Charcoal, the Expensive and Only Cooking Fuel After Irma

Sacks stacked with charcoal made from the invasive marabou weed. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Zunilda Mata, Havana, 18 September 2017 — Black smoke from charcoal rises from an improvised fire in Dinora’s yard, which is close to the area most affected by Hurricane Irma in Caibarién, in the province of Villa Clara. In addition to half her house being on the ground, her new problem now is to cook without electricity or gas, in a place where local producers have increased the prices of this fuel, after energy shortages in the region caused by the hurricane.

Two years ago, Dinora’s family was among the province’s 4,902 families who were able to buy an induction cooker, a lidded casserole, a jug, a frying pan and coffee pot for 500 Cuban pesos (CUP) on credit, which the state bank is assured of being repaid through deductions from wages and pensions.

“There has been no electricity for more than a week and I had to go back to cooking with charcoal,” she says via telephone. continue reading

The charcoal, made mainly from marabou, is managed primarily by state companies that pay the local producers – who have self-employment licenses that allow them to produce it – and then mostly export it. A small part of the production is left in the hands of the carboneros, for their own use and for private sales with prices governed by supply and demand. “While before Irma a sack of charcoal cost 25 CUP in Caibarién, now that same amount is now worth twelve times more.”

“A sack of charcoal can’t be found for less than 300 CUP,” Dinora explains to 14ymedio. “My monthly pension isn’t even that much, so when I run out of this, I do not know what I’m going to do,” says the retiree, adding that she plans to use the fallen branches and logs that Irma left in her yard to be able to boil water and prepare food.

The so-called Energy Revolution, promoted by the late Fidel Castro at the beginning of the 21st century, replaced the distribution of kerosene and alcohol in the rationed market, which had been used for cooking in rural areas, with electrical appliances, such as hot plates and electric water heaters. Consequently, the installation of gas conduits was shut down and citizens came to rely on these new devices, useless in cases when the electricity fails.

Now, after Irma’s damage to the power grid, smoke from charcoal fires fills hundreds of houses and yards in the central area, in the absence of any other cooking fuel. It is not a question of choice but of necessity. The less fortunate do not even have a few coals to ignite and must settle for eating cookies or canned food.

The residents in this coastal town are impatient at the slowness of the restoration of basic services, as they continue with the access roads cut off, electrical poles on the ground and more than 4,000 homes totally or partially collapsed. “It seems as if they have forgotten us,” Dinora complains.

Independent journalist Pedro Manuel González shares this feeling of abandonment and regrets that in the first days after the storm the brigades of linemen and trash collectors were transferred to the tourist areas. “Caibarién is forgotten and has no priority in the national emergency,” he said.

Caibarién after the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Pedry Roxana)

Just 72 hours after Hurricane Irma, the 14-mile causeway that connects the tourist area of Cayo Coco with the nearby province of Ciego de Avila was repaired. A priority that has bothered many residents in Caibarién.

Francisco Carralero, a resident of the Van Troi neighborhood, is annoyed by that priority and complains that in Caibarién “everything is going very slowly.” He treasures a tank that he managed to buy last June when the province began the sale of liquefied gas. He rented the cylinder for 400 CUP and refilled it for another 110. “Thanks to that, it has been possible to pour a little coffee in this block,” he says.

“Now a full tank can’t be had for less than 1,000 CUP and no one can even find one,” explains Carralero. “He who has gas is a privileged one, because most of the residents of this neighborhood have not been able to light their stoves for more than a week.”

“Heat” and “chill” are two verbs difficult to conjugate these days in the area. In the informal market blocks of ice taken from the state lobster company are sold at about 300 CUP each. “He who has money gets cold water and he who doesn’t has to deal with it,” adds Carralero.

The losses are not only in infrastructure but also in food and resources.

“Everything I had in the refrigerator was spoiled because I didn’t have time to consume it,” explains the Villaclareño. In his area only some buildings have recovered electrical service and, he protests, they still have not received “any type of free food supply.”

The town’s pizzeria sells a serving of spaghetti for 5 CUP, the same price they charged before the arrival of the hurricane. Several distribution points in the city offer beans, rice and pork loin at 12 CUP, but the distribution of food at no cost is limited to those who were sheltered in state centers.

The dream of many neighbors is that there will be aid promised by the World Food Program (WFP), which will allocate US $5.7 million to “supplement the food needs of 664,000 people” in Cuba, according to remarks from Executive Director David Beasley during a recent visit to the island.

“We are in a critical situation and we have to start distributing food and water as soon as possible because people here are at their limit, many have been left with nothing,” explains Carralero, who fears that “the bureaucracy will delay the aid that is urgently needed right now.”

“This is a disaster zone and needs humanitarian assistance as soon as possible,” he explains. “If the situation continues, we will have to start dismantling the few pieces of furniture we have left to be able to cook,” he warns.

Cubans Are Disgusted By Government’s Management After Irma

Kiosk in Animus Street selling foods for hurricane victims in Centro Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 14 September 2017 – In Cuba’s capital city dozens of victims of Hurricane Irma surround an improvised kiosk clutching plastic bowls and bottles. The authorities have set up several stands that offer soup, rice with a protein and bottled water to anxious residents.

With prices of 2 Cuban pesos (CUP) for the ration of soup, and 8 CUP for a little box with rice and some meat and vegetables, the kiosks in different places are selling food prepared for the victims. However, the complaints are growing in the face of a distribution that many consider should be done at no cost.

“I don’t have a single centavo, I spent everything I had buying cookies and candles before the hurricane and now I don’t have anything,” laments Coralia, a resident of Marques Gonzales Street who was heading to La Inmaculada Church on San Lazaro Street this Wednesday, looking for help. continue reading

The mark left on the city by the sea is still visible on the facades of Lagunas Street, near Belascoain, one of the areas where the floods in Havana did the most damage. But these stains are only the visible marks of the drama. The most difficult effects are evident inside the houses, with the lack of water and shortage of food.

“This morning I ate the last egg I had left, which had miraculously survived because it was unrefrigerated for more than three days,” Eneida, a retiree of 73 told 14ymedio. “I have nothing left and I do not have the money to buy what the government is selling,” she says.

La Inmaculada, a centrally located church, lost its imposing and emblematic main doors under the force of the waves that poured over the wall of the Malecon. Since the winds stopped blowing dozens of parishioners and neighbors have come asking for some food and clothing, but the chapel is simply not equipped.

State kiosks in different parts of Havana sell prepared food for the victims. (14ymedio)

Rosario, the chapel receptionist describes the situation as “terrible.” “We have no water, the dining room where we normally serve food to about 25 elders from the area has not been able to function for several days and these people can not even get here because of the ongoing conditions in the neighborhood,” she says.

“Through the side gate we are collecting donations of any kind: clothes, food and kitchen equipment, because there are people here who have lost everything,” the woman emphasizes. Other churches are also mobilizing to alleviate what is taking shape as a humanitarian drama. “Many people are arriving in a very complicated situation,” Rosario says.

In the midst of these shortages, between Tuesday and Wednesday Cuba received 10 tons of humanitarian aid from Venezuela in the form of non-perishable food, medicines and drinking water, as well as another 2.2 tons chartered by plane from Panama, which mainly contains hygiene and food items.

One of the blue tents set up by the island’s authorities to sell food is just a few steps away from the well-known funeral home at Calzada and K Streets in Vedado. The residents of the lower floors and the improvised structures in the old semi-underground parking areas were the most harmed in that area, which is along the low part of the coast where the sea advanced several blocks and left significant damage in numerous houses.

Among them is Yazmín, the mother of two children and a worker for a state company. “In my house nothing is left that is usable, all the furniture got wet and my children lost even their school books,” she laments.

Yazmín had hoped that schools would resume classes on Thursday to “see if they offer food more cheaply,” but the schools in the area have delayed opening their doors until Monday. “With the children I do not have much mobility and we will have line up for a bit of soup,” she said, resigned.

A can of sardines at these stands costs 18 CUP, the equivalent of a day’s wages for a state employee, while ground beef is an unaffordable 65 CUP a pound. (14ymedio)

In Ánimas Street in the San Leopoldo district, another kiosk is selling a similar menu. Dozens of people wait in line to take home the first serving of hot food they will have eaten since last Saturday. Water is also for sale at 11.75 CUP a pint or 48.75 CUP for a 5 quart bottle, a price that those affected by Hurricane consider excessive.

“How can they be selling water? I do not understand that they do not distribute all this for free because they know that the people of this neighborhood don’t even have a pot to piss in,” complains Rigoberto Núñez, a 57-year-old neighbor whose water tank has been contaminated. Among the personal items he lost with the flooding was his wallet, he says. “I do not know if I lost it or if it was stolen, but now I do not have a single centavo,” he adds.

A can of sardines at the kiosks cost 18 CUP, the equivalent of a day’s wages for a state employe, while ground beef is 65 CUP a pound, an amount most people can’t pay.

While people waited in line on Thursday to buy a serving of food – limited in quantities to “avoid hoarding,” says one of the employees who sells it – the rumor spread that the Church of La Caridad in Manrique is helping with medicines and some milk to those most affected.

In a stampede, some leave in the direction of the chapel in search of those resources that have now become the greatest obsession for thousands of the storm’s victims.


Cubans Ask Cachita To “Take Pity” On The Island

Thousands of parishioners participated this Friday in the procession for the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Patroness of Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 9 September 2017 — While the winds were pummeling the eastern and central parts of the island, thousands of faithful devotees gathered this Friday in Havana to participate in the procession for the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s Patron Saint, which is celebrated every 8th September. To the traditional requests for prosperity and health, this year an added request was that Hurricane Irma not cause serious damage to the country.

The diocesan sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, located in the municipality of Central Havana, received thousands of parishioners with flowers and candles. Some also wore yellow clothing in allusion to Ochún, the orisha of santería with which the Virgin of Charity of Cobre is syncretized. continue reading

The image of Cachita, as the island’s patroness is popularly known, left the church shortly after six o’clock in the evening on a procession through several nearby streets. Along the way, there was no lack of devotional displays with petals of flowers thrown from the balconies and songs.

“I came to ask for Cuba and Miami,” Estervina, 82, who had gone to the procession accompanied by three grandchildren, told 14ymedio. “My two children live in Florida and I’m begging Cachita to take pity and dissolve the hurricane.” In her hands, the old woman carried a bouquet of sunflowers.

Others chose to light candles inside the church, although these days the informal market has been depleted of such products due to the high demand sparked by preparations to protect against the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Finding candles for the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre has been especially difficult this year due to the high demand for candles to prepare for Hurricane Irma. (14ymedio)

“Better times will come and I’ll bring you more candles, but this year I only had this one,” says Jorge Luis, a fervent devotee of Cachita. The man prayed inside the church and in his entreaties included “finally having a home of his own and taking a trip abroad.”

From the province of Holguín, Jorge Luis was worried this Friday by the situation of his family in the city of Gibara. “Irma is nearly there and I have come so that the Virgin may help my people to move forward without serious damage, that they do not have physical injuries and that their house is not damaged,” he says.

The archbishop of Havana, Juan de la Caridad García, was also part of the procession with priests and nuns of various congregations, and later he officiated the mass in the temple of Calle Salud y Manrique. During the pilgrimage invocations were made to the importance of family and reconciliation among Cubans.

The procession was heavily guarded by uniformed police officers and plainclothes agents, but no incidents occurred.

This year it was not possible to carry out the traditional procession in Santiago de Cuba, from the Basilica del Cobre, due to the deterioration of the weather conditions.

Conjunctivitis Jeopardizes Beginning of School Year in Cuba

Cuban schools are scheduled to open next week. (Flickr/Emma)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 28 August 2017 — With only a week to go before the school year begins, Cuban health authorities fear that the arrival of thousands of students in the classroom will fuel the epidemic of hemorrhagic conjunctivitis that is plaguing the country. Preparing for the new school year includes gathering all the supplies needed to operate, and right now also includes epidemiological inspections to assess the health risks.

The Ministry of Public Health released a report on Saturday stating that there are seven provinces and 46 municipalities in the country affected by this form of conjunctivitis, with a total of 1,427 cases throughout the island. The real number could be greater, however, since many patients do not go to polyclinics or hospitals.

The advance of the virus has forced a review of the sanitary conditions in each school before they open to students on 4 September. Among the indispensable requirements is the guarantee of drinking water and its quality, according to comments in the official press from Gretza Sánchez, director of the Provincial Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology in the province of Villa Clara. continue reading

More than 1,750,000 students are enrolled in the 2017-2018 academic year in the 10,698 country’s educational institutions, Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella said on Thursday.

A teaching assistant laments that the authorities impose many demands but that the schools do not have the circumstances to fulfill them

The controls require that every school have the necessary cleaning tools and wastebaskets installed in every classroom, along with disinfectants for the bathrooms and, if there are kitchens in the building, a stable supply of detergent, according to Ministry of Education source who spoke with 14ymedio and who preferred anonymity.

“They have already inspected and found several problems, so we are asking parents to help us with cleaning implements and products such as bleach, as well as cloths to clean the floor and brooms,” says Milagros, a teaching assistant in a primary school in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood.

The assistant laments that the authorities impose many demands but that the schools do not have the circumstances to fulfill them. They have managed to keep the schools clean “because parents collect money among themselves and buy what is needed.”

For Milagros, the lack of cleaning staff is the main problem to maintaining hygiene in schools. “Nobody wants to work cleaning in a school for less than 20 CUC a month, when in a hotel or in a private house you get double or triple,” she says. “Last year we were without a cleaning assistant for a full semester,” she complains.

The hygiene work is often undertaken by the parents themselves and the management of the schools convenes voluntary work days frequently to clean and beautify the classrooms.

Hemorrhagic conjunctivitis is of viral origin and highly transmissible. Its contagion occurs by contamination with ocular fluids or drops of saliva, as well as through the hands. (WHO)

As a result of these inspections it was revealed that 136 of the 600 schools of Villa Clara received a poor evaluation from the sanitary authorities for their hygienic conditions. Facility workers must solve the problems before the end of summer.

“Every year we parents complain about the problems with water and the cleaning of the bathrooms,” explains Lázara Roque, mother of a student at Camilo Cienfuegos Elementary School in Santa Clara. The woman fears that these difficulties will become an ideal breeding ground for the spread of the disease.

Hemorrhagic conjunctivitis is of viral origin and highly transmissible. Its contagion occurs through contamination with ocular fluids or drops of saliva, as well as through the hands and objects that have touched an individual infected by the disease.

“I have told my son to only drink boiled water that he carries from home, but it is very difficult to control him touching his eyes with his hands,” explains the mother. “The Ministry of Education should evaluate postponing the start of the school year in neighborhoods where the situation is the worst,” she suggests.

As a result of these inspections it was revealed that 136 of the 600 schools of Villa Clara received a poor evaluation from the sanitary authorities for their hygienic conditions

Since last May, health authorities have warned of the presence of the epidemic hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus on the island. The first confirmed patients were reported in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, but with the arrival of summer, the outbreak spread to Ciego de Ávila and other provinces.

Currently, the territories with the highest number of cases are Guantanamo (858), Santiago de Cuba (359), Havana (154), Ciego de Ávila (35) and Las Tunas (21), according to data from the Ministry of Public Health.

Doctors warn that people suffering symptoms such as eye irritation, sensitivity to light, tearing, eyelid edema or redness of the eyes should go immediately to the health services. They also advise avoiding the use of home remedies to relieve discomfort.

Central America and the Caribbean is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of conjunctivitis in its history

Official media have emphasized that eye drops and medications used for other types of conjunctivitis should not be applied, only cold water sprays should used.

Central America and the Caribbean is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of conjunctivitis in its history. In Nicaragua, more than 11,000 people are reported affected this year, almost five times more than in 2016. In Panama, the number of people infected has climbed to 50,000 cases.

“The Caribbean Public Health Agency is monitoring the situation and urges people to take the necessary actions to prevent and reduce the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Virginia Asin-Oostburg, Director of Surveillance for that regional organization.

The increase in the number of passengers between Panama and Cuba, a frequent route for ‘mules’ importing goods for the informal market, worries authorities. In the main airports of the country medical personnel have been instructed to include in their screening of travelers questions about possible itching or irritation in the eyes.

Cuba Is No Country For Mothers

Note: Our apologies that this video is not subtitled, but hopefully the images will be of interest to all.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 26 August 2017 – She walks slowly constantly fanning herself. With each step her full-skirted flowery dress swishes from side to side. Yadira Ramos is 34 and will give birth for the first time in just two weeks. With a degree in accounting, the young woman postponed maternity for professional reasons, but the decision to have only one child was made for economic reasons.

For almost forty years Cuba’s fertility rate has failed to rise. In 2016, the average number of children per woman was only 1.63, with 8,192 fewer children born than in the previous year, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Health. The island’s difficult demographic situation threatens to become the most serious of its problems.

Authorities are alarmed by the low birth rate, which leads to an accelerated process of population decline. Aging increases the cost of pensions and healthcare in a country that ended 2016 in an economic recession. continue reading

Cubans are living longer and longer and life expectancy I now close to 79.5 years, while the period couples dedicate to reproduction is shorter, as it conflicts with the time that women can spend on their careers.

For the past forty years, the fertility rate has not risen in Cuba. (Andrea María)

When she was little, Yadira Ramos called her dolls with the names she dreamed of for her future daughters: “Lucrecia, Lucia and Amanda.” However, the plans for a large family collided with reality. “The situation is such that there is not enough to have more than one child,” the pregnant woman explains to 14ymedio.

Married to a waiter working in a state-owned restaurant, the future mother belongs to a social stratum that lives day-to-day, without being able to afford luxuries. Most of her last year’s salary has been used for the purchase of diapers, bottles and a cradle. “The budget doesn’t stretch and without the gifts people have given me I do not know how I would manage,” she says.

Like many other Cubans, Ramos preferred to postpone motherhood until she had a “more solid” job position. She says that “after a woman gives birth, it becomes very difficult for her to assume management responsibilities at work because she has to take on more tasks at home.”

Like many other Cubans, Ramos preferred to postpone motherhood until she had a “more solid” job position

In February of this year, the Government launched new provisions to encourage births, such as the paying other family members for the care of minors and tax cuts for women workers in the private sector who have two or more children. However, the measures are far from solving a problem that goes beyond the low salaries and the insufficient payments for maternity leave.

The search for the causes of the decline in births has become a point of friction. Official voices point to the freedoms enjoyed by women as the reason they delay pregnancy and have fewer children. While on the street, comments from ordinary people point to the economy and housing problems.

Women serve as heads of household in 45% of families and hold 66% of technical jobs, but the distribution of domestic work remains inequitable. Machismo still determines that women are responsible for most of the care of a newborn.

Machismo still determines that women are responsible for most of the care of a newborn. (Charles)

This disproportion of tasks discourages many women from becoming mothers. “I have not yet found a man who can serve as the father of my children,” said Tania, 24, a nursing assistant at a polyclinic in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution municipality. “It’s a decision that needs to be taken very seriously.”

Tania has had six abortions so far. “I do not have the circumstances to have a child and I will not bring one into the world to work,” she says. She feels that “many pregnancies end in interruption because the family can not assume the expenses of a baby.”

In 2016, 85,445 induced abortions were carried out in Cuba, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook of Health, while only 116,725 children were born.

In 2016, 85,445 induced abortions were carried out in Cuba, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook of Health, while only 116,725 children were born

In Tania’s case, the search for the appropriate father is joined by an old dream of emigration. “With a child it becomes much more difficult to get a visa for anywhere and it is very difficult to start from scratch in another country,” the nurse said. Emigration is another of the many reasons that fertility is plunging on the island.

According to Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, Director and Researcher for the Center for Population and Development Studies of the National Office of Statistics and Information, the decline in the birth rate is associated with advances in “the conditions of the family and of women” along with “policies for the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights.”

However, the specialist acknowledges that “unresolved, material problems associated with housing shortages, lack of goods” and “high prices” also contribute to reducing the number of births.

Despite the fall in the number of births, Cuban women continue to receive strong social pressure to be mothers

Despite the fall in the number of births, Cuban women continue to receive strong social pressure to be mothers. In the collective imagination, motherhood is the “consecration” of women and those who postpone the arrival of a child are criticized by friends and family.

The poet and writer Irela Casaña reflects on these social pressures and says that she is often asked why she has not had a baby. “Who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?” a friend asked her recently. The writer laments that this means “now children are an investment, a natural loan and with high interest rates.”

Yadira Ramos has already chosen a name for the baby she expects in a few weeks. “She will be called Amanda, like one of my childhood dolls,” she says.


Editor’s Note: This report was made with the support of the Howard G Buffet Fund for Women Journalists from the International Women’s Media Foundation.


Communist Militants Force Withdrawal of a Poster For Being “Disrespectful” of Fidel Castro

The poster was part of a cleaning initiative organized by the José Martí Cultural Society. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 August 2017 — Military boots and olive green trousers drawn on a poster have provoked great anger among communist militants who seem to have managed, through their complaints, to get the organizers of a sanitation campaign to remove the poster from the streets and sewers near Havana’s Malecon.

The initiative, with the motto “Clean the Coast,” was organized for this coming Sunday, 13 August, coinciding with the 91st anniversary of Fidel Castro’s birth. The date, coupled with the image, has been considered “disrespectful” to the deceased ex-president by some citizens, forcing, according to sources from one of the organizing entities, a cancellation of the day.

The cleaning activity was organized by the José Martí Cultural Society (SCJM) and the José Martí Youth Movement (MJM), but ultimately it has been replaced by other activities in the capital, said Reinaldo Perera, a member of the first of these associations. continue reading

“No, we are not going to undertake the activity that was initially planned in the area of ​​the sidewalks on the Malecón to clean the sewers from the 23rd street to a little further down. It was only going to be a sanitary cleaning,” Perera points out.

However, another employee of the SCJM, who preferred to remain anonymous, told 14ymedio that “the poster was withdrawn and the cleaning canceled because several members of the Communist Party called to complain about the misuse of Fidel Castro’s image.”

“Showing that part of the body and particularly the military boots was not pleasing to many people,” according to the worker. “We were warned that we had to remove all the signs we had placed in the areas surrounding the Malecon.” Some, he adds, were also afraid that the poster would be interpreted as the announcement of a police operation.

Yussy, a 28-year-old transvestite, is among the frightened. “When we saw the poster everyone was scared because it said that on that day they would not let us go to the Malecón and the police would crack down on the jineteras (female hookers) and the pingueros (male hookers),” he says outside the Yara cinema, a few yards from the Habana Libre Hotel.

“It would not be the first or the last time they did something like this, but people did notice it because of the boots, an area of the body that is not shown that much; on posters they usually put the face and maybe also the shoulders,” reflects Yussy.

An employee of the cinema says that the poster caught people’s attention and tourists “were endlessly taking pictures… An elderly gentleman, very upset, asked if the management of the movie theater had put up the poster,” she said, and added that he was going to call whomever he had to to protest what he considered a lack of respect.

The Government has prepared numerous activities of remembrance on what would have been the former president’s birthday. Starting Wednesday, at the Expocuba fairgrounds, south of the capital, there are children’s games, displays of the operation of locally manufactured induction cookers, and a sale of hygiene products from the Suchel company.

Since the beginning of the month the Casa del Alba Cultural, located in Havana’s Vedado district, has had an photographic exposition titled Fidel: Intimate Portrait, with snapshots taken by his son Alejandro Castro.

Thousands of miles away, in Crimea, a eight-foot high monument was inaugurated with the image of Castro and the words: “Victory is perseverance.”

‘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.