"Nobody is in agreement…It’s that, no one says it and no one takes the risk to say it, to speak the truth. That’s what is happening. In other words, one of the foundations, of what are the regimes in the entire world, in all of history, has been fear and lies. In other words, once you are in fear that's when you don’t take a risk, where you collect yourself and don’t unite…understood? To be in fear is not to offer help to anyone because that signifies risk." -Gorki Águila Carrasco, lead singer, guitarist of the music group Porno Para Ricardo and political prisoner
"Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand." --Jose Marti

View Che Guevara's Forgotten Victims on Scribd



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fidel Castro's Friend, Harry Belafonte

Castro's treatment of Blacks in Cuba
Harry Belafonte Insults Herman Cain—but Hails Fidel Castro

- Humberto Fontova Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Harry Belafonte recently denounced Herman Cain as a “bad apple” as a “false Negro” and as someone “denied intelligence” and “denied a view of history” (whatever that means.) His host Joy Behar snickered her approval of Belafonte’s every vocalization, often before they were decipherable.

“If you believe in justice,” vocalized Mr Belafonte in an interview with Cuba’s propaganda ministry years earlier, “if you believe in democracy, if you believe in people’s rights, if you believe in the harmony of all humankind—then you have no choice but to back Fidel Castro as long as it takes!”

If only Herman Cain were a lily-white Stalinist whose regime murdered more people in its first three years in power than Hitler’s murdered in its first six, jailed and tortured political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin’s—including the longest suffering black political prisoners in modern history. If only Herman Cain proposed policies to plunge a nation more prosperous than half of Europe’s into one that repels Haitians. If only he’d driven into exile—even with machine-gunners and Tiger Sharks as dutiful border guards—20 per cent of the population from a nation formerly flooded with immigrants.

Instead Herman Cain spent most of his life creating wealth and promoting freedom. He personifies the antithesis to the disaster and horror known as Castroism. This grates on Harry Belafonte.

“The Negro is indolent and spends his money on frivolities and drink, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent,” wrote AWS hero Che Guevara in his diaries. Shortly after entering Havana, Che took a break from signing death warrants and blasting apart the skulls of defenseless men and boys, exhaled, wiped his brow and gave a radio conference. A black listener asked him what the revolution planned to do for Cuba’s blacks. “We’re going to do for Cuba’s blacks exactly what they did for the Cuban revolution. By which I mean nothing!”

“VIVA CHE!—VIVA FIDEL!” roared Harry Belfonte’s friend Jesse Jackson , arm in arm with Castro at the University of Havana in 1994.

Actually, Che was much too modest. “Nothing” is not an accurate description of Castroite treatment of Cuba’s blacks. Fidel and Raul Castro are sons of a European Imperial soldier (Angel Castro) who butchered Cuban patriots for pay by the King of Spain. Then came the son’s turn. First off, by media manipulation, terrorism and guile (NOT guerrilla war) they overthrew a Cuban government where Cuban blacks had served as President of the Senate, Minister of Agriculture, Chief of Army, and Head of State (Fulgencio Batista a grandson of slaves who was born in a palm-roofed shack in the Cuban countryside.) These blacks had all served elective and appointed office in a nation 72 per cent white, by the way.

Not that you’ll learn any of this from the liberals’ exclusive educational source on pre-Castro Cuba: the Godfather II movie, which is probably still an improvement over what the Ivy League teaches. Today the prison population in Stalinist/Apartheid Cuba is 90% black while only 9% of the ruling Stalinist party is black. Many of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents today are black, many female. Were they opposing anyone but the Left’s favorite poster boys, the MSM would have made them household names long ago. Think Rigoberta Menchu and Winnie Mandela.

In 1980 Harry Belafonte visited Cuba to collude with Castro’s KGB founded and mentored propaganda ministry for a documentary in his honor titled, “I Look at My Life.” Within walking distance of where Belafonte posed for Castro’s cameras detailing the horrors of life for black Americans, the world’s longest-suffering black political prisoner languished in a torture-chamber.

“N*gger!” taunted his Castroite jailers between tortures. “We pulled you down from the trees and cut off your tail!” Shortly before his death in 2006, this prisoner, Eusebio Penalver, granted this writer an interview. “For months I was naked in a 6 x 4 foot cell,” Eusebio recalled. “That’s 4 feet high, so you couldn’t stand. But I felt a great freedom inside myself. I refused to commit spiritual suicide.” Eusebio Penalver suffered longer in Castro’s prisons than Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa’s.

On another of Belafonte’s almost annual visits to Cuba he again posed for Castro’s propaganda ministry complaining about the stifling censorship in the U.S. “In the U.S. people don’t know the truth,” he vocalized for Castro’s press in 2002. Within walking distance of his fulminations against U.S. racism and censorship, Black human-rights activist, Dr. Oscar Biscet was being kicked, spat upon, and burned with cigarettes in a Castroite torture chamber. Cuban doctor, Oscar Elias Biscet had been sentenced to 25 years in Castro’s gulag for public readings of the Works of Martin Luther King and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Shortly after Belafonte’s Cuba visit in Dec. 2009 the Black human-rights activist Orlando Zapata-Tamayo, was beaten comatose by his Castroite jailers and left with a life-threatening fractured skull and Subdural Hematoma. A year later Zapata-Tamayo was dead after a lengthy hunger-strike. Samizdats smuggled out of Cuba by eye-witnesses’ report that while gleefully kicking and bludgeoning Tamayo, his Castroite jailers yelled: “Worthless N*gger!—Worthless Peasant!”

Apparently Castro’s KGB-founded and trained police regarded all of the above blacks as “bad-apples.” And surely the MSM kept you as informed about this half century of racist horrors 90 miles from U.S. shores as they did about Nelson Mandela’s travails, 8000 miles from U.S. shores.

Humberto Fontova is the author of four books including “Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him.” Visit hfontova.com. Humberto can be reached at letters@canadafreepress.com

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Under the Table by Julia Cooke

Under the Table
by Julia Cooke August 2011

An American living in Cuba discovers Havana’s black-market epicurean scene.

cuba575.jpg Photograph via Flickr by noborders

We prepared and ate family dinners together nearly every night throughout my childhood and adolescence, each of us taking a role in the family kitchen. Chopping, measuring, setting the table, stirring. Meals were rituals.

I’m standing on the porch of a rose-colored mansion in downtown Havana, waiting in line to enter the tienda de los rusos—the Russian store. It’s a room in the back of an embassy building where diplomatic imports are sold, cans of vegetables labeled in script I can’t read. I’ve seen them perched on the shelves of a musician friend of mine, Fernando. I’m not sure whether it’s legal since, technically, only the Cuban government can import and sell goods in this communist state. Yesterday afternoon, I was turned away from the gate by a man who asked if I was Russian. When I said I wasn’t, he told me to return this morning, and I walked in without a problem. I’ve been in Havana long enough to know that legality is malleable here. But I am nervous enough that I notice with some relief that the fuchsia and white bougainvilleas climbing the house’s fence hide the group of fifteen gathered people from the street.

We stand in clusters, the line visually disorganized but structurally rigid. A middle-aged woman sits between a teenage boy and girl and speaks to them alternately in jolty Russian and lilting Cuban. The man in front of me in line carries a bag that says “Es hora de estudiar Ruso!” (It’s time to study Russian!) As my turn to enter approaches, I have little idea of how large or small the shop is. All I know is what I’ve seen of the small, succulent canned mushrooms and that my landlady, Elaine, says they carry cheap, delicious fruit-flavored black teas. The only vegetables I’ve seen in Havana’s understocked grocery stores during the six months I’ve lived here are mealy canned peas and watery carrots. The only tea I can find is bland and overpriced. When Elaine gave me the address, she asked me to pick up extra for her. As it’s my turn, I step into the small, dark room, where the only light that enters is through two green-tinted windows.


I had been in Havana before, while studying abroad in college, and had made subsequent trips to the city. But this was the longest stretch I’d spent here. Havana’s contradictions fascinated me: TV news shows that railed against the yanqui imperialistas followed by reruns of Friends; empty supermarket shelves and hidden restaurants that served delicious platters of food; the fact that in a police state that threw political dissidents into jail, the open secret of Havana was that everyone did something illegal to augment the meager offerings of the ration books. At every turn, on each trip I took to the city, I learned something new about how life was lived there, and these discoveries thrilled me. I had begun to work on a book about youth culture in Havana a year before moving, taking month-long research trips and returning to where I was living in Mexico City. By the time I decided to head there for a year, my intellectual and professional goals also hid a vague personal curiosity: coming as I did from the rigid United States, I wanted to see if I could adapt to the more nuanced moral code that seemed to govern how people lived in Havana.

Buying food on the black market seemed to me like the difference between dealing with Havana and actually living there.

I had known since my first trip to the country that supermarket shelves there were lined with mealy canned vegetables; tin after tin of dark, oily tuna; ramen soups made in China; sugary cookies from Brazil; and beef as tough as hours-old chewing gum. There was rarely fresh bread or toilet paper. I never once saw aluminum foil or Ziploc bags anywhere in Havana. Grocery lists were little more than wishful thinking.

Even when I moved there at the end of the summer of 2009, the Cuban government was still trying to find a way back from the economic crisis that had followed the fall of the USSR in 1991, the innocuously dubbed “special period in a time of peace.” The national economy had lost around 80 percent of imports and exports and over a third of its GDP; the country had plunged into a poverty so deep that my friends’ parents told me stories of marinating and frying banana peels and grapefruit rinds. They called these dishes “cutlets” and ate them on bread. Throughout the nineties, the U.S. embargo had been continually tightened as Washington lawmakers and Miami exiles anticipated an overthrow that never materialized. Instead, certain policies on the island had been relaxed—the use of U.S. dollars was legalized, tourism was encouraged, and farmers were allowed to buy permits and sell directly to buyers at agromercados, fresh fruit and vegetable stands. Cubans got by, even if adults lost an average of 5 to 25 percent of their total body weight between 1990 and 1995. Decades later, the embargo still limits not only travel by U.S. citizens and trade by the government, but also sanctions companies from other countries that do business with Cuba. The imported goods in supermarkets include Canadian muesli priced at $14, about as much as a Cuban on a government salary earns in a month.

Somehow, though, I ate delicious meals at friends’ houses, welcome-back dinners generously served as if people knew that I was beginning to question putting my possessions into storage in Mexico City for a year. In the week following my September 2009 move, a diplomat friend who’d been there for nearly a decade made a noodle stir-fry with strips of chicken, fresh kale, beets and sesame seeds. Fernando was an expert ceviche-maker; he and his girlfriend invited me over for tangy, fresh fish piled atop saltine crackers, accompanied by cool bottles of Heineken. The next week, when I went to see my apartment for the first time, Elaine pushed me into a chair and served a moist, basic tortilla española made of inexpensive staples: eggs, potatoes and green peppers.

These feasts took on mythic proportions in my mind. I lay in bed each night in my rented apartment, my stomach sated and my curiosity piqued, and they grew into banquet tables piled high with food that I could not find in any store. Good meals in Havana seemed like a challenge and a stand, an insistence on the importance of sensuality over utility and as such, a secondhand political statement. Perhaps as a result, it felt more decadent to eat delicious food in Havana, renowned as it is for stringy chicken and dry rice, than elsewhere. As I faced months of supermarket trips filled with canned tuna but no fresh fish, the task of discovering how these friends procured their food became imperative. I wasn’t sure what the penalties were for buying food on the black market, but judging by how prevalent it was, I wanted to risk it. I’d steer clear of buying red meat—I knew that slaughtering a cow in Cuba carried a jail sentence, since they were so scarce—but as for the rest, it seemed to me like the difference between dealing with Havana and actually living there.


I’d always been a people-watcher. Throughout September and October, I watched people at the bus stops. Groups of three and four arrived together at the stop near where I lived on the outskirts of elegant Miramar, where the dilapidated wings of ornate sugar-baron mansions housed entire extended families. Neatly dressed men calmly checked their watches to see how late they’d be for work and joined other knots of people waiting in the dusty shade of a nearby tree. The tree’s roots had grown thick and high, like a large woman with ankles and toes swollen from the heat, and they served as knobby benches. Scrawny men shambled by and bummed lights from smokers (cigarettes were cheaper than lighter fluid). They stuck around to chat for a few minutes before discarding the butts and walking away. Women pushed heavy baby strollers over sidewalks that had cracked into broken tents of cement. Every so often, they lifted up the blankets they’d draped atop the carriages for someone to see inside.

It looked like everyone knew each other, but that wasn’t quite what was going on. Bus stops were hives of black-market activity. Strollers sometimes carried food, not children. Some of these people sold items like soda or yogurt that had been either skimmed from stockrooms or brought to them from relatives abroad. Embargo regulations limit how much money Cubans living in Miami or New Jersey can send to a family on the island, but many get around these laws by bringing portable items that the government doesn’t buy with regularity: costume jewelry, disposable diapers, boxer briefs, cheap lipstick.

I was seen as a tourist. In Havana, you are either Cuban or you are a tourist. In the dual economy, foreign residents spend kooks just like tourists. The Cuban convertible peso (CUC), or kook, is pegged to the dollar and buys all imported goods. But locals are paid their paltry monthly salaries in moneda nacional, the local peso, roughly twenty-six to one CUC. I was pushed out of the target market by my access to hard currency and the knowledge that, with an exit visa and a passport, I would eventually leave Cuba. Still, I wanted to eat well, and though I knew as well as the hustlers who approached me on the street with offers of cheap Cohibas that I was indelibly not Cuban, I refused to accept my outsider status.

“Where did you get this jamón serrano?” I asked Fernando, my musician friend, as we ate slices of it with red wine one October evening. I had spent weeks casting longing looks at his well-stocked fridge. Fer seemed to live in shabby Havana as luxuriously as if it were Paris. But inquiring about such contacts was an intimate step in any friendship: black-market vendors assumed a certain risk that depended on the discretion of their clients. There was a limited amount of good food for sale on the island. One more person on the demand end would only dilute the product and drive up its price. But Fernando didn’t hesitate. He thumbed through his iPhone and read me the number of the man I would come to call Mr. Dean & Deluca after the gourmet grocery I’d sometimes shopped at in New York. I felt flattered.

The next afternoon, I called. The man who answered told me what he had—bacon, jamón serrano, blue cheese, parmesan, wines, and olive oil, though at later dates he’d have smoked salmon and mozzarella, too. I placed my order.

The first time Mr. Dean & Deluca came over with a delivery, it was late October and the morning air was cool. I waited at my window. When I saw him, I leaned out of the building’s shadow and called his name softly. He was a thirty-something guy with a serious expression and abundantly gelled hair. I pointed at the rickety spiral staircase at the back. Bottles clanked against one another as he lugged them up the two flights to my apartment.

He set out my order on my glass-topped table. Two bottles of Chilean cabernet sauvignon that retailed for $9 in the state stores, two for $10 from him. One liter of satisfyingly green olive oil. A four-pound bag of grated parmesan cheese. A fifteen-pound, shrink-wrapped haunch of cured jamón serrano.

I looked over the heap with a mixture of awe, glee, and confusion. “Great, so, how are we going to cut this?” I asked him, nodding to the ham.

He blinked.

“You said you wanted Serrano,” he said, the crease between his eyebrows deepening in confusion. “If you’d told me you wanted half of a jamón Serrano, maybe I could have found another client who wanted to split this one and delivered half and half, but it’s too late for that now. If you don’t want it, I’ll find someone else.”

Fifteen pounds of delicate cured ham was still fifteen pounds of pig.

“But what am I going to do with all of this?” I waved my arms vaguely, as if trying to help him see how big the ham looked in my small space.

“Well, mira, what most of my clients do, they go to one of the supermarkets and give the guy behind the meat counter a dollar or two to slice it really thin on the machine,” he said. Clearly, he had misunderstood. Fifteen pounds of delicate cured ham was still fifteen pounds of pig.

I retreated into my bedroom to phone friends who might share half—a third, a quarter, anything. No one answered. The thought of saying goodbye to a glistening, pink Serrano ham—when the only meat I could find was tough steak, stringy chicken and endless quantities of pork—tugged at my gourmet heartstrings. If I didn’t want it, someone else certainly would. This was the food that usually went straight to the restaurants at the best hotels, imported from Canada and Venezuela and reserved for the real tourists on whom the Cuban economy depends. Filched by the entrepreneurs of Havana’s tomorrow, they were passed down a chain of black-market vendors and sold in wholesale quantities to the people living in Havana with disposable kooks, including frustrated foodies like me.

Seventy dollars later, I was the proud owner of a Serrano ham the size of a small child. I stared at it for a few minutes after Mr. Dean & Deluca left. I didn’t think I had a knife long enough to slice all the way through. I cleared the bottom half of my fridge.

Later that evening, I pulled out my biggest carving knife, put on an apron and tried to hack off a chunk. I couldn’t saw through it properly so I knocked sheepishly on Elaine’s door. After her husband, Nicolas, had successfully sliced some of the ham, I brought a plate over to their apartment. Elaine was stirring the spaghetti and talking to her two sons. She waved me into a seat, pulled out some saltines, and we ate Serrano ham and crackers as I listened in on their gossip, the news of the neighborhood. When dinner was ready Elaine set a place for me at her table. After the meal, the five of us sat around their dining room table for a few more hours and discussed the ever-polemical situation of Cuba as if the Communist leadership had asked our opinion.

I got a text message from an ex-pat friend who said he’d take half the ham. I shaved pieces from the remaining portion and ate them with fresh tomato and crackers. Elaine used the chunks of fat that I discarded to flavor stews that would later appear in Tupperware containers in my fridge. All in all, the ham disappeared much faster than I’d anticipated.


Our Miramar apartment building didn’t look like much: shaggy, dry palm trees and an empty reflecting pool in the front, a humidity-pocked façade, and yellowed, masking-taped X’s on most of the windows. The exterior didn’t match the shining marble floors in the individual apartments, the rich wood window frames, tall banana-leaf plants that towered over the couch in Elaine’s living room, the bright light and cross-ventilation that caught the breeze from the ocean four blocks away. The lush ambiance contrasted with the building’s dilapidated exterior to create exactly the mysterious feeling I loved about Havana. I rented a small, mostly independent apartment in the rear of their larger one.

By then, the anxiety of participating in black-market activity had mostly faded into the radio static of daily life.

Elaine was a vivacious housewife who’d given up her state job as a psychologist to rent out the back half of her apartment. As the months passed, Elaine and I bonded, somewhat to the chagrin of her sons, who at nineteen and twenty-two were not accustomed to so much estrogen in the house, so much talk of cooking and cuticles.

Her family bought almost nothing from the government import shops. Items that she regularly purchased through illegal means included cheese, eggs, fish (fresh and frozen), yogurt, tomato paste, coffee, horse meat (cheaper, gamier and tougher than beef and thus better for ropa vieja, the classic Cuban stewed beef dish), wine (when there was money for it, which was not often), clothing, acetone for removing nail polish, pots and pans, and diesel fuel for the car her son sometimes drove. Communist Party officials with state cars sold whatever they didn’t use of their rationed gas and diesel.

Elaine became my tutor in all things Cuban, especially in matters of the home. The first month I lived with her, she mapped out which of the city’s understocked grocery stores was most likely to carry toilet paper at any given time. The second month, I learned not to buy the eggs from the store but to wait until the man from the countryside stopped by to sell directly to her; his fresh eggs had the creamiest yolks I’d ever tasted. Shortly after, Elaine passed along the number of her favorite black-market fishmonger, whose small red snappers she baked with butter, cilantro, and onion. A woman across the street used an ancient sewing machine to adjust the ill-fitting clothes that passed among friends and neighbors, since clothing was rarely discarded; when Elaine saw that I needed a skirt taken in, she suggested I knock on her unmarked door. She had sent me to the small Russian store, from which I returned with my canvas grocery bag laden with three boxes of tea, biscuits, succulent canned sardines, and white chocolate. By then, the anxiety of participating in black-market activity had mostly faded into the radio static of daily life.

The privileged class of Havanans—those who rented to foreigners or owned paladares, the in-home restaurants legalized in the effort to attract tourists to Havana, artists, musicians, people with family abroad and the government elite—knew the tricks to eating well. Good food was a luxury that was invisible to the eyes of the poorer Cubans, the ones who lived in the inland neighborhoods of the city far from the sea or in crowded old Havana, who tried to make ends meet with government salaries of $15 per month and the occasional windfall from a foreigner, relative or black-market scheme of their own.

I felt equal parts glee and indignation as I marveled at how she found a way around any and every problem, dietary or otherwise.

So I picked up Elaine’s tricks. I began to buy in fives, because I never knew when a given item would vanish from the shops. I had the money to shop at kook stores, but if whatever I was looking for hadn’t been imported, it did me little good. Milk had once disappeared from shelves for a month, and toilet paper, too. I hardly even drank milk, but to know that it was not available inspired a frenzy in me that I hadn’t felt before in either Mexico or the U.S. Elaine looked on with amusement in her dark eyes as my pantry grew. “Hija mía,” she’d say with an emphatic shake of the head that made her thick, dark ponytail wag, “you’ve acquired what we call ‘Cuban Stockpiling Syndrome.’” Between local mismanagement and the U.S. embargo, the tattered national economy had bred a nation of housewives who hoarded, when they had the money, against next month’s shortages.

What Elaine enjoyed about her role as my daily life coach, I thought, was my reaction to the steps she took to achieve a comfortable life in Havana. I felt equal parts glee and indignation as I marveled at how she found a way around any and every problem, dietary or otherwise. My dual responses validated her sense that the hurdles she cleared to keep food on her family’s table and toilet paper in their bathroom were set absurdly high, high enough that I was awestruck that less privileged Cubans could get over them at all.

By December, I had begun to eat the big lunches Elaine prepared with her whole family. I often just sat at the table and talked as she stirred her stews. One afternoon, I came to her with man troubles, and we talked as she made her rich ropa vieja; the agile family cat climbed around her kitchen, rattling the glassware that Elaine kept on the windowsill above her sink in a symphony of impending disaster. Carlos, her older son, blustered in and out between watching illegally downloaded episodes of American Idol on the family computer. Soon he sat down across from me, interjecting hyperbolic statements and waving his hands for emphasis. Elaine shouted to silence him, but smiled as soon as she turned her back. The conversation turned to politics and gender roles, and Elaine leaned against the counter, gesticulating with a wooden spoon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a bit of cleavage peeking from the top of her apron. As we ate the pulled meat that draped lankily over our forks, food felt like something we came to as equals, insisting together on eating as a sensual experience rather than the utilitarian act of fueling our bodies.

The apartment I rented from Elaine was illegal, since she didn’t have a state permit to rent to a foreigner. If on a vengeful, envious whim, someone in the building had decided to turn her in, Elaine stood to have her home confiscated. But she risked it because, while she had to watch what she spent every month in order to support her family of four, she was, by Cuban standards, living very well. Besides, she wanted to save up for her move. She and her family were trying to emigrate—a relative in Miami was processing family reunification visas for them.

A few days after my trip to the Russian store, Elaine looked at me oddly as we smoked our afternoon cigarette at her table. “Hija, you’ve been here too long,” she said. “You’ve adapted to how things work. This is why nothing ever changes here—adaptation.” I should not accept things as being exotic and different from what I was accustomed to and therefore fine, she seemed to suggest, interesting as long as she and I and Fernando had good food on our tables, played the role of the law-flouting, danger-tempting aesthetes.

“Some things are simply not fine,” she said; some things are hardly tolerable.


Elaine and Nicolas moved to Miami last April. When I went to Havana in May, her sons were living in their apartment alone. They waited for interviews with the U.S. Interests Section in order to join their parents and they rented out the apartment and another room for cash. Since they were the last immediate family members in the country, the apartment would likely become government property when they left.

Last spring, Raul Castro announced new economic regulations, including permits that Cubans could buy to legally earn money for a number of non-professional jobs—any activity that the government hadn’t trained someone to do at a university, that didn’t involve buying and re-selling goods. Clowns, pastry-makers, dog-walkers, handymen. As I explored the city, I found new restaurants and hand-lettered signs advertising that this person was a seamstress and that family sold home-made candles for religious ceremonies. But Mr. Dean & Deluca was busy as ever and the girl who’d given me two-kook manicures hadn’t sought the permit. The government wanted to harness some of the gray market undertow that roared beneath the communist surface of impoverished Cuba, but many cuentapropistas—the legal term for these entrepreneurs—didn’t bother.

While I was visiting Elaine’s sons, a cousin of Elaine’s and her husband came over. She asked for coffee and he dropped a stuffed backpack on the floor.

“We’re not leaving,” the husband said to Carlos, Elaine’s older son. “When you leave for the United States, this apartment should go to us, not the government, but in order for that to happen, we have to live here first. I’ll sleep here even if it’s on the floor.”

I told him how giddy his father had sounded on the phone after his first trip to a Miami supermarket, how we giggled at everything.

When Carlos said no, that the apartment was his, the cousin began to shout. “We know that you’re doing things that shouldn’t be done here. We know that you’re renting to a foreigner in the back,” she cried—a Chilean had moved into my old apartment—“and we’ll call the police.”

Carlos told her to leave and never come back, but he was shaken. If the cousin followed through, not only could he lose his family’s apartment, but the exit permits for Carlos and his brother would be in jeopardy. Why would the government do a favor, give passports for people who’d been flouting its laws?

We sat at the kitchen table, talking, and Carlos’s hands trembled as he lit one cigarette after another. His brother was in the back telling the Chilean he’d have to find other accommodations. I told Carlos about his parents, and how I had spoken to Elaine on the phone frequently since she’d arrived in the U.S. I told him how giddy his father had sounded on the phone after his first trip to a Miami supermarket, how we giggled at everything: the meat in the meat case, the carts with wheels that didn’t stick, the excessive plenitude that he knew would wind up creating other anxieties for him.

“I’m like a frozen fish that can’t see anything,” Nicolas had said.

Carlos’s black eyes—Elaine’s eyes—had lit up and he let out two sharp, short guffaws. He’d chosen to apply for a visa to Argentina, too; he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of joining the ranks of Miami Cubans. He’d never had a job in Cuba and spoke minimal English. He feared he’d get a mediocre job that he’d get stuck in for years in order to make rent, essentially flipping from one extreme to another. Carlos didn’t want to trade bored, nervous stasis in Cuba for uncomfortable treadmill capitalism stateside. Elaine was hysterical, convinced that hers would be just another family separated by the political battle between the two countries.

In the end, what Carlos wanted was to leave Cuba and make his life elsewhere, so whichever visa came through first, he said, he’d take, “because staying isn’t an option.” I understood his arguments; I agreed with them. All he could do was wait. In six months, he would know.


Julia Cooke is working on a book that combines memoirs of the year she spent in Havana in 2009-10 with in-depth reportage on youth culture in the city. She is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University. Prior to moving to New York, she lived and worked in Havana and Mexico City as a cultural journalist; her journalism and essays from both cities have been published in The Smart Set, Monocle, The Christian Science Monitor, Metropolis, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), and other magazines.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pura Del Prado "Aqui No!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Orlando Zapata

6x6 from wall to wall
shutters on the windows, no light at all
damp on the floor, you got damp in your bed
they're trying to get you crazy get you out of your head
and they feed you scraps, and they feed you lies
to lower your defenses, no compromise
nothing you can do, the day can be long
your body is working overtime your body's not too strong

Hold on
they put you in a box so you can't get heard
let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred
hold on
you have gambled with your own life
and you face the night alone
while the builders of the cages
sleep with bullets bars and stone
they do not see your road to freedom
that you build with flesh and bone

they take you out and the light burns your eyes
to the talking room-it's no surprise
loaded questions from clean white coats
their eyes are all as hidden as their Hippocratic Oath
they tell you how to behave, behave as their guest
you want to resist them, you do your best
they take you to your limits, they take you beyond
for all that they are doing there's no way to respond

Hold on
they put you in a box so you can't get heard
let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred
hold on
you have gambled with your own life
and you face the night alone
while the builders of the cages
sleep with bullets bars and stone
they do not see your road to freedom
that you build with flesh and bone

Though you may disappear you're not forgotten here
And I will say to you, I will do what I can do
and I will do what I can do

Sunday, February 20, 2011

1994 Uprising

Monday, January 17, 2011

Julia Stiles on Being Stranded in Havana

Julia Stiles on Being Stranded in Havana

Julia Stiles

WILL BEG, BORROW OR STEAL: When actress Julia Stiles (pictured) found out she'd been nominated for a Golden Globe in Havana last December, she was too preoccupied trying to brainstorm her way home for the news to sink in.

With three days left to go in my trip, I was walking around Havana flat broke. I had been spending my convertibles, the secondary currency used by tourists, like Monopoly money. I figured when my cash supply got low, I'd simply slow down my spending. With funds dwindling, I realized I had miscalculated the cost of my lodging, and forgotten about the exit fee at the airport. Cuba is not a place where one can access American banks or use credit cards, so if you run out of cash you cannot get anything. You can't even get off the island. I had been staying in a casa particular, where specific families are licensed to rent out a bedroom in their homes by the night. The couple putting me up had become like my surrogate Cuban parents; Carlos knew just how I took my coffee, and would stay up waiting for me if I came home late at night. We would sit in their sun room and chat about everything from rations to folkloric dance, and I couldn't bear the thought of not being able to pay my bill. When he tried to teach me a Spanish phrase using the tricky subjunctive tense, the example he gave translated to, "I would go out with you tonight if I had the money..." I almost choked on my own tongue. What could I sell? Who did I know that I wouldn't be ashamed to ask for a loan? How would I ever reimburse Carlos and his wife if I couldn't send a check back from the States? I thought about reciting monologues in the Plaza Vieja for spare change.

Julia Stiles

With only three days left to go in, Stiles found herself walking around Havana flat broke.

I could swallow my pride and ask to borrow from someone in the humanitarian aid group that brought me, but they had already left for the other side of the island. With few cell phones, most everyone is still accustomed to leaving messages at someone's home and waiting for a return call. My younger sister, who was there with her college, had agreed to cover for me. That is, if anyone could find the person to unlock the dormitory safe, and that could take days. I knew I might not starve, but I would have to beg, borrow or steal to pay for the rest of my stay.

Julia Stiles

Cuba is not a place where one can access American banks or use credit cards, so if you run out of cash you cannot get anything.

I replayed every expense that had gotten me to this point. If only I had argued with the taxi drivers more. If only I had waited in the very long lines with the locals for a better exchange rate, instead of lazily going to the Hotel Nacional. I was under the impression I had been quite frugal, but I was so accustomed to thoughtlessly using credit cards, I had underestimated how much cash to bring even just for the basics.

There are two currencies in Cuba, one for tourists and one for Cubans, and therefore two prices for everything. The first day I arrived, I wandered into the part of town everyone warned against to hear some live rumba. The music was free, but the overall experience was not. Two women decided to take me under their wing, explaining customs and the symbolism behind their dances. In exchange, they seemed only to want me to buy them drinks, and I was happy to oblige. "From each according to his ability," I figured. It's easy to romanticize the socialist ideals graffitied on every concrete wall, because generosity seems to be contagious. Obviously the reality is more complex.

Julia Stiles

Stiles learned that Cubans have had to become resourceful in order to survive.

I needed to access my email in order to have a glimmer of hope that my group might learn of my dilemma, which was unlikely, considering virtually no one has internet access in their home. Even the controversial blogger Yoani Sanchez uses a flash drive to upload her blog posts at hotel kiosks. When I met her days before, I noticed paint on her hand and asked if she was a painter as well as a writer. Chuckling, she told me she was doing construction on her house—literally, as in she was doing it herself. She told me that every Cuban has to be resourceful in order to survive.

I knew that the painfully slow connection at a hotel was too expensive for me at this point, but I was told of a student's residence hall that had a computer room. I snuck in and logged on to their ancient PC. Of course I got caught, but pleaded with the attendant to just give me five minutes. Before I was able to address my cash situation, an email from friends back in the States sidetracked me, congratulating me on a Golden Globe nomination. There I was, thrilled to have received such a professional honor, yet still unable to barter it for cab fare.

Julia Stiles

There are two currencies in Cuba, one for tourists and one for Cubans, and therefore two prices for everything.

In Havana, everything can seem poetic. At movie theaters and baseball games, a few entrepreneurial people strap cardboard boxes to their shoulders and sell "Rositas de Maiz." Instead of calling it popcorn, though, Cubans refer to the treat as "little roses of corn." As elated as I was about the recognition from my industry, it would afford me no special treatment on this remote and yet not-so-distant island.

Eventually the Keeper of the Safe was located, and I was able to borrow money to pay for my housing. My host generously offered to drive me to the airport in his 25-year-old stick shift, and I boarded the flight to Miami. With all of its crumbling beauty, Havana taught me the true value of a dollar. It also taught me that the people you know, and the ways in which you rely on one another, are more valuable than any paper currency.

—Ms. Stiles will be appearing on Broadway this spring in the Neil LaBute play "Fat Pig."

New Prize in Cold War: Cuban Doctors

New Prize in Cold War: Cuban Doctors


Felix Ramírez slipped into an Internet cafe in the West African nation of The Gambia, scoured the Web for contact information for U.S. diplomats, then phoned the U.S. embassy in Banjul, the capital.

Associated Press

Cuban doctors, shown above treating a patient in Haiti, have been dispatched across the globe

He told the receptionist he was an American tourist who had lost his passport, and asked to speak to the visa section. As he waited to be connected, he practiced his script: "I am a Cuban doctor looking to go to America. When can we meet?"

Dr. Ramírez says he was told to go to a crowded Banjul supermarket and to look for a blond woman in a green dress—an American consular official. They circled one another a few times, then began to talk.

That furtive meeting in September 2008 began a journey for the 37-year-old surgeon that ended in May 2009 in Miami, where he became a legal refugee with a shot at citizenship.

Dr. Ramírez is part of a wave of Cubans who have defected to the U.S. since 2006 under the little-known Cuban Medical Professional Parole immigration program, which allows Cuban doctors and some other health workers who are serving their government overseas to enter the U.S. immediately as refugees. Data released to The Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act shows that, through Dec. 16, 1,574 CMPP visas have been issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries.

From Cuba to America

Jason Henry

Cuba has been sending medical 'brigades' to foreign countries since 1973.

Cuba has been sending medical "brigades" to foreign countries since 1973, helping it to win friends abroad, to back "revolutionary" regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams—revenue that Cuba's central bank counts as "exports of services"—vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year. Many Cubans complain that the brigades have undermined Cuba's ability to maintain a high standard of health care at home.

The U.S. immigration initiative is reminiscent of the sort of gamesmanship that was common during the Cold War. It has interfered with Cuba's program by triggering defections of Cuban medical personnel all over the globe—an average of one a day since the U.S. countermeasure began in 2006. Cuba generally doesn't include doctors among the 20,000 or more Cubans it authorizes to immigrate to the U.S. each year.

State Department officials say it isn't the intention of the U.S. government to use the immigration program, known as CMPP, to engage in espionage or to disrupt medical missions. Cuban doctors, a State Department spokesman says, "are often denied exit permission by the Cuban government to come to the U.S. when they qualify under other established legal channels." One goal of CMPP is to get Cuba to change that.

A little-known U.S. initiative called Cuban Medical Professional Parole allows Cuban doctors working for their government overseas to get asylum from American embassies around the world. WSJ's Joel Millman reports.

CMPP was the brainchild of Cuba-born diplomat Emilio González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008. A former colonel in the U.S. Army, Mr. González is a staunchly anti-Castro exile. He has characterized Cuba's policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as "state-sponsored human trafficking." The Cuban doctors, he says, work directly for health authorities in other countries and have no say in their assignments, salaries, hours or work conditions.


Cuban doctors themselves regard such overseas assignments differently. Their salaries in Cuba top out at about $25 a month. When serving overseas, they get their Cuban salaries, plus a $50-per-month stipend—both paid to their dependents while they're abroad, according to Cuban doctors interviewed for this story. In addition, they earn overseas salaries—from $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the mission, the doctors say.

"In Haiti they paid us $300 a month, in gourdes, the Haitian money," says one former overseas doctor who is now back in Cuba. "I converted my salary, and lived fine on $100 per month." With her savings, she says, she bought a television and laptop computer, items she couldn't have gotten in Cuba.

Ramón González, a defector who served on medical missions to Ghana and Gambia, says Cubans' entrepreneurial instincts make for almost unlimited profit opportunities. "You go to the African flea market and buy a bathing suit from the U.S., anything with a Speedo or a Nike label. It's like 45 cents in Africa," he says. "You sell it for $5 in Cuba."

An even more lucrative sideline, he says: private medical practice, including abortions. Dr. González says performing abortions can be a gold mine for Cubans, particularly in the Middle Eastern nations that pay the best salaries.

"The vast majority of Cuban doctors fight to get onto a mission because they can accumulate thousands of dollars," says Dr. Darsi Ferrer Ramírez, director of the antigovernment group Juan Bruno Zayas Center of Health and Human Rights in Havana.

The 41-year-old dissident says the program is rife with corruption. "It's known that to get to the better countries—we're speaking of South Africa, Brazil—there are functionaries who will take money under the table. It costs between $500 and $1,000," he says.

Juan Bautista Palay, chief of physical therapy at Havana's 10 de Octubre Hospital, acknowledges that money is what draws colleagues abroad. "You'd go, too, if you could triple your pay," he says. He denies anyone from his facility has paid bribes to serve abroad.

The U.S. immigration program gives Cuban doctors yet another reason to serve abroad: a way to resettle in the U.S. Ordinary Cubans seeking asylum must reach American shores before applying. Under CMPP, Cuban doctors can do so from U.S. embassies anywhere in the world.

Of the nearly 1,600 defections through Dec. 16, more than 800 health workers have defected from Venezuela alone, and nearly 300 have come from Colombia and Curacao, which don't host Cuban medical brigades but are easily reached from Venezuela. Another 135 have come from four other countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, Namibia and Peru. Others have showed up to defect in such far-flung locales as Qatar, Fiji, Djibouti and Mauritius.

Dr. Ramírez's odyssey began when he was selected for a two-year posting to Gambia. Cuban doctors there are at the pinnacle of the public-health community, teaching in medical colleges and running hospitals. Dr. Ramírez says his aim from the start was to use CMPP to defect. He says he kept his plan secret from his wife and parents, who stayed behind when he left Cuba in 2008.

Dr. Ramírez was assigned to run the surgery unit at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul. When he arrived in the country to join a 138-person Cuban delegation, he surrendered his passport to security personnel at Cuba's embassy. Cuban doctors also had to turn over other identification documents like driver licenses, Dr. Ramírez says, to hinder any attempt to satisfy U.S. diplomats of their bona fides as defectors. He kept his.

"We had to get cellphones, too, so they always could find us," he says. Dr. Ramírez bought two cheap phones—one to talk with his bosses, the other to plot his escape.

His meeting with the U.S. consular officer at the Banjul supermarket set his plan in motion. Mr. Ramírez says he was able to persuade the officer—he says her name was Wendy Kennedy—that he was a Cuban doctor working in the country. Their next meeting was at the hospital, he says, where Ms. Kennedy conducted a formal interview to prepare his asylum request.

The State Department declined to make Ms. Kennedy available for comment, but confirmed some details of Dr. Ramírez's account, including that Ms. Kennedy worked in Gambia at the time of his asylum application.

Dr. Ramírez had to wait months before learning whether he would be granted asylum. He got the news in May 2009 via cellphone. Ironically, he says, he was at an emergency meeting called by his brigade coordinator to discuss two Cubans who had just abandoned their mission and fled to neighboring Senegal.

"They called us in to warn us not to try to flee, or else our families in Cuba would be punished," he recalls.

Ramirez Family

Dr. Felix Ramírez in The Gambia in 2008.

Getting a U.S. visa was one thing, but getting out of Gambia was another thing altogether. His Cuban superiors had his passport, and trying to get out by air would likely attract the attention of Gambian authorities, who would alert the Cubans. He figured he had to get to Senegal.

There was no one to trust among his fellow expatriates, he says. He felt like a prisoner in the home he shared with four other Cubans. "There's always one who is the informer," he says. He needed permission from a brigade coordinator even to visit an African colleague's home for dinner.

He had befriended a Lebanese merchant who was a patient. The merchant connected him with a smuggler, who agreed to take him to Senegal for $500.

Dr. Ramírez left the night after his asylum request was approved, carrying documents from U.S. consular officials in Banjul. In Senegal, he discovered five comrades from the Gambian mission who, unbeknownst to him, also had been plotting their escape. At the airport, he showed airline officials his U.S. entry documents and was allowed to board a flight to Spain. When he arrived, a U.S. diplomat vouched for him so he could board a flight to the U.S.

It is unclear how disruptive defections like Dr. Ramírez's are to Cuba's medical-mission program. Only a small percentage of Cuban doctors sent overseas have actually defected, making it unlikely the program has put much of a dent in revenues collected by Cuba.

Information about exactly how much Cuba makes from medical brigades is hard to come by. In many cases, Cuba extracts a direct payment either from a host government or an international aid group. Individual Cuban doctors are paid only a portion of what Cuba collects.

Since Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, Cuba has been bartering doctors for Venezuelan oil. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that Venezuela ships Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil a day—worth more than $2 billion a year at current prices. In addition, Venezuela pays Cuba for medical teams sent to countries that Mr. Chávez considers part of Venezuela's "Bolivarian" sphere. Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Paraguay all use Cuban doctors paid for by Venezuela.

Germany, France and Japan, working through the Pan-American Health Organization, paid $400 per month for each doctor sent to work in Honduras after a hurricane in 2005, according to the Honduran government.

Cuba's Public Health Ministry said in November: "As a principle, we have prioritized donating medical brigades to countries with grave health problems and few resources and hard-to-reach settlements, where local doctors refuse to work." It said that Cuba intends to send more doctors abroad, to nations better prepared to pay for services. "In countries whose economy permits, we will increase the presence of our professionals, with compensation," it said.

Julie Feinsilver, who tracks Cuba's medical diplomacy as a senior fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, a think tank, says such arrangements benefit both Cuba and the host countries. "Do you think that it is possible to hire doctors for less than $1,000 a month? The Cuban government does earn money, albeit considerably less than others would for similar services."

By summer's end, Dr. Ramírez and the five other Cubans who defected with him from Gambia were all in Miami. Four of them work as instructors at Dade Medical College. Dr. Ramírez is a surgical assistant at Baptist Health South Florida's hospital in Homestead, Fla.

Dr. Ramírez's parents and wife—and a son born shortly after he left for Africa, whom he has never seen—remain in Cuba, in Camagüey. All of them are eligible for U.S. visas under the CMPP program, but there is virtually no chance they'll get out soon. Dr. Ramírez says his wife lost her job at a hospital because of his defection.

"They're blacklisted for five years, minimum," Dr. Ramírez says. "I'm a traitor to the homeland now."

Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman@wsj.com