Fall in Tourism Impacts Cuba’s Private Sector

A cruise ship at the Port of Havana.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 14 May 2018 — The arrival of the enormous cruise ship, which shimmers under the May sun in Havana bay, does not ease the worries of the self-employed of the port, who are increasingly nervous about the decrease in the number of foreign visitors.

“A boat arrives with hundreds of travelers only a few fall to earth,” laments Clotilde Clo Rodríguez, a self-employed tour guide specializing in visitors from Canada and the United States. “Many Americans avoid leaving the ship because of the travel warning put in place by the US government,” she says.

Last January the authorities of the United States issued a change in their Travel Alert for Cuba, recommending their citizens to reconsider traveling to the Island because of the risk of suffering ’acoustic attacks’ such as those that affected 24 diplomats from that country. Although the warning was softened from a category 4 to 3, it makes many people decide not to step on Cuban soil. continue reading

The continuous statements by Cuban officials about the security of the “Cuba destination” have not managed to dispel the vistors’ doubts and fears.

“A year ago, by this same date, I had work almost every day with large groups but now I spend most of my time without customers,” laments Clo, who leads trips to places such as the Finca Vigía museum, the house where the writer Ernest Hemingway lived on the outskirts of the city.

US citizens are prohibited from traveling as tourists to the Island and there are 180 hotels, travel companies and stores managed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces that Washington has banned Americans from patronizing. However, some categories of travel are still allowed, such as trips to “support the people” or family visits.

Tourists in Cuba. (14ymedio)

“Cuba’s moment is over, because that enthusiasm that was here during Barack Obama’s term is gone,” says Clo. “Now, many of the clients I had at that time write to tell me that they prefer to go to the Dominican Republic, Cancun or Bermuda.”

The tourist guide attributes that decision to several factors, including “tourism prices in Cuba are still very high and the quality of service they receive is not up to that of other countries,” she says. “The mere fact that they can not access the internet from their mobile phones is already a limitation for business people.”

American tourists are very popular on the island because they give big tips. “In their country they are used to leaving between 10 and 20% of the bill for the waiters or those who attend them in some service,” says Clo. “That’s why people from the United States are fought over here.”

The damage left by Hurricane Irma also created a negative image among many who planned a vacation on the island. “People do not want to go to a country that requires work and although the hotels have been rebuilt, the hurricane has left damages that they feel, for example in the supply of fruits and food,” adds Clo.

A few weeks ago the authorities of the Ministry of Tourism restated the number of tourists arriving in Cuba in the first quarter of the year; they had initially reported an increase of 7%, but instead the number fell by 7%.

However, the Government maintains its commitment to welcome five million visitors in 2018, according to the commercial director of the Ministry of Tourism, Michel Bernal. An assertion that several entrepreneurs working in the sector told 14ymedio they doubted.

A few yards from the Capitanía del Puerto, a private cafe offers typical tapas and a variety of cocktails. “We are looking at hard times because not much tourism is coming to the area and those who come are traveling on all-inclusive packages,” explains Gustavo, a 28-year-old man who works as a waiter at the cafe.

“We had a very good run at the end of 2016 and the beginning of last year when it seemed that tourism was going to increase, but right now many people are facing losses around here,” he says. “Those who are the worst off are the owners of rentals that made investments to serve more customers and have not been able to make back that money.”

On O’Reilly Street, very close to the well-known Bodeguita del Medio, Dinorah is among the most affected by the decrease in visitors. “I’ve had less than 20% occupancy,” laments the owner of a spacious hostel with five rooms that include private bathrooms and air conditioning.

“It is difficult to pay [the taxes] for the licenses and to assume all the expenses that it takes to maintain this house if not enough tourists come,” Dinorah complains. “To make matters worse, I can’t cancel my license for the low season and then get a new one later, because right now they’ve frozen the issuing of licenses for this activity.” Proprietors of rental accommodations pay monthly taxes for each room, even if it is not occupied.

Last August, the Cuban government halted the granting of licenses for self-employment, a decision that has many entrepreneurs in the food service and private accommodation sectors in limbo.

“Between the restrictions that the Government places on us and the fall of tourism, it is becoming a headache to sustain these small businesses,” says the owner of the hostel. The decline has brought a drop in room prices. “Where I used to ask for $30 (USD) or $25 for one night, now I have to settle for $20 or $15 because if I get too demanding I’m empty.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Guyana, The New Springboard to the United States

The business of providing accommodations for Cubans has grown in Georgetown, Guyana with the increase of visitors from the Island (Therese Yarde)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana 7 May 2018 — Until three months ago, no one in Yuliet Barrios’ family could find Guyana on the map, something that changed when the United States moved the issuing of visas for Cuban immigrants to that South American country. The trip to Georgetown is now the first step for thousands of families on the island in fulfilling their dream of emigrating north.

“At first [after it was moved out of Havana] the processing of immigrant visas were issued in Colombia but that was a bad decision by the US government because that country requires Cubans to have a visa,” says Barrios, the mother of two children married to a Camagüeyan, has been living for almost a decade in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Long lines, breakdowns and numerous consular interviews were missed in Bogotá because those summoned could not arrive on time, generated an atmosphere of discomfort and uncertainty when traveling to Colombian soil for immigration procedures. continue reading

Washington then decided to transfer the procedures to Guyana taking into account “the availability of flights” and “officials to adjudicate cases.” Likewise, the fact that Cuban citizens do not need a visa to travel to Guyana greatly facilitates the situation for applicants.

This small nation, a former British colony, allows Cubans to visit for up to 90 days without a visa , which has made it an ideal destination for the mules who buy supplies to import to the island, but also as a springboard for those who want to emigrate to other parts of the continent.

“When we found out about the change, it was like the sky had cleared, because the situation in the Colombian embassy was very chaotic and the lines lasted for days,” says Barrios, who went there for a consular appointment, but while waiting learned of the move to Guyana.

Last January, an official of the Colombian consulate in Miami told 14ymedio about all the difficulties that the diplomatic office was going through to process the requests. “We are seeing a much higher than normal number of people every day. They usually arrive without an appointment and ask to be taken care of in a very short period of time,” he lamented.

A market frequented by Cuban mules (Mandy)

Cuba’s official press rejects the new policy of the White House due to the inconvenience caused by the departure of a large part of the US diplomatic staff of the island and the closure of consular functions.

On Monday, the Escambray newspaper of Sancti Spiritus Province asked its readers for their opinions on what they believed were behind the decision of the US government to move the visa processing center to Guyana. By midmorning, more than 1,000 readers had responded and 44% had chosen the positive variant: “To facilitate access to services, because Guyana does not require a visa for Cubans.”

The other options, in addition to “I do not know,” were “to add new tensions to relations between Cuba and the United States”; “to maintain instability in the legal emigration process stipulated by both countries”; and “to continue to impede the migratory flow.”

The Cuban state agency Havanatur has taken advantage of the rise in demand in trips to Guyana and as of 13 April it has been selling roundtrip plane tickets to Georgetown from Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and Havana at a price of 799 CUC for adults and 116 CUC for children.

“It’s expensive but, what are we going to do if there is no other option and my family has already spent so much money that there is no going back?” asks Jorge, a 47-year-old Havanan who has not yet been able to leave the Island to join his wife and three children who emigrated to the United States five years ago.

“I stayed behind to sell the house and get some money to take with me but I had such bad luck that in the middle of all that the scandal of the acoustic attacks against the US personnel in Havana erupted and the consulate closed its doors,” laments this electrical engineer.

This week, Jorge’s wife has come to visit him on the island to help him with the travel arrangements to Guyana. “It’s the first time I’m leaving the country and I’m very nervous,” he confesses. “My wife will accompany me on that trip and if everything goes well before the end of the year I will be in the United States.”

He still has to solve accommodations in Guyana, but “that’s not difficult because there are many cheap options,” he explains.

Guyana is also a frequent route to Chile and Uruguay, countries that after the end of the US wet foot/dry foot policy have become a migration destination for residents on the island.

In Guyana, Yorvis Junco is dedicated to organizing short stays, with accommodation, food and transportation included, for his compatriots. “I came here with the intention of continuing on my way to Miami but one day I woke up with the fact that it was not so easy to enter the United States and I’ve been staying,” he says in an e-mail.

“My wife and I are now dedicating ourselves to helping the Cubans who come here and we put together a cheap package of accommodation and advice, because many have never traveled and feel quite lost,” he says. “We pick them up at the airport, give them a local SIM card and a clean and safe room, plus well-made food,” the couple offer. “We provide escorts to get the consulate and even translators if necessary, for a small fee,” says Junco.

“From Guyana Cubans can wait for the approval of the immigrant visa and leave from here to the United States,” he says, but warns that they must be careful not to let the 90 days expire and get deported after being detected by the authorities.

“That’s why it’s important that they have the ability to stay here for a while, safely and without risk.”

For this immigrant the troubled river of consular interviews has been “an opportunity to build this small business.” Junco warns, however, that Guyana can also be a dangerous place. “There are networks of traffickers who promise to take them to the United States but many times it is a lie and they end up taking all their money.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Bodeguita del Medio, a Gold Mine That Lives Off the Past

Despite its international fame, La Bodeguita, as it is popularly known, has been losing importance among Cubans and lacks a domestic clientele. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunlida Mata, Havana, 27 April 2018 — Tourists landing in Havana have, at a minimum, two goals: tour the city in an old convertible and have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio. The emblematic restaurant, which has just turned 68, owes its fame to the bohemian intellectuals who frequented it for more than two decades.

On 26 April 1950, No. 307 Calle Empedrado was inaugurated, between Cuba and San Ignacio, which would eventually become a symbolic site in the Cuban capital. Poems, songs, innumerable paintings and photographs have been inspired by this place specializing in traditional food, and its walls contain more than two million autographs.

Despite its international fame, La Bodeguita, as it is popularly known, has been losing prominence among Cubans and lacks a domestic clientele. Only the memory remains of that meeting place of painters, poets and journalists from the middle of the last century. A memory that travel agencies exploit and travel guides exaggerate. continue reading

The brand of La Bodeguita del Medio is registered by the Ministry of Tourism of Cuba and has at least eleven franchises in countries that include Mexico, Macedonia, Australia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Lebanon.

Houses that have rooms or the whole house to rent to foreigners, private galleries and even state institutions describe their location according to how many yards separate them from the restaurant-bar. “I rent two rooms on the corner of La Bodeguita del Medio,” Susana, a self-employed entrepreneur in Old Havana has printed on her business card.

“Dance classes five minutes walk from La Bodeguita del Medio,” reads an advertisement stuck on a nearby electric pole. “This is the golden mile of the old town,” says Omar, a young man who acts as a city guide for tourists who speak English or French. “No one who has a house here sells it,” he emphasizes.

Tourists having their pictures taken in front of La Bodeguita del Medio.

However, beyond foreign visitors’ fascination for the small place with its striking sign with a yellow background and its doors in the style of the bodegas that sell food, the interior of the restaurant is becoming more and more like a postcard retouched for the eyes of tourists.

Last Tuesday, two Austrian tourists waited in the inner courtyard to be served sitting on the typical stools. In the place, crowded with diners, the waiters cleaned, set and served the tables automatically. Most of the chairs were occupied by Canadians, along with some Russians and Europeans who asked for the typical local dishes: roast pork, rice and beans.

“People here eat what you put on the plate, whatever it is, because they do not come for food but for the place,” a kitchen worker tells 14ymedio. “Most customers do not even know the difference between frijoles negros dormidos or reheated,” he says. “So the real business is that they pay luxury prices and consume an average product.”

Yanelis, who manages a small Spanish language academy, ate at the place the other day with three French students. “It’s a beautiful place, but sometimes I think I’m in a McDonald’s because everything is done very fast, the groups come and go and you can not see those gatherings that people like Ernest Hemingway held here.”

“The pork is tasteless and they don’t even make it with a mojo sauce. My rice dish looked like it contained portions from different times and the beans are mixed with flour and have a white cream on top,” she complains. “There are paladares (private restaurants) in this neighborhood that charge much less and offer a better meal, but La Bodeguita lives off its name.”

“Before the artists came and stayed for hours, my mother told me that it was common to find the poet Nicolás Guillén here and other known faces of the Cuban artistic avant-garde, but now you only see that kind of people in the photos that are in the walls,” she laments. “When my parents celebrated their tenth anniversary they came here and it was still a place for Cubans.”

One of the party with Yanelis asked for ropa vieja (literally ’old clothes’, a dish of shredded beef) one of the traditional dishes of Creole cuisine. The smal size of the portion, almost half of what they serve in a private restaurant, did not seem to matter much to the tourist. “My girlfriend asked me to take several pictures for her,” says the tourist.

“When I come with my students I warn them not to order the shrimp or the Cuban sandwich because they are a scam,” says the Spanish teacher. “But there are people who order that because they don’t come here to be filled up, but to say that they ate at La Bodeguita del Medio or to take a selfie and post it on Facebook.”

Roberto worked almost five years at the bar. “That is a place where people would kill to be, and you can line your pockets there,” he says. “Most of the mojitos sold are made with rum that is not what the label says or that the employees themselves buy from the outside,” he says.

“Everyone who works at La Bodeguita wants to open it every day and keep it full, so you often have to buy your own mint, rum and even ice because they do not arrive on time from the state, but that’s no problem because the investment is worth it with the profits you get,” he says.

“In the time I worked there, I started out buying a motorbike, then I was able to exchange my house for a bigger one and I paid for my two children to leave the country,” he says. After five years he lost his job because “they hired another bartender who paid more, because to be behind that bar you have to hand out a lot of money and there are many eyes on that square.”

Outside the restaurant-bar, a lady with a huge cigar in her mouth charges one convertible peso (roughly $1 US) for each photo taken. The tourists approach and smile believing she is a resident dressed in typical clothes but her sitting there is a job that she has done, religiously and for almost two decades, for more than eight hours each day and the cigar never seems to be lit.

“Every so often they come to film some program or a movie,” says Osniel, a resident of a dilapidated tenement who has a business selling small oil paintings of the façade of La Bodeguita. “It’s been more than two years since the American actor Don Cheadle recorded an episode of the House of Lies series,” he recalls and shows a photo that was taken nearby.

Osniel, however, does not remember any Cuban artist who has been there recently. “Famous Cubans? No, the Cubans do not come here.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

For Cubans, A Week Like Any Other

The line at the Coppelia ice cream parlour on Wednesday, while the Convention Palace hosted the opening session of the legislature. (14ymedio / Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 19 April 2018 — The week of “historic change in Cuba brought eggs to the Timba neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital city. National television broadcast a movie, April Captains, based on Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, and parents rearranged their routines for school vacations.

The break in elementary and secondary school classes was obvious outside the Coppelia ice cream parlour, where the iconic strawberry and chocolate ice cream flavors continue reading

immortalized in Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s movie was obliterated.

The French Cinema Festival was held in the Chaplin Movie Theater on 23rd Steet. The starring actor from The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972), Pierre Richard, traveled to the Island to present the film and proclaimed, “I love Cuba.”

Habaneros pulled their coats out of the closet because of the fall in temperatures and the forecast of heavy rains, which always bring the usual headaches of worrying about how leaks in the roofs and flooded streets will damage homes.

In the area around the Tulipan Hotel, in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, the internet went out. The external wifi networks had been disconnected to avoid inconveniencing the National Assembly deputies who were staying the hotel.

International reporters arrived by the dozens and busied themselves running around the capital’s most centrally located streets to take to the pulse, which they didn’t manage to find.

Sixty miles away, in the town of Vertientes in Camagüey province, all the talk was about some farmers who were arrested for letting their cows get out. The animals were eating the sugar cane on a state planation to the disgust of local authorities, who were stweing about the poorest harvest of the century.

The state doesn’t sell the wood or wire needed to build fences to safely contain the cows, say the farmers. Not only do they fear being punished to set an example for others, but they doubt the incoming government will do anything for them.

In Santiago de Cuba, speculation that the city is going to become Raul Castro’s residence, starting now, seems to have exhausted the resident Santiagueros, who would prefer that a luxury hotel be built at the entrance to the city, while lamenting the lack of salt in the marketplace.

For ordinary Cubans on the Island, this week has been like any other.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

’Granma’ Compares Filmmaker Yimit Ramirez With U.S. Marines Urinating on Jose Marti Statue

An American marine urinates on the statue of José Martí in the Havana’s Central Park in 1949. (File)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 24 March 2018 — The official reactions against the movie I Want to Make a Movie, by director Yimit Ramírez, continue to rise in tone. In an article published on Friday, the state newspaper Granma does not hesitate to compare the dirty words spoken about José Martí in the film, with the performance of the US Marines who, in 1949, urinated on a statue of Cuba’s national hero.

“Now more than ever, José Martí is a symbol of the country,” warns Pedro de la Oz, a pro-government spokesman who publishes cultural criticism in the Communist Party organ. “Injuring Martí is inadmissible,” says the journalist, who follows the line of the  Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry’s (ICAIC) declaration about the film. continue reading

Last Tuesday the ICAIC published a note confirming that the movie I Want to Make a Movie was excluded from the Special Presentation section of the Young Filmmaker’s Exhibition because one of its characters “expresses himself in an unacceptable way about José Martí.”

The state entity said that “an insult to Marti, whatever it may be and in whatever context, is a matter that not only concerns the ICAIC, but our entire society” and that “it is not something that can be accepted simply as an expression of the freedom of creation.”

A similar idea is taken up by De la Oz in his article, where he says that offending Marti “is an insult felt by the immense majority of Cubans.” The journalist criticizes that the coordinators of the exhibition and the filmmakers are now accusing the ICAIC of exercising censorship, while the state cinema monopoly is simply making an appeal for “responsibility.”

Marta María Ramírez, promoter of the censored film, has responded to the institution in her Facebook profile where she states that “the ICAIC is lying in its declaration to justify the absolute lack of dialogue and the censorship of I Want to Make a Film.

The journalist also explains that “there was never dialogue” and points out that the filmmakers did not withdraw the film, but decided “not to accept the new conditions imposed by the ICAIC on the Exhibition,”  which were to present the film in a smaller room, with only 24 seats.

The press conference of the XVII Young Filmmaker’s Exhibition of Havana, scheduled for Thursday, was suspended one hour before beginning and converted into an event with a single speaker: Roberto Smith, president of ICAIC, who read a response to the team that made the film, whom he accused of “unethical behavior.”

The young organizers of the show, however, did not remove from the exhibition catalog a page dedicated to the film directed by Ramírez, which now has a black background on which there is a note of protest against the censorship of the movie.

“We see a risky, plural, participatory film, like few in its conception, in its productive management and communication, the longest-awaited fruit of a colleague of ours, of a ‘son of the Exhibition’ who may lose, with this, the the only natural possibility of showing his work before a broad audience,” laments the text.

Throughout his career as a director, Yimit Ramírez has twice won the award for best animation at the ICAIC Young Filmmakers Exhibition, once for The Beauty or the Beast and a second time for Reflections and Green Men.

A graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts, as well as of the Higher Institute of Industrial Design, he is currently studying at the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Doctor Criticizes Use of Tobacco and Alcohol in Carlos III Plaza Shopping Mall

A man with a Buccaneer beer in his hand in the playground. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 23 March 2018 — The scene is repeated every day: groups of adults drink beers, smoke and shout while children play in a small indoor playground a few yards away. In the Carlos III Plaza, Havana’s most important commercial center, cigarette smoke and minors coexist despite the fact that legislation prohibits smoking in closed public places that do not have “special areas” for it.

“Public Health has authorized smoking in this area because it has high ceilings and it is a public place,” said an employee at the Public Information Office, located on the top floor of the building and which, paradoxically, is the only point in the complex where smoking is not allowed. However, the national legislation for the control of smoking does not reference the ceiling height of a closed site and establishes an express prohibition of smoking if there are no authorized spaces. continue reading

In the well-known Havana shopping center, the children’s area, where dozens of children spend the day having fun among its amusements, is barely separated from cafeteria tables, where adults smoke and drink alcoholic beverages.

“It is like this every day and we can not do anything, people are not controlled even after they addressed this situation on the television news,” laments an employee who sells cookies and juices to several mothers who have arrived with children. “If you scold someone, they get aggressive and nobody wants to get into trouble.”

Recently, official TV aired a report on the coexistence of alcohol, tobacco and young children in the indoor area of this shopping center, despite it being unusual for the national media to criticize the State’s management  of its premises.

The security guard who looks after the cafeterias and the play area of the building told 14ymedio that in that space “smoking was not prohibited,” but he could not explain why, in a closed space, this habit harmful to human health was allowed.

Each year about 13,000 people on the island die directly from smoke exposure and another 1,500 die from indirect exposure, according to 2016 data from the National Institute of Epidemiology and the Unit for the Promotion of Health and Disease Prevention. “This is allowed,” the guard repeated to this newspaper, shrugging his shoulders.

Children who play in this space that isn’t smoke-free run the risk of suffering more respiratory diseases, as demonstrated by an investigation carried out by doctors from several pediatric hospitals in the Cuban capital, who explained that “exposure to tobacco smoke was a factor in 75% of children with recurring asthma attacks.”

“In this whole neighborhood there is no other place where children can find some entertainment, so whether we like it or not, we end up here,” says Raiza Luis, a mother who lives nearby and often brings her twins to play on the premises. “With so much alcohol, it’s an unusual day where where are no fights and that people get mixed up in some nonsense,” she adds.

Smoking, which causes 14% of the deaths in the country each year, is not the only harmful activity to which minors are exposed. The sale of alcoholic beverages in the same space where they play also causes concern.

“In this area there has also been an increase in episodes of drunkenness among adolescents, along with vandalism, pranks and fights under the influence of alcohol,” Maritza Gutiérrez, the pseudonym of a doctor in a polyclinic in the vicinity of the Plaza de Carlos III, explains to 14ymedio.

Gutiérrez recommends “avoiding having children in the proximity of places where drinks are sold to consume right there,” because “the children start to see that this is something normal, something to imitate.” For the doctor “we must end once and for all the social permissiveness we have with the consumption of rum and beer in public places.”

In 2005, a resolution published in the Official Gazette prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages and beers to minors under 16 years of age. Alarms were set off when it was verified that young people were beginning to drink at younger and younger ages.

In Cuba, the average age of the onset of alcohol consumption is 15 years. The psychologist Justo Fabelo Rochy, coordinator of the You Decid Project, which seeks to raise awareness of the problem among adolescents, warns about the situation of many adults who develop an addiction to alcohol starting to drink at these early ages.

In 2014, the World Health Organization issued a clear warning when it published a report that revealed that alcohol abuse caused more than 3.3 million people in the world to die that year, which represented 6% of the  worldwide deaths.

For Dr. Gutiérrez, as for many parents who attend some with their children to the small playground in the center of the mall, the worst is “the example that is being given to children and the danger to which they are exposed in an unstable environment, where anything can happen due to drunkenness.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Long Lines at Cuban Banks For Fear of Monetary Unification

As April 19 approaches, when a new president is expected to assume office, uncertainty about ending Cuba’s dual currency system grows in the streets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 15 March 2018 — The last weeks have been like a heart attack for Luis, the employee who guards the door at the Metropolitan Bank (Banmet) on Galiano Street, in Havana. The flood of customers doesn’t give him a minute’s rest because “people are going nuts changing and saving money” out of fear that monetary unification is coming, he says.

Long lines in front of the bank branches are part of the Havana landscape, a city with more than two million inhabitants which receives thousands of tourists every day, who are forced to change their currency into Cuban pesos (CUP) or convertible pesos (CUC). But the demand seems to have increased in the last month. continue reading

“A lot of people come who have money saved in CUC,” says Luis, who organizes the line into several parts from early on. “The businesses are over here,” he says pointing to those who have gathered outside the branch. “Those who have come to get cash I put on this side here, and those who have personal paperwork to do with the bank on the other side,” he explains.

Most of the line is in the area for those who are going to do some operation in their bank account. “I have come to deposit about 500 CUC because I have been told that the money that is in the bank will be respected,” explains a lady who is third in line.

Last year the authorities warned in an official statement that the process of monetary unification will respect “the principle of the trust of the people who have kept their savings in Cuban banks in CUC, other international currencies and CUP remains intact.”

Julio César Reyes, general director of Banmet’s Electronic Banking, acknowledged in statements to the official press that since the beginning of this year there has been “a gradual increase in transactions” in its branches and ATMs, but the number of the latter is still insufficient to meet the demand.

Last December, during a session of the Parliament, Raúl Castro insisted on pointing out that addressing the problem of monetary duality can not be “delayed any longer.” After those words, speculations about an immediate unification of the two currencies on the Island were unleashed, after a quarter century of the dual monetary system.

As April 19 approaches, the date a new president is expected to assume office, uncertainty grows on the streets. Among the signs are private sellers that do not accept CUC for fear of devaluation, and published classified ads that display prices in dollars.

Elías Amor, a Cuban economist based in Spain, does not think it is likely that Raúl Castro will be able to carry out the unification process before he leaves power. In his opinion, the authorities know that the process is not as simple as establishing one of the two as the only official currency. It will be necessary to attend to “the mechanisms of price formation, the salary levels of the population, the purchasing power of wages,” among other factors

At the beginning of the revolutionary process, the banking entities suffered successive nationalizations, and forced and traumatic currency exchanges, which generated a particular distrust towards banks among Cubans. However, now many believe that the money circulating will be worth less after the devaluation that is expected to accompany the unification.

Another factor is that all the banks in the country are managed by the State and in the past numerous clients with significant savings were also branded as “pots” (new rich or hoarders) and legally prosecuted. An antecedent that those with more memory recall when they consider the dilemma of keeping their money in the banks or leaving it at home.

The urgency has touched the pockets of many. “I have no choice but to believe that having the money in the bank will be the best because I can’t go around buying dollars to keep under the mattress,” Yuraimy González, one of the Banmet customers on Galiano street waiting to deposit money this Wednesday, tells this newspaper.

“What I do not want to happen is that they carry out the unification, and I’m left with cash in chavitos (CUCs) and that money loses value,” explains this 38-year-old from Havana. She is a self-employed worker in a hairdressing salon, with husband who has emigrated and sends her remittances, and she is committed to “putting everything in the bank and waiting to see what happens.”

The economist Pedro Monreal believes that the unification of exchange rates in Cuba, and especially the accompanying devaluation, “should be conceived as part of a broader set of measures.” The specialist believes that if unification and devaluation were “disconnected” events with respect to other measures, “it is likely that they will not work well.”

Depositing CUCs in a bank account can only be done through a teller’s window at a bank, because in the entire capital there are only seven ATMs where cash can be deposited in Cuban pesos (CUP) and none that do that function in convertible pesos.

“Banks are overburdened because there has also been a significant reduction in the number of currency exchanges (Cadecas) in this area of Centro Habana,” laments Luis, the guard at Galiano Street. The Cadecas, where a CUC is exchanged for 24 CUP, have decreased in number and opening hours in recent years.

In mid-2017, 26 branches of the 93 Metropolitan Banks in the capital extended their service hours to cope with an increase in operations. The traditional schedule of Monday to Friday, and alternate Saturdays, from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, was extended to 7:30 pm in at least one branch per municipality.

However, in a tour of several branches, this newspaper confirmed that the closing time is seldom respected. Electricity cuts, closures for fumigation or for priority attention to customers from state companies significantly reduce the time allocated to private users.

“The end of the month has not yet arrived, which is when branches become busier because pensions start to be paid to retirees,” warns the administrator of another local Metropolitan Bank located on Belascoaín Street, who preferred anonymity. “We’ve had weeks when at closing time there are still many people outside who have not been able to do their transactions,” he says.

“The largest number of operations we are doing are deposits, the exchange of foreign currency and the sale of stamps for legal procedures, but many people simply ask if we know the date of the unification, but we do not have an answer,” adds the worker.

“If this is the case now, at the end of the month we will have to ask for reinforcements to organize the lines and to serve the public, because we can not cope.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Different Women, The Same Inequality

Regardless of their social origin, women face the same inequality in Cuba. (Luis Montemayor)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 8 March 2018 — Lucy and Maité represent two different faces of the same society. One is a worker in a private business and the other is a prostitute. Both work in the coastal town of Guanabo, east of Havana. This Thursday neither of them will join the international call for strikes convened for this March 8, although each suffers the consequences of gender inequality.

Maité was born in Esmeralda, Camagüey, shortly after the island was opened to international tourism and the dollar. As a child she dreamed of being an actress, but when she decided to move to the Cuban capital she encountered a problem. “I had to get married to get residency,” she tells 14ymedio.

Maité was blackmailed by the man who she agreed to a enter into a marriage of convenience with, and he threatened to divorce her and denounce her for illegally residing in the city if she did not sleep with him. She was just 20 years old.

“That’s how I started in this world,” she says now, wearing in a tiny skirt as she sits in a cafeteria in Guanabo where she meets her clients, most of them Italians, Canadians or Spaniards.

A few yards from where she is sitting, two policemen patrol the streets of the tourist area. Although prostitution in Cuba is not prohibited, women are often prosecuted for crimes such as “pre-criminal dangerousness” and “harassment of tourists,” and then confined to work farms to be “reformed.”

On the work farms, sex workers must work in agriculture for between one and two years, but they also receive therapy sessions and courses with the idea of distancing them from prostitution, an objective that often is not achieved.

Maité was already in one of those “open-air prisons,” as she calls them. After that she sought the “help” of a pimp. “The girls who are in this and do not have a man to defend them have a very bad time,” she says. The pimp charges her a part of her earnings and “keeps the police in line.”

The young women who work in the area, most of them arriving from other provinces, are not organized through associations and the trade union movement is controlled by the Government. “Here, no sooner does someone think of making a group or forming an organization, than they pull them off street,” says Maité.

To Maité and her colleagues staging a strike seems to be “playing with fire” although they have a long list of demands. “When I go to file a complaint at a police station, at the very least they make fun of me or threaten to put me in the dungeon for a few days.”

The government also does not include prostitution among the work activities eligible for one of the the private work licenses  authorized over the last decades. “I am like a cuentapropista (a self-employed person) but without permission, without a union and without the right to one day have a pension,” Maité complains.

A few yards away, also on Guanabo’s main street, Lucy works as an employee of a snack bar selling pizzas and snacks where, during the summer, long lines form, fed by the arrival of thousands of vacationers.

“I’ve been in this job for almost five years and it’s going well, although the days are hard.” For almost 10 hours Lucy stands behind a counter selling ham sandwiches, fruit smoothies and pizzas. “Sometimes when I get home I can’t even take off my shoes my feet are so swollen.”

This March 8, Lucy will not join the women’s strike. “I can’t, if I stop working they throw me out and private businesses have a line of people who want to work here,” she explains. The business owner is a man who has redone part of his home to operate as a snackbar.

In Cuba the private sector is currently 33% women, but at the head of businesses, female faces are not as visible. “Most women are not owners, but hired to provide services by those who have the capital, usually men,” says economist Teresa Lara.

The specialist also explains that “women perform care and food service activities.” Hairdressers, baby-care centers and food delivery are some of those occupations, but in the transportation of passengers or technical services their absence is striking.

“The owners of these businesses want good-looking women to serve the public,” confirms Lucy. The press has published several complaints of discrimination based on age, race or certain aesthetic parameters, but the practice continues and there are more and more demands.

“I have to wear this short skirt that I do not like very much, but the owner says that I sell more,” says Lucy. Curiously, Maité’s skirt also falls many inches above the knee. The tiny size of that piece of clothing, showing off a good part of their thighs, is common to both women.

The two women have something else in common. Both joined the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) at 14, the pro-government organization that includes most of the Cuban women. “I’m still ’federated’ to protect myself if I get caught a police raid,” confesses Maité. “I’m about to step down because it’s pure formality,” Lucy adds.

This March 8, the FMC has called on the ‘female trenches’ to support the Revolution and has honored its founder, Vilma Espín, who was Raúl Castro’s wife. The logo of the organization, on display everywhere this Thursday, is a woman dressed as a soldier with a rifle on her shoulder. Ready to “defend the homeland.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

“We Don’t Accept Payment In CUC Here”

The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is taking the brunt of the rumors and fears of an early monetary unification. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 17 February 2018 — “I do not accept CUC,” the driver of the shared taxi warns passengers at Havana’s Fraternity Park. It is the third time that day that Lídice, 40, has heard the same phrase. The first time was from a peanut seller and then from a barber. Both refused to take his chavitos — a slang term for Cuban convertible pesos — because of the uncertainty surrounding the CUC in the face of possible monetary unification.

A few words from Raúl Castro in the Parliament last December sufficed to unleash speculations. The president explained then that without unifying the currencies it would be “difficult to advance correctly,” and Cubans have interpreted his speech as the signal that the CUC was on the way out. continue reading

The convertible peso is taking the brunt of it amid rumors and fears. Sellers and merchants have begun to reject it in some operations so as not to be left with bills that could suffer a major devaluation when the Central Bank withdraws them from circulation in exchange for Cuban pesos, which would then become the only national currency.

In just a few months the dual currency system will be a quarter of a century old, and now, not too many weeks from the change of government, announced for 19 April, people’s fears are growing before the inevitable process of monetary unification. Those who have savings accounts in CUC suspect that their balances will be affected, although the authorities have said that those who have bank deposits will not be harmed.

This situation of uncertainty and lack of liquidity, in addition to the substantial worsening of the national economy with the substantial cut in shipments of Venezuelan oil, are causing a rise in the dollar on the currency black market.

Every morning, Armando (fictitious name) stands a few yards from the Currency Exchange Booth (Cadeca) on Obispo Street, in the historic center of the city. There, with discretion, he hands out cards to the most interested customers. His private money changing business is in high demand in the parallel market.

Armando is the person to turn to for people who receive their remittances from family members abroad in dollars and do not want to settle for the Central Bank’s exchange rate, which delivers only 0.87 CUC for every dollar, after charging a commission and a 10% tax on the American currency.

The money changer buys the dollars at a price ranging between 0.91 and 0.93 CUC and then resells them at a rate between 0.94 and 0.97, depending on the amount. His main clients are the ‘mules’, who need dollars to travel abroad where they buy merchandise to sell later in Cuba.

“Don’t wait, the chavitos are short-timers,” Armando tells those in line for the Cadeca. At least two people look interested and later stay to exchange over 1,000 dollars worth.

The economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, resident in the United States, warns that “the monetary change or unification will not increase the purchasing power of the population, for that production and productivity would have to increase,” something that has not been achieved despite the timid opening to the private sector and the delivery of lands to private operators in a form of leasing known as usufruct.

In the last five years Raul Castro’s government has taken steps to reconcile the use of both currencies, such as authorizing the payment in Cuban pesos (CUP) in the state’s chain of stores called TRD — the initials in Spanish for Hard Currency Collection Store — but the unification has been postponed.

“This is without haste and with a lot of pausing,” jokes Marieta, riffing off a phrase used by Raul Castro in a key speech talking about the necessary pace of change. Marieta works in a state company that manufactures hygiene products. “In addition to my salary in CUP I receive an additional payment in convertible currency every three months,” she explains, but “the least important thing is the color of the bills, what interests me most is what can I buy with that money and the truth is that it’s very little.”

“If the 450 CUP that I earn suddenly becomes 450 dollars, then the stores will be empty,” reflects Marieta. At the moment the low salaries, which do not exceed 35 dollars per month, don’t stretch enough to buy the products that the State sells at high prices in its commercial network. The situation would change completely if the government suddenly decided that 1 CUP equals one dollar, which is the official exchange rate of the CUC, though not what is actually collected for one.

Luis, 42, a cheese maker in Alquizar, was called to a military mobilization two weeks ago as a reservist. “They had just called me when me I told my mother to buy all the dollars she could because that would protect us under the unification of the currency.”

When a senior official of the European Union commented a few days ago in Havana that the EU was willing to provide technical assistance for monetary reunification, Luis told his barracks mates that “the thing” was imminent.

But the days passed, the Artemisan finished his mobilization and has continued to sell cheese on the side of the road. “I have to accept the convertible pesos because that is what most of the customers that stop to buy have,” he acknowledges. However, his own advice applies: “In order not to accumulate too many, I invest in goods and buy dollars.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Flowers Are Replacing Other Crops in Cuban Fields

On special celebrations, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the demand for flowers skyrockets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 14 February 2018 —  In  Hoyo de Monterrey, the place where the best tobacco from Cuba is sown, a silent battle has been going on for years. The tobacco growers of the area, forced to sell their leaves to the state companies, opt increasingly for the cultivation of flowers, a production that they can manage with greater autonomy and benefits since they can avoiding trading with the state company Acopio and instead sell independently.

The breeze tickles the roses of the Pérez brothers’ farm in the municipality of San Juan y Martínez in Pinar del Rio. Among the bushes, several members of the large family are moving with great care through the rosebuds, which must be ready to leave the field on the eve of February 14. continue reading

On Valentine’s Day, known on the Island as Lovers’ Day, there is a frantic purchase of flowers, chocolates and stuffed animals and a making of restaurant reservations. With the expansion of the private sector, the gifts available for the day have expanded, but roses continue to be first among the preferences.

“This crop has its peak moments and the skill is to take advantage of them,” says Juan Pablo, one of the producers who for years had dedicated himself to the cultivation of tobacco and vegetables, but who has also, little by little, started to plant flowers. Mother’s Day and the day dedicated to teachers, on December 22, are other times of great demand.

“We basically plant roses and, within them, the variety known as Black Prince, because they are the ones that people buy the most,” the farmer points out. “In this area there are also those who make their own crosses and grafts, but we prefer to go with the sure thing.”

The flower trade is a fight against time. The degradation of the product once it leaves the furrows is accelerated due to the lack of suitable containers and preservatives. “Our flowers have a lot of aroma but deteriorate very quickly,” adds Carmelo, another Herradura producer at Consolación del Sur.

Between 1955 and 1960 Cuba exported flowers to the southern United States but the drop in rose production in Cuba has forced the import of the flower from Ecuador and Colombia to satisfy domestic demand, especially in the tourist centers, according to data contributed by Manuel García Caneiro, a specialist in nature protection and conservation.

For Garcia Caneiro, the revival of the the sector urgently requires more technology, the introduction of more clones “of the species that are suitable for the conditions here, and prioritizing tropical flowers that are stronger and more in tune with the new trends in taste.”

Selling flowers, along with candy and sweets, is still one of the most common forms of commerce on Havana streets. (14ymedio)

The final destinations of the private flower production from the area of Pinar del Río and Artemisa are the closest cities, especially Havana. “They have to get out of here the day before so they can make the trip in the afternoon or at night and be with the flower sellers by first thing in the morning,” says Carmelo.

The producer’s son has a “spider,” the two-wheeled cart pulled by a horse typical of the Cuban fields. “We put them in the spider separated in buckets of water and covered with a thin damp cloth so that the wind does not hurt them and they stay fresh,” says Carmelo.

In his fields, papayas, malangas, tobacco and cucumbers are losing the battle for space. “Now we plant mainly flowers because it is a better business and we have sellers that we supply directly,” says the grower.

“I have roses, gladioli, Chinese carnations, lilies and jasmine.” The latter is the island’s national flower and has an intense perfume, but in the farmer’s opinion “it takes a lot of work, because it is a plant that needs a lot of moisture and its petals are very fragile.”

Herradura has become the nursery of flowers this part of the country. The reasons that have led farmers to prefer this crop range from economic issues to autonomy when marketing the final product.

“I had tobacco and even potatoes but it was all a big mess afterwards to sell the harvest to the State and I suffered a lot from their failure to pay,” says Carmelo. “Since I’ve been working with flowers, it’s money in the hand every time I do business.” This farmer also sells rose bushes  planted in polyethylene bags for gardens.

With the cultivation and sale of flowers, the producer can avoid dealing with Acopio, the state company that serves as an intermediary between farmers and consumers in the case of many products. “With this I swim or sink on my own, if a harvest fails it’s my problem but if I sell it well then it’s my benefit.”

He adds, “The farmers of this area who have managed, in addition to selling the flowers, to sell the plant are the ones who are earning the most.” On Valentine’s Day Carmelo can get up to 3,000 Cuban pesos (~$120 US) in sales to distributors, but “from that you have to subtract what you invested, which is a lot.”

The initial expense, just in seeds, amounts to 2,000 CUP, but with the adult plants you can divide them, in addition to grafting. The water pump cost 6,000 CUP and opening another well about 1,000 CUP. In addition, he has planting beds for the varieties with smaller plants and has had to invest in clay tiles for around 700 CUP.

“The flowers are very demanding in terms of water supply, so I had to invest a lot in irrigation and pumps,” says the farmer. “There has to be fertilizer and the largest proportion must be organic matter so I have even had to turn my hand to making it with farm waste”.

“Earthworm castings is the best thing to keep plants healthy and many times I have to buy it from the State or from other farmers in the area who make it to sell.”

Growing flowers is also displacing the cultivation of root crops and vegetables. (14ymedio)

Carmelo’s son hits the horse with the whip and the spider begins its way to Candelaria while afternoon falls. From there all the flowers will leave for the capital in a truck loaded with the merchandise of several producers. They have to arrive before the first rays of Valentine Day begin to illuminate the city.

At dawn in Havana, Rogelio, a mechanic who exchanged his tools for petals, takes out the tricycle that he keeps in the parking lot of a Vedado building. On the sidewalk he organizes the water containers filled with the flowers that have just arrived. The aroma floods the entire area.

The vendor distributes sunflowers, gladioli, roses, carnations, jasmines and Chinese daisies by the dozens.

“I bought double what I buy on normal days and the one that sells the most is the black prince, they buy it by the dozens, that’s why the song of twelve roses …,” he says, while humming a catchy ballad popularized on the Island by the Mexican singer Lorenzo Antonio.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for 15 years,” says Rogelio, who has his fixed sales points. His hopes are that, one day, he will be able to stop having to sell on the street and instead will supply shops or hotels in the capital. “But that doesn’t happen because those places still prefer foreign flowers,” he laments.

The markets, stores and shops that sell in hard currency are full of impeccable and stylized roses that can cost up to 5 Cuban convertible pesos each (about $5 US), the salary of a week. “People think that imported flowers are prettier but they do not smell like anything.”

Along with the sale, Rogelio offers his clients recommendations. “Carry the bouquet in your hand upside down and just put it in the vase with an aspirin in the water to make it last,” he tells a client who pays for three dozen black princes at a price that would be only enough for four flowers in the markets in convertible pesos.

“We offer a much cheaper, domestic and fragrant merchandise, even the bees come here to surround the flowers, but with those that are sold in hard currency, nothing of that happens,” Rogelio says, promoting his product.

Other entrepreneurs have taken the business of selling flowers further, such as a small store near Avenida de los Presidentes, where they prepare bouquets with decorations ready to give as a gift. This Tuesday the employee could not cope. “There are people who like to give the bouquet early and they buy it today so they can give it to someone as soon as it’s light.”

The shop has prices higher than those of the street vendors but still economical compared to the state shops. For less than 2 CUC a customer takes a bouquet of daisies mixed with wildflowers and a beautiful addition of greenery.

In the state stores and hard currency stores the flowers for sale are all imported. (14ymedio)

In spite of the prices, customers also crowd into the centrally located state flower shop in the Plaza de Carlos III. “I don’t care that they don’t smell, but they last longer and I want to make my wife a gift that she can enjoy for several days,” a man who has chosen a dozen white roses justifies himself.

Something similar is believed by the employees of the Hotel Plaza, very close to Central Park, where they have adorned the entrance of the neoclassical accommodation with a huge bouquet of imported roses. “Even at Fidel Castro’s funeral the flowers came from outside,” says a Cuban guest who lives abroad and has been eyeing the flowers.

A few yards away, an exclusive flower shop offers the buds brought from Ecuador and some tourists ask a street vendor where they can buy “typical Cuban orchids for a gift,” but the man has only black prince roses.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Di Tú Croquettes Are Of “Dubious Quality” Says Official Press

The official media have not said if the industrial croquettes made for state establishments are sold in illegal outlets. (guantanamocity.org)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 30 January 2018 — Despite a national inspection almost two years ago, the popular state food chain Di tú continues to illegally sell “homemade” croquettes of poor quality, according to a note published in the newspaper Granma on Tuesday.

The Communist Party’s newspaper reports that following complaints from consumers the Food Production Company (Prodal), the chain’s only supplier, did a study in mid-2016 and “it was found that 75% of the food sold came from other sources.”

These croquettes, sold at 10 cents CUC and usually made with chicken, are very popular on the Island, a situation that for administrators and employees of these state-owned stores is seen as an opportunity to obtain benefits. continue reading

“It is a sound business because the croquette is what sells best in these places, and taking advantage of that margin they sell them to other people who sell them privately, and everyone shares the profits,” Berta Gonzalez, resident of the municipality Diez de October, told Granma.

As a result of this manipulation, consumers claim that Di tú’s croquettes are now smaller and the dough’s taste and appearance is not the same as before, which leads them to suspect that they have been victims of a substitution.

The official press confirms the customers’ complaints and note that these products do not meet the sanitary requirements nor have the same size or flavor as the chain’s original croquettes. In the preparation of the croquettes a series of strict parameters must be followed that detail the ingredients and preparation of this product sold in state food stalls.

Despite the technical inspections carried out by the authorities, the official media have not said whether the industrial croquettes, destined for state establishments, are also sold in illegal outlets.

To correct the situation and meet the demand the Food Industry Business Group has made investments in recent months aimed at “increasing production capacities,” Iris Quiñones, president of Prodal, told the official press.

The state entity processes about 15,000 tons of meat, poultry, fish and shellfish a year for distribution to the hotel network and the domestic market in CUC. Its production is mainly focused on picadillo, croquettes, meatballs, steak and hamburger, which also end up on the dining tables of workplaces, schools and hospitals.

Granma not only laments the “illegal act of introducing merchandise” in the state circuit and thus obtaining “a profit that does not appear in any accounting book,” but also questions where the individuals get the infrastructure to make a “homemade croquette so similar to the one really produced industrially.”

Popular inventiveness has managed to manufacture machines that mimic the finish of a state-produced croquette. Recently, the digital site El Toque told the story of a resident of Placetas, in Villa Clara, who put together one of those devices from bicycle parts, a culinary meat grinder and a piece of a plastic soda bottle.

Previously, small domestic industries dedicated to the falsification of beers and soft drinks have also been detected. However, it is the first time that officialdom has acknowledged that the cooked food offered in its network of stores also suffers from adulteration.

A hand-crafted croquette maker. (eltoque.com)

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Rooftops That Look To The Sky

Havana’s rooftops are far from the intrusive stares in the streets below. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 January 2018 – Rooftops with flimsily-covered wooden ‘houses.’ Rooftops with improvised pigeon coops and the sound of fluttering throughout the day. Rooftops in litigation where the neighbors fight over a place to stretch their clotheslines. Rooftops with water tanks where the water floods when it comes at all and moss grows in the corners. Rooftops that extend Havana to the sky and seen from Google Earth reveal more than they hide.

The city grows upwards and not with new skyscrapers. Building on the roofs, extending our housing over our heads, has prevented more than one divorce in this capital where housing problems drive creativity and the opportune use of any space where a bed can be laid out, a kitchen can be set up, or a newborn’s cradle can be tucked away. Rooftops are also far from the prying eyes that haunt the street.

Private and discreet, they can become a solarium for lightly dressed tourists above the houses where rooms are rented to foreigners, a place for teenage love with the stars as a coverlet, or a territory where you can fire up certain forbidden cigarettes. If the rooftops of Havana could speak they would tell stories of survival and eroticism, of colossal fights and of mirahuecos (voyeurs) who peek out from above. They would betray the hidden life of this city.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Prices are Prohibitive for Direct Flights from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago

Caribbean Airlines will connect Cuba with the small Caribbean island twice a week. (EFETurAmerica)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 17 January 2018 — The new air route that connects Cuba with Trinidad and Tobago, inaugurated last Saturday, began while both countries are negotiating new immigration regulations for Cubans, who currently do not need visas to visit that country.

After the round of negotiations between the governments of both countries in the middle of last year, and with this new direct connection by air, the Cuban community on Trinidadian territory is worried that new requirements will be imposed on their relatives who wish to visit them. continue reading

For now, the new Caribbean Airlines schedule, with a frequency of twice a week, fills a vacuum of direct flights between both nations. Previously, travelers had to make a stopover on the small Dutch island of Aruba or in Panama City and fly the flagship company of that country, Copa Airlines, with fares over $500 per ticket.

“It is now possible that Copa will lower prices because previously it had no competition for travel to Cuba,” predicts Kenia Montes de Oca, a Cuban living in Port of Spain who is hoping to regularize her residence there with refugee status.

Although the authorities of Trinidad and Tobago do not require visas for Cubans, at the airport immigration officials can deport anyone they suspect of wanting to stay illegally, a practice that has been increasing after the immigration talks held in August of last year, according to complaints from travelers compiled by this newspaper.

Montes de Oca remembers that before the direct route existed, trips through Aruba or Panama sometimes presented problems, diversions or delays.

The new service will make the trip between Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago shorter and faster, although Caribbean Airlines fares are still high compared to other destinations in the region, 14ymedio was able to confirm.

A round-trip ticket with no additional baggage fees for trips before the end of January costs roughly $752, while making the reservation for a trip nine months in advance yields a savings of only $50.

Flights to Cancun or Miami from Havana can often be purchased for under $200, but with the drawback that both Mexico and the United States require arriving Cubans to have a visa.

“I traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for the first time at the end of last year,” says Pavel, a 28-year-old Cienfuegos resident who explores shopping malls for purchases that he later resells in Cuba. “I didn’t make any money because at that time there were no direct flights and the ticket was very expensive.”

Pavel also points out that the exchange rate (1 triniteño dollar is equivalent to 0.14 US dollar) “is not favorable.” In addition, in Cuba the dollar is subject to a 13% tax, which makes the operation even more expensive.

“Obtaining a Mexican visa is very complicated for me because I was once deported from that country when I was trying to reach the border with the United States,” the merchant says. “So I have to continue with this route even if I don’t get that much business,” he adds.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuba Looks to Peru to Solve Potato Shortage

The sale of potatoes in Santiago de Cuba. (Yosmani Mayeta / 14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerZunilda Mata, Havana, 22 January 2018 — Cuba is intending to buy Peru’s surplus potatoes, if and when they meet the the phytosanitary requirements for export. Peru’s Minister of Agriculture, José Arista, reported on the efforts made by the Cuban embassy in Lima during a meeting with local producers last Wednesday, which was reported in the newspaper La República on Sunday.

The information comes to light in the midst of the “cold season,” the period during which most of the Cuban potato harvest takes place, which ends more or less in March. This year the crop forecasts are not optimistic due to the intense rains of recent months and the damages caused by Hurricane Irma. continue reading

In the provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Ávila, among the most affected by the hurricane, the Agricultural Business Group (GAG)  had planned to plant 7,942 acres of potatoes during the month of October so that the product would arrive in state agricultural markets in January and February.

However, by mid-December, only 10% of the target acreage had been sown, according to the official press, due to the rains and the wetness of the land that affected the sowing of the crop.

Fabian Lozano, a farmer from Artemisa, has been engaged for five years in the harvest of the tuber but is about to surrender due to the difficulties involved in growing it. “It is a crop that demands a lot of care,” the farmer tells 14ymedio by phone. “It is not just a matter of climate but it is necessary to have a stable technological package,” he laments.

An efficient irrigation system and the availability of fertilizers and insecticides supplied on time are essential for this product to succeed, given that it is not native to the Island. Access to the seed, which is mainly imported from the Netherlands and Canada, can also become a headache.

A national variety known as Romano is more resistant to pests and is an option to ease these demanding requirements, but its performance leaves much to be desired. “It is a more resistant potato but when it comes to harvesting or reproducing, a lot is lost,” says Lozano.

Specialists expect the Romano variety to yield 600 to 660 tons (US measure) per 33 acres when the conditions are ideal, but imported specimens yield 716 tons, according to sources of the Ministry of Agriculture consulted by this newspaper.

The Artemiseño municipality of Alquízar, where Lozano lives, produces one of the largest potato crops in the country. With fertile and flat land, the growers planned to plant nearly 620 acres this season, but the authorities have not yet revealed whether the initial goal was achieved.

“We have had many problems with the seed because there is a lot of loss due to theft,” the administrator of a Basic Unit of Cooperative Production in the area, who preferred anonymity, tells this newspaper. “We work with imported seeds but we lose up to a third of it because of the diversion of resources,” he reveals.

In Cuba the potato is sown mainly through pieces of the tuber itself, which is called “seed,” a practice that helps to maintain the genetic makeup of the plant without alterations. Proper storage of the seed is crucial for the subsequent quality of the harvested food.

“Sometimes we have to guard the potato seed more closely than the cows,” laments the administrator. “When we are sowing we always have to have a group of workers bending over the furrow and another group watching so that they do not take the seed.”

In the informal market in the area, private farmers value the foreign seed greatly because “it yields more and the final product is more marketable,” Lozano says. “Here there are many producers who sell directly to the owners of private restaurants who want a nice, big, meaty and healthy potato,” he points out.

“The customer can choose between these three side dishes: rice, fried potatoes or mashed potatoes (not instant),” clarifies a letter from a private restaurant in the Havana municipality of Playa. The owners of these restaurants often have to turn to the precooked or powdered product to make up for shortages of raw potatoes.

“We have many diners who are diplomats in the area of the city where we are located, as well as tourists who know very well what a potato is in its natural state,” explains Miguel Ángel, a waiter at a private restaurant a few yards from the coast with a spectacular view of the sea.

Maintaining the supply of fresh potatoes is “more difficult than buying lobster or shrimp,” says the employee. “For years we have established an agreement with several producers to buy directly all their production and then we have to refrigerate it ourselves so that it lasts for the better part of the year.”

Potato production has plummeted on the island since 1996, when 384,000 tons were produced and the country exported the tuber. In 2015, amidst the increase in consumption due to the growth of tourism and the private sector, barely 137,000 tons were collected and the Government was forced to import 17,000 tons, almost twice as much as in 2014, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook.

The potato is a product with a strong symbolic importance for Cuban families. Until 2009 its distribution was exclusively through the rationed market at a price of 0.45 Cuban pesos (roughly 2¢ US) per pound and its cultivation was a monopoly of state entities.

In 2009, one year after Raúl Castro formally assumed the presidency, the government de-controlled the tuber and allowed — for the first time in decades — it to be planted in plots that were not under the control of the State or a cooperative. This “liberalization” of the potato became an emblem of the so-called “Raulist reforms.”

However, the official calls to achieve elf-sufficiency in potato production and the delivery of lands to private formers in a form of leasing known as usufruct as a way to cut imports did not yield the expected results. By the end of 2017, the country was importing more than 80% of the food it consumes, at an annual cost exceeding two billion dollars.

In 2017, the potato was once again regulated, although the authorities maintain that this was not a return to rationing. Each Havana consumer can only buy 14 pounds of the product spread over three months and must show their ration book, but the price per pound has risen to 1 Cuban peso (roughly 4¢ US).

The potato is the star of the black market from the middle of the month of February until well into the spring. For 1 Convertible peso (24 Cuban pesos) you can buy a bag of potatoes with about five pounds of first quality and totally clean tubers (that is you are not paying for any dirt clinging to them), just outside the same markets where potatoes are offered in a regulated manner.

Miguel Alejandro Figueras, 2007 winner of the Cuban National Economy Prize, says that “per capita potato consumption in Cuba in 1985 was about 60 pounds” annually. In 1985, “the production exceeded 330,000 tons, accounting for 44% of all the tubers consumed in the country.” Of every 10 pounds of tubers eaten at domestic tables, almost half were potatoes.

Currently per capita consumption “is, at most, about 10-11 pounds, one-sixth of thirty years ago,” says the specialist. In 2014, the potato only accounted for 3% of the total production of root vegetables and tubers.

As of 2007, the number of areas dedicated to the cultivation of Solanum tuberosum was reduced. For Miguel Alejandro Figueras the prognosis is not promising: “Every season we plant less.” The economist notes that in the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba where “the 313 Guidelines” were approved for economic policy, among them 37 specific to the agricultural sector, “the potato is not mentioned in any.”

Importing potatoes from Peru can be a solution that addresses demand while the national production remains in a slump.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

US Dollar Rises in Value Against CUC in Informal Market

In the last two weeks the dollar has gained between 2% and 3% on the Cuban convertible peso. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 6 January 2018 —  The fear of a sudden monetary unification, which would eliminate the dual currency system in Cuba, and its possible effects on the foreign exchange market is contributing to the rise in the price of the dollar in informal networks in Havana. In the last two weeks, the US currency has gained between 2% and 3% on the convertible peso, going from 0.92 to 0.95 or even 0.96 CUC per dollar.

The pressure on the exchange rate began to be noticed a few days after Raúl Castro pleaded before Parliament for the early elimination of the dual monetary system. The head of State recognized that this reform “will not magically solve the accumulated problems” but if it is not resolved “it is difficult to advance correctly” in the economic reforms that the country needs. The existence of two currencies is also a headache for the state business system.

Cubans, skilled in reading between the lines, have interpreted the words of the ruler as an ultimatum for economists to implement the plan for the unification of the two currencies circulating in the country: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso* (CUC). continue reading

Several articles published in the official press feed speculation about the impending closeness of a monetary reunification. The economist Ariel Terrero said last week that “the monetary and currency duality” was “the determining obstacle today for the Cuban economy to expand its wings.”

The text, published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, fed the rumors about the likeihood of an imminent change. The greatest fear of the population is that the process will happen “overnight” and upset the whole scenario of the fragile domestic economy.

The uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Cuban peso, also called the national currency, has led many to take refuge in the dollar, the holding of which was decriminalized in August 1993 and which has had a different exchange rate in informal markets than that offered by the official Currency Exchanges (Cadeca). In the last five years, the price of the dollar has remained stable in the informal market, with slight fluctuations between 0.91 and 0.93 CUC.

The attraction of changing the US currency in the black market is that in the Cadecas the Government imposes a 10% tax and the seller only receives 0.87 CUC for each dollar. To justify this tax, the authorities cited the alleged difficulties in carrying out commercial transactions in that currency.

In March 2016, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez assured that the tax on the US dollar would be abolished if the obstacles created by the US embargo disappeared. The news jumped to the front pages of the foreign press, but the measure never materialized.

Families that receive remittances in the US currency frequently resort to private money changers to get a better rate. In addition, Cubans who, as of the Immigration and Travel Reform of January 2013, began to travel to Mexico, Panama or the United States to buy goods and resell them on the island, also resort to private channels to manage their currencies.

Those who have the most to lose in a devaluation of the convertible peso are those who run a private business where they accept payment in CUC and in CUP, or those who keep their savings in convertible pesos, popularly known as chavitos.

This is the case for Victoria, 81, who last week sold the Lada that had belonged to her late husband. A family in the city of Trinidad paid her 13,000 CUC in cash for the car, but the old woman has not yet wanted to deposit that money in the bank, precisely out of fear of the sudden unification of the currency.

“I have all the money in my house and I do not know what I’m going to do, because if they unite the currency from one day to the next I will lose instead of winning,” Victoria confesses to 14ymedio. “I thought about buying dollars but they have gone up in price and, in addition, the sellers with whom I have spoken only sell small amounts, at most 1,000.”

Victoria lives with the nightmare of waking up one day with the news that the CUC has suddenly disappeared. She does not want to go through that again because of what she experienced in August 1961 when the government forced a paper currency swap and cancelled all the bills in circulation, as well as limited the total amount of old bills that could be exchanged for new.

“For each family, only 200 Cuban pesos could be exchanged,” recalls the old woman, who along with her mother stood in a long line in front of the bank to obtain the new bills. “If that happens again I do not know what I’m going to do, because the money from this car is to support me for the time I have left of my life,” she says.

Several informal money changers consulted by this newspaper predict that the price of the dollar could continue to rise in the coming days in the black market. “There is high demand and people are afraid of being left with those colored papers (CUC) in their hands that might be totally worthless,” Darius, a buyer of dollars who advertises on various digital classified sites, told 14ymedio.

“Right now, every time I find someone who sells dollars, he is offering them above 0.95 CUC and yesterday I stumbled on the first one who already had a rate of 0.97.”

*Translator’s note: Although the CUC is called “convertible” it can, in fact, only be exchanged within Cuba and it is illegal to take CUCs out of the country. Additionally, although formally valued at 1-to-1 vis-a-vis the American dollar, in practice, as discussed in the article, one dollar does not buy 1 CUC.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.