Luis Manuel Otero: “Fear is One of the Most Effective Tools of This System”

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara during the interview last night with this newspaper. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 11 October 2017 — When he was a boy all he needed was a scalpel to shape a piece of wood and he gladly exchanged the tracks of athleticism for art. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara dreamed of “being famous, having money and improving the world,” but ended up denouncing, through his aesthetic actions, racism, political polarization and injustices.

Born in the Havana municipality of Cerro, the controversial artist was the eldest of four brothers in a family with a welder father and a carpenter uncle. “None of my relatives was interested in culture, but ever since I was little I had a facility for manual work,” he recalls now, while talking to 14ymedio in the middle of the night. continue reading

Nothing indicated that Otero Alcántara would end up doing provocative performances, loaded with questions about the Cuban reality. However, while sport forged his resistance, he felt that he needed to incorporate “thought and the philosophy” to change his surroundings. He needed to get into politics.

“At home they called me ‘the priest’ because I spoke alone and told the stories in my head,” he recalls with a mischievous smile on his face. All this was channeled upon entering the art world in a self-taught way, as his attempts to study in the San Alejandro academy were met with the closing the course to workers.

Later he joined the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists and received a card that “gives a lot of privileges and supposedly supports you when you are traveling or exhibiting.” The young man tried use that document to join the institutional artistic circuit but with little success.

“I realized that the common way was barred for me. In Cuba the institutions have a lot of prejudice, if you do not come from the academy you are discriminated against, so I left that road,” he recalls. Choosing this path has allowed him to explore more controversial and less complacent topics.

“I started to go out with my sculptures. That took a political character because in this country going out on the street has that connotation, not because I had a political speech or was an activist,” clarifies Otero Alcántara as if he wants to make it clear that he is not the partisan opposition.

This year, while he wielded an enormous sledgehammer a few inches from the window of an exclusive store, he felt that he was able to condense many of his dissatisfactions at that moment. “I am more interested in inserting myself in the real fabric than in a cold gallery for someone to buy one of my pieces.”

Another way to denounce the abyss that separates the majority of Cubans from the bubbles of glamor that have been created on the island was to launch an alternative lottery where the jackpot was a night in a room of the luxurious Manzana Kempinski hotel. Fortune benefited a young man who a few days later entered compulsory military service.

“I do what I do because if I didn’t I would explode and my art saves me from sitting at home depressed.” Right now Donald Trump “practically closed the United States Embassy, ​​the wireless connection in the streets is bad, there is no democracy and even my son is afraid,” he deplores.

Otero Alcántara also complains about the serious economic problems facing many Cubans every day. “There is no way to buy a pair of shoes, there is no food, and the only way I can fight against that depression is art.” In Cuba, there is “a lot of fear and that is one of the most effective tools of this system.”

The performance with which he denounced the removal of the bust of communist leader Julio Antonio Mella from the Manzana de Gomez mall – filled with luxury stores never before seen in Cuba – generated an intense controversy that led him to prove once again that “art does work and has a lot of force. Because of this the dictators censor it and sometimes even kill the artists.”

He acknowledges, however, that among intellectuals and artists there is “a lot of opportunism, because there are some who disengage from the people and receive a lot of the perks the state grants, which has seduced many artists with money, house, position or being able to leave and enter the country.”

Following the announcement of the postponement of the Havana Biennial, scheduled initially for next year, Otero Alcántara has promoted an event planned for the days between May 5-15, 2018 and with a low budget. The project is supported by alternative spaces and sees in that enthusiasm a sign that it is “breaking the fear.”

Recently the artist published a provocative video with a supposed presidential campaign of independent candidates ranging from a mix of journalists, artists and bloggers to opponents associated with political movements although he, personally, clarifies he is not interested in a position of such responsibility.

“I like getting up late, I’m irresponsible, vague, in art I found my world, my metaphor and it’s something very personal,” he says to clear any doubts about his expectations for the future.

Otero Alcántara wants to make clear that dissidence, a concept that he frequently addresses in his work, is a person who dissents from the common doctrine, although on the island “the word brings with it terms like gusano (worm)” so you have to work to reframe its meaning. “The problem is not that the government calls you a dissident, but that it represses you for existing, for being in opposition,” he says. “With freedom everything is resolved, freedom of expression is vital.”

Cuban Authorities Secretly Disinter Remains of Céspedes and Grajales

Pantheon of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia, in Santiago de Cuba. (Coexistence)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 9 October 2017 – Months ago, surrounded by strict discretion, the remains of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Mariana Grajales were exhumed in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba. The operation was led by the same specialist who, two decades ago, led the search for the remains of Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia.

This time the task was easier because there was no need to travel to other latitudes. All it took was opening the tombs of the Father of the Fatherland and the mother of General Antonio Maceo, dismantling the pantheons in which both were buried, and moving the sepulchers to within a few yards of the place where former Cuban president Fidel Castro lies.

This Tuesday, they will repose in the new location after a military ceremony with more than 350 guests, although several descendants told 14ymedio that they were not consulted about the move and several ecclesiastical sources lament that no one was allowed to offer a funeral oration during the extraction of their bodies. continue reading

A brief note appearing Saturday in the local weekly Sierra Maestra was the first public notice that the remains of Céspedes and Grajales were not in their traditional graves where they were assumed to have found “eternal rest.”

On Monday, four short paragraphs published in the newspaper Granma also referred to the upcoming internment, which many expect to be attended by Raul Castro, who participated this Sunday in the official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernesto Guevara.

A neighbor of Santiago cemetery told 14ymedio that entrance to the area where the two patriots were previously buried was forbidden. “For months you haven’t been able to go there,” he said. “That entire part of the cemetery is cordoned off with a tape that forbids access.”

Both the newspaper Granma and the Sierra Maestra said that the transfer of the tombs was carried out in the interest of facilitating “in the future, that the Cuban people and foreign visitors can pay tribute to both [Grajales and Céspedes] in a more expeditious way.”

Each tourist must buy a ticket for 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to enter the graveyard. The cemetery of Santa Ifigenia has experienced an increase in visitors in the last year since the arrival of the ashes of Castro, after his death on 25 November.

The place has become an obligatory point of pilgrimage for left-wing militants from all over the world and is also included in tourist agencies tours that promise to introduce their clients to Santiago de Cuba, “the most important city in eastern Cuba.”

The remains of Grajales arrived in the cemetery of Santiago de Cuba three decades after his death in Kingston, Jamaica, on November 27, 1893. The first stone of the monument to Céspedes was placed in October 1909 and his body was placed in the tomb almost one year later.

Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party, highlighted in its note Monday that Grajales and Céspedes will also be closer to the funeral mausoleum of José Martí, the most important grave in the cemetery, and a few yards from the site of the monument that contains the ashes of Castro.

The new position, however, is surrounded by intense controversy over the lack of public information, the non-observance of Christian rituals that the exhumation of two consummate Catholics would merit, and the high cost of the move in the midst of the country’s economic crisis.

Oscar Márquez, chancellor of the archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba, said via telephone to this newspaper that the authorities had not previously informed the Church about the exhumation of the remains, nor about the weeks during which they remained unburied before being reinterred.

“Here everyone thinks their own way and those who have done this think in one way… they decided not to tell us,” explains the priest with an enigmatic touch. “No, there has been nothing, no information about the fact that the pantheons would be opened,” says the chancellor when asked if there was any official message.

Manuel Hilario de Céspedes y García-Menocal, bishop of Matanzas and a descendant of the Father of the Fatherland, says he did not know anything about the exhumation of the remains of his ancestor, who died in 1874 at the San Lorenzo de la Sierra Maestra estate, four months after having been stripped of his role as President of the Republic in Arms.

Nor did a descendant of Maceo, who lives in Havana and asked for anonymity, recall being informed of a possible change in the site of his tomb.

Yudy Garcia Delis, administrator of Santa Ifigenia, informed this newspaper that the exhumation of the remains of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Mariana Grajales occurred four months ago. “On 27 June they took Cespedes and a few days later Mariana, although I can not specify the exact day.”

A team of the Department of Legal Medicine led by Jorge Gonzalez, current director of Medical Education at the Ministry of Public Health and the person who headed the mission to locate the body of Ernesto Guevara and bring him to Cuba for the 30th anniversary of his death, was in charge of opening the sepulchers of these heroes of independence and extracting the remains.

Gonzalez, an firm supporter of the government and deputy to the National Assembly, has been embroiled in several controversies surrounding the authenticity of his findings in Vallegrande to find Guevara. The research has been charged with being imprecise and carried out more in search of a political effect than a scientific proof.

Garcia Delis is reluctant to say where Grajales and Céspedes have been being kept until today. “They are in a place that I cannot reveal,” he says, although he minimizes the secrecy on the grounds that they are “well guarded.”

This Tuesday the mystery is revealed. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who started the war for Cuban independence, and Mariana Grajales, the matron of a family of patriots, will be resting in a new location. Until the whim of the next power determines otherwise.

Cubans Outraged to Learn they Will Not be Reimbursed for US Visa Interview Fees

Cubans who spend more than 24 months outside of the country need permission to return, even to visit. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar/Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 5 October 2017 — A few days after the US authorities announced the suspension of the issuance of visas at its embassy in Havana, the State Department has confirmed this Thursday to the Nuevo Herald newspaper that it will not reimburse the money Cubans paid for the visa process.

The 160 dollars (about six months average wages in Cuba) paid for the interview for a tourist, business or family visit visa will not be returned. The amount paid also cannot be credited to an application for a visa in the consulate of another country, but will remain valid for one year should the current diplomatic conflict between Cuba and the United States be resolved, according to the South Florida newspaper.

This Thursday’s news increases the despair among Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits, who are already upset because, last Friday, the United States announced a 60% reduction of its personnel in Cuba and an indefinite cancellation of consular procedures. continue reading

“Okay, there are no visas, but they have to return the money to my family,” Cristina, a retiree waiting outside the Embassy to try to talk to an official, complained angrily.

Cuban citizens can “apply for [United States] visas at any [US] embassy or consulate in the world but must be physically present in that country,” the State Department said in a statement.

However, that option raises doubts on the island. “Who will give us a visa for another country?” asks Cristina. “In addition, that will cost me an arm and a leg between the plane ticket and the accommodation while I wait for the consulate to stamp my visa.”

In a note published on the US Embassy’s Facebook page, it is clarified that they are “delivering passports, visas and travel packages that have been previously issued,” but it does not give details on what will happen with the family reunification program and other visas to emigrate to the United States.

Moisés Salazar, a young American whose girlfriend is in Havana, is also mired in uncertainty. He cannot believe that after spending so many months in the process for his girlfriend to get a fiancé visa this misfortune has happened.

“I call the US Embassy in Cuba and I do not get information. I call the Cuban Embassy in Washington and I always get an answering machine and they never return the call. This is very ugly and very sad,” he says.

Salazar, who lives in North Carolina, has been in a two-year relationship with his Cuban partner and has visited the island many times. “I suffer from what I see happening. I love the Cuban people even if they are not my people and I know that this is going to be a very hard blow for all of them because it will take away the tourism that is an important source of income,” he laments.

The suspension of visas jeopardizes the migration agreements between the two countries that have been in force for more than 20 years, which require that at least 20,000 immigration permits be granted each year.

Miguel Ramón Salas from Las Tunas has lived in the United States for five years. From the distant state of Arizona he expresses his frustration with the political events that distance him from his wife and daughter on the island.

“From Cuba you can expect anything to happen, but not in this country. I paid for a service and if I cannot bring my family I will sue the State Department if necessary,” he says indignantly.

“In Cuba I have my wife and two children and I have invested a lot of money in bringing them to be here with me. The medical checkups alone cost $1,015, plus the formalization of documents and a lot of things that are necessary for them to leave the island,” he adds.

“My wife had an interview scheduled for the 18th and they changed it to November 27, supposedly because of the cyclone. The truth was they knew this was going to happen and they have been stringing us along,” he says.

Salas is disappointed by Florida politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban origin. “Politicians do not represent us. If Rubio had his family in Cuba he would not be so fervently supportive of the closing of the Embassy. Most of the Cubans who recently arrived have people on the other side and we want to reunite with our relatives,” he adds.

The social networks are filled with messages of anguish and the Embassy’s Facebook page is full of complaints from relatives who can’t get over their stupor at what happened. “I became a US citizen five years ago and now I want to know why they prevent my mother from coming to visit me,” commented an angry internet surfer.

Sandra Pino, who was waiting for her brother on the island to visit her soon, says it is important to remember that the US decision was made after several Embassy officials “became ill from unknown causes.”

“Some will be permanently damaged, so they will not be able to exercise their professions and will lose the ability to put food on the table,” she laments.

However, she believes that the US must reimburse the visa fees because “this is not Cuba and if you pay for something thay have to give it to you or give you the money back.”

“The Man With the Flag” Marks Five Months Detention

Daniel Llorente has been detained for five months since being arrested during the May 1 parade in Havana. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 1 October 2017 — To avoid losing his sanity, Daniel Llorente sweeps the floor of the psychiatric hospital in Havana with a broom. Llorente trained in automotive mechanics in East Germany, and five months ago the activist was arrested while waving the American flag in the May Day parade in the Plaza of the Revolution. Even today, neither the court nor the doctors dare to confirm the date on which he will be released.

“Cleaning allows me to occupy my mind with something,” comments the “man with the flag” about the work routine that he performs in the Commander Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz Hospital, known as Mazorra. “They do not let me leave this small area or throw out the garbage,” he laments. The spontaneous activist fears for his safety in the Giralt room, intended for the convicted, and where he says he has seen “everything.” continue reading

After an onerous arrest in front of the platform where Raul Castro was waiting for the workers’ parade, Llorente spent a month in the detention center known as 100 and Aldabó. On May 30 of this year he was transferred to the psychiatric hospital under an alleged “post-criminal measure” issued by a court and is awaiting trial.

His only way to communicate with the press has been by phone. His son, Eliezer Llorente, visits the hospital twice a week and has become his only contact with the world.

“They tell me here that my situation is in on ‘stand by’ because my case is being reviewed,” he tells 14ymedio. So far Llorente has not been accused of any crime and claims to have signed a document where he was exonerated of charges of “public disorder and resistance” for the May 1 incident.

The “independent opponent” promotes the diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, but in recent weeks relations between Washington and Havana have gone downhill. This Friday the administration of Donald Trump announced the indefinite suspension of visas from the US embassy in Havana and the exit of 60% of the personnel.

It is bad news for Llorente, who asked last June to “be immediately expatriated” to the US, a demand driven by his desire to live in the country he considers “the greatest defender of human rights, hope, freedom, justice, brotherhood and the pursuit of happiness.”

He had already shown his sympathy for the nation of the north in May of 2016 when he made a similar protest to celebrate the arrival of the Adonia Cruise Line to Havana. At that time he was also arrested and detained for 24 hours.

On his hands, Daniel Llorente has tattooed the flags of Cuba and the United States. (Courtesy)

Although the US government denounced his latest detention, the case has been losing its prominence in the media as other priorities have displaced it, such as the acoustic attack on dozens of US diplomats.

More than two months ago, the doctor who attends Llorente announced that he could leave the psychiatric center on weekends. The news filled this man who worked as a private taxi driver before his arrest with enthusiasm. Shortly afterward, the psychiatrist told him that “these people” warned her not to give him a pass, a reference to State Security.

The specialist has assured Llorente that he does not suffer a mental illness and there is no reason to keep him hospitalized. Neither has he received any therapy or drugs for his alleged psychiatric disorder.

In an attempt to assert his rights Llorente has held several hunger strikes in the hospital and has written letters to political and religious leaders to denounce a situation that he calls “unjust.”

For the moment and until the hospital and the court agree, Llorente seems trapped in the script of a horror film. “All it takes is a hospital paper that says I’m fine to be able to dictate the end of this [detention] measure,” he says. While anxiously awaiting this document, he dedicates himself to sweeping the floor of the psychiatric hospital in Havana.

Irma Reconfigures Cuba’s Tourist Map

When the powerful hurricane Irma touched land, there were about 50,000 tourists on the island, according to calculations by the Ministry of Tourism. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Zunilda Mata, Havana/Varadero, 21 September 2017 — “This is what’s left of the gardens of the Blue Lagoon,” says an employee while looking at a cellphone photo of fallen palm trees and tangled vegetation. The bus in which he is traveling is responsible for distributing staff to the hotels in Varadero, Cuba’s main resort, which is trying to recover after Hurricane Irma.

The Hicacos peninsula, where the famous beach is located, is wrapped up in a recovery effort operating at different speeds. A land of contrasts, alternating luxurious resorts, mansions and fragile private houses with gabled roofs, the main tourist center of the Island is binding up its wounds on the eve of the high season. continue reading

On Tuesday, the streets were clear of the logs and debris left by the storm, but inside the hotels the damages range from light to serious. However, Varadero again has that air of a “tourist nation” – one with no flag or local flavor – that can be found anywhere on the planet where there is sun and sand.

“This beach feeds a lot of people,” Rigoberto told 14ymedio; he is an artisan by profession licensed to sell seed and pearl necklaces in the town’s most important artisan fair. “On the days we couldn’t sell, people were crazy because they lost a lot of money,” he says.

On a small table Rigoberto sets out ceramic ashtrays, carved wooden images of sensual women, and tiny clay turtles. “The worst has been for the homeowners who have suffered damages but who don’t have the resources available to the hotel managers and the state,” he says.

After days of anguish, an urgency to close the wounds has overtaken the residents and the resort employees. “We’ll all be ruined if the tourists decide to go to Cancun,” Rigoberto explains. The Mexican beach is Cuba’s main rival at a time when the Greater and Lesser Antilles have been battered by several hurricanes.

Three young men speaking Russian pass near Rigoberto wearing wrist-bands confirming their “all-inclusive” status at the resort. “Those are the first who have returned,” says the artisan. “They don’t care that much that the hotels aren’t a hundred percent ready, because what they are looking for is sun,” he opines.

Irma hit Cuba just before the high season, in a year when the authorities expected to reach the longed-for figure of five million tourists. When the powerful hurricane hit land, there were about 50,000 travelers in the entire island according to the calculations of the Ministry of Tourism.

After the weather disaster the official information has talked of devastation to describe the situation in the keys area. But at the same time a recovery in record time seems destined to appease the fears of travelers.

Wednesday’s primetime news warned of “an international campaign against Cuban tourism” that “is attempting to magnify the damages.” Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero assured that “there is no hotel that has suffered structural problems.”

However, complaints about substandard services are being felt and reported at hotel reception desks and in internet travelers’ forums. At the Royalton Hotel Hicacos about 40 guests are trying to make their vacation holiday not end in nightmare, but the conditions are not the best.

Joseph and his wife did not want to cancel the reservation they made six months ago to visit Varadero and “get a rest from so much work,” they tell this newspaper. Coming from Germany, they followed the course of the hurricane, fearing that the agency would postpone the trip or send them to another part of Cuba.

“We were scared to arrive but outside of some broken glassware in the hotel we found no major damage to the infrastructure,” says the German, although he acknowledges that the food is not good because he came looking for local flavors and even the butter is imported.

“The employees are very nervous and the hot water service still isn’t working very well.” Among the problems most lamented by the guests is that “there is no peppermint for the mojitos” and “there are few fruits at breakfast despite being in the tropics.”

For Andrés, a Colombian who spent his honeymoon in Cuba during and after Irma’s passage, the most difficult thing to deal with was what he calls “the fall in quality.” Staying at the Varadero Meliá hotel he lamented that the menu was bad. “Although they say they have two buffet restaurants, it’s not true,” he complains, and notes that the water sports services are not yet working again.

“We had to pay for the extra nights we stayed at the hotel because our flight was canceled and they didn’t give us any rebates even though the pools aren’t open and they didn’t change the sheets for more than three days,” he protests. Now, he hopes to make a claim to demand a refund of some of the money he spent.

At the moment, the management of the hotel has sent him a message stating its “total willingness to favor you with the best conditions if you return to the Varadero Meliá.”

Some hotels in the area are still closed, such as the Meliá chain’s Varadero Paradisus, which suffered severe damages. An employee of the Cubatur agency explained via telephone to this newspaper that the area known as Family Concierge was “devastated” and there were also damages to the main building and to the restaurant that was built near the beach.

Some hotels in the area are still closed like the Meliá chain’s Varadero Paradisus, which suffered severe damages. (Courtesy)

A spokesman for the Mallorcan chain, which owns a total of 27 hotels on the island, 11 of them in the keys, told the Spanish media that their accommodations in the famous resort have suffered minor damages and are re-establishing their services. In addition, he specified that the closure of the Varadero Paradisus is because of improvements being made before the high season arrives.

The head of the sales department of the Sol Palmeras hotel proudly said that on Wednesday about 200 tourists were staying at their facility. “Given how the area was left, we have recovered quickly,” he emphasized.

Dana, an employee of the exclusive Royalton Hicacos, acknowledges that conditions are still not optimal. The main damages are in “the buffet service restaurant and beach gazebo, still closed,” after Irma.

Despite this, private and government-controlled hotel authorities have not decreed any special reduction in room costs, according to a Cubanacan travel agency specialist.

Only during the hurricane itself “tourists who came here and booked directly at the hotel reception received a 40% discount,” says Dana. This rebate was offered only to clients who arrived at the accommodation relocated from the keys of the north of the Island, who were compensated for the fact that their new accommodation had no electricity.

To avoid distress, many are choosing another destination within the island where the hurricane did less damage. The largest beneficiaries are the town of Viñales, the María la Gorda beach, also in the west, and the city of Trinidad in the south.

“There is a lot of demand for the hotels in the historical center of Havana as well,” says an employee who offers tour packages in the Cubatur office in the Habana Libre Hotel. “What is totally closed is accommodation in the northern keys,” she explains to a Cuban client.

National tourism has been increasing since 2008, when Raúl Castro’s government allowed Cubans living on the island to go to the country’s hotels, from which they had been banned for decade. In 2014, about 1.2 million nationals stayed in these facilities and spent 147.3 million Cuban convertible pesos (roughly the same in US dollars), according to official data.

The trend has continued to increase and “most of the packages sold here are intended for Cubans,” says the Cubatur employee. She notes, however, that “right now international tourism is being prioritized, for those who made reservations weeks ago.”

Rebeca Monzó, who lives in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood and rents a room through Airbnb, has not suffered serious damage to her business. So far she has not had reservation cancellations and is waiting for a new customer who is arriving this week.

During the hurricane she hosted two Spaniards “who fled from the province of Sancti Spíritus” when the first winds began to blow. Her guests “experienced the hurricane from another perspective,” says Monzó.

“They helped us to store water, lined up to buy bread and experienced their days in Havana as a great adventure.” The hostess acknowledges that they survived “thanks to the pasta we had because in those days there was nothing to eat.” Her home was five days without water and electricity.

Shortages are one of the most negative side effects left by the hurricane.

In Varadero, the extensive informal market network that nourishes a good part of the area’s private businesses is also trying to recover. “In this area it was very easy to buy shrimp and lobster,” says Rigoberto, while taking some canvases painted with coconut motifs and reddish sunsets out of boxes.

“The hurricane has been a serious blow to the seafood vendors because apart from cutting off several access roads and leaving a lot of people without refrigeration, there is now more police control in the area,” he says.

The sale of these raw products is forbidden to private individuals and is strictly punished by the authorities, as is the black market in cheese and milk, also prominent in the area.

At the corners of the main street, parallel to the beach, are uniformed police officers and some state brigades cleaning the area. “Until all this goes away we have to stay quiet,” recommends the artisan. “Irma has stirred everything up and it will take time until the waters find their level,” says a Spaniard.

Hurricane Victims Along Havana’s Coastline Wait for Help That Never Comes

A group of neighbors puts their belongings out in the sun after the storm. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 23 September 2017 – Hope is fading these days in Havana’s San Lázaro Street due to the closing of the Malecón, after the damages left by Hurricane Irma. The lives of the residents along the coastline are stalled, waiting for humanitarian aid that has never arrived.

The San Leopoldo neighborhood and the areas from Maceo Park to the mouth of the Almendares River are the most affected. Two weeks after Hurricane Irma the residents are still trying to salvage their furniture and belongings damaged by the sea which flooded the area.

Mattresses have taken possession of the sidewalks, and some sofas and armchairs that show the watermarks from the floodwaters are musty with the small of salt and dampness. The most affected cling to the idea of rescuing everything they can, because they fear aid will be delayed or doled out in dribs and drabs. continue reading

“Ours is the only working TV on the block,” says Georgina, a resident of Perseverance Street. Every night when the primetime news comes on, dozens of neighbors gather around the screen. “People come to find out when they’re going to start distributing things.”

Reports in the official media show the arrival in the country of numerous donations from Panama, Venezuela, China, Bolivia, Colombia, Suriname or Japan. However, “not even a tablespoon of rice has reached this neighborhood,” laments Georgina.

A few yards from Belascoaín Street, a kiosk installed by the State for the sale of prepared food only offers a watery stew that few deign to buy. (14ymedio)

Expectations grew among those most affected on hearing of the arrival of a Dominican Navy ship last Monday, with 90 tons of construction materials such as wood, doors, aluminum window frames, nails, metal roofing, wire, in addition to mattresses and portable generators.

“People thought they were going to start distributing all of that right away,” a young man explains to 14ymedio, as he helps his father move some sacks of cement to raise a more than three-foot high wall and stairs at the entrance of his home, which faces the sea. “We had one but it fell short,” he explains.

The Government allocated part of the national budget to finance 50% of the price of construction materials that will be sold to victims with total or partial damage to their properties.

Although Irma seriously damaged the electrical wiring, took part of the kitchen tiles, removed the toilet bowl and contaminated the water tank, the young Habanero considers that “the most urgent need is food because there isn’t any.”

Mattresses have taken up permanent residence on the sidewalks, as people wait for them to dry. (14ymedio)

A few yards from Belascoaín Street, a kiosk installed by the State for the sale of prepared food only offers a watery stew that few deign to buy. So far no free rations have been distributed in the area and potable water is also on sale in containers of various types.

The World Food Program (WFP) has allocated 1,606 tonnes of food and $5.7 million to cover the food needs of 664,000 people in affected areas for four months, but only one ration has been delivered to Centro Habana.

A resolution passed Tuesday said that the delivery of “products received as a donation (internal or external)” will be made “at no cost.” However, along with free distribution, victims are also demanding greater speed along with controls to avoid the ‘diversion’ (i.e. stealing) of resources.

“Food is the main thing because many people are left without money,” explains Heriberto, a retiree who lives on a second floor in San Lázaro Street. “I had no direct affects in my apartment but the refrigerator is empty and I have nothing to put in my mouth.”

Nearby, the broad portal of the Immaculate Church has just been repaired after the floods, with hinges and everything. Humanitarian aid for the most affected residents has been collected through a side entrance for days. The donations arrive in small quantities but they provide some relief.

Charcoal, the Expensive and Only Cooking Fuel After Irma

Sacks stacked with charcoal made from the invasive marabou weed. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Zunilda Mata, Havana, 18 September 2017 — Black smoke from charcoal rises from an improvised fire in Dinora’s yard, which is close to the area most affected by Hurricane Irma in Caibarién, in the province of Villa Clara. In addition to half her house being on the ground, her new problem now is to cook without electricity or gas, in a place where local producers have increased the prices of this fuel, after energy shortages in the region caused by the hurricane.

Two years ago, Dinora’s family was among the province’s 4,902 families who were able to buy an induction cooker, a lidded casserole, a jug, a frying pan and coffee pot for 500 Cuban pesos (CUP) on credit, which the state bank is assured of being repaid through deductions from wages and pensions.

“There has been no electricity for more than a week and I had to go back to cooking with charcoal,” she says via telephone. continue reading

The charcoal, made mainly from marabou, is managed primarily by state companies that pay the local producers – who have self-employment licenses that allow them to produce it – and then mostly export it. A small part of the production is left in the hands of the carboneros, for their own use and for private sales with prices governed by supply and demand. “While before Irma a sack of charcoal cost 25 CUP in Caibarién, now that same amount is now worth twelve times more.”

“A sack of charcoal can’t be found for less than 300 CUP,” Dinora explains to 14ymedio. “My monthly pension isn’t even that much, so when I run out of this, I do not know what I’m going to do,” says the retiree, adding that she plans to use the fallen branches and logs that Irma left in her yard to be able to boil water and prepare food.

The so-called Energy Revolution, promoted by the late Fidel Castro at the beginning of the 21st century, replaced the distribution of kerosene and alcohol in the rationed market, which had been used for cooking in rural areas, with electrical appliances, such as hot plates and electric water heaters. Consequently, the installation of gas conduits was shut down and citizens came to rely on these new devices, useless in cases when the electricity fails.

Now, after Irma’s damage to the power grid, smoke from charcoal fires fills hundreds of houses and yards in the central area, in the absence of any other cooking fuel. It is not a question of choice but of necessity. The less fortunate do not even have a few coals to ignite and must settle for eating cookies or canned food.

The residents in this coastal town are impatient at the slowness of the restoration of basic services, as they continue with the access roads cut off, electrical poles on the ground and more than 4,000 homes totally or partially collapsed. “It seems as if they have forgotten us,” Dinora complains.

Independent journalist Pedro Manuel González shares this feeling of abandonment and regrets that in the first days after the storm the brigades of linemen and trash collectors were transferred to the tourist areas. “Caibarién is forgotten and has no priority in the national emergency,” he said.

Caibarién after the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Pedry Roxana)

Just 72 hours after Hurricane Irma, the 14-mile causeway that connects the tourist area of Cayo Coco with the nearby province of Ciego de Avila was repaired. A priority that has bothered many residents in Caibarién.

Francisco Carralero, a resident of the Van Troi neighborhood, is annoyed by that priority and complains that in Caibarién “everything is going very slowly.” He treasures a tank that he managed to buy last June when the province began the sale of liquefied gas. He rented the cylinder for 400 CUP and refilled it for another 110. “Thanks to that, it has been possible to pour a little coffee in this block,” he says.

“Now a full tank can’t be had for less than 1,000 CUP and no one can even find one,” explains Carralero. “He who has gas is a privileged one, because most of the residents of this neighborhood have not been able to light their stoves for more than a week.”

“Heat” and “chill” are two verbs difficult to conjugate these days in the area. In the informal market blocks of ice taken from the state lobster company are sold at about 300 CUP each. “He who has money gets cold water and he who doesn’t has to deal with it,” adds Carralero.

The losses are not only in infrastructure but also in food and resources.

“Everything I had in the refrigerator was spoiled because I didn’t have time to consume it,” explains the Villaclareño. In his area only some buildings have recovered electrical service and, he protests, they still have not received “any type of free food supply.”

The town’s pizzeria sells a serving of spaghetti for 5 CUP, the same price they charged before the arrival of the hurricane. Several distribution points in the city offer beans, rice and pork loin at 12 CUP, but the distribution of food at no cost is limited to those who were sheltered in state centers.

The dream of many neighbors is that there will be aid promised by the World Food Program (WFP), which will allocate US $5.7 million to “supplement the food needs of 664,000 people” in Cuba, according to remarks from Executive Director David Beasley during a recent visit to the island.

“We are in a critical situation and we have to start distributing food and water as soon as possible because people here are at their limit, many have been left with nothing,” explains Carralero, who fears that “the bureaucracy will delay the aid that is urgently needed right now.”

“This is a disaster zone and needs humanitarian assistance as soon as possible,” he explains. “If the situation continues, we will have to start dismantling the few pieces of furniture we have left to be able to cook,” he warns.

Hundreds of Havanans Protest in Neighborhood Five Days Without Electricity or Water / Updated

Hundreds of Havana protesters gathered in the streets of the Diez de Octubre neighborhood after five days without electricity. (Facebook Andy Michel Fonseca)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 13 September 2017 — Hundreds of people demonstrated in Havana’s Diez de Octubre neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, protesting the lack of electricity and water after Hurricane Irma. The protest began spontaneously, according to witnesses who spoke with 14ymedio.

“We want light! we want water!” and “The people, united, will never be defeated!” were the slogans shouted by the crowd, demanding basic services suspended since Saturday when the hurricane struck the island with winds over 125 miles an hour.

Among the slogans the demonstrators shouted there was also heard the cry of “Let Raul come!” calling for the president to visit the affected areas. So far, the leader has limited himself to sending a message of support to the citizenry, but has not visited the areas damaged by Hurricane Irma. continue reading

“From noon, the police closed (the main thoroughfare) Calzada de Diez de Octubre, because things got hot there,” one of the private taxi drivers serving the area told 14ymedio.

Only a few minutes after the protest began, dozens police officers and special troops arrived. (Facebook)

Dozens of officers of the Revolutionary National Police (PNR) and special troops known as Black Berets arrived at the scene after a few minutes of protest, but the protesters were not intimidated and continued their demands.

A neighbor of Santos Suárez park said that the demonstrators were around her house for “some hours” and from there they went towards the main thoroughfare, Calzada de Diez de Octubre, continuing to protest as they came up against a police barrier that prevented their passage.

“People got tired of the government’s bad management and came out to protest. There was no alternative,” she added.

However, one protester said there were no arrests for the protests and that the uniformed officers withdrew with the promise to restore basic services “as soon as possible.”

After the protest, police patrols remain in the area. (14ymedio)

“There was fear, nobody knew who was who because many policemen in civilian clothes arrived,” says another of the demonstrators.

As of 5:30 PM when 14ymedio was able to check the situation just hours after the demonstrations began, authorities had sent work teams from the electricity company and reestablished electricty and the water supply.

“Fidel had his flaws but he put on his foot down when these things happened and went out to the streets to solve the problems,” said an old woman.

After the protest, police patrols remained in the area and, according to the neighbors, many of the people found at key points in the area “look like they are state security.”

By about six o’clock in the afternoon a tense calm was felt. (14ymedio)

By about six o’clock in the afternoon a tense calm was felt. Some people took the opportunity to wash down the entryways in the area, and only spoke in low voices about what had happened just a few hours earlier.

Public protests are severely punished in Cuba. Last July 26, three activists from the Patriotic Union of Cuba challenged the authorities with banners denouncing “58 years of deceit, hunger and misery” in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. After being arrested following a “savage beating,” the activists, who demanded freedom of expression, assembly and the press are being held in prison awaiting trial.

Daniel Llorente, another protester who on May Day ran with a US flag in front of the government parade is still confined to the capital’s Psychiatric Hospital.

The biggest protest in the island’s history during the rule of the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro – known as the Maleconazo – occurred in August 1994 when hundreds of people confronted the police in Havana with sticks and stones, looting shops and calling for an end to socialism.

Cuban Students Rebel Against the Uniformity of the Classrooms

Students are asked to “eliminate” their dyed hair if they want to enter the classroom. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 8 September 2017 – The return to class, for thousands of children and young people, means a return to the discipline of school after two months of vacation. This September, school directors have focused their crusade against fingernails and hair painted bright colors, and students are forced to get haircuts or remove the enamel to conform to the regulations.

In July and August, far from the classrooms, many teenagers chose the strident tones of summer fashion. Red, green, blue and purple have been a trend in hair and phosphorescent colors are favored for fingernails, a rainbow that the schools are not willing to accept.

“I do not want to see anyone here with phosphorescent nails or hair dyed in colors,” warned a fifth-grade teacher on Monday, at the entrance of her classroom in a school in the Plaza de Revolución municipality. The scene has been repeated in schools all over the island, which stick to regulations to limit the creativity of students. continue reading

Julio Mojena, the father of twins residing in the Havana neighborhood of Cerro, considers the restrictions arbitrary since there is no written rule that specifically states them. His sons dyed their hair in August and now, he laments, “they can’t go to class until they get haircuts… In my time it was the length of the hair and the earrings, now it’s the color. What will it be tomorrow?” he asks.

“Each school can make adjustments to school regulations” depending “on the characteristics of their community,” a Ministry of Education official, who prefers to remain anonymous, told 14ymedio by phone.

Although there is no specific regulation on hair color, nails or any other detail, the official maintains that “in the schools uniformity is demanded” in the physical aspect of the student body and that this detail is supported by the general regulations.

The official acknowledges that there was a time when the length of males’ hair was strictly regulated, but that now they may “wear their mane to the collar.” Formerly males’ hair could be no more than just over an inch long.

In the eighties the crusade against hair length and the maintenance of aesthetic uniformity among students even jumped to the pages of the official newspapers. However, the José Martí Pioneer Organization (for elementary schools) and the Federation of Middle School Students did not mediate in favor of those they represent and the students did not win that symbolic battle for differentiation.

Nevertheless, controls have softened over the years, especially since the economic crisis forced families to substitute parts of the school uniform for home-made ones or to buy their children’s school shoes in the hard currency markets as a result of a breakdown in the supply of manufactured products in the ration market.

Now it is common to see students in the regulated garments modified with pleats, raised hems or adjusted sleeves.

Nor do girls and young women escape the restrictions. “In this classroom you come to study and those nails decorated with figures or painted with phosphorescent colors distract the attention of other students,” a Spanish teacher tells his students at Baragua Protest Junior High School in Central Havana.

So far this year, at least ten girls from the school say they have had problems with the manicure they were wearing when the school year began. In contrast, the pressure for them is less in terms of hair; if they dye their hair blond or red it is ignored, although other tones, such as violet, blue or green may not be.

“Reality evolves faster than school regulations,” explains Zulema Vázquez, a sociologist with two school age children. “The teaching authorities have a mentality from the last century and are not prepared to deal with the new situations that are taking place,” she says.

The specialist considers that any attempt at uniformity in terms of physical appearance eventually causes children and adolescents to find more sophisticated ways to differentiate themselves. “It can be the length of the skirt, a piercing, adjustments made to a blouse, the color or the length of the hair, but in one way or another, they will find a way to break the monotony,” argues Vázquez.

María Molina, mother of a teenager in Cienfuegos, told 14ymedio that her 14-year-old son was unable to start the school year at José Gregorio Technological Institute where he is training to be a “teacher of agriculture,” because his teacher and the school’s principal did not allow him to attend with his dyed hair.

According to Molina, the teacher and the director warned that “if you don’t cut your hair or dye it black” he would not be admitted. The mother tried to negotiate an intermediate solution and proposed that the young man cut his hair a little every week until the dyed part disappears, but her alternative was not accepted.

“As a mother I feel frustrated, I called the provincial and municipal education department and everyone repeats that we have to respect the school regulations,” she concludes with irritation.

Cuba’s Public Phones Persist in the Smartphone Era

Using a mobile phone as a pager or to receive messages while making the calls from a public device is a solution that many customers chose to avoid the high prices of Cuba’s state phone company’s cellular service. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 5 September 2017 — The young touchscreen generation looks at them with curiosity and the new rich keep their distance, but there are Cubans for whom public telephones continue to be an important way of communicating in the face of the high prices of the mobile service.

Making local calls from public phones is much easier on citizens’ pockets than using a cellphone. On the public phones, callers only have to pay 0.3 Cuban pesos (CUP) per minute during the day and 0.2 CUP per night (1.0 CUP = 4¢ US). For longer distance calls, such as between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the price is set at 1.0 CUP during the day, 0.5 CUP at night, and after eleven PM it only costs 0.1, meaning a ten minute call can be made for the equivalent of just 4¢ USD. continue reading

In countries like France or England public telephones are on the verge of extinction, given the advance of cellular networks. In Spain, despite being a very deficient service and with an 84% decrease in available phones in the last 15 years (from 55,000 to 18,000 nationwide), the service is still required by law and the company with the concession was forced to renew its contract in 2017, when a public tender received no takers. As in Spain, the Cuban government is committed to maintaining, through the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa), a service that is used by lower income citizens.

At the end of last year, the country operated 59,818 public phones, including 8,588 coin operated phones. For this year, the state communications monopoly plans to install 500 new public phones, of which 45 are intended especially for people with disabilities.

At the end of 2015, the country had only 1,333,034 fixed lines – in a country with over 11 million people – of which 996,063 served the residential sector, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). The installation of phone lines in homes has grown very slowly in recent years and between 2010 and 2015 just over 185,000 lines were added throughout the country.

Along with the poor quality of bread and the transportation problems, the problems with public phone service dominate the criticisms most heard on the streets and raised in the local People’s Power Accountability Meetings, where people can sound off to their elected officials. Deterioration, vandalism and the scarcity of phones in heavily populated areas are the subject of complaints.

Raquel Stone, a commercial specialist for ETECSA’s Public Telephone Services Division, told the official media that every year the company must repair thousands of public phones rendered unusable due to vandalism. The most common damage is having the handset pulled out.

Repairing the equipment represents an expense of 1,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, 1 CUC = roughly 1 USD) for each coin-operated device, and between 330 and 400 CUC for each device that operates only with prepaid cards.

“The publics,” as they are popularly called, are in high demand not only among those who cannot afford a cell phone, but also among those who carry a cellphone so they can be reached, but make most outgoing calls from the devices located in the streets.

At the end of 2015, the country had only 1,333,034 fixed lines, of which 996,063 provide services to the residential sector, according to the Statistical Yearbook published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

“If I call you and hang up on the second ring, it means I’m going to see you, but if I call you and let it ring, I can’t go,” a teenage girl shouts from the sidewalk to her friend who had just gotten on the bus. “But don’t pick up because I have almost nothing left on my cell,” she adds. The 0.35 CUC it costs for each minute of a cellphone call represents approximately half the daily salary of a professional.

In spite of these rates, in July of this year the number of active cellphone lines in the country reached 4,313,000. The growth experienced since Cubans were first authorized to contract for the service, in 2008, still places Cuba at the tail end of Latin American countries.

Only 35.5% of the Cuban population has access to cellular service, in contrast to nations such as Panama, where usage surpasses the number of inhabitants and is at the top of the region, with a 172% penetration rate for cellphone service. In Guatemala the rate is 115% and in Puerto Rico 88%.

Aníbal Lorenzo, a 32-year-old pedicab driver who has been living in Havana for two months, is one of millions of Cubans who can not even dream of a cell phone. To maintain communication with his family in Guantánamo, he purchased a prepaid card that he uses on the public network. The worker laments that coin-operated phones almost never work.

“I have searched all the phones that are on Amistad Street,” he says while testing several unsuccessful phones. A few feet away, a young woman picks up a headset and hears the ringing tone, but before she starts to talk, she takes out a handkerchief from her purse and cleans the area near her mouth. “They are always dirty and stink,” she complains.

The telecommunications company has installed some public telephones in funeral homes, hospitals and pharmacies. The caller must dial 1-69-69 and charge the amount to the recipient of the call. The option is little known yet, but it can get one out of a bind.

“They stole my purse on the bus and a man told me that in a nearby Emergency Room there was a telephone that had that service,” says Rosaura, a young architect who before that incident not “touched a public phone for more than five years.” Now, she recognizes that in certain situations you have to go back to the old fashioned way.

In the last decade, attempts have been made internationally to offer new uses from public phone booths. In Spain for example, in addition to accepting payment by credit card, some have enabled the possibility of sending emails and SMS to mobile phones. Despite this, it has not been possible to avoid a fall off of 84% in this service in just 15 years.

In France phone booths have become public libraries in some localities, while in London the legendary red wooden cubicles are leased to small business owners who have turned them into small businesses, such as craft shops or tiny florists.

In the imposing building on the corner of Águila and Dragones streets, the ETECSA headquarters is located in a property that belonged to the American company AT&T more than five decades ago, when it was nationalized. In one of its rooms, a museum preserves several models of the first public telephones that were installed in the Island.

“All this is active thanks to a group of retirees who maintain the equipment,” says María del Carmen, one of the local workers. “In telecommunications schools, only new technology is taught now,” and these pensioners are “the only ones who have mastered these devices.”

A few yards from María del Carmen, a young woman receives a call on her cell phone while waiting to pay her telephone bill. She responds hurriedly and with short phrases. “Hang on, I’ll call you from an public phone,” she says as she looks around at the nearest devices.

Cuban Families Try to Equip Their Children for the School Year Without Ruining Themselves

With more than 1,750,000 students enrolled at all levels of education, the next school year has unleashed a race against the clock in state stores and the black market. (Laura I.)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 30 August 2017 — These are frantic days. The uniform has to be ready, and a supply of pencils, erasers and pencil sharpeners collected. The school year begins on Monday, and each year the cost of equipping a student for the classroom increases. Cuban families spend nearly an entire month’s average salary on these preparations, according to interviews conducted with several parents by 14ymedio.

Yampier Lopéz and his wife, parents of two children, keep a detailed account of the money invested to prepare their children for classes. Shoes and backpacks are the most expensive, but the list continues to grow with two water bottles, a compass for the older brother who is beginning the study of geometry, and two lunch boxes.

With a total of 1,750,000 students enrolled at all levels of education, the new school year unleashes a race against the clock in state stores and in the black market. Families are guided by the simple motto: buy the most durable products at the lowest possible price. continue reading

For each child, Lopéz and his wife have so far invested 740 Cuban pesos (CUP), the equivalent of an average monthly salary according to the latest data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI), but they predict that the figure will exceed 1,000 CUP by the time they acquire some missing items.

Families are guided by the simple motto: buy the most durable products at the lowest possible price.

“We have to try to find most of the things that are used throughout the school year and now is the time to buy,” says the father. “You almost always think of the most visible, but you also have to look for socks, shorts for PE and notebooks.”

Lopez is a designer, while his wife works as a secretary in a branch of the Ministry of Transportation. Both remember the 1980s when they entered primary school and “in school they gave us almost everything.” But the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the economic crisis have reduced those subsidies to the minimum.

The Government has significantly reduced its investment in the education sector, from 14.1% of GDP in 2005 to 9% in 2017

In recent years the Government has significantly reduced its investment in the education sector, from 14.1% of GDP in 2005 to 9% in 2017. The cut affects the physics and chemistry labs, audiovisual equipment, and the teaching materials given to each student.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, the Minister of Education, Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, told the official press that “all textbooks and workbooks are guaranteed,” although she acknowledged that there are problems with “paper, because there is a delay in the arrival of that resource from abroad.”

Although the uniform is mandatory social inequalities arise in the quality of shoes or backpacks. (14ymedio)

School uniforms cost less than 10 Cuban pesos (about 40¢ US) at subsidized prices, but the quantity delivered is limited and there is little variety in sizes. In Miami, with a large Cuban community, several stores offer the uniform pieces — blouses, shirts, skirts, shorts and trousers — the students are required to wear in primary and secondary education on the island. These days the emigrants receive frequent orders for these products from their families in Cuba.

“To guarantee a clean uniform every day, I have to buy at least three blouses and two skirts, says Damy, a 34-year-old Santiagan whose daughter is starting the second grade in September. Resellers offer each piece at a price ranging from 50 to 75 CUP, more than five times the cost  in the state stores, which offer only one uniform per child at the subsidized price.

After the uniform, shoes are one of the main concerns because in the state stores they cost between 140 and 380 CUP. To that is added the amount for the socks (25 CUP per pair) and the backpack (never less than 300 CUP) which brings the sum to the monthly salary of an engineer or a teacher.

“This is not over, the next few months my wife and I will be working almost exclusively so that our children can go to school with a clean uniform, pencils, notebooks and some cookies for a snack”

There are no official data on the expenses incurred by an average family for each child who starts school, but several economists consulted by this newspaper agree that it represents a difficult challenge given that the purchasing power of the Cuban worker has declined in recent years to only 28% of what was received in 1989.

Last July, the economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago told the conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) that although “free and universal access are important and redeemable points” of the Cuban education system, it is necessary “to focus resources on those provinces and people who cannot pay for their studies.”

The situation becomes tense a few days before the beginning of September. Although the uniform is mandatory, social inequalities arise in the quality of the footwear or the backpack. In the past, school officials have tried to prevent students bringing snacks or sandwiches that indicate greater purchasing power to the classroom, but they’ve lost the battle because the schools no longer are able to provide free snacks, as they did in the past.

“Before they gave the students crayons, pencils and notebooks of better quality, but now all that is up to the family,” complains Yander Lopéz. Books are distributed among students free of charge, but must be returned at the end of the course. Higher income families buy part of these “basic study materials” on the black market.

This school year, families’ pockets are emptied a little more by the costs of the school snack, the so-called “reinforcement” of the school-provided lunch by which the families improve their children’s nutrition in the semi-boarding schools, and the purchase of cleaning supplies, which parents must provide for some schools that are receiving fewer and fewer tools and supplies to clean the buildings.

“This is not over, the next few months my wife and I will be working almost exclusively so that our children can go to school with a clean uniform, pencils, notebooks and some cookies for a snack,” laments Lopéz.

In Havana’s La Pera Park Art Anticipates Technology

Art celebrating wi-fi has arrived in Havana’s Park in advance of well-functioning wi-fi itself. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 28 August 2017 – The sun is rising and a teenager is unsuccessfully trying to find the presence of a wireless network. After months of waiting, the residents of La Pera Park, in Havana, are losing hope that an internet browsing point will be installed there. However, an artist got there before the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) and has placed a monument to the Wi-Fi on a pedestal in the park.

La Pera park is named after a peculiar shaped fruit – the pear – that is barely harvested in Cuba. Located on Almendares Street, between Bruzón and Lugareño in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality, the space is filled every day with families, with children who scurry everywhere and with internet users eager for a “dose of kilobytes.”

The plaque reads “Wi-Fi Monument.” (14ymedio)

Months ago in the Accountability Assemblies of the Popular Power – where delegates and citizens take stock of what has or has not been accomplished – it was announced that the state communications monopoly was going to set up a wi-fi zone in the park. It was all very exciting with the placement of new garbage containers, the repair of sidewalks, and the installation of lamps and benches. But no wi-fi.

In the absence of technology meeting expectations, art arrived first. The artist Yosniel Olay Mirabal, born in Havana in 1987, decided to give shape, through a sculpture, to that wireless technology that is changing the face of Cuban streets and squares.

Now, on a pedestal, the figure of a man attuned to a beam of signals challenges ETECSA to realize the dream of thousands.

Opposition Organization UNPACU Turns Six In Very Difficult Circumstances

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU). (Matias J. Ocner for 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 2 August 2017 — The Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) is celebrating its six years in the midst of the complicated situation faced by the island’s opposition, assaulted by repression and limited by laws that penalize any form of organized dissidence.

Under the leadership of José Daniel Ferrer, UNPACU was born in 2011, after the release of the last prisoners of the Black Spring of 2003. Ferrar says that his experience within the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) proved to be momentous in shaping his political development.

Ferrer described the situation of the last year as “much more repressive” than the organization had experienced since its founding. Speaking to 14ymedio, Ferrer said that his greatest achievement in this new scenario has been “surviving” and finding “new actions and strategies to maintain a close bond with the community.” continue reading

Ferrer believes that UNPACU and its activists are the definition of “courage and service.” In the current political context, some dissident groups barely survive for a few months and others go through ups and downs. “They courageously face tyranny and serve the people, especially those most in need,” he said.

Ferrer described the situation of the last year as “much more repressive” than the organization had experienced since its founding

The leader of the organization explained that since the beginning of August they have undertaken activities to celebrate the founding of the opposition organization, “despite the increase of repression.”

“We have been moving our activists to different places in activities that have developed in a wifi zone, a river, a baseball or soccer camp.”

Ferrer denounced a police operation on Thursday that surrounded the organization’s headquarters in Santiago de Cuba.

“The operation coincided with the day UNPACU’s activist get together. Everyone who enters or leaves is searched or detained,” he said.

Carlos Amel Oliva Torres, youth leader of that organization, stressed that to its credit the organization has “not ceased activism in the streets,” but agreed with Ferrer that it has become more difficult because in the past year they have faced “more prisoners and more repression.”

Regarding the arrests, he said that they may have diminished, but that this is not due to “a better situation in the country” but to the fact that “many leaders are already in prison.”

UNPACU has spread all over the island and has more than 3,000 members, according to its leaders

UNPACU has spread all over the island and has more than 3,000 members, according to its leaders. In Havana, the provincial coordinator, Zaqueo Báez, has breathed new life into the movement, Oliva said.

Baez’s face appeared on the front pages of the media when, during the Pope’s Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution last September, he and other colleagues approached the bishop of Rome and called for the release of political prisoners.

UNPACU has a very dynamic YouTube channel where it shares material to publicize its community work and the opinions of the people of the street.

In a recent video, a resident of El Cristo neighborhood called for “greater support” for the organization because “any group that seeks freedom and the rights of any man is what represents the common good for this country.”

According to Oliva Torres, UNPACU continues “with social assistance” despite having been heavily attacked. He recalled that months ago the government “raided and closed a children’s nursery” run by the organization.

“We continue despite the fact that the regime has often predicted the end of UNPACU, today we are still here with the same willingness of the first day, assuming all the risks and consequences,” said the activist via telephone from Santiago de Cuba.

Music Everywhere He Goes

Raymel Casamayor takes musical walks through Havana, sharing musical genres rarely heard these days. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 8 August 2017 — Every Sunday, Raymel Casamayor meets with several friends in Havana’s Maceo Park and, together, they go for a walk through the nearby streets with a speaker connected by bluetooth to a mobile phone through which all kinds of Cuban rhythms are heard, beyond the rumba and reggaetón that dominate the area.

His musical walks have become the ReConstrucción project, which has been running for more than five months and aims to make sounds that have been overtaken by other, more popular ones, accessible to the public. “People have not had access to other rhythms. They have not had a way to gather and save other music; every day a new one begins and the others are left behind,” he says.

Casamayor offers a break from the monotonous reggaetón. (14ymedio)

The idea occurred to Casamayor, a sound technician, when he started living in Central Havana and noticed that many people did the same thing but with another type of music. He says that they first lent him a speaker and he started going out into the street with a friend, playing other rhythms to see what would happen. continue reading

“We played Cuban music, Benny Moré, la Sonora Matancera … I really thought people were going to throw eggs at us, but it was the opposite,” he says.

Samba, chachacha, rumba, something from Nueva Trova, boleros and even a merengue are among the musical genres Casamayor plays. (14ymedio)

“Every Sunday we are in Maceo Park and when, sometimes, I have to travel to another province, I do it there,” he says.

In Santa Clara he has undertaken his musical walks through the neighborhood of El Condado and has also passed through Holguín, where he sampled his playlist in Gibara, during the celebration of the film festival last April.

Because of the heat, the members of ReConstrucción pass out hats among those who come to listen. (14ymedio)

Casamayor breaks with the monotonous reggaetón just before five in the afternoon on Belascoaín and San Lázaro streets and begins to link a samba, with a son, with a cha cha cha, a rumba, something of the New Trova, boleros and even a meringue

The heat of the implacable Cuban August has led him to change the start time of the show. “Before we left early, about four o’clock, but now with this sun we are leaving at five,” and he passes out hats among those who approach to listen to the soundtrack of Casamayor.

As they turn into Laguna Street, at the back of the Ameijeiras Hospital, some neighbors recognize Casamayor and stop to dance. (14ymedio)

Some of his listeners make requests. “Last Sunday a man asked me to copy a selection of songs on a flash memory and I bring it here, I give them the song they like and it’s good because later they remember it,” he says.

As they turn into Laguna Street, behind Ameijeiras Hospital, some neighbors recognize Casamayor and stop to dance. In a few minutes the block heats up, those who weren’t there come as they spread the word. In a small walker, a baby leaps to the rhythm of a son while his mother also wiggles her hips.

Some young people join the group to ask for music by Yasek Manzano. “We’ll have it next week,” the ReConstruction members promise. (14ymedio)

Ada Maria, 64, comes to a halt when she hears Van Van’s The Tired Ox, and invites her little granddaughter to dance while telling her that this was the music she danced to at parties with her friends when she was young.

“Kids and parents love that we do this because there are very few places to take the kids this summer,” she says.

Some young people join the group to ask for music by Yasek Manzano and the friends of ReConstrucción tell him that, although they do not have any pieces by the jazzman, they will look for it. “We’ll have it next week,” they promise.

Children playing in an wading pool to beat the heat. (14ymedio)

At the corner of Calle Escobar and Concordia, in a plastic wading pool at the edge of the street, several sweating children are cooling off. They receive Raymel with such excitement that he himself gets soaked, but the undamaged speaker continues to spread music to the four winds.

They Lost their Homes and Freedom Because of ‘Maria’

The life of Yuris Gabir Garrote Rodríguez was turned upside down when he was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2015 for carrying a cigarette with 0.38 grams of marijuana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 22 July 2017 — The future could only bring good things. His son grew up and his passion for photography allowed him to rub shoulders with numerous artists. But the life of Yuris Gabri Garrote Rodriguez was turned upside down in 2015 when he was sentenced to ten years in prison for carrying a cigarette with 0.38 grams of marijuana. The strict Cuban legal system destroyed all his projects.

The incessant controls and an inflexible penal code make the island one of the places in the world where drug possession and trafficking are judged with greatest severity. Cuba also ranks sixth in terms of number of prisoners per inhabitant, with an estimated 60,000 people living behind bars in the country. continue reading

Garrote was very unlucky, say friends and family. He had already had problems several years earlier when police found in his house two issues of the magazine Cannabis, a Spanish publication dedicated to the culture of cannabis. They also confiscated a poster with the drawing of a leaf of the plant that adorned his bedroom with its defiant silhouette.

Not a single gram of weed was found during the search, but he was tried because he was “acquiring enough culture about marijuana to successfully engage in” a business, according to court records. His detention occurred in the middle of the so-called Operation Coraza, a turn of the screw against “illegalities” that allowed the courts to apply exemplary sentences.

In Cuba the law tends to be as flexible as circumstances and power require. The independent lawyer Amado Calixto Gammalame, member of the Legal Association of Cuba, recognizes this. “The judicial treatment given to each person can be a bit capricious.”

For decades, the fight against marijuana has also been an ideological issue and official propaganda described republican Cuba as a place where vices such as prostitution, gambling and drug addiction proliferated. Maria, as many on the Island call cannabis, was a symbol of capitalist decadence.

This battle with political visions has remained to this day, despite the fact that other Latin American countries, such as Ecuador and Paraguay, have decriminalized its use in public spaces for personal consumption, although without fully liberalizing it.

If Cuba is the extreme of intransigence on the continent, on the other end is Uruguay which, after the definitive legalization of marijuana sales and production in December 2013, this month began to market small envelopes of 40 grams in more than a dozen pharmacies.

This decision has not done the government of the island any favors. Recently the authorities affirmed that the liberalization of cannabis in some countries of the region is nourishing the drug traffic.

The secretary of the National Drug Commission of Cuba, Antonio Israel Ibarra, said that so far this year they have seized three times the drug that was confiscated in the same period of 2016. For those who expected a relaxation, the official delivered a strong phrase: “We have not legalized it (marijuana), nor will we legalize it.”

This statement is in line with comments by Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held in Chile in 2013, when he remarked that on the island the drug would be fought “with blood and fire.”

Tourist guides warn that the island “is not a good place to smoke a joint” and murderers and rapists live in prison alongside inmates convicted of carrying a few grams of cannabis in their pockets. The “stain” of this criminal record on the history of anyone is a serious stigma when it comes to seeking employment.

Despite the severe punishments and controls, the consumption of the herb has not been eradicated. Marijuana has become common in the festivals of artists, successful entrepreneurs and the ruling class itself. But few of them dare to cry out in public for its decriminalization, for fear of being considered criminals.

A good part of the weed arrives aboard ships that land in the coasts. Its cultivation is also a juicy business for those who dare to plant the elongated herb, especially in the eastern part of the island.

In September of 2013 the young musician Roberto Carcassés improvised controversial verses in the middle of an official act: “I want to free the Five Heroes, and free Maria. Free access to information, to have my own opinion,” he sang in an unforgettable chorus whose reference to marijuana was clear.

Two years after that rhyme, the penal code remained just as tight and Yuris Gabir Garrote Rodríguez returned to jail.

For Iraiz Piña Gutiérrez, a 64-year-old from Holguin, the punishment was not just to be incarcerated for six years. The court also ordered the seizure of her home, a penalty that applies to anyone who “produces, traffics, purchases, stores or consumes” illicit drugs.

In a search in her house the police found ten chocolates “stuffed with marijuana,” says the former prisoner.

Aged and with only the clothes she wore, Piña left the prison after serving her sentence but still seeks justice for a case she considers “fabricated” against her. She has traveled to countless state agencies to get them to give her back her house and her “reputation,” but few want to hear or help a “marihuanera”, she tells 14ymedio.

For Lorenzo, a resident of Timba who prefers to change his name to tell his story, the feeling of helplessness will not let him sleep. He lost the house he inherited from his father because his brother kept several pots of marijuana in a room that was under the same roof that had, for years, a separate entrance.

“We did not get along and split the apartment so that everyone had their share,” he explains. Lorenzo had a thriving cafe but it all ended when a police raid found his brother’s little plants. After submitting several complaints, he has been told that the confiscation of the property is an “unappealable” decision because “that’s how it is with marijuana, there is no middle ground,” ​​a lawyer said.