Isabela de Sagua: The Seafood Battle

The ’paladares’ (private restaurants) have flourished in Isabela de Sagua since the issuing of licenses to operate private businesses in the food service sector has become more flexible. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Julia Mézenov, Isabela de Sagua | 1 March 2019 — State or private, the difference is no small thing in Isabela de Sagua, where a seafood dish can be half or double the size according to the structure of its ownership. The coastal town — which has spent decades in oblivion — is experiencing a rebirth after the flexibilizations for self-employment started almost a decade ago.

The so-called Venice of Cuba has benefited since 2011 from the liberalization in the food services sector, which authorized paladares (private restaurants) to serve up to 50 customers and allowed them to offer previously forbidden products such as shrimp, lobster and a wide variety of the seafood that is common in the area.

Now, years later, private businesses have flourished to such an extent that they outnumber the state business. And it is because of this, the private owners say, that state authorities have suddenly increased inspections of their successful businesses. continue reading

Up until eight years ago, visitors who arrived in Isabela de Sagua, in the province of Villa Clara, had to work hard to find something to eat in a city with decadent state cafés and a large informal fish and seafood market that forced tourists to plunge into illegality to be able to enjoy a moderately appetizing table. Anyone who approached a local restaurant barely found snacks and fried chicken.

Despite these dark years, the port, which has been demolished and has no commercial value, is still reputed to be one of the best places on the island to taste oysters, very common mollusks on Cuban coasts. With a reputation for being an aphrodisiac, along with an intense flavor and the ability to mix very well with tomato juice, this dish attracts thousands of travelers every year to Isabela de Sagua.

The group of cays that surrounds the area provides a favorable ground for oysters to thrive and, according to one of the cooks of the Las Casitas de Isabela restaurant, it is a dish in “high demand” among national and foreign customers. Oysters can be served stewed or smoked, although there are also many who prefer them in vinegar.

However, beyond the stoves and frying pans, this delicacy leaves some disappointed. Private restaurants receive a huge influx of diners regardless of the day of the week, because they serve large portions of seafood and are not victims of the diversion of resources (i.e. stealing) and corruption that mark the state services, which has put the authorities on guard.

Some owners consider that the increase in inspections by official inspectors in recent times is aimed at reducing their profits, fining them or even ordering their closure.

“Sometimes we receive up to 15 families on the same day,” says an employee of the Casablanca restaurant. When one paladar is full, the owners themselves send the customers to another location and, next to the menu, the most valued assets are the ocean breezes and the proximity to the sea.

The ’paladares’ often hide their seafood offerings for fear that the authorities will demand documentation proving they bought it on the legal market, which they do not have. (14ymedio)

Coinciding with this increase in controls on the private sector, state restaurants have launched into the competition arena and started offering seafood, although the price difference is still notable. While on ’official’ menus a lobster dish will never cost less than 11 CUC, in the paladares it barely exceeds 6.

The inspectors demand that the owners show invoices for having bought the product in an official store, which the owners consider “unfair and ridiculous.”

“If we’re so close to the coast, who’s going to buy seafood from a store freezer?” they ask.

The prohibition against Cuban citizens using motorized vessels to travel in territorial waters to fish on a larger scale, together with the prohibition that makes it illegal for private fishermen to sell their products to self-employed people, means that the people have resorted to the ’informal’ market. The sea is the wealth of Isabela and, also, its primary perdition.

Seafood fishermen are obliged to sell all their products to the State at prices far removed from those supported by the market, so they prefer to offer oysters, lobsters and shrimp on the black market, from which the whole town lives. The risk to them is fines and the confiscation of the flimsy boats they use for fishing, but the owner of a paladar faces a greater danger: the possible closure of their business.

“I do not put the seafood in the menu, but everyone who comes to Isabela knows that it’s included in rice, cocktails and enchiladas, they ask for it without our having to tell them it’s there,” says one of the owners consulted by this newspaper who prefers anonymity.

At the table of a restaurant, the Cuban-American Yisell Martín recognizes that the prices are tempting for those who come from abroad. “A grilled lobster comes out at less than 6 CUC,” she says, quoting a price that is about $6 US. “When you come home to visit the area, close to where you were born, you invite your whole family to taste seafood dishes. None of them could pay those prices with their official Cuban salary.”

“We do not go to the official restaurants because they put a lot of rice, sweet potatoes or lots of mayonnaise on the plate, but little seafood,” says another customer. “The best service is in the private ones, but without doubt you have to have some confidence to ask for certain dishes because we don’t want them to run out of food for the paladar to be closed,” he says.

In 2017 Hurricane Irma passed over Isabela de Sagua destroying innumerable houses. But private businesses are helping to recover the life of the town. “Who saw Isabela as she was and sees her now can not assimilate the tremendous change,” says Gertrudis, who lives there. “They offered to help me leave, but I love my land, even though we were not able to evacuate our belongings. Anyway, it’s already a memory, water under the bridge.”

The town is rising thanks to the seafood, the product that is both its danger and its survival.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Lazaro Bruzon Wants "Cuban Sports to be Divorced from Politics"

Lázaro Bruzón is currently on the payroll of the chess team at Webster University, in the United States, in a program directed by former world champion Susan Polgar. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Julia Mézenov, Villa Clara, 9 February 2019 —  Although Lázaro Bruzón is one of the most important Cuban chess players, his name is no longer on the national team’s roster. This 36-year-old from Las Tunas, who enjoys every victory to the fullest and is extremely upset with the defeats, has taken his separation from the island without drama in international events.

While the specialists speculate about his future, Bruzón continues to dedicate himself to moving the pieces, something he has not stopped doing since he was enthusiastic about chess at the age of seven. “It was very hard, but I understood that it was the right thing to progress and I always had many dreams of improving to help my family,” he tells 14ymedio now.

In 1999 he was part of the Cuba team for the first time and returned to Las Tunas with his title of Grand Master. At just 18 years of age, he was world youth champion, but despite his laurels and the fact that his name ws heard more and more in sports media, he had to continue going through many everyday problems such as the difficulties of travel. continue reading

“There was a time when we received more support but then everything got complicated until the help was practically nil,” he recalls. “Many times they invite us to tournaments and help us with the expenses, but everything depends on the level of the player and his Elo.” That reality ends up hitting many young chess players who “if they can’t afford these trips and no one pays for them… how do they do it?”

When he reflects on the possibility of sustaining himself economically playing chess in Cuba, Bruzón talks about the different moments he has lived through. “For a short time, in the Capablanca Tournament, Cubans have been awarded prizes. Before the payments were only for foreigners, and in international events the prizes vary a lot.”

Last September, Bruzón was officially expelled from the national chess preselection for refusing to return to the country. In spite of this incident, he affirms that he does not have any “personal” problem against anyone specific to the Cuban Chess Federation and insists that throughout his career “this is the first time such a controversy has been created.”

“They have erroneously taught us that everyone who leaves Cuba becomes a kind of enemy. I left with great optimism that good relations could be maintained based on communication and mutual respect with all the intentions of the world to continue playing for my country, but in practice it is difficult,” he laments. “I wish that Cuban sports could divorce itself from politics a little. I hope one day it does not matter where a person resides in order to represent their country.”

Currently, half of the Grand Masters of Cuban chess reside abroad. Regarding this reality, Bruzón believes that “progressing beyond a point while in Cuba” is complicated because it collides with “a ceiling beyond which you can no longer climb.” He also has talked several times about the lack of connectivity. “I’ve talked about the importance of the internet for chess.”

His presence in the United States began with a study opportunity. “In my plans I was not leaving Cuba but the possibility of coming to a prestigious university, such as Webster, with a chess program led by former world champion Susan Polgar, motivated me a lot,” he says. “It’s where they see everything differently, here there are many great teachers who study and come from different countries, but they do not break with their federations or with their countries because they are here. ”

This week Bruzón was involved in an intense controversy when he posted on his Facebook account several criticisms of the text of the new Cuba Constitution that will be voted on in a referendum on February 24. The chess player questioned that in the preamble of the Magna Carta says that “only in socialism and communism the human being reaches his full dignity.”

“I have been looking for the definition of dignity in all places, I have also inquired about the importance of the Constitutions to countries and what they should be, and there is no way to understand that this approach is correct.”

With his traditional moderate tone, Bruzón defined as a “long path” the one that remains for Cubans “to travel” to “learn that the other person can think differently from us and that does not mean that he is wrong, we are not possessors of the absolute truth, although they have taught us otherwise,” he added.

In the conversation with 14ymedio he reiterates these concepts when he points out that migratory restrictions have affected chess. “Many athletes would still be in Cuba representing their country if they could come and go without so many obstacles. And it’s not only in chess. I think we have to fight for the right things and break old schemes that only serve to create disunity among Cubans.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

El Triunfo Bridge in Sagua La Grande is About to be Defeated by Apathy

The state of the El Triunfo (Triumph) bridge has deteriorated with the passing of decades and the lack of maintenance. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Julia Mézenov, Sagua la Grande | 9 January 2019, 2019 – With its rusty structure and missing stretches of rails, the El Triunfo (Triumph) bridge in Sagua la Grande has become a source of concern for the population. The local authorities have not fulfilled their promises to maintain the symbol of this city in the province of Villa Clara.

This work of enginnering, which has lost its former splendor, connects Centro Victoria with Barrio San Juan. Thousands of people pass through it every day, including students from the elementary and middle schools and the only high school in Sagua la Grande.

The importance of this bridge in the daily life of the Sagüeros is such that the majority have expressed a desire in the new year for the repair of El Triunfo that combines safety and functionality with its lost beauty. continue reading

However, it does not seem to be a priority for the local powers that be. The neighbors consulted by 14ymedio lament that for more than five years the authorities have promised capital improvement, but nothing has happened.

To alleviate the flow of people, bicycles and motorcycles (which to cross El Triunfo must be pushed by hand) the so-called “floating bridge” was enabled. In mid-2018 after the heavy floods caused by the subtropical storm Alberto, the old bridge was reopened due to the need to channel the influx of passers-by, since most of the businesses, welfare and work centers are located on one of the banks of the Sagua la Grande river. However, the bridge — one of the few with the Pratt beam technology (one of the most modern of its time) that remains on the Island with its original infrastructure — was reopened without having any improvements made.

“When a disaster happens, then they will begin to take measures,” explains Olguita González, a neighbor of Sagua la Grande who has been crossing El Triunfo every day for more than 40 years. “One day it will not hold up anymore, because, although the passage of trucks is prohibited, that does not guarantee anything, it is very old.”

Located in an area declared a national monument in 2011, El Triunfo was the scene of exciment when the victorious troops of General José Luis Robau passed through it after the end of the War of 1895 against Spain. At that time the bridge, which was then made of wood, was renamed, and, years later, in 1905, the structure was changed to the current one, made of iron.

“If Robau came back now, he would fall into the river,” says Gonzalez ironically, worried about the number of children and elderly people passing through.

With the rising waters of the Sagua la Grande River, thousands of people from the Popular Council of San Juan-Finalet are left practically incommunicado. The deteriorated bridge is the only link when there is a slight flood in the area, since the Carrillo bridge floods and the Clara Barton bridge disappeared, submerged by the waters in 1996.

The last announcement about a possible repair was made in February 2018 in the local press. Elvis Perez Casola, then head of the Investment Department of the Resources of Communal Services Unit, assured that the technical and material means to undertake the work were secured, but nothing else has been said and the neighbors are still in doubt about when the longed for repairs will occur.

That frustrating promise was already déjà vu to another that an official made two years ago when he said: “The subordination of local investments are 100% fulfilled in anticipation of the payment to the builders of the El Triunfo bridge. The rehabilitation work has not started to date due to difficulties of the construction company.”

Since then it has rained, the waters of the river have risen several times, rust and deterioration have continued their advance and the defeat of El Triunfo becomes even more humiliating.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.