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.

The Year Of The Lost Mangos

There are hardly any mangos in Havana markets while in the east of the country they are rotting. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 July 2017 — “Everything smells like rotten mango,” says Pascual Rojas, who lives on the outskirts of Manuel Tames, a Guantanamo municipality where part of the mango harvest has been lost, leaving a total of 2,600 metric tons of rotten fruit in recent weeks.

“The rains of May and June were already announcing what was coming to us,” explains this peasant born among the furrows and pigsties. “For years we haven’t seen anything like this, where the bushes yield so much fruit,” but “it all turns into flies and garbage,” he complains.

In the deep countryside, where the farmers know how to interpret the signs of each plant and animal, the groves filled with mango trees were a source of worry to more than one. “I told my brother that it would be very difficult to get all that fruit to the people,” recalls Rojas, who considers what has happened to be a “crime.” continue reading

“This is a area where there are different varieties of mango, but the mameyson, manga and bizcochuelo are much harvested,” with the latter being very popular for its sweetness and immortalized in the traditional songbook. “All that sweetness has become bitterness,” complains Rojas, who has seen how “mountains of mangos became black and filled with bugs.”

The rainfall of recent weeks has been a boon to Cuban agriculture, experiencing its worst drought in more than a century. Farmers in the area also managed to keep the pests such as anthracnose – a fungal disease – under control. And they have worked to ameliorate the aging of the plantations, but the faltering state framework was again not up to par.

The largest losses are found in the mango crops of the credit and service cooperatives in areas near Bayate (Popular Council of El Salvador) and Manuel Tames, which could not efficiently process the crops with the state-run canning industry .

More than a third of the 6,794 metric tons of mango that were contracted for with producers in the area ended up being spoiled during the month of June, according to a Ramón Sánchez Ocaña, a fruit specialist at the Provincial Delegation Of Agriculture, speaking to the local newspaper Venceremos.

The official explained that the factory located in San Antonio del Sur started operations 20 days after the planned date. The other plant, located in El Guaso, was also working at half of its capacity because of a shortage of cans in which to pack the pulp. To the technical problems was added the inefficiency of the state service in charge of haulage and collection.

“We had many problems with transportation and truck breakdowns,” an employee of the Acopio Provincial Transportation Base in Guantanamo, who requested anonymity, told 14ymedio. The problems were mainly due to “breakdowns and complications in fuel supply,” he says.

“We took a big hit on boxes, because if we don’t have them we can’t bring the mangos to the factory in good shape,” he adds. He blames the several factors that joined together to cause the disaster on the “bad organization” of the state company.

This opinion is shared by Manuel, a farmer living in the vicinity of the Ángel Bouza Credit and Services Cooperative, one of the most affected by the losses. “Here the pigs have had to eat mangos morning noon and night, because there is nothing else we can do with so many mangos,” he says.

“Even the children, instead of throwing stones, were throwing mangos because they became worthless when we realized that they would not be able to transport all these boxes from here,” he explains. “This happens every year, and this time the television came to film it and then shared it with the National Assembly, but it is nothing new,” laments the farmer.

Little is said about the producers’ losses. “There are people here who are thousands of pesos in debt because they had put a lot of money into this harvest,” adds Manuel. “My brother-in-law lost more than 5,000 pesos with all this and who is going to pay back that money now?”

During the last session of Parliament the heavy losses reported provoked criticism among the deputies and annoyance among the consumers in the agricultural markets who saw the news on the national media.

“In Havana I have to pay between 3 and 5 CUP (Cuban pesos) for a medium mango, but in the East they are rotting without anyone being able to eat them,” complains Clara Carvajal, 71. The images transmitted on the national television “are pitiful,” she adds.

On the island the mango has a seasonal consumption cycle, which starts after the rains of May and ends in September. “Mangos are only available for a few months and nevertheless the State gives itself the luxury of leaving them in the fields.”

Far from Guantánamo, in the municipalities of Güira and Alquízar (Artemisa province), where they produce fruits and vegetables for the capital, the situation is also worrying.

“If we don’t do some serious work it will be the same here,” said a farmer with a basket of mangos on a small cart pulled by horses. “This is the year of the lost mangos,” he says while pointing out the branches loaded with tasty fruit that rise along the side of the road.

Drugs Play Increasing Role in the Battle for Cuban Teenagers’ Leisure Time

There is no neighborhood in the Cuban capital where you can not buy or sell a wide variety of preparations, pills and “flying” powders. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 July 2017 — He dries his sweat and takes a drink of water from a bottle he carries in his backpack. “In my time the young people spent the holidays in front of the television,” says Ignacio, the father of two teenagers. As he moves along crowded Avenida 10 de Octubre, in Havana, he looks for video games for sale. “So that they stay at home, because in the streets there are more and more drugs.”

Ignacio’s concern is shared by thousands of parents all over the Island. The country where, decades ago, the government controlled how many cigarettes an individual smoked, has given way to a more complex reality. Authorities warn of increased drug use among young people and call on families to be alert. continue reading

In recent years the official press has also begun to address the issue, albeit with some hesitancy and clarifying that this problem is not as serious as it  is in the capitalist countries. However, there is no neighborhood in the Cuban capital where a wide variety of preparations, pills and powders for “flying” are not bought and sold.

His family life took a turn when his parents decided to take the route to the United States through Central America and he was left alone with his grandmother

Hannibal, 17, prefers to change his name to detail his relationship with narcotics. He began using at age 12 and what, at the beginning, was a game, later became an obsession. “I stopped going to school, I was only interested in getting high,” he relates to 14ymedio.

Over the last five years, Hannibal has been using and swearing off drugs. A week ago he broke his longest stretch without using drugs. “I was clean more than 80 days, but they invited me to a disco and I fell back into it,” he confesses.

His family life took a turn when, in mid-2015, his parents decided to take the route to the United States through Central America and he was left alone with his grandmother. In a short time, his consumption doubled. “I had at least two overdoses, but only once did they take me to the hospital.”

Hannibal’s friends did not want the doctors to report the case to the police and feared they “would all end up prisoners,” says the young man who, at 17, weighs no more than 110 pounds and whose hands shake all the time. “I lost interest in food and went for months almost without taking a bath.” He sold all the appliances in the house one by one to pay for drugs.

“I met others there like me and I promised to stop killing myself with all this, but in the street life is something else”

“One day I sold the bathroom mirror over the sink because I needed money and because I could not look at the face of how emaciated I was,” he says. At that moment he decided to seek help.

The young man went through the Provincial Center for Teen Withdrawal in Havana, an institution that since 2005 has been serving patients who have started taking drugs since very young ages. “I met others there like me and I promised to stop killing myself with all this, but in the street life is something else,” he says.

On weekends the wall of the Malecon becomes a massive meeting point, an open air brothel and display point for countless illegal substances. “I just have to go there and I always find something.” With the increase in tourism “the supply has diversified and there is a lot of marijuana,” although he says he prefers “faster and less adulterated” pills.

Synthetic drugs reign among the young and have become the currency with which foreigners pay for sexual favors, either in tablets or “dust,” says Hannibal. Although he says he has never sold his body to feed his addiction, he does know many who have. “Who’s going to pay for all these bones?” he asks wryly.

A confidential phone line helps those looking for information on the subject, although mistrust affects its reach. “Hello, you have contacted 103, Confidential Antidrug Line, we will soon help you,” says a voice. Claudia, 39, prefers to hang on. She has a daughter of 14 who has become “aggressive, she spends long hours in a stupor and sometimes she cannot get out of bed.”

Claudia fears the worst about what her daughter does when she leaves the house but does not want to “get her in trouble” by contacting a specialist

Data published by the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Unit report that last year 14,412 calls were received on the confidential line, most of them in Havana, Pinar del Rio, Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila and Las Tunas.

Claudia fears the worst about what her daughter does when she leaves the house but does not want to “get her in trouble” by contacting a specialist. She has thought of another kind of solution. “I spoke with a cousin who lives in Quemado de Güines, in Villa Clara, about my daughter spending some time there.” The mother believes that “being in the countryside, outside of Havana and away from her friends” will help her, although no place in the national territory seems to be safe.

The entry of drugs into the country has been increasing in recent years. For all of 2016, the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) confiscated 67 pounds of drugs, however between January and May of this year the amount seized has already reached 72 pounds, according to data offered by Moraima Rodríguez Nuviola, AGR deputy director.

Ships are the main route of entry, especially of marijuana. Although the latter is also sowed on private farms where the owners risk ending up in jail with their land confiscated.

In the pocket of his jeans he carries a small envelope with ten pills. “These are the last, I promise.”

Drug trafficking is punished in the Cuban penal code with sanctions of four to ten years, if it is considered small scale, but if it is large amounts the sentence can reach 20 years. The size of the volume is determined in practice, it is not fixed in the law. International trafficking carries up to 30 years in prison and is aggravated if minors are involved. Consumption is also seriously punished, with fines of up to 10,000 pesos or deprivation of liberty of between six months and eight years.

Despite the severity of the national legislation “consumption begins very early,” according to a psychiatrist who preferred anonymity. “In Cuba initiation into these types of substances increasingly occurs at younger ages.” The specialist, who has treated about 100 patients, finds that “marijuana, psychotropic drugs and some medications used as drugs are displacing alcohol among adolescents.”

Hannibal is determined to try. “I want to leave this garbage, go back to study, redo my life and get married,” he says. In the pocket of his jeans he carries a small envelope with ten pills. “These are the last, I promise.”

School Diplomas

School diploma in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 5 July 2017 — They arrived, enthusiastic and happy, to their party for the end of the school year. One mother brought a macaroni salad with mayonnaise, another brought from home some disposable plates and a third took on providing the croquettes. The celebration was ready in no time, while the horns played an off-color reggaeton song. This Wednesday many elementary schools ended the school year and opened the vacation season.

The parents gathered what they could, in the midst of one of the most severe shortages in the last decade, and the calls made by the authorities to ensure good food hygiene. Summer, with its high temperatures, has set off a spate of diarrheal diseases and the schools take extreme measures to prevent their spread.

However, it was not the melodies – that set everyone to dancing – nor the sanitary precautions that marked the day. The face of the deceased Fidel Castro took the leading role, being printed on thousands of graduation diplomas throughout the island.

Fortunately, between running through the corridors and devouring the cake with meringue, most of the students didn’t even notice that, like the dinosaur in Augusto Monterroso’s tale, when the party ended, “The dinosaur was still there.”

Cuban Convertible Peso Can’t Keep Up With The Dollar

The ‘alter ego’ of the Cuban peso is not the Cuban convertible peso, but the dollar. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 July 2017 – Cuba’s dual currency system has been in existence for such a long time that many young people never lived under a system with a single national peso. The rumors of possible unification of the two currencies are no longer listened to and people appear resigned to continuing to pay for things in both Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP). The promise to resolve this financial mess appears to be one more item that Raul Castro will leave incomplete at the end of his term next year.

There are at least some certainties, however, in this economic schizophrenia: the alter ego of the Cuban peso is not the Convertible peso, but rather the dollar. The so-called chavito – a slang term for the CUC – that emerged in the decade of the ‘90s, is just a substitute for the “currency of the enemy,” a camouflage to cover over Abraham Lincoln’s face or Benjamin Franklin’s head. Little by little, the bills minted by our neighbor to the north have imposed themselves in the informal market.

The terrain won by the dollar is expressed in many ways. Not only in the classified ads that specify payment is accepted in USD for the products on offer, but also in the existence of an exchange system parallel to that of the official banking system, where the “greenbacks” are quoted at a price ranging from 0.95 to 0.97 CUC. It is also evidenced in nice pictures like the one attached to this article, where the chavito is conspicuous by its absence on the man’s T-shirt. After all, the CUC is nothing more than an imitation of Uncle Sam’s money.

Cuba From The Inside With Alternative Tour Guides

Independent guides show what the state-run companies leave out.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 21 June 2017 — Economic hardships turn many Cuban engineers to work as bartenders, doctors become taxi drivers and innumerable professionals become alternative guides for tourists. Among the latter, there are the experienced or the just-getting-started, but all of them earn more money than they would working in the state sector.

“When they change a picture I know instantly,” says Natacha, a Havana city guide who says she has visited “the Museum of Fine Arts more than 300 times” with her clients. She graduated from the Teaching Institute but she left the classrooms after five years of teaching in junior high.

“I had to think about what to do with my life and I realized that I spoke Spanish very clearly, I knew the history of Cuba and I was good at dealing with people.” A friend advised her to start offering tours to foreigners who came to the country. continue reading

At first, Natacha stood in a corner of Old Havana and whispered her services to travelers. Now, after the relaxations regarding self-employment, she has been able to legalize part of her activities and form a team. “We have a network that includes rental houses, dance teachers, masseuses and chauffeurs,” she says.

With the increase in tourism, which last year exceeded 4 million visitors, the guide has “a surplus of work,” but now fears that after the announcements of US President Donald Trump that “the business will decline.”

Natacha accompanies her clients “to places where a state guide will never take them…The program is flexible according to their tastes: from exclusive areas to poor neighborhoods, trips in collective taxis, a train ride and a santería party.”

She speaks English and French fluently and recently began studying Italian and Japanese. “Japanese tourism is still small but they pay very well and are very respectful people,” says Natacha. Most of her clients end up recommending her services to a friend who wants to travel to Cuba. “This is a chain of trust that has allowed me to have up to 200 customers a year.”

The prices of a walk with the former teacher vary. “They can go from 20 to 100 CUC (roughly $20 to $100 US) depending on the place, the time and the complexity of the subject.” For years she included visits outside of Havana but now she has left these to her younger colleagues because her mother is very old and she doesn’t want to leave the city.

“This work is hard because it takes a lot of personal involvement, learning something new every day and answering many questions,” she explains. “I spend hours walking, most of the time under the sun, but I would not give up my independence by going back to teaching.” She says that being a tourist guide has allowed her to “put a plate of food on the table every day… a good plate of food.”

A growing alternative is digital sites that advertise independent guides and offer a wide variety of services or entertainment packages. Recently a team of 30-something Cuban residents in Miami launched Tour Republic, a website to sell recreational activities on the Island.

The site connects the traveler with urban guides with a marketplace – similar to Airbnb – but instead of offering lodging it markets tours of varied intensity and duration, from a ride in a classic car through Havana, to an escape through the unique natural landscape of the valley of Viñales.

Máximo, a 30-year-old Italian newcomer to Havana, was hesitant Tuesday about whether to buy a three-day package worth $58 including visits to the Ernest Hemingway Museum, the University of Havana, the old colonial fortresses of the capital, and even an encounter with the sculpture of John Lennon located in a Vedado park.

With Tour Republic the customer pays the online service and must be at the site where the itinerary begins at the agreed-upon time. In the case of the tour that interests Maximo, the guide is at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol and departs every morning at ten.

The tourist says he prefers an independent guide because “the program is more flexible and can be adjusted more” to what he wants. In a small notebook he has noted some interesting places that escape the typical tourist route: the town of San Antonio, the Superior Art Institute and the Alamar neighborhood.

“In this arena there are people very prepared and with excellent training,” says Carlos, an alternative guide who leaves the statue of José Martí in Central Park every morning for a tour he has baptized Habana Real. “I take them through the streets where tourists do not normally pass, I have them try a drink of rum in a bar where the Cubans really go,” he says.

The young man, with a degree in geography, has been “wearing out shoe leather in the city for seven years.” At first “I did not know much about history, architecture or famous people, but little by little I have become an itinerant encyclopedia of Cuba,” he says.

The GuruWalk platform has also risen to the crest of the wave of tourist interest in Cuba. The Spanish company runs an international website for free walking tours and has chosen Havana as their preferred site to begin operations.

Communications director, Pablo Perez-Manglano, told 14ymedio that “the platform is completely democratic, anyone can join and create a tour.” Site administrators check the offers one by one, but the reviews are left to users after each visit.

“We are an open and free platform, we do not charge the guide or the visitor anything, and therefore, we hope that each person understands and takes responsibility to comply, or not, with the legality in their respective cities of the world,” he clarifies.

The site already has seven free tours in Havana, one in Santiago and another in Santa Clara. “In addition, we had about 200 registered users in the last month, which is a lot for such a new platform,” says Pérez-Manglano.

Unlike Tour Republic there is nothing to pay online and the money is delivered directly to the guide.

The perspectives that the web offers for entrepreneurs like Natacha sound promising. GuruWalk does not deny “entry to someone for not having an official guide qualification.” Rather, it seeks “people who are passionate about culture and history, who also enjoy teaching and transmitting that knowledge.”

One of the strategies of the company is to make itself known among “the owners of private houses” because it is to them that more often the foreigners ask: “What should we see in the city?”

Pérez-Manglano underlines that the cornerstone of GuruWalk is the “collaborative economy.” Instead of “certificates, rules, rules, or permits,” they are interested in trust, which “is built little by little.”

Vending Machines for Alcoholic Beverages

Several of these machines are located in downtown streets of Havana, accessible to anyone regardless of age. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 23 May 2017 — The campaigns against the consumption of alcohol have met an enemy. This is not an outspoken advocate of Mojitos or Cuba Libres, but of the vending machines that dispense national and imported beers simply at the introduction of a few coins. Several of these devices are located in the central streets of Havana, accessible to anyone regardless of age.

“Go get me a Heineken from the machine next door,” a father said to his little son from the doorway of a tenement on the Malecon. A few feet away, without controls or supervision, stands the automaton that catches kids’ attention because it “spits cold cans,” said one of them. No employee of the nearby restaurant, La Abadía, seems to pay attention to who uses the service.

A recent survey found that 36% of Cuban youth drink alcohol and 12% drink and smoke. Among them an alarming number begin to consume tobacco and alcohol between the ages of 11 and 13.

A common practice among parents is to encourage their sons, still minors, to have a sip of rum because “it’s a men’s thing.” For many adolescents virility is measured in the amount of “lines” of alcohol they can consume. A trend that these vending machines, without any controls, will facilitate even more.

Across the pond, in Spain, the sale of beer through the use of vending machines has been banned since 2010, according to a law enacted that same year that limits the access of alcoholic beverages to minors.