Cuba: A Report from a Country where Silence is Feared (Part II)

Granma is ruled by Granpa

Raúl Castro has made promises about the issue of freedom of the press. So far, though, the only noticeable change has been the extension of the number of pages of the two main daily newspapers Granma and Juventud rebelde. The usual eight pages of the Friday edition have been replaced with sixteen. Today’s main news piece is a text about a congress of “Cuban Residents Abroad against the Blockade and Terrorism” in Miami.

“This is a get-together of a hundred of snoopers, who Fidel Castro sent out in thousands to Cuban communities all over the world as informants,” says a poet and independent journalist Luis Felipe Rojas from a little town San Germán, which is far in the eastern part of Cuba.  The house is infused with the sour smell of sugar cane being processes in a nearby sugar mill. While Luis is talking, more people are coming. These are Luis’s colleagues who are associated with the organization Jóvenes sin cenzura (The Youth without Censorhip), which delivers reports on the life in Holguin province. They publish a magazine of the same name and contribute news reports to the independent Radio Martí. We are welcomed in by the editor in chief Yosvani Anzardo Hernández and the female staff members Lourdes Hernández and Belinda Salas. In addition to this work, both the female journalists also work for The Latin American Federation of Women in Rural Areas (FLAMUR). Currently, they are organizing a national petition for abolishing the double currency – they are collecting signatures, organizing demonstrations and hosting various social and cultural programs for women in rural areas. All these women are between thirty and forty years old.

Two weeks before we arrived, the secret police entered the house of Felipe at night and took him to the police station. “They threatened me saying that if I continued writing news reports, they would file allegations of rape against me. Since Fidel fell ill, the police threats have become stronger. The police, though, do not bully in a overt way and tend not to arrest anyone on the streets. They dress casually and set out while it is dark. Take Yosvani – he was hit by somebody on a motorbike last year and his leg was broken. It is obvious that the regime is afraid and is preparing for what is to come.”

The team sends their articles primarily to the independent station of Radio Martí. They meet in Yosvani’s home, which doubles as the editors’ office, where they dictate texts over the phone. “When something happens to us or one of us gets arrested, we immediately call our friends in Havana or we pass the information on to Radio Martí so that they could broadcast it and make it public on the Internet. We always want to make sure that the regime’s representatives know that there is someone outside the country who knows about their actions, who is aware of what is going on here,” says Yosvani. “What makes things worse for us is that we are very far from the capital, it is over 800 kilometers to Havana. We are isolated here and both material and spiritual support only reaches us with great difficulty. Our only means of communication is by telephone.”

While Havana has been set up as a showcase of changes, where people can see that today Cubans can buy telephones and electrical appliances, people in other provinces have not noticed any changes since the approved products – such as DVD players and often even phones – are either unavailable or are simply unaffordable for the poorer people living in provinces.

Furthermore, the more remote a certain area is from the capital, and consequently outside the interest of tourists and the world, the harsher the repressions the regime has employed over the last year. While an unofficial Cuban PEN Club has been formed in Havana, on the island Isla de la Juventud the head of the local hospital denied treatment to an independent journalist Robert Sánchez Valdes, who suffers from severe diabetes, just because he has published an article saying that his life is hard.

“Being labeled an independent journalist has prevented him from the possibility of receiving insulin regularly,” says Yosvani. “Instead of the sixty doses per month which he needs to receive due to his condition and which he should be fully entitled to, he only received twelve of them. Consequently, his kidneys started to fail, his eyesight has gotten much worse and he is currently running the risk of having to have his leg amputated.”

However, even if someone delivered insulin to Robert, there is no place where he could store it – he does not have a refridgerator since the one had before was confiscated from him last year when the so called “energy revolution” was being carried out. His fridge was taken aways as it was outdated and its energy consumption was way too high above the approved limits.

The editorial staff of Jóvenes sin censura is thoroughly dependant on the mere two computers they are equipped with, one digital camera, which they use to film their report pieces with, and an old Dictaphone, all of which they got from relatives living in Spain and from international non-governmental organizations. “Suprisingly our neighbors support us. Sometimes I feel they see in us as some kind of ombudsmen who they can come up to and talk to about all kinds of injustices that have been done to them,” says a poet and journalist Luis Felipe Rojas while showing us proudly his library and a literary magazine Bifronte that he publishes himself six times a year. With the condition, though, that he is able to get paint and paper, which in Cuba are always in short supply and even the Communist daily Granma has a limited number of pages exactly for this reason. And for the same reason the regime tries to control paper sales and its distribution.

“When there is no paper, the distribution of new issues of our magazine Jóvenes sin censura continues on flash drives or we burn them on CDs. There are now even families that have laptops at home sent to them by their relatives living abroad. And those who have money can get the magazine printed out for them.” And on the screen of a laptop, which they put down on the table with almost religious deference, they show me the magazine’s last issue, which does not lack drawings and caricatures, including a comic strip depicting a story of a transsexual called Pepita.

We say goodbye to the editorial staff of Jóvenes sin censura and head off to Matanzas, a harbor town about two hundred kilometers from Havana. Fernando, who sidles up to us on the street and offers us a lift. From behind the windows of his red VW Golf images pass by – a tropical countryside replaces deserted factory halls, towns are replaced with blocks of apartments, and Fiat cars are replaced by horse drawn carriages.

The highway, which almost crosses the whole of Cuba, is lined with people selling cheese, marmalade, garlic and potatoes. The sale of such items is, of course, not legal. A police car in front of us, however, passes them and they make no effort to run away. We witness just another glimpse of the tolerated black market. Owners of private family enterprises, which make up of about 250 of such businesses in Cuba, are otherwise obliged to pay high taxes to the state.

“I do not believe that Cuba is going to change with Raúl as its head in any significant way. One brother is no different from another brother. First of all, for there to be a change, both of them must be gone.” And Fernando starts telling a story of how he wanted to sell a car to his son. There was a hitch to it. To be able to do so, he would first need to get “a blessing” from the state, which would in turn keep a certain percentage from the deal.

Even when Cubans want to move towns, they have to apply to the authorities for permission,” says Fernando. “To move to Havana is almost impossible if you do not know who you have to bribe.”

Crushed stones start cracking under our car tires. We are entering a broken side road. The highway is frequented by regular police checks, which means that if the police got to know that Fernando was carrying tourists, he would be in trouble. “I have already gotten one fine for providing illegal taxi services. If I get caught again, I would end up behind bars.”

Cuban Palestine

The ban on moving has given rise to a large settlement made up of illegal immigrants from eastern provinces in Havana. It is called Cambute and it is of one the most bizarre Cuban communities, where people are not afraid to voice their dislike of the regime. It comes no surprise that taxi-drivers refuse to take us there.

“Where did you say you want to go?”

“To the neighborhood of Cambute, it is on the way to the airport.”

“I don’t go there. You can try to find another idiot who would go there,” one of them is sending us away sourly. Eventually, when we offer to pay more, he agrees. Cambute’s reputation in Havana is that it is an explosive place. The village, created from metal and wooden shacks, houses around 400 families. The camp was erected on a pile of garbage and has been home to several generations of people. The only crime of the people who are trying to make this place their home is that they came from “Palestine”, which is what the eastern provinces of Cuba go by here. Coming from “Palestine” is a crime serious enough that the inhabitants of this place have no right to the food vouchers. Wrecks are smoldering all around, foul odor lingers in the air and a sewage drain full of waste runs freely on our left hand side. Two poor looking pigs are standing in the middle of it searching for food and small children are playing a game based on shopping by forming lines and then being offered a half-burnt plastic bottle or a stone by a salesperson.

We are being followed cautiously until one woman, Neri Castillo, starts talking to us: “My husband and I came here from the eastern provinces. He was sent to work here as part of a contingent here in Havana. That was about fifteen years ago. We were living in a zone Casa Blanca but the government moved us out. I was seven months pregnant then. It was all simple, one evening they came with cranes to tear down our house. I ran to the back towards a hill, from which all I could do was look from the distance. Then we found this place for the illegal.” It comes as no surprise that this place is prone to giving rise to revolts. “In Cambute the opposition to the government is very strong, “says Neri. “One day at daybreak we covered every single free space with messages and posters saying Cambio! (Change!). Nevertheless, the police were quick to react and in no time they destroyed all of the posters, detained local people and threatened the locals. So, in defiance, we set up an independent library. They just cannot harm us any more, we couldn’t sink any lower, and therefore we have nothing left to fear.”

Leave a comment