on Saturday the Communist party will inaugurate its first congress in 14 years to cement radical changes to the economy and, intentional or not, to Cuban society.
"The narrative is really Thatcherite," said one senior western diplomat in Havana. "It's all about cutting rights and welfare and putting greater emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work."
Timing the four-day congress to coincide with the Bay of Pigs anniversary has given authorities an excuse to fill TV screens with stirring archive footage and to plan a big military parade: reminders of glory and continued power.
"This congress is huge. It will put the seal on a series of reforms and decide strategy for the next five to 10 years," said Stephen Wilkinson, a Cuba expert at London Metropolitan University.
Can the government transform the economy, rewrite Cuba's social contract and remain in power? Despite an average state salary of just $20 a month there is little sign of Arab-style rebellion threatening the Castros' tight control. An older population, curbs on social media and dependence on the state for 80% of jobs have muffled dissent.
The question is what will happen as the state slashes subsidies and sheds a million workers – a daunting target delayed by bureaucratic resistance – and crosses its fingers that a liberated private sector soaks them up, Vietnam-style.
In recent months budding entrepreneurs have taken out more than 171,000 licences for approved businesses such as restaurants, DVD stalls and taxis – about two-thirds of this year's target of 250,000 licences.
"Is socialism renewable?" Estado Sats, a recently formed group of thinkers and artists, asked at a seminar. The conclusion, said Antonio González-Rodiles, a founder, was no. "At least not in the way they are currently going about it." Taxes and red tape threatened to strangle new ventures because central planners could not truly let go. "It's like expecting torturers to become shepherds."
Some new businesses have swiftly folded – a phenomenon hardly unique to Cuba – but others are doing well and injecting bustle into pockets of Havana. Restaurants known as paladares, in some cases little more than family living rooms, offer pizza and traditional Cuban fare.
Many of Havana's Del Boys – fast-talking street traders who dodge authorities – are becoming legitimate.
Rodolfo Mera used to carry flowers in a zipped shoulder bag and sidle up to people, hissing "flores", but now he has a licence pinned to his chest and a corner on 25th street where his bicycle cart displays bouquets in six buckets. A born salesman, he convinced one sceptical middle-aged woman to part with 20 pesos (43p) for wilting tulips. "They'll perk up when you get them home, love."
On San Lorenzo street Rubio, a former black-market watch seller, had just opened a barber shop – a chair and table with brushes and scissors – in an apartment block hallway. Tacked to the wall was his "special touch" – photos of pouting near-naked models – to lure customers from porn-free competitors. "It's good to offer something extra," he said.
Such entrepreneurs may be the antithesis to Che Guevara's 1960s vision of a "new man" motivated by socialist values rather than personal gain but they are hardly new, just more visible. Inequality remains an official taboo but a sizeable minority – thanks to remittances and shadier means – has designer clothes, iPods and cash to enjoy restaurants with tourist prices.
The final draft of Raul's proposed economic changes has not been published but there is little doubt the party congress will rubber-stamp what will be, in effect, a transition to a new Cuba.
The government has released virtually all political prisoners but stepped up harassment of dissidents and verbal attacks on foreign media. A battening of the hatches, say some, in case of squalls to come.
While many Cubans relish the incremental, unfolding changes, many are anxious they will lose subsidised food and goods and state jobs, however badly paid.
In Marianao, a gritty Havana district, a living room TV showed grainy stills from the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel was leaping from a tank – a famous image – but the Acosta family paid no heed. Conversation had turned to a recurring, all-consuming topic: what would Gabriela, 36, do if laid off from her state film company job? "They say half of us will go, but not which half."
Miami remembers the Bay of Pigs invasion
In the anti-Castro stronghold of Calle 8, the centre of Miami's Little Havana, a small monument with an ever-lit flame remembers the "Martyrs of Girón". Just before midnight on 16 April 1961, a group of about 1,350 Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA, launched an invasion of Cuba from the sea in the Bay of Pigs – known in Cuba as Playa Girón – aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro and the revolution.
The invasion turned out to be a victory for Castro and a humiliating defeat for President Kennedy.
"About 2,000 mortar rockets fell around us in just four hours. That was something truly dreadful. I can still hear them falling", says 74-year-old José "Pepe" Hernández, who was involved in the fiasco.
For Hernández, who fled Havana to Miami when he was a university student a few months after the triumph of Castro's revolution, their main mistake was the faith they placed in "the support and experience we thought our ally, the United States, had. That turned out to be a terrible tactical failure" which helped cement Castro's rule.
"Looking back one asks oneself why Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution are still in power," says Hernández, who now heads a powerful Miami-based exiles group, the Cuban-American National Foundation.
"There are several reasons, one can say several errors, for that. Certainly, one of the biggest ones was the invasion of Playa Girón. I hope now us Cubans on both sides of the straits can find peaceful solutions to our differences." Andres Schipani
Latest update: 16/04/2011- Communist parties – Cuba – Raul Castro – Reform
Communist Congress set to vote on economic reforms
Delegates of Cuba's Communist Party are meeting to vote on economic reforms ushered in under Raul Castro, as the country's aging leadership struggles to relax its grip on the economy while affirming a socialist ideology.By Virginie HERZ (video)Joseph BAMAT (text)
Military fanfare and a parade of children and revolutionary veterans in the streets of Havana on Saturday opened the sixth congress of Cuba's Communist Party, an event many hope will lead to a new economic era for the island nation.
Revamping Cuba's economic strategy has been the central focus of the congress ever since it was announced in November by President Raul Castro, who has already launched limited initiatives that are meant to promote entrepreneurship and loosen the state's control over business.
"This is an effort to give the Cuban people more freedom in the marketplace, but this does not mean the establishment of free labour unions or free political parties," explained Eduardo Cue, a writer and specialist on Cuba based in France.
Communist conference kicks off with military marchBy Virginie HERZ in La HavanaRaul has turned over tens of thousands of hectares of government land to small farmers, allowed citizens to open up small shops, and has gradually cut some of generous health and food subsidies since he took over from long-time Cuban leader and brother Fidel nearly five years ago.
The Communist delegates are expected to make these reforms official at the congress, and to pass a number of other laws. These include relaxing regulations on buying and selling homes and automobiles and opening some 170 new categories of self-employment.
The reforms also include cutting back hundreds of thousands of state employees. According to Janette Habel, a Cuba specialist and lecturer at the French Institute for Latin America (Ifal), the massive layoffs can only be possible by allowing private enterprise to grow. She told FRANCE 24 in September that the new laws would permit illegal commerce "which already thrives on the island" to be integrated into the authorized system.
"Reaffirming" the socialist model
Raul Castro has acknowledged publicly that the congress – the first Communist Party congress in 14 years – would be the last for what the Cuban leadership calls the "historic generation" – the aging group of men and women who launched and lived through the 1959 revolution.
Speaking to Cuban lawmakers last December, Castro acknowledged that the old guard had committed "errors" and insisted on a "path of correction and a necessary renewal of our economic model". But he warned that in no way would the country return to "the capitalist and neocolonial past."
While the reforms are clearly meant to open up Cuba's economy, the communist party is struggling to reaffirm its socialist ideology. Castro has sworn the changes are meant reaffirm the "socialist character of the revolution," not toss it out.
The party's official news agency, Granma, said that Saturday's parade would end with a parade by tens of thousands of youths, who were "symbolic of the New Generations of Cubans and the guarantee of the continuity of the Revolution."
But beyond this symbolic show, the Communist establishment could give a more tangible sign of its willingness to empower younger Cubans. Delegates will also vote for a new party leadership at the congress. While no longer the country's president, Fidel continues to be the Communist Party's first secretary, a job he has said he no longer expects to keep.
With Raul, 80, all but certain to be voted to the party's top post, the real signal of the potential change to come in Cuba could be in the congress' choice for the number two spot: perhaps a fresh face who is not the object of commemorative parades, but who belongs to the next history-making generation.
Commentary: Strategy and Politics
No US air cover for Cubans at the Bay of Pigs
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a US-planned invasion of Cuba that ended disastrously when Cuban volunteers ran out of ammunition against thousands of Castroite troops. President Kennedy decided not to provide the promised jets.Friday, April 15, 2011By Humberto Fontova
"Where are the planes?" kept crackling over U.S. Navy radios 50 years ago. The U.S. Naval armada (22 ships including the Carrier Essex loaded with deadly Skyhawk jets) was sitting 16 miles off the Cuban coast near an inlet known as Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs.) The question—bellowed between blasts from a Soviet artillery and tank barrage landing around him–came from commander, Pepe San Roman, who led an amphibious force of 1500 Cuban freedom-fighters.
"Send planes or we can't last!" San Roman kept pleading to the very fleet that escorted his men to the beachhead (and sat much closer to them than the Sixth Fleet sits to the Libyan coast today). Meanwhile the barrage intensified, the Soviet T-34 and Stalin tanks closed in, and San Roman's casualties pile up.
"If things get rough," the heartsick CIA man Grayston Lynch, a multi-decorated WWII and Korea vet, radioed back, "we can come in and evacuate you."
"We will NOT be evacuated!" Pepe roared back to his friend Lynch. "We came here to fight! We don't want evacuation! We want more ammo! We want PLANES! This ends here!" Lynch kept sending the requests Washington-ward with all of San Roman's urgency.
Along with the Bay of Pigs freedom fighters, Castro faced 179 bands of "bandits" (Che Guevara's term for the tens of thousands of Cubans fighting his dutiful Stalinization of Cuba that year, a rebel force probably greater than Gadaffi faces today — and with goals much clearer). But San Roman's and Lynch's urgency to Washington was futile.
Camelot's criminal idiocy finally brought Adm. Arleigh Burke of the Joints Chief of Staff, who was receiving the battlefield pleas, to the brink of mutiny. Years before, Adm. Burke sailed thousands of miles to smash his nation's enemies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Now he was Chief of Naval Operations and stood aghast as new enemies were being given a sanctuary 90 miles away! The fighting admiral was livid. They say his face was beet red and his facial veins popping as he faced down his commander-in-chief that fateful night of April 18, 1961. "Mr. President, TWO planes from the Essex!" (the U.S. Carrier just offshore from the beachhead), "that's all those Cuban boys need, Mr. President. Let me order…!"
Related ArticlesCaribbeanCuba frees democracy advocatesOpinionA Forgotten Hero for Black History MonthJFK was in white tails and a bow tie that evening, having just emerged from an elegant social gathering. "Burke," he replied. "We can't get involved in this."
"WE put those Cuban boys there, Mr. President!" The fighting admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!" While the Knights of Camelot mulled over their image problems, the men on the beachhead had problems of their own…
16 April 2011 Last updated at 09:58 GMT
A last hurrah for Cuba's communist rulersBy Michael Voss BBC News, Havana
Cuba's Communist Party is holding its first Congress in 14 years, and for the country's ageing leaders it could be one of their last opportunities to bask in the victories of days gone by.
The red flags are flying high in Havana. Buildings across the capital are decked out with giant Cuban flags.
One of the largest military parades seen in decades is scheduled to pass through Revolution Square, the symbolic political heart of the country.
The parade and Congress come exactly half a century after Fidel Castro proclaimed that his was a socialist revolution, rather than a democratic one.
His speech on 16 April 1961 paved the way for a centralised Soviet-style economy and one-party rule.Cuban soldiers rehearse for an upcoming parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs at the Plaza de la Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Thursday April 14, 2011 Military prowess will be a big part of the celebrations
It came on the eve of the ill-fated landing by 1,400 CIA-backed Cuban exiles, who were defeated by Castro forces at Bay of Pigs (or Giron as the Cubans call it).
As a symbol of the revolution's future, thousands of youths will bring up the rear of Saturday's parade.
"Either we change course or we sink," President Raul Castro said.
"We have the basic duty to correct the mistakes we have made over the course of five decades of building socialism in Cuba."Emerging entrepreneurs?
Cubans are greeting the prospect of change with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.Graphic
With wages barely $20 (£12) a month, there is enormous pressure to implement economic changes that would allow people to earn a decent living.
But those handouts have bred a culture of dependency, with no incentives to work, and Cuba's struggling inefficient economy can no longer afford to be so generous.
The government has already launched a programme of allowing 250,000 extra people to become self-employed or set up small businesses with a limited number of employees.
Almost three-quarters of these licences have already been issued; there are small market stalls and cafes springing up across the island.
Congress is expected to endorse these changes, and there are hopes that it could clarify issues such as micro-credits and expand the number and types of jobs people are allowed to do.Rules, permits, restrictions
In terms of economic impact, a potentially more significant change would be to allow medium-sized state enterprises to become workers' co-operatives, taking them out of the clutches of the central planners.A worker arranges chairs for an upcoming parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs failed invasion at Revolution Square or Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, Friday April 15, 2011 The Bay of Pigs – or Giron – landing is the stuff of legend in Cuba
Such co-operatives are now well-established in agriculture, where market reforms began at least three years ago.
It is unclear just how far the Communist Party is prepared to loosen state control.
Legalising the right to buy and sell cars and houses, and to travel abroad, are the bread-and-butter issues which will determine for many Cubans whether this is a truly reforming Congress or not.
Cubans are famous the world over for their ability to keep old 1940s and 50s American cars running on the roads. The secret is necessity. Under Cuban law the only cars that can be legally traded are those built before the revolution in 1959.
Most Cubans have the title to their homes and can pass them on to their children. But the only way to move home is to swap with someone. It is a cumbersome, complicated system where money does illegally change hands, including backhanders to the much derided state inspectors.
President Raul Castro has admitted that the system is a mess and encourages corruption. How far he will go in asking Congress to move on easing restrictions is far from clear.
Cubans need permission to leave the island. It is a deeply resented restriction. For the moment, though, hopes that Congress will take the initiative appear to be based more on wishful thinking than concrete evidence.A new leader emerges?
Phasing out subsidies is seen as a key element turning the debt ridden economy around. Some food and other items have already been taken off the universal monthly ration card. The whole system is expected to be abolished and replaced by some form of means tested benefit for those most in need.
Overstaffing in state-run enterprises is seen as another major problem which needs to be dealt with. Initially 500,000 workers were due to be laid off or reassigned to more productive jobs before Congress, followed by another million later on.A self-employed Cuban man selling DVDs waits for customers on April 15, 2011 in Caimito, Mayabeque province Cubans are hoping for a more liberal attitude towards small businesses
The whole process, though, has been put on ice. Alternatives are not in place and the authorities appear uneasy about the political consequences of a large number of disgruntled unemployed.
Congress may approve the concept but it could several years to implement.
There is one other major task which Congress is expected perform: selecting new party leaders.
The Communist Party of Cuba is the only political organisation allowed in this one-party state.
Constitutionally it is Congress which votes on the composition of a new Central Committee, which in turns names the First and Second Party secretaries, the two most important posts in the country.
President Raul Castro has to be the front-runner to take over from his brother Fidel.
The real interest is in who will become Second Secretary.
Could a younger potential leader be about to emerge or will the question of transition be put off once again with one of the trusted old guard stepping in?
Cuba prepares for life after CastroBy Marc Frank in HavanaPublished: April 16 2011 17:06
Cuba prepared for the future with a blast from the past on Saturday as the Communist party staged a military parade and huge popular march to mark the 50th anniversary of its victory at the Bay of Pigs and Fidel Castro's proclamation of the socialist goals of the revolution.
The spectacular was a prelude to what is expected to be a historic Communist party Congress where it will elect a new leadership and adopt plans to "modernise" the financially strapped and stagnating economy as the post-Castro era nears.
The carefully choreographed march through Havana's Revolution Square appeared a tribute to an absent Fidel Castro and promise to remain faithful to his legacy as his brother, President Raúl Castro, and other surviving members of his rebel troop presided.
The parade was staged as a show of unity behind the only legal political party in the land and to portray the majority of Cubans, especially the youth, as faithful and confident in their ageing leaders as they prepared to adopt a series of major economic reforms at the four-day Congress which opened later in the day.
Mr Castro advocates transforming Cuba's economic and social system from one based on collective work and subsidised consumption to one where individual initiative, reward and markets play a larger role.
There has been significant resistance to Mr Castro's vision as vested interests manoeuvre, ideologues balk and common folk accustomed to gratuities in a land where for half a century private entrepreneurship was branded as counter-revolution, are forced to reset their views.
"It is necessary to change the mentality of the cadres and of all other compatriots in facing up to the new scenario which is beginning to be sketched out," Mr Castro said about the congress in his most recent speech.
"It is about transforming the erroneous and unsustainable concepts about socialism, that have been deeply rooted in broad sectors of the population over the years, as a result of the excessively paternalistic, idealistic and egalitarian approach instituted by the Revolution in the interest of social justice," he said.
Nevertheless, a major slogan at the march was Fidel Castro's proclamation at the start of the revolution that it was "of the humble, by the humble and for the humble".
According to proposals before the Congress the state should get out of administering the economy in favour of using taxation and other financial mechanisms to regulate it, even as state-run companies become public holdings operating outside the ministries.
The proposals call for the state to shed 20 per cent of its work force, or more than a million jobs, as it promotes an ever growing "non-state" sector that would be composed of "mixed capital companies, co-operatives, farmers with the right to use idle land, rented property landlords, self-employed workers and other forms that contribute to raise the efficiency of social labour."
Regulations on everyday life, such as those prohibiting the buying and selling of homes and cars, would be loosened.
Cuba's leader Fidel Castro is approaching his 85th birthday and Raúl Castro his 80th, while Jose Machado Ventura, first vice-president and party organisational secretary, is 80. The average age of other top party officials is over 70.
"We strongly believe that we have the elemental duty to correct the mistakes that we have made all along these five decades," Mr Castro said in December about the Congress.
That has been interpreted by most experts to signal Mr Castro will replace his brother as party chief and a handful of others who fought in the revolution will maintain their positions, though some new faces may emerge near the heights of power.
Fidel Castro recently announced that he had given up his party job, along with the presidency, after undergoing intestinal surgery in 2006 and simply hadn't thought it necessary to let the public know. He remains listed as First Secretary on the party's Web Page and active behind the scenes and occasionally in public.
"This is a clear message to Imperialism. The youth will not waver," said the key note speaker at the march, Maildel Gómez, president of the University Students Federation.
Uniformed children, students and young adults marched by surrounding such symbols of more glorious days as the Granma yacht that brought Castro to Cuba, chanting "Fidel, Fidel,".
There were young troops, soviet vintage armour, MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters and helicopters, all "ready to protect the fatherland no matter what the difficulties," and "resist whatever Imperialist aggression," so the script read by a narrator said.
Raúl Castro has long since replaced his brother's cabinet and advisers with more reform minded technocrats, many from the military. Now, despite the fanfare, it appears it is the Communist party's turn. Few of the current members of the Central Committee were nominated as candidates for the new one that will be elected at the Congress.
"The party leadership, the party style has to be changed, the same as the government's is being changed," Rafael Hernandez, who runs the reform oriented Temas Magazine, said.
Cuba, desfile y congreso
Armas, soldados y ciudadanos desfilan frente a Raúl Castro en La Habana como preámbulo del congreso de Partido Comunista de Cuba.
martinoticias.com 16 de abril de 2011
El gobernante de Cuba, Raúl Castro, enfundado en su uniforme de general, encabezó desde lo alto de una tribuna el desfile militar y popular previo al inicio del VI congreso del Partido Comunista, PCC.
Castro, acompañado de la plana mayor del PCC y del gobierno, presenció el acto en la Plaza de la Revolución, en el que participaron los mil delegados al congreso, y cientos de miles de obreros, veteranos combatientes, niños y jóvenes.
Un tanque T-34 y un cañón autopropulsado SAU-100, usados por Fidel Castro en la batalla de bahía de Cochinos, abrieron el desfile de soldados con fusiles AK y bayoneta calada, carros blindados, cañones y cohetes, de la era soviética modernizados por la industria cubana.
Tras la revista militar, que duró algo más de dos horas -primera que se realiza desde diciembre de 2006- comenzará a las 4 de la tarde el congreso del PCC, convocado para aprobar un vasto plan económico y elegir a su dirigencia, encabezada por los hermanos Fidel y Raúl Castro, desde la fundación del partido en 1965.
El VI Congreso del PCC -primero en 14 años- deberá elegir un nuevo Comité Central, actualmente con cerca de 100 miembros, que, a su vez, debe renovar el Buró Político -de 19 dirigentes- y el Secretariado -con 10 integrantes.
Detienen a opositores en La Habana
Se trata de Ricardo Santiago Medina, Liván Hernández Sánchez y Abdel Rodríguez, integrantes del Partido Cuba Independiente y Democrática
martinoticias.com 16 de abril de 2011
"Estamos viviendo en un caos que el Congreso del Partido no podrá resolver, porque en primer lugar va a tocar la esfera económica y lo que tiene que hacer es estructurar la esfera política"
La coordinadora del Partido Cuba Independiente y Democrática, Katia Sonia Martín Velis, manifestó que su esposo Ricardo Santiago Medina y los también opositores Liván Hernández Sánchez y Abdel Rodríguez fueron detenidos en la tarde del viernes, en La Habana.
La activista de los Derechos Humanos declaró el sábado por la mañana a Radio Martí, que los disidentes en la ciudad estiman que las detenciones están relacionadas con el desfile militar de la Plaza de la Revolución, que precede a la inauguración del VI Congreso del Partido Comunista.
La última revista militar realizada en la isla tuvo lugar en diciembre de 2006, en homenaje al 50 aniversario de la creación de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), y al 80 cumpleaños de Fidel Castro, el gran ausente del evento.
El VI Congreso del Partido Comunista tendrá lugar en el Palacio de Convenciones de La Habana hasta el martes 19 de abril y buscará determinar el alcance del plan económico proyectado por el gobernante Raúl Castro, para superar la profunda crisis que enfrenta la isla.
Precisamente, los disidentes cubanos, Héctor Palacios y Dimas Castellanos, manifestaron que el pueblo no espera grandes cambios con el cónclave comunista que se realiza desde 1997.
"Estamos viviendo en un caos que el Congreso del Partido no podrá resolver, porque en primer lugar va a tocar la esfera económica y lo que tiene que hacer es estructurar la esfera política (…) para después ver qué hacer con la economía. Lo están haciendo al revés y muy mal", dijo Palacios.
Indicó que a lo mejor el Gobierno hace algunos cambios para entretener al pueblo, pero ni los propios militantes del Partido Comunista saben qué va a pasar.
"Ninguna esperanza hay de que el Congreso del Partido pueda resolver los problemas de la nación cubana", agregó Palacios.
El sociólogo Castellanos dijo que él espera algunas concesiones económicas, pero nunca cambios políticos.
"Yo espero cambios, pero no espero grandes cambios. Los cambios que espero están en consonancia con la línea que está llevando el Gobierno (…) hacer algunos cambios en la economía y no en el resto de los fenómenos, que incluye toda el área de las libertades cívicas y políticas", señaló.
Mientras Cuba siga gobernada por un partido único todo seguirá igual, afirmaron Héctor Palacios y Dimas Castellanos.
Shoes in Cuba Have More Lives Than a Cat / Iván GarcíaIván García, Translator: Raul G.
Buying a new pair of shoes is a real headache for everyday Cubans. There are two ways to get your hands on footwear in Cuba: buying them off of a private craftsman or paying for them in hard currency at whichever state store. There's no other way.
Lately, there is a swarm of stores in Havana where they sell used shoes or shoes created by craftsmen. One of the most popular spots is located in Monte street, not very far from the National Capitol. It's a two-floor bazaar which is always packed and where people bump into each other and breathe polluted air. They don't only sell handmade shoes. They also have shoes of poor textile and of dubious origin.
Amid the constraint and chronic scarcity of the shoes, numerous craftsmen have spent years making money in the business of tailoring leather shoes. Like Osmany, for example. He's a guy with bulging eyes who came from Yateras, Guantanamo, which is a thousand kilometers away from the capital, to escape his misery and lack of money and future.
Now he lives in a well furnished room in "El Calvario", a neighborhood at the South end of the city. He has a workshop at his house in which he fabricates shoes for children, women, and men. "I always try to be aware of the latest trends in the shoe-world. I daily produce 10 to 15 pairs. I'm usually able to sell each pair for 130 pesos to a middleman who later re-sells it for double, or more, of the amount. I have a license, I pay taxes and three people who work for me", Osmany tells me.
The models which shoemakers fabricate are eye-catching, but generally their quality is poor. If you want to prove it, just ask Ramon, who works at a steel factory ten hours a day to make 800 pesos a month (35 dollars). He has three kids and his wife is a housewife.
His problems begin when he tries to get shoes for his family. Handmade shoes cost between 12 to 40 dollars. These are some of the least expensive in Cuba. In stores which operate with foreign currency, they cost more. For many, this is outrageous.
Ramon's children often go to the Havana boutiques and remain awe-struck upon seeing the variety of models and brands. But they can only stare. The prices are not within reach of their father's pocket.
"The remaining option is to get them at arts and crafts festivals, and those end up being very bad quality. Just give them three months and their soles begin to tear off. Whenever they get wet by rain, the leather shrinks and its color fades. But we don't throw them away. None of that. We fix them time and time again with the cobblers", says Ramon.
In the island, the shoe-making guild was always popular, as well as furriers and shoe-shiners. Today, fixing shoes is one of the most widespread jobs. True magicians, like Luis who assures that Cuban shoes have more lives than a cat.
"I've fixed shoes which their owners thought were lost cases. Poor people, which is the majority, try to have their shoes last, at minimum, 8 or more years. A living hell for many families is when their kids outgrow their shoes. I have yet to figure out a way to make them bigger", the jocular Luis says.
And it's true: whenever parents have to buy shoes for their kids, they wish they could just disappear. In school, the kids destroy their sneakers in a matter of months, while on the other hand their feet grow by day. When it comes time to buy a new pair, there are families that actually pull out a calculator and discuss where they can get enough money from to buy a shoe that would last them the longest time possible.
Perhaps that's why the main requests from prostitutes and hustlers to tourists are for shoes. Those who have family on the other side of the water escape this process. Their relatives send them shoes with "mules" (the term for those people who make a living out of taking goods from Cubans outside to their relatives inside) or with the dollars that they are sent they go out and buy them at some store.
The prices are shocking. Listen to this: a pair of Adidas that aren't the latest model cost more than 120 dollars. Nikes are around the same price. Converse and New Balance range from 80 to 90. Leather, Italian, or Brazilian shoes can cost anywhere from 50 to 130 dollars. Remember that in Cuba, in the best of instances, a worker makes the equivalent of 20 dollars per month.
The cheapest option is to purchase hard and ugly shoes sold for 6 to 12 dollars in any store throughout the country. And there are those people, like the retired Ernesto, that wear flip-flops most of the time in order to try to conserve his shoes as much as possible.
Raul Castro has said that food is a National Security issue. But he forgot to mention shoes. This is an industry that had a long history before 1959, with an ample production of shoes, purses, and leather belts (and even crocodile skin belts).
Whenever a gang of bandits robs anyone on the street, besides taking their money, they also snatch their shoes. There are no statistics of all those young people who have been mutilated, and even killed, by the stabs of a knife just because their robbers want their Nikes or Adidas. It's the way those living in the margins of society replace their broken shoes.
Translated by Raul G.
April 16 2011
"The Internet is the brainchild of the CIA," the Cuban government tells us / Iván GarcíaIván García, Translator: Raul G.
When I started working at the independent press agency, Cuba Press, in December of 1995, internet sounded like a science fiction concept. Very few of us knew anything about it. In that highway of information we just saw a complicated trick of interconnections destined only for computer specialists. And according to what the government would tell us, it was a monster of the CIA.
In 1995, the island was still not connected to the internet. In Cuba Press, we were only about 20 correspondents, some of who had experience in State journalism. We couldn't even dream of having a PC or a laptop. We would look at that kind of equipment as if it were strange creatures. The tough guys from State Security were searching to see if we had computers to try to demonstrate that we were an active nucleus from the United States special services.
We would type up the texts with typewriters, some older than others. Meanwhile, some of us would conserve the Robotrons, that old fossil made in Eastern Germany. Those machines had such hard keys that they would sometimes produce strong pains in the tips of our fingers. One day, a foreign journalist passed by Havana and left us his laptop, and we actually traded it in for a portable Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter.
My dream was to write with an electric machine with a soft keyboard, with sufficient blank sheets at hand, as well as carbon paper and black tapes. Nearly everyone prefered not having a computer. Using one seemed far too complicated. It required a lot of attention and they could easily accuse you of being a "spy".
In June of 1997, three State Security agents searched my house for a computer. My mother told them that we did not have any, but that if we did have one we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago because a neighbor of ours had told us that State Security asked the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to keep a watch on us to see if they could catch us with our hands on… a computer!
Despite our technological backwardness, ever since Cuba Press was created on September 23, 1995, all the chronicles and articles — dictated by phone — would get published on the internet, thanks to the collaboration of Cubans living in Miami.
We would write for websites we had never seen and we couldn't even imagine how they looked. Every once in a while they would send us printed copies of our works. The only way we were used to reading: touching and smelling the paper.
Granma International was the first government publication which used the internet, in 1996. They officially initiated this move during the Pope's visit to Cuba in 1998. But the top leaders of the Communist Party continued to suspiciously observe the new tool. They carefully analyzed the pros and the cons. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the ideological talibans understood that the internet could be used as an effective weapon in favor of them as well. In matters of new technology, Fidel Castro has always tagged along.
In that silent battle between official clerks and alternative reporters, the regime was the one that lost. And it wasn't because we independent journalists were geniuses (we really weren't), but simply because we were — and still are — free beings at the end of the day.
During the Black Spring of 2003, Castro was out of his wits with the opposition and the dissident press. He hated it so much that he took 75 opposition members to prison, out of which 27 of them were independent journalists.
The Cuban regime has always considered the internet to be a dangerous enemy. To confront it, it has created a special regiment within counter-intelligence and the University of Information Science, located in a former electronic espionage base which was used by Russia some time ago. There, amid sex and relaxation, 8 thousand young communists prepare themselves to sabotage blogs and web pages of those who think differently.
Although they existed before, it wasn't until 2007 that island bloggers became popular outside of Cuba. But it's only fair to point out that 12 years before, when internet was a rare word and having a laptop was a luxury, a group of journalists living at the margins of state control, who were technologically daring and novice, were already using the internet to publish their articles.
Postscript by Tania Quintero
In an interview with Rosa Miriam Elizalde, published in Cubadebate, one journalist spokesperson for the Castro regime affirms at the end that, "Cuba has taken a very hopeful step for the future of Cuban internet: the submarine cable which connects us with Venezuela. We know that the cable is not the magic solution for our connectivity issues, but we do know that it will improve our communications, and upon benefiting many people, it will also strengthen our internet values. And I sincerely believe that 11 million cyber-activists with values of the Cuban Revolution generate more panic for the United States government than the ghost of Julian Assange multiplied many times".
The challenge is in motion. When Cubans finally have free internet access from their homes, and not only "intranet" with the possibility of logging on to international e-mail providers like Yahoo or Gmail, then we will see if it's true that "the revolution" will have "11 million cyberactivists". In today's impoverished Cuba, maybe 1 % of the population have computers in their homes or possess laptops or "tablets" which allow them to communicate freely without having to turn to email offices, computer clubs, or state-run cybercafes where both users and their connections are controlled.
It would be wonderful if 10% (or more) of Cubans on the island had the opportunity to buy computers and be able to pay, in foreign currency, for their home connections. Perhaps half of those 10% are fervent defenders of the Castro brothers and their revolution. But I doubt it.
In fact, in 1998 when Rosa Miriam Elizalde was studying in the final year of her journalism career in the University of Havana, in order for her to train in television technologies they put her and Grisell Perez, a fellow student, in the editing office where I worked for Cuban TV. We made a point of view show titled "Ruling women, get in your place". It was finished in Sancti Spiritus, the native city of Rosa Miriam. One night she took us to met her uncles — the ones who raised her after her mother died.
On Sunday, February 21st of 1999, page 5 of "Juventud Rebelde" ("Rebel Youth"), Elizalde wrote (or signed) an attack against independent journalism titled "Mercenaries in a Rush". I responded with "Without Hypocrisy", which was published in Cubafreepress on March 1, 1999, the same day I was arrested by State Security in Marianao while I was heading to the trial against four members of the Internal Dissidence Work Group. I was locked away in a dungeon in the police unit situated on 7ma and 62 in Miramar for 29 hours.
As a matter of fact, Rosa Miriam Elizalde and myself are the only two Cuban journalists mentioned by the Catalonian writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban in his book "And God Entered Havana", published in 1998 (TQ).
Translated by Raul G.April 10 2011
16/04 10:33 CETCommunism – Cuba – Cuban politics
Wind of change set to ruffle Cuban communists
Half a century after Cuban revolutionaries fought off an American attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro with the Bay of Pigs invasion, the communist party there is holding a congress that is expected to bring radical change.
One opponent who fought with Castro during the revolution said the leadership must prepare for the future.
The leader of Cuban Change, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo said: 'Fidel and Raul Castro consider themselves eternal. They think they will keep power until the last minute and they haven't worked on building on the younger generations, younger figures that could succeed them and have a progressive mentality.'
Fidel Castro, who is now 84, handed control of Cuba to his brother Raul in 2008.
But the current leader turns 80 himself in June, and both the leadership and the regime are creaking with age in a 21st century world.
That could be about to change.
Saturday, April 16th 2011 – 09:41 UTC
Cuba admits food imports bill is up 25% and "miracles are running out"
Cuba announced Friday that it will have to spend 25% more than its original estimates to pay the cost of food imports due to the international surge in commodity prices.
The Castro ruled island must import 80% of food supplies The Castro ruled island must import 80% of food supplies
In a statement published Friday in the Communist Party daily Granma, the president of state-owned importer Alimport, Igor Montero, said that the impact of the world crisis on the Cuban economy this year is expected to total more than 308 million US dollars for basic products.
"That means that all the growth expected in revenues from the export of nickel, services, sugar and other goods and services, will not be net gains but must be spent to cover the deficit of the food-import bill," Montero said.
There will also be "an increase in subsidies in proportions not contemplated in the plan" for the year, due to the "current structure of food distribution and sales," which includes consumers' use of rationing cards to buy a specific group of products at subsidized prices, he said.
Cuba imports close to 80% of the food supplies consumed by its 11 million inhabitants at a cost of some 1.5 billion USD per year.
Granma specifies that the expenditure goes mainly to buy wheat, corn, powdered milk, flour and soybean oil, which make up as much as 73% of the nation's food bill.
According to Montero, among the government's measures to check inflation has been to contract imports in the first months of the year and to buy commodity futures.
Montero said that the third strategy is to get moving with all projects aimed at increasing domestic agricultural production, which President Raul Castro has described as a matter of "national security" and is a priority in his plan of reforms.
"Thanks to the inexplicable contrivances of perseverance, much more than the real possibilities of our economy, our government pays whatever it costs so that, among the unprotected on this earth, there is not one Cuban," Granma said, referring to the humanitarian consequences of the food crisis.
"Nonetheless, ways of working miracles are running out, and in a world where the mathematics of trade increases its pragmatism, the more the whirlwind slams those who have the least, the more we must find in our own lands and industries the strength to escape its vortex," the newspaper said.
Cuban court studying appeal from U.S. contractorBy Nelson AcostaHAVANA | Sat Apr 16, 2011 12:59pm EDT
(Reuters) – Cuba's highest court has received an appeal by U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross seeking to overturn a 15-year jail sentence handed down last month for crimes against the Cuban state, the head of the court said on Saturday.
Ruben Remigio Ferro, president of the Supreme Tribunal, told reporters the appeal had been filed in recent days by lawyers for Gross, who was accused of helping set up unauthorized Internet access for Cuban dissidents.
The case brought to a halt a brief warming in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations and threatens to keep them on hold because the United States has said there will be no progress while Gross, 61, is held.
"There is an appeal presented. It is at the disposition of the judges who are attending the case," Remigio Ferro told reporters while watching a military parade in Havana on Saturday. The parade preceded a Communist Party congress later in day to consider reforms to the Cuba's troubled economy.
He would not speculate on when the court would rule on the appeal, saying it still had to be analyzed.
Remigio Ferro gave no further details, but there were earlier reports Gross' lawyers argued during his March trial he should only have been accused of visa violations because he entered Cuba on a tourist visa instead of work visa.
He was convicted of the more serious crime of "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state."
Gross was in Cuba working for a secretive U.S.-funded program aimed at promoting political change on the communist-led island. He has been jailed since his arrest in Havana in December 2009.
Cuban leaders view the program as part of ongoing U.S. efforts to topple the government.
The United States has said Gross was only helping Jewish groups set up Internet and had committed no crime.
His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded with the Cuban government to release her husband because their daughter and his elderly father have cancer.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Deborah Charles)