Baracoa Struggles to Survive Hurricane Matthew

Local authorities said in March 2017 that 85% of all these damages had been resolved.(14ymedio)

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14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Baracoa, 2 March 2018 — The darkness envelops Baracoa as the bus arrives at the main station. Despite the power outage, a swarm of people approaches to offer the new arrivals rooms for rent and taxis.

Before arriving at the terminal, the vehicle loaded with tourists must avoid the bumps of the road, several areas in danger of landslides, and animals that roam loose, before arriving at the terminal. The poor access conditions have affected the area for some time, but the passage of Hurricane Matthew a year and five months ago worsened the situation. continue reading

With the arrival of the group of visitors there is also some relief for the inhabitants of a tourism center that suffered a blow to its infrastructure, with the effects of the coastal floods and the winds of more than 120 miles per hour that ravaged the city that night of October 4, 2016.

“We lost a lot of tourism not only because of the hurricane, but because the Americans are gone,” Candita, who owns a house with two rooms for rent, tells 14ymedio. “Some are still arriving but those who come are clients with little money,” she complains.

A few yards from Candita’s house, a private cafeteria offers pizzas and sandwiches as well as coconut candy, a typical dish of the region. “Many businesses have closed,” says an employee of the place. “The problem is the supply, since sometimes there is pizza and sometimes there isn’t; maintaining service with the unreliability of supplies is very difficult.”

The ups and downs occur, she says, because many private producers in the area have not yet recovered from the crop and livestock loses caused by the hurricane. The employee explains that before the storm it was easy to get pork in the city but now “you have to sleep in line to buy a few pounds.”

The majority of tourists who choose Baracoa stay within the area of rental houses, the historic center and colonial buildings, but Baracoa has another face less known and that has not been rebuilt as quickly as the state hotels, such as the legendary La Rusa accommodation which was very damaged on the morning of the storm.

In the province of Guantanamo alone, Matthew left in its path material losses amounting to 1.584 billion Cuban pesos (CUP), in addition to more than 38,000 damaged homes and severe problems in food production, electrical service and water supplies.

In Baracoa, 24,104 houses, of the approximately 27,000 in this city of 81,700 people, were affected. In addition, 500 properties of state agencies suffered damages.

Local authorities claimed in March 2017 that 85% of all these damages had been resolved, but many still remain in the coastal area and in buildings along the malecon.

The beach is no longer a place of relaxation where dozens of people went every day and the sports field is still devastated. In several buildings near the sea you can hear the sounds of the hammers of those who come to take bricks and rebar from houses that will not be lived in again.

Although the Government approved a bonus of 50% of the value of construction materials and facilitated access to bank loans and subsidies for those who partially or totally lost their homes, residents complain of delays in supplies, the lack of some indispensable products (such as steel), and their poor quality.

Local industries can not cope with the production of construction blocks and other aggregates, which are obtained from materials collected in surface quarries. As of the middle of last year the banks had only approved about 4,000 loans with low interest rates, a tiny share of those needed for people who need financial support.

Julia, 60, is another of the many people who have not been able to restore even a single roof tile. “I have been staying with my family in a school on the Toa River since the hurricane happened,” she tells 14ymedio.

For those who lost their homes and are still housed in state facilities, the authorities are building a community in Paso Cuba, in the mountains, near La Farola. However, most of the victims are not satisfied with the idea because before the hurricane they lived close to the sea. Now, under the so-called “Life Task” —  a set of actions that the Government is carrying out to minimize the effects of climate change on the island — the reconstruction of those houses near the coast has been prohibited.

“We have written several letters and raised the issue with the authorities and they tell us that the buildings on the coast can not be rebuilt,” laments Julia, whose life revolved around the sea, from which many residents take their livelihood. Fishing, from which they make a living by selling their catch to private restaurants in the area and also use for their own consumption, is the main source of income for countless families in Baracoa.

“I’m not going to leave the shelter,” insists Julia, who fears losing any chance of returning to live near the sea if she moves into the new community.

Meanwhile, numerous buildings such as bodegas, shops and even the Cabacú Casa de la Cultura and its Catholic church are still in ruins. The church, of which only some walls remain, has become a public urinal and garbage dump.

“It was already in bad condition and with the hurricane it finished falling down,” says Vivian, the secretary of the city’s bishopric, who explains that the church can not be rebuilt in the absence of its primary manager.

“Since Monsignor Wilfredo Pino, who was very active, was sent to the diocese of Camagüey, the bishopric has remained vacant and we do not know when it will be covered,” she says. The faithful of the community “meet in private houses of worship to celebrate the Mass,” she adds.

“This city has not been the same since,” says a neighbor who has approached the bishopric to look for donated medicines. “We have been very badly off economically, with fewer tourists, less money and no bishop.”

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Private Restaurants Closed, Owners in Jail / 14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz

 Me Son paladar in La Ceiba. (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)
Me Son paladar in La Ceiba. (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Camaguey, 11 November 2016 — Closed and silent. Thus are several of the most successful private restaurants – known as paladares – in Las Tunas and Camaguey these days. Their proprietors are accused of several economic crimes and are in jail awaiting prosecution, despite requests from their lawyers to release them on bail.

Last month, after a thorough search of the Me Son paladar, ten miles from the Las Tunas capital, the authorities took Valentin, its owner, to El Tipico prison. It didn’t help Valentin that he has in his own house the presidency of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, according to the residents of the town of La Ceiba, in the municipality of Majobacoa.

“The police took everything, they only left what they couldn’t take, we don’t know if we’ll go back to work,” lamented an employee of the paladar. “Customers come from Holguin and even farther. We also function as a site for parties.” continue reading

Juan Carlos, a young farmer in the area who supplied the paladar with “food and vegetables every week,” confirmed that “the place had become very famous” and that “it was a question of time before the police came down on it.”

According to the source from the provincial prosecutor’s office, Valentin is accused of “having committed serious illegalities, like having products without proper receipts*, workers without contracts, and arrears in tax payments to the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT).”

In recent months the authorities have warned that licenses for private restaurants don’t include authorization for cultural activities, hiring artists, or bars. In Havana, several paladares have been closed for violating these rules.

Valentin’s legal problems are accompanied by the arrest, last summer, of Roberto, the owner of La Moncloa, the most successful paladar in Las Tunas. The arrests and severity of legal actions against the accused set off alarms in the private sector. “Everyone is keeping their heads down,” said a relative of the owner.

In neighboring Camaguey, at least three owners of paladares have also been arrested and prosecuted in recent months.

 Mi Hacienda paladar. (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)
Mi Hacienda paladar. (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)

About 500 people work in the 74 legally registered private restaurants in the province. In the face of the fears running through the self-employment sector, an official of the Council of Provincial Administration, Jesus Polo Vazquez, clarified that the searches and arrests are simply actions to “maintain legality in the exercise of non-state management,” and that “in compliance with the law, no installation will be closed without justification.”

Polo Vazquez described those arrested as “the unscrupulous who are enriching themselves,” with tax evasion. “Cuba has a right to defend its taxes, because that it what pays for education, health, culture and other social services.”

The family of Alberto Raiko disagrees with the official and insinuates that the month’s detention of the owner of the Mi Hacienda paladar in the Alturas del Casino neighborhood, is “an extreme measure to frighten successful self-employed entrepreneurs.”

Employees of Rafael Papito Rizo’s La Herradura, one of the most famous paladares in Camagüey, share that perception. The name of the small businessman went on to become synonymous with quality and fine dining thanks to a history of more than two decades. Today, the restaurant located in the Villa Mariana neighborhood is closed.

The most famous case, however, has been the centrally located restaurant 1800 Plaza de San Juan de Dios, winner for two consecutive years of TripAdvisor’s excellence award. The place was closed a few weeks ago after a search of several hours. The police “loaded up even the air conditioner,” says a relative of the owner, Edel Fernandez Izquierdo.

“They seized 150 boxes of beer and 200 bottles of wine Edel had bought over the counter without being given a receipt at the Tourism Fair in Havana,” says the relative. “They also took bottles of liquor that were gifts from Edel’s customers and friends.”

Fernandez Izquierdo is accused of having containers of liquefied gas without a receipt* for their purchase and valuable works of art that were not listed in the Heritage Register. In his neighborhood many suggest that the trigger was the Peugeot the successful businessman managed to buy and other property he owns in Camagüey. “That’s when everything exploded,” says a neighbor, Ramon Buenaventura.

The owner of 1800 is in the Ceramica jail and his father, retired from the Interior Ministry with the rank of colonel, still hasn’t gotten over his surprise at what happened. “The uniform hasn’t done him much good, because it’s not about something his son did, but about setting an example so others don’t cross the line,” said Buenaventura.

*Translator’s note: Private businesses are required to present receipts to prove that they bought their supplies in state stores, not in the underground market.

Camagüey Has No Water Despite a 40 Million Dollar Loan from Saudi Arabia / 14ymedio, Ignacio de La Paz

Water supply truck, last April, in Havana. (14ymedio)
Water supply truck, last April, in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Camagüey, 23 August 2016 — The water supply crisis suffered by Camaguey, the third largest city in Cuba, worsened this August despite the spring and summer rains. Although the supply in some areas of the city presents no difficulties, in the historical district the situation is truly critical and citizens must resolve it as they can.

“I get water every day, clean and with good pressure,” said Luis, a resident of the Avenue of the Martyrs, in the neighborhood of La Vigia, in the north of the city. “I boil the water, treat it with sodium hypochlorite and we drink it.” Quite another thing happens to Roberto, who lives on Calle San Pablo, in the city center. continue reading

“I haven’t had water for three days. The water here comes very irregularly. Sometimes there’s no water for a week, and I’ve spent a whole month without water. I don’t have the strength to carry water. I was operated on for a hernia, but I still have to carry buckets of water from the tanks at workplaces. I live on a corner, I can’t dig a well, or install a tank, because the sewer pipe runs under the house. Nor can I install a “water thief” (a makeshift pump that “steals” water) because there is almost never water in the tap.

“Here in the higher area almost no one has water, and it’s the same in Hermanos Agüero and Principe Streets,” complains Heriberto, a resident of Cisneros Street. “The little that comes is taken by the Marquis and La Sevillana tourist hotels, which have huge tanks.” A resident of Havana Plaza, Hilda says that the water supply in the area is irregular and the greatest problem “is that it is very dirty.” She adds, “You have to let it sit for several days before you can use it. I don’t know why the water problem hasn’t been solved, when there was a big hullabaloo in the press about Saudi Arabia providing a loan to solve Camagüey’s water problem and now we don’t hear anything more about it.”

The official newspaper Adelante, in its issue of 20 August 2016, addressed the problem of water with a series of justifications based on lack of resources and investments. However, it omits mention of the soft loan of 40 million dollars from Saudi Arabia, granted in December 2014, to improve Camagüey’s water and sewer systems.

In an interview with Radio Camagüey on 13 April 2016, Luis Palacios Hidalgo, director of the Aqueduct Rehabilitation Project, and an official of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources Delegation, promised that starting in June of this year the province would have – thanks to the credits granted – the “technological equipment and devices necessary for the aqueduct, guaranteeing the quantity and stability of water for the people.” To do this, he detailed, 1.8 million pesos will be dedicated to a water treatment plant.

These promises have not only not been fulfilled, but the situation has gotten worse. As for the Saudi credit, there has been no information about where the 40 million dollars is, how much of it has been used and how and why the project has been so delayed. Meanwhile, Roberto, Heriberto and so many other Camagüeyans continue to carry buckets of water in the afternoon for bathing and cooking.

Jorgito, The New Revolutionary Icon / 14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz

Jorgito debuted in his public life on the occasion of the Fourth Pioneers Congress, when he caught the attention of Raul Castro
Jorgito debuted in his public life on the occasion of the Fourth Pioneers Congress, when he caught the attention of Raul Castro

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Camagüey, 19 August 2016 — The Revolution needs to constantly reinvent new ideological struggles, constructing new heroes that meet the demands of the so-called ideological work with the masses. Thus, after the stage of the founding epic there was the release in 1988 of Orlando Cardoso Villavicencio, who had been held for nearly 12 years by Eritrean rebels, later there was the ideological battle for the return of Elian Gonzalez and finally, the struggle began for the return of the Five Heroes imprisoned by the “empire.” The saga of revolutionary heroes could not be finalized once and for all, and now a new one is being constructed, Jorge Enrique Jerez Belisario, otherwise known as Jorgito the Disabled.

At his birth in the Provincial Maternity Hospital of Camagüey on March 8, 1993, in the toughest year of the Special Period, Jorgito suffered physiological jaundice complicated by symptoms of a generalized infection by the bacterium Klebsiella and was finally diagnosed with Infantile Cerebral Palsy. This information is public, taken from Ecured, Cuba’s official on-line encyclopedia. However, we Camagüeyanos who knew the Ana Betancourt Maternal Hospital in those years knew that it was a time of every man for himself, and suspect there could have been poor medical practices caused by the lack of hospital resources. continue reading

Jorgito’s parents, professor of Marxism Maria Julia Belisario and then prosecutor Jorge Jerez, moved heaven and earth to raise their son, receiving every possible support. The mother stopped working, receiving full pay, to care for the child at home, and Julio Diaz Hospital in Havana took care of his rehabilitation for four years. When Jorgito needed a computer to write because of fine motor skills problems, he was assigned one. He was prescribed botulinum toxin, dispensed free of charge although the cost for the medication according to Jorgito himself is $400. In addition he received specialized classes targeted to his disability with teachers to see to his needs.

Jorgito displayed a strong will and perseverance, partially rehabilitating himself, and soon expressed his revolutionary political vocation. In 2006, Jorgito debuted in his public life on the occasion of the Fourth Pioneers Congress, where he attended as a delegate and made an emotional speech of thanks, drawing the attention of Raul Castro who presided over the event due to Fidel’s illness. Thereafter, began the ascendance of the rising star of the new Cuban ideological hero. Later on he joined the campaign for the return of the five “prisoners of the empire,” developing personal friendships with them and their families. This produced an umbrella effect, with Jorgito being associated from that moment with “The Five.”

The young man studied journalist and discussed his thesis on the case of the Five Heroes in the presence of Gerardo Hernandez, one of the released prisoners, and his wife. His blog, JorgitoXCuba, achieved national popularity with the premiere of a documentary based on his life on the Roundtable TV program, entitled The Power of the Weak, by German director Tobias Kriele. Thus, Jorgito became a roving ambassador of the Cuban Revolution, traveling through many countries in the Americas and Europe.

He was at the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students in Ecuador, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, at the 2nd Day Against the Blockade in the United States, and toured 13 German cities and now Switzerland and other European countries on the old continent.

Jorgito is enjoying his honeymoon with the Cuban government. He has free Internet in his lovely apartment, receives special work permits and constantly travels abroad with his family, receiving gifts. He does not suffer the miseries of ordinary Cubans, much less those of many disabled who do not have the same luck and do not receive any attention or help.