Almendrón Stories / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

The almendrones that abound in Havana retain the original body but the mechanical part is almost always modern. (Lilianne Ruiz / 14ymedio)

The almendrones that abound in Havana retain the original body but the mechanical part is almost always modern. (Lilianne Ruiz / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 17 June 2015 — Noisy and filthy, with an air of Hollywood films of the 50s, they often evoke the words of Galileo: “And yet it moves.” The almendrones*, pre-1959 cars that abound in Havana, retain their original bodies but the mechanical parts are almost always modern.

A 1954 Ford may contain a Hyundai gas engine designed for minibus, a Mitsubishi transmission, a Toyota differential, Suzuki Vitara hydraulic steering, a Peugeot dashboard, Moskovich disk brakes from the Soviet era, a Mercedes Benz master cylinder, with the chassis and grill original to the make.

This combination means that the spherical steering system might not last three months with Havana’s potholes, or the emergency brakes may not work well. It’s a violation of the laws of physics and engineers if the weight of the car doesn’t match the brake system. Still and all, we have the perception that 90% of the cars circulating in the Cuban capital are almendrones. Continue reading

From Villa Marista They Threaten to Delay Angel Santiesteban’s Release / Lilianne Ruiz

Angel in an earlier prison where he was held for a while.

Angel in an earlier prison where he was held for a while.

Lilianne Ruiz, 12 June 2015 –Last Saturday, officials of Section 21 of the Ministry of the Interior returned to take Santiesteban  from the prison where he is held in Jaimanita to Villa Marista. There he spent twelve hours in an office listening to threats from two MININT officers who told him “Why would we free you if some Sunday you’re going to meet with the Ladies in White and we’ll put you back in prison.”

Angel got two and a half years in prison, although the Ministry of Justice accepted the appeal for review of the judgment filed by his lawyer, which showed that he was a victim of a spurious trial, because of the slanders of his ex-wife. This June he is rightfully entitled to parole. His friends and family hope he will be released before the September visit of the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Continue reading

Wheeling and Dealing with Plastic / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Plastic footwear stall at the market of La Cuevita (14ymedio)

Plastic footwear stall at the market of La Cuevita (14ymedio)

Markets all over the Island are supplied with objects made on the illegal circuit of a material mostly derived from industrial waste or leftovers from the dump

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 20 March 2015 – At the market of La Cuevita in San Miguel del Padron, some thousand people from all over the Island daily buy household goods, flip-flops and toys, all made of plastic. The purchasers come especially from rural areas where the economic situation is more precarious and the only thing that abounds is scarcity.

In order to sell in the market it is necessary to have a state license and a letter signed by the producers, also authorized, from whom the articles must be bought. The inspectors who pass through the sales stalls may require this letter, but in practice they pass with hand extended seeking money in exchange for not imposing a fine of 1,500 pesos on whomever Continue reading

The ‘Sandor Case’ / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Known as "The BimBom 23 and Malecón" this is one of the meeting points for pingueros. (14ymedio)

Known as “The BimBom 23 and Malecón” this is one of the meeting points for “pingueros.” (14ymedio)

  • In tribute to El Caso de Sandra (The Sandra Case) by Luis Manuel García Méndez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 30 January 2015 — A farmer wakes up before dawn to brand with a burning iron the last cow he has left. It’s a ritual of pain and possession. A tourist brands a young person in one of Havana’s cabarets and takes them to bed in exchange for some money. The brands are different, but both as permanent.

Sandor was born in the countryside and was raised to be rough. When he reached adolescence he had already castrated and slaughtered pigs. His wide shoulders, olive skin, and oriental eyes earned him town-wide fame as being “hot.” Since he was young he felt the pressure of desiring other men Continue reading

Cubans Euphoric Over the New Regulations / 14ymedio

Counterclockwise from the top, Miriam Celaya, Manuel Cuesta Morua and Dagoberto Valdés share with us their reactions to the new US regulations.

Counterclockwise from the top, Miriam Celaya, Manuel Cuesta Morua and Dagoberto Valdés share with us their reactions to the new US regulations.

14ymedio, Havana, 15 January 2015 — The new regulations on travel, insurance, the import of goods, remittances and telecommunications that the United States will put into effect with respect to Cuba as of Friday, have already provoked the first reactions on the Island. Although the evening news barely mentioned it at the end of the show, the information passed mouth-to-mouth on the street.

Lilianne Ruiz, independent journalist, received the welcome news and noted, “This flow of people who are going to come, along with the increase in the remittances, means the country’s return to normalcy.” In the opinions of this reporter, “The Cuban government is going to weaken, the only thing left is the repression and the restrictions. This will make people more accurately identify the origin of our difficulties.”

Among the most attractive points of the new regulations is the authorization to establish “telecommunications installations within Cuba, as well as installations that connect third countries with Cuba.” Internet connectivity and cheaper mobile phones are demands that have gained strength in the last year, especially among the youngest.

Yantiel Garcia was outside the Telepoint Communications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) in Pinar del Rio. The teenager said that she hoped that her brother in Jacksonville, Florida, could now help her with a technological gadget to connect to the web. “If the American mobile phone cards can be used here, my brother will pay for a data package for me to navigate without restrictions.”

The “ball is now in the Cuban government’s court,” said an ETESCA official who preferred to remain anonymous. As he explains, “The number of visitors from the United States will grow and the country will have to offer them a solution to connecting while they’re here.” To which he added, “It’s a question of business, not of ideology.”

The families who receive remittances will also benefit from the increased dollar amount that can be sent each quarter. The prior figure was limited to 500 dollars every three months, while now they can send up to 2,000 dollars to relatives residing on the Island.

At the Metropolitan Bank branch on Galiano in Havana this morning, several old people hoped to complete bank transactions. Cristina Marrero was one of them and she explained that she has one son in New York and another in Atlanta. For this lady the most appreciated measure is the one related to the sending of parcels in large quantities. “My sons have furniture and appliances that they want to send me and this is an opportunity,” she said.

For his part, Julio Aleago, political analyst, said that “Since 1959 the Communist government has always tended to isolate the country from the rest of the world and these measures will increasingly integrate Cuban into Western free market values, democracy, participation, free exchange of people and goods between countries.” With regards to the American embargo, still in effect, he said, “In the same way the American government imposed sanctions on Venezuelan and Russian officials, that should serve as a paradigm, instead of establishing a general embargo over the whole country, punish those personalities of the military government who have something to do with violations of human rights.”

As of Friday, airlines will not need a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to fly to Cuba, and this has received a good reception on the Island. This afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport’s Terminals Two and Three, the news spread like wildfire.

Dayane Rios, who was waiting for her grandmother who had been visiting Washington for three months, commented, with the illusions of youth, “This time she had to travel through Mexico because there are no direct flights, but I hope that for the next trip she can do it more directly and cheaply.”

However, although there are no new regulations about a possible maritime connection, many Cubans also dream of the idea. “Pick a place on the Malecon, when the ferry comes all of Havana will be seated on the wall,” one bike-taxi driver joked to another, crossing near Maceo Park.

Manuel Cuesta Morua finds, “The direction this normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States is taking very positive. If we think about the phrase let Cuba open itself to the world and the world open itself to Cuba*, than what is happening is that the United States is opening itself to Cuba, it is like opening the world.” The opponent pointed out that “The impact on the social empowerment of the citizenry, on issues of information and on the possibilities to manage their own lives, is very positive, it’s going to help to ease the precarious situation of Cubans.”

Dagoberto Valdes says, “I am in favor of everything that benefits the ordinary Cuban citizen, the facilitation of travel, communication between civil society here and there, between one people and the other, I am in favor of everything that improves the quality of life.” The director of the independent magazine Convivencia (Coexistence) also added that, “To those who say this is oxygen to the Cuban regime, I say that I am not a believer, I don’t think the Cuban model works and oxygen only works in live models, it doesn’t work in dead ones… what is the value of giving oxygen to this system if the structure of the cell doesn’t work.”

Miriam Celaya said, “It seems positive to me that Americans can travel to Cuba, that it will widen contacts between the two countries, but I don’t know how this is going to empower Cubans as long as all these government controls exist here, as long as free enterprise continues to be demonized and there are so many prohibitions.” In the activist’s opinion, “These measures empower Americans, but in the short term they do not give Cubans back their rights.

*Translator’s note: A phrase uttered by Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit to Cuba.

Photos of Our Wedding / Lilianne Ruiz

Manuel Cuesta Morua and I have married. I have never been happier. He is an exceptional man and I have the good fortune that we will love each other for the rest of our lives. I want to share these photos with everyone who has accompanied me at this time and and will continue to do so until we can meet in a Havana afternoon, but in Freedom. Our love to all. Lili and Manuel.

9 December 2014

Santiesteban Protests Against Conditions Of His Confinement / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Angle Santiesteban (14ymedio)

Angle Santiesteban (14ymedio)

14ymedio, LILIANNE RUIZ, 7 December 2014 — Writer and journalist Angel Santiesteban continues to be detained, since August, in a border guard military unit located on Primera Street in Miramar. His jailers have announced to him this week that he may be transferred to a location yet to be identified.

The hut where Santiesteban has been incarcerated these months overlooks the street, just opposite the security checkpoint. It measures four by four meters. The prisoner cannot walk, stretch his legs, get sun or interact with other detainees. They only let him out once a week to use the phone and every twenty-one days to receive a two-hour family visit.

Santiesteban is thinner and paler. He relates that last weekend he began a hunger strike to demand better conditions like having the right to get sun, walk and run on the ground as is his custom, to have free access to the telephone like the other prisoners, and to receive visits every 15 days. “After an upset stomach, I refused to take oral rehydration salts and I stopped ingesting food in protest of my conditions of confinement,” he reports.

The writer explains that then two State Security officers told him that they would transmit his claim to the command and give him an answer within a week. They told him that “he has done much damage to the Revolution and that if he had accepted the offer they had made him last August his situation would be different.”

Santiesteban explains that in that month, when he was transferred to the border guard unit, officials from State Security proposed freedom to him in exchange for his leaving the country, which he roundly refused.

Wednesday he dropped the hunger strike pending an answer to his demands. Next April he should be released on parole if the authorities comply with the law which calls for release after the completion of half the sentence. Santiesteban also awaits the response from the Ministry of Justice which accepted the appeal of his case indicating that it admits that irregularities were committed in the trial held against him.

Translated by MLK

Shadow Market / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Vendors at a bus stop in Havana (14ymedio)]

Vendors at a bus stop in Havana (14ymedio)]

Street vendors are the last card in a clandestine business deck whose purpose is pure survival.

14ymedio, LILIANNE RUIZ, Havana, 20 November 2014 — In the shadow of the doorways on Galleno Street in Havana, a young man shows several pairs of sunglasses that he has encased in a piece of polystyrene foam, popularly known as polyfoam. The improvised showcase is kept in a travel bag that can easily be moved. At his side, a girl announces in a low voice: “Colgate toothpaste, deodorant, cologne.”

Suddenly the young man grabs the polystyrene containing the spectacles, as if he were really dealing with a suitcase, and both walk away, their step and pulse accelerating. They disappear within a hallway. They wait. Fifteen minutes later they come out and place themselves again in a stretch of the same street. For the moment, they have managed to cheat the inspectors and the police.

They sell their wares clandestinely in order to survive. They risk being detained by the police, who confiscate their products and impose fines for “hoarding.” The fines can reach 3,000 pesos. Frequently they incur debts because they get the merchandise from a “wholesale” supplier to earn, at maximum, 1 to 3 CUC.

On many occasions it is the Cuban stewardesses or other workers or state officials with the privilege of going abroad and buying in any supermarket, together with the “mules,” each day more hounded, who manage to get through customs controls some batch of basic necessities. The street vendors are the last card in that business deck. “We live daily on what we manage to make. It is not enough to save. If you live for food you can’t buy clothes and if you live for clothes you can’t eat,” they contend.

She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and her identity card places her at some address in Ciego de Avila province. That is why she cannot get hired as a nurse in the capital: “I think that from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo is Cuba. But as I was not born here (in Havana), I have no address here, I cannot work. I am illegal in my country.” But she does not complain: “The salaries are so low that I would have to leave my job as a nights-and-weekend nurse and sell in the street if I want to buy myself, for example, a pair of shoes.”

For his part, he has a tailor’s license and is authorized to sell homemade clothes. “The licenses mean nothing in this country. To sell ready-made clothes, they ask for a ton of papers to know where you bought the thread, the cloth and even the buttons. The government always wins and we do nothing but lose. They charge you taxes to sell what the licenses authorize but also they are charging you taxes for the prices that they fix for raw materials. That’s why we have to buy and sell on the black market,” he explains. The earnings for selling homemade ready-made clothes are minimal.

In January of this year the government prohibited the sale of imported clothes or any imported article. So that after paying for the tailor’s license and the familiar taxes, he comes out to sell eyeglasses, ready to run from the authorities. “I get these glasses at five CUC for two, sometimes three CUC. I did not steal them from anyone. And if the police come, they take them from me. They have already confiscated from me about three times.” In spite of the persecution, he has a powerful reason to continue going out to sell: “If I lie down to sleep, we die of hunger at home.”

Both youngsters report that there are days when they sell nothing. “The whole day on foot from 8:30 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon, running from here to there: if not the inspector, then the police, or the surveillance cameras.”

According to them, there are cameras installed on the corners. Thus they suffer the enormous disadvantage of not being able to see who is watching them. The girl indicates a column: “That wall covers the camera that is at the corner and that is why we stop here. We already have them figured, because if not they order to search for you because of the camera. For example, they order to search for the one who has the black blouse, which can be me.” In this atmosphere of tension and fear of being discovered, this subsistence economy unfolds.

The government harasses the mobile vendors while it woos the big companies of global capitalism. Cuba does not look attractive for those who undertake the economic path of mere survival. Not even legally. That’s why so many young people want to leave the island.

Translated by MLK

“My Most Fruitful and Difficult Experience Has Been Jail” / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Antunez

Jorge Luis García Pérez, Antunez. (14ymedio)

Jorge Luis García Pérez, Antunez. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, LILIANNE RUIZ, Havana, October 25, 2014 — On leaving prison, it took Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez, some time to digest that he could go where he wanted without being watched. They had held him captive for 17 years and 37 days of his life.

Just as he learned to do in jail, today he devotes his efforts to civic resistance, inspired by the doctrine of Gene Sharp and Martin Luther King. His movement gathers dozens of activists who carry out street protests and civic meetings in several provinces of the country and in his native Placetas.

Lilianne: Let’s talk about before going to prison, adolescent Antunez. What did you want to be?

Antunez: In adolescence, a firefighter. I liked the idea of rescuing people, putting out fires. But before going to prison I wanted to become a lawyer. I believe that was my calling.

Lilianne: Jail is a survival experience. Do you think it hardened you?

Antunez: The most fruitful and difficult experience, as paradoxical as it may seem, has been jail. I never could imagine that jail was going to be a hard as it was, nor that I was going to be a witness to and a victim of the vile abuses that I experienced. I do not know how to answer you if it hardened me or not. When I entered prison I had a much more radical ideology, it was less democratic. But jail, thanks to God and to a group of people whom I met, helped me to become more tolerant, more inclusive, and to respect various opinions.

As a prisoner, I went to the most severe regime in Cuba. The gloomy prison of Kilo 8 in Camaguey, commonly known as “I lost the key,” where the most sinister repressors are found. Torture forms part of the repressive mentality of the jailers in a constant and daily way. It was there where a group of us political prisoners came together and founded the Pedro Luis Boitel Political Prisoner’s Association, in order to confront repression in a civic way. Thus, I tell you that prison did not harden me, because if it had, I would have emerged with resentment, hatred, feelings of vengeance, and it was not so.

Lilianne: What is your favorite music?

Antunez: I like romantic music, Maricela, Marco Antonio Solis, Juan Gabriel. But I also enjoy jazz, although I am no expert. The music to which I always sleep is instrumental.

Lilianne: Will you share with us your personal projects?

Antunez: There is a saying according to which a man, before he dies, should plant a tree, write a book and have a child. Fortunately, there is already a book, titled Boitel Lives; CADAL published it in 2005. I have planted many trees, because I am a country peasant. I only need to have a son with the woman I love, Iris Tamara Perez Aguilera, so here I am now telling you one of my goals I am aiming for.

Lilianne: You know that a growing number of dissidents and activists have identified four consensus points. What do you think?

Antunez: I believe that they are standing demands that concern all members of the opposition and all Cubans wherever they are. I wish that more fellow countrymen would adhere to these four points. I believe that they represent the sentiment of all good Cubans: to free political prisoners, for the Cuban government to ratify the human rights agreements, recognize the legitimacy of the opposition and stop repression. Everything that is done for change, to free us from the communist dictatorship that oppresses us, is positive.

Lilianne: Why does Antunez not leave Placetas?

Antunez: Not everyone wants to go to Havana. I know many people who keep their rootedness. I would say that, more than roots, it is a spiritual necessity. I leave Placetas three or four days and I begin to feel bad. And that sensation that I have when I come up the heights, coming from Santa Clara… that is something inexplicable. The motto that I repeat, “I won’t shut up, and I’m not leaving Cuba,” means also: “I won’t shut up and I’m not leaving Placetas.”

Translated by MLK

“My mom has a girlfriend” / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Denia and Mayra don't kiss in front of their daughter because of concerns she would be rejected at school.

Denia and Mayra don’t kiss in front of their daughter because of concerns she would be rejected at school.

14ymedio, LILIANNE RUÍZ, Havana |October 3, 2014 – Denia and Mayra met twelve years ago on a walk along the Malecon. In the zone of tolerance that begins at Maceo Park and ends at the 23rd Street fountain, where historically a part of the LGBTI community gathers in the Havana nights. After a 7-year relationship they thought seriously of raising a child, but they ran into an obstacle: according Ministry of Public Health protocols, the possibility of conception through non-traditional means is designed for heterosexual couples and treated as a pathology of infertility.

The two women began to seek voluntary donors among their friends. They knew other women in the same situation had managed to conceive by introducing semen into the vagina with a syringe. “In contact with mucus it can live up to 72 hours; in a syringe stored at room temperature it can last 48 hours,” they say.

Among their close friends they didn’t find a candidate that met all their conditions, above all that he was willing to renounce paternity and cede it entirely to the female couple. So after many discrete inquiries, they used the services of an OB/GYN at a maternity hospital in the capital who, in addition to artificially inseminating Mayra, was able to offer them a donor with the desired characteristics, including some resemblance to Denia. The insemination took place in the couple’s home, far from the vigilant eyes of the health authorities. Should it be divulged, the doctor would lose his profession.

 The insemination took place in the couple’s home, far from the vigilant eyes of the health authorities

Denia sidesteps the question of whether they had to pay for this “under the table” service. According to other women in similar situations, the rates in the informal market for sperm vary between 100 and 300 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC).

“This has been the greatest joy of my life. The little girl calls me godmother,” Denia says. The two women consider themselves mothers of Paola, a beautiful five-year-old who attends preschool.

During the pregnancy and childbirth, Denia presented herself as a friend of Mayra’s. In their experience, if they had declared themselves the lesbian couple that they are, they would not have been treated the same. “In many places we found they don’t treat us like they treat a heterosexual couple. Sometimes they reject us. So we did what we did to keep up appearances.”

Denia tells how she gets up first in the morning to bring the baby to her mother’s breast. “Even though I’m not the biological mother, I feel like I’m also Paola’s mother. At times we argue lovingly about who’s going to do the cooking because the child likes my cooking more.”

They don’t kiss in front of the girl, not because they don’t want to promote their values of respect for sexual diversity and freedom of choice in front of her, but because they are worried that she might experience rejection at school. “We live in a society that has not adapted to a kiss as a gesture of love between a couple, and to the fact that couples can be made up of the same gender.”

Because of this, they believe that Cuba should legalize marriage between persons of the same sex, so that their rights are recognized in the Ministry of Health protocols, including the right of a lesbian woman to conceive with the help of science. “The same rights would make us more equal,” they say.

So far, however, there is no donor sperm bank in the Cuban health system, even for heterosexual couples. Nor are there statistics about the number of same sex couples with children. In a telephone call, the Legal Department of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) admitted it has taken no surveys and has nor information about it.

As often happens, the official world keeps its distance from what is happening in real life. It refuses to legislate and ignores the stories of different passions, with fruits and without patriarchs.

Constitutional Consensus Makes Noise / Lilianne Ruiz

Constitutional Consensus advances from below, from those who know the least. Deep within the Island citizens, or rather those who aspire to be, join the project with misspellings, in the midst of smoke and sweat, fixing old bikes that deserve to be abandoned, and plowing the earth with one eye on the cow that needs to be watched.

What is happening is unusual at one point. None of the activists who run the initiative tells these people, forgotten and persecuted by a troop of fine collectors, what they should say. Like the plow, the pliers or the pastry flour, they just offer another instrument for them to express what they want in the laws to defend and how they want them to be written.

An activist, Marthadela, never tires of walking and pushing these tools to get answers, any answers, the come to the common people in the spirit of the new laws. And to her surprise, the result is immense and multiplying.

If you started sweating with one farmer in his bar on the ground, four farmers have already approached you do see if they can protect their cows from the voracious greed of the State.

Another activist, Carmelo, makes it so that at a Constitutional Initiative Discussion an apparently exhausted and lost citizen speaks up to say that the only thing he knows is that no one, not those above and not those below, should be above the law, which has occurred in Cuba since the first day of 1959. An idea worth its weight in gold because it took several centuries to give birth to it.

All this gives us confidence. If these ordinary men and women assume that the law and its defense is worth the trouble it means we come together again in a civilized way one of these days. But what is likely happening is common sense is the best soil for the sense of rights.

Constitutional Consensus moves forward with these people.

7 October 2014

Angel Santiesteban Transferred to La Lima Prison / 14ymedio

Angel-Santiesteban_CYMIMA20140516_0001_1314YMEDIO, Havana, August 22, 2014 – The writer Angel Santiesteban might have been transferred to La Lima prison, located in the Havana municipality of Guanabacoa. The information was provided to 14ymedio by Lilianne Ruíz, a freelance journalist who visited the police station at Acosta and Diez de October streets where the narrator and blogger was detained.

For several weeks, Santiesteban’s family and friends have been demanding an explanation for the aggravation of the charges against him. The police informed the family that the writer was being prosecuted for an escape attempt. However, his family believes that this “new imputation is groundless and is being lodged only to increase his time in captivity.”

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement calling on the Cuban authorities to “clearly explain” Santiesteban’s situation.

Prior to his transfer to the Acosta Station, Santiesteban was held in a construction unit where he could receive visitors and make telephone calls. The blogger was sentenced in 2013 to five years in prison for an alleged “violation of domicile and aggression.” Independent lawyers have repeatedly denounced the irregularities committed in his case and have raised the complaint with national and international entities.