This is Not Dubai: Neighbors React to Plans for Havana’s Tallest Hotel

14ymedio biggerMarcelo Hernandez, Havana | 30 April 2018 – Though little known despite being located in the heart of Vedado, the empty lot at 25th and K streets in Havana has become a major topic of conversation. The official press recently announced that the tallest hotel in Havana — a mass of concrete that worries some while delighting others — will be built on this impressive but overgrown, inaccessible pocket of land.

Ramón has spent almost two decades parking cars a few yards from the spot where Empresa Inmobiliaria Almest, a real estate business owned by the Cuban armed forces, plans to erect a 42-story, 565-room tower. People around here have a lot of questions,” he says, reminiscing how as a child he played in “that abyss down there.”

A garbage dump and home to street cats, the site has remained almost empty even though population growth in the capital — now a city of over two million inhabitants — has caused every centimeter of space around it to be filled in. The abandonment of the site “has been its good fortune and its downfall,” says Ramón, who does not approve of the project. continue reading

From the hubbub of 23rd Street, the lot — surrounded by trees — can barely be detected by people waiting at the always crowded bus stop on what is one of Havana’s main arteries.

’I had hoped they would turn this into a pretty little park, with stairs and a recreation area, because this part of the city doesn’t have anything like that. But this vertical turd is the last thing we need,” says Ramón. “I didn’t like how it looked in the picture I saw. It’s horrendous.”

‘The hole’ can barely be seen amid the bustle of the main Havana artery. (14ymedio)

Photos of the model, published in government media outlets, show a building designed in a quintessentially Manhattan style. Marked by a dark and sober façade, “the monster,” as some area residents have already dubbed it, will have a ground floor dedicated to services and a pool from which guests can enjoy a view of Havana.

The new structure will stand in stark contrast to other buildings in the area, such as the Hotel Nacional and the award-winning Focsa Building, with their balconies, wide terraces, pastel colors and views of the sea lapping at the shoreline of the city’s most dynamic neighborhood.

Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2022. The building will be taller than the Habana Libre hotel and the towering monument at the Plaza of the Revolution, currently the tallest structure in the capital. However, neither its location or its planned five-star rating seem to have convinced its nearest neighbors or the architects.

“The architectural model looks like a shoebox,” says Amanda Corrales ironically. The young architecture graduate, who together with some friends runs a small private remodeling practice, adds, “The era of the skyscraper is over but we always arrive late to the party. So now we are opting for that type of vertical construction that disrupts all harmony.”

The other buildings with which it will compete have large balconies and terraces. (14ymedio)

Havana has not seen much vertical growth, more because of economic crisis than because of conscious decisions on the part of authorities. We have been saved from a very common phenomenon in Latin American capitals: an abundance of tall buildings. Once we reach that point here, there is no need to worry about making aesthetic mistakes of that size.”

A building of that size is a small city and everything has to work with clock-like precision. It will be very susceptible to any number of problems, such as water cutoffs, electrical blackouts and hurricanes,” she points out. “Maintaining something like that is going to be very expensive and there is some question as to whether the growth in tourism will be enough to make a building of that magnitude profitable.”

The young professional is upset because “there so many good architects in this country but no publication has reported who is in charge of the hotel project.” Corrales believes that “a construction project of this importance, given its prominent location, should have been awarded through a competition so that the best design could have been chosen.”

However, like the powerful military conglomerate’s other projects, the lot on 25th Street is shrouded in secrecy. The names of the building’s architects have not been released but, within the profession’s trade union, there are doubts they are Cuban. “Didn’t they bring in workers from India to finish the Hotel Manzana Kempinski?” asks Corrales. “Would anyone be surprised if the architects aren’t from here either?”

Some residents in the area believe that even the architects could come from other countries. (14ymedio)

Some, however, are more enthusiastic. One of them is Yosvel, a young man who works at a nearby private restaurant and spends hours outside hawking its menu. “A hotel of that size can help us attract customers. Many of its guests will ultimately want to try the food of local restaurants,” he says.

“It will bring new life to the area. People are already thinking about working here because obviously there will be a need for a lot of employees ,” he speculates. Yosvel himself, however, is not interested: “A lot of work for not much money. It will be a five-star hotel but salaries will be poverty level.” He also believes that “tourism has to rebound so that it has adequate occupancy.”

“This is not Dubai but, at the same time, we do not have to resign ourselves to remaining a city frozen in time. Foreigners would like that but those of us who live here need some visual modernity, more daring construction and buildings that will make us feel proud,” says Yosvel.

In the first four months of this year the number of tourists visiting Cuba shrank by 7% compared to the same period in 2016. In spite of these figures, the authorities announced that they expect two million visitors by the end of May and five million by the end of 2018.

Authorities plan to begin construction on the hotel’s entrances and parking soon. (14ymedio)

But renewed tensions between Washington and Havana has reduced the flow of visitors from the United States, the island’s most promising and geographically accessible market. “Things are hard and, if they build a hotel with so many rooms nearby, they will get worse,” says consider Georgina (a.k.a Yoyi), owner of a house, whose four bedrooms she rents out, barely more than fifty yards from the site.

“It isn’t a fair competition because, if the government builds a hotel that big, it could leave a lot of rentors in the area without any income,” she predicts. She believes, however, that “private businesses can always offer more personalized and family-style service. And many tourists won’t want to be stuck in that big box,” she says ironically.

The area’s business owners can already feel Havana’s tallest hotel casting its long shadows over them. Though many of them, like Yoyi, are confident that “it will never be built because there are neither the materials nor expertise to build something like that here.”

They haven’t started pouring the foundations of the building that will mark the highest point in the city’s profile and controversy surrounds its construction. As with almost any issue of Cuba’s current reality, there are no nuances when people evaluate the new building. “It’s horrible,” declares Yoyi. But to Matiza Yosvel, “It’s the beginning of Havana’s future.”

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

Cuba Undergoes Historic Change in a Climate of Political Apathy

Most Cubans go about their daily lives, doubting the presidential transition will significantly alleviate their problems. (Poster: In Ourselves, The Victory) (Kapa, 14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 16 April 2018 — D-day is fast approaching but the Cuban parliament’s selection of the country’s new president on Thursday has raised few hopes among the population. For more than half a century someone with the surname Castro has led the country. However, the sentiment on the street, as well as in conversations between friends and family members, is that nothing will really change.

The presidential transition, initially scheduled for February 24 but postponed until April 19, represents a historic transfer of power from a generation that is more than eight decades old and has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than half a century. The current president’s retirement, however, will be limited. continue reading

Raúl Castro will remain secretary general of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), an organization with just over 600,000 members which the Cuban constitution recognizes as “the leading force of society and the state.” His term in office could last until 2021, when the next congress is scheduled to take place.

Although it is not yet known with certainty who the successor will be, all indications are that it will be the current first vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, someone who did not participate in the assault on the Moncada Barracks, did not fight in the Sierra Maestra, did not have a role the execution of political prisoners during the early years after the Cuban revolution and was not responsible for the confiscation of private property or businesses.

“It does not matter what his name is; what matters is that he will be different,” observed Danilo, a rabid baseball fan involved in a spirited discussion on Saturday at the Esquina Caliente sports club in Havana’s Central Park. In the discussion there was the occasional comment about what would happen on Thursday.

“Brother, everything is the same, nothing will change,” responded Mandy, a twenty-one-year-old who claims to have no illusions about the arrival of a reformist figure to guide the country on the path of economic and political change. “They know that any movement can derail the system,” he says.

The presence of Bruno Rodríguez in place of Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Lima this week aroused speculation about the Cuban chancellor’s possible ascent. His name, along with that of Díaz-Canel, the economist Marino Murillo and the head of the Havana PCC Mercedes Lopéz Acea are those most often mentioned as likely candidates to lead the Council of State.

These four apparatchiks lack the historic credentials that their predecessors have long relied upon to wield power.

“I don’t want to even think about much less watch television that day,” says Acela, a sixty-eight-year-old retiree. “The biggest problem for me is that my income is not enough. I spend all my monthly pension in less than a week and even that does not go very far,” she adds.

For weeks, there had been speculation that Castro might begin the complex process of currency unification before leaving office. But with “19A” — as some refer to it —rapidly approaching, expectations are falling.

“He is leaving his successor with a huge problem if he does not fix the two currency situation, because that is something that will cause people a lot of problems and a lot of headaches,” says Omar, a taxi driver who transports customers from Havana’s Chinatown.

A few meters from the taxi driver’s Soviet-made vehicle, a young man hawks a restaurant menu in which Chinese dishes alternate with Italian ones. “This week we have the ’president’ pizza,” he says. “It has a little of everything: seafood to please some and ham to please others …” he jokes.

The restaurant hawker believes Díaz-Canel will be designated the succesor. Brought up through the ranks of the PCC, the current vice-president has survived purges to which others fell victim. His lack of charisma has kept him in office and protected him from being sacked, as was the fate of other former heirs-apparent such Roberto Robaina, Carlos Lage and the energetic Felipe Pérez Roque.

Many students in the School of Civil Engineering at the Instituto Superior Politécnico José Antonio Echeverría are not shy about expressing their positive opinions of Diaz-Canel, a fellow graduate whose his professional life has been spent in the PCC.

“He is a practical man, trained to operate in a collegial work environment, like all of us engineers are,” says Raydel, a recent engineering graduate who maintains close ties with others in the field.

“The fact that he has a university degree shows he is well-prepared and I hope his training is useful when the time comes to make decisions because there are a lot of things that need urgent solutions,” says one engineer.

In Havana, however, others believe his strength lies in his image as “a family man who has been seen in photos out in public with his wife,” as Karla Lucía, a self-employed hairdresser who works in a small beauty salon on San Rafael street, explains.

“This speaks well of him, going out with his wife. And this country might finally have a first lady,” she adds.

Most of those interviewed confined themselves to trivial comments and avoided expounding on possible political changes. “No, people here continue to wonder if they will be able to go on vacation or buy a house but aren’t really thinking about the president,” says María Dolores, a fortune teller who throws snails in ritualistic gestures outside a church dedicated to the Virgin of Regla in a town near Havana Bay. “If you already know the answer, you don’t ask the question,” she says.

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

An Island with a Salt Shortage

A bag of salt from Trinidad and Tobago. Cubans who travel abroad bring home packages of this condiment because it is unavailable in the national markets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 5 April 2018 — The official had a concerned look on his face upon seeing the two bags of salt that Laura Acuña was carrying in her suitcase on a flight from Bogota to Havana. “It was hard to explain to him why I was transporting two kilos of salt to an island,” recalls Acuña, a Cuban woman now living in Colombia, who was bringing it home to her mother.

Since late last year it has been difficult to buy salt with Cuban pesos both in stores selling rationed goods as well those where products are not rationed. It is still available in hard currency stores but at a much higher price. continue reading

The black market is still an option but even informal retail networks have begun to see shortages. The situation has gotten worse with each passing week as shipments to government warehouses, where most of the merchandise is diverted to the illegal trade, fail to arrive.

Salt production has fallen in recent years according to the Statistical Annual of Cuba, published by the National Bureau of Statistics. Extraction of unrefined salt fell from a little more than 280,000 tons in 2011 to 248,000 in 2016. The official reasons for the decline have been weather-related problems and “technical obsolescence” within the industry.

The production of refined granulated salt, the kind used by consumers, has also fallen, from 93,700 tons in 2012 to 76,100 tons in 2016, according to the annual report.

Even with this fall in production, the industry should theoretically still be able to supply salt to the entire population. According to authorities, Cubans consume an average of ten grams of salt per day (twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organization), which translates into 40,800 tons per year. However, this 35,300-ton surplus somehow does not make it into stores.

“Every day people ask if I have salt but none has come into this store since January,” says Leandra, an employee of a small market on Havana’s Monte Street that distributes basic items. “We still have a little left but it’s quite damp. Other than that, it’s all gone.”

Of the island’s six salt processing plants, five are in operation and all are located in the central and eastern region of the country. Last September, Hurricane Irma seriously affected at least three of them, paralyzing production and leading to countless tons of lost production.

The director of Geominsal Business Group, Fabio Raimundo Paz, explained to the official press that the production areas that suffered the greatest damages were those of Puerto Padre in Las Tunas province, Santa Lucia in Camagüey and Bidos, located in the municipality of Martí in Matanzas.

All the salt that was still in drying beds and in so-called crystallizers was lost, while 5% of the product in storage and ready for distribution was damaged, according to the official. Weeks passed before the impact of these losses were felt on consumers’ dining tables.

Despite the fact that competent authorities have for months made assurances  that “product availability” has been returned to normal levels and that the one-kilo bags “guaranteed” by the rationing system are being distributed, supplies of the condiment have become scarce.

Recently the local press Sancti Spíritus sounded the alarm, noting that since October, deliveries of salt to private sector stores — about fifty tons per month according to the weekly newpaper El Escambray — had been interrupted. Now “only those orders intended for basic rationing and certain of areas of public consumption have been delivered,” it added.

“Normally we don’t see much turnover of this product here,” an employee at a store in Plaza de Carlos III, the city’s main hard currency shopping center, explains to 14ymedio. “The people who buy this product here are almost always foreigners who are visiting the city or owners of privately owned restaurants,” he adds.

The employee has noticed a rise in demand for bags of salt, which go for 1.50 convertible pesos (twenty-five times more than the subsidized price of rationed salt). “They started buying it in large quantities and now we’re out of it,” he says. “Until recently the problem was toilet paper; now it’s salt’s turn.”

The response on the Ministry of Domestic Commerce’s hotline are terse. “We are waiting for additional supplies to arrive,” without any indication when that might be. In the manufacturing plants themselves complaints focus on a lack of organization and difficulties in getting the merchandise to the point of sale.

We are not tackling any number of problems, especially the issue of rail transport,” says an employee at El Real, a salt producer in Camagüey, who prefers to remain anonymous. The plant, which opened in 1919, has an annual production target of 20,000 tons. “Although the salt beds are well stocked, we lost part of the roof of the storage facility in the hurricane,” he adds.

“We are now in a race against time because, when the rainy season begins, which is normally in May, we have to halt almost all production,” adds the employee “When there is a lot of rain, the brine becomes contaminated with fresh water and dust,” he points out.

In the hotel and tourism sectors, the problem also creates a greater demand for food supplies, which creates additional stresses for some employees. “Until recently we were giving customers tiny doses of domestically produced salt,” says one of the waiters at the Hotel England, which faces Central Park.

“When we put out salt shakers, we had to keep an eye on them because people would empty them. We also have to add grains of rice to the shakers because it’s very humid,” he adds. “Before, we had to be careful that customers did not take the silverware or the glasses, but now we also have to watch out for the salt.”

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

In Eight Years Only 125 Cuban Men Have Taken Paternity Leave

A father in Cuba can claim a postnatal leave benefit to care for his child for 90 days after its birth. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 19 March 2018 — Between 2006 and 2014, only 125 men in Cuba accepted paid parental leave and the majority did so because of the mother’s illness or death, according to official data. Although the legislation provides for paternity leave, its use is still very unusual among men on the island.

At the recent inauguration of the Swedish Dads…Cuban Dads photographic exhibition in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza Museum in the Historical Center of Old Havana, María Machicado Terán, representative in Cuba of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that in 2017 only seven fathers accepted the benefit, in contrast to the 65 grandparents who have used it since the initiative was extended to these relatives, in 2017, as long as ther were working. continue reading

On the opening day of the exhibition, which displays photographs of how paternity is experienced in both countries, the specialist said that the low demand for paternity leave is due to the fact that on the island “stereotypes and a patriarchal and macho culture persist, which limits the participation of men in domestic chores.”

Since 2003, Cuban men can opt for paternity leave to stay at home and take care of their children during the first year of life, while their wives work. The father can benefit from postnatal leave for childcare for 90 days after the birth.

Maternity and paternity leave cannot overlap and only one of the two parents can take advantage of the benefit until the child reaches one year. Even so, both can have between two and five days off work right after the birth. More days are allowed if it is necessary to move.

Men who apply for this benefit may remain off work until the child reaches the first year, and during the period in which they do not work they receive 60% of their total salary.

The measure was approved amid a worrying demographic situation. About 20% of the population of the Island is over 60 years old and the fertility rate is only 1.72 children per woman, far from the figure of 2.1 needed to ensure population replacement.

Yusimí Campos Suárez, vice minister of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, cataloged the new measure as a means to “stimulate the birth rate, the incorporation and reincorporation of women in the workplace, as well as the participation of other family members in the care of children.”

“The mother and father can decide which of them will take care of the son or daughter, the way in which this responsibility will be shared up to the first year of life and who will receive the social benefit (…) and they will communicate the decision in writing to the administration of each of their workplaces,” the law says.

The Family Code of 1975 already established a “shared responsibility between the mother and the father to attend, care for, protect, educate, assist, give deep affection to and prepare for life their sons and daughters, as a right and duty of both.” But in practice the situation is very different.

The persistence of sexist roles in the distribution of domestic tasks, along with a tense economic situation that makes many families prioritize male employment, are some of the causes behind the low rates of men applying for postnatal leave.

A recent survey carried out in 2014 at the national level by the Ministry of Public Health, showed that only 18% of fathers of children between 36 and 59 months participate in the care and education of their children.

During the opening of the photographic exhibition, the Swedish ambassador to Cuba, Jonas Lovén, explained that although his country took the lead in 1974 replacing postnatal maternal leave with parental leave, still today only a quarter of the men in that country take advantage of the measure.

For the diplomat it is “a slow, but necessary, journey that Cuba has already started.”

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

Long Lived Household Goods

A seller of manufactured household goods rides his bike through the streets of the city of Camagüey offering his merchandise. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Camagüey, 9 March 2018 — A skimmer, a skillet or a simple corkscrew became, between the 1960s and the 1990s, pieces of kitchen equipment that Cuban families guarded jealously, due to the lack of their availability in the commercial networks. Any of these household tools was considered a relic to care for and to pass on from parents to children.

With the reopening to the private sector, more than two decades ago, the sellers of glasses, plates, dustpans and even baking dishes returned to the streets. Manufactured and of low quality, these objects have come to fill a void and replace some deteriorated odds and ends that were the stars of the Island’s kitchens for almost half a century.

The most cautious, however, avoid getting rid of their old ladles and can openers. They are afraid that the newly purchased kitchen items will not have such a long lifespan due to their shoddy manufacture or because, as has happened so many times, shortages.

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

“There is No Room for Suicides in the Pantheon of the Fatherland”

Clockwise from top left: Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, Osvaldo Dorticós, Félix Pena and Haydée Santamaría.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 2 February 2018 — The suicide of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart on Thursday is added to a long list of figures linked to power in Cuba who have chosen to end their lives in the last six decades. The history of the Cuban Revolution cannot be told without including its deserters, its exiles and, also, its suicides.

From 1959, the very first year, the casualties began.  Commander Felix Lugerio Pena, who presided over the court during a prominent trial against 43 aviators of Fulgencio Batista’s National Army who had participated in actions against the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, took his own life that year.

The pilots were acquitted but the decision was reversed by orders of Fidel Castro and they ended up serving sentences of up to 30 years in prison. Shortly afterwards Pena died of a gunshot wound that officialdom hurried to explain as a suicide. continue reading

In this list there have also been frustrated suicides, such as that of the lawyer Augusto Martínez Sánchez, who was one of the rebels who reached the rank of commander in the Sierra Maestra. In 1959 he was appointed Military Prosecutor and was responsible for numerous executions, and later became Minister of Defense of the first revolutionary cabinet.

Martinez was the chief judge in the case against the participants in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and later he was Minister of Labor. In 1964 he shot himself in the chest but survived. After that he was removed from public life and died, ostracized, in 2013.

In 1972 Alberto Mora, son of the leader of the Authentic party, Menelao Mora, who organized the assault on the Presidential Palace in 1957, also committed suicide after having been a commander of the Revolution and director of the Foreign Trade Bank. The official press was silent.

Haydée Santamaría, one of the best known figures of the clandestine struggle and founder of the Casa de las Américas, committed suicide in July 1980 on the eve of July 26th (although some say it was on the day itself), the date of the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 in which her brother Abel was killed and she was taken prisoner by the forces of Fulgencio Batista.

In 1953 Santamaría spent almost two months in a dungeon and later described those moments as “so much suffering” that she came to feel “desensitized.” Her boyfriend, Boris Luis Santa Coloma, who had not yet turned 25, also died in the Moncada assault.

At her death, Santamaría was not remembered with the honors corresponding to her historical importance. For decades Castroism has avoided giving official tributes to the figures who commit suicide. Her farewell letter explaining the reasons for her act has never been published.

“There is no room for suicides in the pantheon of the homeland,” a government leader, also associated with the cultural world, wryly commented to a group of friends at the time. The newspaper Granma, the official press of the Communist Party, reported the news only briefly.

Commander Juan Almeida commented at that moment, “In principle, we revolutionaries do not accept the decision of suicide, the life of the revolutionaries belongs to the cause of the Revolution and to the people.” Although he added that one could not “coldly judge comrade Haydée,” he said that everyone who knew her, including himself, understood that the wounds from the Moncada attack “never completely healed in her.”

In 2008, almost three decades after that event, Santamaría’s two children with Armando Hart, Celia Hart Santamaría, 45, and Abel Hart Santamaría, 48, died in a traffic crash that had all the traces of having been a suicide pact between siblings. For no apparent reason, the vehicle crashed into a tree.

The sister of Vilma Espin, one of the three most prominent female faces of the Cuban Revolution, also left this world through suicide. Nilsa Espín, sister-in-law of the current president, Raúl Castro, made a suicide pact with her husband, Rafael Rivero, in 1965. Her husband carried out the pact in a military camp in Pinar del Río, while she killed herself in Raúl Castro’s office.

In June 1983, after an intense discussion with Fidel Castro, according to witnesses, Osvaldo Dorticos, president of the Republic of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, shot himself.

Dorticós took his own life in the middle of an operation known as Toga Sucia [Dirty Robes], which the government launched to punish corrupt judges, but which many saw as a purge to leave the judiciary with only those most faithful to Castro. The official press insisted that the reason for Dorticós’ suicide had been a painful disease of the spine and depression due to the death of his wife, María Caridad Molina.

This Thursday, on the other hand, with the death of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart – Fidel Castro’s oldest son born before the Revolution to his first wife Mirta Díaz-Balart – the official press has broken with a long tradition of covering up suicides. Were there so many witnesses that they could not hide the truth?

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

Tourists and New Rich, Magnets For Thieves in a Country Not That Safe

The most common crimes in Cuba are robbery with force, theft, injury, possession and illegal possession of weapons. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 25 January 2018 — It’s 11:00 in the morning when two Germans show up at the Zanja y Dragones Police Station in Havana. A man has stolen their camera in the vicinity of Hamel alley, an area much visited by foreigners. The officer on duty seems to be accustomed to these cases and begins to fill out the complaint for “a robbery of tourists.”

“It’s like this every day, in this part of the city this is our daily bread,” says a uniformed officer who stands guard outside and is happy that the sun is not punishing him too much this week. “When I see a foreigner approaching, I know what is coming because here, in Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja, there is a lot of theft from tourists and scams.” continue reading

A short distance from the historic center, the area of the city most visited by tourists and the most densely populated place in the country, the Zanja y Dragones station is a good barometer to measure the most common crimes in a place where poverty, criminality and opportunity meet.

Near the Inglaterra Hotel, in front of Central Park, an independent tour guide “lays down the law” to his customers. “Do not go into any hallways or stairs with strangers, especially if they offer you cigars.” Before the attentive look of the foreigners he adds: “Do not exchange money except in the Cadecas (government currency exchanges), and hold on tight to your bags and backpacks.”

The lesson also includes other tips for less dangerous situations. “If someone tells you that today is their birthday and that’s why you should give them a gift or money for a party, demand his identity card to check the date of birth. Watch out for those who say they will take you to see where the Buena Vista Social Club is because that is a very common scam.”

The list of warnings is long and ends with advice to the bewildered tourists that they should go “as soon as possible” to the police station if they are victims of any of these events. “Do not try to confront anyone if they take your purse, do not chase anyone who has stolen from you inside a house or vacant lot, instead look for a police officer.”

These warnings contrast with the recent statement by the American journalist and specialized tourist planner in the Island, Christopher P. Baker, who considers Cuba among “the safest countries for tourists,” a classification Cuba also received last week during the 38th International Tourism Fair (Fitur), in Madrid, Spain.

“It is true that we do not have many cases of tourists wounded with knives, or firearms or murdered,” a police captain, who preferred anonymity, told 14ymedio, “but the rates of robbery and fraud have grown in recent years because more and more visitors are entering the country.”

The official believes that “more work should be done on awareness so that agencies and guides alert foreigners not to make certain mistakes such as going into neighborhoods that are not recommended at night, and not walking the streets with large sums of money or trusting the first person who smiles at them. They should not carry their passports, just a photocopy.”

The Germans at the police station had to go through a long interrogation separately. “What did the man look like, what clothes was he wearing, what model was the camera, why did you go to that place at that time, do you have any proof that you entered the country with that camera?” were some of the questions asked of the travelers. On the day of the robbery, it was already night when they left the  Zanja y Dragones Police Station after trying to identify a face from a book full of suspects.

When they returned to the rental house where they were staying in Centro Habana they breathed a sigh of relief when they noticed something they did not notice on the night of their arrival in the city: the bars and railings on the doors and windows, next to a double bolt at the entrance that the owner closed with zeal every time he entered or left.

The houses that rent rooms to tourists, the families that have a relative abroad, the more prosperous self-employed, the musicians who travel abroad and the new Cuban rich also suffer the pressure of robberies. The “emptying” of a house is one of the recurring nightmares of this emerging social class.

“They entered through the roof and took the video player, the flat screen TV and the rice cooker,” says Ricardo, a neighbor of a tall building in Nuevo Vedado who thought he would “be safe” because his apartment was more than 40 feet above street level.

“They were like ninjas and they risked their lives to steal those things,” the victim comments. Ricardo reported the theft, but a year later “they have not caught anyone.” When the police arrived at the house, after the crime was committed, the fingerprints of the thieves were found in several places because they got their hands dirty on the roof.

“When I told the cops to take the prints to check against the database, they laughed and told me I was watching a lot of CSI.” Shortly afterwards Ricardo withdrew the complaint because the police began to question the ownership of a computer that the thieves did not steal, which had been augmented with parts purchased on the black market.” They saw that and I immediately went from victim to victimizer.”

Last December, the president of the People’s Supreme Court, Rubén Remigio Ferro, confirmed to Parliament that the crimes most prosecuted on the island continue to be cases of “robbery with force, theft, injury, possession and illegal possession of weapons, among others.”

Remigio Ferro did not give figures, perhaps because he did not have them since the Government has hidden them for decades. In Cuba there are no official reports on crime levels and the official press lacks a police blotter, as if crime did not exist.

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

Canned Chickpeas at the Outpost of El Corte Inglés in Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, It’s Really a Bus”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Cuba Without a Ration Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fascination With Vitamins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Water Tank as a Sign of Prosperity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcohol, Silence and Clandestine Bets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.