Cuban Investors, Yes, but Only if They Live Overseas

A man consults the Law of Foreign Investment in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami 8 June 2019 — The country’s official news outlets reported on Friday that “there is no impediment” to investing on the island for those living in the diaspora. Quite true, under the Foreign Investment Act, but not for Cuban nationals.

In an article in the digital news site Cubadebate, Ministry of Foreign Trade official Deborah Rivas stated that the Foreign Investment Act, adopted by the Cuban parliament in 2014, “sets no restrictions on the origin of capital.”

In the same article she noted that the Minister of Foreign Trade, Rodrigo Malmierca, had tweeted the previous week that citizens “of Cuban origin” can invest in the island. continue reading

The statements come at a time of heightened concern over the finances of the government, which owes more than 1.5 billion dollars to food suppliers according to the economics minister. The government is also facing implementation by the Trump Administration of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. Under this law US-born and naturalized Cuban citizens and can sue companies that invest in properties expropriated by Fidel Castro in the 1960s.

In the article Rivas states, “Nowhere does the Foreign Investment Act mention citizenship or place of birth but it is quite clear that the investor’s place of residence and capital should be outside of Cuba.”

“Our regulations do not stipulate a minimum amount of foreign investment capital required for approval. In each case a comprehensive analysis of the proposed project is carried out and the amount of capital to be spent corresponds to the investment to be made,” she adds.

Her statements contrast with those made by Chancellor Bruno Rodriguez at a gathering of Americans for Engagement, an organization of Cuban-Americans and US citizens which seeks improved relations between the United States and Cuba. In a 2012 meeting with Cuban-Americans interested in participating in Cuban investment projects, Rodriguez acknowledged that, while there is “a legal basis for Cuban emigres to invest, the Cuban government is not interested in investments of 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000 dollars.”

“Cuba is looking for investments of a magnitude that, as a rule, do not come from the emigre community,” he added.

According to official figures, the island needs to attract 2.5 billion dollars of foreign capital for development and has targeted several key sectors, including manufacturing, agro-business, tourism, mining, biotechnology, petroleum and renewable energy. Though every year the government publishes a business portfolio which includes hundreds of projects valued at more than ten billion dollars, they fail to attract many investors.

According to the economist Omar Everleny Perez, the main problem with foreign investments on the Island is excessive red tape, which makes the pace of business approvals “slow and bureaucratic.”

Among the problems affecting foreign investment are the dual currency system and the inability of employers to hire their own workers. Currently, the state acts as intermediary, hiring workers and retaining most of their paychecks. In response, some companies have opted to bring in foreign workers and pay them directly, guaranteeing the companies more effective quality control.

Deborah Rivas’ statements have generated a strong response on social media, especially among Cubans on the island, who lament the exclusionary nature of a law which allows expatriates to invest in companies, industries and other sectors of the economy but prevents those who live in the country from doing the same.

According to baritone and Opera de la Calle director Ulises Aquino it does not make sense to discriminate against those who remained in Cuba, “against those who did not leave, who have struggled their whole lives.” In a post on his Facebook account he defends the right “of all Cuban business people” to be respected whether they are inside or outside the country.

A computer technician, Norges Rodriguez, joined the fray when he tweeted a question: What would happen if a Cuban living abroad makes an investment on the island and then decides to move back to Cuba? “What happens to his investment?” he asks in a message linked to the Twitter account of the Cuban ambassador to the United States.

Even during the brief thaw that began during the Obama administration, some American investment projects on the island were sidelined because of conditions imposed by the Cuban side. One such case involved Cleber LLC, which wanted to assemble tractors in the so-called Mariel Special Development Zone.

In spite of receiving widespread media coverage for being the first project to be completely funded with US capital since 1959, Cuban authorities rejected the company’s proposal because of its owner, Cuban-American businessman Saul Berenthal.

Rejection of the proposed project, which had been applauded by Obama himself during his 2016 visit to the island, stemmed from Berenthal’s having obtained permanent resident status in Cuba. The repatriation process restored his rights as a citizen but at the same time prevented him from investing on the island as a foreign businessman.

“Can individuals living in the country participate in foreign investment projects? No. The law is aimed at attracting foreign investors, or Cubans living abroad whose assets are also abroad, who can provide financing, advanced technologies, markets for our products and new revenue,” explains a study on the Foreign Investment Act.

Individuals in Cuba’s budding private business sector are subject to many restrictions such as the inability to set up corporations, or to import and export. Meanwhile, the government still relies on unproductive “socialist state enterprises” as its primary means of support.

Recently, the European Union’s ambassador to Havana, Alberto Navarro, called on Cuba to allow “more commercial openness” in response to the implementation of Title III of Helms-Burton. Foreign trade minister Rivas responded to the ambassador in the official media, saying that Cuba was planning to create a “special window for foreign investment” to reduce the time spent waiting for approval of investment projects.


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

Cubans Say Goodbye to an Era

With the touchdown of the United Airlines plane in New York at 6:35 PM, most of its passengers were saying goodbye to an era.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, June 6, 2019 — Before departing, the ship’s bullhorn sounded and cars near the Havana Cruise Terminal responded by honking goodbye with their own horns. A group of people waved farewell and some even took out a handkerchief. The Empress of the Seas sailed away and, as the impressive structure left Cuba’s main port, an era came to an end.

On Wednesday the Trump administration implemented a travel ban on educational and cruise trips to Cuba, which thousands of Americans had used to visit the island nation that is so close yet so far away. Licenses for recreational and passenger ships were also canceled along with private air flights in an effort to deprive the Cuban government of a major source of hard currency.

However, in the streets of Havana and the areas near tourist attractions, which until recently benefitted from this flow of visitors, the economic pain seemed to be felt more by self-employed workers than the almighty state. continue reading

“Now there a lot of people affected by this,” says Sergio, a guide from a private guided tour agency who had been waiting for customers all day Wednesday but went home empty handed. In addition to dealing with the daily challenges imposed by Cuban bureaucracy — the young man’s business does not yet have a license to operate — he now has run up against another obstacle.

“We have to be discreet so that the police patrolling Old Havana don’t stop us. If they see us with a group of foreigners, they’ll slap us with a sixty-dollar fine.” In the middle of the off-season, the arrival of cruise ships offered many like Sergio the chance to earn a little hard currency in a country that in recent months has experienced increased food shortages and a rise in prices.

“The list of those affected by this is long: owners of short-term rentals, privately owned restaurants, drivers of vintage cars,” says the tour guide. A whole network of private businesses that must pay the state high taxes just to stay in business. According to Sergio, owners of the old 1950s cars that offer cruise ship passengers tours around the city must pay almost 800 dollars a month. “Those guys are screwed,” he says,

A sizable portion of economic earnings remain in the hands of officials, a situation criticized by activists and dissidents who are subjected to repression on a daily basis.

Independent journalist Boris González believes that the steps taken by Obama “were seen as somenting potentially positive” at the time but adds that those steps were taken only by one side. The Cuban government barely budged at all. “The first move should have been by the Cuban goverment. It should have lifted the blockade it has on its citizens,” he says.

González believes that, if the Cuban authorities do not lift restrictions on its citizens, “they should not be allowed to enjoy and consolidate the benefits of that policy.” He adds, “We Cubans have to keep insisting that it’s about having freedom and not about picking up the money that falls out of the government’s pocket.”

At the  table of a bar near the dark waters of the bay, Jonathan and Josephine finish off a mojito as they count the hours before their return to San Francisco. Both work at a medical insurance company and arrived in the Cuban capital as part of a group that sponsors agro-ecology projects on the outskirts of the city.

“This is the fourth time we have been here in the last three years and we’ve made a lot of friends here. Now it will be difficult to see them again,” laments Jonathan.

Josephine adds, “It’s a shame because we help the people and most of the Cubans we speak with are critical of their government and want more freedom. Now they are going to be punished as well.”

At José Martí International Airport’s Terminal 2, several miles away, dozens of American passengers are boarding a United Airlines flight to Newark. A selfie on the plane’s tarmac with Havana’s afternoon sky in the background was all that was left of a visit that no one knows when they will be able to make again.

Twenty-two-year-old Claire took a trip with two friends to see Cuba and boasted of being the first person in her family to visit the island thanks to measures adopted by Barack Obama after the diplomatic thaw that began at the end of 2014

“We came with a group visiting Baptist churces but we really we had a lot of time to see the country, have fun and visit places.” In her bag are two bottles of Havana Club rum, sealed in a plastic security bag, which she promises will be “the last souvenir we can take with us before it all ends.”

Claire and her friends heard about the end of cultural and educational trips to the island, known as “people-to-people” exchanges, while they were taking a dip at the beach at Santa Maria, east of Havana. They had been able to visit because their trip fell under one of the twelve categories of licenses issued by the US State Department, which include government business, media activities, research, and educational, religious or medical projects.

“I feel sorry for the people I met and hope these measures really help the Cuban people, though at the moment it’s hard to see if they will have positive results,” she admits. “I hope that, when I return to Cuba the next time, there will be more freedom, especially for young people. Many of them I spoke with asked me to help them leave the country and that means they do not feel good about being here.”

For activist and former Black Spring prisoner Angel Mora the measures adopted by the US administration are correct: “The money they get from these businesses will end up in the hands of those strenthening the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship.” He adds, “The public does not benefit from this type of tourism. It amounts to trafficking in properties that were confisctated from their legitimate owners.”

Moya believes the next step will be the elimination of the so-called cultural exchanges, which have resulted in many artists from the island performing on American stages in the last five years. “They serve no purpose other than to allow the Cuban regime to export its ideology and propaganda,” says the activist.

By contrast, Elaine Díaz, director of the independent digital news outlet Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), is not happy about this action by the Trump administration. “It’s bad news for Cubans. One more measure that hurts citizens rather than the government,” she said.

With the touchdown of the United Airlines plane in New York at 6:35 PM, most of its passengers were saying goodbye to an era.


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

Fish Returns to Cubans’ Tables… Sort of

These two fish cost 60 Cuba pesos (CUP). (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 29 May 2019 — Just crossing the street, the aroma changes. You can smell the fish cooking in the houses of Central Havana, where the product is for sale “liberated but controlled” — that is not on the ration book, but in limited quantities — according to a sign outside the markets. On the other side of the avenue, the residents wait for the fish to be unloaded as soon as possible, because of the refrigeration problems in the butcher shops.

The product sells at 20 Cuban pesos (CUP) a pound, in amounts ranging from 1 to 3 ‘units’ per family, according to the number of members.  Its arrival in the rationed markets has generated reactions of all kinds, from those who fear that its appearance means that chicken will continue to be missing, to those who protest the amounts they are allowed to buy.

In some neighborhoods the sale of rationed fish has already started. This sign details the complex allocations of ‘liberado’ (i.e. ‘freed’ or unrationed) but ’controlado’ (controlled) fish. A family (‘nucleo’) of 1-3 people gets one fish; a family of 4-6 people gets 2fish, and a family of 7 or more gets 3 fish. (14ymedio)

On social media the internauts joke, resignedly. “I don’t know whether to eat it or to keep it as a souvenir for all the years when we won’t see one of these again,” says one user. “Before they sold ‘chicken for fish’* and now they sell ‘fish for chicken’. This country is upside down,” adds another.

While fish is already being sold in some neighborhoods, others are waiting for it to arrive, although they will barely receive a tiny bit of fish to share.

*Translator’s note: The libreta, or ration book, lists the amounts of rationed products each family or individual is entitled to. When the shopper goes to the bodega (ration store) another product may be substituted for something that is unavailable. Hence the phrase “chicken for fish,” and, in this case, its alternate, “fish for chicken.” 


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

In Cuba, Access to the Internet Determines Who Eats

In an air-conditioned container, a few meters from the long line to enter the 3rd and 70th market in Havana, merchandise purchased ‘online’ is dispatched. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 27 May 2019 — Under the sun, last Friday, dozens of people waited to enter the 3rd and 70th market in Havana and buy the two packages of chicken allowed per customer. Off to one side of the building, in a small office, those who arrive carry away several kilograms of the product, without rationing, because the transaction occurred via the internet, thanks to an emigrated relative living abroad.

On May 10, the Minister of Internal Trade, Betsy Díaz Velázquez, officially announced the application of measures to regulate the sale of food, personal grooming and cleaning products to avoid hoarding. The measure also includes hard currency markets which, since their creation more than two decades ago, had been marked by unrationed sales.

However, the restriction does not affect the offers of virtual stores, a topic that is not mentioned in the island’s official press, but that has ended up defining the economic status of thousands of families who receive help from emigrated relatives. continue reading

The air-conditioned container fills with people in the mornings. Customers arrive with an order number and hope that the food, purchased online through a virtual store by a relative abroad, will be available.

The premise of egalitarianism on which the regime was based ended in the 1990s, when the dollarization of the economy and self-employment began to create strong inequalities. The economic gap has continued to widen since then and those who have access to hard currency and who receive remittances from abroad have greater purchasing power. Now the digital universe is worsening the inequality.

Many Cubans do not look kindly on the fact that access to better food depends on the type of currency that is carried in your pocket. State employees and retirees, who receive a salary only in Cuban pesos, reject the harsh monetary reality of the island as discriminatory.

“This can not be, because I have come with the money from my salary to buy food and they only sell me two packages of chicken thighs,” complains Raydel Frías, a young engineer who tells 14ymedio that he had to wait for four hours.

“It’s not right that they ration the amount of chicken, hot dogs and other products here, but if someone buys on the internet there are no limits and they can buy everything they can afford,” insists Frias, annoyed. “That indicates that our money is worth nothing compared to dollars or euros.”

His opinion echoes those of other clients waiting in line. “Last week I received a package my sister, who lives in Atlanta, bought for me and I got five packages of chicken breasts,” he explains to this newspaper. “She also bought me four bags of milk powder online and, although it was almost twice the price, at least she could find it.”

The number of daily sales handled in this office averages around 60. (14ymedio)

“This ultimately leads to discomfort and inequalities. Why not also ration the amount of products sold online, so that we do not have to see these contrasts between those of us who work and stand in line and those who have relatives abroad?” questions a pensioner who lives only on his pension, equivalent to about 25 CUC (roughly the same in dollars).

In the online purchase, as a general rule, from the moment the relative places the order through the web page and the moment in which the order is picked up or delivered in Cuba, it takes between 12 and 20 days. Buyers can choose between having the products delivered, for which there is an additional charge, or free pickup at the store. Now, the shortages have lengthened the delivery times and the order can take up to a month to reach the hands of the recipient.

Distribution problems not only have to do with the scarce availability of merchandise, but also with fuel restrictions that have reduced the number of vehicles available to deliver the food to homes. “We have only two cars assigned to home deliveries in all municipalities of the capital,” laments one of the employees of the local annex to 3rd and 70th.

“When the product finally arrives, we notify the client by phone and we arrive at his house after 10:00 in the morning and before 3:00 in the afternoon,” explains the worker, who preferred anonymity. “We are very close to the line to enter the butcher shop and people protest because they see others leaving here with their hands full and they only get two packages of chicken.”

“There is a new form of inequality here that has to do with what kind of money you have and where you have it,” says a woman who is waiting in line. “I could have a wallet full of bills and they only let me buy two packages of chicken [parts], but a Cuban who has just arrived in Miami with $50 can send five complete chickens to his family, without limitations.”

On average, the 3rd and 70th shopping dispatch office receives about 60 orders purchased through the internet per day, says one employee. There are times when there are peaks of up to a hundred orders, but their dispatch capacity only lets them fill just over 30 requests on average. When they exceed 40 they have to work overtime.

“For three months the work in this place hasn’t stopped because many people are asking their relatives to buy on the Internet what they can not get in the markets here,” explains the worker. “We have seen double the amount of deliveries we have to manage each day and that has brought us delays and many complaints from customers,” he acknowledges.

“Of course, these complaints are not like those heard in the line outside,” says the woman. “People here are uncomfortable because their product is delayed but they know it will come, but in the market next door they can be waiting all day to buy something and not get it,” she says.


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

Obsession in a Havana Theater

After waiting for a doctor who never arrives, his patients decide to hold their own group therapy session to discuss their obsessions (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Miami, 25 May 2019 — Outside his office six patients await the arrival of their doctor. Each one suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, a toc* in psychiatric jargon. Since there is no sign of the therapist, they agree to hold their own group therapy session in an attempt to alleviate everyone’s suffering.

This is the premise of Toc Toc, an amusing comedy now on view at the Sala Arenal after a successful two-week run at the El Sotano theater.

The French comedian and playwright Laurent Baffie (1958) was the first to successfully take on the challenge of making people laugh at the effects of a psychiatric disorder. In 2006 the play received the Molière Prize for theater. In 2017 the Spanish filmmaker Vicente Villanueva took the work to the big screen. continue reading

The production’s first surprise comes after audience members are asked to turn off their cell phones. They are then told they may take photos and make videos in order to publicize the event.

Little by little, the characters are introduced. First, there is Alfredo (Iván Balmaseda), a very respectable man who cannot control his urge to utter obscene words (Tourette’s syndrome). Then there is Vicente (José Alejandro), a taxi driver who feels the irrepressible desire to count everything, doing endless calculations in his head with each number (arithmomania).

Later, Blanca (Yamira Díaz), a nurse obsessed with cleanliness (nosophobia), appears. She is followed by young Lily (Ana Pomares), who suffers because she is forced to repeat everything she says (palilalia and pcolalia).

Maria (Yanel Gómez / Ludmila Alonso) is tormented by the obsession to constantly check everything (compulsive verification disorder). Finally, there is Boby (Rafael Alonso), the youngest of the group who is terrified of stepping on the floor and has a habit of arranging everything symmetrically (obsession with lines).

Once all the patients have arrived, the doctor’s secretary (played by the actor Jaime Jiménez) makes his entrance. These sporadic but vibrant appearances elicit reactions from the patients unlike those of any known pathology.

Director Hugo Alberto Vargas stages the comedy using a simple but flexible set design. The best moments are those that rely the movements of the actors, who come down from the stage and interact with the audience, who participate without being subjected to extreme pressures.

Leadership struggles, romances, quarrels and controlled mayhem are convincingly portrayed with both verbal and body language.

Obviously, the work has been adapted to appeal to a national audience, although at no time is there is any allusion to the country or city where the events are taking place. However, the jokes that drew the most laughter are ones that could only understood in Cuba, especially the one about “mild, subversive perfume.”

If there is anything that stands out in the Cuban version of Toc Toc, it is its cautionary moral message, its emphasis on the positive effects of human solidarity. But after two hours in which the actors have tried to convey the feeling that “not everything is hopeless,” it seems unnecessary to beat home the message so relentlessly.

It is undeniable that the entire audience was entertained, and not in a vulgar way, while learning something about disorders of human behavior.

*Translator’s note: Abbreviation for transtorno obsesivo compulso (obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD) in Spanish.


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

Billboards Versus Laws

In some corners of Havana a sports-inspired billboard criticizes the Helms-Burton Act. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 16 April 2019 — As in the old days of the most heated ideological battles, the Cuban regime has again called on the propaganda machinery to use it against the activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act.

But Cuba is not experiencing a time of many resources, and with the state coffers all but empty, the authorities have not been able to much more than criticize the posture of the United States in the media and on billboards.

The era of massive demosntrations filling the “Anti-Imperialist Tribune” in front of the United States Embassy along the coast, and canceling classes so that the students could participate in these acts of revolutionary reaffirmation seems to have remained in the past. Nor are there resources to distribute thousands of T-shirts with patriotic slogans or mockeries of the US president.

The ideological scaffolding seems to be in the doldrums, at least in terms of resources.

In some corners of Havana a sports-inspired billboards criticizes the claims against companies that engaged in business with properties confiscated after Fidel Castro’s arrival inn power. With dull colors and the final letters almost incomplete, the poster is a clear symbol of the times, a time when even the prioritized ideological battle faces economic hardships.


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

"For That Price Nobody Here is Going Anywhere"

The majority of the vehicles of the state-owned company Cuba Taxi must use the meter, but their drivers hardly ever turn it on. (Nycecile)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, May 14, 2019 — The rearview mirror is too long and hides the meter that marks the price that the customer must pay at the end of the trip. Confused and disoriented, the tourist, recently arrived in Cuba, will attempt to look for those universal red numerals that increase as the vehicle goes forward, but he will not succeed. “It’s 10 CUC,” the driver will tell him tersely before he gets out.

In recent years the practice of agreeing on a price for the section traveled and not using the meter has been extended among the taxis of the Cuban state-owned sector. Unlike privately managed cars that traditionally do not have those measuring devices, the vehicles associated with the Taxis Cuba Company still have them and the regulations require that they be supplied with a meter or a visible official pricing.

However, reality is far from what the law says. In practice, the yellow cars with white roofs that offer services in convertible currency, along with the friendly Cocotaxis that make trips inside cities and the olf Russian-made Ladas that are still taking passengers in national currency, hardly ever use that device to establish their prices. continue reading

“They’re as likely to ask you for 8 CUC to go from Parque Central to Ciudad Deportiva as they are 10,” complained a customer who this Sunday was trying to get a bouquet of flowers to his house to celebrate Mother’s Day. “I’ve spent more than an hour looking for a taxi to take me but when I ask them if they are free and can take me, right away they tell me a price for the trip and they are not going to turn on the meter.”

A situation that, according to what 14ymedio was able to confirm, is the same at most of the taxi stands for those popularly called Panataxis, continuing the use of the official name with which they appeared when the arrival of thousands of foreign visitors for the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana obliged Cuban authorities to create a transportation system in hard currency.

“When we began, one of the premises of the service was precisely that the customer could see at all times the price [up to that point] that was being shown on the taxi meter,” recalls now Raquel Villanueva, who for more than two decades worked for the Panataxi company. “That was very important because shortly after that the circulation of the dollar was allowed and it was important that the passenger knew how much he was spending.”

“I remember that several times I had Cuban or foreign clients who would tell me a destination but would ask me to let them out before because they realized from the meter that they weren’t going to be able to pay the full price to get to the end,” she remembers. “All that was lost and relaxed until we arrived at the current situation where it’s really rare to find a taxi that regulates the price by kilometer.”

On trips within the city, these cars in have currency have prices by mileage that vary between 0.45 and 0.76 CUC per mile depending on the comfort and size of the vehicle, among which even minibuses are included. On round trip highway journeys, the fare goes from 0.45 CUC to 0.50, while an hour’s waiting time is charged at between 7 and 8 CUC.

Villanueva attributes the current situation to several factors, but especially to the new system in which these drivers are working. “Now those taxis are under a leasing concept and the driver has to take care of everything, from paying for the parking to covering repair costs,” explains the ex-employee of Taxis Cuba. “For that reason, now they are the ones who decide how they are going to charge the customer and even though it is still required for them to do it by the meter, the Government doesn’t enforce that.”

For several years state-owned taxis have been on a leasing system and the drivers must take care of repairs. (14ymedio)

An administrative resolution in 2018 confirms Villanueva’s statements. “The taxi drivers’ vehicles, owned or leased, must have a taxi meter or official price list, the Taxi badge and sign or a sticker that authorizes them to provide services and use the taxi stands that the corresponding public administration authorizes for this end,” specifies the text of the law.

Among the facilities these vehicles receive is the ability to buy tires, batteries, lubricants, and other parts in state-owned stores at preferential prices. But many drivers complain that at those places the most in-demand parts are in short supply and that the majority of the spare parts have to be acquired on the retail or black markets.

“In Havana we have fixed fares established from the airport, which go between 25 and 30 CUC, depending on the place in the city where the passenger is going,” says Ricardo Pajés, driver of one of these state taxis who drives under a leasing scheme. “That makes things a lot easier because the majority of clients who arrive already know — because they looked it up on the internet — how much they have to pay.”

Pajés believes that not using the taxi meter is not an “irregularity.” “These cars operate however the driver chooses, and I can even decide I don’t want to out to work one week,, although in any case afterwards I will have to pay the State for the lease which is almost 50 CUC daily.” For that reason, “with that much money that we have to pay daily, we are almost forced to agree on fares verbally.”

The leasing rates that each driver has to pay have been established according to demand for taxi service in the territory where they operate. The legislation determines that there is a high demand in Havana and Matanzas; medium in Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Holguín, and Santiago de Cuba; and low demand in Artemisa, Mayabeque, Las Tunas, Granma, Guantánamo, and the special municipality Isla de la Juventud.

“Nobody can drive one of these taxis, pay for the lease, and have enough money left if they go by what the taxi meter says,” a driver who works frequently at the taxi stand outside the Inglaterra hotel affirms categorically. “We have to be on the safe side on each trip because if we don’t make enough money we lose the lease,” he laments. The taxi driver says that he works “between 14 and 16 hours daily and often at the end of the day I haven’t made even half of the money needed to pay the State.”

Outside the Central Train Station several yellow taxis wait for customers who want to go to the beach. “From here it’s 15 CUC to Santa María and 20 CUC to go to Guanabo,” Maykel, a young man who has been leasing a state vehicle for more than a year, tells this newspaper. “It’s mostly foreigners who want to get quickly to the beach who contract this service.”

The same trip measured by the taxi meter would be below 12 for the former and 15 for the latter, recognizes the driver, but he warns, “for that price nobody is going anywhere here because we are offering comfort, air conditioning, and security, that has a price.” None of the cars waiting for a tourist has a meter visible.

“That is no longer used, it’s there but it’s as if it weren’t there. Very few customers get difficult and demand to see the meter because by now almost everyone knows how this works,” Maykel points out. “Whoever wants to see numbers can take the bus, which has a number on the outside.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera


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

#LaCola[Line]Challenge is About the Long Lines in Cuba

Facebook and Twitter have begun to fill with images taken by passers-by of dozens of people waiting to get some milk powder. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 10 May 2019 — The so-called “challenges” that abound in social networks are reaching Cuba. One of the first to land on the national scene was the Ice Bucket Challenge (involving dumping a bucket of ice water over your head) to raise awareness about Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease with a fatal prognosis. Recently, the Trash Challenge succeeded in getting dozens of citizens to start cleaning beaches, illegal dumps and the banks of several rivers.

However, the first one hundred percent Cuban challenge was born just a few weeks ago. #LaColaChallenge (“cola” means “line”) mixes complaints to and criticism of the authorities with humor and a desire to narrate the Cuban reality. It is a call to portray the long lines to buy food that, in recent months, have become an everyday event on this island.

Thus, Facebook and Twitter have begun to fill with images taken by passers-by who see dozens of people waiting to get some milk powder, selfies in the line to buy frozen chicken, or annoyed customers relating that they spent three hours in line at the market to get one liter of vegetable oil.

The real challenge this hashtag represents is living in a collapsed society and in an economy in permanent crisis. The challenge is not to stand in the line, but to buy something.


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

Street Vendors Go Digital

USB sticks have become so common that they have become part of the merchandise of the street vendors in Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 25 April 2019 — If a decade ago, when the first USB memory sticks began to circulate in Cuba, someone had insisted that a few years later they would share space with scrubbing sponges, instant glue, and disposable razors on the blankets of street vendors, they would have received a loud burst of incredulous laughter. Now, the devices, also called pendrives or flash memories, have become so common that they have become part of the merchandise of the street vendors in Cuba.

This storage device is not only everywhere, but its capacity to save files surpasses by many times that of the first USBs that barely held a few megabytes. “I have memories of 16 and 32 gigabytes,” explains an elderly man who sells batteries and aluminum scouring pads, among other products, outside the Central Train Station in Havana. Although the retiree does not even have a mobile phone, much less a computer, he says that “these are the good kind, the ones that don’t break.”

“For 15 CUC you can have the biggest and for 8 the one with the smallest capacity,” says the informal vendor to an interested party who tries to get a discount. “No, I can’t lower it by even a peso because that is what they are worth everywhere, you aren’t going to find them cheaper,” he adds. To convince the indecisive customer he assures him that “with this in your pocket you won’t ever have to watch Cuban television again because anyone can copy series and movies for you.” With the same one, he turns to another customer and tells her of the advantages of the teflon rolls he has on sale for plumbing jobs.

In the late afternoon, the man has managed to sell a few USB sticks. With his blanket placed on the sidewalk he is a small but vital link in the long process of digitalization that Cuban society is experiencing.

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera


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

Rapid Response Brigades Reactivated in Cuban Universities

A Rapid Response Group stars in an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White. (Cubasindical)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio,  Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 14 April 2019 — In several Cuban universities, professors and directors are being required to ratify their membership in the Rapid Response Brigades (BRR), para-police groups destined to confront popular protests. Teachers must sign a document with the commitment to join these groups, according to testimonies and documents collected by 14ymedio.

“At the end of February they circulated a page where each teacher had to put their name, position and phone number, in addition to adding their signature as a commitment to be part of the Rapid Response Brigades,” a young professor at the University of Pinar del Rio who preferred anonymity told this newspaper. “Everyone in my department, we all signed,” adds the teacher who works in the computer area.

Since its inception in the early 90s, the Rapid Response Brigades were conceived as a vigilante organization that controlled outbreaks of popular dissent. The Cuban authorities wanted to avoid the image of uniformed people repressing the people and founded these bodies of “brown shirts” as the first ring to neutralize the protests. continue reading

The BRRs have had a particult participation in acts of repudiation against opponents and activists, especially against the Ladies in White movement. But their consecration arrived in August 1994, when together with the police and armed with sticks they faced those who took to the streets in the popular revolt known as El Maleconazo which was the preamble to the so-called Crisis de los Balseros (Rafters Crisis).

“I was surprised because I had not heard about these brigades for years, but I think that now it is something more formal, that they will never call us to do anything,” says the professor from Pinar del Río. “A colleague of mine was on leave in those days and they called her to come and sign because they said it was very important and that the country is going through difficult times in which there are new threats.”

The form, to which 14ymedio had access, details that the commitment is carried out at the request of the rector of the “Hermanos Saíz Montes de Oca” University of Pinar del Río (UPR), the doctor of educational sciences, Yorki Major Hernández. Graduated initially with an English Degree, Major Hernández was promoted from teaching and administrative positions to reach his current position.

Registration form to belong to the Rapid Response Brigades at the University of Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)

This newspaper contacted by telephone several of the professors that appear in the commitment document, but none of them wanted to make statements about their affiliation with the Rapid Response Brigades. Nor did they deny the authenticity of the return or the process of reactivation of these shock troops. “I have every right to belong to whatever I want,” said one of them before hanging up the phone in the middle of the conversation.

“The Rapid Response Brigades have never ceased to exist in Artemisa,” says Niurka, 42, who lives in the municipality of Candelaria. “Last year, when Defense Day was held in this area, many workers from the state sector were mobilized and contingency exercises were carried out in case of massive protests, the members of the Rapid Response Brigades were summoned.”

“In order to expand knowledge and learn to face special situations,” was now the call for these practices was reflected the local press. “It was nothing secret, it came out in the newspaper, but of course it caught our attention to talk about something that many thought had ended that it was a Special Period,” adds Niurka.

In the training, Niurka recalls that they insisted that the people themselves had to “defend the Revolution” and they were taught some techniques to “keep [the protesters] silent, avoid their shouting counterrevolutionary slogans and even how to immobilize” elements disaffected to the process. They also emphasized “being careful not to present an image of physical violence to people who are recording with mobile phones.”

Unlike the decade of the 90s, when communications on the island were very precarious, Cubans are now making more and more intense use of mobile phones and social networks. In recent months there have been viral images of protests against Miguel Díaz-Canel’s caravan in a neighborhood affected by a tornado in Havana and numerous images of violent arrests of activists.

A report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, dated October 1996, described the BRR as groups that “the Cuban government throws into the streets with weapons and clubs to beat its opponents.”

The BRRs have not been deactivated since they were created almost 30 years ago but have languished in the last decade. Now, with the increase in social unrest due to the rise in food shortages, the deterioration of public services and the rising cost of living, the authorities seem worried about a possible social explosion and are dusting off these vigilante groups.

Teachers of the “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas and of the Havana José Antonio Echeverría Technological University, also confirmed to this newspaper that a similar form has circulated in recent weeks among professors, administrators and directors of these centers of higher education. So far there is no confirmation that the commitment has also been extended to the students.

The reactivation of the BRRs revives the memory of many who were part of these groups or were victims of their acts of repudiation.

Roberto, 68,  who emigrated to Miami remembers that day very well. “I worked in a warehouse on Zanja Street in Centro Habana when they told us there was a provocation near the Ameijeiras Hospital and that we had to go out and confront it,” he recalls now, using a pseudonym. “They gave us construction workers’ helmets and rods, but on the way I lost the group on purpose because I knew I was not going to be able to hit anyone.”

Now, working with a contractor repairing homes in Florida, Roberto says he could not fulfill his duty as a member of the BRRs in part because his eldest son “had left that early morning for the Regla Ferry because the rumor had spread that they were going to leave for the United States.” Just thinking that “among those who were going to take hits was my son, paralyzed me.”

Finally the young man managed to get out on a raft, be picked up by the US Coast Guard and settle in Miami. A decade later, he managed to get his parents out of the island. However, Roberto rarely tells his story because he fears that they will point him out in public as a member of the BRR, a past membership that could cost him his residence in the US.

Recently, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FDHC), based in Miami, launched the Cuban Repressors initiative, to “identify, investigate and collect information on the military (MININT / MINFAR) or paramilitaries (Rapid Response Brigades)” that exercised “violent political repression against the citizens” and now live in the United States.

“I signed up not to lose my job but I never hurt a fly,” says Roberto. “Although I do remember co-workers who enjoyed coming out with the od to break their heads, but most of them do not want to remember that now, and many even live here in the United States and they show themselves to be tremendous anti-Castro people.”


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

It Is Forbidden To Say "Special Period"

The worsening of the economy is observed not only in the “scarcities even in the dollarized stores,” but also in the lack of subsidized basic necessities such as bread and eggs. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 8 April 2019 — Cuban authorities have given officials instructions to avoid the concept of “Special Period” when addressing citizens, according to 14ymedio sources in state agencies.

“They met with the administrative cadres to tell them that very difficult times are coming,” a worker from the Provincial Food Industry Company in Pinar del Río told this newspaper. “It was a meeting with directors of Minal (Ministry of the Food Industry) who came from Havana, where they pointed out that we could not use the phrase ‘Special Period’ in communications with the population.”

In the 90s, the government insisted on labeling the serious economic situation of the island as “A Special Period in Peacetime” to avoid the words crisis or economic collapse. The euphemism generated numerous jokes and puns, but finally prevailed, even in the headlines of the foreign press. As a result, the link between the phrase “Special Period” and that time of crisis is now so clear that the concept must be avoided. continue reading

“They told us these are times to be very careful of what is said to avoid creating alarm or giving weapons to the enemy for their propaganda against Cuba,” adds the Minal employee in Pinar del Río. “But they also clarified that we are going to have serious problems with the import of raw material in the coming months, which will affect several areas of production, including those of the Los Portales Refreshment Factory, in the municipality of Guane.”

In the information field, the same thing is happening. A recent graduate of the Faculty of Communication of the University of Havana (FCOM) who works in a radio station, explains that there is “guidance from above” to avoid the use of the phrase “Special Period.”

“We have been told that we should use phrases like ‘economic tension’ or ‘difficulties with the arrival of raw materials’ but always with an optimistic approach and making it clear that it will be overcome in the coming months,” he explains.

The young man insists that reporters and screenwriters have been urged in several meetings to underline “the obstacles and challenges” facing the island’s economy but “to avoid the use of pessimistic phrases that may cause nervousness.”

In recent weeks, the radio station where he works has received numerous calls from listeners annoyed about the shortages of basic products such as cooking oil, chicken and eggs, but the answer they must give is that “work is being done to solve these problems,” the journalist revealed. “We must convey optimism, they have told us,” he stresses.

The caution of information professionals working in official media is justified. In the past decade a sports commentator on official television said that the Special Period was not over and that provoked an angry reaction from Fidel Castro, who wrote one of his customary ‘Reflections’ denying that perspective.

The economist Carmelo Mesa Lago recalls in a recent article that, “between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received 65 billion dollars from the USSR, two-thirds of which was a gift; this aid was higher than that received for all of Latin America during the Alliance for Progress,” a program from the 1960s involving roughly 22 billion dollars in aid to Latin America. With the end of Soviet support after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “a marked decline occurred in all economic and social indicators.”

Almost three decades after the start of the crisis of the ’90s, the government has not officially announced the end of a stage that in the collective imagination is associated with power outages, food shortages and transport problems. The use of “special” alluded to the measures taken by Fidel Castro at that time targeted to cushioning the effects of the depression setting aside some of the formulas of the centralized economy and allowing: circulation of the dollar, foreign investment, family remittances from relatives abroad, and the reappearance of an emerging private sector.

After that period when the Cuban economy hit bottom, aid from Venezuela from beginning of this century began to revive the economy of the Island. Despite this, and after two congresses of the Communist Party of Cuba, the appointment of a new president of the Councils of State and of Ministers and the ratification of a new constitution, the Special Period has not been decreed to be in the past.

Signs that the Cuban economy could be heading into a similar crisis have been accentuated in recent months, as reflected in reports published in the independent and international press, following the decrease in oil shipments from Venezuela, the freezing of credit for new exports from Brazil and the end of the Mais Médicos program in which Cuban doctors worked in that South American country in exchange for significant payments, most of which went into state coffers.

Some economists suggest that the situation is far from the one that arose in the ’90s, due to the strengthening of tourism, foreign investment and the existence of more than half a million people who work for themselves as “cuentapropistas,” but in the streets of Cuba the phrase “Special Period” is beginning to be heard more and more frequently, although the official media and state officials are forbidden to say it.


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

Juan’s Traveling Bathrooms

Juan Reyes remodeled a truck to contain ten cubicles with toilets and even a shower. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Güira de Melena, 22 March 2019 — Juan Reyes was born in Santiago de Cuba but for the last seven years he has been touring the island chasing popular festivals. He drives a striking truck that has been adapted to contain a dozen individual bathrooms where cleanliness reigns and no bad odors are perceived. This week he arrived at the Potato Festival, in Güira de Melena, and his services attracted more customers than many of the festival’s own kiosks with food or fun products.

Reyes came up with the idea after seeing the difficulties that his wife suffered to find a decent bathroom at carnivals. Most of the time there was nothing more than a box placed over a sewer, stinky and without privacy. Immediately, this Santiagan with a great ability for business saw an almost untapped market niche. He bought the truck and began the process of converting it into a mobile sanitary service. continue reading

He created a drainage mechanism with a wide flexible hose that allows the sewage to be evacuated into the nearest sewer system. He added removable steps that is placed so that customers can easily access the interior of the vehicle and invested in some amenities so that “it does not resemble those dirty bathrooms with no personality,” he says. In addition to the immediate relief of the bladder, Reyes’ “invention” puts a smile on every face.

Now the “Ecological Bathroom” as he jokingly baptized it on one side in white paint, is a family business. At the entrance, Juan’s son charges 2 CUP per person (roughly 8¢ US) and inside each cabin there is water, soap, toilet paper and a mirror. In the last cubicle there is also a shower for those who want to cool off from the heat.

At the moment the service is exclusively for women but its owner does not rule out having a fleet of trucks where there is also space for men and mothers with small children who want a place to change diapers and breastfeed with tranquility.


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

Cuba’s "Sexual Tourist" is No Longer Prince Charming

New technologies, such as chats and dating applications, are widely used by Cubans to arrange a meeting with foreign tourists. (Chris Goldberg)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 2 April 2019 — The past has many layers for María de la Caridad. In one of them she is the happy wife of an Italian and in another a young woman who has just arrived in Havana with nothing but her own body. In the ’90s she was among the first jineteras (female prostitutes) that took advantage of the legalization of the dollar to offer their services. Today, a widow, grandmother and resident in the island believes that “the business has changed and almost no one is looking for a prince charming.”

“What I did, like many other Cuban youngsters, was more of an escort service and a price was rarely said directly,” she recalls now in a conversation with 14ymedio in her apartment in El Vedado, bought a few years ago when she decided to return to the Island. The death of her husband, a Milanese who fell in love with her “at first sight,” led her to make the decision.

María de la Caridad believes that the business of prostitution on the island “has become hard, direct, without grace.” “Before we knew how to distinguish when it was a client who just wanted one night, versus one who wanted a companion during his entire trip in Cuba, to establish a relationship and perhaps end up in a marriage, but now, from the first moment it is clear that it is an economic transaction,” she says. continue reading

The government kept prostitution under control — considering it a capitalist scourge — through programs of social reinsertion during the first decades of the Revolution, but during the Special Period it became a common exit from the misery.

The characteristics of the Cuban market, where having money did not mean access to a great number of products or more of any one product, in the case of rationed ones, caused a mutation in prostitution. The “companion” sought the privileges of generals, ministers and other leaders.

Starting the 1990s, large areas of Cuba, such as Guanabo beach east of Havana, became the epicenter of jineteras and clients who were seen to come and go, despite police control. Those were the years when, most of the time, the women negotiated directly with the tourists. Many ended up married to foreigners and emigrated.

“In Milan I met several Cubans who had experienced the same thing and we were very supportive of each other in those early years,” says María de la Caridad. “As time passed and we were having our families, we called ourselves the jinatera grandmothers,” she explains with humor.

The landscape has changed a lot since the times of María de la Caridad. The competition is greater with the pingueros (male prostitutes), who offer all kinds of services to men and women. In addition, the pimps and the seclusion in brothels “complicate their situation,” says this Cubana who sometimes interjects words in Italian. “Now women have less independence and finding a good husband is very difficult in those conditions.”

A few yards from her house, two young people were preparing this Saturday to go to 23rd Street, to one of the state clubs that are a frequent meeting point between prostitutes and customers. They are 17 and 19 years old, respectively, and their names in this report are. Both have been in the business since junior high, and the youngest is preparing to enter the university this year.

The two young women use new technologies, such as chat rooms and some dating applications, to meet foreigners who occasionally visit Havana. “Everything is clarified from the beginning and a price is established, he knows that it is not about love, but a bit of fun, and for me it is an important economic support,” explains Karla, who has been in the business for two years.”

“An important sector of women, educated and trained, is marginalized: many of them have a technical or professional training and their individual and family biography would place them in a more favorable position in social life,” explains Cecilia Bobes, who has a doctorate in Sociology. “There is also a change in the values of young people, who begin to see in the activity of the jinetera as a normal job, a way to earn a living and a survival strategy in the face of the crisis.”

Mara and Karla have managed to evade, until now, the pimps because they manage their contacts directly. “But many of those in this business prefer to have more protection and have someone to represent them, to look for the tourist and someone who can help if the thing gets ugly,” she says.

Pimping is one of the main crimes related to human trafficking and the pimps resort, in most cases, to violence, intimidation and drugs to obtain economic benefits, especially exploiting women. “At the moment I am doing well alone and I try not to put myself in high risk situations,” says Karla.

Procuring and trafficking in persons are punishable on the island, but prostitution is legal. Cuban authorities maintain police controls, especially on women, who are fined or deported if they come from another province. In the worst cases, they are interned in work farms to be “re-educated.”

The dream of Mara and Karla is to save some money to leave the country, but they do not believe that they can leave like María de la Caridad, directly through a client.

“All I want is for them to pay me and leave because I can not imagine marrying a man who knows I’m doing this. When I leave Cuba I’ll make a clean slate and start looking for a partner for love,” explains the youngest of the two women. Karla nods: “This is a business, there is no affection or plans for the future, it’s just about sex and money.”


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

The Nightmare of the Special Period Impedes Use of Bikes as Transport

One of the places where bikes can be rented in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 11 March 2019 — Something is changing in the Cuban mentality toward getting around by bike, but too slowly. The ghost of the Special Period keeps citizens from perceiving the bicycle as a means of transport, an alternative to the bus, healthier and less polluting. And politics has not exactly helped.

Last November, a public system for renting bicycles in Havana began operating experimentally. But the Ha’Bici project, a joint effort by the Office of the Historian of Havana, the provincial General Directorate of Transport and the Basque Government, has just not become an alternative for residents.

“It’s too expensive, because the occasional customer has to pay 50 CUP (Cuban pesos) to rent a bike for an hour, while the subscriber pays 60 CUP a month, and those are prices for foreigners, not for people who have to live on a Cuban salary,” complains Oscar, a neighbor of one of the bike rental outlets in the historic district. continue reading

Tourists have been the main beneficiaries of the initiative so far, a Ha’Bici employee confirms to this newspaper. “Very few Cubans come to rent a bicycle and when they come it is because they want to accompany some tourist on a ride around the city,” adds the worker, who preferred anonymity.

In his opinion, young people are “more open to the idea of enjoying riding a bicycle without this making it seem that they are poor or in the middle of a crisis,” but he recognizes that “many Cubans still see a bicycle as a form of punishment, not as recreation and something good for their health.”

A study by the Health Center of the German University of Sports (DSHS) states that “people who suffer from the typical discomforts of back pain, or who are overweight or have other cardiovascular diseases could enjoy many years of good health, if they decided to ride a bike more.”

The countries of northern Europe are those that have best incorporated the bicycle into urban mobility. An appropriate geography, with flat cities, and public policies oriented towards sustainability and health have turned countries like Holland, Sweden, Germany, Belgium or Denmark into places where it is common to see politicians and big businessmen bicycle to work.

In Cuba, on the other hand, the memory of having to use bicycles to get around in the ’90s is too close for comfort. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the first signs of economic deterioration was the plummeting of public transport. Rather than wait for hours at a bus stop, many preferred to climb onto the saddle.

“I had never ridden a bicycle,” says Yanet Gonzalez, 44 , who lives in Alamar in Havana del Este tells 14ymedio. “When I was a girl, only the boys used them and in my family they thought that a woman should not be out there pushing the pedals.” When she finished ninth grade she got a Chinese-made bicycle for being a good student and her life changed.

“When I got home, my father told me we were going to sell it,” she recalls. On the black market, the price of the bike exceeded 1,500 CUP at that time. “That was when a pound of rice cost 50 CUP, so my family immediately thought of turning the bicycle into food.” Despite the pressure, Yanet refused to sell it.

“I learned to ride and I spent almost a decade using the bike to get around without being dependent on public transportation.” On two wheels she rode to the place where she met her husband, later they both rode on a bike to the birthplace of their first child, and when she decided to leave the state sector and go to work on her own she sold her first sweets, too, “from the seat of my bike.”

Now, Yanet is like those thousands of Havanans who have not touched a bicycle in almost two decades. “As soon as people felt that the economy was improving a bit at the beginning of this century, the first thing they let go was the bicycle, because for most of them it was something they did not use because they liked it but because they had no other option,” she admits.

With Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in Venezuela, the island began to receive large shipments of oil that supported the reestablishment of public transport in Havana, although never with the number of routes nor the frequency that had been operating during the years of the Soviet subsidy. As more and more buses filled the streets, bikes became scarce.

Roberto spent almost 20 years repairing cycles and fixing flat tires next to the gas station on Carrer Infanta and Lealtad. “I had up to 10 customers a day, because this was one of those streets where there was a steady flow of passing bicycles,” he explains to this newspaper. “With what I earned I fixed the house and even helped one of my children to leave the country, but about ten years ago I closed the business.”

“Almost no cyclists came any more,” he explains. “We converted this into a cafe, but I liked my previous work more,” Roberto acknowledges. He believes “Havanans fear the bicycle because it brings bad memories.”

Near his home is a bus dispatch point adapted to transport bicycles through the tunnel under the Bay to East Havana, but the frequency of the departure of vehicles has fallen a lot and when one does leave it is filled almost entirely with electric or gas motorbikes, but very few bicycles. The same scene is repeated on the boat to get to Regla or Casablanca.

In 2013, the authorities announced a program to promote the use of bicycles. Marino Murillo, head of the Commission for the Development of Economic Reforms, extolled the advantages of this means of transport for the mobility of the population and said there was an ongoing evaluation of “wholesale prices for the sale of parts for maintenance,” but six years later little has changed.

To buy a bicycle in hard currency stores you need more than 100 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) and in the informal market the prices are similar, although the variety of bikes available is greater.

“It’s too hot to ride a bike and traffic is dangerous,” says Raunel, 29, who says he prefers motorbikes. Most providers of public bicycle services in Europe offer electric cycles that, if used in Cuba, would solve climate problems or the problem of riding where there are hills, but it would also be necessary to enable safe routes and raise awareness among vehicle drivers of the importance of respecting cyclists. “As there are no priority paths for cyclists, it’s the law of the strongest and we already know who is going to lose.”

The young man expects that in the short-term “they will sell bicycles at affordable prices, reopen parking lots and improve the situation of the streets,” in order to be able to get around on two wheels again. “So, as the situation is now, it is suicide to travel by bicycle, especially at night because there are areas that have virtually no street lighting.”


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

The Referendum Hangover

Signs and posters are thrown into the trash and everyday life returns to the streets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, March 7, 2019 — After Sunday, February 24 and after finishing the constitutional referendum, everyday life seems to have entered a kind of impasse. On the walls, public stores, and billboards of the city, you can still see the signs asking you to vote Yes with which the government filled every corner, but the slogans are also beginning to fade, some posters are being thrown away, and the page turned on a tension that lasted months.

The lines in front of consulates to obtain a visa continue, on the streets the lack of cooking oil and the poor connectivity of 3G service for cellphones dominates conversations, while the vote for the Constitution sounds like a distant and past matter. With the electoral propaganda finished in national media, the news tries to fill the holes of the calls to mobilization and completes them with headlines on the production of supposed articles that nobody finds in stores and with news about “the Bolivarian brother people of Venezuela.”

Now, also returning with force to conversations are the comments that were suspended by the barrage of slogans about the ballot boxes, the “vote for the homeland,” and the ratification of the Constitution. Returning are the stories of people who are still sleeping in the home of a relative or friend because the January tornado took their own house; the testimony of the Cuban who, from the Panamanian jungle, tells his family on the Island how compatriots are joining that caravan of hundreds of migrants on its way to the United States, and, also, the traditional criticisms of the bad transportation situation.

With the constitutional drunkenness past, we have returned to our normal state: the hangover of everyday life.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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