‘Fidget Spinner’, The Toy That Has Taken The World By Storm, Arrives In Cuba

Samuel, 9, playing with his ‘fidget spinner’. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 17 July 2017 — Samuel is nine years old and has broken several of the windows in his building playing ball. His nearest neighbors see that he is very calm these days since his mother gave him a Fidget Spinner, a fad toy that some schools in the US, UK or Argentina have had to ban because of the distractions they cause among students. The toy has just landed in Cuba.

Simple and hypnotic, the little amusement with bearings can spin for several minutes. There are lights, phosphorescent colors, patterns and it even can emit repetitive tunes. In reality it is like the old yoyos or the spinning tops have returned, this time made of plastic.

Until a few weeks ago there were only a few specimens on the island, but in the summer vacation its presence has multiplied and it has become one of the most common requests from children to their parents. Although not yet sold in the legal market, illegal networks have versions for all tastes. continue reading

“It is said that it can help to alleviate the deficit of attention but it does not convince to me, because I have not seen any scientific work that demonstrates it”

The spinner was created in 1993 by the American Catherine Hettinger, age 62, who suffers from myasthenia, a disease that weakens muscles and generates fatigue. Her difficulties led her to create this game for her daughter to be distracted and it is believed to combat anxiety and attention deficit problems, coming to be used in the US as a therapeutic toy even though its benefits are not credited on a scientific basis.

“I just saw one, although I had read about the subject,” says Maria Antonia, 69, a retired psychiatrist who specializes in working with children. “It is said that it can help to ease attention deficit, but I’m not convinced because I have not seen any scientific work that demonstrates it,” she clarifies.

In Cuban schools it has not yet started to be a problem, but the spinner has been banned in schools of several countries. “It distracts students while they are in class and that conspires against the learning process,” says the psychiatrist.

“In the last weeks of the course a student started to bring one to classes and I had to take it from him and call his parents,” recalls Mercedes, a second-grade teacher in the Plaza de la Revolución municipality. The educator says that she did not do it “because it was bad, but because all the students were fascinated and wanted to spin it all the time.”

In many countries, businesses promote it as an ideal anti-anxiety device, to achieve greater concentration and also in cases of autism and hyperactivity. Forbes magazine considers it an indispensable toy for the office and it is among the most popular item on Amazon.

José Carlos, 38, travels as a “mule” between Havana and Panama City at least twice a month. Since May he began to add the famous spinners to the merchandise he imports. “First I brought one to my son and then the neighbors ordered them from me, but now I bring them to sell,” he says.

Small, cheap and light, the funny little toys are the perfect product to go through customs without major problems

Small, cheap and light, the funny little toys are the perfect product to go through customs without major problems. “I bring some made only of plastic, others of plastic and metal and the most sophisticated with lights,” says José Carlos. In his last importing trp he managed to introduce fifty units in the country.

“They sell between 5 and 15 CUC depending on the model,” a solid business if you consider that they cost between 2 and 3 dollars in Panama. “With the sale of these toys I think that I will be able to complete fixing the bathroom in my house, so I hope that the excitement lasts a long time,” he says.

José Carlos does not fear state competition, because the toy sales network managed by the Ministry of Internal Commerce has, in his opinion, a poor and outdated supply. “When the products arrive here, they are no longer fashionable out there,” he mocks.

The problems in the production and sale of toys in Cuba fueled debate in the last session of Parliament, when Deputy Aymara Guzman, President of the José Martí Pioneers Organization, acknowledged that the Government does not have a defined strategy for its “production, distribution and sales.”

The circulation of toys in the state market decreased from about 118 million pesos worth in 2012, to just over 94 million today. The fall has been noticed in the lack of variety and in the long lines outside the stores when Three Kings Day approaches, the day Cuban children are given Christmas presents. The demand has grown, fueled by families with higher incomes or who receive remittances from family abroad.

The high costs and the low quality of the goods in the children’s stores has led to many parents choosing to buy toys manufactured by the self-employed, or imported through the illegal market. This situation generated complaints among parliamentarians, who called for the state to have a greater presence in toy market.

The circulation of toys in the state market decreased from about 118 million pesos worth in 2012, to just over 94 million today

In a park in Havana’s La Timba neighborhood, two girls are taking turns passing the object from the tip of their index fingers to the tip of their noses. For more than an hour they try pirouettes and possible movements. Another child looks at them with a mixture of hope and envy.

But the taste for spinners is not just children’s thing. Among some young people it has become an essential object that accompanies them on their nights out and meetings with friends. This Saturday, some were incessantly roaming around Havana’s Calle G, where countless urban tribes gather every weekend.

“It relaxes me and I can’t look away when it’s spinning,” Jennifer, 16, tells 14ymedio. The young woman proudly says that she was the first person to have one of these toys in her La Lisa neighborhood. “This is the latest, what you have to have not to be out of it,” she says.

In the middle of the night, some lights are seen on both sides of the central street as more young people arrive. Pedestrians are alternately curious and surprised at the peculiar object. “It’s even good for attracting a date because it attracts a lot of people,” says Jennifer.

Bread In Cuba’s Rationed Market Is An Unsolved Problem

The capital has 367 establishments dedicated to producing “ration bread.” Most with serious technical difficulties. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 9 July 2017 — With a sharp knife and the skill of a surgeon, Luis Garmendia, 68, slices the bread from the rationed market into six small slices. Like so many Cubans, this retiree cannot afford to buy from the liberated (unsubsidized) bakeries and considers that, every day, the quality of the basic product is “worse.”

In the Havana neighborhood of Cerro, where Garmendia lives, the ration bread ‘starred’ in the last assembly of accountability with the local People’s Power delegate. “Since I started going to those meetings, the same problem arises, but it is not solved,” he protests.

The capital has 367 establishments dedicated to producing “ration bread.” Most have serious technical difficulties, according to a recent report on national television. In the last three years at least 150 of them have been renovated but customer dissatisfaction continues to grow. continue reading

The taste, size and texture of the popular food are at the center of customer criticisms. Hard, rubbery, and weighing less than the required 80 grams (2.8 ounces), are the characteristics most commonly used to describe “ration bread.” Its poor quality has become a staple in the repertoire of comedians.

With more than 7,500 workers in the capital and a daily consumption of 200 tons of flour, the Provincial Food Company is directly responsible for the rationed bread. (14ymedio)

The product’s bad reputation leads families that are more financially comfortable to avoid consuming it. “Now we Cubans are divided between those who can eat flavorful bread and those of us who have to make do with this, subsidized and flavorless,” says Garmendia while displaying a bread roll this Friday.

According to María Victoria Rabelo, director general of the Cuban Milling Company, “It is sad and frustrating to hear the opinions of the population,” regarding the rationed product. Her entity is in charge of producing and commercializing the wheat flour used throughout the country for the manufacture of bread, confectionery and its derivatives.

In the informal market flour is highly valued especially by private business owners who make pizzas, sweets and breads. The diversion of resources from state-owned establishments has become the main source of supply to the retail sector and affects the quality of the regulated product.

“I have to take care of each sack of flour as if it were gold,” says the manager of a bakery in Marianao’s neighborhood, who preferred anonymity. “They also steal other ingredients involved in the process, such as the improver, fats and yeast,” he details.

“I am the third administrator to have this establishment in five years, the others exploited it to steal,” says the state employee. For years the business of state bakeries “has been robust, because there is a lack of controls and demand has grown as there are more cafes and restaurants,” he says.

The profession of baker has been a gold mine. In spite of the low salaries in the sector, which doesn’t exceed 30 CUC a month, there is a high demand to work in these establishments. “I know people have become millionaires with the resale of ingredients or of the product,” says the administrator.

Hard, rubbery and undersized, are the characteristics that are most heard when the rationed bread is described. (14ymedio)

“There are places where employees at the counter pocketed at least 400 CUP per day just selling the bread that is destined for the basic basket under the table.” Inside, near the ovens, “workers can get away every day with up to 800 Cuban pesos [Ed. note: more than the average monthly wage],” he confirms.

Each ingredient has its own market. “The baked bread is much sought after by paladares (private restaurants), coffee shops and people who organize parties,” he adds. While “the yeast and improver end up in the business of selling pizza and the fats have a wider clientele.”

The administrator of the bakery on Calle 19 and 30 in Playa, Reina Angurica, believes that in order to avoid embezzlement, she must “talk to the workers, communicate with them and not allow illegal productions.” In their place they meet weekly “to talk about the short-term problems of the bakery and to eradicate them,” she told the national media.

The Cuban Milling Company imports 800,000 tons of wheat each year which is processed in five mills throughout the country, three of which are in Havana. “Strong wheat or corrector” is mixed with “weak” wheat to produce the flour sold to the food industry.

The ration market bread is made with a “weak or medium strength flour” ideal for achieving soft texture. However, the wheat blend has been affected by import irregularities and the state bakers are only receiving strong flour, more suitable for a sturdier bread.

“Now we Cubans are divided between those who can eat flavorful bread and those of us who have to make do with this, subsidized and flavorless.” (14ymedio)

With more than 7,500 workers in the capital and a daily consumption of 200 tons of flour, the Provincial Food Industry Company is directly responsible for the ration bread. But the entity is floundering everywhere because of the lack of control, hygiene problems and the poor quality of its products.

In some 1,359 inspections carried out in the last months in the facilities of this state company, there were 712 disciplinary measures imposed for irregularities in the preparation of the product. The problems detected ranged from indisciplines and diversion of resources to lack of cleanliness.

For María Victoria Rabelo, from the Cuban Milling Company, the technological difficulties or the problems with the raw material are not the keys to understanding the current situation: one must “dignify the profession and, without speaking with demagoguery, bring love to what we do,” she says with determination.

But in Cerro, where Garmendia is waiting every day for a miracle to improve the rationed bread, the words of the official sound like Utopia. “I do not want anything fancy, I just want it to be tasty and softer, nothing more,” says the retiree.

Tourism Boom Chokes Havana’s Airport

Arrival area in terminal 3 of Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 4 July 2017 — The passengers leave the plane and make their way around the buckets catching the leaks from the roof. They still have a long wait in at baggage claim and have to suffer under the air conditioning that hardly alleviates the heat. The José Martí International Airport in Havana is stumbling through the tourist boom that has brought a volume of passengers its services and infrastructure find difficult to serve.

The main air terminal in the country received 3.3 million passengers in the first half of this year, a figure that increased by 27.4% compared to the same period of the previous year. However, travelers’ experiences are far from satisfactory.

There are few places to eat and the lack is supplies is a problem. “We only have these two cafeterias up here,” says one of the employees. “Today we did not get any beer and there is no water, we are only selling coffee in addition to bread with ham and cheese,” she told several customers on Monday. continue reading

There is an unfinished wing on the exterior that will be filled with places to eat. “The financing of this infrastructure was linked to the construction company Odebrecht and everything was paralyzed by the corruption scandal in Brazil,” says a source from the Ministry of Construction who preferred to remain anonymous.

“We hope it will be open before the end of the year as an alternative for travelers and their friends,” the official said. “But the building is one thing and the supply of food and beverages is another; the latter is the responsibility Cuban Airports and Aeronautical Services Company (ECASA).”

Cafe at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

We can’t do magic. If there is no beer in the country, where are we going to get it from?” an ECASA employee asks rhetorically, speaking to this newspaper by phone from the central office. “We have tried to meet the demand with imported products, but the tourists want to drink a Cuban beer at the airport,” she says.

Hope arrived for the terminal employees when it was announced last August that French companies Bouygues and Paris Airports had won a concession to expand and manage the terminal.

“They haven’t pounded a single nail here,” protests the saleswoman at a handicrafts stand on the middle floor. Industry sources say that no feasibility studies have yet been done to start the works. “The French planners have not even arrived to evaluate the terminal,” says a senior Transport Ministry official adding that the project is waiting for support from the new French president.

One floor down crowd those waiting for the travelers who arrive in the country. “This shows a lack of respect,” says Manuel Delgado, 58, who complains that “there is no place to sit, the heat is unbearable and the cafeteria has no water” while waiting for the Air France flight returning his daughter, who has been living in Paris.

The bathrooms earn the worst of the opinions of those who wait. “They smell bad and although the service is free, the employees are asking for money, in a somewhat disguised way, but they ask for it,” says Yesenia, who came from Matanzas to meet a brother returning from Mexico.

In the women’s restroom a female worker holds the roll of paper for drying hands. “It’s not mandatory, but they look askance at you if you do not give them something,” says Yesenia. One of the female employees asked the customers to exchange for 25 centavo coins in Cuban pesos (CUP) “for a convertible peso.” Finally, a European-looking tourist agrees.

A few meters from the bathroom, located on the third floor, a young man tries to catch the wifi signal to surf the internet, a service only offered in the area after immigration and security controls. For every hour of navigation one must pay 1.50 in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) but there is nowhere in the airport “today where they are selling recharge cards for the Nauta service,” he says frustrated.

There are also no hotels nearby for passengers in transit to other provinces. For two years the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) has planned to build five-star accommodation in the immediate vicinity of the airport, but the project has not yet materialized. The private sector, however, has taken the lead from the state and more and more private houses are renting to tourists in the vicinity of the area.

The problems of infrastructure and services do not end after approaching the exit doors from the flights. “I was traveling in first class and they gave me an invitation for the VIP area,” says José Mario, a Cuban who each month takes the Copa Airlines route to Panama working as a “mule.”

Numerous trips allow you to accumulate points that you can take advantage of, from time to time, to travel in more comfort. But the VIP area has not met their expectations. “They told me I had to wait for other customers to finish eating, because there were not enough dishes,” he remembers with annoyance after his failed attempt serve himself some nuts and cheese from the available buffet.

Jose Mario admits, at least, that the taxi service has improved. More than a year ago a fixed rate was established from the airport to different points of the city. “Before the driver decided the price, but now I know that I must pay 25 CUC from here to my house, not a peso more.”

The experience on arrival, on the other hand, does not get much praise. It varies according to the schedule, the flight and the amount of luggage. “Sometimes I have spent less than an hour waiting for my bags, but other times I have spent up to four in front of the luggage belt,” complains the traveler.

Employees agree that the waiting time after the landing fluctuates. “At night, when large flights arrive from Europe, such as Iberia, Air France or Aeroflot everything slows down,” says one of the doctors waiting for the national passengers to fill out an epidemiological form.

Souvenir shop at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

The pilots themselves have had to explain to the passengers about departure delays because of not having “enough vehicles to bring the luggage to the plane”.

Added to this is the strict customs control over luggage, whose thoroughness is not only designed to prevent crime but to control the bringing of technological devices into the country (such as DVDs, NanoSations, hard disks or laptops) or large quantities of commonly used products. The most “meticulously” checked flights are those from the US, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and other regular routes for the “mules.”

In the area before passing through immigration, employees are wandering around with posters bearing the names of some travelers. Some approach families with children or newcomers who look like Cubans living abroad. “For 40 dollars I can pass you without problems from customs,” whispers a worker to a couple with two children.

For a certain fee employees can avoid passing through the search or paying for excess imported luggage, a relief for many Cubans living abroad and arriving loaded with gifts. For each kilo of luggage that exceeds the limit of 50 kilos, there is a fee that must be paid in CUC, and the fees also depend on the type of objects transported. For residents on the island is also very advantageous, since they can only pay in CUP for their first annual importing of goods.

Jose Mario often resorts to this illegal service. “What I am going to do?” he justifies himself. “I pay to get myself out of this airport as soon as possible, because it’s unbearable between the heat and the bad conditions.”


The Dark Side Of Tourism in Cuba

Among the areas most affected by the avalanche of visitors are the Viñales valley, the city of Trinidad, the resort of Varadero and the Cuban capital. (JVY)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Viñales, 27 June 2018 — At the entrance to Calle Obispo a guide explains to her customers the restoration works in the historical center of Havana. A few yards away, the line to exchange currency is full of foreigners and in the corner bar one hears English, French and German. Tourism is shaping the face of several areas of Cuba and becoming a problem for their residents.

“In this neighborhood you can’t even walk,” complains Idania Contreras, a resident of Obrapía Street in Old Havana and a law graduate. “At first people were happy because the area improved economically, but little by little the tourists have been taking over all the spaces and this is less and less like a neighborhood where people live.” continue reading

A pineapple never costs less than 20 Cuban pesos because the private restaurants in the area can pay that amount, because they sell the tourists a piña colada for three times that price

As a consequence of the increase in tourism, prices have also risen. “Now buying fruits in the markets is a headache because they are hoarded by the people who rent to tourists,” adds Contreras. “A pineapple never costs less than 20 Cuban pesos because the private restaurants in the area can pay that amount, because they sell the tourists a piña colada for three times that price,” she explains. In her view, those mainly affected are the citizens themselves who can’t afford these prices.

Contreras, who worked for a few months in a real estate management office, says housing prices are also up in the area. “The price per square meter has exploded around the Plaza de la Catedral, the Plaza de San Francisco and the streets where it is most profitable streets.” She also says that these areas are beginning to look like the center of Barcelona or Venice, where fewer and fewer families are living.

However, she acknowledges that “the problem has not yet reached the point of other cities in the world that receive many more tourists,” but she is concerned because there are no “public policies to alleviate the problems we are already experiencing.”

Contreras’s biggest fear is that there is only talk of the positive side of tourism, while some streets in the area are already showing symptoms of congestion and tourism activity aggravates the problems of waste treatment and water supply.

Several regions of the island face the challenge of absorbing an increasing number of travelers despite the precariousness of their infrastructure. Among the areas most affected by the avalanche of visitors are the Viñales valley, the city of Trinidad, the Varadero resort area and the Cuban capital.

“At night the discos are full of ‘yumas’ with young girls and it is a really pitiful show for our children”

“It is very difficult for a Cuban to rent a room because homeowners prefer to rent only tourists,” warns Gustavo, a handicraft seller near the Casa de la Trova in the city of Trinidad, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988 and is now an obligatory stop on many of the package tours.

“This whole area is focused on foreigners,” he says. The salesman, born on the outskirts of Trinidad, believes that there are many people who benefit from tourism, but on the way he has lost the city he knew as a child. “Now it has been commodified and everything has a price, even people,” he laments.

In all the tourist hubs, along with an increase in private businesses there is also an increase in prostitution. “At night the discos are full of yumas, foreigners, with young girls and it is a really pitiful show for our children,” notes Gustavo.

“[Tourism] is more positive than negative because 30 years ago this city had old and beautiful houses, but nothing more,” says the seller despite his reservations about this economic sector.

Carlos and his two children live on the road to Viñales. Coming from a family of farmers, they now sell fruit at a stand by the side of the road. “Most of our customers are foreigners coming and going from the Valley,” says the farmer. He hasn’t gone into town for two years because, he says, “you can’t take a step with so many tourists.”

“Before this was predominantly a farming area with strong traditions, but now everything is being lost”

The winding road that leads to Viñales also suffers with the increase of vehicles. “It’s a rare week that there is not an accident in this section,” recounts Carlos while pointing to one of the curves near his house. The number of travelers interested in the area seems to have grown, but the seller points out that the streets and roads remain the same and that no expansion has been undertaken.

Carlos’s closest neighbors have a thriving business that offers horseback rides to travelers. They gain much more from these “ecotours” than they could sowing beans or tobacco, another change that is due to the avalanche of visitors. “Before this was predominantly a farming area with strong traditions, but now everything is being lost,” he says.

A few yard away, a tobacco drying shed stands with its gabled roof and its walls made of logs. In the interior, a peasant shows a dozen tourists how the leaves re dried. “This shed has been set up for groups who want to see how the process is done, it’s pure showcase,” says Carlos. “In this town everything is already like this.”

Sweating Is Not For Cuba’s New Rich

In recent years the supply of air conditioners in the informal market has increased considerably. (J. Cáceres)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 20 June 2017 — The passenger complains of the heat while frantically moving the fan. “In a few days I will install an air conditioning,” justifies the taxi driver and adds that he will charge “higher fares.” In summer everyone dreams of air-conditioning their rooms or vehicles, but whether or not one suffers the heat depends on the pocketbook.

In 2013, after eight years of prohibition, the government authorized travelers to import air conditioners, electric stoves, refrigerators and microwave ovens. It was the starting shot for an avalanche that invades the airports, the port terminals and the shipping agencies to Cuba.

“Six ‘splits’ (air conditioners) came on that flight,” said an employee of Terminal 3 at José Martí International Airport in Havana. The plane from Cancun, a route greatly appreciated by the mules, also brought a dozen flat-screen TVs, eight minibars and two desktop computers. continue reading

Among the boxes that are piled around the luggage belt are the units that will be placed inside rooms and others that will be placed on a roof or an outer wall, a cruel irony, because in the main airport of the country travelers complain about the heat and drip fat beads of sweat while waiting for their suitcases.

“It is difficult to know the number of AC units entering each day,” says the employee. “It is rare that a flight arrives from Panama, Mexico or any other nearby country that comes without at least two devices.” In the lines to pay for overweight luggage and the import of domestic appliances one sees the new arrivals loaded with bundles.

Permanent residents in Cuba, national or foreign, can import two air conditioners of up to one-ton capacity on each trip. On the first occasion only – over the space of a year — they pay tariffs in Cuban pesos at a price ranging from 150 to 200 CUP (roughly $6 to $8 US). For additional imports they pay that amount in convertible pesos (CUC – roughly $150 to $200 US).

The business is booming. Even paying in CUC the traveler can resell a one-ton air conditioner on the black market for about 650 CUC, for a device that originally cost less than 350 dollars. The brands that enter most frequently are Midea, LG, Carrier, Royal, Daewoo and Prestiger. Prices have fallen by up to 30% since the imports were authorized and given the volume of supply that trend will continue.

State stores try to compete with the “under the counter” sales but have higher prices, fewer models and shortages that make the supply unstable.

The air conditioners have slowly been incorporated into the landscape of cities and towns. If before the economic relaxations they were installed discreetly, now with a more open economy the tendency is to exhibit them.

“The people living there have cash,” says Igor, a pedicab driver who waits for his clients in the vicinity of the Plaza de Carlos III. While pedaling and showing some parts of the city, the cyclist glances at these signs of families with money. “Wherever there is an air conditioner they are affluent,” he muses. Not only does acquiring one of these devices mark membership in a social group, the most difficult thing is to pay for its operation.

Much of the electricity supply remains subsidized. “The average monthly consumption in the residential sector in 2013 was approximately 180 KWh per customer,” said Marino Murillo. For that amount a consumer pays 36.60 CUP, “while the cost to the state is 220 CUP,” said Cuba’s vice president.

Keeping a one-ton air conditioner on all night can trigger electricity consumption above 400 CUP monthly, the entire salary of a professional. However, many families decide to do so, overwhelmed by the heat or because they want to rent rooms to foreigners.

“Air conditioning and hot water cannot be lacking in this business,” says Rocío, who operates a colonial hostel in Trinidad with his mother. With three rooms for rent, each with AC, minibar and television, the entrepreneurs pay a four-digit electricity bill. They consider that, even so, it “brings in business” in an area with a high occupation rate throughout the year.

In November 2010, a new progressive electricity rate began to be imposed, which imposes a penalty of up to 300% on households that consume more than 300 KWh per month, a situation that has triggered electricity fraud.

An engineer from the Electricity Company in Havana told 14ymedio about the new ways in which citizens seek to steal electricity. Before there were “visible” cables that were easy to detect or they tampered with the meters in a way that technicians noticed right away, but now they conspire with the workers who repair the streets and get the cables installed underground.

In 2013 the Cuban government authorized travelers to import air conditioners, electric stoves, refrigerators and microwaves. (J. Cáceres)

The specialist says that there are “people whose homes abut state entities and they steal electricity from a company, a warehouse, a carpentry workshop or even a polyclinic.” He says that almost always “it is a cases of people who have some highly customer-based business, like an electric oven to make pizzas, a body shop, a private restaurant or a lot of air conditioners.”

The engineer recalls a family in which “even the youngest children had AC in their room and left it on all day.” A neighbor reported the situation when he learned that they paid a very low electricity rate. The complaint brought the inspectors and they discovered that the meter was tampered with. In addition to the fine “they had to pay retroactively all that they owed.”

To counter fraud, analog meters were replaced by digital ones and in some areas of the country they are being changed again for new ones with infrared technology. But the tricks are inexhaustible.

“The upstairs neighbor lives alone and is retired, and he passes the cable with electricity to me and in return I also pay for his consumption,” says a prosperous entrepreneur who runs a coffee shop on Zanja Street. “So I share the consumption and it’s not as expensive” because it prevents all the kilowatts going on a single account with the consequent progressive surcharge.

The customer has three air conditioners installed throughout the house. “Without this you can not live here, because this house hardly has windows to the outside and the kitchen of the business generates a lot of heat,” he explains. He bought the devices in the informal market and is waiting for them “to lower prices a little” to buy a room.

“It is not the same to be Cuban with a fan as it is to be a Cuban with AC,” he reflects. “The first one is irritated but the second is less stressed because he has air conditioning.”

In The Bank or Under the Mattress? Where Do Cubans Keep Their Money?

A man tries to get money at an ATM just outside a Metropolitan Bank in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 May 2017 — Finding a little bottle filled with coins that her father hid in the patio was something that happened to Eneida when she was young; now she’s a retired and says that financially she’s “escachada, without a single peso in the bank.” Her family inherited an old mansion in the center of Santa Clara, and also the determination not to put their savings in the hands of the state.

Each month, the pensioner goes to the nearest ATM, takes out the amount of her retirement, equivalent to about $12, and stores it inside an old coffee can. “I prefer to have it close because in most stores there are problems paying with a magnetic card.” continue reading

The Santa Claran also fears the authorities because, in her opinion, “you never know when they will confiscate something.”

Eneida has bad memories. Her father owned a bodega that was nationalized during the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive, and before that the small business owner had lost some of his savings with the paper currency swap decreed by the government in 1961. “He kept in the house what little they didn’t take from him,” recalls his daughter.

“He kept in the house what little the state didn’t take from him,” recalls his daughter

Since then more than half a century has passed, but many citizens are still wary of putting their money in government-run institutions.

The banking system is made up of nine banks, 14 non-bank national financial institutions, nine representative offices of foreign financial institutions and one in the process of registration. For Eneida all these entities are “the same dog but with a different collar.”

In Havana, the Metropolitan Bank seeks to attract more customers at all costs, but to the mistrust of banks is added the poor service at its branches. The long lines outside the offices and the few economic incentives to keep the money in their safes discourage savers.

The interest rates approved by the Central Bank determine that a fixed-term deposit of 72 months accumulates 7% of its amount. However, the dual currency system makes that figure ridiculous.

“I saved a third of my salary for five years to pay for my daughter’s fifteenth birthday party,” says Teobaldo, a 47-year-old from Las Tunas who transports goods from private markets to paladares and cafes. “I put it in the bank and I had no problem, but I had the illusion that the money would grow more.”

Theobald came to have the equivalent of 1,800 CUC with which he paid for the drink and the food of the party, as well as the cake and the cars to make a tour of the city and the photos of the honoree. “I had to ask my brother to send me more money from the United States for clothes, flowers and the hiring of musicians,” he adds.

It is not the mistrust of young people that guides them to not having bank accounts, but the economic precariousness of the day-to-day

As soon as his daughter’s birthday came, the small entrepreneur took all of his savings from the bank. “I did not want to set off the alarms,” he explains. In 1993, the government launched an offensive known as Operation Potted Plant aimed at confiscating products and imprisoning those who possessed “illicit money.”

The crusade became a hunt against the new rich. “If you had a nice house, air-conditioning and a well-painted façade, they would come down on you,” says Teobaldo. The Operation prosecuted two brothers  for “illicit enrichment.” One of them raised pigs and the other sold gold jewelry. After several years in prison they ended up emigrating.

Younger people see it differently. It is not mistrust that guides them to not have bank accounts, but the economic precariousness of the day-to-day. “Save money?” a young student at the University of Pedagogical Sciences who works during non-school hours as a messenger to distribute the Weekly Packet, asks with disbelief.

“Having savings is a thing for the rich,” he says. Most of their his live on what the parents give them or earn their own living, “but there is not enough to save,” he says.

Neither CUPs nor CUCs, It’s Bucks That Reign in Cuba

The official change that governs the US currency is very unfavorable. In exchange houses, each dollar is traded at 0.87 cents CUC. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 3 May 2017 — The guard looks at him and dismisses him as an undercover cop. “Are you coming to change dollars? I’ll pay you at 90 cents,” he tells the customer while turning his back on the security camera at the Currency Exchange (Cadeca). At the window, that same dollar is exchanged by the government for 0.87 Cuban convertible pesos (about 87¢ US).

Possessing hard currency was heavily penalized for decades. Until its authorization, in 1993, having foreign currency in your pocket could lead to a sentence of up to four years in prison.

The new monetary policy drastically changed the economic reality of the country and the bills with the faces of Lincoln, Franklin and Washington gained prominence in everyday financial operations. The “socialist paradise” worked with “the money of the empire,” some said wryly. continue reading

A decade after that decision, the authorities decreed that commercial transactions in the island could not be made in dollars, but only in Cuban pesos (CUP) and convertible pesos (CUC), the latter known popularly as chavitos.

However, “the currency of the enemy” remains an important reference point in the informal market.

The new emerging class hordes its savings in dollars while waiting for uncertain unification of Cuba’s two currencies

Entrepreneurs, artists who sell their works in the international market and Cubans who travel abroad are some of those who prefer the greenbacks. The new emerging class hordes its savings in dollars while waiting for the uncertain unification of Cuba’s two currencies.

The official exchanger rate that governs the US currency is very unfavorable. In exchange houses, every dollar is traded at 0.87 cents CUC, a price that has not changed for years and that especially affects those who receive financial assistance from their relatives abroad, a not negligible figure for the national economy.

Remittances sent to Cuba reached a record $ 3,354 billion in 2015, according to The Havana Consulting Group (THCG). The diplomatic meltdown between the two countries and the easing introduced by the Obama administration boosted the shipment of money and with it the upsurge of the informal currency market.

In March 2016, days before the visit of President Barack Obama to the island, the Cuban government announced the end of the 10% tax it had imposed on the American currency, a decision that excited much of the population.

Days before the visit of the President Barack Obama to the Island, the Cuban government announced the end of the tax of 10% it had imposed on the American currency

However, a year has passed since that announcement, and the measure has not been implemented. The authorities of the island justify the delay by asserting that they cannot yet conduct foreign trade operations with US currency as a result of the embargo.

In the banks and tourist businesses the buying and selling of Uncle Sam’s currency proliferates, parallel to the official networks. Many state employees are the bridge between foreigners and the underground market where the currency of the “empire” is sold.

Airports, despite strict surveillance, are the ideal site for this trade. Tourists arrive, the lines to exchange money are long, and individuals carrying bulging wallets wander among the travelers whispering the service they offer.

The guards and the banks themselves are linked to the black market. They earn a commission and keep a steady stream of dollars flowing into the illegal networks.

The dollar is also king in the monetary operations of those who want to get money out of the country. The currency is especially desired by mules who travel to countries in the region, such as Panama, the United States and Mexico, to import products such as footwear and clothing.

“This is a circular business,” says Henry, an informal entrepreneur who trades dollars. “The customer earns more than if he makes the exchange at the Cadeca and we get quantities of foreign exchange that you cannot go and buy from a bank,” he says.

The sale of foreign currencies in the country’s banking network is authorized but it is a complicated process. “Today I only have 120 dollars in the box so I cannot sell you any more,” a cashier from a Metropolitan Bank on Ayestarán Street in Havana told a client in need of foreign exchange.

In some bank branches they ask the customer to show an airplane ticket that justifies their need to acquire foreign currency for a trip. “I have walked through several banks and they tell me that they cannot sell me dollars or euros because they do not have them,” a resident of Havana’s Playa municipality complained last Friday, looking for dollars for a trip to Cancun.

On digital classifieds sites, there are many offers for the sale of dollars. Most advertisers prefer quantities that exceed of $ 1,000 and 50 or 100 dollar bills

On digital classifieds sites, there are many offers for the exchange of dollars. Most advertisers prefer amounts that exceed $1,000 and 50 or 100 dollar bills. “Selling at .96 cents a dollar,” one of these makeshift bankers says in an advertisement, promising “seriousness and reliability.”

“I have a house with five rooms and aterrace in the city of Cienfuegos, I want 50,000, half in convertible pesos and the other half in dollars,” says another classified in the popular portal Revolico. The practice is becoming more and more widespread.

“I do not want my money in these little colored papers (convertible pesos),” a musician, who performs in venues with a mostly foreign audience such as Dos Gardenias and La Casa de la Música de Miramar, explains to 14ymedio. Customers tip him “almost always in euros or dollars” and what he gets in CUCs he changes for “real money.”

His goal is to save enough to “spend a three-week vacation in Moscow and bring home things and clothes for the kids.” Spare parts for his Russian-made Lada car and a one-ton capacity air conditioner complete the dreams he wants to achieve with the green bills he keeps under his mattress.

The musician worries that “even tomorrow they could announce the monetary union and I would end up losing money” if it’s in one of the two national currencies. “The US Federal Reserve is there, it has several centuries of existence and gives me more confidence than the Central Bank of Cuba.”

Home Delivery Services, A Business That Captivates Cubans

In Havana, of 458 food sales businesses listed in the ‘AlaMesa’ directory, at least 66 offer a delivery option. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 April 2017 — The colorful vehicle takes off when the traffic light turns green, leaving the smell of freshly baked pizza in its wake. It is one of the visible signs that private businesses are succeeding in a country where ordering food from home was a chimera until recently.

In the days of Uber Eats and Amazon, Cuban entrepreneurs use more traditional methods. Paper ads pasted in public areas, telephone numbers along with photos of delicious dishes, and classifieds on digital sites are part of the strategies of the home delivery business, known on the island by the English word: delivery. continue reading

“We started with two motorcycles and we already have five,” says Yosniel, an employee in a business in Havana’s Vibora neighborhood that offers Chinese food to order. “At the beginning we received few calls a day, but since more people heard about our offers, the phone does not stop ringing,” he adds.

AlaMesa, the most complete directory of food services on the island, has so far registered around 930 restaurants, bars, pizzerias and ice cream parlors throughout the country. In Havana, of 458 food retail businesses that appear, at least 66 offer the possibility of home delivery.

Paper ads pasted in public areas, telephone numbers along with photos of delicious dishes, and classifieds on digital sites are part of business strategies

Mamma Mia is one of them. In a beautiful house on 23rd street you can eat Italian-style pizzas and they also prepare the delivery orders for customers from several nearby districts. “When I don’t feel like going out, I phone and have it delivered,” says Victor Manuel Manuel, a dedicated customer of the place and resident of the area.

The diner believes that domestic consumers are becoming more and more enthusiastic about the possibility of ordering from afar. “People are wary if they can’t preview the food they are going to buy, but when the quality of a place has been proven, that distrust diminishes,” he says.

Víctor Manuel works with two friends in an interior design business on his own. “Sometimes we have to spend hours and hours doing drawings or designing on the computer, so having the option of having the food at the door makes the job much easier,” he says.

At the end of January of this year, 539,952 Cubans were self-employed, of whom 59,368 were engaged in the preparation or sale of food. Most in small cafes or very simple places, but sophistication and glamor also has a presence in the sector.

Home deliveries are a private sector fiefdom and for decades very few state-owned restaurants offered such a possibility. The dispatcher who arrived on a motorbike with the pizza in his hand was a “movie thing” for several generations of Cubans, until in 2008 when the opportunities for self-employment were expanded.

The dispatcher who arrived on a motorcycle with the pizza in his hand has been a ‘movie thing’ for several generations of Cubans.

Liset and her husband Esteban have a service delivering sushi to order. This April is two years since they began to bring their exotic dishes to the customers’ homes. “We have offers of a roll that includes eight portions accompanied by wasabi, ginger and Japanese soy sauce, and also comes with vegetables,” the owner tells 14ymedio.

After living for five years in Costa Rica, the couple has returned to live on the Island and enters a new terrain. “Foreign businessmen based in the country, diplomats and Cubans who want to try new flavors,” says Esteban, describing his growing clientele.

“The main way we distribute our menu is the digital classified sites, but we also have a small brochure with prices and a ‘call at any time and we’ll take care of you’ advertisement. The text warns that for ‘larger orders for more than 20 people, order 24 hours ahead’.”

“The worst is when we are at a client’s house and he tells us that he made a mistake and that he will not buy the whole order because he does not have enough money,” says Liset. Without a prior reservation through internet or the guarantee of a credit card number in some online service, sellers can be victims of “jokes and false orders,” says the entrepreneur.

However, he says the incidence of these events is “infrequent” and that in general his experience is that business “is positive.” An advantage is that, “you do not need a large place or even have to invest in setting up a restaurant, just a phone line and a good organization in the kitchen.”

The entrepreneurs are planning to implement “a system of points and customer numbers to make ordering faster.”

Loyalty programs, rebates when a customer exceeds a number of orders per month and even small gifts to the most frequent customers, are some practices that are also beginning to spread. “Customers who put in more than two orders a month, we give them an extra menu item,” said Liset and Esteban.

The entrepreneurs are planning to implement “a system of points and customer numbers to make ordering faster.” They believe that in the emerging food sector, those who are “not creative will be left out in the cold.” They are betting on home delivery and “the future of the sale of food in Cuba,” says the seller.

A colorful motorcycle with the emblem of Banana City Delivery was traveling the central avenue of Rancho Boyeros in Havana this Monday. From a collective taxi, a passenger tried to write down the telephone number to place an order. An image that two decades ago was unthinkable on Cuban streets.

Advertising On Wheels Arrives In Havana

Advertising Biky through the streets of Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 14 April 2017 — The vehicle belonging to El Biky cooperative is adorned with the images of its products and the smiling faces of some of its employees. The food center, located at the corner of Infanta and San Lázaro, is looking to conquer new new customers for its cafe, restaurant and bakery.

As it passes, the singular minibus awakens curiosity and questions. Some question whether private individuals will be allowed to do the same, or whether it is only a prerogative for the 397 non-agricultural cooperatives that are active in the country. continue reading

As for advertising and marketing, ingenuity and creativity alone are not enough; also important is the enterprise’s form of ownership and management.

For decades advertising was frowned upon by the Cuban government

For decades, advertising was frowned upon by Cuban officialdom. The existence of the rationed market, the creation of a distribution system where people “earned” the right to buy home appliances based on their loyalty to the government, and the almost total nationalization of the economy made advertisement to promote a product or service unnecessary. To talk about marketing was taken as an ideological drift with petty bourgeois tints.

With the economic reforms of the 1990s the situation began timid changes. The government itself launched publicity for trips to the island with colorful advertisements of beaches, sun and sand. The private sector was not far behind and created everything from brochures with their offers, to digital sites to attract customers. However, television maintains the sobriety of not airing commercials and the marketing is focused within the food outlets themselves, the yellow pages of the telephone directory and the internet.

At 55, Cuba’s Young Communist Union Loses Relevance But Does Not Want To Retire

Cuba’s Union of Young Communists logo has the faces of Julio Antonio Mella, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, all of whom died young. The slogan on the logo is “Study, Work, Rifle” (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 4 April 2017 — There was a time when its red card was a source of pride and most teenagers dreamed of entering its ranks. But those days have been left behind for the Young Communists Union (UJC), an organization that turns 55 this Tuesday, with an aging image and a noticeable decrease in its membership.

Founded in 1962, the UJC was a copycat of the Soviet Komsomols, creating a youth front that served as a quarry for the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). In the midst of the enthusiasm of those years there were massive “processes of growth,” with the signing up of numerous members, but today many evade or reject this opportunity. continue reading

“I never questioned whether or not to enter the UJC, it was what all my classmates did and I joined,” recalls Gladys Marrero, a retired nurse who worked with the organization for more than a decade. “In those years everything was different, people believed much more what was said in the meetings,” she says.

Marrero was sanctioned in her local committee in 1980 for not participating in acts of repudiation against those who emigrated during the Mariel Boatlift

Marrero was sanctioned in her local committee in 1980 for not participating in acts of repudiation* against those who emigrated during the Mariel Boatlift. “In the polyclinic where I worked a lab technician asked to step down to be able to leave [the country] and the UJC prepared a rally to ‘say goodbye’ to her,” she remembers. She didn’t want to participate in “those antics” and turned in her card.

Of the nearly three million young people living in Cuba, according to the most recent Population and Housing Census of 2012, only 300,752 are affiliated with the UJC, which operates through 33,000 base committees across the island. The figure is much lower than almost 600,000 members who were on the rolls in 2007, when the country was in the midst of the effervescence of the Battle of Ideas.

Yosvani, 25 years old and resident of Aguada de Pasajeros in Cienfuegos, was one of the young people who enrolled in the UJC during those years. “Several municipal leaders came to our high school and said they were going to undertake massive growth throughout the country, with more than 10,000 new militants,” he tells this newspaper.

Over time, the young man lost interest because “there were too many meetings” and “they summoned us for anything.” One day he pretended that he had a serious health problem and asked for his discharge. In his local committee alone “more than half of the militants left,” he says. Some alleged family complications, but Yosvani believes they actually did it out of “lack of interest.”

In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, several young people waiting to enter the United States also once had the organization’s red membership card in their pockets. Richard, a fictitious name to avoid retaliation, has been stranded for two months at the US border after the cancellation of the wet foot/dry foot policy that allowed Cubans who stepped foot on American soil to stay. Although he calls himself a “revolutionary” he does not plan to mention his affiliation to US immigration officials should they “reverse Obama’s decision and let the Cubans in.”

The migrant served as general secretary of his local committee and believes that “the UJC helped many young people not to fall into delinquency and to direct their lives”

The migrant, who spoke with 14ymedio through videoconferencing, served as general secretary of his local committee and believes that “the UJC helped many young people not to fall into delinquency and to direct their lives.” However, he believes that the organization “fell into a rut” although “it still has a large presence in schools and workplaces, so it could take advantage of that structure.”

In the middle of last year a young Cuban migrant was declared “inadmissible” by the US authorities because she confessed to having belonged to the Young Communists Union between 2010 and 2013.

The absence of leadership has also hampered the activity of these komsomols. Of the UJC’s dozen first secretaries since its creation, more than half ended up being ousted while they leading the UJC or in later positions. The most famous cases were Luis Orlando Domínguez (1972-1982), Carlos Lage (1982-1986) and Roberto Robaina (1986-1993). The fear of ending up like them slows down many who would like to present themselves as more active and creative. Charisma is paid for dearly in these types of responsibilities.

“People do not want to take positions inside the UJC to avoid getting into trouble,” says Yosvani. “That’s a tremendous burning,” he quips. The young man criticizes the “lack of power of the militants who go along with many things in the meetings but they do not have ability to influence decision making.”

In 2015 and during meetings of the organization before the 10th Congress, the militants expressed their concern about the UJC’s stagnation

In 2015 and during meetings of the organization before the 10th Congress, the militants expressed their concern about the UJC’s stagnation. “It needs to be a living organism that has diversity, is truly transformed and represents young people,” said Han García, a student at the Victoria de Giron [Bay of Pigs Victory] Faculty of Medical Sciences.

In an attempt to revitalize the organization and during an extraordinary meeting of the UJC in the middle of last year, the psychologist Susely Morfa González was named first secretary of the organization, replacing Yuniasky Crespo Baquero. Shortly afterwards, her meteoric rise continued when she was chosen as a deputy to the National Assembly of People’s Power and made a member of the Council of State.

The young woman had turned in a combative performance at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015, starring in several acts of repudiation in which she labeled activists and exiles who participated in a parallel event with civil society as “lackeys, mercenaries, self-financed, underpaid by imperialism.”

On Tuesday, in an interview with the official press, Morfa stated as a purpose of the UJC “to add to it so that it is an organization for everyone, so that each young person feels ever closer to it.” The secretary general estimates that among young Cubans “the vast majority is revolutionary,” although she acknowledged that “some people are questioning whether the new generations are aware of their social role.”

The UJC has set out to capture young entrepreneurs at any cost but does not seem to have found much enthusiasm

But the functional paralysis and the diminution of its ranks are not the only concerns for the leaders of the UJC. The growth of the private sector has widened the phenomenon of young people who are outside the organization’s control and who work in a system governed by the laws of supply and demand.

Of the more than half a million self-employed workers on the island, 159,563 are young. The UJC has set out to capture young entrepreneurs at any cost but does not seem to have found much enthusiasm.

“What I like about my work is that there are no meetings, no union, and I do not have to donate part of my salary to the Territorial Troop Militias, much less go to UJC meetings,” says Roland, a worker in a restaurant in Chinatown, in Havana.

“Provincial and national leaders have come to talk to the young people here to raise awareness and make them militants, but people just aren’t up for that,” he reflects. “Now life is harder than when my parents were in the UJC, you have to earn money with a lot of effort and there is no time for so many meetings,” he finishes.

*Translator’s note: This video – “Gusano” (Worm) – is about a current day repudiation rally and the opening scenes show video from the Mariel Boatlift repudiation rallies.

Anxiety Grows Over Cuba’s Gas Shortages

In Havana, drivers brought jars, bottles and all kinds of containers to store fuel. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 1 April 2017 — Rumors of a general rise in prices have sharpened shortages at gas stations this Saturday, with long lines of vehicles waiting their turn at service stations across the country.

The fuel sold at preferential prices for thousands of state employees has gone up 0.10 CUC in recent hours, but the Cuba-Petroleum Union (CUPET) maintains for the moment the prices for other customers: 1 CUC For diesel and regular gasoline, and 1.20 for premium, which has been missing for several days. continue reading

The most alarming rumors say that as of April 1 private users, except those who have rented a car from a state agency, will only be able to buy regular gas

With no official announcements, everything moves at the level of rumors and conjectures. The most alarming rumors say that as of April 1 private users, except those who have rented a car from a state agency, will only be able to buy regular gas, and in no case can they buy special high octane fuel.

“They told us there were regulations but we did not get any written information or anything,” a gas station worker at 24th and 23rd in Vedado told 14ymedio.

“There is no premium gasoline, not even for rental cars,” he says. The rental cars are mainly used by foreign tourists and Cuban emigrants who return to visit the country. “They must present the rental agreement in order to buy the product,” says the employee, but “right now they will have to buy regular gasoline because that is the only thing there is.”

In Havana, drivers come with jars and bottles and all kinds of containers to store fuel. “Hard times are coming,” said Ricardo, a private taxi driver who can’t get over his surprise. “When it finally seemed that this country was going to be on track, then look what happens,” he tells this newspaper while pointing out in the official press the news coming from Venezuela.

The driver spent six hours on Saturday in front of the Cupet service station at the corner of 25th and G in Havana waiting to refuel. His greatest fear is that there will be return to “those years of the Special Period when all of Cuba was paralyzed by lack of fuel.”

The alliance with Venezuela, promoted since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, finally relieved the energy shortage on the island. Caracas has been generous with the delivery of black gold to the island and in the best moments delivered up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for medical services, sports coaches and a great deal of support from Cuba’s state security forces advising and operating in Venezuela.

But the times have changed and analysts agree that the oil quota has decreased by between 40% and 60%. This reduction negatively influenced Cuba’s economy last year, with the GDP declining by 0.9%. The recession awakens the worst ghosts of the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The national production of crude has also failed to take off. According to data from Cupet, the country extracts some 4 million tons of heavy oil, which is mainly used for electricity production

The national production of crude has also failed to take off. According to data from Cupet – the state-owned fuel company – the country extracts some 4 million tons of heavy oil, which is mainly used for electricity production. Cupet estimates that crude oil reserves of about 20 billion barrels exist in the Cuban Gulf of Mexico, although the US Geological Survey suggests a lower figures.

The government expects that, by the year 2030, 24% of the country’s energy will come from renewable sources, but first it needs new infrastructure and the investment of foreign companies in the sector.

This Saturday, long lines of vehicles are waiting their turn in the service stations all over the country. (14ymedio)

Hours before midnight on Friday the anguish grew among the drivers. The service stations cut off sales to adjust the machines and to program the new prices for the so-called “magnetic card affiliates,” a group of state workers who receive the fuel at preferential prices among whom are doctors and military.

The informal fuel market is supplied with the thousands of liters that are diverted each day from those with “magnetic cards” and are resold to other drivers. Authorities are trying to stop this flow and since March 31, it is forbidden for “affiliates” to carry a container for gasoline.

But the least of the problems is the rise of the privileged tariffs or the deficit of premium gas, more expensive and therefore exclusive to a few. What keeps the population on edge is that many gas stations are totally empty, with no product for sale. “This is more and more like the past,” Ricardo said minutes before getting his turn at that pump.


Santiago de Cuba Hit Hard by Drought

Communities in central and eastern Cuba report losses from the drought. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymdio, Zunilda Mata, 29 March 2017 — Cuba is experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last half century and its reservoirs are at 39% capacity, a situation that affects the water supply for people, industry and agriculture. Santiago de Cuba is going through the most serious situation, according to José Antonio Hernández, director of the Department of Rational Use of the Institute of Hydraulic Resources, who spoke Wednesday on state TV.

In that eastern province some 635,000 people are supplied with water on 17 and 20 day cycles. Meanwhile, more than 81% of the agricultural area of ​​the island is affected in some way by the lack of regular irrigation. The picture is aggravated by the annual loss of 3.4 billion cubic meters of water through leaks and breaks in the supply system. continue reading

Currently, the reservoirs in at least 11 provinces are below 50% of their normal levels and “in three they do not even reach 25%,” Hernández said. In the case of Ciego de Ávila stored water stored barely fills 15% of the reservoir capacity in the territory. The supply is currently governed by a rigorous schedule, prepared by the local Aqueduct and Sewerage Management.

Reservoirs in at least 11 provinces are below 50% of their normal levels and “in three they do not even reach 25%

The Zaza dam, with the country’s largest storage capacity, is also in a difficult position. Located in Sancti Spíritus province, the dam is filled to only 14% of its capacity, the equivalent of 146 million cubic meters. The neighboring Siguaney Dam has less than one million cubic meters of usable water.

This central province has seen 69 of its supply sources dry up, 16 of them totally. This situation affects 105,821 inhabitants in more than 40 communities and urban neighborhoods of the cities of Sancti Spíritus, Trinidad and Jatibonico, according to figures offered by the local press.

“Since the first signs of the drought in the country began in mid-2014, working groups have been set up to deal with this problem,” explains Hernández, whose mission is to monitor and assess the situation in each area from the municipalities.

At the end of last year the country’s reservoirs were 1.510 million cubic meters below the historical average, a situation that has been aggravated in the first quarter of 2017 and has forced the country to expand the practice of supplying water through tanker trucks – popularly known as pipas – that deliver water neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block, to residents who collect it in every available container.

Water problems have also affected internal migration. “The fact of being able to open the spigot and have water is a luxury I can’t give myself in Palmarito de Cauto,” Raydel Rojas, a man from Santiago who recently emigrated to the capital, tells 14ymedio.

Water problems also influence internal migration

“The problem in the province and in small towns is that it becomes more difficult to pay for the water truck,” says Rojas. “You have to live day by day buying water little by little.”

In the West, the situation is not without problems either. The authorities have looked at the private swimming pools, considering them wasteful in times of drought. The entrepreneurs who rent to tourists in the area of ​​Viñales have experienced the “anti-pool” offensive with special intensity.

At the beginning of last year the Council of the Municipal Administration decreed the closing of all the pools and canceled the licenses to rent to tourists for those who resisted obeying. Over the months the situation has worsened.

“Now they carefully supervise water consumption and call to account those who have a greater consumption,” complains an entrepreneur who rents two rooms in his home in this village that attracts a lot of tourists. The innkeeper, who chose to remain anonymous, said local inspectors “have their eye on the pumps if we increase the pressure of the showers because they say it costs too much.”

Young Cuban Women Skaterboarders Defy Gravity And Machismo

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havna, 28 March 2017 — A pirouette and life is turned upside down. Another and the wheels crash against the pavement leaving a mark in their path.  Cuban women skaters defy gravity and machismo, two forces trying to make them fall. Their dreams are told in the documentary Sisters on Wheels by director Amberly Alene Ellis, currently in the United States.

The film looks at the phenomenon of skateboarders told from the experience of young Cuban women who practice a sport marked by prejudice. Not only must they deal with the animosity still provoked in some observers, but also with putting themselves in “a territory of men.” continue reading

The protagonists of Sisters on Wheels display the technical difficulties of practicing this discipline in Cuba, with few resources and places to skate for training. The young women talk about their struggle to have skateboarding recognized as a sport, far beyond an entertaining pastime.

The Amigo Skate project has helped alleviate the material hardships of some of these young women. The initiative asks, from its on-line site, for people to bring or send skateboarding equipment to the island, and facilitates events linked to the sport, in additional to concerts and the painting of murals.

A still from the film Sisters on Skates

Cuban-American René Lecour is part of the solidarity project and the director of Sisters on Wheels came to the reality of skateboarding through him. In a country where very few skateboards have been marketed and there are barely enough spare parts to fix a broken table, the practice becomes complicated. However, new technologies help, with videos and tutorials that teach spinning and other techniques.

Ellis, who traveled to the island initially to film material about women filmmakers, was attracted by the “innovation” she saw in these urban athletes and knew first hand about a similar phenomenon in her own country when “skateboarding pioneers, in the ‘80s, made their own boards with what they could find.”

“Without intending to, we moved from filmmaking to skating,” recalls the director, who believes skating becomes an act of protest for these young people in a nation where the government regulates every centimeter of reality, especially the sports scene.

The documentary, which began filming in 2015, uses skateboarding as a way to approach the national reality and in particular the changes that occurred after the thaw between the Governments of Cuba and the United States.

In the practice of skateboarding, the filmmaker sees a gesture of independence that “is seeking free expression”

Bubble Bursts for Flights Between Cuba and the United States

Silver Airways has been forced to reduce its weekly flights to six cities in Cuba. (Silverairways.com)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 17 March 2017 — A year ago the headlines left no doubt: Cuba was Americans’ new destination and that country’s airlines fought for their piece of pie of flights to the island. After the initial enthusiasm, several of these companies have cut back on the frequency of their trips and others have seen a reduction in passengers.

In March 2016 the most important airlines in the United States requested permission from the Department of Transportation to include the island in its commercial destinations. Among them are big ones like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, as well as United Continental Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Air Group and Silver Airways. continue reading

Expectations grew and climaxed when JetBlue’s 387 flight arrived in Cuba on August 31, 2016 from Fort Lauderdale airport in southeastern Florida. The plane arrived in Santa Clara in just over an hour, completing the first commercial flight between the two countries in more than half a century.

Everything was all positive predictions at the time, and the Cuban ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, cut the inaugural tape of the flight with JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes. In all, the routes of all the airlines reached 110 flights daily, 20 of them to Havana, the most popular destination.

For some airlines this is a test of persistence rather than speed. “Patience is the word for now,” said Gary Kelly, chief executive of Southwest Airlines

Earlier this year, American Airlines sounded the alarm when it cut its daily service by 25% and decided to use smaller planes. At the end of last year the company was operating two daily flights from Miami to Havana, Varadero and Santa Clara and daily service to Camagüey and Cienfuegos, but many of the aircraft flew with more than half of the seats empty.

Americans are still banned from traveling to the island as tourists but can travel within 12 other categories. The most used are cultural and educational exchanges. In January 2017, Cuba received 43,200 visitors from Cuba, a growth of 125% compared to the same period last year, according to Cubadebate.

However, the numbers of travelers have not grown as expected. The causes range from the slow economic changes implemented by Raúl Castro, up to the arrival of Donald Trump and the fears that have been generated before a possible reversal in diplomatic normalization between the two countries.

The low number of customers also points to Cuban-Americans’ caution in visiting the island. “With the immigration changes implemented by the Trump administration, many rumors have surfaced that exiles could have problems if they travel,” Idania Consuegra, a middle-aged Cuban living in Miami for two decades, told 14ymedio.

Frontier has announced that it will operate its last daily flight from Miami to Havana on June 4

Idania had plans to visit her family in the spring, but preferred to “cancel everything until further notice, because you do not know what will happen in this country.”

For some airlines this is a test of persistance rather than speed. “Patience is the word for now,” said Gary Kelly, chief executive of Southwest Airlines. The executive clarifies that the company had no expectations about its six daily flights to Havana and two other cities since this route had not be served for 50 years.

Silver Airways was forced to cut its weekly flights to six cities in Cuba, according to Bloomberg. The inability to sell tickets to the island through major online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline are some of the causes of these cuts according to company managers.

Frontier, a low-cost carrier based in Denver, Colorado, has announced that it will operate its last daily flight from Miami to Havana on June 4.

The cruise ships stay afloat

On the other hand, the president of the Norwegian Cruise company, Frank del Río, is elated due to the high sales levels of the cruises that include Cuba in its itinerary. During the Seatrade Cruise conference this week in Fort Lauderdale, the manager said he believes the island “is going to be a home run” for his company.

The declarations come a few days after the company’s first cruise arrived at the port of Havana with 1,250 passengers on March 9 on its inaugural trip to Cuba.

For the first time in its history Cuba received 4 million tourists last year

Norwegian plans to make nine more trips from the US during this year with two other of the company’s brands also participating: Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

The reception of the imposing ship was the occasion for the president of the Enterprise Cuba Travel Group of the Ministry of Tourism of the island, Jose Manuel Bisbé, to predict an increase in the number of trips of this kind.

According to the official, during 2016 88,000 cruise trip passengers visited the island and in the first two months of 2017 the number is 55,000. Visitors have arrived on the twelve cruise lines that have agreements with the country.

For the first time in its history Cuba received 4 million tourists last year, a record that represented a growth of 14.5%. For this year it is expected that the numbers will exceed 4.2 million visitors.

Lower On-Line Prices for Brazilian Meat While Cuban Government is Silent

Supermarket Treew, one of the most popular sites for shopping on the net, maintains offers for Brazilian beef. (Screencapture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 24 March 2017 – Cuba has reacted very oddly to the scandal of adulterated meat from Brazil, the island’s main provider of beef products: silence on the part of the authorities, lower prices on some on-line shopping sites, and very little public concern about possible health risks.

At the corner of Monte and Cienfuegos several customers milled around this Thursday, waiting for La Havana Butcher Shop to lower the prices on its display. “My daughter told me they were going to lower prices,” Carmen, a 78-year-old pensioner waiting on the sidewalk, told this newspaper,

Carmen’s daughter lives in Murcia, Spain and has kept abreast of all the news about the adulteration of products by the Brazilian companies JBS and BRF, the two most important in the country, which came to light through an investigation by the Federal Police. continue reading

The Cuban press has been sparing in details about “Operation Weak Meat,” but the issue has generated hopes among Cubans of a possible fall in prices of these foods, in high demand on the nation’s tables.

The digital sites that sell on the island have taken the first step and this week some of them have dropped prices on beef. “Meats imported from Brazil. With great discounts and better quality,” announced Supermarket Treew, one of the most popular internet sales sites.

The services of the company, based in Toronto, began in 1998 and are widely used by emigrants living abroad to supply their families with food, cleaning supplies and appliances; they place and pay for their orders on line and the products are delivered in Cuba. Now online products like roasts, ground beef, hamburgers and steak are showing price reductions ranging from 5% to 15%.

However, Cuba’s Ministry of Internal Commerce has not applied similar discounts in the network of domestic stores nor withdrawn these products from the shelves.

The Ministry of Internal Commerce has not applied similar discounts in the network of national stores or withdrawn products from the sale

The Department of Attention to the Population of that state entity confirmed to this newspaper, by telephone, that “no particular measure has been taken with regards to that subject. We have not ordered the suspension of the sale of meat from Brazil nor lowered prices, although each store can do so autonomously.”

The point of sale of frozen products located at Neptuno and Angeles streets continued displaying the usual prices: 10.90 CUC per one kilogram of beef, half of the monthly salary of a professional.

“I have the store’s phone number and I have called every day to know if they have put anything on sale, but nothing,” says Ignacio Luaces, an entrepreneur who runs errands for a private restaurant. “We are hoping that the goods will go on sale, but so far, no,” he told 14ymedio.

Others are concerned about the potential health implications. “Every day on TV there are lots of announcements about mosquitoes and the dangers of the diseases they transmit, but they have not said anything about it,” protests Liudmila, a medical student who plans to specialize in gastroenterology.

“Food poisoning is very dangerous and most people who buy beef for domestic consumption do it for children or the elderly,” she says. “I think it’s time for the Ministry of Public Health to make a public announcement telling people not to eat that meat.”