Transfermovil Starts Off On The Wrong Foot In Camaguey

A user tries to use the Transfermovil application for the Android operating system. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camagüey, 9 March, 2018 — The poor coordination between the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) and the Bank of Credit and Commerce (BANDEC) has meant that the activation of Transfermóvil, the mobile payment service, started off on the wrong foot in Camagüey. Individuals can not use it on their cell phones because, despite having the application, the state communications monopoly has not enabled the service.

“I downloaded the application directly from the it doesn’t work,” an employee of a downtown branch of this Camaguey bank affected by service problems told 14ymedio. As long as ETECSA is unable to register his mobile number and username, the only thing this employee can do is wait. continue reading

Transfermóvil is an application for smartphones with the Android operating system that was launched last year in other provinces of the Island. Since its arrival in Camagüey in January this year, the city’s banking offices have received hundreds of requests from customers who want to use this tool, but only ETECSA can register users for the mobile banking service.

“Initially we made a list of all those who requested mobile banking and for whom the service didn’t work; we sent their respective mobile numbers to the provincial address of BANDEC but they ignored the issue,” laments the bank worker.

After having been correctly registered by ETECSA, if a user wants to perform an operation with the application, they send messages through a USSD protocol and the state company responds to the subscriber’s cell phone via SMS to confirm the requested operation.

“When I learned virtual banking would start working in Cuba, I did not hesitate and set up my bank accounts to use it,” Yunior Jubitea, a young man who works in a private candy store in Camagüey, tells this newspaper. He has managed to make only a single payment in a fixed terminal of a branch, connected to the network, since he is still “not registered.”

A worker at BANDEC’s 5971 branch, in the historic center of the city, acknowledges that customers have returned with dissatisfaction because they do not receive the registration message that Etecsa must send.

“The answer I got at first was that the bank had no staff to process the applications at a national level,” explains Yusleysi, a manicurist in the neighborhood La Guernica who installed the application on her phone weeks ago.

“Later they told me that the problem was that BANDEC had not yet finalized the contracts with ETECSA,” complains the woman about the second version. Among the particular reasons that led her to join the service is to be able to pay her bills without spending so much time standing in line.

Despite its malfunction in the area, Transfermóvil “has almost the same functions as an ATM,” Julio García Trápaga, director of Development and Application Management of the Mobile Services Division of ETECSA explained recently to the official press. In 2017 there were around 20,000 mobile banking customers in the country.

Aside from paying bills for water, telephone and electricity, the tool also allows transfers between accounts in the same bank without the need to connect to the internet.

To use this service it is also essential to have a magnetic card, of which some 3.8 million have been issued so far. The goal of the banking authorities is to reach 7 million to alleviate the problems of scarcity of money in circulation and the long lines at ATMs to get cash.

The payment through mobile banking was enabled a year ago and is used jointly by the Banco Popular de Ahorro, the Banco Metropolitano and the Banco de Credito y Comercio. Its promoters assure that it is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“What always happens with technological advances in Cuba is that the state does not guarantee the infrastructure to support them,” the economist Karina Galvez of the Convivencia project told 14ymedio. “That discourages people and they continue to distrust everything that is not physical money.”

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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.

Blackouts and Annoyance Continue in Camagüey

In the city of Camagüey, the blackouts, which at first were sporadic and of short duration, have become an almost daily occurrence lasting several hours. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Camagüey, 20 February 2018 — Darkness and silence envelops the nights in the city of Camagüey since the fire at the 10 de Octubre Thermoelectric Company, in Nuevitas, on 25 January. Almost a month later, blackouts and annoyance continue to affect residents.

Brigades from various parts of the country are working under the direction of the Electric Union to repair the plant’s three power-generation blocks, which supply a total of 360 megawatts. However, so far none of them have been restored and the municipality of Nuevitas is mainly supplied with generators located in the town. continue reading

According to sources from the sector consulted by 14ymedio, the complexity of the work is great, since along with the replacement of what was damaged by the fire, a security review of the equipment is being undertaken and “some unforeseen events” have arisen in the process. The work is now forecast not to be completed until summer.

In the city of Camagüey, the blackouts, which at first were sporadic and of short duration, have become an almost daily occurrence lasting several hours.

“The worst thing is that they almost always happen when it’s time to cook,” laments Hermida Suárez who lives in the La Guernica neighborhood. “At that time of the day I have my grandchildren watching television while we prepare the food.”

Many Camagüey families cook with electricity after the Energy Revolution promoted by Fidel Castro at the beginning of this century. The program included the sale of electric cooking appliances at subsidized prices, to replace equipment that used kerosene. In addition, in 2016, thousands of induction cookers were also sold in the province.

The thermoelectric towers stand out against the blue sky without their usual trails of smoke and the absence of the humming of the generators raises daily fears of a new round of blackouts.

“The cuts in the electric service are not programmed, they occur when the demand exceeds the delivery capacity of the national network,” an employee of the Electric Company of Camagüey, who preferred anonymity, explains to 14ymedio. “The shutdown of the Nuevitas thermoelectric plant complicates everything,” he concludes.

According to the official press, the fire at the plant was caused by electrical overheating. The flames reached the system of buried cables and switches, which makes restoration more difficult.

Private businesses have been especially affected. Cafeterias, service outlets and mobile phone repair points are among the hardest hit by the lack of power.

“I’m a barber and all the equipment I use is electric,” says Ariel, in the town of Vertientes. “I bought an oil-powered electrical generator thinking about the hurricanes but now it’s exactly what I need with these blackouts.”

Last September the national electrical system suffered the onslaught of Hurricane Irma which caused numerous technological breakdowns in the 10 de Octubre Thermoelectric plant, but these were repaired in a short time. In 2014 the industry had completed capital repairs that cost more than 56 million pesos.

The Nuevitas generating plant runs off of Cuban crude, which has a higher sulfur content than imported oil. The quality of the raw material not only increases the combustion gas emissions, but also requires more frequent maintenance of the infrastructure.

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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.

Uncensored Internet in Camaguey Thanks to Alternative Networks

A woman connects to the internet through an alternative network that she captures from the doorway of her house in the city of Camagüey. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camaguey, 7 February 2018 — The city of Camagüey is experiencing an intense digital transformation thanks to independent wireless networks that connect thousands of users throughout the country. It is a complex framework that carries the Wi-Fi signal from the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) to all neighborhoods and also eliminates censorship.

In this city, in the center of the island, there are only nine wireless zones installed by the state telecommunications monopoly and the majority are located in the most central areas of the city.

In parallel, dozens of NanoStation or Mikrotik devices capture the signal and broadcast it. That web of connections not only offers a cheaper internet experience but one that is also free from censorship thanks to the fact that the flow of data passes through virtual private networks (VPNs). continue reading

Previously it was the users who, on an individual basis, made a joke of censorship through anonymous proxies. Now, it is the administrators of the nodes who are in charge of doing it.

“What started with some guys offering Wi-Fi connections through a laptop is now a well-structured business that takes the Internet to all neighborhoods,” one of the young administrators of one of the most popular networks, who prefers to be called “AA” (Anonymous Administrator), tells 14ymedio.

The official service costs 1 Cuban convertible peso (CUC) for each hour of navigation, but local entrepreneurs make it possible for the same connection to be shared among several users in order to reduce costs. The price can fall to less than half the ETECSA rate and even go as low as 0.30 CUC an hour.

The purchase of service is made directly through those who manage the antennas, and prepaid cards have been created for that purpose. Regular customers benefit from the signal reaching the doors of their houses and others who receive a weakened signal, because they are further away, at least no longer have to travel long distances.

The commercialization of ETECSA’s Nauta Hogar service that supports Internet browsing in private homes began in the city on December 11. Right now, this service is available only in three of the council districts in the city and Internet users do not want to wait for Etecsa to extend the service to all neighborhoods.

The alternative network also offers the advantage that “you can access the pages stapled [i.e. blocked] by the government,” ’AA’ tells 14ymedio. The government censors dozens of sites, including this independent newspaper and the webpages of human rights organizations.

Last September a report from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), an organization associated with the anonymous network project and the free VPN tool Tor, revealed that after analyzing access to more than 1,400 web pages in three cities on the Island between May and June of 2017, it detected that at least 41 of them were blocked.

Most of the blocked sites belong to independent media and opposition organizations, so OONI concluded that the only Internet provider in Cuba, ETECSA, censors sites that “express criticism (direct or indirect) towards the Government.”

“The private [providers] not only have better prices but the user’s final experience is more pleasant”, says Mandy, 34, an administrator of a dozen antennas that provide service in Havana. “At the beginning we transmitted the ETECSA signal as it came to us but now we’re trying to give a superior service.”

Contracting with an efficient VPN means that these entrepreneurs must have a credit card for online payments, an obstacle they skillfully overcome through contacts abroad. “We take out our MasterCards and pay the fees for the different services so that our internet is really free,” explains another young Camaguey computer expert.

The business is attracting many interested in joining. The initial investment to manage your own node is around 500 CUC. The most expensive part of hosting is the NanoStation or the Mikrotik — costing up to about 200 CUC — and the rest of the capital is invested in routers or switches and mobile phones.

“All the sending and receiving equipment is configured through telephones so as not to use computers, in this way we minimize the damage if the police search us [and sieze the equipment],” AA explains.

Some of these wireless networks have managed to get official backing by signing up with the Youth Computer Clubs as communities dedicated to video games. Other distributors prefer to mask the network so that it is visible only to customers who pay for the service.

“This is not a business to get rich, but it gives us enough to live on. We have taken advantage of the lack of a laws [that we could be charged under], although we know that if they set the police on us everything would be complicated,” acknowledges AA.

However, much remains to be done. “The connection gets slow at peak times,” Yunior Rodriguez, a young man from the Guernica neighborhood, who connects from his home portal to one of these alternative networks, comments to this newspaper. He appreciates that the independent providers have a more attractive access interface than ETECSA does.

“There are the little things that make the difference: the homepage of the network where I have to put my user data is updated regularly,” he explains. Once again, competition knocks at the door of Etecsa, which since the beginning of its web browsing service has not changed its access portal or carried out many other improvements in the service.

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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.

Two Months Without Coppelia Ice Cream in Camaguey

Workers at the state-run Coppelia ice cream parlour relax over lunch, as they have no customers because they have no ice cream. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerRicardo Fernández, Camagüey, 29 January 2018 — The ice cream parlor Copellia in the city of  Camagüey has become an empty passageway between two main streets. Only the occasional passerby wanders into the empty building to access the Italian restaurant and three small shops on the floors above.

At midday the employees take advantage of the calm hour in the previously crowded room, moving a table outside to enjoy a relaxed lunch without the pressure of waiting on customers.

The same scene repeats itself throughout the different ice cream parlors that were regularly supplied by the Helados Coppelia factory belonging to the Camagüey Dairy Products Company. continue reading

Two months after an ammonia leak in the factory, the industry has still not restarted and local consumers have been forced to depend on the private market to acquire the product. In the Cuban province with the strongest livestock tradition the ice cream parlors remain totally empty.

On the 29th of November last year an incident in the machinery room of the plant resulted in the release of this chemical substance which, according to authorities, does not present a health risk for either the workers or the residents of surrounding areas.

The directors of the industry have not given an expected date for the reactivation of production and no one knows when they will again supply the region’s state food service establishments. In the ice cream parlors and the TRDs (state run retail stores) the absence of ice cream is felt.

The incident came as a surprise to almost no one. The economic crisis, the scarcity of resources and the lack of technological renovation have caused a rampant deterioration in the province’s dairy industry, resulting in a decline in productive capacity.

Last March, the managing director of the company, Alexis Gil Perez, told the official press that only in the last few months have they succeeded in resuming the maintenance process but that still “not all of the accumulated problems have been solved.”

The state industry has the capacity to process up to 400,000 liters of milk a day, but the drought and problems of infrastructure have contributed to make the average production of the past year little more than 100,000 liters a day. The province of Camaguey accounts for 25% of Cuba’s total dairy production.

The Camaguey Provincial Dairy Products Company consists of 16 entities, including pasteurization plants, collection and cooling centers, mixing mills ,and cheese, ice cream and powdered milk factories.

The continued repairing of obsolete machinery has allowed production to be maintained for decades, but the technical difficulties continue to be numerous, especially concerning refrigeration and transportation to sites of distribution or sale.

Only three years have passed since the announcement of the assembly of a new evaporative condenser and ammonia system aiming to improve the refrigeration system of the industry Coppelia. The investment included the remodeling of the refrigerators and air conditioning of the sites of production.

With the paralysis of the plant following last November’s incident, the programmed maintenance has been moved up to this January and includes the installation of a new boiler and other equipment for the refrigeration system.

The major beneficiaries of the lack of ice cream in the state-owned shops are the private sellers who have long lines of customers. (14ymedio)

Local consumers hope that in a few weeks the factory will resume production, but the process drags on without any sign of an end date.

“In the beginning they brought ice cream in from Nuevitas, but the small factory barely manages to satisfy the demands of that municipality,” explained a customer of the main Coppelia ice cream parlor who prefers anonymity.

In the municipality of Subanicu in Camagüey, there is another small industry that produces ice cream for local consumption in a limited quantity. The plant, using Argentine technology, only possesses two flavor mixers and on good days achieves only 100 gallons in eight hours.

“What we are offering is mango soda. They have told us that the factory will be ready for production next month, but it is not certain,” a worker added, in the middle of the empty store.

The halting of the second largest ice cream factory in the country is not a source of bother for everyone. The indirect beneficiaries are workers who make ice cream independently.

Almost right across from Coppelia itself, on Antonio Maceo street, a large line forms in front of a small private establishment. “I’ve been here waiting for ten minutes because I’m craving ice cream,” says Yusleysi Gil. “It’s a little more expensive, but the flavor and presentation are better,” comparatively.

The reverse is happening in the TRDs, which receive the ice cream containers supplied to the factory in Camaguey. The typical refrigerators with glass covers that earlier displayed the varieties of Nestle ice cream, now just display their silver bottom.

The informal market has taken advantage of the success of this business and in neighborhoods nearby sellers offer pints of an artisanal ice cream that owe nothing to the state industry.

A privately owned, alternative ice cream maker can cost between 1000 and 3000 CUC (Cuban Pesos) in the classifieds.

Although the required investment is high, some local entrepreneurs are toying with the idea of joining the sale of ice cream in a city where the temperatures are rising and cold products are lacking.

 Translated by Geoffrey Ballinger

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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.

Cuban State Pays $560 a Ton for Honey and Sells it in Europe for $14,000

A beekeeper observes his hives in the Vertientes de Camagüey municipality. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camaguey, 20 December 2017 — Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) lives up to its name by being in an out-of-the-way spot 40 kilometers from the town of Vertientes, in Camagüey. The small settlement of houses with a palm leaf roofs has its greatest treasure in the surrounding beehives, but this year the production of the honeybees suffered a major setback and the residents are facing economic hardship.

The Camaguey fields were expected to produce 700 tons of honey this year. However, the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, the problems in accessing inputs and non-payments to producers have meant that only 490 tons have been collected. The national production, which this year, according to the official press, was forcast to be 10,000 tons, will also fall below that figure.

Ciudad Perdida has suffered a severe blow with this drop in production since most families depend on the product from the apiaries, as the groups of productive hives are called. This situation extends throughout the center of the island, the area most affected by hurricane winds and rains. continue reading

With 2,800 beekeepers throughout the country and about 180,000 beehives in operation, obtaining honey has been encouraged in recent years due to the favorable prices the State obtains when selling it in the international market, especially when it exports varieties obtained organically.

Some 90% of the honey produced in Cuban fields is exported to Europe, mainly to Germany, Holland, Spain and Switzerland, while the rest goes to the national market and the tourism sector.

Foreign trade is a state monopoly, but production is mostly carried out by beekeepers associated with cooperatives. Before leaving the island, the sweet product must trod a bitter bureaucratic path, marked by the lack of inputs, low producer purchase prices and late payments.

Any private beekeeper with more than 25 beehives is obliged to join a cooperative to deliver their honey to the State and may only keep enough for home consumption. The fruit of the work of the hardworking bees goes through the Provincial Apiculture Company, from where it is sent to CubaExport, which is responsible for its export.

“The only thing the cooperative does is to be an intermediary because we do not have legal standing to sell the honey and buy the supplies,” complains Manuel, a beekeeper from Ciudad Perdida who has been in business for more than a decade and who has chosen a fictitious name to avoid retaliation. “The payments take months and the resources we requested never arrive,” he laments.

Beekeepers are lonely people, accustomed to going into the bush to care for their hives and always attentive to the slightest signs of fatigue, disease or vandalism shown by their populations of insects. They zealously take care of their “girls,” as some call them, since they know how fragile they are in the face of inclement weather, illness and abandonment.

First the drought and then Hurricane Irma significantly affected the population of bees in Cuba. (Gailhampshire)

The work is hard and meticulous. “I’ve gotten used to being stung, but from time to time a huge swarm comes at me and they scare me, they still scare me,” says Roberto, another beekeeper from the Najasa area who inherited his father’s occupation. “I have a lot of time to think when I do this work and sometimes even sing, although lately I do not have much reason to sing,” he says.

The massive death of swarms in recent months has Camaguey beekeepers desperate. The ravages of the drought were followed by the strong winds of Hurricane Irma, which significantly affected the flowering of the so-called “Indian vine,” one of the main sources of nectar for bees in the territory of Camagüey. Without food, “the bees fall like flies,” Roberto says.

“This has been a bad year,” adds his colleague Manuel, speaking to 14ymedio. “I have lost 50% of my swarms and I am not one of the worst cases. I have a friend who had 42 hives and today he only has nine.”

Diseases have also played their part, especially the Varroa mite that parasitizes bees and ends up decimating their populations. When the mite takes over a hive, beekeepers can barely do anything more than watch the workers die one by one, until the queen finally perishes. There is also another hypothesis that points to a fungicide as a possible cause of the disease.

“We cannot provide producers with medicines and vitamins because organic honey has twice the price on the world market,” an official of the Provincial Apiculture Company of Camagüey clarifies to this newspaper. The state entity must ensure that they do not add chemicals to the process, because without them the profits are much greater.

However, the prices paid to the producer hardly vary, regardless of inclement weather or fluctuations of the value of honey on the international market, a situation that some have begun to denounce, especially after the added expenses this year associated with responding to weather problems and pests.

“They pay us when and how the company wants,” explains a beekeeper who declined to join the cooperative and sells his honey through a friend who is a member. “This year, for a ton of honey we are paid 14,000 CUP (equivalent to about 460 euros or 560 dollars) but we all know that the price has gone up in the world market.”

In 2016-2017, the price of bulk honey in reached 4,180 euros per ton in Spain, and organic honey, of the multifloral variety, around 12,000 euros (about 14,000 dollars), according to data from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. The profits obtained by the Cuban State when buying at low prices from domestic producers and selling at high prices in the international market are increasingly questioned.

“The inputs are expensive and do not come or when they do come are not complete, and then the work is greater and the profit decreases,” laments another producer from Ciudad Perdida. “The refractometer to check the density of honey costs 400 CUP, the boxes to assemble the beehives are 65 each and never less than 45, the trays that go in the interior cost 4 each and I need about 100 of them,” details the beekeeper.

“With all that you need 1,050 CUP to build a hive and you have to pay 50 pesos for each feeder and buy the sugar at 6 pesos a pound to feed the bees,” when the natural food is poor. “I’ve been asking the State for three years to sell me a manual centrifuge to extract the honey, but nothing. Now I’m working on a loan,” he concludes.

To that is added the fact that many times the hives are distant from the producers’ homes. To save the lease payment of tractors or trucks, they usually hitchhike or cycle, but when collecting honey or moving the hives to other sites they must rent a vehicle, which triggers more costs.

Some producers try to make up for their expenses by selling part of their honey in the ’informal market’, but the practice is greatly persecuted by the authorities and they cannot sell wholesale quantities without being discovered. “I am willing to sell under the table but nobody buys my whole crop and with intermediaries it is very risky,” laments Manuel, the beekeeper from Ciudad Perdida.

The only option that the Camagüey beekeepers have at the moment is to trade with the state and cross their fingers so that the winds, the drought and the pests bypass their hives.

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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.

 

Online Payments Come to Cuba Two Decades Late

Online site of Bank of Credit and Commerce in Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camagüey, 8 December 2017 — The first online financial transactions have been delayed for two decades in Cuba. The new service, called Kiosco, allows the payment of electricity and telephone bills, in addition to the repayment of bank loans, but is not exempt from technological setbacks and has not yet managed to gain the trust of customers.

There was an empty chair in front of the Kiosco computer this Thursday at the Avellaneda Street branch of the Bank of Credit and Commerce (Bandec) in the city of Camagüey, where electronic payments can be made through a “self-service terminal.” continue reading

“So far no one has tried it and everyone is still standing in line for the tellers,” laments a worker, confirming that people who enter the bank prefer to interact with an employee, partly because they are not familiar with electronic transactions.

The Island’s poor internet penetration makes electronic payment a novelty. Among the 5.7 million savings accounts in the country as of the middle of last year, at least 50% have a magnetic card, but only a small share of account holders have had experience with electronic payments.

To use Kiosco you need to have a multi-bank card, which can be obtained at the same branch as your debit card. There is no bank in Cuba that issues credit cards for private customers.

“I do not want my money to evaporate because I do something wrong and send it to somewhere where is disappears,” says Monica Salgado, a retired teacher from Santa Clara, another province where Kiosco also operates. The woman receives her pension through a magnetic card that she refuses to use in the new service because she wouldn’t receive cash.

In the beginning, the service was offered exclusively to companies, but this year it began to offered to private users, although it cannot be used to buy products in the country’s stores, pay for an interprovincial bus ticket or book a room in a hotel.

The new service can also be accessed through an internet connection in the Wi-Fi zones that the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) has installed across the island over the last two plus years, places where one hour of internet time costs one Cuban convertible peso, the daily salary of a professional.

However, as soon as you enter Kiosco’s digital site, the navigator gives you a warning: “This connection is not private, it is possible that some attackers may try to steal your information.” This message demonstrates that there is a problem with the certificate of authenticity, something common in national sites.

After entering the access data, the internet user accesses a private area where they can check the balance and transfer money to other accounts in the same bank. They can also download the Mobile Transfer application, designed for the Android operating system, which allows several operations through USSD codes.

“It’s not much yet, but soon we may be shopping at Amazon,” says Roberto Carlos, a 16-year-old who was with his mother at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana on Friday. The young man dreams that in the near term “we can buy applications in Apple stores and Google Play with this system.”

Electronic banking works through different payment channels, such as ATMs, POS terminals, the digital site of the application or mobile applications.

Beyond technology, Pinar del Rio economist Karina Gálvez, from the Center for Coexistence Studies, comments that “the environment and infrastructure” in Cuba which surrounds everything related to electronic commerce or virtual payments. “I think you have to give it time to see how it works,” she advises.

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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.

Alain Toledano: “If We Stay Quiet They Crush Us”

Pastor Alain Toledano, from the Apostolic Ministry Pathways of Justice. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Santiago de Cuba, 30 October 2017 — The evangelical pastor Alain Toledano feels that he has lived through 18 years of intense battle since he founded his own church in Santiago de Cuba, a congregation that has experienced a “rapid growth,” according to what he told 14ymedio.

The high numbers attending the worship services “frightened the authorities” from the first day and then “the confrontations began,” the pastor maintains. In Cuba, among the denominations of greatest expansion in recent years are Pentecostals and Baptists. continue reading

Although official entities rarely give figures, international religious organizations estimate that on the island there are some 40,000 Methodists, 100,000 Baptists, and 120,000 members of the Assemblies of God. The latter had only about 10,000 faithful at the beginning of the 1990s.

In July 1999, Toledano left the Assemblies of God to create the Emmanuel Church. “We met in an apartment and the crowd blocked those who tried to climb the stairs of the building,” he recalls. The pressures of the authorities forced them to move the temple to a courtyard.

“There we did not bother anyone and even so police officers came to try keep us from meeting,” the pastor explains. He believes that from the beginning it was not a question of order and that all those pressures were part of “an attack against the Church.”

Between January and July 2016, more than 1,600 churches were subjected to religious persecution by Cuban authorities, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). The entity accused the government of Raúl Castro of attacking the temples “to strengthen control over the activities and composition of religious groups.”

The annual report on religious freedom, published in the middle of last year by the US State Department, indicated that the government of the Island “supervises religious groups” and “continues to control most aspects of religious life.”

The first direct attacks suffered by Toledano came from the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party, led by Caridad Diego. “On several occasions they sent their officials to prohibit me from continuing to hold the services,” says the leader of Emmanuel Church.

Toledano, of the Apostolic Ministry Pathways of Justice, did not give into the pressures and State Security took action on the matter. “At first they did not attack me, rathered they offered to have me work for them,” he says. “They told me they needed a person of influence in religion inside and outside of Cuba.”

The offer included the legalization of the congregation in exchange for collaborating as an informant and opinion agent within the Pentecostals.

“Given my categorical refusal, they entered another phase and the eviction came,” the first of them in November 2007. Nine years later, while Toledano was traveling in Miami, the story was repeated and the police deployed a broad operation that included special forces.

On that day, more than 200 of the congregation faithful were arrested and the police demolished the place authorized for worship that the Toledano family had taken years to prepare.

The troops also made off with chairs, benches, musical instruments, a piano and more than a thousand legally purchased cement blocks with which the family planned to improve the conditions of the house and the temple.

“The objective was to leave us without resources and to pressure us to opt to emigrate,” the religious reflects. “No one who is persecuted in Cuba is exempt from passing that thought through his head,” he says, although in his case he has chosen to stay with the congregation.

In January 2016, Pastor Bernardo Quesada, of Camagüey, also saw how the political police assaulted his evangelical church, destroyed the structure in the courtyard where he met with his faithful and arrested him and his wife for several hours.

A year after those events, the pressures have not diminished for Toledano. “When we were preparing the celebration for 18 years of the ministry, on October 17, they arrested the host who lends us his patio to meet.” The man was threatened with eviction and his house demolished if he continued to offer the land to the congregation.

“It’s not the first time it has happened and we’ve had to move twice because of the pressure on the owners of the places where we meet,” says Toledano.

In May of this year, in the Abel Santamaría neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba,Toledano started a project to help with food for vagabonds and other marginalized people. “We are doing our bit in this country, in this society,” he told several independent media at the time.

“It is better to talk, because if we stay quiet they crush us,” explains the pastor, who has chosen the path of social networks to denounce the boycott of his congregation.

Charging Cell Phones Becomes the Obsession of Thousands of Camagüeyans Without Electricity

A woman in Havana used her phone to photograph the damage left by Irma. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Camaguey, 11 September 2017 – Yosvani has been in a long line for an hour outside the polyclinic, though he is not sick or injured. Hurricane Irma left him with no electricity and he is anxious to recharge his cell phone battery to try to communicate with his friends and family and to find out how they are. Hundreds of residents have been crowding the Camagüey’s emergency rooms since Saturday to benefit from the generators installed there.

Since the lights went out, something more than 48 hours ago, Yosvani knows nothing of his family on Florida beach, one of the places most affected by the powerful hurricane that touched down in Cuban territory as a category five. “I’m going crazy,” he says in the endless line to which everyone arrives with a charger and a mobile phone or a tablet in hand.

“Right now there are two things in this city that are worth their weight in gold: drinking water and a connection where you can charge a cell phone,” says the young man. Everyone in the line has a story of desperation. continue reading

“My parents are from Esmeralda and they say that their world is gone, but I have not even been able to find out if they managed to evacuate in time,” explains Roxana, a woman in Camagüey with two children whose home was also damaged. “We lost many roof tiles and the yard is devastated, with all the trees on the ground,” she laments.

When her turn in line arrives, Roxana opens her bag and takes out three cell phones. “They are from my neighbors, who can’t come here and urgently need to receive calls from their children in Miami,” she says. She plugs in each phone and watches with relief as the battery bars grow. “One, two, three …” she says softly.

Those behind her in line try to rush those in front of the prized outlet. “Don’t wait to fill the battery, just take a little bit and leave something for the rest, everyone has the need to communicate,” complains a man.

A pregnant woman approaches to ask to be be allowed to cut the line, but a hullabaloo ensues. “Everyone here has a different tragedy. The person who doesn’t have missing relatives is a missing person for their family,” complains another who is waiting.

Most of the light roofs in the village of Esmeralda in Camagüey are on the ground after Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy)

The nurses come and go trying to get around the line that fills the hallway. Medical staff dislike the crowds that fill the corridors, but they understand that, for many, electricity is now the best cure, the most sought after remedy.

Between 2004 and 2014, the Government imported 52,292 generators at a value of 1.3 billion dollars. The commissioning of these units was one of the last campaigns promoted by Fidel Castro. Over time, the deterioration and theft of fuel has diminished their use, but in moments of massive electrical cuts they regain their importance.

“Last night they brought in an extension with multiple sockets and the load was so heavy that they burned out the outlet,” complains polyclinic security staffer Rodolfo Ramírez Esquivel to 14ymedio,” so we only allow people to connect equipment and not extensions.”

However, the need to recharge the devices is so pressing that many people ignore the recommendations. “I brought an eight-outlet powerstrip and put it in my backpack with the cellphones of my entire family without them noticing, because outside the backpack I was charging two more,” says a resident.

Everyone fears that the electricity cuts will be prolonged due to the serious damages suffered by the electrical lines in Camagüey province. Some have tried alternative ways to recharge their cellphones without having to go to the polyclinics.

“Days before the hurricane a cousin emailed me a trick to charge a cell phone with a 9-volt battery, so I started looking around my house and I found one that solved the problem a little,” says a young man standing in line with his mother to use the clinic’s outlets.

The damage to poles, transformers and cables has been so extensive in the central and eastern part of the country that Raúl Castro, who is also president of the National Defense Council, ordered that support brigades be created in each municipality to “guarantee the restoration of the electricity” according to an official note.

Those in Camagüey who are starting their third day without power greeted the news with displeasure. The weather is still humid although the rains have stopped. The streets remain covered with a mixture of mud, leaves and tree branches. On the stands in the markets there is nothing but bananas and some tiny papayas that must have fallen due to the winds.

A woman walks past the polyclinic with a bag of eggs and a group surrounds her to inquire anxiously where she bought them. Provisions are unavailable and agriculture in the area has suffered a devastating blow that will take months to recover. Most affected are bananas, but beans and vegetables have also suffered.

The chicken farms on the outskirts of the city are the scene of massive deaths, several of them have lost their roofs and are flooded, according to testimonies of several farmers in the area. Hopefully there will be images circulating in the next few days, when neighbors recharge their mobiles and send them out.

Every kilowatt is worth whatever people ask for it and more, in a city where public transport has been cancelled and electric motorbikes are the only way that many can get around.

“There are places where they do not let you connect to recharge [a motorbike], but there are always people willing to help,” explains Yusnier Ramirez, a young man in line to recharge his cell phone at the medical post in front of Plaza Méndez. “There are also those who recharge their motorbikes, but for that we have to pay,” he says.

The urgency to reactivate cell phones grows due to the failures in city’s fixed-line phone network.

“I’ve been waiting for more than two hours,” says another Camagüeyan outside an emergency room. The young man tried to use a rustic solar panel to revive his device, but was unsuccessful. “This polyclinic looks like a disaster zone, but the consultation rooms are empty,” he explains. “We are all here to recharge our mobiles.”

Cuban Evangelicals Denounce Complacent Article By Associated Press

Religious Cubans are often repressed by the state.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 31 March 2017 – A report published by the Associated Press published last Monday, under the title “Far From the Dark Past, Evangelicals Growing in Cuba,” upset evangelical pastors with its open defense of the Cuban regime to the detriment of religious freedom.

The author, Andrea Rodríguez, cites one of the many examples of pastors imprisoned for their faith in the first decades of the Revolutionary Process, to compare it to the current situation and to refute the report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The London-based organization reported 2,380 violations of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016, among which were declaring 2,000 churches of the Assembly of God illegal, with 1,400 confiscations of properties. The report also denounced the persecution and imprisonment of parishioners, as well as the destruction of churches. continue reading

The reaction to the article, which has been circulating by e-mail between pastors and parishioners, lies in the fact that sources cited by the Associated Press journalist are close to the Cuban Government, so they have retained a number of “privileges” that should be inalienable rights for all Cubans.

Pastor Bernardo de Quesada of the Apostolic Movement believes that the report is “counterproductive” and “very loose with regards to the reality of religion in Cuba.”

The religious leader says, “Many of those who were interviewed did not speak truthfully and the journalist wrote it with marked apologies to the communist system.” He also claims that Rodríguez only included “a part” of his statements.

For Dagoberto Valdés, director of the Coexistence Study Center and a well-known Catholic layman, “it is common” to confuse freedom of belief, freedom of worship and religious freedom but “they are not the same”

“When I was interviewed, I didn’t express the ideas that were written,” he adds.

For Dagoberto Valdés, director of the Coexistence Study Center and a well-known lay Catholic, “it is common” to confuse freedom of belief, freedom of worship and religious freedom, but clarifies “they are not the same.”

“In the first decades of the Revolution we were persecuted for the simple fact of believing, professing a religion was a crime. Today we have gained that space, but we were not given it by the goodwill of government leaders,” says Valdés.

He acknowledges that a majority of people can regularly attend their religious ceremonies without being persecuted, but asserts that religious freedom is much more than that. “When Lieutenant Colonel Osvaldo (head of State Security’s Technical Department of Investigations in the province of Pinar del Río) threatened me in his office, he said that I was crossing the line between Christianity and the counterrevolution with the Coexistence Study Center.”

Kiri Kankhwende, a spokesman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, accused the churches of not wanting to speak out because of government pressure.

The Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party is in charge of monitoring the religious. The organization holds periodic meetings with the main spiritual representatives of each municipality with the aim of avoiding possible disagreements.

“Once a dissident was attending my congregation and shortly afterwards a State Security agent came to threaten me with blocking my travel from the country if I was a member of the Church,” says a Pinar del Rio pastor on condition of anonymity.

“For those who do not travel, they pressure them with the illegality of their structures, because not even the legal churches have permission to build temples and we have to say that we are building houses even if inside we turn it into a hall to bring the church together,” he added.

Raúl Risco is a dissident lawyer who is not allowed to go to church to celebrate his faith

Raúl Risco is a dissident lawyer who is not allowed to go to church to celebrate his faith. “Many times I have been mistreated or expelled by pastors too fearful of losing government concessions,” in Pinar del Rio, where he resides, he says. Now, to avoid reprisals against him or the community, he practices his faith without attending the meetings of his congregation.

For Pastor Bernardo de Quesada the demolitions of Protestant temples have nothing to do with the supposed “illegality of the constructions” but with the impossibility of obtaining permits to build them. “Who will be more illegal, the church that is not legalized or the state that does not allow it?” asks the religious leader from Camagüey.

“We have experienced all kinds of repression, from threats to parishioners to their expulsion from their schools or jobs for attending our churches, to massive arrests and physical violence against those who were there on the day of the demolition of our temple,” says Dignora Marrero, who belongs to the same congregation. “That is our reality and not the one that the Government tries to present.”

Cement Pottery / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

Victor Rodriquez engages in the specialized trade of creating ornamental cement pottery. (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 14 March 2017 – They call it grey gold because it repairs damage, prevents divorce and builds houses. Cement is one of the most in-demand products in Cuba today where 39% of the housing inventory is defective or in a bad state, according to a report by the Housing authorities.

In the midst of pressing construction needs, a taste for the ornamental also is developing. A newly emerging class decorates its houses with friendly garden gnomes, pelicans with thin legs who appear at front doors and balusters in the shape of sexy women.

After a long period of block-shaped construction, made of pre-fabricated and undecorated pieces, many Cubans appear ready to make up for lost time. The “cement potters” industry, a self-employment occupation that is on the rise, has been made to bloom by the demand for façade decorations. continue reading

Victor Rodriquez lives in Pinar del Rio and considers himself an artist of concrete. His work day begins early when he gets the molds for the pieces that he assembled 12 hours earlier. His hands reveal panels, pedestal vases, mushrooms, lions, flowers, pine cones, pyramids, friezes and post corners.

The potter then moves to the stage of scraping, polishing and painting each piece with a solution of cement and water. He does it like someone who bathes and touches up a delicate baby. His small courtyard is crowded with the sculptures that will later adorn the homes of the province or some distant town.

Cement pottery is hard but profitable work, according to its artisans (14ymedio)

Victor has a loyal clientele, although the competition in the area is strong, and the number of self-employed workers devoted to these activities is growing. The craftsman stands out because he designs his own pieces instead of buying ready-made molds, a detail that many appreciate in an industry that lives by imitation and the repetition of motifs.

Each day, when he finishes his work near 7 pm, Victor bathes to leave behind that grey powder that covers him from head to foot. After eating, he dedicates himself to giving form to the clay that will serve as a sample for casting the cement molds. After polishing and painting, the prototypes are ready to produce new series of figures.

“It is more work, but I never liked to be anyone’s echo,” Victor proudly explains about his originality. “I have never been able to promote my business, and I live away from the city, but the clients themselves have spread the word, and the orders even come from other municipalities,” he explains to 14ymedio.

With the growing demand, Victor’s family became involved in his efforts. His wife polishes, retouches and paints, while his son helps him prepare the concrete and cast the pieces. “It is hard work,” says the young man, who decided to become a potter with his father. “But it pays, and I like it,” he concludes.

“Getting the materials is the most difficult part because there is no wholesale market,” complains the business owner. Most times he has to order from retailers who buy it from the suppliers and bring it to the house.

“Yes, I do demand receipts from them and quality products. In order to maintain my standards I only use pp350 cement, more expensive but also more durable.” The mixture also includes “artificial sand,” he points out.

The Cuban cement industry suffered with the fall of the socialist camp. Currently, the country has six factories that produce grey gold, and in 2016 they reached 1,494,000 tons of the product, of which some 400,000 were distributed in the retail market.

Cement pottery requires preparing the concrete, casting the pieces, polishing, retouching and painting, among many other things. (14ymedio)

However, they still do not produce “the volumes necessary to satisfy an ever-growing demand,” according to Cesar Revuelta, vice-president of the Construction Materials Group. Between 2014 and 2015, the amount of cement that the country had to import underwent a significant increase from 2,677 tonnes to 4,349.

At the end of 2015, the Mexican business Cemex, one of the leading worldwide cement producers, showed its interest in returning to the Island, whether through the sale of cement or the installation of a plant. However, the establishment of an industry on Cuban soil has still not materialized.

But not only the materials shortage can damage the work of these craftsmen. “Sometimes the sculptures are ruined because the molds are badly assembled,” explains Victor. “It has happened to me when I am stressed, that’s why I try to stay focused on the work.”

The pieces made by the Pinareño have had great reception not only because of their unique designs but also because of their quality and durability. But the business of cement ornaments also is rife with swindles and tricks.

“There are no quality controls for concrete construction materials, generally the only inspection carried out for individuals in that line of business is of a fiscal character,” explains Alexander Morejon, official with the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT), in Pinar del Rio.

There have been cases of manufactured balusters incapable of supporting weight or pieces eroded by humidity and saltpeter. “I ordered some vases to place on the balcony but they have fallen to pieces,” says Monica, owner of a recently remodeled dwelling in San Jose de Las Lajas.

The woman believes that in her case the artisan used “a mix with sea sand, and the cement was overcome. Placing the decorations on the upper story of her house has caused problems, and “it is dangerous because pieces fall, and children play just below.”

However, Victor’s clients attest the quality of his products. “My statue-shaped balusters have been at the doorway more than seven years and look like the first day,” Angel Izquierdo, from the Brione Montoto village, tells this daily when he shows up at the potter’s home for the purchase of patio tiles, another of the products that he offers.

“I am about to finalize a machine to make floor tiles with different mosaic designs,” says Victor as he shows the pieces of a rustic press with which he hopes to increase his earnings.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Local Producers Missing From Pinar Del Rio Wine Shop / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

Casa de los Vinos (House of Wines) in Pinar del Rio was inaugurated this Tuesday, hours late (14ymedio). Photo: Jaliosky Ajete

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 17 February 2017 – The Pinar del Rio Casa de los Vinos (House of Wines) got off on a bad foot the day of its inauguration. The opening ceremony, held on Tuesday, had to be delayed for several hours as the construction work had not been completed and customers were scarce.

Those most missed were the local producers, who were the initial promoters of this initiative – along with the urban agriculture workers – and who planned a place where customers could taste and buy artisanal wines. The idea, which failed for lack of state support, was taken over by the state-owned Internal Trade Company, but without the presence of the private winemakers. continue reading

On the island, despite the climate and the limited access to raw materials, an increasing number of producers are making artisanal wines, from the fermentation of fruits such as guava, orange, papaya, pineapple, soursop and mango.

The new place in Pinar del Rio, situated at No. 8 Gerardo Medina Street, seeks to enhance the inventiveness of winemaking and has capacity for 26 customers. “We prioritize the local production of artisan wines,” the manager, Julio Corrales Banos, told the official press.

On the opening day, however, only the industrial wines made in the province were on offer because of the lack of an agreement with the area’s producers. The absence of a legal framework that allows the state to contract directly for the products of these entrepreneurs is limiting local activity.

Artemisa and Mayabeque are currently the only provinces that have greater flexibility in contracts with the private sector.  Raúl Castro’s government has given autonomy to the Administration Councils of the provincial Assemblies of People’s Power to experiment with another type of management.

For winemakers from Pinar del Rio, being able to count on something like this would mean a considerable jump in profits due to the increase in demand that has been noticed in the region in recent years.

For the moment, the sale of privately managed wines is carried out from doorways and informal stands on the busiest streets of the city. Some thirty producers sell wine, the majority of which are of excellent quality, despite not meeting the international standards for the inclusion of sugar in the fruit fermentation process.

The wines that are produced in the Island have high degrees of Brix, a unit of measurement of the sugars present in a drink, and are usually sweet or semi-sweet, with a low volume of alcohol.

Ernesto Reinoso and his wife showing their wine selection for February 14th. (14ymedio)

Ernesto Reinoso, 81 years old, produces 26 Vinos de Rey in a traditional way. “If the objective was to create a space where the people of Pinar del Rio can consume wines, they would have to look at the prices, because the wines we sell are very cheap, 1 Cuban convertible peso (roughly $1 US) a bottle,” he says about the new place.

At the head of the first stage of the Casa de los Vinos was Julio del Llano, a retired winemaker regrets that no private producer was invited to the opening. Del Llano, the third generation of winemakers in his family, is a promoter of quality among producers and was the first in the territory to register his brand.

“We winemakers will have to continue marketing through self-employed workers, as we have done until today,” concludes Del Llano, who has won multiple awards in national quality contests.

In February of last year, in the 25th Artisan Wine Festival, celebrated at the Agricultural Fair of Rancho Boyeros (Havana), a contest was held in eight categories: white, rosé, red, sparkling, dry, semi-dry, sweet and semi-sweet. Luis Bermúdez Rodríguez won the grand prize with a sample of semi-sweet wine made from pineapple and banana, 2013, with 12.8 degrees of Brix.

Invasive Marabou Weed, An Enemy That Became An Ally / 14ymedio, Bertha Guillen and Ricardo Fernandez

A pile of marabou branches beside the road waiting to be transported. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen and Ricardo Fernandez, Artemisa/Pinar del Rio, 9 February 2017 – When he was a boy, Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera played around the charcoal ovens his father had built. Now, approaching 50, this Pinar del Rio man dedicates his days to a shrub that is both hated and appreciated: the invasive marabou weed, raw material for the first product that Cuba has exported to the United States in more than five decades.

Ledesma lives in El Gacho, a few miles from San Juan y Martinez, where the best tobacco on the island is grown. Also growing in the area is the spiny plant that has invaded the island since its arrival 150 years ago. Now, its hard branches provide sustenance to thousands of families across the island. continue reading

Cuba annually exports between 40,000 and 80,000 tonnes of charcoal produced from marabou, which occupies roughly 2.5 million acres of land that would otherwise be suitable for agriculture, or almost 17% of the island’s arable land.

Livestock areas have also been affected by this invasive weed that has conquered 56% of the land used for animal husbandry. The plague of threatening thorns spreads, thanks to the plant’s strong nature, but also due to the neglect and poor organization that affects the Cuban countryside.

A pile of sacks filled with marabou charcoal after the dismantling of the oven (14ymedio)

The state maintains a good deal of control over land despite the fact that in recent years the cooperative sector has been expanded and land has been leased in usufruct to private farmers.

The Basic Units of Cooperative Production manage 25% of the land, the Agricultural Production Cooperatives 8% and the Credit and Services Cooperatives 38%, while state farms manage 29%, according to figures provided in 2015 during the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

Popular jokes praise the marabou as if it were the royal palm. They propose to replace that haughty national emblem on the Republic’s coat of arms and in its place enshrine the tangled anatomy of the invading species.

A decade ago Raul Castro joked about the repudiation of the bush during a speech in Camagüey, during the official commemoration of the assault on the Moncada Barracks. “What was most beautiful, what stood out in my eyes, was how beautiful the marabou was along the whole road,” he said after traveling from Havana to that central province.

After that harangue, the crusade against the marabou took on ideological status and became a symbol of Raul’s government, right alongside the promises of eradicating the dual monetary system, curbing corruption and lowering food prices. Shortly afterwards, enthusiasm for the battle was lost and it disappeared from the government’s list of critical projects.

In an irony of fate, the enemy plant has gradually become an ally. In 2007 the Spanish company Iberian and Solid Fuels (Ibecosol SL) began to commercialize charcoal made from marabou in several European countries. Its ability to burn slowly and the delicate flavor it adds to food has earned it a good reputation.

The earth has to be scorched first to make the oven work properly. (14ymedio)

Jorge Luis Ledesma Herrera knows these qualities well, because part of the marabou he processes ends up in his own stove. Every morning he spends hours cutting the logs that he then transports in an oxcart. His life is not very different from his grandfather’s, but he boasts of being able to count on “legal electricity” in an environment where low voltage “clotheslines” – as makeshift electrical wiring is called – abound.

He describes working with marabou as a real hell. The main limitation is the tools he has to work with. The axes and machetes are of poor quality, bought on the black market, and must be repaired all the time. With ingenuity, some have recycled blades from sugar cane harvesters to aid in cutting.

About two hundred yards from the farmer’s house is the flat ground where the oven is built. The earth is burned and looks fine, like black powder. The marabou must be heated to temperatures between 750° and 1300° F, with the wood stacked in a cone, covered over with straw and earth.

“Two months ago I took out of the oven an amount I calculated as 20 sacks – about half a tonne – and it started to rain. Although the rain only lasted a few minutes the hard coals cracked like broken glass,” he said. “I could only save five sacks.

In the nearby Artemisa Joaquín Díaz, 56, has been engaged in the manufacture of charcoal since he was a child. He has been using marabou for years to cook, but now, with the news of its export, he processes it more delicately and takes greater care of the ovens. Like Ledesma, he only has access to water through a well, takes care of his personal needs in a latrine outside the house and his house has a light weight roof.

This charcoal producer in the village of Fierro, in the municipality of San Cristóbal, bears up under the sting of the rebellious shrub; like other farmers he uses gardening gloves to protect himself. Keeping his eyes away from thorns is also part of the precautions. When he prepares an oven he tries not to leave a gap between one stick and another, because “it doesn’t hold in the fire and then it goes out.” Care is essential. “As long as white smoke is coming out, the wood isn’t burned,” and it will only ready to dismantle when the smoke turns blue, which may take a week or more, Diaz explains.

In Pinar del Río, the companies that buy charcoal from the burners are the state-owned Acopio and the Integral Forest Enterprise. Payment is made through a temporary contract that allows them to be paid directly and not through the cooperatives. The charcoal-burners thus avoid the check cashing fee charged by those entities.

The house in Artemisa of the charcoal-burner Joaquín Díaz, age 56. (14ymedio)

The state pays for charcoal at 1.20 Cuban pesos (CUP – roughly 5 cents US) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) wholesale, or 30 CUP for a 25 kilogram sack. For premium charcoal they pay 0.10 CUC (roughly ten cents US) per kilogram. With luck, the producer will pocket the equivalent of 150 dollars for every tonne of best quality charcoal, which the state enterprise will sell in the United States for 420 dollars, almost three times what the charcoal-burner makes.

However, selling to the state comes with many problems of late payments. In addition, “the rigging of the process of selection and the weighing of the premium coal, makes it more reliable to sell it to private individuals,” says Ledesma. The private buyer pays 40 CUP per sack, “and many owners of pizzerias and private restaurants in Pinar del Rio” come to him to stock up.

Ledesma dreams of being able to sell his marabou charcoal directly, without going through the state as an intermediary. “If that could be done, I would buy myself a chain saw to increase production so I could change the way I live.” Of course if that were the case, he reflects, “even doctors would come here set up charcoal ovens in El Gaucho.”

“Farmers Have Awakened To The Reality Of The System, Although They Can Not Protest Openly” / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

A Cuban farmer plows the land with oxen (CC)
A Cuban farmer plows the land with oxen (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 12 September 2016 – Rolando Pupo Carralero is a self-declared lover of the countryside, despite having begun working the land by necessity, when he abandoned his studies in economics.

Currently a member of the national executive of the Cuban Independent and Democratic Party (CID) and coordinator in the western region of for political group, Pupo has worked for many years growing tobacco. From his experience in the fields, he believes it is very difficult for regime opponents to own land, and believes the farmers have become aware that the “Revolution” pays them one-forty-fifth of the value of what they produce.

Ricardo Fernandez.  How is it possible that within the opposition there are no independent farmer organizations?

Rolando Pupo Carralero. In Cuba, they don’t allow members of the opposition to have land. It is not a written law, but the land is in the hands of the state, and it is distributed to those who are “suitable” and opponents are rarely in that category. continue reading

People who inherit land can be part of the opposition, but even so, the government has ways to pressure them not to be. Among these, the strongest are the requirement to be associated with a cooperative with a “legal personality” because otherwise they cannot buy supplies and services or sell their crops.

There is still no private sector in Cuba capable of buying one farmer’s entire production, nor is there a legal market where you can buy fertilizer or supplies if you are not affiliated with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

RF.  Does that mean that the peasantry is in agreement with the Cuban system?

RPC. The fact that they can not belong to the active opposition does not mean that they do not oppose the system, but the farmer does not have freedom or autonomy. Despite the mechanisms used by the government to indoctrinate and repress the peasantry (cooperatives, ANAP and other institutions of that type), farmers are not completely subjugated. You have to be at a meeting of the cooperative, which convenes monthly, to see the high level of dissatisfaction and the harshness in the well-founded opinions expressed by the members.

RF.  How have the farmers changed their position on the government?

RPC. Initially the peasantry supported the Revolution because it brought some benefits, but the accounts have been made clear over time. For example, in the case of tobacco, the state buys the first quintal (more than 70% quality) for 2,574 pesos, for which you need 1,300 cuttings, with a large expenditure of resources in planting, cultivation, harvesting and drying.

But that quintal of tobacco contains 12,800 leaves (80 cujes of 160 leaves each) and if we figure that for a first quality cigar you need only three leaves, the quintal is the equivalent of 4,266 cigars for export, and an amount equal or more in hard currency.

So they pay the farmer 102 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, about $102 US), when the real value of the production is 45 times higher. These absurd inequalities mean that from their work they earn barely enough to live, which is why they have awakened to the reality of the system; although they can not protest openly.

RF.  Are there opponents with ties to the countryside?

RPC. I am one of them. I cannot be an owner, but I do cultivate land with my stepfather, who is an owner. Many opponents work in agriculture, some out of necessity and others for love. Although government pressures have made themselves felt, with threats to the owners who employ dissidents, the farmers no longer let themselves be intimidated.

For example, State Security periodically threatens my stepfather, saying they will take away his land if I keep working on it; but he defends his position with my right to work and live together because I am his family.

Gone are the days when being an opponent was a stigma for society. The peasants don’t hire people based on whether they are communists or opponents, they look for work performance regardless of political position.

RF.  How has it been for you linking agricultural work with the opposition?

RPC. Sometimes it is a bit complicated because some underestimate the farmers, associating them with terms such as peasant or brutish; but there are a lot of smart people working in the fields.

Hurricane Isidoro’s Victims Are Still Waiting / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

14 years after Carlos Lage’s promises, the victims of Hurricane Isidoro remain without their homes. (Ricardo Fernandez)
14 years after Carlos Lage’s promises, the victims of Hurricane Isidoro remain without their homes. (Ricardo Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 19 July 2016 — “I pledge that very soon you will have your homes,” Carlos Lage Davila, vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers, said in 2002 to those who had lost everything and still today have not received what he promised.

Alexander Sanchez Villafranca, 33, was one of those affected by Hurricane Isidoro. “If I had listened to my mom and had cut down the mango tree, I would not be in this shelter. I never thought that the wind could pull it up by the roots,” he says. His home, at kilometer 1 in Santa Damiana, was reduced to rubble under the weight of the tree. He is among the 16 families living in shelters in Portilla in Rio Seco, in San Juan y Martinez municipality, as a result of Hurricanes Lili and Isidore. continue reading

The place, 19 kilometers from Pinar del Rio, had been a military unit of the Youth Labor Army (WCY), then in 1994 became a Battalion Task Force that housed those who came to support tobacco workers, and in 1995 it became a warehouse for oilcloth.

In 2002, after the hurricanes, they used it to receive the victims from Santa Damiana, Forteza and Rio Seco, who had no means to rebuild their own homes. Within a month of being there, they received a visit from Carlos Lage Davila, accompanied by former first secretary of the Party in the province, Maria del Carmen Concepcion, and other government and party officials.

At first, the mass organizations delivered lunch and dinner to residents, who were seen by a family doctor daily. Then-delegate Sergio Carrelegua visited them frequently and at meetings urged them to be patient and assured them that the promises would be fulfilled. “A few months later the attentions and promises disappeared,” recalls Sanchez, now married with a daughter of six who has known no other home. “Over time the roofs began to deteriorate and the solution from the delegate was to remove the roofs over the bathrooms and use them to replace the broken tiles over the bedrooms, so the toilets have no roof.”

The situation gets worse in the spring because of the rains, and for the elderly, whose health is delicate, dampness is a greater risk. “In the rainy season you have to do everything (even the physiological needs) in your bedroom,” says an old woman to illustrate the “hell” she is living in.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the municipal government to demand that they help us, but they don’t do anything,” says Arelys Rodriguez, Sanchez’s wife, while showing off the poor hygienic-sanitary conditions of the outdoor bathrooms. “I have to carry water from the neighbors’ house, because the raised tanks are uncovered and are filled with decomposing frogs, bats and even pigeons. I’d die before I drank that water,” she says with disgust.

Sanchez talks about his effort in agriculture, the work he does as a laborer, hoping that a relative living in the United States will help get her out of the hostel and he can buy a house. Meanwhile, her little daughter Thalia flits around her. That little girl, with her innate curiosity and boundless naiveté, manages to help Sanchez forget for a moment the neglect and misery that surrounds her.

Making a Living Off Coffee / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

Café Soler’s customers in Pinar del Rio. (14ymedio)
Café Soler’s customers in Pinar del Rio. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 16 July 2016 — In the early morning hours insomniacs, travelers and night watchmen are surprised to find an ode to excellence in a cup of coffee.

At 3:00 in the morning the rush to prepare the nectar begins at the clinic on 27th of November Street between Maceo and Marti in Pinar del Rio, where Luis Armando Cabrera Soler lives. His wife, the doctor Madalina, helps him to organize the thermoses, bags and harnesses he uses in providing the service. Meanwhile, the guard working on the corner is seduced by the spreading aroma. continue reading

“I have a light on my cap so the customers don’t have to walk to the spotlight when they want to buy, but then I realized it worked as a kind of promotion,” said Luis, who started selling a thermos of coffee in June of 2013 and now has increased production fivefold. “I got the idea of varying the menu preparing cortadito from a taxi driver they call loco, because I saw it in Havana. Since then I added chocolate, cappuccino and café bombón. The chocolate intensifies the flavor of the coffee and the cappuccino follows the traditional standards, the bombóm (a mix of condensed milk, chocolate and coffee) leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth.

Without his having to hawk his products, the customers come to him. “The best advertising is the quality,” he says. “When it’s a large bill and I don’t have change I just give them a free coffee. I don’t lose money because I end up winning customers,” he says.

Luis does not mince words when he talks about the origin of the coffee he serves. “I sell 100% Café Soler,” he says, while showing us the logo he designed himself, “harvested by my family, roasted and steeped by me. I don’t have that many plants so I’m not forced to deliver the coffee [to the state]; but it’s enough for me for the year,” he says, referring to the parcel he owns in Sumidero in the municipality of Minas de Matahambre.

The state monopolies are the only legal buyers of the beans and to enforce that control there is a framework of laws that equate trafficking in coffee with crimes such as theft or illegal departures from the country.

The only legal way to market coffee is to buy it in the state’s Hard Currency Collection Stores and the high prices mean the business is not viable, so the self-employed generally turn to the informal market.

“The hardest thing to get is disposable cups. There is no place to buy them, I have to rely on the good will of neighbors and friends who bring them to me from abroad,” he comments, while serving coffee.

Cabrera worked as a buyer for the Pinar del Rio Fuel Company which belongs to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, work that, out of fear, he made compatible with selling coffee. “Many are afraid to trade a job for a business. I decided to take this step as long as the earnings are stable and the work shifts didn’t interfere with sales.”

With characteristic island humor and the amiability of someone who even lights the cigarettes of those who like to smoke while they drink their coffee, Cabrera knows how to relax the disaffected and cheer up the reticent. “What series bills do you want?” he jokes with someone who rejects coins in change. “My goal is to make the customer happy even with the change,” he says.

Generally sales end at 9:00 in the morning and then the preparations begin for the next day: roasting the coffee, grinding it, cleaning the thermoses with chlorine and washing the many towels used to wipe up the drips, removing the stains from the white coat he wears while selling and, finally, doing the accounts. This ends Luis Armando Cabrera’s day, and he does not repent becoming a small businessman.