The Black Hand of Havana

“What was I supposed to do, man? He offered me $7 an hour, when I knew I could make over $1,000 a night selling drugs, you know what I mean?” Alberto laughs, exposing his last three teeth.

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The biography of Alberto, “Mano Negra,” is both fascinating and sad. After spending a couple of hours in his company we were left speechless with sorrow. And confused, because how could we feel sorry for a murderer? No doubt, he had brought his bad fortune on himself.

Alberto was never good for anything. Growing up he was lazy, didn’t want to work and spent his time looking for trouble. In Fidel Castro’s Cuba, unemployment was a crime, and soon enough Alberto was thrown into prison for being a dangerous (i.e., idle) person, serving a 4-year sentence.

But then, out of the blue, his fortune changed. In 1980, when tens of thousands of Cubans were fleeing their country in boats chartered by Cuban-Americans, Fidel Castro saw his chance to embarrass its eternal antagonist. To rid his country of thousands of dangerous criminals and the mentally ill, Castro released them from prison and shipped them across the ocean to the United States.  A heartfelt gift that not only embarrassed the Jimmy Carter, the then-president of the United States, but robbed him of the his second term.

Alberto ended up in Arkansas with a lovely Catholic family who helped him organize welfare checks and food stamps. God had thrown Alberto a lifeline and given him a chance to start on a new path. But for the 28-year Alberto, fresh out from prison, freedom was blinding. Instead of building the foundation for a new life, all Alberto wanted to do was to party from morning to night. The handsome Cuban got drunk, conquered women and made new friends in the nightclubs and bars of the early 80’s Arkansas. He tried drugs – marijuana, cocaine and crack – and just like Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) in Scarface he learned how to make easy money to support his lifestyle by selling the illegal goods. So when his honest American friend offered him a good job with the decent salary, Alberto declined. With $70,000 in his pocket, he was already making good money.

And that’s where his luck ran out. In 1983, in a heated agreement with another crack-head, Alberto raised his gun and shot his friend. For some unknown reason, he wasn’t charged with homicide. But a few months later, in Tacoma, Washington, he shot and killed another man. This time the law wouldn’t look the other way and sentenced Alberto to ten years in Folsom state, a maximum security prison in California. But Alberto is a friendly guy and made new contacts. When he was released he just continued peddling the same merchandise. Only this time, the police had him under surveillance, and he was caught with 7 oz of cocaine and $8,000 in cash. The US authorities, who had finally realized what category of refugees Fidel Castro had sent them, made a list of all the Cuban delinquents who had managed to screw up their private American Dream and deported them straight back to their communist hell.

“We will give you $25,000 if you go,” the Americans promised. But all Alberto got was 100 Cuban pesos (about $4) and a set of clothes from the Cuban government. Then he was left to fade away on the streets of Havana, sleeping on park benches and scavenging for food and clothes out of the garbage cans.

“Did you ever go back to drug-dealing?” I asked.

Alberto shook his head. “No, the laws are too strict here, it’s not worth it. But you know what? Everyone says I should just forget about those guys that I killed, that it was so long ago. But I can’t. I’ve killed two human beings. I know what I’ve done and I’m paying for it every single day of my life.”

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The Never-Ending Revolution

“Welcome to hell!” The Cuban man laughs and extinguishes his cigarette on the stoop where he sits, adding to the ever growing piles of garbage on the streets of Havana.

When we ask a thirteen-year old kid, “Are you happy?”, the answer is a nod and a shake of his head. Yes and no. Yes, because he is a child, can play, and has his whole life ahead of him. No, because he is always in want of more. More (and better) food. Clothes without rips and shoes without holes. A roof over his head that doesn’t threaten to fall down on him while he is asleep.

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Fifty-six years after the Cuban revolution, where Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, joined by hundreds of rebels, claimed the power, the failure of its ideology is a fact. While most Cubans will agree that the revolution was necessary to get rid of the corrupt president Batista who ruled the country with aid of the American Mafia, they’ve also had enough. Life is tough. There is a lack of everything but rum, pork and white bread. One has to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap. And that is only on those days when they are available. Most of the time they’re not. Similar to the once living standards of the former Soviet Union, life here sucks.

Still, the battle-cry of “Viva La Revolucion” is painted on the walls of kindergartens, schools, bus stations and factories. Che Guevara’s face adorns buildings, mopeds and t-shirts. And the TV-anchors mention the revolution at least once in every clip, whether they speak about sports, politics or music. The Cuban brains are washed, tumble dried and ironed from morning to night, day in day out, year after year.

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It’s a land not devastated by war, but by the senseless governing of a selfish leader, who has let fertile fields overgrow and left his people starving. Where you have to stand in line for everything, every day. And the taxes you pay don’t depend on your income, but on your trade; you’ll pay the same amount whether you make any money or none. And although anyone can buy a new car for the reasonable price of USD $250,000, with the average monthly salary at $25/month, it would take a mere 833 years to pay it off. That is, if you forsake eating and other “hobbies.”

With increasing tourism, this will undoubtedly change. You can already see the cracks in the establishment, brought on by the loosening ties on free enterprise. Since Raul Castro took over the reins in 2006, the country has made small but firm steps away from communism toward capitalism. Despite ridiculous taxes, any cook can now open his own restaurant. Home owners are allowed to rent out rooms to foreigners. Bicycle-rickshaws can give rides to tourists. And people are catching on to the fact that providing good service will make them more money. The locals may never be as rich as the foreigners with their fancy sun-glasses and smart phones, but at least they may be able to afford good quality shampoo or an hour on the internet (after standing in line for a few hours to access the state-owned service). And as the world witnessed during the imploding of the Soviet Union, when you give people a finger of freedom, they will grab the entire hand and will never let go.

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So does money equal happiness? Of course not. But as a European or American it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to fulfill our basic needs. How fortunate we are to have access to the internet, free speech and news from the rest of the world. How great it is that we can travel when we want, where we want. And vote in democratic elections.

A fisherman in the French-flavored town of Cienfuegos confides: “All the tourists think Cuba is paradise, but it really isn’t.”

No, Cuba isn’t paradise. Although “hell” might be a slight exaggeration.

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This is Cuba

The lazy rays of the morning sun caress the dilapidated buildings of Havana, as if offering them a last sigh of hope before they crumble to dust. In the hallways, the scent of guanabana and pineapple lingers, and in the distance, the click-clacking of horse hooves on cobble stones remind you that you’re not in New York City any more. This is Cuba.

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Strolling down narrow sidewalks, you pass women in snug lycra dresses queuing up to buy eggs and pig trotters. A man sticks out his head from a hole-in-the wall shop, beckoning you to buy one of his pork sandwiches for 25 cents. You decline with a smile; God knows what part of the animal was used for that funny-looking meat.

High above, long clothes lines adorned with jeans, shirts and underwear flutter in the wind, keeping company with the grandmothers who spend their entire lives on the balconies, gossiping with their neighbors about the life below. They watch you take a photo and ask if you could spare some money, perhaps even a soap? As you turn away, you bump into an electric blue 1953 Buick in immaculate shape, and wonder why five slaughtered pigs have been heaped into the back seat.

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“Senor, taxi?” You shake your head at the young bicycle rickshaw driver. “No, not now, thanks. I’m just walking.” And you wonder if it was wise to tie such a heavy boom box to his bike, adding a few extra pounds to the cargo, then you realize that music will make the day go by so much faster. Through an open door, you glimpse a family crouched up in front of the TV, while their maid is scrubbing the floor. Next-doors, the bar is packed with men, women and children at 11 o’clock in the morning. Ten cents will buy you a shot of cheap rum, but a can of soda costs six times more. You wonder if the government trying to keep their people drunk so they will forget they are hungry.

Shouts of “panadeeero” and “leeeechuga” wake you from your contemplations; peddlers of newly baked bread and lettuce pass by with their wooden carts laden with merchandise. You’re starting to get hungry. What is there to eat today? You opt for a sandwich with cheese that most likely did not come from a cow or goat or any of those usual suspects. It just tastes funny.

The salsa music that flows from the tourist bar is inviting. You give up your pledge to live like a local and settle down at a table among other non-Cubans to enjoy your cup of strong coffee.

It tastes just wonderful.

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