Scooters Ease The Problem Of Public Transport / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada and Mario Penton

Scooters do not require registration and the only license required is one to drive light equipment. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada and Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 8 March 2017 — Carlos began to travel to Ecuador when Cubans did not need a visa. He brought back clothes and appliances to sell in the informal market, until he discovered a more lucrative business: the import of electric scooters, the flagship product of those who do not want to wait hours for a bus or pay the fares charged by the fixed-route shared taxis known as almendrones (after the “almond” shape of the classic American cars widely used in this service).

At first, he sold these light vehicles discreetly from his garage on 23rd Street, centrally located in Havana’s Vedado district, he told 14ymedio. He asked between 2,500 and 3,000 Cuban Convertible pesos* for each bike, three to four times his investment. It was a “solid business,” he confesses.

“So we had several months until things went bad,” he recalls, referring to the visa controls that the government of Rafael Correa imposed on Cubans at the end of 2015. continue reading

The visa waiver Cubans had enjoyed in Ecuador since 2008, along with the immigration reform approved by Raúl Castro in 2013, led to an “airlift” with thousands of trips made each year by private individuals, allowing them to supply the Cuban informal market with products from the Andean nation. As the Ecuadorian door closed, there were other shopping destinations, including Russia, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

For Yamilet García, a Cuban based in Miami, the ‘motorinas’, as they are called, are ‘a blessing’

“It is now more difficult” to find customers who are willing to pay what he was formerly able to charge for an electric scooters, explains Carlos. “There are a lot of people traveling,” so the number of “scooters of different brands and colors” has soared.

In South Florida, where the largest concentration of Cubans outside the Island is located, this business opportunity did not go unnoticed.

Yudelkis Barceló, owner of the agency Envios y Más based in Miami, explained to 14ymedio that for the last three years they have been in the business of shipping electric scooters to Cuba.

“The customer acquires the product and in a period of six to eight weeks they can pick it up at the Palco agency, west of Havana. Payment is made in Miami. The company offers Voltage brand bikes of 750 Watts and 1,000 Watts, which cost $1,450 and $1,600 respectively, plus customs costs (70 Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC) plus 400 Cuban pesos (CUP) in the first case; and 170 CUC plus 400 CUP in the second case).

There are also other models of scooters: the Ava Aguila costs 1,950 CUC, the Hornet is 1,850 CUC and the Mitshozuki is 1,750 CUC.

Barceló notes that the shipment of this equipment is intended for personal use only, so his company does not violate the US embargo. Shipments are made by sea.

Another circumstance that favors scooters is that they do not have to be registered and can be driven with a license to drive light equipment

For Yamilet Garcia, a Miami-based Cuban, the motorinas, as they are called, are “a blessing.”

“Everybody knows what transportation is like in Cuba. I sent one to my brother who lives in Cotorro and he’s happy because he doesn’t have to wait for the bus or take the shared-taxis,” he says.

The Caribbean Express agency is another company that sends motorinas to the Island.

“They are taking four to five months” to be delivered, explains one of the sales agents who for protocol reasons prefers not to be identified.

“Only the Palco agency receives this type of product because it has the scanner to analyze them, so there is a delay,” he adds.

Another popular article among relatives who send products to Cuba are electric bicycles, much cheaper than scooters and with speeds of between 15 mph and 30 mph.

The deterioration of public transport, which has intensified in recent months, has contributed to a rebound in orders

On the Island you can buy the 60 volt LT1060 model with a three phase 1000 watt motor that the Angel Villareal Bravo Company of Santa Clara assembles from components from China.

These are higher powered bikes compared to those previously produced by that factory, and they are capable of reaching speeds of up to 30 mph. They have hand controls to activate the horn, digital screen and disk brakes, among other features.

This model “has characteristics similar to those currently imported by many individuals” and will be sold in the government chain of “TRD stores at a price of 1,261 CUC,” Elier Pérez Pérez, deputy director of the factory explained to the government newspaper Granma, saying they expect to produce 5,000 units by the end of the year.

The deterioration of public transport, which has intensified in recent months, has contributed to a rebound in orders.

Many motorists and passers-by complain, “If anybody hits you, they flee and you can not even see a license plate to complain about it”

Another circumstance that favors scooters is that they do not have to be registered and can be driven with a license to drive light equipment. A condition that many riders do not meet.

However, many motorists and passers-by complain, “If anybody hits you, they flee and you can not even see a license plate to complain about it,” says Pascual, a driver of a state vehicle.

“I’ve even found children under 16 driving these things,” he complains.

“I take care of it like it’s my child and the truth is that it has saved me from a thousand problems,” says Maikel, a computer engineer with a Voltage Racing bike.

His problems go in another direction. “There are few parking lots where I can feel safe leaving the bike and the cars don’t show me any respect on the road,” he complains.

However, he says that the motorina has totally changed his life by giving him a freedom of movement that he did not have before.

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies. Cuban Convertible pesos are officially worth one US dollar each, although transaction fees raise the cost for foreigners converting money on the island. Cuban pesos are worth roughly 4 cents US each.

Imported Clothing, An Illegal and Profitable Business / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

A woman sells clothes at the profitable business ‘Paris Viena’ on Monte Street. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 27 February 2017 – Regla has spent years working in a prohibited business. She used to do it in doorways on Monte Street in Old Havana, but when the government changed the law to block the trade in clothes and shoes, in December 2013, she had to find an even more discrete method. Now she maintains a point of sale in a state-owned place that rents spaces to private workers, but her little countertop that displays manufactured parts, only serves as a cover to attract customers who then trade in the merchandise that comes from countries Cubans can visit without a visa.

In the past, Regla made the clothes with raw materials “subtracted” from the state Wajay towel factory in Boyeros, and sold them through her self-employment license as a dressmaker. continue reading

“With that trick Regla also avoids paying a good part of the payment of taxes on her personal income. Of the 535,000 self-employed in the county, right now 170,000 of them must present their their affidavit, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

Among her ample catalog, Lycra pants printed with an American flag are a stand out.

“Everything I have is better quality than in the store,” the saleswoman explains with pride. This week she has again whispered to customers to look at her merchandise in the doorways, because the building where she has her stand is closed for repairs.

Among her ample catalog, Lycra pants printed with an American flag are a stand out. The official media have railed against this garment on repeated occasions, but its presence in the streets continues to grow.

The police control the areas where these sellers frequently offer their merchandise. The penalty for illegal sales includes the confiscation of all the products and a fine of 1,500 pesos. However, the informal sellers continue to dominate a good part of the market for clothing and shoes to the detriment of state owned “Hard Currency Collection” stores, as the state stores are formally named.

Yulia offers her products on Infanta Street. Mot of them come from Russia, Guyana and Haiti. “I started traveling to countries that did not require a visa, but for months I also bought in Haiti.” She thinks that the Caribbean country is a good destination to be supplied from because of the low prices of plane tickets.

This illegal market has also found its own ways of protecting itself

“I go to the home of relatives in Santiago de Cuba and I fly from there,” she explains. “I take clothes twice as big.” This is because the investment is lower than in the case of more distant trips, such as the distant Moscow.

Obtaining a visa for Haiti is relatively easy for Cubans, and Yulia recently also got the Haitian residency. Her new legal status will allow her to expand her business. “Everyone wants pretty clothes from outside the country,” says the saleswoman who has been in the trade for seven years.

This illegal market has also found its own ways of protecting itself. To the cry of “water!” the informal sellers of Monte Street hide their goods or vanish on some stairs. It’s the code to warn that the police are coming. When the authorities withdraw, they all return to their places. Until the next warning.

Fire Heavily Damages Shop In Havana’s Chinatown / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

Fire in Chinatown. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 13 February 2017 – A Sunday fire heavily damaged the Panamerican Rayo Fair shop, in Havana’s Chinatown. The premises, located a few yards from the central corner of Zanja and Dragones, caught fire about one in the afternoon and it took the fire brigade more than three hours to smother the flames. The fire was put out without loss of human life or injuries.

The fire spread rapidly, consuming seven departments within the store, among those home appliances, perfumes, furs, clothing, basketry, boutique and cafeteria. continue reading

Yudith Gonzalez, a worker in the store, attributes the fire to “a short circuit in a power outlet on one of the wooden walls.” In statements to 14ymedio, the clerk regretted that when the first flames were noticed and the store evacuated she did not take her personal belongings or salvage merchandise.

A resident of 116 Rayo Street, who explained that “smoke covered the whole area,” watched from his balcony as the “shop windows exploded sending pieces out into the street.”

Given the high residential density of this area of Central Havana and the commercial character of Chinatown, the firefighters had to cordon off the perimeter and convince numerous onlookers to keep their distance. After three and a half hours’ work, the fire was put out.

Several high-ranking officials from the Ministry of the Interior and directors of the Cimex Corporation, to which the shopping center belongs, came to the area. The experts began to investigate the precise causes of the fire.

From nearby buildings, numerous neighbors decided to film the flames with their cellphones, a practice increasingly common among Cubans. The closeness of the building to the Fe del Valle Park wifi connection zone, meant that many of the images were uploaded to social networks within hours.

A young man who was recording nearby commented to this paper that he saw the smoke from La Cabaña Fort, where he had been visiting the Book Fair. “I came to see what happened because I was afraid something had happened to my house,” said the young man, who lives in a poorly maintained building on San Nicolas Street, a few yards from fire.

After putting out the flames, the firefighters began to evacuate the area and fill the street with items ranging from burned up washing machines to other home appliances blackened by the smoke. At dusk Zanja Avenue was reopened although access to that stretch of Rayo Street remains blocked.

The José Martí Memorial Viewpoint Reopens To The Public With A New Elevator / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

The view from the Jose Marti Memorial tower in Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labradea, Havana, 2 February 2017 — After three years of being closed to the public, the viewpoint of the José Martí Memorial in the Plaza of the Revolution reopened its doors on Wednesday. The highest point in Havana has been out or service for domestic and foreign visitors since the elevator broke after more than five decades of use.

Only a small group of invited guests and press were allowed access to the reopening, despite the fact that from the early hours more than a dozen people waited to ascend to the top of the tower, which occasioned annoyance and complaints. continue reading

People who waited to enter at the reopening were not able to. (14ymedio)

The access to the viewpoint, some 460 feet above sea level and with a 30-mile view, was finally restored asof 1 February, after several days of testing of the new elevator.

The pilot test was not announced in the national press, which only released the date on Wednesday, to “not detract significance to the symbolic reopening”

Ana María Troya Ávila, in charge of the public relations for the monument, told 14ymedio that the service is in “high demand.” She added, “In just seven days this place welcomed around 3,000 visitors, both Cubans and foreigners.”

The pilot test was not announced in the national press, which only released Wednesday date, so as “not to detract from the significance of the symbolic reopening,” she said. One element that contributed to the annoyance of those waiting outside who were not allowed to enter.

One Spanish tourist said she was outraged by the constant bureaucracy of the island. “They keep us waiting for hours and in the end don’t open it,” she protested. Cubans just shake their heads. “We are used to this, the foreigners just have to adapt,” says an old man to calm tempers.

The incident, however, did not diminish the enthusiasm of the employees who made the inaugural tour with an unusual joy. “From this high site you can see points of extreme importance of our capital that distinguishes us in any part of the world”, detailed Troya Ávila.

According to Jorge Estany Ramírez, administrator of the memorial and the person in charge of the process of buying and assembling the elevator, the supplier of the equipment has been the Spanish company Electra Vitoria. “Its speed is six feet per second and is among the fastest in the city right now.” He also highlighted the hard work in the installation and adjustment process that began in early 2016 and has lasted until this January.

“The repair was complicated, because a major change was made, the entire elevator system was replaced from the machinery to the counterweight, so it was a year of hard work that involved not only the change of the old structure, but the need for other repairs that came up during the assembly and in the years that no service was provided,” said Estany Ramírez.

“For us this reopening represents a profit from the economic point of view , because it is a benefit that raises a lot of money and the income is soaring”

One important fact that Troya Ávila wanted to emphasize is the compass of the winds that is inlaid in the floor of the viewpoint, showing the distances between the Memorial and the six provinces at the moment of the construction of the monument and some capitals of the world, and also the significant places related to the life of José Martí.

“For us this reopening represents a benefit from the economic point of view, because it is a that raises a lot of money and the income when we provide these services are soaring and favors us,” said the official.

The Venetian ceramic murals, which are the work of the Cuban Enrique Caravia, in addition to all the images of the floor will be restored in cooperation with the Office of the Historian of the City. The managers of the place plan for the work to be carried out without affecting the access of the visitors.

The José Martí Memorial is open to the public from Monday to Saturday from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm and offers a full tour for 8 Cuban pesos (CUP -roughly $0.32 US) for residents on the Island or 6 CUP if they only want to access the lookout point. Foreigners must pay 5 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC – roughly $5.00 US) and 3 CUC for the same services.

Fire Destroys Cultural Assets Warehouse in Central Havana /

The fire reduced to ashes the warehouse and the offices of the Cultural Assets Fund. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta, Havana, 31 January 2017 — A fire reduced to ashes, on Monday, a warehouse and the offices of the Cultural Assets Fund, which managed raw materials for artistic productions on Subirana Street, between Benjumeda and Santo Tomás, in Central Havana. The fire spread quickly and it required several fire brigades to put itout, due to its intensity and the flammable materials stored there.

Beatriz Noa, a resident of No. 301 Subirana, told 14ymedio that “the flames went out the front windows and the black smoke covered all these streets.” When she peeked out of the door of her home “the area was filled with police and firefighters, but they had to ask for reinforcements from nearby stations.” continue reading

According to the neighbors, the incident began when some welding sparks fell on the rolls of fabric stored in the warehouse. The flames quickly reached the offices, the workshops and the furniture housed in the premises.

The Ministry of the Interior has begun an investigation to determine the causes of the fire.

The Ministry of the Interior has begun an investigation to determine the causes of the fire

The images of the flames spread quickly through the application Zapya, widely used to share content on mobile phones. Onlookers filmed from the surrounding rooftops, but as the fire spread, police officers evacuated the area.

“There were many firefighters who came to support the first responders, because the flames went everywhere and the trucks arrived almost without water, but it was more than an hour before it was completely extinguished,” said Carlos, a young man who recorded everything with his cell phone from the top of a nearby building where “everything could be seen clearly.”

Noelia Fuentes, a resident of Subirana Street, between Santo Tomas and Clavel, explained that the smell of burning spread quickly throughout the neighborhood and the neighbors went out to see what was happening. “But when we saw that there were a lot of flames, we had to get away. The fire almost reached the electrical wires and was a danger,” she reported.

Some speculated that a fire in a place “with many valuable products, like fabrics, wood and lacquers,” would result in thousands of pesos worth of loses.

Minutes after arriving, the first fire trucks shut off the electricity because the flames were reaching the wires. After seven hours, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, electricity was restored.

In the evening hours, local workers and company managers began cleaning up and the street was once again passable for vehicles.

A Park, A Dream / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta

A worker renovating Havana’s Martin Luther King Park

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta, Havana, 17 January 2017 — The neighbors of Martin Luther King Jr. Park have long cherished the dream of seeing a renewal for this piece of calm located in the middle of the hustle and bustle of 23rd Street in Havana’s Vedado district.

After years of deterioration, the small square began to be repaired in the middle of December, but the delay in the works prevented its being ready this Sunday, the 88th birthday of the United States preacher.

Difficulties in the supply of building materials and instability in the workforce have delayed the restoration beyond the date planned. A gardener from Community Services working in the green areas of the park told 14ymedio that new date could be before the end of this week, but did confirm the day.

The monument to Martin Luther King in the Havana park that bears his name

Martin Luther King Jr. has been an admired figure on the Island not only among Protestants and the Afro-descendant community, but also among dissidents. The park dedicated to him is a frequent meeting point for activists and a place to demand respect for human rights.

The park that bears his name is about to reopen, but his dreams of freedom and understanding seem far from being realized for Cubans.

New Rules on Horse-Drawn Carts Force the People of Santiago to Change Their Travel Patterns / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmani Mayeta Labrada, Santiago de Cuba, 10 January 2017 — The hooves ring on the pavement in the middle of the night. The sun begins to illuminate Santiago de Cuba, where horse-drawn carts, trucks and motorcycles offer urban transport in an underserved market. But the measures introduced by the authorities in the middle of last year in order to preserve the city center have forced changes in the mobility of the people of Santiago.

The regulations, issued by the city’s People’s Power with the support of the Historian’s Office and police forces, range from parking bans to price caps on animal drawn vehicles. But the measure that most disgusts the citizens who do not live in the historic center has been the moving of the stands where the horse carts park from the centrally located Alemeda German Michaelsen, to the outskirts, next to the Santiago Train and Bus Terminal, near the San Pedrito neighborhood. continue reading

Coinciding with the restoration process of the Alameda and the streets surrounding the new malecon, the City Conservation Office has made every effort to restrict carts in the most central areas

For years, the routes from the previous collection point to La Barca de Oro and the old Havana Terminal, carried about 2,000 passengers a day, according to the calculations of several self-employed people who frequent the place.

Since the beginning of 2016, and coinciding with the restoration process of the Alameda and the streets surrounding the new malecon, the City Conservation Office has made every effort to restrict carts in the most central areas. “It had to be done to preserve the place because of its high urban and environmental value,” says one of the Office’s specialists, who prefers anonymity. “The horses defecated in the middle of the road and their owners did not outfit them with waste collectors,” complains the professional.

The neighbors of the area are among the beneficiaries and applaud the measure. Maria Antonia Reyes, who previously had to clean in front of her house “when horses urinated” is now satisfied to be able to breathe “cleaner air.”

The pedicabs have been favored by the new regulations. “There is no shortage of customers, we have one after another and at the end of the day I arrive home with more money,” says Manolo, one of the drivers of these bicycle’s designed for public transport.

But the people of Santiago, who had favored horse-drawn carts as an alternative to the poor bus service, have fewer opportunities for internal mobility.

“The Alameda was a point from where it was easy to go anywhere,” 14ymedio is told by Norge Gonzalez, a cart driver with more than 15 years of experience. “In less than ten minutes the cart was full, but now people prefer to take something else because of the distance to the coach stand,” he says.

Another of the provisions that have fired up the cart drivers is the imposition of capped prices, which were set at two Cuban pesos (about 8 cents US), three less than what was charged previously. Offenders can be punished with high fines or even confiscation of their vehicles.

Against this background, some of the coachmen have proposed to stop work for a couple of days, as a way to pressure the authorities and to get the measures repealed

Given this situation, some of the coachmen have proposed to stop work for a couple of days, as a way to pressure the authorities and to get the measures repealed. The lack of organization of the union and the fear of a massive withdrawal of licenses, however, restrains any initiative of protest.

Self-employment regulations include a license for those carrying “freight or passengers with their own or leased means using a horse drawn cart,” an occupation of particular importance for mobility in rural areas, where up to 80% of passengers travel in this type of vehicle.

The discontent in the sector over the latest measures taken in many municipalities has been noted throughout the island since last year. In November, the coachmen in the municipality of Mayarí in Holguín, shut down their work in protest against the imposition of price caps on the part of the authorities, who from 1 October onwards forced them to cut their fares in half.

In July, horse-drawn cart drivers in Placetas, Villa Clara, went on a strike after being warned by local government officials that their routes would be moved to another area, outside the downtown areas of the city.

One Family Loses All Its Belongings In A Fire In Old Havana / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

The family is temporarily housed in the nearby Casa del Pedagogo. (14ymedio)
The family is temporarily housed in the nearby Casa del Pedagogo. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 3 November 2016 — A raging fire reduced to ashes this Wednesday all of the belongings of a family at 263 Mercaderes Street, in Old Havana. The incident caused no fatalities. The family is temporarily housed in nearby Casa del Pedagogo, while insisting it will not accept living in a shelter.

The fire broke out around noon, when the house where two women and a 4-year-old girl lived was empty. One of its residents, Francis Marais Acosta Ramirez, 21, had gone to the market at the time the fire started. “I have no strength to speak,” she tearfully told 14ymedio on Thursday. “So many years of effort and sacrifice turned into ashes, I still can not believe it,” she exclaimed as she pointed out all her belongings transformed in a gray pile outside the building. continue reading

“We have lost all our appliances and even the money we saved to buy an air conditioner that was stored next to the clothing,” complained Acosta Ramirez, who has received the condolences and solidarity of her closest neighbors.

“The firefighters soon arrived,” says a neighbor while cleaning out the water that had entered her home during the efforts to extinguish the fire.

The images of the flames coming from the windows of the third floor of La Cruz Verde building quickly spread through social networks. The location of the property on one of the busiest streets in Havana’s historic center facilitated the recording and subsequent dissemination of the incident.

The eight apartments on the third floor were also affected, along with those on the floor below.

On Thursday morning several social workers from the Municipal Labor and Social Security Department came to the building to quantify the damage. Odalis Martinez, a social worker, explained that her task was to assess the situation and provide a summary to the directors of the Council of the Municipal Administration (CAM) of the People’s Power. “They will be the ones who respond,” said the young woman, who explained that social workers are only “mediators between the government and the people, nothing more.”

Jose Luis Garcia, a resident affected by the incident, said the damage caused by heat, fumes and smoke spread across all the housing units. “I was not here when it happened, but a wave of heat came through the bathroom window that melted my blender and affected other appliances in the house”.

The fire broke out around noon, when the house in which live two women and a four-year-old girl, was empty. (14ymedio)
The fire broke out around noon, when the house in which live two women and a four-year-old girl, was empty. (14ymedio)

“The door fell out and since yesterday we are without electricity, water and gas, because all these facilities were destroyed,” insists a neighbor. If the damage is not dealt with promptly, the neighbors plan to address the government agencies to demand a response.

Another neighbor who requested anonymity said that the power grid of the building was in poor condition. “For years we have been suffering from the poor condition of the cables, but we had to fix the breakdowns ourselves and problems still persist.”

Chocolate Store or Museum? / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

A box of 80 chocolates costs 68.25 CUC, three months salary of a professional. (14ymedio)
A box of 80 chocolates costs 68.25 CUC, three months salary of a professional. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 31 October 2016 – For weeks, astonished and laughing faces have surrounded the display windows of a candy shop in the Plaza Carlos III shopping center in Havana. The excitement has come with the sale, for the first time at that center, of the Italian-made Ferrero Rocher chocolates. However, a box with 80 wrapped pieces costs 68.25 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the equivalent of three months’ salary for a professional.

For those who just want a quick taste of the treat, there is an option to buy a box of three for 2 CUC, still high for a country where the average wage doesn’t exceed 25 CUC a month.

The arrival of the exclusive delicacies generates curiosity and cries of alarm among customers, but also a certain doubt among employees about the possibility of marketing merchandise at such high prices. Three months after they went on sale, the only ones buying them have been “foreigners, but we’ve only sold six or seven boxes,” according to a clerk at the establishment.

“I couldn’t even dream of buying them,” says a lady who has joined the group raising their eyebrows at seeing the figure affixed to each box of Ferrero Rocher. Rather than a store, the place looks like a museum these days, with an exposition that combines sugar with the absurd.

A Family Puts Its Belongings In The Street Amid Fears Their House Will Collapse / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

Denise Rodriguez Cedeño with one of her granddaughters, says she would rather sleep in the street for fear that the roof of her house will fall in. (14ymedio)
Denise Rodriguez Cedeño with one of her granddaughters, says she would rather sleep in the street for fear that the roof of her house will fall in. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Larada, Havana, 4 September 2016 – After the heavy rains that have hit western Cuba in recent days, many residents of the capital fear an increase in the number of building collapses. Denise Rodriguez Cedeño, 54, a resident Luz Street, between Egido and Curacao, in Old Havana, placed her family’s belongings in the street after part of the roof of her house caved in on Saturday.

Those who pass through the busy street, in the heart of the historic center, can see the bundles with clothes piled up outside the building, along with kitchenware and a fan. The Rodriguez Cedeño family made the decision to spend their hours outdoors, in protest against the lack of response from the institutions charged with distributing materials for home repairs. continue reading

The already poor state of her home worsened with the storm that brought heavy rains, linked to the ninth tropical depression of the hurricane season, a weather phenomenon that caused intense rains in the west and center of the island and moderate flooding in the coastal town of Surgidero of Batabanó.

Rodriguez Cedeño works for Community Services and has lived in her home for more than 35 years. The resident told 14ymedio that her housing problems began in 2003, but she has not yet received a reply from anyone. Right now her situation is desperate.

“For 13 years I have been asking for repairs to my house, but but always tell me there are no building materials”

The anguish has led her to also pressure the authorities with the warning that she is not going to send her grandchildren to school this Monday, when the new school year begins nationwide, because she does not have the conditions to guarantee them a “home.”

“For thirteen years I have been asking through a technical report for repairs to my house, but they always tell me there are no building materials,” she says. On other occasions, Rodriguez Cedeño has chosen to “make repairs with my own resources,” but the deteriorating economic status of the family, made up of “four women and two little girls who have chronic asthma,” has prevented her from being able to make the arrangements to do it herself.

Denise Rodríguez Cedeño shows the deterioration of her home exacerbated by heavy rains in recent days.(14ymedio)
Denise Rodríguez Cedeño shows the deterioration of her home exacerbated by heavy rains in recent days.(14ymedio)

After several hours in which the women stayed with their belongings in the open street, the authorities of the Council of the Municipal Administration (CAM) of Old Havana arrived, to learn what damage occurred in the house and to call for calm. Dozens of people, especially foreigners passing through the city, were filming what was happening.

The directors of CAM explained that the family would be located in a Transit Community (a shelter) for about seven days and then taken to inhabitable housing in another community for people whose homes have been declared uninhabitable or have collapsed.

Rodriguez Cedeño had spent the whole night between the street and the half-ruined house, waiting for the authorities keep their word this Sunday. She warned that they would “plant themselves in the street again” if they didn’t provide a permanent solution to her case.

These residents of the Old Havana have become part of the 33,889 families across the country who need a home

In their current situation, these residents of the Old Havana neighborhood have become part of the 33,889 families (132,699 people) across the country who need a home, many of whom have spent decades living in shelters for victims. The population census of 2012 showed that 60% of the 3.9 million existing housing units on the island are in poor condition.

During the last session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, in July, the deputies met in the Standing Committee on Industry, Construction and Energy, and agreed that “the housing problem is the number one social need in Cuba.” The parliamentarians criticized “lack of coordination, integration and priority” at the municipal level in managing the demands of the population in terms of applications for materials and construction permits.

In the first half of this year, at least 90,652 people who have received subsidies for construction work have gone to the stores selling materials. However, only 52,000 have been able to buy all of the materials they were assigned, due to shortages of key products such as steel, cement blocks, bathroom fixtures, tiles and roofing.

All the bundles in the street
All the bundles of belongings in the street

The Coconut Leaves Weaver / 14ymedio Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

Misael Gonzalez, weaver in the streets of Havana. (14ymedio)
Misael Gonzalez, weaver in the streets of Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 11 August 2016 – For Misael Gonzales, Old Havana is the gallery that for years has refused to display his figures made from natural materials. All the passersby on Teniente Rey Street between Oficios and Mercaderes, will see there his grasshoppers made from coconut leaves and some Japanese-inspired constructions of braided green fibers.

The artist tells 14ymedio that initially he made clay and ceramic structures but with that raw material it became very complicated to get permission to market his work. Nature saved him from those difficulties and, although his business of figures made from natural leaves has not been without setbacks, little by little he has made his business thrive. continue reading

“I was fined several times,” says the artist, “but now I have authorization from the Office of the City Historian to develop my craft works here,” he said, while his fingers agilely braided the wings of an inspiring insect.

At 44, this Artemisa artist based in San Miguel del Padron has turned to crafts looking to support himself. When he lived in his native province he came to the capital every week with the pieces he had made “selling them for prices between 1 and 5 CUCs,” which still hold.

“I have been experimenting for seven years,” explains Misael, and describes some of the “spectacular” works that have never sold that he treasures at home. “I feel comfortable making these pieces out of natural materials and, in addition, I don’t get into trouble with the law,” he stresses.

Every afternoon the artist positions himself near Los Frailes Inn in the old city center to sell his sympathetic figures, most of which he creates before the eyes of the buyers. Other pieces are on display for “when someone is interested” and he then makes them on request in front of his customers.

Onlookers surround him and Misael displays his skills with leaves between his fingers. Sometimes a child approaches and is ecstatic with the animals that emerge with each fold. Misael gives him a grasshopper that seems about to take flight. He knows that many of these little ones’ families don’t have the money to pay him.

“Being an artist is being born again,” he says with the same wisdom that, one day, led him to create wonders with materials that others discard.

Lack of Fans, the Lifelong Annoyance / 14ymedio,Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

Customers in a Havana electronics store, in line to buy fans
Customers in a Havana electronics store, in line to buy fans

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 30 June 2016 – The star of home appliances in Cuban homes is not the television, nor even the powerful refrigerator. In the summer, the leading role belongs to a less serious but very important object for heat relief: the fan. But what happens when buying one of these pieces of equipment becomes a real battle against shortages, lines and bureaucracy?

For several weeks, temperatures have exceeded 86 degrees throughout the country, and like every year, the demand for fans is skyrocketing. However, in the government’s chain of “Hard Currency Collection Stores” (TRDs), the supply of these devices fails again, especially in Havana’s most populous districts, among which are Centro Havana, Cerro and 10 de Octubre. continue reading

Last weekend customers in the long lines in the centrally located Carlos III Business Plaza were alerted about the arrival of a new batch of fans. “They came!” shouted an employee to those awaiting the unloading of the coveted merchandise. Two hours later, more than a hundred people waited to carry home their “friend” with blades and motor.

“They didn’t come for more than a month,” explained an employee to 14ymedio while he helped test one of the devices for a family that arrived with two small children. Consumers came from several areas of the city since it’s the “only place they’ve supplied with them,” commented a worker from the nearby Nguyen Van Troi clinic.

The great flow of customers and the poorly functioning air conditioning in the well-known store made fan buyers resort to newspapers or magazine covers in order to fan themselves in the midst of the intense heat of the facilities.

“I don’t leave my house without my personal fan,” explains Eneida, a teacher who is dedicated to tutoring students for university entrance exams. “This is my special fan, it never fails, I don’t have to wait hours to buy one, and it doesn’t need electricity,” the woman says ironically about her popular fan, made with a thin wooden slat and colored cardboard.

One of the rooms in which they sell scarce equipment was also set up to relieve the long lines in the Carlos III Plaza electronics department. The prices of these pieces of equipment approached 34.45 CUC, the monthly salary of a Public Health professional, in spite of the fact that they are of low quality and have a high rate of returns because of technical defects.

A tour carried out by this daily of other stores in the city yielded similar results. In the majority of them there are no fans for sale, not even the most expensive ones that commonly “don’t sell as fast,” according to an employee of the Puentes Grandes mall.

The location, in the west part of the capital, has not received devices of this kind for more than four weeks and “all those that arrived last month were returned by customers because they had problems,” added the worker.

Other provinces also suffer the fan shortage, among them Santiago de Cuba, known for its high summer temperatures. In the store at Troch and Cristina, a scalper whispers of the sale of a turn in line to access the business and reach one of the few fans on display. At a price of 39.45 CUC, the devices ran out before midday, to the annoyance of buyers and under the watchful gaze of several police officers who were guarding the place to prevent hoarding and fights.

The black market is delighted with the shortage situation of the in-demand appliance. In the illegal distribution networks prices have soared, and advertisements on digital classified sites offer products that are scarce in the state sector.

“I have pedestal fans called Cyclones that throw out a world of air,” said a young man outside of the Carlos III Plaza among the eager buyers who were waiting to enter the electronics department. “They are made in the USA and have remote control,” proclaimed the salesman who, for 90 CUC (roughly $90 US), heralded “a bargain and no waiting in line.”

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Crime Lurks Around ATMs / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

The little security in the areas where around many ATMs contributes to the assaults. (14ymedio)
The little security in the areas around many ATMs contributes to the assaults. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 16 June 2016 — “It was about six in the evening and I had taken money from an ATM, when I saw the knife.” So says Carmen, 71, about the time when she was attacked by two young men who stole her entire pension for the month on 10 de Octubre Avenue. The little security in the areas where many of the ATMs are located contributes to the assaults, a topic discussed last week at a meeting between members of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) and government representatives in the capital.

In addition to losing 243 Cuban pesos, Carmen has inherited from that traumatic moment the fear of reliving a similar situation. “From that day I hardly go out into the street alone and when I’m going to collect [my pension] at least two of my children accompany me,” she explains. continue reading

During the meeting with the PNR, a representative of the Provincial Administration Council (CAP) of the People’s Power of the capital confirmed the increase in robberies around ATMs. Police major Manuel Alejandro Godinez warned that “security measures” will be taken to address “the increase in assaults” at the cash machines, whose victims are mostly elderly people.

In Havana there are 398 ATMs of the 700 in the country, although the years and wear have taken more than a dozen of them out of service. Vandalism has also contributed to the reduction in the number of cash machines, like that suffered last May be three ATMs in Branch 295 of the Metropolitan Bank in the Luyano neighborhood in the Diez de Octubre district.

However, the biggest concern for the police authorities focuses on the increase in the first half of this year of robberies, as was noted at the meeting. The most affected municipality is still Centro Habana followed by Arroyo Naranjo, Diez de Octubre, San Miguel del Padron, Marianao, La Lisa, Boyeros, Guanabacoa and Habana del Este.

“These are events that occur primarily in outlying neighborhoods and where there is a higher crime rate,” a government specialist in Central Havana who works in crime prevention explained to this newspaper, declining to give his name. “The most common victims are elderly, because they are easier to frighten and because the country has more than one million magnetic cards issued to retirees.”

Major Godinez said during the meeting that the neighbors should be alerted to “avoid older people from frequenting these places alone.” He also stressed that the police have arrested several youths, suspected perpetrators of this type of theft, who are “under investigation” and “some are minors, so their parents will be sanctioned for not having them under control and monitoring their children.”

One solution for reducing theft is to better illuminate the areas around cash machines, says a customer who frequently uses the ATM on the main street of Villa Panamericana. “Sometimes I come here and it is pitch black, you can’t see your hands in front of your face,” she says.

However, Cubans have no choice: they need cash to pay for purchases, since magnetic card payment in shops is often hampered by poor communication between point-of-sale terminals and the bank.

Distribution Of Cars And Laptops To Doctors Begins / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

A rental car like those to be allocated to doctors. (Cubarentacarros)
A rental car like those to be allocated to doctors. (Cubarentacarros)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 13 June 2016 – After months of waiting and amid growing expectations, a few weeks ago the distribution of cars and computers at subsidized prices to Public Health workers began. The distribution, which for now is limited to Havana, has raised passions due to the small number of vehicles allocated to each hospital. At Calixto Garcia University Hospital, only three cars have been received so far, to be given out among dozens of employees.

Doctors at the Pedro Kouri Topical Medicine Institute (IPK) have already received “laptops and the designation of some vehicles,” according to a source at the Provincial Health Department in the Cuban capital who spoke to this newspaper but preferred to remain anonymous. The official explained that the distribution began in the institutes and hospitals in the capital as a pilot project to be extended, later, across the entire country. continue reading

The plan includes enabling internet accounts for doctors and specialist in the healthcare sector. That initiative began last September when the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) opened internet access to its professionals through accounts on the network of the Medical Science Information Network (Infomed).

The cost of each vehicle will range between 3,000 and 7,000 Cuban pesos (CUP), the equivalent of 150 to 300 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) [and the same in dollars], although the first 200 are being delivered free to prominent doctors. After this first stage, the beneficiaries will be able to get bank loans to finance the purchase. The computers are being sold for about 600 Cuban pesos each.

The National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology (INOR) received four vehicles to allocate, like the rental cars for the tourism sector. Other facilities have had better luck, such as the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, which received 12 vehicles, according to an employee linked to the union leadership.

Health personnel have criticized the small number of cars being distributed and the ways in which they are being handed out. The authorities have not made public the rules for allocating the cars, leading to disgust and even small conspiracies.

At Calixto Garcia, one of the cars was assigned to Dr. Martha Larrea, professor and chair of the center’s Scientific Committee, who a few years ago returned from a mission in South Africa. “She has a car,” says an employee unhappy with the decision. “She served on mission in a country where all the doctors want to go because they pay well, and to top it off, they assign her car without seeing that she already has one,” he protests.

In other hospitals in the capital, where the distribution has already begun, the first deliveries have prioritized managers and staff linked directly to the Ministry of Public Health.

Outside the capital expectations are growing. The young doctor Yanelis, who manages a medical practice in the community of Veguita Galo in Santiago de Cuba, considers the measure a “very good” thing, focused on reducing the “leakage” of doctors who leave during missions in other countries.

Doctors Gertrudis and Carlos, a married couple who travel every day from the town of Il Frente to Juan Bruno Zayas Hospital, are excited about possible access to Internet connections, but are skeptical given the poor coverage in the area where they live. “Given how bad the cellphone service is here, imagine the internet,” they warn.

In June 2014, the Cuban government raised salaries for health professionals on the island. The increases ranged from 275 CUP to 973 CUP, the latter for grade two medical specialists.

Korea, That Distant But Nearby Country / Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

The audience outside the Infanta Multicinema during the first day of the South Korean cinema week in Havana (14ymedio)
The audience outside the Infanta Multicinema during the first day of the South Korean cinema week in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 28 May 2016 — When Cuban children playing mention distant countries, they talk about Singapore, Burundi and Korea. But in the latter case, they do not think about the country controlled by Kim Jong-un, but the one on other end of the peninsula, where Samsung was born. With film production the same thing happens: the theaters fill up for productions coming from the land of Hyundai and remain empty if the films come from the country’s “eternal president.”

With all seats occupied and dozens of people outside the theater, the screening of the first movie of South Korean Film Week in Havana occurred this Thursday at the Infanta Multicinema. The event, which this year celebrates its third edition, was organized by Cinemateca de Cuba with the Cuba-Korea Exchange Association. continue reading

The audience that gathered in the centrally located theater turned out to be very diverse, especially considering that Cuba does not have diplomatic relations with South Korea and this Asian country lacks official representation on the island. Nevertheless, officials from the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) attended, along with the very official Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP).

Also in attendance were South Korean students residing on the island and several diplomatic representatives of other nations, including the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China.

The founder of the Busan International Film Festival, Kim Dong-Ho gave the welcome in Spanish and said that a week of the films of his country would help with “understanding Korea” and “improving our relationship.” After he praised the cultural level of Cubans he closed with an emotional “thank you” that hastened the applause of spectators. Then came darkness and with it a point of light that widened on the screen.

The night gave way to “A Hard Day,” by South Korean director Kim Seong-Hoon. The thriller maintained its suspense until the end, with the avatars of Detective Gun-Su, trying to hide the body of a person he ran over. A standing ovation just as the credits started to roll confirmed that the organizers were right to choose this film to “break the ice” for the week.

Among those responsible for the careful film selection is Susana Molina, vice president of ICAIC, who told 14ymedio that “all the films in previous years have been good quality, but the curation of these was done by Tony Mason and also this edition presents a wider program.”

The programming for Korean film week will run until next Thursday. Stand outs among the films are titles such as: I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, Moebius, 200 Pounds Beauty, Coin Locker Girl, and The Satellite Girl and the Milk Cow. Productions that deal with romance and survival in a world of violence, as well as police dramas and the conflicts of an obese girl trying to make it in the world of pop music.

However, few moments are likely to exceed those of opening night, when the cinema mixed diplomacy with a certain dash of showbiz. After the screening of the first film, the celebrations moved to the Bar Su Restaurante in Miramar, where the surprise of the evening was the presentation of young Cubans who sang in Korean and danced typical dances of the region.

From the tables nearest the stage well-known actors such as Enrique Molina, Isabel Santos and Luisa Maria Jimenez applauded and laughed, all spellbound by that distant but nearby country.