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.”