72 Hours to Demolition / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Inspectors arrive to demolish an illegal construction (Luz Escobar)

Inspectors arrive to demolish an illegal construction (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Havana, Luz Escobar, 26 August 2014 — Impotence and indignation has spread among residents of La Timba, in the Plaza de la Revolution municipality, one of the Havana neighborhoods affected by the Government’s war on architectural illegalities. For years, thousands of families with housing needs built additions their homes, took vacant land to expand them, or improvised makeshift parking spaces. A campaign by the authorities against this social indiscipline has put the spotlight on all these irregularities.

The Housing Institute inspectors, in cooperation with the police, travel the neighborhoods looking for these “illegalities” and, once they detect a violation, deliver an order to the homeowner to tear down every inch of the constructions put up without permission. The situation not only hurts those affected but puts the serious construction problem in the country at the center of the debate.

It is estimated that there is a deficit of over 700,000 homes in Cuba. In addition, 8.5 out of 10 existing dwellings need repairs. During the year 2013 only 25,634 units were built in the entire country, of which 47.7% were erected by the occupants’ own efforts. Continue reading

The Swimmer Diana Nyad Returned to Cuba a Year After Her Feat / 14ymedio, Orlando Palmo

The swimmer Diana Nyad (from her Facebook page)

The swimmer Diana Nyad (from her Facebook page)

14ymedio, Havana, Orlando Palma, 29 August 2014 — Just twelve months ago, all eyes were on Diana Nyad while she swam between Cuba and Florida. This willful 64-year-old woman was the first person to cross the 100 miles from Havana to Key West without a shark cage, wetsuits or fins. A feat she tried four times, but that only on the fifth opportunity was she able to savor the taste of success. A year after her feat she has returned to the Island. She wanted to visit the place she left from, the Hemingway Marina, and meet athletes, sports authorities, and other people who collaborated in this endeavor.

“You always have to pursue your dreams,” Nyad reiterated, on touching land after 52 hours in the water. The well-known athlete had started the same crossing in 1978, but deteriorating weather conditions caused her to abandon it. Jellyfish stings and asthma came between her and her goal on the three other previous attempts. Last year she finally managed it, beating the record for the greatest distance swum by a woman without a shark cage, previously held by Penny Palfrey. The same route between the two countries had been crossed by the Australian Susie Maroney in 1997, but on that occasion with protection.

The route taken by Diana Nyad is a common route of rafters trying to reach the U.S. coast. The harsh conditions, the dangers of storm waves, and the abundant presence of sharks costs many lives each year.

The First Cuban Forklifts / Juan Juan Almeida

Photo taken from Granma

Nelson Espinosa, director general of MONCAR, a business located in the Havana municipality of Marianao, told the newspaper Granma that the production of the first 15 Cuban forklifts, a result of collaboration with the Chinese entity Auto Caiec LTD, distinguished his business’s performance during 2013.

With 40% national integration in terms of physical components, the equipment is in a testing phase and capable of supporting up to 2.5 tons.  We are now in 2014 and they have not manufactured one more.  I suspect that the future of MONCAR is related to the manufacture of the T-34M war tanks that Raul Castro inaugurated in 1960 and these are the holy hours when he did not build even one tractor.

Translated by mlk.

18 August 2014

To Rigola I Shall Not Return / Rebeca Monzo

Two years ago, after a lot of red tape, long lines and pointless waits at Immigration, the Spanish embassy and the Plaza Military Committee, I finally managed to get the son of a friend — a woman who lives overseas and who had granted me power-of-attorney — exempted from military service so that the family could be briefly reunited.

Then, a few days ago, she, her husband and her son decided to come here on vacation to visit family. Everything seemed to be going very well. The joy of being reunited with family and friends helped mitigate the enduring economic hardship and deterioration of the country, which are very noticeable to anyone who comes back after spending time abroad.

The night that marked the return to the “mother country” finally arrived but a new odyssey had just begun.

After checking their luggage and paying the 25 CUC per person airport exit tax, an immigration official informed the couple that they could leave but that their son would have to stay behind because he had not yet completed his military service. Of course, the parents decided to stay with their son, but this meant losing their airline tickets, the exit tax they had already paid and the time spent waiting for their bags to be returned. There was also the anxiety and aggravation caused by the incompetence of the system.  Continue reading

No, No and No Raul Castro / Jose Luis Garcia Antunez

Jorge Luis Antunez (EFE)

Jorge Luis Gracia Antunez (EFE)

This I believe is the second or third occasion that I write to you, and as always without the least mood or desire that you answer me, because given the absolute contempt and disgust that emanates from your person I can’t feel otherwise.

Señor Dictator and Genocide, 24 years and five months ago at barely 25 years, five months and 15 days of age I dared to defy you.  Surely your lackeys and sycophants in the high command of the political police and the party mentioned it to you.

I remind the dictator, that night you pronounced in the city of Santiago de Cuba that call to the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, and as always with a discourse like so many and like so many of your brother’s, barely a few paid you any attention.

I recall that I was in the plaza that you all call Revolution, where big loudspeakers transmitted to mute, hungry and above all deaf people your verbal diarrhea. That was Thursday March 15, 1990, Stalinist Europe was falling, the old Soviet empire was at the point of disintegrating and here in the Caribbean a senile caste was clinging to power and refusing to implement reforms. Continue reading

Suchel, a State Monopoly With Feet of Talcum Powder / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Suchel at the Havana International Fair

Suchel at the Havana International Fair

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 29 August 2014 — Just outside the Tienda Ultra (Ultra Store), an illegal seller advertises deodorants and colognes. It is precisely in August, this terribly hot month, when the shortage of hygiene products aggravates the bad odors and other annoyances. The problem has made the pages of the official newspaper Granma, which this Thursday published a story looking for answers to the lack of soap, cologne, toilet paper and deodorant. The text reveals the tortuous and inefficient ways of Cuban centralization.

The director general of the Cuban company Union Suchel said that “funding cuts” have limited purchases of raw materials. The statement of this official contrasts with the monopoly status of this well-known industry. Suchel has reigned for decades in the domestic market, given the absence of competitors to push down prices, diversify the product line and improve the quality of the offerings. Instead, the perfume, talcum powder and detergent giant has taken advantage of the privilege of being a State-majority consortium with zigzagging foreign capital.

For 2104, Suchel developed a “reduced production plan” due to the financial problems facing the entity. Even so, the volumes coming out of its factories point to mammoth nature of the company still so influential in its decline. Deliveries for this year in the unrationed market should reach 17 thousand tons of laundry soap, 17.9 thousand tons of hand soap, and 9.6 thousand tons of liquid detergent. Packing, transporting and distributing such quantities has become a real headache, especially in a country where corruption and the diversion of resources act as leaks, sucking dry the sources of products and services.

The position of guard in one of the many company plants trades on the black market for more than 5,000 Cuban convertible pesos

Suchel is undermined by the theft and embezzlement, an issue not addressed by the article published in Granma. The position of guard in one of the many company plants trades on the black market for five thousand Cuban convertible pesos. Working in one of those jobs guarantees the fortunate employee “under the table” earnings that exceed in three days what a doctor earns in a month.

The work of the guard consists of simply looking away, to allow the majority of the merchandise slip away, unregistered in the accounts. These undeclared goods are sold in the State’s own “hard currency collection stores” (as they’re called). The profit is distributed among the managers, drivers and the industry’s own security guards.

In the absence of a free market to test the efficiency of Suchel in competitive circumstances, the monopoly will continue to impose prices, quality standards and high costs, as well as to cause chronic supply problems.

Angel Santiesteban, Being Held in Military Unit to the West of Havana / 14ymedio

Angel Santiesteban through the blinds (14ymedio)

Angel Santiesteban through the blinds (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, 2 August 2014 — Writer Ángel Santiesteban has been relocated to a prison under the control of Border Guard Troops in the Flores neighborhood near the town of Jaimanita, west of Havana. After weeks of uncertainty and conflicting information, a reporter for 14ymedio was able to locate and see this military unit.

For three weeks Santiesteban‘s situation has become even more confusing after the authorities in charge of keeping him under custody in the prison center in the Lawton neighborhood declared that he has “escaped.” He was immediately taken  to the police station at Acosta and Diez de Octubre Streets, where he could only receive visits from his closest relatives.

Freelance journalist Lilianne Ruiz, after touring the different places where it was stated that the writer being held, was able to see him and talk to him through the blinds. The guards of the Border Guard Troops confirmed to the journalist that Santiesteban is considered a “special case.”

Santiesteban himself assured Ruiz that he is not being prosecuted for a new offense, and that a brief letter will appear in his blog, The Children Nobody Wanted, explaining everything that happened during the last days.

Ángel Santiesteban serving a five-year sentence for the alleged crime of violation of domicile. Multiple irregularities during his trial have been denounced by activists and independent lawyers. A couple of weeks ago Reporters Without Borders released a statement calling on the Cuban government to clearly state the fate of the narrator and journalist.

University (for the Tenacious) / 14ymedio, Henry Constantin, Reinaldo Escobar

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 28 August 2014 – Henry Constantin is a native of Camagüey province, born in Las Tunas on Valentine’s Day, 30 years ago. He has been expelled from university three times for his ideas, but still believes he will obtain his journalism degree.

This slender, plain-spoken young man has founded two independent publications and has just returned from a cultural exchange program. For years he has been part of the reporting team of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), and today he invites the readers of 14ymedio to share the challenges he has faced in his classroom journey.

Question: You hold the sad distinction of three expulsions from university. What was the first time like?

Answer: One day I wrote this question on the board: Who was the Cuban nominee for the Nobel Prize? My fellow students did not know, neither did the professor, so I wrote the name of Oswaldo Payá. Continue reading

Jabitas (Plastic Bags) and Pensions for the Elderly

Selling 'jabitas' (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

Selling ‘jabitas’ (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 August 2014 – “I need some dark glasses,” Veronica told me one day when I ran into her on the street. Almost seventy, the lady underwent cataract surgery some months ago and now must “take care of my eyes,” as she explained to me. She works in the sun selling jabitas (plastic bags) to the customers of the farmers market on Tulipan Street. The harsh midday glare is hard on her eyesight, but that’s not the worst of her problems. “We have an alarm system to know when the police are coming, although sometimes they’re in plainclothes and catch us by surprise.” Last month she paid a 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US) for engaging in illegal sales, and this week she received a warning letter for recidivism for the same offense.

If you read articles like Randy Alonso’s about the absence of bags in the hard currency stores, you might come to believe this resource is being diverted into the hands of unscrupulous traders. However, it’s enough to simply know Veronica to understand that her business is one more of misery than of profit. For the four decades she worked as a cleaning assistant in a school, the lady now receives a pension that doesn’t exceed ten dollars a month. Without the resale of the plastic bags, she would have to beg, but she asserts that she “would die before asking for money in the streets.” She is not to blame, rather she is a victim of the circumstances that have pushed her into an illegal activity to survive.

Having to carry purchases in one’s hands in the absence of bags is something that annoys any buyer. But realizing that Randy Alonzo, one of the great spokesmen of the current system, doesn’t know the human dramas that lead to the diversion of plastic bags, is even more irritating. It’s not about callous people who are dedicated to enriching themselves through the fruits of State embezzlement, but rather citizens whose economic poverty leads them to resell whatever product comes into their hands. Right now Veronica is outside some business, wearing the old dark glasses they gave her, muttering “I have jabitas, I have jabitas, one peso each.”

What Does a Cuban Bring Home in Her Suitcase? / 14ymedio

Nuria's suitcase (14ymedio)

Nuria’s suitcase (14ymedio)

Nuria retired last year and this month she traveled to Miami, where her sisters live. On returning to the Island she showed 14ymedio what she brought home in her suitcase.

Let’s take a look at what she threw in her bags with brief comments from her about why she chose each product.

  • Two bottle of dishwashing soap. “There isn’t any in the spiritual centers and what they do sell here destroys my hands.”
  • Two packages of napkins: “In the snack bars they cut them in two and even in four, making them real onion skins.”
  • A stove lighter: “There aren’t any matches in the stores, and when you find them the heads fall off and burn my clothes.”
  • Two packages of bath soap: “I’ve spent years without washing myself with something soft and creamy, so I just couldn’t resist.”
  • Four pairs of jeans: “They last and I’m not going to pay the price the State charges for them in its boutiques.” Continue reading

Another Member of the Magazine ‘Coexistence’ is Cited by Police / 14ymedio

14YMEDIO, Havana, 28 August 2014 – In an escalation that started weeks ago, another member of the editorial board of Convivencia (Coexistence) magazine has been summoned by the police. This Wednesday Javier Valdes received a citation for the following day at 5:00 PM, at the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) station in Pinar del Rio. Other notifications were sent a couple of weeks ago to Karina Galvez, Juan Carlos Fernandez and William Rodriguez, members of the editorial team and collaborators on the independent publication. 

Convivencia is a magazine created in the westernmost Cuban province, that recently celebrated its sixth anniversary and 40 issues. Its topics include culture, civil society, debates about the economy and politics, but also cover pastoral and ethical issues. Since its inception, the publication has been the object of police pressure and its director, Dagoberto Valdes, has been treated especially aggressively in the official media.

Pressures have also come from the General Customs of the Republic, who confiscated cameras and laptops from Karina Galvez and Juan Carlos Fernández after a recent trip abroad.

Different Times / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

In my far-off childhood, extracurricular organizations — whether public or private — were concerned principally with sponsoring weekend trips to interesting natural locations, cultural institutions or factories.

The goal was to encourage our love of nature, expand our general knowledge, provide opportunities to attend age-appropriate entertainment events, enhance participation in sports, arrange excursions to the beach, and other such activities.

We were also involved in social service activities such as participating in public health campaigns, collecting donations for the blind, cancer treatment, park improvements and other causes. We were interested in all of them. They motivated us and taught us civic and social responsibility. We were never used as tools for political or ideological ends. Continue reading