Alert Sounded in the Informal Market / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport
Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport

Unauthorized vendors welcome new customs regulation with caution as they prepare to redefine strategies

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 3 September 2014 — “Call me from a land line” instructs the classified ad placed by Mauro Izquierdo, vendor of electrical household appliances. He has a wide range of items on offer, from air conditioning units to toasters, but his specialty is flat-screen TVs. This morning, his cautious response to all callers was: “Right now I’m in the midst of redefining my pricing structure until everything settles down with the new customs regulations.”

Mauro is but one strand in the complex tapestry of unauthorized vendors who are living through anxious moments with the new restrictions imposed by the General Customs of the Republic. Price increases are imminent in the black market, given that a good part of the merchandise offered through its networks enters the country via the flight baggage of so-called “mules.” “I have ceased all operations for the time being, because I don’t know if I will get the accounts with new prices that have been imposed on the airports,” the able merchant confirms.

His clients also have been preparing for the increase.”I’m finishing construction on my house and I had to run to buy lamps, bulbs and bathtub plumbing for the bathroom, because all of that might become unavailable very soon,” said Georgina M., looking to the future, as she concludes construction on a new residence in the western township of Candelaria.

14ymedio contacted approximately 20 vendors offering merchandise on classifieds sites such as Revolico and Cubisima. Although previously-listed products remained at their advertised prices, any orders going forward would come “with with new tariffs added to the price,” according to various distributors. Last week, Leticia was offering hair dryers, massage machines, and hair removers. However, now she is planning to raise prices by about 20 or 25 per cent on each product so as to be able to “finance the payments that those who bring the items into the country must make at Customs.”

The advance notice given of the new rules has allowed many people to be prepared. Rogelio, a Panataxi driver who makes trips from Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport, refers to how even “two days before the new restrictions went into effect, what people brought was incredible — suitcases upon suitcases.” Even so, he noted that since yesterday, “travelers seem more cautious and, among those I have transported, I have seen a decrease in the amount of baggage they’re carrying.” Another taxi driver joined the conversation, saying that “people have now been made to jump through hoops.”

Even so, for other alternative vendors, the new measures barely affect their supply chain. “I buy space in the ‘containers’ of people who are on official missions, working in the embassies and consulates throughout the world, and that is how I bring in my merchandise — therefore the new rules don’t touch me,” boasted a seller of lawnmowers and commercial refrigerators, who enhances his ads with attractive photos of each unit and the guarantee that it’s “all done with proper documentation.”

It is still too early to measure the true impact on the informal market of the new customs rules, but sellers as well as merchants are preparing for the worst.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Have You Tried Cyanide… General? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 September 2014 – Today is Zero Day, the fateful date, the day the General Customs of the Republic enacts its new restrictions for non-commercial imports. The measure called to mind an old joke that circulated in the nineties and is still heard today. In this humorous story, a foreign journalist interviewed Fidel Castro and he listed all the obstacles we had faced. “The Cuban people have survived the collapse of transportation, the food crisis and power cuts,” the delusional politician said proudly. The reporter interrupted him and asked: “And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante?”

Nearly two decades have passed and they are still imposing limits and prohibitions incompatible with development and with life. As if in this social laboratory they want to test what they can do to get the guinea pigs—which are us—to keep breathing, clapping, accepting. The new experiment doesn’t come in the form of a syringe, but through customs rules governing the luggage of every traveler. Measures that were taken without previously allowing commercial imports that favor the private sector. As if in the closed glass box in which we are trapped, they are cutting off the oxygen… and watching from the other side of the glass to see how much we can stand.

And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante? echoed in my head while I read “The Green Book” with the new prices and limits applied to imports from electric razors to disposable diapers. We lab rats, however, have not remained calm and quiet, like so often in the past. People are complaining, and with good reason, that these restrictions are suffocating self-employed labor and the domestic economy. Everyone is upset. Those who receive parcels from abroad as well as those who don’t, because some of those bouillon cubes or rheumatism creams end up reaching their hands through the black market or the solidarity of a friend.

The reason is not an altered chromosome, but a system that has failed to maintain a stable and high-quality supply of almost any product … except canned ideology and the insipid porridge of the cult of personality

It’s not that we Cubans have a specific gene to accumulate things and—out of pure neurosis—throw stuff into our suitcases from toilet paper and toothpaste to lightbulbs. The reason is not an altered chromosome, but a system that has failed to maintain a stable and high-quality supply of almost any product… except canned ideology and the insipid porridge of the cult of personality. While the shelves of the stores are empty, or filled with the worse quality merchandise at stratospheric prices, we have to bring from outside what we don’t have here. A law on commercial imports was not what we needed and the knife of customs restrictions falls very heavily upon us.

That the measures have come into force is still more evidence of the divorce between the Cuban ruling class and the people’s reality. In their mansions there is no lack of resources, food, nor imported products! They, of course, have no need to bring them home in their luggage. To stock up they reach out to the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, to the official containers that arrive at our ports, and a network of transport that brings chlorine for their swimming pools and French cheese right to their doors. The customs rules do not affect them, because they don’t pay excess luggage fees on their luxuries, which are not considered sundries, household items or food. They live outside the law and watch us locked behind the thick glass of the laboratory they’ve built for us.

Have you tried cyanide… General? Perhaps it would be faster and less painful.

From Digital Pages to Paper Books / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, photo from her blog
Regina Coyula, photo from her blog

Note from Translating Cuba: Regina Coyula turns to the crowdfunding site INDIEGOGO to bring books by Cuban writers from a warehouse in Spain to the Miami Book Fair.  PLEASE HELP HER. No donation is too small! (And you get a book or books! Or artwork by Rebeca Monzo! Or a handmade case for your glasses!)

14ymedio, Havana, Reinaldo Escobar, 2 September 2014 — Regina Coyula combines her work on the blog La Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting) with collaboration on various digital media. She is not determined to bring a mountain of books by Cuban authors from a warehouse in Spain to the Book Fair in Miami. Among the maelstrom of tasks involved in coordinating such an initiative from Cuba, she found a few minutes to chat with the readers of 14ymedio.

Question: Your name is associated with blogs, daily vignettes, and social criticism. We’ve learned that you’re now involved in a publishing project. Do you find it a very different scenario from independent Cuban blogs?

Answer: I’ve found myself in this project, #Desevillamiami (From Seville to Miami). This is me, I like books and editorial work, especially after coming to know the Renacimiento publishing house. Most companies in the book business turn unsold books into pulp, but Abelardo Linares, who runs this publishing house, saves them and has two warehouses full of them. In some cases he has ten or a hundred copies left, but he doesn’t destroy them. And from there the idea of this project arose, basically to retrieve the books. continue reading

Q: To those who believe the virtual world is divorced from paper literature, how do you explain that you are using these digital tools to get physical books into the hands of readers?

A: I am a reader of digital books, but for me that way of reading doesn’t provide the pleasure of having a book in my hand, not even with a tablet. I think many readers feel the same, so I’m taking advantage of these digital tools to save physical books.

Q: And what books are these?

A: In particular, books by Cuban writers living wherever they live. There are 43 authors, some of them with several titles, but it’s fewer than 100 titles altogether. There are living writers, deceased, in exile, living on the island… there is everything.

Q: Why did you choose the crowdfunding option to raise the necessary funds? And why Indiegogo?

A: Doing this project from Cuba has been a challenge for me. Indiegogo is the first platform of this type that emerged on the web. It has the advantage of working in the United States, Europe and the rest of Latin America, and a lot of cultural and technology projects have been run through it and collected a lot of money. It was recommended to me not to use Kickstarter, despite it being the largest of them all, because having “Cuba” in the project name could affect it because of the restrictions imposed by the American embargo.

Q: What will be the journey of the books” At what stage is the process?

A: The books are packaged and awaiting a response from the shipper to determine if they’re sent to Valencia or Barcelona and from there they will leave on a ship for Miami, where there are already people waiting for them, for the Book Fair that is held in November every year in that city.

Q. Why not send them to Cuba?

A. Because it would be impractical, first because of the restrictions imposed by the embargo and also because of the new Cuban customs measures which would classify them as commercial shipments, which are not allowed in our country from independent shippers.

Q: There is little time left to collect the money necessary to pay for the freight and other project needs. Do you think you will succeed?

A: I am short on time to raise the $7,000 I aspire to. I’ve only managed to raise $500 so far, but I requested an “open fund” and this means that I will get whatever is collected. In any event, we have the site. I have faith that there are people who will be sympathetic to this project. I don’t doubt I will find them among the readers of 14ymedio.

What Purpose Did the Dual Currency System Serve? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

"This commercial site accepts payment in national currency"
“This commercial site accepts payment in national currency”

14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 27 August 2014–The information that the Central Bank of Cuba (BCC) published on August 19th in the paper edition of the newspaper Granma about “the next issuance of high denomination bank notes (100, 50 and 20 pesos, CUP) with new security measures” brings back to the forefront the issue of the dual currency and its unification, as announced by the same official press, a change which will take place in the near future.

Security measures that will begin to appear in the above currency issues starting in 2014 consist of the placement of a watermark with each patriot’s image corresponding to each denomination placed in the upper left corner of the front face of such bills. In addition, another watermark will repeat the bill’s denomination on the upper left portion of said image. Meanwhile, lesser denomination bills will continue to carry the watermark with the image of Celia Sánchez, to the right of which will be added the corresponding denomination of the bill.

Some believe that such measures respond primarily to the large amount of counterfeit currency that, according to some, is currently circulating, which should gradually start to disappear as the new notes start to replace the existing ones in circulation. However, most of the random 50 people surveyed in Havana felt that this is a preliminary step to the announced monetary unification, which may be imminent.

This second view seems to be reinforced by the fact that just two weeks before the information of the BCC, Granma had published an article that addressed the issue of the dual currency and the need to eliminate the “distortion of the economy”, especially in the government sector. continue reading

The media’s insistence on the issue of the monetary system in such a short period of time must not be by chance, and it’s in line with the “baseball-informative” style to hit the ball before it’s pitched. This allows for people to assimilate more resignedly (more like passively) the effects that such a step might have on the common pocket. In that experiment is included the recent permission for payment in national currency at the stores that up until recently only accepted CUC (Cuban convertible pesos). So far, no information has leaked as to exactly when the unification process will begin which has already been announced; it will begin at the government level and will gradually extend to all sectors.

Solving a problem and creating another

Dual currency was created only in the interest of the government to collect all circulating currency in the country following the decriminalization of the American dollar.

Economist Joaquín Infante, of the Union of Economists of Cuba, said in a statement to Agence France Presse that eliminating the dual currency “is one of the most important steps” of economic reforms being implemented by President Raul Castro. He also felt that “monetary and exchange rate unification is an urgent, strategic decision” that “should have been made long ago.”

It probably would have been a tall order for him to express a more obvious truth: The dual currency was only created in the interest of the Government to collect all the circulating currency in the country after the decriminalization of the dollar, announced by Fidel Castro in his speech of July 26 1993, and then approved in the Official Gazette of August 13th of that year, dates that show that the then Cuban President took the “enemy” currency issue very personally.

So, the convertible peso (CUC) began circulating in 1994. Comparable to the US dollar, CUCs and dollars began to circulate simultaneously until 2004, when the dollar was finally withdrawn from circulation, though the penalty for its possession was not reinstated. Thus, for at least for 10 years there were not only two, but three currencies in circulation: The two Cuban currencies: the CUC, nicknamed “chavito” or “carnavalito” (little carnival because of its coloring); the CUP or non-convertible peso; and the US dollar. This had not happened since the national currency was created in 1914 during the presidency of Mario Garcia Menocal, when the Cuban peso made its debut as a legitimate currency in the country, with legal value and as the unlimited legal tender for payment of any obligation within Cuba.

More questions than answers

Cuban-style government, and, as a consequence, its monopoly on information too, are based on an unrestrictive conspiring principle: everything is a secret, supposedly “for security reasons, because we are besieged by a powerful enemy”, but on the issue of the much heralded and long-delayed monetary unification, reality points toward more plausible causes, such as a lack of liquidity and the economic and financial crisis that the system–and with it, the country–is going through where monetary duality creates a distortion that hinders the government’s interests in attracting foreign investors.

On the issue of the much heralded and long-delayed monetary unification, reality points to causes such as lack of liquidity and the economic and financial crisis of the system

Indeed, dual currency is not a “Fidel creation”. In China there was also a dual foreign exchange where one of the currencies was hard currency; the other one was not “convertible so it had a much lesser value. However, the reforms that allowed a rising of the economy in that country allowed the unification into one strong currency with internationally recognized value. It’s not the case of Cuba, where after a process of “updating the model” and countless incomplete reforms, the economy shows no signs of recovery and the currency lacks absolutely any value in the international market.

On the other hand, the loss of wages in Cuba by the huge difference in value of two circulating currencies has created uncertainty about the ability for public consumption once unification occurs. The increasing trend of commodity prices in the domestic market, coupled with the many restrictions that hinder the economic empowerment of citizens and the unfair wage regulations that will be applied to workers in foreign companies –onerously taxing hard currency in the change- is not conducive to optimism.

At any rate, the BCC has not yet informed the public about a timetable for unification, much less, the exchange value of the final currency… the humble CUP.

As my colleague Reinaldo Escobar said a while back in an article posted on his blog under the title of ¿Cambio Numismatico? (Currency Change?), “The question we ask ourselves is whether there will be a change in the value of our salaries. How many hours will we have to work–once the currency is unified–to buy 500 grams of spaghetti, a litter of oil or a beer?”

The good news is that from the currency unification on, Cuban workers will have a more clear awareness of what “real salary” is. Perhaps by then the official media will stop informing us about the statistics about poverty levels in other countries, including those “poorer than ours”.

And, at the end of the day, can someone explain what the purpose of the dual currency was for us?

Translated by Norma Whiting

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

Havana is one of the most seriously affected areas, and it is estimated that it would take about 28,000 new homes to ease the situation.

Jazmin, age is 57, is responsible for three teenage granddaughters. She lives in La Timba, at the bottom of 39th Street with her husband, who is about to turn 60. A few years ago, they added two square meters to their home by taking over part of the building’s common garden. Aware of the family problems that had pushed them to do so, none of the neighbors ever complained.

“We live with my husband’s brother and father. Both are alcoholics,” says Jazmin. “They’re good people but when they’re drunk they are completely transformed.” The problems of living together got more acute and, over time, the family felt forced to divide up the house. “We had to figure out this little piece to put a kitchen and a bathroom,” she explained, pointing toward a construction made from blocks and a light roof.

Jazmin decided to commit the architectural illegality after her husband, who worked in construction for three decades, asked for a house but they weren’t given it. The family’s economic hardship keeps them from buying a larger house or renting another space for the problematic relatives. “If they knock this down, we’re going to have defecate in a bucket,” she explains. But the time for herself ended with the collapse of the walls she built. This Monday the police and inspectors put an end to her “social indiscipline.”

“If they knock this done, we’re going to have defecate in a bucket.” A neighbor explains. 

Her case is repeated all over the area. Maria and Juana are two elderly ladies, both over 80, who have surrounded their property with a barbed wire fence to protect themselves against the many robberies in La Timba neighborhood. They, also, were given only three days to dismantle the entire fence, but they’ve resisted doing it and now have legal documents to validate it. The Housing Institute, however, alleges that it was authorized by a prior law and by employees who no longer work for the State.

“What’s happening is they woke up pressured by someone from above and, as it’s easier to obey than to question, here they are,” as they say here, “following orders,” the older of the elderly ladies points out.

In the midst of the conversation Gladys appears, an impulsive neighbor who was also required to remove her fence and who shouted, at the top of her lungs, that she “didn’t feel like removing anything,” because the law says that every citizen has the right to protect their home. Furious, she accuses a neighbor of having built a parking space, sure of having permission because he works in military counter intelligence. “That didn’t go down well with me, I’m not stupid,” she says.

Tempers flare and the clock is ticking. In a few hours the inspectors will arrive.

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.

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

Later I selected for a research topic the actual level of acceptance enjoyed by the official media in the general population. I was failed, and that report was suggested as possible grounds for my expulsion. Finally, they lowered my grade for poor attendance — a false claim being that the majority of my colleagues had more absences than I did. That was the year my son was born and my professor/advisor had told me, “take care of that and don’t worry about absences.”

My son is now 8 years old – the same age as my problems.

Q: Even so, you tried again…..

A: A year later I was able to enter the University of Santa Clara journalism school. I was the only student who was not a member of the FEU (University Student Federation), and — in the university’s Internet lounge — I learned of the existence of alternative blogs. It was there that we founded a magazine called Abdala*, which we ultimately we named La Rosa Blanca* (The White Rose). We produced it without a computer, but still published five issues, until (another magazine) La Hora de Cuba (Cuba’s Hour) replaced it.

When I completed that course, they failed me for having produced a radio script dealing with the effects of the Huber Matos case on the broadcast media in Camagüey.

Q: Were you allowed to present it?

A: The professor thought it was heresy for me to stir up the case of that Sierra Maestra commander condemned to 20 years in prison for resigning his post. He suggested that I do a project on the journalism of José Martí. So I tackled the censorship suffered by the Apostle** at the hands of the Argentine government for his articles in the newspaper, La Nación. They failed me again, but by that time I had the right to reevaluation.

So I tackled the censorship suffered by José Martí at the hands of the Argentine government for his articles in the newspaper, La Nación.

I went to Camagüey for the weekend and when I returned (to the university) they were waiting to remove me from the premises. They informed me that I had been expelled from the graduate school by virtue of a disciplinary action — nothing ideological, of course!

Four men escorted me to the door and instructed the custodians to keep me from re-entering the building. They also instructed the newspaper Adelante and the Radio Cadena Agramonte station — where I had done my journalism practica — to call the police if I tried to enter.

Q: So that was your definitive goodbye to university classrooms?

A: I don’t surrender easily. In September, 2009, I took the aptitude tests to enroll in the National Institute of Art (ISA), in the school of audio-visual media. I attained the maximum score and was accepted. While at ISA, I worked on the magazine, Convivencia, edited by Dagoberto Valdes in Pinar del Río province. He proposed that I join the Reporting Council and I said yes. I also worked on the independent program Razones Ciudadanas (Civic Reasons).

Another project I participated in while a student at ISA was Hora Cero (Zero Hour). It began after a strike motivated by the bad food we were served. It consisted in staging encounters with persons outside of the institution. Jorge Molina and Gustavo Arcos came, but when we invited Eduardo del Llano, we were obstructed.

In May, 2011, they scheduled me to meet with the dean of ISA, to tell me they had discovered that I had been expelled from the graduate school. At that point I was three days from completing my courses, so I resisted, arguing that the other students should decide my fate. Once again I was removed by force from the premises, in a car that left me at the bus station. So that is the end of my history as a university student, and my obsession with obtaining a degree.

Q: And after the third expulsion?

A: I returned to Camagüey and re-initiated the Hora Cero (Zero Hour) project, at my own risk, in my own home. We started with exhibitions of the photos of Orlando Luís Pardo, a short by Eduardo del Llano, and music by some troubadour friends. Up to now, we have had good attendance by the public. The poet Maikel Iglesias, the theater troupe Cuerpo Adentro, the poet Francis Sánchez, and Eliecer Ávila with his audiovisual work, Un cubano más (Just Another Cuban), have also participated.

To Hora Cero have come university students, professors, neighbors, courageous people who dare to exchange ideas. Some attend who have been instructed to inform about what takes place in these encounters, and others who have been coerced for having received a simple invitation from me to participate.

The first time that State Security visited me, my mother — who at that time was serving on a mission in Venezuela — was threatened. They told her that if she continued supporting me, she could lose the bank account where her salary is deposited. Others have been told that Hora Cero is funded by the CIA.

Q: Have you gone back to your studies?

A: A year ago I heard about a program, Somos un solo pueblo (We Are One People), for young people who have had difficulty pursuing their studies here, and are given the opportunity to do a 6-month course in the United States. Classes in psychology, personal effectiveness, principles of business or sociology, among many others. It was a wonderful experience for me and I learned a lot.

Q: And now?

A: I think I will have my work cut out for me in the next 50 or 60 years, judging by how I see present-day Cuba. If I have any time left over I want to write fiction…but with the way things are, that will have to wait.

Translator’s notes:
* Both of these titles are from the poetry of 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí.
**Martí is referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence”.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

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

  • A package of coffee: “I know it seems like a crime, but I’m going to mix it with what I get from the ration book and it’ll last me longer.”
  • Two bottles of cologne: “Since Suchel reduced production, it’s something refreshing and fragrant for after the bath which has become a luxury.”
  • A packet of washing detergent: “I have clothes that are a little grimy and I’m going to see if this can restore the colors.”
  • A paper datebook: “The doctor who operated on my cataracts asked me for something to write down her appointments and I can’t go wrong with her.”
  • Four scouring pads: “With the ban on traders [importing such things for resale], mops and sponges have disappeared.”
  • A package of instant glue: “I need it to glue together things that have broken around the house.”
  • A package of candles: “I’m preparing for the blackouts, because every now and then the lights go out.”
  • Ten condoms: “At my age I don’t think you need them, but I brought them for my daughters because they say the ones at the pharmacy are past their expiration date.”
  • A jar of CoffeeMate: “I’m going to invite my friends to have a little coffee with this, to remind us of the old times.”
  • Two towels: “The only one I have I bought a decade ago and there’s so little left of it it doesn’t even dry you.”
  • 20 bouillon cubes: “This fixes a meal, if I don’t have anything to go with the rice I throw in a cube and at least it tastes of something.”
  • Two tubes of tomato concentrate: “I have so many cravings to eat some good spaghetti with real tomatoes, I couldn’t resist.”
  • Five school notebooks: “My granddaughter is starting elementary school in September and the study materials they give them there are poor quality.”
  • A tube of toothpaste: “My prosthesis will be gleaming with this.”
  • Two boxes of Tampax: “My daughters are dying for this, because the sanitary napkins on the ration book are annoying and not very absorbent.
  • A package of disposable plates: “I want for at least one day to have the pleasure to invite someone to eat and not have to scrub the dishes.”
  • Two rolls of toilet paper: “There is none in the stores and the newspaper Granma is printed on rougher and rougher paper, so I wanted to treat myself to something soft but sturdy.”
  • A swimsuit: “You’d think we didn’t live on a tropical island considering the high price of suits in the stores.”
  • A bottle of aspirins: “When I have a headache I prefer some real aspirins, not the kind that when you take them they stick in your throat… like the ones they make in Cuba.”
  • A jar of ointment: “I’m old, I have to have something on hand for sore bones.”
  • A roll of plastic bags: “My sisters laughed because I brought these, but they don’t know how many stores and markets there are that after you buy the merchandise they tell you they don’t have any bags to carry the products.”
  • A blood pressure monitor: “I’m tired of going to the family doctor and finding there’s no one there, because the doctor is on a foreign mission or because the water is off.”
  • Four razors: “So I don’t have to go out looking like a pirate with hair legs.”
  • A bottle of salt: “This isn’t easy to find here and when you can buy it it’s so damn and heavy it will barely pour.”
  • Four incandescent bulbs: “I can’t remember when I had light on the terrace and in the hallway because the energy-saving bulbs aren’t available and when you can find them they cost an arm and a leg.”
  • Some reading glasses: “I bought them in a wholesale market but at least I solved the problem, because in the Miramar opticians they wanted to charge me ten times more for some similar ones.”
  • Powdered onion and garlic: “Onions and garlic are so expensive in the agricultural markets that I can’t buy them.”
  • A small tin of olive oil: “I don’t want to die without experiencing that taste again.”
  • A universal remote control: “The one for my Panda television that they gave me during the energy revolution broke years ago.”
  • A DVD player: “My trip was especially to bring back this, because the truth is that I can’t stand the official programming.”

Nuria has also traveled with a handbag in which she brought personal belongings and some underwear. She’s happy about her “treasures,” so she shuts the suitcase, smiles and goes home to distribute the gifts and enjoy what she brought.

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.

You Can’t Come In / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Anuncio-derecho-admisiAn-cine_CYMIMA20140827_0002_16
This venue reserves the right of admission (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, Rosa Lopez, 27 August 2014 – “You can’t come in,” a young doorkeeper emphatically tells a young man, while gesturing for him to move away from the door. When the target protests, he receives the explanation that in this crowded Havana club, “you can’t enter wearing shorts.” A sign posted at the entrance warns that the place, “reserves the right of admission.”

The story is repeated in many other places in Havana. The Charles Chaplin Cinema downtown posts a sign with entry restrictions. When you ask an employee if the rules are dictated by higher body, she says, “No, no. Management is in charge, there’s no law. We are the ones who decide.” And she adds, “We don’t allow people without shirts, or wearing flipflops, or behaving inappropriately.” It’s not unusual to see, however, flexible rules for foreigners. An Italian in short shorts—which could be confused with a bathing suit—passed through the lobby without being ejected.

In 2010, the Chaplin Cinema refused entry to a group of people trying to attend the premier of the documentary Revolution about the hip-hop group Los Aldeanos. Some of these citizens drafted a legal demand against the entity, charging that the segregation was based on ideological reasons, because they were activists, bloggers and musicians from the dissident scene, but it was unsuccessful in court. Years later, the downtown movie theater still sports a sign with restrictions on entry. continue reading

Welcome Cubans, but…

In 2008, one of the first steps taken by Raul Castro on assuming power was to allow Cubans access to hotels. According to the General President, that decision was meant to avoid the emergence of “new inequalities.” Nevertheless, native Cubans still can’t enjoy all the recreational areas of the country. The boats that run along the coast, the marine enclaves along stretches of the coast, and some keys still do not allow Cubans residing on the Island where they were born.

By the Bay of Cienfuegos a pleasure boat sails which doesn’t allow any Cubans to enjoy the excursion. 

By the Bay of Cienfuegos a pleasure boat sails which doesn’t allow any Cubans to enjoy the excursion. The reason, according to several dock workers, is fear that that the boat could be hijacked in an illegal attempt to leave the country. The argument reveals the drama of emigration, but also the continuing existence of an apartheid that makes those born in this land second-class citizens. The measure also violates the Cuban Constitution which guarantees, in Article 43, that all Cubans have the right to use, “without segregation, maritime, rail, air and road transport.”

So far, there are no national guidelines that justify such segregation procedures, especially in State facilities, where it is established that they are projected by law. Outside Pepitos Bar, located on 26th Avenue downtown, there is a sign that shows the use and abuse of the right admission “They are rules imposed by the administration,” says a worker at the center who didn’t want his name revealed.

The rights and duties of the consumer are often subject to arbitrary criteria. (14ymedio)
The rights and duties of the consumer are often subject to arbitrary criteria. (14ymedio)

The existing Penal Code establishes one to three years imprisonment or a 300,000 share* fine for an official who arbitrarily exceeds the legal limits of his or her competency. However, none of the lawyers consulted by this newspaper could remember a trial against any administrator or director of a public facility for irregularities in the “right of admission.”

The “house rules” that govern some public sites in Cuba go against even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to its Article 133, “Every person as the right to circulate freely,” and Article 27 also adds that every citizen “has the right to freely form a part of the cultural life of the community.”

Several State restaurants on Obispo Street prohibit nationals from talking with tourists. 

Attorney Wilfredo Vallín, director of the Cuban Law Association, published an article on the site Primavera Digital (Digital Spring), in which he asserted that “restricting, and at the extreme not permitting, access to public places to people who behave correctly, don’t cause disturbances, don’t bother anyone, is illegal.”

Several State restaurants on Obispo Street prohibit nationals from talking with tourists. Management claims the right to expel people from the premises under the pretext that they are annoying foreign customers. However, cases of verbal reprimands or expulsions of tourists for annoying a Cuban with their insinuations or proposals are unheard of. Having a passport from another country appears to grant carte blanche in these situations.

*Translator’s note: Under Cuban law fines are set as a number of “shares”; the value of a single share can then be adjusted, affecting all the fines, without having to rewrite every law.

El Zanjon In Baragua Times / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Cartel-entrada-zanjon_CYMIMA20140825_0004_1314ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, El Zanjón, 25 August 2014 – No one remembers when the old Spanish barracks were demolished and or the decades passed since the allegorical tally of what happened there. Although the official history vilifies this place, a sign on the central highway tells us we are nearing El Zanjón, whose name also appears on the ID cards of the three hundred people who live in the small village.

On 10 February 1878, the seven agreements of the Pact of Zanjón were signed there, putting an end of the Ten Years War. Thus, the two fundamental objectives that had caused the war were frustrated: Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery. General Arsenio Martinez Campos would be the big winner in an accord that many Cubans considered a shameful page in the national history.

The vast majority of the Liberation Army fighters accepted the pact, with the exception of Antonio Maceo, who a month later starred in the Baraguá Protest. That attempt to keep the struggle alive only lasted until mid-May of the same year, and shortly after Maceo, the Bronze Titan, abandoned the Island for Jamaica. continue reading

A century later, Fidel Castro would proclaim that “Cuba will be an eternal Baraguá.” On taking up this historic event, he would define the intransigence and obstinacy of the political system that has been installed on the Island for half a century. Any dialog with an ideological opponent has been perceived, for decades, as an imitation of the Pact of Zanjón, while intolerance is guided by Maceo’s classic phrase, “We don’t understand each other.”

Perhaps this is why the small rural school in El Zanjón is now called Baraguá Protest School, and the history books define the signing of that Pact as an act of treason. Even the use of the name “Zanjoneros” for those who, according to official views, tried to capitulate after the disaster or Real Socialism in Eastern Europe. Thus, in a small town 375 miles from Havana, people no longer have a native identity they can wear with pride.

But today, the few cows chew their cud and its distaste in the Zanjón lands is not altered, nor the roar of the trucks on the highway. “Here, nothing happens,” a resident tells me, and adds, “So I’m leaving and I’ll never come back.” Leave Zanjón, I ask him. “No, I’m leaving the country, because no one can resist this.”

And there goes another who capitulates, as the official discourse would say, although others prefer to think that they will go into exile to return one day… like Maceo.

A Shortage of Teachers Will Mark the Upcoming School Year / 14ymedio

Elementary students (Luz Escobar)
Elementary students (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Havana, 25 August 2014 – This Monday enrollment began for the various levels of education across the country. The 2014-2015 school year presents a challenge to the Ministry of Education authorities, given the alarming shortage of teachers in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas. On September 1st more than 1.8 million students will enter the classrooms, a figure that declines every year because of the low birthrate affecting the Cuban population. The coming school year will put to the test an educational system caught between an educational system, the unattractive salaries for professionals, and the verticality of decision making.

So far, the presence of 172,000 teachers in the schools has been confirmed, which meets only 93.1% of the needs. However, at least 10,897 positions have been difficult to fill and the educational authorities have tried to fill them by hiring retired teachers, using school staff members from management and administration, and increasing the workload of the teachers already confirmed. Officials and education experts will also help in the schools, although without the ability to cover all the educational needs.

Still, there is a shortage of at least 660 teachers in the capital and Matanzas province, which so far have no replacements. The Education Minister, Ena Elsa Velazquez, remarked that regardless of the shortage, already confirmed educators have to be protected and “not given extra tasks.” An intention difficult to achieve given the current circumstances.

In recent decades Cuban education has suffered a process of material and professional deterioration. During the previous year there was an increase in people complaining about the loss of spaces in classes and assignments in numerous schools around the country. The exodus of teachers to other types of work has forced the training of “emergent teachers” and the introduction of classes taught by television and videos. These measures demonstrate that education is broken and generate deep concern among the students’ parents, particularly those with children in elementary and junior high school.