Ciro Díaz: “Musician In The Morning, Mathematician In The Afternoon, Activist In The Evening”

Ciro Díaz, the guitarist of the group Porno para Ricardo, is a dissatisfied Cuban who is doing a PhD in mathematics in Brazil. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 2 December 2017 — It is risky to define someone in brief strokes, but if it is Ciro Díaz we are talking about it is even more so because the same person contains a mix of the activist, the musician and the mathematician.

The guitarist of the group Porno Para Ricardo is a dissatisfied Cuban who is doing a PhD in mathematics in Brazil. This week he was visiting Havana and spoke with 14ymedio.

14ymedio. What attracts you most about life in Brazil?

Díaz. Freedom. At the University of Havana I felt persecuted. If you did this you were thrown out, if you said that you were thrown out, if you did not behave in a certain way, they would throw you out, if you did not go to an activity you got into trouble. In Brazil, the opposite is true, because universities are epicenter generators of political problems. continue reading

14ymedio. Have you had encounters with that part of the university left that supports the Cuban Government?

Díaz. In Brazil there is everything, both the liberal left and the conservative left, the funny thing is that many people of the liberal left are very ill informed about Cuba. They think that the government of Havana is liberal when in fact it is ultraconservative and for the most extreme Brazilian left that is difficult to digest.

14ymedio. Activist, musician and mathematician. Aren’t they occupations that are too disparate?

Díaz. I’m a jumbled mixture of all that: musician in the morning, mathematician in the afternoon and activist at night.

14ymedio. But does one predominate over the others?

Díaz. Sometimes I turn more toward one thing than for another. Now I’m recording a new album with La Babosa Azul. When I finish it I’ll put it on the internet and forget about music for a while to concentrate on mathematics. Meanwhile I am an activist in my free time, when I have to face an ill-founded opinion about Cuba and help people to see our reality in a different way.

14ymedio. You mentioned the musical project La Babosa Azul, but some thought that was over…

Díaz. La Babosa Azul is a submarine: we record a record and then we submerge until the next one comes out. Between one thing and another maybe we do a concert or we record a video clip. The previous album was called El último (The Last). I called it that because I thought there was not going to be another album, but next year there will be one released in English.

14ymedio. Has the fact of living in Brazil separated you from the punk rock group Porno Para Ricardo?

Díaz. Never in my life have I played as much with Porno for Ricardo as since I’ve been in Brazil. In the Czech Republic we have played four times and whenever a concert is organized I join. It is very fun to play live and I love festivals that are full of people. A tremendous experience that here in Cuba is difficult to have, at least with so much publicity.

14ymedio. Than in those times of clandestine concerts?

Díaz. Yes, there were for fewer people, at the most 100 showed up. However, the most enthusiastic audience we have had is in Cuba because the songs speak them more and there is more interaction.

14ymedio. Will you return to the Island soon?

Díaz. I will continue coming every two years so as not to lose my (right of) residence and I will look for a job in Brazil when I finish my doctorate. It does not make sense to study six years to get a doctorate and come to live in Cuba, where I can not even work. What I will never lose is my residence here.

14ymedio. Have you thought about working with record companies?

Díaz. It is very difficult and I do not want to spend time on those efforts, not to mention all the concessions that have to be made. In Cuba it is particularly pathetic, you have to be a bootlicker to be broadcast on TV and radio, something I am not willing to do.

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“My Attackers Act As If Nothing Happened”

José Enrique Morales Besada feels deceived and refuses to let the perpetrators go unpunished. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 13 November 2017 – It was a warm night in June and José Enrique Morales Besada was connected to the internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Morón, Ciego de Ávila. On returning home, his life took a dramatic turn when he was a victim of a homophobic attack that left him with serious physical consequences and a desire for justice that current Cuban legislation has failed to satisfy.

Last Friday, the Prosecutor’s Office decided to close the criminal process for his case and settle it with the imposition of a fine on his attackers. The interest in the attack on the part of the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), led by Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro, has not been enough to bring his assailants to trial, although it did speed up the police investigation. continue reading

At just 21, this young man has spent the last months shuttling between medical consultations and police appointments after two men insulted him and hit him on the side of his face with a bottle. José Enrique only remembers lying on the floor, with a friend by his side who was screaming for help, he tells 14ymedio by phone.

Morales Besada dreamed of becoming a professional singer. He performed at parties and tourist facilities, offering pop themes, ballads, classics in English and popular dance music, but now he can barely finish a sentence without speech problems that stop him in the middle of his words.

“Every time I speak I have a very strange feeling, so I can’t sing because I can’t modulate my voice well,” he laments. The blow caused him to lose several teeth, destroyed part of his gums and caused a serious fracture of the jaw for which he had to undergo surgery.

Four years before the attack, the streets of Morón were filled with colorful displays when the province became the site for the Day Against Homophobia. The annual vindication has not succeeded in banishing the prejudices that remain deeply rooted in that region and in the rest of the country.

For Morales Besada, the Ciego de Ávila LGBTI community faces a “dark panorama” and its members suffer constant aggravations in the streets as well as “degrading treatment.”

“It is very difficult to sit in a park without someone passing by and throwing an insult or a can of beer,” he complains.

Homophobia in Cuba also enjoys police complicity. “When somebody goes to file a complaint about something like that they treat them like they’re crazy,” declares the young man, who, in spite of appearing with witnesses before the authorities, barely managed that his attackers spent 24 hours in custody. “They left after paying a bond of 1,000 Cuban pesos (roughly $40 US) each.”

The Cuban Penal Code does not include the concept of “hate crimes” regarding attacks against people based on ethnic origin, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation and identity. The latter, specifically, are not included in the current legislation and attacks against them are treated by the police and the courts like any other crime.

A few days after the attack, the singer wrote in his Facebook account an initial message saying what happened, demanding justice and asking Mariela Castro directly for help.

The report that was prepared in the hospital, and that recorded the facial and mouth injuries, was “conveniently” lost. (Courtesy)

In 2015, Mariela Castro had assured in a public event that the institution she directs was working in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior to closely monitor these aggressions. “A thorough and specialized analysis is needed to determine the type of crime because all situations where LGBTI people are victims do not have hatred as a motive,” said the sexologist.

Cenesex began to investigate what happened in Morón and sent a letter to the municipality’s National Revolutionary Police (PNR). Morales Besada admits that when the officers heard the name of the daughter of the Cuban leader “they started running around and wanted to do in a day what they should have done from the beginning.”

The 10th was when Morales Besada knew that there would never be a trial for his attackers. The Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the opening of the trial and has settled the case with a fine against both perpetrators. After hearing the conclusion from the investigator, the young man came out crying. He did not even want to sign the official communication.

Morales Besada denounces multiple irregularities in the process. “Nobody from the investigation visited my maxillofacial doctor to ask what my current state of health is,” he complains. In addition, the report that was prepared in the hospital recording the facial and mouth injuries he suffered was “conveniently” lost and only appeared, after much searching, detailing cervical injuries.

“No trial was held and they deceived me because until that moment they had told me that they would be taken to court.”

Members of the Cuban LGBTI community have collected more and more records of assaults and hate crimes. Although official institutions do not publish statistics on murders or violent acts against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, the news now is made known thanks to social networks.

In May 2015, this newspaper published an article about the stoning death of a 24-year-old transsexual in the city of Pinar del Río. The official media never published the news.

Morales Besada, who feels deceived and refuses to let the perpetrators go unpunished “as if nothing happened,” published a Facebook message last Friday that has made his case known to thousands of internet users.

The young man claims that both attackers have a history of homophobic violence. “They beat another boy who works in the Cayo but he did not accuse them because he is afraid.”

“This attack has left me without a life,” says José Enrique. The physical damage can leave permanent affects, but what adds to the pain now is the impotence he feels in the absence of justice.

A 16-Day Detention That Started With a Kidnapping

The activist Roberto Rodríguez Jiménez spent 16 days in detention. (Aulas Abiertas)

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 9 November 2017 — An arbitrary arrest is not the same if on the other side of the bars there is a family willing to ask questions or a friend who dares to investigate. Roberto Jiménez Gutiérrez believed that no one would notice his absence, which began on October 23 when the police crossed his path, but the reaction outside of Cuba surprised him.

“I was held incommunicado for sixteen days in the Technical Investigation Department at 100 and Aldabó,” the leader of the independent organization Juventud Activa Cuba Unida (JACU — Active Youth, United Cuba), which describes his arrest as a “kidnapping,” he tells this newspaper. “But the officers never told me where I was, I knew that from other prisoners,” he explains by telephone after being released last Tuesday.

In Jiménez’s mind, the days in the cell passed slowly without any logic. “Almost every day they interrogated me, but the most intense moments were the first 72 hours,” he recalls. continue reading

The opponent was on his way to José Martí International Airport, in Havana, to take a flight to Miami where he planned to participate in a dinner organized by the Legal Rescue Foundation (FRJ).

At dawn, police stopped the car in which he was traveling to the airport and told the driver to leave. “Everything that followed was very violent,” the JACU leader explains now. “I demanded that they show me a document that validated my arrest and then they hit me in the chest.”

After that the memories are confusing. Four policemen forced him into a patrol car and pushed him down in such a way that he could not even see the road the vehicle was traveling along.

“I am being accused of association, meetings and illicit demonstrations,” an offense for which one can receive from “three months to one year of deprivation of liberty.” The police also warned him, without showing him any papers, that he was going to be charged under Law 88, also known as the Gag Law.

The draconian legislation is the same as that which led to the imprisonment of 75 opponents and independent journalists in 2003, in a repressive wave known as the Black Spring. The dissidents tried in that case were sentenced to sentences as long as 30 years.

Under those rules Jiménez could be prosecuted for accumulating, reproducing and disseminating “information or documentation that goes against the Government.” The officers who interrogated him did not succeed in getting him to confess to the accusation. “They did not get anything, I held my position.”

That same day, the activist César Mendoza, director of the Center for Studies for Local Development (CEDEL), was also arrested. He was also going to participate in the meeting in Miami together with Jiménez, as well as be part of a panel at the recently concluded Cuba Internet Freedom meeting.

Mendoza saw him last Saturday when he was taken to another detention center, and cannot say where he is being held because he was moved in a fetal position. “They wanted to confront us with each other so we would implicate each other,” he explains. But neither of the activists confirmed the police hypothesis.

Now, Jiménez will have to go every Monday to 100 and Aldabó to sign a record and is awaiting a trial that does not yet have a date. “In the detention they confiscated a laptop, money and a tablet that were part of the things I was taking with me for the trip,” he adds.

The government repressors still do not understand why JACU works in the training of young people and “everything is done without profit and rests on the basis of human rights and democracy so that they can direct their actions and define their future.”

The activist recognizes that lately they have had to change the places where they meet “due to the pressures from State Security.” His arrest was one more drop in a cascade of arrests, threats and seizures.

“I do not have a family and they took advantage of that,” Jiménez laments, but in the days after his arrest a whole hosts of relatives materialized. The human rights organization Freedom House publicized his case and social networks filled with demands for his release.

When Roberto Jiménez Gutiérrez returned to walk through the streets of Havana his phone did not stop ringing. A new family had emerged during those 16 days of confinement.

Drinking the Water From the Tanker Trucks is a Time Bomb for Cubans’ Health

Selling bottled water in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 1 November 2017 — When their daughter turned seven, the family stopped boiling its drinking water. “It took me a long time,” explains the mother in the gastroenterology office. Soon after, the little girl showed symptoms of being infected with amoeba, a parasite closely linked to the poor quality of drinking water on the island.

First came the discomfort, then the diarrhea and later the vomiting. By the time they went to the hospital, the diagnosis was evident: amebic dysentery. Now, the girl is under medical treatment and the parents have returned to the practice of boiling water. “You can’t trust the water that comes in the tanker truck,” reflects the grandmother. continue reading

Medical research conducted between 2013 and 2014 in Havana and Santiago de Cuba revealed that Cubans have a low perception of the risk of acquiring Acute Diarrheal Disease (ADD). In addition, most of the respondents said they consume the water as it is delivered via the trucks.

The study warned of the low consumption of boiled water in homes, most commonly motivated by lack of time or resources for cooking. According to data from the last census conducted in 2012, only 78% of homes cook with manufactured or liquefied gas.

Families that have only electric stoves or prepare their food with kerosene think twice before boiling water. “I can’t afford it and my electric bill goes through the roof if I start boiling all the water we consume in this house,” says María del Carmen, a resident of the city of Camagüey.

With a well in the yard, the woman recognizes that it would be best to “be safe” and give some additional treatment to the water that the family drinks. She, her husband and their two children have suffered repeated infestation by intestinal parasites. “When it’s not amoeba, it’s giardia,” she says.

Some areas of the country have to be supplied by tanker trucks due to the poor condition of the pipes and the low water pressure. (14ymedio)

Some residents opt for water filters, made in South Korea, which have been sold in the network of national stores. However, the authorities of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) warn that these processors, manufactured with activated carbon and other elements, are not capable of eliminating the most dangerous bacteria and microorganisms.

Quality is not the only reason why many do not use filters. “They are very expensive, because at the very least they cost 65 convertible pesos (CUC) and the spare parts are never less than 10 CUC,” María del Carmen says with regret. For some months now, the Camagüey family has started using a 1% sodium hypochlorite solution to purify the water.

“The problem is that it is not always available in the pharmacies, so we spend several weeks drinking clean water and then we have to go back to the old habits because they don’t have the product in stock,” explains the mother.

In the tourist forums for trips to the island, the questions about whether travelers can consume water from the tanker trucks are many. The warnings not to do so are overwhelming and some tour operators even recommend traveling with chlorine tablets to use during the stay.

Owners of houses that rent to foreigners try to maintain a supply of bottled water, but the costs are high for a worker’s pocket. If an individual consumes between two and three quarts of bottled water daily, it would cost about 40 CUC per month to stock up, in a country where the average monthly salary is around 25 CUC.

An investigation carried out by the University of Miami pointed out some important problems that affect the potability of the island’s water. Among its basic observations is the existence of aged pipes that in many cases are “so corroded” that the liquid is often contaminated. The study pointed out that due to the water shortage “most Cubans have cisterns or water tanks” – where they store water for their own use due to the unreliability of the supply, whether by pipes or water trucks – while the lack of pressure is a problem in many multi-family buildings. In addition, the irregular disposal of garbage often ends up contaminating the stored water.

The United Nations Children’s Fund and MINSAP are promoting the “Always Safe Water” campaign in disadvantaged neighborhoods such as La Timba, in Havana and Chicharrones, in Santiago de Cuba. (14ymedio)

Helena Solo Gabriele, an engineering professor at Miami University who worked on the study, found that a good part of the problem in Havana comes from the aquifer system underneath the Almendares River.

“The river is receiving all the wastewater, and the water from the river infiltrates the aquifer, putting the drinking water at risk,” the specialist warned.

Although there are no updated official figures on the degree of infestation by amoeba or giardia among Cubans, the last national survey on the subject, conducted in 1984, showed that these parasites affected 7% of the population.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has decided to take action on the matter and, together with MINSAP, has launched the “Always Safe Water” campaign in disadvantaged neighborhoods such as La Timba, in Havana and Chicharrones, in Santiago de Cuba.

The United Nations Fund for Children and the Ministry of Public Health are carrying out the “Always Safe Water” campaign in Cuba. (14ymedio)

The project estimates that by next year some 27,700 inhabitants of the areas where they have worked will have improved their hygiene behavior on hand washing, storage and use of safe water.

Dr. Oria Susana, specialist of the Department of Health Promotion at national level, warns those who store the precious liquid that “the quality of water deteriorates over time” and recommends that before using it “it is always necessary to chlorinate it.”

However, cisterns, elevated tanks and storage buckets will remain a part of the daily routine for Cubans for a long time, since just under 6% of the population has access to running water 24 hours a day.

The figures offered by the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources show that last year only 654,001 people could count on running water in their homes at any time of the day, a drop in numbers compared to 2015 when 1,036,686 consumers had this assurance.

“Wash your hands with running water and rinse the vegetables abundantly under the tap,” reads a poster outside the gastroenterology clinic of a Havana polyclinic. The mural also recommends boiling the water or chlorinating it so as not to get sick, while all those waiting in line to be treated believe they are infected with a parasite.

Dissidence Museum in Havana Pays Homage to Poet Juan Carlos Flores

The artist Amaury Pacheco performed an artistic action in homage to the poet Juan Carlos Flores who committed suicide last year. (Dissidence Museum)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 22 October 2017 – Damas Street in Old Havana awoke Friday to the terrifying image of a man hanging from a balcony. After their fright passed, the residents realized that it was an artistic installation by Amaury Pacheco in homage to the poet Juan Carlos Flores.

The body that hung from a rope opened the exhibition Another Poet Commits Suicide, organized by the Dissidence Museum and the group Omni Zona Franca, in order to remember Flores and reflect on the “tradition of suicide that exists in Cuban culture,” as its organizers explain. continue reading

“Some time ago Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelys Nunez [managers of the museum] told me that they wanted pay homage to Flores but we did not encounter the moment and, now, the opportunity presented itself,” explained Pacheco to 14ymedio, minutes before the afternoon’s poetry recital.

Flores, born in 1962, committed suicide in the middle of last year at his house in the Alamar neighborhood after having struggled for several years with depression and psychiatric problems. Among his best known books are Group Portrait, Different Ways of Digging a Tunnel and The Kickback.

Pacheco, who belongs to the Omni Zona Franca Project to which Flores had close ties from its inception, added personal objects belonging to the poet to the exhibition. “I brought his manuscripts, clothes, the rope with which he committed suicide, and some of his other belongings to exhibit,” he explained.

The exhibit includes personal objects of the poet Juan Carlos Flores and the rope with which he committed suicide. (14ymedio)

“There were 20 years of friendship, and he embodied the poet his whole life, both in his imagination and in the social space,” emphasizes Pacheco, who believe that Flores’ verses “strongly touch on Cuban social reality.”

Yanelys Nunez, responsible together with artist Luis Manuel Otero for the Dissidence Museum, said that the title of the event is inspired by a text by Rafael Rojas about the death of Flores, an end that requires reflection about the incidence of suicide among Cuban artists.

Nunez recalled, before a dozen attendees, the end of Raul Hernandez Novas, Angel Escobar and “others who died in exile” like Guillermo Rosales and Carlos Victoria. To the list can be added also the writer Reinaldo Arenas and the painter Belkis Ayon.

Readings by poets Ariel Manzano, Cinecio, Osmel Almaguer, Irina Pino and Antonio Herrada began at six sharp in the small room, plus narrator Veronica Vega shared some remarks about the beginning of Omni Zona Franca in Alamar.

Poet Juan Carlos Flores was remembered with a poetry reading this Friday. (14ymedio)

Between coffee candies, cigarettes, water, rum and speeches, verses were read loudly in order to overcome the natural bustle of the Belen neighborhood.

For these artists, the homage to Flores is also “a way to rescue those poets important to Cuban history” but whom “the government or institutions render invisible,” Nunez notes.

The artist and curator thinks that these omissions are due to “cultural- or power-level intrigues.” Thus the exhibit Another Artist Commits Suicide permits retaking “those dark areas in Cuban culture.”

The poetry day this Friday, which began with the disquieting performance by Pacheco, closed with a hip hop concert headed by David D’ Omni and other guests. This Sunday the homage to Juan Carlos Flores will conclude with verses and questions, just as did his own life.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

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.