The Electric Scooter, a Vehicle for the Times

An electric scooter can be an investment now that home delivery services are booming due to the pandemic (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Cynthia de la Cantera, July 1, 2020 — The stars have aligned for anyone who sees the electric motorcycle as a great business opportunity. At the end of 2019 there were already about 200,000 of these vehicles in Cuba. The recent boom is fueled by a combination of several factors: an inadequate public transport system, gasoline shortages, the vehicle’s ease of driving and the job opportunities it provides during the pandemic.

“With all the transportation problems we have in this country, where taking a taxi is difficult even if you have the money, it was more feasible for me to buy a motorcycle, despite how expensive they are,” says Camila Alonso, a young woman who invested 1,500 convertible pesos (CUC) she had saved for one of these vehicles. “With a scooter, you don’t have to wait forever at a bus or car stop. Travel times are shorter,” she reasons.

Getting one, by contrast, was more time consuming. She could have afforded to buy a new model, which comes with a guarantee, at a state-owned store. The motorinas, as they are known locally, are made in China under the brand name Minerva and assembled in Santa Clara by the Angel Villareal Bravo Company. According to an article published late last year in Granma, the price for one of these scooters was 999 CUC, seemingly quite reasonable for a brand new product. continue reading

“We get a lot of scooters that came with a guarantee but that broke down after a month of operation,” says Brian Arocha, a mechanic at a shop in Havana’s Vedado district who has found a niche market servicing these popular vehicles.

The young man claims the scooters sold by the state are not of great quality but notes that the need for transportation is so great that buyers will resort to anything,” especially if it’s cheaper than buying a car or an internal combustion motorcycle,” he says.

Smugglers, always attentive to market demand, sensed an opportunity and began importing the scooters through Panama’s Colón Free Trade Zone. Cuban customs regulations allow such a vehicle to enter the country for 200 pesos provided it does not exceed 1,000 watts of power and cannot go faster than 50 kilometers per hour.

Brian claims these e-scooters are of better quality than those sold in outlets run by the Cimex and Caribe retail chains: “Those stores don’t have experienced staff assembling the scooters so they make bad [electrical] connections. Over time, this results in false starts, short circuits and mechanical problems.”

This, along with the inconvenience of buying the product at a government-authorized store that requires payment with a certain type of card,* convinced Camila to buy a used scooter from a private importer. For three days she poured over online classified ads on Revolico and Porlalivre until she found the scooter that was just right for her: a Raybar, model EA3, in red.

Prices for a high-quality electric scooter are comparable to the Cuban Minervas. A Mishozuki Tiburon, one of the most expensive and popular models, costs between 2,500 and 2,800 CUC new and between 1,900 and 2,000 used. Virtually none of the new imported models goes for less than 2,000 CUC.

Nevertheless, many people view the purchase price as an investment. The pandemic has led to a boom in home deliveries and having a motorcycle can be a big help when it comes to finding a job.

There are classified ads on Revolico by businesses looking for drivers to deliver pizza, prepared food and produce. For Alvin Pino, the owner of a food delivery business, the popularity of motorinas has helped him boost profits. “They’ve really stimulated home delivery. There are more electric scooters now so this service has grown,” he says.

Others see a scooter as a job opportunity and post ads offering to transport “anything that fits in a box or a backpack.” As of yet, that does not seem to include people, whose weight can impact the battery by requiring more frequent charges, notes Camila, who doubts that the vehicles’ engines would allow them to be used as taxis.

The average range of these vehicles is thirty miles, adequate for getting around urban areas. To fully charge a scooter, however, usually requires four to eight hours of electricity, which could cost as much as 130 pesos a month.

In spite of frequent blackouts in Cuba, which have become more frequent since last September due to what the government describes as a “temporary” situation, there is often no problem recharging batteries. It is certainly simpler and less complicated than filling a car’s tank with gas, and also less polluting. Scooters are also faster and require less physical effort than bicycles, which many citizens appreciate given the island’s tropical heat.

But there are disadvantages. Motorcycles are used mainly by young people and require no license unless they are over 1,000 watts and can reach speeds over 30 miles an hour. This suggests the vehicles are low risk and do not require adequate protection measures, such as the use of a helmet. However, in the first four months of 2019 alone, there were 207 motorcycle accidents in which 10 people lost their lives and another 121 were injured

“Motorcycles are generally purchased by people who travel, who make deliveries and who work in sales. People who work in tourism, who get remittances from overseas and who work in the private sector also buy them. They’re usually business owners, not employees, because there are places where someone who is self-employed still can’t buy a motorcycle,” says Brian.

In spite of all this, the pandemic has put the market on hold. As long as “mules” are unable to travel, private imports of electric scooters are frozen.

*Translator’s note: State-run stores that sell goods in hard currency require customers to pay using dollar-denominated bank cards from accounts opened with convertible currencies such as the dollar or euro.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Risks and Insecurity of Being a Doctor in Cuba

In training sessions, doctors are warned about publishing images that could slander the health system. (flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Cynthia de la Cantera, Havana, June 23, 2020 — Ernesto is considered an “old dog” in his profession as a primary doctor. However, he still remembers how he and his colleagues were “tattooed with fire” after the authorities warned them during a training session about Covid-19 protocols. “Be careful about publishing a photo or information that doesn’t agree with what is official, because notice will be taken at the highest level of what is said.”

The “inappropriate” photo or information refers, in his opinion, to the precariousness of the health system and the working conditions for medical personnel. The polyclinics don’t have bathrooms or rooms in a condition where doctors, who dedicate seven days a week to their jobs for barely 1,600 pesos a month, can rest, and this hampers the performance of all health measures. In addition, once they leave the hospital, the doctors encounter the same problems as the rest of the population: shortages and lines.

Access to medical sources and hospital centers in Cuba requires permission from the Ministry of Public Health, which already has been denied to the independent press under normal conditions. Now that health personnel are at the center of media attention, a public statement with the author’s identity can propitiate a sanction or expulsion from the health system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. continue reading

Ernesto, who uses a pseudonym, explains how his day usually goes. It begins at 7:00 in the morning in an apartment with three rooms, one for a nurse and two for consultations. “We don’t have water in the bathroom; nor in the sinks or the toilet. We have to get it in buckets.”

His first job is to fill out a sheet of paper, writing down the names of patients who are waiting by “medical groups,” a system of categories implemented by the Ministry to classify the population according to risks and vulnerabilities. “I have to see a minimum of 20 patients a day. If I don’t, my work isn’t considered productive.”

At 9:00 am, the medical students arrive and perform their surveys. Ernesto distributes forms and they must visit all the houses to learn how many people live there, their ages and symptoms. This system is based on the epidemiological vigilance that already was done for zika and dengue.

“After the first weeks the neighbors were calling me because the students weren’t coming by every day (as they were supposed to), but they were still handing in daily reports. Falsifying them is easy: first they fill out a complete questionnaire, well done, with all the data, and before handing it in, they take a photo. Then they use this as a template and visit the houses only a couple of times per week,” he laments.

Ernest tried to rotate the students to avoid the trap, but the faculty agreed that they should investigate in fixed areas to get to know their patients, with a maximum of 40 homes. “As you might understand, there are times they go and times they don’t,” he says.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of Ernesto’s patients has gone down, and he is already beginning to note the return to normality. “Most are older adults who come for prescriptions. They request the same thing two or three times, because there is a lack of medication and their prescription expires.” The doctor complains that the authorities haven’t approved extensions for prescriptions as they have for other things. “If I haven’t written 100 expired prescriptions, I haven’t written any. It’s a waste of time and incalculable resources since this country is so poor,” he complains.

Among the most requested medicines are analgesics like dipyrone and naproxen, antibiotics like gentamicin and triamcinolone, and sedatives like lorazepam, which aren’t available.

After lunch, Ernesto visits nearby patients who live alone and those who have declared symptoms to visitors or by the mobile application. “With these last, I have gone by and sometimes arrive and they tell me there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re bored, or they only wanted to see if the application really worked. Almost all are elderly adults. I ask them to imagine how it would be if they really needed me and I was visiting another person that falsified symptoms,” he says, although the application itself indicates that giving false information is subject to sanctions imposed by the law.

When he finishes his paperwork in the polyclinic, he concludes his day and lingers with his colleagues, chatting during the hour or hour and a half he spends waiting for the bus that drops off the medical personnel. Some of them, according to the municipality where they live, must wait for two or three hours.

Ernesto thinks he contracted coronavirus a couple of months ago after coming into contact with an Italian woman from Bologna. One week later, he was at the polyclinic with fever, a headache and fatigue, and they sent him to the Luis Díaz Soto military hospital in Havana. “The doctor looked at me and said, with a straight face, ‘What you have is tonsillitis. Go home’. He knew that I was a doctor because of the referral. The following day they disinfected my house, and I spent 21 days in quarantine. They didn’t do an analysis; I never knew what I had.”

The doctor believes that cases like his allow them to improve the statistics, although he says he doesn’t know of other cases of apparent omission of registering someone contaminated by the virus. “I don’t like to speak about politics, because everything is always misinterpreted, but the way they have of defending the system is by saying ‘look how we are managing the pandemic’.”

In this country they have already reported two outbreaks of contagion in hospital centers, both in Mantanzas. A local media gave details about the working conditions and lack of hygiene, and the scarcity of protective equipment that contributed to the outbreak in the Comandante Faustino Pérez hospital. The floor where the focal point originated had lacked water from more than a year. In addition, with all the personnel isolated in the hospital to avoid new contagion, the number of doctors available in the province was reduced, and the workload of the rest was increased, until a brigade from Mayabque had to be sent to help.

Milena is a medical student, in her last year, and she practices on the front line, but she fears for her pregnancy. “It really gets ugly when you begin to count between 25 and 30 ambulances a day that bring in patients with respiratory symptoms. They authorize specific consultations for them, so they enter on the other side of the hospital. They put me in the emergency room, but still, occasionally, suspicious cases arrive that way, and you have to examine them to do a pre-diagnosis.”

The young woman notes the influence of the international missions on the loss of professionals in Cuba. The Government maintains personnel in 59 countries, 3,300 in the 29 nations where they participate in the struggle against Covid-19, adding up to a reduction of some 29,000 health workers in Cuba.

“They formed groups to go relieve them. The intensive care specialists, internists, gynecologists and pediatricians were obligated to go, but the rest of them went voluntarily. After they took doctors for the missions they had to create more groups because there weren’t enough. No one knew what was going to happen,” she remembers.

“I was really afraid because the security measures weren’t great. They only gave you one cloth mask, the green kind, for the whole shift of 24 hours. They didn’t give out gowns or caps, not even eyeglasses. Only after the donations [of the Chinese Government] did things improve a bit. But still we were worried that some patient would arrive who didn’t have symptoms, coming for something else, and that one of us would get infected,” she says. She brings from home four or five masks, two protective suits, a pair of gloves and a surgical cap.

The Ministry of Health retired personnel over 60 years old with 60% of their salary because they were a group at risk, but not anyone pregnant, since it hasn’t been determined that the virus causes anomalies or severe complications, but Milena is afraid because the immune system is depressed during gestation. “In the case of Covid-19, you can have pneumonia or bronchial pneumonia, which is very dangerous for the life of the mother and the baby,” she says.

These fears have led some health workers who still haven’t reached their second trimester to present medical certificates that permit them to be absent until their due date. Then they extend them to week 34, when they can benefit from paid leave. But Milena had to go back after the first expiration date because she’s a student. “If I don’t fulfill the requirement of 80% attendance, I lose the right to my diploma,” she explains.

Mariela, a family doctor who practices in the Havana municipality of Revolution Plaza, is worried about the Program of Infant Maternal Attention. “The pregnant and lactating women take a series of courses each trimester, a level of monitoring that is one of the most exhausting there is.” This means more tests, more consults, more follow-ups, more information and reports. There’s no rest.

Before she was working from Monday to Friday and Saturdays until 12:00, but now she also has to work on Sundays, for the daily surveys. “No one expected this. And it’s not considered overtime. If we don’t do it like that, cases occur. But from my point of view, you get exhausted, because it’s not just Covid-19. You have a population with other diseases and follow-up programs. In addition, there are medical emergencies, the elderly, those who live alone, the following of contacts and those whom you have to see every day,” she says.

When health workers are tired, Mariela points out, they stop fulfilling the protocols with the same rigor, and now she can only rest in the days following emergencies in the polyclinic, four times a month.

“Have they told you when you could officially rest?”

‘No, I don’t know; I suppose it’s when all this ends.”

Francisco Durán, the head of the Department of Epidemiology of the Ministry of Public Health, has explained that the epidemic would be considered concluded 28 days after the last positive case, the time that corresponds to two periods of incubation of the new virus.

Meanwhile, Havana is full of posters that highlight the triumphant battle against the pandemic. Some include photographs of Fidel Castro and José Martí. There is one where several doctors appear with green masks keeping a distance; the first of them holds a Cuban flag.

It’s very probable that the photo was taken at the time of farewell for a medical brigade leaving on their mission. The text says: “For Cuba, together we will win.” The message is repeated in the State media to remind us that they are our heroes: those who wear the white coats. And really they are, but not for their unconditional support and discipline, but rather because they work without adequate means, without pay for extra hours, without days of rest and without being able to enjoy their families.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Lining Up and Muzzled

The only difference between the pre-choroona virus lines is the presence of facemasks, as in this establishment in Holguín.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Cynthia de la Cantera /Laura Rodríguez Fuentes/ Fernando Donate, La Habana /Santa Clara /Holguín, 17 April 2020 — One morning in early April, Carmen Rojas recalls how she made the most of laundry soap during Cuba’s so-called Special Period. “The soap chips are stored in nylon, so that the original fragrance is not lost. You can boil them or rub them with a grater over your clothes,” says this 57-year-old retiree, who lives in Santa Clara. “Then rinse with three or four buckets of water, so that your clothes are not mottled.”

“There was no detergent then,” recalls Rojas, who subsists thanks to the remittances sent by her brother from Spain. “Now we are in the same situation. Nothing catches me by surprise anymore. What worries us most is food. One can live without bathing.”

In a way, the Government’s reasoning has been similar. Faced with the tightening of the embargo and the fall in tourism, caused by the restrictive policies of the Donald Trump Administration and the collapse of Venezuela, the authorities responded by prioritizing the essentials. continue reading

In September 2019, the Minister of Internal Trade, Betsy Díaz Velasquez, ratified it: “the priority is food,” she told the state-run newspaper Granma. In a country where the population lives with chronic shortages, providing food seemed sufficient, but with the arrival on the Island of Covid-19 the essential changed. Now bathing is necessary to survive.

The virus is exposing the weaknesses of the countries it passes through, and Cuba is no exception. Although Cuba claims that its public health system is better than that of many countries in the region, and the government lacks the counterweights of a democracy (factors that helped China overcome the pandemic), hygiene and isolation recommendations are more difficult to apply than in other nations.

One of the Government’s first measures was to include a hygiene package in the ration book with three bath soaps — one for washing clothes — a tube of toothpaste and a liter of chlorine for every two people. But many doubt if this quantity is really sufficient or if it will be possible to distribute these products in all municipalities and during all the months that the pandemic lasts.

Minister Diaz Velasquez said on April 9 that washing and toilet soaps had only been distributed in 84 of the 168 municipalities in the country and that the average availability of chlorine nationally was 1.5 liters per person. Furthermore, he added that liquid detergent and toothpaste “may need to be purchased over a period of three months, depending on their availability.”

Toiletries were removed from the ration book in late 2010 and have been sold in the unrationed market since then, but in recent years they have been scarce in stores selling in national currency and often have been available only in convertible currency stores, controlled by the Army business group, whose prices are often unattainable for those who live on state wages.

Nor is it easy to comply with the measures of isolation and social distance, because getting enough food is not possible, especially for products that are distributed irregularly.

“What happens is that they give them to you a little bit at a time and you have to be aware of where they are going to put them up for sale,” says Gipsi Peña, a young woman from Santa Clara who has already spent time in three lines in April. In addition, due to the limitation of units for sale, it is common for consumers to come as a family group so they can purchase more, which increases the size of the crowds.

At a recent meeting of the Provincial Defense Council of Havana, its leaders, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar and Reinaldo García Zapata, asked for order in the lines and that the products not be concentrated in just a few points of sale. In addition, they warned that store managers who do not comply “will be judged according to legal norms in epidemic situations… You have to respect the population,” added García Zapata.

In San José de las Lajas, in the Mayabeque province, a citizen was sentenced to nine months in prison for resisting arrest after having “uttered words that violate public order,” while standing in line, according to the local press.

People with greater economic capacity have more room to maneuver, such as Mariana Álamo, a 30-year-old resident of Havana who rented rooms to tourists and bought provisions at the start of the epidemic, which now allows her to go out only to make quick purchases.

“About ten days ago they were selling chicken down the corner from the house, in the Cupet. The line was super organized, they were doing numbers, like shifts,” she says. “People were keeping their distance. They were giving out one package per person, I bought a package, whatever they had. Afterwards, we continued to buy in lines that we see are working well, not in crowds.”

But the majority of Cubans continue living day to day. For this reason, despite the fact that there are already hundreds infected on the Island, the streets look similar to usual. The only difference is in the homemade masks that have been crafted in private sewing workshops and are sold at affordable prices, between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos (50-75¢ US).

In the Puentes Grandes shopping center in Havana, on the last day of January at noon, the line was small, between 50 to 70 people, which means an average of one hour to shop. That day, there only toilet paper and hair products were available in the grooming section.

The line was organized by a worker who, every 20 minutes, distributed tickets and allowed small groups of 10 or 15 people to enter, and they had to wash their hands with the chlorinated water available at the entrance.

In addition, a patrol of four police officers supervised the area. “The man with the black pants and the yellow pullover, put on your facemask. Yes, you, don’t look behind you, it’s you,” said the agent with a loudspeaker in her hand.

At Cupet La Forestal, a few days later, the line was shorter. Five people who waited less than 30 minutes to enter and without police control. In this small store there were cleaning cloths, hair products and bath soap, at a price of between 0.35 and 0.50 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, worth roughly a dollar each) but limited to two per person. Inspectors, according to the clerk, had passed by to verify the amount of Rubis brand soap, made in Turkey, for sale.

In the Viazul Market, in Nuevo Vedado, on April 10 there was no soap, detergent, nor toothpaste. In the grooming section there were only colognes, perfumes, and hair products.

Although there were not many people in line at this market, supplied with chicken, few were strictly following the distancing measures and there were no police or any other authority to establish order.

Meanwhile, in Santa Clara the streets begin to fill up first thing in the morning. “You have to be here before nine, to take your turn in line and to see if they got something new,” says Elizabeth Llerena, who has come from the José Martí district, on the outskirts, because “there really was nothing to buy.”

At half past nine, the crowd exceeds fifty people who crowd and gossip about the food insecurity in their homes. Inside one of the stores, which does not exceed 40 square meters, there are up to three simultaneous crowds of people: for toothpaste and soaps, for cooking oil, and for chicken thighs, which have been missing for months.

“In my house there are five of us, I live with two old men and my young son,” says Hilda González, a self-employed worker who lost her job after the ice cream parlor where she worked closed. “So, I am the one who has to go shopping and I have to do it at least three times a week. In one day I get into four different lines for different things, be it for food, soap or detergent.”

Most of the state sales points are out of stock and, where there is availability, the limitation is two units per person. With the coming of the pandemic, the number two has become a constant for Cubans.

“It’s two per person,” says the clerk of a store in which the most demanded product are the bags of Piñata instant soft drink. Before starting the day, the worker had already gotten a bag for herself and another for a friend who has two children at home with “their mouths open… that are not filled with anything,” she said.

No one complains. The only concern is the two packages of Piñata and the heat, and the dampness of one’s face under a piece of cloth. “That’s why no one protests, this is like a muzzle,” says a man in line.

After half an hour waiting in line, Angélica is about to enter the currency exchange La Luz de Yara, located in the center of the city of Holguín.

“I need to buy ground turkey and toiletries,” she says. Over age 60, this retiree is among the population at risk for the coronavirus. In Holguín, of the 57 infected so far, 77% are older than that.

Angelica lives alone with her husband, who is convalescing from an illness that prevents him from waiting in lines. Although she would have liked to stay home, she knows she has to take care of shopping. “I have no one to help me buy what I need to live on,” she says.

In reality, she is fortunate to be able to buy at a hard currency store thanks to the money she receives from her children in the United States, but since the arrival of the pandemic, the store has regulated the sales per person to five soaps,and the same number for tubes of ground turkey, the only meat available.

The measure has created discomfort among customers who protest that the small amount of products offered does not compensate for so much time waiting in line, a situation that is repeated in other stores in the city, such as Modas Praga, where the line extends more than one block.

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Cynthia de la Cantera is a journalist based in Havana who collaborates with Yuca Byte and Tremenda Nota.

Laura Rodríguez Fuente is a journalist based in Santa Clara who collaborates with Tremenda Nota and Cubanet.

Fernando Donate is a journalist based in Holguín who collaborates with Cubanet.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.