Airbnb, The Cuban Experience / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

The bathroom of the RentArte lodging managed by the artisan and blogger Rebeca Monzó in Nuevo Vedado, Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 7 February 2017 — Rustic, elegant or family friendly. These are the preferred accommodations offered by Airbnb in Cuba. The hosts, for their part, prefer serious customers who pay well, but above all value the ability to directly manage their rental, two years after the huge international private rental platform opened its services in Cuba.

“There is nothing like Airbnb,” said Jorge Ignacio Guillén, a student of economics who rents out a house in the town of Soroa, Artemisa. Surrounded by lush vegetation, orchids and birds native to the area, the accommodation is described as “rustic” and in direct contact with nature. continue reading

The young man helps his family manage the home’s profile on the California website specializing in vacation rentals. Guillén signed up a year ago and his family’s house is now is one of the more than 4,000 rental options that Airbnb claims exist on the island.

Airbnb listings in Cuba range from exclusive mansions with pool that can cost up to $1,000 a night depending on the number of rooms, to single rooms with a bed or bunk for about 10 dollars

The San Francisco-based company, created nine years ago, expanded its services to Cuba in April 2015, just months after the announcement of the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana.

The offerings on the island range from the most luxurious to the simplest. From exclusive mansions with pools that can cost up to $1,000 a night depending on the number of rooms, to single rooms with a bed or bunk for about 10 dollars*. Hot running water, coffee upon awakening or a minibar are some of the options to choose from.

Of the more than 535,000 self-employed workers in the country at the end of 2016, at least 34,000 dedicate themselves to renting homes, rooms and spaces. An unknown number offer a house or a room “under the table,” without a state license and without paying taxes.

On the island, entrepreneurs need to obtain a rental license, in accordance with the regulations on self-employment implemented in the mid-1990s. Owners of registered rentals must pay license fees and taxes deducted from personal income. These vary depending on the location of the property, the square footage allocated to the rental, and the occupancy numbers.

Airbnb registration is simple. The first step is to fill out a detailed form about the accommodation you are offering and the guests you wish to host. Within a few minutes you will receive an email welcoming you to the platform. The last step is to attract customers, who will rate the accommodation through the company’s website.

The Guillén family has wanted to do everything legally to be able to take advantage of the growth in tourism. Last year, the number of foreign visitors reached 4 million, 6% more than the 3.7 million visitors initially forecast, according to the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur).

Most of the rooms offered on Airbnb are located in Havana, but other destinations such as Trinidad, Viñales, Santiago de Cuba and Matanzas are gaining prominence. The Cuban market stands out as the fastest growing in the history of the company.

Guillén learned about the service through a friend outside the island and as soon as he had the opportunity to connect to the internet he posted his advertisement. “From then to now business improved a great deal and we are finding a lot more customers,” he tells 14ymedio. Also, the new customers “are much better, more serious and more respectful,” and “they pay more,” he summarizes.

The family is offering “a simple country house,” and puts its guests in touch with a guide service and horseback riding. After the reservation, all the information is shared via email, the most fragile part of the operation due to the low connectivity to the internet still experienced in Cuba.

House being prepared for rent on Airbnb by Jorge Ignacio Guillén in Soroa (14ymedio)

Rebeca Monzó, a craftswoman and blogger who has a room for rent on Airbnb, complains of the difficulties involved in managing the service without internet access. Although an email account on the government Nauta service has alleviated the problem, responding immediately when she receives a reservation message is complicated.

Monzó, who has made clear her preference for “stable, professional and retired couples,” will receive her first customer in February, “a Mexican filmmaker who is coming with his wife.” For this coming March she already has another confirmed reservation.

The increase in the number of days of occupation per year is one of the advantages for local entrepreneurs who have joined Airbnb. Guillen confesses that although he still has “much to learn about the management of the platform,” he does manage, through it, to “maintain a good number of reservations.”

After the difficulties of eight years of construction to get their property ready in Soroa, a beautiful natural area, the young man’s family is reaping the fruits of their labors. However, they recognize that the most difficult thing continues to be “always having on hand the necessary supplies to meet basic needs,” because “there still is no wholesale market in the country.”

In Monzó’s Havana neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, “almost everyone who rents to tourists has signed up for the service. The customer pays from their own country directly to Airbnb,” and then “they send an Airbnb representative to the house who brings the money in cash,” she says. It is the same formula frequently used by Cubans abroad to send remittances to family on the island.

But for Monzó, the business is far from a source of great profits. “When I signed up, I wasn’t thinking about being able to buy a yacht. I was just thinking I’d like to have a well-stocked refrigerator.”

*Translator’s note: Looking at the listings on Airbnb’s site as of today, single room rental rates (two guests) appear to be concentrated in the range of about $25-$35 (with many that are more and less than that). A professional employed by the state in Cuba earns roughly $40 a month; physicians earn roughly $60 a month.


Colombia Sugar Mill, A Giant That Is Slow To Wake Up / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

The sugar mill town of Colombia in Las Tunas. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 February 2017 — Colombia’s sugar mill whistle sounded again at the end of January, like a giant awakened from a seven-year-long lethargy. The residents in the area breathed a sign of relief: the driving force behind the local economy seems to be the sugar mill, but technical and organizational problems have delayed its start.

The directors of the colossus announced three weeks ago that everything was ready for the industry to join the current harvest. The local press announced the start for 25 January, but the lack of some parts and other setbacks have prevented meeting that target. The peasants of the surrounding area fear that their mill will be shut down again, plunging the town into somnolence.

The sugar industry defined almost three centuries in our national life, and was the island’s main economic base, determining our language, our customs and even our identity, strongly tied to the sugar plantation and the mill. But what looked like a rising sector suffered severe reversals in the last two decades.

But all that is ancient history. Sugar production began to slide down the slope of failure. (14ymedio)

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was faced with the reality of an inefficient agroindustry, with a great technological obsolescence and an international market where the national product was worth less and less.

The peasants in the environs are afraid that their ingenuity will remain standing again, plunging the village into drowsiness

The cuts reached as far as the Colombia sugar mill, which because of its importance in production many believed would never turn off its boilers. Rogelio, 40-years-old and a neighbor of the mill, recalls how in the past, as late afternoon fell, a parade of “ragged men with machetes in their hands, tired and covered with ashes from the cane burning, passed in front of my house.”

He states that “every day at six-thirty in the afternoon the bagasse (the cane waste) filling the air forces us to close doors and windows” and that it was always “accompanied by the mill whistle” that could be heard throughout the town.

But all that is ancient history. Sugar production began to slide down the slope failure. In June last year, Noel Casañas Lugo, vice president of the Azcuba Sugar Group, acknowledged that the production of the last harvest only reached 80% of the predicted plan and remained below the 1.6 million tonnes of sugar achieved in 2015.

Vandalism affected part of the technology and the mill also lost skilled labor. (14ymedio)

Colombia is one of the four main urban centers of the province of Las Tunas and the mill began to operate in 1916. The large wooden houses built on stilts hark back to that time, as do the memories that the families pass on by word of mouth about the power of a machinery that did not stop grinding up the cane in every harvest.

The knowledge acquired in long hours of labor was transferred between generations without the involvement of any schools and the whole town revolved around the mill. It beat to the rhythm of the chimney and seemed to languish between the harvests.

The sugar industry defined almost three centuries in the national life. (14ymedio)

The Las Tunas mill was selected for its productive results as a “pilot model” to integrate into the Business Improvement plan at the end of the last century. But even that did not save it from an abrupt closure at the beginning of this millennium. Its workers, then, were given the most difficult task, one for which they were the least prepared: to stop producing sugar.

The peasants and workers tried to mitigate the situation by sowing potatoes and tobacco where before there had been cane, but the majority were unemployed. The town paused. There were neither rows of ash-covered workers nor bagasse floating in the air … and much less economic prosperity.

In 2011, the Ministry of Sugar was weakened and the new Azcuba Sugar Group was created, subordinated to the State Council. But the new institution has not been able to revitalize the sector, which is also affected by low wages, technical difficulties and the exodus of people from the countryside to urban centers.

In the last month qualified technicians have come from other provinces to readjust the framework of the industrial complex. Every time an anxious neighbor asks about the date when work will be resumed, the response is spare and imprecise: “next week.”

Colombia is one of the four main urban centers of the province of Las Tunas and the mill began operating in 1916. (14ymedio)

To meet its production forecasts, the province of Las Tunas depends on Colombia joining in the harvest, along with the Antonio Guiteras mill, which is not experiencing its best moment, and Majibacoa, which has managed to maintain a stable crop, according to a recent report from the local press.

The 17,462 tonnes of sugar called for in the plan is a challenge for an industry that has suffered such a long-term stoppage, along with vandalism of the technology and also the loss of skilled workers. Administrators have mobilized veteran workers and ensure that “all key posts of the sugar mill are covered,” according to statements to the press by Elido Suarez Nunez, head of industrial maintenance.

The town seems to be living in a carnival. Like in one of those popular festivals where it is not known if at the end of the night a colorful and friendly giant will appear surrounded by lights and sounds, or instead there will be a return to darkness and boredom.

“I Did Not Enter This House Through The Window” / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

14ymedio biggerEvery night when Bisaida Azahares Correa goes to bed and looks at the ceiling, she is afraid that when the sun comes up she will have leave the house where she lives with her two children. This dwelling in the Siboney neighborhood is her only chance of not ending up sleeping on the street, but its walls are also the source of her major headaches.

The phrase “forced extraction” makes this well-spoken and straight-talking woman shudder. The first time she read those two words together was six months after her husband, Dr. Nelson Cabrera Quesada, left on a medical mission to Saudi Arabia. Since then her life has been turned upside down.

Life in the converted garage revolves around the impending eviction. A situation that contrasts with the large mansions and opulent chalets – where life seems almost bucolic – that surround the modest home of the family. continue reading

Analysts estimate that the country has a deficit of 600,000 homes, but in the last decade housing construction has fallen by 20%

A few yards away, the presence of bodyguards betrays the place where Mariela Castro lives, the daughter of the Cuban president. Nearby is also the spacious home of Armando Hart, former Minister of Culture. All are Bisaida’s neighbors, but they are not aware of the drama that defines the life of this almost 50-year-old woman.

The Cuban authorities have recognized that the housing problem is the primary social need in Cuba. Analysts estimate that the country has a deficit of 600,000 homes, but in the last decade housing construction has fallen by 20%.

In the midst of this situation, the so-called “forced removals” of those who have occupied an abandoned state “shed,” a property closed for years due to the emigration of its owner, or who have erected a house on vacant land, are frequent. But Bisaida’s case is different.

An official notification recently ordered the family to leave the property because it is owned by the University of Medical Sciences. The woman vehemently questions that statement. She says that in 2005 she settled in the house with her husband and their children to care for the doctor’s grandmother.

After the death of the lady, the couple did everything possible to regularize the situation of the house that had been given to Cabrera Quesada’s grandfather in 1979 when he worked as an administrator in the department of International Relations at the university. After living there three years, the teacher won the right to have the property separated from the institution and turned over to her

Among the worst moments Bisaida remembers is the day they showed her husband a document that declares they are illegal occupants

The law recognizes that “at the end of a housing claim” after a tenant lives there for 15 years, “the municipal Housing Directorates issue a Resolution-Title of Property in favor of the persons with the right and who agree to pay the total in 180 monthly payments.” In this case, the family says they have settled the debt with the bank.

However, the twists and turns of the bureaucracy made the legal transfer into the hands of the family impossible. The grandfather ended up retiring and emigrating to the United States, although his wife remained as the principal resident of the house until her death. Since then the family has repeatedly tried to obtain the housing papers, but they have only received threats.

Among the worst moments Bisaida remembers is the day they showed her husband a document that declares they are illegal occupants. They were given fifteen days to leave the house. Although the doctor wrote letters of complaint “to all levels,” the answer to his claim can be summed up in two intimidating words: “no place.”

The woman, who is recovering from breast and uterine cancer, says her husband “has not had the support of any of the ministries involved in his case nor of the University.”

They fear that once outside the house the authorities take advantage to block the access or place an official seal on the door

“All I want is justice, my husband’s grandparents lived here for decades and we’ve been here twelve years,” complains Bisaida. She is not demanding a gift or violating the law for her own pleasure. She only wants the house to be passed on as personal property, as stipulated in Resolution No. V-002/2014 of the Minister of Construction, Regulation of Linked Homes and Basic Means.

Their situation forces them to live virtually locked up.

“We are afraid to leave,” the woman laments. They fear that once outside the house the authorities will take advantage to block access or place an official seal on the door.

“I did not enter this house through the window,” says Bisaida. She shows the address that appears on her identity card and that matches letter by letter with the location of the small garage.

“That day, like the kids, I went out to play,” says El Sexto / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Danilo Maldonado (El Sexto) after his release. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 27 January 2017 — Since late last November Danilo Maldonado, El Sexto, has lived a nightmare. He passed from one police station to another until he reached the dreaded Combinado del Este jail in Havana. His crime: to write on several walls a graffiti that read “He left,” a few hours after the death of former President Fidel Castro.

Last Saturday the street artist was released. A few hours after chatting with 14ymedio, on Thursday, the Office Immigration and Aliens renewed his passport and announced that he could leave the country. This Friday, El Sexto traveled to Miami in the company of his romantic partner.

14ymedio. How did the news of the death of Fidel Castro hit you?

El Sexto. That day they woke me up with the news and I could not believe it. The musician Gorki Aguila called me first, then other friends and then my sister who told me, “Hey, Fidel died, really.” continue reading

I dressed and, like the children, I went out to play. First I painted on a wall of a bodega in the corner of 23 and F, and also in other places until I arrived at the Habana Libre Hotel where a person who was connected to the Wi-Fi zone transmitted it live by Facebook. From then, the moment I made a graffiti with the phrase “He left” on the wall, spread.

Soon I went to my house, it was almost dawn and everything was very quiet. When I was lying down, the police opened the door of the room and took me by force. They beat me and threw me into their patrol car.

The did not give me any explanation during the arrest

14ymedio. Did they ever explain the reason for the arrest?

El Sexto. They did not give me any explanation during the arrest and they moved me to a unit in La Lisa, then to Guanabacoa, where they took my phone, which has not yet reappeared. There they talked to me about a crime of “damages. They then took me to the Zapata and C station, and later to Vivac. From there to the prison in Valle Grande where on the weekend of December 10, Human Rights Day, they put me in an isolation cell.

Then came Combinado del Este, where they received me with blows. They practically hanged me and took all the civilian clothes I had. I was forced to wear prison clothes.

14ymedio. Did you have any special surveillance in jail?

El Sexto. Every time I spoke on the phone, I was monitored. A re-educator told me they would release me soon, but I realized that it was to keep me calm and silent.

The children need see other beautiful things, different from what they see in that dogma with which they learn to read

14ymedio. How did the other prisoners react?

El Sexto. They showed incredible solidarity. I painted a lot and tried to get my drawings out of the jail. It was also good to know that so many people were watching my case. In particular, I want to thank Yulier Rodríguez, the graffiti artist, who was aware of my situation.

14ymedio. What plans do you have for now that you are back on the street?

El Sexto. The most immediate thing is to do everything to be able see my daughter. In addition, I want to compile some of the drawings I did in prison and make a book with those short texts and illustrations. The children need to see other beautiful things, different from what they see in that dogma with which they learn to read.

Taking Stock of the Flood Damage in Havana / 14ymedio

Havana is recovering after the strong flooding from the sea along Havana’s Malecon. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 24 January 2017 — The hectically busy residents of the areas bordering Havana’s Malecón, on Tuesday, tried to repair the damages left by seawater flooding over the seawall the previous day. The strong northwestern winds associated with an extensive extratropical low pressure over the state of South Carolina have submerged the dreams of many families.

“It was strong and very fast, not as moderate as they said on television. There was a lot of water flowing,” says Lázaro, a resident of Arcos Passage on 3rd Avenue and A Street in the Vedado district.

“It was not like other years because this time they did not warn us in time and the team of people who always help with the evacuation did not show up.” continue reading

Victoria, a resident of the same street, is sweeping the sand that reached to her doorway. At the same time last year there was something similar in the area, “but not so intense,” she says, tired of all the hustle and bustle.

Wet mattresses, refrigerators damaged by salt and humidity,and the lamentations of the unprepared state, are part of the scene along the Malecon

Wet mattresses, refrigerators damaged by salt and humidity, and the lamentations of the unprepared state, are part of the scene along the Malecon.

While taking a break, Victoria tells her neighbor that the water once again reached Calzada but this year it also got as far as Linea Street. She says that in her house “all night I couldn’t sleep because of the beating of the waves,” and regrets that “they have not cleaned the streets as they are doing in front of the Meliá Cohiba hotel.”

The floods went from moderate to strong in a few hours on the north coast, including the Havana Malecon, taking many unawares. Just after four in the afternoon one could see cars drifting on the water, and the sewers were black holes where the currents swirled.

In the afternoon the tides continued high on the Havana coastline. (14ymedio)

On A and B Streets water penetrated more than four blocks into the city. Several warehouses, like the one at 3rd and C, lost part of their merchandise because the workers did not have time to raise up all the sacks of rice, sugar or beans.

One family has lost everything because their house was a garage turned into a home because of the deficit of housing. “We didn’t see it coming and by the time we realized, everything was underwater,” was all that the woman managed to repeat, as she rescued swollen chairs from a mixture of seawater, mud and garbage.

Victoria, a resident, regrets that “they have not cleaned the streets as they are doing in front of the Meliá Cohiba hotel

In front of the Labiofam offices at 1st and B, cars “had all four tires in the air,” explains Ramiro, a resident, while pumping out the water that entered his garage. The man, who lives in the 110 building behind the Presidente Hotel, complains that those in charge of decontaminating the water tanks are “delayed” and in similar situations “they let some three days go by to force the residents to solve the problems on our own.”

In many private businesses the employees were busy from the early hours of the morning cleaning, getting the water out, and trying to save what wasn’t washed away with the current, while repairing the damage.

A group of people who had approached the seawall to enjoy the waves breaking over it were alerted by the whistles of police officers who guarded each block; the law enforcement officials explained to the reckless that it is very dangerous because “a stone can fly up and hit you.”

As reported by the Forecast Center of the Institute of Meteorology, coastal flooding began to decrease “gradually” from this morning, but in the early hours of the afternoon there were still heavy tidal waves.

Belkis Cantillo, Leader Of The Dignity Movement Released / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Belkis Cantillo, leader of the Dignity Movement. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 23 January 2017 — The leader of the Dignity Movement, Belkis Cantillo, who was arrested last Thursday was released Monday afternoon, as confirmed to 14ymedio by Moraima Diaz, an activist of the same movement.

Shortly after being released, in a telephone conversation with this newspaper, Cantillo explained that she was given a warning letter that he refused to sign.

According to the activist, the document stated that she could not “meet with anyone” or be visited by “counterrevolutionaries.” The police also prevented her from carrying out “public demonstrations.” continue reading

About her days in custody, she says that they removed the mattress and that she was “sleeping on the cement” which caused an “increase of the pain she already suffered due to renal colic.” The activist reports that, after insisting, she was visited by a lawyer.

After her release she was summoned to appear next Saturday before the offices of the State Security in the municipality Julio A. Mella.

According to Moraima Díaz, members of the Dignity Movement cannot leave their homes without State Security agents “persecuting them.”

“We have agents at every corner of the house. It is a police siege to which we are subjected,” she adds.

Moraima Díaz: “We have been told that if we leave the house, our families will be the ones who will pay the consequences”

“We have been told that if we leave the house, our families will be the ones who will pay the consequences,” she says from Palmarito de Cauto, a town in the province of Santiago de Cuba.

“The situation here is extreme. The police have taken the town so that there are no dissident demonstrations,” says the activist.

The women of the Dignity Movement have experienced days of intense repression since they created their movement in the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre on Saturday, January 14. They call for, among other things, immediate and unconditional amnesty for all those who today are serving prison sentences for “pre-criminal dangerousness” and for this concept which they consider to be “arbitrary” to be eliminated from the Penal Code.

Amel Carlos Oliva, youth leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, told 14ymedio that in the early hours of the morning the police raided the house of Thomas Madariaga Nunez, 66, an active member of his organization.

Right now, Madariaga is in custody.

Fire, Neglect and Bureaucracy Sink the Moscow Restaurant / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Complaints about the problems caused by the ruins of the building have been repeated each year in the “Accountability Assemblies”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 20 January 2017 – A bird has his nest on a fragment of wall and a creeper peeps over what was once the sumptuous door of the Moscow Restaurant. Almost three decades after a fire extinguished the sparkle of the downtown location, its ruins are a headache for its closest neighbors and city authorities.

“I asked my wife to marry me under that decorated wooden ceiling,” Waldo, a 67-year-old retiree from the Cuban Radio and Television Institute, tells this newspaper. Like many of his contemporaries, he thinks that the Moscow Restaurant “was the pearl in the crown of this city” until the end of the 1980’s. continue reading

After Fidel Castro came to power and the nationalizations happened, the property stopped housing the famous Montmartre casino and cabaret. At the end of the 1960’s, the place was re-named Moscow, a nod to the Soviet Union. Bolero nights came to their end, and Solyanka soup and Russian salad took over the place.

“The food was good, and they had workers trained in the old style who treated customers with friendliness and without today’s cheek,” says Jose Ignacio, a nearby neighbor from 25th Street who assures that the complaints about the problems caused by the building’s ruins “have been repeated each year in the People’s Power Accountability Assemblies*.”

The place remains closed, with entrances covered and vegetation growing between its walls. With the years, the situation has become untenable for the neighbors. “There are a lot of mosquitoes, because when it rains, the water accumulates,” complains Monica, mother of a months-old baby who must “sleep with mosquito netting in spite of being in the city’s very downtown.”

Officials from the Provincial Administration Council commented this week on television news that “given the damage caused by the fire” and the years of neglect, the ruined property can only be demolished. “There is no chance of saving it for restoration, therefore it must be demolished,” they pronounced.

The work of taking down the building necessitates 260 cubic meters of wood for support, and no fewer than two full-time cranes hired for a year, specified the two interviewed officials. The total amount for the operation is calculated at four million Cuban pesos, but it is not a priority among the investment plans assigned to the city.

In Old Havana other more ruinous properties have been restored and function as hotels or cultural centers, but the Moscow seems to be cursed. “In an attack here they killed Antonio Blanco Rico, chief of Fulgencio Batista’s Military Intelligence,” says Gustavo, a nearby neighbor and one who proclaims himself “familiar with every inch of this city’s history.”

More than three decades after that event a voracious fire destroyed the place, and since then it has been closed. “I was born in the middle of the Special Period in the 1990’s, and I only heard stories about the Moscow Restaurant from my parents,” says a young shoe and wallet vendor at the 23rd Street Fair.

Next to him a lady listens to the conversation and evokes the restaurant’s golden age. “They were times when a worker could pay for a meal in such a place with his salary,” she remembers. “But shortly after the Moscow burned, the USSR also came down, and all that turned to smoke and ashes.”

*Translator’s note: Regular meetings held by deputies at different levels of government with their constituents to hear from them and be “held accountable” for their performance.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

The Three Kings Are Also Sexist / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

The demands of children have grown along with the prices of toys. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, Luz Escobar, 6 January 2016 — Half a hundred people crowded around the outside of the store. Some shelves display dolls, play tea sets and teddy bears: an explosion of pink and lilac. In others, plastic wagons, swords and firefighters’ equipment appear darker and bluish. There is no other occasion like Three Kings Day – Epiphany, when Cuban children traditionally are given Christmas gifts – to highlight the sexism promoted by many toys for children.

In the line to get to the children’s department in Havana’s Carlos III Plaza, is Yuraima, 42. She hopes to buy a gift to deliver to her niece this Friday. “I look for something nice and cheap, but also different, because she is a very smart girl,” she told 14ymedio. The woman does not want to repeat the stereotypes that prevented her from enjoying some games when she was little. continue reading

Yuraima’s mother never agreed to buy her a plastic building set that she insistently asked for when she was nine years old. “That’s a boy thing,” her mother would say. Growing up and deciding on a profession, she continued to like “putting things together and taking them apart.” Now she works “fixing electrical appliances” in a private workshop in Central Havana.

While girls are presented as princesses, fragile and focused on looking beautiful, boys seem ready to battle and kill many-headed monsters

Although the government still has a tentative attitude towards the religious origin of the January 6th tradition, the market has ended up imposing itself. A fury of purchases has taken over the children’s shops in the days prior to the arrival of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and the informal market has supplied itself for the occasion.

Most toys on sale are promoted with well-defined gender images and promote the learning of certain behaviors or attitudes. The face of a smiling girl decorates a box containing plastic pans and tiny cups in the downtown Galeries Paseo store. A few yards away, a muscular hero armed with a pistol stands out in the package containing a helmet and a shield.

While girls are presented as princesses, fragile and focused on looking beautiful, boys seem ready to battle to kill many-headed monsters or save a frail woman from the flames of a fire. Among the few unisex toys are table games, balls and Legos.

In the world of video games the distances also widen between both genders. The digital entertainments where girls dress their “paper” dolls with the most varied clothes have increased in the networks that distribute alternative media. In contrast, the sagas of heroes, sorcerers and monsters are the most abundant among boys.

Alicia González Hernández, from the Department of Sexology and Sexual Education at the Pedagogical University, has warned in her studies about the “blue, masculine world… of competition and achievements, open outwards, towards public life and social realization,” as opposed to “a pink, feminine world … of tenderness and help, turned towards intimacy, towards private life and the realization of the family.”

Women occupy 66.3% of the professional and technical positions, but in their houses they continue to carry out most of the domestic tasks

In 2015, 60.3% of graduates of higher education in Cuba were women, and they occupied 66.3% of professional and technical positions, according to the “Social Economic Landscape” report. However, women continue to do most household chores at home. They are responsible for preparing food, scrubbing, washing, ironing and caring for children.

Hence games that imitate household activities, with kitchens, small washing machines and tiny cleaning utensils are bought for girls. “That’s what they see their mothers doing and what they think they should do to become real women,” reflects Yuraima. In her opinion, “the grandparents influence a lot in those stereotypes, because they give dolls to the girls and toy cars to the boys,” she complains.

Princess toys for girls and battle toys for boys. (14ymedio)

In daycare centers and pre-school classrooms, children also find a divided universe. At the corner of a classroom in San Miguel del Padrón, the teacher Daysi, 28, has prepared several play stations that include a hairdresser and the kitchen of a house. “There are boys who also play with the dolls, but it is not the common thing,” although she says that “more and more, girls construct structures with pieces of wood.”

Small girls who play with marbles or spinning tops are called “marimachas” (butch) while boys who play house can receive worse insults. The strict definition of roles starts from the time they are babies and parents choose the pink basket for girls and blue for boys. The rest of their lives they are expected to accept or reject the gender molds that society imposes on them.

Most women surveyed prefer “a strong man, who fights, practices sports, drinks alcohol, is dominant, has money and, of course, never cries”

Julio César González Pagés, coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network and author of Macho Male Manly, led a study in 18 cities on the island with interviews with more than 20,000 people. Most women surveyed prefer “a strong man, who fights, plays sports, drinks alcohol, is dominant, has money and, of course, never cries.” Behaviors that are promoted from the home, reaffirmed in schools and supported in social or romantic relationships.

Such attitudes increase with the profile that surrounds many products for sale. State stores do not promote a balanced and non-stereotyped image of women. The critique of these rigid schemes has scarcely penetrated the public debate.

Younger parents, more aware of the issues being debated around the world, try to erase stereotypes in their children’s play. “Her father brought her a water gun, very nice,” says Lady, the mother of a three-year-old girl who is married to a Spanish resident on the island. The woman remembers that the grandparents “were very annoyed,” but in the end “everyone has gotten used to it.”

This year Lady has bought a science kit for her daughter, with a small plastic microscope and some containers to collect samples. “No Barbies and princesses, better to play with something that resembles reality.”

Old Havana, Internet Territory / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Liensey Martínez, a young resident of Teniente Rey Street between San Ignacio and Cuba, now enjoys having internet at home. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 7 January 2016 – A few lights blink in Julian’s living room, on San Ignacio Street between Teniente Rey and Amargura in Old Havana. This week he was given a router to connect to the internet, as a part of a pilot project being carried out in the area. However, the old man has no computer and hasn’t managed to enter the great World Wide Web.

The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) has chosen 2,000 users in the People’s Council districts of Catedral and Plaza Vieja for a free experiment in web connectivity from their homes. The requirement was to have a landline, but many residents who qualified do not have the technology to enjoy the service.

“I leave it on all the time so it doesn’t get damp,” says Julian, of the apparatus whose LEDs twinkle in his modest home. The old man dreams that they will also offer a “time payment plan” so he can get a laptop, just like was done “with the purchase of the refrigerator.” continue reading

So far, navigating from home has been a privilege reserved for high officials, highly trusted professionals and foreigners living in Cuba. Those connections were established through the old-fashioned dial-up method, but the new test is being done with the faster ADSL lines.

The requirement for enrollment in the pilot was to have a landline, but many residents do not have the technology to enjoy the service

For Julián, the main benefit would be to connect with his family living abroad, although he acknowledges that, “Really it’s all the same to me to have the internet or not.”

The experience of Liensey Martínez, a young resident of Teniente Rey Street between San Ignacio and Cuba, is different. He has a computer and with the delivery of the router, a TP-Link brand, he is able to also put in a home wifi network to connect to a tablet or cellphone.

This week they gave Julian a router to connect to the internet, but he does not have a computer. (14ymedio)

“The connection works well, sometimes it gets slow, but it almost never freezes,” says Martinez, who operates a private business in his home renting rooms to tourists. “We benefit a lot because we make almost all reservations online and now it is more convenient. Before we had to go to the Plaza Hotel or a Wi-Fi zone,” he says.

The entrepreneur details that the pilot test includes 30 hours of free navigation during the month of January and a similar amount for February. However, “I can also enter my Nauta navigation account using my username and password,” and use the balance deposited in that service.

The experiment will conclude on 28 February, but the hourly rates for navigation packages have not been made public. “People say there will be packages of 30, 60 and 100 Cuban Convertible pesos (CUCs, which are about the same in dollars) depending on the hours but that’s just rumors that hear,” Martinez says.

Cuba is one of the countries in the world with the lowest rates of internet penetration; as of July 2015 the state telecommunications monopoly has enabled public Wi-Fi hotspots

Old Havana is one of the country’s municipalities with the most wifi zones, a good part of them located in the hotels, but there is also one on the corner of the centrally located Obispo Street at San Ignacio. But the connection from these points remains expensive for most wallets, although Etecsa recently lowered the price of one hour of Internet browsing from 2.00 CUC to 1.50, in a country where the average monthly salary barely exceeds the equivalent of 25.00 CUC.

Cuba is one of the countries in the world with the lowest rates of internet penetration; as of July 2015 the state monopoly of telecommunications has enabled public Wi-Fi hotspots, which now number more than 200 throughout the country. According to official figures about 250,000 users connect in these areas daily.

In recent weeks antennas for a wireless connection have also been installed in in several places along Havana’s Malecon and the company plans to extend service all along the coastal boulevard. The wifi zones at Hola Ola, La Piragua, 12 and Malecón, 3rd and B, and Fuente de la Juventud are already operational.

However, eyes are watching Old Havana. Cubans are waiting for 2017 to be the year they can finally become internet users.

Cuba’s ‘Weekly Packet’ is Caught in the Crossfire / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

A Cuban accessing the packet from his laptop. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 23 December 2016 – “Over my dead body!” echoes across a living room in Florida, Camaguey, Cuba, the day Jorge Angel discovered his family absorbed in the weekly packet. Now the wife sneaks to watch the reality shows that come in the weekly audiovisual compendium so as not to annoy the family’s Communist Party militant.

Criticized by officialdom, and in ever growing demand among customers, the packet is caught in the crossfire. After several weeks of programming on national television marked by tributes to the recently deceased Fidel Castro, demand for movies, TV shows and documentaries has skyrocketed in the informal market, while institutional hatred against the packet has intensified. continue reading

In Central Havana, the most densely populated municipality in Cuba, the impact of the packet is everywhere. Outside La Candeal bakery, two women were talking this Thursday about a Colombian telenovela that arrives in one of the 40 folders included in the popular compilation.

“This is the zone of satellite dishes and the packet,” explains a messenger for Copypack, a place that sells the product put together by an enterprise calling itself Omega. The young man says that over the last three weeks the number of clients has grown, as they “come looking for anything, so long as they don’t have to watch [state] television.”

Distributors have avoided including in the latest compilations material critical of the former president and the popular programs on South Florida channels. “There’s no reason to stick your finger in the eye of the beast,” says the employee.

The caution of the informal producers and distributors has not prevented the authorities from renewing their offensive against the most important competitor to official programming.

This Thursday the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) published an article on the subject, signed by journalist Miguel Cruz Suarez under the title The Sweet Poison In The Ostrich’s Hole. The author acknowledges that “thousands of Cubans” prefer audiovisual content that is distributed on flash memories and DVDs, a practice that exposes them to the “disparate scenarios of capitalist entertainment,” he says.

The reporter also points out the dangers of “cultural naiveté” opening the doors to “the guest of banality and consumerist egotism,” although he acknowledges that there are already “some manifestations” of this scourge on the island.

Among the bitterest enemies of the packet is Abel Prieto, Minister of Culture, and Miguel Barnet, President of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Both have complained about the poor quality of content consumed, versus that of the state television programming, is content they consider “junk” and “pseudo-cultural products.” Prieto recently warned that the phenomenon could end up expanding in the country “the frivolity of the culturally colonized,” people who “have already given up the pleasure of intelligence.”

However, among ordinary people on the street there are other critics whose voices are also being heard. “The packet has become very cowardly, I don’t watch it,” says Jonathan, who has a degree in History. He explains that “it used to include more interesting and controversial topics, but now it is a little lightweight.”

Wilfredo and Niurka, a couple residing on Monte Avenue in Havana, share this view. “We decided to buy the satellite dish because we want to watch the news and Miami programs that no longer come in the packet,” the wife says. Both believe that the compendium “has become annoying, it’s already as ‘controlled’ at the (state) Cubavision channel.”

The Film ‘Santa and Andrés’ is Excluded From Havana Festival / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Still from the film ‘Santa and Andrew’ Carlos Lechuga. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 23 November 2016 — The film Santa and Andrés will not be screened at the 38th edition of the Havana Film Festival, to be held between 8 and 18 December. Sources from the industry guild commented to 14ymedio that the exclusion of the independent film, directed by Carlos Lechuga, could be motivated by its theme, focusing on censorship against a gay intellectual in the early eighties.

The 36th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema awarded the film the prize for an unpublished script, but it will not compete in this year’s festival. This decision came from “the highest authority,” several filmmakers told 14ymedio, and contrasts with the decision initially made by the event’s organizing committee, which gave a green light to the showing of the film. continue reading

An article in the official blog El Heraldo Cubano says that the plot of the movie “aims to highlight political persecution and attacks on the island that did not take place.” The article says that the film follows “a course of action that is not consistent with history.”

The article has circulated widely among filmmakers, and Carlos Lechuga, in a passionate response on his Facebook page, says that the author’s words are not only an attack on Santa and Andrés, but also represent “a critique and an attack on all independent cinema.”

The director, Enrique ‘Kiki’ Alvarez, has joined the defense of the film because he feels that the story of the two main characters, “who are opposites, she a revolutionary and he a censored writer, forced to be together,” ends up leading them “to a coming together and a recognition of the other that defines the humanistic will of this film.”

Lechuga continues to hope that the decision to exclude the movie from the most important film event on the island will be reversed. However, the filmmaker Miguel Coyula believes he “is still trying to have a dialogue of the deaf (…). We have to advocate for creating a space, an independent theater, where art films are shown without being dominated by the dictates of an institution.”

The official attack has ignored the vast number of awards received by Lechuga, including the Julio Alejandro Award from Spain’s General Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE). This is the second feature film by this young director, who captivated audiences with his film Molasses (2012).

Santa and Andrés premiered to a full house at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was also screened at San Sebastian, Chicago and Zurich. Its first showings were dedicated to Reinaldo Arenas, René Ariza, Nestor Almendros, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Virgilio Piñera and José Lezama Lima.

Lechuga says that in the idea and filming of the work he was motivated by “the desire, the attempt, to hear the voice of many who were silenced or who suffered the repression of people who tried to silence them.”

The Havana Film Festival will show 440 films this year, with 36 of them competing for prizes. Among them, two Cuban productions will compete in the category of first works and three will compete for the award for best feature film.

For more than three years several Cuban filmmakers have defended, in open meetings ,the idea of a Film Law that would permit the development and operation of independent production houses.


Cubans Directed To Be Sad / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Mario Penton

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar/Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 29 November 2016 — Women crying on camera, Facebook profiles turned into portraits of Comandante Fidel, long lines to bid farewell to his absent ashes. No reggaeton in the streets, no “good morning” from the announcers on national television. For a tourist, the people, Cuban and devoted to Fidel, transfixed by pain, have not lost any opportunity to say goodbye to their leader. But the reality is very different from the slogans.

“The Student Federation sent me this picture by email,” says a computer science student in Santa Clara, while looking at an image of a young Fidel Castro in his inbox. “The directions are for us to put it on our social networks and dedicate a dignified farewell to the old man,” says the teenager. “All of it, it doesn’t matter to me, but if I don’t do it, it could affect my career,” he adds. continue reading

Teresa, a woman from Cienfuegos who works in education, spends the hours as the sun passes overhead in front of a photograph of the former president and follows protocol to show signs of pain, which isn’t pleasant.

“I went because the union made me. If you dare not to go you’ll find out what happens to you. He died, but the system he created is just the same. He could have done a lot of good, but forcing us to go say goodbye to him seems abusive to me,” says the teacher, who added that she ended up with a migraine after so much time standing in the sun.

Perhaps the most notable case of following the forms was the debate between two news announcers, Froilán Arencibia and Mariuska Díaz, caught on open mike, about whether they should greet viewers with “good afternoon” or simply “greetings.” Finally, the direction to eliminate the “good” won the day because how could it be a good day if Fidel Castro had died?

“They put us in a huge line where, at the end all we had in front of us was a photo and his medals, because the ashes were for the leaders,” an independent worker told 14ymedio.

On elderly messenger in Havana had his own hypothesis about why Castro’s ashes weren’t on display to the thousands of people who waited at least four hours to enter one of the three “altars” in the Plaza of the Revolution. “Looking at his photo were his admirers and opportunists who wanted to look good at work. If they’d put the ashes on display, they’d have to have someone guarding them and there might have been some damage done,” he said, in reference to the Afro-Cuban rites where the bones of the deceased or, failing that, the dust of the skeleton contains the spirit of the departed.

“There are people who really loved him and they’re sorry. Fidel had a people,” a lady of 60 years, retired from the army, says ruefully.

In a Havana street, a young man who was with his girlfriend in a car complains that a policeman knocked on his window and asked, discourteously, that he turn off the music with which the couple was passing the time.

In the case of Cubans abroad connected with the country, the directions have been clear: you must first participate in a ceremony in which a book of dedications and lamentations is filled, then you have to reflect that pain in social networks.

“We want to make Facebook into a place where our Comandante is remembered and colleagues from other countries can go there to see the pain of our people,” a coordinator of the Cuban medical mission told Cuban doctors at a meeting in Brazil.

“The truth is easy come easy go, they force us to stand in lines,” jokes one of the doctors of the mission who requested anonymity.

“This is like an open stage or one of the famous ‘marches of the combative people.’ Doesn’t anyone ask why there were not spontaneous mass gatherings after the announcement? The people have to wait for directions from above to be sad.”

When Bread Is Also Medicine / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Carlos Bernabé talks to 14ymedio about his experience in Cuba. (14ymedio)
Carlos Bernabé talks to 14ymedio about his experience in Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 20 November 2016 — The corner of Infanta and San Lazaro just awoke from its always busy Friday night. In the bakery of the El Biky restaurant, Carlos Bernabé tastes one baked treat after another. Faced with a delicacy filled with coconut, the demanding eater suggests “only the madeleine could be improved.”

He says it knowingly, because the Spaniard comes from a family of bakers in Valencia and presides over the Indespan company. His excitement to explore new horizons has brought him to the island several times in the last five years. He says that the challenge here is to “encourage innovation in the bread and bakery sector.” continue reading

Barnabas takes a bite of his pastry and a sip of coffee. He explains that his firm has done innovated research “in the field of healthy baking.” Outside the windows of the café where he speaks with 14ymedio, the sun begins to shine through everywhere, defying the clouds and traffic.

Over a year ago the entrepreneur came to train and supply the employees of La Antigua Chiquita bakery, and he affirms that “since then, the bakery has exclusively dedicated itself to preparing breads and pastries for the celiac population.” Celiac is a disorder that obliges those who suffer from it to each gluten-free foods.

Barnabas boasts that the breads and pastries prepared under his company’s methods “become medication.” He evaluates the initiative that started at the bakery on Carlos III Street as “a resounding success” because “it is the first bakery in Cuba that offers good quality products for celiac sufferers,” and that has been able to maintain a stable supply of products.

The businessman has not wanted to stay only in Havana and the project is expanding to other provinces. On his most recent trip he helped to “set up the second gluten-free bakery for celiacs,” now in Santa Clara. In this effort he was accompanied by two bakers from his team in Valencia.

This type of preparation “was totally unknown” to the Cuban employees, but after three days of practice “they know how to make different kinds of products such as breads, hamburger buns, pizzas, cakes and muffins,” says Indespan’s president.

Carlos Bernabe works with bakers in Santa Clara. (Courtesy of the interviewee)
Carlos Bernabe works with bakers in Santa Clara. (Courtesy of the interviewee)

In these last five years, while promoting his ideas on the island, he has been approached at his presentations by everyone “from crying children” to “mothers of adult children who were finally able to eat warm bread.” He found that many felt socially excluded because at parties and recreational activities “all the sweets contained flour, contained gluten,” which is dangerous to their health.

Last Friday Barnabas did a demonstration at El Sylvain on Calzada de 10 Octubre in Havana in which he made breads and desserts for diabetics, “with zero sugar,” he says.

He explains that in this effort to introduce formulas and methods for healthy eating in Cuba, he has found “great support” and “those responsible for the bakeries are very concerned about it.” He maintains “a fluid conversation with all those involved so he doesn’t run out of supplies,” and in order to avoid “celiacs not having their food, their medicine.”

The baker is not done in terms of projects. He plans to increase the variety of products and on his next trip will bring “gluten-free pasta so celiacs can make spaghetti, cannelloni and lasagna at home.”

He estimates that there is a need for more than “five hundred bakeries of this type” throughout the country to satisfy the demand. “The important thing is to start on the path and then offer the facilities necessary for the self-employed to be able to continue,” he says, in relation to the private sector.

However, to achieve this “the most important thing” is “to improve the supply of raw materials.” In his conversations with Cuban entrepreneurs he has learned that “their main problem is supplies,” stable supplies “to make bread for diabetics or to get mixes.”

There needs to be “in the very near future, a way for private individuals to get the raw materials necessary to give the population a quality product,” Bernebé emphasizes. Having a wholesale market still seems like a dream, but even though the projects are “going slowly” the baker believes that “we have to keep pushing.”

Trump in Miami, Clinton in Havana / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Mario Penton

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 8 November 2016 – With the presidential election this Tuesday, not only is the fate of the United States in play. Its results will also affect the future of the island. In Miami, the South Florida city that Cuban exiles have turned into their capital since the sixties, the Cuban-American community will go to the polls very early to exercise their right to vote. Jorge Guillarte, a 30-year-old Cuban-American, doesn’t care for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. He explains that, although he is going to vote, he prefers to do it for local candidates and to use his vote for things that change his own community. “If we had a candidate like Michelle Obama, I would vote for her,” he adds.

“I am a Republican, I am Cuban, we defend the rights and freedom. We want Clinton to leave and Trump to get in to live a little better, with peace and security, with more jobs and more prosperity for the American people,” Enrique de la Cruz, a former Cuban political prisoner, told 14ymedio. continue reading

The New York magnate promised to be tough on the government of Raul Castro if he comes to power. In an attempt to win the Cuban vote, traditionally Republican, but shifting among younger voters, Trump promised to reverse the opening to Havana maintained by President Barack Obama.

“The United States should not protect the Cuban regime economically or politically as Obama has done, and as Hillary Clinton plans to do. They do not know how to make a good deal. She is as bad as him, if not worse,” Trump told the veterans of the Bay of Pigs at a campaign event at the headquarters of Brigade 2506.

Others, however, choose the Democratic option. Such is the case with Ventura Soto, a retired Cuban who was born in the territory that today corresponds to the province of Granma.

Soto explains that he is going to the polls to support everyone who is a Democrat. “Starting with Patrick (Murphy) and doing away with his opponent (Sen. Marco) Rubio who is swarthy,” he says.

In the face of a “racist” speech by the Republican candidate, he is choosing continuity. “He doesn’t want us,” Ventura Soto affirms.

Ileana Cabrera, another Cuban who has spent 22 years in exile, is worried. “We Cubans have experienced monstrosities in our country, it costs a lot of work to believe that in this beautiful country that has accepted as that there are political problems as serious as those facing us,” she adds. “We have to unite, because Cubans divided us.”

In Cuba, the opinions seem to be marked by the influence left by the visit of President Obama in March. Vicenta, a woman selling crafts in Old Havana, believes that the best option for the US is Hillary Clinton, because she seems “fair” and “better person.” Antonio, a retiree, shares this view and, although he was not able to remember the name of the Democratic candidate, he predicts her victory.

Despite the limited access to the internet on the island, Antonio says that judging “online, she” will be the winner.

A young sophomore in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Havana also expressed an opinion in favor of Clinton and evaluated her victory as a “preferred” way out, adding it would be “among the negative [choices], the better one.”

Only one of those interviewed predicted Trump would be the winner, “with the money he has, he’s going to win.”

On Tuesday morning, Cristina Escobar, the commentator on international issues on Cuban National Television, without venturing a prediction about the possible winner, concentrated on detailing the scenarios for Cuba in either case.

The journalist explained the real estate moguls unstable position with regards to Cuba, saying he has shown a proclivity to open businesses on the island, and also met with the veterans of the Bay of Pigs Brigade 2506. The Republican candidate also promised to reverse the diplomatic normalization promoted by Obama, she said.

On the former First Lady, Escobar predicted that she would maintain the steps toward a thaw taken by the current administration. However, she clarified that Obama considered the issue of Cuba an important part of his “legacy” but Clinton did not seem to give it much importance.