Canned Chickpeas at the Outpost of El Corte Inglés in Havana

The private label products are sold at a considerably higher prices in Cuba than in Spain. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 17 January 2018 — The corner of San Rafael and Galiano in Havana is now a plaza with a wifi zone where everyone stares at the screens of their mobile phones; but long ago the famous store El Encanto was built there, a business that inspired the creation of warehouses in Madrid called El Corte Inglés, which landed in Cuba this January, like a prodigal son, with some of its private label products.

“Everything is very expensive and although they look good in comparison to the domestic products, these are products bought by foreigners or people who have a private business,” said Katia María, mother of two teenagers who was looking at the cans.

The containers fill the shelves in a scene that is barely remembered by the customers of the La Puntilla Mall west of the city. The economic problems, which have worsened in recent years, have made one of the best-stocked stores in the capital a site with almost empty shelves and poor quality products.

“These are things that I can do without and that I only buy once a year for a special occasion, but I could not do it frequently

Now, with the arrival of the Spanish giant, there are cans of tuna, cans of the typical piquillo peppers, canned pasta and chickpeas. Customers walk up and down the aisles where the green triangle with cursive letters appears that announces the merchandise coming from the other side of the Atlantic. This Tuesday nobody put anything in a cart, they just looked, as if in a museum.

The effect has been seen immediately on market shelves. “We have had hard months because when there is toilet paper, there is no chicken or milk,” points out a customer of the shopping center who preferred anonymity. “I come to Miramar, although I live in Centro Habana, because this is an area of ​​diplomats, so sometimes the stores are better stocked.”

The shopper was surprised to see the new product line but declined to buy anything. “These are things that I can do without and that I only buy once a year for a special occasion, but I could not do it frequently,” he says.

At the end of a shelf, an employee was still stacking some of the newly arrived products. “This is a type of merchandise that is usually slow-moving,” she says. “You can see that they are of good quality but not of first necessity and here people are looking for basically the most important ingredients to cook: oil, tomato sauce and canned meat or fish,” she says.

The prices do not help much either. “This can of tuna in sunflower oil costs more than what I get as a monthly pension,” says Irma Junco. However, this pensioner says she can allow herself a “taste” because she has just sold her apartment and moved to a smaller property and “the difference in money is for me to eat better, because I am bored eating rice with hot dogs and chicken.”

If in a market of El Corte Inglés in Spain a box of pasta Farfalle costs 1.46 euros, in Havana its price of 2.50 CUC is equivalent to 2.11 euros

The prices of the new products have also “swelled” quite a lot in their long journey from their origin. If in El Corte Inglés market in Spain a box of Farfalle pasta costs 1.46 euros, in Havana its price of 2.50 CUC is equivalent to 2.11 euros. Something similar happens with a 6-portion package of yeast powder, which has gone from 0.63 euros in Spain to 1.65 in Cuba.

The contrast becomes greater in those products that in Madrid are presented in packages and in Havana are sold by the unit. If a package of three cans of sweet corn costs Spaniards 2.09 euros, Cubans must pay 1.10 for each can. When the administration of La Puntilla is asked about this the answer is always: “We do not choose the prices, they are already determined,” in a clear reference to the management of the Hard Currency Collection Stores (TRD).

Cuban consumers have complained repeatedly about the lack of transparency with regards to the percentage of profit that the State takes on the products it sells in the TRDs. However, studies done independently put the amount at between 50% and 240% of the initial purchase cost in the international market.

As excessive regulations stifle the agricultural production of the island, the country must import more than 80% of the food that it consumes, which means an expense to the national coffers of more than 2 billion a year.

The canned corn, canned fruit, or ground coffee that are now marketed in La Puntilla are part of a huge bill that the island spends on the purchase of cereals, rice, beans, corn, soybeans, milk powder and chicken to sustain both the rationed market and the retail network.

A package of three cans of sweet corn is sold in Spain at 2.09 euros, while in Cuba a single can costs 1.30 CUC. (14ymedio)

In the last two years, with the economic crisis in Venezuela and the decline in oil shipments at a preferential price from that country, paying for this flow of imports has become very difficult. The lack of liquidity, in the face of the loss of profits from the resale of the oil, has caused Raúl Castro’s government to have to cut imports.

The name Aliada, another of the private labels of El Corte Inglés, is also printed on several packages of pasta that fill the shelves. Products of both private labels come to the island through the Italian company Farmavenda and are sold exclusively in the TRDs managed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces. So far only two stores in the Cuban capital offer their products, although there are plans to extend them to others this year.

Also arriving in Cuba in recent months, with less media hype, is another brand of food, this one marketed by Alcampo, the Spanish subsidiary of the French group Auchan.

The arrival of El Corte Inglés in Cuba via its imported food is an event charged with symbolism. The establishment was inspired by the sales techniques of the new El Encanto stores, founded on the island by the Spanish brothers José and Bernardo Solís.

The establishment was inspired by the sales techniques of the new El Encanto stores, founded on the island by the Spanish brothers José and Bernardo Solís

Two of their employees from Asturias, César Rodríguez and Ramón Areces, settled in Madrid after working for decades in the famous Havana store. There they founded, in 1935, the great department stores, to which they brought their experience in selling by departments, advertising campaigns and the design of the stained glass windows that had so much success among Cuban customers. To this day, the giant is still the most powerful in Spain despite its falling profits and its problems with the Treasury.

Its predecessor in Havana suffered a different fate. With the coming to power of Fidel Castro in January 1959, El Encanto was nationalized and in 1961 two firebombs burned it down. The Revolutionary government accused the CIA of being behind the action, in which the famous militia woman Fe del Valle died. The place where the property had been was turned into a park that now bears her name.

Despite its sudden end, El Encanto is still a recurring memory that comes up when talking about the island’s republican past.

“Now they are the ones who send products to us,” laments Irma Junco, a 78-year-old retiree who inspected the shelves of La Puntilla on Tuesday after learning about the arrival of the products from El Corte Inglés. “We were pioneers in a lot of things and now we are in the caboose of the train,” she says sarcastically, while holding a can of fruit cocktail with the logo of the Spanish brand.

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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.

“Yes, It’s Really a Bus”

The passengers enjoyed the air conditioning and seats of a bus designed to minimize damage to the environment. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 29 November 2017 — The buildings pass by, a piece of blue sky, trees and some newspaper stands. Through the window of the only all-electric bus running through Havana, the city seems different. “This is the future,” the driver tells the passengers of the vehicle that serves route 18 between the Palatino terminal and Avenida del Puerto.

This Tuesday, getting on the shiny bus was much more than a trip. The modern technology from the manufacturer Yutong gives the vehicle a range of up to 180 miles. Although its usual fare should be 40 centavos (less than 2 cents US), yesterday no one returned change to those who paid with a full Cuban peso. continue reading

The equipment, with tinted windows against the sun and lightly padded seats, was the target of jokes and speculations throughout the day.

At the first stop, near the Vía Blanca, the young people at a nearby high school gathered to enter as a group through its wide doors. The E12 bus is eco-friendly with Zero Emission, moves at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour and has Michelin tubeless tires.

But none of this seemed to matter too much to the teenagers. Their conversation after sitting down wasn’t about the batteries or the fact that the bus does not consume fossil fuel, but about the efficient air conditioning that keeps the interior cool.

In a country where most of the year the thermometer climbs over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it is no small thing to be able to move around the city without fat drops of sweat trickling down in a sweltering public bus. The lack of crowding in the aisles and the fact that on the walls of the vehicle no one has yet marked it with phrases in the style of “Claudia loves Maikel” also seems strange.

“Soon there will be some self-employed guy renting out overcoats,” jokes a young woman. Beside her, in the blue high school uniform, a classmate is skeptical: “This will not last long.” Most of the conversations passengers share across the seats are expressions of regret for the deterioration that, inevitably, the vehicle will suffer.

The suspicion that cleanliness, air conditioning and comfort cannot withstand the passage of time, in the face of apathy and the lack of control that reigns on the island, dominates the conversations. “Here everything starts well and ends badly,” says an old woman who pinches the seat covering to see what it is made of.

“They say it has cameras and sensors in the back door,” warns a dark-haired man. “That is so that nobody leaves without paying,” the young woman who travels next to her responds. “And the seat is intelligent,” he adds, “that means you sit and it takes care of you, you can pass your hand over it and other things…” he says with a mischievous look.

A woman comes on with a string of onions she just got after “walking all over Havana.” From the bundle, thin layers fall off and land on the spotless floor. “Compañera, be careful, you have already started messing it up,” her seatmate scolds her, asking her where she bought the onions, because “they’re impossible to find.”

The driver’s assistant, in addition to collecting the fares, insists that nobody travel standing up and stares across the bus from one side to the other like a police officer. In the middle of the trip a lady climbs on with a ten-year-old girl and gets upset because she can’t stand next to her daughter. “Are you going to take care of the depraved ones who want to take advantage of her?” she asks the employee, who insists that she cannot stand in the aisle.

The first discussion of the day begins with an incident involving a dozen neighbors all willing to explain the dangers of a minor traveling alone and “the squaring of the circle,” according to a young man, who talks about bureaucratic regulations. “Coming or going here, now it is forbidden to travel standing,” he mocks.

A gentleman of advanced age, with worn out clothes, can’t bear even three minutes inside the vehicle. “Let me get off, it is very cold,” he says, yelling at the driver to open the door. “Get used to it, this will be the public transport of 2020,” the driver manages to tell him before a man gets on with a wireless speaker blasting reggaeton.

The bus runs without incident along Calzada del Cerro. When all the seats are occupied it does not even slow down at the bus stops, always crowded at that time of the morning. As they pass by, people on the street open their eyes, point and comment about the shiny body. “That, that’s the one they put on the television,” one hears when the door opens.

A couple of tourists take a photo at the insistence of their informal guide who “sells” the wonder of being able to spot the first bus of that type in all of Cuba. “You will not see this anywhere else in this country, it’s pure novelty,” he emphasizes.

The vehicle is about 40-feet long, 8 feet wide and 10 feet high, with 35 seats, five of them for people with disabilities, and a wider aisle that allows 70 passengers to stand, despite the ban from yesterday.

At the top of Infanta Street, a young mother approaches with her seven-year-old son, loaded with packages. “Mommy, this bus is new,” exclaims the boy excitedly. “This really is a bus,” he repeats as he runs his hand over the handrails and the edge of the seats.

The euphoria is painted on his little face, until a man who travels two stops further shouts: “I’ll trade you the bus for your mother.” A collective laugh fills the interior of the gleaming bus before the driver’s grim gaze. “No, because the mother is mine and this bus is not yours,” the boy replies, adding a curse that remains floating in the air.

When it reaches the end of the route, there is another line of people waiting on Avenida del Puerto to make the return trip. New comments emerge as the passengers board. No one comments on the benefits of this transport to the environment or the fuel savings. The first one to board starts off with a joke: “How much do I have to pay for the electricity?”

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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.

Living in Cuba Without a Ration Book

A butcher shop for the ration market in Havana’s Plaza municipality, Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 9 January 2018 — “Did you buy the bread?” The shout comes from a balcony and is directed at a woman walking along a street in Havana.

“The bread,” “the rice” or “the coffee,” with the article in front, always refers to the products that are sold through the ration book, an institution that will turn 56 in 2018.

A few decades ago, the rationed market served all Cubans, but with the growing social differences that have emerged on the island, this scenario is changing. At least two social groups buy little or nothing through the little booklet with its listing of subsidized prices, groups that are on the opposite ends of the economic spectrum: the new rich and the ‘illegals’. continue reading

Last December, officialdom finally put number to the Cubans who live in “illegal” situations on the Island: 107,200, of which 52,800 have been doing so for more than two decades, according to comments from Samuel Rodiles Planas, the president of Physical Planning, speaking to the Cuban Parliament.

These illegals are people who reside in a dwelling different from the registered address that appears on their identity card; as a result, many have difficulties in qualifying for their quotas in the rationed market, especially when they are far from their province of origin, because each nuclear family is assigned to one and only one bodega.

Roberto Macías has been “illegal” in Havana for seven years. He arrived from the distant city of Guantánamo, the province that loses the greatest numberof inhabitants every year due to internal migration: 9.1 per 1,000 people. Since then he has lived “without a ration booklet,” although his mother, back in Guantánamo, collects sugar and rice from the rationed quota to send him every three months.

The majority of Cuban migrants within the island choose the capital as their destination – where an average of 15,000 new residents arrive each year – followed by Matanzas, Artemisa and Mayabeque, according to data from the 2015 Cuban Population Yearbook and published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

Not only must these internal migrants say goodbye to their homes and family members in search of opportunities, but many of them have to give up the products from the rationed market. “I have not managed to have an address in Havana that is not provisional, and without that I can’t transfer my ration book here,” laments Macias.

The Guantanameran was born in 1963, just one year after the creation of the Ration Book as a system of subsidies and food rationing intended to guarantee a basket of affordable basic products for all Cubans. It was almost an emergency measure, like the one that was taken in some European countries after the Second World War, but in the Cuban case it may soon become a system that has lasted for six decades.

At that time, the imposition of a rationed market was justified based on the “imperialist” threat of the United States and its trade embargo. However, economist and professor Carmelo Mesa-Lago, in his studies, also attributes it to the collectivization of the means of production and the freezing of the prices of consumer goods carried out by Fidel Castro’s government.

Macías has visited the Consumers Registry Office (OFICODA) in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood where he currently resides, but the answer is always the same: “If you do not have the address on your identity card we can not sign you up for the ration book,” they respond.

Although over the years the variety and quantity of products offered through rationing has been significantly decreasing, the State still spends more than one billion pesos a year in subsidies for these foods which are barely enough for a third of the month; in a country that imports about 80% of the food consumed, the cost figure is not negligible.

Each nuclear family is assigned to a specific bodega, which is why one’s registered residence is fundamental. (14ymedio)

With meager portions of rice, chicken, sugar, milk, oil, eggs, beans and the daily quota of bread provided on the ration book, it is difficult to survive, but many families use it as a basic support to which they add the products they must buy at high prices in hard currency stores, agricultural markets or through informal trading networks.

Macias, however, does not have even that base. “It’s very hard because every day I have to invent what my family is going to eat and when I can’t find a peso I’m totally at sea,” he says.

This week, he has to go and look for “the box” with the quarterly shipment that arrives for him by rail from Guantanamo with the quota of grains and rice that were allocated to him for October, November and December. His mother has warned him that on this occasion “she had to take a little for herself during the end of the year,” he says.

A few yards away from the place where the Guantanameran resides in Havana lives another family that does not buy the products on the ration book, but for a very different reason. The husband is a musician with a salsa orchestra, the wife is a nationalized Spanish citizen, and the couple has an economic affluence that allows them to dispense with subsidized food.

“Years ago I handed over to an aunt of mine the right to buy my shares on the ration book because she needs it much more,” says Katia Lucia, 48. Among the reasons she gives is that she doesn’t want to “keep standing in line to buy at the bodega” and “the quality has fallen a lot,” so she “spends a little more on food but eats better.”

La cubañola travels frequently to Cancun to stock up on products. “The ticket is cheap and I bring everything from concentrated tomato puree to small soup cubes, as well as cheese, butter and toilet paper.” With three trips a year, plus what her husband earns as a musician, she says they can “resolve” their needs “without appealing to the ration book.”

But the family of Katia Lucia and her husband continue to qualify for the same products every month as do the most destitute. A contradiction that Raul Castro himself lamented in 2010 when he said that “several of the problems we face today have their origin in this measure of distribution that (…) constitutes a manifest expression of egalitarianism that benefits equally those who work and those who do not.”

“What they give you, take it,” laughs Katia Lucia recalling a very popular phrase that reflects like no other the cronyism that rationed distribution has generated. “I’m not going to leave those foods in the bodega. What for? To be picked up by someone else?” she explains to 14ymedio. “I prefer to give it to my aunt or give it to the dogs, but if it ‘belongs’ to me I will not leave it behind.”

During the public debates on the Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy, in 2010 and 2011, the possible elimination of the ration book was the topic that provoked the most comments and fears.

Maintaining it is like dragging a weight that the stagnant economy can barely sustain due to the heavy subsidies involved in selling food at very low prices. Some experts suggest limiting access to the ration book to the people most in need so that everyone can have a greater amount of food.

The economist Pedro Monreal believes this is the way to go and he proposes in his blog “a shrewder budgetary redistribution.” For example, if the number of beneficiary households is reduced to 3 million instead of the current 3,853,000, the subsidy for each family increases by 28.5%. With 2.5 million households, the subsidy for each one grows by 54%, and with 2 million, the increase is 92.6%.

There remains a question in the air, which Monreal has not yet addressed in his blog: what will be the criteria to reduce the number of beneficiaries “without setting off an extended social unrest”?

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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.

Fascination With Vitamins

Polivit has been used for nearly 25 years to treat malnutrition in Cuba. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 5 January 2017 —  The line in front of the Customs counter extends several yards. It is hot and flies land on the passengers who have just arrived at the airport in Havana. Among their luggage are air conditioners, huge bags and some boxes labeled “medicines” that, in all likelihood, include bottles of multivitamins and food supplements, products whose demand has grown in recent years.

The supplements — initially introduced on the Island as a support for the feeding of children, the elderly or convalescent people — are now widely consumed by young adults, people who practice sports frequently or those who want to avoid illness.

“It is a consumption that is outside of medical control and that people continue for long periods of time without really needing it,” says Caridad Herrera, who for more than two decades worked in the specialty of comprehensive general medicine in a Havana polyclinic. continue reading

“I have had patients who use and abuse these pills as if they were eating candy, just because they think they need more vitamins or because one of their children sent them some ‘nice’ pills from over there,” the doctor complains. “People think they can get healthy just by taking this every day, but it’s the lifestyle that they maintain that really influences their health.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends strict limits on the consumption of nutritional supplements and vitamins. It also warns that raising the doses can cause serious problems, including birth defects and increased mortality among adults.

However, most Cubans on the island seem to be unaware of these warnings and the consumption of vitamins is increasing, according to several specialists consulted by this newspaper. The intake of these supplements has become one of today’s visible status symbols in Cuban society.

“You will feel like new, happier and more vigorous,” reads a classified ad in one of the numerous digital pages where thousands of Cubans go to buy both aspirin and cars. “If you want to be more active every day and full of life call me,” invites the text in an ad that offers everything from “vitamin C gummies for children” to “flavored tablets for adults,” all “very colorful and high quality.”

The informal market has an extensive variety of vitamins and nutritional complexes that contrast with the empty shelves of state pharmacies to which many continue to go in search of the old and tired standby Polivit, which has been taken to alleviate the population’s malnutrition for almost 25 years.

Several medical studies undertaken starting in the great recession — the so-called Special period — that was set off with the fall of the Soviet bloc revealed that Cubans suffered serious deficiencies of vitamin A, thiamine and niacin, in addition to the entire group of B vitamins. Those deficiencies were announced through the independent and foreign press, despite the Government’s attempts to silence the problem.

The Ministry of Public Health began distributing multivitamin tablets, which during the first year were delivered free of charge through family doctor’s offices but later became a part of the regular inventory of pharmacies at subsidized prices. The supplements leant their names — Polivit or Multivit — as a symbol of the scarcity of those hard years.

The nutritional complex includes folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and B, and has an intense yellow color, to the point that some used it to dye rice at the time when food dyes disappeared from store shelves. There were also jokes about the Polivit and even the suspicion of some who renamed the pills as “soul stealers,” in the midst of social paranoia due to excessive government controls.

In 2003, a study by the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene (INHA) revealed that 26.4% of the population consumed vitamin supplements. From a sample of almost 50,000 people interviewed, almost three-quarters of those who reported that they did not take these nutrients, said it was because of “lack of the habit” or because they felt they the supplements made them more hungry.

In the families that did consume vitamins, the INHA found that children and the elderly were almost always prioritized. The study also reported the dissatisfaction of Polivit consumers due to the variations in the supply that prevented many of them from taking them regularly.

“I have been taking it for almost 20 years because I have had many health problems and I need to strengthen my diet, which is not very varied either,” says Azucena, 68, who sat outside the Carlos III Street pharmacy this Saturday, asking if Polivit had arrived.

Last December, the Ministry of Public Health and the state-owned Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries Group (BioCubaFarma) admitted the “instability” in the supply of medicines and supplements. Delivery failures from raw material suppliers affected production, as more than 85% of the compounds must be imported.

Azucena also regrets that the Polivit has “an unattractive presentation” and hard tablets. “To convince a child to take it, a little grace is needed.”

Relatives living abroad and the ‘informal market’ are main sources of nutritional supplements.

To alleviate the shortage and the “grayness” of Polivit, many families turn to their relatives abroad or buy supplements in the informal market.

Customs allows the importation of up to 10 kilos of medicines, which “are exempt from paying customs duties, provided that they come in their original containers and are separated from the rest of the articles,” so that a good part of the “business of vitality” is nourished by travelers’ personal imports.

“Every time I come, I bring my 10 kilograms of medicines and most of them are vitamins for my family,” says Rebeca Orizondo, a Cuban woman who has lived in Miami since she left the island during the Rafter Crisis in 1994. “My mother, who is already very old, can’t miss taking Omega 3 and calcium, so I keep her supplied.”

These small pills also are an expression of the growing social differences across the country and their use is often linked to access to convertible currency or simply contacts with people living abroad.

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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.

A Water Tank as a Sign of Prosperity

In the midst of Havana’s ruins, residents take advantage of any space to improve their living conditions. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 January 2017 – Building collapses and demolitions trace, in the urban landscape of Cuba’s capital city, a portrait of abandonment and desolation. The brushstrokes of time do not manage to erase all traces of human experience left in the decayed walls. However, life goes on and the need to solve everyday problems sparks inventiveness.

That institution known as “the water tank” presides over roofs and balconies. No one can remain in place without a supply from the garroted water networks that reach homes for a few hours each day or, in many cases, just a few hours a week.

With the correct lid to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes, the float mechanism that regulates its filling, a vent that allows a good outflow, the tank is a feature of mild prosperity in the midst of misery. It is like a lit advertisement that attracts glances, greed and envy. Connected to it is a “family with resources,” say the murmurs in the neighborhood.

A passing tourist cannot resist the temptation to collect the image with his camera. A prankster makes him believe that the ruin he sees is the result of “the last imperialist bombing.” But what mesmerizes the visitor’s gaze is the bright blue tank symbolizing the resistance waged in a much longer combat, the bold response of someone who refuses to concede defeat.

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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.

Alcohol, Silence and Clandestine Bets

Vasyl Lomachenko (l) and Guillermo Rigondeaux (r) at the pre-match weigh-in. (World Boxing Org)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 11 December 2017 —  There are enough cigarette butts left in the room to “fill a truck,” says Roger. In the clandestine betting house that this 68-year-old man manages in the neighborhood of Cerro, this Saturday was the most intense day of the year with the fight between the Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko and the Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Silent, seasoned in illegal business operations, and a friend of more police officers than he wants to confess, Roger has been in the illicit betting business for two decades. He has a select clientele that is willing to risk their money to enjoy that tug of adrenaline from the mix of competition, convertible pesos and chance.

Big League baseball games, boxing matches, car races and soccer championships have shaken the place, camouflaged inside the house. Only people he knows come there, regular customers who know the rules: “No quarrels, no bad words and the loser pays immediately.” continue reading

To get to the place you have to cross the living room of the house where the grandmother is watching a boring program on national television and Roger’s grandchildren are listening to music from a wireless speaker. Down the hallway, towards the kitchen, you enter a large room that seems to belong to a different dimension.

Roger was ten years old when “the bearded ones came to power and banned casinos and gambling.” Since then, gambling and bets have been submerged in the illegality from which not even police operations, denunciations and fear have been able to eradicate them. “Cubans carry this in their genes, they can’t take it from us,” he reflects. A betting promoter faces fines or penalties of between one to three years in prison that can increase to as much eight years if there are minors involved.

Several screens show even the smallest details of each challenge. There are eight small tables with four chairs each, a bar and all kinds of posters with sports glories on the walls. A small door leads to a bathroom usually overwhelmed by the amount of beer consumed.

Before entering the room, all guests must leave their mobile phones on the kitchen sideboard, among the containers of sugar, salt and a half-empty bottle of oil. “This is a complicated and I can’t even chance going out on the roof because someone might think of taking a picture,” explains the tanned manager.

Roger met Rigondeaux when “he was a boy who did not even know what he was worth,” he says. He saw him grow in the long hours of training, take to the ring, and earn several gold medals and fall into the abyss. “That boxer had the best and worst of things that could happen to a Cuban athlete.”

In July 2007, during the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Rigondeaux and his colleague Erislandy Lara left the Island delegation. “They were knocked out with a direct blow to the chin, bought with American bills,” said former President Fidel Castro in one of his convalescent Reflections [a newspaper column].

Fidel Castro’s political ally in the form of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, deployed an operation to capture both athletes until they were pushed back to Cuba. The fate of the fighters was sealed and Castro warned that they would not get back into the ring. Rigondeaux lived long months of exclusion in which even his friends did not dare to approach him.

In 2009, he managed to escape from the island to Miami and there he began a professional career on the rise that, this Saturday, took him face-to-face with Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko to compete in the Superfeatherweight World Championship at Madison Square Gardens in New York, in front of more than 5,000 spectators. Many miles away, in Havana, Roger’s place was the scene of pure tension.

Although people gathered throughout the city to watch the fight through illegal satellite dishes, for the official press the Santiaguan born in the same year as the Mariel Boatlift, 1980, is still a “traitor,” and so it kept a stubborn silence.

While the sports publications all over the world announced it as one of the most important matches in the last century, Cuban national television ignored its importance and preferred to dedicate its sports commentaries to the National Baseball Series. “If Fidel Castro ever cursed you, you stay cursed,” explains an local clandestine assiduous bettor.

Indoors, the clash between the Cuban and the Ukrainian was watched with great intensity. During the time the match was broadcast, passersby on the streets of the most populated municipalities of the capital, such as Central Havana, Old Havana or Diez de Octubre, could string together the trajectory of the fight from the sounds of televisions coming from doors and windows.

“Here, there is profit to be made not only on the bets, but also on the consumption,” explains Roger’s wife, who moves stealthily between the tables and the bar, serving drinks and plates with goodies to snack on. Almost all those who have arrived are men, although a couple of them are accompanied by their wives who get bored in front of the screens.

Before it starts, the bets are taken. Everything is written on a long piece of paper that bears names, quantities and other details. Each possibility is considered: number of attacks by one fighter or the other, possible counts of protection, a KO favoring the Ukrainian or the Cuban and even the number of blows against the opponent.

Both pugilists are known for their different styles but also for being “enchanted” and that adds tension among the bettors. They prepare for a transmission dotted with good times and some can barely stay seated, threatening to punch the TV as soon as the match begins.

Roger serves two Cuba Libres while periodically looking at the scoreboard. His boy is losing ground in front of the Ukrainian, but that does not worry him. Sympathy is one thing and money is another. “I bet Lomachenko since he is a safer boxer and youth is on his side because it makes him more daring,” he says.

The room is divided. Some whistle when the Cuban begins to show signs of having been dominated by the Ukrainian, others encourage him to hit harder and to not let himself “eat the coconut” with the rapid movements of his rival. The support for their compatriot is yielding before the bitter evidence that the fight is slipping away from him.

Rigondeaux, El Chacal (The Jackal), 37, came to the fight with two titles as Olympic champion, and 247 amateur fights, of which he lost only four. In his career as a professional he has fought 17 matches with an equal number of victories, 11 of them by KO. He is the world champion in super bantamweight and for Saturday’s bout he had to climb two weight classes.

The 29-year-old Ukrainian also has an impressive professional record of 10 fights, 9 wins and 7 knockouts. From the first attack this Saturday he dominated. He is faster, hits more cleanly and he can decipher the signs of his adversary, whom he pushes to the limit.

The glasses with rum and vodka pass from one side to the other in Roger’s place. One man chews his fingernails and another does not take his hands off his face as he sees how the Cuban is losing to his opponent. Nobody gets up to go to the bathroom, nobody talks. A heavy silence has settled in the room.

The fight ends in failure for Rigondeaux, who can’t fight in the seventh round due to a broken hand. The Santiagiaguan was well below his usual level and showed flaws in his technique, characterized by the power of his left foot and a great defensive capacity. He did not even manage to impress with the movement of his feet, one of the most distinctive features of his “sports choreography.”

Lomachenko rises with the triumph and consolidates his place among the best fighters in the world by defeating the Cuban in an unquestionable way. Roger smiles behind the bar and calculates that he has won about 1,000 CUC between the bets and the products he has sold.

The customers who had no luck pay out their money, one takes a ring from his finger and leaves it on the bar, while the winners smile and ask for another round. When it all ends they pick up their phones and go out one by one through the living room, where the grandmother is sleeping in front of the television.

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Canned Guarapo

The drink known in Cuba as guarapo, made with the juice of crushed sugar cane and a lot of ice, should be drunk immediately, because otherwise it “gets dark and smells bad.” (Gpparker)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 10 November 2017 — “Whomever figures out how to sell guarapo in a can will get rich,” says Overti, a Villa Clara resident in Havana who is trying to open his own café in the capital. “I started by setting up the trapiche – the sugarcane crusher – but I never managed to maintain a supply of cane, so I wasn’t able to sell even the first glass,” he tells 14ymedio.

The refreshing beverage, made with sugarcane juice and a lot of ice, has to be drunk immediately because otherwise “it gets dark and smells bad,” says the merchant, referring to the tendency of the juice to almost immediately begin to ferment. In other Latin American countries, as well as in south Florida, guarapo is sold in glass bottles and even in cans, as Overti yearns to do, but these options haven’t yet arrived on the island.

Right now and until some local entrepreneur manages to squeeze the sugarcane juice into a container and preserve it to keep it fresh for the palate, the consumers of this beverage are going to have to satisfy themselves with the so called guaraperas – the stands where the juice is sold fresh – which are increasingly scarce in the Cuban capital.

The inability to solve the transportation problems to ensure the cane arrives on time every morning has forced many guaraperas to close, leading to a scarcity of the drink that is so popular and refreshing for pedestrians. “If it were up to me, I’d set up a guarapo factory and the people here would never drink water again,” Overti dreams, although right now he can’t offer for sale even a single glass.

The Traces of Russia in Cuba: ‘Bolos’, Kamaz, ‘Polovinos’

“At one point we were everywhere in Cuba, but now you have to look hard to find a Russian,” ironically Valentina, with a vocabulary full of Cuban twists. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 November 2017 — “Sometimes I dream that I’ve returned to Moscow but the contours of the buildings look blurry,” confesses Valentina Rodriguez, 72. She married a Cuban who studied at a university in Moscow in the ‘80s and who lived for many years in Havana until she emigrated to the United States.

Valentina has two sons from that marriage, one of whom still lives in Ciego de Avila, in the center of the island, and the other who also emigrated to the US. They are called polovinos, which in Russian means the half of something because they look like “warm water, with a little Russian chill and some Cuban heat,” she explains. continue reading

“I never thought I would end up living in the United States,” she confesses in a recording she sent to 14ymedio.

“At one point we were everywhere in Cuba, but now you have to look hard to find a Russian,” Valentina says, with a vocabulary filled with Cubanisms. The official data confirm this perception: according to the Russian consulate on the island there are just over 1,000 nationals, although this figure is tripled if descendants are included.

Lately, as the centenary of the Russian Revolution approached, the official press has remarked on the friendship with Russia since 1973, when Cuba joined the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME), which led to the presence of the “comrades” dispersed throughout the country. “In most of the ministries there was a Soviet adviser who reported directly to Moscow and could intervene in the decisions,” says Valentina.

Such intense contract highlights that there are no more traces left in gastronomy, popular speech or cultural tastes. Perhaps because the differences were so many, in the words of an academic and writer, “Cubans and Russians beat on different wavelengths,” and sometimes they simply do not agree on anything.

“They welcomed me with affection but also there was some conflict from time to time because I had a very different way of looking at life and confronting problems,” recalls Valentina. “For me, my first months were marvelous, but with time it was a daily struggle with my Cuban family, the neighbors and even on the street.”

Not only were the Russians everywhere, the emblems and symbols of the Soviet Union filled the Cuban reality for more than three decades. Thousands of Lada cars were passing through the streets alongside the noisy Kamaz trucks, devourers of huge amounts of fuel, but strong as war tanks.

In Cuban homes, there were Aurika washing machines and Orbit fans while Krim TVs, all arriving from the distant country, played an infinity of cartoons and films made in the USSR. After the fall of the Soviet Union these appliances were replaced by others from China, South Korea and even the United States, while Hollywood productions filled the television schedule.

“They were ugly but long-lasting,” a home repairman who specialized in repairing Soviet washing machines told 14ymedio. “I have many customers who continue to use them.” The technician thinks that Cubans never valued the things that came from the Soviet Union because they cost very little and in addition were seen as rough or ugly. “But they were very good,” he says.

The nickname received by the Russians during their presence on the island and which is still in use today refers precisely to that rough image that the nationals captured in them. They were called bolos – bowling pins – in reference to their lack of sophistication and their tendency to prioritize operations before the aesthetic details.

While the political discourse was filled with phrases that spoke of sovereignty and national independence, behind the scenes the Soviets supported the entire economy of the island. Fidel Castro received more than 4 billion dollars a year from the USSR for his revolutionary project. the facilities of payment and trade with other nations of the socialist camp.

The country received some 200 million dollars that Russia paid each year for the rent of the Lourdes Radar Center, in the province of Pinar del Río, a military enclave that some voices within the Committee of Defense and Security of the Council of the Russian Federation is asking to be reopened.

The economist Óscar Espinosa Chepe, who died in 2013, was very clear about the economic weight that the Island represented for the USSR: “Actually, it was not Gorbachev. Cuba put an end the Soviet Union!” he told the Spanish press six years ago. “In unpaid credits alone the Russians estimate that they lost about 20 billion dollars over the time.”

The aid sustained the systems of health and education of which the Cuban government boasted for years in international forums. “But it did not help to develop the country, neither the countryside nor industry survived the collapse of the Soviet Union,” added Espinosa Chepe.

The economic support of the Kremlin diminished towards the end of the 1980s and stopped soon after, triggering the so-called Special Period on the Island, an unprecedented economic crisis. Cuba was then left with a debt of 35 billion dollars to Russia, which the Government of Vladimir Putin later canceled 90% of.

In the last edition of the Havana International Fair, last week, the Russian presence was again remarkable, but this time under other rules. Both countries made progress in the negotiations for the reconstruction of the rail network, a project that covers more than 680 miles of railway track, and also for the supply of construction, road and transportation equipment.

Polina Martínez Shviétosova, a writer of Russian origin living in Havana, believes that in recent years “the Russians have returned, they have been coming as entrepreneurs and it would be good if more came.” Although the ideal, she thinks, is that Cuban entrepreneurs, as individuals, could present a portfolio of business without state interference.

However, she acknowledges that this moment seems distant and that for now the greatest commercial relationship between the people of both countries is marked by the trips of the ‘mules’ who “go to Russia to buy the many products that are missing here.”

Martínez Shviétosova dreams of returning to live in Russia. “I wish my passport were an airplane,” she says. The writer prefers not to be pigeonholed into a nationality. “I want to be free of the idea that I’m Cuban or that I’m Russian,” but she likes to call herself polovina.

The writer recommends some places in the Cuban capital that offer Russian dishes. TaBARich opened its doors in October 2013 and its manager, Pavel, assures that it is “for the Russian community that lives in Cuba and also the nostalgic Cubans of the Soviet era.”

Last week, a cycle of Russian films was screened in a Havana cinema. “They are not like before,” warned a newspaper seller at the entrance to the theater. “They do not make me cry so much,” he joked. “They are not Soviet, they are Russian,” he repeated several times while only about four people bought tickets for the evening showing.

Paladar 1800 Resurges After Owner Released from Prison

Tripadvisor rates Paladar 1800 as “excellent”. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Camagüey, 19 October 2017 — The historical center of the city of Camagüey is once again recovering one of its emblematic attractions, although it is not an old church, a park, or one of the many museums in the city. Paladar 1800 reopened after having been closed for ten months due to a police investigation.

Since its reopening in August a steady stream of customers visit the colonial house. No other Camagüey paladar (‘palate’ — the term used for private restaurants in Cuba) has a greater reputation and its state-run competitors are far from being able to emulate the variety of its menu.

Between the 23 September 2016 until 1 August this year, the restaurant was closed and its proprietor spent two months in the jail. continue reading

Edel Fernández Izquierdo does not hide his relief at having left prison and being able to resume his food service business, which has been rated as excellent by Tripadvisor. The small businessman was arrested along with 11 other people investigated for alleged economic crimes, but ultimately no charges were lodged against him.

The arrest last year of several owners of very successful private restaurants in Las Tunas and Camagüey, including the owner of 1800, was interpreted by some citizens as a sign of a government plan to put the brakes on the private sector.

The situation escalated to a point of uncertainty among the 33 private restaurant license holders in Camagüey, where in November of last year a meeting was convened between the owners of private restaurants and representatives of the government, together with officials from various state agencies.

At that meeting, the authorities reported that irregularities were detected in the inspections carried out in the sector, such as the presence of uncontracted workers in the establishments, delays or underreporting in the payment of taxes to the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT), illegal construction, and trade in unauthorized merchandise.

Jesús Polo Vázquez, Economic Vice-President of the Provincial Council Administration, also told the official press that the searches and arrests were simply actions targeted to problems of “legality in the exercise of non-state management,” and that as long as the premises comply with established law no facility would be “unjustifiably closed.”

Now, Hernández Izquierdo is happy to be able to continue the business in his name, unlike other owners who were investigated and who ceded the ownership of their restaurants to a relative to keep them open. This is the case with the restaurant La Herradura in the Villa Mariana neighborhood, whose previous owner, Papito Rizo, was also arrested.

Hernández Izquierdo resumed his business after spending two months in Cerámica Roja prison in Camagüey and the police investigation, which ultimately never went to court, continued after his release.

Since its reopening the Hernandez Izquierdo’s restaurant does not have “half of the drinks” it had available before because during the police search some of the bottles were seized and that still have not been returned, although the owner does not give up the dream that someday he will know “what became of them.”

Outside, under the intense October sun, a tourist guide explained to a group of Canadians this weekend that 1800 serves the best Cuban food in the area. One of the visitors was also interested in the architecture of the large house on Plaza San Juan de Dios, the tourist heart of the city.

The paladar is visited mainly by foreign tourists and Cubans living abroad, but there are local diners who come looking for quality and good service.

Hernández Izquierdo is licensed as a “food and beverage vendor” to work in the hospitality industry.

The limits of the license are strict and Hernandez Izquierdo does not even want to know about exceeding what he is allowed. “If I want to have a man here to make cigars to sell them that is not allowed, among other things because there is no such license,” reflects the owner.

Local authorities have redoubled inspections in recent months to ensure strict compliance with the rules governing the operation of these premises. None can have more than 50 chairs, they must respect the defined opening and closing hours, and be supplied exclusively by products bought in the state stores – backed up by invoices – according to what several owners consulted by this newspaper have confirmed.

Last August, the Cuban government temporarily halted the issuing of licenses to private restaurants and rental houses for tourists, among other activities, in order to “regulate self-employment.” So far the issuance of these permits has not been resumed

Edel Hernández Izquierdo plans to “forget the negative moments” and to return to position himself in Camagüey as a prestigious restaurant. “It is no coincidence that we are well recommended in all the guides and by all travel agencies,” he says with pride. “To keep the name and to make up the lost time, that is my goal.”

“We will continue to serve and generate employment, despite the misunderstandings we are subject to,” confirms the owner of 1800. He smiles and adds, “I like what I do and I will continue to fight.”

Bar, Perfume Shop or Brothel?

Only those who dare to enter discover that the La Dulce Mulatta is a bar. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 9 October 2017 — She looks suggestively from the door on República Street in the city of Camaguey. “La Dulce Mulata*” says the poster that accompanies her provocative face. With that name, tourists think it’s a brothel, the clueless bet that it is a perfume shop and only those who dare to enter discover that it is a bar.

Owned by the state-owned Empresa de Comercio, with eight tables and a bar for ten customers, the place has a huge screen that plays videoclips of barely dressed models all day long. The bartender confesses that every week there is a foreigner who asks if it is a “puticlub” – a brothel. Perhaps for this reason, or to evade police controls, the locale has become – little by little – a meeting point for jineteras – hookers – and clients. continue reading

“With that name, could it be anything else?” says a customer on his third mojito, laughing. “They call it that for Mulata rum,” adds the guy, although he confesses that “it’s sweet, nobody knows where it came from.” Three other men with their elbows on the bar smirk as they make sexual allusions about the origin of the adjective.

Recently, a Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean finished in Cuba. In the main session, Congresswoman Yolanda Ferrer said that “the concept of the feminine began to change from the day the Revolution triumphed.” However, she avoided referring to the sexist use that continues to be made of the image of women, not only in popular music, but also in tourist advertising and political propaganda.

The conference, convened by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), had room only to extol the situation of women in Cuba, to recall the late Vilma Espín, president of the Federation of Cuban Women, and to slip in another line from Fidel Castro. During the days of the event, tourists continued to arrive at the La Dulce Mulata bar asking, “How much does a woman like the one in the photo cost in Cuba?”

*The Sweet Mixed-Race Woman

Havana’s Malecon Returns to Life

People and cars return to the Malecon. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 2 October 2017 — After 23 days of closure, Havana’s Malecón has reopened to the passage of pedestrians and vehicles. The “longest bench in the world” was filled this Sunday with hundreds of people eager to recover a routine interrupted by Hurricane Irma. The coastal stretch has seen some private restaurants reopen and informal businesses return.

Richard Consuegra, a traveling musician, has returned “the soul to the body.” He approaches the wall with his guitar and improvises all kinds of songs, from the classic Dos Gardenias by Isolina Carrillo, to some lighter ballads by Roberto Carlos. But tonight the musical theme that everyone wants to hear goes through other channels. continue reading

“Ah ah ah ah until the Malecón dries up,” chant a group of young people near the corner where the oceanfront promenade meets 23rd street. The chorus is somewhat sarcastic, because instead of the ocean retiring, what happened in early September was the sea’s invasion of the city, but that does not stop the young people from repeating the refrain from Jacob Forever.

The vast majority of those arriving after sunset see the reopening of the area as a reunion with an old friend and celebrate being able to relieve the heat with a fresh breeze coming off the sea. Abundant drinks, fans, complete families and vendors of goodies abound.

“Peanuts and popcorn,” a lady proclaims with a grocery cart crammed with groceries and bags. The wheels of the improvised commercial vehicle are getting stuck in some cracks still evident on the sidewalk. “I hope the cement has not been stolen,” the woman points out, referring to the diversion (i.e. theft) of resources that affects many state construction projects.

Fortunately, sitting on the wall is still free in a city where everyday prices for entertainment diverge more and more from wages. “People said that now that it was repaired they would not allow anyone to sit there, but I see that is a lie,” shouts a young man with a glass of rum in his hand, fully determined to stay facing the waves until dawn.

Tourists have also returned and behind them a whole network of businesses. “Do you want to eat in a good restaurant ?” a man asks a European couple in English as he offers business cards from a nearby site, one of the few private coastal restaurants that has managed to rebuild after the devastation of the hurricane.

The insistent promoter shows them some pages with images of the dishes, announces enticing prices and accompanies the couple across the avenue to the restaurant. The traffic has returned in full force, as if every vehicle in Havana had been waiting for this day to drive along the Malecón, forcing the group to wait several minutes to reach the other side.

San Lazaro Street, which until Sunday afternoon was a continuous traffic jam, looks more relaxed. “We couldn’t deal with it here even in the middle of the night,” says a neighbor who lives in the block between Belascoaín and Gervasio. “No one could cross this street because all the Malecon traffic came here.”

She complains not only about the days of traffic jams. She fears that the speed in repairing the coastal avenue and its wall will not be echoed in the reconstruction of the private homes affected by the floods. “In the news, they said the initial schedule was two months but they reduced it to 23 days,” she says.

“Now we have to see if those of us who have lost even the floor under our feet are going to see such efficiency,” she says, as she walks inside a house where water traces on the walls still recall the drama experienced and where the floor tiles are missing in several places.

In the block of Primera Street between C and D in the Vedado district, the panorama is not very different from the one left by Irma in Centro Habana. In recent years several restaurants and private clubs flourished there, enjoying the privilege of being located in front of the famous waterfront wall: El Tablazo, El 3D de Robertico and Las Baucherías.

Now, with their awnings missing, their windows broken and suffering the aftermath of the invasion of the sea, they are trying to recover in the midst of this “dead time” without customers. “The most difficult thing is to get the materials,” laments one of the employees who has gone from being a waiter to being a carpenter and mason.

Around the corner, the restaurant Mar Adentro is one of the few that was able open after 19 days of being closed for repairs. “We lost some pictures that were on the wall when the water rose to five feet,” says the employee who welcomes customers at the door. “We have not yet taken account of the losetbusiness, but here we are, fighting.”

A few blocks from that area, the state has improvised kiosks with light foods at low prices. Bread with ham and cheese or with roasted pork, little boxes with chicken, as well as soup and rice with sausage. The lines move quickly.

Candido, 78, waits to buy some food. “I’m throwing the last few pesitos that I have left on this,” he tells 14ymedio. “In my house we still can’t cook because the whole kitchen was damaged and we have spent all this time buying prepared food,” he says.

The retiree feels like a light has opened at the end of the tunnel of his anguish. “The Malecon is already open and that is my main source of sustenance,” he says. “Tomorrow, as soon as the sun comes up, I’ll go with my fishing rod and catch something, for sure.” The wall that provides some with customers and others with entertainment, gives Candido food.

Motorbikes to the Rescue in Cuba

In the city of Trinidad electric motorbikes can be rented by tourists who spend entertaining hours riding them around the city.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 28 September 2017 — Electric motorbikes, known as motorinas, continue to gain space on Cuban streets as an alternative to congested public transportation and the high prices of private taxis. This light vehicle has also become an ally for the home delivery food business, owners of homes for rents and illegal traders.

In the tourist city of Trinidad local entrepreneurs have added to the rental of rooms the rent of motorinas by the hour so that their customers can tour the colonial style streets. In Havana, pizza delivery companies deliver their orders on these vehicles whose price ranges from 1,900 to 2,500 CUC, depending on quality.

During the days of Hurricane Irma, these electric motorbikes were essential to evacuate everything from people to appliances. Given their small size and the ability to squeeze through almost any path – no matter how narrow – they were a great help in getting supplies from one place to another. The main problem was associated with their weak point, they run on electricity and the storm-induced blackout lasted for several days, during which motorbike owners could not charge the batteries.

“There was silence because you couldn’t hear a television of a motorina,” says Calixto, who lives in the center of Caibarién, describing those days. When the electricity returned, the motorinas once again continues their frantic action in the cities.

Cubans Hope For Customs Moratorium After Irma

There is growing demand for a moratorium on import tariffs for food, clothing, footwear and household appliances. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 19 September 2017 – Planning what to bring and filling their suitcases with their purchases abroad is the obsession of any Cuban who returns to the island. After Hurricane Irma, the victims and self-employed are waiting for the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) to relax customs fees so they can bring articles and merchandise into the country.

More than a week after the hurricane touched down on Cuban territory, there is growing demand for a moratorium on import duties on food, clothing, footwear and appliances. The AGR has not yet issued any official information that points to or rejects an immediate change in its regulations.

This Monday seemed like a normal day at José Martí International Airport’s Terminal 3, but travelers and their companions demanded more strongly than at other times the right to expand the amount of luggage that each passenger can bring. continue reading

“In my town, Yaguajay, there are people who have lost everything,” Raiza Rojas, 43, told this newspaper. “Getting here was an odyssey, but the return of my brother who was visiting Miami is vital for my family,” she says. His relatives, sitting on the stairs connecting the ground floor with the first floor, waited anxiously.

“My kids were left only with the shoes they had on, and in my house the washing machine and the refrigerator were ruined,” Rojas explains. Her dream is that “the Government will allow it all to be brought in from outside, because here the stores are experiencing extreme shortages and the products are very expensive.”

The list of gifts that the Rojas family hopes to receive includes “tomato paste in tubes that do not need refrigeration, detergent, soap, candles, cumin powder and reading glasses” that were lost during the storm. “We are also hoping for painkillers, aspirins and some heartburn pills because the pharmacies are bare.”

Any traveler can bring up to 22 pounds of duty-free medicines, but must pack them separately and keep them in their original containers. “That’s nothing, because in my family there are four seniors and two are chronic patients who need many medicines,” adds Rojas.

The woman hopes that in the short term “people can bring medicines, food and also cars that are needed right now to rebuild this country.”

However, customs controls continued to be governed by the standards implemented in mid-2014.

“I have two suitcases, one for food and another because I brought a drill,” a Cuban recently arrived from Cancun, where he spent the weekend shopping, told 14ymedio. “I thought that after the hurricane I would not have problems with tools and food but I was wrong,” he adds.

The traveler had to pay customs fees equal to the cost of the drill in convertible currency because it was his second import this year. “I explained to the official that this drill is for domestic use, to fix some windows that the winds of the cyclone loosened, but I still had to pay 50 CUC,” laments the man.

“It cost me more to bring it into the country than to buy it in Mexico,” he complains. “With these prices people are discouraged and in the end the loser is the country because the families have less to face the inclement weather with,” he says.

A few yards from the waiting room of the main terminal in Havana, the parcel agencies also continue to be governed by the rules in force for three years.

In the customer service office of the Aerovaradero company at the airport, an employee who identifies himself as Yasser responds bluntly: “Everything is consistent with the Official Gazette and [we have not] received any document that expands the volume of cargo that can come in unaccompanied nor its costs in customs,” he says.

The worker confirms that in the last hours he has registered numerous calls from customers interested in being recipients of personal donations from abroad to relieve the damages that the hurricane left them. However, “the General Customs of the Republic is the only one authorized to make changes” in the rates and quantities that can be received, Yasser says.

Even Pedro Acosta, owner of the Docilla Ceci private restaurant at the Havana Deportivo Casino, has gotten comments from people calling for “expanding the coverage to bring things,” he tells this newspaper. However he believes that the authorities “are not going to do it and if they take any such action it would be only temporarily because of the situation left by Hurricane Irma.”

Acosta says he feels pessimistic and has the impression that “the tendency is to close it down more and more and for people bring things from abroad individually.” In his opinion, among the reasons for strangling the mules” is the official intention to “not benefit the private sector,” he says. The mules include people who bring things into the country just for the price of their own ticket, along with others who charge by the pound and make a business of it.

Were he able to import with more freedom, this private businessman would prioritize “refrigeration articles that are very expensive here and are not of good quality,” he says. He would also like to import products such as different types of meat, condiments and other items that he can barely find in the stores.

At the end of August, Customs categorically denied a rumor about the possible implementation of more restrictive provisions for the clearance of travelers’ luggage. The state agency called the spread of this false news “erroneous and malicious.”

“Cuban Customs will always inform in advance, by all means available to us, any changes we may impose,” said the official statement.

Now, many count the hours waiting for another announcement, but this time “to open, not to close,” said Pedro Acosta.

Soup Kitchen for Havana’s Poor Can Barely Cope

Dining room of La Milagrosa parish in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 24 August 2017 – He arrives close to noon with a tin cup and a plastic bag. Roberto is one of the many elderly who eat lunch at the Milagrosa parish hall in Havana’s Santos Suarez neighborhood. The ration he receives for breakfast, lunch and a snack is the 78-year-old retiree’s main sustenance; his pension is 220 Cuban pesos (CUP) a month, less than ten dollars.

The place, managed by the Catholic Church, is packed during meal times and the nuns who manage the kitchen say they can barely help all those in need. The humanitarian service will continue, despite the recent death of its leading light, the priest Jesus Maria Lusarreta, who was 80. continue reading

Since he settled on the island in the early 1990s, the parish priest, born in 1937 in the Navarre town of Lumbier, in Spain, promoted various programs to help the elderly and disabled, as well as providing a space for children and young people with Down’s Syndrome. However, the impoverishment of the surrounding neighborhoods has limited the temple’s capacity to help all who knock on its doors.

The place, managed by the Catholic Church, is packed during meal times and the nuns who manage the kitchen say they can barely help all those in need

Lusarreta also established a system of home help to bring food to people who could not get to the parish, and he not infrequently asked for money from his own family in Spain to defray the expenses of a support system that has not stopped growing in recent years.

According to data from the Provincial Directorate of Assistance and Social Security in Havana, 335,178 retirees live in the capital city, with a monthly average income of 272 CUP apiece. Although some have relatives abroad who send them remittances, others must sell cigarettes and newspapers to survive, or live off public charity.

La Milagrosa Parish, in Havana. (14ymedio)

The center, a two-story building attached to the Roman-style temple built in 1947, also has a hairdresser offering free personal grooming, laundry and manicure services. At first there were only a dozen elderly people but today more than 200 show up every day.

In a statement to 14ymedio, a few weeks before his death, the priest regretted that the facilities where they kept some of the resources to help the most disadvantaged frequently fell victim to “robberies and vandalism.” However, he said that, despite the damage caused, he could understand “why people did it.”

One of the retirees, Roberto, separates some of the beans and rice he just received for lunch. “Next to my house is a man who has nothing and I always take him part of what they give me,” he explains.

Roberto and the other neighbors of La Milagrosa cross their fingers so that the project does not falter now that its main inspiration has died.

Cuba’s Private Taxi Drivers Are Suspicious of Government Measures to “Bring Order” to the Service

A driver repairing the classic American car he uses to provide shared fixed-route taxi service in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 August 2017 — The new measures to regulate the private sector are arriving drop by drop, with last Saturday’s announcement affecting taxi service, calling for the creation of piqueras – taxi stands/stops – fixed itineraries and prices of five pesos for each stretch of 8 kilometers.

According to the Deputy Minister of Transportation, Marta Oramas Rivero, this initiative is intended to “bring order” to the services offered by the almendrones – the classic American cars used in shared fixed-route taxi services. Saturday’s midday television news announced new regulations for private passenger transport in Havana.

“The price of the total route is the sum of these segments,” Oramas said, who also detailed that the new program could be voluntarily taken advantage of by the “private carriers who decide to do so.” However, the announcement has begun to generate suspicion in a sector that, in recent months, has experienced an increase in controls and requirements. continue reading

Last February, the government imposed prices on the 7,100 almendrones in the capital. From the time licenses were first issued for this service in the 1990s and up until now, rates have been governed by the law of supply and demand.

In response to the already imposed regulations, many drivers eliminated intermediate stops and opted only to carry passengers traveling their complete route, a situation that contributed to further complicating transportation in the country’s most populous city.

The new piqueras, which will come into operation “soon,” will be operated “by a state entity and not by a cooperative,” clarified Oramas.

Carriers, however, still lack the necessary information, since it has been explained that those who join the initiative must “establish contractual relations” with the state entity in charge but it is unknown who will manage the piqueras.

“After working for a decade in [state-owned] Taxis-Cuba, I decided to make a living with my own car,” says Walfrido, 38, a regular at Fraternity Park, where he picks up most of his passengers. “If the piqueras are going to be administered by this [new] company I won’t join because it is very inefficient.”

Walfrido fears that “they are going to start organizing the stops and end up telling you where the car has to go.” During his years as a taxi driver in a state entity he often had to “stop picking up customers to transport guests from the government, people who were going to some activity or officials,” he recalls.

Without an independent union to represent them, the chances of the drivers putting pressure on the Government are minimal. However, with the strength that they do have, they have the ability to shut down circulation in the cities.

The vice minister defines it as an advantage that those who are part of the experiment will be able to access the sale of fuel in the wholesale market at a different price, and will be able to purchase of “parts and pieces,” according to availability, to enable them to keep their cars running.

The promise to obtain gasoline or diesel at a lower cost than in state-owned service centers could be a good stimulus if it were not for the fact that many of the owners of these vehicles are now being supplied in the “informal” market. The diversion* of fuel from the state sector maintains an illegal stable supply at prices ranging from 10 to 15 CUP per liter (roughly equivalent to $1.50 to $2.25 US per gallon).

Some welcome the possibility of buying discounted parts. “If they are going to stock the stores I am interested, but as it is right now there is very little to reduce [prices on],” says Rodobaldo, a driver who serves the route to La Lisa. “The month it takes me to buy a light to replace a broken one, that month I am ruined,” he says. “So if they lower prices and have the supply,” it would be welcome.

Each botero – or “boatman,” as the drivers are calledwill be able to decide which route to work and “will be guaranteed the exclusivity of the service” offered on that route, said Marta Oramas Rivero, so that “only those designated to work on it” will be able to serve it.

The cars associated with the experiment will be marked with stickers showing their itinerary and the piquera they operate from, while those who do not join the experiment will be identified with a mark that indicates that it is a ‘free’ taxi.

But there are still more questions than answers. “They have not clarified whether the partners [in the scheme] will pay reduced taxes, who will pay the salaries of state employees who will work at the piqueras or if the government will control the expense of that fuel at a lower price according to the kilometers traveled,” says Walfrido.

“This experiment is green, green. It is going to fail and end up affecting a lot of people,” he laments.

*Translator’s note: “Diversion from the state sector” means, in Cuba, all the myriad ways workers, managers and officials steal from the state. Without this “diversion” across a wide range of resources and across the entire country, the Cuban economy would come to a standstill.