A Not So "Spontaneous" Gathering in Havana’s Trillo Park

The event “Tángana en el Trillo. Youth for Socialist Democracy,” was a demonstration in response to recent criticisms from the Cuban artistic community. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 30 November 2020 — To the rhythm of pro-government slogans, with great coverage by the official press and the presence of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the event “Tángana en el Trillo. Young people for socialist democracy,” was held this Sunday in Havana, a demonstration in response to recent criticisms from the Cuban artistic community.

Despite the fact that the initial convocation remarked that the participants in Tángana had planned the meeting “spontaneously,” the outskirts of Trillo park were guarded by a strong State Security operation, in addition to buses and state cars that transported many of the attendees.

Among the several hundred people who participated in the event in Centro Habana, there were also some workers in their uniforms of state entities, such as the employees of the Construction Company of Architecture Works (Ecoa), frequently used by the Government for this type of public events. continue reading

The Sunday afternoon had moments with live music, others in which the reading of poetry and the fiery speeches of young communists prevailed. Among the slogans most repeated by the crowd were official slogans such as “Long live Fidel,” “Long live the Revolution” and “Continuity, continuity.”

The gathering was not lacking the support of Miguel Díaz-Canel, who appeared in the middle of the event and gave a speech. “They have put on a media show for us,” said the president without mentioning names, but in clear allusion to the artists who met last Friday in front of the Ministry of Culture and the members of the San Isidro Movement.

Díaz-Canel considered the actions of independent activists and artists as part of “an unconventional war strategy to try to overthrow the Revolution”, originating from “the Trumpistas and the anti-Cuban mafia” in the United States. He also affirmed that in Cuba “there is space for dialogue for everything that is Revolution.”

Díaz-Canel’s statements come two days after some thirty artists, representing several hundred who stood in front of the Ministry of Culture, agreed with sector officials on a list of demands aimed at ending the repression against the creators and the beginning of a dialogue between both parties.

Despite the fact that the initial call for the gathering claimed that the participants in Tángana had planned the meeting “spontaneously,” the area around the park was full of state buses that brought hundreds of people. (14ymedio)

“We are here to democratize socialism,” a young man from the Higher Institute of International Relations who participated in the event told 14ymedio. The young man listed the steps for this process as “eliminating racism and social classes.”

“They say they are the majority but there are not so many people,” a neighbor from a concrete block with balconies facing Trillo Park told this newspaper. “Here whenever they put out a truck to sell beer or rum, more people gather,” says the woman who preferred anonymity. “I’ve seen a lot of those who got away as soon as they had a chance.”

Among those who only stayed for a few minutes was a group of employees from the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (Inder) who at the beginning of the music walked along Hospital Street towards Zanja Avenue, until they left behind the sound of the slogans, and the applause.

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Adios Western Union, Come Back Soon Western Union

This Monday the majority of Western Union offices in Havana were almost empty. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 24 November 2020 — Four, three, two … A countdown marks the closing time of the Western Union office in Cuba this Monday. When the clock strikes six in the evening, a long era of remittances through the US company will be over, an end resulting from the sanctions imposed by Washington on its Cuban counterpart Fincimex.

If someone expected an avalanche of clients with long faces crowding the company’s offices, this Monday most of its stores in Havana have been practically empty. Only a few last-minute remittance recipients have come to the deserted hallways and been greeted by employees with a gesture of saying goodbye.

The deadline to collect the money sent from the United States expires this afternoon when the 407 branches that the company has on the Island will close after the Donald Trump administration included the Cuban company Fincimex on a blacklist, because it is controlled by the Cuban Armed Forces. Despite the efforts of the remittance giant, the Cuban side did not authorize another, non-military, partner to work with Western Union. continue reading

“Señora, the transfer number is mis-written, so we can’t pay you,” a Western Union worker explained to a woman who arrived at the office located on Belascoaín street in Centro Habana after noon. With last-minute nervousness, the woman mis-wrote the unique 10-digit transaction number her daughter dictated over the phone to receive the money.

“And now what am I going to do?” Asked the anguished woman who calculated she would not have time to call her daughter, who was in the middle of her workday in Miami, receive the correct number and collect the remittance. A problem that until yesterday would not have cost her any sleep, a a regular customer who received “Money in Minutes,” the motto that she learned by heart from reading so much of the company’s advertising.

Others just passed by one of the branches to take a look and see if it was true that the yellow and black colors that represent the company are now just the symbol of something past. “I was born with my grandmother saying that she was going to come down from the house for a moment to collect the money her brother sent her,” recalls Marco Ángel Suárez, a young man of 22

“This was like a member of the family because every now and then it came out in a conversation that I had to go through Western Union or that until the money arrived, I couldn’t buy tennis shoes or a new backpack,” he adds. “In addition, it is very close to our house because we live around the corner from the Plaza de Carlos III where there is an office.”

A few days ago, Suárez received a letter signed by the president of the company through a WhatsApp message chain. “We have been working hard on all possible alternatives to keep our service between the United States and Cuba open while we reorganize this vital channel for our clients. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a solution in this limited timeframe,” the text added, Khalid Fellahi then explained.

“My soul fell to the ground,” acknowledges the young man. “Although there are other ways and I am sure that my great-uncle will continue to send the money, it is not the same. Western Union gave us security, seriousness and immediacy. With other companies we do not know because many are not even legally recognized here.”

In the midst of fears, there are always those who see the company’s leaving as temporary. “This is pure spectacle, but I don’t think we’ll get to July 2021 without Western Union,” says Dunia, a 47-year-old from Havana who believes that “Joe Biden’s victory will reverse all these measures.”

“It is better that they do not even remove the Western Union sign from these offices because soon we will see them open again,” Dunia insisted this Monday at noon outside the office on Obispo Street in Old Havana. Inside, the empty room was already a preview of a “see you later” that nobody knows how long it will last.

“They will find another way, money is like water, it always finds a way to enter,” predicted a newspaper vendor who makes a profit every day with the lines outside the branch. “I have never received a penny in this way but I know many people who eat thanks to this line,” he detailed to this newspaper. “When they wait to enter they buy peanuts, newspapers and sweets; but when they leave with the money they buy more.”

At a safe distance, a young man hands out a business card from a Miami-based company for sending remittances to Cuba. He offers discretion and brings the money “to the door of the house.” Nobody knows if small companies like these will be able to take on the enormous flow of cash that until today passed through Western Union.

Some 41% of the 3.7 billion dollars of remittances that arrived in Cuba in 2019 did so through companies with contracts with Fincimex, according to Emilio Morales, president of the advisory firm The Havana Consulting Group. According to the economist, the remittances sent to Cuba between 1993 to 2019 totaled 46.8 billion dollars.

At the moment, not a penny more will come through Western Union. Now, its customers do a new countdown: they are calculating the days until the company returns.

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The Dollar Seizes the Carlos III Shopping Center in Havana

The place, also popularly known as “the palace of consumption”, had been closed for months due to the pandemic.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez / Mario J. Pentón, Havana / Miami, 12 October 2020 — Carlos III Plaza Commercial, one of the largest shopping areas in the Cuban capital, reopened this Monday with an important change: from now on you can only buy in foreign currency. The same has happened with most of the large stores in cities in the country’s interior.

“Ten stores are open at the moment. All of them have a sign in front of them saying that they only accept MLC (freely convertible currency — that is US dollars, euros and other foreign money). There are clothing stores, household supplies, hardware and other items. Other stores are also getting ready to sell in hard currency,” a customer who visited the facilities early in the morning told 14ymedio.

It is one of the largest shopping centers in Havana, also popularly known as “the palace of consumption” and located on an important avenue. It had been closed for months and in recent weeks it was rumored it might reopen as a hard currency store. continue reading

It was an open secret that the remodeling the imposing building was undergoing was intended to make it ready for the new genre of commercial establishment, which began at the end of last year, when The Executive opened its first electrical appliances stores and then ones for food and toiletries in foreign currencies in order to alleviate the country’s deep financial liquidity crisis.

For over two decades, Plaza Carlos III has been the commercial heart of Centro Habana, especially in the neighborhoods of Pueblo Nuevo, Cayo Hueso and Los Sitios. Along with the official product lines in their stores, there is an extensive network of informal vendors and private businesses who survive thanks to the flow of customers who shop there every day.

Before being reopened with great fanfare in the 90’s and starting to sell in dollars and later in convertible pesos, the Plaza was but a shadow of what we see today. “They had a dirty agricultural market on the ground floor, a fishmonger on the first floor, and the rest of the building was a state-owned company dedicated to making teaching tools such as dolls to instruct in the structure of human organs,” Luisa, a who lives in nearby Peñalver street tells 14ymedio.

It is not the first dollarization of Carlos III, it already happened in the 90’s, before changing to CUC. (14ymedio)

“This neighborhood came back to life when Carlos III was turned into a shopping center in the 90’s. Most of the people here shop or survive thanks to that place,” adds the lady. “Although the government changed the name of the street many years ago to Avenida Salvador Allende, nobody has ever called it that, and when they reopened the Plaza, they named it after the King of Spain.”

Others believe that the new sales method will save Carlos III from the deterioration it had experienced in recent years. “This had become a place for drunks and fights, especially the ground floor area, which had several cafeterias where one couldn’t even go because there were aggressive people drinking beer all the time,” says Orestes, a resident of Calle Salud, who used to take his grandchildren there to play on electronic devices until “the situation became untenable.”

Orestes believes that now, “with a smaller customer base and enjoying a better economic position, it is possible that the environment will improve,” although he acknowledges that he will not be able to shop there for now. “I don’t have access to foreign currency, but this is not the first dollarization of Carlos III. When they opened it in the 90’s, you paid in fulas (slang for dollars) and it seemed to me that I would never be able to shop there, but in the end, I became a regular customer, so I am hoping that now it starts out for a few and then the dollarization might spread.”

The news of the market reopening as a foreign currency store started to spread on the very day that the national television is expected to broadcast a special program announcing new economic measures. But still, many of the residents in the vicinity don’t know of the important change that is taking place inside the Plaza, the only remodeled work in Cuba in the last half century that bears the name of a Spanish king.

In the rest of the country, the dollar is also strengthening. In Cienfuegos, the population has seen how, one by one, the dollar has been conquering the largest stores in the city.

“We are going to be left with no place to shop. La Mimbre, La Pecera, La Nueva Isla, Imago, Mercado Habana, Eureka… everything will sell in dollars, a currency in which I don’t trade in or have the means to obtain,” says Mercedes Bernal, a 51-year-old state worker.

“The other day I went to a store and saw so many products and such a short line that I was amazed. When I asked about the price of an item, I was told it was in dollars and it needed to be paid by a magnetic card. I don’t know how long we are going to be able to hold on,” she adds.

At the moment, 10 stores are open in Plaza Carlos III, all of them take freely convertible currency. (14ymedio)

In Cienfuegos, the lines to create bank accounts in dollars are very long, and begin at dawn. The bank only allows 50 customers per day, and delivery dates for the cards are slated for the second week of December.

“Customers do not need to bring dollars to open the account. Only their identity card is enough. The objective of these accounts is for their relatives to eventually send them transfers from abroad so that they can shop in MLC stores,” an employee of Banco Popular de Ahorros told El Nuevo Herald by phone.

For Felicia Carballo from the Pastorita neighborhood and for others who don’t have access to said currency, the situation is becoming increasingly complicated.

“In the Pastorita points-of-sale there is nothing. No soap, no deodorant, nothing. It seems that the TRD stores [where you buy in Cuban convertible pesos – CUC] became the property of Ciego Montero*, because all they have is water,” he commented.

*Translator’s note: Ciego Montero is a Cuban brand of bottled water, part of Nestle’s Waters, owned by the Cuban society Los Portales.

Translated by Norma Whiting

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In San Leopoldo, an Outbreak of Covid-19 Forces the Closure of Several Streets

The outbreak is located in the vicinity of The Manduley Polyclinic, in the San Leopoldo neighborhood of Centro Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana | 19 September 2020 — An outbreak of Covid-19 in the surroundings of The Manduley Polyclinic, in the San Leopoldo neighborhood of Centro Habana, is straining the health situation in a densely populated area with numerous slums. Fourteen positive cases have been detected in the area, and residents fear that the number will grow in the coming hours.

This Saturday morning the area surrounding the Marcio Manduley Polyclinic was abuzz with people and a strong police presence was evident. At the nearby pharmacy, about 50 residents of the area were waiting to buy medicine. There were also long lines to buy food and agricultural products in several nearby streets.

A police car was patrolling the area and calling to passersby to keep their distance, while at the nearby Ideal Market, employees dispatch the food wearing not only masks but also plastic face shields. A group of workers constantly add a chlorine solution to the areas that users might touch. continue reading

In the Cuban capital there are currently 131 spotlight controls “with reinforcement measures, and they are followed up.” (14ymedio)

“All this has also coincided with problems in the water supply,” laments Carmita, a Gervasio Street resident. “We have had problems in my house with the water supply, so no one can maintain proper hygiene.” The woman has two relatives among the patients who have tested positive, and insists that the neighborhood is “a time bomb” due to its hygienic problems.

“In this block we have four tenements and around the polyclinic there are many more slums where people live in crowded conditions and there are also several broken sewer pits on the sidewalks”, she explains to 14ymedio. “This neighborhood has been forgotten for years, the only thing that happens here is bad news: floods, landslides, dengue cases and now the coronavirus.”

This Friday, the Minister of Public Health, José Ángel Portal Miranda, explained that the outbreak in the San Leopoldo neighborhood started with “an operator of the surveillance and vector control campaign who had been a contact with confirmed cases in Old Havana.”

For his part, the city governor, Reinaldo García Zapata, explained that the 14 cases are concentrated in three dwellings located in three blocks belonging to the health area of The Manduley Polyclinic, a health center on San Lázaro Street and a few meters from Havana’s Malecón.

“Three more blocks” were added to the area that was initially under quarantine, where samples have been taken from 219 people suspected of being infected, explained García Zapata in a report broadcast Friday night on national television.

The area that was initially under quarantine was increased by “three more blocks,” where samples have been taken from 219 people. (14ymedio)

A few blocks above the polyclinic and in the opposite direction to the sea, the fences close an area comprised of San Miguel, San Rafael and San José streets from the corner of these with Lealtad and up to nearby Manrique. A strong police presence guards access to the place where only health personnel, and some employees who sell food for residents who cannot leave the area, can pass.

In the Cuban capital there are currently 131 cluster controls “with reinforcement measures, and they are followed up” according to a report from the official press that also recognized the problems with the water supply that “is solved with fixing the pipes, and the water has already started to be pumped again from Paso Seco supply source,” explains the Tribuna de La Habana.

The increase in positive cases in the city has led the authorities to re-evaluate the transfer of patients to isolation centers. Luis Antonio Torres Iríbar, president of the Provincial Defense Council, asked to review and make proposals so that the contacts of suspected cases are isolated in their own homes, under the supervision of family doctors.

Translated by: Norma Whiting

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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.

Highway Checkpoints Choke Off Havana’s Produce Markets

Checkpoints set up along highways into the capital have led to short supplies at privately run stores. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, September 7, 2020 — Empty stalls, closed markets and long faces were common sights this weekend around several stores selling farm products in Havana. Checkpoints set up along highways into the capital have led to short supplies at privately run businesses and growing resentment among workers in the informal market.

The new measures, which took effect on September 1, are an effort to halt the spread of Covid-19 in the city. Vehicular traffic, with some exceptions, is banned from 7:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m., the period when most products normally enter the capital and just before they go on sale.

Documents are also being reviewed more thoroughly, making it difficult for independent, unlicensed drivers to move freely. The situation is affecting privately run markets and cooperatives, which have seen their stocks dwindle in the past week. Among those affected is the market on 19th and B streets in Havana’s Vedado district. Known locally as the “boutique of farmers markets” due to its wide selection and high prices, its shelves were half empty on Saturday. The peeled and chopped produce it normally sells, items which are in high demand from consumers, were not available. continue reading

Bernardo has been in the business of  delivering fruits and vegetables to Havana for two decades from his base in nearby Güira de Melena, one of the most important agricultural regions of Artemisa province. “They took away all the produce I was supposed to deliver last week and fined me,” he tells 14ymedio.

“The told me I’m contributing to the spread of the epidemic because I don’t have permission to enter Havana,” says the driver. “The ones who do manage to get in are drivers of state-owned trucks and those licensed by Acopio (a state entity). Right now freelance drivers are ’under fire’ and I am not going to risk losing my truck.”

The operations are not just restricting the legal flow of goods into Havana. They are also having an effect the informal pipeline of foodstuffs that secretly supplies the city. Some of these products end up in privately owned restaurant kitchens, farmers markets and the black market.

On Saturday many retail markets in Central Havana were closed or had only a couple of items for sale. (14ymedio)

In response to growing complaints over the collateral damage the measures are having on produce markets, police and transportation officials announced during an interview on Canal Havana that there are no restrictions whatsoever on vehicles carrying agricultural products entering the city but merchants disagree.

“I have not been able to open today because I don’t have anything to sell and don’t know when I will be able to start up again. They’re not letting anything through,” says a vendor who runs a small kiosk that until recently had a wide selection of produce. According to this merchant, roads are only open to transport vehicles that supply state-owned markets and those run by the Youth Labor Army.

The effect is clearly evident in Centro Habana, one of the capital’s most densely populated districts. On Saturday many retail markets in the area were closed or had only a couple of items for sale. Bananas and unripe avocados were among the few available items.

“Let’s go elsewhere. They only have pumpkins here,” a discouraged woman tells her husband before leaving a market in Cayo Hueso. A few steps away the couple finds that a place on the corner of Zanja and Oquendo streets is not even serving customers. “We’re not going to open until we get a shipment”, says a worker in answer to persistent questions from those who approach the closed door.

On San Rafael Street, one of the best stocked markets in the city has also been seriously affected. The store on the corner of Oquenda and San Lazaro only has packages of sliced sweet potato. “How and why did this happen? Did Hurricane Laura return?” asks a customer ironically. Behind him others keep coming, hoping to find something more than empty shelves.

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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.

Cienfuegos Protects its Borders to Avoid Letting in Covid-19

The use of masks is spreading in Cienfuegos due to the fear of the reappearance of the virus as in already happening in neighboring provinces. (Perlavision)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 10 September 2020 — The Cienfuegos authorities have closed the provincial borders due to the fear that the coronavirus will sneak in from neighboring Villa Clara, Matanzas and Sancti Spíritus, which are, along with Havana and Ciego de Ávila (at a greater distance) are the provinces with the most cases of Covid-19.

Maridé Fernández López, president of the Municipal Defense Council (CDM), announced this Wednesday that more rigorous controls will be established at the borders to ensure that no person from another territory will be able to shop in Cienfuegos. The province thus prevents entry to those who come to purchase basic necessities.

Fernández López recalled, however, that those who reside in Cienfuegos without their address on their ID card, may acquire a document that includes it, to allow them to access the Caribe, Cimex and Caracol Stores, which require shoppers to show their ID to make purchases. continue reading

The CDM approved other measures, such as the mandatory use of a mask in all spaces — with non-compliance penalized with the appropriate sanctions to control the spread of an epidemic — and the limitation of some leisure services. “We have agreed that from today all evening activities in Cienfuegos recreational centers are suspended,” explained Fernández López.

Starting now, the bars will have limited hours until ten o’clock at night, functioning as cafeterias and the activities of the Los Pinitos Recreation Center, as well as a Telmary concert, agreed for this weekend will be held at the Terry Theater Café.

Fernández López also asked Health professionals to increase active surveillance measures “both in residential and in educational institutions, where no one can enter with respiratory symptoms.”

There was no lack of the already habitual placing of responsibilities on the population. Dr. Danay Miranda Fernández, a health official in the municipality, said she was concerned about the “ignoring of measures such as hand disinfection, the absence of the foot sanitizers at building entries, and the absence of mask wearing among in the personnel in establishments that offer services to the population.”

In addition, this Thursday, the digital edition of the provincial newspaper 5 de Septembre opens with a note on the “monitoring of social indiscipline” in which it describes the sanctions imposed in the province.

According to data from the Provincial Center for Hygiene, Epidemiology and Microbiology (CPHEM), between August 31 and September 6, more than a thousand inspections were carried out aimed at supervising compliance with the measures of use of masks in lines, stores, hospitals and tourist establishments and 252 Legal penalties were imposed.

The information contains data on sanctions in areas other than health, such as traffic or licenses for private establishments.

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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.

With the ‘Portero’ App, Government Controls the Lines and the Private Lives of Cubans

In the lines at the doors of the stores, the majority of faces are female. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, 11 August 2020 — “Yesterday you bought ground meat, today you can only buy tomato puree,” warns an employee after scanning the identity card of a woman who is waiting to enter a store in Centro Habana. With the Portero app — the word means ’doorkeeper’ — installed on their mobiles, hundreds of state workers are trying to organize the lines and detect possible hoarders.

In the lines at the doors of the stores, the majority are female faces, grandmothers and mothers who carry on their shoulders the responsibility of bringing food home amid the shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. The identity card is essential for them to access markets but it can also prevent access.

On August 2 the authorities began an offensive in Havana which they call “Operation to fight against coleros,” referring to those who supplement their income by standing in line for others. One of the main tools in this battle is an application created at the University of Informatics Sciences (UCI) that records what day a customer accessed a store and can warn if they are behaving like a reseller. continue reading

Despite the controls and health warnings, many of the lines to buy food and hygiene products continue to be crowded and chaotic, a potentially dangerous situation amid a rebound in positive cases due to Covid-19, which has forced the implementation in Havana of stricter measures to try to stop the contagion.

Although public transport is canceled, private businesses are closed and the police presence in the streets is notably greater, the authorities have not been able to reduce the lines. If anything, they try to organize them and intimidate those who make a modus vivendi out of the line, buying the same product several times and then selling it on the black market.

The Portero app is a line organizer that uses mobile terminals to read the QR code on identity cards. On displaying the document, the application stores the information in a database that is used to sort the line, but also gives clues to the authorities about the behavior of users: where they buy and how often.

“We decided to create this app to maintain order in the establishments that sell products. We wanted to provide a solution related to technology, but without making it too complicated, or inventing a cyber-ration card or requiring hardware resources (servers, networks, etc.),”  explained Allan Pierra Fuentes, one of the engineers who created Portero, speaking to the official press last April.

A sign at the doors of the store known as “La Mía” (Mine), at Zanja and Belascoaín streets in Havana, lists the products sold in each line. (14ymedio)

However, the tool is being used for much more than just organizing the lines.

The new version of Portero is linked to the databases of the Ministry of the Interior where criminal activity is collected. The app “is already used at 135 stores to confront citizens who carry out the activity of coleros and other categories of interest” to the police, warned a note published on the local government website.

The scanning of the identity cards “made it possible to identify more than 949 people, 310 coleros, 81 control targets, 309 tax debtors, 152 fine debtors, 48 people being searched for, one whose document belonged to a deceased and another 48 who are on probation,” the text explains.

“They checked my card twice,” Javier, a 36-year-old from Havana, tells this newspaper on the weekend, when he decided to go buy some food at the La Puntilla foreign exchange market, in the municipality of Playa. “When I entered, they scanned my document and when I went to pay at the cashier the employee checked my card again.”

Javier fears that “now they know what day I went to which store and even what I bought; I don’t know what they are going to do with that information, but I don’t think anything good,” he believes. “If those stores sell only dollars and it is assumed that the merchandise is not rationed, why then do they control who enters and how many times a week they go.”

In other stores, the employee who scans the identity document keeps it and only hands it back to the customer when they are about to pay at the cash register.

The current Cuban Constitution, ratified in 2019, includes the right to respect personal and family privacy, image, voice, honor and personal identity, but in the midst of the crisis unleashed by Covid-19 on the island, many fear that private information is another of the many victims of the tightening of controls over society.

“The volume of information they are collecting is impressive,” warns computer engineer Pablo Domínguez, who has worked on the development of several applications for the private sector. “At the end of the day, the list of registered identity cards can be exported from each terminal,” he explains to this newspaper.

“If the person already bought in that store that same day, then an alarm goes off and the employee is warned that he may be facing a hoarder,” he adds. “But in Cuba the care and protection of personal data is a pending issue and we have the right to ask ourselves what will happen to all that information.”

Domínguez recalls that for years the database with the numbers, private addresses and full names of the clients of the state Telecommunications Company (Etecsa) has been leaked to the informal market. And she asks: “What is going to happen when this information is leaked and on the street people can know not only your identity card number and your full name, but also where you shop?”

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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.

Cuban Coffee is Available Only in Foreign Currency Stores

Cuba imports 8,000 tons of coffee annually from Vietnam, and the rest brings it from other countries, to satisfy a demand that is estimated at about 24,000 tons. (Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 August 2020 — While concerned coffee consumers confirm that the product has disappeared in stores that accept Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), Serrano and Cubita packages abound in the newly opened foreign exchange markets. Owning dollars now makes the difference between having a little morning eye opener or resorting to an herbal tea.

It is almost unthinkable to imagine the daily routine of most Cubans without a good coffee. Every morning the Island seems to start waking up to the sound of a brewing coffee pot, and there are those who say they cannot even go outside if they do not have a cup filled with this popular drink beforehand.

But in recent months, acquiring the product has become difficult because it is scarce in state markets and its price has risen considerably in informal networks. “I’ve had a week when the only thing I have to drink when I get up is an infusion of oregano or sugar water,” Nora, a housewife from Cerro Havana tells 14ymedio. continue reading

“I was stretching the little bit of powder that they gave me and made the coffee watered down now I don’t have even that. Now when I get the smell of a neighbor who is brewing some coffee, I get like a caged lioness,” laments the woman. “Yesterday I went to the foreign exchange market on Boulevard de San Rafael and there is Cubita coffee but I have no dollars or family abroad to send them to me.”

A source from the Ministry of Internal Trade consulted by this newspaper says that the problems of distribution are caused by several reasons. “The packaging has not reached us in time because the entire supply of raw material from abroad has been greatly affected by the pandemic,” says an employee who preferred anonymity.

The TuEnvío platform is one of the few legal paths that remain to be able to get hold of coffee, but it can only be purchased in combo packages with other items. (14ymedio)

Although coffee is one of the products that is still distributed through the network of warehouses with rationed and subsidized food, the package contains only about 7 ounces, each consumer can only buy one a month, it costs 4 national pesos (roughly 20¢ US), and it is 50% other grains, most commonly peas.

“We are also having difficulties with the supply of beans because part of our mixes are made with national products to which is added coffee beans or other types of beans that are imported, but now we have no money to buy them,” added the Ministry worker.

The country imports about 8,000 tons of coffee annually from Vietnam and the rest brings it from other countries in the area in order to satisfy a demand that is estimated at about 24,000 tons a year. Of this, the island has commonly produced barely a third.

The last coffee harvests have barely exceeded 6,000 tons, in a nation that during the 1960s managed to reach up to 62,000 tons of the bean. Despite attempts and official calls to raise these numbers, over the years the sector has experienced stagnation in some aspects and frank deterioration in others.

Before the Covid-19 crisis it was not difficult to find imported coffee on the black market. With a wide assortment, informal networks offered packages of the brands La Llave, Bustelo and Pilón, with a little more than 280 grams (roughly 10 ounces) and that cost around 8 CUC, the salary for a whole week of a Cuban professional.

With the closure of the borders and the travel ban for residents in the country, the supply of the product brought from abroad is practically exhausted and the few examples that are for sale exceed 12 CUC. Previously, coffee was “diverted” from the official warehouses and available in the “informal” market, but even that supply is no longer available.

Near 26th Street, a few yards from the Havana Zoo, a neighborhood of wooden and metal houses has survived for decades from the sale of coffee stolen from the nearby roasting facility. In small houses they separate, pack the merchandise and distribute it to informal vendors who have a wide network of contacts with coffee shops, paladares (private restaurants), and private customers.

“We are dry,” a vendor tells several families in a block of nearby buildings; for years he has brought them “quality coffee cheaper than in the shopping but with better flavor than that in the rationed market.” The small merchant says that “the roasting machine is not grinding because there is no coffee and there is still no date for the situation to recover.”

A few yards from the roasting machine, one of the markets where food is sold in foreign currency opened its doors last month. Dozens of packages of Cubita and Serrano coffee are seen on its shelves, priced at more than $4. Outside the store, an informal vendor proposes to ’rent’ his magnetic card to customers who want to enter but have no currency. “Buy everything you want and for every dollar spent you pay me 1.25 CUC.”

A package of coffee bought through that intermediary reaches 6 convertible pesos. “A fortune but I am going to pay because in my house there may be a lack of food and even soap, but without coffee we cannot function,” lamented a customer who, finally this Saturday, decided to accept the reseller’s offer.

Meanwhile, in the peso markets, as soon as the rumor is heard that they are going to sell coffee in a few minutes, a long line of people eager to get the product is created. Most of the time the supply that reaches these shops is limited and many of those who wait leave empty-handed.

The on-line TuEnvío platform is one of the few legal paths that remain to be able to get hold of the product, but it can only be bought in combo packages, accompanied by other merchandise with less demand, and the total price can exceed 24 CUC, an impossible sum for many families who live entirely on their salaries.

“To buy a package of coffee, I also had to buy two tomato sauces and a bottle of oil that I didn’t need, but well, at least tomorrow when I get up I will be able to put on the coffee maker,” says Viviana, a customer of this on-line commerce site which, since its opening, has suffered much criticism.

“I have to divide the package I bought between my mother, a neighbor who gave me a little last week and an aunt.” For Viviana, “Life makes sense again because without coffee I was like a zombie.”

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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.

‘Queen Pots’ and Fans Return to Sancti Spiritus Stores

The line to buy household appliances in Sancti Spíritus. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Sancti Spíritus, 6 July 2020 — A number written on the forearm, several days of waiting and the uncertainty of whether they will be able to buy a fan, this is how customers experience the reopening in Sancti Spiritus of the sale of household appliances. After weeks in which only food and hygiene products were for sale, the accumulated needs on the Island have reached a critical point.

The lines to buy food and hygiene products now join those that are formed to get a fan or pressure cooker. Outside the Reparto Kilo 12 appliance store in Sancti Spíritus, employees hand out 60 turns in line each day.

“I have come three days in a row but I have not gotten a place in line. People distributed the places for today last night,” says a young man interested in a fan. Customers have a number written on their forearm and must wait several days, with the added uncertainty of not knowing if they will get what they are looking for. continue reading

This is the case of a customer waiting in line with a worried face. Her ’Queen’ brand pressure cooker broke in May and there is nothing in the store. This appliance is among the most requested products. Since its arrival in Cuban kitchens at the beginning of the century, as part of the “energy revolution” promoted by Fidel Castro, this device has become very popular and more than 68% of Cuban households prepare their food in induction cookers, pressure cookers or other electrical devices.

The olla reina (Queen pot) made in China and whose initial sale price did not exceed 400 pesos, began to be assembled in Cuba in 2015, at the ProHogar plant in Santa Clara, in the surroundings of the Domestic Utensils Production Industry, although it is now sold mainly in convertible pesos. The worsening of liquefied gas service has also contributed to its success.

Gas canisters are only sold for the rationed market, and when distribution fails or the quota allocated to each home runs out, many families are forced to cook with firewood or electricity. But these cooking appliances have a limited life and after constant repairs it is time to replace them.

Catalina, who at the age of 74 is still in charge of cooking for her family, says that the gas canister the ration book allows her to buy once every 60 days, ran out in a month. Now she depends exclusively on electricity to put food on the table, but she has to take great care of the pot and the burner because the ability to replace them is scarce.

The breakdown of any of these pieces of equipment could mean Catalina having to wait a few days in front of a store or spending several months of her pension to buy a new one.

Customers have the number corresponding to their place in line written on their forearm and must wait several days, not knowing if they will finally get what they are looking for. (14ymedio)

The closure of trade during the critical point of the pandemic also affected repair shops. “I have had to do almost a PhD to repair my burner because it has been broken about four times since this coronavirus started,” says Yasiel, who lives on the outskirts of Trinidad.

Tired of repairing his small kitchen over and over again, Yasiel decided to turn to the black market. “I couldn’t wait for state stores to be authorized to sell this type of product, so I looked for a contact who sold me a single-burner induction cooker for 80 CUC,” the young man tells 14ymedio.

“It was much more expensive than in the store, but it was that or nothing, because now that the shopping malls have opened, the lines are days long to buy this type of product,” he explains. The informal appliance market is not having a good time either, because most of its supplies come with mules and imports from various countries in the region, and this avenue has also been affected by the pandemic.

“The only thing I have left for sale are two ceiling fans. Until they open the borders and I can go out again I will have no more products,” confirms an informal merchant who offers his merchandise in the city of Sancti Spíritus. “There is a lot of demand because this quarantine has caused people to have to spend more time at home using household appliances, many of which have not stood up to such use and abuse.”

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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.

Empty Buses, No Customers for Coppelia, This is How Phase 1 Post-Covid Begins in Havana

Public transport begins to circulate after months of being shut down by measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar / Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 4 July 2020 — “It seems like a lie to me, I hadn’t waited even five minutes at the bus stop and the bus arrived and best of all, it was practically empty.” In front of the Bus Terminal, Rocío shared her joy when she boarded the P12 route this Friday, the first day of the implementation of Post-Covid Phase 1 in Havana.

She sits next to a friend who is with her, takes out her cell phone, stretches out her hand and they take a selfie: “So they won’t tell me later that I made it up.”

Public transport is beginning to circulate after months of being shut down by measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the passengers, all wearing a mask, who are waiting at the stop can get on, an inspector from the Ministry of Transport walks the inside of the from end to end, makes a count, points to a checklist and determines that only 12 people can ride. continue reading

At the door, the driver’s assistant drops a few drops of chlorinated water into each passenger’s hands as he collects the fare.

There are 109 routes in circulation, in addition to the ferry services for crossing the bay, the bike-bus for the tunnel and the road taxi service. (14ymedio)

On some of the main arteries of the capital, such as 23rd Street, Carlos III or Boyeros, traffic is livelier this Friday, although still scarce. As reported by the official press, 109 bus routes are in service, in addition to the ferry services for the crossing of the bay, the bike-bus for the tunnel, and the road taxi service provided by the minibuses, known as gazelles. The measure to restart transport was one of the most anticipated, especially to regain mobility between municipalities.

“For months I have had to walk from El Vedado to Playa to visit my sister and look at me now, I am alone in this gazelle,” says a lady before getting into a road taxi at the corner of Linea and L.

Similarly, as the city entered this first phase of reopening, some markets have opened their doors. At the Agua y Jabón (Water and Soap) store on Obispo Street in Old Havana, several customers lined up eager to learn what was for sale.

“I’m waiting to see what’s there, because for weeks I haven’t gotten detergent, soap, or shampoo,” says a lady who has just joined the long line waiting in the sun. “I hope at least that’s what they put out.” The lines are more overflowing than ever. Throughout Obispo Street, the morning rush of employees in many markets is focused on rearranging merchandise and cleaning windows and floors.

On the menu board that announces what’s available at Coppelia there is only one ice cream flavor: orange-pineapple. (14ymedio)

Other points of the city have also recovered their routine, such as the Coppelia ice cream parlor. “Look at me, look at me, I entered without waiting a single minute in line,” says Darío, a teenager who almost jogs over to one of the courts on the ground floor. On the menu board that announces Coppelia’s flavors there is only one: orange-pineapple.

The handicrafts fair on La Rampa also opened initially this Friday, but later, the police forced them to close the stalls on the grounds that the first phase of reopening does not include sales in privately-run spaces located in squares and parks, in order to avoid crowds.

Before that happened, an artisan was pushing his cart with a friend, and after arranging the merchandise at his stall, he couldn’t help but share his joy. “I was going crazy waiting to bring my table here, from home I hardly sold anything; it is not the same: what is not exhibited is not sold,” he explained. “Right now there is little tourism, so I have loaded up with the products that sell more to Cubans: dresses, wallets, jewelry and shoes.”

“Find me some flip flops to walk around the house and some sandals,” asks Darío’s first customer. “Mine are broken and I couldn’t buy new ones.” But the enthusiasm was short-lived and an hour later the merchant had to collect all the products and leave.

The craft fair in La Rampa also initially opened this Friday, but later the police forced the stands to be closed. (14ymedio)

During the last weeks, due to the restrictions imposed in the country by the pandemic, stores were not selling any products that weren’t necessary for basic household cleaning and food. So there is a lot of accumulated need for clothes, shoes, household supplies and hardware.

The bureaucracy, meanwhile, takes its time. On Friday, in the office of the Directorate of Identification, Immigration and Foreigners located on Calle 17 in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood, the receptionist only shooed away the flies and answered the questions of those who arrived.

“We have not yet begun to carry out procedures, but come on Monday and we may already be open for the preparation of passports,” the employee repeated. With more than three months of the border being closed and the failure to issue these travel documents, many frequent travelers express their despair.

“They have given extensions to the time one is allowed to be outside of Cuba [without losing the right to return], a moratorium on paying for self-employment licenses, but it has not occurred to them to extend the expiration date of the passports,” Rebeca, a resident of the capital whose passport expired in April, told this newspaper.

“I have lost months without being able to leave and now I have to renew my passport as if everything had been normal in this time,” added Rebeca. “That is not right, because the same government that reviews the document at the airport so that I can leave the country knows that it has been months that people cannot renew or get a passport.” Cuba’s is the most expensive passport in the world in relation to purchasing power: it costs 100 CUC (roughly three month’s salary), with two extensions allowed at 20 CUC each. for a term of six years.

The Cubatur office, on the ground floor of the Habana Libre hotel, is now open to buy tour packages. (14ymedio)

In the nearby Cubatur office the Friday countdown to the reopening generated a line to buy tour packages. In the basement of the emblematic Habana Libre hotel, a dozen people waited for the offers of accommodation in the provinces, where the residents of the capital could not go until now.

“I can’t take it anymore, I have to take a few days somewhere even if it’s two stars,” commented a woman who identified herself as an employee of a foreign firm that has “been out of work for three months and with the future horizon in gray with black stitching.”

“I know it is time to save every penny, but right now I need to be with my family in a place where I don’t have to stand in line for food, find a way to make do in the kitchen, or have someone knock on my door every day to track the pandemic. I’m going to the worst hotel, as long as it’s not my home.”

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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.