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    Tallies and Tales of the Reforms

    Cuba: Tallies and Tales of the Reforms / Vicente Botín

    Once upon a time…

    A female cat fell in love with a handsome young man and prayed to the
    goddess Aphrodite to turn her into a woman. The goddess, pitying the
    cat’s yearning, transformed her into a beautiful maiden, and the young
    man, captivated by her beauty, married her. But, on the wedding night,
    Aphrodite wanted to know if the cat, now a woman, had changed inside as
    well, and so she let loose a mouse in the bedroom. The cat, forgetting
    her status as a woman, rose from the bed and chased the mouse so as to
    devour it. At that point, the goddess, grown angry, returned her to her
    previous condition, turning the woman back into a cat.

    With this fable, the Greek philosopher Aesop means to tell us that, “The
    change in status of a person does not cause her to change her
    instincts.” Which the wise collection of popular sayings might translate
    as, “You can dress up a monkey in silk, but she is still a monkey.”

    “Why this eagerness to dress the monkey in silk?” I asked myself, when I
    saw, incredulous, the Chanel parade in Havana. The Adidas tracksuit
    which Fidel Castro has been sporting for years was outshone by fashion
    czar Karl Lagerfeld’s diamond-studded jacket and Brazilian supermodel
    Gisele Bündchen’s beret (albeit without the star that adorned Che
    Guevara’s cap in that famous photograph by Alberto Korda).

    Could it be that vileness can be disguised by glamour? Is is possible to
    wrap in gift paper, as though it were a box of chocolates, the Penal
    Code in force in Cuba, which brutally punishes all forms of dissidence?

    Can repression and the lack of freedoms be combined with haute couture?
    Is the march by the Ladies in White along Fifth Avenue compatible with
    the pageant of Chanel models along the Paseo del Prado?

    Giusepe Tomassi de Lampedusa puts in the mouth of Tancredi, one of the
    characters in his novel, “The Leopard,” this utterance directed to his
    uncle Fabrizio, Prince Salina: “Everything must change if everything is
    to stay as it is.”

    In political science, “leopard-like” or “Lampedusian” are descriptors
    for the politician who initiates a revolutionary transformation but
    which, in practice, alters the structures of power only superficially,
    intentionally keeping the essential elements of those structures.

    Raúl Castro is a lot like the Lampedusian Tancredi, because he seems to
    want to change everything, but his intention is for everything to stay
    as it is.

    When I arrived in Havana in early 2005 as a correspondent for Televisión
    Española, everything was much clearer, or, to be more exact, seemed less
    confused. There were no fireworks. Any glamour, for want of a better
    term, was provided by Fidel Castro, with his eternal olive-green
    uniform, and the parades were not directed by Karl Lagerfeld, but rather
    by the dictator himself, on the Malecón, in front of the then-US
    Interests Section, now the US Embassy.

    Of course, then these demonstrations were called “Marches of the
    Embattled People.” The other marches, those of the Ladies in White, were
    repressed without pity, and concerts, such as those by the group “Porno
    para Ricardo,” were nothing like those by the Rolling Stones: they would
    end with their leader, Gorki Águila, in jail. There is where the
    dissidents could be found, the ones from the Black Spring of 2003, and
    other, newer ones, who were continually being thrown into the prisons.

    At that time, Havana was falling to pieces. There were power blackouts,
    and the ration book was entirely insufficient to meet the basic needs of
    the population. The US was the imperialist ogre, the culprit of all the
    evils afflicting the country, and the spies, “The Five,” were heroes.
    There were no shades. Everything was black or white.

    Now I ask myself, “Has all that changed? Is it all part of the past?”

    When he was named the successor, and with his brother still physically
    present, Raúl Castro started his own trajectory. He proceeded like a
    good bureaucrat, without rhetoric, step by step, convinced that, in
    order to survive, the Revolution needed a facelift. So he pulled out of
    his hat a jar of makeup, a tube of lipstick and a comb, and with an
    oriental patience (it is not for nothing that they call him “the
    Chinaman”*), he began to embellish the corpse of the Revolution until he
    made unrecognizable… unrecognizable for the gullible who let themselves
    be fooled by Photoshop.

    Cuba is in fashion, and the mirage of the reforms serves as a screen to
    cover the reality that Cubans live, or rather, suffer. Could it be that
    they are invisible who inhabit the Island? Do they no longer have to
    steal or deceive in order to survive? Do they no longer have to
    “resolve” their problems?

    There has been too much speculation over the nature of and the time it
    will take to implement these reforms that have been announced so many
    times, like the Byzantines used to speculate, in the 15th Century, about
    the sex of angels, while the Ottomans were besieging Constantinople.

    Could it be that the Turks are at the gates of Havana?

    The Turks, probably not, but the Cubans yes, who for more than half a
    century have lived besieged within a fortress, commanded by an
    apprentice and witch doctor, who is performing a balancing act to
    contain the demands of a people beleaguered by penury and the lack of

    The foreign correspondents who work in Cuba confront the dilemma of
    rummaging through the trash or going with the flow. During the four
    years that I spent on the Island, I suffered all types of pressures to
    force me to sweeten my reports. The censors were not concerned with
    political criticisms, after all, the Cuban government enjoys no few
    sympathies throughout the world. What bothered them was the pure and
    simple description of the difficult living conditions of the Cuban
    people. The shameful condition of the hospitals, the precariousness of
    the housing, the cut-offs of water and power, the scarcity and bad
    quality of the food, the lack of transportation, and let us not mention
    the prostitution, as a express route to access consumer goods.

    All those topics were taboo. They could not be mentioned, under threat
    of expulsion. The paradox is that currently, all of those problems
    continue, they have not disappeared, but they appear to no longer be a
    problem for anybody. Simply put, they are not spoken of. They are swept
    under the rug.

    The first “reformist” measures announced by Raúl Castro provoked an
    effect similar to hypnosis. Like an expert prestidigitator, he exchanged
    the bread and circuses of the Romans for self-employment licenses, cell
    phones, cars, houses and microwave ovens, despite their high cost
    in Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC).

    But Cubans, after so many “absurd prohibitions,” celebrated them
    joyously and, beyond that, the announcement of new promises–among them,
    the suppression of the double currency, the revaluation of the Cuban
    peso, and the end of the ration book which, in Cuba, ironically enough,
    is called the “provision” book.

    But it is well known that the road to hell is paved with good
    intentions. Eight years later, those good intentions have yet to be
    realized, especially the suppression of the double currency, which not
    only has not been resolved but has become even more complex, with the
    application of different exchange rates.

    For Raúl Castro this is the cause of “an important distortion, which
    will be resolved as soon as possible.” It will not be put off until the
    Twelfth of Never, the dictator has said, but at this rate, it will be
    resolved when hell freezes over.

    The dual monetary system — the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban
    Convertible peso (CUC) — is cause for no few arguments among brainy
    analysts who do not tire of debating over the consequences of solving
    that problem through a type of shock therapy or, conversely, doing it in

    While the dispute rages on over whether they are greyhounds or
    wolfhounds, until the Island’s government solves the enigma, Cubans will
    suffer the consequences of that distortion that suffocates them, because
    their salaries are paid in Cuban pesos, but they must use CUC to buy
    practically everything they need at a 25% markup.

    The minimum salary on the Island is 225 Cuban pesos, and the median
    monthly salary is 625, which come out, respectively, to about 9 and 25
    CUC or roughly the same in US dollars. What can one do with that amount
    of money? What would you be able to do with an income of $25 per month?

    The cost of the products in the “basic basket,” subsidized by the
    government is, approximately, 10 Cuban pesos per month. It it is simply
    impossible, however, that one person, especially a retiree, with no
    other resources but his pension, can subsist all that time, with just a
    few pounds of rice and beans, the basic food of Cubans, to which are
    added a few ounces of pasta, coffee and salt.

    The ration book also provides for five eggs per person per month, and a
    few more more for 10 pesos: a bit of oil, another bit of ground soy
    meat, a bar of soap… come on, it’s as if one had just come out of a war

    Aside from the ration book, one can purchase (also with Cuban pesos)
    certain unregulated products, but the true foodstuffs, beef and fish,
    primarily, can only be bought with CUCs.

    And although the government recently lowered the price of some basic
    products, these continue being very high. For example, one kilo of
    frozen chicken costs 2.35 CUCs, and a half kilo of powdered milk, 2.65.
    Just these two products account for 20 percent of the median monthly salary.

    In the world in which we live, it seems absurd to speak in these terms.
    Has any one of you ever told a guest that you cannot make her an omelet
    because you have already consumed your five monthly eggs?

    Cubans do not live in our world. To not understand that is to turn on
    its head the myth of Plato’s cave and to accept that the people
    inhabiting Cuba, chained and in the shadows, live in the real world and
    we, on the other hand, in an apparent reality.

    Allow me to ask you some questions. Has any one of you recently visited
    a house in Centro Habana? A great number of them are propped up to
    prevent collapse and, even so, this occurs almost daily, with a high
    number of fatalities.

    Did you know that in the hospitals, the sick must bring their own
    sheets, their food and even a bottle of bleach for sanitation, due to
    the abysmal hygienic conditions, and that infections in the operating
    rooms result in a high rate of deaths?

    I invite you to visit, for example, La Balear hospital in San Miguel del
    Padrón. It is not in Haiti, but rather in Havana, the capital of the
    country that publicizes its health system as one of its greatest

    Are you aware that diabetes patients only receive, on a monthly basis,
    between two and five sterile, single-use syringes of insulin, and that
    the rest that they need they must buy them on the black market or, as
    recommended, boil the used ones?

    Do you know that hopelessness is causing a stampede toward the United
    States, and the exodus to that country has quintupled in the last five

    Do you know the number of boat people who escape to the United States
    for lack of a travel permit, despite the much ballyhooed migratory
    reform, and perish in the Florida Straits?

    All of this occurs, continues to occur, while the eyes of the world are
    turned to the reforms that have been implemented in recent years,
    although it remains to be seen to what extent they will be affected by
    what Raúl Castro has euphemistically called “tensions” and “adverse
    circumstances” provoked by, among other factors, the crisis in
    Venezuela, which has substantially reduced the shipments of oil to the

    The reforms yet to come are discussed, exhaustively, in forums such as
    this, but there are always more questions than answers because only the
    government of the Island holds they key to what it will do and when.

    And the Cubans? What role do they play in all this? Are they and their
    circumstances also an object of study?

    If you allow me I will parody Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice” to
    say, “Does a Cuban not have eyes? Does a Cuban not have hands, organs,
    proportions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not
    bleed? If you poison us do we not die?”

    Cubans do not have a dog in this fight. They attend, mute, to the
    government’s hot air and do what they have always done under the
    dictatorship: survive.

    And surviving in the towns of the interior is much more difficult than
    in the capital. The living conditions of millions of Cubans are pitiful.
    The metaphor of Italian writer Carlo Levi would have to be employed, and
    say that Christ was detained in Havana, because further out from the
    capital, Cubans live outside of history, crushed by poverty.

    But the government, insensitive to the privations of Cubans, walks and
    walks toward the precipice.

    Among the litany of lamentations over the failure to fulfill the
    economic plans, during the recent sessions of the National Assembly of
    People’s Power, voices of alarm were heard before the possibility that
    the situation will deteriorate even further and produce a social
    outburst, with a repeat of street protests such as those of the
    Maleconazo of 1994. As a precaution against such incidents, the
    government is sharpening its knives.

    But the spotlights, at present, are shining on the enormous cinematic
    stage which Cuba has become for the world, and especially on the
    proposals of the VII Congress of the Communist Party, which took place
    this past April.

    Essentially, what was discussed there was what the government
    understands as the “conceptualization of the socioeconomic model,” which
    in reality is nothing more than the continuation of the so-called
    “Alignments of the Social and Economic Policy of the Party and the
    Revolution,” presented during the previous Congress and which, like all
    good resolutions have been left half-baked.

    The conceptualization is now in its eighth version and only 21 percent
    of the 313 Guidelines have been implemented; the rest, that is, the 79
    percent, is “in-process.” At this rate, it will take decades to put the
    well-worn guidelines into practice.

    Similarly, the Mariel Special Development Zone has dropped anchor: of
    the 400 investment projects that were predicted, only 11 have been
    accepted; within a century, perhaps the rest will have been approved.

    The government continues to beat around the bush and appears not to fear
    that it is past its prime. Meanwhile, it maintains control over the
    means of production, what it calls the “predominance of the property of
    all the people,” although in the last five years the state sector
    diminished, from 81 to 71 percent, while the private and cooperative
    sector expanded.

    The government of Raúl Castro is confident in the new Foreign Investment
    Law’s capacity to attract capital, authorizing outside investment in all
    sectors of the economy, except in health, education, armed forces and
    communication media.

    But there is much mistrust on the part of the investors regarding the
    guarantees they will receive on acquired properties and the transfer of
    utilities in foreign currency. The law is very ambiguous in this regard,
    as it establishes the freedom of investors to repatriate their profits,
    so long as doing so does not constitute, and I quote, “a danger to the
    sovereignty of Cuba.”

    Another negative aspect is that joint ventures or enterprises funded by
    foreign capital will continue to not have the power to contract their
    employees directly; they will have to do it through government entities
    charged with negotiating salaries and other working conditions.

    This practice was in place under the previous law and implies an
    infringement of the rights of workers who are without free unions to
    represent them.

    More than a few discriminations are suffered by Cubans, without the new
    laws, the laws of the much -vaunted changes, protecting them.

    The current Foreign Investment Law allows Cubans who reside overseas to
    invest in Cuba, but not those who live on the Island. They are
    prohibited from investing in their own country.

    The executive director of Cuba Archive, María Werlau, recently made a
    presentation to the US Congress denouncing the repugnant business of
    human trafficking carried out by the Island’s government, and which has
    become its major source of revenue: something more than $8-billion,
    compared to the $3-billion produced by tourism.

    According to official data (I quote María Werlau), around 65,000 Cubans
    work in 91 countries, with 75 percent (approximately 50,000) in the
    health sector. Their services are sold abroad, and the greater part of
    their salaries is confiscated by the Cuban government.

    The violations of universal labor rights, which such a practice implies,
    infringes international accords signed by Cuba and by the majority of
    the countries where these exported workers are laboring, including
    conventions and protocols against the trafficking in persons, and of the
    ILO, the International Labour Organization.

    The wage vampirism practiced by the Cuban government attains its most
    repulsive aspect in the trafficking of blood. The massive drives to
    obtain donations made voluntarily and altruistically, even using
    coercive methods, cover up a lucrative business, which some sources
    estimate brings in some $30-million per year. The government sells the
    blood of Cubans overseas, with no concern for the shortage of reserves
    in the Island’s hospitals.

    The doses of capitalism which Raul Castro is introducing in Cuba ma non
    troppo, as the Italians might translate Castro’s slogan “without haste
    but without pause,” do not alter in the least the stone tablets of the
    current Constitution that is in force, which establishes an
    “irrevocable” one-party regime, of “Marxist-Leninist ideology and based
    on the thought of Martí,” as an “organized vanguard of the Cuban nation,
    primary leading force of society and of the State.” And to overlook this
    means to not understand what country we are talking about.

    In Cuba, there are no political prisoners, according to Raúl Castro. But
    in fact, there are, and many. It is enough to consult the statistics put
    out monthly by human rights defense organizations.

    Are you familiar with the Article 72 of the Penal Code? If you have read
    “1984,” the shocking book by George Orwell, you will recall that the
    “thought police” would go after “thoughtcrime,” crimes of the mind.

    So, then, Article 72 of Law Number 62/87 of the Cuba of the supposed
    changes, is a carbon copy of the Orwellian laws.

    That article says the following: “The special proclivity in which a
    person is found to commit crimes, demonstrated by the conduct he
    observes, in manifest contradiction to the norms of sociality morality,
    is considered a state of dangerousness.”*

    In other words, the police can detain anyone suspected of hiding
    subversive ideas in the deepest part of of their consciousness.

    The appointment of Miguel Díaz Canel, 56 years old, an “apparatchik” of
    the Communist Party, as first vice-president of the Council of State,
    and the announcement, made by Raúl Castro himself, that he would cede
    power in February 2018, could mean that the regime was heading towards
    renewal, at least generationally. But, once again, it was apparent that
    all was purely cosmetic.

    If, in fact, Raúl Castro reiterated, during the VII Congress of the
    Communist Party, his intention to resign from his position as President
    of the Councils of State and of Ministries, he was reelected “Bulgarian
    style”** with 100 percent of the vote, as First Secretary of the Party
    for the next five years, that is through the year 2021, at which time he
    will or should reach, if God does not intervene, the age of 90 years.

    At that time, Raúl Castro will turn over the secretariat of the Party
    and also, in his words, “the flags of the Revolution and of Socialism,
    without the least trace of sadness or pessimism, with the pride of duty

    As Don Quixote says, “for empty words, the noise of bells.”

    And what did the President of the United States try to do by going to
    that Island situated beyond all comprehension? Like Hank Morgan, the
    hero of Mark Twain’s celebrated novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King
    Arthur’s Court,” Barack Obama was transported to the land of never
    again, convinced that normal diplomatic relations and a surge in
    commerce will give way, in the end, to greater liberty for Cubans.

    Hank Morgan was saved from death by fire by knowing when a solar eclipse
    would occur, but Barack Obama, lame duck that he is, was slowly roasted
    over a barbeque.

    For the exegetes of the Revolution, Obama did not go to Cuba, as he
    said, with the purpose of “burying the last remnant of the Cold War on
    the American continent,” but rather with more nefarious intentions. The
    United States, according to Raúl Castro, has changed its former hostile
    strategy for “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion
    that threatens the very essences of the Revolution.”

    As the song says:

    Not with you and not without you

    are my sorrows eased

    with you because you slay me

    without you because I die.

    The United States has taken giant steps in the normalization of its
    relations with Cuba, and the Island’s government is taking good
    advantage of this. But it has not changed its rhetoric, nor has it
    advanced one millimeter on the path that leads to democracy.

    The rapprochement between the two countries has provoked an enormous
    controversy between supporters and detractors, while Raúl Castro and his
    minions observe the bullfight, with satisfaction, from the sidelines.

    For The Washington Post, the policy of the Obama Administration toward
    the Cuban government has stymied the efforts of those who fight for
    democracy on the Island: the activists who have spent their lives
    struggling against the regime at enormous personal cost.

    It is they, and the Cuban people, who should lay the foundations of a
    new nation with democracy and liberty, and not those who,
    illegitimately, have usurped that right and want to continue doing so
    through deceit.

    The Cuban Revolution is a corpse, but that corpse has not yet been
    buried, and its stench will take time in going away. Meanwhile, Cubans
    continue to live inside a cage with heavy bars, which the government is
    now sugar-coating, like sugar-coating a pill to hide its bitterness.

    As in Oscar Wilde’s gothic novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Raúl
    Castro shows a benevolent face, but his smile is the reverse of a
    mocking grimace. His tactic is tall tales; his strategy, maintaining his
    position in power.

    Allow me to end my contribution by reading a brief poem of León Felipe,
    a Spanish writer exiled in Mexico after the Spanish civil war. It is
    entitled, “I Know All the Tales,” and I believe it reflects very well
    the great deceit of the Cuban government’s reforms.

    It says:

    I do not know much, it is true.

    I only tell what I have seen.

    And I have seen:

    that man’s cradle is rocked by tales…

    That man’s cries of anguish

    are drowned out by tales…

    That man’s weeping is tamped down with tales…

    That the bones of man are buried with tales…

    And that the fear of man…

    has invented all the tales.

    I do not know much, it is true.

    But I have been lulled to sleep with all the tales….

    I know all the tales.

    Thank you very much.

    Translator’s Notes:
    *In fact, Cubans call Raul Castro not “El Chino,” as in the original
    text here, but “La China” — The Chinese Woman — as a slur on his
    parentage and his sexuality.
    **”Pre-criminal dangerousness” is a crime in Cuba’s Penal Code and
    carries a sentence of 1-4 years in prison.
    *** An expression that alludes to the former Soviet bloc, and decisions
    made unanimously–more out of fear or coercion than by conviction–during
    Communist Party meetings.

    Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

    Source: Cuba: Tallies and Tales of the Reforms / Vicente Botín –
    Translating Cuba –

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