"Mariela Castro Is Our Friend But That Does Not Make Our Church Communist"

Mariela Castro (left) and her husband, Italian Paolo Titolo (right), at a ceremony of the Metropolitan Christian Church in Cuba. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 17 May 2018 — The presence of Mariela Castro blessing LGBT couples on Saturday draped in a Christian stole, on the day against homophobia and transphobia in Cuba, has generated scorn among some Cuban believers. In recent days the press has focused on a new church established on the island with an inclusive agenda and the help of the National Center of Sex Education (Cenesex), led by the daughter of former president Raul Castro.

“Seeing the image of Fidel Castro presiding over a celebration of the rights of the LGBTI community and the believers of a Christian Church supporting him is a bit strong,” says the missionary pastor of the Lutheran Church, Ignacio Estrada, from Miami.

“Is it a mockery or a usurpation? The stole is a symbol of Christ’s authority, Mariela Castro should not wear it,” he says. The church the sexologist is pledged to is the Metropolitan Community Church  (MCC). For Estrada it is a mistake to mix politics with religion. continue reading

The MCC defines itself as a Church with a positive and inclusive message towards the LGBTI community. It also favors ecumenism (the unity of Christians) and is liberal in nature.

Since it was established on the Island in 2016, the MCC has been linked to Cenesex and it is common to see Mariela Castro participate in its ceremonies, impart blessings and encourage LGBTI couples.

A representative of the MCC board of directors in Cuba, who agreed to speak with this newspaper on condition of anonymity, denied that his congregation is trying to mix politics and religion.

“We understand our mission in Cuba and for Cuba, we work alongside those institutions that share our same vision, Cenesex is one of them, and is the one that has most supported us in our work, especially in the person of Mariela Castro, who is a faithful sympathizer of our church,” he said.

The pastor recognizes that they are sending a political message when they participate in governmental activities, but emphasizes that his main intention is to signal that a church “whose voice is dissident to the rest of the churches” is present in the country.

“There is a church in Cuba where the LGBTI community is accepted completely without limitations or conditions, because God loves us radically. Mariela is a deputy [in parliament], Raul’s daughter, our friend and obviously revolutionary but that does not make our church communist,” he added.

The pastor justified Castro’s use of liturgical ornament: “Many see her as a pastor for the LGBTI community, she uses that symbol not from a religious point of view, but as a symbol of a pastor, a companion, a protector,” he said.

The MCC, founded in 1968 in the United States, has more than 400 communities around the world. In Cuba it has around 100 faithful, but in just two years it already has three communities, in Matanzas, Santa Clara and Havana.

In 2016, the Institute of Global Justice of the Metropolitan Community Church awarded Mariela Castro the Be Justice award and the following year Castro responded by giving MCC founder Troy Perry the highest award granted by Cenesex.

Both Perry and the Rev. Héctor Gutiérrez, a Mexican bishop responsible for MCC in Cuba, have been in Havana. Mariela Castro and her husband, the Italian Paolo Titolo, witnessed the renewal of Gutiérrez’s marriage vows.

For Yadiel Hernández, a member of the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, relations between the Cenesex and the Metropolitan Community Church are “a business.”

“The MCC needs Cenesex and Mariela Castro because under the auspices of that institution they have grown in the country and at the same time Mariela Castro and Cenesex use the Church to promote their agenda,” he says and believes that if the MCC were to criticize the Government it would lose “its official favor.”

The MCC is not recognized by the Council of Churches of Cuba or by the office of the Communist Party charged with regulating the presence of religious organizations on the island. However, unlike other religious organizations born in recent years, it has not been persecuted, something that Hernandez attributes to its relationship with the daughter of the former president.

According to the World Christian Solidarity organization, the violations of religious and worship rights in Cuba increased in 2017 and there are churches that have been asking for official recognition for more than two decades, which forces them to meet clandestinely and be subject to searches by the authorities.

“The Church [i.e. the Christian churches] in Cuba is in a moment of expansion, many congregations from different parts of the world are arriving and some of them have a lot of money and seek support from institutions in the country,” says Hernandez.

Victor M. Dueñas, one of the activists who launched the We Also Love campaign in 2015 in favor of gay marriage in Cuba, does not believe in Mariela Castro’s “good intentions” in support of the LGBTI community nor in her adherence to the MCC.

“It is a betrayal of the Christian communities,” says the Presbyterian, who supports “an inclusive Church” but is outraged to see “the political agendas that can eclipse the Christian message.”

Dueñas, who along with a hundred Cubans asked for asylum at a Dutch airport last January, says Mariela Castro could do much more for the LGBTI community.

“We have been waiting ten years for the constitutional reform in which Mariela Castro has promised to try to include homosexual marriage, and in 2015, when other activists launched a campaign to promote it, she refused to support us,” he says.

The former president’s daughter has rejected that the objective of the Cuban Government should be the enactment of equal marriage and has indicated that socialism can not seek the “the simplest solution that appears nor repeat what others do.”

“In Cuba, laws are needed to protect LGBTI people so that they are not discriminated against, it is necessary to recognize police violence and take measures to prevent it, and projects that are independent of the State that defend LGBT rights, that they don’t hijack their discourse.”

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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.

"Deserter" Doctors Call a Demonstration Against Ban on Returning to Cuba

Cuban doctors in Colombia. (File EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 11 May 2018 — Two associations of health professionals from Cuba have called a demonstration for Saturday to be held in different cities around the world to demand that the Cuban government allow them to return to the island to visit their relatives. The organizers of the marches will protest against the ban on their returning to Cuba for eight years, which has been imposed by Havana on those who left medical missions abroad without permission.

“We want our demonstration to coincide with the celebration of Mothers Day so that the world can see how unfair it is that regime does not allow us to return to our own country to embrace our relatives,” the Cuban doctor Paloma Nora, now living in South Florida, explains by phone.

The Association of Free Cuban Residents in Brazil and #NoSomosDesertores #SomosCubanosLibres (We Are Not Deserters, We Are Free Cubans), whose members include thousands of Cuban doctors, have decided to hold this demonstration to put pressure on the new Cuban government to eliminate the regulation. continue reading

Cuba continues to deploy its medical personnel in 62 countries and does not provide data on the number of health professionals outside its borders, although in 2015 the number exceeded 50,000, according to the official press.

The most recent statistics, published on the Cubadebate site, reported that the export of services is the largest contributor to the national economy, bringing in “an estimated 11.5 billion dollars as an annual average between 2011 and 2015,” according to the former minister of Cuban Economy José Luis Rodríguez, although the figure has fallen approximately 20% in the last two years, due to the crisis in Venezuela.

Several human rights organizations have denounced the working conditions of Cuban professionals as “modern slavery.” The Cuban government keeps more than half of the salaries paid by the countries around the world where Cuban medical providers work. The Cuban government pays for shared accommodations, some food, and airline tickets in most cases, along with a small stipend.

If the doctors leave their positions under the control of the Cuban state, it classifies them as “deserters” and they are forbidden to return to Cuba for eight years. The same conditions are applied to athletes, teachers and musicians.

“We are an Independent Organization of Free Cubans residing in Brazil, fighting for our rights,” said Yuleidis Legrá, a Cuban doctor who left the official mission.

“I prefer to be a foreigner in other countries to being one in mine, I will never debase my soul by asking permission to leave, much less to enter my country,” he adds, paraphrasing José Martí.

The group #NoSomosDesertores #SomosCubanosLibres has been carrying out a Campaign for Family Unity for months, asking Havana for the chance to return.

In 2015, the Cuban government called for the return of health professionals who had taken part in United States’ Cuban Professional Parole program which was created to assist doctors who were escaping from missions. While the Parole program was in force, at least 8,000 professionals traveled to the United States between 2006 and 2017.

The Ministry of Public Health allows professionals to return to the island on the condition that they work in the national health system, with salaries between 60 and 80 dollars per month. The punishment for those who want to visit their relatives continues in force for those who refuse to return to live on the Island.

The lawyer André De Santana Correa, who represents 80 doctors on the island who left the Mais Medicos program in Brazil, says that the objective of the demonstration is to achieve “equal treatment for all doctors who participate in that program.”

The Mais Medico program was established in 2013 by President Dilma Rousseff with more than 11,000 professionals from the island; under the program the Cuban government keeps 70% of the salaries assigned to doctors.

“We want them to permit the possibility of re-contracting until 2019, which is only withheld from Cuban doctors,” says De Santana, who compares Cuban physicians with those of other countries participating in the healthcare program.

“How is it possible that a doctor who tried to visit his daughter hospitalized on the island is deported to Miami?” he says, outraged. “We are fighting to bring down the Berlin wall that exists in Cuba.”

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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.

Cubans Lose Sleep Over Getting Cell Phone Service from Etecsa

Lines at the Cubacel office of the Holguin Business Center for the promotion ‘If you activate, you earn 30’. (Leonardo del Valle)

14ymedio biggerLeonardo del Valle / Mario J. Pentón, Holguín/ Miami , 24 April 2018 — The tumult in front of the offices of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba in Holguin is a sign of something good and the people in line know it.

“I have been waiting more than three years for the promotion If you activate, you earn 30. If this weren’t the case, I would never have been able to contract for the line I need so much to communicate with my sister who lives in Miami,” Onilda Peña Pérez, 71, tells 14ymedio.

A decade ago, Raul Castro authorized Cubans to contract for mobile phone lines, but the market has not been normalized. The lines that form each time Etecsa launches an offer have more to do with the commotion generated by an innovative product than with a service associated with an article that millions of people already enjoy. continue reading

The answer to this behavior lies in the high prices Etecsa’s customers must face. The phone and Internet monopoy on the Island charges 40 CUC for the activation of a cellular line and 0.35 CUC for a minute of conversation, so that an offer to receive 30 CUC of recharge for registering a number at the same price has overwhelmed the company’s points of sale.

“I have been dealing with the line for almost a week, from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening, do you think that at my age and with my heart disease I can handle this mess?” Laments Onilda Pérez.

From the moment the telecommunications monopoly announced this promotion, that had not been offered for three years, hundreds of people began to make lists, to sleep outdoors and pay up to 10 CUC to others to stand in line for them.

The shortage of offices is no help in easing the madness that occurs with each promotion.

In Holguin, Etecsa allocated three offices to market the offer, which is in effect between the 9th and 13th of this month: the commercial office, the Telepunto located in front of the Calixto García park and the business center. This number is clearly insufficient for one of the provinces with the greatest trade in and demand for mobile phones, an Etecsa worker told 14ymedio.

Even though speaking for one minute via cell phone costs 280 times more than the same length of call from a landline, during the promotion period If you activate, you earn 30, the local Etecsa subdivision sold 33,000 lines.

“Today Holguin is, after Havana, the province where more mobile lines are activated, we have a total of 365,000 mobile lines, that is, four out of ten Holguineros has one and we are the third province by number of lines,” said an official.

Despite the good sales results, the conditions in which Etecsa agents work “are terrible,” according to the worker.

“Since 2014, the commercial deputy director of the company, Darquiris Sánchez Castro, has said that they were evaluating having the company occupy the dilapidated building of the Municipal Court of Holguín.” Four years later, the store continues to fall apart, while we work in overcrowded conditions,” she protests.

That’s another problem. In addition to being few, the facilities also lack the minimal comforts for the employees who spend their hours there. In addition, only a limited number of people at a time are allowed inside the premises, so the lines fill the portals outside, the sidewalks and even the street itself, with customers exposed to inclement weather.

Users also complain about the proliferation of fraudsters who try to take advantage of the circumstance, leading to cases of resellers in the line charging 45 CUC or scammers who fled after charging 35 CUC in exchange for offering access without standing in line.

“I think they could look for other alternatives to avoid tumults and scams like those that have occurred,” says Mario Rodríguez, a self-employed worker in the area who takes advantage of the opportunity to complain about the recharge promotions from abroad that, in his judgment, only serve to capture foreign currency without thinking about the domestic customer.

The use of cell phones for Cubans was authorized on April 14, 2008, in the midst of the first Raulist reforms to eliminate “absurd prohibitions.” As of 1993, only foreigners had been allowed to contract for mobile phone lines prohibitive prices ($140 per line).

The prices far exceed the official average salary that barely reaches 29.5 CUC per month (roughly the same in dollars), but Cubans are doing everything they can to get the money to get a line.

“The main problem for people is the price of the lines and the phones themselves, the equipment is very expensive from Etecsa and if you buy it from the outside you can end up with a cell phone with a false imei code and you lose your money,” says Rosa María Silva, an Etesca customer, in a telephone conversation from Cienfuegos.

The number of cell lines has grown exponentially. This year the country reached five million active lines, covering 43% of the country’s inhabitants. However, the country continues to lag behind Latin America, where the penetration of mobile phones reaches 65%.

The prices of the cell phones for sale from Etecsa are high, especially when compared to the cost of these devices in the informal market, fed by gifts from relatives who have emigrated to the United States.

A Samsung Galaxy J7 smartphone, valued at 129 dollars in the United States, costs 295 CUC in Cuba. An Alcatel Idol-3 brand phone, which can be purchased for $100 on the international market, is sold by the Cuban telecommunications monopoly for 280 CUC.

Etecsa also offers cheaper phones, such as the Huawei Y360-U31, valued at 70 CUC (In the international market it can be found for 56 dollars) and the Huawei Ascend Y-221, at 45 CUC. “Sometimes there are some phones available at 30 CUC, but then you have to go back to standing in these giant lines because people go out en masse to buy them,” Silva says sadly.

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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.

Diaz-Canel’s Arrival Generates Much Skepticism and a Bit of Hope in Miami

Dozens of people demonstrate with posters and Cuban flags, in the heart of Little Havana, in the city of Miami. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, 19 April 2018 — In the city with the largest Cuban population after Havana, the appointment last Thursday of Miguel Díaz-Canel as president of Cuba took no one by surprise. As the only candidate for president just the day before, the 58-year-old electrical engineer is hardly unknown in Miami.

“I don’t care who rules Cuba. The place is a total mess. That’s why I left,” says Elaine García, a 35-year-old Cuban woman who works as a salesperson at a bakery on Okeechobee Road in Hialeah. She arrived from Cuba five years ago and, though she says she maintains her ties to her family on the island, she prefers not to get involved in “politics.” continue reading

Díaz-Canel took office without generating large public demonstrations in southern Florida, though there has been a wave of criticism from politicians, activists and non-governmental organizations.

One such organization is Raíces de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), which sponsors programs to support young people on the island. It issued a statement saying it is “hopeful” about the change of leadership in Cuba.

“We believe that today’s transfer of power represents an opportunity for a new generation of Cuban leaders to take concrete measures to promote significant economic prosperity and political reforms on the island,” it says, asking the country’s new chief executive to listen to “Cuba’s youth, from its businesspeople and civil society leaders to artists and students.”

For Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of Movimiento Democracia, what happened last week in Havana “is an undemocratic handover that should not be recognized by the international community.”

Sánchez told 14ymedio that he called upon Cuban exiles to demonstrate in front of the legendary Versailles restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana to “condemn the illegitimate transfer of power.”

“I listened to Díaz-Canel’s speach. I would have liked hear a reformist but that was not the case. It was a speech by yet another establishment figure who will not help Cubans obtain their freedom,” he said. He does, however, hold out hope that the situation could change after “the inevitable biological event.”

Activist Rosa María Payá — leader of Cuba Decides, a campaign to hold a binding referendum on a democratic transition in Cuba — accused the government of “disguising its despotism by designating heirs.”

“An heir acting as a front-man for the Castros is not change. Change comes when Cubans can participate and change the system through referendum,” tweeted Payá, who has been the target of a smear campaign by the official press for her recent participation in the Summit of the Americas in Peru.

“The percentages are a sign of totalitarian conformity and the complete absence of democratic engagement in the National Assembly. With a ridiculous 99.83% of the votes going to Raúl Castro’s man, he is now the designated president,” she added.

Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also used the social network to say that it does not matter who governs the island because “Cubans continue to suffer and their basic human rights are denied under a totalitarian communist system.”

“The sham transition of power in Cuba does not change the reality of the island’s people or bring them any closer to freedom. Power remains in the hands of Castro’s murderous communist regime,” she said in another Spanish-language tweet.

The prominent anti-Castro congresswoman will retire from the US House of Representatives after a political career spanning thirty-eight years. Ros-Lehtinen has historically been one of the most vocal critics of the Castro government.

Archivo Cuba, an NGO which compiles personal accounts and statistics related to violations of human rights on the island, issued a statement saying that the new government “is a transfer of power in name only, a nominal change within a totalitarian system that continues to carry out serious abuses against Cuban citizens and to ignore their fundamental rights.”

Senator Marco Rubio said in an interview with El Nuevo Herald that he hopes that the community  of Latin American countries does not recognize the “fraudulent” succession which has taken place on the island.

“We will see if an organization that was created to defend democracy is ready or not to criticize something that is not democratic. I hope there is a vote on this as soon as possible,” said Rubio in a reference to the Organization of American States.

For his part, the Cuban-American congressman Mario Díaz-Balart recalled Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, president from 1959 until 1976, the year current socialist constitution was adopted and the office of president was eliminated. During his tenure as head of the government, he had to deal with the constant presence of Fidel Castro as prime minister. Dorticós committed suicide in 1983.

“Just as Fidel Castro made Osvaldo Dorticós president until 1976, Raúl Castro has made Miguel Díaz-Canel president of the Council of Ministers and Council of State. Another Castro puppet,” says Díaz-Balart.

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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.

What Has and Has Not Changed in Cuba Since Raul Casto Came to Power

Raúl Castro leaves to his successor some of the promised changes that he never made, including the constitutional reform and a new electoral law. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón/Reporting Team, Miami, 17 April 2018 — On the last day of July 2006 Cuba’s prime time news program broke with its usual monotony. Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel Castro’s chief of staff, announced to Cuba and the world that the hitherto invincible Commander-in-Chief had temporarily ceded power, after suffering intestinal bleeding. Raúl Castro, his younger brother, took the reins of the Island.

Two years later, as a surprise to no one, the second Castro was elected by Parliament to the presidency of the Council of State and undertook a series of reforms to the socialist model to “make it sustainable.” Today 14ymedio presents an assessment of what happened in the “Raulista era,” a decade of very limited advances and of stagnation:

1. The battle against “absurd prohibitions”

On arriving in power, the general presented himself as pragmatic and promised to end the “absurd prohibitions.” In March 2008, he allowed Cubans to stay in hotels, restricted, until then, to international tourists. That same year the limitations were ended on Cubans contracting for cellphone service and buying computers and DVD players. continue reading

2. Leasing of idle lands to farmers

In 2008, the Government authorized the delivery of idle state lands to farmers and cooperatives under a form of limited term leases known as usufruct. More than 50% of the country’s arable land was not in productive use and, even today, Cuba spends more than one billion dollars a year on imported food for the “basic market basket.” A decade later the results have been mediocre due to the lack of equipment and necessary inputs, such as seeds and fertilizer, and excessive controls on the marketing of crops.

3. Expansion of the private sector

In 2010, Castro gave a boost to self-employment and expanded the list of occupations that could be practiced outside the state sector. However, large sectors of the economy, including the exercise of professions, remain reserved to the State. The flexibilizations promoted, in particular, renting rooms to tourists, food services and passenger transportation. At present, the number of private workers exceeds half a million, but the absence of a wholesale market, high taxes and the prohibition of importing products hampers the development of this type of work.

 4. Cubans embark on the internet

Until 2009, only a small fraction of the population, in addition to tourists, had the privilege of surfing the internet on the island. In 2013, the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) installed the first wifi browsing areas, with prohibitive prices and with dozens of censored sites. Today there are 635 of these wireless areas on the island and the cost of one hour of access is 1 CUC (the equivalent of about a day’s wages). A year ago the state monopoly took web browsing to some homes, but Cubans still wait for internet access from cellphones and the unblocking of censored sites, which include this newspaper.

5. So long to the “gratuities”

Raúl Castro undertook a campaign against “gratuities,” or perks, which he blamed on the legacy of Soviet paternalism. Under his mandate he reformed the Social Security Law and raised the age of retirement by five years, to 60 years for women and 65 years for men. In addition, he cut the number of pensioners and eliminated a good part of the additional perks, such as beach house vacations and the routinely handed out bags of food and toiletries that thousands of state employees received.

The First chart below compares the proportion of the population that is age 60 and older projected out to 2050 among a group of Latin American countries; only Barbados is projected to have a population older than Cuba’s. The second chart reports past data and future projections for the total population of Cuba between 1950 and 2050.

6. Cuts in health and education

The number of hospitals has fallen by 32% in the last decade and the medical staff in family clinics barely fill 40% of the positions. These cuts are more alarming given that 20% of the population exceeds 60 years of age and the population is one of the oldest in the Americas.

The chart below shows the total number of schools in Cuba under Raul Castro’s government, between 2009 and 2016.

Raúl Castro eliminated the program of boarding schools in the countryside for high school students, one of the “jewels of the crown” under Fidelismo. During his term he has had to deal with the deficit of teachers that at the beginning of the school year 2017-2018 amounted to 16,000 vacancies. Enrollment decreased by 32% in high schools and even more in university education, which registered a fall of 78%. Many young people do not want to continue studying for careers that offer them miserable salaries. Furthermore, certain professions, such as the medical field, have come with restrictions on the ability to freely leave the country.

The first chart below shows the number of schools in Cuba and the second the number of classroom teachers in Cuba between 2006 and 2016, based on statistics collected by the Cuban government.

7. The ration book survives

Since 1961 Cubans have a ration card that gives each citizen a minimum quota of products subsidized by the State. Every year the Government allocates some two billion dollars to a bureaucratic structure that distributes products ranging from a piece of daily bread to rice, beans, sugar, salt and coffee.

One of the most emblematic promises of Raulism was to eliminate the ration book, but it never came to fruition. Although the rationed distribution system has fewer and fewer products, a good part of the population depends on this support to survive due to low wages, with salaries averaging about $29 per month. Today, the real purchasing power of Cubans is just 51.1% of what it was at the end of the 1980s, before the end of the so-called Special Period in a Time of Peace — the devastating aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its economic support for Cuba.

8. The lifting of the prohibition on the sale of houses and cars 

For decades in Cuba, the sale of houses was forbidden, private construction was limited and the ability to rent out one’s dwelling was suppressed. In 2011 Raúl Castro surprised the nation with one of his most important social measures: opening the real estate market, an important step in a country with 3,824,000 houses, of which 39% are in a regular or bad state, according to the 2012 census.

Three years later, the authorization to sell vehicles to private individuals was achieved, a privilege reserved up until then to government leaders and Party members. Although the second-hand private vehicle market has behaved with great dynamism, sales by state dealerships has not been successful due to the high prices. A Cuban living only from their official salary needs to work 189 years to buy a 2006 Audi from an official dealership, which would be priced at 70,000 dollars.

9. The end of the exit permit

In January 2013, Castro eliminated the so-called “white card,” the permit required to leave the country, and allowed nationals to travel freely. Since then more than 779,000 Cubans have gone on a trip, 79% of them for the first time, according to official figures. The elimination of obstacles to leaving the Island led to a new migration crisis and in seven years, until the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy in 2017, the United States welcomed more than 235,000 Cubans.

The authorities, nevertheless, continue to refuse to allow Cubans residing abroad who have been publicly critical of the government to visit the island. In addition, hundreds of activists and leaders of the opposition have been blocked from abroad; the government advises them that they are “regulated,” as a reason to deny them the right to leave.

The chart below shows Cuban emigration to the United States between 2010 and 2016. The orange line is the figure of Cubans admitted to the United States according to the US Department of Homeland Security, and the grey line is the number of Cuban emigrants according to the Cuban government.

10. Institutionality

Raúl Castro’s two terms as president have been characterized by a greater institutionality. After almost half a century of Fidelista voluntarism — the idea that willpower alone can overcome social and economic challenges — the youngest of the brothers tried to strengthen the Council of Ministers, which now meets more frequently.

After a gap, under Fidel Castro, of 14 years without a Congress of the Communist Party, the only legal party in Cuba, under Raul the 6th and 7th Congresses were held. In these meetings the so-called Guidelines were approved, a road map to dismantle the structure of the Soviet system and open the economy to foreign capital, tourism and the replacement of imported products for those of national origin.

11. Restoration of relations with the United States

After more than five decades of enmity, the Cuban and American governments astonished the world on 17 December 2014 by announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations. The US president, Barack Obama, returned three spies imprisoned in his country to Havana and Castro did the same with two American prisoners. The Catholic Church, at the initiative of Pope Francis, played a central role in the secret conversations between the nations that led to the thaw.

Obama relaxed the embargo against the island, which allowed a notable increase in the number of Americans and Cuban Americans visiting Cuba. Flights between both countries and direct postal service were also resumed. Remittances from Cubans abroad to families on the island, one of the fundamental pillars of the Cuban economy, have grown to 3.444 billion dollars in 2017.

12. Renegotiation and forgiveness of external debt 

Between 2013 and 2016, Cuba renegotiated its old external debt, which had been unpaid since Fidel Castro urged developing countries to put aside their credit obligations in the 1980s. Raúl Castro managed to cancel 90% of the debt that Cuba had taken on during time of the Soviet Union and still owed to Russia.

After one negotiation, the debt of 8.5 billion dollars owed to the Paris Club was reduced to 2.6 billion payable in 18 years. Mexico forgave 70% of the 487 million dollars it had lent to the Island and in 2014 Japan forgave almost one billion dollars of an old debt. Vietnam and China also part of the debt owed to them, but some amounts have not been set aside.

13. Monetary unification, a pending issue

With the opening to tourism and the Soviet collapse Cuba created a new, second, currency that within the Island has parity with the dollar: the convertible peso (CUC), which coexists with the Cuban peso (CUP). One CUC is worth 25 CUP. Since his arrival to power, Raul Castro has tried to unify the currencies because of the economic distortions that they cause, especially in the state business sector, which benefits from an unrealistic exchange rate.

The government announced that the currency that will survive is the Cuban peso (CUP), but until now the exact date for monetary unification is not known nor what the exchange rate will be relative to the dollar once there is only one currency.

14. The country does not attract enough foreign investment or grow at an adequate pace

Cuba needs an injection of capital of at least 2.5 billion dollars every year, and growth at a sustained rate of more than 4% of GDP, according to some economists. Ten years after assuming the presidency, Raúl Castro leaves the country without achieving these minimums. The mega-project at the Port of Mariel, in which Brazil invested more than 600 million dollars, has been slow to develop. The country has also developed various catalogs of opportunities to encourage foreign investment but without much success.

Under Raúl Castro’s presidency, Cuba grew 2.4% as an annual average, according to official figures. The average monthly salary has also been raised from 414 (16.5 dollars) to 740 pesos (29.6 dollars), although the purchasing power of Cubans is still lower than it was in 1989. The Government announced a growth of 1.5% of GDP in 2018, but most scholars of the Cuban economy without links to the government do not believe that figure.

15. Raúl Castro before the death of his brother and the Venezuelan setback

On the night of 25 November 2016, on a national television broadcast, Raúl Castro announced the death of his brother, who had ruled Cuba’s destiny for almost 50 years. Although Fidel Castro had been away from power for a decade, he continued to actively comment on national and international politics in articles called ’Reflections’ that were published the few pages of the official newspapers.

The death of Fidel Castro coincided with the end of leftist movements and governments in the region that proliferated under the umbrella of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez (1954-2003), often at the expense of Venezuela’s oil bill. The political turns in Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay have left only Nicolás Maduro, Havana’s main ally, and the crisis that Venezuela is going through has destroyed commercial relations between both countries. Shipments of oil from Venezuela to Cuba, one of the island’s largest sources of aid, have fallen from 100,000 barrels a day to less than 40,000 according to Reuters, forcing the island to look for other fuel suppliers.

The chart below shows Cuban trade with Venezuela between 2010 and 2015. The blue bars are commercial trade with Venezuela. The green line is Cuban exports to Venezuela. The red line is Cuban imports from Venezuela.

16. Critical changes, pending

At the beginning of 2015, Raúl Castro promised a new Electoral Law (the current one dates from 1992), but this reform did not materialize during his term. Something similar happened with the constitutional reform that has been expected for more than five years. The new constitution being prepared will maintain the role of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as “leader in Cuban society” and socialism will continue to be “irrevocable,” according to a recent plenary session of the party.

17. Repression against dissidents and opposition leaders continues

Arbitrary arrests, confiscation of the means of work, and permanent destruction of the reputation of activists and opponents continued in the Raulist era. Since 2010, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation has recorded at least 52,829 people temporarily detained or prosecuted for political reasons. The number of political prisoners in the country exceeds one hundred.

State Security has also used technologies as a repressive weapon to monitor the whereabouts of dissidents, block their mobile phone lines or create digital sites to defame independent projects.

18. No progress in civil rights

Since the enactment of the 1976 Socialist Constitution until today, most of the civil rights of Cubans remain violated. Freedom of expression, press, assembly, demonstration and association are all subordinated to “the aims of the Socialist State,” which in practice limits them. In Cuba, political parties are forbidden and candidates for the Assemblies of Peoples Power are not allowed to campaign or to propose their programs for the country.

Thanks to new technologies, independent digital spaces have emerged from the Island, such as Periodismo de Barrio, El Toque, El Estornudo and 14ymedio, but the government does not recognize press freedom and repressive forces often arrest and threaten journalists. Many websites critical of the system remain blocked on national servers.

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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.

Recipes to Reconstruct a Country in Ruins

Buildings in Cuba, like this one in Havana, have routinely been allowed to collapse, during decades of state control of the economy.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, Miami, 20 April 2018 — The almost unanimous support received in Parliament by Miguel Diaz-Canel, who assumed his duties as head of state on Wednesday, has not been accompanied by a concrete commitment to rebuild the country left in ruins by almost six decades of state control of the economy under the directions of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

With a stagnant economy dependent on Venezuelan oil, and a Soviet-style state apparatus that consumes the nation’s scarce resources, the new president faces a monumental challenge: to continue and deepen the economic reforms undertaken by Raúl Castro and to avoid the floundering of the political system, as several experts explained to 14ymedio. continue reading

“Miguel Diaz-Canel’s biggest challenge is to direct the economy along the path of economic growth,” says Emilio Morales, president of Havana Consulting Group, based in Miami.

Díaz-Canel, who will turn 58 this Friday, received power from Raúl Castro after a decade of slow reforms and must “rekindle the thaw with the United States,” he adds. Morales sees as the main obstacle to this “the shadow of the octogenarian generation” that, in his opinion, will continue to hold power from its control the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). If he reaches the end of his term, Raúl Castro will continue at the head of the PCC until 2021.

In order to “rekindle the thaw” with the United States (the process initiated by President Barack Obama in 2014), Morales says the new Cuban leader would have to solve the problem of the confiscations of American companies in the early 1960s, free Cuba’s productive forces through a law that allows free enterprise, and authorize the private investments of Cubans of the Island and the diaspora. These measures have been a historical demand from the opposition, but Havana has always responded with more economic centralization.

“The decade of Raúl Castro’s presidency has been a lost decade,” he says, although he points out that opening up to small private companies was a step forward. More than half a million Cubans have moved to employment outside the state since 2010, when Raúl Castro promoted self-employment as a way to alleviate the burden on public finances.

Morales adds that the government should let the laws of supply and demand operate in a free market, allow the direct hiring of Cuban personnel by foreign companies without requiring that they can only do so through contracts with the state, revitalize transport and deepen structural reforms in agriculture.

“It is necessary to eliminate the monopoly in agriculture of Acopio — the state procurement and distribution agency — and let the farmers who are leasing unproductive land decide what to produce, whom to sell it to, and set their own prices, without state intervention, in addition to extending the lease contracts indefinitely,” he says.

Cuba spends around two billion dollars every year to import products for the domestic market that could be produced on the island. The inefficiency of the state, owner of all the large and medium-size companies in the Island, has been recognized by the authorities themselves, but they continue to rely on “socialist state enterprise” as the backbone of the economy.

Elías Amor, a Cuban economist and human rights activist based in Spain, believes that it is “nonsense” to maintain the current economic system. He recently published a list of 50 urgent actions that the country’s executive must take to reactivate the economy.

“Cuba must move towards a market economy socialism, where the axis of the economy is private enterprise and the state recovers its role as a distributor of income, allocator of resources and promoter of economic development,” explains Amor, who urges the Government of the Island to abandon its regent role.

“The so-called Guidelines have to be reviewed in depth because they are unattainable within the current economic system. I think it is vital that public accounts are balanced and the (system of two) currenc(ies) is unified,” the expert added.

The system proposed by Amor includes a privatization policy that allows farmers to own the land and reduces the weight of the state sector in the economy by substantially reducing the number of personnel in the Army and State Security apparatus. “In Cuba, 85% of employees are work for the State, which should be reduced to no more than 15% to make the country prosper,” he explained in a telephone conversation.

For the Cuban professor Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the election of Diaz-Canel rests on his loyalty to the Communist Party. “The party chose him because they see him as a loyal person, who will not change anything,” the economist told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Mesa-Lago stressed that on the island “there is a stagnant bureaucracy that clearly sees the private sector as a threat,” in reference to the glacial winds blowing over Cuban entrepreneurs after the government backtracked and decided to freeze the issuing of licenses for the most profitable private sector businesses.

Last year Mesa-Lago and other experts presented Voces of change in the Cuban non-state sector, a study on the incipient private sector in the Cuban economy. At that time, the self-employed were asking for more opportunities to invest in their businesses and fewer bureaucratic obstacles. They also demanded the opening of wholesale markets and the free importation of merchandise, but so far the Plaza of the Revolution has remained deaf to their needs.

With regards to the challenges facing the new president, Mesa-Lago is not optimistic. The crisis, he says, is not as severe as when the Soviet Union disappeared, but the challenges are greater since 1990.

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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’s First Black Bishop is a "Street" Priest

Father Silvano Pedroso (L) with Bishop Alfredo Víctor Petit Vergel in the Priests’ House of Havana. (Catholic Holguin)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, 7 April 2018 — “I’m surprised, I never would have imagined it.” The grave voice at the other end of the telephone line is that of Silvano Pedroso Montalvo, who seems not to have gotten over his astonishment a week after Pope Francis appointed him bishop of the diocese of Guantanamo-Baracoa.

About to turn 65, Pedroso Montalvo is the first black bishop of the Catholic Church in Cuba in its entire history. “In the Church, we are all brothers and equal, I have never felt superior or inferior to anyone because of the color of my skin, but I understand that many people may like having a black bishop because the Church is universal,” says the priest. He works in two of the most humble and ethnically mixed neighborhoods in the Cuban capital: El Cerro and Jesús María. continue reading

“Silvano is authentic, austere, close to the people, consistent, accurate, and a simple man. Perhaps, using the words of Pope Francis, he is a ‘stray’ who can be a ‘game changer’ for the community of believers in Cuba,” says a priest who is an expert in the history of the Cuban Church and who prefers to remain anonymous.

Father Silvano, as the parishioners know him, has worked as a spiritual advisor to young men who want to be priests. He has also been a parish priest in rural areas. It is common to see him walking through the streets of Jesús María and El Cerro, as well as helping organizations such as Caritas in solidarity with the needy.

According to an expert consulted by 14ymedio, the Pope is trying to renew the face, style and language of the Cuban Church “with pastors such as the Bishop of Havana Juan de la Caridad, Father Silvano and Manolo de Céspedes, among others.”

Having accepted the resignation of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Cuban Bishops’ Conference is in a process of transition that some experts believe involves distancing the Church from power and bringing it closer to the people.

“This appointment seeks to emphasize that the Catholic Church on the island is not only white, although most of the faithful are,” he adds.

Pedroso (far right) concelebrating Mass in Guantanamo

Pedroso was born in Cárdenas, Matanzas, on 25 April 1953 and was baptized in 1961, during a time when there was a rupture between the Cuban Church, which initially supported Fidel Castro, and the Revolution, after it turned to the Soviet Union. He graduated in Geography from the University of Havana and practiced his profession from 1979 to 1982 at the Physical Planning Institute of Las Tunas.

Dagoberto Valdés, a lay Catholic from Pinar del Río, believes that Pedroso’s work experience can help him better understand the contemporary Cuban Church. On the island it is estimated that 60% of Cubans are baptized as Catholics, but no more than 10% attend Sunday Mass.

“The incorporation into the episcopate of men who grew up, were educated, worked and became priests at the time of the institutionalization of the socialist process is a wonderful experience for the pastors of the Church,” says Valdés. “Silvano is a man close to the people, a missionary in solidarity with them,” he added.

For Lenier González, former editor of one of the most important Catholic publications on the island, Espacio Laical (Lay Space), and current coordinator of Cuba Posible magazine, the appointment of Silvano is good news because “he addresses many challenges at once, almost all of them related to the links and historical actions of Catholicism with the Cuban black population.”

There is as yet no date for his episcopal consecration, which will be in Havana, but Silvano Pedroso is already very familiar with the work that is done in the diocese that has been assigned to him. “In Guantanamo, the Church has done a very nice job in terms of helping the most needy, especially after the hurricane,” he says.

After Hurricane Matthew, young Catholics organized weeks of help to rebuild the homes of the victims. Caritas distributed more than 60,000 pounds of aid from churches from neighboring countries, such as the United States.

The diocese of Guantánamo-Baracoa was created by John Paul II in 1998. Although the city of Guantánamo is home to the cathedral of Santa Catalina de Ricci, Baracoa (the first town founded in Cuba after the arrival of the Spaniards) is home to the co-cathedral church where the Cruz de la Parra (Cross of the Vine), brought by Columbus to the New World, is preserved.

The seat of the diocese has been vacant since 6 December 2016, when the previous bishop, Wilfredo Pino Estévez, was appointed to head the diocese of Camagüey.

Pedroso’s pastoral plan will be to follow the line of solidarity and human advancement that was underway in the diocese. “I try to accompany people in their reality, which is sometimes very hard,” he says.

Pedroso remembers that he was shocked the day a humble family in a Guantánamo town welcomed him into their home, giving him the best they had to eat and offering him rest. “Many times simple people are the ones who open themselves most to God and his message,” he explains.

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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.

Hiring of Cuban Doctors Creates Controversy in Kenya

Signing of the Healthcare Agreement between Cuba and Kenya last year in Geneva with Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda on the Cuban side. (Minrex)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Pentón, Miami, 4 April 2018 —  The decision of the Government of Kenya to accelerate the hiring of 100 Cuban doctors has been badly received by the local Healthcare sector union, in a statement that denounces the situation of some 1,200 unemployed Kenyan doctors.

“This is not fair. [The government needs] to take advantage of these resources to update our medical skills, offer better working conditions, pay better salaries and then adjust the law that guides the provision of services [doctors]. [If this were done] we would not need imported doctors,” read a comment posted on the official Facebook page of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. continue reading

The Union of Physicians, Pharmacists and Dentists of Kenya (KMPDU), which brings together public employees in these sectors, made clear its disagreement with the measure. “Kenya has trained doctors who are now unemployed and have been waiting for their deployment since May 2017,” the organization tweeted, in response to the official announcement about the hiring of Cuban healthcare workers.

Since then, the KMPDU has promoted a campaign to give jobs to Kenyan doctors and posted a survey on Twitter what garnered 2,364 votes, with 78% supporting the solution of recruiting Kenyan doctors before turning to Cubans.

Samuel Oroko, president of the KMPDU, told local media that his country has more than 1,200 unemployed doctors and that there are only 4,300 doctors working in the public health system serving a population of more than 49 million Kenyans. According to statistics from the World Health Organization there is one doctor for every 5,000 inhabitants, considered  very inadequate despite being Kenya’s being one of the best-equipped countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Oroko, however, believes that Cuban doctors are not the solution to the crisis in the healthcare system.

“There are no medicines and the laboratories do not work, so if they (Cubans) come, they will not be able to work,” said Oroko, who also asks where the money will come from to pay foreign doctors. According to official data, almost a quarter of Kenya’s healthcare expenses are paid by international organizations and private donors.

“Our advice is, and always has been, that Kenya improve its infrastructure and working conditions. Only then will we be able to attract and retain enough local specialists,” the head of the KMPDU told 14ymedio.

14ymedio was able to verify that the first doctors Cuba plans to send to Kenya are already receiving training in Havana. “The doctors who will provide their collaboration in Kenya are being trained at the Central Medical Cooperation Unit,” said a Cuban official on condition of anonymity. The doctors receive classes in English, local culture and the Kenyan public health system. The Cuban doctors still do not know what their salaries will be.

The first time that the Kenyan Government negotiated with Havana to send a group of doctors, it faced a one-hundred-day strike in its national health sector. Some 5,000 doctors stopped working because the Government failed to follow through on salary increases ranging from 150% to 200%, as it had previously agreed to do.

The strike ended with doctors receiving between 560 and 700 dollars a month in premiums, retroactive to January 2017. Cuban doctors were scheduled to travel to Kenya in October but at the last minute Nairobi suspended the contract due to pressure from the national healthcare sector, which opposed the bringing in of professionals from Cuba.

The monthly salary of a doctor in Kenya is at least a thousand dollars and can reach up to $5,000 in the private sector. In contrast, the average salary of Cuban doctors is about $60 US per month.

The president of Kenya made an official trip to Cuba last March where he was received by President Raúl Castro. The State visit focused on relaunching bilateral relations and negotiating the sending of doctors, sports technicians and biotechnological products.

Raúl Castro and the Kenyan President during his official visit to Cuba in March. (Minrex)

“I think I could summarize [the visit to Cuba] this way: I have seen the future and it works,” Kangumu County Governor Anyang ’Nyong’o, who accompanied the Kenyan president on his trip to the island, told African media.

“They have very good primary health care, they have excellent referral facilities, and I think that for us, who want to implement universal health care coverage, this is the place we should go and learn from,” he added.

The governor explained that the agreement seeks to bring two Cuban specialists to each of the counties of the African nation. The Kenyan Health Minister, Sicily Kariuki, said the agreement would last two years and asked that the discussion about bringing in Cuban doctors “not be politicized.”

14ymedio tried to communicate with Kenya’s Ministry of Health to learn the details of the contract for Cuban doctors (as of now unpublished) but did not get a response from the authorities.

Cuba promised the Kenyans vaccines against cattle ticks and technical support in the training of that nation’s boxing team. The cooperation planned with the Island is a part of the Big Four initiative with which President Kenyatta seeks “food security, affordable housing, industry and healthcare accessible to all.”

Havana bases a large part of its economy on the export of services, mainly health services, which provide the country an annual income of 11.5 billion dollars, according to official data not confirmed by independent means. The Cuban Government keeps more than half of the payment made for each doctor hired by foreign States or institutions.

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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.

Years After Cuban Child Rafter Elián Gonzalez, The Two Shores Are Now Confronted With Valeria

Nairobis Pacheco with baby Valeria, the daughter of her cousin Yarisleidy Cuba Rodríguez, who died in Miami. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 27 March 2018 — The body of Yarisleidy Cuba Rodriguez spent almost 20 days in a funeral home in Miami until her husband, Yoelvis Gattorno, who lives in Cuba, decided to cremate her remains. Cuba Rodríguez died while giving birth to Valeria, a baby girl now barely three weeks old who is involved in a bitter family fight between her father, who wants to take her to the island, and her mother’s relatives, who want her live in Miami.

“The only motivation I had to ask for temporary custody of the little girl was to avoid her being taken to a shelter. I never wanted to take her away from her father, but to honor the memory of my first cousin who left her in my care before dying,” Nairobis Pacheco, a cousin of Cuba Rodríguez, tells 14ymedio. continue reading

The father of the child publicly accused Pacheco of denying him information about the baby. The cousin of Cuba Rodríguez, on the other hand, showed this newspaper the chats she had with the girl’s father, through the Messenger app, since the young mother died. “I always sent photos of the little girl and kept him up to date, but he preferred to put on a media show when all he had to do was wait for the process to run its course according to the law,” she says.

Gattorno and several South Florida media outlets claimed that Pacheco’s family had filed a lawsuit for malpractice against Jackson Memorial Hospital and hinted that this was the reason they wanted to maintain temporary custody.

“We have not made any demands. We are only asking for my cousin’s medical file at the hospital because we believe there were irregularities in her operation,” Pacheco says, defending herself. She says that the last weeks have seemed like an ordeal. “My face has been all over the news, I think I have become the most wanted person. Even my children have been harassed by the press,” she says.

Yarisleidy Cuba Rodríguez shows the ultrasound images of her pregnancy. (Courtesy Facebook)

Cuba Rodríguez’s delivery was was complicated because the pregnant woman had placenta accreta, a medical condition that occurs when the placenta is too deeply attached to the inside of the uterus. Doctors prefer to deliver by cesarean in these cases to avoid tears and bleeding. However, Cuba Rodriguez did not do well in the operation and died in the operating room, leaving only the designation of her cousin as the contact person responsible for her.

“Yari and I grew up together as if we were sisters. She won the visa lottery and I helped her come to the United States in October of last year,” explains Pacheco. Both Cuba and her eldest daughter, Flavia Paz, 15, lived at their cousin’s. After the death of the woman, 34, the teenager went to live with her father, who also lives in the United States.

“My biggest concern is that the girl’s father wants to take her to Cuba, my cousin always wanted to live in the United States, that’s why she emigrated, she was looking for the best for her daughters, I don’t think it’s best for the girl to live in that country [Cuba],” adds Pacheco.

For Pacheco, the mother of three children and a manicurist by trade, the family controversy surrounding the custody of the girl took her by surprise. “One day my friends called me and told me to turn on the news because they were talking about me,” she explains. “It was then that I found out that the baby’s father said that I wasn’t giving him any information about her and that I wanted to separate him from the child.”

“I just want the best for the girl and for her not to be separated from her sister, who has already gone through a lot,” she says.

Pacheco accuses Gattorno of not being in a position to support the baby on the island, having no work, and having belonged to the Technical Investigation Department of the National Revolutionary Police.

14ymedio communicated by phone with Yoelvis Gattorno who confirmed his intention to travel to the United States to get custody of his daughter and to bring her back to the island.

Yarisleidy Cuba Rodríguez and Yoelvis Gattorno celebrating their wedding in Cuba. (Courtesy Facebook)

“The only thing that interests me now is to travel to Miami to meet my daughter. I’m going to return with her to Cuba,” said Gattorno, who lives in Santa Clara. The man did not deny having belonged to the police, which his lawyer Claudia Cañizares, who leads the pro bono case, had doneCurrently, there is a gofoundme campaign to help Gattorno reunite with his daughter.

“In the next two weeks we could have my client traveling to Miami,” Cañizares told this newspaper. The lawyer added that several members of Congress from South Florida have shown their solidarity towards the father and interceded for him to be granted a humanitarian visa at the US embassy in Havana.

According to Cañizares, only a judge can grant the father custody of the baby and will do so looking for the greater good of the child, so the judge would make the final decision about the possible travel of a minor who is an American citizen to the Island.

Various media outlets in South Florida have compared the case of little Valeria with that of Elián González, a Cuban boy who was rescued after being shipwrecked on the raft on which he was traveling with his mother from Cuba in 2000. González’s father claimed custody of him, and  received the support of Fidel Castro, who turned the legal fight for the custody of the child into a political struggle between the Cuban exile in Miami and the Government of the Island. Finally the boy was returned to Cuba and today is a leader in the Communist Youth organization.

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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.

No More Appointments For Visas To Panama Until The End Of May

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, 17 March 2018 — The website of the Panamanian Government for visa procedures has collapsed due to extremely high demand, especially from Cubans and Venezuelans. Javier Carrillo, the Migration Director General, has confirmed this to 14ymedio.

“We set up this site to offer 50 daily appointments in our Havana consulate, but demand is very high and the system shut down as soon as we ran out of availability,” said Carrillo by telephone from Panama City. continue reading

The Panamanian authorities created the website in the middle of last year after doubling the number of visas for Cuban citizens to 1,000 per month. Eight thousand residents of the Island benefited from the new measure in 2017.

“We already have the whole month of May full. We post the dates two or three months in advance so people have time to get their papers,” explains Carillo. “In one hour we ran out of appointments, leaving a lot of people hanging. In April we’ll open up to take care of the next two months.”

Number of Cubans traveling to Panama. Source: Panama Migration Service

When the appointment dates run out, the system automatically eliminates the button “fill in the form” and only the words “reprint appointment” appear.

The electronic system allows someone to ask for an appointment to get a “stamped” visa in the Panamanian consulates in Cuba, Venezuela and China. In the case of Cubans as well as Venezuelans, it’s very difficult to get an appointment because the quota fills up. This doesn’t happen with China, which has much less demand.

Screenshot of the Panama Migration page without the button to fill out the form. (CC)

On average, by year, more than 10,600 Cubans have visited Panama. In 2017 there were more than 71,700 Cubans who chose Panama as an option for tourism or purchases, while in 2010 there were barely 6,000. Cubans who live in the U.S. or who have European citizenship don’t require a visa to travel to Panama.

Panama was a country of transit for thousands of Cubans who left for the U.S. during the last migratory crisis. After the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy in January 2017, more than 300 Cubans remained stranded there, and they received material support from Panama to return to Cuba.

For Zenia Escalona, the possibility of getting an appointment online to be interviewed in the Embassy of Panama in Havana is a great advantage. Zenia, 52, tried for more than six months to schedule an appointment by telephone, but was unsuccessful.

“On Thursdays, the phone was always busy. Half of Cuba was calling. It was terrible,” explains Escalona, who lives in Trinidad and wants to go to Panama to make purchases in the duty-free zone of Colón. Before the online platform existed, the Embassy of Panama in Havana scheduled appointments only by telephone on Thursdays at a certain time.

Ed. Note: Our apologies for not having subtitles for the two videos in this article.

Escalona got her passport last year to take advantage of the benefits of importing in the national money that Cubans who live on the Island have. “Customs allows you to bring back 100 kg of non-commercial imports by paying the taxes in Cuban pesos. That’s the advantage we who live here have. You leave, you buy clothing, shoes, televisions and air conditioners, and then you can resell them and make a little money,” she explains.

Although connecting to the Internet on the Island is generally complicated, because it’s done in public spots, Escalona says that “it’s worth the trouble” to pay a dollar to try to access the Panama Migration page.

The trips of Cubans to the duty-free zone of the Panama Canal and to other popular destinations like Cancún to buy things has flourished since the Cuban Government, in 2013, passed a law that eliminated the exit permit, which for decades prevented Cubans from traveling freely.

Faced with the absence of a wholesale market for the private sector in Cuba, many entrepreneurs pay the passge for mules to buy merchandise they need for their businesses at an affordable price.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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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.

"With Obama There Was Hope in Cuba, But That’s Over"

Marta Elisa Deus, raised in Spain, made the decision to return to the island in 2013 to set up an accounting business (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, 20 March 2018 —  Marta Elisa Deus is only 30 years old and has started three businesses in Cuba. This young Havanan, who lived in Spain for more than a decade, returned to the island “all fired up” to innovate and revolutionize the business world, taking advantage of the timid reforms undertaken by Raúl Castro in 2011 to open the economy to private capital.

Deus’s main concerns now are the pause in the granting of self-employment licenses and the worsening of the business environment for the self-employed on the Island, but she is not giving up in her attempt to help create a community of small entrepreneurs that stimulates the national economy. continue reading

“I always wanted to go back to Cuba and do some work there,” she tells 14ymedio on a recent trip to Miami. In 2013 she made the decision to return to the Island to set up an accounting business. “I talked to a good friend, Irina García, who is a lawyer, and we started the business under the license for bookkeepers, or, and it’s the same thing, accountants,” she says.

The opening to the private sector and the announcement of the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, which faced off for more than five decades, made her think that the thaw in relations between the countries was irreversible. Cuba became fashionable and an avalanche of tourists flooded the streets, which opened up endless business possibilities.

“At the beginning it was very difficult because in Cuba there was no culture of keeping account books, people opened paladares (private restaurants) and lodging houses, but not accountant offices,” she says. During her company’s start-up they did many jobs for free to make customers see the importance of their function. Deus Accountants, the company she created, became over time a key business for those who keep business accounts in Cuba and today has a team of five employees and more than 20 collaborators.

Self-Employed in Cuba. 22,000 AirBNB accommodations. 560,000 lodging establishments. $40 million dollars. 400 cooperatives. Growth in Self-employment.

Deus remembers that initial time with fondness, especially the dream awakened among entrepreneurs by the thaw. “During  the Obama era in Cuba there was hope, but that’s over,” she says.

Barack Obama visited the island in March 2016, marking a milestone in the history of relations between both countries. The American president met with entrepreneurs and promised support to empower the Cuban people, something that annoyed the Plaza of the Revolution. For Deus, Obama’s visit marked a before and after in the way in which the government viewed self-employment.

“After Obama’s visit, everything changed, and the way the official press referred to the self-employed was no longer positive. Among entrepreneurs there began to be an atmosphere of uncertainty, because nobody was clear about where the reforms were going and what they were doing and they feared for their business,” explains Deus.

In August 2017 the Government announced the freezing of the granting of licenses for more than 20 self-employment activities, of the 200 that existed. Although officials said it was a pause to “perfect and consolidate” small businesses, many fear that it is a turnaround.

Marino Murillo, the former minister of economy who is in charge of the reform process (which the government calls ‘guidelines’), said that more errors had been generated than virtues when tackling the changes. Murillo announced that they would eliminate the ability to have more than one license to perform self-employment, that the permits would only allow work within the province in which they are requested, and that the approved activities would be reduced, from 201 to 122 .

 “I worry that you can only have a license for one activity,” says Deus, who discovered in the mismanagement of Correos de Cuba (Cuban Postal Service) a niche market and created, under the license for messenger services, Mandao Express, a small company whose business is sending documents and parcels instantly. “When you have your own business, you make an effort to move it forward, and on December 31 I myself delivered food until nine o’clock at night,” she explains.

“Mandao Express was a necessity, and many times we wanted to send the documents we processed to our clients and we did not have anyone to do it for us, so as of 2016 we do it with our own company,” she explains.

“I think the State does not see self-employment as we see it, as something positive, which is good for the country,” she says. From her point of view, the law should be more proactive and instead of limiting the exercise of entrepreneurship to the currently defined 122 licenses, establish a structure for each entrepreneur to create a business where she discovers a need.

For Deus, the Cuban state would have had to invest millions in creating the more than 550,000 jobs that self-employed workers have created with practically no support. The businesswoman also points out that the contribution of this sector to the national economy is vital. In municipalities such as Trinidad, the contribution of the private sector to the treasury exceeds that of state companies.

“I would love to see self-employment as a real option so that our young people do not have to emigrate in search of opportunities, for there to be wholesale markets so we can avoid the black market, with laws for small and medium enterprises that recognize us as entities and not as ’natural persons’,” she says.

An assiduous reader of the weekly magazines The Economist and Forbes, Deus realized that in Cuba there was not enough literature dedicated to business. That’s why she decided to create Negolution, a Cuban digital magazine focused on that sector.

Negolution came up at the end of 2016. We combine the words evolution, revolution, solution, with negocios (businesses), and that’s how the name was born. In each issue, we publish inspiring stories of small businesses on the island and give advice so that entrepreneurs can move forward with their business,” says Deus.

Negolution is distributed through the weekly packet. Deus says that on the website the latest edition has had more than 15,000 downloads.

“We received a lot of feedback from our readers, and our mail is always full of messages of support and collaboration,” says Deus, who is proud that her magazine’s digital portal was designed as a free gift from one of the readers.

Deus and Oniel Díaz, another entrepreneur from the island, sent a letter to the authorities expressing their concern about the situation of self-employment on the island. Officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security responded to the letter with a meeting in which they discussed issues such as the commercial import permit, the need to maintain spaces for dialogue, and wholesale markets. The authorities assured Deus that the freezing of licenses was a “temporary” thing.

Despite the dialogue with the authorities, Deus believes that self-employment on the island is looked on badly by the authorities.

“There was a group of people who were doing a lot of work in tourism and that has fallen off,” she says. The setback in the reestablishment of relations with the United States has meant the loss of thousands of tourists who were arriving from that country, a strong blow for those renting rooms and houses to tourists and to the paladares, the most lucrative activities within the private sector.

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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 Ordeal and More Than 6,000 Dollars to Get a US Visa in Columbia

Lisset López Rodríguez, a 38-year-old Cuban singer who lives in Miami, has spent four years in reuniting with her youngest daughter, Camila Guzmán. (José A. Iglesias)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, 7 March 2018 — The sound of a phone call broke into the monologue of Maydelin Alfonso Vázquez in the lobby of the Montecarlo hotel, about six blocks from the US embassy in Bogotá. Some of the Cubans staying there, waiting to get an immigrant visa to the United States, listened to the litany of difficulties to complete the procedures.

“Why am I shouting? I just can’t do it anymore, I’m going crazy with this,” she says in a dramatic tone and begins to sob. Alfonso “moved heaven and earth” to get the visa to travel to Colombia in Havana. She has barely two days left of the 20 that Bogota authorizes for her stay in this country but has not completed the paperwork to meet her daughter in Miami, from whom she has been separated for eight years. continue reading

“All this has been an ordeal from the time I was told in Cuba that I should apply for a visa in Colombia until I arrived here,” says Alfonso. The lack of information about the visa process in Colombia, the expensive procedures and the tensions to travel to a third country have made the process of reunification even more difficult for many Cuban families.

After announcing that more than two dozen of its officials had been victims of acoustic attacks of unknown origin, the US State Department evacuated non-essential personnel from its embassy in Havana and suspended the delivery of visas from that office. Weeks later it announced that it would process immigrant visas through its embassy in Bogotá.

“After the announcement from the United States, everyone went to the Colombian embassy in Havana, but there was no organization,” says Alfonso. The woman from Santa Clara insists that she had to go to Havana five times to process her visa to Colombia, which she only managed three days before traveling.

“What we have gone through has been very hard, more than 300 people endured an intense downpour in front of the Colombian embassy in Havana, with no place to protect us. Thanks to a lady who carried an umbrella and protected my papers I did not lose everything,” she says.

To travel to Colombia, Cubans residing on the island must present the invitation from the National Visa Center of the United States for the interview in Bogota. They are also required to have a passport-sized photo, and a photocopy of the main page of their travel document, a round-trip air ticket with a limit of 20 days that includes the stay for 10 days before and after the appointment.

Finally, Colombia requires, in order to demonstrate economic solvency, the presentation of bank account holdings for the value of 2,000 dollars or a notarized letter from the economic guarantor of the trip in the Colombian consulate in the country where they are located.

For Yackmar Domínguez and his wife Malena Fernández, the costs of the political struggle between the United States and Cuba are once again borne by families on both sides of the Florida Straits. (José A. Iglesias)

At the end of January, the Colombian embassy in Havana had delivered more than 1,100 visas to Cubans, according to statistics provided by the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to 14ymedio. Of these, almost 900 were intended for people who needed to be interviewed in Bogotá. However, the Colombian foreign minister stopped helping Cubans seeking to travel between March 2 and 12 due to legislative elections and consultations between parties in Colombia. The authorities have asked the migrants to register for their consular appointment at the US embassy in Bogotá.

“Getting here has been an ordeal,” says Lisset López Rodríguez, a 38-year-old Cuban singer who lives in Miami, and who has spent four years trying to reunite with her youngest daughter, Camila Guzmán. “The day I heard that they had canceled the procedures at the US Embassy in Cuba, I went crazy because I thought Camila was going to stay there,” she says.

Like most Cubans, Lopez learned of the decision of the United States to process visas in Bogotá through the news and had never traveled to Colombia. “I went to the Colombian consulate in Miami and they did not want to help me, I had to go back for several days and after a lot of paperwork they approved my tourist visa to accompany my daughter,” she explains.

In her opinion, throughout this process, information and transparency have been lacking. “Nobody guides you on what you have to do or helps you to make the procedures simpler, not to mention the costs,” laments López, in the absence of associations that advise for free.

“The appointment is given approximately one month in advance, you have to pay the passage to Colombia for you and your family member, including the return to Cuba, which is a ticket that is wasted if you already have an American visa. In addition, you have to pay in advance for accommodation in Bogota for 20 days, and for food and transfers, which must be done by taxi,” explains López. Along with these logistical expenses you must also pay for the medical exam which costs 220 dollars.

In total, Lopez and her daughter spent more than $6,000 on the entire process. “I never thought I would have to go to Colombia, nor spend this amount of money, but a mother’s love can do everything, at least now I’ll be with my daughter,” she says through tears.

For this Havanan, the decision of the United States to process visas in Colombia has been unfair to those residing on the island. López does not question the arguments of the State Department, but compares the current situation between the two countries with what happened during most of the Cold War. “Before there was no embassy, but the US had a consular section to help people get out to freedom, but now they don’t have even that,” she adds.

The State Department told this newspaper that they chose Bogota as the site to process visas for immigrants from Cuba because it is one of the largest embassies in Latin America. The area where it is located, in the neighborhood of Quinta Paredes, is a middle class nucleus in the Colombian capital.

“There are a lot of Cubans around here,” says Henry Caicedo, owner of a food-service business in the vicinity of the US embassy. The merchant affirms that the massive arrival of Cubans has favored local commerce. “Thanks to the Cubans, my place is full of people who are looking for good and cheap food,” he adds.

The Monte Carlo hotel and the Ambassador are mostly occupied by Cubans. The same thing happens with a good share of the establishments in the area. “This neighborhood has grown thanks to the people who come to do their paperwork at the American Embassy,” explains Luis Carlos Mogollón, an ex-military man who has become a taxi driver. “Ten years ago there were only three hotels, today you find more than one on every block,” he says.

The price of one night in a Quinta Paredes hotel usually ranges between 40 and 80 dollars. Most of the establishments offer a transport service for the procedures related to the American Embassy.

Some Bogota entrepreneurs have taken the opportunity to create travel packages. For example the Santa Cruz hotel offers: “American Visa Plan for the Cuban Community.” This hotel provides accommodation, transportation and advice for 10 days for 820 dollars.

“The attention has been good here,” Yackmart Domínguez says about the hotel service.

“Having to travel to Bogotá to do the procedures so that my family meets me in Miami has been difficult, all the money I had saved to get them established [in the US] has gone to in the passages and the stay in Colombia,” says this 38-year-old Cuban.

His wife, Malena Fernandez, who for the first time left Cuba to travel to Colombia, said she felt “shocked.” “It has been four years of pain, sadness, anguish and separation, and when I knew that I would have to postpone the interview because it would not be done in Havana, I felt like the world was falling down around me,” she adds.

Fernandez believes that the costs of the political struggle between the United States and Cuba are once again borne by families on both sides of the Florida Straits.

“If I have to go to the ends of the earth to be with my loved ones I would do it, no money can pay the value of a family,” she adds.

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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.

The U.S. No Longer Accepts Them But Cuban Doctors Continue To Flee From Venezuela

The doctor Misael Hernández during his work as head of an intensive therapy ward in Venezuela. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, Bogota, 28 February 2018 — When Dayana Suárez escaped from the medical mission in the Venezuelan state Lara, the United States’ Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program, which was created in 2006 to provide refuge for healthcare professionals fleeing the missions entrusted by La Havana, did not already exist.

Suárez is a dentist. She arrived in Colombia just over a year ago in the hope of reconstructing her life there but the impossibility of being able to legalise her immigration status forced her to go to the jungle in order to reach the Southern border of the United States to ask for political asylum. This same decision has been made by many Cuban doctors who were stranded in Bogota after the former president Barack Obama’s sudden decision to get rid of the CMPP in January 2017.

“I knew that the Parole no longer existed but I could not stay in the hell of Venezuela, neither could I return to Cuba because I feared for my future,” states the doctor on a phone call from Mexico to 14ymedio.

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The young woman of 27 years recounts that she was part way through her journey through the Panamanian jungles with a group of Cubans who abandoned her when she was having an asthma attack. For 17 days she had to deal with impractical paths and the dangers of a tropical forest alone.

“My feet were ruined by the walking. When I left the forest I could not even open my mouth because the fear squeezed it so hard that my jaw remained closed”, she relays.

Dayana received the help of the Panamanian authorities and indigenous communities. After slightly recovering she continued her journey and now she is waiting in Mexico for a letter of safe passage that will allow her to arrive at the Southern border of the United States to ask for political asylum. It is not guaranteed that they will grant it but she has “no other choice” but to try it, in her opinion.

“I ended up with grade three herpes, but if I had to I would do this journey again because I want to achieve freedom”, the doctor said.

The presence of doctors and professionals from the island who have escaped from Venezuela is concealed by the increase in Venezuelans emigrating from their country, causing a real humanitarian crisis in Colombia. According to data from Migration Colombia, more than 550,000 Venezuelans remain in the neighbouring country, many of whom are there without documents.

For Misael Hernández, a 27 year-old doctor from the province of Guantanamo, the jungle is not the route to follow. Hernández is undocumented in Colombia after having escaped the state of Sucre last year accompanied by his Venezuelan wife.

“We grew up in Cuba with an education system that taught you to serve the State. When you go on the mission you believe that you are helping a brother country and that you will be well received there, but as soon as you step on foreign land you realise that it is all a farce, a pure demagogy”, says Hernández.

Reality, however, hit him instantaneously. Barely 15 days had passed since he graduated as a doctor when he was informed that his services were required in Venezuela. After a waiting a week in Venezuela’s Maiquetia airport for his position, they sent him to Sucre, a state which has been destroyed by crime and organised crime.

“They put me in charge of a Comprehensive Diagnosis Centre (CDI). There I had to deal with the lack of medication and equipment”, he explains.

The feet of Dayana Suárez after arriving in Mexico, after a month on the road, hoping to request political asylum on the United States border. (Courtesy)

Hernández complains that the Cuban medical mission’s Venezuelan contingents falsified the revenue and medical costs. “We had to have the rooms filled by a certain percentage and use more expensive medicines to treat infections and other common illnesses. It was the way in which the Cuban government could declare more costs to Venezuela in order to obtain more benefits”, he explains.

Cuba has medical professionals deployed in 62 countries and they are its principal source of foreign currency. According to official statistics, Cuba obtains more than 11.5 billion dollars each year for the work of its professionals overseas, but the salaries of such workers rarely exceed 60 dollars a month.

The doctor recalls that more than once criminals put a gun to his head and demanded that he bring the lifeless bodies of other criminals wounded by bullets back to life: “one day they brought one with their guts out. I had to call an ambulance and scream that he was alive, even though it was not true, in order to save my life”.

Another evening he was the victim, along with a Venezuelan nurse, of a robbery in the CDI. “We remained silent whilst they were stealing so that they did not kill us. It was terrifying”, he recounts with his voice broken.

Hernández decided to flee to Colombia along with his wife, of Venezuelan origin. In order to leave the country he had to use shortcuts because the Venezuelan border force does not allow professionals from Cuba using their official red passport to leave the country by land. Since then he has been working illegally and is in Colombia without any documentation. “It is tough. It is difficult but it will always be better than being in Venezuela”, he says.

Many doctors and Cuban professionals live in the popular areas of the Kennedy district in Bogota, the Colombian capital. They have lost hope that the United States will resume the programme that allowed them to be recognised as refugees. “Many of the doctors are in Colombia, they have not had much choice but to join us and try to work here in such conditions”, tells Hernández, who calculates that at least 1,000 Cuban professionals are in the country.

Doctor Julio César Alfonso, president of the association Solidarity without Borders, an NGO with a headquarters in Miami that is dedicated to assisting professionals from Cuba that are escaping from tertiary countries, says that they are continuing to work alongside Florida’s members of congress to restore the programme that was removed by Obama.

“If it is not the Cuban Medical Professional Parole, it will be another similar programme which will allow Cuban workers to escape from this form of slavery”, he tells 14ymedio, although he refuses to offer more details. Alfonso says that he remains in contact with dozens of doctors in third countries who are still fleeing despite the end of the North American programme.

The main obstacle to the creation of a similar programme to the Parole is, according to Alfonso, “the agenda of the current president Donald Trump”, who is looking to regulate the flow of migration to the United States.

“Cuban doctors are still fleeing despite the fact that the Parole programme no longer exists. The Cuban government always said that the doctors left because they were tempted by the United States. Well are still leaving, indicating that the programme is closer to home”.

This episode forms part of the series “the new era of Cuban migration” undertaken by 14ymedio, the New Herald and Radio Ambulante with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Translated by: Hannah Copestake

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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.

The ‘New Man’ Travels Havana on a Skateboard

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 1 March 2018 — Yojany Pérez, known as Mamerto, has afro style braids, piercings and likes extreme sports. He works fixing air conditioners and also has his own business making candy, which he delivers around Havana at top speed on his skateboard, wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘Libertad’ on it.

Mamerto, 28, is the star of Havana Skateboard Days, a feature film that portrays the new generation of teenagers and young Cubans living in a country outside official dogmas.

“When I skate it is like escaping from problems, from society, from all this,” says Pérez. Skating keeps you stable, “without losing your sanity.” Throughout the three years portrayed in the documentary, Mamerto watches Fernando, Raciel and Yoan, his racing partners, emigrate to the United States. “You’re left alone, fucking hell,” he laments.

Kristofer Ríos, director of the documentary along with Julian Moura-Busquets, chooses as the scenario the impact of the thawing of relations between Washington and Havana on 17 December 2014, and the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2016.

The young people who appear in the film denounce the absence of real changes in the country for the new generations, such as the lack of interest on the part of the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) with regards to the island’s skaterboarders.

Skateboarding began to be considered an Olympic sport in 2016 and is expected to be a part of the competition for the first time at the Tokyo Games in 2020. Skaters complain that the Government promotes other sports such as boxing or baseball, but that skateboarding has no official support

The 85-minute film includes scenes showing the frustration of some organizations in the United States that intended to build sites to support the development of skating in Cuba, but whose good intentions were truncated by the bureaucratic obstacles.

“You know the Cuban Adjustment Act, the political problems that exist with the Government of the United States, especially among the Miami community and its great strength due to the blockade,” responds Fidel Bonilla, an INDER representative, when an American proposes to build a skate park in Havana.

René González, one of the five spies imprisoned in the US who has been declared a national hero by the National Assembly of People’s Power, presided over the Festival on Wheels, demonstrating that politicization reaches even the first step taken to consolidate a national skateboarding  movement .

The documentary also highlights the discreet work of groups like Amigo Skate, an American association that takes dozens of skateboards to the Island every year, many times, clandestinely, to support the local movement. In Cuba there are no shops where you can buy skateboards of equipment for skateboarding.

“We do the competitions without permission and we bring the things in hidden, as if we were mules,” says Rene Lencour, founder of Amigo Skate, who lives in the United States. Lencour believes that this is not “fair,” although he is happy to see the interaction among Cuban skaters.

In February of this year René Lecour and a group of skaters created, with their own resources, ramps for the practice of skateboarding in an old building in Ciudad Libertad, a former military base turned into a school.

The youth described the leaders of the country as “grandparents” and states without fear before the cameras that the system “no longer represents them.”

The documentary includes the torchlight march, a demonstration by thousands of students commemorating the birth of José Martí headed by Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro. “And why do you come?” asks the filmmaker. “I come for the jevas (girls), there’s a ton of girls,” a young skater answers without thinking twice. “All this is fictitious, like in the documentaries of North Korea,” he adds.

These young people who build their own boards with very few resources have something of the spirit of that New Man who Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro theorized about, a subject capable of putting the interests of his group before the personal, someone who is generous and selfless.

“Each defeat is one more lesson, a life’s blow,” says Yojany Pérez, who, if he has experience in anything, it is hitting himself trying to make the most unimaginable pirouettes.

Despite the obstacles, he continues to dream of a future for the practice of skateboarding on the island and has created a workshop to create domestic boards and make the movement grow. “If you really want to do something in your country, you have to fight, if the government tells us ‘this can not be done because it is not a Cuban sport,’ we ourselves must be able to sustain ourselves.”

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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.

Cienfuegos Shaken By Another Knife Crime

Friends and relatives attended the funeral of Luis Santacruz Labrada, stabbed to death in the city of Cienfuegos. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Justo Mora / Mario Pentón, Cienfuegos/Miami, 24 February 2018 — He was only 23 years old with an unquenchable desire for dancing and music. Luis Santacruz Labrada literally knew each of the songs of the national reggaeton and the places where young Cienfuegueros meet. His murder by stabbing, on February 14, has shocked a city whose tranquility has been one of its greatest attractions.

“Luis danced and sang, that was his life,” says his aunt, Regla Santacruz, who lived with the young man. Although the investigation is still in progress, some relatives explained to 14ymedio that on Valentine’s Day Santacruz Labrada decided to go out to the Malecon, a popular place among young people. continue reading

“Luis had a relationship with a minor girl, but she left him for another reggaetonero named Tito. On the night of February 13, Tito and Luis met casually on the boardwalk and talked about it,” explains a close relative who prefers not to be identified.

In the early hours of February 14, Luis separated from the group of friends he was with and received a call to his cell phone. “They told him to come to a certain place and he thought it could be the ex-girlfriend, but when he got there they stabbed him,” the same source recounts.

Santacruz Labrada was stabbed four times, one of which went through a lung, according to his relatives. More than an hour after the attack he was picked up by a taxi driver who took him to the Provincial Hospital, but it was too late.

“They could not save his life. It is the second tragedy that we have had like this in the family,” says the family member. Luis’s father was killed in Havana four years ago, stabbed in the middle of a brawl.

Tito, the alleged murderer, is 16 years old and is being held in the Provincial Delegation of the Ministry of the Interior in the Pastorita district. 14ymedio talked with relatives of the alleged murderer who confessed that the enmity between the two young men “had been coming for some time.”

“Tito argued with Luis early and that day he was drunk,” said his relative, who also said that the alleged murderer will not be transferred to the provincial prison Ariza because he is under the age of majority.

14ymedio tried to confirm this version with the National Police Department of Investigations in charge of the case but the officers explained by telephone that they could not give statements to the press.

Santacruz Labrada lived in the Reina neighborhood, located on the peninsula of Majagua, a tongue of land where the Jagua port workers settled.

“Most of the boys in this area go out into the street with a knife in their pocket. People do fight with fists like they used to,” laments Yanelys Verdecia, a Cienfuegos woman from the Reina neighborhood who was shocked by the crime.

Official media are reluctant to address the issue of violence in Cuba. Nor are there statistics that allow drawing conclusions about the incidence of this social scourge. Laritza Diversent, lawyer and director of the Cubalex Legal Information Center, recently exiled to the United States, regrets that neither the opposition groups nor the government facilitate a debate on violence on the island.

“The number of violent acts is only known to the authorities, so we do not have the tools to talk as a society about the importance of this phenomenon in the country,” says the lawyer.

According to the Public Health Yearbook, 572 people died in 2016, victims of violence, but there is no data on the number of assaults without fatalities.

Diversent explains that during her time as an independent lawyer in Havana, she worked on several murder cases and the number of young people involved in these events was notable, especially in poor and marginalized neighborhoods. Article 263 of the Cuban Penal Code establishes penalties of 15 to 30 years in prison for murderers.

The city of Cienfuegos also wept last September for the murder of Leidy Maura Pacheco Mur, 18 years old. The young woman, whose baby was then only 10 months old, was kidnapped by three men from her own community in Junco Viejo. They raped her and subsequently murdered her and buried her in the Plan Mango area.

“It’s terrible that these things happen. They kicked my nephew to death a few years ago at the Rancho Luna service station and the law is still very gentle with the murderers,” Aimé Montes de Oca told this newspaper. The murderers of her relative are serving 15-year prison sentences in Ariza, the provincial prison, but once they have completed half of the sentence they can get parole if they have shown good behavior.

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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.