Is Fidel Mounting a Comeback?

Fidel Castro during his most recent trip to the Havana Aquarium.
Fidel Castro during his most recent trip to the Havana Aquarium.
Cuba’s lion of the gulag, Fidel Castro, sure has been busy these past few weeks. Multiple appearances, an exclusive interview regarding his illness, and most recently, a visit to the Havana aquarium with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations. I hate to say it, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Fifo’s appearances amount to some sort of comeback tour. I only hope it isn’t a “comeback” to the Council of State.

For four long years, the only glimmer of hope the Cuban people have had is the imminent death of the world’s longest-serving dictator. While I don’t necessarily believe that Stalinism will topple upon the announcement of Castro’s death, I do know that many on the island pin their hopes on that eventual outcome. Over and over during my most recent trip to Cuba, I heard citizens speak of the regime being buried with Fidel, of Raul following shortly thereafter, and a new day dawning upon the demise of two crackpot dictators whose time should have run out long ago. But Cuba’s very own “Where’s Waldo” keeps popping up left and right. Granted, he seems feeble, speaking in a hoarse voice while propping himself up with the help of various adjutants, but his recovery has been somewhat miraculous—apologies for staining a term that is normally reserved for holier topics than one of Satan’s favorite sons. Little-by-little, Fidel Castro seems to be re-inserting himself into the popular consciousness of the island’s tired and oppressed citizenry. If he does return, what is to be done about it?

There’s no way to vote the brothers out of power. Most assassination attempts have been thwarted by either the U.S. government or a variety of unscrupulous Latin American security agencies. So what’s left? Eleven-million people can’t wait forever. Perhaps it’s time for the island’s military leaders to grow a pair of cojones, look in the mirror, repent, and become heroes. Before Fidel, we had a proud history of toppling those leaders who had gone astray—remember Gerardo Machado? Yet somewhere along the line, we lost our way, became tired, and gave up.

Bottom line: if Fidel really is coming back, someone in olive green is going to have to act. Hell, they’re the only ones consuming enough protein to have the strength. Any takers?

Tourist Life in Cuba

800px-Blau_Varadero

If there’s one aspect of Cuba today that really gets under my skin, it’s the sheer, unabashed ignorance displayed by foreign tourists who not only see no problem with hemorrhaging money into the dictatorship’s coffers, but see nothing wrong with the regime the way it is. Part of this indifference comes as a result of racism, but another aspect of the puzzle is simple ignorance. Most tourists never leave the safe confines of their resorts. This I learned (although I, like you, had always suspected it) from a friend with the proper connections, who was kind enough to get me into one such resort: the Blau Varadero.

The Blau is a typical four-star, all-inclusive resort. Meaning: you pay about $130 a night and receive not only a room, but all your meals (buffet style), drinks, beach access, everything. And because you receive an all-inclusive, cheap (by western standards) rate, you rarely venture off into the plantation that is Cuba. This keeps foreign tourists from interacting with regular, everyday Cubans, and helps to prop up the myth still maintained by so many foreigners, that the Cuban dictatorship is nothing but a benevolent, yet misunderstood regime.

Entering the Blau after living in Cuba, like a Cuban, is like walking into an Oasis. The interior of the Spanish hotel is immaculate. Upon my arrival, an employee mistaking me for a paying guest, offered me a flute of champagne—don’t worry, “it’s on the house.” I passed and kept sucking on my bottled water, until a Canadian fellow came walking past with his shirt off. There, nestled atop his left pectoral muscle, was the distinct tattooed image of Che Guevara. To be walking around Cuba with a tattoo of Guevara in full view, without a care in the world, is a brazen insult to the great people of that island which requires no explanation.

Once you make your way past the lobby, you descend to the first of not one, not two, but three bars on the property. Just off the bar is the dining hall, where breakfasts of bacon, omelettes, various breads, fruits, and sweet treats abound. Cuba is always struggling amid some sort of shortage, and it just so happened that during my visit, rice was scarce and good meat wasn’t that easy to find either. Not at the Blau, however. In fact, I witnessed entire BUCKETS of bacon being poured onto the griddle for the long lines of hungry, and may I say somewhat portly, tourists reveling in the workers’ paradise that is Cuba.

Oh, and did I mention the pool? Not a care in the world for these folks: dozens of beached foreigners loll around the perimeter while being waited on, hand-and-foot, by a veritable army of Cuban servants whose pay is sent mostly, to the Cuban regime. For all their work, you might expect folks to leave tips. During my visit however, I kept a sharp eye out for “propinas” on the tables after multiple meals and never saw a SINGLE piece of change on any of the tables. Not one CUC, folks, not one.

Here’s the rub: it wasn’t that long ago (50 years) that at a place like the Blau Varadero, you could count on seeing just as many Cubans as foreigners enjoying a vacation. Today however, properties like the Blau are reserved pretty much entirely for foreign tourists. While the regime sees fit to dictate how much a worker can earn, where they can work, and who may obtain a higher education, it has no problem accepting precious dollars from the capitalists it so reviles. And so we’re the servants, you’re the masters, and I’m just plain pissed off.

Enjoy this peek into the world of the foreign tourist in Cuba:

Fearing the Hourglass

Bottle1Nestled amid the crystal glasses and barware of a hutch in my uncle’s home, there sits a bottle of Bacardi rum. Not just any rum, mind you, but a bottle of real Bacardi Anejo. What makes it real? Look at the label. Instead of the phrase “Puerto Rican Rum” that so many connoisseurs have grown accustomed to, this one bears the words “Santiago de Cuba.” This, is the real-deal. An original bottle of Bacardi, fermented and bottled in the Pearl of the Antilles, before the days of Castro’s ration book.

But that isn’t the only interesting fact surrounding this particular bottle of liquor. You see, this bottle was among those taken by Fulgencio Batista aboard the plane that ferried him out of Cuba on New Years Eve, 1959. It was later given to my grandfather—that’s a whole other story—who set it aside, vowing to drink it “the day Fidel falls.” Love him or hate him, Batista certainly wasn’t the maniac so often portrayed by Hollywood. True, his time was up and Cuba needed the a return to constitutional democracy by the time he fell, but those who continue to promote the idea that Cuba’s previous dictator—and yes, he was technically a dictator—was in bed with U.S. gangsters are trapped in a romantic work of fiction (guess who the author is?). Mayer Lanksy and his cronies didn’t own the Tropicana or Sans Souci. Those nightclubs were owned by Cubans. In fact, the flight that ferried my mother out of Cuba many years ago, also carried one of her best friends to safety: the daughter of the Cuban man who owned the Tropicana—but that too, is another story.

When I was a child, I often opened up the bar when nobody was around, to see how much of the alcohol had evaporated from the sealed bottle. Back then, it was nearly full, but over the years, I’ve watched the volume plummet. Currently, the bottle is only half full, and I’ve always viewed it as an hourglass, counting down the days till the death of the dictatorship. I pray that my interpretation is incorrect, for if it isn’t, Cuba won’t be free until sometime in January of 2059.

Truth-be-told, my most recent trip to the island didn’t do much to assuage my fears. I saw very little—if any—change. The reigns handed down to Raul a few years back, remain intact. Barely anybody on the island knows of the political prisoners or the various democracy movements. Ramiro Valdez has done an incredible job at keeping the cork on the internet. Meanwhile, outside the plantation, the international community is finally starting to wake up to the atrocities of the regime. While that is an incredibly long stride towards change, it isn’t enough. Something needs to happen from the inside, but without the ability of information to travel from one town to the next, from one province to the other, I fail to see how this will be possible.

During my stay, I had the distinct privilege to watch “A Mano Limpia,” “Maria Elvira,” “Noticiero Telemundo,” and “Noticiero Univision,” thanks to the illegal satellite TV hookup of a friend. The satellite cards used to secure the signal had been smuggled into the country by some rather famous artists—I can’t say what medium, lest I provide clues as to their identities—who you all know. In fact, many here in the U.S. have portrayed folks like those who took great risk to import the cards—and distribute them gratis—as lackeys for the regime. They are not, and we must think before making hasty accusations in the future.

The point is, that while I did see a few illegal satellite hookups, the vast majority of Cuban citizens have no access to this sort of information, and those who do, can’t simply walk around informing their fellow citizens like the newsboys of old, shouting “EXTRA, EXTRA, let me tell you all about it.” They watch the news, thankful for the ability to do so, and keep it to themselves. Well, not entirely to themselves—there is always some amount of gossiping that goes on when a defector appears on Miami television to divulge the dirty little secrets of the brothers-Castro.

And so, our little bottle of sweet sugar cane liquor continues to disappear, bit-by-bit, drop-by-drop. What was it the announcer used to say at the beginning of “Days of Our Lives?”

“….like sands in the hourglass…”

The rum bottle continues to lose portions of its contents, year-by-year.
The rum bottle continues to lose portions of its contents, year-by-year.

Outbound

What follows is the first installment of a series of reports on my recent trip to Cuba.

sack1

“La Habana Vieja esta en candela!” My uncle Lazaro, sweaty, with his shirt untucked, had just returned from the city where he had witnessed what happens when one community is starved for the benefit of some good PR.

The island of Cuba, which had once ranked fourth in the region (pre-Castro) when it came to rice production, is currently in the throes of a major rice shortage. It’s hard to come by via the ration books. It’s hard to come by at the agros. It’s hard to come by at the dollar stores. Rice is a scarce commodity right now. So when the inhabitants of Old Havana caught site of a ship laden with trillions of grains, spirits rose and word spread. Crowds soon began to emerge from the neighborhood’s narrow streets near the seaside boulevard, Avenida Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Many in the sweaty mass of humanity even carried small bags, in hopes that perhaps they might be able to somehow come away with their own morsel of much-needed starch.

But then another rumor began to spread, one that turned out to be true. The ship at which all their attention was currently directed, was outbound, not inbound. The destination? Haiti. In a bid to curry favor with the international media amid the growing furor over its political prisoners, the de-facto Cuban “government” had decided to export what little rice it had on-hand. Not that Haiti couldn’t use the help—it can. That said, robbing Peter to pay Paul, when Peter has nary a speck of food in his own pantry, isn’t exactly a wise move. The crowd began to push closer to the shoreline. And as they moved, so too did Cuban security forces. Members of the PNR (National Revolutionary Police) and special police units—not your average beat cops, soon arrived and the citizenry took note. Some began to pocket rocks and bits of rubble to use against the police in the event it became necessary.

Several truck drivers en-route to pick up containers of goods from the port reported that had even one police officer lifted his baton at any of the protesters in the crowd, all hell would have broken loose. It wasn’t just the small stones he noticed people carrying that gave him pause. Some carried small lengths of pipe, others pieces of wood. The moment an officer made a move, someone was going to pay.

For better or for worse, it seems as though the dictatorship’s security forces might be getting a little wiser. Their tonfas remained on their hips and the standoff remained just that, but it begs the question: how much longer can confrontations like this one be averted? Eventually, the lid will blow off the boiling powder keg that is Cuba, and when it does, no amount of tonfas will be able to protect the rats from the cats.

Set your traps, folks. It’s hunting season.

Waiting to Exhale

Satie’s Gymnopedies, that’s what I always here in my head every time my plane rises off the tarmac in Havana following a visit – be it for work in the old days when I was putting pen to paper as a wire service journalist, or on a family visit, as was the case this time.

That one piece of music is perfect. Beautiful, yet sad, just like the island. Not once have I failed to select it on my MP3 player during take-off. Nose pressed to the cabin window, my ritual is always the same—I stare down at the long, skinny form of Cuba for as long as I can see her . . . for as long as I can see my family. I no longer shed tears during those takeoffs. Why give Fidel and Raul the satisfaction? Fact is, I know their time is running out, and mine is only just getting started. The moment they exhale their last bits of oxygen into the atmosphere, setting that precious air free to be inhaled by another—perhaps even one of us—their world will become black. I doubt there will be any warm, glowing white light. I don’t believe Angel Castro will be standing at the end of a long corridor, waiting to greet his sons. They will simply cease to be.

I visited Cuba for two weeks this time, in a completely different capacity than that to which I had become accustomed. I had always set off for Havana to report on some story or support the production of some documentary. I had never gone strictly to visit family. Recently, I left the hard news business and I found myself in a bit of a moral quandary: do I force myself into a self-imposed exile from the island or yield to genetics and family bonds? I yielded and luckily, that choice was rewarded. Strings are being pulled, angles are being worked, and it looks like one of my favorite cousins will soon be in la Yuma. In short, this trip was well worth it.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be popping in from time-to-time with stories from my most recent trip to the island. That said, should anyone have any questions, feel free to pass them on in the comments section. I will answer them as honestly, and candidly as I can. Nothing is off the table, so go for it.

Satie Gymnopédies – 1. Lent Et Douloureux

A New Audience for a Familiar Story

So, the Cuban government is about to release 52 political prisoners to appease the cries of the international community (ie: shut them up for a few months), without ever being held responsible for illegally imprisoning and torturing said individuals in the first place.  With any luck, the world won’t take the pressure off the family farm, Villa Castro. I’m not holding my breath, though.

What follows is a sample of a project I began to work on a while back. I’ll begin the process of releasing this material via some sort of website, soon (yes, I have a plan). This story is so emblematic of what it means to be a political prisoner in Cuba, it needs to be disseminated to as many people as possible. Its audience is limited however, to those who can read and speak Spanish, as an English translation has not been released. Until now.

See if you folks can recognize what this is:

_________________________________________________________________________________________

-Get dressed, you’re leaving today.
I stare at the jailer, a sergeant who extends his arm to give me a pair of pants and a shirt.
– There’s a bucket of water to bathe yourself – he adds while giving a cynical smile.
And off he marches. The cell door, a massive steel plate, rattles and shakes as it slams shut.

I am tense, but I make an effort to maintain my calm. The idea of my impending liberty seems like an absurd comedy. For years, they’ve repeated to me, 1,000 times, that I’ll die in prison. Now, after having delivered a beating that’s left every bone in my body hurting, these murderers pretend to tell me that I’m headed for the street? Why didn’t they return to finish me off when I shouted that I wasn’t afraid of them, that they should come back? They don’t dare? They dare to do everything! The destruction of human beings is their profession. They simply haven’t received the order yet.

It’s six in the morning, the 21st of October, 1979. I have completed, since the very beginning, straight through to the final day, a sentence of 20 years of cruel and unjust imprisonment. Now comes the changing of the guard. The uncertainty and anxiousness of liberty begin to grip me. Could it be true? Is it nothing more than another trick or perhaps a ray of light? Twenty years of iron bars and horrors! This tyrant and his henchman love to play cruel jokes on their political prisoners. How many men saw their appeals go unanswered, all the way to the last day of their imprisonment and are still, to this day, rotting in the dungeons! Despite the fact that I dream of freedom, I am prepared for the worst.

I take off my torn, stinking prison uniform, still littered with the marks of violence and begin an attempt to tidy myself up. Ah, the beatings! It hurts so much where these sons of bitches hit me!

For better or for worse, I change into the new clothing the guard left me—street clothes with the stink of prison on them. How much longer? Are we going to continue with this comedy?

UPDATED: Remember Me, Vicky?

cubawatchvicky

UPDATE – 7/1/2010, 9:36 a.m. (EST): Thanks to a reader, I’m able to supply folks with the link to the original CubaWatch post outing Vicky Pelaez. I’ll also be pulling out my archive CD of old CubaWatch posts in order to supply readers with the original text, as CubaWatch no longer exists. Without further ado, here it is:

http://cubawatcher.blogspot.com/2007/05/is-vicky-pelaez-cuban-agent.html
Note: link no longer active

__________________________________________________________________________________

A few years back, when I began to assemble the CubaWatch (Outing Fidelistas Across the Globe) website, it was with the intent of calling spades . . . well, “spades.” Sick and tired of the way so much of the media danced around the precious reputations of some of the dictatorship’s most ardent supporters–ahem, Nelson “sellout” Mandela–I decided to dig up whatever dirt I could find, whatever embarrassing morsel at my disposal, and use it to disgrace those who would sell the good people of Cuba up the river.

I had already been a longtime reader of El Diaro/La Prensa by the time CubaWatch landed on the internet. And during the course of those years, the name “Vicy Pelaez” was always good for a rise in my blood pressure. The fact that she, and by extension El Diario, could dub herself a “journalist” while consistently extolling the virtues of one of the last remaining Stalinist dictatorships in the world, was mind boggling to say the least. Pelaez’s support of the Castro regime wasn’t vague or misguided, rather, it was sheer, unbridled hatred for all to see.

And so, my curiosity was piqued and I began to do a little digging. Lexus-Nexus, Google, a few searches through library records, and I came up with an abundance of links between Pelaez, the DGI (Cuban Intelligence), and a pot-luck stew of Cuban propaganda offices and associations. Armed with all the connections–which were out there for anyone to see–I cast the CubaWatch net over Vicky, “outing” her a couple of years ago. I made it quite clear in the post that I was forwarding all the information I had gathered to the FBI, which I did. Funny how things turned out, isn’t it?

Pelaez wasn’t busted for her connections with Cuban intelligence, but her Red Square connections aren’t too far off the mark, and I guarantee you we’ll hear about ties with Havana in the coming months as all of this unfolds. CubaWatch might be gone, but she sure as hell still is casting a shadow.

I haven’t written these words in a long time. Truth-be-told, I miss them. Please humor me, if only for a moment:

“Vicky Pelaez: you are so BUSTED!”

Y Punto!

Chilean Businessman Found Dead in Havana Apartment

Yesterday, a massive blow was dealt to those in the business world who continue to see the Castro regime as a fantastic investment opportunity. Chilean businessman Roberto Baudrand was found dead in his Havana apartment after Cuban authorities prevented him from leaving the island as a result of an investigation into his business ventures there.

This story, while not top-of-the-fold news, or even front page news, blows the door open on what is increasingly looking like a very tangled web of intrigue, historical figures, and the kind of drama only found in Hollywood blockbusters. Here’s the rundown on the tantalizing bits that make this case so interesting.

  • Baudrand headed a semiprivate company that was in partnership with the regime.
  • Baudrand served as the on-island contact for Max Marambio, former Chilean President (and Castro crony) Salvador Allende’s onetime head bodyguard.
  • Marambio’s company, “Tropical Island,” sells products in dollar stores catering to foreign tourists. I.e.: “big bucks.”
  • The joint (Cuban/Chilean) operated company has been shut down for months due to an “ongoing investigation.”
  • A Tropical Island attorney had visited Baudrand only two weeks ago and found the executive “distraught” over the investigation.
  • Several foreign workers allied with Baudrand have also been arrested. Do we know of their whereabouts?
  • Marambio and Fidel Castro have maintained a friendship for nearly half-a-century. In fact, Marabmio served as the first president for Cimex and is said to have participated in a number of secret operations for the Cuban regime in the 1970’s.

But here’s the kicker. According to the Associated Press, Marambio had “expressed support for free elections in Cuba” in recent years. Makes ya wonder what’s really going on behind all the smoke and mirrors, doesn’t it?

Still set on cozying up in the Cuban “joint venture” bedroom?

Catch the entire developing story.

A Humidor’s Scent of Cuba

The humidor is constructed of Honduran mahogany with a rosewood veneer. Wenge edging and maple stringing provide the accents on the corners and edges.
The humidor is constructed of Honduran mahogany with a rosewood veneer. Wenge edging and maple stringing provide the accents on the corners and edges.
Several years ago, during my first reporting trip to Cuba, I purchased a few paintings from a local artist in Havana. An old family friend outside the city milled up some picture frame stock from native Spanish Cedar with which to frame them. The frames weren’t fully assembled but rather, milled lengths of wood that I would later joint together in various sized squares and rectangles. While I did indeed use some of the frame stock for paintings, other pieces sat unused in my basement, collecting dust until just recently.

After turning in my press credentials and making a somewhat abrupt career change, I’ve found myself in a position where I have access to a rather large woodworking shop. On most weekends, I can be found there, working on a variety of furniture pieces for the new life and home I’ve begun to build with my wife since marrying her this past July.

One of those projects was the humidor you see here. Made of Honduran mahogany, wenge, rosewood veneer, and maple stringing, the humidor is nearly complete. Pretty soon, I’ll be cutting the lid off on the tablesaw (in woodworking, fine boxes are generally built as cubes, with the lid then being sawn off, and hinged to the bottom portion). One of the last steps in the process will be to line the box with–you guessed it–Spanish cedar. This species is almost always used for humidor liners, as it’s incredibly stable (it won’t warp under the enormous stresses brought on by the difference in humidity inside and outside the box), and just aromatic enough to impart a pleasant flavor to fine cigars.

I couldn’t think of a better use for all that cedar stock that’s been languishing in my basement. Once complete, I’ll be able to experience the scent of Cuba every time I reach for a Macanudo. Perhaps someday, this humidor will be sitting on a sideboard inside a home in Havana. Perhaps . . .
CornerHumidor
HumidorCloseup

Open Letter to Cuba’s Vice Minister of Culture

Well now, that’s being direct.

The following letter to Cuban Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas was penned by blogger Claudia Cadelo as a response to the recent ban on the performance art group, OmniZonaFranca, from performing in public places.

Open Letter to Fernando Rojas:

Fernando Rojas: I am writing to you with the intent to offer advice. Let us say that from my 26 years, I have decided today to serve for a few moments as your mother, or your conscience, however you would like to interpret it. So I write this to Fernando Rojas, the man, and not the Vice Minister of Culture, to whom, perhaps, more than once in your childhood, your mother said, “Fernandito, to the girls, it is not done.”

They say—and you know what weight is given to the third person plural in Havana—that during the infamous meeting that you had with the artists of the performance group, OmniZonaFranca, one of the justifications offered for banishing the Festival of Poetry Without End from Cuban institutions, was that the boys were meeting with the blogger Yoani Sanchez. The resolutions and laws that your ministry has promulgated to limit the entry of citizens to establishments and activities are not known to me, but it is not about the laws that I wish to speak, because in the waters of the law, Rojas, your ministry has not bathed for a very long time.

What worries me is your threat, “If Yoani Sanchez comes, I myself will meet her with a stick.” Serious words, Fernando, for a man. But even more serious for a Vice Minister who—according to comments from the “cultured” corridors—aspires to lose the prefix “vice”. However, this is not a reprimand, rather it is a call to sanity, civility, intelligence. I remember that, for these duties, the government has the paramilitaries, the rapid response brigades, and as a last resort, the CIM (Military Counterintelligence); it does not seem advisable to me that a staff member take these tasks on himself, much less announce it in advance as, leaked through the Internet, it might reach inappropriate ears.

Considering that everyone knows Yoani Sanchez is a writer and you are the Vice Minister of Culture, I would say that an atmosphere of terror doesn’t agree with you, and that the image of your delivering a beating is regrettable and unfortunate.

On the other hand, I could be mistaken and your vice may be nothing more than an alibi, in which case you would belong to one of the above mentioned organizations whose job it is to beat civilians. In that case your sin would probably be the indiscretion, because after publicly threatening to attack the physical integrity of a citizen, it is hard to believe, Fernando, that you are only an official in the Ministry of Culture.

Sincerely, Claudia Cadelo De Nevi