Substituting Yam, Yucca, and Cuban Ingenuity for Flour

Caption: Rationed bread sold in the neighborhood of Cojímar, east Havana. (Iliana Hernández)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 January 2019 — The old recipes from the Special Period are back in fashion. The lack of flour has led state-owned bakeries to turn to yams, private confectioners opt for recipes with yucca, and more than one family invents some substitute in order to have breakfast.

The shortage of flour has worsened in the last two months despite official promises of a prompt improvement. Cubans have become imbued with the spirit of Nitza Villapol, a well-known chef who, in the 90s, had to improvise dozens of dishes with few resources in front of the cameras of national television.

“For the end of the year we would like to make a panetela (cake) topped with meringue, but we have neither flour nor eggs, so we prefer some yucca buñuelos (fritters),” Silvia Domínguez, a Havana woman of 62 who fears that “the hard years” have returned, tells 14ymedio. The recipe for the dessert that the family finally made took an egg, at least, although they had to add a bit of vinegar with baking soda so that “it would be perfect.” continue reading

Croquettes have been one of the classic appetizers in the New Year’s Eve dinner of the Domínguez family, but this year they had to change the flour base for a puree of instant potatoes that they received from an emigrant relative. “When we don’t have it, we have to invent, and in the end we had a nice time at the celebration, but it’s very tiring having to do this every day,” she laments.

The national recipe book of recent decades has been marked by necesssity and it’s habitual that every Cuban knows how to fry an egg without oil, reach the consistency of a flan with half the eggs, or color a yellow rice with multivitamins bought at state-owned pharmacies. But in the case of flour, an ingredient included in many recipes, substitution is more difficult.

Leticia Romero doesn’t like the bread sold on the ration book and prefers to buy it in private bakeries in her neighborhood of Vedado or from unrationed sales at State-owned places, but since November both options have been difficult to find and this 56-year-old woman, who lives with her mother and her sister, has had to settle for the rationed product.

“When they first put it out for sale in the morning there are enormous lines and it’s a lot of work for me to stand in line, because I have to run to get to work,” laments Romero. Two months ago she always bought bread in the afternoons, when she was returning home, but now it’s impossible. “At that time the bakery is a desert and there’s nothing,” she explains to this newspaper.

After experiencing a severe crisis in bread sales at the national level in November and December, Havana has slightly recuperated production of this product in the bakeries of the rationed market and in those of the Cuban Bread Chain it’s possible to buy it at limited hours, although the supply is still not stable and the shortage of flours in stores persists.

In many of the bakery and confectionary businesses of the private sector in the capital, what’s available for sale has diminished. Outside one of them, close to Avenida 26, a customer says that now the only thing there is sweet and salty cookies. “Bread goes fast, those who have private cafes or restaurants take it by the box,” she insists.

In the province of Santiago de Cuba the supply of sweets and breads also improved during the past week, especially the unrationed sale. The government took great pains to improve the supply in the city where the principal ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution was held. Now, Santiago residents, who also complain of the quality of the rationed product, fear that with the festivities over the supply will collapse.

Katherine Mojena, resident of the Altamira neighborhood, says that the rationed bread has a dark color and a bad flavor. “Those who know say that it’s made of flour from yams. The unrationed bread is not like that. At least not in the most central bakeries. There are almost never bread rolls which are the cheapest. The bread they do have is 3.50 CUP, which is bread with a hard crust, oval-shaped, which here for years we have called ’special’ bread. In convertible pesos there are some wonderful bread rolls: white, soft, a delicious flavor, and an excellent quality.”

In the bakery of Antilla, in the province of Holguín, a sign placed on the door reads: “There is no flour, Happy 2019.” Roberto Santana, a resident of the municipality who shared the image on social media, condemned the situation. “What happiness can there be in a town when the only bakery that sells unrationed bread puts up a sign like this at the beginning of the year? I don’t know whether to call it ignorance or blackmail of the people.”

“If the Government doesn’t pay providers and if they don’t lack bread on their tables, what do you call it? Surely it’s not social equality. This, my friends, is not socialism. There is no happiness without food,” added Santana.

An employee of the bakery, tired of having to give the same answer again and again to customers, explained this Friday via telephone to 14ymedio that the place is not offering any products because it lacks raw material. “Maybe it will come later,” she suggests.

Heriberto Núñez, a candy maker who distributes his merchandise in the municipality San Miguel del Padrón from an old Soviet-era bicycle, resists stopping his business because of the lack of flour. “I’m getting old bread from a state-owned canteen and I process it to make pudding,” he says. “I only need some grated lemon rind, powdered milk, and sugar to make a tasty product.” He doesn’t add eggs “because there aren’t any, not even in spiritual centers.”

Núñez assures that he has a long experience of substituting ingredients. “I worked many years selling tomato sauce the least of which was tomato, because I made it with beets, yams, and coloring,” he remembers. “I’m practiced in this, but if we also lose the old bread, then I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

In the plastic box he carries attached to his bicycle, this Wednesday he was transporting caramel coconut balls, peanut nougat, and yucca fritters. “Nothing with flour, and much less puff pastry sweets, which need quality ingredients. This is the time for sweets in syrup or sugared fruits, but for filled pastries we will have to wait.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Despite its Shortcomings and High Cost, Cubans Celebrate the Arrival of Internet to Cellphones

On December 6 the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) enabled web browsing on cellphones. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 6 January 2019 — A month into Cubans’ ability to connect to the internet from their cellphones, users are complaining of the high prices of the service and the shortcomings of the 3G but, at the same time, many appreciate the advantage of being able to connect from anywhere.

On December 6 the Telecommunications Company of Cuba enabled web browsing on cellphones. However, a considerable number did not get the capacity because of the incompatibility of their devices, lack of 3G coverage, or the high cost of the packages.

Yordanys Labrada, resident of Songo La Maya, is one of those to whom the technology dealt a raw deal. With a very modern phone, made in 2018, this young Santiago native laments that the device cannot connect at the frequency of 900 Mhz, that chosen by Etecsa for sending and receiving web data. “My phone works in 2, 3, and 4G, but with the problem of the frequency I can’t do anything,” he explains to 14ymedio. continue reading

Now, to connect, Labrada has to keep visiting the wifi zones that began to be installed in plazas and parks all over the Island beginning in 2015. One of the most evident signs that internet has come to mobile phones is, precisely, the lack of crowding in these areas, traditionally full of customers wanting to check the worldwide web.

On La Rampa in Havana the number of internet users has decreased in the past month. “Even though it can be a lot more expensive connecting on mobile versus on wifi, people really value being able to do it in the peace and privacy of their home,” believes Jean Carlos, a young man of 21 who says that since the beginning of the service for cellphones he has used two packages of 2.5 gigabytes, for a total of 40 CUC, the equivalent of an engineer’s monthly salary.

Browsing on cellphones is sold through data packages and its price goes from 7 CUC for 600 megabytes up to 30 CUC for 4 gigabytes. Jean Carlos can afford those expenses because he works as a ’mule’ bringing merchandise to the Island. “Via email and WhatsApp buyers tell me what they want me to bring them.” His informal business depends on being connected the majority of the time.

For Lorena Rodríguez the view is very different. The high school student describes the price as “still very expensive” and she became sad when the first package of 1GB that she purchased ran out in two days in which she only used Imo, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Others lament that there are areas of bad or no coverage. Yusef Hernández complained on Twitter because in Cárdenas (in Matanzas province) the connection “is very bad and it’s a lot of work to access the internet.”

Something similar happens on Calle 14 near the centrally located Avenida 23, in Havana, where the residents insist they are in a “zone of silence.” Some of them have commented ironically on social media about the nearness of the cemetery and the “dead spot” of connectivity in which they live.

Other criticisms arise from the ineffectiveness of the additional voucher for 300 megabytes which allows users to browse only on domestic sites, and comes with the purchase of any package. Technical difficulties and little interest in visiting these websites, all in the hands of the government, mean that the option has not had a great popularity according to what this newspaper was able to confirm after investigating among numerous customers.

“I’m still using the principal data package even when I visit a .cu website,” complained a reader of the official newspaper Granma. The response he received from Etecsa officials boils down to the fact that, even though Cuban pages are housed on domestic servers, they have elements or modules inserted that come from foreign services.

“The majority of the people I know don’t use this service to visit any domestic website, but rather to interact on social media and look up information from other independent or foreign media,” 14ymedio is told by a young man who has found a business gold mine in configuring Access Point Names (APN) in mobile phones.

“The customers who come also want me to set up their Facebook accounts, help them understand how messaging or chat services work, or install some application to control data use,” says the computer specialist, who has a small mobile phone repair place on Calle San Lázaro in Havana.

“Mainly older people come because young people know how to do all this on their own,” he explains. “Now with internet on cellphones, many people over the age of 50, who before lived with their backs turned to new technologies, have realized that they need to learn in order to communicate with their children or with other family members abroad.”

In the first week Etecsa recorded “up to 145,000 simultaneous data connections from the mobile network.” Although there have not been new updates of those figures, on social media a larger volume of posts coming from the Island is noted, as well as a greater immediacy in response or interaction times.

In the last three weeks almost all of the ministers and members of the Council of State have opened Twitter accounts after the head of the Government did so. But the officials still seem awkward on social media and merely repeat slogans or retweet news from official media.

The arrival of internet service has coincided with a worsening in shortages of basic products, like flour and eggs. From their cellphones internet users have discovered that they could denounce the absence or poor quality of rationed bread and show the empty shelves in stores.

The referendum on the new Constitution, on February 24, is also material for the Net. The government has determinedly thrown itself into promoting the vote for “Yes” on all its digital sites and on the social media accounts of its officials. The supporters of the “No” vote and of abstention have done likewise, lacking access to mass media within the Island.

The ideological battle experiences moments of commotion on the internet and connections from mobile phones seem to have contributed to heating up the debate.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

"The Fight Against Decree 349 Will Continue," Insists Amaury Pacheco After Being Released

Group of artists who promote the campaign against Decree 349. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 5 December 2018 — On Wednesday, around eight-thirty in the evening, Yanelys Núñez and Luis Manuel Otero were released, according to what they told 14ymedio when they left the Vivac de Calabazar Detention Center after protesting Decree 349.

“First we were in the eleventh unit of the San Miguel de Padrón police station, there we spent Monday night and on Tuesday they took us to Vivac (the State Security detention center), and when we arrived they did not want to accept us because Luis was on-strike and they returned us to the unit but in the night they accepted us (at Vivac) and we stayed there until they let us go. During the interrogations they told us that if we protested again in front of the Ministry of Culture they would accuse us of illegal association and demonstrating without permission.”

Núñez explained that Luis Manuel Otero, after leaving prison after more than 48 hours on hunger and thirst strike, had taken a soda. continue reading

On the other hand, on the night of Tuesday, the artists Amaury Pacheco and the producer Michel Matos were released, according to Pacheco himself, speaking to14ymedio after being released

Both were detained in the midst of a repressive wave by State Security against a peaceful sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture (Mincuult) headquarters as a part of the campaign against Decree 349. Pacheco explained that his hunger strike will be maintained “as long as any artist is in prison” and he will return this morning to the Ministry of Culture if Yanelys Núñez and Luis Manuel Otero are not released during the night.

Pacheco said that when he arrived at the Ministry of Culture on November 3, both he and Matos were detained and that they spent most of their time in the police unit of the municipality of Regla. “Michel was taken first to Guanabacoa but then they brought him to the same jail where I was in Regla, there they interrogated us and told me that if I went back to Mincult I would be imprisoned for one to three years,” he said.

This newspaper was also able to speak with artist Tania Bruguera after she was released on Tuesday night after her third arrest, including her first arrest at the beginning of the protest. “They held me from nine in the morning until nine at night but they did not take me to a unit, they left me inside the car until three thirty in the afternoon at La Puntilla and then they took me to a house that is beyond Lenin Park, by way of Calvario,” explained the artist.

She says that at every moment the agents told her they would take her home but when she expressed her desire to return to the Ministry of Culture, that proposal was postponed until finally at nine o’clock in the evening they left her at the door of her house. During the detention in the house where the artist was taken, they offered her water and food, even though she had told her captors that she was on a hunger and thirst strike.

“They took me to a room with a table covered with food, I told them I was not going to eat, then they gave me a cold water bottle but I told him to keep it and later they also offered me ice cream but I also refused,” says the renowned artist.

“You know how I react when someone is imprisoned because it happened in 2014, I will talk with no problems when no one is being held prisoner,” Bruguera told the agent.

The musician Sandor Pérez Pita, from the reggae group Estudiantes sin Semilla (Students without Seed), was also released in the afternoon.

The artist Amaury Pacheco had affirmed that he maintained his hunger and thirst strike until they released the rest of the artists and that “the fight against Decree 349 continues.” In a video posted on his social networks he said this entire battle is being fought “for art, for freedom of expression.”

In conversation with 14ymedio, Tania Bruguera said that the intention was to return on Thursday to the Ministry of Culture to demand again the release of Yanelys Núñez Leyva and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara to establish a dialogue with the institution and to ask for a response.

Artists from several countries have mobilized since Tuesday in favor of the release of the group of artists who oppose Decree 349. The director of the Tate Modern gallery in London, Frances Morris, expressed on Twitter that these arrests clearly illustrate the threats many artists around the world are facing.

Also this Wednesday afternoon a public session was held in the Turbine Hall to say “No to Decree 349” and provide support to detainees through an open microphone to those who wish to participate.

The Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor of the US State Department wrote on its Twitter account that “the Government of Cuba continues to criminalize freedom of expression while besieging artists and journalists to discourage protests against Decree 349.”

Meanwhile, Silvio Rodríguez wrote a comment on the blog Segunda Cita that “Decree 349 may have very good intentions but I’m sure it would be better if it were discussed with the artists.” He added that “it was something cooked up among the few” and that in his opinion “a disposition of this scopes must have a more democratic origin, and a purpose.”

“Perhaps there should be a moratorium on the decree, until an acceptable modification is discussed and resolved, and I do not know whether I will be able to work abroad as I have been doing, starting next year. I began to work on my own in the face of the very inefficient state contracting and coordination mechanisms,” the troubadour wrote.

Deborah Bruguera, Tania’s sister, wrote: “While on the phone with Tania Bruguera, Lt. Col. Kenia took her in a car, right at the corner of the MINCULT.” The artist sent a public statement “of the artists who have called for the sit-in at the Ministry of Culture of Cuba,” that her sister shared on social networks.

We reproduce the text in its entirety:

We have decided to make a call to sit peacefully and respectfully to camp, meditate, read poetry, dance, paint or perform any artistic activity in front of the Ministry of Culture because:

1: The artists of all the demonstrations, have carried them out in an organized way and through institutional channels to request the repeal of Decree 349 and its subsequent drafting with the assistance of the artists.

2: Even though these groups have met with leaders of the Ministry of Culture, the promises that they have made to respond have not been met and, failing that, a technical article was published in the Granma newspaper on November 30, justifying the validity of the current Decree 349, along with a bombardment on national television of programs with explanations in favor of 349 in its current format. This seems indicative to us that Decree 349 will not be repealed because this seems to be an action with the purpose of setting the population against our demands.

3: [The government] has commented that regulations and corrective rules will be made for the implementation of Decree 349. This seems insufficient because, given that the Decree has serious errors of representation and puts artists in a state of vulnerability, by criminalizing them and their works, we do not believe that it is appropriate to proceed with how to implement the Decree, if not the Decree itself.

4: December 7th is approaching, the date on which Decree Law 349 will become effective. We are asking for a meeting open to all with the Minister of Culture to inform us what has been the result of the meetings held with the artists and what will happen with Decree 349.

We want to receive from the Ministry of Culture the same respect towards us that we have had towards them. We will continue presenting ourselves to the Ministry of Culture to ask for our right to a response and open meeting with all the artists.

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

Young Woman Denounces State Bus Driver for Racist Insult

Gelaisy Cantero de los Santos filed a complaint against the driver of a state-run bus in Havana who insulted her with a phrase with racist connotations. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 22 December 2018 — Gelaisy Cantero de los Santos, a young woman of 31, filed a complaint Thursday against the driver of a state-run bus in Havana who insulted her with a phrase with racist connotations, she herself reported to 14ymedio.

Cantero, who has a degree in Physical Culture and Sports, believes that she was the victim of discriminatory offenses when, on Wednesday afternoon, while traveling on the P5 route from the Playa municipality to the Vedado neighborhood, the bus driver repeatedly shouted at her “Shut up, monkey!” continue reading

According to the young woman, when she got on the bus she noticed that the lady ahead of her had a 50 CUP note in her hand, a high amount for a fare that costs 0.40 CUP. Cantero offered to pay for both their fares with 1 CUP (roughly 4¢ US) and thus avoid the cumbersome process of currency exchange.

However, the driver did not accept the offer and when the young woman insisted on helping the other passenger, the man shouted “Shut up, monkey!” Stonecutter claims to have been “perplexed” by the insult. “I did not enter into a debate because I thought there had to be some way to denounce and make public this offense.”

The driver continued insulting the young woman, calling her names such as “stupid, busybody, illiterate,” before the astonishment and inaction of most of the passengers in the bus. The state employee also reproached her for using the public bus and not taking a taxi.

Cantero took a photo of the aggressor, an image that has been included in the legal complaint that she has just presented. “I turned to a group that defends the rights of women and the LGBTI community, as well as fighting against violence against women and racism.” The Afro-Cuban Alliance assisted her in presenting her claim to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Provincial Department of Transportation, in addition to a complaint to the National Revolutionary Police (PNR).

The Office of the Prosecutor will evaluate the case and, within a period that expires on January 15, Cantero will have an answer on the next steps that must be followed. Meanwhile, the Provincial Department of Transportation can take up to 60 days to analyze what happened and determine a penalty against the employee.

This Friday Cantero visited the facility the P5 operates from and met with the directors and the aggressor. The employee admitted what happened and apologized, but the young woman has decided to continue with the complaint because she considers that her case is not an isolated incident.

“Racism exists,” she stresses. In any place or institution “we are attacked all the time, out of racism, attacks against an adult person, against women, homosexuals, it is a constant aggression.”

“The driver made a mistake because I’m not going to shut up, I’ll take it as far as it goes, for me and for people to realize that they have the right to complain,” the woman concludes.

In July of last year, a private transporter was denounced by law student Yanay Aguirre Calderín after the man told her that “every time a black person rides in my car it’s the same” and that’s why he could not stand them.

In an unprecedented journalistic gesture, the case reached the official media. After the accusation of the young woman the man faced a complaint for the Offense Against the Right of Equality, established in article 295 of the Penal Code.

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

Cuba Only Has Enough Flour for the Rationed Bread

Line to buy regulated bread that is being sold by rationing. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, December 11, 2018 — The breakdown of mills and the lack of cash flow that Cuba is experiencing have combined to exacerbate the shortage of flour, as was confirmed this Monday by the Minister of the Food Industry, Iris Quiñones Rojas. The small amount of the product that remains on the Island is destined “practically only to guarantee bread for the regulated family basket.”

The head of the sector participated in the Roundtable TV program in a context of growing complaints from consumers and private businesses about the lack of the product in the network of stores all over the Island. Since a few weeks ago the lack of flour has worsened and many products that include this ingredient have stopped being sold.

Quiñones attributed the absence of this raw material to the poor state of the mills meant to process wheat on the Island and explained that since the beginning of the year “the country had to use financial resources that hadn’t been anticipated in the plan in order to import 30,000 tons of flour,” due to a failure to fulfill 70,000 tons from the national plan. continue reading

Until now, the only repair parts that have arrived on the Island have been those for the mill in Santiago de Cuba, whose maintenance work is being done without halting the industry to avoid worse harm. However, the Santiago mill doesn’t have the capacity to supply the entire eastern zone of the country and needs the support of the one in Cienfuegos, which is greatly deteriorated and still hasn’t received its spare parts.

Quiñones recognized that recent days have seen “the most tense moments of the entire year when it comes to the supply” of this ingredient, a situation that has forced business to paralyze a group of other productions, especially in the Cuban Bread Chain, which supplies state-owned stores with sweets and breads to be freely attainable all over the country.

Since the beginning of November flour hasn’t been sold in the country’s stores and it has been difficult to buy, in the state-controlled sector as well as in the private, products like bread, cookies, or sweets. The shortage has shot up prices of flour on the informal market, where it rose from 5 CUP (Cuban pesos) to 25 CUP per pound in the last month. Even so, it’s difficult to find.

This weekend various private business establishments that sell bread were displaying a sign saying “There is no bread” on their counters.

The owner of a private bakery on Calle Tulipán, in Nuevo Vedado, was explaining to her customers this Sunday that it would be the last day of the year that she would open to the public until waiting to see if things got better in January.

The self-employed women explains that she has received almost nothing for the past few weeks and that none of her suppliers “wants to risk himself” by making bread, sweets, or cookies even if they have a reserve of flour because the inspectors “are following them” to see where they got it from.

“They told me that a bag of flour is at a thousand pesos right now on the street,” she says. But in addition to the risk that one assumes to get the product in an illegal manner, she maintains that “it doesn’t support the business… I’m closing and that’s it, because selling meringues and candies, all that brings is loss,” insists the woman while she closes with a padlock the grille of the establishment before leaving.

The cry of a bread vendor in the San Leopoldo neighborhood in Havana used to be heard every afternoon, until a few days ago many private businesses that work with flour have closed up due to the scarcity of the raw material. Those who have managed to keep selling have fewer products and the fear that their reserves will run out before the end of the year, according to testimonies gathered by 14ymedio.

Lorent, a private pizzeria in La Timba, closed due to the lack of flour and now for repairs. (14ymedio)

In La Timba, a low-income area very close to the Plaza of the Revolution, the pizzeria Loren has been closed for three weeks because of the lack of flour. The owners have taken advantage of it to do some repairs in the place and paint the facade, but worries over the future of the business is souring the close of 2018 for them.

Various private restaurants with a menu based on Italian dishes, especially pizza, cannelloni, and lasagna, have also reduced their offerings. The biggest and busiest are still open, but their owners can’t be sure how much longer they will be able to remain open.

In the Havana restaurant Ring Pizza del Vedado they have opted to not offer cannelloni because they prefer to use the flour they have left for making pizzas, which “has a bigger market,” as an employee explained to this newspaper.

Minister Quiñones predicted that the situation would start to improve before the end of the year. “We are working intensely, all the personnel of the milling industry and of the business group, to make sure that normalcy returns,” she pointed out this Monday.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Cuban Chess Masters Criticize the Precarious Situation of the Sport on the Island

The sports authorities attribute the poor results of Cuban chess to the departures from this sport on the island like that of Lázaro Bruzón’s . (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Miami, 20 November 2018 — The wave of disagreements between the best Cuban chess players and sports authorities never ceases. After the declarations of Lázaro Bruzón last September against the authorities of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (Inder) for their exclusion from the national preselection process for refusing to return to Cuba, now the protests against this institution come from the pen of Yuniesky Quesada and Alejandro Yanes. Both chess players have published in social networks the complaints and wishes of their guild on the island.

This past November 13, Quesada, an International Grand Master (GM), published a comment  on his Facebook wall criticizing the chess authorities on the island, which received great support among the chess players. The sportsman recounted that in the years he represented Cuba, he did not feel valued by Inder or by the National Chess Commission. “In addition to injustices perpetrated against me throughout my career, even while being ranked as the third best player in the country since 2008, I have felt unmotivated in the last few years,” confessed Quesada. continue reading

At the beginning of this month another chess player, Alejandro Yanes, a Master of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), wrote on his Facebook wall a list of nine points that summarized, in his opinion, the complaints of Cuban chess players and their possible solutions. According to Yanes, he developed the document after “long hours of talking with players both in Cuba as well as those residing abroad” while also relying on his personal experience.

The sportsman, 34, invited his colleagues to contribute to the text with the aim of achieving “awareness of the grave condition” of chess on the island. After the publication of the note, the recent scandals and the declarations of Bruzón, for Yanes now “the ball” is in the court of the sports authorities and “they can no longer state that they are unaware of the current situation”.

Yanes calls for the authorities that represent the players “to demand access to the Internet from the central agencies of the State” because he believes that in the current context “there can’t be a chess player that can reach elite status” without this tool.

In addition, he requests “making public and transparent” the regulations and classification clauses for tournaments that affect chess players so that they aren’t changed annually “depending on the person who they wish to benefit or harm”. In a similar vein, he demanded transparency in the “budget dedicated to chess by the central body of the State”, claiming that they have the right to know “how it is invested.”

Among the nine written points, Yanes asks the Cuban Chess Federation that every athlete who is a member of this entity has the right “to play for their country in Cuban and foreign events” and that the organization has the obligation to reclaim their titles before the FIDE, even if they are overseas. He also demands the authorities not give priority in any tournament held on the island “to a chess player or foreign official to the detriment of the national athletes”.

“It would be good to supervise the Capablanca Tournaments where many foreigners receive lodgings from the state budget, while many Cuban International Masters get neither accommodation nor lodging,” he denounced, in accordance with his own experiences. He also pointed out irregularities when delivering the prizes of the event. “While foreign chess players are paid in cash at the end of the contest, Cubans are paid years later,” he commented.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Federation and the National Chess Commission look the other way. According to a document published by Alejandro Yanes on Monday, the authorities blame the bad results in the last Chess Olympiad on the “loss” of those “key athletes” who guarantee the highest level of play in this type of competition. The solution proposed by these authorities is to give “priority to ideological political work” and to the “formation of values”.

The latest results of Cuban chess in international events have been described by experts as the worst in decades. In the Olympiad, which took place last month in Batumi (Georgia), the men’s team finished in 61st place, their worst showing ever, while the women’s team finished in 27th place.

The precarious situation of chess on the island is causing the flight of Cuban chess players. Both Bruzón and Quesada today form part of the roster of the Webster University chess team, in the United States, and were already selected to play during the 2018-2019 season.

“Now I feel that I can continue improving my chess. Here at the university we have a very strong team and there is a lot of professionalism in the training which helps to increase the level of chess. I also have aspirations to make it a career”, Quesada said on the social network.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

Dozens of Cubans Who Protested at UN Headquarters Detained in Trinidad and Tobago

According to Bárbara Enríquez, a member of the protest, some 80 Cubans have been arrested, including her. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Miami, November 16, 2018 — A group of Cubans who had protested for days at the UN offices in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, were arrested by the authorities of that country on Friday, the police of the Caribbean island confirmed to 14ymedio. The migrants were unhappy with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after the agency withdrew monthly financial aid in October.

The migrants were arrested after a meeting yesterday afternoon, during which a UNHCR representative warned them that, if they did not abandon the protest so that their asylum requests could be processed, “they would be detained,” Yaquelin Vera  Morfa, one of the migrants arrested, told this newspaper today. continue reading

A worker who collaborates with UNHCR, and who prefers to remain anonymous, explained that the arrests took place at around six in the morning. “They are detained at a police precinct called Belmont,” she explained. According to Barbara Enríquez, one of the women arrested who was able to get in touch by telephone with this newspaper from the police station, some 70 Cubans are with her.

A part of the group of Cubans, who this Tuesday had used plastic bags to tie themselves to the fence of the UN compound in the capital in order to request a meeting with UNHCR officials to discuss their asylum requests, were interviewed this Thursday by the organization.

In that meeting, which took place in a courtyard near the Venezuelan embassy, the UNHCR representative “did not want to discuss any issues” with the 15 representatives of the more than a hundred Cubans who are protesting their situation, according to Vera Morfa, and he also told them that the agency’s office was going to be closed for the next two months.

The police have assured that all the Cubans are well and, although they have not provided more details, Bárbara Enríquez has commented that until now the treatment “has been good.” 14ymedio has tried to repeatedly contact, without success, the responsible parties from UNHCR to learn their version of what happened.

The migrants began the protest two weeks ago after UNHCR decided in October to withdraw the economic aid that they received monthly and that allowed many to pay rent for a place to live, said Vera Morfa.

Last Tuesday, the day the migrants tied themselves up at the UNHCR headquarters, the government of Trinidad and Tobago described the situation of the Cubans in that country as “very complex.” The Caribbean nation does not have legislation with respect to refugee matters and asylum claims, although it is a signatory to the Convention on the Status of Refugees. This prevents these Cuban migrants from working legally, having a bank account or obtaining a driver’s license, among other difficulties.

“Everything has been very hard here, from the first moment I arrived in this country and I realized that there was no legislation for refugees it was a blow, now I have refugee status from UNHCR but knowing that there is no legislation here they took back the aid and left me with nothing. It’s been a month already that we haven’t gotten it. Because of not having that money, many of us were unable to pay the rent and that’s why we’re here,” lamented Vera.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

Cuban Customs Confiscates Opposition T-Shirts at Havana Airport

T-shirts against Decree 349 seized by Cuban Customs at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, November 6, 2018 — The campaign against Decree 349, an article in the the proposed new Cuban constitution which includes strict rules on artistic expression in public spaces, has collided with Cuban customs restrictions. Upon her return to the island, artist and activist Yanelys Nuñez reported on social media that customs officials at José Martí International Airport  had confiscated eight T-shirts with anti-decree slogans she was bringing from the United States.

On Sunday Nuñez and a fellow artist, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, returned from a three-day trip to Miami, where they had been participating in an artistic event. The items, which were produced in the United States by Cuban-American designer Coco Fusco and were adorned with an illustration by Alén Lauzán, were seized after customs officials had inspected their baggage. Two of the shirts belonged to Nuñez and the other six to Otero. continue reading

“As soon as they saw ’349,’ they told us it was subversive propaganda,” the activist explained to 14ymedio. She and Otero had travelled to the United States to participate in an event organized by a not-for-profit organization, Creative Time, entitled “On an Island: Defending the Right to Create,” at which they made a presentation critical of Decree 349.

The artist has already said she will file suit in Havana to reclaim the two shirts that were confiscated and is currently receiving legal advice.

Before boarding their flight to Miami, Nuñez and Otero were detained at the airport while their luggage was being searched. Though authorities did not confiscate anything at the time, the delay caused them to miss their flight on American Airlines. Later that afternoon they were able to catch another flight to Miami on the same airline.

The main complaint of those critical of Decree 349 is that, in every case, artists must obtain prior approval from a cultural organization, which they are forced to join, before executing their work. This requirement directly impacts those who create work outside a state-sponsored framework. The result is that the content of their work is subject to regulation.

The campaign against Cuba’s Decree 349 is important to Yanelys Núñez because “the government survives on its image.” Her goal is for more artists and cultural institutions to “speak out against this blatant censorship by the Diaz-Canel government.” She plans to continue exerting significant pressure to achieve its repeal.

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

A Sip in The Versailles: Coffee and Elections

Exiles from five decades ago, young people who mix English with Spanish and newcomers from the island gathered at the famous Cuban exile restaurant in Miami. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Miami, 8 November 2018 — The Versailles smells of coffee, intense and short like those drunk copiously by some of those who on Tuesday night awaited the election results in Florida. Exiles from five decades ago, young people who mix English with Spanish and newcomers from the island who finished a sip as the results became known, little by little, about the numbers from the ballot boxes.

Autumn does not exist in Miami and on this Tuesday night, sweat ran down the forehead of Julita, a Cuban woman who has been in Florida for two years after entering through the border with Mexico when the wet foot/dry foot policy was still in effect. On the outskirts of the most emblematic Cuban exile restaurant, the woman laughed, danced a few steps and waved a small flag of the island.

The joy of Julita, 68, did not spring from the fact that her favorite candidates had won at the polls, because in reality she does not yet have a US passport and cannot vote in the elections. However, it was the first election she lived in the land of Uncle Sam and it was all a surprise for her, a former militant of the Communist Party who now avoids talking about her past. continue reading

With two naturalized children already in the United States, the Cuban woman has had intense weeks. “I had to tell my family that we were not going to talk about politics at the table because we always ended up fighting,” she says, surprised by the passion that these mid-term elections have unleashed, but at the same time enjoying “the heated discussions that occurred.”

Cuban Americans in Florida experienced a tense environment before legislative elections in which there were several surprises and numerous disappointments. “I voted for María Elvira Salazar because she is very charismatic and she is also Cuban,” says Rodolfo Morejón, another Cuban who was finishing coffee outside of Versailles while waiting for the final tally to be published.

Social networks had boiled over for weeks in a real pitched battle where many friends came to insult each other, lifelong acquaintances were blocked and every demonstration for or against a candidate raised disgust on all sides.

Salazar, a well known figure inside and outside the island due to her long career as a journalist on Florida television, was one of the losers on Tuesday, where the pulse for the 27th district was won by her opponent Donna Shalala, former president of the University of Miami. The victory of the latter can be read in terms of a “de-cubanization of politics” in the city with the most exiles from the island.

Shalala met to celebrate with her supporters at the Woman’s Club of Coral Gables. From there she spoke to her followers who did not take their eyes off a huge screen that was broadcasting the results and shouted euphorically every time there was a victory for the Democratic Party and an area of the map of the United States was colored blue.

“The best one won,” shouted one of her voters assembled in the The Versailles and who was adorned in the blue color of the Democrats and wearing a baseball cap with the flag of the solitary star. “It does not matter if you are Cuban or American, young or old, more charismatic or less charismatic, what matters is that you are a decent and hardworking person,” he added loudly.

Donna Shalala, former president of the University of Miami, won the race for the seat in the U.S. Congress from Florida’s 27th District. (14ymedio)

Annie Betancourt, a 70-year-old Democrat, was also pleased that Shalala won the seat that Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had vacated. “She conducted a positive campaign based on her knowledge, she is a person with government experience and in the political issues that matter to the voters of the district, such as health and education”, says this Cuban resident of the United States since 1960, who was a state representative in Tallahassee.

The tumult also reached the island, where through illegal satellite dishes many followed the step by step process, more out of curiosity than real interest. In the neighborhood of Centro Habana, María Eugenia and Gerardo, both retired and with children living in Florida, stayed all night glued to the television so as not to miss “the spectacle”.

“We do not understand much, but at least you see that the people care about who will be their representatives and are going to the polls enthusiastically,” says María Eugenia, who after midnight saw the last part through a cable that a neighbor, 200 meters away, rents for 20 dollars a month to enjoy totally American programming.

“Now when my daughter calls me I can comment as if I had been there,” says the retired woman who admits she has not participated in the neighborhood discussions about the new constitution. “No, why, going or not going will not change anything, that’s why it’s so different.”

Hundreds of kilometers away from the banned satellite dish and the retirees who were watching  the elections like those who watch a show, the Versailles café loses neither the heat nor the intensity. To the extent that losers and winners are confirmed, it tastes more bitter for some and sweeter for others.

The night is finished off by a young Cuban-American girl who carries in her hand a stamp that says “I Voted”. She mixes her words in Spanish and English and celebrates the importance of going to vote because for her “every voice is important” and “although we do not all think alike, it is good to go out and express what we want with the vote”.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

A Clandestine Work for Freedom of Expression

‘Patriotism 36-77’ came about largely thanks to a fundraiser on the Verkami platform. (Pedro Coll)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Miami, 3 November 2018 — Teatro Kairós continues to defy censorship and police repression. After months of rehearsals and study, last weekend he premiered Patriotism 36-77, directed by actress Lynn Cruz, in the abandoned buildings of the former Circus School of the Higher Institute of Art.

Cruz told 14ymedio that “when the news came out of Decree Law 349 that makes the right to do theater in homes impossible,” she was forced to be more creative when choosing the place of presentation.

“I realized that the corridors and halls were ideal for simulating a prison and the galleys. On the other hand, natural light solved all the problems and the acoustics, with a sound design that started from the environmentitself that we could create with the elements of the work, we could do without the music. continue reading

We already had to principal resolved so as not to have to do a generatl rehearsal and avoid being discovered. This is the most risky  and performative part of the show. If they make the private spaces illegal, we can take the abandoned State spaces and they can be occupied by the artists,” the actress and director of the piece explained.

The piece premiered last Sunday without advertising, almost in secret, and only a select group of guests attended. The cast of the work consisted of Cruz herself, the actress Juliana Rabelo and the painter Luis Trápaga.

The actress arranged with a group of taxi drivers to collect the guests house by house to help them get to the Circus School, far from the center of Havana.

“The work addresses the psychological and physical violence exerted by the State on people who dare to raise their voices, and in the middle of the process I discovered a Swiss director Milo Rau who did a work, Five Easy Pieces, on pedophilia, starring children. The critics talked about the feeling of suffocation it left, because the piece was about the submission and power of the adult over the violated child.

I said to myself: “I want the spectators to feel what a prisoner of conscience feels in Cuba. Beyond the words I was interested in being suggestive with what was happening in the scene,” she explains.

For Lynn Cruz the bringing of the guests provoked that sensation that she was looking for, something that for her was a “maxim.” The audience, who never knew where they were going or with whom they would share the car that would transport them, would experience that “transit to a place of distrust, fear, uncertainty.” That is, she says, what the people who went felt.

The characters are a critical painter, played by Luis Trápaga; a student of humanities and daughter of a dissident, played by Juliana Rabelo, and Lynn’s character, who is a human rights activist and daughter of a member of the Communist Party.

To achieve her scenographic idea, Cruz thought of everything in direct opposition to the theatrical tradition.

“I had thought of a design with lights that simulate a tunnel, which was difficult to do in a house without losing the visual quality because sometimes one fails, there, to create the atmosphere you need in a play. It happed to me with Los enemigos del pueblo (The Enemies of the People). We were not satisfied with the visuality, and thanks to some young photographers I was able to have an ideal scenario that they offered me in secret, and when I was filming [the film Blue Heart] with Miguel [Coyula] I started studying the ruins.”

Patriotism 36-77 came about largely thanks to a fundraiser on the Verkami platform , where it was described as “a work for the right to freedom of expression in Cuba.”

Lynn Cruz has personally experienced censorship in several creative projects promoted outside the cultural institutions of the country and has faced the persecution of State Security, which has interfered occasionally to prevent presentations scheduled by her on behalf of her independent theater project.

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

Cuban Government Raises the Minimum Pension for the First Time in Ten Years

The sociologist Elaine Acosta believes that the increase in pensions “will not affect” the elderly, a traditionally vulnerable group. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón / Luz Escobar, Havana/Miami | 31 October 2018 — Beginning in December, Cuban pensioners who receive the minimum monthly pension of 200 Cuban pesos (equivalent to $7.50 USD) will receive 242 CUP ($9.00 USD). The increase, announced Tuesday by Belkis Delgado, Director of Prevention, Assistance and Social Work of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, is the first increase in the minimum pension in ten years. In addition, social assistance will be increased by 70 CUP ($3.00 USD).

The last time minimum pensions were increased was in 2008, when Raúl Castro raised pension and social assistance payments by 20%. At that time, the amount of the lowest benefits of this type was 164 CUP.

The measure will come into force in November, but the beneficiaries will not notice the increase until December because many of them have already received benefits for this coming month, when the increase had not yet been announced. continue reading

The official explained that the Government is working on a salary reform plan that would “not leaving anyone helpless” and facing “the low capacity to make purchases in the face of high prices in the retail market.”

The increase will affect a total of 445,748 retirees and 157,791 low-income people, and will cost 313 million pesos from the public treasury, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

“Since the Raulist reforms, or guidelines, began, subsidies have been eliminated which has especially affected vulnerable groups such as the elderly.” The reduction of subsidized products available through the ration book is a good example, explains sociologist Elaine Acosta, who considers that the increase in pensions “will not affect” that social group because of the country’s current economic situation.

Acosta, of Cuban origin and resident in Miami, believes that the State has turned over responsibility for the care of the elderly to families, which also do not have enough resources to alleviate the problem.

“On the one hand you have the authorities saying they want to confront the problem of an aging population and on the other hand they eliminate subsidies and cut the beneficiaries of social assistance, we have a problem with that,” she explained.

Cuba is the country with the oldest population in Latin America, with 20.1% of people over 60 years of age. This, together with the low levels of birth and fertility, have led the Government to face the challenge of having an increasingly small group of active working people support a growing number of retirees and pensioners.

Guillermina Laso, a former worker in the textile industry in Cienfuegos described the increase as “a joke in bad taste.”

“After so many years working for this Revolution and they give us an increase of 42 pesos, which isn’t enough to buy anything,” he protests.

“Now they say that they are going to increase pensions, but they do not say that it isn’t enough to buy what we need, nor that on the other hand they take our last centavo with the prices they put on products in the state stores,” he added.

Angela Iglesias, a retiree from Sancti Spíritus, points out that the increase is barely enough for “a bottle of oil and a pack of 10 sausages.”

“How dare they publicize this increase as if it were something we should be grateful for? We have worked for years and what we receive is barely enough to eat,” she added.

The high prices in state stores that charge in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, each worth 25 CUP) as well as low salaries, whose average barely exceeds $30 a month, are some of the criticisms that have emerged in the consultation process on the constitutional reform project.

The academic Carmelo Mesa-Lago has calculated that with the end of Soviet subsidies in the early nineties, the purchasing power of retirees was 16% of what it was in 1989. According to Mesa-Lago, the real value of pensions has not recovered and last year was close to 50% of what it was compared to the period before the crisis.

“We must emphasize that this increase occurs at a time of greater differentiation of income. In Cuba the gap between those who receive more and have access to consumption is growing and, on the other hand, there is a large population that can not meet its basic needs,” says Elaine Acosta.

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

LGBTIQ ‘Kiss-In’ Cancelled for Fear of Being Called a ‘Provocation’

A group of activists gathered at the meeting point despite the cancellation of the event. (Proyecto Abriendo Brechas de Colores)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 29 October 2018 — The Proyecto Abriendo Brechas de Colores (Opening Color Gaps Project) was forced to cancel an event that had been promoted to mobilize the LGBTIQ community in favor of equal marriage for fear that it would be considered a provocation and harm “the very project” they are trying to promote.

The call to “Take Your Kisses Out of the Closet” was intended to be a “Kiss-in” on the last Saturdays of October, November and December between 3 and 5 pm at the corner of Prado and the Malecón. The event had already shifted its initial location, which was to be in front of the church at K and 25th, to avoid possible confrontations, but ultimately the organizers gave up on holding the event.

“Our enthusiasm prevented us from foreseeing some circumstances that have materialized along the way in favor and against an action like this,” the organization said in the statement announcing the cancellation. continue reading

“We have spent many years of work, a lot of joy and endless efforts for LGBTIQ people to get to where we are, and experience has shown us that there are battles that it is better to lose to achieve a much bigger future,” the text states.

“We want to kiss, hug, celebrate with pride our identities and share with the whole world how happy we are to see that Cuba advances on the path of justice,” stated the announcement of the planned event which, according to the organizers, was received with great success and shared more than a hundred times leading to about 600 confirmed participants. The event was to have been enlivened, they said, with activities such as a session of photographs of the most creative kisses, a touch of body painting, the handing out of educational materials and a flashmob.

“We did not foresee that an initiative motivated by the pride of seeing Cuba advance in the field of human rights, as well as the determination to combat the ideas that religious fundamentalism is spreading against that just and necessary change, could run up against so many closed doors, as it now has,” says the vague cancellation notice.

“When we changed the meeting point to Prado and the Malecón, we declared that we did not want them to use our action as an excuse to unleash the violence which the religious leaders of some denominations have called for in their preaching, since the beginning of the public consultation [over the text of a revised constitution],” the statement said.

Despite the announcement, around the initially agreed upon time a group of people carrying rainbow flags — mostly those with links to Cenesex, which was not the organizer of the event — danced to the song Música Vital, performed by Buena Fe, Yomil and el Dany and Omara Portuondo.

Jimmy Roque, one of the activists who came to Prado and the Malecón this Saturday despite the cancellation, said that what he saw “was fine, it was nice, they had choreography, they shouted ’Viva Cuba’,” but he regretted that “not a word” had been said.

“Let each one do what he can, it’s fine, but for those things you do not ask for permission, you do it and now, we’re going to do it again, to kiss on the Prado you do not have to ask for permission,” he said.

The Kiss-in was posed as a response to the statements of Alida León, president of the Evangelical League of Cuba, and the Reverend Moisés de Prada who intend to collect 500,000 signatures among their faithful against the inclusion in the new constitution of Article 68, which defines marriage as the union “between two persons.” The religious leaders insist that the concept of marriage “between a man and a woman” be maintained in the text, as it is in the current Constitution. Leon threatened to vote No if the suggested new wording of the article is maintained in the bill to reform the Constitution.

Since last June, posters have appeared in defense of the “original design of the family, as God created it” and against equal marriage on the facades of homes in various provinces of the country and public spaces.

The LGBTIQ community and defenders of the island’s sexual rights also disseminate in social networks their proposal to respond to these campaigns. Posters with more inclusive definitions of the concept of family and promotional videos with the message of “an original design of Cuban families” or “all rights for all families,” are some of the initiatives to promote inclusion.

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

US Funds to Rescue the National Art Schools of Cuba

The Quibú River as it passes through the National Art School. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 20 October 2018 — After passing by the Quibú River and in the middle of the growth of the out of control grass, reddish vaults emerge that look like the ruins of a lost city. They are part of the National Art Schools of Cuba that the Getty Foundation, of the United States, wants to rescue with a donation of $195,000, after decades of deterioration.

The group of buildings that today make up the University of the Arts, conceived at the beginning of the 60s as the Cubanacán Arts Schools have gone more than half a century with hardly any repairs or investments. In that time some specific repairs have been made, but the lack of a budget forced the closing of several sites.

Mold and plants grow on walls and domes, a situation made worse by bats and vandalism. (14ymedio)

The School of Visual Arts is in better condition, but in the rest of the buildings mold and vegetation grow on the walls and domes, a situation made worse by bats and vandalism. Walking through the corridors of the school seems more like a trip to an archaeological dig than a complex less than six decades old. continue reading

Despite the deterioration, the place still evokes that era of pharaonic projects in which the government planned to place Cuba at the head of the countries of the region and even the world. Imbued with that competitive spirit, Fidel Castro decided to build the “most beautiful Art Schools of the World” on the old grounds of the Country Club.

Castro’s enthusiasm did not last long and in 1965 the works were left without government support. Thus were born some of the first “modern ruins” of Havana. An unfinished complex that the Getty Foundation wants to aid, although much more is needed than the amount donated to repair the damage done by time and carelessness.

At least repairs are currently being made in the dance building and “new boards have been installed and painted,” says one student. (14ymedio)

With its Catalan vaults, its bricks and terracotta tiles, the buildings have been severely affected by the floods of the Quibú River. Plants have done the same. In 2014, the architect José Mosquera suggested the “cutting and elimination of the plants that thrive in the vaults and galleries” but the weeds continue to grow on several roofs.

It is common to hear students say things like “be careful don’t step in there” or “don’t go in that place, the roof may fall”. All of them seek accommodation in the still functional parts of the buildings conceived by the Cuban architect Ricardo Porro with the Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.

The National Art Schools were born as a project of Fidel Castro but over time they lost official favor and with it funding. (14ymedio)

Some years ago, the students themselves cleared rubble and vegetation from the areas of the School of Ballet, where the circus school was later located. With the aid of machetes, sticks and screwdrivers, they cleaned up the galleries. “We were reluctant to let those spaces die,” says Rey, who was a student at the center and now works as a professor.

The young man feels relieved that at least in the building destined for dance, repairs are currently being made and “new boards have been installed and painted”. Behind that process, he points out, “are the students, the professors and also the State.”

The building that serves as a dorm, of Soviet inspiration, contrasts sharply with the rest of the school. (14ymedio)

Other students have not been as lucky and study several subjects in the area of the dorms, buildings of Soviet architecture that contrast with the original facilities. “The spaces are different, the energy of the space is different, the square is not a very inspiring place,” says Rey.

The announcement of the donation to repair some areas has aroused certain expectations that sites that have become unserviceable over the years will be rehabilitated. “The teachers tell me how this place used to be, but now it does not resemble it much,” says a young woman who began studying dance in September.

The students of the National Art Schools often have to take classes in other spaces because the rooms destined for teaching are in terrible conditions. (14ymedio)

“Not only do they have to repair roofs and walls, but the school needs to modernize because even finding an electrical outlet that works now is complicated,” she complains. With the emergence of new technologies it’s the rare student that does not have a phone, a speaker or a laptop that needs to be charged every once in a while.

“It’s a very beautiful place but it has to become a functional place, which right now it is not,” says the young woman. Among her colleagues, the most common opinion is that it is necessary to “reenvision the school, place it in the 21st century”, but “that is not solved only with a budget, it takes will”.

The domes of the National Art Schools, one of its symbols, do not escape the deterioration. (14ymedio)

The complex, which was considered a National Monument in 2013, is a magnet for photographers and video clip makers, because of that mixture of beauty and decadence that surrounds everything. For those who sneak in to take pictures without permission, a strict security guard threatens to call the police if they do not leave as soon as possible.

But, despite the controls and deterioration, the site remains an island within the city, a kind of artistic retreat. “The school is a space of inspiration”, Rey says emotionally, “because these open areas, with trees, these materials that are close to an appearance of little elaboration, connect one with the essence of nature”.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

For Tourists in Cuba It’s Easier to Get an Apple than a Mango

In a poll conducted by The Havana Consulting Group, the most common complaint by tourists — along with sanitary conditions — is the lack of variety in food choices and the preponderance of imported products over local ones. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerLuz Escobar / 14ymedio, Varadero / Havana, 11 October 2018 — For those who are looking for local flavor, it is frustrating to wake up to Colombian coffee, have fish from the distant shores of northern Europe and realize that it is easier to find a Heineken in the hotel bar than a Cuban Cristal. In these hotels it is more common to see tuna than snapper, an apple than a mango and artificial sweetener than the local sugar.

“The mattresses are Cuban but all the linens, the detergent in which they are washed and even the napkins we use in the hotel come from another country,” laments a maid at the downtown Hotel Sevilla, a local icon on Havana’s Prado that, according to one tour operator, offers its visitors “a space with Moorish inspiration and local flavor.” continue reading

The courtyard bar, a space which features blue ceramic tiles and a musical trio playing Cuban trova standards, offers guests Spanish olives, Russian vodka, French fries from Mexico and slices of Gouda cheese wrapped around sausages, which are also imported. With the exception of rum and local beer, everything else seems to have come from a Panama Canal wholesale market.

Towels from Pakistan, yoghurt from Spain and chlorine for the pool imported from a Latin American country are some of the products that allow the Puntarena de Varadero Hotel to function an day-to-day basis. It is the same situation throughout Cuba, where the large amount of imported supplies and food is a major drain on profits in the tourism sector.

Before 1959 Cuba was a net exporter of agricultural products, but times have changed. (14ymedio)

From the pat of butter that a guest has at breakfast to the orange juice used in mixed drinks, a large percentage of what is offered at these establishments fools the guests, who are expecting to be served mostly Cuban products.

The Havana Consulting Group conducted a poll which surveyed 347,833 tourists who visited Cuba between March 2016 and February 2017. It found that, along with sanitary conditions, the most common complaint was the lack of variety in food choices and the preponderance of imported products over local ones.

Beatriz, a Mexican woman who stayed for a week this summer with her family in Puntarena, told 14ymedio that the “lack of variety” was “the downside” of her stay. “On the fourth day we had to go to a private restaurant because our hotel didn’t have basics like lemons or fresh oranges,” she says.

In 2013, after decades and decades of prohibiting such activity, the government of Raúl Castro gave permission for independent producers to sell directly to hotels catering to domestic and foreign tourists. Previously, hotels had purchased their supplies exclusively through contracts with state agencies while importing what they could from abroad.

The approval process for such sales, however, is complicated and several state agencies must oversee, approve and control the distribution from the fields to the buffet tables.

Though he prefers to remain anonymous in order to remain in the program, Carlos is one of the more than fifty fruit, vegetable and grain producers in Matanzas province who have been given approval by the Selected Farming Products Company to sell their crops to hotels.

The farmer has a plot of land reserved for the cultivation of mango, melon, guava and papaya, which he has managed to sell to resort hotels.

Carlos sells part of what he grows through a cooperative to which he belongs on the outskirts of Cárdenas, a town whose main source of income is Varadero, the most famous beach resort in Cuba. “They have helped us get some important supplies such as boxes for the collection of fruit and seeds but the truth is it hasn’t worked out well.”

The most experienced tourists realize this immediately and ask if there are no “local tapas, with a Cuban flavor.” (14ymedio)

“A lot of good fruit was lost,” he notes. “We delivered it to them but the state-run company did not get it to the hotels in time.” After tropical storm Albert at the end of May the situation worsened. “We lost more in the markets than in the fields,” he laments.

After that fateful day, during which his fields were flooded, Carlos switched from fruits to vegetables. “They are faster to harvest and package, although they can be more fragile to transport. Many hotels in Varadero will choose processed carrots and cabbage before paying for a lettuce from here,” he says.

Though a hotel chain can theoretically contract directly with private or cooperative producers, throughout the entire production chain “the hand of state agencies is always present, certifying the product quality, verifying the contract terms are being fulfilled and making sure the farmer is not making too much money,” says Carlos.

To be part of this distribution chain, farmers must join the Agricultural Business Group but then get the resources for their harvests from the Logistics Business Group of the Ministry of Agriculture, a huge, inefficient mastodon they distrust.

“What is needed are agricultural purchasing centers to facilitate exchanges between producers and tourism administrators,” says Medardo, an agricultural engineer who describes himself as “someone who could free up this process.”

Medardo believes that what is needed are more markets “with greater visibility so that hotel managers know where they are and what they have to offer.” Years after they were closed, some of these points of sale have been reopned in provinces such as Pinar del Río, Villa Clara, Holguin, Las Tunas and Santiago de Cuba. The agricultural expert believes, however, that this is not enough.

“It should be like a wholesale market, where producers bring their fruits, vegetables and produce to be bought directly by hotels, but also a place to sign purchase agreements without government intermediaries, “he says.

Until 1959 Cuba was a net exporter of agricultural products, but times have changed. “There is a culture of looking for everything overseas, from butter to mangoes,” laments Medardo. “Even the shrimp tourists eat are mostly frozen imports, to say nothing of meat, which is brought in almost entirely from other countries.”

Four million tourists visited Cuba in 2017 but earnings figures do not take into account the cost of imports. (14ymedio)

In 2015 — just as the island’s tourism boom was beginning in the wake of the thaw in diplomatic relations between the Cuba and the United States — a report published by the Center for the Study of the Economy was already warning of a troubling disconnect between tourism and the nation’s industrial output. This situation has worsened due to the growth in tourism, which experienced more than four million visitors in 2017, and the subsequent increase in the demand for food and cleaning supplies.

The report warned of a growing “trade deficit resulting from substituting domestically produced items with imports” and criticized the “long approval process experienced by domestic producers trying to import supplies and parts,” which has made it easier and faster to simply bring in certain goods from overseas.

The most experienced tourists realize this immediately and ask if there are no “local tapas, with a Cuban flavor.” But employees can offer them little more than some dried produce, such as almonds and raisins, which come already packaged with a foreign label. There are no plantain chips, roasted corn-on-the-cob, pork rinds or even a Cuban tamale.

A few meters away from Hotel Sevilla, however, street vendors hawk their wares — roasted peanuts, corn chips and all manner of fritangas — in what seems like a world completely disconnected from the one inside the hotel. A distant galaxy where domestic products have more presence than imported ones.

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

Cuba’s Independent Artists Denounce the "State of Exception" They’ve Faced Since 1959

Yanelys Núñez, Nonardo Perea, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Luis Manuel Otero, Soandry del Río, and Michel Matos in a protest action against Decree 349. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana | 17 September 2018 — The group of independent artists who since July have been carrying out a campaign against Decree 349 reports that “since the triumph of the Revolution, in 1959, there has existed a state of exception when it comes to the freedom of artistic creation and expression” in Cuba and that a considerable number of “creators and cultural projects have flourished from their own will and creative capacity, but then been taken down by the powers and the official institutions that rule national life.”

The text is part of the San Isidro Manifesto, presented this past Wednesday by the group as one more of their actions against the rule that regulates artistic presentations in private spaces and against which they have been mobilizing since July. The document, which is circulating on media, is signed by Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Yanelys Núñez, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Michel Matos, Hamlet Lavastida, Soandry del Río, Verónica Vega, Lía Villares, Yasser Castellanos, and Tania Brugera, among others. continue reading

Its launch took place at the venue of the Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art (MAPI), in the San Isidro neighborhood of Old Havana, and musicians, poets, writers, audiovisual directors, producters, and plastics artists joined the act.

Yanelys Núñez read the text, which invites “any individual who feels like part of this phenomenon that today we call ‘the independent'” to participate in the campaign aimed at the repeal of Decree 349, and urges a dialogue that will allow the review of cultural policies that the State institutions are attempting to impose.

Later, the attendees made a pilgrimage to the Malecon to ask the patron of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, for the annulment of the law.

The manifesto mantains that the law “legitimizes the use of judicial action to punish the free creation and determination” that belongs to them as artists and individuals and says that it “stimulates corruption” through the creation of the figure of the supervisor-inspector “taking into account that inspectors are one of the most corrupt sectors of the regulatory apparatus of the State.”

On July 10 the Council of Ministers approved Decree 349, focused on “the violations regarding cultural policy and over the provision of artistic services” which will enter into full force in December.

The artists who defend the repeal of the law believe that this “is destined not only to control and intimidate artists and creators from various branches of the national culture, but also in the private business sector, to impede a natural and organic relationship inside the different spheres of Cuban society.” In addition, they believe that it “threatens with legal warnings, fines, and seizures of equipment or property used as a platform for the creation and dissemination of independent works.”

The decree grants to the “supervisor-inspector,” they emphasize, the authority to suspend immediately any performance or show that he understands to violate the law, having the ability to go to the extreme of canceling the self-employment license to practice work.

“We understand exactly that any nation in the world must regulate its internal activities, receive taxes if those become lucrative, just as they must safeguard internal order and peace,” point out the artists. However, in their view it is “inadmissable to accept the existence of a confusion of laws” that only aims to control the artistic sector and “punish it for its independent expression and action.”

The group of artists believes that the “only logical aim” this law appears to have is to maintain “the ideological primacy in a highly centralized state.”

Some of the artists complain that the official press has tried to distort the intention and origin of the campaign against Decree 349 and clarify that they are only asking institutions to listen to them and that they are not calling for “either neither anarchy nor confrontation.”

However, they maintain that these laws and rules are impossible to comply with because “they don’t adjust to the national reality at the present time” and because they are “abusive, disproportionate, and they violate international norms and agreements.” For this they direct their proclamation “to all men and women of good will” and invite their support.

“We are determined to come together as a group to begin a collection of sociocultural actions like this as calls for international attention to halt the imposition of a complex of laws that insults all Cubans,” they state.

On more than one occasion this group has suffered political repression for trying to carry out public acts to support and defend their campaign against the decree. On August 11 various artists who wanted to participate in a concert at the MAPI venue suffered the repression of police who showed up at the place along with officials from State Security to stop the action. On that day, which ended with the detention of several of the artists, neighbors from the San Isidro neighborhood went out to the street to condemn the conduct of those in uniform.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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