Prisoners Sew Their Mouths Shut

A number of sources this week reported a gruesome and we would imagine very painful act by prisoners left behind in Cuba --- they sewed their mouths shut.

We have already reported that Raul Castro determined to free almost three thousand prisoners, and we and many others have raised questions about those released, and those not pardoned. While it seemed that political prisoners would be a significant part of the pardon, and that this pardon was intended to show the Pope (who will visit soon) and others that Cuba does not prevent free speech and action, it turned out that very few political prisoners were among those to be released.

The Miami New Times and others reported that dissidents said approximately ten political prisoners who were not on the release list actually sewed their mouths shut, to reflect their intent at a hunger strike. Demonstrations occurred in other prisons as well, but this act in the Boniato prison, which is in the province of Santiago de Cuba, was the most dramatic.

Conflicting Treatment In Cuba. Catch and Release. Exchange One Pawn for Another

The news has been wild in Cuba over the past month, and has kept getting wilder on Christmas weekend. The government announced release of 2,900 prisoners, while excluding many from the list. It has also been arresting numerous people, preventing dissidents from visiting other hunger-striking dissidents, and preventing residents from attending church on Christmas. 


Arrests seemed to ramp up in preparation for the Miami-based Cuban exile group’s flotilla, which would shoot off fireworks in International waters, visible from Havana. Was Raul’s government really so concerned about the effect of the flotilla or were they only concerned that the dissidents were being more vocal than usual in anticipation of it? The government tried to put the outspoken ones away, out of sight, before the activity. And it tried to put fear into people. I spoke to an inner-city resident two days after the flotilla, and he said everybody in the neighborhood was afraid. The Committee representatives had told them boats were coming to shore, and they should stay indoors. They didn’t know what the boats coming to shore were expected to do, but their interest was quelled. 

Then, on the eve of the human rights fireworks, the Damas de Blanco, (Ladies in White) protested in front of their recently deceased leader’s home. They were suddenly outnumbered by an angry group of pro-government protesters. Then a group of Damas de Blanco were arrested, put on a bus, and apparently sent back to their own provinces if they weren’t legal to be in Havana. 

Some well-known protesters have been on hunger strikes. Others who went to visit were prevented from doing so, and then arrested. Sometimes the arrests are short; sometimes they are violent. There are reports of beatings in jail. Hunger strikes, arrests and harassment of dissidents, and similar chilling activities are certainly not new. But they seem more prevalent now than usual. 

Well-known dissidents are never sure what is going to happen to them. They regularly complain about harassment. The government watches, intimidates, counter-protests, and imprisons. On December 19, it was stated that 388 dissidents had already been imprisoned in December. 

Then, in the past couple of days, Raul announced that 2,900 prisoners would be freed. People questioned why. They speculated that it was in preparation of the anticipated visit of the Pope, some time shortly before Easter. Several issues are raised by a review of who is being released, and who is not. It was implied that the release would free dissidents and political prisoners. But the list seems to include a number of prisoners who were sentenced for crimes other than political, like petty theft, burglary, etc. Is it going to be like the Mariel boatlift, which was at first thought of as a positive step, until the U.S. government said Castro sent away a number of undesirables. A look at the list of prisoners not eligible for release reflects terrorists and those guilty of espionage. One wonders whether the “crimes” of dissidents may fall within a loose definition of terrorism. Most likely, Alan Gross’s alleged crimes fall within the realm of espionage.

The Alan Gross question goes even further. Some thought that if political prisoners were part of the crowd being released, Alan Gross would be among them. We don’t really know what he did, or what he is believed to have done, but it certainly sounds innocuous if he simply delivered satellite phones to Jewish residents so they could communicate with their families. The Cuban government says he was working for the U.S. government. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. His family has just finished appealing once more for his release. 

It is said that Alan Gross is a pawn for return of the remaining four of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. Some reports indicate that the Cuban government has specifically discussed such a trade. So, is that the idea? Is the Cuban government looking to grab a few more Americans? With all the new tours and family travel by Americans, should Americans be worried about what they might say or do? Could the jails be emptied to fill them up with pawns for a larger game? Could an inadvertent hello to a known dissident put a visitor in prison for fifteen years or so?

We’ll see.

More Arrests and Unrest in Cuba.

Reports from Cuba indicate that dissident journalist Guillermo Farinas, who has consistently pushed the government for free press and against Internet censorship has been arrested again. On Christmas day, Yoani Sanchez reported that the arrest was violent, and that he was dragged, hanging from the door a moving car. Several hours later, she reported that he had been released. We have not seen any information beyond that. We do not know if he was injured or anything.

This is at least the third time he has been arrested this year, according to various news reports. Reports indicate that after his arrest while visiting another hunger striker in November of this year, he was beaten in detention.

He has engaged in hunger strikes several times in the past, and was awarded the Sakharov rights prize issued by the European parliament in 2010 after a 135-day hunger strike to press for the release of political prisoners.

There were also reports of more harassment of the Ladies in White --- this time preventing them from entering church on Christmas Eve.

Generation Y - Yoani Sanchez expresses her wish to travel

Yoani has been silent for more than a day. Her blog web site was down, and there was an apology note saying they couldn't figure out how to resolve it. The notice also said it was not believed to be the result of government censorship. It popped back up a few minutes ago. At the top was a blog entry with what I first thought was an Exit Visa, but then realized it was a denial. She has often explained how she is frequently invited to travel, to accept awards, to participate in events, etc., but Cuba won't let her leave. What she has written is interesting, so I am quoting it verbatim.

"My Suitcase is Packed 

One of the many denials of permission to travel I have received with no explanation... Like all the airports in the world, ours is impersonal, stressful, glass and aluminum on all sides. Once in a while the door to customs opens and someone comes out with their luggage wrapped in cellophane. The waiting family members scream, tears running down their faces, the newcomer is flushed with emotion. 


Meanwhile, on the first floor are the departures, the last hugs between people who may never see each other again. There are booths with glaring officials who check the documents. Passport, visa, ticket… permission to leave. I always wonder what happens to those who pass by this window without a “white card,” without this demeaning authorization that we Cubans must have to leave our own country. But there are few testimonials, the denials happen far from the runway where the planes take off. 

The rumor that tomorrow, Friday morning, Raul Castro could announce an easing of the restrictions to enter and leave won’t let me sleep. In four years, my passport has filled with visas to arrive in other countries but lacks a single permit to leave this insularity. Eighteen denials of permission to travel is too much; more like a personal vendetta than the exercise of some bureaucratic regulation. 

I’ve had my suitcase packed for a long time. The clothing it contains is yellowing with time, the gifts for friends have expired or gone out of style, the papers I would read about current events are outdated. But the suitcase keeps looking at me from the corner of the bedroom. “When will we travel?” I imagine its worn-out wheels asking me. And I can only answer that perhaps this Friday in a parliament — without real power — some decree will return to me a right I should have always enjoyed. In the event that the anticipated “immigration reform” is announced, I will test its limits from the airport, facing that checkpoint so many fear. My suitcase and I are ready. Willing to see if the guard will press the button that opens the door to the departure lounge, or if he calls security to take me away."

MSNBC's Matthew Rivera goes to Cuba with a Cuban Relative

This is a link to a report by Matthew Rivera regarding his recent visit to Cuba under the family rules. The video at the top of the link is Todays NBC report from Natalie Morales.

Franklin Marquez reports on news from Cuba

News of Cuba in the U.S. has been quite sparse since the events of last week.  It was only a week ago that Cuban exiles in the U.S. took boats to a place off the shore of Havana and shot fireworks on the eve of Human Rights Day.  Reports in Cuba indicate the Cuban government began arresting known, vocal dissidents earlier in the month, in order to quell unrest.  Last weekend, and the beginning of this past week, more arrests were announced by Cubans.  A number of the Ladies in White were apparently gathered up and sent away from Havana.

In the U.S., Miami news agencies reported the flotilla and fireworks. At least one local Miami station showed interviews of boat captains and the person behind the event.  But nothing significant has been reported about Cuba’s apparent anti-human rights activities to quell the activists.
Even Twitter reports from inside Cuba have calmed. I posted a report last week that a Centro Havana resident asked me what had happened with a flotilla going to Havana, because he had heard rumors, but did not even know there had been fireworks.

I have been monitoring Twitter reports, including the Ladies in White list, but am not certain what occurred with the reported arrests of its members last week. Fox News Latino indicates they were forcibly placed on buses, but I am not sure whether they were actually deported to their home provinces or not.

On the Ladies in White’s Twitter account, appears the following notice:

@yoanisanchez: Segun cifras de la #CCDHRN desde el martes pasado hasta hoy han ocurrido mas de 312 detenciones arbitrarias en #Cuba

Translated: "@ Yoanisanchez: According to figures from the # CCDHRN from last Tuesday until today there have been more than 312 arbitrary detentions in # Cuba"

But from the postings on their Twitter site even yesterday, I am not certain any of the Ladies in White were detained or deported to their provinces.

On Friday, December 16, 2011, Natalie Morales reported from Cuba regarding the new changes in the ability of U.S. citizens to travel there, the new business possibilities in Cuba, and the new ability to buy and sell real estate.  The story was obviously prerecorded.  It showed a peaceful march of the Ladies in 
White, without incident.  It also indicated something else in the news -- that certain political groups are pushing to reverse the new opening of travel possibilities to Cuba, claiming that Americans are now putting too much money in the Cuban coffers.

On Monday, December 19, the Today Show is going to show Hemingway’s home outside Havana.

Report from Manuel Regarding the Exiles’ Fireworks Protest

Manuel – Age – 30’s; Birthplace – Santa Clara, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba, Santa Clara, Cuba; Lives in Illegal Rental Units when in Havana, With Extended Family When in Santa Clara; Occupation – Was a Soldier, Worked Various Government Jobs, Jinitero, Not Officially Employed

[translated from Spanish, and grammar fixed up a bit]

December 11, 2011

Hola, Franklin,

We have never talked since you left. I’m still hanging around outside the Hotel Deauville, doing what I do to make a living.

Tonight was a historic night in Havana. Talk on the street has been crazy all day. First, there was a protest at Laura Pollan’s house. That’s not the first time. You know who she is, right?  The “Ladies in White” founder? She died recently.  The Ladies were marching.  They and others stood facing the street, reading a declaration about human rights. 

A band of pro-government demonstrators faced them, taunting, yelling, throwing things. The ladies tried to yell louder.  Some male supporters tried to help them, but reading louder. The pro-government people yelled louder.  I stood to the side and watched, but then decided to get out of there before the police showed up and put me and others in jail.

I went down to the Malecón, in front of Hotel Deauville, where I always hang out. There weren’t many people out.  It was raining. Somebody said, “Hey, let’s go up by the statue of Martí.” 

You know. That’s the one where he’s holding a kid and pointing --- some say taunting --- the American Interest Section. 

The kid says, “That’s where the action will be.”

So we walk west, fast, on the Malecón, hoping to see some action, but not to be arrested.

We get up there, and there are some t.v. people, being interviewed, in front of cameras, with the water behind.  We get close.

A t.v. lady says to my friend, “What do you think of the flotilla’s plan to shoot fireworks?”

He says, “Viva Cuba. Abajo with Fidel and Raul.”

I cringe, and look around, afraid to get beaten by police.

I don’t see any police, but a crowd of people comes running towards us.  They look angry. They don’t touch us, but they push the t.v. people. A t.v. person shouts, “We are credentialed news…” He gets punched in the face. The camera crashes to the ground. They twist the arm of the news lady. It’s bedlam. We decide we shouldn’t be there, and we slip away.

I’m sorry for not defending the news people, but hey, I gotta protect myself --- you know.  The police wouldn’t have worried about who was doing what.

Anyway, we went back to down towards the Deauville a bit. It wasn’t raining that much.  Then, we saw the first big light in the sky. It was like a ball – like a full moon.

It was pretty exciting.  A bunch of young guys and some girls were running around, pointing, laughing, saying stuff like, “Look, they are almost here.  Man, you think we could swim out there and escape from this hellhole?”

Well, we couldn’t escape. And they couldn’t get closer, but they sent us a message. 




Report from Yaineris Regarding the Flotilla’s Fireworks Display on Eve of International Day of Human Rights

[Yaineris – Age – 30’s;Birthplace – Holguín, Cuba; Residence – Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Cuba, Holguín, Cuba; Lives with Teenage, Profoundly Disabled Daughter, in Illegal Rental Unit when in Havana, Extended Family When in Other Locations; Occupation – Educated as Economist; Worked in Government Stores; Prostitute]

Hola, Franklin,

I am writing this from an Internet facility in Havana.  I was at the casa particular of Reinaldo last night.
Although I had not heard anything about a planned protest, Reinaldo’s wife said, “Did you know some exiles living in Miami are sitting off our coast in boats and will shoot fireworks in a few minutes?”

I said, “No, I haven’t heard. What’s it about?”

“A protest of our government’s refusal to honor human rights.”

I said, “Big words. Protests get us nowhere.”

She said, “Anyway, let’s go to the rooftop and see if we can see it.”

We climbed the internal stairs several floors to the roof.  A few other residents of the building were there. We greeted each other. Then we stood, facing north, sunset still fading to the west, and waited.
I was anxiously waiting for a call from one of the hotel guards, hoping for some business.  My daughter was home with the babysitter, like every night while I work.  We stood.  We waited.
Finally, a bright ball of light appeared in the sky to the north.  “That’s it,” one of the neighbors said. 

As more lights appeared, people hugged.  Some cried. 

I, personally, was not feeling that emotional. I didn’t see that it was such a great event, or was any kind of victory.

But Reinaldo said to me, “Yaineris, our people who are in the U.S. are talking to us. They are talking to Fidel and Raul.  They are saying they support us, and they are taunting Fidel and Raul. You see?”
It’s funny. I kind of teared up a bit.  I guessed I understood a little.  It seemed a large effort for a small taste of victory. But I got it. The exiles had returned --- close enough to send a message of hope.



Report from Franklin Regarding Weekend’s Events in Havana

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Much news continues to come out of Havana on Sunday, December 11, 2011, following the flotilla on Friday, and activities related to the Human Rights Day on Saturday. Twitter reports indicate that many active dissidents are being detained, others afraid of being detained, and even the Ladies in White picked up and deported to their provinces. It is common in Havana for people who do not have permits to be in Havana to be deported to the provinces where they are supposed to reside.

I telephoned two friends in Havana today, and received remarkably different accounts of what was going on.  The first one is not permitted to be in Havana and works in an unofficial and undesired activity.  He stated that he has not left his small, illegal rental property for days.  He said, though, “I can’t talk about it on a cellular phone. I’ll tell you everything next time you are here in person. But I cannot work. I cannot go out.”

Another person completely surprised me. I called to talk about something else, and he asked me, 

“What is going on with boats coming to Cuba?”

I explained the flotilla of four or five boats that had gone there to shoot fireworks. He said, “They didn’t come to Havana.”

I said, “Yes, they did. I saw a number of photos from the Malecon showing the fireball in the sky.”

He expressed surprise. People in his neighborhood have been talking about the boats.  Some said they were attacking. Others said they were coming to shore to get people and take them to the U.S.  I explained that neither was true. The boats had anchored twelve miles off shore, and shot fireworks as a demonstration against the government. 

I asked, “You didn’t hear or see anything?”

I have been to his dwelling, about twelve blocks off the Malecon, in Centro Habana.  He said, “No. 

Nothing. Nobody in my neighborhood knows anything.”

I said, “Do you know about arrests and turmoil?”

He said, “No, I know nothing of that.”

Weird. When you see the Twitter reports, things are obviously happening, and the arrests were going on for some time before this week, in preparation for the week.  Well-known activists were put away so they wouldn’t be able to do much. Now more are being picked up.

But maybe this also gets back to what I said in a previous post.  The lack of smart phones, Internet, accessibility to Twitter, etc., means the rest of us know what’s going on there, while the residents who are not active in the dissident community know nothing.


Report from Franklin Marquez Regarding Eve of International Day of Human Rights Day in Cuba

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Reports on Twitter, other social networking, Miami newspaper, radio and television outlets, and the web exploded Friday night as a group of sixty Cuban Exiles living in the U.S. traveled in a flotilla of five boats to a spot in international waters, off the coast of Cuba, and set off fireworks for the residents of Havana to see.

December 10 is the International Day of Human Rights. The exile group decided to raise awareness by taking the action. The government of Cuba decried the act, threatened known dissidents, and possibly quelled large crowds on the Malecón in Havana.

The reason most say that the Malecón was empty was that it was raining. But enough people saw it from balconies, rooftops, and other locations, and reported it, that the effect was huge.

We have reported previously that the means of overtaking a government via protests organized and encouraged via social media seems unlikely in Cuba, because having a telephone, and particularly a smart phone is uncommon. Having Internet and other access in one’s home is unheard of. Even the famous blogger, Yoani Sanchez, travels to one of the big hotels or Internet kiosks daily and pays for her access. Sometimes the government blocks access by Cubans to these locations. I have used computers in some of the kiosk locations; the computers are dinosaurs, the connections as slow as our old dial-up, and there is no wi-fi so that one could access via their laptop, except in a few hotels.

But somebody managed to snap a photo of a ball of fire in the sky and to tweet it. It sure doesn’t look like our country’s colorful and spectacular fireworks, with loud noise, streaming colors, explosions of color and light inside other bursts, but it doesn’t matter. The fireball was a communication to the people of Cuba that people on the outside care and are not that far away.

The Cuban government, in the official newspaper, the Granma, called the flotilla’s creator, Ramón Sául Sánchez, a "terrorist" who has "carte blanche" in Washington.

It stated that Sanchez and the Democracy Movement he created had “orchestrated a new provocation against our homeland. He has spent 40 years planting bombs and carrying out violent acts with impunity.”

Sanchez said that, the initiative, first organized in 1995, seeks to "bring global attention to the internal situation" on the island "and encourage the Cuban people recover their right to" support the opposition, "the government Havana's branded as "mercenary" in America.

Also on Friday, December 9, 2011, demonstrations were held outside the home of the late opposition leader of the “Ladies in White”, Laura Pollan. The Ladies in White are a group of wives of dissident political prisoners, who stage weekly protests in Havana. While her followers read aloud the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several hundred pro-government demonstrators staged a boisterous "act of repudiation".

Cuba’s famous blogger, Yoani Sanchez (who I imagine is not related to Ramón Sanchez), tweeted, “… A pesar de lluvia, control y detenciones los fuegos artificiales de la #flotilla se ven! La Habana llena de luces y carente de #DDHH,”(the hashtags being the flotilla Twitter stream and the International Human Rights stream). The English translation is, “…Despite rain, control and detention, one can see the fireworks from the #flotilla! Havana, full of light while lacking in human rights.”
I have not found any reference to actual imposition of overt government control or any arrests made on this day, but I am not certain whether Ms. Sanchez was referring to this day or in general.
Ramón Sául Sánchez tweeted, "Estoy muy emocionado, el objetivo se ha cumplido," which translates to, “I'm very moved; the objective has been achieved."

Want to Go to Cuba?

Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog

Two years ago when I first returned to my homeland of Cuba, the U.S. government had recently relaxed the rules on travel to visit family in Cuba.  Although I flew on an American Airlines plane, it was actually a charter. One had to arrange the trip through a travel agent that was certified by the U.S. government to ascertain that the traveler qualified, and the travel agent also obtained the Cuba visa, unless the traveler was born in Cuba, in which case the Cuba rules are stricter, and the traveler had to make the contact.  A U.S. citizen, whether U.S. born, or naturalized, simply signs and carries an affidavit stating that he or she is visiting family under the rules. One must be related by blood or marriage to a resident of Cuba within three generations of the same ancestor.

Because there are no official relations between the two countries, there are no embassies or consulates.  Each country has an “Interest Section” in the other country, which acts like an embassy or consulate in issuing visas, etc., but is not called that.   The Cuban Interest Section is in Washington, D.C., and is not easy to contact.

Last year, a number of other travel opportunities to Cuba for U.S. citizens arose.  Whereas previously one had to be officially engaged in a particular occupation, or position to obtain a travel permit, the licensed travel agents began offering, directly and through various groups, all kinds of cultural and educational trips, for which anybody could qualify if they wanted to go. The U.S. Department of State expressed some concern about the number of tours, and questioned their validity.  But now there are more than ever.

As I mentioned last week, there is a trip coming up for the International Book Fair.  It has unofficial time at the fair on two afternoons in Havana and one afternoon in another city. For a week-long trip, the tour takes in all the tourist areas, and very little involving books. It actually does visit a unique publisher of books in a different city, which I would love to see.

There are now tours for U.S. citizens to see art, architecture, music, books, etc. etc. And there are still the “People to People” trips, church trips, mission strips, etc., etc.  Whereas two years ago I found one travel agent in Tampa, which actually arranged my flight through a travel agent in Miami, there are at least five official travel agents that I have found on the Internet offering family travel, and / or these other tours.  Whereas two years ago the only flight I found directly from the U.S. was the Miami to Havana flight that went and returned every morning, now Delta Airlines and other airlines offer flights.  One can now travel from Tampa, Atlanta, New York, and at least three other U.S. cities.  There are a number of times of day available. Some go to and from other cities in Cuba. 

The company I used last time was ABC Charters in Miami.  There is also Marazul, which has a number of flights.  Authentic Cuba Tours offers packages for a variety of cultural purposes.  So does Insight Cuba.  And if you want to see more just Google it.

Two years ago, everybody was saying, “Wow, you went to Cuba.  What was it like?”  Now, I know more and more non-Cubans who have made the trip and know Cuba themselves.  Of course they know the tourist sites, and do not generally have the opportunity to talk to the people, visit homes, etc., like I do, but still, they get the flavor of this beautiful country and its people.



Report From Enrique Regarding His Life In Cuba

Enrique – Age – 70’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Santiago de Cuba; Lives with Wife and Extended Family; Occupation – Retired, Previously Worked in Various Government Jobs, in Bodeguitas, Museums, Restaurants
By mail

Buenos dias, Franklin:

You asked me to write to you regarding my views on life in Cuba. I enjoyed very much meeting you when you were in Cuba. Matilda and Yuris send their regards, and they enjoyed it as well.

As you know, we live in a modest dwelling in Santiago de Cuba. Santiago is in the south-easterly area of Cuba, a little west of Guantanamo. The city proper rises above a large, protected harbor on a hill inland from the mouth of an inlet.

It is a beautiful, picturesque city, and second largest and most populated in Cuba. It is the city where musicians who perform music known as “la trova”, which means a type of roving, folklorist musician, can be found in many places, including Casa de la Trova, playing beautiful and original music. It is also the historic base of the annual Carnival in Cuba.

You seemed to ask how we cope with an oppressive and communist government. Well, Franklin, we just don’t see it that way. We live a good life, better than the lives of many people around the world. We do not live in fear; we have little crime; our basic needs are covered. Maybe it’s that I am an old man, but nobody from the government or the party watches me, or bothers me in any way.
Santiago is a clean and orderly city. One can walk in the streets without seeing trash or garbage. We have restaurants, hotels, banks, stores, and everything else that a city in a thriving economy would have. We have a popular beach, Siboney, not far away, a mountain range, panoramic views, and industry. We have museums, musical venues, and international visitors. We have a newspaper and television, and know what is going on in the rest of the world. How is Cuba different from other countries? I have never traveled outside my beloved Cuba, but I believe in many ways we are more orderly, peaceful and autonomous.

My wife and I are both retired from years of working nice, normal jobs. We worked in restaurants, hotels and other jobs. I also worked in the Siboney Farmhouse museum and the Moncada museum. The businesses have generally been operated by the government, so they were government jobs. All workers in Cuba receive a monthly income in Pesos Cubanos, and we use that income to buy our basic supplies, including condiments, food, cleaning products and similar items. The ration system is not a negative. It is how the government controls the purchase of these items and assures that there is enough of such items for all of us.

Our daughter works in a business that sells telephone cards, has telephone booths, and has computers and Internet access for the public. I have never understood or had any interest in computers, e-mail or the Internet, and I am not even sure what it means, but, after all, I am over seventy years old, so I imagine I am not that different from others in the world.

Our home is below the balcony of Velazquez, which is a flat balcony / tourist site, from which one can get a nice view of the harbor. We are a few blocks from the harbor. This is the same home where my wife’s parents lived. We shared the home with them while they were alive. It is a three-bedroom home. I have no complaints. It is home.

So that is how I feel about Cuba, Santiago, and our government. We love it all, and are very content.
We hope you are able to return to see us some day. We look forward to it, and hope you can bring your family as well.


Balcony Velazquez


Report from Yoana regarding Oswardo’s Return to Cuba

Yoana – Age – Late 20’s; Birthplace – Santa Clara, Cuba; Residence Havana,
Cuba (will not be permitted to leave the country with Oswardo, her husband);
Occupation – Physician; Wife of Oswardo

Hola, Franklin:

I haven’t written since Oswardo returned to Cuba. As you know, I was worried
about him. The initial excitement and hope that he experienced when he left,
quickly soured, and turned into despair and depression. So he returned to Cuba.

Now, all hope of a future is gone. All we can wait for is a change in our
government. As you know, the government has been making a number of
changes recently. But we Cubans are always hesitant to embrace changes
because we never know when they will be reversed.

The changes seem like moves towards capitalism, but our government
consistently states that they are necessary changes to stabilize and improve the
socialistic mode. It’s hard to follow and hard to put our system into a system
model.

But anyway, who really cares what you call it. For us, our life has returned to the
hum-drum. I imagine even in free societies life can also be hum-drum. Work,
spend time with family, eat, sleep. We aren’t the only country where one has to
wait in interminable lines to do anything, where food and “necessities” (I guess
they aren’t really necessities since so often we have to do without) are hard to
find, where we always have to worry about who is watching and considering
whatever we do or say …..

So, here we are. Living the Cuba life. Enjoying having Oswardo home, and not
spending time hoping for a change in the future. We can’t dwell on hope for
change. It’s a waste of time.

Waiting for a bus in Havana


Franklin Marquez on Yoani Sanchez’ Blog Regarding New Businesses in Cuba

We have reported previously about the changes in law that now permit more new businesses in Cuba. Cuba dismissed a great number of workers and said they could create businesses. We heard of small, independent businesses. But apparently new businesses really are coming to life. Now, there are bars and nightclubs operated by Cuban citizens. Previously, there were only paladares and casas particulares, which were homes that served meals and homes that rented rooms on an overnight basis.
I would have thought that these establishments would be enjoyed only by foreigners, because of the lack of money for most Cubans. But apparently, some Cubans have extra money to attend such places once in a while.

The Generation Y blog contains an article called “WILL THEY SURVIVE”, with a photograph of a new bar called La Rosa Negra. 

The gist of the article is that the government has historically cracked down on such businesses, saying they have gone too far. Recently we heard of paladares that had more tables than permitted, were serving extravagant meals to foreigners, and even serving beef, which is illegal. In fact, I have friends who were in Havana with a group recently and ate at one of these paladares. I replied that I had not seen or eaten anything like they described two years ago when I was there.

Following are quotes from Yoani Sanchez’ article:

“Between the ugly concrete buildings and the mansions with gardens, timid spaces for entertainment are emerging. A neighborhood that for decades was condemned to nocturnal boredom, a slice of the bedroom city, now sees glowing signs and bars offering drinks springing up here and there. Comfortable cafes, bars, gyms, and hairdressers flourish with the rebirth of self-employment. Among today’s entrepreneurs, few were a part of the wave of tiny private businesses that appeared in the mid-nineties. So they have no memory of the trauma of being shut down, of governmental will strangling them with high taxes, absurd restrictions, and excessive inspections.

Along with the timbiriches — the tiny businesses with few resources — places are also opening that compete in beauty and efficiency with the best hotel on the Island. Works of art on the walls, carved wood furniture, lamps made to order by local artisans, are some of the details this new class of impresarios use to decorate their premises. Word spreads quickly: “They’re opening a Mexican restaurant on that corner”… “A Swedish chef has come to give classes to cooks planning to open sites in Central Havana”… “On that balcony they serve the most exquisite paella in the country.” It would seem that such an influx of creativity is unstoppable and that they will not be able — as they did in the past — to cut off a sector whose quality exceeds the State establishments.

The neighborhood has become a destination for people after they leave 23rd Street or the Malecon in search of recreation. But a certain uneasiness still keeps us from enjoying the impeccable tablecloths and the waiters in ties; some questions wash over us with every spoonful we taste: Will they survive? Will they let them exist, or will they return to eliminate them?”

International Book Fair

I am studying the International Book Fair that occurs in Cuba each year. I'm trying to figure out if I can attend part of it. It starts in Havana and travels around the country, ultimately ending in Santiago de Cuba.

I found notices published by various countries, including Barbados, advertising and asking authors to become involved
Following is a Wikipedia link:

The following is published by the Embassy of Cuba in Cyprus: click to enlarge














Here is a link to a group with which one can travel to enjoy the Book Fair, and see some great sites. I'm somewhat concerned that the books that are promoted will all be pushing communism and socialism, but supposedly it is international, and not that way at all.

The link is by is posted by a particular travel provider, but it comes up on searches as being very involved in the fair, and other cultural events. It has great information, and as of this writing still has places available. It explains the event and this year's focus, and also contains a historical description of the event. Also, if you read the sites it will go to, there are two days of visiting the event in Havana, and one day in Cienfuegos. Also, they visit the University of Havana, and a unique publishing house called Ediciones Vigia in Matanzas. Matanzas is about an hour from Havana. It also goes to a Literacy Museum in Havana.

I also was interested in learning about Hemingay's life in Cuba. When I was last there, I visited the room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is a museum now, and I saw, but did not eat at one of his favorite restaurants, La Floridita. Some friends recently went to Cuba on a cultural trip, and told me about going to Cojimar. I am interested in going there, so I started researching. I found a great Life Magazine photo exposition, in preparation for its publishing The Old Man and the Sea as a novella. Here is a link to the Life Magazine site.

Click on the photo and see the series.


a view from hemingways window in hotel ambos mundos

hotel Ambos Mundos - There's a room that is a museum because Hemingway lived and wrote there.


A restaurant in Havana that was one of Hemingway's favorites.
Hemingway's room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos

Clamp Down On Cuba Corruption

The Associated Press has published an article about a clamp-down on corruption in Cuba:

Amid economic reforms, Cuba goes after corruption
By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press

November 20, 2011

Rather than quote from it or provide comments from the editor of this blog, we are providing the link to the article.

Report From Oswardo – My Escape to Venezuela and Return To Cuba

November 20, 2011 – Via E-mail
Oswardo – Age – Late 20’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Occupation – Student, Computer Science; Husband of Yoana

I’m so sorry to say that I just couldn’t stay away from my family and Cuba, and I have returned. I hope you will forgive me. I know you gave me the money to deposit, with good intentions, hoping to improve my life and eventually the lives of my family. But it was just too much for me.

As you know, I have never known any life but life in Cuba after the “Revolution.” That means I went to school, was indoctrinated in Communism, served in the military forces, was working on a college degree and working at the university. I’ve lived all my life in the decrepit little apartment where my mother was living in 1960. The neighborhood has not been maintained at all since that time. The side wall has a huge hole. The front door is a gate with a padlock. The television is an ancient black and white model with rabbit ears, which shows only communist propaganda. The government supplies a salary in pesos Cubanos for my mother (half wage because she’s retired), for me (lower wage because I am a student) and my wife (a higher wage by about $5 a month because she’s a doctor). We have a young child in the house, so we are entitled to a little milk and beef, which we would not be allowed otherwise. Life is hard in Cuba. Everything involves dealing with interminable waiting, and long lines. But it is a simple life. There is no danger, little crime, and no lack of basic necessities, at least from our point of view. When something is not available, we know how to deal with it and we employ alternatives.

But I found that life in Venezuela was not easier. In fact it was harder. At first I was enamored with the material things. A year earlier, I had left Havana for the first time, with you, Franklin, to explore Santiago de Cuba. As you recall, I had to ask you how to use the electronic room key because I had never seen one, and had never been in a hotel room, since it was illegal to do so two years ago. The hotel had a color television with satellite, which showed VH1, an incredible station showing music videos, which I had never seen. You brought me an I-Pod, something I had never had, loaded with music. My favorite was the album Shaman by Santana. Even though it was not new music, it was new to me, and included a Latin rhythm and instruments with rock characteristics as well. Incredible. You probably also remember our breakfasts at the rooftop restaurant of the Casa Granda Hotel in Santiago, and how every morning I devoured bacon because I had never seen or tasted it before. I had never been to a restaurant other than those that take Pesos Cubanos until we walked Havana together and traveled to Santiago.

When I arrived in Venezuela, I was again enamored by all these things, and many more. But my life was different. I could not enter the university. I was expected to find and work a capitalist job. I know Venezuela is becoming more like Cuba every day, but in many ways it is not at all like Cuba. People own, buy and sell property. They have money to buy groceries, cars, etc. Although often there are food shortages, to me, the shelves had a hundred times what we usually can find in Cuba. My relatives wanted me to help wash a car, and then were not impressed with how I was doing it. I’ve never owned or washed a car before. There are no cars in the inner city where I live in Cuba. I’ve only been in a few cars, and they were taxis. I was in taxis more while you were in Cuba, Franklin, than I ever had before. We Cubans walk or take the GuaGua (bus).

Also, long lines exist in Venezuela. One pays the utility bills at the bank, after waiting in an interminable line. One cannot expect anything to arrive by mail. Hundreds of people are killed weekly in robberies in Caracas. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world. People who own jewelry cannot wear it. People with cars cannot park them anywhere. Walking on the street is unbelievably dangerous.

I was feeling pressure – to act like I’d been raised in a capitalist country, to work, to be different than I am. But most of all, I desperately missed my wife and child. You had given me the amount of money I needed for my wife’s exit visa as well as mine, and our child would have been able to exit with us. When I started the visa process, I thought my wife and child would come with me. I was only worried about leaving my mother behind. But then I learned that my wife would not be able to come, and of course, that meant my child would remain in Cuba too. I learned that it would take years to get them out. I know many other people, including family members, who have done that – the father left and seven or more years later extricated the others - but I couldn’t bear it.

So I have returned to Cuba. Here I am, in Havana, chagrined, embarrassed and sorry. I hope you understand that I just wasn’t prepared for the differences, and I just couldn’t bear to be without my family.

A Cuba restaurant like I am  accustomed to
A fancy store in Havana where one pays in Pesos Convertibles

How we shop for necessities in Havana



More of my neighborhood 
My Neighborhood in Cuba 
see my neighbor in the roofless apartment at the top

where i ate bacon and more bacon

Where we stayed in Santiago - The open window is ours - because we wanted to feel the open air and freedom - of course, I was inside watching VH1



Mariela Castro and Yoani Sanchez Clash on Twitter

On Tuesday, November 8, 2011, Mariela Castro (@CastroEspinM) opened a Twitter account for the first time and began tweeting. She is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the niece of Fidel Castro. She lives in Havana, Cuba, as does Cuban dissident blogger, Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisánchez). Her father, her uncle, Fidel Castro, Venezuela President, Hugo Chavez, and other government leaders have used Twitter for a while.

As soon as Ms. Castro posted her first tweet, she became engaged in a war of Tweets with Sánchez.
Mariela Castro is an activist for gay rights. Earlier this year, Sánchez began a discourse with Ms. Castro in which Sánchez challenged Castro to extend her tolerance of gay rights to promotion of all kinds of rights that are restricted in Cuba, such as the right to free speech, to elect political leaders and to travel abroad. Sánchez has been awarded various human rights commendations, and has been invited to speak many times in other countries, but is never granted a visa to leave Cuba to participate in any of these events. Ms. Sánchez has not asked to leave Cuba permanently. She returned voluntarily to Cuba after emigrating to Switzerland, and says she will not leave again until Cuba is free. But she is continuously forbidden to travel. She frequently explains her exchanges with government officials on her blog

One panel discussion to which Yoani was invited, but had to attend via Skype because of her inability to travel was How to Ignite, or Quash, a Revolution in 140 Characters or Less, which was presented in July, 2011 by New America Foundation in Washington, DC. The seminar involved social media, including Twitter and its effects in revolutionary activity in various countries.
Ms. Castro did not accept Ms. Sánchez’ requests for a dialogue on all human rights in Cuba.
In the recent barrage of tweets, Sánchez asked, “… When will Cubans be able to break free of [all] restraints?” and “Welcome to Twitter pluralism @CastroEspinalM. Here, no one can silence me, deny me permission to travel nor impede my entry.”

Castro responded: “Your focus on tolerance resurrects old power structures. To improve the value of your ‘services,’ you need to educate yourself.”

Sánchez tweeted: “Another little question for @CastroEspinM. How can you ask for selective acceptance for one issue. Acceptance is total, or not?”

Castro did not accept the challenge, although many other Twitter followers jumped in. Castro said, “Friends who follow me, thanks for your messages. I appreciate also the mediocre-minded and bored for sharing my tweets with others.”

In her blog, Sánchez later said, “The personal attack with which [Mariel Castro] responded stunned me. I did not expect a hand extended in dialog, certainly, but neither did I expect arrogance. It’s true that I need to study, as she suggested, and I will do so and continue to do so until my eyes can no longer distinguish the lines in my books and my rheumatic fingers can no find the keys on the keyboard. However, I have learned that to evade a question by attacking the other’s lack of education borders on arrogance. …

I believe, however, that … verbal attack is a habit that can be cured. The voice can be trained, tolerance acquired, the ear opened to listening to others. Twitter is a magnificent therapy to achieve this. I suppose that as the days pass and as Mariela Castro continues to publish, she will come to better understand the norms of democratic dialog, without hierarchies, where no one tries to give lessons to anyone. When this time comes, I hope we can converse, have a coffee, ‘study’ together — why not? — the long and difficult road that lies ahead for us.”

Various news organizations have reported on the war of tweets:




The new real estate sales law in Cuba

The government of Cuba announced this week that real estate transactions are now legal, with conditions.  This is not the first time this topic has been raised in recent months.  But the changes are official as of November 10.
In the 60’s, the government confiscated properties, including farmland and properties of those who left the country, and imposed severe restrictions on sale at the same time.  Until now, people were allowed to trade properties through a complicated procedure called Permuta.  But now sales of real property for money have not been allowed.

Of course, there are restrictions. Just as proprietors of Paladares  (private homes licensed to serve food) must make deposits at the national bank, so the government can monitor and tax such businesses, the same applies to real estate transactions.  The bank will charge a service fee, and collect an 8% tax.  Also, a person is allowed to own only two properties at one time, one in the city and one in the country.  Another restriction is that one must be a resident of Cuba to qualify. Ex-patriots are not eligible.

The change in real estate law follows changes allowing Cubans to operate certain businesses, and to buy and sell cars.

Discussions were posted on this blog quite a few months ago when the new law was first announced. Now, the same two sources, Time Magazine, and Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez’s blog, have posted stories.

Generation Y again posted potential issues arising from the new law.  She says that on the long walkway through Havana, between Centro Havana and Havana Vieja, known as El Paseo del Prado, “has been unsettled for the last couple of days, and not just because of the hustlers hustling and the hookers trolling for tourists. … In the spontaneous housing exchange that exists on this pedestrian promenade bordered by bronze lions, the curious ask about the details of a measure undoubtedly more flexible, but still insufficient. They want to know if the property title that they have in their hands grants them, starting now, full rights to assign, inherit or sell their houses. In a nation that has lived for decades with a frozen real estate market, they find it hard to believe that everything will be as easy as some speculate, or as legal as the Ministry of Justice assures us.”

“One of the principal fears on the street now is concern about how the Central Bank will rule on the legitimacy of money used to buy real estate. Because for every transaction of this type the cash must first be deposited in an account and the distrustful clients of our banking system fear that it could end up being confiscated if the State decides it didn’t come from “clean” sources. But to every risk people will respond with some kind of trick, so I imagine that from now on the funds declared and placed in the bank will be a half or a third of the real cost of the house. The rest will pass from one hand to another, from one pocket to another. For too long we have behaved like outlaws in this area, so one shouldn’t expect that starting now everything will be done according to the 16 pages of the new decree.”

The Blog also says the law allows one to sell before permanently leaving the island, which was not permitted previously.  The blog says, “Thousands of Cubans have been waiting for this signal, like runners crouched at the starting line waiting for the gun to go off.”  It also says the law will allow transactions only in certain areas.

The link to the Time Magazine full article:  Cuba to Allow Sale of Real Estate

The link to the full Generation Y blog:  The Starting Line





Report from George – Aboard the Shirley Lykes – Exchanging Cargo for Precious Human Refugees in Havana

George – Age 70’s. Birthplace – Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.; Residence –– Daytona Beach, FL; Occupation – Merchant Seaman for the Lykes Company, now retired.






Report from George – Aboard the Shirley Lykes – Exchanging Cargo for Precious Human Refugees in Havana

George – Age 70’s. Birthplace – Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.; Residence –– Daytona Beach, FL; Occupation – Merchant Seaman for the Lykes Company, now retired.

Franklin,

Recently, I wrote you about my recollections of the trip to Havana on the Shirley Lykes ship, and our bringing 1,000 Cuban refugees back to Port Everglades. I posted a few photos from my video.

I am delivering a number of photos, of more people entering the ship, on the ship, and then exiting the ship. If readers recognize themselves or anybody, let us know at armstrongmediagroup@gmail.com.

Concerns for Oswardo


Yoana – Age – Late 20’s; Birthplace – Santa Clara, Cuba; Residence Havana, Cuba (was not permitted to leave the country with Oswardo, her husband); Occupation – Physician; Wife of Oswardo

Dear Franklin:

I’m worried about Oswardo. When he first arrived in Venezuela, he was excited about the newness of it all.  Naturally, he’s never known anything besides Cuba under the current government. So everything is so new to him.  And I know he misses us, but he seems to get more morose everyday.

I fear that he’s feeling some pressure to get a job and follow the working life that he’s never known. I’m not sure what he expected. He always talked negatively about there being no future in Cuba.  Here, there is never anything on the shelves in the stores. One gets a job, and performs it for life, making a basic sum for a meager subsistence. It takes all day to do anything --- to buy food, to find a piece to repair a broken appliance, to find a telephone card, to access the Internet.

It must be amazing to enter a supermarket, a clothing store, or any other retail establishment.  I’ve seen things like that in movies, on the Internet, and rarely on television. It’s funny that in Cuba we can get bootleg movie disks on the street long before they are available outside of movie theaters in the U.S.  We only have a black and white television with rabbit ears, spewing out propaganda of Fidel walking among the people in the countryside. But Oswardo has a computer that his family sent him last year, and we watch movies on it.

But I can picture Oswardo walking through the aisles of a store, wide-eyed.  The only problem is it takes money to buy things, and he does not yet have a means of making money. I’m just worried that it’s more than he expected --- more different than he expected. And I’m not sure he’s coping that well.

I’m sorry to write a sad, concerned note about what everybody thought of as positive – the first step in freeing us from Cuba.  And I’m not saying more, Franklin, since this is for your blog.  But I’m just concerned.

Besos, Yoana

Exchanging Cargo for Precious Human Refugees in Havana


Report from George   Aboard the Shirley Lykes – 

George – Age 70’s. Birthplace – Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.; Residence –– Daytona Beach, FL; Occupation – Merchant Seaman for the Lykes Company, now retired.

Franklin, you asked me to write about the trip to Havana and back on the Shirley Lykes in January of 1963.  I was a merchant seaman in the U.S. for many years.  I began working for the Lykes Company in the late fifties. The ship transported its products, as well as others around the U.S. and the world. We regularly traveled to and from Louisiana, the northeast, including Canada, Panama and the far east  All the ships were named after Lykes family members.  I was assigned to the Shirley Lykes in 1962.  In January, 1963, we began an interesting trip, which we were told little about beforehand. 

I took video of the entire trip, and all the people, and I still find it very moving.

We docked at Port Everglades, and took on a great number of crates and flats of supplies. Our orders were to deliver them to Havana, Cuba.  We also learned that we were bringing back passengers.  We had a medical flag flying, but otherwise, we were the Shirley Lykes, a cargo ship.

As always, the men enjoyed watching and videoing the shore as we arrived near Havana.  I knew nothing about it at the time, but I learned that the Capitolio, which is their congressional building, and looks uncannily like the U.S. Capitol, stood prominently a mile or so inland, but its dome towered above everything in front of it.  We saw other landmarks, like the Hotel Deauville, Hotel Nacional, and other tall hotel/casinos that were off the waterfront.

As we entered the inlet and harbor, we passed the majestic Morro castle, a fort guarding the harbor on the port side, and the other forts and buildings of Old Havana on the starboard.  As we arrived at our dock, a large number of military personnel and government officials stood waiting. Our cargo was unloaded and moved into buildings by forklift.  This took many hours.

We went out into town two days in a row, and I took videos of everything. 

Once the cargo was off and put away, cots and portable toilets were set up in the open cargo hold, shielded from the elements by walls, but with no cover over the middle area.  The toilets were the kind one would put over a real toilet, but in this case, we, the mates on the ship, and medical personnel, attached plastic bags to the bases of the toilets, and placed them in the open area among the neatly aligned cots.

Then people began arriving.  We learned later that they were mostly family of political prisoners, who would be arriving later directly from prison.  Most of the men, and even the boys, wore suits and ties. The women were dressed in beautiful dresses. They carried one or two large suitcases.  Guards stopped and searched them before they got on board, confiscating jewelry and items of value, and usually keeping the suitcases themselves. Prior to their arrival, as part of obtaining a visa to exit, the people were also required to sign over their homes, cars and everything they had. Then a caravan of police cars and prison buses arrived, bringing the prisoners. Some of the people on board, both prisoners an non-prisoners were aged, ill, or injured, and there was medical personnel to assist them.  Some boarded on stretchers. 

The people were happy during the crossing. They applauded leaving and arriving. They allowed me and others to take photographs and videos.  Children played with toys on the cots during the crossing.

Arriving in Port Everglades, family members and officials lined a waiting area.  I managed to get off the ship before embarkation, and videoed everybody arriving on free soil.  Many of the women removed their high heels before climbing down the stairs, so they first touched U.S. soil barefoot.  It took a long time for all to disembark. But it was a joyous occasion, especially for those who had family waiting for them, whom they obviously were not sure they would ever see again. Again nurses and medical personnel had to help the infirm.

I have created some shorter videos of Cuban people arriving at the ship in Havana and disembarking in Port Everglades, Florida. I have pulled out some still shots of the people, and attach a few of them.  Anybody who recognizes themselves or their families, write to the publisher of this blog ----armstrongmediagroup@gmail.com. We will be happy to share more., and would love to hear stories from those who were there.

Editor's Note:

On January 24, 1963, the Associated Press issued the following story regarding the Shirley Lykes trip:

"Hundreds of Cubans Due for Trip to Miami:

Havana (AP) Hundreds of Cubans leaving for the United States aboard the American freighter Shirely Lykes hurried to comply today with the Castro regime's departure requirements.

Under recent regulations they were required to forfeit their homes and automobiles to the state and to pay all utility bills before leaving. they were allowed to take no jewelry and were permitted only three changes of closing.

No sailing time was announced for the Shirley Lykes, originally expected to leave Wednesday night with 900 to 1,000 relatives of the recently released Bay of Pigs invaders aboard.  The Red Cross in Miami said it hoped to announce a sailing date today.

The 400 foot freighter is expected to take the Cubans to Port Everglades, Florida.

The ship reached Havana Friday with more than 7,000 tons of food and medicines as an installment on the ransom for the 1,113 Cuban invasion prisoners freed last month.

The American Red Cross, which sponsored the voyage, flew in a medical team Wednesday equipped with cots and blankets to aid the refugees on the 12 to 14-hour return trip.

Red Cross officials said the delay in departure was due to necessary clearances and internal transportation problems. A Red Cross spokeswoman said many prospective passengers had to travel to Havana from distant points.

The Pan American Airways plane which flew in the cots and blankets returned to Miami Wednesday, as expected, with 100 passengers. ...."



All the photos are of people arriving at the ship, or on the ship preparing to depart.