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'Experiencing Cuba' while under government surveillance

CAIBARIÉN Cuba — Caibarién is a town on a bay that separates it from
Cayo de Santa María, which is located on Cuba's northern coast. It's
proximity to the city of Santa Clara, which is less than an hour to the
south, provided the perfect place to escape "experiencing Cuba" and all
that it entails — including a flat tire and dead battery on my rental
car on Thursday morning — before returning to the U.S.
The breeze that was blowing off the bay was refreshing. The fish at La
Tormenta, a small restaurant on Caibarién's beach that means "the storm"
in Spanish, that I had for lunch was freshly caught and delicious. There
were also no visible Cuban police officers or security agents within sight.
It became increasingly clear over the last couple of days the Cuban
government decided to place me under surveillance, or at the very least
knew where I was and with whom I spoke. The Cuban government will likely
never confirm my suspicion if I were to ask, but coincidence is more
than simple coincidence in a country with little tolerance of public
criticism of the government and/or those who represent it.
Tuesday afternoon was the first time I realized the Cuban government may
have decided to place me under surveillance.
I called Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Federation of LGBTI
Rights, an independent LGBT advocacy group, shortly after noon from the
street to confirm our meeting at his home in the city of Cienfuegos that
we scheduled for 3 p.m. I called Nelson from the cell phone that I
bought from the state-run telecommunications company shortly after I
arrived in Cuba on May 2. The conversation lasted less than two minutes
and I walked back to the apartment near Santa Clara's Parque Leoncio
Vidal that I had rented on Airbnb from D.C.
I was leaving around 2 p.m. when the woman from whom I was renting the
apartment told me someone from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs
called and asked her whether I was a credentialed journalist. The Cuban
government granted me a 20-day visa that allowed me to report on
LGBT-specific issues in the country. I also received a Cuban press
credential from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' International Press
Center in Havana.
The situation clearly left the woman from whom I rented the apartment
embarrassed, and I honestly felt bad the government had placed her into
such an awkward position. She profusely apologized to me several times
after I showed her my Cuban press credentials and assured me that I
would not have any problems while staying in her family's home. I left a
few minutes later and walked to my car that was parked a couple of
blocks away.
Police checked documents after interviewing activist
The hour-long drive from Santa Clara to Cienfuegos, which is on Cuba's
southern coast, was largely uneventful aside from getting lost while
leaving the area around Parque Leoncio Vidal. Driving anywhere in the
country is another one of those "experiencing Cuba" moments that can
certainly leave a lasting impression.
Four Cuban soldiers in red uniforms were clearly visible when I drove
onto the main road on which Nelson's house is located. The large rainbow
flag that usually hangs on the fence and a poster on the front door that
describes Mariela Castro as a "fraud" were gone. The dozens of people —
independent activists and neighbors — who welcomed me to Nelson's house
in 2015 and 2016 were not there when I arrived.
Nelson, who is a doctor, was alone. The only interruptions during our
nearly hour-long interview were a handful of telephone calls and a woman
who asked him to write her a prescription. Nelson casually pointed out
two security agents who passed by his house as he sat in an old wooden
rocking chair with his front door open.
The soldiers that I had seen at the intersection when I drove to
Nelson's house were not there when I passed it shortly after 4:30 p.m.
Men wearing military uniforms were among local residents as I drove
through Cienfuegos, but they are a common sight in Cuba.
I parked alongside a square in Palmira, a town that is roughly 15
minutes north of Cienfuegos, shortly after 5 p.m. to check my email on a
public hotspot. One must use cards from the state-run telecommunications
company to access it. I sent a couple of emails and texts about my
interview with Nelson and started driving again after about 15 minutes.
I was driving through a town near the border of Cienfuegos and Villa
Clara Provinces less than 15 minutes later when a police officer on a
motorcycle pulled me over. He asked me to where I was driving — Santa
Clara I told him — and requested my documents — passport, visa, driver's
license and Cuban press credentials — that I politely and calmly handed
to him. The officer took them and walked over to his motorcycle. He
spoke to someone over the radio before writing something down on a piece
of paper. The officer walked back to my car a few minutes later, handed
my documents back to me and said that I could leave.
I returned to my apartment in Santa Clara about half an hour later. The
trip to and from Santo Domingo, a town that is roughly half an hour west
of Santa Clara on Cuba's Carretera Central, where I met a group of
independent activists who are less forceful in their criticism of
Mariela Castro and her father's government was uneventful.
Back in Santa Clara, I began to notice a white police car (patrulla in
Cuban Spanish) that was parked near the corner of Parque Leoncio Vidal
that was closest to my apartment. I took particular note of its location
in the morning and at night when I walked to the park to check my email
at a public hotspot in the park.

I'm a curious and somewhat defiant person, so I decided to stare into
police officers' eyes on Wednesday when I saw them. It was an admittedly
self-serving attempt to convince myself that they know that I know the
government decided to place me under surveillance.
A white patrol car was once again parked along the edge of Parque
Leoncio Vidal that was closest to my apartment on early Thursday morning
when I was walking home from a party that Mariela Castro's organization,
the National Center for Sexual Education, organized as part of its
International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.
There were two officers leaning on the car smoking cigarettes. I walked
past them and said, "Good evening" to them in Spanish. They looked at me
incredulously. I chuckled and called them "idiots" in Spanish under my
breath as I walked home.
A white patrol car was parked in the same area on Thursday morning when
I walked through the park to exchange some U.S. dollars into Cuban pesos
at a government-owned currently exchange house. It was not there when I
returned to my apartment about half an hour later.
The idea of "experiencing Cuba" during the 16 days that I was working in
and traveling through the country will continue to evoke laughter,
resignation, frustration and a variety of other emotions long after I
have returned to D.C. The idea the Cuban government likely placed me
under surveillance — however absurd the reason may have been — is a
clear reminder the country's human rights record remains a very serious
problem that should not be ignored.

Source: 'Experiencing Cuba' while under government surveillance - Continue reading
The Dangerous World of Cuba's Pushcart Vendors / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya
Posted on February 15, 2016

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 13 February 2016 — There is a great
poster of general-president Raúl Castro on the façade of a private
building in the heart of Central Havana. In the image, he is saluting,
dressed in a military uniform, accompanied by the memorable phrase,
extracted from one of his promissory speeches he made during his era as
an imitation reformist: "Those who are committed to demonize,
criminalize and prosecute the self-employed chose a path that, in
addition to being mean, is ludicrous because of its untenable nature.
Cuba is counting on them as one of the engines of future development,
and their presence in the urban landscape is clearly here to stay." As
it is customary to those among his caste, the general was lying, and of
those intended engines of future development only a few remain, trying
to survive with much difficulty and almost furtively.

However, under the mantra placed in the shadow of their modest Havana
trade, those mistaken sellers believe they will be protected from the
whims of a regime well versed in denying its own creations, either
because they don't properly subordinate themselves to the interests they
were created for, or for considering them to be a potential threat to
its supremacy. Is the same simulation game that propelled thousands of
self-employed to join the apocryphal official union, which has turned a
blind eye and a deaf ear to the abuse of their members by the most
powerful boss on this island, the State-Party-Government, from which no
one is safe.

While there are fewer operations of confiscation and persecution against
the merchants in the squalid private sector, in particular the popular
vendors engaging in street selling of agricultural products, an
occasional cart starts to appear timidly, usually at dusk, when the
inspectors and heads of sectors of the uniformed police have concluded
their workday.

According to unconfirmed rumors from official sources, many of the
pushcart vendors affected by the crackdown in late 2015 and early 2016
have been informally allowed to trade again, though "quietly and low-key."

A survey conducted in several districts of the populous municipality of
Central Havana is able to prove the effect of the bellows technique —
stretch and loosen – that the authorities usually apply, where each raid
is followed apparent tolerance, under the careful eyes of the guardians
of system, in part to control both the boom of the emerging sector
sellers who have proven to be highly competitive against the State
sector, and partly to lessen the great popular discontent triggered by
the sudden decrease in the flow of food available to feed families.

Some cell phone video images uploaded to the internet which were
recorded by ordinary citizens, witnesses of the official crusade against
pushcart vendors, have shown the public the true nature of the so-called
"Raul reforms" the people's disdain in the face of official abuse and of
its repressive forces, and the spontaneous popular solidarity towards
the sellers. New communications technologies, even in a country as
disconnected from the web as is Cuba, make it increasingly difficult to
peddle the old discourse of "good and fair government" and "happy Cubans."

On the threshold of the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba
nothing is more inconvenient than to implement unpopular measures,
particularly when the State is incapable of emulating, in terms of
production and food trade, even the fragile self-employed sector. To
hold such a conclave amid a starving population would be too cynical
even for the Cuban government.

For that reason, and without making much fuss, agents and government
control officials have notified several pushcart vendors that they can
once again sell their products, though they have not yet returned the
licenses to the more obstinate ones from whom they were seized.

Yasser is one of them. Although he's only 30, he has great work
experience. He began working as a teenager, after quitting his studies
at a technological institute due to poor economic conditions at home,
where the only sources of income were his mother's salary and his
grandmother's pension, a story that has become extremely common in Cuba.

"First I started as bicycle repairman, but I soon discovered that it was
more profitable to buy and sell bicycles and spare parts than to be
getting my hands dirty and breaking my back repairing old clunkers.
That's where I learned that my true calling was trade: the buying and
selling and the constant and hard cash profits. I do my best work in
trading," he smiles, sure of what he is talking about.

When the bicycle business began to decline, he went to work with his
uncle at a State agricultural cooperative, in the countryside. "I did
not intend to work the land forever, but the agricultural trade
interested me. After I stopped working in bikes, I had managed a
vegetable stand for a while, through my uncle's contacts, but it was
risky and the profits were low, so I decided to learn more about the
countryside and production management first hand. Meanwhile, I would
develop a good network of contacts to use later, when I could have my
own little business, which was my set idea."

So that's how it went. And Yasser, the young man from Havana did so well
in that State cooperative he even got a license which legally certifies
him as "delegate of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP)," a
document that allows him to stock up on products sold in his pushcart as
a self-employed person.

Now, with his peculiar charisma and his skills as a merchant, Yasser
buys directly from a private producer and ships the products home using
private transportation services. To avoid having the goods confiscated,
he uses his card as "delegate of the ANAP" and an authorization from a
bribed manager of a State co-op "that produces absolutely nothing" but
that certifies that his products were bought from that co-op and are
destined for a State Agricultural Market (MAE), or to some workplace, or
any other place. With these papers of safe passage and his getup as
producer, wearing a hat and high water galoshes up to his knees,
embedded with mud from the furrows, Yasser has managed to survive in the
dangerous world of private business.

However, he knows perfectly well that he is teetering on a tightrope. In
Cuba there is a diffuse band of tolerance between legality and crime, as
suits the authorities. Simply put, if an administrator who signs his
"passage" falls into disgrace, the chain of beneficiaries will also
fall, including Yasser. General corruption in Cuba is, at the same time,
the real support of the "economic model" and of the social balance, the
trap that standardizes all Cubans as transgressors of the law. Anyone
can end up in a dungeon.

"When this business with the pushcarts started, I thought it might be an
opportunity for me. I really believed in the premise that, this time, we
were really going to be respected as contributors, though my uncle kept
telling me that the government was going to change gears and go in
reverse, as always. I went as far as owning two carts, which my uncle
and my cousin took care of, because I am the owner and the go-between at
the same time, and I'm always going between the country and the city,
getting the products. Now I only take this one out – he points to a
simple chivichana [a rustic skateboard] loaded with the best tomatoes
around town, at 12 Cuban pesos – and I am putting out the goods
gradually. I do not want evil eyes on me, because, in the end, this
business will also go bust, it will be one more deception. As my
grandmother says, these people are a lost cause."

It's only been a few years since the false blessing of the
self-employment industry workers, and the very Government has taken it
upon itself to demonize, criminalize and prosecute them, belying its own
discourse. "They do not even respect themselves, that's why nobody
believes them, nobody wants them and nobody respects them anymore." says
Yasser with what seems more like a pessimistic old man's view than the
words of a young 30-something. His disillusionment is, by far, the most
authentic symbol of a society which has succumbed to the fatigue of
almost 60 years of hypocrisy.

Translated by Norma Whiting

Source: The Dangerous World of Cuba's Pushcart Vendors / 14ymedio,
Miriam Celaya | Translating Cuba - Continue reading
Cuba Punishes Doctors for Using Revolico / Cubanet, Orlando Gonzalez Posted on March 15, 2015 The government has cancelled your INFOMED email account due to its having been used on a classified ad website. Cubanet, Orlando González, Mayabeque, Cuba, 12 March 2015 — Since February 23, the government has been cancelling some doctors’ and dentists’ […] Continue reading
How Cuba's State Security Welcomed Me on Returning to Havana
June 25, 2014
Isbel Diaz

HAVANA TIMES – After participating in the congress of the Association of
Latin American Studies in Chicago, I returned home to Cuba this past
June 20th, following a one-month stay in the United States. I arrived at
terminal 2 of Havana's Jose Marti International Airport to be received
by Cuban State Security agents. Customs officers then proceeded to take
away my cell phone and other belongings.

I was detained at the airport for three hours and all of my personal
belongings were meticulously inspected. The officials were chiefly
interested in all of the documents I carried with me and all electronic
devices that could store information.

As such, in addition to my phone (which stored all of my personal
contacts and private notes), two external hard disks and their cables,
two cell phones I had brought my nephew and my boyfriend as gifts and an
SD memory with family videos were confiscated, even though the
authorities didn't know what their contents were and didn't even take
the trouble of asking.

All of these devices were classified as items for personal use by the
customs authorities themselves – the number of items didn't exceed the
limit established by Resolution 320 / 2011, which establishes what
imports are of a commercial nature, nor did their respective prices
surpass the limits established in the Value List published under
Resolution 312 / 2011.

It is therefore quite evident that these confiscations are the result of
the arbitrariness and excessive monitoring that all Cubans with
free-thinking postures that are critical of the country's
socio-political reality are subjected to.

The fact that Lt. Colonel Omar, a well-known State Security officer,
came in and out of the premises, reveals that the reasons behind this
incident are clearly political.

I was given absolutely no explanation as to why my belongings were being
confiscated. I was only referred to the customs resolution that empowers
these officials to retain what they see fit. The contents and scope of
the said resolution were not explained to me either.

What was explained to me were the reasons they confiscated several of
the documents I carried with me. According to the Confiscation and
Notification document, they "tarnish the country's morals and customs."
The documents in question were:

- Historian Frank Fernandez' classic El anarquismo en Cuba ("Anarchism
in Cuba"), a book the author had sent to the Cuban Anthropology
Institute (as the dedication he had handwritten attested to). Fernandez
had learned that a group was studying the issue at the institute and he
wanted to contribute to the work with his research on Cuba's workers'
and anarcho-syndicalist movements.

- The open letter dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua had addressed to the
Association of Latin American Studies, to which all Cubans who
participated in this year's LASA congress had access.

- A page from a New Herald newspaper with part of an article dealing
with the LGBTI community on the island and showing a photograph of the
Day Against Homophobia activities organized every year by Cuba's
National Sexual Education Center headed by Mariela Castro. By chance,
the page also showed a photo of dissident Yoani Sanchez. This
immediately piqued the interest of the customs official, who labeled the
document "anti-Cuban propaganda" without having read the article.

The only item that could in any way be construed as an affront on Cuban
morals and customs is the photo of the Day Against Homophobia
activities, which shows several people wearing colorful feathers singing
on a Cuban stage. This homophobic posture must be condemned by our
community on the island.

I publicly denounce this violation of my rights and abuse of power
before the international community, and know that I will demand the
immediate return of my cell phone and the rest of my belongings, all
acquired legally.

I am not the first person who suffers this type of violence and I will
probably not be the last, not while the Cuban political police continue
to enjoy the prerogatives and privileges they do now.

Source: How Cuba's State Security Welcomed Me on Returning to Havana -
Havana - Continue reading
Cuba’s telecom sector booms 2013-06-22 10:14:26 HAVANA, June 21 (Xinhua) — Thanks to policy support, the sector of telecommunications services has been booming and diversified in recent years in Cuba, industry leaders said. Directors of state-run telecom Empresa de Telecomunicaciones S.A. (ETECSA) said Thursday on TV show that the sector has seen an average [...] Continue reading
Posted on Friday, 06.14.13 Radio/TV Marti’s new ways of disseminating information By Juan O. Tamayo Trying to get around Havana’s censorship, the U.S Office of Cuba Broadcasting is showing off novel ways to disseminate information on the island, including USB drives made of paper and a system for sending cell phone text messages to [...] Continue reading
Sustainable Farming In Cuba Ideal Job In An Isolated Country
By Kassondra Cloos for The Pulitzer Center

The farmers pour in after sunrise and leave before sunset. The workday
is one to two hours shorter than a typical day for a government
employee, depending on the season, and the pay is higher—much higher.

Organiponico Vivero Alamar (OVA) is an organic, sustainable farm just
outside Havana, where its private business status allows farmers the
freedom to make smart economic moves and attract the best and brightest
farmers, scientists and researchers to improve daily operations.
Visitors come from all over the world to see the farm that countless
bloggers have praised for its high wages (compared to government jobs in
Cuba) and other benefits.

Workers can take home fresh, organic produce like plantains, guavas,
lettuce, tomatoes, taro, sweet potatoes, pineapples, mango and more,
which OVA president and founder Miguel Salcines says contributes to
maintaining a healthier populace. There are also on-site barber and
manicure services, interest-free loans, daily meals cooked fresh from
food the farmers have worked hard to produce, profit shares based on
seniority and a strong community feeling that visitors find admirable
and even surprising.

The classic American image of the streets of Cuba is a fairly accurate
one—old cars and crumbling buildings. Havana is a city so locked in time
it can be startling to see a citizen whip out a cell phone.

One government tour guide spoke extensively to the high demand and low
supply of food. The government provides a small amount of food for each
family based on the health needs of individuals, she said—meaning only
some families receive milk while other families receive meat. It is
difficult to earn enough to supplement the basic food allotment: The
tour guide is paid only $13 a month because the government assumes she
will earn tips. Even with tips, she says it's not enough to make ends
meet. She has taken on a second job as a freelance English teacher.

Yet, unlike tour guides, OVA farmers make a decent living. And if Cuba
can make farming profitable, why can't other countries?

There is no simple answer. The explanation starts with the realization
that Cubans were forced into agricultural innovation by a very real need
to feed a mass number of starving people, according to Elon University
agro-ecology professor Steve Moore.

"There was a great set of circumstances that spawned that," he said.
"When Russia pulled out, they had no more cheap oil and cheap resources,
so they had to think of something real quick."

More food was needed, with fewer resources to produce it—leading to
farming practices that avoided costs like excessive energy use and

In the United States, which has long struggled to keep its growers
afloat, democracy and the freedoms afforded to private enterprise have
not yet come to terms with better farming practices for various reasons.
The most notable one is price, Moore said. He has studied farming
extensively and says it's easier and, in the short term, cheaper, to
throw fertilizer and fossil fuels at farming woes than it is to sit down
and figure out how to do things better.

OVA sells its wares at a farm-front marketplace six days a week. As an
urban farm, it's widely accessible to Cubans who don't own cars, and
most of its fresh produce is sold out by the end of the day. Cuba
imports a great deal of food, but there's a gap between imports and
local production that makes food scarce and waste a social sin.

Moore, who was a long-time farmer before leaving his field to become a
professor, understands this from experience. He and his wife sacrificed
a great deal to keep their business going. Even if he would have
preferred to keep food in his nearby community and cut down on
transportation costs by selling food to local markets, it was
significantly more profitable to travel great distances from their farm
in Pennsylvania to sell larger amounts of produce at urban supermarket

"We would sell about an hour and a half to two hours away and drive a
truck down to the DC-Baltimore area," he said, "because we would get at
least twice the price for it than we would in our own town."

Even though many Americans claim food costs are high, Moore maintains
they're not. Americans aren't willing to spend a high proportion of
their disposable income on food when it's dirt cheap to import
out-of-season crops from other countries, and it can be near impossible
for local farmers to compete with these prices. No one knows this better
than Moore and his wife, who for more than a decade could not afford
health insurance.

The vast majority of other farmers in the United States face similar
financial troubles. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that
less than 1 percent of Americans call themselves farmers. Fewer than one
in four farms makes more than $50,000 a year in gross revenue. In 2008,
the Census Bureau found that net income related to farming activities
was less than $10,000 per year. Most farm families need to supplement
that with wages earned off the farm.

OVA, though, provides a community-style workplace with a good salary and
benefits. Although wages are still meager when compared with salaries in
more developed countries, they are two to three times higher than Cuba's
government paychecks, which can be as little as the equivalent of $13 a
month. On top of their salaries, farm workers also get a percentage of
profits that increase with seniority, usually adding up to the
equivalent of a few extra dollars every other week.

Jose Ramon Rey, who works to fatten the bulls OVA uses for natural
fertilizer and sells to the tourist industry, said he wanted to work at
the cooperative not just because he comes from a farm family, but also
because of the benefits it provides.

"Economically, I feel better because I earn a good salary," he said. "In
general, I cover all my family's expenses with the money I earn here."

Ramon Rey has worked at OVA for eight years and it's his only job, an
increasingly uncommon phenomenon in Cuba.

The food grown at OVA stays within the country, and is diverse and
completely sustainable. Everything is recycled and organic, unlike other
farming practices around the world that rely on the ability to force
crops to grow when nature would have it another way. As Moore says,
farmers in many other parts of the world do not wait out inopportune
weather or push back a growing season. Instead they spread tons of
fertilizers to stay on schedule. It's cheap. And so is fossil fuel.

Moore predicts that farming won't significantly change for the better
until the world is forced to reckon with the diminishing supply of
nonrenewable resources that power the engines that transport food across
scores of time zones before it hits the dinner table. It's cheaper to
burn gas using machines to plow, plant, harvest and haul food than it is
to sit down and think about how to more efficiently manage resources.

Under a dictatorship like the one in Cuba, change can be forced or
necessitated overnight, he said. In a democracy, there's great freedom
to choose the easy way out—but it has hidden costs for everyone along
the way. Continue reading