Animal Protection… Also for Oxen

The economic crisis has meant that for decades most work on the land is done with oxen. (A. Bielosouv)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, September 13, 2018 — One of the subjects that has come up most frequently in the meetings where the reform of the Constitution is being debated is the necessity to have a Law of Animal Protection. The majority of the people who have launched the proposal are thinking especially about the infinite number of abandoned dogs and cats in Cuba’s cities, the violence they are victims of, and the irresponsible abandonment that they suffer at the hands of their owners.

The bad working conditions of thousands of horses used for passenger transport all over the country is also on the minds of many of those demanding an end to such bad treatment and the establishment of a law that prevents excesses. However, few think about the many oxen used for farming labor all over the country, made invisible as a matter of course, but in a situation many times worse than that of those horses who pull coaches packed with people or of abandoned pets.

The long economic crisis in the country and the lack of a market selling agricultural machinery has meant that for decades the majority of work on the land is done with these animals. Without the plow, with its corresponding yoke of oxen, it wouldn’t be possible to produce many of the products sold on the stands in markets. With the lack of tractors and mechanized combine harvesters, a large percentage of the harvest in rural areas rests on the backs of these animals. continue reading

In the Matanzas plain, Rigoberto takes care of his two oxen like they are the apple of his eye. He raised them from birth and they answer to the names General and Florentino. “Without these animals my family would be even worse off,” recognizes the farmer, who grows greens and vegetables. “I take care of them like they were my own children,” the farmer shares, although he recognizes that his story isn’t very common in the surrounding area.

“On the closest cooperatives and on the state-owned farms, these animals are exploited and so they have a short life, because they aren’t given time to rest nor the food that they need,” Rigoberto believes. “When a guajiro (Cuban farmer) is the one who has a yoke of oxen, he tends to take care of them more, because it is very expensive and it will take a long time to get others.” General and Florentino sleep under a roof in an improvised shed that Rigoberto made. “You need to have a veterinarian look after them and give them fresh grass along with enriched fodder,” he points out.

However, another view appears as soon as one leaves this Matanzas man’s farm. Ribs sticking out, snouts injured by a badly placed nosering, and workdays that never seem to end is the most common lot of the area’s oxen. Those that hope, along with dogs, cats, and horses, that legislation is passed in their favor.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

____________________________

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

"A Spaceship Fell in Our Neighborhood"

The Packard, with 312 rooms, has wide glass windows, sharp corners, and an entranceway that is integrated into the promenade. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, September 11, 2018 — Gerardo Carbonell chews tobacco, seated in the doorway of a housing complex on Calle Prado, as he says that in his neighborhood “a spaceship fell.” The dazzling object in fact is identified and is no other than the recently inaugurated hotel Grand Packard, the second five-star-plus hotel in Cuba.

The facade shines under the September sun and although one does not yet see the coming and going of tourists, the accommodation is already causing a stir. “In the last few days many important people have come to see it and participate in the inauguration,” says Carbonell, although “they don’t move much, they don’t walk this way,” he laments.

The housing complex where this retired Havanan has lived for 60 years is only meters from the impressive construction but they seem two worlds apart. “This is like the sun and the moon, day and night,” he believes. “Now these houses are looking more deteriorated because in comparison with this new thing everything seems much older.” continue reading

By “old” Carbonell doesn’t refer only to the age of the colonial style building where he lives with his wife and three children, but also to its facilities. “On this site the pipes collapsed years ago and all the water that we consume has to be taken in buckets from the cistern or carried to the rooms by our own power.”

However, the least of their problems is carryong the water from one part of the complex to another, the most difficult is getting it to the complex. “We have a supply once a week, maybe twice. The rest of the time you have to pay for pipas (water trucks) or take care of your needs elsewhere,” he maintains.

The retiree points out the places in the area where he frequently goes to use the bathroom. “In the Hotel Inglaterra there are good bathrooms and they aren’t such a pain about it, also in the Parque Central they have a good supply of toilet paper, but in the Telégrafo you can’t even enter because the security is really strict,” he explains.

The Grand Packard, developed by the Spanish company Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, will not have problems with water. This Monday the water trucks supplied it very early, in a routine carried out by all the hotels in the area, which has among the worst water shortages in Havana.

With ten stories and an exceptional view, the accommodation promises its visitors the chance to get to know an historical and well-trafficked part of the city. The shopkeepers in the area hope to benefit from the clients who venture out to eat and have a few drinks outside of the hotel facilities at a time when the drop in tourism worries everyone.

“We are on the same sidewalk and we’ll get a slice of this cake,” predicts an employee at the nearby private cafeteria La Tatagua. The place, small and well designed, has a view of the Paseo del Prado and a wifi connection that clients can use as they eat. “Although the Packard has all types of luxuries, there are always those who want to touch reality with their own hands,” he adds.

Reality is a vague concept in one of the most touristy areas of the country. On one hand, there are the spectacular old cars, many of them convertibles, that offer trips through the most famous areas of the urban landscape, but a few meters away are buildings, miracularly still standing, in which dozens of families are packed.

The floor of the central promenade has recently been polished and this week various workers continued working on the streetlights that line the route. “The whole area has made itself beautiful for the occasion, especially the green areas just in front of the hotel,” assures one of the guards, in a perfect suit and tie, who watches over the entrance.

Property of Gaviota, the state-owned hotel business controlled by the Armed Forces, the Packard has come to underline the contrasts in a area where the hotel Manzana Kempinski was already viewed as “something fallen from the sky,” as Carbonell jokes.

“This was a ruin, because before that the Biscuit hotel was here, which was inaugurated in 1911 and which my grandfather told me was a marvel,” insists María Eugenia, who lives in another housing complex on the opposite side of the street “with a direct view of the new hotel. Now I wake up and when I look out the window I feel like I’m in another country,” she remarks ironically.

The Packard, with 312 rooms, has wide glass windows, sharp corners, and an entranceway integrated into the shady promenade, typical of the area. Its impressiveness and size — it occupies almost an entire block — have few rivals in the area.

The facade, however, has its detractors. “Although part of the original exterior structure has been preserved, the majority of the elements are modern and break with the dominant aesthetic in the area,” believes Laura Fumero, graduate in architecture, who works with a small private design firm.

“The height of the entryway seems to make the building look big, but my major concern has to do with the demand for energy, water, and other resources that this hotel will have when it is fully operational. It is not much use to have something so luxurious in a place with general infrastructure that’s over a century old,” she points out.

The architect goes further and calls into question the need for hotels of “high volume.” The decision “would be more accepted if we were experiencing a dramatic increase in tourism, but that’s not the case,” she specifies. “It’s also a matter of a type of accommodation aimed at high income visitors, but right now we’re experiencing a fall in the number of Americans who come and they are the ones who are, for the most part, most likely to spend more,” she believes.

In the first half of the year global tourism numbers, about 2.5 million visitors, went down more than 5%. Taking into account only American tourists, the drop in that time period was about 24%. Between January and March, 240 groups of Americans cancelled their reservations due to the new restrictions that Washington has placed on trips to the Island.

In June, the nearby Manzana Kempinski was down about 20% in occupancy, according to testimonies given to 14ymedio by various employees. “It’s a difficult gamble to make, because in this area there is already a large saturation of rooms and we are in a difficult moment,” confirms a tour operator who preferred to remain anonymous. Despite that, the general director, Xavier Destribats, assured that the Swiss hotel group that manages it has various other projects in conjunction with the state-owned Gaviota.

“Every inauguration increases the pressure and urgency to attract more tourism, but we don’t see another boom happening like what happened with the rapprochement of Barack Obama,” explains the specialist in reference to the diplomatic thaw between the two nations that began in December 2014. “It would have to change somewhat drastically for the number of tourists to reach what it needs to be,” he affirms.

Further from the worries of architects and tour operators, the Grand Packard hotel’s closests neighbors, like María Eugenie and Gerardo Carbonell, fear that the building’s demand for resources will harm their delay routines.

“We will have to get used to the noise of the water trucks from early in the morning and the coming and going of supplies, security in the area area will increase and that will affect the black market,” he points out.

“Many people are afraid that this way of opening luxury hotels will continue and that Calle Prado will end up completely dedicated to tourism,” she warns.

Above their heads, on a brilliant terrace filled with attractive offerings, the first curious people look toward the horizon and once in while turn their gazes down.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

______________________________

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

"Here We Haven’t Asked for Anything"

Like every other September, parents participated in an assembly to apportion responsibilities and conduct the necessary collections of money. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 6 September 2018 – “Here we haven’t asked for anything” was the most repeated phrase during the parents’ first meeting of the year in an elementary school in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, in Havana. The emphatic clarification, accompanied by gestures with eyes and hands that seemed to negate it, was made by the teacher after the authorities of the Ministry of Education called on their employees to not demand resources and money from parents in order to shore up the material precariousness of the classrooms.

Like every other September, the parents participated in an assembly to apportion responsibilities and conduct the necessary collections of money that allows for  purchases from fans to cleaning supplies. However, unlike other years, teachers were warned by their directors that they could not participate in the appeals for, or in the organization of this aid. “You already know that I cannot be here when you collect money, so act like I don’t know about it,” the teacher warned. continue reading

For decades, and in view of the deterioration that public education has suffered on the island, it has become common practice for families to finance part of the resources used collectively in the classroom. These contributions are not only used to buy brooms or trash cans, but also to pay people who clean the classrooms “under the table”. Some of the money can also end up in the hands of the teachers to “stimulate” them to continue with their work despite the low salaries.

Faced with constant criticisms and denunciations motivated by this situation, the Ministry of Education decided to cut it off, but not by prohibiting the parental aid, but by appealing to the ostrich technique. “As I do not know, then it is not my responsibility,” opined the overwhelmed educator in front of those who calculated the amount of money that each household would have to give. “That is your thing and I cannot get involved,” the teacher repeated, but everyone understood that it was a formality to save her from liability.

“She knows that without this money it would be very difficult to keep a functioning classroom, but instead of giving her more resources now the Ministry tells her to look the other way,” criticized a grandmother. “This support will now be more clandestine, but it will continue,” said the lady who was already preparing to hand over about 10 CUC (convertible peso) in the coming weeks.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

____________________________

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.

Havana Marabou

The invasive marabou weed has spread from the Cuban countryside and invaded Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 30 August 2018 — On both sides of the Central Highway and the National Highway there is no other plant that dominates  the landscape as much as the invasive marabou weed (called marabú in Cuba, and also called sicklebush in English). However, this thorny bush — which has become a plague in the fields of the island — is no longer just an element of rural zones but has also extended its presence to urban areas.

In the central Havana intersection formed by the streets Carlos III, Infanta and Ayestarán, a marabou bush grows defiant a few inches from where collective taxis circulate and tourists take pictures. The majority of passers-by do not realize the presence of the plant, others joke about the progress of its invasion into the cities and a few remember that currently the invasive plant is not seen in a bad light.

What until a few years ago was considered an undesirable species has become the raw material of charcoal that the country exports to the US, Europe and other regions. The authorities recently commissioned China to manufacture a prototype marabou harvester  to alleviate the hard work now carried out by brigades of men with gloves and machetes. Some craftsmen also use it for wood carvings and accessories, while more than a few farmers consider it an insurmountable barrier that prevents trespassing by strangers to their lands.

Thus, slowly, after displacing the Royal Palm in the countryside, the marabou has managed to get people accustomed to its presence and to begin to take advantage of its thick branches. It has won the battle against the other plants, the insults and the state plans to finish it off.

__________________________

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

The Sickle and Cup

The old Hammer and Sickle flag waves over a bar Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana | August 14, 2018 — While the word “communism” leaves the Constitution by the back door, in Cuba, Soviet nostalgia feeds all types of businesses. Around Plaza de Armas in Havana, various old people offer old medals obtained in the Soviet Union and small replicas of busts of Lenin that once decorated the offices of civil servants.

On Avenida del Malecón a private restaurant has been converted into an obligatory pilgrimage site for those who want to remember the years when the Russian bear embraced the island so strongly.

The privately-owned restaurant Nazdarovie sets out to offer its clients the experience of a journey through time, its walls decorated with matrioshkas, smiling workers from the extinct Eastern Bloc, and optimistic-looking kolkhozniks (Soviet collective farmers).

A drinks menu at the “Sickle and Cup” — reflected in the logo — in Havana (14ymedio)

Founded by a Cuban who studied in the now-extinct country of the Soviets, the place combines, along with shots of vodka and a Russian menu, an iconography that at moments provokes laughter. Like the happy mix of the sickle with a glass of wine, which replaces the hammer in the emblem of the worldwide proletariat with something more hedonistic and fun.

On the spacious terrace, with the sea right in front, a red flag flutters to the satisfaction of utopians and to the amusement of passersby. Some come to take a photo with it, like a last bastion of the communist system that they once attempted to build in Cuba and that ended up defeated by the demands of the market, foreign currency, and the tourism of nostalgic ideologues.

______________________

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.

Cruises Bring Many Tourists but Little Money to the Streets of Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 20 August 2018  —  The gleaming behemoth docked in Havana Bay and, within a short time, dozens of travelers in sunscreen and shorts  began to pass quickly through the customs gate. Waiting for them were several buses to take them for a tour of the city arranged ahead of time.

From the moment when the ship appears on the horizon there is a constant coming and going in the area of the Sierra Maestra Cruiseship Terminal where tourist guides with signs in English and French present their offerings such as a program of “Salsa, Rum, and a Fine Cigar.”

A fisherman looked upon the scene with boredom. “They get off, walk about for a little while, and go back to the ship,” recounted the man who said his name was Sergio and he had once worked as an electrician. “That type of visitor doesn’t even have time to chat for a while so I don’t bother with them; I prefer those who come  more relaxed.” continue reading

One morning, with his fishing rod pointing to the dark waters of the bay, not only does Sergio catch some small fish to put on a plate, but also tips from tourists who want to take a picture of him or talk about the kinds of fish there are in their countries.

Nevertheless, with the travelers that arrive in big ships, he hasn’t had such luck. ” A cruiseship is a floating hotel that doesn’t even leave trash let alone money,” he lamented. “These people don’t sleep ashore, almost never eat in the restaurants and do little more than leave the ship to wait to get on a bus that takes them somewhere else.”

Sergio’s assessment coincides with the data from the 2016 Statistical Yearbook. That year, each foreign visitor spent an average of 765 dollars, while a cruise passenger spent only around 50. “For every $15.30 spent by a tourist who arrives on the island by plane, the tourist who travels by cruise ship spends $1.00,” adds a report prepared by The Havana Consulting Group (THCG).

“The income for the State is what the ships pay to dock inCuban ports but in terms of services, of course, they leave much less profit,” says Rodobaldo, a guide who works especially with Canadian cruise passengers.

“The client who arrives in this way does not need much from outside the boat because he has entertainment on board, so when he goes for a walk he does it for short periods and he only wants to go to places where everything is safe and well organized to get the most out of his minutes on land,” the guide explains.

“A bar, a place to dance and a museum, but they do not want to go further or risk getting into the depths of Centro Habana, or getting to know Alamar, leaving the city a bit to see something like the Botanical Garden or anything like that,” the guide explains to this newspaper. “It is a very isolated tourism that does not want risks of any kind.”

Some merchants near the port try to shape their offerings for quick visits. In the nearby San José dock, a handicraft and souvenir market has been serving “customers in a hurry” for months, as Liván Ramos calls cruise passengers. “They come and they want to get something before the ship’s siren sounds, so they pick up anything.”

At Liván’s stand there is a wide variety of products, such as an elderly couple carved in wood, the man with a bowler hat and the woman with an umbrella, for about $5.00. “These are in high demand among those who arrive on cruises as are the small canvases with images of the cathedral, the Bodeguita del Medio or the face of Che Guevara, which sell for $10.00.”

“We have collected the schedules for Royal Caribbean and other companies, so we already know that at least three times a week and after lunch they will drop by here in groups and in a hurry,” Ramos explains. “They do not bargain, they pay fast and even the bottle of water they are carrying has been taken from the boat,” he explains.

Ramos regrets that the infrastructure around the port “is still not very developed for the arrival of so many tourists.” In his opinion, “There is a lack of restrooms, places to sell drinks and more information points, as well as shaded areas.” The port also needs “urgent maintenance,” he says.

A private tavern, a few yards away, has placed a blackboard on its doorstep with the offers of the day that can be seen from the opposite sidewalk. The drinks have marine names like “Hola Ola” (Hello Wave), and “Velero Azul” (Blue Sailboat). “From the time the customer sits down until he has a drink in hand, is less than three minutes,” reads the poster advertising the cocktails.

The entire tourist geography of the area seems to have adapted to a type of express visitor who spends little. Tapas win the most complex dishes in the bars and restaurants closest to the sea, while sunny terraces are also more in demand than indoor air-conditioned ones.

“There are some who get off the boat and do not want to lose sight of it, so they ask to sit on the terrace,” says Malcom, who works in a small privately managed restaurant that has changed it offers to suit the new times. “No rice with beans, these people want fast and safe food like some fruit, croquettes, olives or snacks with cheese.”

Some young people eager to connect to the internet wait for cruise passengers and ask them for the login information for the floating wifi zone enabled on each boat. “There are people here who know that ‘the Royal’ has arrived not because they saw the boat but because with their NanoSation or Mikrotik (wireless routers) they can see the Wi-Fi signal,” explains Malcom.

“You need some user data to access the portal but any tourist will give it to you and once you get connected it works better than the Etecsa internet because it is very fast and without censorship,” he points out. “They don’t leave us with a lot of money but at least we save a few pesos we would otherwise have to pay to Etecsa,” the state communications monopoly.

Recently, it was announced that the Cuban corporation Aries Transporte signed a contract with the Turkish company Global Ports Holding (GPH) to expand and manage the cruise port of Havana. The agreement includes increasing the two cruise terminals currently operating to six. The details revealed do not include, however, any infrastructure other than berthing and passport and customs control for the ships.

Havana Bay still has large areas that are very deteriorated, with wharfs where there is only an old rusty structure and a narrow path that winds around the coast and makes it very difficult to bring in large buses like those for tourists. The increase in the arrival of cruise ships is making these problems even more evident.

The massive arrivals in the area began after the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana that began at the end of 2014. The United States relaxed some restrictions so that the ships passing through its waters also stopped at the Island and the Cuban authorities softened the previous positions of Fidel Castro, who demonized the cruise ships saying that they only left “their trash” in the places where they passed.

Last year the port of Havana received some 328,000 passengers and by the end of 2018 it was expected that the figure would grow to 500,000. But the first months of this year did not bring good news for tourism on the Island. The THCG report says that the first semester “has been traumatic and devastating for the Cuban tourist industry.”

Factors responsible for the fall in visitors range from a decrease in the interest in traveling to the Island, reinforced by the warnings from the US Government to its citizens; the damages caused by the weather, including hurricanes and droughts; and the stiff competition from other countries in the area, with cheaper offerings and higher quality services.

However, in the midst of this bleak scenario, “Cruise tourism enjoyed a 3% increase in market share compared to the same semester of the previous year, going from 12% to 15% of market share,” points out the THCG report released by economist Emilio Morales.

The rise in the number of cruise passengers is due, among other reasons, to the measure announced by the Donald Trump administration that prohibits Americans from staying at hotels or eating in restaurants managed by the Armed Forces, which control a large part of these services, through groups such the powerful military company Gaviota.

Cruise companies see a niche market and for more than a year companies like Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have added dozens of new itineraries to the Island, including new ports of departure in the cities of Tampa (Florida) and Charleston (South Carolina).

The Royal Caribbean company launched a larger ship for its trips to the Island. The enormous Majesty of the Seas is 880 feet long and travels between four and five nights from Tampa to Havana, including day or night stays.

With a capacity for 2,700 passengers, the shining floating city has become part of the landscape of Old Havana at the entrances and exits of the bay. One of the trips organized by the shipping company brought Samantha, a young woman from Indiana, who was making her first visit to the Island.

She told 14ymedio that she was especially interested in the old town and on a trip to the Vigía estate, as part of a tour organized to the place where the writer and Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway lived. She has no plans to return to the island for a trip with more time because she prefers “to travel several countries at one time” via cruise ship.

The Island’s private sector, which survives from small commerce, private restaurants known as paladares, and private lodging rentals, does not like this type of tourists who do not spend anything. In addition, a sector of the exile sees in those cruises an instrument to “strengthen the totalitarianism” and has launched the campaign “Do not help the repression” which describes this form of tourism as “illegal and immoral.”

In spite of everything, the number of cruise ships arriving in Cuba is increasing and some companies have announced new routes. This is the case for the luxury company Seabourn, which will operate routes from Miami and San Juan starting in November 2019, which will include nights in Havana and stops in Cienfuegos and Santiago.

 __________________________

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.

Sugar Everywhere

For René, pastry chef by profession, the high sugar intake of his countrymen is exactly what guarantees his business. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, 22 August 2018 — René calls himself “artisan of the sweet” and for more than a decade he has been making birthdays and weddings happy with enormous cakes full of merengue that have become more sophisticated every day. His cakes now sport fountains, dolls, tiny spinning mechanisms and even couples that dance. His creations are in high demand despite the high prices. “This is to be enjoyed,” says the pastry chef, who fishes in the troubled waters of a country with a high consumption of sugar, a country where diabetes affects a million people out of a population of about eleven and a half million.

Scientific studies have indicated that among the habits and dietary attitudes of Cubans, the excessive consumption of sugar stands out, representing between 20% and 25% of total energy requirements. Sweets, soft drinks, shakes and other preparations loaded with sucrose are common at the country’s tables and, in many homes, take the place of fruits, vegetables and proteins, more expensive in the markets. continue reading

For René, the high sugar intake of his compatriots is exactly what guarantees his business. “This is a profession that is fighting with dentists and nutritionists,” he jokes, saying that many of his customers ask him to make “dough that is not tasteless but very sweet.” Covered with chocolate, multi-layers with custard and crepes made of colorful meringues, the baker does not skimp on adding more and more sugar.

However, indoors, when he sits down to eat in front of his own plate, René avoids this ingredient. “I can’t even look at sugar because I have had diabetes for a lot of years, so I prepare these cakes and my wife is the one who tastes them to see if they are any good,” he says. This week he has a commission for a three layer creation with a fountain for a wedding. “I’m going to make it a cataract style and get a liquid chocolate preparation that’s good, very sweet,” he says.

 _______________________

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

"One ‘Yuma’ Less, Two Cubans More," the Arithmetic of Cuban Tourism

The majority of domestic customers are people with hard currency income. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, La Habana |19 July 2018 — Sand, sun and Cubans. The three elements prevail these days in many spas on the Island where national tourism takes advantage of school holidays and fills the gap left by the fall in foreign visitors. The employees of tourist facilities are least enamored with the domestic tourists, these expert seekers of the best deals and big eaters in the all-inclusive hotels, nationals are already the majority in many accommodations in the country.

The image differs greatly from what could be seen just a decade ago, when Cubans living on the island were prohibited from entering hotels that charged in hard currency. Ten years later, the local accent has become frequent in the formerly forbidden rooms and recreational areas, and a robust market of private excursions has grown that orgnizes everything from transportation to lodging and entertainment. continue reading

On a corner of in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood last Friday, at least twenty families waited for the bus that would take them to Cienfuegos. Loaded with bags and several baby strollers, the holidaymakers greeted the bus with applause of joy. They had made reservations for at least two nights with everything included at Hotel Jagua in that city in the center of the Island.

“On the same date last year there was no chance that we would manage to fit such a large group in a hotel in one of the most visited areas,” says Luciano, a private guide who has been organizing trips for eight years covering all the Island’s provinces. “Since foreign tourism bgan to increase it became more difficult to organize this type of travel for Cubans.”

“We are not fishing in troubled waters but in a calm river, if more people come from abroad we can not squeeze in our customers,” says Luciano. In his extensive catalog, some offers are marked with a red checkmark. “These are the most attractive but also the hardest to get, because foreigners like them a lot.”

“Cayo Santamaría, two nights with everything included for 160 CUC,” reads one of the promotions. Luciano organizes the transport with buses that work for state companies during the week, but that have permission from their administrations to make tourist trips from Friday to Sunday. “We leave the clients in the hotel lobby, they pick up the key to their rooms and start enjoying themselves.”

Luciano is one of the few who rejoices in the fall of foreign tourism and the increase in those who arrive on cruises, and sleep on the boat rather than occupying hotel beds. Between January and June, around 50% of American visitors who arrived on the island did just that. In Cuba, 17 cruise companies operate, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises, with a growth of 28.6% in the first quarter of this year.

Although the latest data on US tourism, released on Wednesday from sources cited by Reuters, are more optimistic than those of the same period last year, with an increase of 5% (68,000 Americans of non-Cuban origin), the outlook is still negative. Even more so if one takes into account the post-thaw euphoria.

Global tourism figures, about 2.5 million visitors to Cuba, fell by more than 5% between January and June 2018. The figures include cruises for the first six months, which brought 379,000 people to the island, 45% more than in 2017. Taking into account only American tourists, the fall for the period is 24%.

The impact on business in the most tourist areas has not been long in coming. Restaurants that barely manage to fill half their tables, rental houses that previously were occupied 80% of the time now looking at their almost empty rooms, and state rental car business that just a year ago couldn’t cope and now have parking lots full of cars.

“One yuma less, two Cubans more,” explains Luciano in a simple arithmetic. “When Americans arrive on cruise ships they do not rent accommodation and as a result of that pressure hotels that were no longer providing capacity for the national market are forced to do so and even lower prices. What before one foreigner would pay for one night, I can reserve for a national couple.”

“Another influence is that we are in the off season right now. For foreigners its too hot but for Cubans these are good dates to go to the beach.” Among the examples, he mentions the exclusive resorts of Varadero.

“These were places that were sold exclusively through foreign companies, but now appear more and more in our catalogs,” he explains. “The hotels that are run by Spanish companies or from other countries are those most requested by Cubans, because they know that the they willbe treated better and the facilities and supplies are better,” he says. “This is the time to catch a place like that.”

Tatiana, the daughter of Cuban and Russian, agrees with that opinion. “I have everything already reserved for this summer, but I am waiting for more offers to come available,” she explains to this newspaper by phone. With contacts in state tourist agencies such as Cubatur, the joung woman resells in-inclusive packages to Viñales, Trinidad and Varadero, to which she adds transportation and pick-up, “on the corner of their house.”

“I’ve worked with Cuban clients for three years and I prefer them despite everything,” she says. “It is true that when you arrive at a hotel with ten or fifteen Cuban families, you’re not treated as well as foreigners, but this is a clientele that does not depend on the arrival of a plane, on the arrival of a cruise, that is sold a reservation in another country, these customers are already here.”

“For another thing, I can communicate very easily with them and the clients I’ve been working with for some time know the rules.” Tatiana believes, however, that for a four or five star hotel with everything included is very likely that a Cuban guest will cost them more. “They eat a lot more and also want to try a lot of drinks they don’t get to have very often, like expensive wines, whiskey and even champagne,” she says.

The majority of Tatiana’s clients are the “new rich.” Cubans who receive remittances from abroad, are engaged in private businesses, have benefits through the sale of art or are part of musical groups. “Every once in a while an occasional client arrives who wants to book a trip paid for by a relative who is coming on vacation from Miami,” she explains. “They are all people with convertible pesos, from one side or the other.”

People with fewer resources frequently resort to Popular Campismo (People’s Camping), a plan created by Fidel Castro in 1981, to “open up valleys, beaches and mountains, a form of accommodation and enjoyment available to everyone.” The option, with very modest accommodations, does not enjoy a very good reputation among the social sectors that already aspire to more comforts.

“I sell tourist packages to Cubans but I treat them as people. Just because are nationals they don’t have to be given a worse product,, explains Tatiana. “In the end, they are the ones who support my business, and it’s better for me that foreign tourism keeps falling because the hotels are not going to close because of that, if they offer more affordable packages for those from here.”

 ________________________

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.

GPS Use in Cuba Increases Despite its Prohibition

GPS has never been sold in Cuban stores, and its importation has been strictly regulated on the Island. (gpsetravelguides)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, July 16, 2018 – The screen stands out in the middle of the dilapidated communal taxi. A small arrow marks the path the vehicle is following through the crowded streets of Camagüey and the driver reassures the passengers. “I don’t know where it is, but this device tells me,” he explains and caresses the TomTom GPS, which has never been sold in Cuban markets and whose importation is tightly regulated on the island

Along with USB drives, external hard drives, smart phones, and Wi-Fi antennas, satellite geolocation devices for land or sea navigation have become common in Cuba. Among motorists, cyclists, or rafters, the desire to know exactly where one is has made Satellite Positioning Systems (GPS) a highly appreciated tool.

But the Customs General of the Republic warns that the importation of these devices requires prior permission from the National Office of Hydrography and Geodetics. Obtaining authorization for a private person is almost impossible. “If you belong to a company or are a foreign resident you must bring a letter explaining why you need a GPS,” an agency employee explained via telephone. continue reading

“We don’t give that permission unless the person first proves that it will be used in a professional task endorsed by some institution or a duly accredited project,” the official said. The law provides for confiscation of the device and a fine for those possessing a GPS “that entered the country without permission or was purchased without appropriate papers,” she added.

The official wasn’t able to confirm to this journal whether the restrictions on  importation and use are due to security issues. “I can’t go into that in detail,” she said. A retired Interior Ministry official anonymously confirmed to 14ymedio that “those devices were banned at a time when it was feared that people would transmit detailed locations of military sites or houses of leaders of the Revolution.”

“I sell a Garmin GPS with all the maps of Cuba for 200 CUC,” says an ad on a popular classifieds website. A phone call is sufficient to flesh out the details. “This is the latest on the market and anyone who wants to provide taxi service professionally has to invest and buy a GPS,” says the seller. But he explains that “you won’t have any import papers, so if the police stop you, hide it.”

Among those seeking to exit the Island illegally, satellite positioning devices are almost as precious as the boat, motor, or rehydration salts that they tenaciously search for in order to leave the country. “A GPS makes the difference between being lost at sea or reaching a safe harbor,” says Víctor Alejandro Ruíz, a Cuban living in Tampa who managed to reach the U.S. on his sixth attempt to cross the Straits of Florida.

“I made it after selling all my belongings and buying a GPS. Before I always had problems,” he recalls now, three years after touching the U.S. coast when the wet foot/dry foot policy was still in effect. “I didn’t have to pay anything to the owners of the raft to let me join the expedition, because my payment was bringing the GPS.”

After arriving in the US, Ruiz became even more of a “GPS fanatic” for vehicles, he confesses, and managed to send one to the cousin he left behind in Cuba. “I sent it via a “mule” and although Customs found it, the lady gave them a few dollars more and they let it go,” he says. “Now my cousin is using his Garmin GPS and that has solved a ton of problems.”

Ruíz’s relative recently updated all the road maps in the device through another informal-market trader who “for 20 convertible pesos included everything, even the potholes in the street,” jokes the rafter. “Even though they are tightly controlled, just as with the parabolic antennas, you can’t buy them in stores or legally bring them into the country, but everyone has seen one.”

Foreign diplomats based on the Island and foreign media correspondents, who are authorized to import them, have found a lucrative business in reselling these devices to nationals. At least three drivers with TomTom or Garmin GPS confirmed to this journal that they had bought them from foreigners who finished their stay in Cuba.

Recently the news outlet Cubanet told the story of Shannon Rose Riley, an academic from the Humanities Department of San Jose State University in California, who visited Santiago de Cuba on the dates of the Fiesta de Fuego. The American brought a positioning device that works through the SPOT satellite system and that hikers and travelers usually buy when they go to remote places.

State Security subjected her to an intense interrogation and threatened to jail her if it was determined that she was using coordinates emitted by the device to send information to the government of her country.

In December 2009 Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba while working as a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The main accusation against him was that he had introduced satellite telecommunications devices that he delivered to the Jewish community of the Island. Gross was sentenced to 15 years and released in 2014, after the announcement of the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana.

The banning of these devices no longer makes much sense since many smartphones recently introduced to the market include positioning tools. Even without the ability to communicate with a satellite, some of these phones manage to tell the user where they are thanks to “telephone signal triangulation.”

“A mobile phone without GPS can provide location information,” confirms Yipsi Gómez, a computer graduate who works in a computer and cell-phone repair shop in the Cerro neighborhood in Havana. “The location can be obtained through the cell towers, by determining the intensity or time that radio signals are delayed between one and the other,” she says.

“When we have the data signal turned on, and even if we don’t have access to the internet, we can see in the maps on our mobile phones the point where we are, even if it’s not as accurate as when we receive the information from a satellite,” explains the young woman. “Most people who use a positioning system in Cuba do it that way, but it works poorly in areas with little mobile coverage.”

“Every day there are more devices that include a satellite locator, and they are continually getting smaller,” adds the computer expert, while showing her Garmin Forerunner sports watch with GPS.

Translated by Tomás A.

______________________

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.

Powdered Eggs

Powdered eggs from Brazil are a great help for the dessert business (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 5 July 2018 — Egg production in Cuba is experiencing difficult times after the damages left by Hurricane Irma and the floods of tropical storm Alberto. The unrationed supply of eggs is way down and several areas of the country and the amounts being delivered to the rationed markets are also down. To provide some relief, the authorities are importing powdered eggs.

“Powdered eggs available,” reads a sign outside a Havana bodega where the clerk confirmed that people don’t know how to use them. “Can you make an omelette or scrambled eggs with these?” asks a retired woman looking at a one kilo packet selling at 65 Cuban pesos (CUP), a third of her monthly pension. Ultimately, the high costs and the unfamiliarity are enough to disuade her and she decides not to buy them.

The dehydrated egg, coming from Brazil, is a great help to those businesses selling sweets which have had to reduce their production because of the scarcity of ingredients. “It’s better because we don’t have to refrigerate it, it doesn’t spoil easily, and there are no surprises when you open it,” says a seller of tarts and cupcakes.

“The problem is that when it first arrived you could find them everywhere but now you have to walk all over the place to find them,” says the self-employed baker, who fears that the dried version of the product will suffer the same fate as the fresh version, “it will run out and we’ll have to find another substitute.”

____________________________

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.

Gente de Zona Requested "Applause" for Diaz-Canel at the Concert with Laura Pausini

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 27 June 2018 — The markets closed ahead of time, in state offices employees managed to leave early, and Havana’s Sports City was filled for the concert of Cuba’s own Gente de Zona and Italy’s singer-songwriter Laura Pausini this Tuesday night. That was when the rains came and stole the show, a downpour like those that the Cubans call “a stick of water,” with lightning and thunder,.

Pausini’s first concert in Cuba, which required her to travel 25 hours, will be remembered by that thunderous downpour that hijacked the prominence of the concert, kept many from making it to the venue and left others soaked to the bone.

In spite of the flood, from the early hours of the afternoon thousands of people began to congregate in the wide esplanade of Sports City to claim the spots closest to the stage, an imposing structure surrounded by an impressive police operation. continue reading

The “Pausini-Gente de Zona” effect was felt from the moment the day began. The farm markets in the area, unsupplied due to the weather problems that have affected agriculture in recent weeks, meant a day of empty pallets because many vendors preferred not to open to go to the show instead.

The self-employed took advantage of the avalanche of people from all the municipalities of the capital to offer corn chips, sweets and also whistles or rattles to accompany the music during the night. Balloons, T-shirts with the face of Pausini and some flags, completed the trousseau of the followers of the Italian singer.

Among the audience, most of them very young, there were also groups of foreign tourists who waited until 10 o’clock at night, when the concert began an hour late. By that time, the broadcast of the World Cup was over, which avoided the conflict between staying in front of the screen or getting soaked in front of the stage.

Miguel Diaz-Canel also attended the concert with his wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza, an unusual appearance for a Cuban leader, whose ancestors were only seen in political acts and official or very specific cultural activities such as those put on by La Colmenita or the Ballet National.

The president’s presence led the singer of Gente de Zona, Alexander Delgado, to ask for “applause for our president Díaz-Canel.” A call that was the only political note in the show, and a call that was not complied with by all spectators.

With an audience under the cover of umbrellas and layers to protect themselves from the water, Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom began the concert with the famous song Bailando, composed by the Cuban Descemer Bueno and to whose success Gente de Zona contributed, along with the Spaniard Enrique Iglesias. Other classics, such as La Gozadera and Traidora, recorded with Puerto Rican Marc Anthony, were not missing either.

Pausini interpreted several of her songs that caused a furor on the Island in the 90s, among them La soledad and Se fue. In addition, she sang along with the duo Nadie ha dicho and, for the farewell, close to one o’clock in the morning, she sang Amores extraños, with the audience singing along.

Those who could not get to the concert, because of the rain or because they live in other provinces, regretted that national television did not broadcast the show live, as it has done on other occasions with cultural events of such importance. “We were not assigned a budget to cover the activity,” a cameraman from the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT), who preferred anonymity, explained to 14ymedio.

For Jorge Martinez, a resident in the municipality of Cerro, the concert “was good, but Laura was very slow to appear and I had to go at almost eleven o’clock at night because I was with my daughters and they couldn’t keep their eyes open.”

Among the spectators, Heidi Llerena and her friends, a group of young high school students, withstood the rain for hours and stayed until the music ended. “We came from Matanzas for the occasion and even if a hurricane had arrived we were not going to leave,” the young woman told this newspaper after the last song.

Mixed rhythms, including reggaeton, enjoy a lot of popularity among young Cubans, more and more removed from the so-called protest songs of the 70s and 80s. Music to dance to, shake the hips and enjoy, reigned all night in Sports City, with here and there more romantic moments or the sounds of a ballad.

 ________________________

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 Cub

"Here, The Same People Put The Squeeze on You, and Back Off"

The absence of a wholesale market for the self-employed, as well as high prices and shortages, have encouraged the importation of household appliances and raw materials. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 June 2018 — “You have to be calm until the wave passes,” says Rubén, 28, an informal vendor of vitamins and ointments from Miami. “Right now there are fewer products coming into the country and it is better not to risk it because in the airports they are more strict.”

Last week the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) threatened to confiscate packages sent from the United States through people who travel specifically to the island to bring goods and who are hired by shipping agencies based in the US.

To all his customers interested in products such as Omega 3, creams to relieve back pain or popular nutritional supplements, the merchant promises that he will have supplies “in two weeks.” And he says, “Here, the same people put the squeeze on you, and back off.” continue reading

After the declarations from Customs “we must take extreme precautions and avoid bringing a lot of the same product,” explains Rubén. “The ‘mulas’ (mules) are warned that they should not transport sealed packages, because that sets off the alarms that these are things are going to be delivered to different customers,” he says.

Parcel shipments through southern Florida agencies that the Island’s Government considers illegal have skyrocketed in recent years. The recipients on the Island are the relatives of Cubans who have emigrated, and also small businesses that have been opened due to the economic flexibilizations pushed by Raul Castro.

The economist Emilio Morales, director of the Miami-based consulting firm The Havana Consulting Group, estimates that 90% of shipments arriving in the country come from the United States. The value of the goods that were sent last year amounted to 3 billion dollars, Morales told 14ymedio.

The practice of carrying the packages has grown among some emigrants who see working as mule a chance to visit their relatives on the Island with the costs of the plane ticket covered. After the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana, direct commercial flights were restored, one of the things that triggered these shipments.

The most common products sent through the mules are medicines, appliances, clothes, footwear and also dehydrated or canned foods. “A good part of the country ends up with something from these shipments because those who don’t get a package directly end up benefiting from the contents of packages received by others,” says Raima Gutiérrez, a hairdresser in a private business.

“Here the products we use, such as dyes and peroxide, come in with the mules because in the national stores they are very expensive, of poor quality and often are not the most wanted colors,” Gutiérrez says. “In this last week we’ve had to tell several clients that they’ll have to wait for the packages to arrive because they are paralyzed on the other side”.

Raima’s mother is anxiously awaiting a blood pressure monitor that a niece sent her from West Palm Beach. A neighbor of the family says that her “package” is stranded in Miami without daring to send it, while one of the hairdresser’s customer tells the story of his brother who had a dozen suitcase locks he brought from Madrid in his luggage confiscated.

The mules have reason to worry because the director of Technical Customs himself, José Luis Muñoz Toca, said in a press conference that more than three tons of products people tried to bring into the country through the shipping networks were confiscated. So far in 2018 the authorities have detected 113 cases of trafficking in merchandise.

In the eyes of the authorities, there are 29 agencies based in the United States operating in an unauthorized manner to send goods to the island “through travelers who bring them in exchange for payment or compensation.” In South Florida, companies like XAEL Habana, Va Cuba, Cubamax Travel, Viajes Coppelia, Habana Air, Blue Cuba Travels and Central America Cargo have been banned.

The authorities blame the intensification of the controls on the fact that these agencies “do not have official contracts with Cuban companies authorized to carry out these operations,” while promoting the use of the officially approved companies to send parcels to the Island.

The importing of these goods is “a commercial transaction,” the authorities complain, and the contents of personal baggage, when it is used to transport commercial packages, are “subject to the administrative sanction of confiscation, if there is no more serious crime.”

“If they would let us bring in merchandise to maintain these businesses, in a legal and transparent manner, we would not have to engage in all these illegalities,” says Hilario, 47, an interior designer. This has been one of the great demands of the self-employed sector that aspires to obtain the right to import and export freely, along with the possibility of having a wholesale market.

“All the stores are state-owned and staples are very expensive,” the man says. “Without the monthly package, with toothpaste, soap and bouillon cubes that my sister sends me, everything would be more difficult.” The designer also receives materials that he needs for his work. “I was expecting good caladors and a laser to measure rooms, but now everything is stopped,” says Hilario.

The sharing of a video filmed at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, in which two Venezuelan women are seen being beaten and arrested for allegedly transporting merchandise to the island, has added fuel to the fire of fears.

The images have circulated widely via wifi or Bluetooth on mobile phones. “If this is what happens to foreigners what is in store for Cubans,” says Hilario.

Venezuelan journalist Elyangelica González recorded the images of the arrest of Yussely and Amanda López, who say they were beaten by immigration personnel after they were not admitted after an attempt to confiscate their luggage.

The Venezuelans claimed the contents of their luggage were gifts for the doctors who operated on their father and other friends on the island. Both deny that the products were going to be marketed.

Cuban Customs has also intensified in recent months the controls against the so-called Venezuelan “bachaqueros” (black-marketeers), who use the island to sell some products and buy food and dollars to take back to their country.

 _________________________

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.

Here Come The Limes, There Goes The Soap

The price of limes has dropped from two Cuban pesos for one fruit, to five pesos a pound. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana | June 18, 2018 — Finally, the limes have arrived. They returned after an inexplicable absence, the result of a month’s long shortage during which they became coveted items in kitchens and bars. In the terminology of rationing, it is said that the precious citrus fruits “came to” or are now “leaving” the market stalls.

With an abundance that cannot be exaggerated, these days limes can be found on most produce market shelves, all green and glistening. From a high of two pesos for one lime, the cost has been reduced to five pesos for an entire pound. As a result, customers are taking advantage of the low prices by stocking up in anticipation of hard times ahead. continue reading

An essential ingredient in lime-based drinks, mojo criollo marinades and avocado salads is once again available.

There is a catch, however. Just as limes were making a triumphal comeback, soap began disappearing. There is no discernible cause-and-effect relationship between the recovery of the citrus harvest and the disappearance of this essential element of personal hygiene, which cannot be found even in the most expensive shopping malls.

Sometimes it is dry wine and beer, toilet paper or cassavas, matches or dishwashing detergent. It is as though it were all scientific planned. It’s like that old joke about the socialist hell: the sinners cannot be punished because some key component of torture, such as oil for the pot or wood for the fire, is always in short supply.

____________________________

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.

Occupancy Rate at Manzana Kempenski Luxury Hotel Under 20%, Say Staffers

Most of the customers who come to the bar do so to admire the view of the city and the ‘infinity’ style pool. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, La Habana | Junio 19, 2018 — None of the customers who were enjoying the bar and pool on the rooftop of the Manzana Kempinski Hotel this Monday were staying at the accommodation. The luxurious colossus across from Havana’s Central Park is below 20% occupancy according to the calculations of its workers, due to the slowdown in tourism in Cuba and the high prices of the establishment.

Opened in May of last year, with 246 rooms, of which 172 are standard, the Manzana Kempinski is apparently performing far below its projections. Despite this, the general manager, Xavier Destribats, said a couple of weeks ago that the Swiss hotel group in working on several other projects the state-owned Gaviota company. continue reading

“We have bet on Cuba and we will continue to grow with Gaviota with a second hotel and maybe a third one,” Kempinski’s director told Cuban state television. Destribats was optimistic about the results of the luxury hotel which, he said, has customers from markets such as France, Spain, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. However, he did not provide any occupation data and the employees believe it is underperforming.

“This seems like a museum, one of those that is very beautiful but almost empty,” a waitress told 14ymedio on condition of anonymity.

“We are afraid that there will be cuts in personnel and that they will send us home, as has happened with other hotels,” explains the employee who receives a little more than 300 Cuban pesos per month (less than $ 15) for her work. “Last week several clients who came to an event saved us, but they are about to leave,” she laments.

Located in an historic area, the hotel occupied the old Manzana de Gómez shopping center, a name Havanans still use to refer to the place. After several years of repairs it went from being an aged and dirty building to emerge with all its impressive architectural details restored.

In the Manzana bar you can find cold and imported beer, a luxury difficult to locate in the rest of the city. (14ymedio)

“Most of the guests who come to the bar come to admire the view of the city and the ’infinity’ style pool that attracts many fora  little refresher,” says the bartender. “It is very peaceful up here and since we are open until midnight it’s a place for the tourists to go after they leave the concerts or the cultural activities in the area.”

“Many people come to look and browse because the restoration process was very painstaking and the hotel has spaces that make you want to stay, but putting your hand in your pocket to rent a room is a real stretch,” a waitress explained to this newspaper.

“If there are few guests, it makes no sense to work here, because the most important thing for us is the tips that the workers share at the end of the day, but in the last weeks it has been very poor,” she complains.

The employee calculates that the hotel is now below 20% occupancy, which other employees of the hotel and those working in the tourism sector confirm. “At the moment this seems like an investment for the long-term, because the hotel has little demand because of its prices,” confirms Katy Ramos, tour package manager.

The clumsy launch of the Manzana is the fault of factors that go beyond its prices. “There is always someone willing to pay dearly for good service, but what is happening has nothing to do with the hotel but with the whole country,” says Ramos. “There is a fall in the number of tourists which is very worrying to all of us who live off this business.”

None of the customers who enjoyed the bar and pool on the rooftop of the Manzana Kempinski Hotel this Monday were staying there. (14ymedio)

Tourism is Cuba’s second largest source of income, behind the sale of professional services abroad, and contributes 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in addition to generating half a million jobs. For the private sector it is also an important pillar that supports everything from rental houses, to private restaurants, private taxis and guide services.

From January through May of this year, Cuba has counted more than 2.1 million foreign tourists, 93% of those who had arrived during the same period in 2017. However, the figure “includes Cuban Americans who come to visit their families and also people who come to events and congresses, but don’t otherwise engage in tourism,” says Ramos.

The Government, however, maintains the official projections for 2018 of five million visitors with the aim of breaking the previous records of almost 4.7 and 4.5 million travelers in 2017 and 2016, respectively.

But the winds that blew away the diplomatic thaw between Havana and Washington, which attracted all sorts of celebrities to the island, seem to have changed course.

At the end of 2017, the United States Government announced that it would enforce a promise made by President Donald Trump in June of that same year, to crack down on commercial and personal travel of Americans to the Island.

The US Treasury published a list of more than 100 companies, which included restaurants and two rum distilleries, that travelers from that country may not visit. Several tourism agencies and at least 84 hotels throughout the Island appear on that list and the Manzana Kempinski is one of them.

Although it is managed by the German company Kempinski, based in Switzerland, the property is owned by the Cuban military corporation GAESA, which appears on the blacklist drafted by the Trump administration.

However, even if they are not staying at the site due to lack of resources or fear of penalties, many customers come in search of good services and the impressive supplies of the Manzana.

In the midst of the shortage of food and other products that have characterized the last weeks on the island, dozens of tourists come to the hotel every day in search of a good meal or those drinks that are scarce elsewhere.

In a city “where there is a scarcity of almost everything, this is a haven of comfort,” says Empar, a Spaniard who on Father’s Day Sunday was enjoying a cold imported beer on the terrace after “having walked through several stores and markets without finding anything I wanted. “

“I came for the views but of course I can not pay what they ask for a room,” he told 14ymedio. A night in the Patio room, the cheapest in the entire hotel, cost about $440 without breakfast, while the most exclusive, the corner suite goes for $1,355.

“It’s a shame that despite being half empty they do not offer a significant reduction in prices, because that would make many customers like me feel encouraged to stay,” says Empar.

Cuba is now in its low season of foreign tourism, because in the summer months people choose destinations cooler than the hot tropical sun of the island. These are the same months when nationals have a chance to be tourists because of the school holidays.

But the Manzana Kempinski is beyond the pockets of Cubans living on the island, where an average salary does not exceed the equivalent of 30 dollars a month. “Before leaving it empty they could lower the prices and fill it with Cubans,” joked Humberto, a baseball fan reconverted to football supporter during the World Cup in Russia and a visitor to the nearby sports club, known as La Esquina Caliente.

This character of “forbidden apple (manzana)” due to its stratospheric rates, has earned the accommodation many criticisms, especially for the contrast between its luxurious conditions and the neighborhood that surrounds it, plagued with serious housing problems.

The young artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara put on three artistic performances at the luxury hotel. In the first of them, he questioned the disappearance of the bust of the communist leader Julio Antonio Mella, previously stationed there; in the second he brandished a sledge hammer a few inches from the window of an exclusive store in the basement of the building; and in the third he ran a raffle to win a night in the only five-star hotel in the country, which was won by a young man about to enter to Compulsory Military Service.

“That may have been the first and only ordinary Cuban who has slept in those beds,” speculates Humberto, while gazing from the Central Park toward the empty entrance of the Manzana Kempinski.

 ____________________

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.

"One Day We Wake Up and ’Boom’, We’re Internauts"

A good share of the applications for phones for Android or iOS phones that have been developed on the island in recent years are designed for users who are offline. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 6 June 2018 — An old truck passes through Havana’s Calzada del Cerro leaving a trail of smoke. From a balcony a neighbor films the vehicle and will upload the images to social networks. This is no longer science fiction.

The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) has insisted in the last weeks that, before the end of the year, Cubans will be able to enjoy connecting to the web from their cell phones. The service, for which neither the cost nor the conditions have been detailed, sparks the interest of many customers who want to have the internet in their pockets.

“It’s going to be like turning on the light,” says Lucio, 18, a young man who, along with his sister, runs a home-delivery service that operates by text messages and emails through Etecsa’s Nauta service, which was inaugurated four years ago by the state telecommunications monopoly. continue reading

“Right now, our customers can just send us a message with the menu item they want and the address where we need to deliver it, but when they have internet on their mobile it will be better, because it will shorten the time and they will be able to choose the dishes online, with photos and details of the ingredients,” says Lucio.

A good share of the applications for phones for Android or iOS phones that have been developed on the island in recent years are designed for users disconnected from the great world web, so the apps need all the features to work offline. With the arrival of internet service to mobiles that may change.

“We will go from zero to infinity,” jokes Rigoberto Valdés, a computer scientist who works in a small workshop that performs mobile repairs and installs apps. “Often we have to update a customer’s cell phone or download an app he has ordered and then one of us has to go to a WiFi hotspot to do it,” he explains.

According to Etecsa statistics, almost 700 wireless internet access points operate in the country. Although the installation of these WiFi areas has made a big difference in Cuba compared to the beginning of the century, when it was a privilege reserved for foreigners and officials, many Internet users are still dissatisfied.

“The price of 1 CUC for one hour of navigation is still very high and trying to carry out a professional assignment in one of those outdoor places is complicated,” says Valdés. “I participate in several programmers’ forums and it is not the same to have to wait several days to get connected as it is to have the thread of all the discussions on your mobile.”

Etecsa begun to expand the 3G mobile coverage a couple of years ago, through which the Nauta mail now works, and which will also be the path for the internet. “The signal is still bad in many places, the data cuts out as if the lines are congested and the company has to fix that before expanding the connectivity because to navigate you need good bandwidth and stability.”

The presence of Cubans on social networks will also increase. “Now there are many people who have opened accounts on Facebook or Twitter but use them very little, when notifications arrive or messages from a friend go directly to a cell phone they will spend more time on the network,” adds Valdés.

According to Etecsa statistics, more than 700 wireless internet access points are operating in Cuba. (14ymedio)

Last week the blog Tu Android reported that pages from the domain ‘cu.’ are accessible from several phones. “They seem to be tests for the deployment of the long-awaited Internet by mobile data,” said the administrator of the blog, who qualified the news by saying that it could also be “a simple error” from Etecsa.

However, a few days later, the midday edition of the state television news program confirmed that a “pilot test” for mobile web browsing among selected clients in the province of Villa Clara was underway. The announcement has triggered speculation and increased expectations about projects linked to the world wide web.

The recent meeting between Eric Schmidt, former president of the Google company and current technical advisor to the technology giant, and President Miguel Díaz-Canel has also fueled hopes that, finally, massive access to the web will be a part of daily life on the island.

“A few months ago I downloaded an application that claims to work as a Cuban Uber, but in reality all contact with the driver is through Nauta mail, which is sometimes very slow and unstable,” explains Niurka Fuentes, a tourist guide who specializes in French speaking clients. “Since I have to move around the city and also the province a lot, it is vital for me to have quick contact with the driver.”

“If the internet comes to mobile phones, then we will have something more efficient so everyone wins. I win because I can transport my clients and the taxi driver wins because he can check who I am and my record as a client,” she says. Cuba expects to have 5 million active mobile lines by the end of this year and “almost half of the population may be connected,” Fuentes said.

For activists on the island, the delay in installing the service is not a coincidence. Iliana Hernández, director of the Lente Cubano (Cuban Lens) program, believes that “the more people have access to the internet, the more diverse information they will have within their grasp, including everything the government insists on hiding and censuring.”

Hernandez thinks that being able to surf the web from cell phones “will be very beneficial for activism which, despite the current restrictions, has managed to bring to light a lot of information that otherwise would never have been known,” she says.

Despite the expectations and the customers who, in recent weeks, have pressured Etecsa through virtual forums and calls to find out when the mobile phone internet service will start, the company persists in its traditional secrecy. “One day we wake up and ’boom’ and we are Internauts,” a teenager connected in a Wi-Fi zone predicted this Thursday.

 ___________________

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.