Bar Silvia is Empty

Yandro Enrique González Méndez was the manager of Bar Silvia, with which he had revitalized a corner of Centro Habana. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 23 May 2018 — Bar Silvia is deserted. The closed doors inform customers who approach of the bad news, which quickly spread through the neighborhood. “The bar manager died in that plane,” neighbors tell each other, as if no other details are needed to explain what happened.

Yandro Enrique González Méndez, who died on Friday in the Cubana de Aviación crash, was the manager of this bar on a corner in Central Havana, which had become a major destination.

The bar, which for a long time had been known as “dead,” was reborn by the efforts of Gonzalez as a non-farm cooperative, a type of business arrangement for the self-employed promoted by Raul Castro’s government beginning in 2012. continue reading

In just under six years, more than 420 Non-farm Cooperatives (CNA) have been authorized in the country, with more than 12,000 members, the vast majority of them dedicated to food service, commerce, other services, construction and industry. Although the cooperatives are going through uncertain times because of the fear of an announcement of measures that would restrict their autonomy, that of the González brothers had the wind in its sails.

With its 15 seats around the bar in the shape of a knife on the fashionable corner of Vapor and Principe, the establishment attracted a parade of announcers and actors from nearby Radio Progreso, regulars from the surrounding neighborhood, and even ecstatic foreigners who came looking for the real authentic touch that Silvia’s still retains.

Bar Silvia “before” and “after”.

The corner was renewed. The facades etched by humidity received new paint and the wooden bar, polished by the elbows of its customers and their glasses, was restored. In a videoclip of the song Más Macarena*, recorded by Gente de Zona and Los Del Río, the transformation that was beginning was already visible. Above the bar is a tourist accommodation with large windows that rents through Airbnb.

Gonzalez and the employees managed to maintain the atmosphere of yesteryear, but added new features, such as a large television screen where people came to watch baseball and soccer games. “People who would never have stepped on this decadent site began to frequent it,” confirms Natacha, a young medical student who lives a few yards away.

Bar Silvia’s new managers exploited a part of the local folklore that revolves around their bar, a real tourist magnet. The recommendation of the house remained a double rum in cheap glasses.

The venue has also been the setting for numerous films (including Clandestinos, directed by Fernando Pérez), video clips and photo shoots for national and international fashion houses that have chosen that iconic corner as a backdrop.

Located between an agricultural market and a bodega, Bar Silvia is in the middle of the incessant coming and going of people who are sometimes looking to take a break and relax.

The Gonzalez family has spent these last days wrapped in mourning for the loss of the young man of 33, born in Manzanillo in the distant Granma province.

Since he settled in Havana with his parents when he was a child, life seemed to smile on Gonzalez. “Everything he achieved was thanks to his hard work and a natural ability to do business,” recalls Yosvani, a colleague with whom he attended high school.

The bar’s neighbors and the customers can hardly assimilate the news. “The whole neighborhood is very sad because that young man had rescued a place that until recently was very deteriorated.”

“Yandro fought hard to stay alive,” says a neighbor who looks out over one side of the bar from her balcony. “The family told us that he survived the plane crash and was one of the four people who were taken to the hospital, but he died on the way.”

*Translator’s note: Bar Silvia is the small building behind the pink car, at 1:28 in the video here.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Raul Castro’s Inconclusive Reforms / Ivan Garcia

Cartoon balloons: Díaz-Canel (left) asks Raúl Castro, “Can I promise them a glass of milk?” Castro responds, “Don’t even think about it.”

Iván García, 10 May 2018 — It seems a lot of time has passed since the night of July 31, 2006 when Fidel Castro’s former secretary, Carlos Valenciaga, announced on the eight o’clock news that the bearded former guerrilla leader was retiring due to illness.

Most Cubans remember what they were doing at that moment. Fifty-six-year-old Pedro Antonio, a worker at a steel plant on the outskirts of Havana was having dinner with his family when the news produced a solemn silence at the table. continue reading

“We thought ‘el Fifo’ was vanishing into thin air. Everyone was wondering how things would be under his brother Raúl, who had a reputation as a strongman. I remember that there was a hurricane that year and they sent the black berets* out into the streets. Anyone found carrying a carton of eggs without a good explanation was sent to prison. At my workplace people were stealing hand over fist. But once Raúl was in charge, he started taking measures to end the theft. Before that, if they caught you stealing, they just fired you. Now if they catch you, you’ll go to jail,” says Pedro Antonio.

He adds, “Raúl began a series of measures that won him popular approval, such as increasing self-employment, legalizing the sale of cars and homes, allowing Cubans to stay in hotels for foreign tourists, letting people have cell phones or to travel overseas without so much red tape. If you compare it to Fidel’s era, I think things are better.”

That was a decade ago. Sergio, a 69-year-old retiree, has only seen the internet in a movie broadcast on state television on Saturday nights. Seated under a leafy ceiba tree in Córdoba’s La Víbora Park, south of the capital, he can talk to his son, who lives in Miami, using the IMO video call app in one of the more than 300 wifi hotspots set up by the regime throughout the island.

Until July 4, 2013 the internet seemed like science fiction to a wide segment of the Cuban population. On that day a little more than 160 navigation centers were opened. Previously, wireless networks had been set up in hundreds of parks and public squares.

In the fall of 2017 the Nauta Hogar service became commercially available in certain areas for customers with landlines. ETECSA, Cuba’s only telecommunications company, plans to begin offering an internet service for data on mobile phones this year.

“Before 2013 I was spending between 6 and 10 CUC for an hour of internet service at Havana hotels in order to communicate with my son by email. It fell one CUC, from 4.50 CUC an hour, which is what it was costing in at the beginning of 2013. That was still expensive. It’s the equivalent of two days pay for an average worker. I have been able to visit my son and grandchildren in the United States four times. That’s the good part. The bad part is that, with the meager pensions they pay retirees — around ten dollars a month in my case — a lot of elderly people, some with serious illnesses and senile dementia, have to go out into the streets in search of four pesos in order to survive,” says Sergio.

Retirees have been the biggest losers from the Castro regime’s timid economic reforms. Their pensions are frozen in time. “My check goes to buying produce and rice, and paying for electricity,”  says 72-year-old Mercedes who, in spite of persistent arthritis, sells peanuts at bus stops.

The aging population is a big unsolved problem for the country’s leaders. Within seven years, 20.1% of the Cuban population will be over 60 years of age. There are not enough material or financial resources for social services to deal with what comes next.

Emilio, an economist, believes that the “accelerated aging of the population coupled with an alarming rise in emigration” — between 2013 and 2017 almost one and a half million Cubans emigrated, though that has been curbed by repeal of the so-called wet-foot-dry-foot law in the United States — “will lead to a significant labor shortage, in both skilled and unskilled occupations, by 2030 if not before. This is already being seen in manual labor jobs such those in construction and farming. The money needed for social services could be generated by abolishing the armed forces, as Costa Rica has done, considering that it consumes between eight and ten percent of GDP.”

Officially, Raúl Castro ruled the country for ten years, doing so initially on a provisional basis. During that time he approved a string of very popular measures that expanded self-employment and repealed absurd regulations that turned Cubans into third-class citizens in their own country. Later, however, he put the brakes on privately operated 3D movie theaters and clothing stores in favor of the government owned corporations run by the military.

In a speech in Camaguey, a province 350 miles east of Havana, he promised every Cuban a glass of milk. He also promised prosperity and sustainability, wholesale markets for the private sector, changes to the constitution, new laws governing press and film production, abolition of the two-currency system, a regulatory framework for small private companies and expansion of the cooperative business sector.

For a variety reasons, more political than economic, he failed to fulfill these promises. The biggest failure was his agricultural policy. He authorized the lease of public land to farmers, modified the regulations governing agricultural cooperatives, shut down operations that were inefficient and negotiated better payment terms for meat and dairy producers.

But it was not enough. Agricultural production remained tightly controlled and the sector showed no growth, not in the sugarcane nor in livestock.

A glass of milk, a glass of orange juice and a steak remain luxuries for most Cubans. Unless you are a child under the age of seven, if you want milk, you must it buy it in stores which only accept hard currency.

Only 21% of the major elements of Raúl Castro’s reforms, referred to as guidelines, were implemented. Excessive state control, fear of small family businesses accumulating large quantities of cash and opposing factions within the government led to a reversal of economic reforms.

In foreign affairs, Raúl Castro II succeeded in reestablishing economic relations with the United States after a year and a half of secret negotiations. And for the second time in Cuban history, a US president — Barack Obama — visited the island.

His historic speech in Havana’s Gran Teatro still resonates with a large segment of the Cuban population which is hoping for profound change. But Obama’s popularity and his strategy of favoring the private sector aroused discomfort in the regime, which abruptly halted the reforms.

The regime managed to have a large portion of its foreign debt forgiven and negotiated better financial terms with its Club of Paris creditors. Cuba’s military regime, along with the Catholic church, also played a key role in negotiating peace agreements in Colombia.

Raúl Castro never intended to initiate reforms of a political nature. Dissent will never be legitimized in a Castro-affiliated government like that of newly elected Miguel Díaz-Canel. Nor will political parties, a free press and independent civic organizations be allowed.

According to a Communist Party source, “different government agencies have conducted opinion polls, so the public’s frustrations and discontents are well-known. Almost all are related to the economy. That is where the new president will focus his efforts.”

In other words, we can expect economic reforms from the new regime. But democracy will have to wait.

*Translator’s note: Special police forces who are deployed during emergencies such as natural disasters or to apprehend dangerous criminal suspects.

Cuba’s Labor Justice Agency Nullifies Dismissal of Actress Lynn Cruz

Lynn Cruz (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 May 2018 — Cuba’s Labor Justice Agency has ruled in favor of Lynn Cruz with regards to the claim presented by the actress after the Performing Arts Artistic Agency (Actuar) put an end to her contract last April without complying with the mandatory 30-day notice period. The artist was informed of the decision on Friday, 11 days after the five members of the court agreed with her.

The document issued by the Labor Justice Agency specifies that there was a violation of Resolution 44 that regulates labor relations in organizations overseen by the Ministry of Culture.

For Lynn Cruz, this ruling makes clear that Jorge Luis Frías Armenteros, director of Actuar, violated article 297 of the penal code with the “unwarranted imposition of a disciplinary measure.” continue reading

The president of the Labor Justice Agency, Iván Rodríguez, told Cruz that after this ruling, “it did not make sense to go to the municipal court” because Actuar was going to continue to “represent her without problems.”

As of now, the actress could be hired again but after what happened she does not trust that she will be able to return to her work, because she believes that the agency can work behind her back to prevent her name from being chosen by a director who is interested in her work.

For Cruz, there is no way to repair the “psychological and moral damage” this measure has caused her, in addition to the “loss of work” she suffered in this case.

The actress also wonders if this step was taken to protect Frías, that is to avoid a criminal complaint. This Friday, when asking Ivan Rodriguez if the director of Actuar would be sanctioned for his error, the president of the Labor Justice entity replied that the agency “could not sanction its own director.”

“Evidently they are protecting Frías, the procedure he used in my case was clumsy since the contract was violated, but there is an intention to protect him after that blunder he committed,” Cruz believes. Cruz is of the opinion what was decisive in her case — unlike the cases of Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, Oscar Casanella or Yanelis Nuñez — was that she recorded the public hearing and “made the recording public,” a hearing in which the director acknowledged his error in not notifying her 30 days in advance before canceling the contract.

At the public hearing Frías said that Actuar’s decision to terminate her contract had been taken due to the actress’s “demonstrations on the internet” against “the main leaders” of the Party and the government and acknowledged that they had made a mistake” in the procedure.”

Lynn Cruz (born 1977) has developed her career between theater and cinema, although she has also participated in some television shows. She has worked on several Cuban films including Larga Distancia and La Pared.

Cruz has a special performance in the documentary Nadie, directed by Miguel Coyula, which includes testimonies of the poet Rafael Alcides, an intellectual censored on the island. This film was presented at the independent El Círculo gallery with the presence of Alcides himself, without major incidents. However, another presentation was repressed by State Security, which blocked public access.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Activist Iliana Hernandez Detained for 24 Hours for Celebrating Anniversary of Cuban Republic on Facebook

The activist Iliana Hernández during an event in Miami. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 May 2018 — The activist Iliana Hernández, director of the independent television program Lente Cubano (Cuban Lens), was released Monday after being arrested at noon on May 20 outside her home in Cojímar, east of Havana, the dissident told 14ymedio.

“I wrote a message on Facebook calling to celebrate the date on which the Republic of Cuba was founded,” explains Hernández, and State Security “thought I was going to organize something for that day.”

“Early in the the morning the whole house woke up surrounded by patrol cars and State Security officers,” Mariseli Cardoso, Hernández’s mother, told this newspaper. “At noon she left to go to her hairdresser’s house and right there they stopped her with quite a lot of violence.” continue reading

During the arrest, the police tried to take Hernández’s mobile phone but her mother managed to grab it and put it inside the house. “They took one from her once and never returned it,” explains Cardoso.

The activist confirms that she has photos of the police deployment around her home that she will publish shortly on social networks.

This is the second time this month that Hernandez has been arrested. Previously the police stopped her when she tried to enter the El Círculo gallery, where she had an exhibition as a part of the independent #00Bienal.

In March, Iliana Hernández was declared a “person of priority police interest” after an interrogation at the Cojímar station, east of Havana. The police issued a warning document and, in addition, she was prevented from traveling to Miami a few days later, as she had planned.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Pro Free Press Association Condemns Arrest of Two Independent Journalists in Cuba

Cuban journalists Rudy Cabrera and Augusto César San Martín (Cubanet)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 May 2018 — The Pro Free Press Association (APLP) condemned, on Sunday, the arrest of two independent journalists when they tried to cover the crash of the Boeing 737 leased by the Cuban airline Cubana de Aviacion, which killed 110 people.

Augusto César San Martín and Rudy Cabrera, reporters for the digital site Cubanet, “were trying to obtain information about the plane crash” on Friday, when they were arrested and taken to the Santiago de las Vegas police station in the Rancho Boyeros district, APLP said in a statement.

The journalists were “kept in jail until Saturday at around 8:30 at night and their mobile phones, a camera and other tools of their profession were confiscated.” continue reading

Both San Martin and Cabrera were fined 100 Cuban pesos for the alleged crime of “transgressing security limits,” said the APLP, which invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one may be arbitrarily detained and that everyone has the right to investigate and receive information.

The independent organization “asks for the solidarity of all the organizations in the world that defend freedom of expression for independent Cuban journalists.”

The Island’s independent journalists suffer continuous arbitrary arrests, confiscations of personal belongings, raids on their homes and judicial charges, to which is also added, more and more frequently, a prohibition on travel under any pretext.

Last April the organization Reporters Without Borders placed Cuba 173rd out of 180 nations in terms of press freedom. The country was the worst rated on the continent.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) also denounced in its most recent report, presented in Colombia last April, that the Cuban government seeks to have “a mute, deaf, and blind country” in terms of communication, journalism, and the Internet.

It is “an increasingly difficult goal,” the IAPA said, for “the perseverance of journalists and independent media that do not cease their work despite restrictions.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Building Collapses in Old Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ignacio Gonzalez, Havana, 21 May 2018 – On Friday, 18 May, a the rear part of building in the Jesus Maria neighborhood of Old Havana collapsed, trapping three families who live in the building, a total of six people. The emergency services were able to rescue those trapped, bringing them out through the side, eliminating the need to mourn dead or injured victims. However, when 14ymedio spoke to them on Saturday, the residents of the damaged building said the authorities had not provided them any place to stay, despite the rains that were falling on the capital at that time.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Festival in Washington: One More Victory for Castroism / Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez

Omara Portuondo and Aymée Nuviola (Credit: Kennedy Center)

Cubanet, Luis Cino Álvarez, Havana, 15 May 2018 — Omara Portuondo, Ballet Nacional, Pablo Milanés, Haydée Milanés, Los Van Van, Teatro El Público, Aldo López Gavilán, Jorge Luis Pacheco, Orquesta Faílde, Teatro El Público, Orquesta del Liceo de La Habana… The top drawer talent went to Cuba, to the Kennedy Center, to the Artes de Cuba festival. The best and most reliable, the ones who can be trusted to not defect or say something inappropriate–because it would not be to their advantage to do so.

It matters not if Pablito Milanés, who has been whining lately, were to make some controversial statement, because this would only show that Cuba has changed, that we are completely transparent, and that dissent is allowed (of course it is!)—provided, that is, that the dissent is expressed as the Maximum Leader wanted: “within the Revolution.” * continue reading

As the journalist Yuri Nórido wrote, with utmost optimism, a few days ago in the Trabajadores newspaper: the Kennedy Center patrons will see for themselves that in Cuba, “questioning and committed” (we all know to what) art is made.

You will pardon my cynicism, but I do not trust the assurances given by Alicia Adams, the festival curator, that the Cuban government did not intervene into the selection of artists. With a regime like this one, I’m not buying that story…

What a coincidence that among the more than 250 performers selected by Adams—let’s say we believe that she alone made the selection—there are no independent artists (except the Mal Paso dance company, which, it is true, does not receive state subsidies)—and even less any of the writers, filmmakers, painters and other artists who are censored and condemned to be ostracized, such as those plastic artists who, at this very moment and while being harassed by State Security, are holding an alternative Bienal in Havana.

What a coincidence that among the artists in the Cuban diaspora—let’s not call it “exile,” that ugly word—who are fewer, were not included, for example, such virtuosos as saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Could it be because they are openly anti-Castro?

By the same token, just to allay any such suspicions, the quintet of New York-based saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and the singer Aymée Nuviola, who lives in Miami, were at the Kennedy Center. Neither of them have ever made a peep against the regime, which Adams must have taken into account when making her selections. Because we wouldn’t want the festival to be politicized…

It’s not that artists must spend their lives making political statements, but in the case of individuals who have been forced to leave their country for reasons that always, one way or another, can be traced back to politics, it would well be worthwhile if, occasionally, when it’s relevant, they would declare themselves, speak plainly and leave off the subterfuge. They should follow the example of Alicia Alonso and Omara Portuondo, who whenever they have the opportunity to do so, they give witness to their unbreakable loyalty to castroism.

Speaking of Omara Portuondo, her fan Aymée Nuviola appears to be trying with her what she was unable to do, no matter how hard she worked, with Celia Cruz: to prosper in her shadow. Maybe she’ll even get to cut a duo record with the Diva of the Buenavista Social Club. And continue taking trips to Havana, where, to some people who don’t care about put-downs, snubs and payoffs, applause sounds sweeter than in Miami.

For the moment, the Cuban regime is winning another propaganda battle. With so many good artists at the Kennedy Center—the majority of them “educated in the art schools created by the revolutionary government,” as they insist on pointing out—anyone would think that the official culture in Cuba is a marvel, another “achievement of the Revolution.” Perhaps this, and not so much the building of bridges between Cuba and the US, is the objective of this Cuban art festival, the largest celebrated outside the Island.

luicino2012@gmail.com

*Translator’s Note:  A reference to Fidel Castro’s “Words to the Intellectuals” speech of June 30, 1961, in which he set limits to the free expression of artists and writers: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

 

We Ask For Transparency in Investigation of Tragic Plane Crash

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 May 2018 – The tragic images are hypnotic. Across a swath of agricultural land near Havana’s José Martí International Airport are scattered the remains of what, a few minutes earlier, was an airplane filled with 110 people traveling from the Cuban capital to the eastern province of Holguin. Only three passengers have been rescued and Cuba is facing the worst air crash in recent years.

The plunge of this Boeing 737-200 comes at the worst moment for the island. The diplomatic thaw with Washington has been halted for months and the 7% drop in the number of tourists over the first quarter of this year complicates the economic situation. A disaster of this magnitude can seriously affect an economic sector that enables the government to deposit hard currency in the dwindling national treasury. continue reading

The serious economic situation that affects Cuba’s ally Venezuela also intensifies this picture. Hopefully, in the coming weeks the Cuban authorities will open our territory to an international investigation because the victims include citizens of Mexico and Argentina. The secrecy that traditionally surrounds these types of investigations within our borders will be put to the test before the demands for information that will come from abroad.

To further complicate the moment, the official media just announced that Raul Castro, who remains at the head of the Communist Party, has undergone surgery and his successor in the position of president, engineer Miguel Diaz-Canel, is facing the most delicate moment of his mandate. This Friday he was seen arriving at the crash site, visibly alarmed, perhaps calculating the political costs the accident will have for his management.

However, the fundamental blow goes to the heart of the Cuban people and especially the family members of the hundred Cubans aboard that fateful flight that crashed at 12:08 pm on May 18. For them, there is the long pain of loss, the rigors of the identification of the bodies and the intense political campaign with which the ruling party will surround every step taken by medical and police institutions in the search for answers.

In their minds, the last moments with their loved ones will surface again and again, along with the sequence of coincidences that brought them to the aircraft leased by the state airline to the Mexican company Global Air. The stories of those who at the last minute could not obtain a ticket to travel and those who, on the contrary, were not planning to take that flight but by chance ended up on the list of fatal victims will emerge.

Doubts and questions will also arise, with demands for clear explanations in a country where the authorities have decades of training in doling out each piece of information. But not even this ability to remain silent will prevent people from relating the news of recent months and feeling that this Friday’s news has all the traces of a predictable tragedy.

The state airline, Cubana de Aviación, has been plunged for years into a profound crisis of constant flight cancellations due to the poor state of its fleet, consisting mainly of Russian airplanes with long years in service. The deterioration of their planes has forced the island’s main airline to continuously lease aircraft from other companies, and reduced their stature to almost nothing among their Cuban passengers.

The next few days are crucial. The reaction of the families will depend to a large extent on how the authorities and the airline manage the information about what happened. Transparency is now the most recommended approach but it remains to be seen if the Cuban government is going to choose it.

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Note: This column was originally published in the Latin American edition of the Deutsche Welle chain.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Government Demands Payment of Ghana’s Debt for Medical Services

Medical students from Ghana in Cuba. (Minrex)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 14 May 2018 — Cuban Deputy Minister of Health Marcia Cobas, in charge of medical cooperation in third countries, is upset because the Government of Ghana has not paid for the one hundred Cuban doctors assigned to that African nation as of September.

“It’s not fair,” Cobas said in a visit to Ghana, according to local media, which said she deplored the government’s attitude and said that even poorer countries, such as Chad, pay Cuban doctors on a regular basis. The island’s official press has not echoed the statements of the official.

Ghana’s debt for the services of the Cuban medical brigade amounts to 4.7 million dollars, according to the Ghanaweb site. This represents eight years of Cuban healthcare workers in Ghana. To date, only the doctors who are in Accra, the capital, continue to receive a salary from the government. continue reading

Last week the Cuban Ambassador in Ghana, Pedro L. Despaigne González, visited the headquarters of the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, where he was received by Deputy Minister of Health, Kingsley Aboagye-Gyedu. At the meeting, they discussed issues related to the Cuban medical mission, according to a brief official note from the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Ghana, a country of 21 million located on the Gulf of Guinea, has been classified as one of the 40 poorest and most indebted nations on the planet. Although the poverty rate has been reduced to 28.5% of the population, life expectancy is only 55.4 years for men and 59.6 years for women, according to the World Health Organization.

The main causes of infant mortality include malaria, diarrhea and upper respiratory infection, as well as HIV infection, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and traffic crashes. The UN points out that the country has a high level of illiteracy and malnutrition and has high mortality rates.

Cuban specialists have been in the country since 1983. In 2016, Cuba signed a new health agreement with Ghana to send more doctors, while more than a thousand Ghanaians have graduated from Cuban universities, most of them in medicine.

Cuba has medical personnel deployed in 62 countries but does not provide data on the number of health professionals that are outside its borders, although in 2015 the number exceeded 50,000, according to the official press.

In recent weeks South Africa announced that it would reduce thethe number of medical students sent to Cuba, while other African countries signed cooperation agreements to bring specialists from the island despite the dissatisfaction of their local medical unions with that program.

The most recent statistics, published on the Cubadebate site, reported that the export of services is the largest source of income in the national economy, and contributed “an estimated 11.5 billion dollars as an annual average between 2011 and 2015,” according to the former minister of the Cuban Economy, José Luis Rodríguez, although that figure has fallen around 20% in the last two years because of the crisis in Venezuela.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Carnival Lines Announces New Cruise from South Carolina to Cuba in 2019

A cruise ship docked in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerEFE via 14ymedio, Miami, 16 May 2018 — Carnival Cruise Lines announced on Tuesday the expansion of its cruise itineraries to Cuba with sailings from the port of Charleston, South Carolina, starting in 2019, while the airlines JetBlue and United Airlines also plan to increase their flights to the Island.

Carnival said in a statement that it will expand its trips to Cuba by 2019 with the first itinerary from Charleston and the addition of between 23 and 25 cruise days on five different ships departing from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, both on the east coast of Florida, and from Tampa, on the west coast of the state.

The ship that will sail from the port of Charleston is the Carnival Sunshine, with a capacity of 3,002 passengers and 102,853 tons, which will be the largest cruise ship that will dock in the port of Havana, said Carnival. continue reading

The Carnival Triumph will leave the port of Fort Lauderdale, the Carnival Paradise will depart from the Port of Tampa, and the Carnival Victory and Carnival Sensation cruises will sail from the Port of Miami, in southeastern Florida.

“Cuba has been a very popular destination among our cruisers and we are delighted to offer more opportunities to experience and explore this fascinating destination,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, told EFE.

With regards to air service, United Airlines recently indicated that as of 20 July it will increase direct daily services between the city of Houston (Texas) and Havana.

“This expansion to Havana will provide significant public benefits to our city — where many speak Spanish — as well as to the region and the state,” Houston Mayor Houston Sylvester Turner said in a statement.

United Airlines, which opened its first ticket sales office in Havana in 2017, operates the “only service to the Cuban capital from the entire center and west of the United States” and also offers daily direct flights from New York, the airline said.

Meanwhile, JetBlue announced last week that as of 10 November it will operate direct flights on Saturdays from Logan International Airport in Boston to Jose Martí Airport in Havana.

JetBlue will also expand its flights to Cuba with up to three daily flights to Havana from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, north of Miami, also starting in November.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

"Mariela Castro Is Our Friend But That Does Not Make Our Church Communist"

Mariela Castro (left) and her husband, Italian Paolo Titolo (right), at a ceremony of the Metropolitan Christian Church in Cuba. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 17 May 2018 — The presence of Mariela Castro blessing LGBT couples on Saturday draped in a Christian stole, on the day against homophobia and transphobia in Cuba, has generated scorn among some Cuban believers. In recent days the press has focused on a new church established on the island with an inclusive agenda and the help of the National Center of Sex Education (Cenesex), led by the daughter of former president Raul Castro.

“Seeing the image of Fidel Castro presiding over a celebration of the rights of the LGBTI community and the believers of a Christian Church supporting him is a bit strong,” says the missionary pastor of the Lutheran Church, Ignacio Estrada, from Miami.

“Is it a mockery or a usurpation? The stole is a symbol of Christ’s authority, Mariela Castro should not wear it,” he says. The church the sexologist is pledged to is the Metropolitan Community Church  (MCC). For Estrada it is a mistake to mix politics with religion. continue reading

The MCC defines itself as a Church with a positive and inclusive message towards the LGBTI community. It also favors ecumenism (the unity of Christians) and is liberal in nature.

Since it was established on the Island in 2016, the MCC has been linked to Cenesex and it is common to see Mariela Castro participate in its ceremonies, impart blessings and encourage LGBTI couples.

A representative of the MCC board of directors in Cuba, who agreed to speak with this newspaper on condition of anonymity, denied that his congregation is trying to mix politics and religion.

“We understand our mission in Cuba and for Cuba, we work alongside those institutions that share our same vision, Cenesex is one of them, and is the one that has most supported us in our work, especially in the person of Mariela Castro, who is a faithful sympathizer of our church,” he said.

The pastor recognizes that they are sending a political message when they participate in governmental activities, but emphasizes that his main intention is to signal that a church “whose voice is dissident to the rest of the churches” is present in the country.

“There is a church in Cuba where the LGBTI community is accepted completely without limitations or conditions, because God loves us radically. Mariela is a deputy [in parliament], Raul’s daughter, our friend and obviously revolutionary but that does not make our church communist,” he added.

The pastor justified Castro’s use of liturgical ornament: “Many see her as a pastor for the LGBTI community, she uses that symbol not from a religious point of view, but as a symbol of a pastor, a companion, a protector,” he said.

The MCC, founded in 1968 in the United States, has more than 400 communities around the world. In Cuba it has around 100 faithful, but in just two years it already has three communities, in Matanzas, Santa Clara and Havana.

In 2016, the Institute of Global Justice of the Metropolitan Community Church awarded Mariela Castro the Be Justice award and the following year Castro responded by giving MCC founder Troy Perry the highest award granted by Cenesex.

Both Perry and the Rev. Héctor Gutiérrez, a Mexican bishop responsible for MCC in Cuba, have been in Havana. Mariela Castro and her husband, the Italian Paolo Titolo, witnessed the renewal of Gutiérrez’s marriage vows.

For Yadiel Hernández, a member of the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, relations between the Cenesex and the Metropolitan Community Church are “a business.”

“The MCC needs Cenesex and Mariela Castro because under the auspices of that institution they have grown in the country and at the same time Mariela Castro and Cenesex use the Church to promote their agenda,” he says and believes that if the MCC were to criticize the Government it would lose “its official favor.”

The MCC is not recognized by the Council of Churches of Cuba or by the office of the Communist Party charged with regulating the presence of religious organizations on the island. However, unlike other religious organizations born in recent years, it has not been persecuted, something that Hernandez attributes to its relationship with the daughter of the former president.

According to the World Christian Solidarity organization, the violations of religious and worship rights in Cuba increased in 2017 and there are churches that have been asking for official recognition for more than two decades, which forces them to meet clandestinely and be subject to searches by the authorities.

“The Church [i.e. the Christian churches] in Cuba is in a moment of expansion, many congregations from different parts of the world are arriving and some of them have a lot of money and seek support from institutions in the country,” says Hernandez.

Victor M. Dueñas, one of the activists who launched the We Also Love campaign in 2015 in favor of gay marriage in Cuba, does not believe in Mariela Castro’s “good intentions” in support of the LGBTI community nor in her adherence to the MCC.

“It is a betrayal of the Christian communities,” says the Presbyterian, who supports “an inclusive Church” but is outraged to see “the political agendas that can eclipse the Christian message.”

Dueñas, who along with a hundred Cubans asked for asylum at a Dutch airport last January, says Mariela Castro could do much more for the LGBTI community.

“We have been waiting ten years for the constitutional reform in which Mariela Castro has promised to try to include homosexual marriage, and in 2015, when other activists launched a campaign to promote it, she refused to support us,” he says.

The former president’s daughter has rejected that the objective of the Cuban Government should be the enactment of equal marriage and has indicated that socialism can not seek the “the simplest solution that appears nor repeat what others do.”

“In Cuba, laws are needed to protect LGBTI people so that they are not discriminated against, it is necessary to recognize police violence and take measures to prevent it, and projects that are independent of the State that defend LGBT rights, that they don’t hijack their discourse.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Government Tells UN Those Fighting For Regime Change Are Not Defending Defend Human Rights

Presentation on Cuba at the Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights before the UN. (@RosaMariaPaya)

14ymedio biggerEFE, via 14ymedio, 16 May 2018 — Cuba declared on Wednesday at the United Nations Human Rights Council that those who act internally in favor of regime change cannot be considered as defenders of human rights, since in reality they are “agents of a foreign power.”

The Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, attended the forum to present his government’s report on the human rights situation on the island, as part of a Universal Periodic Review process carried out for all UN member states.

“In Cuba, the law cannot be violated (…) in the service of an external agenda of regime change, of the constitutional order and of the political system that Cubans have freely chosen,” said the minister, who said that those who act that way “do not deserve the noble qualification of defenders of human rights.” continue reading

On the other hand, Rodríguez affirmed that civil society is gaining increasing importance at the national level and that there are currently 2,200 such organizations of this type in the country.

He insisted that civil organizations participate extensively in the design, execution and evaluation of programs with social impact.

During his presentation before the UN Council, Minister Rodríguez defended Cuba’s “democracy model,” which he considered “participatory and popular” and which, according to him, is not limited to electoral processes, but includes effective citizen participation in public matters.

“Our electoral processes are not media contests between elitist political parties, in which candidates make promises that fail, and promote division, hatred, lies and corruption.”

“There is no single model of democracy, nor a pre-established or agreed formula for this concept,” stressed the Foreign Minister.

In another area, Rodriguez denounced that the “worsening” of the United States ‘blockade’ in the economic, financial and commercial realms is the “main obstacle” to the economic and social development of the island.

After the minister’s presentation, the delegations of the Human Rights Council member countries commented on Cuba’s report and made recommendations to the Government; one of the most repeated of these was that there be guarantees for freedom of expression, association, the press and peaceful gatherings.

Several countries asked Rodriguez to extend a permanent and unrestricted invitation to come to Cuba to the United Nations rapporteurs who monitor the progress and setbacks in specific human rights, and to allow them to visit the places they wish, including prisons.

Another suggestion that was mentioned by different delegations was related to the relevance of creating an independent national institution for human rights.

On the other hand, many countries congratulated the Cuban Government on the rights to health, education and culture that are guaranteed to its population.

Hours earlier, Cuban activist Rosa María Payá said that the Cuban government “mocks” the Human Rights Council and that the report presented to this body in the name of an NGO is “fictitious.”

“We are here to denounce the efforts of the Cuban regime to mock us, the Cuban citizens and the Universal Periodic Review process,” said the activist in a meeting with the press hours before that scrutiny.

“The report that the alleged entities of Cuban civil society have sent is totally fictitious, and not only that, they have invented 400 NGOs.”

Payá said that among these NGOs are “the Cuban Federation of Canine Sports, and the Cuban Association of Otolaryngology, which have nothing to do with human rights” and added that, normally, states present a report referencing some 30 NGOs.

The activist denounced that in neither the government report nor in that of the NGOs did they denounce “the reality of what is happening in the country.”

“There is no talk of cases of torture, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, which are still common, or express kidnappings*, which is a pattern that continues, and that the Ladies in White suffer every week,” Payá said, and she added “330 express kidnappings have been documented in the last month.”

In addition, Payá said that the number of political prisoners “currently equals 120 people with sentences handed down.”

The daughter of Oswaldo Payá stressed that, in recent weeks, five sentences have been handed down against human rights defenders, “and even defenders of environmental rights. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, an environmental activist has been sentenced to one year in prison, for denouncing threats to biodiversity.”

She also pointed out that there are “absurd cases like that of three activists who were sentenced to two and a half years in prison for demonstrating silently in the Plaza Cespedes who were accused and convicted of the crime of pre-criminal dangerousness, a ‘crime’ that exists only in Cuba and that ensures that you do not have to commit a crime to be arrested.”

With respect to Miguel Díaz-Canel’s assumption of the presidency on April 19, Payá said that the Cuban regime “is selling a process of political change when the appointee was hand-picked. In the last elections there were 605 candidates for 605 seats. The ability of Cubans to choose was zero.”

In addition, the activist denounced that the authorities have not allowed “hundreds of activists” to leave the island in the last months, and specifically related to the Universal Periodic Review “at least five” were blocked from leaving Cuba to prevent them from speaking out.

“We have no freedom to enter and leave as citizens, my own mother was not allowed to enter Cuba to visit the grave of my father,” she said.

*Translator’s note: Elsewhere in Latin America “express kidnappings” are abductions where an immediate ransom is demanded, for example the victim is forced to withdraw money from an ATM. In Cuba, the police and State Security frequently detain people for hours or days to prevent their participating in some political or artistic protest or activity, or to cause them to miss a flight to activities abroad.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola Sentenced To One Year In Prison For Contempt

Ariel Ruiz Urquiola and his family maintain that the authorities’ aim is to seize their farm in Viñales, Pinar del Río, and punish him for his opposition to the government. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 9 May 2018 — Cuban biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola was condemned on Tuesday by the court of Viñales, in Pinar del Río, to one year in prison for the alleged offense of contempt, a sentence that has affected his closest relatives because it is the maximum penalty for this type of fault.

According to El Nuevo Herald, Ruiz Urquiola communicated through the activist Ailer González that, before being arrested last Thursday, “more than five men, officials of the Forest Rangers who did not identify themselves with first and last names, forcibly entered the farm.”  These individuals accused the biologist of cutting down trees to fence his land without permission even though he had an authorization to erect a barrier.

Urquiola was arrested at the farm in Viñales that he leases from the government when he refused to hand over his work tools to the officials. Apparently, Ruiz Urquiola accused them of operating as “the rural guard” (an allusion to Cuba in the republican era), a term that earned him detention for contempt. continue reading

The biologist started a hunger strike on Saturday to protest against irregularities in his case. His family claims that the Prosecutor’s Office, which requested four years in prison, had fabricated the case against him.

Boris González Arenas, a friend of the scientist, told 14ymedio that Ruiz Urquiola was held incommunicado for four days. “The process has been almost summary, giving very little time to find a lawyer and prepare the case,” he denounced.

“It is a horror what has happened, a crime of state with the clear intention of sending the message that under the government of Miguel Diaz-Canel the government remains the same repressor and that nothing has changed,” says González Arenas.

Ariel’s sister, Omara Ruiz Urquiola, told Diario de Cuba that the objective of the charges against her brother is to take the farm from her and said they will appeal the sentence, for which they have three days.

The house, located on the plot, and the land, is managed by the Urquiolas under a form of leasing known as usufruct, and they have developed it into a agro-ecological farm. In 2008 the Government of Raúl Castro authorized the leasing of idle state lands in usufruct to try to revive the agricultural sector. Urquiola has repeatedly denounced the raising of wild pigs in the area where his farm is located, a situation that has produced a negative environmental impact in a World Heritage Site with high natural and tourist value. His complaints have been directed to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of the Interior and the authorities of the People’s Power of the zone.

The biologist and doctor of Sciences has participated in several research projects on Cuban biodiversity. He also directed an international research effort conducted between the University of Havana, the Natural History Museum of Berlin and Humboldt University on the origin and settlement of the Sierra de los Órganos, in Pinar del Río.

In 2016, the scientist was expelled from the Marine Research Center under the official charge of unjustified absences, but, in his opinion, it was a plot against him because the authorities do not consider him “reliable” due to his political leanings .

At the end of that same year, the biologist was arrested three times for demanding the medicines needed for his seriously ill sister. After a hunger strike and a vigil outside the Havana Cancer Hospital, Ruiz Urquiola managed to get the delivery of the drug to his sister restarted.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The “Heavenly Father” / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 15 May 2018 — In spite of a complete loss of credibility after years of mass demonstrations and marches of “revolutionary reaffirmation” that Cubans “spontaneously” attended on certain dates, authorities have been given the task of presenting the deceased “historic leader” as a kind of heavenly father who, from “eternal space and time,” guides, corrects, protects, scolds and directs us lest we veer from the path he has set out. It amounts to turning his words and actions into a “socialist bible,” a parody that more closely resembles a comic book than the original tome.

This is nothing new.

The same thing happened with Lenin. Ultimately, the Soviets decided to let him rest in peace inside his historic burial chamber even after they had changed, having set forth on the road to capitalist development. This phenomenon was repeated with Dimitrov in Bulgaria, with Mao Zedong in China and with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam — to name a few well-known examples — though each country did it in its own particular way. continue reading

Official media outlets do not know how to maintain this “virtual presence.” They resort to saccharine articles, inept news spots, propagandistic documentaries, posters, billboards, dogmatic rhetoric and ridiculous statements that intrude on citizens’ daily lives. Cubans have opted to turn on their televisions only to watch soap operas, foreign mini-series, and sporting events, avoiding newscasts and so-called “opinion programs” such as Mesa Redonda. They turn on the radio to listen to music. They buy newspapers to wrap the garbage in. It is a normal reaction to exhaustion, an attempt to keep from losing one’s mind.

This celestial chorus — it is said the purpose is “to not forget history” — has included certain personalities from other eras, with an emphasis on warrior heroes from the 19th century, duly stripped of facts or words that might call into question the present.

This submission to the past — envisioning an ever more remote and unfeasible future while ignoring the terrible present — has been the government tonic for the last sixty years. In spite of recent changes, it seems it will continue to be.

It is worth remembering the words of José Martí: “We can stop praising those who were once universally praised. The world is full of incense bearers and there is no one with the authority or wealth to compel the world to fall to its knees.”

"Today’s Cuba is Not the Cuba of the 80s," Say the Self-employed / Iván García

Source: Diario de las Americas

Iván García, 14 May 2018 — While walking among the metal stands with canvas roofs staffed by sellers using their hands as megaphones — “Get the best meat,” or “You’re going to miss out, we sell the best pork legs” — Dani, 35, owner of a cafe in the south of Havana, does not want to condition a future negotiation with the regime’s officials on talking about politics.

“Business is business, man. These people (the regime) support us but they don’t listen to us. If in addition to having strength on their side, you play the fool and demand democracy and human rights, they shut you down. With them, you have to play it gently, I believe that now with Diaz-Canel, no matter if he’s as communist as the other generation, he has to negotiate on better terms,” says Dani, while continuing to look over a piece of pork loin. continue reading

Later, in the kitchen of his house which functions as a cafe, he tries a fritter and tells the cook, “you have to take it out of the pan earlier, or else the meat gets too dried out.” Grabbing a glass with a little guava juice he takes a sip and tells his employee, “Luisita, this is five-star juice.”

Then, he opens the fridges, looks at what food he has left and mentally does his accounts. Later, with a Cristal beer in hand, he lowers the temperature on the air conditioner and continues his lecture:

“Today’s Cuba is not the Cuba of the 80s. Today there is internet and the state is so bad at administering services that it has no choice but to open new spaces. We (he says, referring to a group of entrepreneurs) have opened a well-organized Facebook site. ONAT (the state institution that regulates private work) sat down to talk with many self-employed people and taken note. That may not mean anything, but before they didn’t listen to you and did whatever they wanted.

“We have to wait for the new regulations to come out and for them to start handing out licenses again for the businesses they have now stopped issuing them for. They’re afraid and they’re going to try to take more control. Without shouting, or getting upset, we have to talk to the officials and explain things to them and show them that they are wrong.

“I think with a new president there will be greater receptivity. Not because he likes private business, but because now, the way the country is going, they have no room to maneuver. The self-employed must press Diaz-Canel to establish new rules of the game and the future Constitution must recognize small private companies.”

Osniel, the owner of a private restaurant and two cafes is not so optimistic, but agrees with Dani’s statement that “it is time to speak clearly with the government. Why can’t you have more than one license? What is the amount of money that the State considers rich? Why can’t we import food and supplies? There are many topics to discuss. I agree that the payment of taxes is sacred, but they taxes must be realistic, not used to prevent businesses from growing, because that encourages double accounting and theft.

“I also approve of entrepreneurs helping the community. When they have activities at the school near my restaurant, I send them snacks and sweets. I have helped families on my block to paint their houses, also to fix the street and the lighting of the block. You can move forward if there is goodwill, for the good of the country and the consumer,” says Osniel, and he adds:

“For me, I don’t think much of Diaz-Canel. He seems mediocre, but this is what we have. We have to demand of the government, once and for all, that they open a wholesale market, because as the prices rise in the retail market and the black market, where we buy the supplies for our businesses, the price of food automatically rises. If they say they can’t create it because they lack the resources, then authorize the (private) importing of food. If they do that, and the United States allows it, the amount of food bought in Miami would be huge. The state has to understand, and this isn’t a threat, that if they continue to apply the brakes, people are going to do things under the counter.”

Not all businesses are profitable like those dedicated to food service, transportation, hairdressing and lodging. According to Eduardo, an economist, “between 10 and 15% of the half million private workers have accumulated enough money to meet their material needs and have even saved to invest and improve their businesses. It is the dynamics of any particular company: grow, expand and bet on excellence.

“If the government tries to stop them, they depress a sector with a labor force that makes five or six times more than the state salary. The most practical thing is to adapt the interests of the State to the wishes of the population and the aspirations of the business owners. But I have my doubts. The Cuban government has never been conciliatory and does not look favorably on private employment. Diaz-Canel has a golden opportunity to go out on an economic limb that will undoubtedly benefit society.”

Nora, owner of a hairdressing salon, says “I expect the government to commit to creating a legal framework that legitimizes all private businesses. A permanent dialogue channel must be established. When people talk, they understand each other and fears and prejudices go away. What needs to be fought is poverty, not those who make money and benefit society.”

Many entrepreneurs consulted believe that the authorities should reverse the productive framework and accelerate a wage reform that allows state employees — currently 75% of the workforce on the island — to earn fair wages.

They must close inefficient companies, which are the majority, or privatize them, allow greater autonomy or create real cooperatives where workers are the owners.

At present, apathy prevails in Cuba and a large percentage of citizens do not believe that things will change and more than a few self-employed consider that the time has come to demand a better deal. We will have to wait for the will of the new president.