The Hurricane Mascot

Mayabeque’s baseball team mascot represents a hurricane, those crazy winds that in the cyclonic season hit the island. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 October 2018 – The Mayabeque province baseball team is also known by their Hurricanes nickname, so the team mascot tries to represent those crazy winds that, in the hurricane season, hit the island.

His costume contains the yellow and red colors of the coat of arms of the province, one of the four that along with Guantanamo, Camagüey and Havana takes on an aboriginal name. The Taínos called cyclones “juracán” and represented this atmospheric phenomenon with a human face whose arms move in a spiral.

The ghostly mask that Mayabeque’s baseball mascot now puts on has the dual purpose of hiding the identity of the bearer of the symbol and bringing a certain terrifying air to the character. Both things are totally pointless, because by merely going on the field the fans of the team often shout the real name of the person who hides under the mascot accompanied by all the nice and atrocious things that occur to the public. continue reading

The bat looks like a toy, but he carries it with a lot of pride, as if he were brandishing a whirlwind like those of the aboriginal deity. There is no shortage of those who want to take a photo together with such exaggerated fury, nor those who wonder in a jocular tone who came up with this symbol, with the damage that actual hurricanes have done to Mayabeque.

In between the teasing and applause, the mascot of one of the youngest Cuban provinces is earning a place in the comments of the public that goes to the stadium to support their team.

Since January 2011 when Mayabeque province was officially established, the team’s performance this season has been the best in its brief history, which fortunately has not been highlighted so far in 2018, at least on the island, by the fury of real hurricanes.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria


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"We Are Going to Paralyze Havana"

The ’boteros’ (’boatmen’ i.e. taxi drivers) play a critical role in Havana’s passenger transport system. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 9 October 2018 — “Post online that this is the last almendrón* that you will see in many days,” joked the driver of an old Chevrolet that makes the route between the Parque de la Fraternidad and Santiago de Las Vegas, in Havana on Monday.

This Monday, the Council of the Provincial Administration initiated an “experiment” that includes new regulations, along with economic and fiscal incentives for the self-employed workers — popularly known as boteros (“boatmen”) — dedicated to passenger transport. The measures have already aroused more distrust than hope among customers and drivers, who are beginning to join forces in the face of the situation.

As of October 8, drivers have had to go to the municipal offices that manage work permits for the self-employed and request a new operating license. To obtain it, the drivers are required to present a contract with the state entities to acquire their fuel and proof of a bank account. continue reading

After this process, drivers can purchase tools, parts and accessories for their vehicles in a wholesale market at 20% lower prices, but a good share of the boteros consulted by this newspaper do not have faith that the state-owned stores can provide the parts they need for their automobiles, most of which are manufactured in the United States.

The official press has detailed that the experiment in Havana’s transport will be developed over four months and that, currently, the participation of operators with cars, vans and minibuses with capacity for between 4 and 14 passengers is voluntary.

Anger has motivated many boteros, who lack unions that can help them stand up to the Government and who fear losing their licenses, to decide to start a discrete work stoppage on Tuesday. However, the heavy rains in the west of the island due to Hurricane Michael will make it difficult to be clear about which ones did not go to work as a protest and which ones failed to show up because of the weather.

In the last few hours passengers hurried to board one of these vehicles — commonly more than half a century old and with innumerable patches. “I caught the last one heading for La Víbora,” this newspaper heard from Teresa, a Havana housewife who managed to travel as the sun went down while the rain did not let up.

The new measures seek to create a balance between “the interests of the population, associated with more affordable prices and safety,” and those of the carriers, “so that they do not see their incomes diminished and have access to facilities” to buy parts according to the vice minister of Transport, Marta Oramas, but customers also have their doubts.

Passengers argue that the prices of private transport are very high, although they also do not trust that the regulations will improve the situation. Sign reads: “If you don’t pay you have to get out.” (14ymedio)

“Each time they implement one of these measures, two things happen: either we the passengers pay for the ’broken dishes’ or in a short time no one respects the rules. Are we going to see what will happen in this case?” said a retiree waiting for an almendrón in Reina street. “Prices can’t continue as they are because the situation can’t be that I pay the botero more for a ride than I get from my pension for a day, but the State doesn’t manage it any better,” he protested.

Among the carrots the the Government is offering to encourage the boteros to accept the rearrangement of the routes and the taxi-stands is the sale of fuel at lower prices, between 2 and 66 cents per liter according to the type. The offer seeks to put an end to the extensive informal market that feeds on fuel stolen from state entities.

Private carriers must also comply with minimum and maximum fuel consumption standards according to the type of vehicle, its capacity and the type of fuel it uses. The calculation of gasoline or diesel will also take into account the variable of the route they have previously contracted with the state transport company to operate.

Since Monday, 26 terminals and 23 associated routes have been established, outside of which the boteros can not operate. “That takes limits mobility and autonomy, without a doubt,” laments Abigail Pacheco, 56, with 16 years in the arena of passenger transportation. “Now it will be an infraction if we go down a street that is not established or if we use a fuel that is not the one that the State sold us,” she laments.

In an unusual informative gesture, the government TV program ’Roundtable’ alluded last week to the informal call for a work stoppage, based on the comments of a viewer. However, the presenters avoided mentioning that in Cuba labor strikes are prohibited and that in more than half a century the Central Workers’ Party of Cuba (CTC) has never called a strike.

In a city with chaotic public transport, which has failed to overcome the blow represented by the end of Soviet subsidies with the demise of the USSR, and where it is normal to wait more than an hour at a bus stop, the almendrones are key to moving millions of passengers every day who need to get to their jobs, homes or schools.

“We have to stand up for ourselves because the government treats us as if we were a necessary evil, but we are the wheels of Havana, without us it stops,” says Osmel, a 38-year-old driver who decided on Tuesday to participate in the strike “with arms folded.”

“Not everyone has joined the call and the truth is that we have not been able to disseminate everything we would have liked, but at each taxi-stand the drivers know that if we continue to give way we will all end up as state workers, with a fixed salary and a boss to tell us where we must go,” he predicts.

Now, the carriers are trying to take on the fight to regain the autonomy that they have achieved since self-employment was authorized in the mid-1990s.

The measures are part of a package of 20 decrees, resolutions and rules that will come into effect on December 7, which, according to the authorities, seek to “reorder” the private sector, but entrepreneurs perceive them as a brake on the economic openings promoted by Raúl Castro.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrone” relates to “almond” and is used as a name for the classic American cars still in use in Cuba, in reference to their shape. Specifically, “almendrones” are used in the shared fixed-route taxi service widely used by Cubans whose needs are not met by regular bus service and do not own cars.


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Complaints About the Adulteration of Weight In Sales of Frozen Chicken

Halfway through 2016 authorities decreed a reduction in the prices of various foods, among them pieces of frozen chicken that are sold in boxes of between 10 and 23 kilograms. Sign: “Special Offer Sale of Boxes of Chicken With Price Reduction of 6%” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, October 2, 2018 — He arrived home hopeful, after five hours in a long line, with a box of frozen chicken thighs that he bought at the Plaza Carlos III center in Havana. When he opened it, the customer realized that it was missing at least six pieces and in their places pieces of ice had been added to fill up the holes and maintain the weight of the package.

The adulteration of the quantity of a product is a common practice in the network of stores using convertible currency in Cuba, and it has been aggravated by the commercialization of wholesale merchandise. The substitution of part of the food with ice, cardboard, or plastic is hardly surprising anymore to the indignant buyers who see how their money vanishes as they pay for a weight that isn’t the same as the real one.

This Monday, at least four customers protested being robbed of pieces of chicken in the apparently sealed boxes sold at the butcher shop on the bottom floor of Plaza de Carlos, as 14ymedio confirmed. The administration has recommended that shoppers check the weight of the package before “leaving the unit.” However, weighing it doesn’t prevent fraud. continue reading

“It’s no use to check the weight because they take out pieces and put in ice so that the box shows up on the scale at the same weight that it says on the package,” laments Omara, a 47-year-old Havana resident who claims to have suffered the loss of at least eight pieces of chicken thighs from a box that she got at the place. “It’s not just here, it happens everywhere,” she assures.

“They adulterate cleaning detergent by adding water and now we are going to have to develop x-ray vision to be able to detect if a package that seems sealed is missing chicken,” laments Omara. “Even the ones that my daughter buys via the Internet, that emigrants sell, come diluted.”

The loss of a good part of Venezuela’s economic support has aggravated the shortages and some food products have disappeared from store shelves altogether or are frequently missing.

“The boxes have the weight stamped and here there is no time to change anything inside because as soon as we load them off the truck they are sold, we don’t even warehouse the product from one day for the next because right now there is a lot of demand,” responds an employee of the shopping center who asked to remain anonymous. “If when the customer opens them, they’re missing something, it wasn’t here that it was taken out.”

The worker blames the distribution warehouses and possible robberies at the port. “Everyone blames us but this is a problem that also affects us because we have to listen to the complaints and accusations,” he explains.

In the central office of the Cimex corporation in Havana, an official tells this newspaper that it’s a matter of “imported chicken that is sold sealed,” so that the customer finds himself before “the original quality of the merchandise, which has passed through a procedure of wet freezing” which has result in “those pieces of ice that they see when they open the package.”

Nevertheless, he recognizes that “irregularities” have been found in the “surprise inspections that are carried out in the warehouses and receiving centers.” If the protocols are followed “there shouldn’t be any adulteration,” specifies the official, who didn’t want to give his name over the phone.

“Often they say that there is adulteration, but there isn’t.” The administration imposes sanctions if they detect this kind of irregularity, among them the loss of jobs, to avoid eventual removals.

Luis Jorge, 36, a regular buyer of frozen chicken pacakges for a restaurant where he works as a messenger, disagrees with the Cimex official. “If you pay close attention, you can detect where the package was opened to put in the pieces of ice,” he insists. “They’re true masters of fraud, those who do this, but even so they still leave traces.”

Halfway through 2016 the authorities decreed a light reduction in the prices of various foods. Among the products that benefited were pieces of frozen chicken sold in boxes of between 10 and 23 kilograms, a measure that incentivized buying, especially among small private businesses that offer chicken on their menus.

As months passed many families began to get the packages of chicken parts to guarantee supply amidst the shortage. Lines to buy it can last hours and most times one only finds packages of thigh and leg meat. Packages of breasts or whole chickens are the ones that are in shortest supply.

In June of this year the sale of frozen chicken was rationed in stores in convertible pesos in the Villa Clara province and they stopped selling complete packages of the product. Local authorities decreed the measure as a result of the damages caused by the subtropical storm Alberto and presented it as a short-term solution to the shortage of food. Villa Clara residents waited several weeks to be able to buy once again greater quantities of the product.

Cuba imports between 60% and 70% of the food consumed on the island, an operation that costs around $2 billion each year and which has become more complicated with the problems of liquidity that the Island is experiencing. From the United States the foods that arrive most frequently are, precisely, frozen chicken and certain grains.

During his recent visit to New York, the Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel met with American businessmen linked with the agricultural sector. “Buying food, which is known to be of good quality, produced by you for us would represent convenience and opportunities,” specified the leader during the meeting.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Cuba’s "Slaves Without Rights" of the Youth Labor Army

EJT (Youth Labor Army) market on Calle 17 and K in Vedado (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, September 26, 2018 — Rigo, Suandy, and Alberto arrive each morning at a corner in the Capdevila neighborhood in Havana, with the order to look for breeding places of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Barely 17 years old, they are part of the Youth Labor Army (EJT), an unarmed version of Active Military Service (SMA) that is also being questioned in the constitutional reform debates.

Founded in August of 1973 by Raúl Castro, thousands of young people under the age of 20 have ended up in the EJT over the past four decades. Their labors have concentrated fundamentally in agriculture, construction of houses, and the repair of railroad tracks. But the hard work conditions and the low compensation have put it at the center of the criticisms. continue reading

“Every day my son works for more than eight hours in a furrow producing vegetables and foods that are then sold in the Youth Labor Army markets at a much higher price than he and his companions receive for so much work,” Xiomara, a resident of the Boyeros municipality, lamented last week at a meeting to discuss the reform of the Constitution.

All over the country, and especially in the Cuban capital, the farmers’ markets managed by EJT have displaced in space and in the amount of offerings others that were privately or cooperatively administrated, which opened following the economic reforms of the 90s. Although they have slightly lower prices than their competitors, the quality of the merchandise in these businesses doesn’t please all their consumers.

“They’re an unspecialized workforce and that shows in the deterioration of production, but also in the numerous injuries that they suffer when they have to work in the fields or on railroad lines,” adds Xiomara, while at the table that presided over the debate a man punctually wrote down each phrase.

Young people who complete high school and earn a place at university are only required to spend a year mobilized in the SMA and, as a general rule, are placed in the EJT, where they only receive military training in the so-called “preliminary,” which lasts a few weeks.

Then they are relocated to EJT units, many of them without dormitories and from which they can leave every afternoon to sleep in their homes. However, their members are considered active military members and during their time in the Army they must comply with a chain of command that functions under the rules of that institution.

“Although I am happy that my son doesn’t have to have a gun, I believe that the new Constitution should offer more work options to the conscripted young people, including other tasks that they might be better at, like social work or incorporation in industrial production,” pointed out the woman.

Xiomara’s point of view was backed by various residents with adolescent children who lament that the EJT has turned into “a lucrative business where young people work hard in horrible conditions and receive salaries that aren’t enough for anything,” according to another of the meeting’s attendees.

“At least they no longer have to go to Angola as soldiers, but it’s necessary to dignify the work of these young people, because what they earn doesn’t even mean 15 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $15 USD) each month, let alone 20, but in the EJT markets they raise much more. Where does that money end up?” asked the resident. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) don’t report their resources and rarely publish the amounts of the profits earned with the work of their conscripts.

In 2009 thousands of young people in the EJT were assigned to the repair and maintenance of railroad lines, work for which it is difficult to find a voluntary labor force due to the difficult conditions in which it takes place.

On the outskirts of Bayamo, in the Sakenaff camp, Ruadny was one of the many young people in the area who held for the first time in his life “a pickaxe and shovel to lay a railroad tie,” he recounts now. “I wasn’t even 18 when they sent me to that unit and the truth is that after one week there I would have preferred to go to a military company,” he assures.

Demobilized two years ago from the EJT and with his sights set on emigration, the young man has no qualms in assuring that, at moments, he felt like “a slave without rights.” Ruadny remembers that they received a short training from the Eastern Railroad Company but that they arrived at the field “with very little knowledge of the work.”

“We had many cuts because, of course, the majority of the kids had never handled a pickaxe in their lives and I don’t remember that there was a union structure to protect us,” he laments. Ruadny came to make more than 500 Cuban pesos monthly for his work, less than $25. “I’m a musician, what I love most is the guitar and after that I couldn’t even play a note because my hands were so destroyed.”

The Government has deployed EJT conscripts to all those areas where the workforce fails because of the bad work conditions or low salaries. They can be seen in the coffee harvest, in clean-up operations after hurricanes, and in the building of state-owned facilities, but also in the sugar harvest, the maintenance of highways, and the remodeling of dams. The so-called “antivector” campaign, agriculture, the setup of electric lines, and communal services round out their tasks.

In 1999 a report made public during the International Work Conference in Geneva required Cuban authorities to be more transparent about the mechanism by which Cuban young people can opt to be part of the EJT and “to choose can constitute a useful guarantee.” The body reminded the Island that it needed to suppress “the use of forced labor as a method of using the workforce with the goal of economic promotion.”

For Ruady the deficiency of that right remains. “It’s true that now you can spend your military time far away from shrapnel, but they are still treated like soldiers, whoever doesn’t obey goes to the dungeon,” he assures.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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

In Cuba Sugar is Imported from France

This September the sugar that has been distributed in the “basic basket” of the rationed market comes from France. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, September 23, 2018 — This September the sugar that has been distributed in the “basic basket” of the rationed market doesn’t come from Cuban fields, but rather from far-off France. The poor performance of the last sugar harvest forced the Island’s Government to import a product that, until a few years ago, was the symbol of the country.

In impeccable white bags, the sugar that has arrived in Havana stores is bringing satisfaction to consumers for its quality and cleanliness. “It’s fine, it’s not damp, and it doesn’t have any dirt,” is how Norberto, a grocer from Havana’s La Timba neighborhood near the Plaza of the Revolution, describes the product.

“We’ve had sugar from Brazil but this is the first time that we’ve gotten it from France,” adds the state employee, a fact confirmed to this newspaper by a worker from the Sugar Business Group (Azcuba) who prefers to remain anonymous. “We’ve had to buy French sugar because we’ve committed the majority of the national sugar harvest to international buyers,” he details. continue reading

Cuba has a high sugar consumption and needs around 700,000 tons annually to satisfy the demand of the rationed market, local industries, and the self-employed sector. The Island has a commercial agreement with China to sell it 400,000 tons each year, but this year the production wasn’t enough to cover both internal consumption and exports.

In the 2017-2018 sugar harvest the Island produced a little over one million tons of raw sugar, far from the 1.6 million that sector authorities had forecast. “Which didn’t permit the fulfillment of what was planned,” indicated the president of the state-controlled group Azcuba, Julio García.

The Cuban sugar industry, for decades, was the flagship of the Island’s products and the leading export. In 1991 it reached 8 million tons just before the collapse of the Soviet Union sank the Cuban economy and caused particular damage to that sector.

In the present, sugar production has been lagging, far behind tourism, remittances from emigrants, and the sale of professional services, principally in healthcare, which have displaced the former economic driving force of the Island.

In 2002 and under the mandate of Fidel Castro, a process of dismantling of dozens of sugar production centers began, under the argument that the fall in prices of the product in the international market was making the industry unsustainable. In 2011 the Ministry of Sugar was eliminated and its functions were assumed by Azcuba.

Three five-year-periods after that offensive, 64% of the centers remain closed; their workers were relocated to other positions, and the majority of the sugar plantations have been directed to other crops.

In the previous sugar harvest only 54 centers operated and the rains affected the harvest that should have finished before what was predicted, due to intense precipitation in the spring, which made the harvesting of the cane in the fields more difficult and contributed to a rapid deterioration of the product.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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

Animal Protection… Also for Oxen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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

"A Spaceship Fell in Our Neighborhood"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


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

"Here We Haven’t Asked for Anything"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria


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

Havana Marabou

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Sickle and Cup

The old Hammer and Sickle flag waves over a bar Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sugar Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

GPS Use in Cuba Increases Despite its Prohibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Tomás A.


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

Powdered Eggs

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

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

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

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

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


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