Run Over in Havana by a State Car While in Line to Buy Yogurt

The white car, with official registration, ran over a man in his 40s who was line to buy yogurt on Ayestarán street, in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 5 March 2021 — Lines are no longer news in Cuba until they are. This Friday, a man who was waiting in a long line outside a store on Ayestarán Street, in Havana, was run over by a state vehicle. Anxiety to purchase some product in the Trimagen Complex had caused the crowd to overflow from the sidewalk around the door of the store.

The individual, in his 40s, was hit by a car with official registration and belonging to the National Archives of the Republic that was traveling in the direction of Avenida 20 de Mayo. By the time the vehicle passed the Trimagen store, a crowd of people filled the entire sidewalk and part of the street.

The shopping center, located in the municipality of El Cerro and managed by the military, opens early with hundreds of customers outside anxious to buy food. This Friday, the only things for sale were aerated soda, mayonnaise and yogurt, but the line stretched for almost two blocks. continue reading

“One minute we were all focused on the line, making sure that no one got in front of us, and a minute later it was all shouting,” a witness to the event tells 14ymedio. “The wounded man was taken to the hospital in a taxi that was behind the car that hit him and the police patrol took a long time to arrive,” he adds.

The National Archives vehicle was parked at the scene of the accident, which further complicated the organization of the queue, which was quite chaotic from the beginning. Despite the fact that only residents of the municipality can buy in these stores, due to the mobility restrictions imposed after the rebound in Covid-19 cases, the influx of customers is constant.

“Around here there are several areas that were in quarantine for more than a week and when the tapes were removed, people went out like crazy to buy anything,” says a resident. “There were many days of confinement and you have to take whatever you find.”

Others blame resellers for the crowds that are created every morning in front of the Trimagen Complex. “This place is full of coleros [people who others pay to stand in line for them] and people who come to buy as a business. They buy a bottle of a liter and a half of soda here and then sell it at three or four times its value in other neighborhoods. That is why this line is chaos,” comments another customer.

“That poor man, he went to the hospital today probably with a broken rib or clavicle and left without the product for which he had waited many hours. A real tragedy,” says a person who started the line at seven o’clock in the morning, and after noon he still had not managed to buy anything.

According to official data, in Cuba there is an accident on the public right-of-way every 55 minutes, one person dies every 15 hours and there is someone injured every 75 minutes. The accidents involving vehicles in poor condition, precariously patched together, in use as public transport are numerous and many times end with multiple deaths in a single accident.

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In Havana, Carlos III Plaza Closes Again Due to Covid Outbreak

The Carlos III is closed due to a Covid outbreak, according to a worker at the shopping center. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 25 February 2021 — For the second time in less than a year, the Carlos III Plaza, in Centro Habana, has closed its doors again due to a Covid-19 outbreak. The largest shopping center in the Cuban capital will not provide service “until further notice” and at least seven store workers have tested positive for the disease, an employee told 14ymedio.

“We have been told that they will open at the weekend but it has not yet been confirmed, and it seems almost certain that at first there will be no food services of any kind to avoid crowds within the premises,” adds the worker who preferred anonymity. “They are doing PCR on all of us and, at the moment, we are at home waiting for the results.”

The line to buy potatoes on Jesús Peregrino street in Havana. (14ymedio)

Outside the premises, on the centrally located Carlos III street, several uniformed members of the Prevention Troops, with their red berets, guard the area, but do not give customers details about the epidemiological situation. “Closed until further notice,” one of the soldiers repeated this morning to an elderly woman who was inquiring about the reasons for the suspension of service. continue reading

On one side of the building, which occupies an entire block, a military vehicle, a van, is located from the early hours of the morning just where, until a few days ago, the long line began to enter the supermarket located on the ground floor of the Plaza. Last week the place was abuzz with people waiting, but today it is deserted.

“Better not even ask, because if you start to investigate a lot they will look at you with a frown, as if they were expecting to buy” some chicken and a little oil. “A few minutes later, a radio placed in a nearby doorway could be heard playing this Thursday’s update with the Covid-19 figures on the Island.

Of the total of 670 new positive cases announced on Thursday, 364 are in Havana, which continues to be the epicenter of the current upturn in the pandemic on the island. According to Deputy Prime Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda, “from the explosion of cases” positive for Covid-19 in recent months, the territory “no longer has the capacity to isolate all the contacts” of the infected.

Quarantine zones and closures of markets or public institutions contrast with long lines to buy food, which have become even longer as shortages increase.

Black market potatoes sell for 120 pesos for five pounds. (14ymedio)

This same Thursday, on Jesús Peregrino Street, a few yards from the Plaza de Carlos III, dozens of people waited to buy the potatoes from the rationed market that have begun to be distributed in the neighborhood at three pesos a pound. With two pounds per capita, the arrival of the tuber has become an event due to the fall in the supply of other products such as rice and bread.

“You have to have something to put with the little you can put on the plate,” complained Amarilys, a 79-year-old retiree who started the line before “the sun came up.” Despite the authorities’ calls for the most vulnerable people not to go out in the streets, most of those waiting were elderly and there were also some people with disabilities.

Others, however, have not had to line up to get some potatoes. “It hit the black market first,” says a young man from a balcony. In the same area yesterday, five-pound bags of potatoes began to be sold at 120 pesos. The price can go up if the customer wants the purchase delivered to an area closed by confinement, as is the case of the Aramburo block between Zanja and San Martín, which has been closed with metal quarantine fences.

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Barbers Rebel Against Price Controls

Barbers complain that government mandated prices will not cover their expenses. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, February 11, 2020 — A few months ago it was farmers, then independent taxi drivers, and now it’s the barbers’ turn. The government’s attempts to impose price caps on the “scissors sector” has met with fierce resistance from self-employed workers.

An article in the official press criticizing the rise in prices at barbershops that began at the end of last year has unleashed a torrent of criticism, both from hair professionals and from customers who say they cannot afford their services.

“I am a barber. I live in Ciego de Alvila and have to pay 1,500 pesos for a packet of one-hundred razaor blades,” says Alejandro, a self-employed worker on the outskirts of the city. “My clients inisist I use a new blade each time, so that means I have to spend fifteen pesos on each customer.” continue reading

From time to time Alejandro pays 250 pesos for a bottle of cologne to refresh the skin and send his customers off smelling like lavender. He pays 40 pesos for a box of talcum powder. The hairspray he uses on those who want to look impeccable hours after they leave his shop costs him between 375 and 500 pesos.

“It doesn’t stop there,” he says. “A single jar of wax costs me 250 pesos. Every month I have spend around 4,000 pesos just to stay in business. That’s after paying for my business license, social security and the supplies I need. And that’s not in Havana.”

In addition to the costs for “the here and now” Alejandro’s initial investment was almost 94,000 pesos, raised with help from his domestic partner, mother and emigré brother. “The government does not take this into account but everyone knows that the businesses that are respected here are financed with money from overseas.

Invisible investments of capital from abroad are very common. It is rare to find a successful business that has not received an infusion of dollars from the owner’s relative, friend or third party who lives abroad. Though there are no official statistics to confirm it, many believe that, without this foreign oxygen, most Cuban entrepreneurs would not survive.

For the barber from Ciego de Avila having a clientele means serving customers who come to his salon.”It’s a small city. You don’t have a lot of options. If they force me to cap my prices, I will have to give up my license,” he says.”But this is an art. We’re not factory workers. Every person who sits in that chair wants something different, something personal.”

Given the city’s wide internet coverage and a booming market for in-home services, some Havana entrepreneurs are trying to avoid heavy fines by making clandestine visits to their clients’ homes or practicing their craft on the black market, places beyond the reach of government guidelines and decrees.

“I still have options so let’s see how things turn out. For now, I pay my taxes, go to my customers’ houses for 100 pesos apiece and that’s that,” said a barber on Monday morning while working on one customer’s beard. When he was done, the man paid him the price he had been quoted, without complaint

“Fighting with the barber is like fighting with the cook. He can make your head look like a pile of cockroaches or spit in your food,” acknowledges Lárazo Miguel, a young man who agreed to pay 75 pesos for a quick haircut after much haggling with a barber on Marquez Gonzalez Street in Central Habana.

One of the barbers at the salon where Lazaro Miguel was getting his hair cut voiced a common complaint: “They want us to charge 25 pesos for a haircut but there are people who sit down in that chair and expect miracles. It’s not fair to expect us to charge the same for a once-in-a-liftime haircut as for a basic cut.”

“I know what my services are worth. The son of two doctors, who together earn more than 12,000 pesos a month, comes in, sits down in my chair and asks for a special cut. He wants me to use electric shears on one side of his head and scissors on the other. But I have to charge him 20 or 50 pesos for that. It doesn’t make sense for me, for him or for his parents,” as a self-employed hair stylist.

“A shave with cream, lotion and a facial massage is 100 pesos. A beard trim is another 50. I cannot do it for less than that,” adds Reynaldo, a self-employed barber. “What more do they want?” he wonders. “This is more than a barber shop. It’s a parliament,” says the owner of a salon on Neptuno Street.

“Everyone who comes here spends stays for at least an hour. They don’t just want to look good; they want to feel good. Customers come in, they sit down, they have some water, charge their phones, and even use the bathroom and toilet paper. Who is paying for all that?” one of them asks.

Fighting with the barber is not like complaining to a chef. At a restaurant, they just take the plate away but a few misplaced snips to your hair can stay with you for days.

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Two Lines in Gervasio Street: Sitting to Buy Detergent, Standing for ‘Fruta Bomba’

People standing are in line to buy ‘fruta bomba’ and those seated are lined up to buy detergent. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 17 February 2021 — Any product can already provoke “a demonstration as big as May Day,” a customer who waited for more than two hours to buy fruta bomba* on Gervasio Street joked this Wednesday in Central Havana. In front of that line, dozens of neighbors were sitting on the sidewalk in another line, waiting to buy detergent.

In the municipality that for days has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the Cuban capital, yellow ribbons or metal fences divide the areas with long lines from those where residents must wait for official delivery people to bring food to them at home, due to the strict quarantine decreed in neighborhoods like Los Sitio. Neither envies the fate of the other. While some wait for hours outside bakeries and farmers markets, others may end up receiving bread for breakfast around noon.

In terms of food costs there are not many advantages within the quarantined areas either. “So far they have sold us two types of modules with food. One that costs 282 pesos and that brings a piece of chicken, detergent and two soaps,” a resident of the quarantine zone details from the vicinity of Rayo Street. “The other module costs 700 pesos and contains chicken, minced meat and oil, but many neighbors have not bought it because they have no money,” he laments. “We’ve only been at this for three days and I’m already counting the pennies.” continue reading

“No low-priced food, much less free feed. Besides being locked up, they are charging us dearly for what they sell us at the door and, on the other hand, distribution is very slow. Yesterday at my house we ate at ten at night because between the time they sold us the food and we were able to cook it, they took the one thousand and five hundred pesos from us,” adds another neighbor who lives in one of the streets perpendicular to the central Reina avenue. “Who would have told me that I was going to miss the lines? But I miss them, because at least that way I could look for more options, but here is what I got.”

A few meters from his house and on the other side of the fences that define the quarantine area, almost a hundred people wait to buy cleaning products. They are sitting next to each other on the ledges of the steps and the doorways of the houses. The line are not the same as before: now the whole city is a long line, regardless of what they are selling.

*Translator’s note: ‘Fruta bomba‘ is ‘Cuban’ for papaya – which in Cuba is a rude word for a part of the female anatomy.

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Being Cold or Fear of the Electric Bill

The entrance to Roseland in Havana, a store selling appliances in hard currency. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, February 4, 2021 — On Thursday the corner of Neptuno and Águila in central Havana seemed different. Since a store which only accepted foreign currency was opened in the iconic Roseland store, the place has been filled with eager customers looking to buy appliances that have disappeared from the nation’s network of retail stores. But despite the abundant supply of air conditioners, the place was practically empty.

The air conditioners known as ’splits’, which have a one-ton refrigeration capacity, cost $310 at Roseland, but can be sold for double the price on the black market, are in high demand not only from those who want to cool some part of their house but from resellers. This has resulted in long lines every time there is an announcement that the units have arrived.

What’s happening this February to dampen customers’ enthusiasm is not so obvious? Are the low temperatures the western part of the country is experiencing making them forget the rigors of the island’s long summer? The answer can be found in the new electricity fees that went into effect at the beginning of the year and that are generating hefty bills in those houses where at least one room has an air conditioner. The prospect of getting bills in the four-figure bills is frightening for Cubans. continue reading

Last January, an avalanche of demands forced the government to reduce the increase in electric rates, especially for residential customers who use between 251 and 500 kWh a month, the largest group affected by the new higher rates. However, consumers who use more than 300 kWh, mainly those whose homes have air conditioning, remain among those most impacted by the increase.

Splits have gone from being a status symbol to being a headache. Buyers now know they have to both shell out a considerable sum of money to buy a unit and be ready to pay a high electric bill. “It doesn’t make sense,” says a curious passerby on Thursday, surprised to see there was no line to buy them outside the store.

Piled up next to the boxes of splits are electric ovens, air fryers, electric skillets and rice cookers. All are home appliances that until recently were in high demand but today “are black holes that gobble up money,” as the same passerby observed after watching one customer carry off two boxed air conditioners in a pedicab.

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“Water And Rest”: The Prescription in Cuba in the Absence of Pharmaceuticals

Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity in the face of drug shortages in Cuban pharmacies and hospitals. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 February 2021 — It started with a small wound on his foot, but as the days passed, infection and fever set in. Luis Álvaro, 25, went to the emergency room at the nearby Freyre de Andrade hospital in Centro Habana. After looking at his foot, the doctor concluded: “I can’t prescribe antibiotics because there aren’t any. Rest, drink plenty of water and keep your foot elevated.”

Four days later, with a large red area around the wound, the young man posted on Telegram: “I’m exchanging a Nintendo wireless remote for a full course of oral antibiotics and a tube of Gentamicin.” Shortly thereafter, an interested party responded. Luis Álvaro obtained several blister packs of amoxicillin, a drug manufactured in Cuba.

His skills with instant messaging, having something to exchange on the black market and the fact of living in Havana, which has a dynamic informal commerce, played out in favor of this young man, but in regions far from the capital the options are much more limited, and “you can’t find medications even if you have money,” says María Victoria, a resident of San Antonio de los Baños. continue reading

After several days of uncertainty, the health of María Victoria’s relative has evolved favorably, but she hasn’t stopped worrying. “I see sick and chronically ill children and elderly people who can no longer find the medications they need,” she warns. “It’s a desperate situation.”

“We’re very concerned,” this resident of one of the most populated municipalities in the province of Artemisa tells this newspaper. “I have a niece who they thought had leptospirosis, because there were several cases in one part of town,” she says. “She was prescribed rest and water because there wasn’t anything else. We spent days of anguish, and all we could do was wait.”

To avoid crowds in pharmacies, hospital officials have warned doctors not to prescribe drugs they don’t have. “Before, I ran out of prescription pads very quickly, but for months I’ve hardly used them because there’s nothing left to prescribe,” acknowledges a doctor from the Miguel Enriquez hospital in Havana.

“We’re seeing patients who arrive with an infected lesion, and if a topical medicine is used in time there won’t be any pain or complications, but there’s nothing to prescribe,” laments this graduate in Comprehensive General Medicine. “A few days ago I treated a woman with severe ankle pain, and I knew that with a painkiller she would feel better, but I couldn’t write the prescription.”

“As a doctor, I’m aware of what’s happening with the lack of medicines and the risks of the pandemic. I tell my family and friends to avoid going to hospitals unless it’s something serious,” she laments, “because we can’t give them anything to help them and the danger of getting coronavirus is high. ”

In some consulting rooms for family doctors, there are signs posted explaining how to use natural remedies that range from infusions to calm anxiety to the use of softened leaves to treat skin lesions. Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity as the pharmacies remain empty.

Herb growers who offer their products in the city have seen a rebound in the number and variety of plants that their customers request. “Before, what we sold most was basil for Santeria rites and some sticks that are also used for spiritual work, but now this has become a pharmacy,” Ramón, a herbalist from Monte street, tells this newspaper.

“The most requested herb now is chamomile, the leaves of the plant that people call Meprobamato (Plectranthus neochilus Schltr), prickly pear leaves for issues related to foot pain, horse liniment for those who have kidney problems, and I also sell a lot of rosemary for sore throats,” he explains. “There are days when I close at noon because I run out of products.”

But Ramón’s herbs can do little or nothing when a serious illness is involved. “In recent months the situation has worsened, and although the problem has been going on for a long time, we’re now in negative numbers. Medications for chronic patients can’t be found, or only half the dose that the patient needs arrives. If there’s an emergency we have to appeal to social networks,” explains the father of an oncology patient.

“My daughter underwent a mastectomy and now she’s using cytostatic serums, but from the list of medications that she needs to make the process more effective and bearable, we’ve had to get two of them through friends,” says the man. “We have had to buy other medications, but the price doesn’t matter because it’s a question of life or death.”

Instant messaging for some, herbs for others and money for a few are propping up medical treatments in a country that is still seen internationally as a medical bulwark.

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.

In Havana, Around Fifty People Wait in Line to Buy Cars for Sky-High Prices

Outside a used car dealership owned by Cimex on 20th Street in Havana’s Playa district. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, January 18,  2021 — When it opened on Monday morning, the used car dealership on 23rd Street between Third and First avenues in Havana’s Playa district was greeted with a line of about fifty people. They were eagerly waiting on a shipment of cars to be sold for hard currency that were scheduled to arrive that day. Despite sky-high price tags, there is a waiting list to buy them.

“People in line are saying they should be here in a few minutes,” a potential buyer tells 14ymedio. “The list is very detailed because some people want to buy as many as two cars. Everyone is waiting for the shipment to arrive but the real scramble is for the Renault Talisman and the Geely CK,” he explains.

The dealership is owned by Cimex, a subsidiary of the military-run conglomerate Gaesa, which has a monopoly on auto sales in the country. At the moment the only cars available are a few “clunkers,” which the buyers ignore. “Everyone is talking about the new arrivals. That’s why there are two lists, one for each model,” says the man. continue reading

Around fifty customers gather to get on a waiting list to buy cars.

“You can come and go as you like, my brother. I’ve got everybody’s name written down on the list here,” yells a man near the front of the line to another who wants to leave for a few minutes without losing his place.

According to the dealership’s notice board, the cars for sale at the moment are the Chinese-made Geely CK for $32,000 and two models from the French manufacturer Peugeot: a Partner for $63,971 and a 508 for $ 72,000. The coveted Renault, however, is not on the list.

“In this part of the block you can hear the money talking. You can really hear it,” jokes a neighbor as she walks by the car lot.

Cimex had been selling the cars for convertible Cuban peosos but as of February 2020 customers could only buy them with freely convertible foreign currency. Prices for the roughly thirty available models range from 34,000 to 90,000 USD.

The car dealership’s notice board showing prices for new models. (14ymedio)

According to the dealership, the new prices come with a 10% discount. Customers must pay for a car in full using a debit card.

Since the new purchasing process was introduced, customers have complained about mechanical problems that arose after shelling out a huge amount of cash.

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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.

Havana’s Alma Mater Bookstore is Flooded With Sewage Waters

A dark liquid comes out of the Alma Mater bookstore, overflowing through the door and reaches the beautiful granite floor at the entrance. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 25 January 2021– A woman with a baby in her arms steps down from the doorway and heads down the sidewalk on tiptoes at the corner of Infanta and San Lázaro in Havana. Without taking her eyes off the ground, the young woman tries to avoid the filth of the sewage waters that have flowed from the interior of the Alma Mater bookstore, which has been closed to the public for weeks because of the foul flood.

The bookstore offers a selection focused on university bibliography, history, philosophy and sociology manuals, while from the building a dark liquid flows out through the door and reaches the beautiful granite paving, with wavy figures, in front of its entrance. Passersby hurry their steps and tighten their masks as they pass.

The scene is not new. The bookstore has suffered several closures over the years due to the deterioration in the drainage system of the apartment building where it is located. The last repair was completed in October last year, but a few months after its reopening, the premises had to close again. continue reading

“You can’t stand here because of the bad smells,” complains a customer of the post office — located several meters from the bookstore – whose line traditionally ran along the covered sidewalk but had to move because of the stench. “You take all this infection home,” laments another customer from a nearby office who has come to buy some stamps.

A “closed” sign can be read on the door of Alma Mater, although its old opening hours are still written above it: Monday to Friday and part-time on Saturdays. In the stained-glass windows, dirty and covered with pieces of brown paper, is a faded poster with the face of José Martí, who curiously has his gaze directed just towards the most flooded area of ​​the portal.

From outside you can hear the sound of sewage dripping into the premises. The leak has destroyed most of the false ceiling and pieces of it are on the ground. However, the bookstore’s Facebook page does not mention its current status, showing only past images from its collection, where books on Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara abound.

In the stained-glass windows of Alma Mater, dirty and covered with pieces of brown paper, is a faded poster with the face of José Martí. (14ymedio)

A local employee tells 14ymedio that the warehouse located in the basement is flooded. “Efforts have been made by the workers to get that water out of there, but they have been unsuccessful so far,” laments the worker. “I don’t understand why they don’t come with an engine to extract it, the situation can turn into a serious health problem.”

The residents of the building are desperate. The bad smell is spreading throughout the area and they feel like they are living a “cyclical curse,” with similar breaks from time to time. At the beginning of last year, a neighbor tried to solve a blockage in his apartment by putting a metal bar through the pipes and ended up causing a break that also forced the bookstore to be evacuated. The current break is attributed to the poor condition of the infrastructure and the lack of maintenance of the property, but one never knows in a block with dozens of residents.

Where the battered bookstore is located today was once the famous Quesada Lamps store, a symbol of Havana from the middle of the last century, where appliances and other home decor were offered. The firm had subsidiaries in several Latin American countries and was nationalized after the Revolutionary Triumph.

But beyond its commercial life, the location of this corner made it one of the emblematic points of the Cuban capital, surrounded by businesses and food service options, on the border between the glamorous neighborhood of El Vedado and the popular and bustling Centro Habana. Even the most famous vagabond in Cuban history, the Knight of Paris, frequented the portal that today has become impassable from the plague.

After a long time of neglect, in 2013 the Alma Mater cultural center was inaugurated on the premises, which had an intranet navigation room on the mezzanine and a small room for events and conferences. In its early days, interesting volumes could be found on the bookstore floor, but as time passed ideological excesses and political pamphlets littered its shelves.

The decadence continued its course and the trade began to sell poorly produced handicrafts and clothes with official slogans. And then, again and again, came the floods. Sometimes it forced them to close for a few days, then weeks that turned into months without service to the public. The wreck of the Alma Mater bookstore has been long and harrowing, and the blame should go not only to the sewage leaks.

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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 Convertible Pesos Not Accepted, Even in Cuba

A Caracol store located on the ground floor of the Havana Libre hotel (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, January 13, 2021 — Faced with complaints from citizens that they could not find places to spend their Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the Cuban government announced that no fewer than 500 stores would accept the old currency. The list included the Caracol chain of stores, the Palmares Company, and the Artistic and Literary Promotion Agency (Artex). 14ymedio confirmed on Tuesday, however, that these businesses are now only accepting Cuban pesos (CUP).

At the Caracol branch in the Habana Libre hotel they had not even heard the news. “We only accept CUP here,” said an employee when a customer asked if she could pay in CUC.

“I still have 20 CUC and I would like to spend them on something useful without having to wait in line at the bank. I heard the news on television and came to this store, which is on the corner near my house. But as you can see, either Murillo was lying or these people don’t know how to do their jobs,” said the customer, waiving the rejected bill. continue reading

Marino Murillo, the so-called “reform czar,” said it himself during a Roundtable broadcast and reiterated it on his official Twitter account: “The conditions have gradually been created so that, starting today (Monday), CUC will now be accepted in more than five-hundred establishments of the Caracol, Palmares, Artex and Egrem chains throughout the country.”

In addition to the establishments newly designated to accept CUC, he claimed that stores run by Cimex corporation and the Caribe chain were already following the new policy.

At Arte Habana, an Artex store located on San Rafael Street, the employee was blunt: “Look, I don’t know what they said on the Roundtable but here we’ve been told we can only charge in pesos, no CUC.”

“I don’t have that information. Call back tomorrow,” said an employee of the Tropicana nightclub, a subsidiary of Palmares, in response to a question posed during a phone call.

Handmade signs that read “CUC not accepted” have become a common sight in private businesses and taxis since late December, days before the new economic measures took effect.

Despite the Cuban government’s announcement that it would expand the network of businesses that accept CUC, a sign in a Caracol store suggests otherwise. (14ymedio)

As part of the monetary unification process being implemented throughout the country, the government had stated that the CUC would remain in circulation for six months. In practice, however, very few businesses are accepting it.

“A lot of people come here expecting to pay in CUC because they heard on television that they would have up to six months to spend it. But the truth is that we as private businesses are under no obligation to take them,” an employee of a privately owned cafe in Nuevo Vedado told 14ymedio.”I don’t accept CUC but, look, in addition to Cuban pesos, anyone who so desires can pay me in dollars or euros.”

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Hundreds of Undercover Agents Monitor People Waiting in Line in Havana

Hundreds of undercover agents wait in long lines, on the lookout for people making “counterrevolutionary comments.”(14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, December 27, 2020 — Two men in civilian clothes approached a police car on Havana’s Infanta Street on Saturday morning to report on the people in line. These days hundreds of such undercover agents monitor people waiting in lines, on the lookout for anyone making “counterrevolutionary comments.”

The informants are easily recognizable in spite of the efforts they make to blend into the crowd. “Look, the one with the blue cap is a security agent,” warns a retiree to another customer waiting to buy frozen chicken outside a store on Belascoaín Street.” I know because the only thing he’s done since he got here is eavesdrop on people.”

Several minutes later a patrol car pulls up and the young man in the blue cap points out two people to the uniformed officers. The police ask the couple for their identity cards and arrest the man. The reason: a few minutes earlier he had made a comment that “this New Year there’s no meat or shame in this country.” continue reading

Faced with an increase in public criticism fueled by economic shortages and the severities of the pandemic, Cuban authorities have been twisting the ideological screws. Propaganda has become more assertive in state-run media while so-called “acts of repudiation” and heavy surveillance of public spaces are becoming more common.

Lines to buy food, especially items intended for year-end celebrations, are now the center of police attention. State Security agents, Communist Party die-hards and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) have also been involved.

“Reactivate the rapid response brigades in every CDR willing to deny a platform for disaffected elements,” reads a document distributed among the organization’s members. It includes instructions to “support the authorities” during the difficult economic situation in which the island finds itself.

“At the meeting they said imperialists were out to destroy the Revolution [while people wait] in lines and that we have to be vigilant,” says a retiree from the Plaza of the Revolution district who was summoned to “go after anyone who speaks ill of the leaders and the currency unification process.”

Among the duties assigned to the retiree is “preventing people from taking photos for the purpose of uploading them to social networks and denigrating our system,” he explains. “Anyone who sees someone taking a photo with a mobile phone or recording a video can call the police because we are authorized to do so.”

With the arrival of the phone-based internet services in December 2018, reports and complaints by citizens on social networks have increased significantly. Many Cuban internet users employ the new technologies to report corruption, point out problems with the political system and share memes against officials.

Among the most closely watched queues these days are those to buy pork and beer. The government is selling these products at subsidized prices and distributing them to every family in Havana upon presentation of a ration book and identity card.

“No one says anything because everyone knows that there are lots of prying ears in these lines,” admits a customer in line at 26th Street on Saturday for the chance to buy pork at 40 pesos a pound.”A little while ago they arrested a young man for taking a photo and a female Party member shouted at him to leave the country if he didn’t like what the Revolution was doing.”

The quality and quantity of what is for sale has contributed to these complaints. Most stores are not allowed to butcher the meat. Nor has there been enough to go around, as the coordinator of provincial government programs, Julio Martínez, told reporters during a recent broadcast of the Roundtable program, admitting that supply “is very far from being able to satisfy the needs of the population.”

But the criticisms will have to wait for the family dinner table. Any disparaging remarks said in line could lead to a fine or a stint in jail, something no one wants to close out this difficult year.

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Broken Eggs

Two broken eggs from a carton bought by this Havana resident who paid 10 Cuban pesos apiece for them.(14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, December 16, 2020 — “When a lady broke two of the eggs I had bought, I almost lost it. I found it difficult to contain myself,” says Luis, a Havana resident who was lucky enough this morning to find thirty eggs for sale in an informal market. But it was a treasure whose value was quickly diminished. He got in line to buy something else but, by the time he was done, only twenty-eight of them were still intact.

“I had gone to the market looking for yucca because I wanted to prepare and freeze some to make sure I would have it for New Year’s,” he said. “I had taken a short cut by avoiding Neptuno and walking along one of the side streets, I heard someone ask, “Hey, kid, what are you looking for?” At the entrance to a ramshackle communal apartment building, a woman who was carrying a child motioned for him to come over.

The woman recited a list of things she had for sale: evaporated milk, potatoes, eggs and shrimp. Other items could be had by walking through a winding corridor with rooms on each side. At the end was a tiny dwelling where he bought the carton of eggs for 300 Cuban pesos (~$12.50 US), the most expensive they have been in a decade. continue reading

Since last year it has been virtually impossible to find eggs on the open market. They are rationed and can only be purchased once a month. Each person is allotted fifteen. The first five go for 1.10 pesos apiece; the rest can be purchased at the subsidized price of 0.15 peso.

“I was happy but I wanted to buy some other things so I got in the line for bread,” recalls the unfortunate shopper. “People started getting nervous and began pushing. One lady almost fell on me and broke two of the eggs. I would have counted to ten to calm myself down but I had count to three-hundred for the 300 pesos I had just spent.”

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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.

Red Carpet for Dollars, Service Entrance for Pesos

When the Plaza de Carlos III in Havana opened on Monday, there was a special entrance for those paying with hard currency. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguea, Havana, 14 December 2020 — When the Plaza de Carlos III shopping mall in downtown Havana opened on Monday, there was a special entrance for customers with foreign currency. They were allowed to enter a home appliance store through the front door. Those who wanted to buy products with Cuban pesos were relegated to the the building’s side door and had to wait in a long line that extended for several blocks.

This weekend the mall opened all its stores after months of being closed to customers with Cuban pesos (CUP) and only a few weeks after at least ten of the stores began operating as so-called MLC stores, which only accept foreign currency. After the reopening, the line of customers extended along several streets perpendicular to the wide avenue for which the shopping mall, referred to ironically as “the palace of consumption,” is named.

They have chicken, gizzards, pasta, soap, deodorant, perfumes, cooking oil, almost everything I was looking for. But it won’t last long so I figured I had better get in line,” said a resident of Central Havana, who was one of the first in line to pay with Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and surprised that so many CUP stores did not have the same items. continue reading

Customers who want to pay with Cuban pesos (CUP) are relegated to a side entrance and a long line that extends for several blocks. (14ymedio)

The shortage of basic products has forced city residents to fan out over multiple areas in search of basic products. Many place their hopes in big retail centers such as Plaza de Carlos III and Cuatro Caminos, which reopened their doors on Saturday in the midst of a strong police presence meant to discourage large gatherings and fist fights.

“They just told me that as soon as they run out of things for sale in CUC, they won’t be selling those items in that currency. You’ll have to pay for it with foreign currency. Those perfumes, for example, were what they already had in stock when the store reopened this weekend,” said one disillusioned cutomer.

For decades Plaza de Carlos III has been the commerical heart of Central Havana, especially in the neighborhoods of Pueblo Nuevo, Cayo Hueso and Los Sitios. Along with the state-owned stores in these areas, there is an extensive network of individual vendors and privately owned businesses who rely on the large volume of customers passing through the area every day.

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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.

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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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 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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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.