/ 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez
14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 1 March 2017 — The corner of
Galiano and Zanja is a hive of people at noon. The area's private cafes
sell everything from bread with croquettes to a complex meat lasagna,
but the nearest state places only sell cigarettes. A third of the
food services in Cuba are managed privately or by cooperatives, a sector
that is attracting a larger and larger clientele.
According to public statements in Monday's official press from Interior
Minister Mari Blanca Ortega, 32% of food, personal and technical
services operating on the island "have moved to non-state forms of
management." This formula now seeks to "achieve more quality and
efficiency," says the official.
In the last two decades, the scene in the nation's streets has been
transformed with the appearance of timbiriches – tiny private businesses
– sales counters in the doorways of houses, all the way to restaurant
complexes serving Creole and international food. But the sector is still
burdened by the absence of a wholesale market and a strong tax policy.
"The taxes are very high," says Dario, who manages a small fruit and
snack store near the Military Hospital in Havana. "The account doesn't
balance because the products have gone up a lot of price and I have to
pay the Office of the Tax Administration (ONAT) almost half of what I
earn in a year," he complains.
Right now, more than 200,000 workers, of whom at least 170,000 are
self-employed, must submit their formal declarations of accounts. Those
who have annual incomes in excess of 50,000 Cuban pesos (about US
$2,000) must pay the Treasury up to 50% of the total earned.
Darío says that in the area where he works "many small businesses have
closed because they have not been able to maintain a stable
supply." However, at the national level the numbers have grown, albeit
slowly in recent years. By the end of 2016, the country had 535,000
self-employed workers, according to data from the Ministry of Labor and
The most common activities are the preparation and sale of food, the
transport of cargo and passengers, the rental of dwellings, rooms or
spaces and telecommunications agents.
Cases of tax evasion are common. Recently ONAT indicted 223 of these
entrepreneurs in court. If found guilty they could face sentences of up
to eight years in prison, ONAT's legal director, Sonia Fernández, told
the official media.
Outside a bakery on Carlos III Avenue, several of the self-employed were
waiting Monday to supply their businesses. "I come every day and buy
about 30 flautas, but sometimes I have to wait up to two hours to get
goods," says Migdalia, a cafeteria employee at nearby Calle Reina.
The bakery belongs to the retail network and the line alternates
entrepreneurs and customers who only want to buy for home
consumption. "If behind me someone buys wholesale, I'm left with
nothing," protests a retiree who considers that "the normal consumer is
affected" when he must stand in line with small businesspeople.
Due to shortages affecting domestic markets, other products must be
imported directly from abroad. "All the olive oil and Parmesan cheese we
use we have to bring in from the outside," said the administrator of a
busy Italian restaurant in Havana's Chinatown, insisting on anonymity.
In September 2014, new resolutions of the General Customs of the
Republic attempted to restrict shipments of goods for commercial
purposes by air, sea or postal. But the flow of products to the private
sector has not stopped.
"I cannot tell a customer that we are not making a dish because there is
no nutmeg in the country or because I ran out of sesame," complains the
manager of the Italian restaurant. "When people come here they want to
see that everything on the menu is being served; to guarantee that, you
have to import many ingredients," he says.
A report published a few days ago from the Economic and Trade Office of
Spain in Havana says "the lack of stable access to raw materials and
supplies necessary for their activity" as one of the greatest
difficulties that the self-employed and cooperatives must face.
The lack of legal status is also at the root of most of the problems in
In spite of the rapid growth in numbers, and the contribution to the
gross domestic product made by entrepreneurs and cooperatives, these
forms of management have not been able "to squeeze into the productive
fabric with sufficient force, due to the strong regulation and legal
obstacles they encounter."
Source: The Private Sector Consolidates Its Presence in Gastronomy and
Services / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez – Translating Cuba -
http://translatingcuba.com/the-private-sector-consolidates-its-presence-in-gastronomy-and-services-14ymedio-marcelo-hernandez/ Continue reading
14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 February 2017 — Colombia's sugar mill
whistle sounded again at the end of January, like a giant awakened from
a seven-year-long lethargy. The residents in the area breathed a sign of
relief: the driving force behind the local economy seems to be the sugar
mill, but technical and organizational problems have delayed its start.
The directors of the colossus announced three weeks ago that everything
was ready for the industry to join the current harvest. The local press
announced the start for 25 January, but the lack of some parts and other
setbacks have prevented meeting that target. The peasants of the
surrounding area fear that their mill will be shut down again, plunging
the town into somnolence.
The sugar industry defined almost three centuries in our national life,
and was the island's main economic base, determining our language, our
customs and even our identity, strongly tied to the sugar plantation and
the mill. But what looked like a rising sector suffered severe reversals
in the last two decades.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was
faced with the reality of an inefficient agroindustry, with a great
technological obsolescence and an international market where the
national product was worth less and less.
The cuts reached as far as the Colombia sugar mill, which because of its
importance in production many believed would never turn off its
boilers. Rogelio, 40-years-old and a neighbor of the mill, recalls how
in the past, as late afternoon fell, a parade of "ragged men with
machetes in their hands, tired and covered with ashes from the cane
burning, passed in front of my house."
He states that "every day at six-thirty in the afternoon the bagasse
(the cane waste) filling the air forces us to close doors and windows"
and that it was always "accompanied by the mill whistle" that could be
heard throughout the town.
But all that is ancient history. Sugar production began to slide down
the slope failure. In June last year, Noel Casañas Lugo, vice president
of the Azcuba Sugar Group, acknowledged that the production of the last
harvest only reached 80% of the predicted plan and remained below
the 1.6 million tonnes of sugar achieved in 2015.
Colombia is one of the four main urban centers of the province of Las
Tunas and the mill began to operate in 1916. The large wooden houses
built on stilts hark back to that time, as do the memories that the
families pass on by word of mouth about the power of a machinery that
did not stop grinding up the cane in every harvest.
The knowledge acquired in long hours of labor was transferred between
generations without the involvement of any schools and the whole town
revolved around the mill. It beat to the rhythm of the chimney and
seemed to languish between the harvests.
The Las Tunas mill was selected for its productive results as a "pilot
model" to integrate into the Business Improvement plan at the end of the
last century. But even that did not save it from an abrupt closure at
the beginning of this millennium. Its workers, then, were given the most
difficult task, one for which they were the least prepared: to stop
The peasants and workers tried to mitigate the situation by sowing
potatoes and tobacco where before there had been cane, but the majority
were unemployed. The town paused. There were neither rows of ash-covered
workers nor bagasse floating in the air … and much less economic prosperity.
In 2011, the Ministry of Sugar was weakened and the new Azcuba Sugar
Group was created, subordinated to the State Council. But the new
institution has not been able to revitalize the sector, which is also
affected by low wages, technical difficulties and the exodus of people
from the countryside to urban centers.
In the last month qualified technicians have come from other provinces
to readjust the framework of the industrial complex. Every time an
anxious neighbor asks about the date when work will be resumed, the
response is spare and imprecise: "next week."
To meet its production forecasts, the province of Las Tunas depends on
Colombia joining in the harvest, along with the Antonio Guiteras mill,
which is not experiencing its best moment, and Majibacoa, which has
managed to maintain a stable crop, according to a recent report from the
The 17,462 tonnes of sugar called for in the plan is a challenge for an
industry that has suffered such a long-term stoppage, along with
vandalism of the technology and also the loss of skilled workers.
Administrators have mobilized veteran workers and ensure that "all key
posts of the sugar mill are covered," according to statements to the
press by Elido Suarez Nunez, head of industrial maintenance.
The town seems to be living in a carnival. Like in one of those popular
festivals where it is not known if at the end of the night a colorful
and friendly giant will appear surrounded by lights and sounds, or
instead there will be a return to darkness and boredom.
Source: Colombia Sugar Mill, A Giant That Is Slow To Wake Up / 14ymedio,
Luz Escobar – Translating Cuba -
https://translatingcuba.com/colombia-sugar-mill-a-giant-that-is-slow-to-wake-up-14ymedio-luz-escobar/ Continue reading
ORLANDO FREIRE SANTANA | La Habana | 27 de Octubre de 2016 - 11:04 CEST.
The recent announcement by the Council of the Provincial Administration
of Havana (CAP), which contains a number of provisions governing the
operation of Cuba's paladares (private restaurants), speaks of order and
the discipline that should prevail at these businesses. A detailed
analysis of some of these directives, however, reveals that their true
aim is to prevent these establishments from becoming too successful, and
escaping the authorities' control.
For example, if a musician who entertains customers is very popular, but
does not belong to an Institute of Music company, he may not be hired by
a paladar. And not allowing these establishments to acquire "illegal
goods" could greatly their numbers. In the absence of a wholesale
market, they would be limited to buying at retail stores, which suffer
from severe shortages.
Another provision imposes a ban on importing goods for commercial
purposes, as these transactions are not permitted by the General Customs
Administration of the Republic. The measure, which would also affect the
options the paladares are able to offer their customers, is consonant
with the regime's desire to suppress the emerging private sector on the
Island, thereby frustrating President Barack Obama and his desire to see
Finally, the refusal to allow paladares to expand and, without
abandoning their primary mission, also function as clubs or discos, is
perhaps the clearest sign of the authorities' intentions.
The Government's actions against the paladares cannot be seen as an
isolated incident against just one form of self-employment. Rather, it
comes within the context of a counteroffensive recently unleashed
against private activities that those in power consider "more
lucrative". In this way the wave of repression against the paladares
constitutes the second chapter in a script that began with the campaign
against Cuba's almendrones, or private taxis.
Despite denials in the official rhetoric, at heart Castroism is
antagonistic to private activity, and only allows it when it deems it
expedient. No one should forget what happened back in 1996: after using
certain market mechanisms, including expanding self-employment, to
mitigate the economic collapse from the "Special Period," the Government
halted reform and almost suspended all self-employment, all under the
logic that "in a socialist country, most workers should be State employees."
This counteroffensive against the self-employed cannot be separated from
the famous section 104 of the "Conceptualisation of the Cuban Economic
and Social Model of Socialist Development," which states that "The
concentration of property and wealth in non-State natural or legal
persons is not permitted, in accordance with legislation and consistent
with the principles of our socialism." This statement, after being
approved at the VII Congress of the Communist Party (PCC), has been
echoed at subsequent meetings by high-ranking hardliners in the Castro
As already stated, the containment of the self-employed by preventing
them from importing or exporting products, seeks to counter the measures
that President Obama may adopt to support Cuban entrepreneurs. The US
president has backed this type of support ever since reaching the White
House, and did so again during his visit to the Island, and now in his
policies governing relations with Cuba.
Wisdom tells us that when they go after your neighbor, they can go after
you too, such that landlords renting out homes and rooms ought to be on
their guard. They, along with drivers and those running paladares, form
a trio that has always remained in the crosshairs of the tax
authorities. Renters may well be the next targets.
Source: The war on paladares may be just the beginning | Diario de Cuba
- http://www.diariodecuba.com/cuba/1477559091_26298.html Continue reading
Posted on February 6, 2016
14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Viñales and Havana, 6 February 2016 – First they
ran out of water bottles, then packaged juices became scarce, and now it
is difficult to find fresh fruit. This is how a hostess of tourist rooms
in Viñales describes the situation there with the significant increase
of tourism in Cuba and the problems of supplies.
During 2015, 3,524,779 foreign visitors arrived on the island, according
to the latest official figures, an increase of some 17.4% over the prior
year. However, the number of hotel rooms and private homes offering
accommodation has not grown just as quickly. Other services, such as
airports, food services and transportation, have also appeared to be
overwhelmed by the flood.
The beautiful valley of Viñales, with its attractive mogotes and range
of nature tourism, has experienced months of great demand. "Now we have
more tourists here than locals," exaggerates Paco, an 81-year-old who
owns a house near the well-known Indian Cave. From his doorway he can
see the incessant caravan of buses that brings visitors to the beautiful
"Before I sat down here," he notes from his wooden armchair, "I saw at
least ten To one side of his house, a family that owns a private
restaurant reinforces Paco's view. "We are struggling to maintain our
menu, because between the shortages and the number of tourists that are
coming it's getting very difficult," says Zoila, the restaurant's cook.
The market stalls show the effects of the increased demand. Every day
5,000 tourists visit Viñales, slightly more than one-sixth of the number
of residents. They come looking for products like fresh fruit, lobster,
shrimp, rum, beer and, of course, the local tobacco. "Sometimes we have
to go to other towns to find papayas and oranges for breakfast," says a
woman who rents rooms to tourists.
She acknowledges, however, that she is "happy" with the surge of
visitors. "Bring more, we're profiting," she repeats a very popular
phrase exuding optimism, although she would like to improve the town's
infrastructure, "to solve these bottlenecks."
There are 60 private sector restaurants in the Viñales valley with a
high demand for vegetables, fruits and meats. A good share of them are
supplied by the illegal market and buy directly from the farmers. "We
only have imported beer," says a sign outside one private restaurant.
The local beers, Cristal and Bucanero "are not available because the
'yumas' [foreigners] arrive very thirsty," a waiter comments jokingly.
A few yards away, a young man offers horseback rides through the valley
for five convertible pesos for twenty minutes. "All my animals are busy
now," he tells some Canadians want a little cross country trot. "I'm
full up, you'll have to wait for the ones making the tour now to
return." The man started with four horses, and now has nine and is
expecting to have fifteen this year.
In Havana, Obispo Street is buzzing at two on a Saturday afternoon. Some
pedestrians choose parallel streets such as O'Reilly or Obrapia to avoid
the crowds. Tour groups walk slowly with their guides, stopping to take
pictures and marveling at an old woman smoking an enormous cigar or a
woman dressed up in colonial-era clothing.
The whole place seems like a great Tower of Babel with the different
languages heard. Among the millions of visitors who came to the island
last year were some 125,000 Canadians, 36,000 Germans, 35,000 French,
32,000 British, 30,000 Spaniards and 26,000 Italians, among other
With the beginning of Air China flights, there are also a lot of Chinese
tourists beginning to arrive. "I can't complain," says Lucia, who rents
two rooms near Plaza Vieja in the historic center. "Last year my rooms
were occupied almost the whole time. I have spent a long time in this
arena and have never seen anything like it," she said.
The problem, points out the self-employed woman, has been that "the
supplies in the stores and the markets haven't kept up." Her family has
had to search everywhere to buy toilet paper, milk, soap and alcoholic
or sweetened drinks, these latter to fill "the minibars in the rooms,"
"Sometimes we have to go out at the crack of dawn to guarantee that
there is bread for breakfast," details Lucia. "This neighborhood has
collapsed, there is no way we can maintain quality service if we don't
have an improvement in supplies," she points out. A simple stroll
through the most important stores in the area, among them the centrally
located Harris Brothers, confirms her words.
"No, we haven't had small bottles of water for weeks," says a clerk on
the ground floor when asked about that product. "They are bought by the
boxful by the people who rent rooms," she adds. The same thing happens
with "beer, large bottles of Cola, and toilet paper," she emphasizes.
Old Havana still has its chronic problems of water supply, and with the
flood of customers in state and private accommodations, the prices
charged by the water trucks have also risen. "There are days when even
20 CUC isn't enough to get my water tank filled," comments Lucia.
For Maria del Pilar Macias Rutes, general director of Quality and
Operations of the Ministry of Tourism, there is "a challenge to continue
to improve quality systems in order to meet the demands of the boom in
tourism," she declared this week on national television. Among them, are
"programs to improve the situation in food and beverages, entertainment
and shopping," she explained.
"Havana can't take any more," jokes the keeper of a private restaurant
near Havana Bay when asked about the volume of foreign visitors who come
to his place. "We have already renovated three floors in the place and
we still can't cope," the man comments proudly, dressed like a gentleman
of the eighteenth century to attract more tourists.
The increase in visitors is also noticeable in the availability of
transport. A couple of years ago there were few people waiting at the
Havana Bus Tour stops, but now the lines are almost like those "for the
buses to go to work," laughs the driver of one of these double-deck
buses. For five convertible pesos, the route provides a two-hour tour of
the main tourist sites in the city.
The country currently has just over 60,000 rooms, of which 66.5% are in
four- and five-star hotels. By 2020 there are expected to be 85,500
rooms with international standards, according to the Minister of
Tourism, Manuel Marrero, but the signs are that the growth will have to
be faster than programmed. For 2016 barely 3,700 tourist rooms will be
added, and 5,600 will be renovated or improved, particularly in Havana,
Varadero and Northern Keys.
In the private sector, there is a total of 28,634 licensed housing
units, rooms and spaces, but some of them are intended for Cubans or are
premises rented for services.
Nor do the airport terminals escape the congestion and saturation of
passengers. In the Havana airport, travelers can expect to wait between
an hour-and-a-half to two hours from the time their plane lands until
they get out the door with their suitcases. The lines at the passport
checkpoints "at times are so long they almost stretch to the steps of
the plane" says a customs worker.
Customers complain about the stifling heat while waiting at the baggage
claim because the air conditioning in Terminal Three, the most modern in
the country, barely cools the room. "There is no toilet paper in the
bathrooms, and no place to even buy a bottle of water here," a recently
arrived Argentine tourist complained this weekend.
The situation could worsen throughout the year, during which the number
of visitors is expected to exceed 3.7 million, according to Deputy
Minister of Tourism Mayra Garcia Alvarez; this would be 175,200 more
tourists than last year.
Just outside the Havana airport the taxi drivers no longer fight for
customers, it is the latter who have to try to get to one of the
Panataxis as they are approaching the terminal from the street. Two men
were arguing over a cart to carry their luggage. "I saw it first,"
protested one, with a French accent. Finally he managed to hang on to
it, but it had a broken wheel.
Night falls and tourists are pouring out of the airport to visit a
country that cannot cope with meeting their expectations.
Source: There Isn't Enough Beer For So Many 'Yumas' / 14ymedio, Zunilda
Mata | Translating Cuba -
http://translatingcuba.com/there-isnt-enough-beer-for-so-many-yumas-14ymedio-zunilda-mata/ Continue reading
After a 45-minute flight, we land on the cracked-concrete runway of José
Martí International Airport, walk off the plane onto a seemingly
deserted airstrip, and are greeted by a white bust of revolutionary José
BY JOSEPH PEDRO
In old Havana there is a tree that's said to be older than the city
itself. It was here, though it was very young, when the Taíno people
would worship, venerate, and respect her as Ancient Mother. It was here
too, though a little older now, in 1519 when the Spanish first
established a settlement. The land was claimed, right beside her growing
roots, as San Cristóbal de la Habana. She provided shade for the first
mass and bestowed a breeze for the first council meeting. And as she
reached toward the heavens, so did a city. Becoming resilient and
strong, prosperous and wealthy, devout and ideological—she soon had a
home overlooking churches and plazas, statues and mansions that rivaled
those of Europe. She felt the breeze of independence and briefly felt it
taken away from her. As times changed, though, she witnessed the plight
of the Cuban people under a dictatorship and felt the mumblings of
revolution brush through her leaves. Then, in 1959, as winter drew to an
end she was here still to feel the rumbling of a tank shake her roots to
usher in spring and a new hope for her land. More than half a century
later, the wind again sways her branches and one of her leaves falls in
2014, twirling like a Sky Dancer, landing flatly on my head.
I am about to visit Havana, Cuba for a whirlwind three-day trip, and I
decide before boarding a charter flight from Miami to José Martí
International Airport, to drop the veil on my parochial American
upbringing, to observe and reflect on a country that has persevered
through difficult times, and embrace (not criticize) its convictions. Of
course, actually being in Havana, exploring, and meeting the people, I
am forced to modify this original declaration. Havana lends itself to
open-minded tourists who should be curious about the political system,
who want to question the state of the city, and who will dig deeper into
the country's modern-day ethos while understanding its past. And once
you find yourself sharing a mojito with a local, you may be surprised to
see just how open and honest they are about their lives and their
country. As my journey unfolds, I find the city to be a living testament
of its history and ideals, and I meet a proud people who have the
strength to overcome obstacles that the modern-day traveler may not
realize still exist.
I am able to visit Cuba because of loosened travel restrictions on
citizens of the USA thanks to a recent change in policy encouraged by
President Barack Obama. Now, tour companies are allowed to operate in
the island nation as long as they are licensed through the juggernaut
education-based travel program called People to People. My trip is
booked through Pride World Travel, a member of the IsramWorld portfolio
of brands, which is beginning their LGBT-focused tours of Cuba in 2015.
Because these are educational trips, Americans are still at the mercy of
the Cuban government that works to organize specific itineraries for
each group. If you don't feel like going along with the plans, too bad.
As long as the official government itinerary is in play, you're required
to be with your group. But as I learn during my trip, there is a
leniency depending on your guide. Luckily, my itinerary is relaxed and
filled with a steady stream of good food, fascinating people from the
LGBT community (including my guide), and even time to relax at the gay
I highly recommend visiting through a well-established tour company like
Pride World Travel. The company handled every little detail of the trip.
Having all the correct documents is especially nerve-wracking for
Americans visiting Cuba. The night before we depart from Miami, a
representative hands me a packet with everything I need. From a formal
letter granting me access and a visa to the required Cuban-issued health
insurance— everything is organized. Also, I receive the VIP treatment at
the Miami airport when, instead of waiting in line for the charter
flight, a representative greets us, takes our bags, and hands us all the
required customs forms that we'll need to enter Cuba.
After a 45-minute flight, we land on the cracked-concrete runway of José
Martí International Airport, walk off the plane onto a seemingly
deserted airstrip, and are greeted by a white bust of revolutionary José
Martí. Once through the doors, we are escorted into a flickering
neon-lit room filled with guards. I am so glad I have the paperwork in
order. The buildup and anxiety are unnecessary. The pleasant (and
handsome) agent takes my whole packet, stamps my passport (though I am
told you can request a separate sheet to be stamped), and I walk through
the door into the baggage claim area. Only one person in my group is
taken aside for further questioning (this is routine), but he rejoins us
a few minutes later.
Our on-the-ground tour company, Havana Tours, which is government owned,
whisks us through customs and takes us straight to a van. "Welcome to
Havana," shouts our guide, Oscar, who will be with us for the entire
trip. He quickly begins pointing things out, but it's hard to pay
attention. I'm in CUBA, keeps repeating in my head. CUBA! The old 1950's
American-made cars rumble by us, but they aren't exactly like the ones
in pictures. Most are beat-up, rusted, and loud, but they are still so
sexy and filled with men and women cruising with the windows down.
"Here's a school," he says pointing to a Creamsicle-orange building with
kids in white uniforms playing tetherball in the clay ground surrounded
by a lush baseball field. A propaganda billboard proclaiming "We Have
Socialism" with a picture of revolution leaders serves as their
backdrop. "All education up to a master's is free in Cuba," he proudly
exclaims. We all collectively shake our heads thinking of our enormous
Then, we drive past the obelisk-like monument in Plaza de la Revolución
and whiz around the iconic images of Che Guevera ("Until the Everlasting
Victory, Always") and the lesser-known revolution leader Camilo
Cienfuegos ("You're Doing Fine, Fidel").
When we exit the turnabout plaza the street becomes a gorgeous,
Spanish-inspired boulevard with a tree-lined pedestrian median. Here is
where I get my first glimpse of the effects of Cuba's political and
economic climate. Each side of the avenue is lined with one stately
mansion after another even-more-impressive mansion. Large gates open to
reveal overgrown tropical flora and gorgeous Italianate-like buildings.
Each, though, has been weathered by the climate forcing their colors to
fade, but their beauty, and significance can easily still be admired.
"The people who lived here," our guide half-smirks, "Weren't too happy
about the Revolution." And you can understand why. "Oh, what the gays in
New York could do to this street," one other guest quips.
As the avenue curves toward the sea, we see our massive hotel, Meliá
Cohiba Hotel Havana.
Through the tour company, we have VIP service and are brought to "The
Level," a special check-in area with a private concierge (you'll be able
to exchange your US dollars here for the local currency, the Cuban
Convertible Peso or CUC). My accommodations are unexpectedly large; it's
a corner room with surrounding windows. I open the curtains, running
around my room pulling them to reveal a stunning view of the sea. A
large bed, two televisions (which get international channels), a Jacuzzi
tub, and most amenities one would expect, including Wi-Fi (for a hefty
price), from a modern hotel. We also take delight in the multiple
restaurants, the outdoor pool on the second floor, the large gym/sauna,
and the attention-to-every-detail customer service.
Celebrating our first night, we literally feast at a palador (privately
owned restaurant) called La Moraleja. We walk down a lighted, trellised
path to an indoor/outdoor dining area. The owner happily greets us and
lets us see his extensive wine collection. Importing more than a couple
bottles is illegal so this assortment has taken him and his father many
years to collect. Havana Tourism representatives meet us and, in a grand
show, we dine on chicken, lamb, lobster, traditional rice and beans,
fried yucca, clams, shrimp, and fried cheese. It's obvious, knowing a
bit about the food rationing that the socialist system in Cuba uses,
that our local company doesn't normally dine this way (of course, we
don't either). I'm hesitant to talk about it, but a fellow traveler
outright asks, in a non-disrespectful way: "You're not used to eating
like this are you?"
"No!" they all say laughing. Their candid response gives us our first
glimpse at the openness of the Cuban people. Our hosts freely explain
the ration books and what that gives them: rice, beans, and eggs. Taking
a bite out of a lobster tail one says: "It's why we are so lucky to have
been placed in tourism." It's a sobering moment, and we consider asking
for our food to go so we can share it with others. "No, no, no," they
insist, "You can leave it for the staff at the restaurant."
The conversation never treads on awkward, which is refreshing. We
compare apartment prices, talk about their travel restrictions, the new
iPhone, if they ever figured out how Whitney Houston died, and if New
York is just like the movies. The owner is happy we're visiting too. To
show his appreciation, he lights us Cuban cigars and brings us beautiful
rum. Taking a pull on the cigar, I think to myself: I could get used to
After dinner, according to our official program, we're to meet an
activist group. So I am surprised when we arrive at a nightclub named
after the award-winning Cuban-produced gay movie Strawberry and
Chocolate called Café Fresa y Chocolate. Inside, there is a band waiting
for us called Aceituna sin Hueso. This café by day is attached to the
Cuban Film Institute and is a regular hangout for the arts community
(a.k.a gay), but at night, particularly once a month, the band (not
exactly an activist group) performs. "It's a place where everyone feels
safe," the bombshell lead singer Miriela Moreno tells me. By looking
around, you can see many more lesbian couples than gay men sitting at
the tables drinking Crystal beer. For non-Spanish speakers, Moreno's
music is still easily understood through her palpable soul-crushing
passion and the get-up-and-dance beats by her band. The group, who has
traveled abroad to Spain to perform, uses their lyrics to send
anti-homophobia and anti-prejudice messages, she tells me. I quickly
develop a straight crush on her as I gulp down several Bucanero beers
while watching them completely turn the small café into a Miami
A driver picks me up in the morning in a 1950's canary-yellow,
convertible Buick Dynaflow—it's that Havana moment I've read about. He
honks his horn to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw" as we drive down the
waterfront street called the Malecón. His horn pulsing to the rhythm of
the sea attracts the attention of the early-morning fishermen who turn
their attention away from their poles and give us a wave. The Cuban flag
proudly waves in front of a grand monument to Cuban Independence hero
Antonio Maceo Grajales who sits tall on his horse looking over the city.
The car breezes past the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, the site
of tense anti-American protests, particularly during the Elián González
affair. We pass the statue of González's father holding a small Elián
and pointing to the United States Interests Section's glass-covered
building. Even while pointing it out, our guide is never awkward about
US and Cuban relations.
I take in my first views of the famous buildings along the Malecón.
Weathered by time, the buildings seem different depending on how the
early-morning sun hits them. The sun's struggling to pierce through the
dark clouds overhead, and the lighting reveals splendid patterns,
architectural accents, and varying states of decay and renovation. But
most of all, I think, it reveals a color spectrum that my eyes are
unaccustomed to seeing in New York. It reminds me of the colors from a
PAAS Easter egg coloring kit, each egg always turned out to be a new and
exciting shade. The row of buildings is peppered with new projects,
including a new government-owned hotel, which gives me hope that this
once-grand waterfront will be revitalized.
We then turn onto an unassuming street. In accordance with our
itinerary, we're to "Visit Paloma Project which promotes gender equality
(part of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry and
meet with the Director Lizette Vila." A woman, no taller than 5'2″,
reaches her arms out for a hug as we reach the wrought-iron arched
entrance, and a lumbering dog lifts his head at the upcoming excitement.
She hugs each of us like a long-lost relative and leads us through the
well-manicured front garden and into the building. Trinkets (witches,
clocks, sage, figurines) and old photos (Castro, trans* activists,
famous singers) dot the walls, and we carefully try not to disturb the
large Santaria (local religion) shrine on the floor that's filled with
hopes, dreams, and prayers. We're brought into a small room and offered
tea and cookies, and we kindly accept (it is considered bad form not to
enjoy specially prepared food).
One by one, new people enter and sit with us in a tiny windowless room.
We form a circle and exchange those awkward first-meeting smiles.
Lizette Vila enters the room and goes around introducing everyone. "This
is Milena and Juani Santos," she says pointing to an older gentleman and
a young lady. "Juani is the first transgender person in Cuba, and Milena
has recently transitioned and is the focus of an upcoming documentary,"
she nonchalantly shares as our jaws nearly hit the floor.
She then continues and introduces Isabel Blanco, a famous ballerina who
now teaches acceptance and empowerment through dance; Ingrid Leon, who
produces documentaries about woman's rights and has just completed the
documentary about Milena; and Teresa de Jesús Fernández who works for
the government's gay-rights agency, Cenesex.
For a gay journalist, this room is a jackpot. I am ready to fire off
question after question, but it never becomes a structured interview, it
becomes a wonderful discussion that doesn't lend itself to an
uncomfortable middle-of-the-room recorder. We drop formalities, and we
talk, connecting with each other, undistracted like pre-iPhone days. We
learn of Juani's struggles growing up as the only girl among boys and
how he has found acceptance from his brothers after having pioneering
surgery in Copenhagen. Milena tells us about being kicked out of her
home and finding the government-supported resources and
government-provided medical treatments to make her into the woman that
she always knew she was. Ingrid discusses the difficulties of creating
documentaries in Cuba and the thrill of watching her controversial
pieces air on the state-run television channel and her hopes to show
them at international festivals.
It is Lizette Vila, whose passion for her work, her openness, and her
intelligence that captivates my attention most. Moving her hands with
wild gesticulations, reminding me of my Italian grandmother, she
discusses each person in the room's successes and troubles. Her empathy
and her understanding go far beyond the goal of the organization, which
is to advance equality through the arts. While her ideas on feminism and
the LGBT community seem quite progressive, even radical, she insists
that they are in line with the beliefs of many other people in the
country, including Mariela Castro, the director of Cinesex, and the
daughter of President Raúl Castro.
She likens Cuba to a strong, fertile, and beautiful woman whose
resilience in the face of revolution and embargoes continues to inspire
her and the arts community. And while she is lucky to travel around the
globe and meet with LGBT and feminist leaders, she continues to thank
socialism. "It's because of socialism and the Cuban government that we
exist," she tells us while placing her arm on my shoulder.
After long hugs and countless photos, our driver and Oscar have to
nearly pull us away, despite the excitement of our next stop, the gay beach.
Apparently, it is highly unusual for the government to give visitors who
are part of a planned tour such free time. After realizing that there
may be some leniency in their rigid schedule, I beg, like the literary
nerd I am, that our driver stop by Ernest Hemmingway's home where he
wrote Old Man in the Sea. I am told that after Hemmingway's children
came to see it recently, they closed it for renovations. As our van
heads down a village street, I begin to smell the salt water. Little
shops and restaurants dot the street, and men and women walk carelessly
through the middle of the road with fishing poles. In front of us is an
old and crumbling Spanish fort, long docks that seemingly stretch to
nowhere, and a round, baby-blue plaza with a bust of Hemmingway. A man
sings "Guantanamera" alone, children run up to us shouting "amigo," and
an old woman sits, legs crossed, dwarfed by the fort, gazing out. "This
is Cojimar, where Hemmingway was inspired to write his novel." Oscar
tells me. Sitting here by the bust, as I hand Tootsie Pops to the
children to quiet them, and watch fishermen row back into the docks
looking miniscule compared to the ocean, and I can see how Hemmingway
fell so in love with this town, the mysteries of Cuba, and, more
importantly, the sea. "But the old man always thought of her as feminine
and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild
or wicked things it was because she could not help them," he wrote in
Old Man in the Sea in 1952.
I've made everyone late to the beach (by Cuban standards) as people
usually begin leaving around 4 P.M., but it's still filled with
fresh-face tanned youths sipping Cuban rum, and parsnip-colored tourists
lounging in rented chairs protected by rainbow-colored umbrellas. "Mi
Cayito is a place where the gay community can really be free," Oscar
tells us as a couple of transwomen walk by topless. We find a comfy spot
and make our way into the crystal-blue Caribbean waters while the locals
ogle at our foreignness. Unlike other gay beaches in the Caribbean, this
feels empty and safe (though I would, of course, use common sense). We
begin to recognize a familiar cast of characters who proudly promenade
up and down the sand runway sporting everything from thongs to one
pieces, holding hands, swigging glass rum bottles, kissing, and
celebrating life. We easily chat with locals who are interested in why
we're visiting, and we excite them when we say how much we have always
wanted to visit Cuba, their home.
As the sun begins to set, it casts that oh-so-picture-perfect tint of
colors only found in the Caribbean.
That night, Oscar takes us for a stroll along the Malecón where under
the moonlight miles and miles of men and women sit along the waterfront
during the weekend. The massive crowds and the people's carefree no-rush
attitude impress me. The whole idea of hanging with friends to just sit
on a ledge and talk the night away seems so foreign. As cell phones are
quite expensive and most social-media websites are blocked, nobody is
looking at tiny computer screens. They are engaged, interested, and more
importantly valuing each other's time together. Gay groups sit among the
straight couples, and you'll easily notice them by their not-so-discreet
gazes. As we walk to another "cruising" area, every crevice or ledge is
filled with people. We rest under a dark and Sleepy Hollow-esque statue
of "Don Quixote in Vedado" and eavesdrop on Spanish conversations (my
Spanish teacher would be so proud I picked up the word bottom, pasivo).
Havana's gay scene and nightlife doesn't just take place on the streets.
Oscar takes us to a place called Café Cantante below the Nacional
Theatre that's hosting an event called il Divino. First, I visit the top
of the building that overlooks the lit-up Plaza de la Revolución where
an illuminated Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos act as guardians over
the cars rolling around the circle. Downstairs, tables are set up, and,
slowly, people begin to trickle in. It's illuminated like a 90's roller
rink, and we're hardly expecting much modern music, or much at all. Then
the DJ plays US Top 40 with videos projected on both sides of the stage,
and by half past midnight, the oh-so-sexy crowd has overtaken the seats
and the bar is packed. A host comes on speaking machine-gun Spanish,
getting the crowd fired up. He shouts out to us few Americans, Germans,
Spanish, and then a dance number ensues. We're mesmerized and watch a
string of performances, while doing our best talking to the locals. I
learn quickly that buying a beer is way more effective than
chitchatting. We ask when the famous drag queen will hit the stage, and
we're told 5:30 A.M., and I am afraid my tired eyes will lose this
battle with Father Time.
Old Havana is crumbling," our guide tells us. "Over one building a day
currently collapses in the city, but it's because of tourism that we're
slowly beginning to rebuild and restore," he adds. The parts we
experience sing of Spain and most of the buildings in the tourist areas
are still in good condition.
When we arrive in the tourist-heavy part of Old Havana, it looks just
like I had always imagined. I'm standing adjacent to the old lighthouse.
Here, a young guard sits reading a book, she brushes her newly dyed red
hair out of her eyes and she angles her head up and uses her book as a
visor to see the clouds rolling in high above the centuries-old
buildings and trees. A wind whips their delicate leaves, and they fall
to the cobble-stoned plaza. Still green and still with much more time to
be had catching Caribbean sunlight, they become part of the sediment
that has held the stone together for centuries. They are pushed farther
into the ground by opened-toed tourist sandals belonging to curious
visitors and re-smushed by handed-down Nikes belonging to local vendors
hawking Che Guavera trinkets. One of the tree's wide-base roots
stretches far across to the El Templete monument and curves, snake-like
toward a bust of Christopher Columbus. The branches touch the
neo-classical monument gently brushing the façade like a grandmother
smoothing the cheek of her new grandchild.
"A storm is coming," the guard tells me while collecting ten CUCs and
placing the bill into her fanny pack. "Just a few minutes," she says
opening up the faded-white doors of El Templete. "I will have to shut
the doors if it rains." Inside El Templete there are three massive
floor-to-ceiling canvases by the French painter (who later moved to
Cuba) Jean Baptiste Vermay. The exquisite pieces give a first-hand look
into the importance of Cuba. They show, and more importantly allow me to
feel, the power, wealth, and divinity that came from the establishment
of the European New World.
Stepping out from the tomb-like quiet of the monument onto one of the
three main squares in Havana, Plaza de Armas, reveals a bustling scene.
I manage to make it around to a few vendors at the Second-Hand Book
Market, where eager salesmen who are trying to pawn off mostly
Spanish-language books about the Revolution quickly surround me. As I
settle a deal for a five-CUC paperback of The Old Man and the Sea and an
assortment of old prayer cards, I spot a raindrop stream down a graphic
novel, Revolucion Cubana. The vendors parachute plastic tarps over their
stands with such routine indifference I can only imagine how many times
this happens. I stroll with my group around the square. Drop. "It's just
a light drizzle," we convincingly repeat.
Drop, drop. Through the rain, we dodge into little shops, taking in the
local characters, and make our way through two more major plazas. Each
reveals an other-worldly, different-time charm. A young girl in an
orange quinceñera dress floats out of an old church, her parents
snapping photos, as she poses against the beautiful stonework, British
boys stumble through centuries-old courtyards with cigars and rum and
Cokes, and old women whose dresses are wet and sandals are worn sneak up
behind tourists begging for a CUC.
We make it to Plaza Vieja and duck into a microbrewery called Factoria
Plaza Vieja and sample the beers made on the premises and watch the
lively cast of characters. An old woman dances alone in the rain and is
joined by little children, while small dogs step across the cobblestone
square and weave through the modern sculpture of a rooster. The once
droplets have turned into monsoon-like conditions, and I watch the water
flow rapidly through the Old City. "The city has seen much worse," our
guide tells us, reflecting on past hurricanes. Through Spanish columns
an image of Che Guvera looks almost dystopian in the near-zero visibility.
The rain luckily subsides, and we are back in Plaza de Armas. The guard,
protected by a small umbrella, with near-perfect dry red hair, is still
waiting by the monument under dripping leaves. "They say," Oscar notes,
"This tree has been here since the founding of Cuba." I look up at the
branches still moving like a flag from the ocean winds. He takes my hand
and places it against the trunk. "See how smooth it is?" he says as I
brush my hand against an almost sanded-down ring on its trunk. "Each
year, people line up all the way down the street to celebrate the birth
of the nation, and we walk around the tree while still touching it," he
says like an old prophet. "Touch the tree and think of a wish, dream,
hope, or something you're thankful for and walk around three times, and
with each time drop a coin at the base."
One. I trace the tree first with my eyes closed thinking hard about a
personal wish that I send up through the trunk, and I open my eyes while
carefully stepping and see the square as it may have appeared in the
beginning and see the hopes and dreams of a colonizing people. Two. I
come around again and thank the tree for modern-day Cuba for the people,
for their hospitality, and I wish that they too will find answers for
the problems that they live with each day. Three. I come around for a
final time and think of Cuba's future, and I thank the tree that I am
already a small insignificant part of it.
Source: Uncovering Gay Havana, Cuba -- PASSPORT Magazine -
http://passportmagazine.com/havana-cuba-uncovering-gay-cuba/ Continue reading
Architectural look at the ongoing work
Seat of government to return to El Capitolio after renovations
Massive renovations to also include Waterfront Promenade
BY MARK TREVOR BURRELL
Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana's city historian, is leading an
architectural renaissance in this former capital of the Western Hemisphere.
Architects and engineers working with Spengler's office and graduates
from Cuba's technical schools have restored hundreds of historic
structures, designed and built new projects, and are now involved with
the largest renovation projects in the island's history: adapting the
waterfront district and restoring monuments and buildings — public and
private — throughout the city.
Their largest project: renovating Cuba's "El Capitolio," once the seat
of the former Congress. The building was abandoned as the symbol of
power after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. While the government
offices have been housed at Revolution Plaza across town since 1960, the
Capitolio remained open to tourists and housed a science library and
Internet café. When the renovation is completed in about two years, the
building will again be the seat of government, according to the project
Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, who served as director of the national museums
when the immense Capitolio project was announced three years ago, has
been impressed with the renovations.
"What they are doing is magic, and it is real, not virtual magic," she
said recently as she looked down from the cupola or small lantern atop
Performing that magic has been aided by the creation of trade schools
that have graduated a small army of skilled workers. On a recent visit,
carpenters with hand planes, chisels and "old-fashioned" braces and bits
worked on solid wood doors, trim and windows in one large house.
Plasterers were working with fresh, wet plaster and screeds to create
crown moldings and ceiling medallions by hand; masons replaced damaged
travertine edging at a doorway by cutting new travertine to match.
The massive renovations also involve a new Waterfront Promenade. It will
develop several blocks to the east from the Customs Building at the
docks. Because functions that were handled at the old docks have moved
to the new container port in Mariel, the street level walls of the old
Customs house will be open, as they were in 1910, to provide a sea view
and space for office and retail activity. Beyond the Customs house, an
existing structure is being renovated for passenger ferries. Further
down, a craft beer hall is open in a renovated warehouse.
Also renovated has been a prominent house on Fifth Avenue, conspicuous
for its green glazed tile roof. It's now an architecture museum. Plaza
Vieja, a once desolate area of the old city where the buildings were
mostly vacant in the 90s, has also gotten a facelift. The plaza and its
buildings are fully restored. With restaurants and shops, such as a
Benetton store, the plaza is now a major draw for visitors to the old city.
The Capitolio, however, remains the centerpiece of the renovations. It
was constructed between 1926 and 1929 and designed by Cuban architects
Raúl Otero and Eugenio Rayneri Piedra. Sources published in Cuba credit
design influences for the dome to the Pantheon in Paris and to Rome's
St. Peter's for size and form. Although the building's appearance is
similar, but slightly smaller, than the U.S. Capitol, the top of the
Cuban dome is slightly higher.
The Capellanias limestone ashlars on the building's walls were quarried
in Cuba. Sixty different types of marble for flooring, steps and trim
were sourced from Italy and Germany, with some Cuban marble. The
Capitolio houses three large bronze statues by Italian sculptor Angelo
Zanelli of Brescia.
Flanking the entry are the statues "Work" and "Guardian Virtue." The
"Statue of the Republic" inside the building was shipped from Italy in
three pieces. The Republic, a stylized figure inspired by the legend of
Athena, was realized with the help of Cuban model Lily Valty.
Zanelli designed bronze and marble friezes on the building. Three
immense bronze entry doors depicting Cuba's history are the work of
Cuban artist Enrique Garcia Cabrera. The plazas and gardens were
designed by French landscape architect J.C.N. Forestier, designer of the
vast Champ de Mars park beneath the Eiffel Tower.
Most of the Capitolio renovation involves polishing and repair of the
bronze statues, lamps, elevators and doors, utility work, sandblasting
the exterior, interior painting and structural repairs to the cupola.
Work is being done to install new piping for utilities and computer,
security, fire alarm lines, fiber optic lines, new electrical wiring
throughout and air conditioning to office areas.
The government has not released the cost of the project but Spain,
Italy, Germany and Mexico have provided material. Project funding is
The level of authenticity demanded by the City Historian's architects
means that there will be no shortcuts. For example: there will be
air-conditioned office areas in the finished Capitolio, but no window
units. Instead, new air handlers will be concealed in custom cabinets to
match the wood wainscot. Original door locks will be rekeyed by
rebuilding the inner mechanisms of the locks instead of replacing the
original faceplates, a costly and time-consuming process.
The building also serves as a shrine to the poet, freedom fighter, and
national hero, José Martí. There is not a school, major building or a
park in Cuba without a statue or bust of José Marti. In the entry foyer,
his bust appears to await the return of the current government to the
Source: Capitol facelift: Restoring a Cuban landmark | Miami Herald -
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article39634383.html Continue reading
Sunday, 1 Mar 2015 | 1:27 AM ET
Justin Solomon | CNBC
A Mexican meat processing firm has become the first international
company to get approval for an investment project in Cuba's first
special economic development area, Mexico's foreign ministry said on
Richmeat de Mexico plans to invest in the processing and packing of meat
within the Mariel special development zone of the island, the ministry
said in a statement, without giving details of how much money was involved.
News of the investment follows December's agreement between the United
States and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties after more than five decades.
That spurred hopes that the communist-run island could be start to open
up its economy.
The Mexican government is keen to play a central role in the process of
ending Cuba's diplomatic and economic isolation.
The rules and regulations governing the Mariel area were first set out
in 2013, but companies have been slow to take advantage of the tax and
customs breaks it is meant to offer.
The special development zone covers 180 square miles (466 square km)
west of Havana and is centered on a new container terminal in Mariel
Bay, 28 miles from the Cuban capital.
Source: Mexican company gets deal to invest in Cuba development zone -
http://www.cnbc.com/id/102465800#. Continue reading
Posted on September 26, 2014
14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 5 September 2014 — On Wednesday
September 3rd, the official press conveyed another grim announcement to
the Cuban people. Granma wrote: "The coffee harvest, newly launched in
the province of Guantánamo, in eastern-most Cuba, will be 'small', with
a decrease of 33% compared to the previous year." The news adds to what
appears to be the new information strategy (Raul-style "transparency"?)
consisting in offering on newscasts on radio and TV, and in newspapers,
a trickling of notes, articles and reports that show some negative
figures on the Cuban economy, conveniently interspersed with other usual
triumphalist breath. As a common denominator, such reports also bring
proposals for typical solutions: calls for efficiency and "systematic
actions" to ensure increased productivity to compensate for the economic
debacle that is about to hit.
Thus, this crop will produce 342 fewer tons of coffee despite the
installation of "another seven ecological pulp-extracting facilities"
that will increase industrial performance to "reach 4.02 pounds per each
can that will benefit", superior to the previous coffee harvest figure.
And, though we have not experienced severe weather to justify the lower
production, and though they do not offer details about possible causes
for the decreased harvest, everything is a prelude to coffee –as the
sugar crop in previous years – is another traditional economic line in
Cuba headed for extinction.
The Birth of a Tradition
Coffee is an essential component of our national culture, strongly
rooted in our consumption and traditional customs, both at the family
and at the social level since its introduction in Cuba in the late 18th
century by French planters fleeing from the rebellion of slaves in the
neighboring island of Haiti.
In the early 19th century, wealthy Cuban coffee plantations flourished,
especially in the southeastern part, contributing since then to the
economic wealth and to the development of another form of agricultural
technology in the country which became cemented definitively in the 20th
century, when coffee production reached its highest standards of quality
There were no neighborhood stores without the typical aroma stemming
from coffee grinders.
With the coffee boom and the reduction in prices, consumption of the
aromatic infusion among the Cuban population increased, including among
the poorest levels, replacing cocoa in popular consumption.
A recognition of the importance of this agricultural branch in the
history and cultural identity of the country was the recording of the
Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in Cuba's
Southeast as a World Heritage Site in 2000, based on the specifics of a
tradition whose first material tracks, which are still preserved,
constitute "a unique example of pioneer form of agriculture" and
"substantially illuminate the technological, economic and social history
of the Caribbean and Latin America" (Proceedings of the UNESCO World
In recent decades, coffee, like all domestic products, has been marked
by the rapid economic decline and decay that is affecting the entire
Cuban economy. The causes are the same as the ones that ruined the sugar
industry and the rest of the national socio-economic life: political
voluntarism and extreme centralization of a totally unproductive and
The disaster has been gradual but steady, and it's reflected in the
practice of coffee consumption and contamination of the product, with
additions to stretch it and cover at least the meager allowance of 115
grams (4 ounces) as the monthly ration, a 50-50 mixture of the lowest
quality coffee and green peas. The palates of millions of Cubans have
been corrupted with the resulting brew, to the point that many do not
know or have forgotten the true taste and aroma of the fragrant bean.
But Cuban coffee made its mark not only on tangible items such as
production and consumption, but it also etched and enriched our national
spiritual life via the most unlikely and varied artists and performers.
Thus, the green coffee plantations became an integral part of the Cuban
rural landscape, while in urban spaces coffee shops proliferated, and
there wasn't a neighborhood store without the typical aroma from the
Poetry too, painting, and even music were inspired by coffee in some of
the best known works of Cuban art. Suffice it to remember the retro song
that the unforgettable Rita Montaner made popular in the first half of
the last century, with that refrain that became perpetuated in our
popular folklore: "Ay, Mamma Inez, Ay, Mamma Inez, all of us negroes
drink coffee," flatly denying that principle that was both fallacious
and racist that once called the infusion "the black nectar of the white
Cuban coffee today
Today, coffee has become scarce even on the shelves of stores operating
in "convertible pesos" (CUC), in spite of imports of beans marketed by
French or Spanish companies and by Vietnam, which became a coffee
producer with the assistance of Cuban experts.
Today, coffee agricultural tradition is dying in Cuba. Perhaps it is
fortunate that UNESCO has recorded the ruins of our nineteenth-century
coffee plantations in the list of World Heritage sites. It may be that,
after the passing of the olive green plague, this will be the only
vestige left of what once was one of the finest.
Translated by Norma Whiting
Source: Hey, "Mamá Iné"!… Are We Out of Coffee Too? / Miriam Celaya |
Translating Cuba -
http://translatingcuba.com/hey-mama-ine-are-we-out-of-coffee-too-miriam-celaya/ Continue reading
June 25, 2014
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
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 Times.org - http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=104482 Continue reading
'15 History major
Abstract: The UMAP, las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción,
were forced-work agricultural labor camps operated by the Cuban
government during the mid-1960s in the east-central province of
Camagüey. The current academic literature on the UMAP camps has
exclusively taken into account homosexual internees' experiences and has
characterized the camps solely as an instance of gender policing. This
paper will argue:
1) the UMAP was an integral component of the Cuban Revolution's larger
economic, social, and political goals,
2) the experiences of the diverse gamut of UMAP internees cannot be
generalized into a single, concentration-camp narrative, and
3) although gay men certainly endured horrific treatment at the camps,
Jehovah's Witnesses were the victims of the worst brutality at the UMAP.
Keywords: Cuba, UMAP, forced labor, gender, race, homosexuality,
The only third-party testimony of the UMAP camps comes from Canadian
journalist Paul Kidd, who was expelled from Cuba on September 8, 1966.1
The Cuban Foreign Ministry alleged that Kidd had written articles
critical of the Cuban Revolution and had taken photos of anti-aircraft
guns visible from his Havana hotel room window.2 Paul Kidd had just
returned from an unauthorized trip to Camagüey, where he "had the unique
experience … of tracking down a forced-labor camp hidden in the lush
sugar fields of central Cuba" (Kidd 1969, 24). What Paul Kidd chanced
upon were the "camps … known simply as UMAP" (24).
For nearly half a century, historians have almost entirely omitted the
UMAP camps from Cuban history while Cuban exiles have denounced the UMAP
as concentration camps.3 The current, scarce literature on the UMAP
camps has exclusively incorporated homosexual internees' experiences and
has characterized the camps solely as an instance of gender policing.4
This article argues that the UMAP was not a fringe of revolutionary
policy aimed at a sliver of the population, but an integral and
multifaceted component of the Cuban Revolution's economic, social, and
political aspirations. Firstly, the UMAP was a means of repressing
insufficiently revolucionario5 elements of civil society, such as
religious groups and secret societies. Secondly, the UMAP constituted
the extreme fringe of a nuanced spectrum of coerced, unpaid labor that
was central to the Revolution's economic goals. Thirdly, the UMAP sought
to "correct" those who exhibited a revolutionarily improper masculinity
and discriminated against not only homosexuals, but also Afro-Cubans.
Finally, while gay men certainly endured horrific treatment at the
camps, history ought to remember Jehovah's Witnesses as the victims of
the worst brutality at the UMAP camps. At the same time, however, the
experiences of the diverse gamut of UMAP internees – ranging from
Catholic priests to los hippies, as well as artists and intellectuals –
cannot be generalized into a single, concentration-camp narrative.
Instead, the UMAP camps performed many different functions and held many
different meanings. Because a topic of this nature is nearly impossible
to study in Cuba, the arguments put forth in this article draw upon
sources such as Cuban newspapers, memoirs of the camps, and interviews
with former internees.
The UMAP, las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, were
agricultural forced-work camps operated by the Cuban government between
November 1965 and July 1968 in the east-central province of Camagüey.6
Two years before the first internees were sent to UMAP camps, the Cuban
government published Law 1129, which established a three-year SMO –
Servicio Militar Obligatorio (Obligatory Military Service).7 Under the
pretense of the SMO, those considered unfit for the regular military
service were sent to the UMAP camps. Two former Cuban intelligence
agents have both estimated that of approximately 35,000 UMAP internees,8
about 500 ended up in psychiatric wards, 70 died from torture, and 180
committed suicide (Fuentes 300–3; Vivés 238). The persons most
frequently interned at the camps were religiosos (religious zealots) and
gay men.9 The large swath of internees included Jehovah's Witnesses (Ros
191), Seventh Day Adventists (Blanco 73), Catholics (Cardenal 293),
Baptists (Muñoz; Blanco 73), Methodists (Yglesias 295), Pentecostals
(Blanco 87), Episcopalians (Blanco 73), practitioners of Santería
(Santiago), Abakuá members (Santiago; Izquierdo; Llovio 151; Cabrera
164), Gideon members ("Unidades," 8), those suspected of intending to
flee the country (Cabrera 12; Blanco 34, 67; Ros 47), priests (Ros 62),
artists (Guerra 2010, 268), intellectuals (Guerra 2010, 268),
ideologically nonconforming university students (Blanco 66; Ros 122),
lesbians (Guerra 2012, 254), los hippies (Improper Conduct; Cabrera 55),
marihuaneros (potheads) (Muñoz), drug addicts (Yglesias 299), political
prisoners (Santiago), government officials accused of corruption (Llovio
160), criminals (Ros 152; Former), prostitutes (Guerra 2012, 254;
Garinger 7; Martínez 70–71), pimps (Yglesias 299), farmers who refused
collectivization (Fuentes 300–3), persons who worked for themselves
illegally (Fuentes 300–3), vagos (deadbeats) (Blanco 2013), and anyone
else considered "anti-social" or "counter-revolutionary." With no single
group forming the majority, the term "UMAP internee" represents a
decidedly plural collective.
The UMAP was no state secret. In a roaring March 1966 speech delivered
on the escalinata (large stairway) of the University of Havana, Fidel
Castro remarked "some have to go to the SMO; some have to go to la UMAP,
Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción" (Castro 1966). In 1966 and
1967, at least a dozen different articles in the Cuban press referenced
the UMAP camps, complete with photos of lush sugarcane fields and
interviews with cheerful internees.10
The two main recogidas (round-ups) of UMAP internees occurred in
November 1965 and June 1966 (Ros 146, 151). The Comités de Defensa de la
Revolución (CDR) – a nationwide government organization located on every
block – was mainly responsible for informing the military who were
destined for the UMAP camps (Yglesias 27, 275; Blanco 72; Lumsden 67;
Santiago). Most individuals were taken to the camps through a false
notice to appear for military service (Santiago; Ros 52, 79, 94, 101,
141). Individuals would receive a telegram with a notice to appear for
SMO at locations such as sports stadiums (Ros 37, 73; Cabrera 37).
Instead of being transferred to an SMO military camp, these individuals
were transported by train, truck, or bus to UMAP agricultural
forced-work camps in Camagüey (Ros 15). Conditions on the eight-hour
trip across the island were often very poor, with many internees
deprived of clean water and food (Cabrera 45; Ros 72–75). Often provided
no stops and no facilities on the ride, they had to relieve themselves
within the passenger compartment of the train or bus (Cabrera 45;
Santiago; Ros 72–75; Improper Conduct). Alternatively, instead of
receiving a false SMO notice, many individuals were directly rounded up
off the streets into buses and shipped to UMAP camps (Improper Conduct;
Martínez 66; Llovio 156). This selection method was reserved for gay men
and antisociales (anti-socials) such as los hippies. Former UMAP
internee and Ministerio del Interior (MININT) informer José Luis
Llovio-Menéndez wrote in his memoir that "MININT officers would patrol
known homosexual gathering places … they rounded up anyone who looked
like a homosexual and shipped these people off to UMAP" (156). According
to Cuban propaganda at the time, homosexuality looked like tight pants,
dark sunglasses, and sandals.11
Each UMAP camp typically held 120 men12 split into three compañías
(companies) of 40 internees further divided into squads of 10 (Ros
34).The number of internees could vary considerably, however, and some
camps held several hundred internees (Cabrera 245; Former). A typical
camp was a few hundred meters long and about one hundred fifty meters
wide and had three barracks, two for internees and one for military
personnel (Former; Sanger; Muñoz). The camps were surrounded by a 10
feet tall barbed-wire fence and had no running water or electricity
(Cardenal 294; Cabrera 54; Blanco 47; Ros 10; Muñoz; Sanger). Camp
brigades were given revolucionario names such as "Vietnam Heroico,"
"Mártires de Girón," and "Héroes del Granma."13 Most camps had bunk beds
with jute sacks slung between wooden beams for mattresses (Kidd 1969,
25; Cabrera 50; Former). Some camps had hammocks (Cabrera 53) or no beds
at all (Ros 84) and a few provided actual mattresses (Cabrera 167). The
UMAP uniform consisted of verde olivo (olive green) or dark blue pants,
a long-sleeve light blue denim shirt, and military boots (Ros 95;
Yglesias 278; Cabrera 53; Blanco 47; Llovio 147; Muñoz). As each camp
held roughly one hundred individuals and there were tens of thousands of
internees, hundreds of UMAP camps were scattered throughout Camagüey
(Kidd 1969, 24).
The internees were often divided by category (Jehovah's Witnesses, gay
men, Catholics, etc.) en route to the camps (Ros 24, 55). Each internee
was called by a number which was assigned to them upon arriving at the
camps (Santiago; Cabrera 61; Muñoz). In general, there were two types of
camps: camps only for gay men and camps for everyone else (Ros 55, 87;
Former; Llovio 156). Even while gay men were temporarily stationed at
the camps for general internees, they were sometimes assigned to a
separate platoon for homosexuals (Cabrera 58; Viera). To transfer
internees to camps for homosexuals, the guards would call the entire
camp to assemble and publicly select those who would be transferred (Ros
176). That the military actively segregated gay men not only from
society but also from within the camps demonstrates just how preoccupied
the government was with curbing the "diffusion" of homosexuality.
Internees performed a variety of agricultural tasks, ranging from
picking boniato (sweet potato), yucca, and fruit to tearing down
marabú,14 applying fertilizer, and weeding. Nonetheless, internees were
primarily engaged in planting and harvesting sugar cane (Ros 131–32;
Blanco 100; Bejel 100). Both SMO recruits and UMAP internees received an
equally meager salary: seven pesos a month – exactly one-tenth of the
state's monthly minimum wage in agriculture at the time (Ros 31;
Mesa-Lago 1981, 147; Kidd 1969, 24). Internees worked Monday through
Saturday and sometimes had to perform what was called trabajo voluntario
(volunteer work) on Sundays, which consisted of more agricultural labor,
but without any production quotas (Former; Blanco 100–101). Otherwise,
Sundays were spent resting and doing activities such as washing clothes
and writing letters to family members (Blanco 100, 104). The camp
político15 gave internees daily talks about current events and communist
ideology, with longer sessions on Sundays (Kidd 1969, 24; Blanco 53;
Former). Certain internees were released early in 1967 while others
stayed longer, but in general they were held at the camps for about
two-and-a-half years, i.e., until the dissolution of the camps in 1968
(Llovio 172–3; Yglesias 294; Former; Ronet 55).
The most vital function of the UMAP camps was not killing or torturing
civilians, but exploiting the labor of Cuba's supposed degenerates. The
experiences and conditions in the UMAP varied widely, but the one
constant among all the testimony is the inhumane number of hours these
internees were forced to work. One internee recalled that each worker's
daily quota for cutting sugar cane ranged between 18 and 24 cordeles
lineales, which is between 366 meters and 488 meters of cane.16 On
average, internees worked about 60 hours a week, but some internees have
reported working even more, at 12 hours a day, six days a week (Blanco
100; Cardenal 294; Kidd 1969, 24): "during the zafra [sugar harvest], we
would get up earlier, sometimes at four … we worked nonstop until lunch
… a few minutes of rest and we returned to cutting sugar cane until
dusk" (Muñoz). Llovio-Menéndez wrote that the work schedule at one camp
during the zafra began at 4:30 AM and ended at 7:00 PM with one 15
minute break at 10:00 AM and two hours allotted for lunch (147). Working
hours were longest during the zafra, which typically lasted from January
to April, but due to labor shortages in the 1960s was lengthened from
November to June (Pérez 236). For essentially half of the year, UMAP
internees were forced to cut sugar cane from sunrise to sunset six days
Certain internees were granted passes to leave the camps for lengths of
time ranging from one afternoon up to ten days (Cabrera 153–55, 176,
179, 203; Muñoz; Viera). Typically, they were only permitted to visit a
neighboring town or village, but sometimes they could go as far as
Havana. Internees were also given a week to spend with their families
for Christmas vacation and the New Year (Cabrera 228; Blanco 123;
"Vacaciones," 1966). For all of these trips, internees had to pay for
their own transportation (Blanco 124). Internees could also write and
receive letters and even receive packages, but all correspondence was
censored (Santiago; Cabrera 87–88). After three to six months in the
camps, internees were usually allowed to receive visits by family
members on one designated Sunday out of the month (Sanger; Blanco 91,
108; Former; Kidd 1969, 24). Family visits were supervised and internees
could not exchange uninspected documents with family members, but they
were allowed to bring internees items such as cigarettes or food (Kidd
1969, 24; Cabrera 112). Family visits were held at an off-site location
where family members were allowed to take photos with the internees
(Blanco 109; Muñoz). To maintain the illusion that the UMAP camps were
part of the standard SMO, the recruits wore a special uniform and
marched in unison for family visits (Cabrera 109; Muñoz). Besides family
visits, Catholic priests and Catholic youth occasionally visited
internees and even administered the Eucharist (Cabrera 136–37; Ros 185).
These visitation privileges demonstrate how the conditions at the UMAP
differed in some measure from what one would typically expect at
Many internees have reported that the quality and quantity of food in
the camps was very poor. One internee, who claimed to have gone from 170
to 120 pounds by his first family visit, remembered that at his camp
they ate stray cats, hens, and snakes they captured while working in the
fields (Blanco 108, 134). To the contrary, one former UMAP internee
claimed that "there was enough food … we ate lots of canned meat,
sardines, condensed milk; there was milk, rice, beans, there was plenty"
(Former). Although internees generally were not starved, internees did
not receive food if they had not completed their production quota for
the day (Former; Blanco 57). One reason for the scarcity of food was
that military officials would hoard foodstuffs for their personal use or
sell them to guajiros (people from the countryside) (Ros 166–68; Blanco
83). Water deprivation was another form of mistreatment (Blanco 55).
Former internee René Cabrera wrote in his memoir that at one camp they
were allotted just three glasses of water a day while they spent all day
outside in the sun cutting sugar cane (138). As a result, internees had
to drink contaminated water they found accumulated in the fields
(Cabrera 144; Blanco 55). Internees were granted access to medical
treatment and when necessary were transferred to military hospitals for
illness. Still, the denial of treatment by arbitrary camp guards
resulted in the deaths of some internees (Blanco 70–72, 115–22; Ros 179–84).
There are many reports of physical abuse at the camps, especially
directed towards testigos de Jehová (Jehovah's Witnesses). Former
internees have reported Jehovah's Witnesses being beaten, threatened
with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground
up to their necks, deprived of food or water, forced to stand in
latrines with waste water, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire
without food or water until fainting (Ros 80, 101, 112, 193; Cabrera 63,
71, 197; Former). Llovio, who was sent to the UMAP camps for over a year
from early 1966 to June 1967 for accusations of corruption and later
became a camp doctor, witnessed first-hand the physical abuse some
internees received (Llovio 159, 160, 167). At one camp, Llovio saw a
young Jehovah's Witness hung by his hands from the top of a flagpole.
Llovio lowered the man and treated his hands, which he described as "raw
and bloody … numb and purplish" (153–54). For one afternoon, Llovio was
sent to provide medical care to the Malesar unit, a camp for
homosexuals. There, Llovio described the physical condition of the
internees as "deplorable" (157). As a doctor, he treated patients whose
bodies were covered with insect bites and others who had bruises left
over from beatings. The internees Llovio treated at the homosexual camp
told him that many of their privileges, such as receiving visitors and
mail, would be arbitrarily suspended. In addition, the camp guards
practiced a wide range of abuses: forcing internees to work past sunset,
sending ill internees to work, regularly beating internees while
working, forcing internees to stand at attention all day in the sun, and
making internees stand naked in ditches of camp sewage (Llovio 157,
158). Many camps even had designated punishment cells (Improper Conduct;
Viera; Santiago). For a respite from the camps, many internees mutilated
themselves so they could be transferred to a hospital (Ros 205–8;
Cabrera 192; Blanco 57–58). There also exist accounts of suicide at the
camps. A Catholic internee reported that he saw a gay man hang himself
in the UMAP camps (Cardenal 293). Former internee José Blanco, who was
transferred from the regular SMO to the UMAP for admitting that he
considered the possibility of emigrating from Cuba, also recalled cases
of internees committing suicide in camps not for homosexuals (34, 139).
Former internees have generally described the camp guards as arbitrary,
abusive, and incompetent, but there were exceptions (Former; Blanco 52;
Cabrera 141, 157). One former internee recalled Lieutenant Falcón, who
had been transferred to the UMAP camps after a dispute with a superior,
as a man who was "competent" and "respected everyone and was respected
by everyone" (Ros 88). René Cabrera developed a friendship with one
guard, who asked Cabrera to teach him how to read and even confessed
that he was ashamed of the abuses at the camps (Cabrera 185, 210). As
former internee Alberto Muñoz explained:
Of the officials … there were all types of persons. Some treated us with
respect and consideration. Others certainly admired us and did not fail
to show it. With many of them, we gained friendship. In many
circumstances we had officials who helped us and avoided committing
injustices … but there were also others who acted without the least bit
of sensitivity, making it difficult for us to find any human feelings in
With hundreds of different camps scattered throughout Camagüey,
conditions could range significantly in terms of the quality of food,
beds, and the abusiveness of the guards (Cabrera 167, 169). Conditions
in the camps also changed over time. Several internees have reported
that the quality of the camp food improved and the height of the
barbed-wire fences was substantially reduced after mid-1966 (Cabrera
167, 169; Viera; Blanco 2013; Muñoz).
If former Cuban intelligence agents' statistics are correct,
approximately 0.75 percent of internees died as a result of the
conditions they endured in the camps. This would mean that there was
roughly one death or suicide at each UMAP camp during a course of
two-and-a-half years. Although the conditions at the UMAP were brutally
inhumane, these figures also reveal that life-threatening torture was
not systematically practiced at the camps. The UMAP camps were a huge
tragedy, but they were not quite "Cuba's concentration camps." Sadly,
Cuba already experienced this phenomenon during the Cuban War of
Independence in 1896 when the Spanish government gathered about half a
million civilians into camps called reconcentrados. As a result of the
insurgents and counterinsurgents' mutual strategies of pillage and
destruction, approximately 10 percent of Cuba's entire population
perished in the makeshift reconcentrados (Tone 192–224). Unlike their
nineteenth-century forebears, however, UMAP internees were not literally
left to die. The most vital function of the UMAP camps was not to kill
civilians, but to exploit the labor of Cuba's lacra social (scum of
society) – without any concern for what the human cost might be.
Labor, Economics, and Sugar
In revolutionary 1960s Cuba, there existed a wide spectrum of unpaid
labor funneled toward the state ranging from trabajo voluntario to
coerced labor by political prisoners. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago
divides state-sponsored unpaid labor in Cuba into five categories:
overtime in the workplace, work through the Federación de Mujeres
Cubanas (FMC), socialist education in the escuelas de campo17 and the
university, SMO, and "rehabilitative work" performed by political
prisoners (Mesa-Lago 1969, 340). The UMAP camps lie somewhere on the
extreme fringe of this spectrum of coerced, unpaid labor.
The UMAP camps were indeed forced-work camps, but to properly
contextualize the UMAP camps it must be emphasized that state-sponsored
unpaid labor was not the exception but the norm in 1960s Cuba. In 1967,
state-sponsored unpaid labor constituted between 8 to 12 percent of the
labor force and between 1962 and 1967 totaled approximately 1.4 percent
of the national income (Mesa-Lago 1969, 354–55). During these years,
approximately one-third of state-sponsored unpaid labor in Cuba was
coordinated through the workplace, 45 percent through the military, 10
percent through students, 10 percent through the penitentiary system,
and about 2 percent through the FMC (340, 354–55). As early as 1960, the
government "reeducated" un-revolutionary Cubans at a work camp in
Guanahacabibes.18 Revolutionary theory, meanwhile, both elevated the
value of labor and laid down the ideological justifications for Cuba's
new labor regime.19
During the years of the UMAP, trabajo voluntario was widely employed in
the sugar harvests. According to government publications, over 57,000
unpaid workers participated in the 1965 zafra and over 71,000 in the
1966 zafra (Mesa-Lago 1969, 346). The source does not specify whether
this figure included UMAP internees, but since internees received a
monthly salary the figure most likely only referred to "volunteers." For
the 1967 zafra, a third of these "volunteers" were recruited from the
services sector and another third from the construction sector, two
industries which at the time were overemploying migrants from el
interior (inland Cuba) (346). The use of trabajo voluntario to offset
economic imbalances in the labor market reveals how revolutionary
economic policies had both ushered in new opportunities for campesinos
(people from the countryside) and resulted in acute agricultural labor
shortages. For the 1963 zafra, the Comisión Nacional Azucarera estimated
that 352,000 cane cutters were needed, but only 260,000 were available
(Pérez 59). The number of professional sugarcane cutters declined from
370,000 in 1958 to just 160,000 in 1964 – a decline of over 60 percent
(59). "How should this problem be solved?" asked one UMAP article from
the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR) publication Verde Olivo in
reference to Camagüey's acute zafra labor shortages ("¿Qué es la UMAP?"
1967). The government's answer to this daunting economic challenge was
A range of structural changes in the Cuban economy contributed to Cuba's
severe agricultural labor shortage. During the 1960s, the labor force
participation rate actually declined because of the emigration of
working-age Cubans, higher school enrollment rates, and liberalized
retirement laws (Mesa-Lago 1981, 188). In addition, Cuba was witnessing
an internal migration from el interior to urban centers. Havana's
population grew 4.4 percent annually in 1960 and 1961, and 2.1 percent
in 1964 (128). Migrants from el interior found jobs in the army, state
security, police, mass state organizations, and bureaucracy (125). These
new urban residents filled the some 400,000 jobs which were added in the
services sector – mostly in the army and social-services administration
– between 1958 and 1964 (114). Agricultural workers who previously faced
seasonal unemployment due to the economic swings of the zafra now found
stable, yearlong employment through state farms and a guaranteed minimum
wage (125). Seasonal unemployment in agriculture had been virtually
eliminated by rural migration, guaranteed jobs, and overstaffing in
state farms (189). Accompanying these sweeping economic reforms was
lower productivity. A survey of 136 state farms in 1963 found that
employees worked 4.5 to 5 hours a day on average, but still received pay
for 8 hours (125). Lower productivity meant that yet more people had to
be hired to achieve production goals, thereby worsening the labor
shortage even more in a vicious, compounding cycle. Mesa-Lago estimates
that the overall productivity of the agricultural sector in 1965 was
just 78 percent of 1962 productivity levels. By 1965, the productivity
of the industrial sector had declined almost 10 percent since 1962
(134). To make matters worse, Cuba was also witnessing alarming rates of
worker absenteeism (47–49, 157).
Internal migration, overemployment in the urban job market, newfound
economic security for farmers, lower productivity and worker absenteeism
– all of these interlocking factors compounded into a severe shortage of
labor in agriculture. Absent the societal structures of slavery or
capitalism harnessing and exploiting individuals, apparently no one
wanted to cut sugar cane. In turn, the state took on the role of
coercing its citizens to perform labor through the mobilization of
"volunteers," soldiers, and political prisoners. The astounding
inefficiency of trabajo voluntario, however, meant that it could not
resolve Cuba's economic woes. For the 1964 coffee harvest, university
student volunteers picked coffee one-fifth as efficiently as salaried
workers (Mesa-Lago 1969, 351). In the 1962–1965 sugar harvests, unpaid
workers cut less than one ton of sugar cane per day while skilled
workers chopped down two to three times that amount (351). Consequently,
the production efficiency of the 1967 sugar harvest was a staggering 22
percent below that of the 1957 harvest (351).
As a result, the Revolution's economic policies were taking a serious
hit on the island's most lucrative resource: sugar. Paramount to Cuba's
entire history, sugar also played a leading role in the history of the
UMAP. When the Revolution's lavish industrialization plans and efforts
to diversify agriculture failed to materialize, Cuba's leaders turned to
sugar to move the country forward (Pérez 12–13). In 1963, the Cuban
government developed the Prospective Sugar Industry Plan, which between
1965 and 1970 would implement a series of aggressive development
policies: increasing land dedicated to sugarcane cultivation by 50
percent, planting higher-yield varieties of sugar cane, and setting a
production target of 10 million tons of sugar by 1970 (12–13). The
increased income from sugar sales would help Cuba pay off debts to the
Soviet Union and buy the capital goods needed for industrialization
(12–13). Essential to the success of this plan was economic cooperation
with the Soviet Union. In January 1964, Fidel Castro traveled to Moscow,
where he signed a sugar trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Cuba was
to deliver 24 million tons of sugar between 1965 and 1970 at a price of
6.114 cents per pound – well above world market prices during the late
1960s (Pérez 140, 143; Brunner 55). The income gained from record sugar
harvests and guaranteed prices would finance massive, state-sponsored
industrialization that would fuel the economic growth which would
finally land Cuba into communist paradise (Pérez 12–13). The only thing
standing between Cuba's ambitions and the Prospective Sugar Industry
Plan was a labor force to actually cut the cane. The UMAP was that key
stepping stone to the prosperous communist future which Cuba's leaders
Throughout the early 1960s, the Cuban Revolution had been fighting to
secure its existence, dealing with the threat of a US invasion and
suppressing thousands of armed counterrevolutionaries in rural Cuba
(Domínguez 1978, 345–46). By 1965, after having finally secured the
Revolution and holding well over 20,000 political prisoners, the state
now proceeded to neutralize those considered potential long-term threats
(253–54). Although technically part of the military, the UMAP was not
designed to tranquilize external, violent enemies but internal, latent
threats: namely, homosexuals and members of civil society whose
loyalties were not wholly dedicated to the Revolution. Unique in that it
targeted not Cubans actively against the regime but Cubans deemed
insufficiently revolucionario, the UMAP camps were the pinnacle of
revolutionary Cuba's repressive, authoritarian policies.
Internees were not sent to the UMAP only because they were religiosos or
homosexuals. There existed gay Cuban men whose sexuality was an open
secret but were never sent to the camps.20 A Cuban was interned at the
UMAP because they were not adequately integrated into the Revolution and
their membership in a particular social category was enough to render
them contrarrevolucionario (counter-revolutionary) and thereby justify
their internment. The UMAP was as much about political repression as it
was about bigotry.
Achieving security, however, meant paying for a massive, costly
military. In 1963, there were 300,000 soldiers in the military – 10
times as many as in 1958 – and military expenditures accounted for 6.5
percent of the national income (Domínguez 1976, 322). After the
campesino uprisings were finally extinguished in 1965, the military
sought to find economic relevance and professionalize its forces, many
of which were inexperienced or not formally trained (324). There was no
role for the many uneducated or illiterate veterans in the plans for a
modern army. Instead, many of these officers were transferred to the
UMAP camps as a sort of demotion (Llovio 143). As a result, many of the
military personnel assigned to the UMAP camps were illiterate or
functionally illiterate veterans of the 1959 Revolution (Ros 45–46;
Domínguez 1976, 324; Yglesias 280). As a March 1966 article from Verde
Olivo entitled "¿Qué es la UMAP?" explained, the personnel at the camps
were "old members of the Rebel Army" of "intermediate level" and "almost
all of peasant background," which prepared them for "the difficulties
and characteristics of agricultural work." The labor harvested through
the SMO would also reduce the economic burden of the military. Promoting
the three-year SMO, Raúl Castro elaborated on the military's economic
mission in a 1963 government meeting, "If we only want an army, we can
have [the draftees] for two years … [but] because the armed forces
should help in the nation's economy … [we intend to make] the burden of
military expenditures on our people a bit lighter … we must work as part
of our service, especially in the sugar harvest" (Domínguez 1976, 324).
By neutralizing perceived potential contrarrevolucionarios, creating a
dumping ground for FAR personnel who did not meet the standards of the
modernizing military, and contributing to agricultural production and
thereby reducing the economic costs of the ballooning military, the UMAP
camps simultaneously helped accomplish three distinct goals all
essential to the military's transition to a professionalized, newly
relevant institution. In this respect, the UMAP was a highly strategic
move by the Cuban military.
Testigos de Jehová
Those interned on grounds of their religious activity probably made up
the largest proportion of UMAP internees, and of them, Jehovah's
Witnesses were the most severely abused.21 Young, active Catholics were
frequently sent to the UMAP camps and their experiences are very well
represented in the body of published testimony. However, Catholics
comprised just a small fraction of UMAP internees. One Catholic former
internee estimated that just 2,000 Catholics were interned out of a
total of 35,000 internees – just over 5 percent (Cardenal 293).
Protestant religions and sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses22 were viewed
as especially counter-revolutionary because of their historical and
allegedly treasonous connections with the norteamericanos (North
Americans, esp. from the United States). On March 13, 1963, in front of
the University of Havana, Fidel Castro gave a speech where he condemned
the "pseudo-religiosos" whom he called batiblancos: "there are three
principal sects, which are instruments of today's imperialism, they are:
Jehovah's Witnesses, Gideons International, and Pentecostals."23 Later
in the speech, he claimed that "these sects … are directly headed by the
United States … and they are used as agents of the CIA, State
Department, and Yankee policy" (Castro 1963). Since many Protestant
religions in Cuba originated from the United States and many still had
ties with the US, these sects were perceived as un-Cuban and potentially
contrarrevolucionario (Rosado 88, 93, 95, 134–35, 145). In addition, the
resolutely apolitical stance of Jehovah's Witnesses, which motivates
their resistance to practices ranging from saluting the flag to
fulfilling draft requirements, rendered them the pariah of the
boisterously patriotic and authoritarian Cuban Revolution (Yero 24).
When resistance met resistance at the camps, some of the very worst
In 1938, there were only about one hundred Jehovah's Witnesses in Cuba.
By 1947, that number had grown to 4,000 and by 1965 there were nearly
20,000 – making them one of the largest organized religions on the
island (Aguirre and Alston 171; Rosado 194). In 1962, the Ministry of
Communication banned the import of Jehovah's Witness religious
literature and prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses from using mail for
distributing religious materials (Aguirre and Alston 190). In 1963,
foreign Jehovah's Witnesses were expelled from Cuba, just one year after
over one hundred Catholic priests had been banished from the island
(Aguirre and Alston 190; Treto 45). That same year, hundreds of
Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested for assembling without having obtained
a permit from their CDR and hundreds more on account of their
proselytizing activities (Calzon 14; Aguirre and Alston 191). In Pinar
del Río, nearly every Kingdom Hall was shut down and its property
confiscated (Aguirre and Alston 191). In the late 1960s, when there were
incidents of Kingdom Halls and other meeting places being attacked by
mobs with stone, brick, and iron, the government refused to prosecute
the perpetrators (Calzon 14). Numerous propaganda pieces produced by
Granma (Cuba's state newspaper) and Verde Olivo between 1965 and 1968
stressed the presence of Jehovah's Witnesses at the UMAP camps, complete
with photos and personal interviews.24 Conversely, of the 11 Verde Olivo
and Granma articles which reference the UMAP camps, not a single one
mentions homosexuals. Since the purpose of the propaganda was to combat
the camps' poor reputation, representations of gays had to be excluded.
There does not exist any testimony from testigos in the UMAP camps; all
information about their experiences comes from the eyewitness testimony
of other internees. This is not because these former testigo internees
are unknown or have all passed away. Rather, testigos de Jehová have
been extremely hesitant to share their experiences with those who will
publish their testimony. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly,
upon religious principles Jehovah's Witnesses tend to shy away from
anything that even remotely relates to government or politics. Secondly,
because conditions for Jehovah's Witnesses in Cuba have begun to improve
over the past two decades, testigos in the Cuban-exile community do not
wish to publicize any criticisms of the Cuban government which may put
these meager religious liberties at risk.25 Finally, the highly
traumatic experiences of many testigos make it emotionally challenging
for these former internees to open up to outsiders. Jehovah's Witnesses
were by far the most abused at the camps (Viera). As former internee
Héctor Santiago, who was sent to camps for gay men, emphasized:
With us, they were terrible, but let me tell you the truth, they treat
you like a lady compared to the testigos de Jehová. Oh my god, they
really, really were terrible with them, terrible. The things that they
did to them … horrible, horrible.
Former internee René Cabrera, who was interned for his Catholic
activities, corroborated in his memoir, "The Jehovah's Witnesses, as
always, were the principal victims of the government's intention of
those crimes" (97).
Testigos de Jehová were not permitted to receive family visits, were not
granted passes to leave the camps, and did not receive packages or
letters (Cabrera 88, 113; Muñoz). In one instance, a camp guard did not
allow a testigo to see his mother who had come to visit him because he
refused to put on the verde olivo pants which had to be worn for family
visits (Muñoz). When first transferred to the camps, many Jehovah's
Witnesses refused to participate in any camp activities and many refused
to even wear the camp uniform (Former; Cabrera 59; Muñoz; Blanco 86).
Testigos faced severe punishments for their non-participation, such as
beatings, being buried in the ground up to their necks, or being forced
to stand outside for hours until fainting (Blanco 86; Ros 101, 112, 194;
Cabrera 59–60). However, most Jehovah's Witnesses began to participate
in camp activities and work after the great deal of coercion they faced
(Cabrera 74). Less strict guards did not force testigos to wear the UMAP
Jehovah's Witnesses experienced a variety of tortures in the UMAP camps.
In addition to the practices explained earlier, at some camps a guard
would take individual Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to wear the UMAP
uniform out into the fields and fire a pistol, pretending to shoot them
while the others were still in earshot. After faking this execution, the
guard would return to the camp and select another Jehovah's Witness who
refused to put on the uniform. Former internee José Blanco wrote in his
memoir that he did not see even one testigo concede to wear the uniform
in the face of these simulated executions (87). Another common
punishment was forcing testigos to stand in latrines filled with
excrement up to the waist or chest (Blanco 86; Former). At some camps,
guards forced Jehovah's Witnesses to scoop the sewage from camp ditches
with their bare hands (Blanco 86).
The Cuban government justifies its persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses by
claiming that the sect was part of a scheme orchestrated by the CIA. For
example, in January 1963, the Cuban government released a statement
announcing that it had sabotaged a CIA spy network based in Oriente
province, where they claimed to have found "a large quantity of buried
weapons … 36,000 Cuban pesos and some Jehovah's Witnesses' prayer books"
("Broke CIA Spy Ring," 1963). In a 1985 interview, Fidel Castro remarked
that "Jehovah's Witnesses cause problems everywhere … we were highly
sensitive. Threatened by the United States, we needed to apply a strong
defense policy – and we found ourselves faced with a doctrine that
opposed conscription. We didn't have any trouble over beliefs; rather,
all our problems were over ideas – and you don't know whether they're
religious or political" (Borge 186–87).
Seventh Day Adventists
Seventh Day Adventists had a unique relationship with the Revolution and
represent a very different relationship with the UMAP than other
religious minorities. In 1956, there were nearly 5,000 Seventh Day
Adventists in Cuba, with more than half located on the more rural,
eastern end of the island. Oriente, the province where Castro began his
uprising, was also the province with the most Seventh Day Adventists
(Rosado 169). In Oriente, one family of Adventists gave food and shelter
to a band of revolutionaries who were fighting dictator Fulgencio
Batista. Seeing that one of the men had no shirt because he had used it
as a bandage to protect a wound, the father of the household, Argelio
Rosabal, gave the revolutionary his only shirt. That wounded
revolutionary – Ernesto "Che" Guevara – was so moved by the man's
generosity that Che promised them the construction of a chapel in the
future (which was indeed constructed) (172–74).
In December of 1958, Antillian College, a school ran by Seventh Day
Adventists, fed and took care of wounded soldiers who were fighting in
the Sierra Maestra (172–74). When the first draft for the SMO was
enacted, 70 of the 110 eligible students at Antillian College were
drafted. After asking the government to release some of their students
so that the school could function, the majority of the recruited
Adventists returned to school. Still, the SMO was problematic for
Seventh Day Adventists because it did not make a distinction between
combatants and non-combatants (203). In response, the Seventh Day
Adventist Church created a commission to write a memorandum asking the
government to exempt the remaining 12 Adventists who had been called for
SMO. The memorandum explained the distinction between serving combatant
vs. non-combatant roles, Adventists' unique Sabbath observance, and
their loyalty to the government. The commission chose four pastors to
deliver the memorandum along with one lay member, Argelio Rosabal – the
same man who had sacrificed his only shirt to Che Guevara in the Sierra
Maestra. Rosabal personally delivered the memorandum to Che, who on
October 28, 1963, sent a letter enclosed with said memorandum to the
head of the Agrarian Reform program, Carlos Rodríguez. In the letter,
Che wrote, "[Argelio Rosabal] is the Adventist I spoke to you about …
you will know how to evade the law, or how to divert my attention"
(203–5). Che Guevara interceded on behalf of his Adventist friend,
Rosabal, for an exception to be created in the SMO for this sect.
Later, it ended up that Adventists would be sent to the UMAP camps, but
sociologist Caleb Rosado stresses that they were sent to the UMAP
"simply … because [they] refused to bear arms [and] there was no other
place to locate them" and not because they were considered lacra social,
as the government regarded other UMAP internees (205–6). Indeed, former
internees have not stressed abuses against Seventh Day Adventists, but
have mentioned the fairer treatment Adventists received in comparison
with Jehovah's Witnesses. Former internee José Blanco wrote in his
memoir that at one camp there were two Adventists who refused to work on
Saturday but compensated for their quota during the rest of the week.
The lieutenant at the camp did not bother them and allowed them to
fulfill their quota in this manner (Blanco 89). However, Blanco has also
stressed that Adventists received fairer treatment only because they
were the hardest working internees (Blanco 2013). Adventists were
apparently not the only sect granted the right to rest on their
respective Sabbath. In Granma, a member of Gideons International said,
"They allow me to rest on Saturday and work on Sunday" ("Unidades," 8).
However, like so many other aspects of the UMAP, the relatively better
treatment that Adventists received cannot be generalized for all camps.
At least one former internee recalled seeing Adventists forced to work
on the Sabbath and receive terrible abuse similar to that endured by
Jehovah's Witnesses (Ros 112).
Through the relationship that some Seventh Day Adventists forged with
revolutionary leaders in the Sierra Maestra, Adventists had a privileged
relationship with the revolutionary government which granted them more
flexibility in their religious activities than most sects. As a result,
Adventists were able to give their direct input to revolutionary leaders
regarding the SMO and thus helped inform what would eventually become
the UMAP policy. Even after the UMAP was closed, Adventists were given
accommodations to allow them to serve in the SMO whereas Jehovah's
Witnesses were imprisoned (Rosado 206). Crucially, this history
demonstrates that not all sects were sent to the UMAP camps because they
were perceived as contrarrevolucionarios. For Adventists, the UMAP camps
were a way to fulfill the SMO and provide more labor to the state.
Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, were sent to the UMAP camps
because in the eyes of the state they were contrarrevolucionarios and,
consequently, suffered terrible mistreatment. Seventh Day Adventists,
however, were not associated with the same contrarrevolucionario stigma
and thus were not the target of abuse in the camps.
Outside the camps, Adventists also faced a relatively hospitable
environment. Whereas the number of clergy in most Protestant churches
dropped drastically between 1960 and 1963, the number of Adventist
clergy actually grew over 20 percent (Rosado 193). Between 1960 and
1984, the membership of Seventh Day Adventists grew over 50 percent to
nearly 9,000 members – whereas the number of Catholics, Jews,
Presbyterians and Methodists all faced drastic losses due to emigration,
the expulsion of foreign clerics, and discrimination toward religiously
active citizens (194). Evidence of regular abuse of religious groups
other than testigos is scant. In the memoir Dios No Entra en mi Oficina,
former internee Alberto Muñoz, who was sent to the UMAP as a young
Baptist seminarian, asserted that Christians were treated better in the
camps because "we had earned prestige and we had better relations with
Although all former inmates have recalled their experiences in the UMAP
as highly negative, not all internees turned against the Revolution as a
result of the abuses in the UMAP – as was the case for a few religiosos.
Nicaraguan Catholic priest and liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal
met one Catholic who affirmed, "there [in the UMAP camps] I became a
revolutionary" because "in the concentration camp I realized that I
ought not to leave. That to fight to make the Revolution better you have
to be a revolutionary" (Cardenal 292–94). This particular Catholic was
not the only religioso who came out of the UMAP camps wishing to stay on
the island and improve the Revolution. One high-profile former internee
is Jaime Lucas Ortega, who was sent to the UMAP camps as a young
Catholic priest and is currently the archbishop of Havana (Ros 62).
Former internee Raúl Suárez, a Baptist who attended Western Cuba Baptist
Theological seminary, went on to become a member of Cuba's parliament
and in 1990 secured the right for Christians to assemble in their homes
for religious purposes (Blanco 98; Esqueda 30; Feinberg). A few UMAP
internees left the camps not dejected, but determined to improve the
plight of their patria.26
By the eve of the Revolution, the Abakuá secret society, founded by
slaves in Regla in 1836, had over 130 branches and controlled employment
at ship docks, tobacco factories, and slaughterhouses (Palmié and Pérez
219; Routon 380–81). This mutual-aid secret society was problematic for
the Cuban Revolution for a number of reasons. As its membership was
predominantly black (white members were accepted as early as 1857 and
later Chinese-Cubans also joined (Routon 380–81; Miller 171)) and
working-class (Palmié and Pérez 219), the class-conscious and
race-conscious organization was inherently an artifact of the
capitalist, racist superstructures that the Revolution intended to
destroy. Further, the organization's significant wield over labor
markets challenged the Revolution's new state-run economic system. Early
in the Revolution, the government manipulated the Abakuá Society by
playing favorites with individual branches to turn them against each
other (Routon 384). In 1968, 458 Abakuá members were in prison in Havana
Abakuá members were amongst the many individuals sent to the UMAP camps
(Santiago; Izquierdo; Llovio 151; Cabrera 164). Accounts of the UMAP
camps frequently describe "common delinquents" among the inmates, but
many of these accounts may be referencing members of the Abakuá Society,
which has long been associated with criminality (Guerra 2012, 262). For
instance, in one memoir a former UMAP internee wrote that "in the camps
there were also common delinquents. The most well-known was Eleguá who
came to the UMAP from a juvenile correctional facility in Jaruco. Eleguá
… was a young black Abakuá which was why he was the protagonist of the
sad episode" (Blanco 67). Clearly, the former internee conflated
Eleguá's criminality and his Abakuá membership. Eleguá is introduced as
serving in the UMAP because he is a "delincuente común" (common
delinquent), but the next sentence says that his Abakuá membership was
the reason he was sent to the UMAP. Although some accounts of the UMAP
camps may have conflated criminality and Abakuá membership, it should be
emphasized that some UMAP recruits actually were criminals who had been
transferred from jails where they had been serving time for serious
crimes such as murder and rape (Llovio 12).
Abakuá were not explicitly labeled contrarrevolucionario, but
revolutionary policies still seriously hindered their activities. The
Revolution's attitude toward the Abakuá initially celebrated the Society
as a unique component of Cuban culture and identity. Early in the
Revolution, the government recognized the Abakuá for their participation
in Cuba's wars of independence by inviting Abakuá members to a
commemoration ceremony (Guerra 2012, 155). Soon, the expression of
traditions with African heritage, including Santería and Abakuá, became
marginalized by the government. The act of wearing necklaces or shaving
one's head as part of Santería practices could risk one's job and the
initiation of children into Santería was banned (Falola 270).
Publications began to portray religions of African heritage as primitive
belief systems at odds with the goals of communism (272).
Representations of African heritage and tradition were not celebrated,
but treated as cultural relics of the past which would eventually
dissolve with the creation of a truly communist society (272).
An article published in the magazine El militante comunista the very
summer that the UMAP camps were closed expressed these same
condescending attitudes toward Abakuá. The majority of the article gives
a thorough history of the Abakuá in a non-politicized manner, but
concludes by urging the end of the Society: "enough with remembering the
leopard-men, who have served as the themes of literature and
sensationalist film" ("La sociedad secreta Abakuá," 36–45). The author
explained that the Abakuá Society is obsolete because "in our socialist
society … mutual-aid societies are not necessary. The revolutionary
state, which is today the people, jealously guards the security and
well-being of all citizens of the country" (44–45). The initiation of
young people into Abakuá is derided as "filling heads with reactionary
obscurantism, teaching customs and traditions, which, sooner or later,
will lead them to a clash with the authorities and with the rest of
society" (44–45). The article ends by forecasting that the Abakuá will
disappear in the "development of the revolutionary process" (44–45).
Representations of African heritage in the early years of the
Revolution, although sometimes giving a voice to Afro-Cubans for the
first time through theater and music, ultimately never treated
African-derived traditions as truly legitimate elements of Cuban
culture, but as relics of the past which would fade in the march for
These condescending attitudes toward Abakuá were reflected in the
government's hindering of their day-to-day practices. In the mid-1960s,
a special permit was required to authorize religious ceremonies (Falola
275). The application process required submitting a list of the
attendees one month in advance and an explanation of why the event
needed to be held. These restrictions caused so much difficulty for some
Abakuá members that during the 1960s some ceremonies ceased for years
(275). The Revolution's attitudes toward Abakuá and the over-regulation
of their activities reveal that race still mattered in revolutionary
Cuba. The patronizing discourse of the Revolution, led almost entirely
by white men, against the African-derived, predominantly black Abakuá
reinforced existing racial hierarchies under the guise of "communist
progress." As the case of the Abakuá demonstrates, traditions of African
heritage were imagined as primitive and incompatible with an advanced,
communist society. As a result, since one's local CDR president helped
determine who was sent to the UMAP camps, the racist prejudices of
individual CDR members probably contributed to many Abakuá members'
placement in the UMAP camps instead of the regular SMO.
A gendered interpretation of the UMAP cannot exclude the presence of
Abakuá at the camps, long notorious for being the site of Cuba's most
extreme gender policing. Masculinity is an essential component of the
Abakuá Society, a brotherhood that aims to foster a correct manliness
amongst its members. Effeminate or homosexual men can never join the
Society (Leiner 22). As the organization's oft-repeated criterion for
the proper member states: "A man is not just one who is not homosexual,
but also one who reflects the purest dignity of a human being through
being hard-working, fraternal, happy, rebellious against injustice, and
a follower of the Moral Code established by the founders of Abakuá"
("Sociedad Secreta Abakuá" 2013).
The Revolution viewed Abakuá as a threat because its brand of
masculinity was considered overly aggressive and degrading to women
(Routon 384). The 1968 article in El militante comunista challenges the
masculinity of the Abakuá in exactly this manner, arguing that they
fostered a machismo detrimental to society:
It is very important the role that 'machismo' plays, mistaken concept,
primitive and twisted of manliness, in the ñañiguismo [another term for
Abakuá]. It considers the woman a beast of burden and an instrument of
pleasure. They cultivate revenge for allegations of real offenses to
manliness or to religion … These acts of vengeance, curious thing if one
thinks about machismo, are always carried out in a treacherous and
cowardly way… It is not necessary to stress the attraction these things
have for lumpen [underclass scum]. Innumerable people have committed
bloody acts in the name of Abakuá, uncountable the unpunished crimes
thanks to their false concept of manliness and companionship. ("La
sociedad secreta Abakuá," 44–45)
Here, the machismo of the Abakuá is portrayed as a violent, misogynist
extreme of the true hombría (manliness) of the Revolution. In this
manner, the Cuban Revolution used the rhetoric of gender policing
against those on either end of the traditional masculinity spectrum,
both those who were insufficiently masculine and those who were
excessively machista (chauvinistic). The article's use of the term
lumpen to describe Abakuá – a term which referred to a web of different
types of individuals including vagos, homosexuals, enfermitos,27 etc. –
further links the Abakuá to the government's global gender policing
goals (Ros 9; Lumsden 71; Castro 1966). On both ends of the spectrum,
the Revolution reinterpreted certain gendered behavior as detrimental to
the goals of a communist society.
During the 1960s the Cuban Revolution severely and systematically
restricted gay citizens' rights. Gay people were not allowed to teach,
go abroad, join the military, attend university, practice the fine arts,
work in the press, or join the communist party (Lumsden 76; Young 28;
Santiago; Salas 160–61). In the university, students were purged for
accusations of homosexuality in public trials attended by hundreds of
students. Trials for accused homosexuals had the same procedures as
those for accused counterrevolutionaries (Improper Conduct; Guerra 2012,
247). Employment of antisociales and homosexuals was regulated through
one's expediente, a government dossier on every citizen which is
reviewed for hiring (Lumsden 76). Government documents such as
expedientes and military IDs contained symbols which marked one as an
antisocial or a homosexual (Young 38; Santiago). Héctor Santiago, for
instance, was barred from returning to his work in theater after leaving
the UMAP because his expediente indicated his antisocial status
(Santiago). Even in the legal system, gays were excluded. Court cases
handled through popular tribunals (a localized legal system for minor
cases implemented in 1963) were all held publicly, except for certain
cases involving a woman's "honor," juvenile delinquents, or homosexuals
(Domínguez 1978, 256). In a communist country aspiring for
classlessness, gays were an underclass.
Historians have characterized the UMAP as the pinnacle of the Cuban
Revolution's gender policing (Guerra 2010, 268). However, the vagueness
of this academic catchphrase lends itself to misinterpretation and fails
to fully describe the event of the UMAP camps. Firstly, not all the gay
men sent to the UMAP exhibited queer or effeminate behavior. Men
interned at camps for homosexuals could be effeminate, masculine, or
whatever (Santiago; Viera). Although classical machismo prioritizes
gender performance, what specifically preoccupied the Cuban Revolution
was its citizens' sexual behavior. As one former internee emphasized,
"What mattered was homosexual sexuality" (Santiago).
Secondly, the Revolution's repressive policies against homosexuals did
not merely police the gender of queers, but of the entire population.
For example, the Revolution's rhetoric of gender policing justified
repression against Abakuá because they projected a deviantly machista
masculinity. In this way, people on either end of the spectrum of
gender-normative behavior were at risk of being sent to the UMAP camps.
Moreover, straight and/or gender-conforming individuals were also
impacted by the state-sponsored campaign against homosexuality because
they now had to fear that an agent of the state – as close as the CDR up
the street or a fellow classmate – may accuse them of homosexuality. As
a young, self-identified heterosexual and revolutionary Cuban explained,
"The persecution of homosexuals … is hateful and unnerving. Not that
we're homosexuals. But there's always the fear that they'll think you
are, because of the long hai Continue reading
October 9, 2013
By Carlos Fraguela
HAVANA TIMES — We could well say that we have no sexual education in
Cuba, that the thinking surrounding this issue continues to be medieval,
for it has yet to place itself in step with the times and, like all
taboos, all we can continue to expect is for sex-related issues to be
swept under the carpet.
Improving the sexual wellbeing of the population is also not in the
interests of those who decide and manage what materials are made
available to the population. After all, that could ultimately work
against their own interests.
Cuban society continues to reproduce a backward model which excludes a
broad spectrum of sexual preferences caught sight of in the island's
It would be far less hypocritical to acknowledge that the rigid,
monogamic, heterosexual family – that once monolithic unit – has ceased
to suit the needs and interests of most people around the world.
Acknowledging the broad diversity of preferences that characterizes the
majority would put an end to the tyrannical domination of human beings,
who have the right to choose whatever kind of life they wish.
A friend lent me a documentary series titled Sex Mundi. The series could
well spark off a sexual revolution if it were shown on television here
as a kind of invitation to Cubans, who could rediscover and enrich their
sex lives and acquire a sense of belonging. Cuban television programs
dealing with sexual matters strike me as very limited in comparison.
The documentary is very straightforward about different issues and
advances a number of proposals on the basis of different sexual customs
documented around the world. Unabashedly, it documents a highly
heterogeneous series of tendencies and presents these as concrete
examples of human diversity, accompanying this exploration with critical
comments and interviews with experts on human sexuality.
How many people in Cuba, today, feel excluded, feel like oddballs, for
failing to meet the expectations of a twisted and backward society?
Individuals need to break with the prejudiced schemes of the past in
order to be free, at least in this one dimension of our lives that no
one can meddle in today. Morality is an enemy of sexual freedom and does
not cease to demonize it.
I've heard say that, back in the days of the Military Units for
Production Support, Cuba's notorious UMAP forced-labor camps (where
homosexuals and political dissidents were sent to in the 1960s), one of
leaders of the revolution (I don't remember who) travelled to an Asian
country to ask for advice on how to deal with the "problem of
In that country, the official was told, in a very straightforward
manner, that they simply clubbed homosexuals to death and dropped them
in the river, for everyone to see – that this had made such a deep
impression on people that it had eliminated the "problem." I think the
Cuban official was horrified by the anecdote and I don't think that
piece of advice was of much use to the Cuban government (though the two
countries continue to be allies).
For the longest time, those in power have controlled, humiliated, judged
and even eliminated those who fall outside the heterosexual canon.
Who is unaware of what the majority of Cuban police officers think about
homosexuals, transvestite, prostitutes and even black people (who are
always harassed by them)? All of us are aware of how these figures of
authority – part of the repressive apparatus, when all is said and done
– operate. I am not saying they are the ones to blame for our situation,
they are merely ignorant.
Sexuality is a liberating, not a limiting, force. Responsible sex
connects us to other human beings and can teach us a lot about the value
of life, mitigating sadness and raising our self-esteem.
Source: "Sexual Education in Cuba - Havana Times.org" -
http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=99310 Continue reading
Cuba / Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada
Posted on September 1, 2013
Havana, 26 June 2013
To the National Assembly of People's Power of the Republic of Cuba:
The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in its Article 63, reads verbatim:
All citizens have the right to lodge complaints and petitions to the
authorities and to receive attention or pertinent responses within a
reasonable time, in accordance with the law.
And in accordance with its letter and spirit, we the undersigned are
addressing that maximum level of government in the nation with the
According to principles reflected in the Preamble to the Yogyakarta
Principles with regards to the application of international law of human
rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, and
"RECALLING that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and
rights, and that everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of human rights
without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language,
religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status;
"DISTURBED that violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion,
stigmatisation and prejudice are directed against persons in all regions
of the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity…
"NOTING that international human rights law imposes an absolute
prohibition of discrimination in regard to the full enjoyment of all
human rights, civil, cultural, economic, political and social, that
respect for sexual rights, sexual orientation and gender identity is
integral to the realization of equality between men and women and that
States must take measures to seek to eliminate prejudices and customs
based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of one sex or on
stereotyped roles for men and women…"
Considering that in our country such conceptions are still very far from
being met within Cuban society and are not reflected in the legislation,
we believe it appropriate to REQUEST:
The official acceptance and compliance with the Agreements of Yogyakarta.
That national authorities undertake a wide investigation of everything
related to that negative event in our history known as Military Units to
Aid Production (UMAP) and the results be published in the national media .
That those responsible for these adverse events are brought to justice
for the repeated and massive violation of human rights violation of an
indefinite number of Cuban citizens.
That the use and arbitrary application of the concept "state of
dangerousnous" in the existing Criminal Code against persons for the
sole "crime" of sexual orientation be publicly explained.
That a public debate is opened on the forced exile many homosexual
citizens were subjected to.
That the violent deaths of some homosexuals on the streets or other
locations be explained.
And, for your information, we are are submitting this issue to the
People's Power at that same time we open this document for signature by
citizens who want to do so.
Wendy Iriepa Díaz
Ignacio Estrada Cepero
8 July 2013
Source: "Petition To the National Assembly of People's Power of the
Republic of Cuba / Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada | Translating Cuba"
http://translatingcuba.com/petition-to-the-national-assembly-of-peoples-power-of-the-republic-of-cuba-wendy-iriepa-and-ignacio-estrada/ Continue reading
Posted on August 30, 2013
HAVANA, Cuba, August, www.cubanet.org –The identity of El Vedado has
been in jeopardy for a long time. This neighborhood in the old Elegant
Havana is no longer a museum of modern architecture. Here Cuba entered
modernity, which was always an accent of its identity. It wasn't just a
neighborhood founded by families of the aristocracy, it was also a
neighborhood of tourism and prosperity.
This neighborhood, which germinated from the forest, today has aged very
badly. It is a scrap of city that is no longer prepared to handle hard
hits, its views have been sacked, deteriorated and blurred, it stopped
being an ostentatious site and today its facades are merely a game of
I remember the homeland of my childhood as a hospitable place, an
ecological settlement in which the way of life breathed dignity. Having
been born in the Sagrado Corazon and being from El Vedado demanded an
etiquette of distinction and elegance, even among the humblest.
Teresa, a woman from Guantanamo who was born in La Loma del Chivo,
vowed, from very young, never to go back to her hometown: "I arrived in
this neighborhood in 1962 –she testified–and I was dazzled by El Vedado,
one could distinguish the personality this place held, it had its own
glamor, it was a place where one breathed decency. Back then, the beat
of a drum, witchcraft and the sacrifices of animals under the ceiba tree
was foreign to this place. Today this identity has disappeared and a
culture of flip flops and barracks has been superimposed.
With the new social contract pushed by the Revolutionary inquisition,
the customs and culture of El Vedado, as a style of life for the elite
of Havana, was amputated by decree and replaced by a culture of barbarity.
The Hotel Trotcha, the Govea and Alaska buildings, or the gardens of the
Loynaz home, are some of the lost local patrimony. The Alaska building,
that could have been saved, was destroyed by dynamite, and today in its
place is the park of the Provincial Communist Party Committee. It's
possible that the same fate awaits the Medical Retreat building, located
on N, between 23 and 25. Cinematographic rooms, such as the Gris
theater, and cultural plazas, such as the Casa de la Cultura Checa have
According to Hilda, a Havanan born in the neighborhood of Cayo Hueso,
today many mansions in El Vedado are citadels: "I remember that here
there weren't many ancestral homes, among them were the home of the
Chalas, now known as Blumer Caliente, and the Guillermina home, where
the most troublesome family was that of Silvia, known as La Cochina,
white with dark hair and eyes, who left the country in 1980. Now there
are other places , such as La Mierdita (The Little Shit), El Sopena, el
Hormiguero (The Anthill) and the Pentagon. Chivalry is over, as is good
taste and the pride we once felt for this place."
Areas linked to the echo of fine dining, such as the Varsovia, Sofia and
El Jardin restaurants, as well as coffee shops, La Cocinita (The Little
Kitchen), El Avioncito (The Little Plane), La Piragua (The Canoe), La
Fuente (The Fountain) and Sol Mar (Sun Sea), no longer exist. Other
restaurants like Rancho Luna (Moon Ranch), Los Andes (The Andes), Vita
Nova, El Cochinito (The Little Pig), Centro Vasco, Casa Potin, Las
Bulerias, El Castillo de Jagua, (The Castle of Jagua), La Roca (The
Rock), El Mandarin, Siete Mares (Seven Seas), where it is now very
difficult to eat seafood and fish, or the pizzerias Cinecitta, Buona
Sera and Milan. They are all grey places, abandoned to their fates.
The few places with foreign currency have cancelled opportunities for
free entertainment of the common people. The Vedado Tennis, today the
Jose Antonio Echevarria Social Circle, is a jungle in which the floating
class free their repressions and lay out the trash talk. The Club
Sayonara is a sad warehouse of food administrated by the Provincial
Management of Gastronomy of the People's Power of the municipality. The
Escondite de Hernando and Club Oluku clubs disappeared and were
transformed into a piloto for the mass consumption of beer. The feeling
vanished from Pico Blanco. The children's hospital Pedro Borras, and the
maternity ward, Clodomira Acosta, have been waiting to be demolished for
more than 20 years.
While El Vedado continues to lose its role as the Garden neighborhood it
once was, new places are being superimposed, as part of the emerging
economy: Dulcilandia (Candyland), La Farandula (Showbiz) and La Moraleja
((The Moral). The walk along the Avenue of the Presidents is the
sanctuary of the urban tribes (emos, rockers, preps and gangsters). The
culture of parks is also crumbling, the Victor Hugo (H and 21) or Medina
and Menocal are now animal cemeteries, for the permanent offerings to
the ceiba tree of the spirits.
A long time ago, El Vedado stopped being this elegant gentleman, an
intellectual dressed in white with a blue cummerbund. Of its traditions,
which constituted their own culture, all that is left is the eroticism
of La Rampa and the romanticism of the Malecón.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna: Civic Activist and leader of the Citizen's
Committee for Racial Integration (CIR).
He lives in the city of Havana.
27 August 2013
Source: "El Vedado: From Modernity to Brutality / Juan Antonio Madrazo
Luna | Translating Cuba" -
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Published April 08, 2013
It appears that Jay-Z and Beyoncé's trip to Cuba is above board after
all. That's at least what Reuters is reporting, citing a source close to
The two music stars were in Cuba last week, where they toured Old
Havana, posed for pictures with local schoolchildren and dined at the
renowned restaurant La Guarida. The trip also sparked the interest of
two Republican congressman from Florida who questioned what kind of
license – or special permission – allowed them visit to the island.
Traveling to Cuba is technically not illegal, but the United States does
prohibit its citizens from spending money in Cuba without the proper
While it's true that travel to Cuba has gotten a whole lot easier due to
easing of travel restrictions for Americans, travelers must take part
in tours to Cuba that encourage "people to people" contact. There are
exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with
legal reasons to travel there.
Getting caught can result in 10 years in prison and $250,000 in
While most people's trips won't garner the public scrutiny of Jay-Z and
Beyoncé, here are some ways you might still catch some heat if you don't
follow the rules.
1. Don't Get a License
You can't simply book a flight and a hotel and head to Cuba. To get
into the country legally, you need to travel with a Cuba travel
organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department
Americans. There are about a dozen of these licensed organizations now.
2. Hang Out On The Beach
Tourist activities -- like visiting the beach or scuba diving -- are
prohibited from itineraries. According to Treasury Department
guidelines: "Each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational
exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between
the travelers and individuals in Cuba." This means your days will be
spent going to museums, a hospital or a local Communist Party block meeting.
3. Purchase Tickets From a Local Travel Agent
You can find anything on the Internet, including contact details for a
local agent who will be more than happy to sell you a ticket directly --
by cash. Also, there are other third party agents that arrange travel
to Cuba, usually through a third country. (By the way, the Cuban customs
and immigration officials know not to stamp the passports of Americans
entering the country.) You can do the same if you want to book a hotel
room or a car.
4. Ignore the U.S. government if it comes a calling
Say you're busted by U.S. customs official when bringing something back
to the U.S. that you bought in Cuba. If you get a questionnaire from
Treasury Department's office, which oversees financial dealings with
Cuba asking for details –ignore it. That's what happed to Zachary
Sander. After a protracted to and from in which Sanders sued the U.S.
government, he finally agreed to settle the case and pay a fine of $6500."
http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2013/04/08/how-to-get-in-trouble-traveling-to-cuba/ Continue reading
Complicity in Murder: Shades of Cuba in Benghazi
By Janet Levy
Almost seven months have passed since the attack on the Benghazi
consulate building and nearby CIA annex by al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar
al-Sharia, in which four Americans were murdered, including U.S.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Despite demands for further information
into why the Obama administration and the military failed to act to
defend and protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya even as they had
intelligence of increasing Islamic violence, no answers have been given.
Many Americans rightfully wonder whether or not the truth will ever
come out about the murders at the American diplomatic mission in Libya.
The American public, in fact, has been shamefully left before without
answers in the face of obvious government failures, as illustrated by
the shoot-down 17 years ago by Cuban military jet fighters of two
civilian planes and the deaths of four Cuban-Americans rescue pilots.
Like the Benghazi attacks, no answers were ever given about the murder
of four members of the activist group Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), and
the lack of action by U.S. military and government authorities to defend
and protect them.
According to an in-depth interview with Jose Basulto, BTTR founder, and
the examination of official documents and other sources, here is what
occurred in that earlier example, on Feb. 24, 1996, of governmental
failure. It serves as a reminder that until we demand a full accounting
and require action on the part of our government and military, Americans
will be left unprotected and vulnerable, even in mortal danger, by
government authorities who fail in their duties to protect and defend
while, in effect, even engaging in deathly complicity with our own
Brothers to the Rescue
In 1991, after learning of the death of a 15-year-old Cuban rafter who
died following his rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard, Cuban-American Jose
Basulto decided that it was time to act. That same year, Basulto, well
aware of the desperate situation faced by citizens of Castro's
repressive regime and their dangerous journey to freedom on flimsy rafts
through the Florida Straits, founded Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). The
group, a humanitarian search-and-rescue mission, would directly save
over 4,000 lives.
Basulto's efforts to free his beloved Cuba date back to his return to
the island from college in Boston to join pro-democracy groups opposed
to Castro. Later, as a Cuban exile, he was part of the failed Bay of
Pigs 1961 invasion of Cuba. Decades later, with the founding of BTTR,
Basulto saw another avenue to help his beloved, besieged country of origin.
BTTR volunteer pilots, from 19 different nationalities, patrolled from
the skies for desperate Cubans seeking to escape the brutal Communist
government and risking their lives in makeshift rafts and boats without
adequate food and water, exposed to the elements. Later, BTTR dropped
leaflets over Cuba, sending messages of hope and information about
peaceful resistance. Their activities embarrassed the Cuban government,
puncturing the myth of a socialist paradise. Castro clearly worried
about their potential to cause internal problems and, on occasion,
threatened to shoot down BTTR planes.
Not surprisingly then, BTTR was infiltrated by a former fighter pilot
and member of the La Red Avispa ("Wasp Network") Cuban spy network, Juan
Pablo Roque, who staged his defection from Cuba in 1992. That year,
Roque swam to the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) and sought
asylum. Earlier, fellow La Red Avispa member and BTTR infiltrator Rene
Gonzalez had "defected" in Florida by "stealing" a plane from a Havana
airfield. At some point after his arrival, Roque became a paid FBI
informant, although the Bureau was apparently aware of his membership in
the subversive Cuban group, and his actions were suspect, viewed as an
attempt to infiltrate the agency.
U.S. Political Situation
Around the same time as BTTR was active, President Clinton was
"normalizing" the U.S. relationship with China -- which included
providing 11 million pages of classified data for the Chinese to
modernize their missile and nuclear technology -- and also trying to
engage Castro. The president met in Martha's Vineyard with author and
Castro emissary Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who relayed that the Cuban
dictator wanted an end to negative publicity from the balsero crisis --
the torrent of Cubans desperately taking to the high seas in barely
seaworthy crafts to seek freedom in America. BTTR, which had a
reputation of goodwill among Cubans, was viewed as a serious threat to
Cuban government stability. Besides rescue operations, BTTR was
introducing principles of strategic nonviolent action and attempting to
unite Cuban citizens with Cuban exiles to overthrow the repressive
regime and usher in a return to democracy.
Events Leading to Shoot-Down
In 1995, then-Clinton confidant and U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson
(D-NM), a frequent envoy for Clinton's various foreign policy missions,
was asked by Castro to visit Cuba. Richardson, following a briefing by
Richard Nuccio, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and
Clinton's adviser on Cuba, traveled there in January 1996. Richardson
met Castro and other Cuban officials and, allegedly, negotiated the
release of American political prisoners in exchange for a U.S. promise
to end BTTR missions to Cuba.
A CNN report published shortly after the incident stated that Castro
issued the order to take action against Brothers to the Rescue after two
anti-Castro leaflets drops over Cuba the month before. Castro admitted,
"We gave the order to the head of the air force. They shot the planes
down. They are professionals. They did what they believe is the right
thing. These are all people we trust, but I take responsibility for
what happened." Cuban MiGs began test firing air-to-air missiles and
practicing attack maneuvers against slow-moving aircraft similar to the
Cessnas flown by BTTR. Although U.S. government officials obtained
radar evidence of these practice runs, BTTR was not informed.
In early February 1996, U.S. Navy Admiral (ret.) John Shanahan -- who
would later advocate reduced U.S. defense spending, including the demise
of the F-22 program -- hosted a delegation of diplomats and retired
Pentagon officials to Cuba. The U.S. contingent was directly and
shockingly asked by Cuban intelligence and military heads how the United
States would respond if Cuba shot down BTTR planes. Upon their return
here, the delegation discussed this threat with officials from the U.S.
State department, the Center for Defense Information and Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA), but again neglected to inform BTTR.
Allegedly, no U.S. response to Castro was given, which could have led
him to conclude that no significant repercussions would be forthcoming.
The Day of the Shoot-Down
The BTTR flight of Feb. 24, 1996 began like most of their others, as a
planned search-and-rescue operation in international airspace following
all established protocols. On Feb. 23, the day before, double-agent
Roque suddenly and suspiciously returned to Cuba. Although the state
department was aware of his departure, it was never communicated to
BTTR. Also, that same evening, U.S. radar and monitors had been placed
on alert to follow the scheduled BTTR flights the next day. Local
military had also been alerted to coordinate flight plans and departure
times with the watch supervisor and to trace BTTR transponder codes for
as long as possible.
On Feb. 24, BTTR flight plans filed for a 10:15 a.m. takeoff were
transmitted to Miami and Cuba. Circumstances delayed the BTTR flight
until the late afternoon, yet a Cuban military commander reported that
Cuban MiGs were nonetheless sent out at BTTR's anticipated arrival time
to intercept three unidentified aircraft violating Cuban airspace. The
U.S. commander in charge ordered a military aircraft response in
accordance with standard operating procedures, and the MiGs returned to
Inexplicably, however, U.S. reports did not show any unidentified
aircraft or Cuban military aircraft activity during that time interval.
As he flew his Cessna on that day, Basulto reported detecting aircraft
north of the 24th parallel, the line which marks the U.S. airspace
boundary. He also crossed paths with a U.S. Navy Orion aircraft,
something he had never seen before during any of his missions. Per
protocols and well-established procedures followed over the previous
five years and 1,800 search-and-rescue missions, Basulto notified Havana
of a five-hour stay in the area once he arrived at his airspace destination.
Meanwhile, in California, senior detection systems specialist Jeffrey
Houlihan, with the U.S. Customs Service Domestic Air Interdiction
Coordination Center, saw something amiss as he read and interpreted
information from multiple antennae and Aerostat balloons. A seasoned
radar and air weapons control expert and former Air Force pilot,
Houlihan became alarmed as he observed Cuban interceptors operating
without transponders, flying at high speeds, and making rapid maneuvers
in and out of radar range. Much to his astonishment soon thereafter, he
detected Cuban MiGs far out in international airspace flying directly
above BTTR. Armed with the knowledge that an emergency response could
be forthcoming from Tyndall Air Force Base in South Florida, he made a
frantic call for help. Momentarily satisfied by the information that
the Air Force base had been briefed and was handling the situation,
Houlihan returned to his watch. As he continued to monitor the
situation, he was astonished to see that no American interceptor
aircraft showed up in the area to protect BTTR from attack, which would
have been in accordance with standard operating procedures.
Little did he realize at that time that he was to witness the senseless
murder of four dedicated BTTR pilots. Houlihan later recounted that the
Air Force Base had been on battle stations alert at the time of his
"911" call. The alert was inexplicably lifted at some point shortly
The shooting down of BTTR planes without warning began with Cuban MiGs
reporting visual contact and confirming planes registrations with
Havana. As documented as part of an investigation conducted by the
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), no warning passes or
redirecting or escorting procedures, required by international law for
civilian aircraft, were attempted. According to Basulto's account,
later denied by U.S. authorities, after shooting down the two planes of
his fellow pilots, the Cuban MiGs chased Basulto for 53 minutes over the
24th parallel within three minutes of U.S. airspace. Upon Basulto's
safe landing back in Florida, U.S. Custom officials' top priority was to
obtain the video and audiotapes made by Basulto of his flight, which
they demanded immediately. Later investigations revealed that the
Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force and Navy were all
on alert and had monitored the events of that fateful day.
For his humanitarian efforts, Basulto incurred accusations by Castro of
"being involved in terrorist acts" and "subverting the internal order
of the island." In an interview with television journalist Dan Rather,
the Cuban dictator admitted to planning and ordering the shoot-down and
misled the American public with false statements that BTTR had committed
"serious terrorist actions" and had been warned on several occasions
about flying in Cuban airspace. Basulto was punished by the U.S.
government, losing his pilot's license for six months. Plus, he was
censured, discredited, and misrepresented as an agitator.
Following the BTTR shoot-down, U.S. policy on balseros underwent a
dramatic change. In the year of the shoot-down, Clinton's Attorney
General Janet Reno warned that rafters discovered in the Florida Straits
by the U.S. Coast Guard would risk being stopped and prosecuted by the
U.S. government. A serious indictment of the Castro regime was that
refugees reported preferring their internment at GITMO to the oppressive
life in their native land.
By 1995, U.S. policy toward the balseros became more restrictive, and
the Clinton administration began sending them back to Cuba if they
failed to reach dry land. The U.S. resolved to curtail exile
demonstrations thought provocative to Castro and sought a reduction of
hostile rhetoric between the two countries.
In early 1998, the Pentagon released a report concluding that Cuba "does
not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries
in the region."
Yet, later that year, a mere two years after the shoot-down, The Cuban
Five, part of La Red Avispa, were arrested in Miami. Their arrests shed
light on their activities: the successful infiltration of the U.S.
Southern Command (SEADS) and Cuban-American groups. Their subversive
activities contributed to the BTTR shoot-down, and the five were viewed
as national heroes in Cuba.
It is also worth noting that on the day of the BTTR shoot-down,
convicted Cuban spy Ana Montes was the senior intelligence expert on the
Cuban military at the Pentagon. According to Scott Carmichael, a senior
security and counterintelligence investigator for the DIA, military
officials looked to Montes, as the designated Cuban expert, for answers
on the day of the shoot-down. Thus, she was in a prime position to
provide false information and pass military plans onto the Cuban
government (True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana
Montes, Cuba's Master Spy, Scott W. Carmichael, Naval Institute Press,
Annapolis, Maryland, 2007).
According to a December 24, 2000 article by Knight Ridder reporter Gail
Epstein Nieves, who reported on the spy trials of the five, "[t]he FBI
intercepted clandestine communications between Havana and its South
Florida intelligence agents that forecast a potentially violent
confrontation between Cuba and Brothers to the Rescue more than a week
before the planes were shot down[.]"
One of the intercepts instructed the two BTTR Cuba spies, Roque and
Gonzalez, to refrain from flying on particular days. Former Clinton
Cuba advisor Nuccio, although admitting to concerns about a shoot-down
by Cuba, said there was no "hard evidence" of an impending attack and
claimed ignorance on the intercepts. Yet Nuccio wrote an e-mail on the
day before the shoot-down to Clinton's national security adviser Sandy
Berger warning of a possible incident.
Today and Conclusions
The events that took place around the shoot-down of two BTTR rescue
planes on February 24, 1996 amounted to a cover-up of major proportions.
Despite significant prior information and forewarning, the Clinton
administration's failure to warn BTTR, a civilian search-and-rescue
operation and peaceful advocate of democratic change in Cuba, was an
unconscionable travesty resulting in the tragic loss of four lives.
Furthermore, the decision not to initiate a defensive military response
-- the ordering of a military stand-down -- smacks of complicity in this
This was indeed puzzling in light of previous U.S. government assistance
to BTTR. During the Bush Sr. administration, the Coast Guard provided
cover from above for a rescue mission in the water and, on another
occasion, called on defense forces to rescue BTTR from a potentially
Today, Obama has liberalized travel to Cuba and allowed religious,
university, and cultural groups to visit the island. He has lifted
restrictions on remittances to the island. In addition, he has failed
to challenge efforts by the successors and allies of Castro and Hugo
Chávez, enemies of the free world, to expand their sphere of influence
in Latin America.
Despite mainstream media portrayals that herald Cuba under Raul Castro
as leading to economic reform and political liberalization, Cuba ranks
next to last, just above North Korea, on the Heritage Foundation's
latest index of economic freedom. This is "exactly where Cuba's has
been since Raul's 'reforms' commenced," said Cuban-American author
Humberto Fontova, who agrees with the ranking.
"In fact, Cuba is currently undergoing a wave of terror, a 20-year high
in political beatings and arrests. This wave of terror and repression
coincides with record tourism to the island," Fontova says.
The lack of action and the outright dissembling of information so
prevalent in the BTTR shoot-down appear to have been at play in
Benghazi. Although officials at the Pentagon, U.S. State Department,
FBI, and other government agencies were almost immediately informed that
the jihadist group had perpetrated the attack, the Obama administration
initially credited it to a spontaneous eruption of anger against an
anti-Muslim film posted on the internet. This charade was maintained
for several weeks, with the U.S. government going so far as to place
$70,000 worth of apology ads on Pakistani TV and for then-Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton to extend duplicitous words of comfort to the
father of a fallen Navy SEAL with "We'll make sure that the person who
made that film is arrested and prosecuted."
Following the attack, it was revealed that the late Ambassador Stevens
repeatedly pleaded for extra security personnel, citing a "troubling
increase in violence and Islamist influence," but was denied additional
support by the state department. Tragically, American drones were
overhead at the time but did nothing to stop the attack, in deference to
the political expediency of Obama's pre-election portrayal of a
successful U.S.-led operation toppling the Libyan dictator and
furthering the "Arab Spring." Later revelations uncovered that Stevens
was aiding Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda operatives, and supplying
them with weapons to fight Bashar al-Assad's regime as part of a
Curiously, FBI investigators arrived at the attack site almost a month
later and spent only three hours collecting evidence. At this point, 33
survivors have not yet been heard from, and some speculate that they
have been silenced by threats.
The Benghazi attacks may well come to parallel the BTTR shoot-down.
More than 17 years after that incident, the use of misinformation, the
unavailability of potential witnesses, and the omission of vital
evidence to perpetuate a cover-up of massive wrongdoing still haunt the
survivors of this tragic event.
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