"This Was a Town Without Soul and Full of Memories"

The faithful filled up the temple last Sunday during the first Mass celebrated in the church. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén / Marcelo Hernández, Sandino/Havana, 1 February 2019 — Juan Ramos is 67 years old and does not like to talk about his childhood. Yet, this week his face lit up when he remembered his mother. “If she could have seen this”, he said with reddened eyes. In the town of Sandino, Pinar del Río province — where his whole family was relocated to by force from the Escambray Mountains — the first Catholic church built in Cuba since 1959 has just been inaugurated.

At the junction of the main street and a dirt road, where more horse-drawn carriages pass than motor vehicles, stands the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The building, with a 200-person capacity, stands out in the town, with its impeccable, recently painted yellow façade. Around the church one can only see buildings made of concrete — resembling cages – that accommodate hundreds of families that are still labeled “problematic.”

“This was a town without soul and full of memories,” Juan assured 14ymedio, while he brushed off a piece of invisible fluff from his shirt. His hands are gnarled from his work sowing tobacco, the most important product in this region where he ended up at only 12 years old. Juan has spent a great part of his life longing for El Pedrero, a town in the province of Sancti Spíritus where he spent his childhood. continue reading

The facade of the new church in the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in the town of Sandino. (14ymedio)

“Over there I had roosters, a mule with which I wandered through the mountain and, in the backyard of my house, a small cemetery with all of the dogs that my family had owned”, he remembers now. “We used to go to town on Sundays to attend Mass and, from time to time, a priest would visit us. But one day the militiamen arrived and the only thing we could only carry with us was the very clothes we had on”, he says.

To prevent peasants and farmers in the area from supplying food and assistance to the “uprising” of the Escambray, a group of rebels that hoped to overthrow Fidel Castro in the beginning of the 1960s, the revolutionary government ordered for the residents of those mountains in the center of the island to be removed indiscriminately. Juan and his family among those expelled in 1964 and were taken to captive towns, or communities in which one could hardly leave or enter.

According to personal details revealed in publications of the Cuban exile community, it is estimated that a total of 21 towns were erected in this way, surrounded by wired fences and permanent guards at the entrance. Residents could neither get out nor receive visitors, and all of the correspondence was inspected.

“We were escorted by armed militiamen the whole trip and when we got here my parents were very sad because it was an ugly place, real ugly”, Juan notes. “Homes resembling matchboxes were starting to be built, all very close to one another. You could not go out into the open fields and there was no church”.

Among the things his family could safeguard during their forced relocation was a wooden cross that Juan’s mother wore on a necklace. “That was our very own church for decades. Every night we would take it out and would light a candle for it”, he describes. “We had to be careful when doing it because this town was full of informants”. His brother managed to get out when the mass exodus took place from the port of Mariel in 1980 but Juan stayed.

Last Sunday, Juan was one of the many parishioners that filled the church in Sandino during the Mass. The temple was erected thanks, in part, to funds donated by worshippers of the Church of San Lorenzo in Tampa, Florida, itself built by the Cuban exile community which contributed 95,000 dollars to the building’s construction.

The construction of two more churches has been authorized, following the normalization of relations between the Vatican and the Government of Cuba in recent decades.

“We feel so much happiness that it is impossible to describe. Just as the bishop said, a church for a Christian is like a hospital for the sickly,” recounted Rosa Martínez, one of the residents who attended the ceremony. “The tears were pouring from my eyes when I saw my church gathered in that long awaited temple”, she said, interrupting herself with a sigh.

“In all of the years that I have lived here I have never seen so many people gathered together”, Martínez commented. She lived through times when “everyone suspected each other and were afraid to talk about these things”.

People from all over the Western part of the country came for the opening ceremony despite the bad weather. The celebration was charged with emotive moments and some volunteers even transmitted the event live through the internet to their relatives outside of Cuba.

“The Mexican women of the congregation of the Little Sisters have done very important work in this community”, says Idania, an octogenarian who took flowers to the Virgin of Charity’s altar located in the new church. She prefers to not talk of the past, and a wince of pain appears when asked if the church belongs to the residents that were relocated from the Escambray. Rather, she prefers to concentrate “on the present, on the now”.

Translated by: Claudia Cruz Leo


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

Hundreds of Cubans will Meet with Pope Francis in Panama

The Cubans who are departing for  Panama World Youth Day are children of a generation that, for decades, could not show their faith in public. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 18 January 2019 — This Saturday is the day that Jorge has waited for months. Tomorrow he leaves for Panama along with 470 other Cuban Catholics to attend along with Pope Francis the triennial meeting of the World Youth Day (WYD).

It is the island’s largest delegation in the history of the event, which takes place between January 22 and 27, and for the first time, Cuban pilgrims are assuming their own transportation and lodging expenses. In the past, the parishes of the Island covered those expenses and that is why the Cuban delegations were small. continue reading

Jorge sold an electronic tablet and some household goods to gather the $640 that the trip costs. He has also received help from his parents, who make their living renting a house to tourists. With this amount, the youth can buy a packet of accommodation, food and insurance (at a cost of $250), while the other $390 will defray the cost of the plane ticket.

“I was a minor when the Pope visited Brazil in 2013 and I could not travel at that time, in addition there weren’t any meetings in the parishes so that those interested could pay for the trip,” Jorge tells 14ymedio.

The interest expressed by young people to attend the World Youth Day was so wide, according to parishioners from several parishes of Artemisa and Pinar del Río, that the ecclesiastical authorities decided to make a call for self-financing of the trip to all those who would like to participate.

The consular paperwork was handled through the diocesan board of Pastoral Youth. “That helped a lot because the Panamanian embassy in Havana is very complicated, the line is long and the resellers (Cubans who travel to other countries to buy goods and then resell them back in Cuba) offer more than 300 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $300 US) for a place in the line in the informal market,” says Ismael, another pilgrim who has joined the trip.

Ismael’s parents look forward to the presence of their son in Panama. Growing up under the strict atheism of the 70s in Cuba, both professionals began to show their religious faith in public when, in 1991, the Communist Party allowed membership to believers. “They dreamed of something that now I can finally do,” says the son.

Many of those who travel to Panama this Saturday are children of a generation “that could not be baptized or married by the Church,” says Ismael. “Those people had to hide the crucifix and religious images and that is why now they have encouraged and supported the young people so they do not let their religion be taken away and carry it with pride”.

To join the delegation it was necessary to fulfill the requirements of the parish, such as having an active and sacramental life and providing a letter of approval from the parish priest or another religious figure of the community.

In all the parishes of the country, young people were advised to count on having additional funds for any unforeseen event. More than 60% of those interested in the trip arranged for private funds or received help from the religious community and from parishioners who collected money so they could fulfill their dream.

“Paying for our tickets has been a challenge, in which our priest have had the principal role. Most of us are students, so we have appealed to the generosity of priests, nuns and people of good will who live outside of Cuba.” explained to this newspaper a young man from Candelaria, in the province of Artemisa.

The Candelarian has many expectations for World Youth Day, an event founded in 1985 by Pope John Paul II that has become the biggest celebration of young Catholics. “It is also a place to compare our realities, to learn other ways of living the faith and above all to fill ourselves with hope,” he says.

In Panama, they will participate in meetings with Pope Francis. “Since last October we have had formative meetings in the parishes to be in tune with the world’s youth,” explains Mónica Rodríguez, a young woman from Santiago. “It is a great responsibility to represent Cubans who are unable to go on the journey and convey the true reality of our country.”

In Cuba there will also be a digital broadcast via Facebook. “We are enabling sites in order to experience the most important moments of the journey via the Internet”, explains David Yanes. “It is the first time that we are directly connected and we are going to take advantage of it”.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria


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

San Cristobal’s Horsecart Drivers Strike in Protest Against New Restrictions

The work stoppage aggravates existing tensions between municipal managers and workers in this private sector. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, San Cristóbal | December 01, 2018 – The drivers of horse drawn carts from San Cristóbal, Artemisa, have declared a strike as a signal of protest against new restrictions imposed by the Municipal Administration Council (CAM). The coachmen have decided to battles the authorities to repeal the measures that prevent them from entering the town and force them to only travel on outer roads.

On Friday, passengers arriving at the stand from where the horse-drawn carriages depart found the drivers seated, with arms crossed and insisting that they would not work until a “favorable agreement” was reached with the local government. The strike has paralyzed a municipality where most transportation is done via this rustic means of transit.

Last week the authorities decreed that the drivers could not circulate through the inner roads of San Cristóbal due to alleged complaints from neighbors about the bad smell of urine and the animals’ excrement of the animals. A version that drivers question, blaming the new restrictions on old tensions between municipal managers and workers in this private sector. continue reading

Less than three months ago the confrontation between both parties reached a point of no return, when in September the local government forced the drivers to move to secondary streets far from the center of the town. At that time, the drivers complained widely but ended up obeying the rules. On this occasion they have decided to go a step further.

“We can’t publicly say we are on strike, because in Cuba is not allowed, but we will stop working until we reach an agreement,” 14ymedio was told by Arsenio Ramirez, one of the drivers who this Friday reined in as a gesture of protest. “It was not enough for us to move five blocks away from the main roads, now they aren’t allowing us to enter the town at all,” he complains.

The drivers are sitting at their pick-up point and have organized to make the rounds with some of their vehicles but without picking up passengers on the road. The unusual scene of the horse-drawn carriages circulating empty has generated much curiosity among passers-by who have taken countless videos and photos of the work stoppage.

“The objective is for people to see the coaches circulating and find out what is happening,” explains Maikel, a young coachman who has joined the strike. “We have to collect evidence of the number of people who benefit from our service, with a bit of luck there will be more complaints from the population in favor of us and the authorities will have to reverse the measure.”

The local government has responded so far by placing a new bus that will cover the route from the main park of San Cristóbal to the hospital, twice a day. A way to easing the tension that has been created among the passengers who aren’t able to travel in the horsecarts that traditionally cover that stretch.

The self-employed are protesting because they are forced to travel around the town of San Cristóbal without being able to access its internal streets. (14ymedio)

“We transport around 7,000 people a day,” says Rolando Martinez, “most of them go to the hospital, whether workers or patients, who often come from other municipalities.” The driver believes that without the cars providing service the pressure on the authorities becomes unsustainable.

San Cristóbal has a population of more than 71,000 and is the second most populated territory in Artemisa province. In the town there is also a hospital that covers services of different specialties at the provincial level and the difficult situation of public transport forces the use of the horsecarts to get there.

“This morning the scene was bleak, doctors, nurses, children dressed in uniforms, everyone lined up on the road while the carts passed by empty, there was no transport so we had to walk to the hospital,” Carmen María, a nurse who had to walk the route on foot, complained Friday.

The changes in the horsecarts travel routes were announced last Thursday in a meeting in which representatives participated on behalf of the self-employed drivers, along with officials from the Municipal Administration Council.

“They treated us rudely, as soon as we expressed our discontent, the deputy director began to shout,” says one of the coachmen who participated in the meeting.

Pedicabs were also regulated with this measure, however they continue working in secret, although the local government has sent dozens of inspectors into the street who are imposing fines of up to 1,500 CUP on those who contravene the measure, which can even end up with the seizure of the vehicle in the event the driver is a repeat offender.

San Cristóbal has 81 animal-drawn vehicles in service for the transportation of passengers, 56 of them are duly regulated and at least six have contracts with institutions linked to education, commerce and culture sectors. The rest of the cars circulate illegally.

“As we are a large group, we organize ourselves and pay for a truck of water every two days to clean the area where we park the animals to avoid neighbors getting upset with the smell of horse urine, which is very unpleasant,” Arsenio Ramírez details to14ymedio.

Other drivers, such as Roilán, are optimistic about the results of the strike. “We have the certainty that the situation will be fixed, as soon as the week starts and people protest about having to walk.” The Self-employed driver says that if “each municipal administration sets its rules,” with this work stoppage the drivers are asserting theirs.


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

Regulations Against Horsecarts Aggravate Transport Problems in Artemisa

In several municipalities of Artemisa the horsecarts and pedicabs are not allowed to use the main thoroughfare. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 15 September 2018 — While horse-drawn carriages are a tourist attraction in the streets of Old Havana, in the municipalities of Candelaria and San Cristóbal, in the province of Artemisa, the authorities impose strict regulations on this popular transport, controls that are worsening the already tense situation of passenger transport.

For more than a year drivers have been forced to travel away from the main avenues, and instead make their way through unmarked alleys in poor condition. Now they must carry out their work almost “secretly,” several of them have reported to 14ymedio.

The thousands of customers who use this form of transport every day also feel that they have gone underground. In a province where very few buses travel the streets, most Artemiseños interviewed say they use these animal-drawn vehicles at least three times a week. continue reading

In 2016, the director of the Provincial Transport Company, Juan Carlos Hernández, said that 150 public transport vehicles covering 143 routes circulated in the province, but two years later many of these vehicles have deteriorated or gone out of circulation, according to sources from the company speaking to this newspaper.

Along with this deterioration, the authorities of the area have launched a crusade against horsecarts under the pretext of avoiding bad smells and traffic accidents. The Provincial People’s Power bodies, together with the National Revolutionary Police, also want to avoid having crowds of people waiting to board these vehicles.

Among the measures adopted, carts and pedicabs have been prohibited on the Central Highway, a decision that pushes the carriers and their passengers to explore alternative routes. “What should have been something to improve the quality of life of the residents, actually has become a headache,” laments Yaima, who on Monday uses the carts to get to the polyclinic where she works.

The young woman pays three Cuban pesos (CUP — about 12 cents US) for each trip, which means a monthly cost of about 120 CUP alone in transportation to reach her job; a significant share of her monthly salary which is around 900 CUP. “If I do not travel that way, I do not arrive on time because public transport can not be trusted, it comes along when it feels like it,” says the nurse.

“The measure to kick us off the Central Highway was taken about a year ago” Eugenio, a coachman in the area, tells this newspaper. “Since then people complain because they have to walk more to get to the carts and because the prices went up because now many segments are longer and the streets where we are traveling are in worse condition.”

In the province of Artemisa some 4,567 animal-drawn vehicles have been documented so far, most of them dedicated to passenger transport, according to official sources. However, this figure only reflects those who have a license to exercise this service, while an increasing number of vehicles circulate illegally.

For their part, the self-employed workers who are licensed to work in the sector complain that their needs are not taken into account. “They almost always make us look like the bad guys in the film by charging three pesos for each segment, but nobody calculates the cost of keeping the animal fit,” adds Eugenio.

The coachman regrets that there is no state workshop to fix this type of vehicle, or a market to “buy tires and other spare parts” at a price that is within reach of their pockets. “They ask a lot of us, they control us everywhere but when we demand our rights they do not listen to us.”

So far this year, the Candelaria Municipal Administration Council together with the traffic police and other authorities have had at least two meetings with these workers to analyze their complaints and also those expressed by their passengers. In each meeting, the parties have not been able to reach an agreement.

“They claim that because they’ve eliminated the payment of 10% of revenues at the end of each month, we can charge less to passengers, but they still do not take into account the prices we pay to keep these vehicles rolling,” says Sergio Martinez, another Artemiseño coachman artemiseño.

These self-employed carriers must pay about 186 CUP to obtain the license, to which is added the transit and veterinary permits that are paid monthly. The purchase of a horse cart can come to about 10,000 Cuban pesos and each year the drivers must pay their personal income taxes.

“It does not matter if it has been a bad season, the authorities assume that someone in this job earns a lot and when the tax return is filed many of us get the fines for alleged tax evasion,” laments Mario Nordelo, with more than two decades in the guild.

Earlier this year the National Tax Administration Office (Onat) reported that it will perform 5,500 “in-depth” control actions, including tax audits, in order to detect tax evasion, and to determine with “greater rigor” the debts and penalties and request the application of administrative and criminal measures.

In 2017, Onat detected that more than 60,000 taxpayers — 35% of those who paid self-employment taxes — reported and amount lower than their actual earnings on their personal income tax declaration for a total amount of some 563,000,000 Cuban pesos (CUP).

“Taxes and fines do not let us live,” says Nordelo. “I know coachmen who have had to pay up to 15,000 CUP in fines in a single year and others who have suffered the confiscation of their vehicle and their animal.” The self-employed transport provider thinks that “although many times the responsibility falls on the coachman due to some imprudence, what the authorities are trying to do is to end this service.”

In San Cristóbal, Arsenio Ramírez repeats his routine several times each day. He arrrives at the stop where the customers wait and there he waits until ten people get into the vehicle. “Many people depend on me to arrive on time,” says the coachman in front of a row of teenagers in school uniforms and several doctors in white coats. Four primary schools, a high school and a nursing faculty are located on his route.

“When they made us travel about five blocks away from the Central Highway, we created a union to complain to the Communist Party, but they threatened us with the police and we had to give in,” Ramírez told 14ymedio. “We have organized to clean the area where we park and avoid the urine of the horses being an annoyance, but the police always have a reason to bother us,” he complains.

In recent years there have been numerous strikes and protests by coachmen throughout the island. In all cases the drivers have demanded an improvement in working conditions, tax reductions and permission to travel through the more central streets.


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

The Name Alberto is Cursed in Artemis

The greatest damages caused by the storm are to crops and homes on the outskirts of Candelaria. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 1 June 2018 — The rains of subtropical storm Alberto have focused their gaze towards the center of the country, the area most affected by the floods, but in the West the damages are also considerable. In many areas of Candelaria in the province of Artemisa residents are still “up to their ankles in water,” and are taking stock of the losses in agriculture and housing.

The town of Candelaria is mostly agriculture and the raising of small livestock, and it is one of the most important suppliers of food to the city of Havana. Along with others such as San Antonio de los Baños, Güira de Melena and Alquízar, their fields yield root crops, beans and vegetables, destined for the capital.

In mid-2017 the province of Artemisa, in which these municipalities are located, supplied about 200 food outlets in Havana, according to information provided to the official press by Tomás Rodríguez, director of the Agricultural and Forestry Group. continue reading

“When these towns can not get their produce to town, the situation becomes very difficult for them, because what is raised in these fields is what Havanans buy in their markets,” 14ymedio was told by was told by Luis Romero, the driver of a “spider,” a two-wheeled vehicle pulled by horses and used to transport goods.

Returning to normal daily routines in difficult in a village with areas still quite wet. (14ymedio)

This Thursday afternoon some anxious customers arrived in Candelaria from Havana to stock up onions, garlic and pork. “But there is not much to sell because most of the crops are still under water and others are spoiled,” laments Romero, who managed to sell some bananas before they went bad.

Among the most affected crop in the Candelarian territory is rice, with hundreds of acres still under water, while in the mountainous area of ​​Soroa crops such as corn and cassava and fruit trees, such as bananas, suffered severe damage from the heavy rains.

In the streets, sewage still mixes with the floods left by the rains and has flowed into many houses, especially in the lower lying areas. Residents have been taking their furniture and personal items outside to dry them, with the first rays of the sun in two weeks.

A family has hung a piece of plastic to prevent the leaks caused by the rain from falling on the bed. (14ymedio)

An unbearable plague of mosquitoes has joined the damages left by Alberto, and families with young children take precautions to avoid the spread of diseases. “We send to Pinar del Río for water because our well is contaminated and there are two small children in the house,” explains one grandmother in charge of her three grandchildren.

The situation of chronic patients was also complicated with the passage of the storm, because the nearest hospital is in San Cristóbal. Asthmatics, hypertensives and diabetics have suffered the most and, as of Wednesday, those who in the worst physical condition have begun to be transferred to hospitals.

Others are living with the anguish of a possible collapse of their homes damaged by excess wetness.

“Passed through the water” says Caridad, describing the situation of her family living in the center of town. They have placed a dozen cans, buckets and other containers to collect leaks that fall from their ceiling made up of wooden beams.” The downpour has not given us a break,” she says.

“We also put this nylon over the beds to prevent them from getting wet, but the rest of the things are piled up in the only corner that does not get wet,” Caridad explains as she points to the ceiling.

Although subtropical storm Alberto has already moved away from Cuba, the rains continue to fall in Artemisa. (14ymedio)

“I’m desperate, I sent my daughter with her child to my sister’s house and we stay here,” she says. “This construction is one of the oldest in the town, it was declared a heritage site and it costs a lot of money to fix it, in addition to the permits and restrictions on building that are imposed on us because it is a heritage site,” she complains.

In the neighboring municipality of San Cristóbal, the most damaged in the province according to the authorities, the local press reports that families lost an incalculable number of appliances and about 400 mattresses.

Most of Candelaria’s streets are not paved and the rain has made it difficult to travel on them. (14ymedio)

In the towns of Taco Taco and Santa Cruz, the mere mention of the name Alberto creates uneasiness among the residents. In 1982, a hurricane of the same name caused severe flooding and now the nightmare has been repeated.

“No one here is going to give any child born the name Alberto because people have very bad memories of that name,” says a resident of Taco Taco who still has water up to his knees in the living room of his house.


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

In Guanajay, the Editors of a Magazine Dream of Publishing in Digital Format

Readers of ‘The Thinker’ recognize the difficulties that the publication has had to go through for two decades. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria, 10 November 2017 — It has not remained seated like the famous figure of Auguste Rodin, but nor has it been able to walk as much as its editors would like. The magazine El Pensador (The Thinker) edited in Guanajay, Artemisa, is two decades old and its founders dream of being able to publish it on the internet one day.

This Thursday, the notes of the Guanajay Hymn marked the beginning of the celebration of 20 years of a magazine born in the lay community centered around the San Hilarión Abad Catholic Church. A time that has passed rapidly for some, but that others, like its director José Quintero Pérez, remember every moment of. continue reading

“Our first issue was released on 9 November 1997 and it was edited by hand, typed on a typewriter, then we cut out the articles and pasted them on a sheet, which we photocopied and that’s how it all began,” he tells 14ymedio.

On the island, publications linked to the Catholic Church filled a gap for decades that could hardly be filled by other independent magazines, due to the strict controls maintained by the Government on the distribution of printed material.

Vitral (Stained Glass) and Espacio Laical (Space Lay) were some of the most well-known magazines born from the interaction between the concerns of the church and contact with communities. However, despite institutional protection, they were also victims of censorship.

In 2010, a report by the ISP agency counted 46 bulletins and magazines plus 12 websites and seven electronic bulletins that reached four million Catholic readers on the Island and many other Cubans in exile. A phenomenon that has been enhanced with the emergence of new technologies in the country.

The popular Weekly Packet has, for more than two years, had a Christian section that is made up of Catholic and also evangelical materials. An independent television channel has also been born from the interaction between faith and the digital world.

El Pensador, still far from having even a website, “has been concerned to understand and be part of the construction of a better future for all Cubans,” says a faithful reader who participated on the anniversary this Thursday.

Thought bubble: “I dream of having water.” ‘El Pensador’ not only addresses religious and parochial issues but also addresses social issues of interest to the community. (14ymedio)

With a bimonthly frequency, the magazine issued its 119th edition this week to approximately 125 subscribers. Although it has not managed to position itself on the World Wide Web, the publication is well known in Pinar del Río and Artemisa.

“To say that it’s been easy would be to lie. They have called us a little newspaper, a little newsletter and a bulletin. We have had to adopt different formats, sometimes with more pages, sometimes with fewer,” recalls Ángel Mesa, one of its founders. “We have spent many sleepless nights to bring an issue out, but we have the support of our readers,” he declares.

With a majority of Christian topics, El Pensador also includes among its pages social issues ranging from criticism of the deterioration of popular festivities, to the serious ethical problems that surface on the island, a situation that the Government itself has had to recognize.

“We are happy because we have been faithful to the objective of communicating,” and in the pages of El Pensador there is no “exclusion of people,” points out Quintero Pérez.

Mesa reports that the name of the publication arose from the readings of Father Félix Varela’s texts where he invited people “to think first.” The initial team has had to train on the fly.

In these years, the editors have not been exempt from criticism, unpleasant situations with the authorities, and, from time to time, some have has felt an urgent desire to desist, but the group has remained fairly complete despite the difficulties, says Mesa.

“I want to congratulate El Pensador for daring, it is not easy to dare and it can become a problem, but this world has been changed by people who dare, who dared because they dreamed that things could be different,” says a Baptist pastor who participated in the celebration for the 20 years of the magazine.

The magazine “has dared to dream that Guanajay can be different, if we think about this we can make a good contribution to our country,” he added.

Flavia, one of the young readers, believes that the main challenge for the editors is to increase the number of contributors and to remain as an alternative space for the “forgotten exercise of thinking” to continue “questioning all things until the truth in them is found.”

“The State Doesn’t Pay Me, So I Sell On My Own,” Say the Candelaria Guajiros

In the informal market it is difficult to find an avocado for less than 5 CUP. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K Guillen, Candelaria, 18 October 2017 — A year ago the smell of guava filled the road where Santiago Hernandez was waiting for the state company Acopio (Collection) to sell the fruit he produced. With the passing of days the flies showed up and the smell turned to rot, but the truck never appeared. Now, like many others in San Cristóbal (Artemisa province), this private producer prefers to risk the informal market.

The streets and roads of Artemiseño towns are the scene of an economic battle of the deaf. The police control farmers in the area, which has a long agricultural tradition, not allowing them to sell their crops on their own, but forcing them to deliver them to the official entities; nevertheless illegal trade continues to increase. continue reading

The frequent delays in transportation and the Acopia’s successive failure to pay the farmers discourages them from following the legal process to market their crops. “Before I let them rot again I prefer to sell them for a few cents,” Hernandez tells 14ymedio.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP per pound”

The campesino is not only annoyed by the problems of transportation and lack of packaging that Acopio blames for each delay, but also by the prices set for his merchandise and the continuous problems of weighing the product that “always go against of the man from the fields,” he says.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP [Cuban peso, roughly 4¢ US] per pound, so a quintal [100 pounds] comes out at 100 [$4 US],” he laments. In the informal market it is difficult to find this delicious fruit for less than 5 CUP each. “Normally they don’t sell for less than 10 CUP each, but in order to earn that much money, I have to sell ten pounds.”

“In the street I can raise or lower the price according to what suits me, whether due to the quality of the avocados or because there is a lot of supply, but with the State everything is very bureaucratic,” says the farmer. The Council of the Municipal Administration meets every month to check if it should modify some of the prices, but the State has imposed maximums that cannot be exceeded.

“The more production there is of a product in an area, the lower Acopio’s purchase price, that’s how it works,” says Hernández. The campesino says he does not understand “such a simple” formula when it comes to fruits and vegetables that mostly end up in Havana, with high consumption in homes and private restaurants.

It is not only private producers and those who lease state-owned lands that feel dissatisfied with the strict provisions under which they must sell their crops. Farmers organized in Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) and Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS) must also comply with the rules requiring them to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the companies of the Ministry of the Food Industry (MINAL) that process fruit industrially.

Farmers organized in cooperatives must also comply with the rules and to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the Ministry

In the middle of this year, more than 2,600 metric tons of mangoes were lost in the fields of Guantánamo due to lack of packaging and problems associated with processing plant breakdowns. The news raised a wave of indignation among consumers and the issue was even debated in the National Assembly of People’s Power.

However, what happened is nothing new and the scenario is repeated throughout the Cuban countryside. According to a report published by Mundubat a non-governmental organization for development aid based in the Basque Country (Spain), 57% of food produced in Cuba is lost before it reaches the consumer.

The problems are worse for seasonal products such as mangoes, tomatoes and avocados. The latter has entered October in the final stretch of its harvest and it is precisely the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque that obtain a greater harvest.

In 2016 there was a drop in avocado production, which barely exceeded 90,000 tons, about 30,000 less than in 2015, while this year the abundant rains have favored the growth and ripening of the fruit. Rainfall has even managed to keep the trees growing at this time of year.

“Now the problem is not the trees, nor the climate, but the man,” complains Amancio, a Candelarian who has been “tied to the furrow.” More than a decade ago, when Raul Castro came to power in Cuba, this composed farmer thought that the problems of the state-owned company Acopio were going to be solved.

“Everybody said that the General was going to put an end to Acopio and that we could sell our crops directly, but in reality everything is still very bureaucratic and the prices they put on our products are ridiculous,” says the farmer who specializes in food crops and fruit trees.

Ignoring the established process, Amancio leaves each morning early on his tractor to sell the last avocados of the harvest. The biggest risk is being stopped by the police and having his merchandise seized and the least serious rosk is to run into an inspector and receive a fine.

Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price

“More than three months ago I sold some bananas to Acopio and they still haven’t paid me, so I prefer to go on my own,” he explains to this newspaper. The farmer also complains about the high standards that the State applies to evaluating his fruits. Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price.

“If the inspector sees a spot on a banana or that day does not feel like paying you much, he tells you that the merchandise is second rate or doesn’t have quality, then the months of work go by the wayside and you just have to wait for them to pay you, someday, an amount far below what you spent on production,” reflects Amancio.

The farmer recalls that Nelson Concepción Cruz, general director of Acopio National Union, affirmed in the parliamentary sessions of last July that “the system of collection has been reordered by new equipment and the weighing system has been gradually restored.”

With the passage of the months little has changed and the operation is still a frequent target of farmers’ criticism, claiming lack of precision in the weighing, which goes against them, the obsolescence of the weighing devices and manipulation of the scales. They also point to an excess of subjectivity when it comes to categorizing the quality of fruits, vegetables, grains and root crops.

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered. “I’m going through the nearest villages to sell what I can,” says Ramon, another producer from the region. “What I have is avocados and I sell them for up to 3 CUP, at least I do not lose all the merchandise.”

A few days ago the police gave him a warning about selling on his own. “I went out with the cart full of bananas and a patrol stopped me,” he says. “They took me to Los Palacios and forced me to sell for a few cents,” recalls the farmer. “They told me that the people needed it more, but what they do not realize is that I also have needs,” he says.

Cuba is among the countries with the lowest agricultural yield in Latin America, despite the fact that “the cooperative sector already has 80% of the land and produces more than 90% of the country’s food”, according to the Mundabat report, production “only meets 20% of the needs of the population.”

Santiago, Amancio and Ramón believe they know, from their own experience, the reason for such low numbers.

Candelaria Runs Out Of Medicines

The outskirts of the place were a hive of customers who tried to reach the counter shouting and shoving. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, 13 October 2017 — The main pharmacy in Candelaria, a city in Cuba’s Artemisa province, looks like an overturned hornet’s nest when new medications arrive. Meanwhile, the area’s chronically ill spend their days in uncertainty due to the shortage of a growing number of drugs, a situation echoed in the ‘informal’ market.

“There is no Enalapril left or right,” lamented a retiree who waited for several hours this Wednesday to find out if the pills critical to those with hypertension had arrived. “I’m going to have to continue using herbal concoctions,” she lamented. continue reading

Since 2015, the deficit of drugs has worsened due to the country’s lack of liquidity. The Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industry Group (BioCubaFarma) attributes the problems to the shortages of raw material due to the long-standing non-payment of foreign suppliers.

“We did not have the necessary financing to pay the debts incurred,” Teresita Rodríguez Cabrera, vice president of the group, told the official press in late 2016. The official said that the industry was working to improve supply, but a year later the situation has worsened.

“Six months ago we had 97 drugs missing at this pharmacy,” says an employee of the Candelaria dispensary who prefers anonymity. “In the last three months the figure has reached an alarming number and we are now lacking 157.”

According to this source, analgesics, hypertension pills, diabetes pills, antibiotics and eye drops are among the most affected, “precisely because they are the most in demand.” The employee says that the managers of the branch assured them that the situation would normalize as of September, but the expected return to normal has not materialized.

“As of today, only a few drugs have arrived and in insufficient quantities,” the employee emphasizes.

The medications sold on presentation of a control card, known as a tarjetón,

are among those in shortest supply. The State subsidizes all pharmaceutical products and regulates the quantities that each consumer can buy, even when it comes to medications that don’t require a prescription.

The police had to come to the pharmacy to calm the building commotion. (14ymedio)

In the small villages near Candelaria several pharmacies have closed their doors permanently due to the lack of supply, which overloads the dispensaries that remain in operation.

The administration of the Municipal Main Pharmacy has taken measures to avoid the crowds that form when supplies arrive. These guidelines also seek to curb the hoarding of products, many of which end up on the black market.

This Wednesday, outside the pharmacy a hive of customers tried to reach the counter, screaming and shoving. In a near brawl won by the strongest, people with disabilities, pregnant women and the elderly had to retreat to avoid getting elbowed.

The pharmacy workers responded by closing the place down and calling the police to restore order. Buyers who clustered at the small window to ask questions also received no response and for hours no employee picked up the phone.

The pharmacy administration is determined to sell only one prescription of each drug per person, a decision that bothered those like Milagros, 64, who stood in line from nine o’clock on Tuesday night and had hoped to receive enough medication to last until the next supplies came in.

A few blocks away, the Catholic church also lacks the supplies to meet the demand for medicines. For several years the parishes have supplied the needy with non-prescription products that come from donations from abroad. In the last half year, however, the arrival of these donations has also declined.

“For months we’ve gotten nothing more than vitamins and some other things and those only in small quantities,” Olimpia, the women in charge of drug distribution at the Artemis church, tells 14ymedio. Hurricane Irma has affected many provinces of the country, causing much of the aid to be channeled to those areas.

In these circumstances, many Candelarians settle for trying to relieve their skin itches or lower their blood pressure through the traditional infusions that their grandmothers abandoned years ago.

Doctors With No Right To Laptops

Dental clinic in Candelaria, province of Artemisa. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria (Artemisa province), 23 July 2017 — “Where is my laptop?” a dentist at the Candelaria polyclinic in Artemisa province asked Friday while attending a patient. The sale of laptops to doctors – at subsidized prices – does not include graduates in dentistry, by a decision of the Ministry of Public Health that is being strongly questioned.

As of the end of last year they have began to sell the laptops for 668 Cuban pesos (CUP), around 25 dollars, for doctors who obtained a diploma before the end of 2015. The list of beneficiaries includes those who have completed a medical mission abroad and requires that they pay the full amount all at once, not in installments.

The public health system employs a total of 262,764 workers in the island, of which 87,982 work as doctors, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook of 2015. The doctors receive the highest wages in the country, a total of between the equivalent of $50 to $70 US per month. continue reading

However, the sector is seriously affected by the desertions of professionals during their missions abroad and the exodus towards other better-paid economic spheres such as self-employment or tourism, of doctors who remain on the island. In addition, physicians must deal with long work hours, material deficiencies and the dissatisfactions of patients.

Since the beginning of this year the doctors have been able to buy laptops in the store for public health workers in the provincial capital. The offer has brought long lines outside the premises and complaints about the capabilities of the equipment.

Since the beginning of these sales, an indeterminate number of laptops has ended up in the informal market, where they are sold for a price ranging between 200 and 300 CUC, between eight and 12 times the original cost.

Recently the official newspaper Granma revealed that each year Cuba collects more than 8.2 billion CUC (roughly the same in dollars) for “the export of health services.”

This month, several meetings in the province of Artemisa notified staff working in polyclinics, hospitals and other health centers that only doctors are entitled to acquire these computers. X-ray technicians, lab workers, and even dental graduates “are not included in this offering,” ministerial authorities said.

The information has generated a barrage of criticism and discontent among dentists and other professionals in the sector. None of them, except graduates in medical sciences, will have access to the merchandise sold in stores authorized for public health personnel. Among these products are also the white coats that are currently distributed on a staggered schedule in Artemisa province.

“This has gone beyond a lack of respect,” said the dentist from Candelaria. “Now it turns out that we are not the same as doctors, but when it comes time to participate in acts of repudiation against the words of Donald Trump, we are.”

Raiza Machín, a dentist from the province, does not speak half-heartedly. “I feel offended, even the self-employed who work in coffee shops wear white coats, how is it possible that as a public health worker we cannot buy them in a store dedicated to us?” asks the professional.

According to the head of the Public Health Workers Union in Candelaria, the information came from the Ministry itself and applies to the whole country. In response to the workers’ discontent, the union representative demanded a meeting with “the highest authority” but has not yet received a response. “For the moment we are not doctors and therefore we can not use the same facilities as they can,” says Machin sarcastically.

“At first they told us that they had to wait until they finished distributing the laptops among the doctors in the hospitals, then it would be the clinics’ turn, and then finally our turn,” says Araceli, a dentist with several years of experience.

“They have strung us along and now that say that we are not doctors, that’s why we don’t get the computers,” complains the dentist. The refusal to allow dentists to buy them became known shortly after the official media assured that the dentists were “guaranteed” laptops.

“Since our title says ‘Doctor of Dentistry’ I have to consider that I am one,” Machín stresses.

It Is Forbidden To Sell Cheese In The Cuban Countryside

“Clandestine” cheese making in Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria, 11 April 2017 — The milk boils on the rustic stove while on the table the cream is churned to make butter. The whole family revolves around the modest production of artisan cheese, a product targeted by the police and appealing to customers.

Roberto leaves the house every day very early and stands for hours at the edge of the national highway, displaying one or two cheeses to all passing travelers. He hides the rest of the merchandise in the grass to avoid large quantities of that soft and fresh food that they make at home being confiscated.

The patrols that monitor the area are mainly focused on trafficking in shrimp, fish, cheese and beef. From time to time a passenger bus is stopped in the middle of the road and the troops proceed to check each passenger’s luggage. The police are well able to detect that particular smell that emanates from dairy products. continue reading

“I get up at three in the morning for the milking in the dairy,” says Senén, Roberto’s father and a resident of Artemisa province. “When we have the milk that fulfills what we have to give to comply with the state plan, then my wife makes the cheese with what remains.”

Each farmer is obliged to sell most of their meat and milk production to companies and state centers

Each farmer is obliged to sell most of their meat and milk production to companies and state centers. In 2015 the price paid to the farmers for this fresh milk rose from 2.40 Cuban pesos (CUP) per liter to 4.50, less than half of the 10 CUPs (about 40 cents US) that it sells for in the informal market.

Private producers are prohibited from selling milk or any dairy product they produce to other private individuals on their own. However, many homes and private restaurants throughout the island are nourished by this artisanal food, made and transported under absolute discretion.

“My family has been making cheese for years,” Senén explains at midday. They started making it during the Special Period when all the clandestine pizzas were made with the so-called guajiro cheese. Now some private restaurants buy pieces of gouda or Parmesan in state stores or on the black market, but artisanal production remains the most affordable for domestic customers.

A few miles from the house of Roberto and Senén, in the dairies of Cayajabos, Olga begins to cut the milk with a serum made from pork lungs and lemon. This technique ensures a consistent and good tasting cheese. She adds some boiling water “to kill the bacteria” and to achieve a firm, “gummy” texture.

Cuba is experiencing the worst drought of the last half century and the country’s reservoirs are below 39% of their capacity

Today Olga wants to make a piece of about two pounds with ten liters of milk. “At the moment we are making few cheeses because the cows are giving very little milk and we have to fulfill the plan,” she says while straining the fermented milk and recycling the serum to use it again.

Cuba is experiencing the worst drought of the last half century and the country’s reservoirs are below 39% of their capacity. More than 81% of the agricultural area is affected by low water levels in irrigation and the effect on livestock production is especially negative.

Rain is not the only problem. Along with the 120 liters of water a day a cow drinks, it also consumes 10% of its weight in pasture grass, fodder and food concentrate, according to experts consulted by this newspaper.

Grasslands are currently dry and the feed supply is unstable. Farmers juggle feeding their cows with mixtures that also include derivatives from the sugar industry. The deficit directly influences the amount of meat and milk that is produced.

Cuba used to make 200 kinds of cheese but the fall of the Socialist Camp and loss of its financial support nearly killed the industry (14ymedio)

According to Rogelio González, a farmer from Cayajabos, 30 years ago a dairy was capable of producing up to 2,160 liters of milk daily, while now among the 10 dairy farms in the area, they barely reach the 1,080 liters needed to comply with the state plan.

“We had here the trays loaded with feed and purge honey, there were areas of fodder, urea, salt and the milking system was mechanized, all this helped to a improve production,” evokes Gonzalez. “But then everything got destroyed, the grazing fields are surrounded by the invasive marabou weed and the milking systems are pitiful.”

During the years of the Soviet subsidy, Cuba managed to produce up to 200 types of cheese, but the fall of the Socialist Camp ruined production and paralyzed the most important industries in the sector. The authorities are trying to revitalize some of the dairy processing plants, but without foreign investment the project becomes very difficult.

While state production tries to pick up the pace, Senén continues to make progress in artisanal cheese production. All around are small wooden molds made with bits of planks of different sizes to give shape to the cheese. The press that extracts the liquid is used before the work of turning.

Under the structure, a white bucket collects the liquid that is draining. “This is to feed the piglet I have back there,” adds the dairy farmer. “You have to take advantage of everything.”

When the process of pressing is finished “you have to refrigerate the cheese for a few hours so the crown has a nice yellow color and a better texture,” according to Senén.

“Right now, we are making only two kinds of cheese, not only because of the lack of milk but also because there’s not a great cheese culture here, so they eat the artisanal cheeses and the so-called processed cheese, which is sold in the little market for Cuban pesos, and in the store there is only gouda and it’s very expensive,” he says. A pound of the latter cost between 9 and 10 times more than the product made by Senén and his family.

Among the handcrafted products is the so-called guajiro cheese, which is sold on the highway

Among the handcrafted products is the so-called guajiro cheese, which is sold on the highway. Normally it is made from skimmed milk boiled and cut with piña de ratón, a wild seed. The result is a product that is white and more grainy.

To supply the private restaurants specializing in Italian food the process becomes longer and complex, in order to cure the cheese better. There are customers who prefer it with salt and others without salt, details the farmer. It should be avoided at all costs that the milk gets smoky during the cooking.

“We have to take the risk of selling it in Havana, because there they pay better.” A pound trades in the informal networks for between 25 and 35 CUP depending on the curing of the product. “We are making contacts and fixed points where they buy from us,” says Roberto, who fears fines and arrests on the highway.

“Every day the police get more strict and if they catch me, they remove the merchandise and take me to the station”, says the young man. More than once he has had to run and abandon the product. “It’s hard work, sometimes I only sell a little and most of the time is in the sun.” For him, the best days are those when some foreigner arrives.

For travelers passing by in their tourist cars the scene always looks nice and with an air of tradition: a man on the side of the road holds a cheese in his hands, as a trophy, while ensuring that it is “home-made.” Few realize the difficulties associated with trying to sell this delicious food in Cuba.

The Nomads Of The Commerce Travel The Towns Of Cuba / 14ymedio, Bertha Guillen

Street vendors move from one town to another to offer food, household goods and other products. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, Cuba, 13 March 2017 — Apples, disposable diapers and fried foods are some of the products on display on the stands of the traveling fairs that make the rounds of Cuban towns. Nomadic caravans that recall the circuses of the olden days, but without the jugglers or wild beasts.

Rosario González is 47 years old and lives in Los Palacios, Pinar del Río. For a decade he was employed at a state coffee shop, but a few years ago he decided to have his own business. Now he dedicates himself to preparing and selling snacks in a nomadic fair that travels throughout the west of the Island. continue reading

Rosario’s competition is strong, and he must add new options and products to make his offerings more attractive. At the end of February there were some 539,952 people with self-employment licenses. Of these, 59,700 are engaged in preparing and selling food.

The group keeps tabs on patron saint parties, carnivals or any local festival. They arrive at the place and set up their improvised stands

The license to engage in this occupation allows the seller to move from one municipality to another and also between provinces. “I had some neighbors who were involved in this business and I realized that it was worth it. So I threw myself into it,” Rosario tells 14ymedio.

This man from Pinar del Rio is part of a group that keeps tabs on patron saint parties, carnivals, or any kind of local festival. They arrive at the place and set up their improvised stands, made out of the same metal cots they sleep on at night.

The merchants go from here to there and spend the greatest part of their time on the highways, roads and public plazas. Some of them don’t even have homes and choose the traveling business without ties to any place they can return to. They are this century’s nomads, in a country that has a housing deficit of 600,000 units.

“At the beginning it was a little complicated, because my previous life was so peaceful,” says Rosario. The state café where he worked was known as “the king of the flies” because it had very few products and even fewer customers. He then took a risky step and now he is used to the “festive atmosphere and the crowds of people.”

In a nearby timbiriche – the Cuban word for a tiny commercial stand – is Yaumara, a jewelry seller born in Bahia Honda. She displays necklaces, rings for all sizes, and jewelry made from surgical steel, very popular among those who can’t afford gold or silver.

“I always liked a party,” the merchant confesses, so her current job “is easier” for her.

When the swarm of vendors arrive in a town they register at the municipal Physical Planning Office. They rent a space for their flea market and show their licenses from the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT), which allows them to engage in activities ranging from the sale of good to the management of children’s games.

They take care of each other and warn of possible police controls. When an inspector demands they report on a colleague, everyone remains silent

Among the sellers bonds of friendship and family are created. In the caravan there are several married couples and some have even found love along the road. They take care of each other and warn of possible police controls. When an inspector demands they report on a colleague, everyone remains silent.

Despite the restrictions on selling imported merchandise, many products sold at the fairs come from Panama, Russia or the United States. What they display openly is only a small part of what they have on offer. “Here we have something for every taste and pocketbook,” says a home-appliance salesman who also offers light hardware.

Another part of the merchandise comes from the network of hard currency stores managed by the State. In towns where shortages are a much more chronic problem than in provincial capitals, resale has become a widespread practice. The merchants supply sponges for scrubbing, pens, flip-flops and belts.

Despite the strict controls of the inspectors, the street vending business is attractive to many self-employed. (14ymedio)

“We sell at retail and that’s good because there are people who can’t afford a packet of detergent but can buy the small bags we repackage it into,” says Maurilio, who has spent at least five years “in these comings and goings.”

The group evaluates how long to stay in each village. “We see how things are, the atmosphere of partying and how sales go on the first day, then we decide whether to stay or not,” clarifies the entrepreneur.

Most of the inhabitants of the hamlets and settlements welcome them. “I look forward to the fair because it is an opportunity to buy things for the house and also my children love it,” says a resident of Candelaria. However, some residents closer to the points of sale complain that the travelers sleep on porches or take care of their personal needs in the street.

Some residents closer to the points of sale complain that the travelers sleep on the porches or take care of their ‘personal needs’ in the street

Ernesto and Uvisneido have solved that problem. Coming from the distant city of Guantánamo, they entered the business with a supply of toy cars. With the profits they bought a small trailer with three bunk beds and a bathroom. “So we do not have to sleep outdoors,” says Ernesto.

“We also have a dragon toy, a small inflatable jumping structure and a swinging chair carnival-type ride,” he adds. His customers are children who pay about 5 Cuban pesos for each turn on the ride or for a few minutes of jumping on the inflatable.

“There is always some inspector who spoils the party, but with this work we make out,” says Ernesto. Traders who have not managed to get a trailer to sleep in at night, set up their cots anywhere and pay a guard to patrol the vicinity.

With the first rays of the sun, they need to begin to proclaim their products or undertake the journey to the next town. Trade nomads know that their business only works if they travel everywhere.

Invasive Marabou Weed, An Enemy That Became An Ally / 14ymedio, Bertha Guillen and Ricardo Fernandez

A pile of marabou branches beside the road waiting to be transported. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen and Ricardo Fernandez, Artemisa/Pinar del Rio, 9 February 2017 – When he was a boy, Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera played around the charcoal ovens his father had built. Now, approaching 50, this Pinar del Rio man dedicates his days to a shrub that is both hated and appreciated: the invasive marabou weed, raw material for the first product that Cuba has exported to the United States in more than five decades.

Ledesma lives in El Gacho, a few miles from San Juan y Martinez, where the best tobacco on the island is grown. Also growing in the area is the spiny plant that has invaded the island since its arrival 150 years ago. Now, its hard branches provide sustenance to thousands of families across the island. continue reading

Cuba annually exports between 40,000 and 80,000 tonnes of charcoal produced from marabou, which occupies roughly 2.5 million acres of land that would otherwise be suitable for agriculture, or almost 17% of the island’s arable land.

Livestock areas have also been affected by this invasive weed that has conquered 56% of the land used for animal husbandry. The plague of threatening thorns spreads, thanks to the plant’s strong nature, but also due to the neglect and poor organization that affects the Cuban countryside.

A pile of sacks filled with marabou charcoal after the dismantling of the oven (14ymedio)

The state maintains a good deal of control over land despite the fact that in recent years the cooperative sector has been expanded and land has been leased in usufruct to private farmers.

The Basic Units of Cooperative Production manage 25% of the land, the Agricultural Production Cooperatives 8% and the Credit and Services Cooperatives 38%, while state farms manage 29%, according to figures provided in 2015 during the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

Popular jokes praise the marabou as if it were the royal palm. They propose to replace that haughty national emblem on the Republic’s coat of arms and in its place enshrine the tangled anatomy of the invading species.

A decade ago Raul Castro joked about the repudiation of the bush during a speech in Camagüey, during the official commemoration of the assault on the Moncada Barracks. “What was most beautiful, what stood out in my eyes, was how beautiful the marabou was along the whole road,” he said after traveling from Havana to that central province.

After that harangue, the crusade against the marabou took on ideological status and became a symbol of Raul’s government, right alongside the promises of eradicating the dual monetary system, curbing corruption and lowering food prices. Shortly afterwards, enthusiasm for the battle was lost and it disappeared from the government’s list of critical projects.

In an irony of fate, the enemy plant has gradually become an ally. In 2007 the Spanish company Iberian and Solid Fuels (Ibecosol SL) began to commercialize charcoal made from marabou in several European countries. Its ability to burn slowly and the delicate flavor it adds to food has earned it a good reputation.

The earth has to be scorched first to make the oven work properly. (14ymedio)

Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera knows these qualities well, because part of the marabou he processes ends up in his own stove. Every morning he spends hours cutting the logs that he then transports in an oxcart. His life is not very different from his grandfather’s, but he boasts of being able to count on “legal electricity” in an environment where low voltage “clotheslines” – as makeshift electrical wiring is called – abound.

He describes working with marabou as a real hell. The main limitation is the tools he has to work with. The axes and machetes are of poor quality, bought on the black market, and must be repaired all the time. With ingenuity, some have recycled blades from sugar cane harvesters to aid in cutting.

About two hundred yards from the farmer’s house is the flat ground where the oven is built. The earth is burned and looks fine, like black powder. The marabou must be heated to temperatures between 750° and 1300° F, with the wood stacked in a cone, covered over with straw and earth.

“Two months ago I took out of the oven an amount I calculated as 20 sacks – about half a tonne – and it started to rain. Although the rain only lasted a few minutes the hard coals cracked like broken glass,” he said. “I could only save five sacks.

In the nearby Artemisa Joaquín Díaz, 56, has been engaged in the manufacture of charcoal since he was a child. He has been using marabou for years to cook, but now, with the news of its export, he processes it more delicately and takes greater care of the ovens. Like Ledesma, he only has access to water through a well, takes care of his personal needs in a latrine outside the house and his house has a light weight roof.

This charcoal producer in the village of Fierro, in the municipality of San Cristóbal, bears up under the sting of the rebellious shrub; like other farmers he uses gardening gloves to protect himself. Keeping his eyes away from thorns is also part of the precautions. When he prepares an oven he tries not to leave a gap between one stick and another, because “it doesn’t hold in the fire and then it goes out.” Care is essential. “As long as white smoke is coming out, the wood isn’t burned,” and it will only ready to dismantle when the smoke turns blue, which may take a week or more, Diaz explains.

In Pinar del Río, the companies that buy charcoal from the burners are the state-owned Acopio and the Integral Forest Enterprise. Payment is made through a temporary contract that allows them to be paid directly and not through the cooperatives. The charcoal-burners thus avoid the check cashing fee charged by those entities.

The house in Artemisa of the charcoal-burner Joaquín Díaz, age 56. (14ymedio)

The state pays for charcoal at 1.20 Cuban pesos (CUP – roughly 5 cents US) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) wholesale, or 30 CUP for a 25 kilogram sack. For premium charcoal they pay 0.10 CUC (roughly ten cents US) per kilogram. With luck, the producer will pocket the equivalent of 150 dollars for every tonne of best quality charcoal, which the state enterprise will sell in the United States for 420 dollars, almost three times what the charcoal-burner makes.

However, selling to the state comes with many problems of late payments. In addition, “the rigging of the process of selection and the weighing of the premium coal, makes it more reliable to sell it to private individuals,” says Ledesma. The private buyer pays 40 CUP per sack, “and many owners of pizzerias and private restaurants in Pinar del Rio” come to him to stock up.

Ledesma dreams of being able to sell his marabou charcoal directly, without going through the state as an intermediary. “If that could be done, I would buy myself a chain saw to increase production so I could change the way I live.” Of course if that were the case, he reflects, “even doctors would come here set up charcoal ovens in El Gaucho.”

First Laptops Arrive in the Hands of Artemisa’s Doctors / 14ymedio, Bertha Guillen

Doctors wait outside the store to buy their Asus laptops at a subsidized price. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria, 19 January 2017 – “After a long wait I have my laptop,” affirms Amaury Rodriguez, a doctor who is a general practitioner in Guanajay, Artemisa, with satisfaction. The laptops are being distributed at subsidized prices to the public health sector in Artemisa, an initiative that is not without its critics.

At a cost of 668 Cuban pesos, about 25 dollars, and without the ability to pay in installments, the computers are allocated to any doctor who obtained a diploma before the end of 2015. The list of beneficiaries also includes those who have served on a medical mission abroad. continue reading

“My salary is 1,295 CUP from which they deduct 5% for the payment of social security and any other invention that arises, which leaves me approximately 1,240 CUP,” Rodriguez told this newspaper. The health professional estimates the cost of the laptop to be “more than half” of his monthly salary.

The approximate take-home pay of doctors is around 1,240 Cuban pesos, meaning the subsidized the laptop costs more than half a month’s salary

Nevertheless, in spite of the juggling he has to do to make ends meet with the new expense, Rodriguez is content. “It’s about time they remembered us,” he says, referring to the medical profession.

Cuban Public Health employs a total of 262,764 people, of whom 87,982 are doctors, according to data from the 2015 Statistical Yearbook.

The doctors earn the highest wages in the country, equivalent to a total of between 50 and 70 dollars per month, but also have to deal daily with a working day marked by very long hours, the material deficiencies that affect the hospitals, and the dissatisfaction of their patients.

In Artemis, the physicians can acquire a laptop at a store that caters to public health workers, located in the provincial capital, a situation that has led to long lines outside the premises, where impatience mixes with the desire to obtain the desired piece of technology as soon as possible.

The store’s administrator, Roberto Gallardo, told the provincial newspaper, El Artemiseño, that “once the sale of the laptops is concluded,” there will be offerings for “uniformed nurses, lifeguards, anti-mosquito campaigners and physiotherapists.”

Gallardo, who works for the Provincial Logistics Company (Epola), said they are trying to pay more attention to health care workers and so among the things that might be offered are, “home appliances, and supplies for personal grooming and the home.”

In Artemisa, the doctors can buy laptops in the store for public health workers located in the provincial capital. (14ymedio)

One of the workers from the store told 14ymedio that the sale of computers will continue throughout January, although they initially planned to end it in the first half of the month. “So far we have sold, in Artemisa, San Cristóbal, Candelaria and Guanajay, but we still have towns to cover,” explains the employee.

“We started with the hospitals and then the doctors in the clinics, which is a large number,” said the employee, who preferred to remain anonymous.

The computers distributed are mostly ASUS brand, from Taiwan, and have a two-year warranty, but only on condition that the user does not change the version of the Microsoft Windows operating system that comes with the computer.

The price of one of those notebooks in the informal market is between 200 and 300 Cuban convertible pesos (equivalent to about the same in dollars), so some doctors are not waiting to resell them to get cash, and others to buy a machine with better features.

Rubén, a computer engineer in the area, points out that other little-known brands are also being sold. In his opinion, “the computers are only a token,” because the quality is not good and he considers the integrated battery a limitation, since it makes it difficult to replace it in case of damages.

The price of one of these laptops in the informal market oscillates between 200 and 300 CUC, so some doctors aren’t waiting to resell them for cash

Ana, a doctor in the provincial hospital is not satisfied. “We Cuban doctors are accustomed to surviving from the charity and gratitude of our patients,” she complains. “The bad conditions under which we work are a secret to no one.”

Nor is she satisfied with the quality of the computer compared to “the millions of dollars the Government earns through the sale of medical services abroad.” The official Granma newspaper itself has revealed that each year Cuba collects more than 8.2 billion CUC (roughly equivalent to the same in dollars) through “exporting health services.”

Roberto, another doctor in Artemisa, does not share the opinion of his colleague. “I’m happy with mine, and I can connect via Wi-Fi,” he tells this newspaper. “Maybe the machine is not the best, but it’s cheaper than you can buy on the street, and anyway, I didn’t have one,” he enthused.

However, the physician is more cautious about the other possible benefits announced for the sector. “The story that they are going to give us access to the internet is a trap.” He also distrusts being the idea that he will be able to obtain an affordable car and sees it as something unattainable “for those who have to go to work every day on a bicycle.”