The Way to Evade Price Controls

A photo of the menu of one of the private locales that promote a combo of a domestic beer with fried food. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, August 6, 2019 — It took less than seventy-two hours after the imposition of price controls on beverages in privately owned Havana cafes for their proprietors to find creative ways around them. They involve menu combos that feature a soft drink with an appetizer or a dessert.

On his Facebook page the economist Oscar Fernandez posted a photo of a menu from one such business featuring a Cuban beer and an order of fried plantains for 50 Cuban pesos (or 2 convertible pesos — roughly $2 US), which makes a mockery of the the 30 peso (1.25 convertible peso) mandated price for the beverage.

A similar combo featuring an Hollandia or Heineken also goes for 50 pesos while another combo with a soft drink and dessert at the same cafe costs 25 pesos, well above the official price of 18 pesos for a canned soft drink or sparkling water. continue reading

“Two covertible pesos for a beer at a bar (and not just a privately owned one) is a reflection of a hard inequity: there is a segment of the population that can afford to pay that price,” writes Fernandez next to the photo. “The market is like a river. No matter how hard you try, you can’t grab the water with your hands. All you can do is channel it.”

The minister of Finance and Pricing, Meisi Bolaños Weiss, does not see it that way and warns in a tweet that cafe owners “should not resort to tricks to evade pricing regulations.” She added that “complaints and reports of violations should include the date and time they were observed to insure immediate and effective action.”

Since the announcement of salary increases at the end of June, authorities have urged customers to report any privately owned establishment that raises its prices.

“It took just a few days before someone figured out how to work around that restriction,” says Evelio, a regular customer at private pizzerias in Havana. He notes that many of them “are selling what they call a completa, which includes a pizza and a beer or soda, so nothing has changed.”

“I fear that soon it will be very hard to buy a cold beer in this city just by itself, without anything else.” Evelio is not surprised by this new combo fad. “Cubans are used to state stores packaging basic necessities with low-end merchandise and selling it at very high prices for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day.”

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

Statue of Nicolas Guillen Raises Controversy Over Its Lack of Resemblance to the Poet

“They achieved the miracle of turning Nicolás Guillén into another person,” an Internet user said ironically about the newly inaugurated sculpture. (Art for Excellencies)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 July 2019 — With a smile from ear to ear, a sparkling look, a mane grown long and a mischievous phrase sticking to his lips, is how so many remember the poet Nicolás Guillén. As of this Wednesday, however, those who pass from through the Alameda de Paula, in Old Havana, come across a statue accompanied by a sign with his name but which bears very little resemblance to the writer from Camagüey.

On July 10, on the 117th anniversary of Guillén’s birthday, the bronze piece made by the sculptor Enrique Angulo was officially inaugurated. But the image of a man who looks at the bay in a suit and tie, hardly evokes the one who was also president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and to whom the Cuban government awarded the epithet of “national poet,” which is still attached to him in books, manuals and institutional events. continue reading

The controversy was not long in coming and a few hours after the sculpture was presented to the public, several of those who knew the poet personally have criticized the few similarities between the figure and the author of the poem Tengo.

“They have just inaugurated a statue of Nicolás Guillén in Havana, which looks nothing, absolutely nothing, like Nicolás.I have seen many pictures of the poet in different stages of his life and apart from that, I personally saw him since 1971, when he was 41 years old, and in successive years, so I have a clear image in my memory,” composer and musicologist Rodolfo De La Fuente Escalona commented on his Facebook account.

“They achieved the miracle of turning Guillen into another person,” said another Internet user who also evoked some of the poet’s most repeated verses, especially those in which he said “I have, let’s see, / I have the pleasure of going about my country / owner of all there is in it.” Now, “besides that nothing that he said came to pass, with this statue they have taken from him his true face,” he said.

“It’s better that people do not know who this sculpture man is because if they realize that he’s the one who said ’I have what I now have / a place to work / and earn what I have to eat’, they’ll come here to make a protest,” ventured a neighbor of the Alameda, who didn’t fail to notice that “Guillen has his back to the city and is looking out to the North.”

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

Cuban Schools Lagging in Sports

In Cuba there is a deficit of 1,736 Physical Education teachers and many sports areas are in poor condition. (Sue Kellerman)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 11 July 2019 — “Breathe deeply, touch your shoulders with your hands”, the young PE teacher instructs some children who laugh, leave the line and from time to time follow the instructions of the teacher, while they play an improvised football match with a handball.

The scene takes place in the Havana neighborhood of El Cerro, in a square with a cracked pavement with the grass growing through it. It must be one of those 10,700 sports areas with problems, of which 3,863 are evaluated as poor or bad, according to the report presented this week before the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP).

This deterioration and the deficit of 1,736 teachers of Physical Education, which the document also mentions, means that in many elementary schools physical education period has become a time to run around or have a snack, but not to do sports. continue reading

Despite the fact that every year hundreds of students graduate from the Provincial School of Physical Education (EPEF), many teachers of this subject migrate to other better-paid activities and many recent graduates do not even teach classes to fulfill their two years of social service. Some end up in the schools practicing this professions, more out of family pressures so they don’t “hang around the house doing nothing,” their true vocation.

“I started with tremendous enthusiasm but along the way I realized that this is very hard,” 14ymedio hears from Osniel Villafuente, a 23-year-old who, five years ago, began to teach Physical Education classes in a high school in San Miguel del Census. A few months passed and he lost the taste for work because “the lack of resources limits everything you dream about during the years you spend learning the profession,” he explains.

Right now, the authorities of the Ministry of Education are in a process of reforming the programs in the subject. For decades, two sports were practiced in elementary school, but after the adjustments in the program this may be expanded to six, and the teachers will choose which sports disciplines they teach, in line with the facilities of each school.

The metal frame of an old school table serves as a goal in a sports area on Carlos III Street that several schools in the area use. A student has brought his own ball to practice with his classmates. The group that arrived later was not so lucky and could only train doing some racing and some squatting.

In the absence of teachers and sports equipment, the Physical Education period is often used to snack, run or play. (James Emery)

For Osniel Villafuente the reform that the authorities seek in the subject could, instead of alleviating the problems, end up aggravating them. “With two sports it is already difficult for us to complete the study program because there are few resources. Having a ball is a problem and the areas where we do exercises are in very bad condition. So what is going to happen when new sports are incorporated?”

“In addition, we have a lack of interest among the students because they were born and live in this century, but they are receiving a course conceived and designed in the last century that is not interesting,” adds the teacher, who now works in a small workshop repairing mobile phones. “These teenagers today have grown up with video games and manga cartoons, they make fun of you when you tell them to raise an arm or raise a leg.”

The president of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (Inder), Osvaldo Vento Montiller, explained this week to parliamentarians about the need to “make the subject of Physical Education an attractive activity for students”. An urgency in an era “where digitization and computer products prevail, in which recreation is associated with a sedentary lifestyle”.

The official acknowledged that the physical education taught in schools across the island continues to generate “dissatisfaction and does not meet the expectations of students.” On the other hand, he pointed out that there is not a good recruitment of talents among children and teens to prepare them as athletes, an absence that is undermining the foundations of Cuban sport.

“I have five students out of a total of 17 who almost never come to Physical Education,” laments a teacher of the subject who twice a week trains her students in a park in the neighborhood of La Timba, near the Plaza of the Revolution. “Four other students have medical certificates that say they can not do physical education, but everyone knows they are justifications that are invented with the complicity of parents to skip this period.”

In schools where teachers are missing, it is common practice for the subject to be graded automatically with the maximum score in the students’ file. A situation that increases disrespect towards the discipline.

“My daughter has three periods without a physical education teacher and at that time what they do is go out to the playground and start playing,” laments Yanelis, mother of a student at the José Luis Arruñada elementary school in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución. “In several meetings with the school’s management, we have demanded that the problem be solved, but we are told that they do not have teachers, that nobody wants the position.”

The mother considers that now is a good time to alleviate the situation with the salary increase announced at the end of June and that will benefit, starting this month, more than 2.7 million public workers, including employees of the Ministry of Education.

“We’re going to see if that motivates many of those graduates to go back to school and stand in front of a group,” says the woman. “If this is not the case, I do not know how this can be fixed because the longer these children do not receive Physical Education classes, the more they will have less interest in sports, something that will hold them back for the rest of their lives,” says Yanelis.

In universities the picture is not very different. In these centers of higher education the practice of sports is usually limited to students who have the ability to compete and represent their faculty in the University Games. Those who have no talent can barely access the facilities where those who already know how to play basketball, volleyball or baseball are trained, and they must settle for going around the track and doing a little warm-up.

The prominence achieved by Cuba in sports has decreased markedly in the last 20 years. We are already talking with nostalgia about the times when the Island had won trophies in all the regional events and even surpassed first world countries in the Olympics.

Yanelis is clear: “How are we going to have Olympic champions if right now there are children who spend the Physical Education shift throwing stones or playing with a mobile phone?”

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

Did the Cuban Economy Grow 2.2% in 2018?

The shortage of agricultural products was one of the most evident signs of the economic crisis that deepened at the end of last year and that still extends over the whole Island. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, July 15, 2019 — Many economists have been seized by incredulity at the official announcement that Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product recorded an increase of 2.2% in 2018, almost double the 1.2% published last December by the same authorities.

In his speech last Saturday before Parliament, president Miguel Díaz-Canel took a surprising turn when he declared that “after concluding the calculations and reconciliations of the levels of activity that determine the performance of the economy,” they had reached the conclusion that the results had been better than expected and that the GDP had grown by 2.2%.

The change was owed mainly to the performance of the construction, public health, and agricultural sectors, according to the state-owned Cuban News Agency (ACN). Several economists call these figures into question, noting the complex economic situation of the second half of 2018, especially with the food shortages. continue reading

The economist Pedro Monreal questioned the method followed to raise the GDP. “The revision of the growth of agriculture to 2.6% is noteworthy, it radically modifies a previous estimate of a decrease of -4.9%. It’s a big variation of 7.5 points,” he pointed out.

The shortage of agricultural products was one of the most evident signs of the economic crisis that worsened at the end of last year and still extends over the whole Island. In December pork reached 70 CUP per pound in some markets in the Cuban capital, despite the government’s attempt to force it down by imposing price caps.

Monreal appeals to the figures recently published by the National Office of Statistics (ONEI) and which don’t seem to fit with the new results. “A few days ago chapter 9 of the Statistical Yearbook of 2018 had been published with information on agriculture. Those statistics were not expressed in value, but rather in physical indicators and they seemed to indicate a not very optimistic trend.”

The economist Elías Amor goes a step further in his criticism. “After the disastrous balance made previously, they’re declaring that the economy grew double what was predicted. Is that how they intend to get credibility? What are the reasons for this statistical, or perhaps political, fraud?” he writes in his blog Cubaeconomía.

Amor recalls that “since 2007 there hasn’t been recorded a polemic like this in the data on the Cuban economy. (…) At the moment, we are not going to accept the 2.2% growth in 2018. There is no reason for it,” specifies the economist, who lives in Spain.

The opinion of both specialists coincides with the warning given by the economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago in February during the Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Affairs at Florida International University. Then, the University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus emphasized that the Island’s economy is in its worst moment since the 1990s.

Mesa-Lago also recalled that in 2006, when Raúl Castro took power, the government announced a GDP growth of 12.3%. “But it had been gradually declining until in 2018 it fell to 1.2%,” he said in reference to the figure that was modified this Saturday. “The figures become complicated,” according to Mesa-Lago, with the fact that the fiscal deficit jumped from 3.2% in 2007 to 8.7% ten years later.

On social media, users also criticized the new figure for GDP and made jokes about it. On Twitter, a user identified as Conodrum lamented that “the worst thing isn’t that they lie but that some in the hierarchy believe the lies and act in accordance with them.” While Mario J. Pentón wrote ironically on Facebook: “We have always heard that the Cuban Government puts makeup on its growth figures. This is no longer makeup, it’s total plastic surgery.”

Nor were jokes lacking among customers of the agricultural market on San Rafael street, one of the most important in Havana. “Now, yes, we have an abundant GDP, to fill the platforms, the plate, and the eyes,” laughed a lady who had come in search of an avocado but decided to leave with her bag empty when she saw the price: 15 CUP each (roughly 60¢ US, in a country with an average monthly wage of about $30).

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

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

"Available," the Official Cuban Euphemism for the Unemployed

Low wages, the desire to emigrate and the informal labor sector are some of the reasons for not having a permanent job. (Pedro S.)

14ymedio bigger
14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 5 July 2019 —  Official terminology in Cuba has its forbidden words. A lot of missing terms that can not be used by national officials, ministers or media. That forbidden vocabulary includes concepts such as crisis, femicide or unemployment. For Cubans who do not work, despite having the age and physical conditions to do so, the Government prefers the phrase “available workers.”

Although the official figures place unemployment below 3% on the Island, it is enough to walk the streets on a weekday during working hours to see the large numbers of people who are doing nothing. Of the 7,173,150 Cubans of working age reported in 2017 by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), only 4,474,800 worked, whether in the state, private or cooperative sector.

More than 2.7 million Cubans are in the limbo of unemployment, a situation that they have reached mainly due to the little stimulus that state salaries provide. Other influences, according to testimonies collected by 14ymedio, include the desires to emigrate, which lead people to devote most of their time to paperwork or tasks related to the departure; or involvement with some kind og informal business that provides individuals more resources than legal employment.

They are those who live on the margin, those who do not have access to a paid vacation or a pension when they get older, but who nevertheless boast of not having to “spend eight hours in one place for a few pesos a month,” as described by Pablo, 33, who only worked for two years after graduating from an engineering and spent his required social service in a state agency.

“I was offered a place, but I’ll never again work like that on a a fixed schedule,” he says. Now he devotes his time to the resale of perfumes and underwear through digital classified sites. “There are weeks that I earn more and others that I earn less but I am my own boss.” Pablo does not consider himself unemployed. “What I am is free,” he clarifies.

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

"What Comes Out of the Pipes Looks Like Coffee"

Camagüey residents complain about how often bad water comes out of the pipes. (La Hora de Cuba)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 8 July 2019 — The highest summer temperatures arrive and everyone dreams of water. Whether in a glass with ice, in a comfortable pool or in the waves of the sea. These are also the moments when one faces the greatest risk of being infected with pathogens that come from bad handling of what we drink or eat, the experts warn us.

The sanitary authorities remind us throughout the year that the water that arrives through the pipes or water trucks must be treated before being consumed, warnings that are redoubled in the months of greater heat increase the consumption of prepared beverages , ice creams, slushies and cocktails.

With more than a million students on vacation and domestic life also stressed by the imperatives of heat, for many families it becomes difficult and expensive to rigorously maintain the process of water purification for the substance that comes out of the taps or is acquired by some other source of supply near their homes. continue reading

In most Cuban homes residents treat the water in some way, using methods such as filtering it through appliances with active carbon, boiling it, or adding drops of chlorine-based purifying products. But there are also many families who ingest it without subjecting it to any kind of improvement or purification.

A special report published by the University of Miami in 2017, detailing the results of almost 500 surveys of travelers arriving from the Island, determined that one of the most serious problems with the water supply mentioned was: “obsolete pipelines are so rusty that water is often contaminated.”

“Here the water comes looking like coffee, but the worst is the smell of rust,” laments Lianne Céspedes, a resident of the city of Camagüey where problems with the water supply are widely denounced by citizens. “We have two small children and for them we have to buy water from a vendor who has a well,” she tells 14ymedio.

“For the adults of the house we boil the water and filter it and all that takes a lot of work, my mother is the one who takes care of it and dedicates several hours each day to be able to guarantee that the water we drink is moderately safe,” explains Céspedes. “We can not buy water at the ’shopping’, so this is the only thing we can do.”

The purchase of water bottles is a luxury that few can afford and in the networks of state stores there have been cases of employees who falsify these containers by simply filling them with tap water. It is common for tourists to come down with cases of the so-called “traveler’s diarrhea,” a gastroenteritis that is usually caused by bacteria endemic to local water.

“I have not been able to enjoy anything, since I arrived, I’m vomiting and having diarrhea,” says Thomas, a 29-year-old German who was waiting on the weekend at the Cira García international clinic in Havana, from which he left with a prescription to buy ciprofloxacin and the recommendation to also take oral rehydration serums.

“I have no doubt where I got sick,” says the traveler. “The day I arrived I went to a small bar in Old Havana and I had two mojitos, the next morning when I got up I felt bad and I am convinced that it was ice which wasn’t made with safe water.”

Thomas’s story is so common that many private guides recommend to their customers that they notconsume any drink or cocktail with ice. “I tell them to only drink canned and bottled beverages and, preferably, directly from the container because many glasses are also poorly washed,” says Mónica, 24, an English translator who is dedicated to giving tours of Havana’s historic disctrict.

In Cuba, as in other countries of the region, the protozoa of the genera Cryptosporidium and Giardia are the parasites that cause the most common diarrheal outbreaks of water origin. People can accidentally swallow them when they drink water at recreational places, or even at home if, for some reason, it is not completely clean.

Research carried out by specialists of the Provincial Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Ciego de Ávila warns that in the case of Cryptosporidium the chlorination of water does not destroy it and it can “survive in incompletely filtered water.” It is transmitted through the fecal-oral route through consumption of unfiltered water, through the ingestion of food, as well as through the water in swimming pools, cow’s milk, and contaminated vegetables.”

Other medical research conducted between 2013 and 2014 in Havana and Santiago de Cuba revealed that Cubans have a low perception of the risk of acquiring Acute Diarrheal Disease (ADD). The majority of respondents said they consume the water as it arrives through the pipes, due to lack of time or resources, especially among those who do not have manufactured or liquefied gas for cooking.

“It is impossible to boil the water because here we cook with an electric stove and sometimes with a little wood in the patio,” says a neighbor from Palmarito del Cauto in Santiago de Cuba. “We had a filter that my daughter bought me the last time she came to Cuba but to keep buying the pieces and the carbon is very expensive,” she says.

Water filters, mainly manufactured in South Korea, which are sold in the network of national stores, require replacements several times a year. The authorities of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) have also warned that these processors, manufactured with activated carbon and other elements, are not capable of eliminating the most dangerous bacteria and microorganisms.

Nor do customers inquire too much about the quality of the water used in state or private businesses that provide food services. On the central 23rd street in Havana, a small line of users waited this Saturday to buy a ’frozzen’, a light ice cream made mainly of water and flavor extracts.

“This is the cheapest thing you can take on the streets and costs three Cuban pesos (CUP — roughly 12¢ US),” a student at the nearby Faculty of Economics told this newspaper. “Everyone knows that with this price it is very difficult for this to be done with safe water, but we are already immunized,” he adds wryly. “But if I had children I would not give them a ’frozzen’ for anything in the world.”

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

On La Rampa, Better Not to Look Down

The public works project of the Electric Union have not taken any care to respect the works of La Rampa. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 24 June 2019 — If something differentiates Cuban nationals from tourists when they walk through the streets, it is the place where they fix their eyes. While the visitors are left looking at the beauty of the architecture or the miracle that a decrepit balcony has not yet fallen, those of us who live on this island walk around all the time looking down to avoid the gaps in the sidewalk, the puddles of sewage water and all types of common waste on public roads. This is the case almost everywhere on Havana’s La Rampa, where foreigners also like to enjoy the scenery under their shoes.

The most famous sidewalk in the Cuban capital is dotted with mosaics by national artists such as Amelia Peláez, Wifredo Lam, René Portocarrero, Hugo Consuegra, Mariano Rodríguez and Cundo Bermúdez, among others. For decades, walking along it has been like enjoying an exhibition hall without having to pay entrance fees. Although the years and the deterioration has caused it to lose some of its beauty, Havanans trusted that the stone and granite were harder than the apathy.

But a few days ago the Electric Union began to break up the pavement of 23rd Street, especially in the section between L and M and, in addition to taking pieces of the artistic works with them, they did not hesitate to carelessly fill in the outline of the images and cover parts of others with cement.

Now, everyone keeps looking down when they walk by along La Rampa, but not to admire the beauty under the feet but to see how far the mess can go. It does not matter if you are Cuban or foreigner, everyone looks at the ground and it hurts, of course it hurts.

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

Passengers, Victims of the War between the Government and Taxi Drivers

For decades transportation has been a big problem in Santiago de Cuba, where passengers depend primarily on delivery trucks and motorcycles to get around. (A. Masegi)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 25 June 2019 — In small cafe, located only a few yards from the Monaco Cinema and one of Havana’s most prominent private taxi stands, an employee and the cafe’s the meager clientele confirm what everyone already knows. The cab fares in the vintage 1950s cars known locally as almendrones have risen so much that customers must now choose between a pizza or a shared-taxi.

Last October the Provincial Administrative Council began an experiment that involved new rules along with economic and fiscal incentives for self-employed workers in the transportation sector. In December a package of measures took effect which regulated where they could drive, the sale of gasoline and the locations where they could pick up passengers.

Unhappy with regulations they considered to be overly restrictive, taxi drivers went on strike. For almost a week, the familiar 1950s vehicles, which have long been a mainstay of Havana’s urban landscape, were barely visible on the streets. Many drivers later returned to work but under guidelines that were not strictly legal. continue reading

A ride that used to cost 20 pesos was now being divided into two, three and even four segments. Customers were now paying 10 pesos per segment. In the best case scenario, the fare was double what a customer had been paying for the entire ride. This trick allowed driver to evade controls by fare inspectors. If a customer filed a complaint, the driver could claim he had never charged the passenger more than 20 pesos a ride.

“I work in Old Havana and live in Lisa,” says Monica Puerto, an employee at a privately owned cafe in the city’s historic center. “I’m now paying 40 pesos, twice what I used to pay. But that’s not the main problem because, in the end, I can adapt and pay for it out of my tips. What’s worse is that I cannot find a taxi that will take me all the way.”

“To get to work last Friday, I had to take three different taxis. When I add it all up, I am spending more time and more money,” says Puerto. In response, officials are increasing the number of public transport vehicles, adding twelve-seat microbuses to several routes. Demand is so high at peak hours, however, that bus stops are packed.

“It is virtually impossible to catch one in the middle of a route because people who have to travel long distances know that, if you don’t get on at the starting point, you won’t be able to get on later,” explains a nurse who takes the bus between Central Havana and Playa several times a week. “With my salary, I had a hard time paying for private taxis before but now it is impossible.”

Half hidden under the shadow of a tree on Carlos III Street, an inspector in a blue vest waits for the traffic light to turn green to pull over and inspect an almendron on this route. He stops one with three passengers and asks to see the driver’s papers. While checking to see if everything is in order, he takes the opportunity to ask the passengers how much they are being charged. The customers close ranks with the driver and state the official price.

“The problem we have is that the people themselves are complicit in their own robberies,” explains the inspector to a couple of curious onlookers. “If passengers filed a complaint when they are forced to pay twice the official rate, things would be different.” The same scenario is repeated in the next two inspections.

“Trying to create order has created chaos,” complains a mother carrying her daughter a few yards away. “The problem is not the prices the almendrones are charging. The problem is our salaries.” The woman, a housewife whose husband is a doctor on a medical mission in Africa, believes the battle between the self-employed workers and the government is hurting customers.

In Santiago de Cuba, the same is happening. On Monday, price controls began taking effect on private transport workers, mainly drivers of motorcyles and private delivery trucks with seats added to them.

Mayra Perez Gonzalez, vice-president of the provincial administrative council, has argued that the new fares are the result of work by a “multi-disciplinary commission” that seeks a “balance between the service [drivers] provide and the purchasing power of our people.”

To keep drivers of private vehicles from charging the old fares, police officials have posted uniformed officers at stops to make sure the five-peso fare limit on private trucks is being observed. “The stops are packed and there is no way to get from one point to another,” complains a Cuban Patriotic Union activist in a Youtube video.

“We already knew that this was coming because, as soon as these rules were took effect in Havana, everyone became irritated. But we thought that maybe the government had changed its mind and wouldn’t impose these prices here,” says Elsa Rojas, a resident of Palmarito del Cauto, which, she claims, “is now essentially incommunicado because of these measures.”

Rojas noted that, on Monday, she was not able to travel to the provincial capital because “there’s no transportation, not public, not private… A truck stopped at a spot far from the usual pick-up point but a fist fight broke out over who was going to get into it and the driver warned them that he was not going to make the whole trip. This is complicating everyone’s family life and we are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.”

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

Cuban 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.

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

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.

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

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.” 

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

"For 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

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