27 03 2011


On Tuesday, 29th March, I will be leaving Santiago de Cuba. I will spend four nights in Havana and then return to England. I will be sorry to be leaving. Living here has been a great experience and education.

This will be my final post for more than a week. When I return to England I will post on my observations on what changes I observe in Havana; I will do a full review of my Spanish course; and I will post various photographs and other odds and ends that I have.

This way, I hope to keep the blog ticking over until I return to Santiago for the month of July. I hope to return to Santiago in the autumn to continue my studies.

Thanks to everybody for the kind comments that I have received. If I have helped even a few people to understand a bit more about this wonderful, complex island and its great people, I will be satisfied.



27 03 2011


Supergordi hamburger stall

Earlier this month I reported that between October 2010 and the end of January 2011, a total of 113,618 new people had been authorised to become self-employed, compared to the total of 157,371 that existed at the end of 2010, representing an increase of 72% in the number of those working for themselves.

Juventud Rebelde reported on 20th March that the figure of new authorisations at 11th March was 171,000, an increase of 108%, more than double the original figure. Even if my assessment is correct that a majority of these are formerly unlicensed businesses becoming legal, it still represents a significant increase in those operating in the private sector. It is certainly a big new source of taxation income for the Cuban Government, which is struggling with a financial deficit.

Cuban President Raul Castro told the National Assembly last December: “…if we have arrived at the conclusion that the exercise of self-employment constitutes an alternative form of employment for those of working age, with the result of elevating the offer of goods and services to the population and liberating the state from these activities in order to concentrate on what is truly decisive, what the Party and Government must do in the first place is to facilitate their development and not to generate stigmas or prejudices towards them, nor much less to demonise them, and for this it is fundamental to modify the negative perception that more than a few of us have towards this form of private work.” (my translation)

This represents a major change of approach and seems to be generating a significant alteration in the balance between state and private sector. It is one that I welcome and believe is long overdue. Although I am in favour of state ownership of major industries, I believe that the state should concentrate on what Lenin referred to as “the commanding heights of the economy”, those sectors that are strategically important. In my opinion, it makes no sense and is inefficient for the state to be running cafes and  restaurants, hairdresser shops, taxi cabs or takeaway food stands.

I previously reported that I had personally seen four new paladares (private restaurants) in Santiago de Cuba. That has now risen to seven, an increase of 350% on what existed in the third quarter of last year. I’m sure that there are more and will be many more to come.

One new enterprise that has opened, around the corner from my apartment here, is a hamburger stall, named Supergordi. The house speciality and dearest item on the menu (at 25 CUP – less than £0.75) is a Supergordi, a hamburger on a bun, served with ham, bacon, thick slices of cheese, lettuce and tomato. In the interests of research, I tried one and can personally report that they are very good. If anybody is in the vicinity of Calle 10, Reparto Santa Barbara, Santiago de Cuba and is hungry, I recommend that they try one.


27 03 2011


The daily newspaper Granma reported on Thursday 24th March that former Minister of Food Industries Alejandro Roca Iglesias had been tried and recommended to receive 15 years’ imprisonment for the crime of complicity in and acts prejudicial to economic activity or contracting.

The same hearing heard – in the absence of the defendant, who is in Chile – a case against Max Marambio Rodriguez, for the crime of complicity in the falsification of banking and commercial documents. He was recommended to receive 20 years’ imprisonment.

This was a major case. Marimbio was a former armed revolutionary in Chile, who became head bodyguard for Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende. He fled Chile for Cuba when General Pinochet led a military coup against the elected government and slaughtered thousands of his opponents. He was reportedly a close friend of Fidel Castro. He ended up as head of a joint enterprise company with the Cuban Government, manufacturing fruit juices. Most tourists will be familiar with the pale blue cartons of drink, which disappeared from Cuban shelves for several months last year when the scandal broke.

Other than a small article of three paragraphs on page 2 of Granma, I am not aware of the case or its details receiving much publicity here. The same is true of another scandal, involving the head of the Cuban national airline. The Cuban Government is understandably nervous of revealing its murky secrets to the eyes of its enemies. However, US papers such as the Miami Herald have already reported on the cases. Cuba’s enemies are well aware of them. The people who are kept in the dark are the Cuban population.

My friend describes the Cuban Government as being like an over-protective parent of a young adult, who will not recognise that their child has grown up and needs to be treated with a certain amount of trust. This seems to me like a good simile. When will the Cuban leadership treat its people like the grown-ups that they are? They already receive much information and disinformation from various sources, including travellers from Miami bringing memory sticks full of articles from the US media. The best approach to my mind would be to be as open and frank as possible. The Cuban people have put up with much over recent decades, due to the illegal US economic blockade and inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption in the Cuban economy. The least that they can expect in return is to be treated like adults.

NB The house pictured above has nothing to do with these cases. It is just a nice house in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago. It is an example of the kind of houses that some Cuban families – including those who have acquired wealth through illegitimate means – live in. I am not suggesting that this is the case with this house.


23 03 2011


View from the pool at Brisa Sierra Mar

This weekend I visited an All-inclusive tourist resort – the first tourist resort that I have visited in Cuba and the first All-Inclusive anywhere. I have always been prejudiced towards such places, imagining them to be full of morbidly obese people engaging in an orgy of gluttony.

However, on Sunday there was a special offer: 20 CUC (less than £14) for a return coach trip from Santiago to Brisas Sierra Mar (more than 60km away); and a day pass giving you access to all the facilities and food and drink at the hotel. I thought that I would take the chance to see what it was like.

The coastal road between Santiago and the hotel (which is near Chivirico, to the west of Santiago) is beautiful. It runs between the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Sierra Maestra mountain range on the other. In parts the road is in terrible condition, due to damage caused by the 2008 hurricanes, but it is a great drive.

The hotel is very attractive, nestling on a hill top overlooking the sea. It has a couple of swimming pools and a lift to take you down to the beach, where they have a bar and a restaurant. For the more energetically inclined, there is a gym and you can hire bicycles or play tennis. I went for a ride on a bike and made use of the snorkelling equipment that was available. There are also Spanish and salsa lessons.

The hotel guests seemed to be mostly Canadians and a fair number fitted the stereotype of my prejudices. However, to be fair, I engaged in my own orgy of gluttony – it’s hard not to when abundant food and drink is available without having to shop for it, buy it or cook it. You just take it and eat it.

I was very impressed with the hotel, particularly the beach, which was secluded and very tranquil. I would enjoy spending a couple of nights there for a break and a rest. However, more than that would start to drive me crazy, I think. You can, of course, take advantage of the over-priced excursions if you get bored, but being herded around by a tour guide would not appeal much to me either.

There were two coach loads of day trippers from Santiago. I think that I was the only foreigner on them. The rest were Cubans. The 20 CUC price is equivalent to a month’s wages for many Cuban people, but the coaches were full. Clearly, many Cuban people have significant forms of income which enable them to enjoy things such as this (see my earlier post from January entitled “Cost of Living”).

Up until three years ago, Cubans would not have been able to take advantage of deals such as this, as they were banned from entering tourist hotels or resorts. The ban was introduced in the 1990s as part of a crackdown on the prostitution that had grown around the tourist trade. The ban was very unpopular and was often referred to as apartheid by Cuba’s opponents. One of the early acts of Raul Castro when he assumed the presidency was to lift the ban. Not only was this popular, but it opened up a new market for the state-owned Cuban tourist industry (even those hotels with a foreign brand in Cuba, such as Melia or Iberostar, are joint ventures in which the Cuban state owns 51%).

The hotel did seem like a different world from the Cuba in which I have lived for the last eleven weeks, the Cuba of bodegas (ration shops), markets selling potatoes at 1CUP (£0.03) per pound, haircuts at 2 CUP and ice creams at 1 CUP. However, Cuba is a country of many contrasts. The isolated rural communities that we passed on the coach from Santiago are very different from the urban communities of Santiago or Havana; the upmarket parts of those cities (such as Vista Alegre or Miramar) are very different from the poorer parts, such as Distrito Jose Marti or Marianao. The west of the island (including Havana) is very different to the east (where Santiago is situated).

Tourism is an important element of the Cuban economy and a major employer. The recent devaluation of the CUC should see a boost to the Cuban tourist trade. My advice to tourists coming to the island would be to get out of their resorts for a time and explore the rest of this fascinating island.


19 03 2011

Santiago de Cuba has a vibrant cultural life. There are at least six venues where you can watch live music every night (and sometimes during the day): Casa de la Musica; Casa de la Trova; Casa de los Tradiciones; Casa del Caribe; Patio de Artex; and Patio de los Dos Abuelos. There are several theatres; several cinemas; several cabaret venues; a fine concert hall; and sometimes there are outdoor concerts in the many squares and parks.

In the last month there have been a series of events to mark the 20th International Book Fair; a week of documentary films from various countries in memory of Santiago Alvarez, a famous Cuban documentary film maker; and this week there is a Festival of Trova (a bit like folk music).

 The problem is finding out when all of these things are occurring. The daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde has a list of things occurring in various cities, every Friday, sometimes including Santiago; the weekly Santiago newspaper Sierra Maestra sometimes has details of events occurring in the following week; the Cultural Department of the provincial authority has a billboard outside of its office with a list of the major events in the coming week; and the various venues have details outside their premises of what is happening. I understand that the local radio stations also broadcasts details of various events, but the radio/CD player in my apartment only plays CDs, so I cannot make use of that.

Therefore, in order to find out what is taking place over the next few days, I have to try and find a local newspaper and tour the various venues and the Cultural Department offices. Even then, it is not easy. During the week of documentary films, the cinemas would have details of what was showing that day, but not for the rest of the week.

I have been here for the annual Caribbean festival La Fiesta del Fuego for each of the last two years; and last year I was here for the carnival. Both of these events last the best part of a week, during which there are shows and concerts throughout the city. However, finding out what is happening, where and when, has proved impossible. For me, it has just been a case of turning up at different venues and seeing what was happening.

In London we have a weekly listings magazine, called Time Out. It has details of every concert, film, play and exhibition being held in the following week. Venues make sure that they inform the magazine of what is happening, so that people will be aware of it. Could there be an opening for an enterprising individual to produce something similar for Santiago? I am aware that there are a couple of web-sites that try to do the same for Havana. Newspapers here cost 0.20CUP (less than a British penny), so the Cuban market would not be very lucrative. However, perhaps among the tourists who visit here, there could be a more promising market. Perhaps the various new private restaurants and casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) would be prepared to pay to advertise?

Somehow, I cannot imagine anybody making a fortune producing such a publication, and I am aware of the paranoia of the Cuban government about anybody producing independent publications, but it would certainly improve the cultural experience both of residents and visitors here.


15 03 2011


The Cuban press reported at the weekend that the US citizen Alan Gross had been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state”. From what I know of the case, which has not had extensive coverage in the media here, Gross was working for a company contracting for the US Government Department of State, to “promote democracy” in Cuba.

In reality, the US Government has no interest in democracy in Cuba, in the same way that it has no interest in democracy in Saudi Arabia. What it is interested in is returning capitalism to Cuba and gaining compensation for those US companies and individuals who lost their assets when they were nationalised in the early years of the revolution.

To that end, they are determined to bring down the Cuban Government and they devote millions of dollars each year to that purpose. You would think that, after 52 years, they might ask themselves what they have achieved with those millions of dollars, but US politics works in mysterious ways.

Gross had illegally entered Cuba on a tourist visa and was planning to distribute satellite telephones. He claims that he was working with Cuban Jewish organisations, to assist them with communication. Why would synagogues need satellite telephones? The leaders of the synagogues here deny having contact with him. Many foreign synagogues have links with the Cuban Jewish community and visit here to provide assistance. This is not a problem. What is a problem is providing satellite telephones, which have military uses and are expressly forbidden from being imported into the country.

Fifteen years may seem harsh, but when compared with the sentences given to five Cubans working for the Cuban Government in the US, it does not seem so bad. These are the Five Cuban Heroes – as they are known here – who entered the US on behalf of the Cuban Government to infiltrate Cuban opposition groups in Miami and provide information on planned terrorist attacks. This was in the 1990s and anti-Cuban terrorism was a real problem. In 1976 a Cuban airplane was bombed en route from Venezuela, killing everybody on board. In the 1990s bombs were placed in Havana hotels, killing an Italian tourist. These terrorist attacks were planned and financed in Miami.

The US Government uncovered the five and sentenced them to lengthy periods of imprisonment, between 15 years and life. Two of the five have not been allowed visits from their spouses, because the US claims that they (the spouses) are Cuban agents. Amnesty International has claimed that the five were denied a fair trial.

The Cuban Government and sympathetic groups throughout the world have campaigned for the release of the five. It is believed that at one time the Catholic Church was attempting to negotiate the return of the five in exchange for Cuba releasing 70 prisoners who had been convicted of working on behalf of the US. The US Government would not play ball and the Cubans released their prisoners unilaterally last year, after negotiations with the church.

Now that the Cubans have a US agent behind bars, perhaps their negotiating hand will have been strengthened. I hope so.

The five Cubans must wish that they were Russian instead. When a network of Russian spies was uncovered in the US last year, within weeks they were on a plane back to Russia. This is the normal procedure when spies are uncovered: the expulsion of some diplomats; the summoning of the ambassador to be told of the government’s disappointment and the offence caused; and then, quietly, the spies are returned and things return to normal. Why does the US Government treat the Cubans differently? Because the Cubans must be punished for successfully sticking two fingers up to US imperialism for the last 52 years and demonstrating that a small Caribbean island does not have to dance to its powerful neighbour’s tune.


11 03 2011


Granma, one of the two Cuban daily newspapers, normally only contains eight pages. However, every Friday there is a bumper edition, including two pages devoted to letters from readers, entitled “Cartas a la direccion” (letters to the management).

These give ordinary people an opportunity to vent their frustrations about their dissatisfaction with either matters pertaining to their employment, or to the services provided (or not provided) by official bodies. They give an insight into the everyday difficulties faced by Cuban people due to bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption. The fact that they are published shows that these problems are not being swept under the carpet, but these problems are deep-rooted and will not be easy to resolve.

Amongst the letters in last week’s paper are the following:

An agricultural co-operative of 27 workers in Mayari, in the province of Holguin, have written to complain that they have not been paid for the last two and a half months. This is due to a debt incurred by the previous administrator, which has still not been paid. The workers have been given various dates when payment would be made, but have still not received the outstanding sums. They are continuing to produce their crops of lettuce, tomatoes and cabbages, amongst others, but want to know when they will be paid.

A reader complains that in his district of Marianao, in Havana, a large tree was uprooted in a hurricane six years ago, breaking up the pavement for a stretch of approximately 10 metres. The result has been that rubbish accumulates in the resulting holes that attract rats, cockroaches and flies. Antisocial behaviour has added to the problem, but the cause is the failure to repair the pavement. The reader wishes to praise the street cleaners, who try their best to keep the area clean.

A recent graduate from the University of Information Sciences has been placed with the Ministry of Public Health in Holguin province and has been working for the last six months in a polyclinic, in a post not suited to her training and ability. She wants to know if she can change her post.

A customer went to a pharmacy at 2.25pm, to find a queue and only one assistant at the counter. Behind the dividing wall were four or five other workers in pharmacists’ uniforms. At 3pm another assistant emerged, but her pen would not work, so she went off to look for another. He finally made a purchase at 3.20. During the 55 minute wait the telephone rang continually, but nobody answered it. On the wall was a sign saying that all of their efforts would be devoted to excellence in the provision of their service. The writer thinks that the pharmaceutical company should honour the spirit of the sign. The population deserve it.

Another writer complains about bureaucracy in the post office. He needed to send a postal order for 960 pesos, but the maximum postal order is for 300. Therefore he needed to send four. On 11th February he sent the four. Eight days later he was told that three had arrived. He went to the post office in Santiago to ask for an explanation, but as of 2nd March had not received a reply. He asks rhetorically; “Is this efficiency?”

In Contramaestra, in the province of Santiago, a reader went to the only point of sale to buy three tubes of toothpaste. When he got home he found that the seals were missing and that the tubes were half empty but had been made to look full. He returned to the shop and was told by the manager that the assistants should have been informed that the products had been modified to vary the contents. He was given new, sealed tubes. He wants to know: how many others were given such products? Most people in Contramaestre are humble peasants. Who will respond for the damage to the economy caused by such acts? He concludes that the people need protection from those robbing and causing damage.

There is a popular saying in Cuba: “no es facil” (it’s not easy). This is often a good description of people’s day to day experiences.