14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 September 2017 — There is a rare calm in Havana after the passing of Hurricane Irma. So many years of crisis leave a certain resignation in citizens in the face of new tragedies. The country of this September is not the same as that of a few weeks ago, and yet it is very familiar because it is in the state of emergency in which we have always lived.
Irma’s capriciousness has left us some certainties. The first of these has to do with that bridge of tragedy that united Cuba and Florida during the difficult days of winds, floods and power outages. Nature connected what politics has separated for decades.
In small Cuban towns, when many families did not know if they would survive through the night on Sunday, countless thoughts went out to their relatives in Miami who were waiting for the arrival of the hurricane. The same thing happened in the opposite direction. Hearts on the island and the peninsula beat as one, suffered in sync and shared the misfortune.
On the other hand, Cuba’s complex national situation has taken on an unexpected variable since the weekend. Just before the name of the next president is known– in advance of Raul Castro’s commitment to leave the presidency in February of 2018– and when many analysts insisted that all that was left was the “plain sailing” of a tightly planned transfer of leadership, the country is a pile of ruins and the future leader is heir to an immense mortgage.
The loss of at least ten human lives is the most tragic outcome of the hurricane, but Irma’s most palpable victim has been hope. The victims know that recovering a refrigerator, a mattress or a kitchen lost in the water could cost them the rest of their lives. Their expectations in the short and medium term are rock-bottom.
The lack of liquidity in the national coffers and the lack of supply in the markets, which made daily life difficult before Irma’s arrival, became deeper with this climatic shockwave. Predictions of GDP growth – which last year ended in negative numbers – are no longer realistic and the tourism sector will take months to recover.
The feeling that invades millions of people throughout the nation is that even more difficult days are to come. Times of famine, hardship and social tension. Only a generous about-face from power, along with international solidarity, could shorten the deadlines for a recovery that is expected to be long and complex.
Foreign aid will do its part, but the government must make important decisions to alleviate the suffering of those who have lost all or a good part of their property. Removing restrictions on personal imports and allowing commercial imports into private hands would help to bring huge resources into the country in the coming months.
In times like these it is urgent that vehicles, construction materials, medicines in large quantities and agricultural machinery can be brought in from outside.
The granting of licenses for self-employment needs to be unfrozen, the number of occupations allowed expanded, and a moratorium established on the payment of taxes in the most affected areas. These measures can help to rebuild the nation’s economic fabric.
International organizations need to be able to channel their aid directly and with less bureaucracy. This is the only way to prevent resources from ending up in provincial headquarters, in institutional stores where the “subtraction of resources” (i.e. management and employee theft) depletes their quantity, or on store shelves where they are sold at prices inaccessible to the poorest.
In the coming weeks, the government has the opportunity to demonstrate that it can cede areas of economic control for the sake of a less delayed recovery. The last page of Raul Castro’s book as head of the country is blank. Now he must decide whether to fill it with gestures of control or openings, whether he will contribute to the sinking of the island or help to revive it.
14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana/Cienfuegos, 12 September 2017 — The air smells of damp and feces. Using a shovel without a handle, Óscar Rodríguez’s family is shoveling the mud out of all the corners of their house on Gervasio Street, a few yards from Havana’s Malecon, an area recently flooded by Hurricane Irma. Everyone is working on the task, the children, the grandmother, and the neighbor who comes over to help.
“I’ve lived in this place since I was born and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Rodríguez. “We have had floods but they haven’t gone past the door.” This time the sea respected nothing. “We lost two mattresses, the refrigerator got quite wet and the TV fell into the water when we tried to move it to a higher place,” he says.
Rodriguez’s wife circles the water tank in the yard. “We do not have water to drink or to cook because everything is contaminated with the sea and with the contents of the sewage pipes,” he explains. The dog stays put on the stairs leading to the loft platform, guarding it well.
The area where the family lives is supplied by underground electricity, an undeniable advantage for decades for the residents of the San Leopoldo district, which has suffered fewer interruptions than areas are supplied through poles and wires which experience the breaks caused by the winds. But Hurricane Irma has changed the situation.
“They say that electricity will take longer to come back in the underground area because we have to wait for everything down there to dry,” says Rodríguez. They have been without electricity for more than 72 hours and have squeezed every last drop of energy out of everything they had in the house.
“We started with batteries and a flashlight, then we went to candles and now we are getting light from an old kerosene lamp,” he adds. For cooking, the family has a small liquefied gas cylinder that it tries to use as sparingly as possible.
“We had to boil water here for a baby who lives in the next corridor because that family was left with nothing and they have nothing to cook with,” he says.
The hurricane gave the national energy system a real blow. Most of the Cuban thermoelectric plants, with the exception of Renté in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in Cienfuegos, are located on the north coast, the strip most damaged by the hurricane in its trajectory on the Island.
The officials of the Electricity Union have clarified that it is not enough to live in an area where the hurricane had fewer direct effects, because the problem is power generation.
The truth of this is evident in Cienfuegos, where, despite being out of the path of Irma, there is not enough energy to restart the thermoelectric plant.
“I do not know what’s worse, the conjunctivitis outbreak or the lack of electricity,” says Olga Lydia Ulloa, a scientist who hopes that the engineers of the power company will manage to restart the city’s power plan and “turn on the light.”
Like most of the island, Cienfuegos has been without electricity for three days. In some places the destruction of the high tension towers and the electricity poles augurs weeks for the recovery.
The director of the Provincial Electricity Office, Ricardo García Parra, told the local press that work is being done intensely with the area’s generators to get the thermoelectric plant working.
“In recent weeks there has been an epidemic of zika and conjunctivitis in the village and, to top it off, the hurricane has left us with no lights; we have little kids and nothing to cook with,” says Ulloa.
Most Cubans were forced to use electricity as their only cooking option after the “energy revolution” promoted by the late President Fidel Castro. Although the unrationed sale of liquefied gas to households has been allowed in recent years, the price is high for an average worker, which limits access.
Private markets also have electric service thanks to generators that work with fuel oil and diesel, but only two provincial hospitals in the territory and its surrounding areas had electricity as of Tuesday.
Despite the disaster, in Havana there is room for hope. The Máximo Gómez Thermoelectric Power Plant of Mariel, one of those affected, was ready to begin service on Monday, after intense hours of repairs and hundreds of thousands of residents in Havana are hopeful that this energy colossus will bring them out of the dark .
The tracks left by “the days of the water”
But now, “the worst is the smell, there is no one who can stand it,” says Óscar Rodríguez as he removes pieces of wood, paper and some crushed beer cans from the mud. “At first it smelled of the sea, but as the waters receded this plague has come and now even we smell like this,” he laments.
No one has showered since last Friday. They all try to drink little water so they do not use up the “strategic reserves,” as Grandma calls them, and continue look for some belongings, such as shoes and an identity card that seem to have gone with the flow.
Outside, some kids are enthusiastic about the day they swam down Gervasio Street, the dips in Maceo Park and how the wall of the Malecon disappeared after being covered by the sea. They have not had classes this Monday and nobody knows when they will reopen the schools in the area. At the moment the priorities seem to be different.
The epidemiological situation has been deteriorating since the floods began. The area, one of the most densely populated in the whole of the country, has a great number of buildings where dozens of families live in crowded conditions. Now, most of those residents are stationed outside their homes because the heat and bad smell make it unbearable to stay inside.
Others do not want to be in their homes for fear that the old walls will end up collapsing when they dry. “This is on the verge of pure miracle,” a resident of a tenement at San Lázaro and Lealtad streets tells this newspaper. The narrow, winding hallway is still wet. The rooms on either side have their doors open and waterlogged belonging are set out everywhere under the sun to dry.
The image is like a ship with ragged sails and tired-eyed sailors on no fixed course. The neighborhood of San Leopoldo continues to experience its own shipwreck a few hours after the waters recede.
14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Camaguey, 11 September 2017 – Yosvani has been in a long line for an hour outside the polyclinic, though he is not sick or injured. Hurricane Irma left him with no electricity and he is anxious to recharge his cell phone battery to try to communicate with his friends and family and to find out how they are. Hundreds of residents have been crowding the Camagüey’s emergency rooms since Saturday to benefit from the generators installed there.
Since the lights went out, something more than 48 hours ago, Yosvani knows nothing of his family on Florida beach, one of the places most affected by the powerful hurricane that touched down in Cuban territory as a category five. “I’m going crazy,” he says in the endless line to which everyone arrives with a charger and a mobile phone or a tablet in hand.
“Right now there are two things in this city that are worth their weight in gold: drinking water and a connection where you can charge a cell phone,” says the young man. Everyone in the line has a story of desperation.
“My parents are from Esmeralda and they say that their world is gone, but I have not even been able to find out if they managed to evacuate in time,” explains Roxana, a woman in Camagüey with two children whose home was also damaged. “We lost many roof tiles and the yard is devastated, with all the trees on the ground,” she laments.
When her turn in line arrives, Roxana opens her bag and takes out three cell phones. “They are from my neighbors, who can’t come here and urgently need to receive calls from their children in Miami,” she says. She plugs in each phone and watches with relief as the battery bars grow. “One, two, three …” she says softly.
Those behind her in line try to rush those in front of the prized outlet. “Don’t wait to fill the battery, just take a little bit and leave something for the rest, everyone has the need to communicate,” complains a man.
A pregnant woman approaches to ask to be be allowed to cut the line, but a hullabaloo ensues. “Everyone here has a different tragedy. The person who doesn’t have missing relatives is a missing person for their family,” complains another who is waiting.
The nurses come and go trying to get around the line that fills the hallway. Medical staff dislike the crowds that fill the corridors, but they understand that, for many, electricity is now the best cure, the most sought after remedy.
Between 2004 and 2014, the Government imported 52,292 generators at a value of 1.3 billion dollars. The commissioning of these units was one of the last campaigns promoted by Fidel Castro. Over time, the deterioration and theft of fuel has diminished their use, but in moments of massive electrical cuts they regain their importance.
“Last night they brought in an extension with multiple sockets and the load was so heavy that they burned out the outlet,” complains polyclinic security staffer Rodolfo Ramírez Esquivel to 14ymedio,” so we only allow people to connect equipment and not extensions.”
However, the need to recharge the devices is so pressing that many people ignore the recommendations. “I brought an eight-outlet powerstrip and put it in my backpack with the cellphones of my entire family without them noticing, because outside the backpack I was charging two more,” says a resident.
Everyone fears that the electricity cuts will be prolonged due to the serious damages suffered by the electrical lines in Camagüey province. Some have tried alternative ways to recharge their cellphones without having to go to the polyclinics.
“Days before the hurricane a cousin emailed me a trick to charge a cell phone with a 9-volt battery, so I started looking around my house and I found one that solved the problem a little,” says a young man standing in line with his mother to use the clinic’s outlets.
The damage to poles, transformers and cables has been so extensive in the central and eastern part of the country that Raúl Castro, who is also president of the National Defense Council, ordered that support brigades be created in each municipality to “guarantee the restoration of the electricity” according to an official note.
Those in Camagüey who are starting their third day without power greeted the news with displeasure. The weather is still humid although the rains have stopped. The streets remain covered with a mixture of mud, leaves and tree branches. On the stands in the markets there is nothing but bananas and some tiny papayas that must have fallen due to the winds.
A woman walks past the polyclinic with a bag of eggs and a group surrounds her to inquire anxiously where she bought them. Provisions are unavailable and agriculture in the area has suffered a devastating blow that will take months to recover. Most affected are bananas, but beans and vegetables have also suffered.
The chicken farms on the outskirts of the city are the scene of massive deaths, several of them have lost their roofs and are flooded, according to testimonies of several farmers in the area. Hopefully there will be images circulating in the next few days, when neighbors recharge their mobiles and send them out.
Every kilowatt is worth whatever people ask for it and more, in a city where public transport has been cancelled and electric motorbikes are the only way that many can get around.
“There are places where they do not let you connect to recharge [a motorbike], but there are always people willing to help,” explains Yusnier Ramirez, a young man in line to recharge his cell phone at the medical post in front of Plaza Méndez. “There are also those who recharge their motorbikes, but for that we have to pay,” he says.
The urgency to reactivate cell phones grows due to the failures in city’s fixed-line phone network.
“I’ve been waiting for more than two hours,” says another Camagüeyan outside an emergency room. The young man tried to use a rustic solar panel to revive his device, but was unsuccessful. “This polyclinic looks like a disaster zone, but the consultation rooms are empty,” he explains. “We are all here to recharge our mobiles.”
EFE (via 14ymedio), Havana, 11 September 2017 – At least ten people have died in Cuba as a consequence of Hurricane Irma, according to information received this Monday from Cuba’s Civil Defense General Staff.
Most of those who died were killed in building collapses, seven of them in Havana, as the hurricane caused heavy flooding on the north coast of the country.
In a message addressed to the population, Raul Castro appealed to the “Cuban people’s spirit of resistance and victory” after the “devastating” hurricane, which caused “severe damage” to the country, according to a statement published in the official newspaper Gramma.
Castro emphasized that under these circumstances “the unity of Cubans, solidarity between neighbors and the discipline of the guidelines issued by the Civil Defense General Staff have prevailed.”
Castro said that the cyclone has caused “damage to homes, the electrical system and agriculture,” and also hit some of the island’s “tourist destinations.”
“These have been difficult days for our people, who just a few hours ago have seen the effort to forcefully respond to this blow from a devastating hurricane,” the country’s president added.
As a result of Irma’s passage through the most popular tourist destinations in the country, the tourist company Thomas Cook reported Monday that it will evacuate more than 2,000 United Kingdom tourists from Cuba and will send additional personnel to Cuba to coordinate assistance to the passengers.
“We are working on an evacuation plan for our 2,350 customers in Varadero to bring them home in the coming days. We have an additional 26 members of our special assistance team waiting to fly from the UK to provide additional support to our customers as soon as we can reach the airports in Cuba,” said the company’s statement.
This measure was taken after several tourists complained about the lack of information about their situation.
On the other hand, a spokeswoman for the tour operator Thompson said that tourists arriving in Cuba will continue with their holidays as planned because the hurricane has already passed.
On Friday and Saturday Irma was a category 4 storm as it punished the north coast of Cuba from east to west, causing serious flooding on the coast and forcing the evacuation of 1.7 million people.
14ymedio, Havana, 8 September 2017 — Hurricane Irma advanced through the archipelago north of the province of Camagüey early this morning, where it touched land in Cayo Romano on Friday night with winds up to 160 miles per hour.
Irma is the first category 5 hurricane whose eye has touched Cuban territory since 1932. On Saturday morning, its maximum sustained winds fell and it became a category three hurricane on the Saffir Simpson scale. Its expanse affected the entire national territory.
In the municipalities of Esmeralda and Chambas the rains and the winds have been felt strongly since the dawn of this Saturday and according to reports of the local radio the 13 evacuation centers with the territory of Camagüey are crowded.
The president of the Government in Camagüey, Isabel González Cárdenas, informed the official media that in the town of Esmeralda there are “severe damages to roofs and facades of state institutions and private houses, fallen trees, breaks in the electrical service, and partial and total building collapses.”
As it passes through the province of Camagüey, Irma is causing damage in almost all municipalities.
The slum area popularly called La Fabela in the Bobes neighborhood west of Camagüey was flooded as the waters of the San Pedro River overflowed, but many residents refused to be evacuated for fear of being prevented from returning to their homes.
“There was no way to prepare for this,” said Liset Ávila, 28, who lost all her belongings when the river began to flood. “The wind was terrifying, but what did the most damage was the water, I’ve lost everything,” she laments.
A few yards away, Rafael Suárez does not regret having stayed despite the fact that he can barely move through the water. “I did not evacuate because these houses are illegal and it was very likely that we would not be allowed to return,” he told this newspaper. “Now we only have to wait for the water to go down and start rebuilding what was left.”
For Irma Cáceres what happened is as unfortunate as it is unprecedented. “I’ve never seen such a disaster,” she says, and heading down the street in search of her house of which she can barely see the roof.
René Fernández Quiroga, a resident of Santa Cruz del Sur, told this newspaper that “tropical storm winds are being felt, there are many fallen trees, telephone cables have fallen and some homes have lost their roofs in the Jacinto González neighborhood.”
During the morning Punta Alegre, sustained winds exceeding 90 mph and there are serious coastal floods, larger than any of the local people remember.
Magalys Cabrera, a resident of that municipality, commented to the 14ymedio via telephone that she has not dared to leave her house but can hear from indoors “the roar of collapsing roofs.”
In the early hours of Saturday, Cabrera peered into her yard and noted with alarm that “all the fruit trees are on the ground,” a situation repeated among the nearest homes.
In Florida municipality, damage reaches the South Coast, where at least 300 inhabitants of this well-known beach have had to be moved to higher areas due to the intense penetrations of the sea that began in the earliest hours of the morning.
Sea penetrations and strong winds have destroyed part of the hotel infrastructure in the area, as well as private homes.
Yulián Arencibia, a specialist at the local meteorological station, said that in the last hours there had been gusts of 85 mph and sustained winds of around 50 mph. Rain gauges recorded over than five inches in just six hours.
According to the meteorology institute, Irma will continue to move slowly (at about 9 mph) to the west and later will turn towards the west-northwest. Hurricane-force winds may be felt as far as Matanzas, while Havana will have coastal flooding on the Malecon due to the penetration of the sea.
Caibarién, Villa Clara, also has suffered greatly as a result of the persistent rains and the winds that have increased since dawn. The sea penetrated about a third of a mile inland and there are reported gusts of 132 mph and sustained winds of 100 mph.
The city has lost much of its electrical and telephone lines, which have fallen before the storm, and numerous houses have collapsed. To this alarming scenario is added coastal flooding in the low-lying areas.
In the city of Gibara in Holguin, strong wind gusts have affected dozens of homes and state facilities, according to official sources and the local hospital lost its doors due to flooding.
On the north coast of Ciego de Avila, there have been 16 to 23 foot waves and strong penetrations of the sea.
The greatest damages so far are in the northern keys, where the tourist resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are located. More than 30,000 tourists staying in the area have been evacuated and the winds have knocked down most of the hotel structures.
The most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic has led to the evacuation of more one million people in Cuba so far.
Given this situation, Civil Defense declared the Alarm Phase for the provinces of Mayabeque, Havana and Artemisa, the Alert Phase for Pinar del Río, and the Information Phase for the Special Municipality of the Isla de la Juventud; the remainder of the country has been declared in the Alarm phase.
The municipality of Candelaria in Mayabeque dawned cloudy this Saturday and desperation seized the inhabitants before the advance of the hurricane. In state markets there are long lines to buy eggs and ham, the only products available.
There are no cookies or milk, and bread normally sold unrationed has been temporarily rationed to avoid hoarding. The agricultural markets this morning were offering only sweet potatoes and bananas, while in the state cafes there were only cigars and rum.
Havanans get ready
The waves have increased on Havana’s Malecon and almost no one is seen walking on the streets, nor is there any traffic. Authorities estimate that about 10,000 people from the height of the Tunnel on Linea Street up to 23rd, plus from the Malecon to Linea Street will be flooded out. Of these 10,000 people, it is estimated that some 7,000 will be placed in the 19 shelters that have been established in the Plaza de la Revolución municipality. The other 3,000 people who reside in this area will move to the homes of family and friends.
14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 9 September 2017 — While the winds were pummeling the eastern and central parts of the island, thousands of faithful devotees gathered this Friday in Havana to participate in the procession for the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s Patron Saint, which is celebrated every 8th September. To the traditional requests for prosperity and health, this year an added request was that Hurricane Irma not cause serious damage to the country.
The diocesan sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, located in the municipality of Central Havana, received thousands of parishioners with flowers and candles. Some also wore yellow clothing in allusion to Ochún, the orisha of santería with which the Virgin of Charity of Cobre is syncretized.
The image of Cachita, as the island’s patroness is popularly known, left the church shortly after six o’clock in the evening on a procession through several nearby streets. Along the way, there was no lack of devotional displays with petals of flowers thrown from the balconies and songs.
“I came to ask for Cuba and Miami,” Estervina, 82, who had gone to the procession accompanied by three grandchildren, told 14ymedio. “My two children live in Florida and I’m begging Cachita to take pity and dissolve the hurricane.” In her hands, the old woman carried a bouquet of sunflowers.
Others chose to light candles inside the church, although these days the informal market has been depleted of such products due to the high demand sparked by preparations to protect against the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.
“Better times will come and I’ll bring you more candles, but this year I only had this one,” says Jorge Luis, a fervent devotee of Cachita. The man prayed inside the church and in his entreaties included “finally having a home of his own and taking a trip abroad.”
From the province of Holguín, Jorge Luis was worried this Friday by the situation of his family in the city of Gibara. “Irma is nearly there and I have come so that the Virgin may help my people to move forward without serious damage, that they do not have physical injuries and that their house is not damaged,” he says.
The archbishop of Havana, Juan de la Caridad García, was also part of the procession with priests and nuns of various congregations, and later he officiated the mass in the temple of Calle Salud y Manrique. During the pilgrimage invocations were made to the importance of family and reconciliation among Cubans.
The procession was heavily guarded by uniformed police officers and plainclothes agents, but no incidents occurred.
This year it was not possible to carry out the traditional procession in Santiago de Cuba, from the Basilica del Cobre, due to the deterioration of the weather conditions.
14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 8 September 2017 – The return to class, for thousands of children and young people, means a return to the discipline of school after two months of vacation. This September, school directors have focused their crusade against fingernails and hair painted bright colors, and students are forced to get haircuts or remove the enamel to conform to the regulations.
In July and August, far from the classrooms, many teenagers chose the strident tones of summer fashion. Red, green, blue and purple have been a trend in hair and phosphorescent colors are favored for fingernails, a rainbow that the schools are not willing to accept.
“I do not want to see anyone here with phosphorescent nails or hair dyed in colors,” warned a fifth-grade teacher on Monday, at the entrance of her classroom in a school in the Plaza de Revolución municipality. The scene has been repeated in schools all over the island, which stick to regulations to limit the creativity of students.
Julio Mojena, the father of twins residing in the Havana neighborhood of Cerro, considers the restrictions arbitrary since there is no written rule that specifically states them. His sons dyed their hair in August and now, he laments, “they can’t go to class until they get haircuts… In my time it was the length of the hair and the earrings, now it’s the color. What will it be tomorrow?” he asks.
“Each school can make adjustments to school regulations” depending “on the characteristics of their community,” a Ministry of Education official, who prefers to remain anonymous, told 14ymedio by phone.
Although there is no specific regulation on hair color, nails or any other detail, the official maintains that “in the schools uniformity is demanded” in the physical aspect of the student body and that this detail is supported by the general regulations.
The official acknowledges that there was a time when the length of males’ hair was strictly regulated, but that now they may “wear their mane to the collar.” Formerly males’ hair could be no more than just over an inch long.
In the eighties the crusade against hair length and the maintenance of aesthetic uniformity among students even jumped to the pages of the official newspapers. However, the José Martí Pioneer Organization (for elementary schools) and the Federation of Middle School Students did not mediate in favor of those they represent and the students did not win that symbolic battle for differentiation.
Nevertheless, controls have softened over the years, especially since the economic crisis forced families to substitute parts of the school uniform for home-made ones or to buy their children’s school shoes in the hard currency markets as a result of a breakdown in the supply of manufactured products in the ration market.
Now it is common to see students in the regulated garments modified with pleats, raised hems or adjusted sleeves.
Nor do girls and young women escape the restrictions. “In this classroom you come to study and those nails decorated with figures or painted with phosphorescent colors distract the attention of other students,” a Spanish teacher tells his students at Baragua Protest Junior High School in Central Havana.
So far this year, at least ten girls from the school say they have had problems with the manicure they were wearing when the school year began. In contrast, the pressure for them is less in terms of hair; if they dye their hair blond or red it is ignored, although other tones, such as violet, blue or green may not be.
“Reality evolves faster than school regulations,” explains Zulema Vázquez, a sociologist with two school age children. “The teaching authorities have a mentality from the last century and are not prepared to deal with the new situations that are taking place,” she says.
The specialist considers that any attempt at uniformity in terms of physical appearance eventually causes children and adolescents to find more sophisticated ways to differentiate themselves. “It can be the length of the skirt, a piercing, adjustments made to a blouse, the color or the length of the hair, but in one way or another, they will find a way to break the monotony,” argues Vázquez.
María Molina, mother of a teenager in Cienfuegos, told 14ymedio that her 14-year-old son was unable to start the school year at José Gregorio Technological Institute where he is training to be a “teacher of agriculture,” because his teacher and the school’s principal did not allow him to attend with his dyed hair.
According to Molina, the teacher and the director warned that “if you don’t cut your hair or dye it black” he would not be admitted. The mother tried to negotiate an intermediate solution and proposed that the young man cut his hair a little every week until the dyed part disappears, but her alternative was not accepted.
“As a mother I feel frustrated, I called the provincial and municipal education department and everyone repeats that we have to respect the school regulations,” she concludes with irritation.
14ymedio, Havana, 8 September 2017 — In El Girasol, a town on the outskirts of the Cuban city of Guantánamo, residents look up at the sky with fear. Most of the houses in the area “can’t stand another hurricane,” warns Yoanni Beltrán, owner of a house with cardboard walls and a light roof that, as of Thursday, has already begun to suffer from the rains associated with Hurricane Irma.
At midnight, the storm was 125 miles northeast of Punta de Maisí on the eastern end of the island and workers at La Rusa hotel felt they were experiencing a déjà vu from Hurricane Matthew, which last October tore the roof off that emblematic lodging.
“We are here, but we are not offering services because right now it’s about preserving the place to avoid its getting damaged again,” a local employee told this newspaper by phone. Hours after that call, staff were also evacuated in the face of deteriorating weather conditions.
The situation during the afternoon was very different. Juannier Rodríguez Matos, a resident of the city, told 14ymedio that people seemed “too trusting” because the eye of the storm will not pass through the area. “The most worried are those who have spent almost a year living in shelters because they lost everything with Matthew, and now the solution to their problem may be delayed,” said the young man.
At 11:30 p.m. on Thursday night, coastal flooding began in Baracoa and the roofs of several houses collapsed under the force of the winds. Most of the residents in the lower parts of the municipality and within 45 miles of the coast have left their homes to go to shelters, caves, military refuges or the homes of other family members.
In other Guantanamo towns the evacuation continues at a more leisurely pace. “A group of neighbors had the initiative for us to shelter in a kindergarten,” Yoanni Beltran told this newspaper. “A lieutenant colonel of the Civil Defense said that we had to leave and wait for the order to arrive so we can do it.”
Although weather conditions in El Girasol have not deteriorated to the point of building collapses or falling trees, residents fear that the situation will worsen and they will be trapped amid the winds and rain.
The dangers associated with Irma have not loosened police controls or lessened repression. Maykel González, a contributor to the Diario de Cuba site attempted to interview evacuees in Isabela de Sagua; he and his colleague Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez were arrested for reporting.
The police forced the two reporters to erase their interviews and also forced them to undress for a meticulous body search, a situation similar to that experienced by the Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism) team when it tried to cover the damage left by Matthew last October.
In Santiago de Cuba, where the effects of the hurricane had not yet been felt as of midnight Thursday, more than 75,000 people had been evacuated, and in the province of Camagüey 130 shelters are available for those living in areas of greatest danger.
Nora Gonzalez, a resident of Santa Lucia beach in Camagüey, summarized her fears in a more than eloquent way, for this newspaper. “Today you are someone who boasts of prosperity and in a few hours a hurricane passes and you are no longer anyone. The worst thing is that you do not have the strength to start from the beginning.”
14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 31 August 2017 — The red and white uniform has been washed and ironed for two days; next to it, a blue neckerchief. Eddy Alberto is eight years old and is starting the second grade at the Héroes de Yaguajay elementary school in the province of Sancti Spiritus. When he grows up, he wants to be a teacher and he has been asking his mother about the beginning of school for a week.
“On Monday, the tragedy begins again,” says Yanelis, Eddy Alberto’s mother, by telephone. “Last year they were three months without a teacher and according to what a teacher’s aid told me, this year they don’t have anyone either. They are going to put the librarian in charge of teaching them,” she adds with annoyance.
On September 4, more than 1,750,000 students will begin the new school year in Cuba. There will be 10,698 educational institutions opening, but some problems, such as teachers for all classrooms, continue to drag on from year to year.
According to official data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), in 2016-2017 there were 248,438 classroom teachers, some 21,600 fewer than in 2008 when Raul Castro became president.
The country needs 16,000 more teachers to cover the deficit in all areas of education. In addition, between 10,000 and 13,000 teachers are on staff but out of the classroom for personal problems or maternity leave, as recently acknowledged by the Minister of Education, Ena Elsa Velázquez, in an interview with the magazine Bohemia.
To remedy the exodus of teachers, the minister proposes several options: the hiring of teachers, the reinstatement of retirees, and the use of university students as teachers at other levels. Velázquez also said that her Ministry has created “a system of moral encouragement” for teachers. Some provinces, such as Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba, will send teachers to others where the need is urgent, such as Matanzas and Havana.
Since taking office, first as interim president (2006) and then as president elected by the National Assembly (2008), Raul Castro substantially reduced the budget of the Ministry of Education. Expenditure on Education fell by 5 percentage points as a share of Gross Domestic Product, from 14% in 2008 to 9% in 2017, as it appears in the Budget Law approved last January by the National Assembly. During this period, 1,803 schools were also closed, according to official figures.
“The problem is that nobody wants to be a teacher because they pay them very little and they exploit them a lot,” says Yanelys.
Last year the Ministry of Education provided a salary increase of about 200 Cuban pesos for teachers with a greater teaching load. Even so, the average salary of an education professional is around 533 Cuban pesos, a little more than 20 dollars a month.
The reduction of resources has had a direct impact on the quality of the education system. According to the minister, more than 20% of school facilities are in a state between regular and bad.
The lack of encouragement to study education has been recognized by the same authorities, who saw with astonishment that only 58 undergraduates opted for three of the university teaching courses of the more than twenty that were offered in the province of Cienfuegos.
“For a long time, coverage and quality, as well as accessibility to the educational system, made Cuba one of the most lauded countries in Latin America,” explains the Cuban academic Armando Chaguaceda from Mexico.
However, he believes that many professionals have been lost “because there is not an adequate attention to the teacher.”
“They spent much more money on the training program for ‘emerging teachers’ than on simply recognizing the value of the work of thousands of self-sacrificing teachers,” he explains.
At the beginning of the 21st century, then-President Fidel Castro created the Teaching Schools for Emerging Teachers and Integral Teachers, which in just a few months prepared primary and secondary school teachers to make up for the exodus of professionals. After nearly a decade and thousands of graduates, the teacher deficit continues.
The director of the Center for Coexistence Studies, Dagoberto Valdés, acknowledges that the country is facing a major challenge: “The civility and ethical and civic education of children leaving schools is shameful. It is something that marks the culture of our people,” he says.
Convivencia, a think tank in the province of Pinar del Río, prepared last year, as part of its Thoughts for the Future of Cuba, a report with concrete proposals on education.
“There is a serious demographic problem in the country that is already reflected in educational enrollment. There are fewer and fewer people who enter the education system and graduate,” laments Valdés.
The number of graduates with university degrees has fallen as sharply as enrollment, which has fallen more than 78% in the last decade.
“We believe that a true educational project is needed that integrates both the school and the family and civil society, without ideological shading, but based on the cultural heritage of the nation, from [Father Félix] Varela to [José] Martí,” he dreams.
14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 5 September 2017 — The young touchscreen generation looks at them with curiosity and the new rich keep their distance, but there are Cubans for whom public telephones continue to be an important way of communicating in the face of the high prices of the mobile service.
Making local calls from public phones is much easier on citizens’ pockets than using a cellphone. On the public phones, callers only have to pay 0.3 Cuban pesos (CUP) per minute during the day and 0.2 CUP per night (1.0 CUP = 4¢ US). For longer distance calls, such as between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the price is set at 1.0 CUP during the day, 0.5 CUP at night, and after eleven PM it only costs 0.1, meaning a ten minute call can be made for the equivalent of just 4¢ USD.
In countries like France or England public telephones are on the verge of extinction, given the advance of cellular networks. In Spain, despite being a very deficient service and with an 84% decrease in available phones in the last 15 years (from 55,000 to 18,000 nationwide), the service is still required by law and the company with the concession was forced to renew its contract in 2017, when a public tender received no takers. As in Spain, the Cuban government is committed to maintaining, through the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa), a service that is used by lower income citizens.
At the end of last year, the country operated 59,818 public phones, including 8,588 coin operated phones. For this year, the state communications monopoly plans to install 500 new public phones, of which 45 are intended especially for people with disabilities.
At the end of 2015, the country had only 1,333,034 fixed lines – in a country with over 11 million people – of which 996,063 served the residential sector, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). The installation of phone lines in homes has grown very slowly in recent years and between 2010 and 2015 just over 185,000 lines were added throughout the country.
Along with the poor quality of bread and the transportation problems, the problems with public phone service dominate the criticisms most heard on the streets and raised in the local People’s Power Accountability Meetings, where people can sound off to their elected officials. Deterioration, vandalism and the scarcity of phones in heavily populated areas are the subject of complaints.
Raquel Stone, a commercial specialist for ETECSA’s Public Telephone Services Division, told the official media that every year the company must repair thousands of public phones rendered unusable due to vandalism. The most common damage is having the handset pulled out.
Repairing the equipment represents an expense of 1,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, 1 CUC = roughly 1 USD) for each coin-operated device, and between 330 and 400 CUC for each device that operates only with prepaid cards.
“The publics,” as they are popularly called, are in high demand not only among those who cannot afford a cell phone, but also among those who carry a cellphone so they can be reached, but make most outgoing calls from the devices located in the streets.
“If I call you and hang up on the second ring, it means I’m going to see you, but if I call you and let it ring, I can’t go,” a teenage girl shouts from the sidewalk to her friend who had just gotten on the bus. “But don’t pick up because I have almost nothing left on my cell,” she adds. The 0.35 CUC it costs for each minute of a cellphone call represents approximately half the daily salary of a professional.
In spite of these rates, in July of this year the number of active cellphone lines in the country reached 4,313,000. The growth experienced since Cubans were first authorized to contract for the service, in 2008, still places Cuba at the tail end of Latin American countries.
Only 35.5% of the Cuban population has access to cellular service, in contrast to nations such as Panama, where usage surpasses the number of inhabitants and is at the top of the region, with a 172% penetration rate for cellphone service. In Guatemala the rate is 115% and in Puerto Rico 88%.
Aníbal Lorenzo, a 32-year-old pedicab driver who has been living in Havana for two months, is one of millions of Cubans who can not even dream of a cell phone. To maintain communication with his family in Guantánamo, he purchased a prepaid card that he uses on the public network. The worker laments that coin-operated phones almost never work.
“I have searched all the phones that are on Amistad Street,” he says while testing several unsuccessful phones. A few feet away, a young woman picks up a headset and hears the ringing tone, but before she starts to talk, she takes out a handkerchief from her purse and cleans the area near her mouth. “They are always dirty and stink,” she complains.
The telecommunications company has installed some public telephones in funeral homes, hospitals and pharmacies. The caller must dial 1-69-69 and charge the amount to the recipient of the call. The option is little known yet, but it can get one out of a bind.
“They stole my purse on the bus and a man told me that in a nearby Emergency Room there was a telephone that had that service,” says Rosaura, a young architect who before that incident not “touched a public phone for more than five years.” Now, she recognizes that in certain situations you have to go back to the old fashioned way.
In the last decade, attempts have been made internationally to offer new uses from public phone booths. In Spain for example, in addition to accepting payment by credit card, some have enabled the possibility of sending emails and SMS to mobile phones. Despite this, it has not been possible to avoid a fall off of 84% in this service in just 15 years.
In France phone booths have become public libraries in some localities, while in London the legendary red wooden cubicles are leased to small business owners who have turned them into small businesses, such as craft shops or tiny florists.
In the imposing building on the corner of Águila and Dragones streets, the ETECSA headquarters is located in a property that belonged to the American company AT&T more than five decades ago, when it was nationalized. In one of its rooms, a museum preserves several models of the first public telephones that were installed in the Island.
“All this is active thanks to a group of retirees who maintain the equipment,” says María del Carmen, one of the local workers. “In telecommunications schools, only new technology is taught now,” and these pensioners are “the only ones who have mastered these devices.”
A few yards from María del Carmen, a young woman receives a call on her cell phone while waiting to pay her telephone bill. She responds hurriedly and with short phrases. “Hang on, I’ll call you from an public phone,” she says as she looks around at the nearest devices.
14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 September 2017 — The Cuban elections have several publicized trademarks, among them the presence of children dressed in the school uniform to guard the polls. These Pioneers* confirm with a salute when the voter deposits their vote, in contrast to the armed soldiers who in the Republican past prevented the theft of the ballot boxes.
For four decades, the presence of these Pioneers has become a favored image of photographers and a symbolic gesture, in its double meaning of a signature act or uselessness. It is clear that no one is going to manipulate the ballots since all the legitimized candidates represent the interests of the only permitted party.
This September 4 is the first step in a process that will end on February 24, 2018, when Cuban citizens will find out who has been designated to fill the seats of the Council of State, particularly its president. This Monday the process starts as a “pilot experience” in a single constituency of each of the country’s 168 municipalities. Voting will take place in the other constituencies during the month of September.
The Government is concerned that these candidate nominating assemblies will allow an unwelcome candidate to make it through. Not only do they fear an opponent who belongs to an anti-government organization, but in a secluded district someone might appear who has the reputation of not applauding with sufficient enthusiasm.
To prevent such a thing from happening, the allegorical appeal of the Pioneers as guardians of the ballot boxes is of little use. With plenty of time in advance, a harsh-demeanored seguroso—State Security agent—will have visited anyone who intends to run independently.
It will not be necessary to show the ‘instruments’ to the nonconforming, it will be enough to warn of the fatal consequences that such daring might bring. Someone will remind them that they have a grandparent admitted to the hospital, a child who hopes to be a college student some day, a brother who is applying for a license to be self-employed, or a pig that fattens in their yard without permission.
If the threats do not take effect and the disobedient show up to be proposed in the nomination assembly, the work will be finished by the militants of the zone’s Party nucleus, who will have been schooled in the darkest corners of the biographies of the intrepid candidates.
Without modesty or shame they will point out some baseness such as “if he has been unfaithful to his partner, how can he be expected to be loyal to his constituents”; or mention that he buys on the black market or never shows up to perform voluntary work. Finally, the duly warned participants will be asked by a public show of hands whether the discredited aspirant will be nominated as a candidate.
On this occasion a new resource will come into play. The youth brigades of the 9th Congress of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) have programmed their agenda of activities precisely during the time period in which the nominating assemblies are held.
The initiative, which aims to carry out volunteer work and tour historical sites in tribute to the great CDR event, counts among its efforts “to support the assemblies where the people propose their candidates,” and everyone knows what this means. As Red Guards they will be watching over the purity of the proposed from the very genesis of the process.
The ballots will only bear the names of the most obedient and when the time comes to deposit them in the polls, the innocent Pioneers will have nothing to worry about.
Translator’s note: Cuban children are initiated into the Communist Party’s Pioneer movement in early elementary school and continue until adolescence, when they are expected to join the Young Communist League. The Pioneer’s motto, shouted by the children at school assemblies, is “Pioneers for communism: We will be like Che!”
14ymedio, Rosa Maria Paya, Miami, 4 September 2017 — In the early hours of September 1st they did it again. It happened just as it did 14 years ago when, in March of 2003, the Cuban regime arrested dozens of Varela Project activists and independent journalists. This time the assault lasted 10 hours.
Listening to the narration of the vexations perpetrated by the political police at the home of the former prisoner of conscience Iván Hernández Carrillo was like reliving the horror unleashed in 2003, when the repression tried to abort Cuban Spring, as my father, Oswaldo Payá, called the historical conjuncture where the dictatorship felt more exposed and cornered than ever.
Over two days, the repressors of the Ministry of Interior broke into the houses of most of the leaders of the Varela Project, most of whom were dear friends of our family. The triggering cause was that this legal initiative was getting the support not only of civil society, but also of a large part of the citizenry, which was sufficient reason to imprison 75 peaceful opponents throughout the island. On that occasion the searches seemed to go on forever, as they do today, and were and are brutally humiliating.
Iván Hernández was beaten at the doorway of his home where he lives with his family, in the municipality of Colón, Matanzas province. It was before dawn, when the family was still asleep. He asked for some time to get dressed before opening the door and it was then that they broke down the door and opened it by force.
The police entered with two German shepherd dogs. With great violence they pushed him against the wall while twisting his neck.
They immediately put handcuffs on him with his hands behind his back and did the same to his mother, Asunción Carrillo, a lady of 65 years. Then the two were pushed into the patrol cars, and arbitrarily detained until the evening.
Then the search began, followed by the robbery. About 50 people, including police, special troops and State Security agents, minutely searched every space in the house, including the garbage bins. They took everything they found in their path: both the cell and landline phones, fans, computer, old fax machine, a tablet, the clock, the television, all the family’s work and personal papers, the scarce office supplies, pencils, pens, staplers. Like neighborhood shoplifters, even some of clothes and shoes were stolen.
They also took away all the books, about 2000 volumes collected for years and years, which made up the family’s independent library and private collection. All were books that they made available to the community as loans, completely free of charge.
In this way, the entire collection of José Martí’s Complete Works was stolen, which State Security’s G-2 officials probably have not read nor will read, ignorant of even the phrases of reproof that the man we Cubans call ‘the Apostle’ dedicated to Marxism, as a doctrine of hatred: “To set men against men is an appalling task,” José Martí wrote, on the occasion of Marx’s death.
But, just like 14 years ago, the main message of this police attack is not aimed at the courage of the opponents attacked, but rather, it aims to discourage their families, neighbors, friends, and other Cubans, wherever they live. The message is terror in its pure state: that was the source and will be the legacy of the so-called Cuban Revolution. The goal is the paralysis of our people. The reason is the fears of a regime that knows itself to be vulnerable.
In truth, this cruelty exposes how weak the elite corporate-military perceives itself to be, though by now it certainly has all the power in Cuba and has hijacked our national sovereignty; but it didn’t know, does not know and will never be able to deal with differences, which is why it only attempts to annihilate them.
But the task of exterminating differences is humanly impossible, the socioeconomic system in Cuba failed decades ago and the dynasty has nothing to offer. That is why it represses without question, but that is also why it must disappear as a regime. We are much closer to freedom today than it seems to them with their atrocities. Because Cubans, like all other human beings, want to be the owners of our own lives (lives in truth, not in faked loyalty), to be able realize our most creative ideas, and to take advantage of the opportunities that we ourselves are capable of creating.
For this noble cause, Iván Hernández works with many others, promoting the Cuban people’s right to decide through the citizen campaign Cuba Decides, to which all are invited. The democratization of a country that does not deserve to be left out of the assembly of contemporary societies is a cause that cannot fail. It is the cause through which, sooner rather than later, the Cuban nation will rise.
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 3 September 2017 — The man approaches a dilapidated Havana kiosk and buys the latest copy of the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the only party allowed. The situation, extreme like almost everything that happens in Cuba, is only a small part of the tensions that journalism is experiencing in Latin America, the most lethal region on the planet for the press.
The continent, where several of the patricians who promoted independence also exercised the profession of journalism, has become a hostile place for reporters, a minefield for the media. Now, every written word can send its author to court or even to death.
In many of our countries, families would prefer their children to become civil servants or gang members, rather that become cannon fodder for a newspaper. “You’re going to end up underground,” the mother of a Salvadoran reporter has repeated for years when she finds him searching for data or gathering the pieces of an investigation.
In the absence of solid institutions, the press has unduly been awarded the role of prosecutor, ombudsman and comptroller. With all the risks that this entails.
That role transcends the boundaries of the profession and has created excessive expectations among readers. Before it was the redeemers or the caudillos who came to save a nation, now many expect these hybrid beings – a mixture of kamikaze and journalist – to be willing to sacrifice themselves for them.
The darkest scenarios these information specialists find on their path are where impunity or populism reigns. They are the targets of insults or bullets in countries where democracies fail and insecurity reigns. There is no clearer sign that a system has been shipwrecked by authoritarianism or has become a failed state than the way it treats the press.
Where institutions are collapsing, the dangers faced by reporters are greater. A system that cannot protect its citizens, will start by failing to support those who report or those who put in writing the generalized defenselessness.
Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, Raúl Castro’s Cuba, or the Nicaragua of the late Daniel Ortega are some of the geographical points where reporting reality means exposing yourself to reprisals from power. But the list of territories adverse to investigative journalism includes many more nations in the region. In Mexico criminal groups see journalism as a more deadly enemy than military operations.
Poorly paid, even more poorly valued and with working days that know no limits, a good share of Latin American journalists feel that the dreams that led them to take on a profession were more of a mirage than a reality. They have reached this conclusion not only because of the lack of professional and material support, but especially because of coercion.
The defensive response to repression and punishment has been – in many cases – to avoid the street, to choose to do desktop journalism or to rely on the great evils that the recently deceased teacher Miguel Ángel Bastenier described as “declarationitis, officialdom, hyperpoliticization, and international omission.”
The uncritical reproduction of official declarations in the insipid environment of a press conference is complemented by genuflections to the ruling party, because it is from “up there” that the press credentials are distributed for the next event, privileges are administered and jobs in the public media are filled.
The excess of politics is also expressed with those series of stories about the internal workings of government palaces instead of addressing human stories. A press that survives off the party entrails and the fights between its figures has taken possession of the media scene.
“The prideful villager” that José Martí spoke about discovers the warm water in the midst of the ocean of needs that defines Latin America. Turning one’s back on the other has become a form of protection and reproducing in the newspaper headlines what happens on a diplomatic scale among the nations of this continent: so close and so separate.
However, the strongest effect brought about by repression is withdrawal, locking oneself in the glass bubble of a newsroom and writing from a distance. Screen and keyboard reporters swarm everywhere. Flesh-and-blood stories are missing while analyses abound.
The editors know that each headline can become a declaration of war in these places and, in most media, the red lines are added not by the publisher but are marked by threats or expediencies.
The journalist and Spanish professor Bernardo Díaz Nosty describes in his book Dead Journalism the string of obstacles faced by the reporters of our continent. Dictatorships on the one hand, impunity on the other, and narco-power, which manages large regions – as if they were countries in question –make up most of those risks.
At the top of this scale of terror are disappearance and death, although “before the assassination, there usually comes the harassment of the journalist and his relatives, physical assault, stigmatization, extortion,” says Díaz Nosty.
“All this leads to the breakdown of professional independence, the renunciation of the practice of journalism, and exile, if not to capitulation and surrender to the conditions established by the enemy,” he points out in his book.
Writing about organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering or political corruption can be a death sentence in these places. The lack of a state response to actions against information professionals increases the feeling of lack of protection.
Worse yet, many governments in the region have chosen to kill journalism. To achieve that murder – without leaving too much evidence – they develop an extensive network of threats, legal punishments and controls. Not to mention, of course, the perks.
Buying the loyalty of a journalistic pen is one of the aspirations of any power or political group. To narrate through the arts of a loyal informant and to be able to count on the submissive undertones of the press populate the fantasies of partisan propaganda departments.
Together with the court jester, the sycophant of the moment and the spokesmen who repeat slogans, populists reassure themselves that they have their own press. A tame byproduct, headlines molded to avoid any discomfort, and reporters who settle for attending bland press conferences where the most important remains hidden and the inconsequential fills the teletypes.
The vast majority of Latin American governments dream of training the media, managing them as ventriloquists, and making them jump through the hoops of their desires. For them, a journalist is just an amplifier, through which they manage the audience and impose their ideas.
Editorial Note: This article has been published previously by the Spanish newspaper El País in its edition of Saturday 3 of September.
14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 29 August 2017 — This Monday the process began to repatriate 75 undocumented migrants who were stranded in Panama after the United States ended the wet foot/dry foot policy that allowed Cubans who touched American soil to stay. The Cubans stranded in Panama accepted that government’s proposal to return to their own country, in exchange for financial support and a visa to legally return to Panama, but some say they feel “betrayed” because the first deportees were not given an appointment at the consulate.
“We feel betrayed by Panama because they sent the first two emigrants to Cuba and did not give them an appointment at the consulate in Havana,” one of the Cubans, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said via telephone.
This Monday a Cuban couple was repatriated to the island and according to the Panamanian Deputy Minister of Security, Jonathan Del Rosario, they received economic aid so that they can start over as self-employed. Regarding the consulate appointment, the couple says that they were only given telephone numbers for the Panama consulate in Havana and not a date as the deputy minister had said.
“I am a man of my word, and everything we have promised is going to be fulfilled,” Del Rosario told 14ymedio from Panama City.
According to the vice minister, the pre-appointment is a record that shows that the migrants have fulfilled the promise to return to Cuba. “The list of those who return will be transmitted to the consulate through the Foreign Ministry,” he explained.
“We have to have patience and confidence because everything we have promised has been fulfilled over time,” he added.
The first Cuban returnees were the ones who had spent the most time outside the country. According to the families of both migrants, who live in Havana, the trip was in line with what was planned and they are now “reuniting with family.”
“I have been very clear, very honest and very frank, I do not see why the migrants are suspicious,” said the deputy minister, who added that “those who misbehave or become rebellious will move from the Gualaca shelter to Migration for their deportation.” He lamented that the repatriation process could be at risk because of the despair of some islanders.
So far, no other migrants have been sent back to Cuba because it is the Panamanian administration that pays for the tickets and economic support, something for which it is still organizing the budget. “It’s a complex process that requires time,” Del Rosario explained.
Meanwhile, a dozen Cubans organized a press conference outside the Gualaca camp in Chiriquí province on Tuesday to complain that they have been victims of a “deception.”
“Not all Cubans think in the same way, there are some of us who are ungrateful and don’t value what this country is doing for us, but we are not everyone,” says a second migrant who asks for anonymity for fear of the protest leaders.
“We are desperate, that is true. The months pass and we are still here thinking that we will have to return to Cuba and start from scratch,” he adds.
Note: Our apologies that these videos are not subtitled in English
The Cubans fear having to face the difficult task of getting an appointment at the Panama embassy in Havana. Some applicants have waited more than six months to be seen by the consulate due to the thousands of calls received every Thursday to process visas to that country. Faced with increasing demand, Panama’s Director of Immigration, Javier Carrillo, told 14ymedio that the number of visas would increase from the current 500 to about 1,000.
At the end of June, the Panamanian government proposed to the 124 Cubans who were in the Gualaca camp that they voluntarily return to their country in exchange for $1,650 and a multiple entry visa to Panama.
A little more than half of the undocumented immigrants accepted this proposal because of the impossibility of legalizing their status in the country or entering the United States where, as of January 12, with the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans lost the privilege of being granted automatic refuges status if they reached American soil.