Cuba Spends Less on Healthcare Despite the Aging of the Population

The 20,000 places for care of the aged are not enough in a country with two million people over age 60. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 10 August 2017 – The Cuban population is aging at an inverse ratio to the investment required to support this share of the citizenry. Almost 20% of Cubans are over 60, and a recent government study sees aging as “the nation’s biggest demographic challenge.”

Health spending fell from 11% of GDP in 2009 to 8% in 2012, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook of Cuba. The investment in social programs affecting the elderly has been reduced since Raúl Castro initiated timid reforms in the country’s economy.

The economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago has calculated that the number of hospitals in the country has decreased by 32% since 2007, while personnel engaged in public health has fallen by 22%. Despite the steady increase in the number of elderly people in the country, there are only 20,000 places in some 300 grandparents’ homes (for day care) and 144 nursing homes. continue reading

According to sociologist Elaine Acosta, there is evidence that a significant share of Cuba’s 2,219,784 people who are over 60 “lack effective opportunities to enjoy a dignified old age.”

In addition, the expert believes that “the difficulty of social policy to anticipate and plan the resolution of problems related to old age only aggravate the crisis of care that faces Cuban society.”

In the face of what could be the end of trade with Venezuela, the aging population of the island, which has seen the purchasing power of its pensions reduced by almost 50% since 1989, is facing an unsustainable pension system in the medium term, Mesa-Lago explains.

The situation is complicated, because Raul Castro’s government eliminated many of the goods and services formerly provided ‘free,’ drastically reducing the items covered by Social Assistance, as well as the number of beneficiaries.

In 2016, 54,968 older adults received social security pensions, some 8,415 fewer than in 2011. This population segment has also been hit in recent years by the elimination of subsidies for several products in the ration book, and the resulting quadrupling of prices.

Proportion and growth rates of the population aged 60 and over in some Latin American countries. Source: ECLAC

A study published by Cuba’s National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI), reports that 79% of Cuba’s elderly live in urban areas, while the remaining 21% live in rural areas. Women make up just over half of the island’s aging population, at 53%, with men accounting for 47%.

The phenomenon of aging generally occurs in societies that have achieved a high rate of human development. Among the elements that influence a country’s aging statistics are migration, fertility rate and mortality.

In the case of Cuba, life expectancy was 79.5 years in 2015, one of the highest in the Americas. However, the low level of fertility – 1.6 children per woman, closer to European figures – and a steady migration have contributed to raise the average age of the country, which in 2016 reached 40 years.

Percentage share of elderly population by province. Source: ONEI

The impact of the aging of the population reaches all spheres of society and has repercussions on the economy, because an important segment of society ceases to produce and has to be sustained by an ever smaller population or workers, notable in the Cuban case. Social services face an increase in the demand for services to the elderly and there is also a direct impact on the pension system.

Relative to population, Cuba’s oldest provinces are Villa Clara, Havana and Sancti Spíritus, in which the population over 60 is 23%, 21% and 21% of the population, respectively. The youngest province on the island is Guantanamo, followed closely by Artemis and the Isle of Youth.

Population in thousands over age 60, by province.

In the case of municipalities, the youngest are Yateras and Caimanera, both in Guantanamo province, with only 13% of the population over age 60. Those with the highest proportion of elderly are Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution municipality – the location of the headquarters of Cuba’s octogenarian rulers – where 27% of residents are over 60, followed by Placetas and Unión de Reyes, both with 25% elderly populations.

“According to estimates by the United Nations Population Division, Barbados and Cuba will be the most aged countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in the immediate perspective,” the ONEI reports.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, which funded part of the study, notes in its research that in 2025, 25% of the Cuban population will be over 60, a figure that will reach 33% of the population by 2050.

Total Cuban population projected to 2050.

Cuban Government Obscures the Figures to Hide the Magnitude of Emigration

Cuban migrants arriving in Mexico. (INM)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 3 August 2017 — Fewer than 42,000 Cubans have emigrated since 2013 according to official statistics published in Havana. However, US officials say they have welcomed more than 141,528 Cubans during the same period. The enormous discrepancy between these data is explained by the lack of transparency of the Cuban Government, which conceals the magnitude of migratory movements by counting them in the general category of citizens traveling abroad.

“Cubans do not migrate in great numbers, but they travel more and more,” said Ernesto Soberón Guzman, an official with the Foreign Ministry. In 2016, 723,844 Cubans went abroad, according to the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI). continue reading

Cuban Immigration. Sources: Cuban government and US Homeland Security. Orange line: Cuban emigrants admitted to the United States (US figures). Grey line: Cuban emigrants (Cuban figures)

If tens of thousands of Cubans who left the country do not appear as emigrants, it is because many of them return before the end of the two-year term that marks the end of their rights as residents on the island, explains Cuban sociologist Elaine Acosta.

“Others have decided to undertake the process known as repatriation, which allows them to regain their residence in Cuba and stay abroad,” adds Acosta.

Cuban law considers that those who remain abroad “continuously for a term longer than 24 months and without the appropriate authorization,” to no longer be citizens.

Those repatriated are counted in the official statistics as resident in the country, although in reality they live abroad. The same thing happens with those who return before the expiration of the 24-month period of a stay abroad.

This management of the figures shows a sudden decrease in emigration. Prior to the 2013 reform, more than 45,000 people left, but in 2014, for the first time in over half a century, ONEI says that more people returned to Cuba than left.

Number of trips abroad by Cubans (Source, Cuban government)

These figures contradict the figures published by the United States, which registered the entry of 141,528 immigrants from Cuba since 2013, not including rafters, while the ONEI only reported a general total of 41,935 émigrés during the same four years.

In addition, the figures from Havana include all Cubans who leave the country permanently, whatever their destination. Ecuador, which was also a popular destination for Cuban emigration, received 33,700 people from the island since 2013. And in the same period Spain registered more than 15,000 new residents who were born in Cuba. That is, the sum of Cuban immigrants in Ecuador and Spain, not including the US, which is the primary destination of Cubans, exceeds the total number of migrants counted by Cuba’s ONEI.

Residents in Spain born in Cuba according to the National Institute of Statistics. Historical series since 2010. (INE)

Elaine Acosta, the sociologist, believes that both segments (the emigrants who maintain their Cuban residence and the returnees) have significantly increased the number of trips abroad from the island, as in the last five years almost half a million have gone abroad.

On the other hand, returnees were only about 14,000, according to the ONEI. This category implies that the citizen recovers his or her rights on the island, among which include participating in the electoral process, receiving free care in the national health system, being able to own property, and the coveted permit to pay import duties once a year in Cuban pesos (CUP) – versus in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), worth 25 times more.

“The quality of migration statistics leaves much to be desired because they respond to an ideology and there are no studies to break down the figures,” explains the sociologist, who regrets that the ONEI figures do not say how many Cubans who travel abroad have another nationality or residence. Another shortcoming noted by the specialist is that only the number of departures is counted, not the number of individuals who have traveled abroad.

For the sociologist, based in Miami, the national press uses the official figures to “depoliticize” the causes of the exodus. “This is an instrumental use of emigration to reinforce the thesis of economic migration and hide the reality that people are living,” he adds.

Osmanis Gálvez, 42, who emigrated to the United States three years ago, says he returns to the island at least once a year. He was recently repatriated after paying 100 CUC in an office of the Ministry of the Interior.

“I will not go to live in Cuba, but this is a way to inherit my mother’s house and bring her the products she needs without having to pay for them in dollars at Havana customs,” he says.

Frank, a Cuban who has resided in Miami for two years, did not need to be repatriated because on obtaining his permanent residence in the United States, he immediately traveled to Cuba and was able to “enter” before the two-year term expired. Since then he has been traveling once a week to Cuba as a “mule”to carry products to supply the island’s growing black market.

Although travel is one of the most common desires among Cubans, it remains the preserve of those who maintain work and residence outside national borders or have relatives abroad to finance the escape, since on the island the average official monthly salary isn’t even $30, and a plane ticket to Miami costs almost a year’s salary.


Cuba Has No Plan B To Make Up For The Loss Of Venezuela

Cubans are tired of being unable to access foods of animal origin other than chicken. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 4 August 2017 – “It doesn’t matter when, all we get are feathers,” complains the father of a family, disgusted on finding no kind of meat other than chicken in the Hard Currency Collection Stores (TRD), the state chain that sells only in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Since the beginning of the Venezuelan crisis, Cubans have been bitter about the shortages in retail markets, a problem that will grow in the coming months, according to economist Omar Everleny Perez.

The country cut 1.5 billion dollars in imports in the first half of the year, which will directly affect the population,” said Perez, in conversation with 14ymedio. continue reading

Trade balance: imports (black line) and exports (orange line) in Cuba since 1950.

The abrupt cut in imports stems from the decision to use 2.306 billion dollars to make payments on external debt, renegotiated with the Paris Club and other creditors, adds the former director of the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy.

“They renegotiated a debt that they had not paid since 1986. Creditors waived up to 90% in some cases, but they had to pay that remaining 10% and could only do so by cutting imports,” he explains.

According to Perez, a contributor to the magazine Temas, the national economy is beginning to show signs of macroeconomic recovery but it is not enough.

“From the macro point of view, it seems that there will be a change in the trend line, but 1% growth does not tell you anything. The country needs to grow from 5 to 7% — and not just for one year — so that people feel it,” he adds.

“With this rate of growth, seeing an improvement in living conditions would take at least 30 years. How do you say that to a 50-year-old?” Pérez quips.

Cuba announced that at the end of this semester the economy had grown by 1.1%, after a GDP fall of 0.9% in 2016. Pérez attributes this positive result to tourism, which grew by 23%, and the sugar cane industry, which produced about 1.8 million tons of sugar.

“Tourism is changing lives in many parts of Cuba. For example, in the municipality of Trinidad, the revenues of the non-state sector surpassed those of state enterprises for the first time. In this municipality the private sector generated 56.9% of the total collected,” he says.

The Havana Consulting Group has just published very interesting data on the increasing contribution of remittances to the functioning of the national economy. The Miami-based consulting firm says remittances grew 2.7% in 2016 to $3.444 billion, surpassing net revenue from tourism that year, according to official sources.

The difference is even greater when compared to net tourism receipts, which will not exceed $1.3 billion after deducting the costs of imports needed to cater for tourists, especially food, as Cuba produces nothing.

Gross income from remittances (orange line) versus tourism (black line).

Pérez Villanueva is worried about the strong impact that the eventual fall of Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela would have on the Cuban economy.

“Venezuela continues to be Cuba’s number one trading partner, despite its crisis. For the past two years, the problems of that country have been growing, but no measures have been taken to counteract the end of that trade relationship,” he says.

Perez believes that Havana should be thinking of sending its highly skilled labor to other countries with oil reserves like Angola or Algeria. “It will never be the same as with Venezuela and those countries could not absorb the number of doctors [that Venezuela has been paying for], but at least it would cushion the blow,” he says.

Trade by country over time.

Cuba could take advantage of currently low oil prices to buy fuel from other allied nations, such as Russia or Algeria, but the lack of credit is a chronic problem, according to the Minister of Economy and Planning, Ricardo Cabrisas, who acknowledged in the Report on Behavior of the Economy and Planning 2017 that the Island’s ability to obtain loans is affected by the amount of debts due.

However, according to Pérez, Cuba is trying to strengthen new mechanisms to generate electricity from renewable sources, but “it needs time and money.” There is also an attempt to revive national oil production, which is declining due to the depletion of the wells.

“If the supply of Venezuelan oil is stopped, it would not be as it was in the USSR. We receive from Venezuela half the fuel we need, and in the time of the former Soviet Union we received virtually all of it,” he added.

“The country should bet heavily on foreign investment,” says Pérez Villanueva, who was ousted after a series of lectures in which he displayed his critical opinion on the economy’s progress on the island.

“The guidelines say that foreign investment is not a complement to domestic investment but rather a part of the national investment, but in practice the level of appropriations is not noticeable,” he adds.

Despite continuing to publish the portfolio of foreign investment opportunities, the investment flagship project, the Mariel Special Development Zone, continues to be bogged down with small investments.

For Pérez, the country has to immediately expand trade on its own, something that seems very distant, especially after the freeze in the granting of new licenses for self-employment announced last Tuesday.

“There is a mass of workers who could leave the guardianship of the State and pay taxes in activities related to what they studied [at the universities]. This would prevent engineers graduating in Computer Science from leaving for Canada or quitting to drive a taxi “.

However, Perez believes that the state does not want healthy competition to exist because the great socialist state enterprise remains its model. “In Cuba, ideology continues to set the tone, not the economy.”

Average Wages Rise but Nobody in Cuba Lives on Their Salary

Currently, it would take the earnings of an entire month for a Cuban worker to buy 10.3 chickens, OR 7.6 tanks of liquefied gas for their stoves. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton and Luz Escobar, Miami and Havana, 14 July 2017 — Ileana Sánchez is anxiously rummaging through her tattered wallet, looking for some bills to buy a toy slate for her seven-year-old granddaughter who dreams of becoming a teacher. She has had to save for months to get the 20 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $20 US) that the gift costs, since her monthly salary as a state inspector is only 315 CUP (Cuban pesos), about 12 dollars.

At the end of June, the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI) reported that the average salary at national level reached 740 CUP per month, slightly more than 29 CUC. However, the increase in the average salary does not represent a real improvement in the living conditions of the worker, who continues to be able to access many goods and services only through remittances sent from family abroad, savings and withdrawals.

Average Monthly Wages in Cuba: 2017-2017. 25 Cuban pesos = $1 US

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“I do not know who makes that much money, nor what they base these figures on, because not even with the wages my husband earns working in food service for 240 CUP a month, along with my wages, do we get that much,” says Sanchez.

The ONEI explains that the average monthly salary is “the average amount of direct wages earned by a worker in a month.” The calculation excludes earning in CUC. However, the average salary is inflated by the increases in “strategic” sectors, such as has happened in healthcare, where the pay has been more than doubled, while in other areas of the economy wages have remained practically unchanged for over a decade.

“If you buy food you can not buy clothes, if you buy clothes you can not eat, we live every day thinking about how to come up with ways survive,” she says in anguish.

Most Cubans do not support themselves on what they earn in jobs working for the state, which employs 80% of the country’s workforce.

President Raúl Castro himself acknowledged that wages “do not satisfy all the needs of the worker and his family” and, in one of his most critical speeches about the national reality in 2013, he said that “a part of society” had become accustomed to stealing from the state.

Sanchez, on the other hand, justifies the thefts and believes that the “those who live better” are those who have access to dollars or those who receive remittances. “Anyone who doesn’t have a family member abroad or is a leader, is out of luck,” she says.

According to the economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, when speaking of an increase in the average wage, a distinction must be made between the nominal wage, that is, the amount of money people receive, and the real wage, adjusted for inflation.

A recent study published by the academic shows that although the nominal wage has grown steadily in recent years, the real wage of a Cuban is 63% lower than it was in 1989, when Cuba was subsidized by the Soviet Union and the government had various social protection programs. At present, the entire month’s salary of a worker is only enough to buy 10.3 whole chickens or 7.6 tanks of liquefied gas.

Among retirees and pensioners, the situation is worse. The elderly can barely buy 16% of what a pension benefit would buy before the most difficult years of the so-called Special Period – the years of economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union – according to Mesa-Lago.

Or by another measure, spending an entire month’s salary a worker can only afford 19 hours of internet connection in the Wi-Fi zones enabled by the state telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa, or 84.5 minutes of local calls through cell phones.

What an entire month’s salary will buy in Cuba (only ONE of these things): 84.5 minutes of cellphone service, 10.3 chickens, 74 shared fixed-route taxi rides, 5.5 kg powdered milk, 29 national beers, 6.7 tanks of liquified natural gas

To buy a two-room apartment in a building built in 1936 in the central and coveted Havana neighborhood of Vedado a worker would need to save their entire salary for 98 years, while a Soviet-made Lada car from the time of Brezhnev would cost the equivalent of 52 years of work.

However, the island’s real estate market has grown in recent years at the hands of private sector workers who accumulate hard currency, or by investments made by the Cuban diaspora. In remittances alone, more than three billion dollars arrives in Cuba every year.

According to Ileana Sánchez, before this panorama many people look for work in the areas related to state food services or administration where they can steal from the state, or jobs that provide contact with international tourists such as in the hotels.

Other coveted jobs in the private sphere are the paladares – private restaurants – and renting rooms and homes to tourists where you can get tips. The “search” (as the theft is called) has become a more powerful incentive to accept a job than the salary itself.

Average monthly salary in Cuba by sector

Although, according to the document published by the ONEI, workers in the tourism and defense sector earn 556 and 510 pesos on average, many of them receive as a bonus a certain amount of CUC monthly that is not reflected in the statistics, and they also have access to more expensive food and electrical appliances than does the rest of the population.

Among the best paid jobs in CUP, in order of income, are those in the sugar industry, with 1,246 CUP on a monthly basis, and in agriculture with 1,218. Among the worst paid jobs according to the ONEI are those working in education, with 533 CUP, and in culture with 511.

For Miguel Roque, 48, a native of Guantánamo, low wages in the eastern part of the country are driving migration to other provinces. He has lived for 12 years in the Nuclear City, just a few kilometers from Juraguá, in the province of Cienfuegos, where the Soviet Union began to build a nuclear plant that was never finished.

“The East is another world. If you work here, imagine yourself there. A place stopped in time,” he explains. Roque works as a bricklayer in Cienfuegos although he aspires to emigrate to Havana in the coming months, where “work abounds and more things can be achieved.”

Average monthly salary by Cuban province. The lowest, 668.4 Cuban pesos, is the equivalent of $26.75 US, and the highest, 796.4 Cuban pesos, is the equivalent of $31.85.

The provinces where average wages are highest, according to the ONEI, are Ciego de Avila (816 CUP), Villa Clara (808 CUP) and Matanzas (806 CUP), while the lowest paid are Guantanamo (633 CUP) and Isla de la Juventud (655 CUP).

“Salary increases in the east of the country are not enough to fill the gaps with the eastern and central provinces,” explains Cuban sociologist Elaine Acosta, who believes that cuts in the social services budgets are aggravating the inequalities that result from the wage differences.

“It is no coincidence that the eastern provinces have the lowest figures on the Human Development Index,” he asserts.

Cuban Couple Prefers to Face the Jungle Rather Than the Law in Cuba

Cuban migrants Yudenny Sao Labrada and her husband Yoendry Batista talk to 14ymedio in Panama City. (El Nuevo Herald)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Panama City, 2 July 2017 – They managed to escape Cuba to leave behind traces of corruption and negligence that, according to Yudenny Sao Labrado and her husband Yoendry Batista, reflect the prevailing system on the island. From a neighborhood on the outskirts of Panama City, the couple relates the story of their journey, a long trek that they hope will end with their arrival in the United States.

Yudenny Sao (born in Puerto Padre in 1979) was born just three years after the promulgation of Cuba’s Socialist Constitution. Born under the Revolution, she trained as a teacher and graduated from the University of Mathematics and Physics. She left the classroom to administer one of the thousands of bodegas spread across the island, in which the state subsidizes some of the products of the basic market basket through the ration book.

“I liked teaching, but the Ministry of Education pays very little,” she explains. In the bodega she had more opportunities to do business “under the table.” continue reading

“I made the decision to leave Cuba when they discovered a corruption plot in Puerto Padre’s retail network,” said Sao. In 2016, a series of audits revealed that several of the bodegas in Puerto Padre, where she worked, had irregularities in their accounts. Although there were invoices covering the sales, the money was never deposited in the bank. The directors of the institution are serving sentences of up to eight years for misappropriating state funds.

“I had nothing to do with that,” said the woman from Las Tunas province, defending herself. According to her, her business was to sell rice, sugar, and contraband cigarettes she bought on the black market, instead of the products sent by the state for “free” – that is unregulated – sales, which covered articles outside the rationing system.

Although basically she did not alter the prices of the products, she committed a crime because the rigid centralized economic system did not allow her to market articles that were not sent through the channels authorized by the authorities.

“I gathered my people and I told them about the situation, because the big fish always eats the little one,” she says. Sao’s family includes her husband, Yoendry Batista, a welder by profession, her three children ages 19, 10 and 7 years, and her parents. They made the decision that she should leave Cuba and asked relatives in Florida for $10,000.

“With that money I went to Havana. I wanted to go by boat to the United States, but instead of paying a ticket on the speedboats that traffic people to Miami, I learned that there were people who sold parts to build a boat, and after a phone call my husband came to Havana and we began to build the boat,” she says.

In the heart of Havana, a few blocks from the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity, they began the construction of the boat that would take them to the United States. The materials cost $7,500 and each of those interested in emigrating did their bit. All under strict secrecy, as the construction of boats to leave the country is punishable by law.

“We made the boat with polyethylene and sheets of platinum [an alloy so-called in popular slang] and iron. That’s illegal, it could cost us up to 15 years in jail,” says Yoendry Batista, Yudenny’s husband, who had never built a boat in his life. After weeks of working under the summer sun in a Havana courtyard the boat was ready.

“To take it to the coast we had to pretend we were moving. At three o’clock in the morning we started to assemble furniture and parts of the disassembled boat in a closed truck that carried supplies to the foreign exchange stores,” recalls Sao.

They headed towards the north coast, to the mouth of Arroyo Caimito. There they spent eight days together with another 17 people eating the bare minimum to conserve food for the trip. After weeks of preparation they were finally about to leave for the United States.

“When we heard the sound of the engine we were happy, we shouted ‘Adios, comandante [Fidel]’ and we embraced,” recalls Sao. However, the happiness was short-lived. The engine barely lasted 1 hour and 15 minutes. The swell flooded the electrical system and they were adrift. They had to get rid of the engine that cost them $2,000 and the gas drums they had for the trip. If the Coast Guard found them with that equipment they could be in serious legal trouble.

Yoendry Batista worked clandestinely in Panama City until he got the resources to continue on his way to the United States. (The New Herald)

“The Cuban Coast Guard appeared around noon. My wife had fainted from lack of food and dehydration. They had us handcuffed and in the sun picking up other rafters for hours. That August 12 they collected 32 rafters whose boats had broken down,” explains Batista.

Dehydrated and hungry they were exposed to the sun all afternoon on the deck of the boat and were taken to the port of Mariel. After being fined 3,000 pesos, they were released. “What saved you is that we are making preparations for the Commander-in-Chief’s birthday celebration,” the head of the military unit told them. August 13, 2016 was the culmination of a program of celebrations to commemorate the 90 years of the old ex-president Fidel Castro, who died three months later.

Without money, they returned to Havana to try to build a new boat. “We spent sleepless nights thinking what to do with a debt of $10,000 without even having left the country. In Puerto Padre the investigations began and Yudenny’s time was running out. It occurred to them to bribe a policeman to “throw them through the system.” Because they had no criminal records they could apply for a passport and travel legally to Guyana.

“We paid $100 to the police and because we had no priors we got our passports (which cost $100 per person). That’s how we traveled to Guyana and from there we embarked on the journey to the United States,” explains Sao.

From Guyana they went to Brazil, where she was employed domestically for some months. Her husband worked as a builder, not without being cheated by those who saw undocumented migrants as cheap labor with no rights.

“He worked in malls. On one occasion they promised 100 reals a week and in the end they paid him 40,” says Sao. Her husband, on the other hand, has good memories of the towns where he spent the time. “You get another image of these countries because it is not what they tell you in Cuba. In these countries there are many people with good hearts and they help the migrant,” he says.

Yudenny Sao Labrada and her husband Yoendry Batista in the house where they took refuge in Panama City. (El Nuevo Herald)

After collecting some money they left with another 60 Cubans via the Amazon river and after more than 20 days of travel crossed Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The Darien jungle was the most difficult for Sao, diabetic and hypertensive.

“I did not want to continue, but my family sent us 200 dollars from Cuba. That, together with what we had earned, allowed us to pay the guides who guided us through the jungle,” explains Cao.

In Panama they took refuge with the Catholic charity Caritas, where they received the news of the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy. They stayed with Caritas until they were forced to leave for the eventual transfer to the holding camp at Gualaca. “I don’t care where, it can be Haiti, but I cannot go back to Cuba,” she says with regret.

The house where Sao and her husband took refuge in Panama City, after escaping from Gualaca, belonged to some Panamanians they met through Cáritas. During the weeks they stayed in it they refurbished, cleaned up the gardens and planted bananas.

“We are not going to pick the crop. Of that you can be sure,” says Batista.

A week after telling their story to this newspaper they left for Costa Rica, where the authorities seized their passports. They continued their journey and are now in Mexico, waiting for a humanitarian visa to continue their way to the United States and seek political refuge.

“The Cuban government is responsible for everything we’ve been through. Everything you have to do to have a decent life depends on them. To buy a pair of shoes for your children you have go without eating for five months,” says Sao, adding that she never would have left her village if it weren’t for the crime imputed to her. “It’s a macabre system.”

Note: Our apologies for not having the following video subtitled in English


This article is part of the series “A New Era in Cuban Migration” produced by 14ymedio,  Nuevo Herald and Radio Ambulante under the auspices of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Panama Offers $1,650 and Return Ticket to Cuba for Migrants Stranded In Gualaca

Like other migrants, the family of Nirvia Alvarez is not satisfied with the proposal of the Panamanian authorities. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 7 July 2017 – On Friday, Panama’s deputy minister of security, Jonathan del Rosario, offered Cubans stranded at the Gualaca camp $1,650, plus a ticket back to Havana and a multiple-entry visa for Panama, at a meeting to which 14ymedio had access.

The proposal, which the migrants will have until July 31 to accept, is the response promised by the Panamanian government to solve the crisis caused by the end of the United States’ wet foot/dry foot policy in January, which left Cubans already in Panama stranded.

“This option is a voluntary repatriation process. It is the way to obtain a visa to return to Panama legally and have seed capital to procure a different future for you and your family,” del Rosario told more than 100 Cubans in front of the temporary shelter where they are living. continue reading

The economic aid will be delivered at the airport, before the migrants board the flight that takes them to Cuba. Those who do not want to avail themselves of the Panama government’s offer could return to the point where they entered the country, or continue their journey undocumented.

“That’s all they have given us,” Yelisvarys Pargas, a migrant to Gualaca, told 14ymedio, because although the proposal appears good, he distrusts the Cuban authorities.

To attend the meeting, the deputy minister traveled by helicopter to the camp, an area of 104 acres far from any population center in the east of the country. The Panama government had transferred 128 Cubans there in April, after closing a temporary shelter maintained by Caritas in Panama City. Nine migrants escaped from the shelter of Gualaca, which is guarded by the presidential police and Migration and Public Security personnel.

“Panama and Cuba have diplomatic relations, and we have consulted representatives of the consulate and the Cuban embassy in the country about this option,” said the deputy minister.

Panama’s Deputy Minister of Security, Jonathan del Rosario (right), met with the Cuban migrants in Gualaca. (14ymedio)

The Panamanian authorities are also allowing migrants to pre-register for a application for a visa that would allow them, once in Cuba, to get an interview at the Panamanian consulate to obtain a tourist visa. With this visa they will be able to travel to Panama to make purchases for their businesses, according to the deputy minister. For migrants who have been away from Cuba for more than two years and so have lost their right, under Cuban law, to reside in the island, the Panamanian Government would facilitate the process of their return to the country.

Addis Torres, who was with her 13-year-old son and her husband in the shelter was devastated by the news. “I will continue, I cannot return to Cuba at this point. I will continue,” Torres said after the meeting with the deputy minister.

Nirvia Alvarez, another of the migrants said in a voice filled by emotion that Rosario’s proposal left her “on the verge of a heart attack.”

“After six months in this desperate wait and now they come out with this shit. I do not have a house in Cuba, I have nothing, because I sold everything I had. Go back, why? To live under a bridge?” protested the migrant, who is accompanied by her 11-year-old son and her husband.

When asked about the migrants, del Rosario explained that there are no options to emigrate to third countries. “To this day we have had no response from any country,” he explained. Nor did he open the door to regularizing the status of the Cubans in Panama, since the entry of migrants in an undocumented way precludes any kind of formalities for their regularization.

“There are other countries that have different migratory policies, maybe some of you want to return legally to Ecuador, what we can’t do is send you to a third country if we do not have the guarantee that the third country will welcome you,” said del Rosario.

After the presentation of the deputy minister, many of the migrants expressed their doubts about the proposal, arguing that Cuba is not a state of laws and that is why they fled the government of the Island.

Faced with the reluctance of migrants, del Rosario said that so far none of the people who have been returned to Cuba (more than 90 since the signing of the deportation agreement between Cuba and Panama) have filed a complaint at the Panamanian embassy to denounce the violation of their basic rights. “You have free will,” said del Rosario.

Persecution Grows Against Independent Journalism In Cuba

Independent journalists Sol García Basulto and Henry Constantín Ferreiro. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 26 June 2017 — Independent communicators in Cuba are victims of an escalating repression, according to a complaint filed Monday by the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), based in Madrid. The alarm sounded by the organization coincides with an increase in complaints from journalists on the island as a result of the government persecutions and obstacles they suffer when exercising their profession.

“Last June 20 Henry Constantín and Sol Garcia, journalists for La Hora de Cuba and contributors to 14ymedio, were not able to participate in an event in Miami because each of them has been indicted for the alleged crime of “‘usurpation of legal capacity’ [that is practicing a profession without a license to do so] and so under Cuban law they are not permitted to travel outside the country,” OCDH reported.

According to the non-governmental organization, the Cuban government had maintained a kind of “moratorium” with regards to repression against independent journalists, but the strategy seems to have changed in recent weeks with actions such as those carried out against Henry Constantin, Sol Garcia Basulto and Manuel Alejandro Leon Velázquez. continue reading

Both Constantín and García Basulto have been expressly forbidden to practice journalism on the island and the judicial process opened against them has been criticized from various international forums, including the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

Human rights lawyer and activist Laritza Diversent explained that there are more than 300 items within the Penal Code to crack down on dissent and journalism on the island

The OCDH also denounced the arrest of journalist Manuel Alejandro León Velázquez, a contributor to Radio Martí and Diario de Cuba . Leon returned from a trip to Spain and has been accused of “usurpation of legal capacity, association to commit a crime and dissemination of false news,” according to the organization.

The accusations against the three communicators are based on Article 149 of the Cuban Penal Code, which punishes those who carry out “acts of a profession for the exercise of which one is not properly qualified.” If they are tried for this offense they could face a sentence of up to one year of deprivation of liberty.

In Cuba, all the media belong to the State, according to the Constitution of 1976. However, the absence of a Media Law has allowed the independent press to flourish with sites such as El Estornudo, El Toque, Cubanet, CiberCuba, Diario de Cuba, Periodismo de Barrio, On Cuba, among others.

In Cuba, all the media belong to the State, according to the Constitution of 1976. However, the absence of a Media Law has allowed the independent press to flourish

Human rights lawyer and activist Laritza Diversent, who recently became a refugee in the United States, explained to 14ymedio via telephone that there are over 300 items within the Penal Code to crack down on dissent and journalism on the island.

“State Security is looking for different strategies to prosecute all types of dissidents or critics in Cuba,” explained Diversent, president of the legal group Cubalex, who went into exile after a police and State Security operation against her.

“Both illegal economic activity and the usurpation of legal capacity are nothing more than resources to punish any type of activism within the Island. Legal insecurity is very high because both the criminal law and the criminal procedure law have been designed as tools of repression,” said Diversent.

Independent journalist Maykel Gonzalez Vivero, who was arrested last October in Guantanamo and suffered the confiscation of his tools of the trade while covering the recovery in Baracoa after the passage of Hurricane Matthew, confirmed the difficulties of practicing the profession on the island.

“We do not have a law that supports us and protects the exercise of journalism, we are at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the authorities”

“We do not have a law that supports us and protects the exercise of journalism, we are at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the authorities,” he said. On that occasion, a team of correspondents from Periodismo de Barrio suffered the same fate as Gonzalez Vivero.

Other independent publications, such as Convivencia magazine, have been harassed during the last year with the arrest of members of its editorial team and threats by the authorities against its contributors. Foreign correspondent Fernando Ravsberg has been threatened with expulsion from the country and even with “having his teeth broken” for the critical entries he publishes in his personal blog Cartas desde Cuba.

Last year the IAPA emphasized, however, the timid rebellion of some official journalists against the information policy directed from the Communist Party. Among the examples cited by the IAPA was a letter signed by young journalists published by the Villa Clara newspaper Vanguardia, in which they claimed their right to collaborate with other media.

The IAPA also recalled the case of a Radio Holguin journalist Jose Ramirez Pantoja, expelled from the profession for five years for making public the remarks delivered at a conference where Karina Marrón, deputy editor of the official daily Granma, compared the country’s situation to that of the 1990s when massive protests occurred in Havana, which came to be known as the Maleconazo.

“We Exist Between Illusions And Fears”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, David (Panama), 23 June 2017 — The green seems to fill everything in Chiriquí, in the western Panamanian province where the government hosts 126 undocumented Cubans in a camp in the region of Gualaca. The stillness of the morning in the middle of the huge pines that grow in the foothills of the mountains is only interrupted by the bites of insects, a true torture at dawn and dusk.

“This place is beautiful, but everything gets tiring, being in limbo is exhausting,” says Yosvani López, a 30-year-old Cuban who arrived in Gualaca in April after spending three months in the hostel set up by Caritas for Cuban migrants in Panama City.

“Sometimes we sit down and talk about what we would do if we could get out of here and get to another country. Some relatives tell us that they are preparing a camp in Canada to welcome us, others tell us that they have everything prepared to deport us. Illusions and fears,” he laments. continue reading

The camp that houses the Cubans was built by the Swiss brigades which, in the 1970’s, built the La Fortuna dam. It is 104 acres, occupied mostly by forests and a stream. One hour from the nearest city, the humidity is such that mushrooms and plants establish themselves even in the fibrocement roof tiles.

A day in the migrant camp for Cubans stranded in Gualaca, Panama (our apologies for not having this video subtitled).

Along with the wooden buildings, deteriorated by the passage of time, there are still satellite antennas, electric heaters and, according to the migrants, from time to time they find foreign currencies buried in the vacant land.

López was born in Caibarién, a city on the north coast of Cuba. Although he had the opportunity to emigrate using a speed boat to cross the Florida Straits, he preferred the jungle route to avoid the seven years moratorium on being able to return to Cuba that the government imposes on those who leave Cuba illegally.

“I wanted to go back before 7 years was up. I have my mother and my sisters in Cuba,” he explains.

He worked as a chef specializing in seafood at the Meliá hotel in the cays north of Villa Clara, earning the equivalent of $25 US a month. With the money from the sale of his mother’s house he traveled via Guyana and in Panama he was taken by surprise by the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy that allowed Cubans who reached American soil to stay.

“Here we pass the hours between chats with our relatives in Cuba and the United States, and searching the news for clues that will tell us what is going to happen to us,” he says.

The migrants in Gualaca not only do not have permission to work, but they can only leave the camp one day a week to go to Western Union, with prior notice and accompanied by presidential police officers, who are guarding the site.

Some, however, have improvised coffee sales and even a barbershop. The locals also set up a small shop to supply the undocumented immigrants with the personal care products and treats, which they pay for with remittances sent by relatives from the United States.

Some migrants have taken the opportunity to develop their talents, such as this young man who set up a barber shop in the Gualaca camp. (14ymedio)

The authorities gave themselves 90 days to decide what they would do with the 126 Cubans who accepted the proposal to go to Gualaca. Two months later, the patience of the migrants is beginning to wear thin. At least six escapes have been reported since they were moved there. The last one, on Monday, was led by four Cubans, two of whom have already returned to the camp while two crossed the border into Costa Rica.

Since dawn, Alejandro Larrinaga, 13, and his parents have been waiting for some news about their fate. Surrounded by adults, Alejandro has only one other child to play in the hostel, Christian Estrada, 11. Neither has attended school for a year and a half, when they left Havana.

Alejandro spent more than 50 days in the jungle and, as a result of severe dehydration, he suffered epilepsy and convulsed several times. “It was difficult to go through it. It’s not easy to explain: it is one thing to tell it and another to live it,” he says with an intonation that makes him seem much more adult.

“We had to see dead people, lots of skulls. I was afraid of losing my mom and dad,” he recalls. But, although tears appear in the eyes of his mother while he recalls those moments, now he says he feels safe in Gualaca and spends his days playing chess.

“I want to be a chess master, which is more than a champion. Someday I will achieve it,” he says.

His mother, Addis Torres, does not want to return to the Island where she has nothing left because she sold their few belongings to be able to reunite with Alejandro’s grandfather, who lives in the United States. Although they have a process of family reunification pending at the US Embassy in Havana, the family does not want to hear about returning to Cuba.

They eat three times a day and even have a health program financed by the Panamanian government, but for Torres “that’s not life.”

“Detained, without a future, afraid to return to Cuba. We need someone to feel sorry for us and, in the worst case, to let us stay here,” she says.

Liuber Pérez Expósito is a guajiro from Velasco, a town in Holguín where he grew garlic and corn. After the legalization of self-employment by the Cuban government, Pérez began to engage in trade and intended to improve things by going to the US.

The presidential police and Panama Immigration officers guard the entrance of the camp Los Planes, Gualaca. (14ymedio)

In Gualaca he feels “desperate” to return to his homeland, but he has faith that, at least, he will get the help promised by the Panamanian Deputy Minister of Security, and leave a door open to engage in trade.

“I am here against what my family’s thinking. There (in Cuba) I have my wife, my nine-year-old son and my parents, they want me to come back and pressure me but I am waiting for the opportunity to at least recover some of the 5,000 dollars I spent,” he says.

His mother-in-law, an ophthalmologist who worked in Venezuela, lent him part of the money for the trip. Indebted, without money and without hope, he only thinks of the moment he can return.

“During the day we have nothing to do. Sometimes we play a little dominoes, we walk or we go to the stream, but we have 24 hours to think about how difficult this situation is and the failure we are experiencing,” he says.

Liuber communicates with his family through Imo, a popular videochat application for smartphones. “They recently installed Wi-Fi in Velasco and they call me whenever they can,” he adds.

“Hopefully, this nightmare we are living will end soon. Whatever happens, just let it end,” he says bitterly.


This article is a part of the series “A New Era in Cuban Migration” produced by this newspaper, 14ymedioel Nuevo Herald and Radio Ambulante under the auspices of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Martha Beatriz Roque: “The Cuban Opposition Has Not Found The Right Path”

Cuban opposition activist Martha Beatriz Roque attended a celebration for the anniversary of independence at the CANF headquarters in Miami. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miamia, 25 May 2017 — On the verge of being operated on in Miami for a traumatic cataract caused by a punch from a Cuban State Security agent during one of the many acts of repudiation against her, the dissident and former political prisoner Martha Beatriz Roque was forceful in evaluating the trajectory of the opposition on the island, which in her judgment, “has not found the right way to reach the people.”

“We have to engage with the people and in that interaction we have to transmit to them the reality of the regime, ideas that the people understand,” Roque told 14ymedio last Monday at the headquarters of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), where she attended a celebration of the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence. continue reading

Roque was the only woman of the group of 74 dissidents who were arrested, tried and condemned to long sentences for crimes against the security of the state in 2003, an event known as the Black Spring that shocked international public opinion. That was her second conviction; in 1997 she was tried for writing the document “The Nation Belongs to Everyone” when she was part of the Working Group of the Internal Dissidence.

“Often the opponents go out into the street and shout ‘Down with Fidel, down with Raul, long live human rights,’ but people don’t even know what their rights are”

“Often the opponents go out into the street and shout ‘Down with Fidel, down with Raul, long live human rights,’ but people don’t know what human rights are, often they don’t even know what their rights are,” she added.

The opponent recalled how the demonstrators sent by the government itself often shout, “Down with human rights!”

“We have to reach the people through things that interest them. The Cuban opposition hasn’t found a strategy that links to the people and their problems,” she said.

The government opponent believes that the people have not been allowed to talk about their rights for a long time, so it is useless to try to explain hypothetical proposals for reforms in the Constitution.

In her opinion, among the serious problems that Cuba is experiencing is the absence of a future.

“Cubans have no future, so they want to emigrate because they know that Cuba has no future. We must try to make people understand the importance of building that future,” she added.

On the Venezuelan situation and its repercussions on the island, Roque believes that Raúl Castro’s government “fears” the consequences that could come with the end of Chavismo, to which is now added the increasingly clear position of the American president, Donald Trump, on the policy towards Cuba.

“I think things are going to change a lot in Cuba if they change in Venezuela,” she said. She also said that the path found by the Venezuelan opposition was very difficult for Cuban dissident groups, because the conditions are very different.

“I think things are going to change a lot in Cuba if they change in Venezuela”

Roque believes that the absence of concrete actions against the Raul Castro government by the Trump administration “gave the regime a lot of strength to continue repressing the opposition” and in particular to groups “that annoy them a lot.”

The 72-year-old woman does not believe that significant changes should be expected from Raul Castro’s promise to step down as president of the Council of State in 2018.

“Castro does not leave power, he continues to lead the Party and in Cuba the Communist Party is who has power, which means that he’s not going to leave power at all,” she added, adding that the advent of new figures such as current vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel will not mean a change in the system.

“Diaz-Canel is a puppet who just opens his mouth when they tell him to say what they want him to say,” she added.

Despite the grim picture, the dissident says that there is “slow movement” within the opposition in Cuba and that this year will see the first fruits of “the long struggle of the exile and opposition to bring freedom to the island.”

Cuban Professionals Are Afraid In Venezuela

”Cubans Out!” The Venezuelan opposition sees Cuban doctors as an opposition army. (Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 18 May 2017 — Seen from the Venezuelan opposition as an army of occupation and from the Venezuelan government as soldiers of socialism, tens of thousands of Cuban professionals live a situation that is complicated day after day in convulsive Venezuela. The Cuban government has asked them to stay “until the last moment,” but misery, fear and violence are overwhelming athletes, doctors and engineers.

“We are not soldiers and we did not come to Venezuela to put a rifle on our shoulders,” says a Cuban doctor from the state of Anzoátegui who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

According to the physician, who has been working for two years in the country, Havana has asked them to remain “with honor until the last moment,” in a clear allusion to the possible fall of the Venezuelan government. continue reading

“We are working under a lot of pressure because the Medical Mission is adept at continuing to insist that services not be closed and that we maintain our position here in spite of everything,” he adds.

“We are afraid every day about what could happens to us. Sometimes they throw stones at us or they yell all kinds of insults at us. Every day there are demonstrations in front of the medical unit and nobody protects us”

In Venezuela there are about 28,000 health workers and thousands of others who are sports instructors, engineers, agricultural technicians and even electricians. The model of paying for Cuban professional services through the export of oil to Cuba has never been clearly exposed by the Venezuelan government.

According to Nicolás Maduro, since Chavez came to power, more than 250 billion dollars have been invested in the so-called “missions.” The former Minister of Economy of the Island, José Luis Rodríguez, published last April that Cuba received 11.5 billion dollars a year in payment for professional services rendered abroad, most of which comes from Venezuela. Other sources consider, however, that this is a very inflated number, although Havana’s profits are undoubtedly very high.

“We are afraid every day about what could happens to us. Sometimes they throw stones at us at the CDI [Centro de Diagnóstico Integral, doctor’s offices] or they yell all kinds of insults at us. Every day there are demonstrations in front of the medical unit and nobody protects us,” explains the doctor.

“So far they only attack us with words. They shout at us to get out of here, that they do not want to see themselves like us and other atrocities,” he adds.

The doctor, however, assures that those who work in the missions also do not want to be in that situation, but they are forced by the Cuban Government, that exerts pressure through diverse mechanisms.

“If we leave, we lose the frozen accounts maintained for us in Cuba. Also, if you leave the mission you are frowned upon in the health system and you have no possibility of being promoted,” he explains.

The Cuban government deposits $200 a month in a frozen account that at the end of the three years the mission lasts in Venezuela, totals $7,200. If the professional maintained “proper conduct and did their duty,” they can withdraw that money upon their return to the island. If they return before the established period or their participation in the mission is revoked (among other reasons for attempting to escape) they lose all that money.

In Cuba 250 dollars a month are deposited that can be withdrawn when the professional on the mission visits the Island once a year. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, they receive 27,000 bolivars, less than 10 dollars a month.

“If we leave, we lose the frozen accounts maintained for us in Cuba. Also, if you leave the mission you are frowned upon in the health system and you have no possibility of being promoted”

In the case of health technicians, Cuba pays them 180 dollars in a current account and another 180 dollars a month in an account frozen until the end of the mission.

A Cuban radiologist who is in the Venezuelan state of Zulia explains that for months they have no “Mercal,” a bag of food delivered by the Government of Venezuela.

“We live in overcrowded conditions with several colleagues and we do not even have potable water,” he adds.

“Thanks to some patients we can eat, but they are having a very bad time. We are repeating something like the Special Period that we experienced in Cuba,” he says.

Although he fears for his life because of the situation in the country, he says he is determined not to return to the island. “We have to endure until the end. It is not fair to lose everything after so much sacrifice,” he says.

Venezuelan protesters with a banner that reads “Cuba Out”

Following the outbreak of the protests in Venezuela, Cuban aid workers have been directed not to leave their homes and have experienced reduced communications with their families in Cuba.

Following the outbreak of the protests in Venezuela, Cuban aid workers have been directed not to leave their homes and have experienced reduced communications with their families in Cuba

“The internet is very bad, you can not even communicate. We have been forbidden to go out after six o’clock in the afternoon, as if we were slave labor, and on television they broadcast news that has nothing to do with what we are living through,” he explains.

Julio César Alfonso, president of Solidarity Without Borders, a Miami-based nonprofit organization that helps Cuban health personnel integrate into the US system, says the exodus of professionals has increased in recent weeks.

“Even without the US Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed doctors to obtain refuge in the United States, they continue to escape because of the situation in Venezuela,” said the physician.

Alfonso added that his organization is lobbying to re-establish the Parole Program, eliminated by former President Barack Obama in January, and allowing more than 8,000 Cuban professionals to enter the United States.

Eddy Gómez is an critical care doctor who worked in the state of Cojedes in western Venezuela. He decided to escape because he was afraid of the difficult conditions in which he was forced to work.

“We had to work in dirty places, without air conditioning, exposed to the fact that even the patients insulted us because we nothing to treat them with,” recalls the doctor who now lives in Bogota and acts as spokesperson for dozens of other professionals who escaped medical missions.

“We left Cuba looking for a better life, but in Venezuela we discovered a real hell”

“After the end of Medical Parole program people have continued to escape and come to Colombia. There are more than 50 professionals who left Venezuela after President Obama’s decision to eliminate it. We hope that Trump will admit doctors again,” says Gómez.

To escape Venezuela, the Cubans have to pay the coyotes about $650 to take them to Colombia. The path, full of dangers, includes a bribe to Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard that protects the borders, and to whom they must be careful not to show their official passports issued to them by the Cuban government because they would immediately be deported to the Island.

“There are many Cubans who have died violently in Venezuela, but the Cuban government does not tell the truth to their families, nor does it pay them compensation,” explains the doctor.

“We left Cuba looking for a better life, but in Venezuela we discovered a real hell.”

‘El Sexto’ Will Stay In The US But Will Continue To Fight Against Arbitrary Detentions In Cuba

A simple message with the words ‘He left’ written on a wall of the Habana Libre hotel sent the artist Danilo Maldonado, known as ‘El Sexto’, to jail last November. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 15 May 2017 — The artist Danilo Maldonado, known as ‘El Sexto’ (The Sixth), announced his desire to reside in the United States, although he will remain attentive to what happens in Cuba to be able to denounce the arbitrary detentions.

Maldonado, whose girlfriend, Alexandra Martinez, is a US citizen, declined to respond to a request from 14ymedio to confirm his decision to remain in the United States. For her part, Martinez said that the artist was not going to give statements on the matter. continue reading

El Sexto recently concluded the exhibition Angels and Demons in San Francisco, where he staged a three-day performance in which he was enclosed in a replica of the punishment cell in Havana’s Combinado del Este prison where he was held.

The artist has been arrested three times for political reasons.

In 2014 he tried to stage a performance titled “Animal Farm,” in which he intended to release two pigs with the names Fidel and Raul painted on their sides. Although he never managed to stage the performance, it cost him 10 months in Valle Grande prison, on the outskirts of Havana.

The artist has been arrested three times for political reasons

In the dark hours of the morning after the announcement of the death of Fidel Castro, Danilo wrote “He left” on one of the walls of the Habana Libre Hotel, which cost him another 55 days in prison.

“This can not be a one-day protest, right now this is happening in many countries, even our neighbors, and we have to report it,” Maldonado told EFE in reference to repressive actions against dissidents and human rights activists.

During the 36 hours of the performance in San Francisco, titled AmnestyEl Sexto remained without food in solidarity with the Cuban political prisoners Eduardo Cardet and Julio Ferrer, among others. The artist also dedicated his hunger strike to Leopoldo López and the other Venezuelan political prisoners.

Maldonado took the pseudonym El Sexto (The Sixth), with which he signed his graffiti on the streets of Havana, as an ironic response to the Cuban government’s campaign for the return of the so-called “Cuban Five,” five spies who were then in prison in the United States.

In 2015, Danilo Maldonado, 34, received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, awarded to activists “who engage in creative dissent, exhibiting courage and creativity to challenge injustice and live in truth.”

Laritza Diversent and Cubalex Begin Their Life In Exile

Laritza Diversent (center) before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami/Havana, 4 May 2017 — The team at the Cubalex Legal Information Center and its director, attorney Laritza Diversent, have obtained political refuge in the United States following the intensification of repression against the nonprofit organization dedicated to legally advising Cubans.

Diversent, told 14ymedio, from a stop at Miami International Airport this Thursday, that this was a “very hard” time for her and her team.

“We are saddened that we can not continue to provide legal advice to people within Cuba, especially to many of the prisoners we helped, but since last September our work has not been safe in Cuba,” he said. continue reading

On September 23, 2016, agents of the Interior Ministry raided the Cubalex headquarters in Havana and confiscated their work equipment as well as two hundred files of people who were advised by the organization.

“We are saddened that we can not continue to provide legal advice to people within Cuba, especially to many of the prisoners we helped, but since last September our work has not been safe in Cuba”

One day before her departure from the country, the lawyer was summoned by the Attorney General’s Office to inform her of the legal proceedings brought against her by the authorities.

“It seems it is a new strategy to raid the headquarters of organizations. It already happened with Convivencia and with Somos+,” recalls the lawyer.

Diversent explained that she was accused of violating self-employment regulations.

“The State assumes that as we receive financing from abroad we hire people. As legal guardianship is not recognized as an activity to be carried out independently we are accused of violating the law,” she says.

She also reported that they had told a “string of lies” about supposed gifts given by her in exchange for speeding up procedures to legalize her home.

The Prosecutor’s Office ruled against a ban on her leaving the country, Diversent was able to verify. “They told me they knew I was working on the immigration process, and that they would allow me to leave, but that if I returned they would activate the investigation again,” she said.

“They threatened to accuse me of forgery and bribery if I returned to Cuba.”

The lawyer says that independent organizations such as hers are a direct target of State Security and are exposed to all kinds of harassment by the Government.

The lawyer says that independent organizations such as hers are a direct target of State Security and are exposed to all kinds of harassment by the Government

“State Security is aimed directly at us. The international community does not have a strong position with the Government, so we are subject to double discrimination: that of the State that calls us terrorists and mercenaries and that of international organizations and countries that do not support us because they seek to maintain good relations with the Cuban government,” she said.

Family reasons also carried great weight in this decision:

“I am a human rights activist, but I am also a mother. I have a son 17 and I don’t want anything to happen to him. In the case of women, the first thing they do is attack their children,” she said.

Diversent explained that she will be based in the state of Tennessee and that the rest of his colleagues will travel in three groups between May 25 and June 5.

The organization, based in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo in Havana and founded in 2010, provides legal advice but is not legally recognized within the island, despite the numerous reports it has drafted for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, among other international organizations.

In July of last year the government refused to legalize Cubalex, after ruling that in Cuba no independent legal aid organizations are needed because “the State already defends the people.”

In July of last year the government refused to legalize Cubalex, after ruling that in Cuba no independent legal aid organizations are needed because “the state already defends the people”

Cubalex members, who have received refugee status, will be based in different states of the United States. However, the lawyer is confident that they will be able to meet at some point to restart the work. For now they have dismissed Miami as a possible site.

Two members of the group, Julio Iglesias and Julio Ferrer, must remain in the country because they are under criminal proceedings or in prison. Ferrer received a change of the precautionary measures against him this week.

“It really hurts me, what is happening to those in Cuba because of the commitment they have made to the people and the work they have done,” Diversent said.

The lawyer explained that for nine months they have been denouncing “violations of due process” in those cases but have not been able to do anything despite exhausting all the resources.

Following the raid on Cubalex’s headquarters, Amnesty International called for urgent action to “call on the Cuban authorities to allow members of Cubalex and other human rights lawyers and activists to operate freely without harassment or intimidation.”

“Cubalex will be legalized in the United States and will continue its work from here focused on supporting civil society organizations on the island”

Laritza Diversent’s trip to the US coincides with Thursday’s release of a communiqué from the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), which reports that there have been 1,809 arbitrary detentions in the first four months of 2017.

In April alone, the organization documented 467 arbitrary arrests, of which 335 were women, 132 were men and 147 were black people, ten of whom were “brutally beaten,” according to the activists.

The OCDH has stressed that a climate of repression prevails “at a time when the Cuban Government has achieved important international support like the European Union and the Government of Spain,” and warns that “in the coming months the political climate may be aggravated, as a result of certain nervousness of the Government before the difficult economic and social situation that is facing Cuba.”

Diversent agrees.

“There is much to be done in international human rights organizations. There is a lot to do with the organizations that are inside Cuba, to support them,” she explains.

“Cubalex will be legalized in the United States and will continue its work from here focused on supporting civil society organizations on the Island.”

Police Raid Rafters’ Homes Looking for a Boat Stolen From the Army

Solainy Salazar with her husband José Yans Pérez Jomarrón and their two children. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 26 April 2017 — Cuban police are searching for a boat stolen from the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and to find it they are raiding houses of former rafters, according to Solainy Salazar, whose husband tried to leave the island several times. That was the justification given by the authorities, including several State Security agents, who searched her home on Monday.

“I was resting next to my four-year-old boy when the neighbors called me and I discovered the officers who were searching my yard,” says Salazar by phone from San Miguel del Padrón in Havana.

“They came into the house and told me they were going to search everything because they were looking for an inflatable boat and that I and my husband were accomplices to the theft,” she adds. continue reading

José Yans Pérez Jomarrón, Salazar’s husband, has tried unsuccessfully to escape from Cuba six times, but has been intercepted by the Cuban Coast Guard or returned to the authorities of the island by its American counterparts. On his last voyage he took refuge, with some twenty Cubans, in a lighthouse 30 kilometers northeast of Key West.

José Yans Pérez Jomarrón, Salazar’s husband, has tried unsuccessfully to escape from Cuba six times, but has been intercepted by the Cuban or American Coast Guard and returned to the island

Although most of the rafters managed to be admitted a special program that gives them the opportunity to be relocated in a third country, because they were able to demonstrate “credible fear” of being persecuted in Cuba, for Pérez Jomarrón the outcome was different.

“When I finished my military service they offered me a job with the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). As an inexperienced boy I agreed and when the immigration agents in the United States learned that I had once belonged to that repressive organ, they returned me to Cuba,” explains the rafter-turned-entrepreneur who at the moment is in Guyana looking at the possibility of some business linked to his commercial activity.

Police and State Security agents accused Solayni Salazar of being an accomplice in the theft of the boat and described all the members of her family as antisocial and counterrevolutionary. “They offended me with their words as much as they wanted and when I threatened them with filing a complaint they were indifferent, because they know nothing is going to happen to them,” says the wife, age 31.

“They threatened to arrest me. But they never brought the witnesses (required by law) when they did the search and they never showed me a court order to enter my home. And they did all this in front of my little boy,” she says.

In addition, she says, she was told that her husband was in Guyana escaping from the law, an argument that Salazar considers “completely false.”

Salazar believes that the authorities are persecuting her family due to her husband’s multiple attempts to illegally exit the country and because of his opposition to the government

“I fear for what will happen to my husband when he returns from the trip. Surely they will try to arrest him or persecute him for a crime he has not committed,” she says.

Salazar believes that the authorities are persecuting her family due to her husband’s multiple attempts to illegally exit the country and because of his opposition to the government.

“They do not want to give me jobs in state institutions. It’s a way to persecute those who disagree with official politics,” says José Yans from Georgetown via telephone.

The situation is increasingly complex for the Cuban authorities. “Now not only do we have to pay for a ‘crime’ we didn’t commit but we are suspected of everything else that happens in the country.”

Alfredo Mena, a rafter who tried four times to leave the island, was also searched last Wednesday.

Alfredo Mena, a rafter who tried four times to leave the island, was also searched last Wednesday

“They came to my house and broke down the door without a search warrant. They took me to the police unit and accused me of having stolen a boat belonging to the FAR (National Revolutionary Police),” says Mena, nicknamed El Pelú, by the locals.

“The officers who were dealing with me asked me why we wanted to go to the United States, because there they killed people like us and another series of lies,” he adds.

Mena, 50, a native of Granma province, says he was threatened with being “deported” to the East, because he resides in Havana without having an address officially registered in the capital.

Mena was fined 2,000 pesos for the crime of “receiving” for buying supplies for his work as a welder. Although he swears he is innocent, those metal parts are an indispensable component in the manufacture of the makeshift boats used to emigrate.

“Nothing they took had anything to do with the supposed theft of the boat. The only thing they do with these things is to reaffirm one’s desire to escape from such garbage,” he adds.

“Being A Teacher Is Not Profitable In Cuba But It Teaches You To Love”

The damages to educational quality caused by the lack of preparation of the “emerging teachers” remain to be measured. (Telesur)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Caridad Cruz/Mario Penton, Cienfuegos/Miami, 17 April 2017 – teaching children cursive writing and educating them is much more than a job for Adrian, an elementary school teacher in Ciego de Avila. His threadbare pants stained with chalk dust make clear that he is not one of those most favored by the economic changes on the island, even with the recent 200 Cuban peso (about $8 US) raise in his monthly salary, which he received for teaching 27 third graders, more than the state class size norms.

In January, Ministry of Education Resolution 31 decreed a selective salary increase of between 200 and 250 Cuban pesos for those teachers who have more students in their classrooms than the norms set for primary education. In the case of junior high and high schools, the teachers who teach more than one subject also receive a cash incentive. continue reading

“Money is not the main thing in life, rather it is fulfillment, and that is what my profession gives me,” says this 29-year-old “emergent” teacher, who graduated in the years in which the chronic absence of teachers made Fidel Castro launch his Battle of Ideas and graduate thousands of young people as teachers with just eight months of training.

At that time the hook used by the Government was exemption from compulsory military service and the possibility of getting a university degree in humanities without passing the qualifying exams.

Most of the young people who started the project left after the first years of work in one of the lowest paid professions in the country.

The damages to the quality of education caused by the lack of preparation of these emerging teachers remain to be measured, although with the arrival of Raúl Castro to the power in 2006, that program, like the other programs of the Battle of Ideas fell by the wayside.

“In January they raised the salary, but they do not want to call it a salary increase because it only affects those who have more than 25 children in the classroom, but at least it’s something,” he says.

At the beginning of the century, Cuba decided to limit class size to 20 students, but the chronic shortage of teachers and the exodus of professionals to other better paid work prevented this plan from being maintained.

“For years I did the same job and they did not pay me extra,” Adrian laments. “The workers union’s only purpose is to march on the first of May of the plaza. They never demand anything.”

Adrian has a salary of 570 pesos, about 23 dollars. He lives with his mother, a retired teacher of 68, and he is the family’s main support. His salary “is not enough,” he confesses, so he secretly sells treats among the students at recess.

“If it was not for that, I could not make ends meet,” he says. “After all, nobody can live on their salary in Cuba.”

The average salary of education professionals has hardly increased in recent years. In 2013 it was 512 pesos, two years later, 537 pesos

Teachers are not allowed to engage in business activities in schools, but many principals turn a blind eye to avoid losing the few experienced teachers they have left.

“They say that in some provinces, like Matanzas, the state sells food products to teachers at subsidized prices (above and beyond what is in the rationing system). If they did that, at least I would not have to sell candy,” he adds.

The average salary of education professionals has hardly increased in recent years. In 2013 it was 512 Cuban pesos, two years later, in 2015, official data confirm that the average wage is 537 pesos, the equivalent of about 21 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) per month.

The current real wage, after deducting accumulated inflation, is equivalent to only 28% of the 1989 purchasing power, according to calculations by economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago.

Adrian’s mother, Elisa, recalls the years when she began as a “Makarenko” teacher (a collectivist method created by the Russian pedagogue of the same name) in the ’60s and says that the difficulties now are nothing compared to what her generation experienced.

“We earned 87 pesos a month and to be a teacher you had to climb Pico Turquino (the highest mountain in Cuba) and teach in very different places. There is nothing like teaching, it is teaching a person to fly. It’s the best profession in the world. If I were born again I would be a teacher again,” she says.

In the past academic year 2015-2016, there were 4,218 fewer teachers compared to the previous year. The trend has been accentuated since the 2008-2009 academic year in which official statistics begin to reflect the massive hemorrhaging of educators.

Numbers of teachers in front of the classroom — 2005 to 2016. Source: Statistical yearbook of Cuba.

“Despite the salary of teachers and the conditions in which they perform their work, many remain in their posts. A driver in the city earns in one week what an education professional earns in a month,” says Elisa.

She receives a pension of 230 Cuban pesos a month, about 9 CUC. In the afternoons she has a small group of six children that she tutors for the price of 2 CUC per month each.

“I do it to help my son. We have to pay for the refrigerator, and life has become very expensive: a liter of oil costs almost a quarter of my retirement, and don’t even talk about the price of milk. Luckily I have an ulcer and they give me a ration of milk,” says the teacher.

Every afternoon Adrian collects the 27 notebooks of his students to review them carefully and correct the spelling mistakes. Jhonatán, “a javaito (Afro-Cuban) who escaped the devil,” helps him to carry them home.

“That nine-year-old boy’s mother was arrested because he was a jinetera (a prostitute). He lives with his father who is an alcoholic and who often beats him. The only signs of affection he receives are in school,” says Elisa.

“Being a teacher is not profitable but it teaches you to love,” the retired teacher says with emotion. “Sometimes Adriancito even buys the boy shoes because he has nothing to wear to school.”

A Small Cuban Town Lives With The Anguish Of The Disappearance Of 13 Rafters

In the image, twelve of the thirteen missing rafters who sailed from Cuba in December 2015. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 14 April 2017 — Juana Chiroles will never forget December 26, 2015. It was the last day she saw her son and her two nephews. As night fell the young men told her they were going to kill some pigs and had a rope and several implements. They never returned home.

Some days later she heard the news from people in the town: her relatives were among the 13 young people who left on a raft that night for the United States. Since then, the mothers of the small town of Modesto Serrano with 1,300 inhabitants in Artemisa province, “don’t sleep, don’t eat,” thinking about the fate of their family members.

The official silence and the absence of news suggests the worst, but Juana maintains the hope that her son is alive and will return home. continue reading

I’m a guajira with dirt on my feet and a little rough. I’ve never seen the internet and I don’t know anything about computers,” she says modestly on a static-filled call from a cellphone.

The woman, 54, explains that “you have to walk around to find cell coverage.”

Since January the US Coast Guard has only intercepted about 100 Cubans who were trying to cross the Florida Straits

Since the disappearance of her son, Alien Quintana Chiroles, 32, and her two nephews, Julián and Ronaldo Chiroles, 26 and 36 years respectively, they have done their best to find out about any rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard United States, she says.

However, they have not been successful. Their relatives sailed when the well-known wet foot/dry foot policy was in place that allowed Cubans who touched American territory to be accepted as refugees.

President Barack Obama ended this policy last January, during his last days in office, and since then the US Coast Guard has only intercepted about 100 Cubans who were trying to cross the Florida Straits. A figure very far from the almost 10,000 who tried to escape the island by sea in 2016.

“A week after the people left, we started to hear they had arrived in Florida. Since then we learned it was a lie,” she says sadly.

Besides the Juana Chiroles’s son, those on the precarious boat included Ronaldo Chiroles Évora, 26; Orlando Santos Lazo, 45; Alberto Rodriguez Beltrán, 27; Yariel Alzola Cid, 27; Leandro Évora Salazar, 41; Ailetis Llanes Padrón, 33; Eduardo Cano González, 40; Wilson González Piloto, 26; Yordan Ramos Hernández, 27; Dariel Mesa Arteaga and Luis Arrastria.

“A month before they left, a similar boat with people from the same town arrived in Miami. That was what twisted their heads and they went away hoping that they would also experience the same fate,” says Juana.

The US Coast Guard, for its part, said in a letter addressed to this newspaper that they also have no records on these rafters

A spokesman for the US Customs and Border Protection Office told 14ymedio that they do not have any information in their records that matches the names of the disappeared.

The US Coast Guard, for its part, said in a letter addressed to this newspaper that they also have no records of these rafters.

“What the families of the rafters experience is very dramatic. We have hundreds of reports of unresolved disappearances,” explains Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement, an organization of the Cuban exile that assists its compatriots.

“We have asked the United States government to establish a protocol to identify the bodies. So far, it does not exist and the bodies remain unidentified in the morgues until they are buried in mass graves,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez recognizes that after the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy the number of cases in which his organization helps has decreased substantially. However, he is concerned that what causes Cubans to try to escape from their country remains.

“President Obama (by ending the asylum policy for undocumented arrivals) created the figure of the undocumented Cuban rafter, who won’t show his face because he is afraid of being deported. We know that there is a dictatorship in Cuba, that is why Cubans escape and it has not been solved,” he says.

Between 2015 and 2016 there was a significant increase in the number of rafters

Last summer half of the crew of a raft handmade on the island disappeared in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and only the mummified remains of one of the rafters was found. The body carried the identity cards of two brothers who were among the crew of the boat.

Between 2015 and 2016 there was a significant increase in the number of rafters. “In the village of La Máquina, [a nearby area], several boats left until the police took action on the matter,” says Juana.

Her son tried four times to reach the United States. In one of his attempts he was picked up by a ship that delivered him back to the Cuban authorities. After paying a fine of 3,000 Cuban pesos, he continued to plan his next trip.

Juana studied engineering with a specialization in sugar chemistry, but was unable to exercise her profession following the collapse of the island’s sugar industry. She lives with her husband and cares for her younger brother, Felipe, affected by Down syndrome.

“I have a daughter and a seven-year-old granddaughter, my son Alien’s daughter. Her name is Alice Flor Quintana. Every day I tell her about her dad and I show her his photo so she will not forget him,” she says.

Convinced that “the love of mother can do anything,” Juana called on the Cuban authorities confirm that they had not been arrested for illegal exit from the country

Convinced that “the love of mother can do anything,” Juana called on the Cuban authorities to confirm that the rafters had not been arrested for illegal exit from the country. They told her no and they also did not know of any shipwreck in the days after the disappearance of her relatives.

“My hope is that at least they are at the Guantanamo Naval Base,” says the mother, knowing that rafters picked up by the US Coast Guard are often taken there. But 14ymedio has been able to corroborate that they are not there.

“My son is very beautiful and a great person, he is always happy, please, if anyone has seen him or knows where he is, help me find him,” she says, her voice breaking.

“The agony is immense. It has been a year since he left, but the pain is like the first day he left,” she concluded.