Cuban Government Sees IT As “A Weapon For The Defense Of The Revolution” / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

General Leonardo Andollo Valdés (R), in charge of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Improvement of the Economic and Social Model, with Raúl Castro (L). (Cubadebate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 3 March 2017 — The role of information technology as a “weapon for the defense of the Revolution” has grabbed the attention of the latest meeting of the Council of Ministers, held several weeks late this Tuesday in the Palace of the Revolution and headed by President Raul Castro.

During the meeting, policies were approved for the improvement of the system of standardization, measurement, quality and accreditation, as well as fishing and food safety. But the leading role was taken by Information and Communication Technologies, whose shortcomings were expressed by General Leonardo Andollo Valdés, who is in charge of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of Improvement of the Economic and Social Model. continue reading

The military man stressed that “different actions have been undertaken for the regulation of computerization in the country, however, a comprehensive policy is required.” He called for the creation of content aimed at “strengthening the identity and preserving the values ​​of Cuban society.”

At a time when new technologies are gaining a presence among the population, the Government is still cautious about defining protocols for computerizing activities of daily life. Doing legal paperwork on the internet, or reserving a ticket, or taking money out of an ATM, are all tasks that continue to be surrounded by complexities.

Andollo said that conditions will be created to facilitate both communication between government institutions and procedures for the population

Andollo said that conditions will be created to facilitate both communication between government institutions and procedures for the population. Citizens have insisted on the need for these improvements, since it is not comprehensible that in such a centralized state, many procedures must be pursued separately with each entity.

On the other hand, while official reluctance remains, alternative distribution networks have a wide assortment of devices, content and “tricks” – such as NanoStations, Bullets, Rockets or Routers – to take advantage of global developments in technology. On the streets of Cuba, the most sophisticated smartphones coexist with the stories of those who still haven’t been able to afford their first cellphone.

The ministers met the day before the announcement of the prices of Nauta Home, a service that provides Internet browsing from homes. After a pilot test that included 2,000 homes in Havana’s historic center, the Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) announced the fees for the service, which range from 15 to 115 Convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) for 30 hours of connection. The available speeds start at 128 kilobytes and range up to 2 megabytes.

The Private Sector Consolidates Its Presence in Gastronomy and Services / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

La Herradura Paladar (private restaurant). (Ignacio de la Paz / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 1 March 2017 — The corner of Galiano and Zanja is a hive of people at noon. The area’s private cafes sell everything from bread with croquettes to a complex meat lasagna, but the nearest state places only sell cigarettes. A third of the food services in Cuba are managed privately or by cooperatives, a sector that is attracting a larger and larger clientele.

According to public statements in Monday’s official press from Interior Minister Mari Blanca Ortega, 32% of food, personal and technical services operating on the island “have moved to non-state forms of management.” This formula now seeks to “achieve more quality and efficiency,” says the official. continue reading

In the last two decades, the scene in the nation’s streets has been transformed with the appearance of timbiriches – tiny private businesses – sales counters in the doorways of houses, all the way to restaurant complexes serving Creole and international food. But the sector is still burdened by the absence of a wholesale market and a strong tax policy.

32% of the food, personal and technical services operating on the Island “have moved to forms of non-state management”

“The taxes are very high,” says Dario, who manages a small fruit and snack store near the Military Hospital in Havana. “The account doesn’t balance because the products have gone up a lot of price and I have to pay the Office of the Tax Administration (ONAT) almost half of what I earn in a year,” he complains.

Right now, more than 200,000 workers, of whom at least 170,000 are self-employed, must submit their formal declarations of accounts. Those who have annual incomes in excess of 50,000 Cuban pesos (about US $2,000) must pay the Treasury up to 50% of the total earned.

Darío says that in the area where he works “many small businesses have closed because they have not been able to maintain a stable supply.” However, at the national level the numbers have grown, albeit slowly in recent years. By the end of 2016, the country had 535,000 self-employed workers, according to data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

The most common activities are the preparation and sale of food, the transport of cargo and passengers, the rental of dwellings, rooms or spaces and telecommunications agents.

Cases of tax evasion are common. Recently ONAT indicted 223 of these entrepreneurs in court. If found guilty they could face sentences of up to eight years in prison, ONAT’s legal director, Sonia Fernández, told the official media.

Outside a bakery on Carlos III Avenue, several of the self-employed were waiting Monday to supply their businesses. “I come every day and buy about 30 flautas, but sometimes I have to wait up to two hours to get goods,” says Migdalia, a cafeteria employee at nearby Calle Reina.

The bakery belongs to the retail network and the line alternates entrepreneurs and customers who only want to buy for home consumption. “If behind me someone buys wholesale, I’m left with nothing,” protests a retiree who considers that “the normal consumer is affected” when he must stand in line with small businesspeople.

Due to shortages affecting domestic markets, other products must be imported directly from abroad. “All the olive oil and Parmesan cheese we use we have to bring in from the outside,” said the administrator of a busy Italian restaurant in Havana’s Chinatown, insisting on anonymity.

In September 2014, new resolutions of the General Customs of the Republic attempted to restrict shipments of goods for commercial purposes by air, sea or postal. But the flow of products to the private sector has not stopped.

“I can not tell a customer that we are not making a dish because there is no nutmeg in the country or because I ran out of sesame”

“I cannot tell a customer that we are not making a dish because there is no nutmeg in the country or because I ran out of sesame,” complains the manager of the Italian restaurant. “When people come here they want to see that everything on the menu is being served; to guarantee that, you have to import many ingredients,” he says.

A report published a few days ago from the Economic and Trade Office of Spain in Havana says “the lack of stable access to raw materials and supplies necessary for their activity” as one of the greatest difficulties that the self-employed and cooperatives must face.

The lack of legal status is also at the root of most of the problems in this sector.

In spite of the rapid growth in numbers, and the contribution to the gross domestic product made by entrepreneurs and cooperatives, these forms of management have not been able “to squeeze into the productive fabric with sufficient force, due to the strong regulation and legal obstacles they encounter.”

Are Bikes Coming Back to Cuba With the Economic Crisis? / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

As problems with public transport and private taxis increase, bicycles are gradually returning to Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 23 February 2017 — When you look at the photos of the most difficult years of Cuba’s “Special Period,” there are several details that can be observed: how skinny Cubans were, the deterioration of their clothing, and the number of bicycles that filled the streets. Just like the dial phone evokes the first half of the twentieth century, these pedal-powered vehicles remind many Cubans of the most difficult times of their lives. continue reading

Despite the benefits to health and the environment, most of those born in the last half century on this island see bicycles as a means of transportation for times of crisis. It is no coincidence that the decline in the use of these vehicles began with the opening to tourism in the 1990s, and with the distribution of licenses for the operation of a private sector.

Thousands of bike-focused parking lots, tire-patchers and bike-repairers saw their clientele gradually diminish until they had to close. In Havana very few of these places are left, though they once sprinkled the landscape of the city. Also disappearing, along with them, is the massive imports of parts from China to be assembled into bikes in Cuba.

However, with the economic difficulties of recent months, led by the drop in oil shipments from Venezuela, some are making haste to reassume the custom of pedaling. Late, missing and overcrowded buses, along with the fallout from state-imposed price controls on private taxis – which has even resulted in drivers going on strike – has led a resurgence of problems in getting from place to place.

Resigned, some are dusting off their bikes and launching themselves into the streets under their own power, on two wheels.

Hotel Manzana, From Abandonment to the Controversy of Its Restoration / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The French company Bouygues Bâtiment International pays a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 2,000 euros to the Indian workers who work at the Hotel Manzana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 20 February 2017 – People’s memories of Manzana de Gomez vary according to how old the person is. Cubans over 60 evoke a huge commercial center surrounded by Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate Streets. Those under 40 see it as a dirty place, with sewers running with sewage and destroyed windows. But the youngest see it as a luxury hotel about to open in Havana.

In spite of the delays in the construction, everything indicates that by the middle of this year the repairs of the centrally located building will be finished. The Swiss company Kempinski Hotels has the rights to manage and market the hotel, that already promises to become the most exclusive place in the entire city, with a privileged view of Central Park and a paradise-worthy pool on the top floor. continue reading

However, the process of rehabilitation has not been easy, as the deterioration of the building was significant.

The work was plagued by delays and in July 2016, 200 Indian workers were hired to speed up the works

The restoration of the hotel was carried out by the real estate company ALMEST, an entity of the Cuban military consortium GAESA, which assigned the construction work to the French company Bouygues Batimet International. The work was plagued by delays and in July of 2016, 200 Indian workers were hired to speed up the work, according to Reuters.

The French company pays the foreign workers a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 2,000 euros, while Cuban workers receive barely a tenth of that. This situation has generated controversy and critics call the contracting discrimination against nationals.

When the carpet is installed in the Hotel Matanza hallways and its doors are opened for customers, the contrasts that have marked the life of the building will have come around again. The site has been both a commercial center and a building in ruins, a place where foreigners are employed and Cubans work as slaves, accommodations for tourists and place off-limits to Cubans’ wallets.

Birthrate Is Not Just a Matter of Resources / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Mothers who return to work after 18 weeks of maternity leave will receive, in addition to 100% of their salary, an extra provision of 60% of their pay. (Priscila Mora)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 February 2017 — Concerned about low birthrates, this month the Government has launched a campaign focused on fertility and a package of measures to stimulate births of two or more children per woman.

Since 1978 fertility rates have declined throughout the Island, dropping below population replacement levels. By 2050, the country will rank 9th in the world for elderly population. The aging demographics will exacerbate the lack of economically active people.

The new regulations to stimulate birth, made widely known by the paper Gaceta Oficial (Offical Gazzette), are composed of two decrees and four resolutions. These measures include the paid participation of family members in the childrearing process. continue reading

“Now my mother will be able to stay home with my daughter while I go to work,” says Sahily Cuevas, mother of a four-month-old baby and an employee of a Cooperative of Credits and Services in the municipality of Güira, Artemisa.

The discount of 50% on subsidized childcare rates for parents of two or more children can help “the poorest families,” especially in rural areas.

The grandmother, employed in the State Gastronomic Network, will receive 60% of her salary as a social benefit, a benefit that up until February was only available to the father of the child. It is true, however, that this payment is equivalent to $11, the price of three packs of disposable diapers.

The majority of women surveyed point to lack of resources as the main cause for postponement or interruption of a pregnancy. In the period between 2006-2013, birth rates rose from 1.39 children per woman to 1.71, but that figure should reach a minimum of 2.1 to get out of the red zone.

“I would not dare have a second child,” exclaims Tahimí, 27, resident of Aguada de Pasajeros. “The list of necessities to have a baby is so long that the extra money will be like a drop in the ocean, it will serve very little use.”

The women believes that the 50% discount on subsidized childcare rates for parents of two or more children can help “the poorest families,” especially in rural areas. With the third child the family will become exempt from payment, a benefit extending to couples that have multiple deliveries at once.

Returning to work after giving birth has also received new stimuli. Mothers who return to work after 18 weeks of maternity leave will receive, in addition to 100% of their salary, an extra provision of 60% of their pay, from three months to one year after giving birth.

The private sector, with more than half a million employees in the country, has also received a reduction in monthly taxes for self-employed workers with two or more children under 17 years old. But the labor demands in private businesses leave little room for women to take a more extended family leave.

“I would not leave from here because they would replace me and this is my family’s livelihood,” comments an employee of La Mimosa, a restaurant in Chinatown in Havana. “There is a lot of competition and getting pregnant is the same as being left out,” adds the employee, who chose to remain anonymous.

Maipú, 21, has had four abortions. The first two with the technique of menstrual regulation performed on an outpatient basis that does not require anesthesia. For the last two she entered an operating room where they used the technique of scraping, known as curettage. The young woman refuses to have children at the moment.

“I live with my parents and my grandparents, as well as my two brothers,” she says to 14ymedio. Housing problems are the main cause for postponing motherhood, but she also has her eyes set on emigrating. 

The director of the Center of Population and Development studies believes that “social processes like female emancipation” also influence in the decision to push back maternity.

In recent years, without publicly announcing it, the Ministry of Public Health has restricted abortions. “Now the requirements to receive an abortion are stricter,” says a nurse of the Obstetrical Gynecological Hospital, Ramón González Coro. The employee believes that “it is difficult to complete all the paperwork in time for a menstrual regulation technique or an abortion.”

However, the informal market has also flourished in that field. Maipú paid 50 CUC for her last abortion. “I did not have much time because I was already at 12 weeks,” she recounts. She spent the equivalent of a doctor’s monthly salary. There was no record of her procedure on her medical record.

The director of the Center of Population and Development Studies, Juan Carlos Alfonso, has tempered the weight of the economic crisis and immigration in the rejection of pregnancies maintained by Cuban women. For the specialist, “social processes like female emancipation “also influence in the decision to push back maternity.

A 2009 fertility survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (ONEI) found that 21% of women aged 15-54 had experienced at least one pregnancy that ended in intentional abortions. Eighty percent of the population reported having used contraception.

“Obtaining one visa is not the same as obtaining two,” affirms Maipú in a pragmatic tone. However, she acknowledges that she has always wanted to “be a mother and have many children running around the house.”

Translated by Chavely Garcia.

 

Private Taxi Drivers Close Ranks Against Fixed Prices Charged By The State / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Transportation crisis in Havana is aggravated by the “semi-strike” of private taxis. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerMarcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 February 2017 – “Take me, I’ll pay you double,” implores a woman to a taxi driver on the main route of Prado y Neptuno. The car is empty, but the driver does not stop to those hailing his taxi, even while showing money in their hands. Imposed fixed prices on private transport have unleashed a silent battle on the streets of Havana.

Since last Wednesday capital authorities have applied a new scale of fixed rates on the routes of private taxis, a decision that reinforced an end to the law of supply and demand, which regulated the private transport since its authorization in the mid 1990s. Last year the authorities decreed set fares, but the drivers found a way to get around them and the state came back with a second round of controls last week. continue reading

Private transport drivers reacted by eliminating intermediate stops or by opting to pick up only passengers going the full route. Despite not relying on an independent union, they have closed ranks and reduced the number of clients they transport in order to pressure local authorities to take a step back.

Since last Wednesday capital authorities have applied fixed rates on the routes of private taxis.

“It has not been necessary for drivers to agree on taking these measure because we all know that accepting this means worse measures to come,” assures Leo Ramírez, one of the private taxis whose route runs between downtown and the neighborhood La Víbora. Driver of a 1957 Chevrolet, this man says the government is “waging war” on them.

Like most of his colleagues who transport passengers within the city, for the past three days Ramírez only accepts riders going the full route. “Most of the time I ride around with no passengers and I have lost a lot of money,” he says to 14ymedio. He claims, “if the measure is not reversed I will turn in my license.”

At the end of 2016, Cuba had more than 535,000 private or non-state workers, the largest figure recorded since 2010, according to data from the Ministry of Work and Social Security (MTSS). Of these, about 54,350 work in the transport of cargo and passengers and are popularly know as boteros (boatmen).

The situation has put the mobility of Havana in check, a city with over 2 million people and a public transport system facing a deficit of vehicles.

In July 2016, the Council of Provincial Administration published Agreement 185, setting maximum fares for the routes of the popular almendrones*, or private taxis. At that time, established rates were for the most important routes, but the drivers resorted to breaking the trips into segments and charging per segment.

Tatiana Viera, vice-president of the Council, explained on national television that behind that decision was “a series of violations that occurred between the months of September and October.” Consequently, “in order to continue to protect the public,” they decided on the new “measures for shorter trips.”

The official explains that private taxis transport workers, students and even “teachers, who with their salary and hard work cannot afford transportation at those prices.” Viera pointed out that “it is our state and moral duty to continue protecting these customers,” even though she classified the almendrones as “complementary transport.”

The situation has put the mobility of Havana in check, a city with over 2 million people and a public transport system facing a deficit of vehicles.

“The problem is not prices, but wages,” says Yampier, a taxi driver on the route from the area of the Capitol to the municipality of Marianao. According to this self-employed driver, “our cars are always full, which means there are people who can afford our prices.” However, he considers that presently, they are all affected by the new measures.

A retiree who tried to take a taxi this Saturday to Santiago de la Vegas from El Curita park, showed more optimism. “There was no one who could pay those prices, which makes me glad the State intervened,” she commented to 14ymedio. She went outside with the newspaper stating the new rates to “show (the drivers) if they tried to take advantage of her.”

The sanctions for those who do not conform to the new rates range from a fine to the confiscation of the vehicle. “Our inspectors are already on the streets” dressed in “blue jackets,” warns Viera and adds, “They are accompanied by the National Revolutionary Police (PNR).”

The sanctions for those who do not conform to the new rates range from a fine to the confiscation of the vehicle.

Carlos Manuel, known as the Mule, is self-employed in construction and lives in the Martí neighborhood. Every day he takes at least two private taxis to get to the house where he is building a bathroom and a kitchen. “When I heard the news I felt happy because I was going to pay half of what I was paying last Thursday,” he commented to this newspaper.

However, as the days pass, the Mule explains that these new measures have actually “affected me a lot.” Now, “I have to go to where the route starts to hop on a taxi,” he retells. So, “I pay more because I have to go on a longer route now.”

This construction worker is also concerned that “this type of decision by the State will trickle down into other professions.” In his case, he is afraid that “one day they might announce fixed rates for the placement of a square meter of tiles or the installation of sanitary fixtures,” a situation which he would be “deeply affected” by.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrones” means “almonds” – from the shape of the classic American cars often used to provide this service.

Translated by Chavely Garcia.

A Day Without Private Taxis / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Customers wait on Rancho Boyeros Avenue for a taxi to take them to Vedado or Centro Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 10 February 2017 — Without posters, lists of demands or protest demonstrations, Havana’s private taxi drivers are responding to the recently imposed fare caps. The authorities made a bold move, adjusting their previous fare caps – which the drivers got around by breaking their journeys into pieces and charging separately for each piece – to specifically apply the price controls to newly defined portions of a single trip. In response, the self-employed taxi drivers have offered a Friday from hell for Havanans trying to travel around the city.

At the edge of the sidewalk, desperately waving their arms, were hundreds of people this morning along the routes of the “almendrones” – as these shared taxis are called, in reference to the “almond-shape” of the old American cars called into service to run them. But the drivers rarely stopped on the grounds that they would only make “direct trips” between the first and last points of the journey. In this way they avoid fragmenting the payments and lowering the costs of the travel, in accordance with the new regulations.

Lacking a union to represent their demands, the drivers are trying to force the government to withdraw the pricing measure, by ensuring congestion in urban transportation. For its part, the government knows that a good share of the city’s residents need these shared taxis to get to their workplaces or schools. Without them, the country will be paralyzed.

As of yesterday, a silent pulse is developing in the streets, where right now the worst affected are the passengers.

Dangerous Current / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

This mess of bad connections is likely to have been conceived as an interim solution that has become permanent. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 8 February 2017 – In Central Havana where people live in very close quarters, popular speech develops at a dizzying speed and the illegal sellers have their kingdom among the corridors and passageways. But this part of the city is also among the few areas with an underground electrical system, an installation that has the great advantage of not suffering damages due to the collapse of polls or the effects of strong winds.

In the emerging Cuban real estate market, being located in an area where the wires run under the street adds a lot of value. The sellers boast of this detail, pointing to it with the same pride that others declare the high quality of their house because it was “constructed under capitalism,” or – and it’s the same thing – before 1959.

At the central corner of Galiano and Dragones there was once a discreet rewiring, barely perceptible, that has now become a public threat. This mess of connections was probably conceived as a temporary solution that has now become permanent. Passersby avoid it, the neighbors up above avoid throwing water from their balconies and parents make haste to warn their children, “don’t touch it.”

Maybe someone should hang a sign that says, “Dangerous Current.” Not only to warn of the risk of accidental contact, but also to point out how usual and common these kinds of scenes have become in the capital. A detail that no owner will reveal in the sugar-coated descriptions they publish to sell their house.

Black Gold / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The liter of gas that in an official establishment costs 1 CUC here has a price of 15 CUP, 40% less. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 6 February 2017 — In a dark corner along the national highway, with no lights to identify it, the connoisseurs of the secret enter an unpaved road. A few minutes earlier they had called from their cell phone asking if there were any ripe papayas. They park in the middle of a banana grove and open the fuel cap.

In the middle of nowhere, a barefoot, shirtless man carries a plastic jerrycan and with the help of a funnel fills the gas tank of an unlicensed taxi, that runs between Cienfuegos and Havana. It all happens in silence, barely uttering a word.

The scene repeats at different points along Cuba’s roads. These “gas stations” are not announced in the yellow pages of the phone book, nor do they appear on the on-line ad site, Revolico. They are the clandestine suppliers of fuel that comes from the state warehouses, especially those dedicated to agricultural uses. continue reading

A liter of gas, which in an official establishment costs 1 Cuban convertible peso (roughly $1 US), here has a price of 15 Cuban pesos (CUP), some 40% less. The cheapest that can be found is 12 CUP, and, very exceptionally and only between friends, 10 CUP. Gone are the times when a liter could be had for 8. The rise in prices was due to a drastic reduction in the quotas the state delivers to farms and cooperatives after Venezuela reduced the supply of hydrocarbons it sends to the island.

The rise in prices was due to a drastic reduction in the quotas the state delivers to farms and cooperatives after Venezuela reduced the supply of hydrocarbons it sends to the island.

The so-called black gold has the power in this country to become even darker in the “irregular” market. In official events they have declared that there are municipalities where, for months, the state gas stations have not sold a single liter of fuel, even though private vehicles continue to circulate without serious problems.

In the middle of last year, the authorities imposed price caps for private transport in the capital and other areas of the city, but the drivers have found several tricks to evade the restrictions. A good part of them circulate with fuel bought in the informal market. If they had to buy their fuel at the state gas stations their fares would go through the room and be unaffordable to the passengers, but an invisible hand is in charge of getting around the government’s measures.

 

 

Guanabo, the new ‘Costa del Sol’ / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

House for sale in Guanabo, La Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 31 January 2017 – With an indigenous name and sands full of memories, Guanabo is the beach east of Havana that in recent months has experienced a quiet transformation. Many repatriated Cubans, foreign residents on the island, and local entrepreneurs have bought homes just a few yards from the sea to revive this Costa del Sol in decline.

José Antonio, 53, has his own real estate company, and operates under a self-employment license as a “manager of home buying and selling.” Despite the fact that the housing sector is going through complicated times due to the increase of official controls, Jose Antonio, who lived in Germany for a decade, has never known a better time.

“There is great demand in this area,” he told 14ymedio. In the 90’s he spent a vacation with his family in a wooden house very close to the sand. “I realized there was a lot of potential, because the owners did not have the money to repair their homes and create the international standards to rent them.” continue reading

Life in distant Europe helped this entrepreneur understand “what buyers are looking for”

The next thing Jose Antonio did was to begin the paperwork for repatriation, then he bought a house near the well-known Los Caballitos park and invested in it until it was “rental ready.” In those years it served as a bridge for European friends who wanted to spend long periods on the beach or buy the house of their dreams by the sea.

“When I decided to get into the real estate business, I already had a lot of contacts in the area and people trusted me.” This Monday, the real estate agent showed a couple, made up of a Havanan and a Milanese, a house overlooking the beach in the most commercial area of ​​Guanabo.

“Entryway, living room, dining room, one bathroom, two bedrooms, patio in front and behind for 70,000 dollars,” José Antonio explains. However, his most effective argument has nothing to do with square meters or technical conditions. “This is Cuba’s Gold Coast,” he assures clients. “Now is the time to buy at auction prices, later it will cost a fortune.”

Life in distant Europe helped this entrepreneur understand “what buyers are looking for.” Most of his clients are retired with contacts in the Island who want to buy through a national intermediary, a hazardous operation that often does not end well. “Life is risk and many are willing to venture,” says the agent.

But not everything is golden in Guanabo. The town is the Cinderella of the three most important beaches that make up the east coast of Havana

José Antonio has also had several clients of Cuban origin who returned to the country after the immigration reform of 2013. Cuba’s ambassador to Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, stated last November that from the beginning of 2015 until now, some 13,000 nationals with residency in the United States returned to the country.

For about $120,000 the real estate agent has just closed the sale of a property with swimming pool. The new owners have begun to restore it to settle in the Island with their respective pensions accumulated as migrants in Austria. “Such a house would have cost them a million in Europe or the United States,” says José Antonio.

But not everything is golden in Guanabo. The town is the Cinderella of the three most important beaches that make up the east coast of Havana. While Santa María shows its white sands and Boca Ciega maintains the blue of its waters, the town where José Antonio resides has deteriorated rapidly in recent years.

“At the end of the day most of them are looking for the sun and that’s what we have here, of the best quality”

“We residents are trying to unite to repair the sidewalks,” says Pepín, born in the town and who has never wanted to move to another place. Most of the streets in the town have not been repaired for decades and the sewage situation is catastrophic. The drainage of the urban area ends in the sea and mixes with the waters where bathers swim.

In some places the air stinks with the debris running through the trenches. “A few years ago this was a beach for families, especially with children, but now they prefer to go to other more beautiful areas,” adds Pepín.

However, for José Antonio this type of problems “is transitory.” In a few years and “when this is filled with people with money, families will invest in repairs,” he says. “In the end, most of them are looking for the sun, and that’s what we have here of the best quality, with no gaps.”

The Controller Uncovers a Rosary of Mismanagement / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The Controller General of the Republic, Gladys Bejerano Portela. (Networks)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 28 January 2017 — What Cuban has not diverted resources from his work place? Theft from the State together with administrative negligence and corruption are among the main problems detected by the most recent National Internal Audit concluded at the end of the year.

Between October 31 and December 9, 346 economic entities from all over the country, with the exception of Guantanamo, the province most affected by Hurricane Matthew, were inspected. The 11th edition of the exercise focused on the decentralization of administrative decision-making, non-agricultural cooperatives and the application of systems of payments for results. continue reading

Gladys Bejerano Portela stands out at the head of the process, the face of the Republic’s Controller General, created in 2009 by Raul Castro to deter administrative disorder. The official has become a nightmare for business administrators and managers, but her iron image does not seem to be enough to dissuade the corrupt.

For weeks the controller deployed an integrated exercise by hundreds of auditors, experts, students and university professors to find the holes through which resources leak. At the center of their focus were also the so-called idle inventories, vestiges of stagnation that cram warehouses or rot under the tropical sun.

Since the beginning of this year some local newspapers have begun publishing summaries of the most serious problems found by the audit, but the national report still has not been released. Presumably the entity will make an accounting before parliamentarians in the next session of the National Assembly.

In the Cienfuegos province, the Acopio Enterprise showed “serious irregularities in the area of accounting and in the management of resources, to the point that three suspected acts of criminality and corruption are under consideration,” asserted Elsa Puga Rochel, head controller in that central province.

In Matanzas alarms also sounded when auditors concluded that the results of the inspection “reflect a disfavorable situation” that is catalogued as a “setback” when compared to the same examination carried out in 2015.

In the Yumurino territory economic damage caused by the diversion of resources, administrative mismanagement, corruption and other economic ills are marked by “steady progress for the last five years,” according to Carmen Elsa Alfonso Aceguera, chief controller of the province.

In that province at least eight criminal acts were evident in four entities, and “operations of doubtful characteristics” also indicate four suspected acts of corruption in three of them: two in the Puntarenas-Caleta Hotel Complex, one in the Oasis-Canimao-Villa Artistic Complex and another in the Jovellanos Agricultural Products Marketer.

When auditors inspected the books of the Matanzas non-agricultural cooperatives they found “deficiencies in income and expense plans, problems with supplies and contracting with state entities.”

In the Pinar del Rio province, the Aqueduct and Sewage Company, the Electric Company, and the Pharmacy and Opticians stand out among the enterprises with the worst results. The chain of problems includes salary payments without corresponding productivity, aging accounts, and poorly performed inventories.

In five Villa Clara municipalities there were a whopping 325 economic deficiencies, and 30 disciplinary measures were applied. The controller general herself travelled there in order to warn local administrators that “internal control actions cannot be seen as something sporadic or the work of a day,” but must be taken on as “a form of human behavior that does not allow tolerance of the least neglect.”

In another of her interventions, in Holguin, the controller was blunt: “Without organization, discipline and control, it is impossible to achieve the prosperous and sustainable development that we have set out for ourselves.”

Raul Castro has been emphatic in suggesting that “without conformation to an environment of order, discipline and stringency in society, any result will be ephemeral.” The official press has also joined the battle against the diversion of resources, and in recent years it has published many reports about illegalities and corruption.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

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

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

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

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

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

The Melody of Money / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SNet, the biggest spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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