Pedicab Drivers Can Only Work Where They Live

The traditionally complicated transport situation in the capital has become chaotic recently due to fuel restrictions and other bureaucratic measures that have affected private taxi drivers. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 20 April 2017 — The transport ministry (MITRANS) has issued a new provision that obligates Havana’s pedicab drivers to have visible identification that specifies the municipality where they can operate.

The sticker carries the driver’s license number and the name of the municipality. An official calling herself Tamara explained to 14ymedio that MITRANS inspectors in the Central Havana district will ensure that “if you do not live in this municipality you can’t put the sticker on your vehicle that authorizes you to operate here.” continue reading

The office is located in a half-wrecked building on Zanja Street with a poorly painted façade and tree growing out of it, from a seed that fell into a crack in the building.

Sheathed in her blue MITRANS inspector’s uniform, Tamara barely looks up from the papers she has in front of her on her desk, to clarify that if you don’t have a license, don’t come. “In addition, they have to bring the acrylic.”

The sticker carries the driver’s license number and the name of the municipality where they are authorized to operate. (14ymedio)

The situation of transport in the capital, traditionally complicated, has become chaotic in recent times due to fuel restrictions and other bureaucratic measures that have affected private taxi drivers. Driving a pedicab is not very profitable, since drivers usually charge 1 Cuban convertible peso (roughly $1 US) for relatively short stretches, but unlike the so-called almendrones– the shared fixed route taxis whose name comes from the “almond-shape” of the classic American cars used in that service – they do not run on a fixed route and take the customers “to the door of their house.” Most of them are young people without a defined profession who work for an invisible boss who owns the equipment, and whom they have to pay more than half of what they collect daily.

A tour of the pedicab stands where the drivers usually find their customers, found that only a few drivers were displaying the identification. Very close to Chinatown a young man barely 20, who identifies himself as Yuslo, gives the impression of not feeling threatened by the new measure.

“I am a Palestinian* from Mayarí Arriba, I rent in a room in the Cerro district and I circulate around Old Havana. I don’t have an address in the capital on my identity card or license, I am a pirate who fights to survive. If things get ugly I make the sticker my own way and put it on the front of the bike,” he explains resolutely.

Most pedicab drivers are young people without a defined profession who work for an invisible boss. (14ymedio)

A little more measured and optimistic is Alberto Ramirez, who despite being in quarantine still has the energy to live from his physical effort. “We are accustomed to occasionally ‘inventing’ something of this type. A few days later the fever passes and no one remembers anything. I have my sticker to work in Old Havana because I have been living there for more than 20 years in a state shelter, but if a client asks me to take him to Coppelia (outside his district), I’ll charge him what the trip is worth and take him.”

While Alberto talks, a colleague at the pedicab stand keeps making gestures of disagreement. Finally he intervenes to say, “They are the ones who call the shots and do what they want. You don’t have to be an engineer to realize that this measure is a barbarity. It’s fine to have control but if no one cares where a minister or a chief of something lives in order to work here or there, why do they have to worry about where the unfortunates who survive from our work live? There’s no one who understands it,” protests the pedicab driver.

Without taking the time to answer another question he gets on his bike and in the worst possible mood concludes the conversation. “I’m going home. I don’t feel like working.”

*Translator’s note: Havanans call Cubans from the provinces who settle in their city “Palestinians” – a reference to the fact that without a resident permit, they are “illegals” in the city.

Green Gold From Cuba’s Fields

Last summer the price of avocado selling on the street in Havana neared 20 Cuban pesos each, the daily salary of a professional. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 April 2017 – A shout disturbed the morning’s tranquility. “Avocaaaaaaado!” shouted the roving salesman as he toured the streets of Central Havana. Considered the “green gold” of foods, this fruit could become an important source of income for the island, due to the high level of consumption around the world.

With the diplomatic thaw between Havana and Washington, some local farmers are hoping to export the fruit to the United States. In 2015, Americans consumed about 907,000 tonnes (metric tons) of avocadoes, twice as much as the year before. continue reading

And the phenomenon is not limited to the United States. At the international level the fruit is gaining ground; in 2013, 4.7 million tonnes of avocadoes were harvested, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than twice as much as two decades earlier. Mexico leads the market with 80% of world production, and in the Caribbean our neighbor the Dominican Republic harvests about 290,000 tonnes a year.

At the international level, the fruit is gaining ground; in 2013, 4.7 million tonnes of avocados were harvested, more than twice as much as two decades ago

Last December, scientists from the University of Cordoba (Spain) revealed the very high caloric value of the fruit’s pit, saying that it has “optimal qualities as a source of thermal energy comparable to other currently marketed biofuels.” The pit contains an average calorific value of 19,145 megajoules per kilogram.

In Cuba, the fruit is destined for domestic and tourist consumption, but there is no industry for processing or extraction of the oil, much appreciated in gastronomy and cosmetics. The authorities are currently seeking investors to open a pilot plant for these purposes, industry sources told 14ymedio.

In Cuba, the Antillean avocado variety is crossbred with its Guatemalan relative and although the result is large fruit with consistent mass, specialists say that it has low oil content compared to other varieties.

Private farmers distribute their crops among the markets that operate based on supply and demand and the individually-operated businesses that have flourished in the country in recent years. In this network the value of the product has experienced an upward trend in recent years.

The increase in tourism has influenced the shortages of some foods, and increased their prices, including avocados. “It’s in high demand and when it’s in season it is one of the most requested dishes, especially by foreigners,” José Miguel, a waiter in a private restaurant in Santiago de las Vegas, commented to this newspaper.

“Avocado is in high demand and when its in season it is one of the most requested dishes, especially by foreigners”

The self-employed worker says that “it is one of the products whose price has risen most steeply in recent years.” Last summer the street price of the largest avocados neared 20 Cuban pesos each (nearly one dollar US), the daily salary of a professional. “You can’t get one for five pesos any more even if you go directly to the fields.”

The state markets sell avocados by the pound, at a price that does not exceed 5 Cuban pesos (CUP), but as a rule they are small and unripe. “If you go out in the morning looking for one to eat at lunch time, you have to buy it from a pushcart vender or from a supply and demand market,” José Miguel emphasizes.

The climate has also contributed to the rise in prices. Last year was not a good year for avocado production on the island. Last September, the agronomist Emilio Farrés Armenteros, director of the Fruit Trees Division of the Agricola Business Group, told the official press that the climatic conditions were damaging the harvest.

With the country experiencing the most intense drought of the last half century, the rains did not arrive in time for the flowering of the trees. A situation exacerbated by the exhaustion of the nutrients in the soil due to the abundant production of 2015, which reached 120,000 tonnes. At the end of 2016, the avocado harvest totaled a much lower 90,000 tonnes.

Nancy and her husband are long-time avocado growers. In the area of Jagüey Grande they have a plot where they harvest three varieties of the fruit: Catalina, Wilson and Julio. The latter gives them more benefit because it has an early harvest and the trees are smaller in size than the others. However, both agree that “in the matter of taste, there is nothing to compare to the Catalina avocado.”

Farmers calculate that in a good year the harvest from each tree can bring between 3,000 and 5,000 CUP depending on the fruit produced

Farmers calculate that in a good year the harvest from each tree can bring in 3,000 to 5,000 CUP depending on the fruit produced. “We directly supply several restaurants and cafes in the area,” says Nancy. Although there are also “many wholesale buyers who take the fruit to sell in markets in Havana.”

The family aspires to be able to market their product beyond the national borders. They believe that exporting part of their crop would give them “greater profits and the possibility of investing in the farm.” They dream of earning the necessary resources for “a tractor and a new water turbine.”

However, the thaw with the United States is not enough to get Cuban avocados on American tables. In the middle of last year Barack Obama relaxed the regulations for the island’s coffee growers who sold their product to the US, and the official response from Cuba was not long in coming.

A declaration signed by farm leaders in Santiago de Cuba joined the top management of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), controlled by officialdom, in rejecting the measures implemented by the White House. Since then, no local producer has sold a single coffee bean to potential US customers.

Nevertheless, and although exporting is still an illusion, having an avocado tree guarantees the economic sustenance of many families on the island. Land with an orchard of fertile trees shoots up in price on the classified ad sites, almost like those that contain a well or a house with ceiling tiles.

Some owners have chosen to sell the full crop for a year. “ I have an arrangement with a neighbor who paid me 2,000 CUP for all the avocados in the orchard”

Some owners of avocado trees have chosen to sell a full year’s crop. “I have an arrangement with a neighbor who paid me 2,000 CUP for all the avocados in the orchard,” says Tomas Garcia, a resident of Calabazar south of the capital.

Retired from the Ministry of Construction, the man supplements his monthly pension of less than 20 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $20 US) with the sale of the tasty fruits from his patio. “One day my mother-in-law threw a seed in the trash in a corner, and then we realized that bush had sprouted.” Garcia replanted the small plant in a better place and, without knowing it, he made “the best investment in my life,” he acknowledges now.

Although he has never considered exporting his small crop, the pensioner believes that “if something is good in this country, it is avocados that need little care and can be planted in any yard.” He says that in addition to eating them from time to time he uses them to “give a shine to my hair” and his wife uses it as an anti-wrinkle mask.

“If I don’t have much to eat, I only have to cut an avocado in half and now I have a rich person’s meal instead of a poor person’s,” he said.

Ice Cream and Kilobytes

The inauguration of a Wi-Fi zone for internet access seeks to revitalize the Coppelia ice cream parlor. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 10 April 2017 – The large and little-used park around the Coppelia ice cream parlor has a new function as of a few days ago. The inauguration of a wifi zone for internet access is looking to revitalize the ice cream stand, as iconic as it is fallen into disgrace. Now, in the absence of those mythical 26 flavors, the customers will have a serving of kilobytes on side, courtesy of the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA). continue reading

Under the inclement sun, some curious came this week came in search of a few hours of “free” navigation as had been mentioned in various official media. The state monopoly only allowed access to the web at no cost during the opening day, and then an hour of navigation again cost the same as in the rest of these wireless parks: 1.50 CUC an hour (about $1.50 US, the equivalent of nearly two days pay at the average wage).

The state monopoly only allowed access to the web at no cost during the opening day and then an hour of navigation cost again 1.50 CUC

During two busy months, a brigade of construction workers installed benches, planters, lights and three reflectors for the security of the netizens. This last is one of the conditions most demanded in other areas where ETECSA offers its Nauta wifi service, where users report frequent thefts of telephones, tablets and computers, mainly at night.

Little by little word has spread and the place is beginning to fill with faces that stare closely at a screen, people who speak animatedly by videoconference and access resellers who, through the application Connectify, offer a plunge into the great world-wide web for half the state price.

It is hoped that soon, among Havanans, the word “Coppelia” will become synonymous with social networks and digital sites, instead of the mythical ice cream parlor that it once was.

It’s Never Too Late If The Movie Is Good

Authorities decided not to screen the film after its director, Jonathan Jakubowicz, suggested withdrawing it from the festival as a protest. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 30 March 2017 – After more than three months of being excluded from the Havana Film Festival, the movie Hands of Stone will be shown at La Rampa cinema in the Cuban capital. The film, based on the life of the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, was not shown at the festival as a punishment because its director, Jonathan Jakubowicz, expressed his solidarity with Cuban director Carlos Lechuga, whose movie Santa y Andrés was censored on the island.

For several weeks the story of the Panamanian boxer has begun to circulate widely through the popular “Weekly Packet” in a high definition copy dubbed in Spanish. Now it comes to the big screen, although its release has been accompanied by very little coverage in the official press. continue reading

Last November Jakubowicz spoke on the phone with Lechuga to share the idea of ​​removing his film from the festival’s playlist. After that call, the organizers of the event stopped responding to messages from the Venezuelan director to organize the arrival of a copy of the tape to the Island.

The discreet official projection of ‘Hands of Stone’ is a small victory for its director and for the national filmgoers

“Like the day after the death of Fidel Castro was announced, I thought that was it, so I didn’t write any more. I guess preferred to avoid the uncomfortable situation of me being in Havana, at a time of so much tension,” the director explained to 14ymedio. The organizers of the film festival said that the director “never sent the exhibition copy.”

“I felt that going to the Festival to show my film would be a hypocrisy, like when I saw international filmmakers [in Venezuela] photographing with Chavez while I was being persecuted,” he said in an interview with 14ymedio. “I was afraid to become that evil figure of the artist who supports the repressor.”

The discreet official projection of Hands of Stone is a small victory for its director and for the national filmgoers that have been waiting months to see it in the big screen. Jakubowicz predicted that “Cubans will feel the history of Durán as their own.”

The Ascent Of The Spy

The Cuban former spy Fernando González Llort in a file image. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 29 March 2017 — It was only a matter of time before the spy Fernando González Llort took over the presidency of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP). Since his return to Cuba after serving a 15-year prison sentence in the United States, many predicted his rise to that position.

In June 2014, González was appointed vice president of ICAP and on Tuesday it was announced that he was replacing Kenia Serrano Puig, who had served in the presidency of the institution for eight years. continue reading

The official note on the replacement was sparse in its goodbye to Serrano and did not include the usual formula of “she will take on other responsibilities”

The official note on the replacement was sparse in its goodbye to Serrano and did not include the usual formula of “she will take on other responsibilities.” The text didn’t even describe her “excellent performance at the head” of the institution. In the grammar of power, this reservation does not bode well for the woman.

Since their return to the island, all the members of the so-called Wasp Network have held positions in official bodies, mostly as vice-presidents. González Llort is the first to manage an organization.

In 1987, shortly after graduating with a Gold Diploma in International Political Relations, González Llort was part of a tank brigade in Angola. In the rest of his biography, he emphasizes his participation in the Wasp Network that concluded with his arrest and imprisonment in the United States.

For decades the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) has been a front for Cuban Intelligence

For decades, ICAP has been a front for Cuban Intelligence. Since their founding, institutions of this type have existed in the rest of the socialist countries. Instead of presenting themselves with the ideological tint of the Marxist court, they wrap themselves in the clothing of friendship between peoples.

The position of ICAP president can lead its occupant to higher spheres, as was the case of Sergio Corrieri, who was part of the Central Committee of the Party and was a member of the State Council. On the other hand, Kenia Serrano, who had previously been a member of the National Bureau of the Young Communists Union (UJC), was only able to ascend to a seat in Parliament.

“Adequate Social Behavior” Is The Requirement For A Sports Contract Abroad for a Cuban Athlete

“Social behavior” is key to a contract abroad. (Twitter)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 March 2017 — To the voices that call for more autonomy for athletes, the Cuban government has just responded with a clear message. “To enter into a contract abroad, the athlete” must have “adequate social behavior,” according to Ramiro Domínguez, legal director of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER), speaking to the press

The official’s statement was accompanied by data about the number of athletes residing on the island who obtained a contract in other countries through the state entity. By the end of last year 61 agreements had been signed in different disciplines, and there are “between 200 and 300 athletes engaged temporarily in tournaments, training camps or leagues abroad,” he said. continue reading

Domínguez explained that to achieve one of these contracts the athlete must also have “good teaching and sports results, be of interest to his national federation and receive authorization from the country where he would perform.”

INDER evaluates “the athlete’s living conditions in the club” where he will play, “the right to represent Cuba when asked and his safety,” as well as a “second medical opinion in case of injury or discomfort.” The official commented that he is studying to implement a scheme for “economic compensation” that would go to the State for the training the athlete received in Cuba, and that “can be a fixed economic amount or the equivalent of 20% of the contract in question.”

He clarified that in the case of baseball, the money that the Federation collects in that way is not “to satisfy personal whims, but destined to solve problems of the sport itself.”

“One of our main goals is to prevent the athlete from being treated as merchandise,” and “every athlete hired leaves Cuba with a rigorous medical examination, anti-doping test and aware of their contractual and tax obligations, and in some cases accompanied by relatives,” Domínguez pointed out.

Alfredo Despaigne from Granma province is the emblematic example of an athlete hired by a foreign club. The player achieved a million dollar contract with the Japanese club Fukuoka Hawks of Softbank, and according to Domínguez does not have to pay the Cuban Federation of Baseball, nor INDER.

“Once he returns to the country, the athlete will comply with tax obligations, like all Cuban citizens who receive income abroad,” Domínguez had indicated in an earlier statement.

Chinese Company Huawei Dominates Cuban Cellphone Market

Chinese brands have been expanding on the Island in recent times, ahead of the previous leading brand, Samsung. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 23 March 2017 — The mobile telephone market is changing at a speed that leaves little time to get used to new models. In Cuba, this dynamism is mostly seen in the informal networks, where the Chinese brand dominates because of its low prices and the preference it receives from the government.

Since 2008, when Raúl Castro’s government authorized Cubans to have a mobile phone contract, the number of customers with mobile lines has skyrocketed. At the end of 2016, the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) had more than 4 million subscribers to its cellphone service.

However, the sale of the handsets in the state network fails to satisfy users, who complain of outdated models and high prices. To alleviate this situation, the black market is greatly supported by those who want to update their telephone technology. continue reading

ETECSA’s offices sell Huawei Y3 and Huawei Y520 for 80 and 85 CUC respectively; low-end terminals with limited features

ETECSA’s offices sell Huawei Y3s and Huawei Y520s for 80 and 85 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) respectively. Catalogued as low-end terminals with limited features, these devices are an option for those who can’t afford more complex models such as Huawei P7, which the company sells for a whopping 472 CUC (roughly the same in dollars — about two years’ average salary in Cuba).

“I use it to connect to wifi and make videocalls with IMO,” Havier Morales, a technology student who owns a Y520 told 14ymedio. The young man emphasizes that the front facing camera, which is the one that is most used to talk with this application, is not very good quality, “but for the rest it’s an all-terrain phone.”

In the ETECSA office located in the Miramar Trade Center complex, an employee who preferred to remain anonymous offered more details. “We sell a lot of these models to teenagers who can’t afford a more expensive device and also to people who want to use it to connect to the internet,” she says.

The employee acknowledges that “the competition is tough, because street prices for mobile devices have dropped a lot,” and informal sellers frequently offer their merchandise outside the office. “They sell phones with cases, extra batteries and high-capacity micro-SD cards, so they have more attractive offerings than we do.”

Huawei holds 17.2% of the Chinese market and is now the leading mobile producer in that country. Outside its borders, for example in Spain, where in 2016 the Chinese company provided 21% of the smartphones sold in that country, the company has been very successful.

In late 2015, the company founded by Ren Zhengfei, who worked as an engineer in the Chinese Army, signed an agreement with the Cuban state monopoly to market smartphones on the island

In late 2015, the company founded by Ren Zhengfei, who worked as an engineer in the Chinese Army, signed an agreement with the Cuban state monopoly to market smartphones on the island and to improve voice and data services. The agreement includes the purchase of “parts, pieces and technical training,” according to a report at the time from the Cuban News Agency.

In 2000, Huawei obtained a contract to install the national fiber optic network. The Chinese company’s equipment is also used in wifi hotspots and in the newly opened Nauta Home service that provides internet access from homes.

The presence of Huawei on the island goes back more than fifteen years, according to Javier Villariño Ordoñez, sales director for the Chinese firm. In its relationship with state entities, it emphasizes “negotiating on the basis of mutual protection,” the businessman told the national press.

Official media has widely covered the company’s presence, while they have ironed out the scandal that enveloped the firm for some months because of a security hole in its code that sent client information to China. The problem was detected in other very popular brands in Cuba, such as ZTE and BLU.

The Washington-based human rights organization Freedom House has followed a number of allegations about the close ties between Huawei and state power in China and warns that security and human rights issues have been linked to the business.

In an open letter from Miami addressed to ETECSA, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba stated its disagreement with the agreements between Havana and Huawei, a firm that “has a long history of supporting closed societies by improving the ability of your government to censor the Internet. ”

In the middle of last year it was learned that US authorities were investigating Huawei for its business with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria

In the middle of last year, it was learned that US authorities were investigating Huawei for its business in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Its Chinese competitor, the telecommunications company ZTE had already been sanctioned for the same reason and fined 1.2 billion dollars.

However, the brand continues its expansion in the Cuban market. “Before we sold more Samsung but now a lot of customers prefer BLU or Huawei,” Rosa Ileana, an informal seller who sells smartphones from Panama and the United States, told 14ymedio. “Three out of four phones I sell are Chinese brands,” she says.

Her most frequent clients are “young people in high school,” but she also says that recently her products have been sold to “many older people who want to video-chat with relatives abroad,” from the wifi zones on the island.

The preferences are “a question of prices” but also because “as more people get a Huawei others also want to have one,” explains the seller. “A lot of it is word of mouth, if a device is recommended to you because of a long-lasting battery, stability and durability, then it’s more likely you’ll reach into your pocket and buy it.”

Unlucky Palm Trees / 14ymedio Marcelo Hernandez

The section that goes from the Park of the Fraternity to near Neptune Street was decked out with the national tree. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 17 March 2017 — As part of the restoration work of the National Capitol, seven palms were planted at the beginning of last year on the Paseo del Prado median facing the famous Havana building. The section that goes from Fraternity Park to near Neptune Street was then decked out with the national tree, but this lasted for only a short time.

The planting took place during the days before the visit of the American president Barack Obama, in which the city lived a dizzying swirl of construction and beautification. The Department of Forestry of the Ministry of Agriculture chose the trees that would be transplanted and experts in the matter offered advice for their rapid acclimatization. continue reading

With precision, the construction workers made wide planting areas surrounded by paving stones while the nearest neighbors debated whether or not to have these plants that, although they are not native to the Cuban archipelago, are consecrated in the left pavilion of the coat of arms of the Republic.

Within a year of their planting, the palms were dying one by one. They were planted in the appropriate soil and neighbors say they were watered frequently despite the city’s water shortage, but they did not survive the transplanting.

The palms have been dying one by one. (14ymedio)

Those who claim to know certain intimacies of nature ensure that before relocating a palm tree to a new site it is necessary to mark on its trunk a sign that shows which side faces the sun. The tree should be placed in the same direction. Failure to do so, results in the plume of leaves looking “disheveled” at the first light of dawn.

No one can assure that this requirement was met. Like other facts that become a “state secret,” no public official has felt it necessary to offer an explanation for the mass death. At the same time another transplanted tree died, the young ceiba that was replanted a year ago in the Plaza de Armas of Old Havana and that honors the foundation of the city.

New Skate Park Opens in Havana, 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Skating and skateboarding has gained followers in Cuba in recent years and also the attention of filmmakers, musicians and supportive friends. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 16 March 2017 – Manolito spends his afternoons chasing buses to grab onto as he rides down the street on his skateboard, or rehearsing new stunts. The young man left school a couple of years ago and every day he spends fewer hours in the house in La Timba where he lived with his mother, his grandmother and his three brothers. Now, a few yards from where he lives, there is a new skate park.

An immense site, closed to the public for decades, was opened for skateboarding on Paseo Street and 31st, very close to the Plaza of the Revolution. With the opening of the new facility they no longer have to watch jealously as other boys do tricks on their boards. News of the opening of the new park spread rapidly among fans of the sport, who have always had to try to find their own place to skate, despite the prejudices.

This urban sport has gained followers in Cuba in recent years and also the attention of filmmakers, musicians and supportive friends. For years, the organizations Cuba Skate, based in Washington DC, has been sending materials to the island for these restless boys, including boards and spare skates. The lack of material is just one of the problems they face. So far the main “squeaky wheel” is that the urban sport lacks places where it can be practiced, leaving them only the plazas and other public spaces where they are definitely not welcomed by other users of the space.

Cuba Skate from Cuba Skate on Vimeo.

Cuban Government Sees IT As “A Weapon For The Defense Of The Revolution” / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

General Leonardo Andollo Valdés (R), in charge of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Improvement of the Economic and Social Model, with Raúl Castro (L). (Cubadebate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 3 March 2017 — The role of information technology as a “weapon for the defense of the Revolution” has grabbed the attention of the latest meeting of the Council of Ministers, held several weeks late this Tuesday in the Palace of the Revolution and headed by President Raul Castro.

During the meeting, policies were approved for the improvement of the system of standardization, measurement, quality and accreditation, as well as fishing and food safety. But the leading role was taken by Information and Communication Technologies, whose shortcomings were expressed by General Leonardo Andollo Valdés, who is in charge of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of Improvement of the Economic and Social Model. continue reading

The military man stressed that “different actions have been undertaken for the regulation of computerization in the country, however, a comprehensive policy is required.” He called for the creation of content aimed at “strengthening the identity and preserving the values ​​of Cuban society.”

At a time when new technologies are gaining a presence among the population, the Government is still cautious about defining protocols for computerizing activities of daily life. Doing legal paperwork on the internet, or reserving a ticket, or taking money out of an ATM, are all tasks that continue to be surrounded by complexities.

Andollo said that conditions will be created to facilitate both communication between government institutions and procedures for the population

Andollo said that conditions will be created to facilitate both communication between government institutions and procedures for the population. Citizens have insisted on the need for these improvements, since it is not comprehensible that in such a centralized state, many procedures must be pursued separately with each entity.

On the other hand, while official reluctance remains, alternative distribution networks have a wide assortment of devices, content and “tricks” – such as NanoStations, Bullets, Rockets or Routers – to take advantage of global developments in technology. On the streets of Cuba, the most sophisticated smartphones coexist with the stories of those who still haven’t been able to afford their first cellphone.

The ministers met the day before the announcement of the prices of Nauta Home, a service that provides Internet browsing from homes. After a pilot test that included 2,000 homes in Havana’s historic center, the Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) announced the fees for the service, which range from 15 to 115 Convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) for 30 hours of connection. The available speeds start at 128 kilobytes and range up to 2 megabytes.

The Private Sector Consolidates Its Presence in Gastronomy and Services / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

La Herradura Paladar (private restaurant). (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 1 March 2017 — The corner of Galiano and Zanja is a hive of people at noon. The area’s private cafes sell everything from bread with croquettes to a complex meat lasagna, but the nearest state places only sell cigarettes. A third of the food services in Cuba are managed privately or by cooperatives, a sector that is attracting a larger and larger clientele.

According to public statements in Monday’s official press from Interior Minister Mari Blanca Ortega, 32% of food, personal and technical services operating on the island “have moved to non-state forms of management.” This formula now seeks to “achieve more quality and efficiency,” says the official. continue reading

In the last two decades, the scene in the nation’s streets has been transformed with the appearance of timbiriches – tiny private businesses – sales counters in the doorways of houses, all the way to restaurant complexes serving Creole and international food. But the sector is still burdened by the absence of a wholesale market and a strong tax policy.

32% of the food, personal and technical services operating on the Island “have moved to forms of non-state management”

“The taxes are very high,” says Dario, who manages a small fruit and snack store near the Military Hospital in Havana. “The account doesn’t balance because the products have gone up a lot of price and I have to pay the Office of the Tax Administration (ONAT) almost half of what I earn in a year,” he complains.

Right now, more than 200,000 workers, of whom at least 170,000 are self-employed, must submit their formal declarations of accounts. Those who have annual incomes in excess of 50,000 Cuban pesos (about US $2,000) must pay the Treasury up to 50% of the total earned.

Darío says that in the area where he works “many small businesses have closed because they have not been able to maintain a stable supply.” However, at the national level the numbers have grown, albeit slowly in recent years. By the end of 2016, the country had 535,000 self-employed workers, according to data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

The most common activities are the preparation and sale of food, the transport of cargo and passengers, the rental of dwellings, rooms or spaces and telecommunications agents.

Cases of tax evasion are common. Recently ONAT indicted 223 of these entrepreneurs in court. If found guilty they could face sentences of up to eight years in prison, ONAT’s legal director, Sonia Fernández, told the official media.

Outside a bakery on Carlos III Avenue, several of the self-employed were waiting Monday to supply their businesses. “I come every day and buy about 30 flautas, but sometimes I have to wait up to two hours to get goods,” says Migdalia, a cafeteria employee at nearby Calle Reina.

The bakery belongs to the retail network and the line alternates entrepreneurs and customers who only want to buy for home consumption. “If behind me someone buys wholesale, I’m left with nothing,” protests a retiree who considers that “the normal consumer is affected” when he must stand in line with small businesspeople.

Due to shortages affecting domestic markets, other products must be imported directly from abroad. “All the olive oil and Parmesan cheese we use we have to bring in from the outside,” said the administrator of a busy Italian restaurant in Havana’s Chinatown, insisting on anonymity.

In September 2014, new resolutions of the General Customs of the Republic attempted to restrict shipments of goods for commercial purposes by air, sea or postal. But the flow of products to the private sector has not stopped.

“I can not tell a customer that we are not making a dish because there is no nutmeg in the country or because I ran out of sesame”

“I cannot tell a customer that we are not making a dish because there is no nutmeg in the country or because I ran out of sesame,” complains the manager of the Italian restaurant. “When people come here they want to see that everything on the menu is being served; to guarantee that, you have to import many ingredients,” he says.

A report published a few days ago from the Economic and Trade Office of Spain in Havana says “the lack of stable access to raw materials and supplies necessary for their activity” as one of the greatest difficulties that the self-employed and cooperatives must face.

The lack of legal status is also at the root of most of the problems in this sector.

In spite of the rapid growth in numbers, and the contribution to the gross domestic product made by entrepreneurs and cooperatives, these forms of management have not been able “to squeeze into the productive fabric with sufficient force, due to the strong regulation and legal obstacles they encounter.”

Are Bikes Coming Back to Cuba With the Economic Crisis? / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

As problems with public transport and private taxis increase, bicycles are gradually returning to Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 23 February 2017 — When you look at the photos of the most difficult years of Cuba’s “Special Period,” there are several details that can be observed: how skinny Cubans were, the deterioration of their clothing, and the number of bicycles that filled the streets. Just like the dial phone evokes the first half of the twentieth century, these pedal-powered vehicles remind many Cubans of the most difficult times of their lives. continue reading

Despite the benefits to health and the environment, most of those born in the last half century on this island see bicycles as a means of transportation for times of crisis. It is no coincidence that the decline in the use of these vehicles began with the opening to tourism in the 1990s, and with the distribution of licenses for the operation of a private sector.

Thousands of bike-focused parking lots, tire-patchers and bike-repairers saw their clientele gradually diminish until they had to close. In Havana very few of these places are left, though they once sprinkled the landscape of the city. Also disappearing, along with them, is the massive imports of parts from China to be assembled into bikes in Cuba.

However, with the economic difficulties of recent months, led by the drop in oil shipments from Venezuela, some are making haste to reassume the custom of pedaling. Late, missing and overcrowded buses, along with the fallout from state-imposed price controls on private taxis – which has even resulted in drivers going on strike – has led a resurgence of problems in getting from place to place.

Resigned, some are dusting off their bikes and launching themselves into the streets under their own power, on two wheels.

Hotel Manzana, From Abandonment to the Controversy of Its Restoration / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The French company Bouygues Bâtiment International pays a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 2,000 euros to the Indian workers who work at the Hotel Manzana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 20 February 2017 – People’s memories of Manzana de Gomez vary according to how old the person is. Cubans over 60 evoke a huge commercial center surrounded by Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate Streets. Those under 40 see it as a dirty place, with sewers running with sewage and destroyed windows. But the youngest see it as a luxury hotel about to open in Havana.

In spite of the delays in the construction, everything indicates that by the middle of this year the repairs of the centrally located building will be finished. The Swiss company Kempinski Hotels has the rights to manage and market the hotel, that already promises to become the most exclusive place in the entire city, with a privileged view of Central Park and a paradise-worthy pool on the top floor. continue reading

However, the process of rehabilitation has not been easy, as the deterioration of the building was significant.

The work was plagued by delays and in July 2016, 200 Indian workers were hired to speed up the works

The restoration of the hotel was carried out by the real estate company ALMEST, an entity of the Cuban military consortium GAESA, which assigned the construction work to the French company Bouygues Batimet International. The work was plagued by delays and in July of 2016, 200 Indian workers were hired to speed up the work, according to Reuters.

The French company pays the foreign workers a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 2,000 euros, while Cuban workers receive barely a tenth of that. This situation has generated controversy and critics call the contracting discrimination against nationals.

When the carpet is installed in the Hotel Matanza hallways and its doors are opened for customers, the contrasts that have marked the life of the building will have come around again. The site has been both a commercial center and a building in ruins, a place where foreigners are employed and Cubans work as slaves, accommodations for tourists and place off-limits to Cubans’ wallets.

Birthrate Is Not Just a Matter of Resources / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Mothers who return to work after 18 weeks of maternity leave will receive, in addition to 100% of their salary, an extra provision of 60% of their pay. (Priscila Mora)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 February 2017 — Concerned about low birthrates, this month the Government has launched a campaign focused on fertility and a package of measures to stimulate births of two or more children per woman.

Since 1978 fertility rates have declined throughout the Island, dropping below population replacement levels. By 2050, the country will rank 9th in the world for elderly population. The aging demographics will exacerbate the lack of economically active people.

The new regulations to stimulate birth, made widely known by the paper Gaceta Oficial (Offical Gazzette), are composed of two decrees and four resolutions. These measures include the paid participation of family members in the childrearing process. continue reading

“Now my mother will be able to stay home with my daughter while I go to work,” says Sahily Cuevas, mother of a four-month-old baby and an employee of a Cooperative of Credits and Services in the municipality of Güira, Artemisa.

The discount of 50% on subsidized childcare rates for parents of two or more children can help “the poorest families,” especially in rural areas.

The grandmother, employed in the State Gastronomic Network, will receive 60% of her salary as a social benefit, a benefit that up until February was only available to the father of the child. It is true, however, that this payment is equivalent to $11, the price of three packs of disposable diapers.

The majority of women surveyed point to lack of resources as the main cause for postponement or interruption of a pregnancy. In the period between 2006-2013, birth rates rose from 1.39 children per woman to 1.71, but that figure should reach a minimum of 2.1 to get out of the red zone.

“I would not dare have a second child,” exclaims Tahimí, 27, resident of Aguada de Pasajeros. “The list of necessities to have a baby is so long that the extra money will be like a drop in the ocean, it will serve very little use.”

The women believes that the 50% discount on subsidized childcare rates for parents of two or more children can help “the poorest families,” especially in rural areas. With the third child the family will become exempt from payment, a benefit extending to couples that have multiple deliveries at once.

Returning to work after giving birth has also received new stimuli. Mothers who return to work after 18 weeks of maternity leave will receive, in addition to 100% of their salary, an extra provision of 60% of their pay, from three months to one year after giving birth.

The private sector, with more than half a million employees in the country, has also received a reduction in monthly taxes for self-employed workers with two or more children under 17 years old. But the labor demands in private businesses leave little room for women to take a more extended family leave.

“I would not leave from here because they would replace me and this is my family’s livelihood,” comments an employee of La Mimosa, a restaurant in Chinatown in Havana. “There is a lot of competition and getting pregnant is the same as being left out,” adds the employee, who chose to remain anonymous.

Maipú, 21, has had four abortions. The first two with the technique of menstrual regulation performed on an outpatient basis that does not require anesthesia. For the last two she entered an operating room where they used the technique of scraping, known as curettage. The young woman refuses to have children at the moment.

“I live with my parents and my grandparents, as well as my two brothers,” she says to 14ymedio. Housing problems are the main cause for postponing motherhood, but she also has her eyes set on emigrating. 

The director of the Center of Population and Development studies believes that “social processes like female emancipation” also influence in the decision to push back maternity.

In recent years, without publicly announcing it, the Ministry of Public Health has restricted abortions. “Now the requirements to receive an abortion are stricter,” says a nurse of the Obstetrical Gynecological Hospital, Ramón González Coro. The employee believes that “it is difficult to complete all the paperwork in time for a menstrual regulation technique or an abortion.”

However, the informal market has also flourished in that field. Maipú paid 50 CUC for her last abortion. “I did not have much time because I was already at 12 weeks,” she recounts. She spent the equivalent of a doctor’s monthly salary. There was no record of her procedure on her medical record.

The director of the Center of Population and Development Studies, Juan Carlos Alfonso, has tempered the weight of the economic crisis and immigration in the rejection of pregnancies maintained by Cuban women. For the specialist, “social processes like female emancipation “also influence in the decision to push back maternity.

A 2009 fertility survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (ONEI) found that 21% of women aged 15-54 had experienced at least one pregnancy that ended in intentional abortions. Eighty percent of the population reported having used contraception.

“Obtaining one visa is not the same as obtaining two,” affirms Maipú in a pragmatic tone. However, she acknowledges that she has always wanted to “be a mother and have many children running around the house.”

Translated by Chavely Garcia.

 

Private Taxi Drivers Close Ranks Against Fixed Prices Charged By The State / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Transportation crisis in Havana is aggravated by the “semi-strike” of private taxis. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerMarcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 February 2017 – “Take me, I’ll pay you double,” implores a woman to a taxi driver on the main route of Prado y Neptuno. The car is empty, but the driver does not stop to those hailing his taxi, even while showing money in their hands. Imposed fixed prices on private transport have unleashed a silent battle on the streets of Havana.

Since last Wednesday capital authorities have applied a new scale of fixed rates on the routes of private taxis, a decision that reinforced an end to the law of supply and demand, which regulated the private transport since its authorization in the mid 1990s. Last year the authorities decreed set fares, but the drivers found a way to get around them and the state came back with a second round of controls last week. continue reading

Private transport drivers reacted by eliminating intermediate stops or by opting to pick up only passengers going the full route. Despite not relying on an independent union, they have closed ranks and reduced the number of clients they transport in order to pressure local authorities to take a step back.

Since last Wednesday capital authorities have applied fixed rates on the routes of private taxis.

“It has not been necessary for drivers to agree on taking these measure because we all know that accepting this means worse measures to come,” assures Leo Ramírez, one of the private taxis whose route runs between downtown and the neighborhood La Víbora. Driver of a 1957 Chevrolet, this man says the government is “waging war” on them.

Like most of his colleagues who transport passengers within the city, for the past three days Ramírez only accepts riders going the full route. “Most of the time I ride around with no passengers and I have lost a lot of money,” he says to 14ymedio. He claims, “if the measure is not reversed I will turn in my license.”

At the end of 2016, Cuba had more than 535,000 private or non-state workers, the largest figure recorded since 2010, according to data from the Ministry of Work and Social Security (MTSS). Of these, about 54,350 work in the transport of cargo and passengers and are popularly know as boteros (boatmen).

The situation has put the mobility of Havana in check, a city with over 2 million people and a public transport system facing a deficit of vehicles.

In July 2016, the Council of Provincial Administration published Agreement 185, setting maximum fares for the routes of the popular almendrones*, or private taxis. At that time, established rates were for the most important routes, but the drivers resorted to breaking the trips into segments and charging per segment.

Tatiana Viera, vice-president of the Council, explained on national television that behind that decision was “a series of violations that occurred between the months of September and October.” Consequently, “in order to continue to protect the public,” they decided on the new “measures for shorter trips.”

The official explains that private taxis transport workers, students and even “teachers, who with their salary and hard work cannot afford transportation at those prices.” Viera pointed out that “it is our state and moral duty to continue protecting these customers,” even though she classified the almendrones as “complementary transport.”

The situation has put the mobility of Havana in check, a city with over 2 million people and a public transport system facing a deficit of vehicles.

“The problem is not prices, but wages,” says Yampier, a taxi driver on the route from the area of the Capitol to the municipality of Marianao. According to this self-employed driver, “our cars are always full, which means there are people who can afford our prices.” However, he considers that presently, they are all affected by the new measures.

A retiree who tried to take a taxi this Saturday to Santiago de la Vegas from El Curita park, showed more optimism. “There was no one who could pay those prices, which makes me glad the State intervened,” she commented to 14ymedio. She went outside with the newspaper stating the new rates to “show (the drivers) if they tried to take advantage of her.”

The sanctions for those who do not conform to the new rates range from a fine to the confiscation of the vehicle. “Our inspectors are already on the streets” dressed in “blue jackets,” warns Viera and adds, “They are accompanied by the National Revolutionary Police (PNR).”

The sanctions for those who do not conform to the new rates range from a fine to the confiscation of the vehicle.

Carlos Manuel, known as the Mule, is self-employed in construction and lives in the Martí neighborhood. Every day he takes at least two private taxis to get to the house where he is building a bathroom and a kitchen. “When I heard the news I felt happy because I was going to pay half of what I was paying last Thursday,” he commented to this newspaper.

However, as the days pass, the Mule explains that these new measures have actually “affected me a lot.” Now, “I have to go to where the route starts to hop on a taxi,” he retells. So, “I pay more because I have to go on a longer route now.”

This construction worker is also concerned that “this type of decision by the State will trickle down into other professions.” In his case, he is afraid that “one day they might announce fixed rates for the placement of a square meter of tiles or the installation of sanitary fixtures,” a situation which he would be “deeply affected” by.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrones” means “almonds” – from the shape of the classic American cars often used to provide this service.

Translated by Chavely Garcia.