Archive for September, 2008

Playing with the "ball"

People’s loss of faith in the system is already a widespread phenomenon that can be seen even in the most inconsequential matters.   Recently, a disturbing “ball” was circulating throughout Cuba, according to which certain products sold in CUCs,* some of them basic necessities, would see a significant increase in price.  The reaction was not long in coming: The state of alarm and unrest spread to all who heard this new threat to their already diminished purchasing power.   The popular outcry was one of unanimous protest, even from the most complacent or timid who are almost always reluctant to express opinions contrary to official decisions.  The most recent and notable increase in the price of oil and gasoline, established here in recent days under the pretext of “adapting” to international reality at a time when the price of hydrocarbons has begun to drop on the world market, did nothing to help dispel the general unease.

Shortly after the denial of this new rumor was broadcast on the television news—not in the pages of the national press—spirits were mollified to some extent, but not enough to banish the suspicion that the authorities had launched the “ball” themselves with the intention of making a final decision in accordance with the popular reaction.

There are more than a few elements that tend to support such a suspicion, the fruit of popular experience.  In the past, at different stages, there have been sudden and arbitrary increases in costs, also preceded by the so-called “balls” listing the new and onerous prices rumored to be planned.   On these past occasions there were, effectively, taxes applied on the dollar (the principal currency of family remittances from abroad) and on almost all of the products sold in CUCs.  This time, a suspicious “disappearance” of basic essentials from store shelves—such as vegetable oil, tomato sauce or detergent—usually a prelude to abusive price increases, pointed to the real possibility that such increases would occur.

The present moment, however, is another one; emotions are heated and the threat of another sustained and serious food shortage keeps the population in a state of permanent anxiety.  The ghost of the euphemistically called Special Period,* that spread material misery and transformed the spirit during the harshest years of the last decade, has been recorded, as few other episodes, in the collective memory of Cubans and has reappeared in many homes because of the devastation caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.  It is not prudent at this time to stoke the fire.  It was not for nothing that the “Bastion” strategic exercises and the pathetic celebrations with thin caldosa soup that mark every anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were suspended this year.  No expense wasted to play little war games; no popular commotions that could spiral out of control.

On the other hand, the government’s obstinacy, which assumes the right to decide at its discretion whether to accept or reject the aid being offered, basing such decisions on purely political interests, has clearly established that the average citizen is just a bargaining chip in the power structure, merely a simple hostage of politics, as well as that the projected and always unattainable happy future promised by the revolution cannot meet—despite the eternal phrases of “principles and dignity” as supreme values—the expectations of an impoverished people who suffer chronic fatigue syndrome in the midst of a wait without end. There is no dignity in misery, which many, at least, are learning, albeit belatedly.

The truth is that, after the official denial of the “ball,” almost everyone shrugs and smiles sardonically in a gesture that amounts to: “See? They themselves threw it to see if we would bite.”  And here we all know who “they” are.

Translator’s note:

CUCs: See footnote of previous entry.

Special Period:  The difficult years in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Readers can google this phrase for more information.

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As normally always happens, social uncertainty causes rumors, especially when official information is lacking or when it is inconsistent with reality.  Thus, at least in Havana, the rumors follow each other with greater or lesser noise, almost daily.  After the initial shock regarding the apparent rise in prices in the CUC markets*, speculation about the growing shortage of agricultural products has been increasing, with the closure of the outlets for food, fruits and vegetables in the whole city resulting from the lack of products, and the supposed controlled distribution of these through the rationed food markets (through the ration card).

This time the “subjective” elements of the suppositions are based on the very objective and real price increases in many of the places where agricultural products are sold, and the numerous empty pallets of those establishments.  On the other hand, they deal mostly in foul, low quality products, beaten by the severity of the cyclones and gleaned directly from the ground after being felled by high winds or flooded by heavy rains, leading us to wonder what will happen when these agricultural spoils are also finished.

With the passing of days, and in the midst of the so-called “recovery” it is becoming increasingly more difficult to acquire these and other foods—eggs, for example, have joined the popular list of exotic products—which adds to the rumors.  At the same time, there has been an increase in prices despite the insistence of the official media with regards to the work of the State inspectors who, they say, are levying fines on offenders “who do not meet the established price” in their sales, and who have proceeded to close some of the outlets for aggravating the shortages which, the media tells us, constitutes a solution to the problem

But the rumors also assert other things.  For example, it has been unofficially leaked that an official regulation has been established that prohibits the movement of truckloads of food from towns in the neighborhood of Havana to the capital.  The owners of trucks and vans have been warned that should they commit this “violation” not only their cargo but their vehicle will be confiscated by the police who control the roads leading into the city.  This information, true, was offered to me by a person living in the capital but originally from Güira de Melena, who learned it last Monday, the 22nd when he visited his hometown.    A measure such as this, apart from violating the rights of the producers, reinforces the hypothesis of the return of absolute state control over agriculture and the advent of a new period of worsening food shortages, at least until this crisis is overcome in some way.

For now, even though the large agricultural markets of the capital, such as Cuatro Caminos and that of Ejido, for just a couple examples, remain open for commerce and, under the circumstances, relatively well stocked, there are a variety of kiosks and small markets that have been closing their doors, without it being known for sure why.  Is it a natural scarcity of products as a result of the hurricanes; is it a reflection of the prohibition of transport from nearby towns, suppliers of the great city; or is it the convergence of these and other factors?  What is certain is that on Wednesday, September 24, shortly after noon, the small agricultural markets located at Sitios and Morales, and on Estrella between Infanta  and Xifré (shown in the photo above), commonly places in Central Havana with a lot of activity, were closed.  What is not known is if this was due to some circumstantial event, or if it is permanent.

But we know that whoever draws advantage from the economy, politics and society, must take responsibility for the problems and offer solutions.   It is a consequence of the dispossession of producers and their private capabilities and the excessive nationalization of property.  We’ll see now, when the media has turned food production into a problem of national survival, what official alternative measures they are going to implement to mitigate the looming food shortages.

Translator’s notes:

CUC markets:  Markets where customers must pay in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUCs), one of two currencies in Cuba. The other, Cuban pesos ( formally known as “moneda nacional” or “national money”) is the currency in which Cubans are paid their wages.  The exchange rate is roughly 20-25 Cuban pesos to one CUC.

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Lately the media repeats incessantly one word:  Recovery.  The recent cyclones have left in their wake a trail of devastation that aggravates Cuba’s permanent economic crisis and now threatens its precarious social equilibrium.  So the official press is quick to offer a false spirit of triumph, or at least optimism, to calm the mood.  However, we know unofficially that there have been some outbreaks of “indiscipline,” resulting from the discontent and uncertainty of the population.

In the city of Havana, a large metropolis crowded with over two million inhabitants packed into half-ruined and insufficient housing, numerous families have been removed from their homes because of their actual or imminent collapse.  In recent days there have been devastating scenes of families grouped in front of their buildings amid their furniture and belongings, with wheelbarrows loaded with their most valuable possessions (refrigerators, televisions, mattresses etc.) to be kept in the safer homes of friends or families.  Their faces are a mix of impotence, desperation and rage.  The police, always vigilant in cases like this, don’t allow Cubans like me to take photos.  A Cuban with a camera is always suspect.

There is a general resistance among these families to go to the shelters.  Many argue angrily with the officials and police who insist that they evacuate; the government must accept its responsibility – at least that responsibility – to avoid more deaths from collapsed buildings.   People cling stubbornly to their places, knowing that there is no guarantee nor time limit for return to a particular family home.  The shelters are generally dark places of forced cohabitation, poor hygienic conditions, and dependence on government managers for meals; it all creates a kind of social pressure difficult to control.  These are people who have lost everything, or almost everything, including faith, which makes them more susceptible to violence and rebellion.

Thus, there have already been, in the city, some orchestrated attempts to revolt, primarily on the part of the victims.  It happened last weekend in a shelter located near the central intersection of Belascoaín and Zanja, where a large group of people threw the bread they received from the processing center into the public street as a protest against its poor quality.  The gesture was combined with uproar and shouts but on this occasion, unlike on all others, they didn’t dare call for the “rapid response brigades” to attack the demonstrators.  The authorities know that it is not prudent to perform acrobatics on a tightrope.

This was not an isolated incident of “social indiscipline.”  We know of other incidents, such as an assault on a food warehouse on the Isle of Pines; the refusal of some families–who have chosen to remain on the street permanently, sleeping in the open–to go to one of the sordid mass shelters; the protests of people in Holguin sheltered in the baseball stadium of this eastern city; or the multiple spontaneous forums improvised every day in the long lines at the bread stores where people give free rein to their rage in angry protests against the shortages and the lack of prospects for the future.

On the other hand, the continuing reports of damage to agriculture and to the economy in general leave the threat of food shortages hanging over everything, and deepen the widespread uncertainty.

Just in case, the authorities have taken the precaution of placing a couple of police officers on the night buses.  Some people say that on the troubled routes serving the more marginal neighborhoods they also have a permanent police presence.  That doesn’t inhibit the protests, but at least they can maintain a certain order that may contain violence between individuals.

In any case, there is a tense atmosphere in the city and it’s not likely that people will remain permanently controlled.  There is a contained pressure, a general anxiety, a sense of waiting, although nobody seems to know exactly what they are waiting for.  The feeling of insecurity today touches many, those who lost everything and those who have solid houses and suffered no material loss, but who know that the danger of a social battering is more devastating than any hurricane, affecting everyone without exception and that the recovery from its ravages would be much more difficult.

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The unknown shipwrecked

When, after the passage of the impressive Hurricane Gustav, the Cuban media reported on the “appearance” of five fishermen whose small 12 by 4 meter boat had been shipwrecked on Friday, August 29, amidst the pounding of the cyclone, many were surprised.  How was it possible that they could report the appearance of something without ever having reported its disappearance?  The answer may be found in the mysteries of Cuban statistics.  Because in Cuba, as I have commented on other occasions, the numbers are fickle.   The most important thing, whether they admit it or not, was that lost and endangered people were not reported by the authorities in any media; so that the disappearance of five humble fishermen from Surgidero de Batabanó remained the deepest secret until they turned up, despite the fact that the search for them–according to the official press–had started “from the moment the absence of their boat, a Langostero 100, was detected, after the order to return to port.”

But, even though it was not their intention, the press said more.  Reading between the lines, with a great deal of effort one can infer that the order to return was issued quite late.  If we knew well in advance that a hurricane whose trajectory included the fishing zone of the vessel in question, if starting days earlier they had been informed of the danger of increasingly rough seas south of Cuba, how do you explain that the order to return didn’t go out until the same Friday?  The Granma newspaper, dated September 2, states that the fishermen were rescued “on Monday afternoon, near Ciénaga de Zapata.” Which means that the five men endured three days at sea, without drinking water, without food, without dying of hypothermia.  Is it possible?  From the beginning, the story seems very badly told.

Another apparent slip of the excited newspaper reporter is reflected in the story from one of the shipwrecked men himself, where he states, “We decided to take refuge in a key and setting the anchor to anchor ourselves close to shore, the end broke, so because of that we started the motor to get to solid ground.  At that moment the cable that steers the boat split and we found ourselves adrift.”  This testimony speaks volumes about the technical state of the boat in which our fisherman were navigating and the little concern the labor authorities had for their safety.  The end of the anchor “broke” and then the steering cable “split”?  Is that all?  How do they inspect the vessels of the Camilo Cienfuegos Fishing Fleet?  What guarantees are there that this is the exception and not the rule?  Will the officials charged with overseeing the maintenance of the fishing facilities and equipment and with the safety of these workers take responsibility?   Will the press be informed about what actions will be taken against those responsible for such negligence?

In the midst of such unknowns, it occurs to me to suspect that had the five fishermen never appeared, we would never have learned that they disappeared, certainly not from the Cuban media.  But, in any event, nor in that case would they have reported these victims of Hurricane Gustav and the irresponsibility of the labor organizations in Cuba; our revolution is very great and would not allow it.

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With the passing of days, the catastrophic effects of the relentless Hurricane Gustav, which recently crossed Cuban territory from the Isle of Pines to the province of Pinar del Río, are still becoming apparent.  It is now joined by the destruction caused by Ike, mostly in the regions of eastern and central Cuba before also crossing over Pinar del Río, though it was a less intense Category 1 hurricane.  There are already tens of thousands affected families who have lost their homes and all of their scarce possessions (we know that it is always the poorest who have the worst living conditions and who have the least capacity to protect their belongings).  Electrical service is interrupted across a wide area because of the effects of the cyclone, along with damage to agriculture and other services.

The economy, already mired in a permanent depression, has also been severely shaken.  They say Gustav was the worst hurricane to pummel us in the past 50 years and it appears to be true.  The images of devastation from Gustav and Ike are extraordinary, but they don’t give us even a rough idea of how long it will take to recover from the damage, especially considering that we have never had the chance to recover from the damage caused by cyclones of old—Michelle, Charlie and others—which led to miserable conditions of “shelter” for thousands of Cuban families, many of whom are still “waiting” for a  solution to their problems.  Clearly, the government doesn’t have the capacity to resolve the longstanding and growing economic and housing problems of the population; how much less do those affected have the capacity to manage some recovery from their losses when individuals are absolutely dependent on the insufficient resources of the state.

In the middle of such a dramatic scene and when the first cargo planes bringing relief to recent victims have already begun to arrive, it has emerged that the United States has offered humanitarian aid and the Cuban government has refused to accept it.  At first both governments lodged demands that can be summarized simply as follows: The United States demanded that their specialists be allowed to evaluate the damage before they would send aid.  The Cubans denied access and demanded a lifting of the embargo before they would accept any proposal, based on the assumption that a year of the blockade does more damage to the country than that caused by the hurricane itself.

Recently, the U.S. government agreed to send aid without the presence of inspectors—information not divulged in the Cuban press—but the Cuban authorities insisted that, “Our country does not accept a donation from a government that blockades us…” while at the same time requesting that the U.S. government authorize American companies to sell essential materials to Cuba, and to approve the credits corresponding to these commercial transactions, this according to a notice published in the newspaper Granma on Monday, September 15.  Obviously the Cuban government finds itself in a desperate situation that obliges it to ask for at least a six month grace period from its eternal enemy, no doubt a proposal insufficient to cope with the crisis.  In this saga, the U.S. government is scoring political advantage with a display of good sense in the face of the immobility of its Cuban counterpart.

But the Cuban government did not accept the help of the European Union, either; it is not known on account of what bitterness as they have never blockaded Cuba.  In fact, in the official Cuban media, their offer has not even appeared.  This means that the damage of the cyclone having swept away everything in its path, its victims, thanks to this absurd fundamentalism, are forced to also suffer the ravages of politics.

So far, the Party leaders who have visited the areas of this disaster have called for the people to have “faith in the Revolution.”  But, without a doubt, the victims need much more than faith and promises.  We don’t really know what they think, these hundreds of thousands of families who gather without their own roof and without much hope of having one in the medium term, who shelter in the homes of relatives and neighbors in solidarity, and who depend on the government to feed themselves, although one might suppose that their views would be more in line with the reality of what they are suffering today than with the slogans and interests of politicians of any stripe.  It is no coincidence that we don’t know of a leader of the Revolution whose family has had to seek shelter, or whose house has collapsed, and for this reason it is not them, or those at the highest level of government, who are in the best position to make decisions about rejecting or approving aid.  It would be a wonderful thing if, for a first and blessed time, the human dimension of the tragedy surpassed the interests and political blackmails of the governments and the sectors that represent them, animators of a conflict that from the beginning has always fallen on the same victim: The humble Cubans of the Island.

Photo courtesy of Yoani Sanchez

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