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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Come The Limes, There Goes The Soap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy Rains Threaten Pinar del Rio Tobacco Crop

The tobacco drying houses are built with light roofs which are susceptible to leaks and getting wet when it rains. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, San Juan y Martínez | Mayo 24, 2018 — “Everything was going well and then the rains came,” says Manuel García, summarizing the situation of Hoyo de Monterrey, in Pinar del Río, where the best tobacco in the world is grown. The intense showers of recent days in the western part of the Island in the middle of the harvest are making the situation difficult.

“The harvesting of the leaf is a very delicate moment,” Garcia explains to 14ymedio. “A lot of humidity damages tobacco.” In his drying houses, close to the land of the Rigoberto Fuentes Cooperative in the San Juan y Martinez municipality, water seeps in everywhere and the tobacco grower fears that “the leaf will deteriorate and can’t be sold at the same price.” continue reading

The cigar makers must sell their products to the State, which rates the leaves by quality parameters, among which are size, smoothness and color. “With so much rain it is to be expected that there will be losses because the farmer who sowed expecting to have a first quality leaf, will have to sell it cheaper if it deteriorates,” says the producer.

García grows the tapada variety, which grows under a cloth that filters sunlight and produces the leaves for the outer layers of the most sought-after cigars. “The product that comes from here goes mainly to the cigars that are exported or sold in stores in hard currency,” he explained. “That’s why they are very demanding,” he says.

The tobacco that is already drying is affected by the humidity. (Adriana Gomez)

The tobacco is planted by private farmers, cooperatives and producers who lease land from the state, in the Tabaco Business Group of Cuba, (Tabacuba), an extensive state structure composed of more than 45 companies including agricultural, agroindustrial, twisted tobacco, marketing and research.

In total, the Group manages 96 factories where cigars are made by hand and almost half of them are dedicated exclusively to exports. The rest, where industrially produced cigars and cigarettes are produced, go to the national market.

For Tabacuba these days of May are vital, because the leaf that is harvested in the fields and begins to dry will define the amount of their production and their ability to fulfill international commitments.

In a sector that contributes more than 400 million dollars a year from exports, tension is felt everywhere. After the last weather reports that assure that the rains will continue, the alarm has grown even more between the cultivators and the state administrators.

“By the middle of this month we already had about 30 million cujes collected and we thought we could harvest up to 20,000 hectares,” says an employee of Tabacuba in Pinar del Río. “This was going to be one of the biggest crops in recent years but the weather may force us to redefine those initial plans.”

Tobacco occupies fourth place in the Cuban economy and employs, in the normal season, about 150,000 workers, and up to a quarter of a million during the harvest. Among the most recognized Cuban brands in the world are Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagas and Romeo y Julieta.

The Vueltabajo area, where the Hoyo de Monterrey is located, produces approximately 70% of the national tobacco production. The damage caused by heavy rains, with waterlogged lands and soggy drying houses takes a special toll on the farmers.

“The weather situation is disastrous because all the tobacco that gets wet in the fields loses between 30 and 40% of quality,” explains Alfredo Pérez González, who lives on La Isleña farm and is in charge of the administrative part of this family enclave where several generations have traditionally cultivated the leaf.

“The problem is that the tobacco that is now spoiling in the fields because of the excess rain is not covered by insurance,” explains the young man. The National Insurance Company (Esen) only protects the tobacco crops that were “planted before January 31 and are the ones that have already been collected,” he adds.

The tobacco growers, however, take the risk every year to make a second planting after that time to be picked in the month of May. “It is a risky bet, luckily and truthfully, because if tobacco is lost or the harvest is damaged, the State does not pay a single peso,” says Pérez.

“Although May is always a rainy season, it’s been more than 30 years since we saw a month with so much rain.” A considerable part of the harvest “was still in the field and another part was recently harvested and that too is endangered by the increase in relative humidity that prevents the tobacco from drying as it should in the drying houses.”

“The affects are immense and the farmer has no support for what is happening,” says Pérez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuba Undergoes Historic Change in a Climate of Political Apathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Island with a Salt Shortage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Eight Years Only 125 Cuban Men Have Taken Paternity Leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Lived Household Goods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canned Chickpeas at the Outpost of El Corte Inglés in Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, It’s Really a Bus”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Cuba Without a Ration Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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