Urinals ‘Out of Order’ in Cuba’s Largest Airport / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Urinals in the men’s room in Terminal 3 of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 22 January 2017 — A Canadian tourist thought he had seen everything in Cuba, but just a few minutes before boarding his flight he decided to use the bathroom in Terminal 3 of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. There, like a realist stage set to represent the indolence that runs the Island, he found that no urinals were available.

For months the bathrooms of the main air terminal of the country have suffered a gradual and unstoppable deterioration. A situation that is exacerbated by the increase in travelers who passed through during 2016, when a world record was reached for the growth rate in passenger arrivals on commercial flights. Technical breakdowns include water supply problems, a lack of toilet paper and attempts by employees to charge customers a fee, not legally established, for the use of the service.

Some 50% more international travelers arrived through the famous airport in a year that also set a new record for tourism, more than four million visitors. They were able to obtain, first-hand, an advance view of what they would find in the country, or a last look, in the best style of Cuban inefficiency.

The Melody of Money / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

“Talk to me about money, not distance.” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 January 2017 — A peculiar manifestation of freedom of expression can be seen in signs painted on the trucks used for passenger transport, the windshields of some automobiles or on the walls of private businesses. Some are cryptic, others explicit and not a few, rude. But everyone mixes some humor with some popular wisdom.

This young man, whose pedicab consumes exclusively human energy, does not want to be told “Take me to the train terminal” or “Leave me at the Carlos III market.” He is only interested in hearing how much the customer is willing to pay for a ride. Something that is clarified, explicitly, by the phrase painted on the back of the seat of his vehicle.

The call made by the driver also obeys an old relationship having to do with supply and demand on the island. Often those who offer a service do not put a price on their work, for fear that they will hear from the inspectors who regulate the rates, on the one hand or, on the other, of charging less than the customer is willing to pay.

If customers do not understand this dynamic, it can always be clearly written, in a huge sign like this one, and no one can say they weren’t warned.

Winter Comes to Cuba After a Long Hot Spell / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Older people walk through the streets of Havana suffering from the cold. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 9 January 2017 — Havana is a winter scene. The waves pour over the wall of the Malecon in the low areas, the winds shake even the thickest branches of the trees, and people huddle together all wrapped up as they pass through the streets. The cold front arrived last Saturday, changing the image of the city that, until a few days ago, had experienced the fifth warmest December since 1951.

The drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit was felt first in the west of the island and by Sunday had spread to the center and east. The cold has arrived accompanied by rain and high winds that have reduced attendance at schools and workplaces. continue reading

The winter effect is also seen at the Coppelia ice cream parlor, where there are very few customers. “This is the best time of the year to come,” said a customer, who took advantage of the low demand to order a bowl with five different flavors.

Older people complain of the pains in their bones that come with “the cold,” while tourists continue to stroll through the historic center of Havana in light clothing and with a thick layer of sunscreen on their skin. For them the idea of winter in Cuba is a joke.

Older people complain of pains in their bones that come with “the cold,” while tourists continue to stroll through the historic center of Havana in light clothing

The official press has warned of “the desirability of protecting children, the elderly and people afflicted by certain chronic diseases,” but housing problems force many to spend considerable time outdoors, in parks and streets, given the tight housing conditions which make coexistence indoors a challenge.

This is, in addition, the season of love. “So you can hug, without so much sweat all over the place,” said a teenage girl in love, curled up next to her boyfriend in a doorway on Galiano Street. In May or June they will probably only walk hand in hand, if even that.

The most elegant take out their scarves, berets smelling of mothballs after long months of storage, and turtle-neck sweaters. It’s “now or never” to wear these items. In a few days it could be back to the eternal summer that the tour operators promote and that the nationals must endure the rest of the year.

Specialists at the Institute of Meteorology have warned that the climate will be warmer, drier and more extreme by the end of this century. The temperature will increase by an average of up to seven degrees Fahrenheit and the country will suffer a 15% to 50% decrease in rainfall.

Cuba’s Wireless Networks, the Web that Envelops the Island / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Home antenna for the reception and sending of WIFI signals, used in alternative connection networks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 January 2017 – All one has to do is turn on a small wifi antenna and aim it toward the balcony for a computer screen to show the long list of wireless networks that link the entire neighborhood. Invisible threads that connect hundreds of users. The material support of this network are the NanoStations, Bullets, Rockets, Routers and Yagi antennas, the most coveted technological objects on the island.

“In that building over there, there are like nine networks,” says Ricardo, known as Rupert at the node he administers in the Havana’s Playa district, in the west of the city. The young man, with a degree in geography, decided one day to invest in several devices to send and receive wifi signals. In a short time he set up a network with more than 250 users. continue reading

“Before it was very difficult, because we couldn’t find the equipment, but now the market is saturated,” Rupert tells 14ymedio. Although no store in the country sells this type of technology, the informal market offers a wide range of receivers, wireless stations, antennas and even specialized technology for its mounting and configuration.

Customs rules that went into force in mid-2014 are very clear about the importing of data networking devices such as routers and switches. The regulation warns that in order to bring them into the country, the traveler “requires previous authorization from the Ministry of Communications,” but in practice the authorities do not always apply the established rules.

The Bullet is a device widely used by young Cubans for the creation of wifi networks. (14ymedio)

“There are workshifts where the customs officials are stricter and confiscate every NanoStation they detect, but others turn a blind eye because they end up with a lot of this equipment,” an employee of General Customs of the Republic who works at the international terminal of José Martí International Airport told this newspaper,

The worker, who requested anonymity, said that along with flat screen TVs, air conditioners and smartphones, the wireless communications devices are among the items most frequently brought in by the “mules” who operate on the short distance flights and import merchandise for the informal trade networks.

The equipment for wifi is shifting from satellite dishes. Although many families still choose the TV programming that arrives this way, a la carte consumption of audiovisuals is growing. The alternative wireless networks have joined the “weekly packet,” with a varied assortment of games, documentaries, courses and forums, where you can’t talk about politics and religion nor share pornography.

The advantage of the networking devices lies also in their discreet size and their ability to pass unnoticed. “Unlike an antenna, a Nanostation doesn’t raise any suspicion, it is small, it can be placed on a balcony and people who don’t know think it’s just a small white box that has been left there,” says Rupert. However, he notes there have been several police raids in his neighborhood to dismantle the networks, but says it is a long time since they’ve been back.

SNet, the biggest spider

StreetNet, abbreviated SNet, is the queen of the wireless webs that cut through Havana. It extends everywhere and its tentacles reach each neighborhood. In cities like Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río and Santiago de Cuba, similar initiatives also operate. In the middle of this year, it was estimated that more than 30,000 users in the capital were plugged into SNet, but in recent months its growth has been strengthened by the arrival of more infrastructure.

SNet’s strong point is its social networks, which allow users to interact as they would on Facebook or Instagram, share files and play games. It contains more than fifty sites that work without having to connect to the internet and offers the ability of uploading or downloading heavy files through the FTP protocol.

But every king can be dethroned and SNet also has competition. “The smaller private networks are growing very fast,” Rupert told this newspaper. “People are looking for smaller virtual spaces where they can meet and share and now that anyone can put up a network, they don’t have to wait for an SNet administrator to give them a password to enter.”

For those who can’t afford the costs of a NanoBeam, one of the most ambitious teams of those who put up wifi networks, they can get inventive. Kirenia and her brother Amaury are dedicated to making Yagi-Uda directional antennas with a power of up to 19 dBi, the unit of measurement that describes the ability of the apparatus to capture and receive signals.

“At first we made an antenna to play on the web with some neighborhood friends, but then we started to sell it and now we have a lot of interested people,” says the young man, 21, a resident of Santiago de las Vegas in the south of the Cuban capital. He learned the rudiments of his work through “some manuals downloaded from the internet,” and since then he is passionate about designing the stylized anatomy of each antenna, which he offers for a price between 25 and 40 Cuban Convertible pesos (roughly the same amount in dollars).

“The one I’m doing now is for a customer who lives near an Etecsa (Cuban phone company) wifi network,” says Kirenia. “So you can tap into the network and navigate from the living room in your house,” she says, although “ideally there are no great obstacles in the way, like buildings or trees.”

In one of the countries with the lowest internet penetration in the world, reaching a Nauta wifi signal from the state service, installed in some plazas and parks of the country, becomes an obsession for the antenna “cacharreros,” as Karina calls them. “There are people who live several kilometers from one of these zones and who want to connect, but even though the antennas are good, they can’t do magic, because the signal often is not stable and there are many users connecting at the same time,” she reflects.

Currently, the island has 1,006 public internet browsing points, including 200 wifi zones, with a total of 250,000 users connecting every day, according to recent information released by the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa).

Kirenia’s dream is to buy a LiteBeam, the ultimate “creature” to mount wireless networks that have entered the country illegally; it looks like a small satellite and reaches up to 23 dBi. With such a device she believes she can “make a powerful network to share a good volume of content.” The girl calls herself a “woman internaut.”

The arrival of the state-owned internet in homes could change the landscape of the alternative wireless networks. At the end of last year the government began a connection test with some 2,000 users of the popular councils in Catedral and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, but the timetable for extending access has not yet been made public.

But while waiting for the great World Wide Web to connect them with the world, Rupert, Kirenia and her brother Amaury are already weaving invisible threads with their Yagi antennas, NanoStations and LiteBeams.

Lots of Troops and Little Weaponry / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Thousands of soldiers marched in lockstep on this 60th anniversary of the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. (EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 2 January 2017 — The military parade this Monday for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces concluded without the traditional display of antiaircraft rockets, armored tanks and heavy artillery. The martial parade, presided over by Raúl Castro, prioritized the display of troops over any display of military hardware.

Still sleepy after the holiday season, many Havanans were awakened by the noise of the salvos launched from the Plaza of the Revolution. With that signal, at barely seven in the morning, the first military parade after the death of former President Fidel Castro began, in a city paralyzed by the closing of streets and the gigantic mobilization.

The display of military force comes at a difficult time for the country’s economy. The recently concluded session of the National Assembly has confirmed that GDP fell 0.9% in 2016, and forecasts for 2017 are also not favorable, a context that has increased people’s criticism of the waste represented by this Monday’s military parade. continue reading

Thousands of uniformed soldiers marched in lockstep steps, along with elementary school students with their neckerchiefs and workers from different sectors under the motto “I am Fidel.”

“They threw the house out the window,” complained Raymundo, a pensioner who collects empty cans near the National Hotel to sell them as a raw material and feels that “the way things are right now, better to save even the last centavo.”

A little more than a mile away, thousands of uniformed soldiers marched in lockstep, along with elementary school students with their neckerchiefs and workers from different sectors under the motto “I am Fidel.”

The result was a peculiar combination of troops and civilians, a mixture of military parade and people’s march that lasted for less time than in previous years, barely an hour and 40 minutes.

Raul Castro remained on the dais for the entire exercise, surrounded by senior government officials, but left the main speech to Jennifer Bello Martinez, president of the University Student Federation (FEU). The young woman, who has risen rapidly in officialdom, was named as a member of the Council of State in December 2015.

“No one can make us forget our history, nor the symbols of this people’s resistance,” bellowed Bello from the rostrum. She alluded to the words spoken by Barack Obama during his speech at the Gran Teatro in Havana last March when the US president said he knew the story of the long dispute between the Cuban and US Governments but refused to remain “trapped” in it.

Those who hoped that this Castro parade feature a proud display of military paraphernalia had to content themselves with some modernized AK47s and rifles with telescopic sight for the Special Troops. Apart from that, the Cuban Army barely showed its armament.

Long gone are the times when the country could allow itself, thanks to the free supply from the Soviet Union, to be the most well supplied armed forces among Latin American countries. The great military campaigns in Africa were also in the past, and the economic situation of the island barely allows them to maintain their obsolete means of combat.

Nevertheless, Cuba continues to spend a huge amount of resources sustaining its military apparatus. At the end of 2016, the Island ranked 79th in the list of military powers, according to the Global Firepower site, a privileged position in the Latin American context, where it is only surpassed by countries with much greater population and resources, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

At the end of 2016, the Island ranked 79th in the list of military powers according to the Global Firepower site, a privileged position in the Latin American context

In the absence of renewed armaments, officialdom has sharpened the level of ideological discourse in the last half year. A turn of the screw that has become more pronounced after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the recent death of Fidel Castro.

The younger generations are the main target of this offensive.

The daughter of Damaris, 38, is a fifth grader in Las Timba neighborhood and was chosen to be part of the pioneers who surrounded the replica of the yacht Granma. “She had to go to the three trial runs at the end of December and today is the fourth time that she is in the Plaza for this activity,” says the woman.

The participation of the girl in the parade caused some clashes in the family. The mother did not want her to do it, but she does not want an absence to “single her out so early.” She acknowledges, however, that her grandfather is very proud she was chosen for the demonstration.

As they finished passing in front of the podium, the children hurried along and continued to a school on Ayestarán Street. There they shared a snack with soda, bread with a hot dog, and some goodies that revived them after a long sleepless night. “Now we’re going to bed because we’re dead,” confesses Damaris.

Bus Terminals Overwhelmed By Hundreds Of Travelers Without Tickets / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 27 December 2016 – Hundreds of people are crowded right now in the “last hour” bus terminals, or are on the waiting lists. With the regularly scheduled seats sold out, travelers sleep in the floors of these places and eat frugally, while dreaming of a vehicle that will get them home to spend New Year’s with their families.

In mid-December, the newspaper Granma reported that the Voyager Company would put on sale new seats for interprovincial transport for the end the year. However, the tickets sold out in a couple of days and thousands of customers have been left stranded at “last hour” terminals throughout the country. continue reading

This time, unlike other years, the so-called “waiting list” was not addressed with a greater number of vehicles. The Business Group of Automotive Transport Services preferred to sell in advance the additional tickets to travel between 22 December 2016 and 7 January 2017.

The state transport company sold 9,000 seats above those offered by the regular National Bus Service, but only the most forward-thinking were able to get the tickets. The agencies that sell the tickets experienced days of huge crowds, and five days after the official announcement, tickets to Camaguey and Guantanamo were sold out.

Private transport companies provide only a little relief. Their high prices make it difficult for many travelers to use their services, because they can only afford the state rates.

The scene at a “last hour” bus terminal crowded with Cubans wanting to get home to their families for New Year’s.

“I know the face of almost everyone here, because most of these people have been here for many days,” confides the employee who takes care of the men’s toilet in the Villanueva last hour station in Havana. Chaos and discouragement reigns in the facilities, where the average stay is “four or five days” according to the worker.

“The police are coercing people to get them to leave,” he explained to 14ymedio freelance reporter Juannier Matos Rodriguez, who was waiting in Villanueva Monday to travel to Baracoa, Guantanamo. Entire families have placed cardboard on the floor to sleep and the uniformed police patrol the place.

Private carriers relieve the situation, but only for those who can afford to take one of their expensive vehicles. (14ymedio)

“Several passengers have approached the employees asking for them to arrange extra buses so that all these families can travel, but they do not respond,” says the young man. “The waiting list for Santiago de Cuba is not moving, it’s been stuck on the same numbers for two days,” he adds.

The most desperate, with the resources available, pay between 14 and 15 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) for a ride on a private truck bound for Santiago de Cuba, twice as much as the state bus. These are cargo vehicles re-configured for the transport of passengers. The best ones have cushy seats and even air conditioning, but in most cases they are uncomfortable and hot.

The National Bus Company serves 132 routes and in the first nine months of this year it moved 7.6 million people, but when holidays approach, the system collapses in the face of high demand. Most of the state-owned equipment is Yutong brand buses from China, with a decade of overuse and poor mechanical conditions.

The deterioration of the vehicles has combined this year with cuts in fuel consumption that affect the entire country. Passenger transport has been among the sectors most affected, although the government has also imposed restrictions on electricity consumption and a drastic reduction in the state sector’s quota for gasoline or diesel.

Earlier this year, a discussion on the Roundtable TV program confirmed that interprovincial transportation only meets 70% of demand.

“Why doesn’t ‘Cuba Says’ come here now?” a woman at the Villanueva last hour station complained Monday afternoon, in an allusion to the official television program critical of the bureaucracy and laziness. Several passengers recorded scenes with their mobile phones and from time to time a shout was heard over the general murmur: “A truck arrived for Holguín!”

After an announcement like this many throw themselves into the race, pushing and shoving to the point of small brawls, to board the vehicle. The police pull some people out of the melee and put them in their patrol cars. Everyone wants to get out of the hell the Villanueva station has become.

Cuba’s Ration Book Survives For Another Year / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

A bodega of rationed products in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución municipality (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 22 December 2016 — At the end of this month the ration market quotas for January 2017 will go on sale. Cubans who depend on products distributed at subsidized prices will gather outside the bodegas, in long lines, for the 55th anniversary of the ration book, whose elimination continues to be one of Raul Castro’s unmet projects.

In 2014, the average monthly salary on the island increased by 24%, to 584 Cuban pesos (some 24 dollars). Despite this increase, many families still depend on the subsidized prices maintained by the ration card. Their income does not allow them to pay the prices in the supply-and-demand markets or in the retail network of stores in Cuban Convertible pesos. continue reading

Different analysts and official functionaries have warned that the elimination of the ration book could cause a fall in the standard of living in the most vulnerable sectors of the population, among whom are the retired and families who don’t receive any additional income beyond their state salaries.

Among the Guidelines approved by the Seventh Communist Party Congress, last April, it was agreed “to continue the orderly and gradual elimination of the ration book products.” However, so far, the proposal has not gone into effect, in part because of the poor economic development experienced by the country in recent years.

Cuba’s gross domestic product will grow only 0.4% this year, its lowest level in the last two decades, as recently confirmed by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Faced with this reality, the government has not been able to improve people’s purchasing power or dismantle the rationed market.

The Government is faced with the dilemma of maintaining the enormous infrastructure and the hefty costs of prolonging the life of the ration book or suppressing it, with the consequent deepening of poverty for various social groups. Such a measure would have an undeniable political impact on a process that has been defined as a revolution “by the humble and for the humble.”

Officialdom has repeated on several occasions that it is preferable to “subsidize people rather than products,” but the rationed quota is still given to every citizen equally, even those who have reached an above average level of income. The practice has focused on removing products from the subsidized basic market basket.

Rice, grains, oil, sugar, salt, eggs, chicken and bread are some of the foods that are still subsidized, while other goods have been removed from the ration book altogether, including liquid detergent, bath and washing soap, toothpaste, beef and cigarettes.

During the 1970s and ‘80s it was virtually impossible to live without ration book products. This phenomenon resulted in, among many other ills, low internal migration and a greater control of the State over the citizens.

Currently, the mobility of the population to provincial capitals and especially to Havana has increased as a result of the easing of the policy on rental housing. The ability to purchase food and hygiene products outside the rationing system has also contributed to the phenomenon.

The emergence of a parallel market that includes state establishments and private bakeries has also been hugely important to the process of citizen independence. Ration book bread, a recurring theme in the “accountability meetings” of the People’s Power, a topic of critical analysis in the official press and a target of mockery for the majority of Cuban comedians, has lost its importance.

Families with better incomes have given up standing in the traditional lines to get bread for 10 centavos in national currency (less than one cent on the US dollar). They prefer to go to the private bakeries that offer a wide variety of products at unregulated prices.

The bodegas with empty shelves and a blackboard listing the products of the month have become, along with the old American cars that still circulate on the streets of the island and the billboards with political messages, among the photographic trophies taken by tourists as part of the social landscape of Cuba.

The disappearance of the ration book will have to wait until the completion of the gradual reforms announced by the authorities. There will probably be more who mourn its end than those who will celebrate it, but the day will come when some incredulous grandchild will listen to his grandfather repeat stories of “that era when everyone ate the same thing on the same day in the whole country.”

On Your Marks, Get Set…Trump / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Many Cubans must dispose of all their property in order to pay for a plane ticket and to migrate by air. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 21 December 2016 – Walking around the block with a suitcase in hand has been added to the rituals to mark the end of the year, as a plea to be able to travel outside the country. Many Cubans fear, however, that the situation is becoming complicated with the pending arrival of Donald Trump to the White House.

The president-elect of the United States has been so contradictory in his declarations about Cuba that no one knows what will happen between the two countries when he is installed in the Oval Office. Cubans on the island seem less concerned about a possible setback in the diplomatic thaw, than about the loss of their immigration privileges. continue reading

The debate over the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which awards benefits to migrant Cubans arriving in the United States, could put an end to the dreams of many in the new year. Foreign consulates in Havana, especially those of Latin American and European countries, have seen a surge in visa applications.

“We are overworked,” the custodian of the Mexican consulate site in the Miramar neighborhood told 14ymedio. Outside the building, Roberto, who prefers not to give his last name, managed to get a temporary visa to travel to the land of the Aztecs. This Thursday he will fly to Cancun, the cheapest flight between the two countries. “I’m working against the clock,” he says, while finishing the bureaucratic paperwork before the journey.

Roberto has a long journey ahead of him, plagued with obstacles and dangers to reach the US border, but he feels confident. “My brother who lives in Miami is going to help me and pay for the whole trip,” he explains. “It will be much more expensive, but I have to get there before January 20th,” he says.

Trump’s inauguration date has become the goal in a marathon race for thousands of Cubans. People who in recent months have liquidated their possessions, managed to get a visa and are preparing to leave.

Most consulates close their doors at the end of December for the Christmas holidays, an element that contributes to the desperation.

Departures by raft have also increased. The US Coast Guard recently reported that since last October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, around 1,000 Cubans have tried to enter the US illegally by sea. For fiscal year 2016, which ended on 30 September, the figure reached 7,411, compared to 4,473 for the same period in 2015.

With this exceptional winter, without cold and with an ocean free of hurricanes, many Cubans embark on the route to Florida in makeshift crafts. Raul Castro’s government has redoubled its vigilance along the coast lately, but the rafters choose to leave from remote places, among the mangroves or the rocks.

“I don’t know if Trump will be good for us or not, but I’m not going to stay here to find out,” says Yusmila Arcina, who worked as an accountant for a state company until she decided to “make the leap.” The young woman considers herself fortunate, in part, for having obtained a work visa for the Schengen Area (a free movement zone made up of most of the EU countries and others in the area). From Europe, where she expects it will be easier, she hopes to get a tourist visa to travel to the US, using the old continent as a springboard to realize her “American Dream.”

“Yes or no, we have to take advantage now,” suggests the young women, who has no family in the United States. Arcina has paid for the paperwork and a plane ticket in the high season, which cost her around 2,000 Convertible Cuban pesos (roughly the same in dollars), with the sale of a mid 20th century Cadillac that belonged to her father. “That car has been my ticket to freedom,” she jokes.

Arcina’s boyfriend is stranded in Colombia waiting to take the route through the Darien Gap. The challenge for both of them is to reach US territory “before that millionaire gets into office.” Both hope “to watch the inauguration ceremony on local TV in Miami,” says Arcina. Trump has fired the starting gun, and each one, on their own side, has embarked on their migration journey.

Party In A Whisper: The End Of The Year To Come / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Pánfilo’s program has not been broadcast for three weeks. In the video above Obama and Pánfilo appear in a ‘sketch’ recorded during the visit of the American president to the Island.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 December 2016 — Celebrations postponed, revelry suspended and a call not to party in the street, is the reality for Cubans at this year’s end. The sobriety for the death of former President Fidel Castro has spread to television programming and the popular comedy show, “Living to Tell the Tale,” with the lead character Pánfilo, has not been broadcast for three weeks.

“We have received a circular with details on what can be broadcast and what cannot,” a specialist from the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) who preferred anonymity told 14ymedio. “The directions are clear: everything that is programmed has to be analyzed very carefully so as not to fall into frivolities,” he says. continue reading

Throughout the country, all the centers with cultural programming have held meetings to direct their workers to show austerity and moderation, but the calls to avoid celebrations extend beyond facilities for shows, concerts and movies.

Vivian, 42, works as a nurse in a polyclinic in the city of Santiago de Cuba. She explains that in a meeting she was in last week, they were ordered not to hold the gift exchange the medical staff had organized for the last week of December. “I already bought everything,” she said.

Pedry Roxana Rojo, a LGBT activist and worker at a branch of the Cuban Book Institute (ICL) in Caibarién, Villa Clara, published on her Facebook account a protest against the suspension of popular festivities traditionally held at the end of the year.

Rojo, who is also an independent reporter, complains about the secrecy of the official media about the postponement of the festivities. “They have suspended the holidays here this year by royal edict,” she quipped on the social network, telling14ymedio that the decision affects not only residents but also tourists coming to the area for those dates.

The parrandas of Remedios, along with other popular celebrations in the center of the island, have been postponed to January 6 and 7, according to a source from the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power speaking to this newspaper. It is the fourth time in the last six decades that these celebrations have been suppressed or had their dates changed.

The first cancellation of the parrandas occurred in December 1958, when guerrilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos arrived in the area with the so-called “invading column” that brought the combat actions from the Sierra Maestra to the west of the island.

In 1969, the parrandas were again suspended in the midst of the “decisive effort” promoted by Fidel Castro’s government to achieve a 10 million ton sugar harvest. All the end of year celebrations were postponed, but the harvest did not achieve the planned figures.

A decade later, an official directive moved all the popular celebrations of the country to the months of July and August. The parrandas were not allowed to be held in that December of 1979. The measures became more flexible with time and “the waters took their course,” says Moisés Luaces, a peasant from the area who remembers every interruption of his favorite festivities.

So far, official media have not called for the moderating of Christmas parties held inside homes, but many fear that the ruling party will urge Communist Party militants and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to snitch on the most enthusiastic.

In Cuba, Remedios Suspends Popular December Celebrations / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Fireworks are a prominent part of multi-day December celebrations going back to the 1800’s in Remedios, Villa Clara, Cuba. (Flickr / Sergio Carreira)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 December 2016 — Havana has its carnivals, Bejucal has its brass bands, and Remedios has its parrandas,  Christmas season street festivals dating back to the 1800s. But this December, all end-of-year celebrations are suspended. Fidel Castro’s death has turned out the lights and shut off the loudspeakers of these festivities.

After nine days of national mourning, including a prohibition on alcohol and music, the Cuban government has also decreed that the local celebrations planned for the coming weeks will be canceled. In the center of the island, the Remedios parrandas are among the festivities most affected by the prohibition. continue reading

Considered the oldest festivals on the island, the Remedios parrandas mix the attraction of their ingenious floats with an impressive variety of fireworks. In addition, the old rivalry between two neighborhoods is played out in a battle of lights, music and wit that generate interest in the event.

After a whole year of preparation, Remedians have had to park their enthusiasm and put into storage the wide range of pyrotechnics planned for the occasion, including rockets, sparklers, fountains, firecrackers, Roman candles and others. This is not the time “to display joy in the streets,” Communist Party authorities told the festival’s organizers.

Although publicly the national mourning ended on 4 December, with the placement of Fidel Castro’s ashes in a mausoleum in Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, officialdom is intent on prolonging the austerity and is calling for an end of year marked by “tributes to the undisputed leader of the Revolution.”

The Remedios floats have been halted just when they were about to be set in motion. With their designs based on historic, literary, mythological or abstract themes, the compositions will have to wait twelve more months to be publicly displayed. The efforts of the “undercover agents” who try to uncover the other side’s “secrets,” have been absolutely fruitless this year.

In the town of Zulueta tradition has also been interrupted this December. Its parrandas are the last to be held in the country, not getting underway until 31 December. The two opposing sides, the Chivos (goats) of La Loma and the Sapos (toads) of El Guanijibes, will have to remain silent on San Silvester Day, waiting for time and oblivion to bury grief and sobriety.

Both towns in Villa Clara province are only a part of those affected by the austerity set off by the death of the former Cuban president. After his death was announced on 25 November, Cuba has not been the same in the cultural arena.

The centrally located Palacio de la Rumba, in Central Havana, has not opened its doors since the death of Castro. Its local programming remained suspended even on 30 November, the day UNESCO declared the Cuban rumba an intangible cultural heritage.

Administrators in Havana’s elementary schools have been advised that Teachers Day, 22 December, should not be celebrated with music. “There will be a morning assembly, a reading of some commitments, but no cake or dancing,” said Rosa, a teaching assistant at a school in Cerro.

Teachers Days are traditionally joyful in Cuban schools, with classes suspended, replaced by parties and, for the teachers, lots of presents. “It is our day,” the educator lamented to this newspaper. For her, the cancellation is bad news, “They’re taking away something we deserve,” she protests.

With the suspension of the Remedios parrandas and the parties for Teachers Day, Cubans are preparing for a discreet end of year, celebrated behind closed doors. “The party will be within us,” says Rosa.

The Mind, The Spirit, The Source Revived / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

After decades without working the fountain at the corners of of Xifré Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana is working again. (14ymedio)
After decades without working the fountain at the corners of of Xifré Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana is working again. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 3 December 2016 — For decades this fountain remained dry. It was built in the late ‘80s as an ornament to the entrance to the day-care center located in the corner of the Xifre Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana. The children who opened this day-care center never called the place “The Little Martís,” which is its official name, but rather the “the fountain day-care center.”

The employees of the center say that a few days ago some workers came from the Communal Works Company. “It seems the problem was simple because they had it fixed in no time.” Asked about the exact date it began working again, no one could agree. They weren’t sure if it was “after the news that Fidel Castro died…” or “a little before.” continue reading

Now, water flows in the middle of the bustle of the most populated district in all of Cuba, a piece of the city that some consider the “real Havana,” for its tough daily life, its serious housing problems and the power of the informal market over the streets. The nearby neighbors don’t fail to find coincidences between the reestablishment of the fountain and the sprucing up of the city for the for the funeral of the former president.

A septuagenarian who was walking with his dog told this newspaper that he had worked on the fountain when he was in the microbrigades. “In addition to building our houses we built many day care centers in Havana. Every time I passed by here and saw this fountain without water it gave me great sadness. Let’s see how long…”

In a city where most fountains are dry, thanks to negligence and lack of maintenance, it is beautiful news to see this source revive.

Cuban Government Imposes Mourning By Force / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The government has set out to present an image of massive remembrance, sobriety and pain (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 29 November 2016 — Eulalia has two obsessions in her life: listening to music and sitting in her easy chair in the doorway of her home in the city of Alquízar, Artemis. There, she watches the evening fall and keeps an eye on her chickens so they won’t end up “in other people’s pots.” As of Saturday she has not listened to her boleros because the police are patrolling the streets to prevent people from drinking alcohol, listening to music, or holding any celebrations that contrast with the national mourning decreed for the death of Fidel Castro.

“I was here in the doorway when they picked up the pedicab driver,” said Eulalia, a retired 80-year-old with two children in the United States. The woman watched a scene this Sunday she will never forget: a uniformed officer stopped the driver because “he had some speakers with music and they told him to turn them off.” continue reading

The entrepreneur refused to comply and the scene ended with a violent arrest. “In this town not even a fly moves,” said the elderly woman, who believes that everyone should honor their dead however they please. “But to force a whole nation… that seems like extremism to me,” she added.

The scene is repeated everywhere. “My daughter turned 15 on Sunday” — a milestone birthday in a girl’s life often celebrated with as big a party as the parents can afford — “and we had to cancel the planned party because the police came by a few hours ahead of time and told us not to do it,” explained Ramon Carvajal, a resident of Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood. “We had planned to play the music softly behind closed doors, but we couldn’t do even that.”

On the other hand, in the emergency room of Calixto Garcia Hospital one of the guards welcomes the measure because, “since they suspended the sale of alcohol it’s quiet here, peaceful.”

There are also those who want to sincerely express their sadness at the death of the man who dominated the life of this island for more than half a century. That is the case for a cameraman with the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) for whom the president “was like one of the family, like a father who has always been close and now is gone.”

This pain is shared by Humberto, who drives for the Panataxi company, and fears that Raul Castro will not follow the path of his brother, “because he is not the same and there is a great difference in terms of charisma.” He also fears that after the funeral “everything will be forgotten and the government itself with throw aside what has been achieved here.”

“We lost the Great One,” said a newspaper seller this Sunday outside the Payret movie theater in Old Havana. “That man had a power, aché, and he was protected by a powerful dead,” explained the man, referencing the Afro-Cuban religions and the energy of the universe. “But I hope that now he will look after us from the other side.”

Nights in Havana are unrecognizable. “Nobody wants to risk their neck and people are waiting for all this to be over,” says Mizzy, a transvestite who frequents Las Vegas caberet on Infanta Avenue. “What’s going to happen when they open up the sales of rum and beer again… there are going to be deaths and injuries in the lines,” he jokes. “Even inside our homes we have to be careful, because the chivatón, the snitch, is making waves,” he explains, speaking of the whistleblowers who alert the police if there are celebrations in any home.

However, it is not only amusements and drinks that are regulated. “I’m building a house and I have to haul out some debris but no trucks want to move in these conditions,” says a resident of La Timba neighborhood. “I had arranged with some friends to take the left over wood and bricks, but they say there is a lot of control on the streets.”

The government intends to present a picture of massive acknowledgement and pain. It seems to have achieved it because the foreign press doesn’t look any deeper. The scenes on national television are of mourning and homage to the deceased, the announcers are wearing barely any make-up and two well-known presenters were captured on an open camera discussing whether to open the program with the usual “Good morning.”

“I’m looking for a DVD with movies because no one can stand this,” a retired ex-official from the Ministry of Foreign Trade told one of his daughters, looking at the repetitive programming flooding the national TV channels. “This is counterproductive, television is going to lose the little audience that remains and then they won’t be able to complain that people prefer the Weekly Packet,” he added.

In Sancti Spiritus, the residents are complaining that the Rapid Response Brigades are roaming the streets and the city appears to be under a state of siege. “People stay inside, there are a lot of uniformed police and black berets,” source who prefers to remain anonymous told 14ymedio.

At dawn on 26 November, a few hours after the announcement of Castro’s death, two evangelical pastors were arrested in Manatí, in Las Tunas province. The police forcefully entered the home of Rafael Rios Martinez and his wife, Maria Secades, and arrested them for the mere fact spreading their religious message through the speakers used during their worship service.

No one wants to cross the line to disturb officialdom. “You have to sit out the weather and wait,” says Eulalia from her doorway in Alquízar. The woman says that all these controls are designed to “prevent scenes like in Miami, people are toasting and celebrating.” However, despite her age, she is determined to celebrate the event: “On New Year’s no one will forbid me from singing and getting drunk; it will be late but it will be.”

Hundreds of citizens in Havana came on Monday to say goodbye to Fidel Castro. (14ymedio)
Hundreds of citizens in Havana came on Monday to say goodbye to Fidel Castro. (14ymedio)

Cubans’ Route To The United States Passes Through Remote Guyana / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Guyana. (Youtube)
Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Guyana. (Youtube)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 15 November 2016 – He doesn’t yet know how to find Guyana on a map, but he proudly shows off a plane reservation from Havana to Panama City and finally to Georgetown. Samuel, a fictitious name to avoid reprisals, was counting the hours this Saturday before boarding his plane to the small nation, a new port of entry for Cubans on their route to the United States.

With the visa restrictions imposed by Ecuador since the end of last year, the routes islanders must follow to emigrate have been redefined. The lax entry regulations, which don’t require visas from Cubans, have made Guyana a first step on the long route of thousands of miles during which emigrants pass through at least seven countries.

“I sold everything, the apartment I inherited from my mother, my home appliances and my almost new motorbike,” Samuel told 14ymedio at José Martí International Airport. With the money, he managed to buy a ticket to the South American country, some 840 dollars round trip, although he says it will be a journey with no return.

“They explained everything to me,” says this young Holguin native. “Several friends have already taken the same route and gotten to Miami,” although they also warned him that it is “a long and complicated journey, where anything could happen.”

The line at the counter of Panama’s Copa Airlines is full of people like Samuel. A couple kissing intensely on Saturday, before the man checked his suitcases bound for Georgetown. A few yards away, Samuel bent nervously, again and again, looking over his hotel booking.

“I will not be staying in this place but I need a reservation to avoid problems when entering Guyana” he explains. As soon as he lands he will contact Ney, a Mexican woman with a Uruguayan cellphone number who will put him in contact with the coyotes who will guide him through the first part of the journey.

“I have to pay $6,000, little by little, but they guarantee I will be at the United States border before the end of November,” he says. He does not know anyone in Guyana and does not want to think about the idea of having to stay in that country. “I do not speak a word of English and I’ve had enough of little countries like my own,” he jokes, as he approaches his turn at the Copa Airlines counter.

He is carrying a suitcase that weighs almost nothing. “I have nothing, what I didn’t sell I gave away.” His only possessions of any worth are a smart phone, a watch and about 8,000 dollars that remain after getting rid of all his property in a hurry. “With this I have to get to Miami because I don’t have even a single cent more,” he says.

Samuel carries contact numbers for Paulo and Adele, a small family business that operates a bus route between Guyana and Brazil. “A cousin gave me these numbers in case I change my mind and he wants me to go to Rio de Janeiro, where he runs a gym.”

Samuel has a degree in physical culture and he believes he can have a future “in some fitnessss center because there are so many of those in Florida,” he says, pronouncing the word with a very long, almost ridiculous, “S” sound, but he is also willing “to lay bricks doing construction work in the hot sun.”

After a couple of years working as a physical education teacher, the young man is ready to “conquer the world” if he can. For now, his challenges are more modest: to get to the Cheddi Jagan Airport in Georgetown and convince the immigration agent that he’s a tourist planning to sightsee and shop, to avoid being deported.

“I will just grab my suitcase and rush to the first taxi that passes by.” The airport is more than 25 miles from the city, but Samuel predicts that he will be laughing the whole time because he will be “over there, far from this shit.”

Each day about fifty Cubans depart from Terminal 3 of Havana’s International Airport heading to Guyana, according to an employee of Copa Airlines. The numbers could skyrocket if people fear that the Passport and Visa Service of that country will be closed to islanders, as happened with Ecuador.

The victory of Donald Trump is also an incentive for emigration, with the expectations that the Cuban Adjustment Act will be repealed. “It’s now or never,” says Samuel, with ticket in hand. The young man steps toward the immigration booth, where an official will affix the stamp to leave the country. That clicking sound on the paper will be his shot to take off.

A Carte Blanche to the Market of Tourists’ Dreams / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Since early this year in the streets of Havana the best-preserved vintage cars can be seen with their yellow stickers allowing them to operate at hotels and airports. (14ymedio)
Since early this year in the streets of Havana the best-preserved vintage cars can be seen with their yellow stickers allowing them to operate at hotels and airports. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 November 2016 — For tourists coming to Cuba, one of the most cherished fantasies it is to get into a car of the last century and cruise the streets of cities and towns. A new type of permit for private carriers is bringing that dream even closer to reality, as it authorizes the drivers to operate at airports and in the vicinity of hotels.

Since early this year in the streets of Havana you can see that the best-preserved models of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Ford displaying a yellow sticker on their windshield. It is the carte blanche to park outside hotels and legally offer their services to foreigners. continue reading

Previously, the areas of the Cuban capital most frequented by tourists were a feudal estate, where the only legal operators were the so-called Panataxis and the vintage cars owned by the government. The self-employed had to settle for picking up tourists on the periphery or managing the business through intermediaries.

The mouth-watering market for tours in convertible cars for recently arrived visitors, costing between 40 and 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) per hour (about $40-50 US), is attractive to drivers everywhere. Antonio Martinez, 52, is one of those who long to get the “yellow sticker” that would “turn a pumpkin into a carriage,” as he says sarcastically about his old Toyota jeep.

“I’m getting less and less business on the route between Santiago de las Vegas and Fraternity Park,” the driver explained to this newspaper. The entrepreneur spent more than five years working as a collective taxi driver focused primarily on domestic customers.

However, since the middle of this year local authorities have imposed price caps and “business is getting worse,” said the driver. “Many are switching to this type of work with tourists, because it always pays better and there’s the tip on the side,” he adds.

Following a decision by Havana’s Provincial Administration Council, it was established that the carriers cannot decide to raise fares on their own, and only the prices charged before July 1 are acceptable. The majority of drivers have shortened their routes and others make deals with the riders not to reveal to the inspectors the actual fares paid.

But Martinez is tired of this “cat and mouse game.” After an investment of more than 2,000 convertible pesos to make his car “as smooth as silk,” the driver has begun the process to obtain the longed-for sticker that would allow him to “carry Pepes without having to be hiding around corners,” he says.

Competition is strong, because of the more than 496,400 people throughout the island who were engaged in self-employment at the beginning of this year, at least 50,482 carry cargo and passengers. But there is a very small number who have cars “in the impeccable condition that is lovely in the eyes of the tourists,” says Martinez.

Asking around among other drivers who already have the sticker to operate in tourist areas and make “airport pickups,” led the self-employed driver to the No. 9 taxi base on Ayestaran street.

Characteristics of Cuban taxis promoted by the authorities of the sector. (14ymedio)
Characteristics of Cuban taxis promoted by the authorities of the sector. (14ymedio)

It was not as easy as he thought. The director of the state agency, Ernesto Reyes, first described to him the simplest requirements to achieve his goal, including “opening two bank accounts, one in national currency and another in convertible pesos, and taking out the operating license needed by all taxi drivers.”

To not lose the sticker, drivers must pay about 25 CUC and the same amount in national currency, the Cuban peso. “With that you will be allowed to park outside Havana hotels and may take or collect clients at the airport, but it is not valid to go to Varadero beach,” said Reyes.

The most insurmountable barrier is that with the new permit the driver is required to “consume 90 gallons of fuel monthly” that must be purchased at the taxi base on Ayestarán Street at a total cost of 360 CUC. The measure seeks to prevent the self-employed from turning to the informal market to buy their fuel*.

Antonio Martinez has decided to “leave the yellow sticker for another time” because, he said, “rather than a permission, it seems like a shackle.”

*Translator’s note: The “informal market,” in this and other cases, is essentially state resources that have been “diverted” (stolen) for sale on the black market. Much of the Cuban economy – at all levels, from households to businesses – is supported by “under the table” purchases of diverted state resources.

Drought in Cuba Doesn’t Let Up / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Many Cubans have become accustomed to relying on water tankers for their water. (14ymedio)
Many Cubans have become accustomed to relying on water tankers for their water. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 19 September 2016 — A sign announces the sale of an apartment in Havana and stresses, in capital letters, that the “water never runs out” in the area. Not far away, another sign alerts neighbors of a multifamily building: “Starting today, the water-pump will only operate for one hour.” In the last three years, Cubans have lived with drought and water shortages, and forecasts suggest that the situation will not change in the coming months.

According to a recent report released by the engineer Abel Salas García of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH), 48 of the country’s sources of supply are completely dry. Another 200 show partial affects, which means that more than 790,000 people receive water right now on a different cycle than what they were used to, and more than 50,000 receive their supply through tanker trucks. continue reading

To talk about the cycle “they were used to” alludes to the fact that in many places citizens have become accustomed, as a normal situation, to water only flowing to their homes every other day, or sometimes only three times week.

The areas with the highest cumulative rainfall between January and August were Artemisa, Isla de la Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Havana. At the other extreme, the least favored regions are Santiago de Cuba, Ciego de Ávila, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos.

In the specific case of Ciego de Avila, as detailed in the INRH report, of the 14 groundwater basins in that largely agricultural province, six are in critical condition.

In January, the reservoirs were filled to around 53% of their volume and, although up to August rains were close to the historical average in the three regions (eastern, central and west), at the end of August this rate was only 52%. In absolute terms, the country had 653 million cubic fewer meters of stored water than is usual for August.

According to experts, rainfall in the Cuban archipelago has been decreasing by around 1.6 inches annually, which they attribute to climate change and other environmental factors caused by the hand of man.

A lack of water caused by erratic rainfall is exacerbated in Cuba by wasteful leaks in the pipes, in over-wide pipes that bring more water to leak out, and in unstoppable domestic drips caused by lack of maintenance in homes where, given the high price of faucets and plumbing supplies, people find it cheaper to let the water flow uncontrolled than to fix the plumbing.