Tiananmen Returns / Yoani Sanchez

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)
The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2014 – Memory can rarely be put to rest. Memories don’t understand permissions or authorizations, they return, period. For a quarter of a century the Chinese government has tried to erase the events of Tiananmen Square, but now the thousands of young people who are protesting on the streets of Hong Kong evoke them. It’s hard not to think of that man with the shopping bag stationed in front of tank, while looking at these people who demand the resignation of an official as servile to Beijing as he is unpopular.

Twenty-five years of trying to clean up the official history of what happened in that other social explosion that ended in the most brutal repression hasn’t accomplished much. Those streets full of peaceful but exhausted people show it. However, there are also great differences between the 1989 revolt in the Asian giant and the current demonstrations in their “special administrative region.” The fundamental change is that we are participants—from our televisions, digital newspapers and social networks—in every moment the people of Hong Kong are experiencing. The lack of information that surrounded the Tiananmen Square protests now has its counterpart in a barrage of tweets, photos and videos coming from thousands of mobile phones

For how many years will the Chinese government try to erase what is happening today? How will they strengthen the Great Firewall within the country so that people don’t know what is happening so close by? The violent repression of last Sunday only serves to add to the determination and the number of protestors in the streets of the ex-British colony. However, despite the multitudes and the numerous digital screens shining in the Hong Kong night, memory persists in taking us back to one man. An individual who was returning from the market and decided that the treads of a tank were not going to crush his remaining civility. Twenty-five years later, reality is echoing his gesture.

The Fragrance of Sacred Symbols / 14ymedio

Perfumes-Hugo-Ernesto_CYMIMA20140929_0004_13
Ernest and Hugo perfumes developed by the Cuban company Labiofam

14ymedio, Havana, N. Mell – 29 September 2014 – Since an official statement published in the newspaper Granma last Saturday, rejecting the planned marketing by the Cuban company Labiofam of perfumes named after Ernest Guevara and Hugo Chavez, the controversy about who is really responsible for this “grave error” continues to animate conversations.

The omissions in the statement from the Council of Ministers are very significant. For example, there is no mention that this business group, responsible for the production of biopharmaceuticals and chemicals, is under the Ministry of Agriculture. Instead, it is treated as an organism of the central state administration. More surprising is the hiding of the fact that this isn’t the first time they have announced the creation of perfumes named after personalities connected to the Revolutionary epic.

In its previous Congress, held in September 2012, Labiofam recalled that “with the objective of diversifying its production and satisfying the demands of the market,” they had created, in 1994, “the colognes Alejandro*, Celia and Havana.” The company statement added, without beating around the bush, “The first two are products with the allegorical names of figures of the Revolution” (Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez). Years later, Labiofam created another cologne named Lina, in honor of the former president’s mother, Lina Ruz, who was also the grandmother of Jose Antonio Fraga Castro, CEO of Labiofam.

Fidel and Raul Castro’s nephew has ruled the company with the same voluntarism that his uncles have ruled the island

Fidel and Raul Castro’s nephew has ruled the company with the same voluntarism that his uncles have ruled the island. There is nothing in the company that hasn’t been thought up, or at least approved, by him, including the weekly menu in the workers’ cafeteria. And, even though the company has fallen short of its planned performance for the last five years, it has been presented as a model institution of modern times and its hierarchy as untouchable beings.

It hasn’t been disclosed if the disciplinary measures announced by the Council of Ministers Executive Committee will seek a scapegoat to save the reputation of the CEO, or if the flames will reach the top of the pyramid. There are many threads behind the intrigue, each one pulling in a different direction.

The ideological and emotional argument that “symbols are sacred” convinces almost no one, especially in a country where the face of Che Guevara himself appears tarnishing the national flag in ashtrays where cigarettes are crushed to extinction. Maybe Labiofam believed that an independent company is governed more by the rules of marketing than by the designs of the Party, or maybe the time has come to end a feud over whose “remains” new interests already have their eyes on.

*Translator’s note: Fidel’s middle name is Alejandro

Former Deputy Minister of Sugar Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Corruption / 14ymedio

From CityLifeMagazine.ca
From CityLifeMagazine.ca

14ymedio, 29 September 2014 – Fourteen Cubans have been sentenced to between 6 and 20 years in prison in the corruption case known as “Tokmakjian.” Nelson Labrada, the Sugar deputy minister and Ernesto Gomex, former director of the state mining company Ferro, are among the group and have been sentenced to 20 years and 12 years in prison, respectively.

The case, which raised great concern among investors in Cuban businesses, tried several Cuban and foreign businessmen for the crimes of bribery, forgery of bank documents, fraud, trafficking in hard currency and tax evasion associated tih the Tokmakjian Group. The Canadian company had businesses in Cuba for for more than twenty years, particularly in sales of transportation equipment, mining and construction.

Last Saturday the conviction of Cy Tokmakjian, age 74 and founder of group, was sentenced to 15 years, of which he has already served three since his arrest. Claudio Vetere, company spokesperson, and Chief Financial Officer Marco Puche, were sentenced to 12 and 8 years in prison respectively. Cuba also seized about $ 100 million in company assets.

“J’Accuse” from a High Position / 14ymedio

Juan Carlos Gálvez with vice president Machado Ventura on 14 December 2008 at the 7th Congress of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (JCG)
Juan Carlos Gálvez with vice president Machado Ventura on 14 December 2008 at the 7th Congress of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (JCG)

An official with the Housing Institute denounces corruption and privileges, as well as reprisals taken against his family.

14ymedio, September 24, 2014 – Before leaving Cuba in October, 2013, the author of this accusation occupied an important post at the Housing Institute and, as a jurist, saw firsthand the intrigues perpetrated by high-level officers of the agency to illegally grant properties to elites and friends. As is shown in the accompanying photos, Juan Carlos Gálvez Migueles was an active participant in the political life of the Island. On December 14, 2008, Gálvez was elected to the national secretariat of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and ratified as a member of the executive committee of that organization.

A lawyer by profession, Gálvez worked as a counterintelligence officer following his studies at the Eliseo Reyes Rodríguez “Capitán San Luis” Advanced Institute of the Interior Ministry. His problems started when he refused to collaborate in the legalization of mansions belonging to the children of ex-President Fidel Castro.

“I was disappointed in many things about the system that were drummed into me and that I was taught to defend. The blindfold fell from my eyes when I saw the problems of daily life in the real world of the average Cuban,” Gálvez told 14ymedio in an email exchange. “That system is not made for honest, sincere, hardworking people like me, where the more corrupt one is, the better.”

My Duty is to Denounce – I Am Not Afraid
by: Juan Carlos Gálvez Migueles

By these presents I wish to make a public statement about the violation being committed by officials of the Cuban State who represent the Provincial Housing Administration of Havana, against three women and a girl of just one year of age, with the intent of evicting them from the property located on 3rd Street, Building 15022, Apt. 10, between 7th and N streets, Altahabana neighborhood, Boyeros municipality. These women are: Sara Elvira Migueles Velo, 47-years-old; Rosaima Rodríguez Migueles, 17-years-old; Marinelvis Martínez Migueles, 24-year-old, mother of a one-year-old girl, named Aynoa. They are, respectively, my mother, sisters and niece.

The property from which the authorities want to remove them was acquired by this writer in May, 2012, when I was appointed Principal Specialist of the Havana Provincial Housing legal division, while in process of being named assistant legal director of this agency.

In August of 2013, I was accepted to participate in an advanced public administration course at the University of Extremadura, Spain. However, the Spanish embassy did not grant me a visa because I missed the deadline to submit some required original documents. At that point I decided to leave Cuba for good, due to various reasons that at present I don’t believe it opportune to divulge.

To facilitate my departure I took advantage of the opportunity provided by this course and requested authorizaton by the Provincial Housing Director, Liudmila Mejias Ocaña, to approve my attending this course. In reality, I was leaving for another country but I could not say where I was going, because right away my family’s home would be taken away, as is happening right now. Besides, I also could not disclose what I was up to, because I had been a member of the Interior Ministry and had ties to high-level officials stemming from the duties I carried out.

In October, 2013, I left Cuba, keeping my new home base a secret, until January, 2014, when it becomes known. It was then, in a gesture of cruelty and bad faith, that the Provincial Director of Housing and Assistant Legal Director, Marbelis Velázquez Reyes, imposed a disciplinary measure on me of final separation from the agency for unjustified absences. This is a measure that violates Decree 302 of October 11, 2012, which in turn modifies Law No. 1312, “Migration,” of September 20, 1976, given that what should have been applied in my case was a leave of absence from my position.

But her objective was to take revenge because I had already been selected as assistant provincial legal director. Therefore, she had to attack my family, declaring them illegal occupants without right to relocation, knowing that they had no place of origin. Then, where will they be taken to live? On the street, to a temporary community shelter? I don’t believe this is just or honorable.

Therefore, I am bound to make this accusation:

I was asked to work on the legalization of the houses owned by the children of ex-President Fidel Castro Ruz, all homes that consisted of more than 500 square meters of living space, comprising more than 1000 meters of total lot space, surrounded by hundreds of meters of addition land. I refused to do this, based on it being in violation of the current General Housing Law No. 65, which only recognizes properties up to 800 meters in size.

I was asked to work on the legalization of the houses owned by the children of ex-President Fidel Castro Ruz, all homes that consisted of more than 500 square meters of living space.

These individuals, by virtue of being offspring of a leader, have more rights to a good home than my family. I ask: What do they contribute to society that I haven’t? In what war did they serve? What have they done that is special? Why do these citizens have to have an interior ministry official representing them in their legalization proceedings?

Are they different from other Cubans? Can they not go to the municipal housing administration like other citizens? Could it be that they cannot wait in line? Can they not observe the waiting period established by law? Are they subject to a different law that I was not taught at the Advanced Institute of the Interior Ministry, when I was pursuing my degree in law and operative investigation of counterintelligence? Where is the equality that we so proclaim to the world?

Another case is that of Marino Murillo Jorge, vice-president of the Council of Ministers, to whom was granted a grand residence – or rather, a mansion in the Playa district, in return for an apartment he owned in Cerro municipality. But the irony is that the property Murillo was granted was assigned to the Ministry of Education and, with supposedly just the authorization of Raúl Castro Ruz, it was transferred to the ownership of this citizen without any disentailment process and, hence, no discussion.

Perhaps this citizen, for occupying a high post in the Cuban government, has more right to a dignified home than my family? What merits does he have that hundreds of thousands of Cubans, as educated as he or more so, do not?

I can also speak to the favors granted to officials of the National Housing Institute such as the house that was exchanged for the president of this agency, Oris Silvia Fernández Hernández, a grand property, which originated in a confiscation. Could it be that she has more rights than my family? Does the legal director of the National Housing Institute also have more rights than my family, a corrupt individual who has been sanctioned and yet remains in his post? I could go on naming any number of high State officials.

The granting of housing is decided in the office of the Provincial Director in favor of individuals who pay up to 5000 CUCs.

I denounce how thousands of families live in unhealthy conditions in temporary community shelters. They are not granted public housing, this being a responsibility of the Provincial Housing Director, Liudmila Mejías Ocaña, who does not control the administration of the Provincial Housing Commission. The granting of housing is decided in the office of the Provincial Director in favor of individuals who pay up to 5000 CUCs, friends who give gifts, as well as high-level officials, and relatives and lovers of high-level officials. All of this is public knowledge and has been condemned on various occasions but, as there is so much intrigue that involves high-level officials, nothing happens.

I denounce how legal documents are worked up in the Provincial Housing Office to favor these same people, all under the Thirteenth Special Ruling on Law No. 65 (General Housing Law), being concluded in record time, while the documents in other cases go to eternal rest. Those responsible are the Provincial Director, and the Assistant Legal Director, Marbelis Velazquez Reyes. The latter owns a fine house that was disentailed to her after seven years, very well furnished and equipped, while she earns a monthly salary of only 500 Cuban pesos.

I denounce how my family, on September 17, asked to be seen at the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba to present their case and were refused attention, the officials alleging that only letters are accepted at that location and nobody is seen in-person – an unheard-of and ill-intentioned assertion. This is not the democracy promised by our rule of law.

In similar fashion, they went before the Provincial Party Committee of Havana and the officials who saw them during a public hearing told them to go before the Municipal Administrative Council of Boyeros and, if their problem was not resolved there, they should go before the Provincial Administrative Council of Havana. As we would say in Cuban, it was a ball game, back and forth.

I should ask, why not lease the property to my family? For whom is this property being reserved? It could be that this apartment is already sold, or is being set aside for a friend.

Surely when this accusation comes to light, they will begin to question me about where I obtained the money to leave Cuba. Well, it was from the sale of the deplorable house that my mother owned and a landline telephone that I had in my name, money that I supplemented with funds from a friend who was my older sister’s boyfriend.

I ask that the right of my family to live in a decent home be respected, that events will not be repeated like those we endured when for more than 10 years we lived in a wooden building that was falling apart, where we would bathe in the kitchen, and defecate in nylon bags because we had no toilet. At that time I was a delegate to the Municipal Assembly of Popular Power of San Nicolás de Bari, today Mayabeque province.

My neighbors there and those who voted me in can attest to this. That was also the time that I served as Municipal Housing Director and never did I take even one concrete block for my house – a fact that my employees can corroborate. What did I gain from being so humble, so honest, that now my family should be treated in this manner. For all of this I decided to leave my homeland.

I declare that today I fear for the lives of my family in Cuba, for possible reprisals against them, resulting from this accusation and others that I may be forced to make to defend our rights. By the same token I fear for my life in this country where I reside, for having information about officials, for having been myself a member of the Cuban counterintelligence and someone who knows the methods they employ.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Maduro and the Disaster / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

February protests in Venezuela (Diego Urdaneta)
February protests in Venezuela (Diego Urdaneta)

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 18 September 2014 — Lately, the Cuban personnel contracted by the Venezuelan Embassy in Havana are in the doldrums: there will be cutbacks among the long list of employees and no one knows exactly how many or who will end up “damaged.” It is rumored that when diplo-bureaucrats drop the guillotine–probably with the recommendations of the sinister Cuban advising commissioners–there will be a lot of Cuban workers “available.”

In case there is any doubt, not a single one of them is ever late or absent, though they were once the beneficiaries of all the Venezuelan petro-extravagances. All of a sudden, all personal problems, the irregular attendance, the requests for early leaves to attend parent-teacher conferences or doctors’ appointments ceased. As if by magic, discipline in the workplace has improved tremendously. No more playing computer games, gossiping about current TV soap operas which relieved the afternoon office boredom, and no more long telephone calls on the account of the Venezuelan exchequer.

The impending readjustment, however, should not surprise anyone. In recent months there were already signs that augured hard times: wages have been cut, lunches have lost their quality, size and variety, the “stimuli” and other benefits became more scarce, until they disappeared, as did the gargantuan parties for whatever reason, with eating and drinking galore, the ones that were attended by everybody, even the cat. Because, in the very Chavez and Bolivarian Embassy everybody was a big, happy family regardless of their rank and occupation, as befits genuine popular revolutions. continue reading

In Miraflores there is an alarming depletion of the “people’s” coffers and the time is now to limit the distribution and to cut the ribbons off the piñata

Everything points to an alarming decline, in faraway Miraflores, in the “peoples” coffers, and the time has come to limit distribution and cut the ribbons off the piñata so that only the highly anointed can reach them.

The cutbacks that the Venezuelan Embassy is applying in Havana are just an insignificant echo of a general strategy of patches and ineffective improvisations with which President Nicolas Maduro is trying to stop the most significant economic collapse that this rich nation has suffered in decades, which also include such draconian measures as a digital ration card–because poverty must keep pace with technological advances–an ill-advised policy of “fair prices” that triggered smuggling and corruption, as well as shortages of food and other staples in the markets, and also the irrational multiplication of the government’s bureaucratic apparatus to “control” the holes through which both capital and loyalties are escaping.

Preaching Poverty (of others)

The governments of democratic nations congratulate themselves when the standard of living rises under their administration. That said, any individual with a modicum of common sense should mistrust any government that declares that poverty is a virtue, and, as a consequence, a support for that country’s socio-political system. Such logic suggests that what that government will do then is foment poverty, since the more poor people there are, the more political capital there will be, and the more support the rulers will be able to count on.

In contrast, those who say they govern “for the poor” declare, as one of their main objectives, “to combat poverty”. However, in practice, they increase it and make it more acute, while they get richer. It’s axiomatic. One of the more conspicuous examples of this is the Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega, who had a meteoric metamorphosis from guerrilla to millionaire in his first term, when that “poor Nicaraguan people’s” revolution won out. However, poverty must have its charms, as Ortega was re-elected to the presidency in Nicaragua while Chavez, on his own time, was re-elected in Venezuela and, more recently, his disciple, Nicolas Maduro, was elected, though with a questionable margin. Meanwhile, the Cuban poor are so busy trying to survive poverty that for over half a century they have had no idea what presidential elections are.

These marginal and raucous sectors, prone to violence, are used by dictatorial regimes to suppress the disaffected.

Thus, the comment by Mr. Tarek el Aissami’s, governor of the state of Aragua, that loyalty to Chavez is greater the poorer the individual, follows the same principle of all “socialist” revolutions but it is not accurate: he did not refer to “the poor” as people of low income and few opportunities, but these marginal and raucous sectors, prone to violence, that are used by dictatorial regimes to intimidate and repress the disaffected. Afterwards, the Bolivarian project aims to sustain itself politically, not with the support of the poor–a growing sector–but with the terror imposed through these groups of thugs who have been sanctioned by the authorities to trample any civil complaint with impunity.

Because the truth is that, while the standard of living of Venezuelans has been falling hopelessly in recent years, particularly since the coming to power of Comrade Maduro, instead of Chavez’s supporters growing in numbers, protesters and anti-government protests have been increasing.

A bottomless barrel is not a barrel

It’s a given that every regime that tries to politically anchor itself on populist bases takes over the national and the private treasuries, not only as their own, but as if they were inexhaustible. Thus, they regard the coffers of the State to be bottomless barrels. Castro’s regime in Cuba is an old example of this, and Chavez’s Venezuelan regime today constitutes the most shocking paradigm if one takes into account the magnitude of wasted assets and the looting that have undermined that nation’s vast oil wealth in just 15 years.

Uncontrolled expenditures of the country’s wealth so it can develop “solidarity” programs with regimes akin to its ideals in the region, in an attempt to expand the old “socialist-imperialist” epidemic, expensive and unsustainable social programs, the squandering of public assets by the so-called Bolivarian bourgeoisie and its partners, among other bunch of nonsense, were not Maduro’s [In-Mature] initiatives but policies developed by him have precipitated and exacerbated their effects.

Thanks to the massive raid of Venezuelan oil treasure, we have witnessed the artificial extension of our vernacular dictatorship for almost 15 years

Today, when the economic absurdity of the Chavez project is reaching its highest point, and Venezuela, at the height of inefficiency and administrative corruption, is forced to turn to the international market to import the light crude needed to process its own oil, Nicolas Maduro’s fatal historical destiny emerges ever more clearly: the heir, by the will of the messianic departed, of authority that exceeds his meager capabilities, will end up assuming, all alone, the responsibility that should rest primarily on the founder of the madness, his mentor Hugo Chavez, now transmuted into an innocent little bird.

Thus, when the Chavez vessel eventually sinks in the waters of its own failure, its founder–who did not live long enough to pay the price of that hallucination he once termed “XXI Century Socialism”–will remain etched in the memory of millions of Latin American zombies as the philanthropist, the illustrious leader who plotted the itinerary; while Nicolas Maduro will pay the piper for a feast that will continue to cost today’s and tomorrow’s Venezuelans dearly.

Nice Cubans have much to feel sorry for in this regard, since, thanks to that massive raid of the Venezuelan oil treasury by the Chavez elite, we have been aided in artificially prolonging our vernacular dictatorship for almost 15 years.

Translated by Norma Whiting

Florida Two Hundred Yards Away / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

The view from Devin Castle, at the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Source: Wikipedia)
The view from Devin Castle, at the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Source: Wikipedia)

14ymedio, Havana, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 19 September 2014 – The Morava and Danube rivers come together in Devin. The place still belongs to the Bratislava region, but only the far shore is Slovakia. The near shore is Austria.

Maybe a detail that means nothing special. Even less because today you can cross from one side to the other without anyone saying anything to you and the barges loaded with tourists calmly navigate up and down the river. But before the Velvet Revolution, this was the border between communism and capitalism, between oppression and freedom; to try to cross, in many cases, implied paying a very heavy price. Say what you want to those who died, shot by the “proletarian” side, or to those taken by the strong current, but the rivers have never been as terrible as the politics of middle Europe.

It’s as if we Cubans had Florida 200 yards away, right in front of Mariel. Although we do have the Guantanamo Base and the sad death toll that claims those seeking to escape the island-prison. “The law of adjustment is to blame,” the border guards at Devin would have said in their time. Why not: We Cubans are all so observant of the laws…!

On a rock that strategically dominates the Devin landscape are the ruins of a fort. Our guide told us that people launched themselves from up there,  during the Soviet heyday, hanggliding to try to get to Austria. It was a flight of freedom or death.

A portico in memory of the millions who crossed or tried to cross the Iron Curtain rises here today. A mute reminder of what should not be repeated. All borders have some capriciousness about them, but the one that was in place here until just 25 years ago was a sinister monument to the absurd. To the delight of all, the Warsaw Pact soldiers are long gone and today fishermen sit near where the waters of the Morava and Danube flow together. By the way, the wine in this region is very good.

Does Being Able to Pay with Either Currency Resolve the Problem? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A store that accepts payment in both currencies. (14ymedio)
A store that accepts payment in both currencies. (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 September 2014 – At an artisan fair near the Malecon a seller offers unusual wallets. “Designed for a country with two currencies,” says the skilled merchant, while demonstrating their two separate compartments. Accustomed to living among convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP), we barely even notice any more the complications this duality brings us every day. The additional calculations, the long lines at the exchange kiosks, and the confusions in speech, requiring that we always make it clear if we are referring to CUPs or CUCs… are just some of them.

This mess has been slightly eased with the emergence of stores and markets where you can pay with both currencies. It took them more then twenty years, from the legalization of the dollar, to eliminate the problem of going to the nearest CADECA—currency exchange—to convert our Cuban pesos into chavitos (CUC). This could be a clear example of the slow pace at which economic relaxations are adopted in the country, if it weren’t for the fact that there are other aspects of national life where things move much more slowly.

A few years ago a group of dissidents launched the excellent slogan, “With the same money,” to demand a correspondence between the currency in which wages are paid and that needed to buy products as basic as oil, soap and milk. I remember that on several occasions some of those activists were at a café or restaurant and, after eating, they asked for the bill and paid with the devalued Cuban pesos. This action brought them arrests by the police, threats and even beatings.

Now the government has inverted the slogan and seems to be telling us, “for the same product.” It doesn’t matter if the bill is expressed in the banknotes without faces—the ones with monuments—which are the convertible pesos. It is now possible to also settle the bill with those other pieces of paper, bearing the sober glance of the Apostle—José Martí—or the stern face of Antonio Maceo. What does difference does it make what we pay with, or how many security threads this or that currency has? The central problem remains the divorce between the cost of living and wages.

A few days ago, official TV broadcast an extensive report about “the good popular reception given to the measure” of allowing us to pay for things in both currencies. The Commercial Director of the CIMEX chain of stores, Barbara Soto, referred to the gradual extension of the prerogative to a greater number of stores throughout the country. Some customers interviewed said that the price of every product should be visible both in CUPs and CUCs. However, the media report continually avoided the main questions: Why should a professional work three days to be able to buy a quart of oil? Until when will a worker need a full week’s wages to be able to buy two pounds of chicken?

Do we live better now because CUPs and CUCs are intermingled in the cash registers?

Right now it takes two working days to be able to acquire a package of hot dogs, while a tetrapack of milk can only be bought with the fruit of three days labor. This morning at the market a woman was looking at can of tomato sauce and seemed to be thinking, “For this I need to sweat eight hours for half a week.”

In a society with such great economic distortions, paper money has lost the capacity to express the value of merchandise. The illegal market, the massive inflow of remittances, the diversion of resources and the invisible capital of one’s political standing, completely alter the valuation of each product. To calculate the cost of living you need to have at hand equations that include the time and effort required to get something. How many hours do you have to work to buy a piece of cheese, a soft drink, bath soap. After how many trips will a bus driver be able to afford a beer?

It’s true that from now on the wallets offered by that artisan are becoming less necessary. However, the financial distortion we suffer hasn’t diminished with the newly adopted measure. Has something changed because we can indiscriminately hand the supermarket clerk convertible pesos or national money? Do we live better now because CUPs and CUCs are intermingled in the cash registers? The answer is no. A “no” that bears the watermark of reality and ink of emergency.

We’re Eating More, We’re Eating Worse / 14ymedio, Ignacio Varona

Fast food restaurant in Havana (14ymedio)
Fast food restaurant in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Ignacio Varona. Havana. 2 September 2014 — In a few bites he polishes off the second pizza of the day. That evening he’ll dine on “bread with something,” accompanied by a shake and a sweet. For years now he has trouble seeing his feet while standing. His stomach hangs over his extremities and other, more lamented parts. Richard was slender in his youth, but a sedentary lifestyle and an excess of calories have caused his neighbors to call him “the fat man from the third floor.” His condition is shared by the more than 43% of the Cuban population which suffers from some degree of overweight.

Obesity, that 21st-century epidemic, also wreaks havoc in our country. In the last two decades, the scales have increasingly shown higher poundage. Does this mean that we’re eating more, or eating worse? Experts such as Dr. Jorge Pablo Alfonso Guerra declare that the first alarming signs of this affliction can already be seen in adolescence. Among the causes of Cubans storing more fat than they should, Dr. Alfonso points to “inadequate nutrition, a tendency towards less physical activity, and false standards of health and beauty.”

The common diet of the country, rich in carbohydrates and animal fats, is a legacy of our culinary heritage, but it is also a result of economic adversity. “There are days when all I eat is rice and hotdogs, because that’s all I can buy,” says Eugenia Suárez, who is 5ft-31/2in tall, and weighs 254 pounds. For years she has suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and severe knee pain, due to her excess weight. Today she dreams of having bariatric surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.

Eugenia’s children are highly likely to be overweight, as well. Scientific studies have shown that the risk of obesity in children is multiplied by four if at least one parent is obese. A study produced in Havana by the anthropology department, assigned to the biology faculty of the university, determined that, between the ages of 6 and 15 years, 23% of girls and 21% of boys are overweight.

“It’s the children of those who suffered through the Special Period during their adolescence,” says Eloy R. López, endocrinologist and associate of the Institute of Nutrition and Nutritional Hygiene. “Their parents have an obsession with food and pass it on to their little ones.” According to this doctor, “the nutritional hardships that we endured in the 90s have triggered a compulsion towards constant food intake which, combined with bad culinary habits and poor food choices, create a very worrisome situation.”

Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the “beer belly” and “love handles” make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.

“Sugar consumption is very high, because with it, people try to fill other needs,” López explains. “The same happens with the flour that is often used to make a food ‘go farther’ and feed several diners.” Every week, dozens of people visit his practice who want to make the needle on the scale go backward. His patients are “mostly women because among that population in our country, obesity is more common, and also because they worry more about their physique and tend to seek help.” However, he points out that “men are more difficult to convince that they have a problem. Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the ‘beer belly’ and ‘love handles’ make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.

“I always encounter difficulties when recommending a healthier diet, because these individuals will tell me, ‘Doctor, I can’t afford that type of food,’ and they have a point, to some extent.” One grapefruit costs two Cuban pesos, the healthy pineapple can cost up to 15, and right now one pound of tomatoes costs no less than 20. “When I add it all up, a healthy diet would cost in one week what a professional earns in one month,” admits the doctor. To eat healthy in Cuba is expensive – but the problem isn’t only a monetary one.

Richard, the one whose neighbors no longer call by name, explains what it is that makes him consume so much junk food. “I live with my parents, my brother, his wife and child, the kitchen is small, and there’s almost always somebody frying or boiling something, so most of the time I have to eat out.” In the dining room at his workplace there are also no options that might help him lose weight. “Almost every day there is rice, sweet potato, custard…and the choice of vegetables is limited to cabbage for a season of the year.”

I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested.

It is rare to find anywhere in the country a cafeteria whose menu is not based on sandwiches, fried foods or highly-sweetened juices. Those that attempt to offer more healthy choices have a limited clientele and are forced to impose higher prices. “I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested,” says Miguel, a chef in a private restaurant on 3rd Street in Miramar. Instead, “fried pork morsels, pizzas, and sandwiches with mayonnaise are the most popular among diners.”

Following such indulgences, the more vain among the populace try to burn those calories in the gym, or seek faster and riskier methods to drop their extra pounds.

The Weight-Loss Business

“An obese society is a society disposed towards paying to lose weight,” affirms Dayron Castellanos, who sells diet pills. He earned a degree in physical culture and sports, but now he works in the weight-loss business. He sells via catalog such products as the Chinese-made Pai You Guo pills, whose directions for use state that they will promote “appetite reduction and effective evacuation.” To his list of “miracle remedies” are added ketones (supposed fat-burning substances), and green tea capsules.

Castellanos is not licensed to sell any of these products, most of which are not even approved by the country’s pharmaceutical authorities. His business is by word-of-mouth and classified ads. All that is needed is a phone call and a few “convertible pesos” and the customer goes home with what he thinks will be the solution for his “little rolls and spare tires.”

“I have had patients adversely affected by continued consumption of diuretic tea and other weight-loss remedies,” says Dr. R. López. “People want magical, immediate solutions, but to lose weight and keep it off, it is necessary to make permanent lifestyle changes.” However, the doctor’s opinion can barely be heard within the chorus of those hawking weight-loss products of all kinds.

Castellanos’ customers are basically members of Cuba’s emergent middle class. “This doesn’t mean that there are no overweight poor people, only that they can’t afford these pills,” says the prosperous entrepreneur. Many young women looking for quick fixes answer his ads, but older people do, too. In Cuba it is estimated that among the population older than 60, 51% of women and 30% of men are overweight to some degree. The risks of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are causing many of them to be concerned about those extra pounds.

Declining health is a problem, but those suffering from obesity have a harder time emotionally with the social and familial repercussions of their condition. “I want people to start calling me by my name again, and not ‘the fat man from the third floor,’ ” Richard concludes, as he faces a cafeteria board advertising a special of ham-and-double-cheese pizza.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Pot With Missing Cord Doesn’t Come With a Guarantee / 14ymedio, Regina Coyula

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Exterior of the new Puentes Grandes shopping center (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, Regina Coyula, 8 September 2014 — Tiendas Panamericanas [Panamerican Stores], owned by the CIMEX corporation, has just launched a grand (for Cuban national standards) shopping center. Utilizing the building formerly occupied by the old towel factory, Telva, on the corner of 26th Avenue and Calzada del Cerro street, a side addition was built, doubling the space. The opening of Puentes Grandes has been well received, being that until now only small stores have existed in that neighborhood, and the closest shopping centers — La Puntilla, Galerias Paseo, and Plaza Carlos III — are located about two miles away.

Spurred by curiosity, I visited Puentes Grandes last Saturday. Hundreds of people had flocked to the place. There was a line at the handbag security station, because bags and purses are not allowed inside stores that take convertible currency. There was another line at the entrance. We were going on half an hour already. In other circumstances I would have left, but resisted the impulse just to be able to write this article. Finally, I went through a narrow entryway where, as always, are those who wait, and those other, clever ones who butt the line. The interior entrance is quite spacious, with metal shopping carts, and other cute small plastic carts on wheels for which I predict a brief, happy life, and baskets. All is set up for the customer to select his purchases; merchandise is kept behind the counter in the perfume and household appliance departments.

A large interior arcade connects the grocery and housewares area with the hardware department, where I was detained by an employee. To go from one area to the other, you have to now go outside and re-enter, even though just days before you could walk directly between departments and check out at any register. Why is this? The employee doesn’t know, but he was assigned there to enforce the trajectory. I had placed various items in my cart, then had to stand at the register line, go outside, stand in another line to leave my purchases at the handbag security station, then go stand in another line to enter the hardware area.

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Among my purchases was a pressure cooker — a Columbian one. I don’t know whatever happened to those marvelous pressure cookers from the INPUD factory of the city of Santa Clara, which for a while now have not been on the market. At the exit of every Cuban store there is always an employee who compares purchases to sales slips

Employee: “You’re missing the guarantee for the pressure cooker.”

Me: “And where do I get that?”

Employee: “In Household Appliances.”

Back at Household Appliances, the young (all the employees are very young) lady told me “no,” in that overly-familiar, faux-affectionate way that many mistake for kindness:

“Mami (Mom), do you see a power cord in this pot? My department is *electrical* household appliances. The guarantee is given at the register.”

The check-out girl assured me that she had no guarantee certificates at the register, that it was at Household Appliances where I had to obtain one.

Among my purchases was a pressure cooker — a Columbian one. I don’t know whatever happened to those marvelous pressure cookers from the INPUD factory of the city of Santa Clara, which for a while now have not been on the market.

I know how to be patient. Besides, this ridiculous episode was prime material for my article. I returned to Household Appliances, where I told “my daughter” (she had called me, “Mami,” right?) if she knew the meaning of “back-and-forth.” The girl gamely took my pressure cooker and marched over to the register. The ensuing argument over the pot without a power cord was priceless. A half hour was spent on that silliness, just to conclude in the end that the guarantee for the pressure cooker is the sales slip.

I asked to speak with the management because it is inconceivable to me that a business can operate in this manner. The manager was not available, but there were various people in his office who turned out to be his superiors. I’m not going to repeat my complaint here — you can put two-and-two together and imagine it. The interesting thing is what those officials, who have been spending opening week in a kind of mobilization mode, told me.

For almost all the personnel in the store, this is their first work experience. The cash register system is new, the check-out staff do not understand it very well, and the registers frequently get stuck, producing electrical overloads that trigger the circuit breakers, leaving whole zones of the shopping center in the dark. On opening day they had to suspend a children’s event. Adults and children were run over by the crowd, and nothing less than a sacking of the place occurred, what with many people taking advantage of a power outage to eat and drink for free in the food court. From the hardware area there even disappeared an electric drill, among other, less valuable items. The neighbors (not the officials) say that even a flat-screen TV went out the door without being paid for.

These officials, who themselves are retail veterans, expressed amazement at the level of theft they are encountering here. For example, they told me that on Friday (the day prior to my visit), they had surprised five people in the act of thievery; two customers had had their handbags stolen inside the store and one other in the adjoining cafeteria; and all of this is in addition to the disappearance of many small objects from the shelves. They told me that they had never had such a hard time at any other store, not even at Ultra, which is located in a densely-populated and troubled area of Central Havana.

The solution (?) has been to divide the two areas of the shopping center, creating an inconvenience for the customer which I don’t think will solve the theft problem, because the cause of this phenomenon has to be sought outside the store.

I thanked the officials for their friendly explanation. However, as long as the customer of this center remains nothing more than an annoyance to the staff, the oversized photo at the door of the smiling young woman promoting efficient service and customer satisfaction will be just one more Kafkaesque detail of the whole picture.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Of Freebies and Schools / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

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Elementary school students (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 September 2014 – The school bell rings and the children enter the classroom followed by their parents. The first day of classes triggers joy, although a few tears are shed by some who miss their homes. That’s what happened to Carla, who just started kindergarten at a school in Cerro. The little girl is lucky because she got a teacher who has taught elementary school for several years and has mastered the content. “What luck!” some of the little one’s family members think, just before another mother warns them, “But beware of the teacher, she demands every student bring her a bit of a snack from home.”

On the afternoon of September 1, the first parent meeting took place. After the introductions and welcoming remarks, the teacher enumerated everything that the classroom was lacking. “We have to raise money for a fan,” she said, unsmiling. Carla had already suffered from the morning heat, so her mother gave the 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that was her daughter’s share, so she would have a little breeze while studying. ”We also need to buy a broom and mop for cleaning, three fluorescent tubes for the lights, and a trash can,” said the teaching assistant.

A list of requests and needs added some disinfectant for the bathroom, “Because we don’t want the flu,” said the teacher herself. The total expenditures began to grow, and a lock was added, “So that no one steals things when there’s no one in the school.” A father offered some green paint to paint the blackboard, and another offered to fix the hinges on the door, which was lopsided. “I recommend that you buy the children’s notebooks on the street because the ones we received to hand out this year are as thin as onion skin and tear just by using an eraser,” the teacher added.

After the meeting Carla’s family calculated some 250 Cuban pesos in expenses to support the little girl’s education, half the monthly salary of her father, who is a chemical engineer. Then the school principal came to the meeting and rounded it off with, “If anyone knows a carpenter and wants to hire him to fix their child’s desk, feel free.”

Puro, Buy My Stimulus” / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 12 September 2014 — Passing near the Chinese cemetery on 26th Avenue, a young man leading his bike by the hand, said to me, “Puro, buy my stimulus.” I confess that it took me a few seconds to decipher the code. Clearly the “puro” was a reference to my youth, but what was difficult to understand was the “stimulus.” How can you buy such a thing?

As he explained to me, it was a plastic bag that contained a quart of vegetable oil for cooking, two bath soaps, and some ounces of detergent that he’d been given at work as a “stimulus” for having stood out in socialist emulation.

I didn’t believe a single word and committed the journalistic folly of rejecting his offer. If I had said yes, now I’d have a photo here of the products, laid out on the wall of the cemetery with the graves in the background.

When I told the story to my friend Regina Coyula, author of the blog Bad Handwriting, she told me this is the latest scam. The allusion to having been chosen as the vanguard, a standout, or special prize winner, makes you think that the potential seller is a “true believer” who has no recourse but to sacrifice the material honors his political-social conduct has earned him, to alleviate his urgent needs.

To buy the “stimulus” is almost a sado-political vengeance, but selling fake merchandise, that is oil that isn’t good for cooking, soap that doesn’t produce lather, and lime instead of detergent, is already a mockery… the old scam in new clothes.

Ministerial Hustling / 14ymedio

Habanarte in the Casa del Alba
Habanarte in the Casa del Alba

14ymedio, Havana, Luzbely Escobar, 11 September 2014 – When I was younger and went out looking for something to do in Havana’s evenings or nights, one day I stumbled over Julio. I went out with a girlfriend from Berlin and he was looking to make a living scamming innocent foreigners. He approached us intending to invite us to a Rumba Festival, but was disappointed by our refusal. The trick was easy: lead the unwary to Hamel Alley where there was almost always the sound of drums and right now there was the Festival he mentioned.

I had warned my German friend about those characters who invent everything to attract the tourists, and the truth was that, in those days of September 1993, there wasn’t much to do. Every encounter ended in a park, along the Malecon, or the home of a friend. Julio didn’t give up and told my friend, Angelica, that he knew a place where there was salsa dancing. We turned our worst faces to the old rockers and took off before they came up with something else. I remember my friend at the end of this episode telling me, “That’s what I would call cultural hustling.”

I’m telling this story because right now there is a cultural event called Habanarte. I support the theory that this is more or less the same thing, but organized by the Ministry of Culture itself. With a program that includes everything but which, in reality, brings little new, one more festival where supposedly a program specially designed for the event is created, which comes to be a kind of umbrella that covers everything and anything that’s happening in Havana lately. Thus, this umbrella festival takes credit for everything and even includes visits to museums on its list of events.

Presentations by the National Ballet of Cuba, Haydée Milanés, Descemer Bueno,
among others, are part of the shows absorbed by Habanarte. Also, the Art in the Rampa show, and even the sixth Salon of Contemporary Art, have been put under the umbrella.

An odd, or revealing, piece of data is that the Paradiso agency confirmed the participation of 1,500 Venezuelans and announced that the event in question is being marketed to tourists passing through Havana and Varadero. The perfect mix to ideologize even more the cultural spaces that, gradually, we Havanans have conquered to relax the everyday political ballad.

At the press conference that took place a few days ago, we learned that the Festival Information Center will be located at the Casa del Alba, the most rancid epicenter of political propaganda masquerading as culture. All this made me remember Julio and his fake musical event, and my friend Angelica who realized the farce in time. However, unlike that lie to get some money from unsuspecting tourists, Habanarte is a huge ministerial balloon scamming thousands of people.

(The event takes place from 11 to 21 September, but the official opening is on September 12, at 11 pm, at El Sauce Cultural Center, of Artex, with a concert by El Chevere de la Salsa, Isaac Delgado.)

Rejoice, Rise Up and Persevere, Pope Francis’s Verbs for Cubans / 14ymedio

Pilgrimage for the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Havana
Pilgrimage for the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Havana

14ymedio, Havana, 9 September 2014 – A letter sent by Pope Francis to Cubans has highlighted three verbs he invites pastors and the faithful to put into practice. On the occasion of the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre—our Cachita—this Monday, 8 September, the Bishop of Rome has urged us to rejoice, rise up and persevere. The message seems full of clues and enigmas to solve.

The Holy Father, for example, has emphasized, “What joy the authentic soul feels in daily events, and not in the empty words that abound, blown away with the wind.” Pope Bergoglio has also called us to rise up, but “not about the big things, rather in everything you do, with tenderness and mercy. María was always with her people caring for the little ones. She knew loneliness, poverty and exile,” allusions also emphasized with the verb persevere.

The message takes as its context the widespread pilgrimages that have occurred on the Island for the Feast of Cachita. To the yellow flowers, the promises kept and the acts of faith, we now add the Pope’s words, which have been shared publicly in churches throughout the country.

The Cubans of 9/11 / 14ymedio

Marco Motroni
Marco Motroni

Born in Havana in 1945, Marco Motroni emigrated with his family at age 11. In 1963 he graduated from George Washington High School in Manhattan. He started playing in la Típica Novel, one of the most successful Latin orchestras in New York. Years later he began working as a broker at Carr Futures, whose offices, in 2001, were on the 92nd floor of the North Tower.

Juan La Fuente
Juan La Fuente

Born in 1940 in Cuba, Juan LaFuente emigrated to the United States to attend university. In 1964 he married Colette Merical, who was the mayor of Poughkeepsie between 1996 and 2003. LaFuente worked at IBM for 31 years and at the time of the events was working for Citibank. On September 11 he was attending a meeting at a restaurant North Tower.

Niurka Dávila
Niurka Dávila

Niurka Davila was 47-years-old when she died in the attacks. Her real name was Rosa, but she changed it when she was naturalized as an American citizen. She worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Nancy Pérez
Nancy Pérez

Born in Cuba in 1965, Nancy Peréz emigrated with her family five years later and settled in New York, She was a supervisor at the Port Authority at One World Trade Center at the time of the attacks.

George Merino
George Merino

Born in Matanzas in 1961, George Merino emigrated with his family when he was only 7 and settled in New York He lived in Bayside, Queens, and was a securities analyst at Fiduciary Trust, located in the World Trade Center.

Carlos Domínguez
Carlos Domínguez

The son of Cuban emigrants, Carlos Domínguez was born in New York in 1967 and lived in Nassau County, New York. In 2001 he was in charge of computer system security for Marsh & McLennan, on the 95th floor of the North Tower.

Michael Díaz Piedra III
Michael Díaz Piedra III

Michael Díaz Piedra III was born in Cuba in 1952. His family, plantation owners, emigrated to the United States in 1960. They settled in Florida and later, in New Jersey. He was 49-years-old in 2001 and was a vice president for the Bank of New York in charge of disaster recovery planning. His family said his desire was to return to Cuba the day it became a democracy.

From 14ymedio, 11 September 2014

A New Women’s Opposition Group is Born in the East: Citizens for Democracy / 14ymedio

Citizens for Democracy on the feast of Our Lady of Charity (UNPACU)
Citizens for Democracy on the feast of Our Lady of Charity (UNPACU)

14YMEDIO, Havana, 10 September 2014 – A schism with the Ladies in White has given birth to a new women’s group called “Citizens for Democracy.” Last Monday, during the feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the recently created movement held it’s first public activity with a pilgrimage of seventy women to the Sanctuary of Cobre in Santiago de Cuba.

Citizens for Democracy is led by Belkis Cantillo and consists mostly of women from Palma Soriano, Palmarito del Cauto and the city of Santiago de Cuba itself. At least thirty of them come from the Ladies in White group, from which they separated some days ago because of disagreements between Berta Soler and Cantillo herself.

The reason for this separation was explained as “gross indiscipline” allegedly committed by several members of the Ladies in White in the eastern area of the country, which provoked the removal of Cantillo as local representative of the movement. Soler, for her part, declared that “every person can join or found a party or a group if they feel badly in another and if they are not able to abide by the rules of the Ladies in White.”

Belkis Cantillo was a member of the Ladies in White from its origins in 2003 after the imprisonment of 75 dissidents in the so-called “Black Spring.” Her ex-husband is the opponent Jose Daniel Ferrer, who heads the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

Berta Soler hopes that the Citizens for Democracy will “succeed as human rights activists.”