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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodyshop Workers: Artists with Metal and Torches / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Cuban mechanics working on a car. (File 14ymedio)
Cuban mechanics working on a car. (File 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcello Hernandez, 10 September 2016 – The noise drowns out all talking. There is hammering, the sound of metal being cut, and a polisher that buzzes relentlessly. In the bodyshop belonging to Manolo – called El Gordo, the Fat Guy – located in Santiago de las Vegas, Friday looks like any other day: it is full of cars needing a new fender, trunk or door. The recent authorization for the sale of industrial gases on a wholesale basis to the self-employed barely alters the routine at this hectic place.

Manolo has specialized in making parts for ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevrolets, but his workshop also attends to the “chariots of Real Socialism” as he ironically calls the Soviet-made Ladas and Moskvitches. Creating rear columns is his favorite work; three decades ago he graduated from a university specialty that he has never engaged in. continue reading

This metal artist assures 14ymedio the new commercial flexibility, focused on the activities of sheet metal work, blacksmithing and oxy-welding, “will change the current situation very little.”

“They have taken a long time to take this step, but at least it’s something,” he says.

The wholesale authorization began with the enactment of Resolution 335, of August 31, 2016, published in the Official Gazette No. 25. The move comes three years after chapistero – bodyshop worker – was approved as one of the forms of self-employment Cubans can engage in and for which they must obtain a license. During this time these “professionals of the torch” have had to continue paying retail prices or make their purchases on the informal market.

Since 2013, the retail sale of oxygen and acetylene has been approved in the TRD chains (TRD literally stands for “Hard Currency Collection Stores”), and in CIMEX stores (also State-owned), along with empty cylinders necessary to store these gases. Now the authorization also includes wholesale trade in nitrogen and argon.

However, Manolo says that “the cylinders are supposedly for sale in the hard currency stores,” but he has never been able to buy them there, because the supply is unstable and “they are always out of them.”

“It was much easier and cheaper to get it the under the table,” he explained to this newspaper. A practice common among all the bodyshops that abound across the country.

Three years ago the authorities explained that the decision to grant licenses for these and other trades was taken because they had created the conditions in the country to market “raw materials, equipment and other supplies in the store network and at specific points” but the delay in providing these resources has been a concern among those intended to benefit from the measure.

A few blocks from Manolo’s workshop is the competition. Augustine has a more modest shop with no signage, but as of a couple of years ago he has begun to carve out a loyal clientele. He cannot benefit from the new option buying his gas wholesale because he lives in Havana without the necessary permit to reside in the city, after migrating from his native Camagüey.

“Nobody knows what it costs to jump from rental to rental and the cost of renting a half-hidden place in the outback to work in the only thing I know how to do, bodywork on cars,” he explains.

Without a legal residence in the Cuban capital he can not even apply for a license to do bodywork. “Without that they’re not going to sell me so much as a match to light the wick, so I’ll have to keep paying 400 pesos for a couple of cylinders.”

He can’t even take advantage of the service that leases the empty cylinders on a monthly fee basis, nor can he contract with the state company to transport the cylinders to his bodyshop, two of the measures announced Friday, available to licensed individuals.

Augustine is concerned that the official information published by the newspaper Granma did not specify what the new “wholesale prices” will be in the “territorial units of the Industrial Gases Company.” Nor did it detail if the metal sheets of the different sizes needed to create body parts will also be offered.

“The biggest problem we have now is the tools,” complains the bodyshop worker. “They will sell the gas, but where are the shears, the presses, the good cutters, the bending and stamping machines that are lacking in any body shop?” he asks.

In the middle of Augustine’s workshop is a Chevrolet dismantled into pieces that he is beginning to restore to the gloss of yesteryear. “This is done with patience, this is a job that you must know how to wait for,” he says.

The “Comandante’s” Carnivals / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Floats being built for the “Comandante’s” carnivals. (14ymedio)
Floats being built for the “Comandante’s” carnivals. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 August 2016 – After weeks of anxieties and rumors, the Havana carnivals are starting tonight. A popular celebration whose date* has again been postponed this year to make it coincide with the eve of ex-president Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday.

For several days, the floats that will parade in front of the stands, bleachers and grandstands along Havana’s Malecon, have been under construction near the site. This Friday, the official newspaper Granma published a note with the names of the streets that will be closed and warned people not to “attend the festivities carrying glass containers, knives or fire.” continue reading

The choice of this day for the start of the carnival once again alters its date, which for decades had been moved from its traditional February. The first of these changes happened in 1970, when the celebrations were moved to coincide with the celebrations for July 26 (the date of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, that is considered the beginning of the Revolution), but over the years it has been postponed again and again.

The increasing scarcity of domestic beers in the retail market and the announcements of economic setback had made many fear that the festivities would not be celebrated in Havana. However, the worst fears have not been realized and now Havana residents say, half jokingly and half seriously: “These are the Comandante’s carnivals.”

Travel, Whatever the Cost / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The "last minute" terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)
The “last minute” terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 July 2016 – “Give me the suitcase, I’m off to the countryside,” says the chorus of a tune that gets more popular during the school holidays. Many families visit their relatives in rural areas, travel to tourist destinations in other provinces, or spend some days camping far from home. Interprovincial transport collapses with the high demand in July and August, while customers’ criticisms also intensify.

Under a roof of metal tiles that converts the place into a free sauna, hundreds of people are waiting this weekend to travel “last minute” or “on the waiting list” from the terminal on Puerto Avenue in Old Havana. Some of them no longer remember when they got there, because the hours have passed one after another, without hearing the good news that their number in line can board the next bus. continue reading

The expansive hall is a place where people spend a lot of time. Friendships are created there, some play cards and others take advantage of no one looking to have a sip of alcohol to help them forget the fatigue. The most impatient end up paying a private car to take them to their destination at ten times the price of the official ticket.

Iliana has worked there since they opened the new “last minute” terminal and knows that in these summer months the provinces most in demand are those in the east of the country. A situation that is repeated “at the end and beginning of the year, on some special dates such as Mother’s Day, school holiday weeks and summers.”

Near Iliana a woman dozes on a suitcase, a little boy cries because he’s hot and a furtive peanut seller manages to sell some of his merchandise. All are attentive to the monitors that announce the numbers on the waiting list that can board the next bus, but for several hours no vehicle “has seats.”

A murmur of discontent spreads among the passengers with the first numbers on the list of routes that are longest, to the east of the island. “That’s because the drivers themselves and the conductors resell free spaces before they get here,” complains a father with three kids.

The man asserts that the buses leave from the central Astro terminal, near the Plaza of the Revolution, and between there and the waiting list terminal
“the employees themselves sell the unoccupied seats, arriving at the terminal with only one or two, to be consistent with the formalities.” No other passengers join in the customer’s outraged complaint, some look at the floor and others fan themselves mechanically, their eyes glazed over.

The most prudent travelers are not at this location. They bought their tickets three months ago from the state interprovincial bus system, but such a decision takes a lot of forethought and quite a bit of risk. “I just had to be sure of getting to Morón after my wife confirmed she’d have a vacation from work,” said Raudel, who is from Ciego de Avila but has been living in Havana for the last two decades and this weekend is waiting at the “last minute” station.

Two young men in a corner of the hall decide not to wait any longer. “I’ll buy the ticket outside, because I have to be at my sister’s wedding in Palmarito del Cauto and if I don’t leave now I won’t get there in time,“ one of them tells several customers who are seated nearby. The young man will add to the 169 peso coast of a Santiago de Cuba some 15 convertible pesos – for a total of more than three times the official price – to get there.

“It won’t fail me,” he says, and he notes a connoisseur of the “mechanism” that makes things appear even when the blackboard says they’re out. “I pay and I get on the bus a few blocks from here,” he explains. “No one sees me and it’s just an agreement between the driver and me.”

Some have listened to the call to be careful. “The inspectors are everywhere,” warns a woman heading to Trinidad. There is a lot of surveillance, but it doesn’t fix the problems with transport, what they have to do is import more cars and lower the prices of the tickets which are too high,” she says.

In the recently concluded session of the National Assembly, the deputies criticized the constant violations in the itineraries in urban and interprovincial transport in the country. Also figuring into the debate were the corruption in the sale of tickets at some terminals, irregularities in the vehicle control stations, and the poor maintenance of the roads.

The deputies also mentioned the lack of comfort in the Yutong buses – from China – which operate on the interprovincial routes of the state company Astro, the lack of information for travelers, the disconnect between ticket prices and service, the overuse of the equipment and the poor cleaning standards. But this is only a distant echo for travelers who, lately, suffer firsthand the rigors of getting around the island.

Night begins to fall in the “last minute” terminal and some get comfortable in a corner planning to sleep on their luggage. “I do this twice a month, so this place is like my second home,” says a young woman who studies at the Higher Institute of Art. The rain sounds on the metal tiles and the loudspeaker emits the lucky numbers of those who will take the next bus.

Selling the Fruit of an Avocado Bush / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The price an avocado in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, the salary of an entire working day. (14ymedio)
The price an avocado in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, the salary of an entire working day. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 30 June 2016 — He had tried everything: He sold the old family dishes, pawned his grandfather’s possessions and began renting an area in his house for parties. However, his retirement pension wasn’t enough to support Miguel Angel Garrido, known as “Gelmo,” a resident of Havana’s Calabazar neighborhood. And so it was, until one day he realized he had a treasure in his yard: an enormous clump of avocado that, every season, was covered with hundreds of the delicious fruit.

Gelmo sold the splendid tree to two pushcart vendors. He didn’t have to transplant it or move it to another place, but all the avocados will be placed in the hands of the two vendors of agricultural products. The transaction generated 200 Cuban convertible pesos for the retiree, along the phrase, “Old man, when you want you can eat an avocado, because at the end of the day, the shrub is yours,” offered by one of the buyers with a certain tone of pity. continue reading

The price of this food in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, a day’s pay for a laborer, so everyone wins in this transaction, especially at this time when the increase in foreign tourists has unleashed a fury of avocado consumption in hotels, private restaurants, and homes rented to travelers.

Gelmo’s avocado bush is the most desirable kind, a Catalina. Although it is “middle aged” it is fully productive. The hardest thing has been to protect it from the winds of hurricanes, because the trunk is of an almost glassy wood, which cracks easily in strong gusts. The rest is up to nature because “it grows like crazy” says the proud owner, who believes that the best investment he’s made in his life is “planting this blessed tree.”

The old man nervously awaited the first rains of the summer. “Until the water touches it, it does nothing,” he says. The rainfall in early June helped out, and now in the middle of his yard are the branches bursting with this fruit which is used in salads and is gaining adherents among those who cannot eat butter because of the cholesterol, and is also in demand in beauty salons to make skin masks.

Gelmo guards the fruit hanging from sturdy branches now, to ensure that it is not plundered by the neighborhood kids, or doesn’t end up falling to the ground as food for the pigs he also keeps in the yard. Every single one of these costly fruits that the pushcart vendors manage to sell will be one more step to selling, again next year, his avocados.