Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fidel Castro...Miami New Times cover boy

Exactly sixteen years ago - in September of 1993 - then Miami New Times editor Jim Mullin called me with an assignment.

Jim doesn't chit-chat a lot and this call wasn't any different; but I did sense that he was a little more wound-up than usual.

And as it would turn out - a little more paranoid than usual. Jim is like that; always looking over his shoulder fearing that the Miami Herald is about to steal his next big story.

But on this day a new issue of the paper was getting ready to hit the streets.

And Jim had a feeling that some of the less tolerant folks in Miami's Cuban community might not like the cover story and the way it depicted then Miami city commissioner Miriam Alonso.

Jim thought that some might actually try to sabotage New Times racks or (gasp!) try to steal all of the papers.

My assignment was simple.

Drive over to the gleaming New Times Tower on Biscayne Boulevard, pick up a video camera and then go stake out a New Times rack somewhere in Little Havana.

Jim's fears were never realized. At the rack I watched, no one took more than one copy. As a matter of fact no one took any copies!

Jim's not the editor of New Times any longer.

Former Miami Herald reporter Chuck Strouse took his place at the helm a few years ago.

But Chuck may face the same problem this week that Mullin did 16 years ago.

A new issue of New Times has hit the streets.

Staff writer Tim Elfrink along with Vanessa Grisalez has crafted an interesting piece on the migration of Cuba's black market economy into cyber-space

But it's not the story that may upset some in Miami.

It's the cover.

So Chuck, you may want to have someone keep an eye on the rack at Calle Ocho and 36th Avenue.

You know the one that's right there in front of the Versailles.

And especially keep an eye on the viejitos in front.

They might not like that stunning portrait of The Bearded One being displayed for an entire week in front of their sacred hang out.

After all, you know only too well that newspapers the Peña del Versailles don't agree with have a way of disappearing.

And that would be too bad.

Because if they take the time and look past the cover, they'll read a fascinating story of the tenacity, resilience and perseverance that's practiced every day by Cubans still on the island.

Elfrink tells the story of a couple of Cubans who are actually making a difference and attempting in a small way to loosen the Castro brother's stranglehold on Cuba and its people.

The piece revolves around Jose Rodriguez and Juan Sanchez (pseudonyms), who founded and now operate Cuba's version of eBay,
During the long, sweltering summer of 1997, a friend introduced the two 16-year-olds to a middleman with an original Pentium computer. They were fascinated. Personal computers were forbidden. Jose and Juan bought it for a few dollars.

"We were like many others in Cuba," Jose says. "The computer interested us because it was foreign and modern."

The two disassembled the hard drive and put it back together. A few weeks later, they bought a keyboard. Days after that, they purchased a grainy black-and-green pixel monitor. "We started with this outdated trash, and we taught ourselves how it all worked," Jose says.
Around 2003, Jose joined an email list that circulated among his hacker pals and back-alley electronics sellers around the capital. A few days later, he bought a hard drive someone advertised in one of the emails.
Jose and Juan decided to organize the email lists by product. One list was for computers, another for cars. But there was just too much. The lists, Jose decided, had become a revolico — a big mess.

So in December 2007, the two friends — both done with college and working as programmers — built a website for all the ads. Jose modeled it on Craigslist, a site he'd studied at the university.
Another reason the old men in front of the Versailles might not like this issue of New Times is because it tells a story of Cubans who are actually trying to bring change in a tangible way to Cuba.

But that's lost on the old men who linger daily in front of the Versailles, talking about change in Cuba. And they do nothing but talk.

They think that change will only come to Cuba if they smash a few more CDs or, perhaps, steal some newspapers.

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