Havana Turns 500 With its Infrastructure and Services Anchored in Time

At the point of turning half a millenium old, Havana is many cities in one. (Aris Gionis)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, October 15, 2018 — Havana is many cities in one. Tourists see it as a theme park of the past, with old cars and “beautiful” ruins; those who were born here more than five decades ago recall its endless nights and lament its deterioration; while young people consider it like a jungle where one must survive or flee.

The city, at the point of turning 500 years old, doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. Its wide coastal avenue, with the emblematic Wall of Malecón, is one of the great attractions of a metropolis that the sea breeze refreshes from time to time. For the majority of foreign visitors, the city is reduced to Old Havana, Central Havana, and Plaza of the Revolution. Few venture farther out, to shining Cerro, the old and stately La Víbora, or the deteriorated San Miguel del Padrón.

However, for those who live in this old town founded in 1519, the neighborhoods of the city are like pieces of a badly-fit-together kaleidoscope that reveals social differences, the greater or lesser attention of the authorities, and even the racial composition of its inhabitants. All of them long to see an improvement in “the capital of all Cubans.” continue reading

“In this city they’ve hardly built any new roads, beltways, tunnels, or bridges in 60 years,” notes Niurka Peraza, a graduate in civil engineering who has been self-employed for the last six years as an interior designer. “And notice that I say ’hardly’ but I could be more categorical and say ’nothing at all.’”

The tunnel of Havana Bay, its two close cousins that cross to the other side of the Almendares River, and the “elevated” bridges of Calle 100 are part of a past glory of construction that has not been repeated again. The avenues and roads are still the same that Havanans have walked for the last half century.

For the young architect “that lack of expansion and evolution in the roads and infrastructure directed at improving traffic affects the life of all Havanans, even in the smallest details. It’s seen in the dangerous traffic circles, where there are continuous accidents, in the collapse of transport when one of the tunnels from the Republican era fills with water. And new alternatives haven’t been created,” she explains.

Peraza thinks that Havana “needs an urgent investment in roads because now the problem isn’t seen as so serious because the car volume is relatively small in comparison with other cities, but we could be arriving at a rupture point, a crisis point.”

The well-known actor Luis Alberto García exploded last week on Facebook about the situation of the roads. “Why? Why do the citizens of this country, pedestrians, passengers, and drivers have to be exposed to these dangers on the highways and streets that are in such poor shape, without the slightest safety conditions for our lives?” he demanded. The performer from Clandestinos and the saga of Nicanor O’Donnell seemed indignant because resources keep being directed at building hotels rather than repairing the streets.

Nieves Suárez, resident of Cayo Hueso in Central Havana, is one of the many who view as a “major problem the collection of trash and the lack of hygiene” and says that she feels ashamed when she travels around other cities in the country and finds them cleaner and better cared for. “Meanwhile, this looks like a pigsty,” she protests.

Havana generates 20,000 cubic meters (m3) of solid waste each day, classified as 15,000 of urban waste, 3,000 of debris, and 2,000 in tree prunings, in addition to other types of trash. Although the quantity isn’t very high for a city of two million inhabitants, a good part of the waste ends up on the pavement, in abandoned lots, or on the sidewalk.

Despite those problems, Suárez doesn’t want to move to another area of the Island. “The best opportunities are here, because this is a very centralized country, if you’re not in Havana you miss almost everything.” One of her children recently emigrated, “thanks to a tourist he met at the Malecón. Can you imagine that in Aguada de Pasajeros?” she reflects.

The problem of the trash is directly connected with that of the water supply. Havana has suffered for decades from instability of water access in homes. Residents have developed mechanisms that range from the popular wheeled carts with which they move tanks of water from one neighborhood to another, to learning to bathe with the minimum amound of liquid.

“If it wasn’t for that problem I would feel very good here, because the area has been restored and honestly there are buildings that have remained very pretty,” confesses Esperanza González, resident of Calle Cuba, in Old Havana. “We’ve had to put more tanks inside the house and washing with the water from the sink is a luxury because it uses a lot. You have to do it by little jugfuls.”

From González’s window you can see part of the bay, an area that once saw the hustle and bustle of cargo ships coming and going. Now, there are only mainly cruise ships and small fishing boats. “They say that they’re going to turn it into a big recreation zone, but as long as we Cubans are unable [i.e. forbidden] to go on yacht trips and get to know our coast, that will be very difficult,” the Havanan believes.

Traveling by sea is a fantasy that seems unreachable and that few think about when they need to catch a bus at rush hour.

Starting in 2016 the Government undertook a reordering of the routes and frequencies of passenger transport inside the city, but two years later Havanans are exasperated in face of the small progress and the lack of improvements.

In that time, the number of buses fell. While in 2016 the capital had 858 buses in circulation, 339 of those articulated, currently there are only 792, 260 articulated. The result is long lines at stops and the irritation of the population, which sees itself forced to turn to private shared fixed-route taxis, which have disproportionate fares in relation to salaries.

For the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding, which will be celebrated in November of 2019, a broad program of repairs and cultural activities is expected, but Havanans are skeptical. “They’ll stay in the same places as always, Old Havana, the most touristy streets, and the avenues where foreign visitors walk,” laments Nieves Suárez.

“Something will touch us, but it might only be music and fanfare, because I don’t believe that the problem of leaks and the bad state of the plumbing is going to be fixed in a year when it has had decades of deterioration,” predicts Suárez.

For the architect Niurka Peraza, the date is “an opportunity. For a city, celebrating 500 years is a great challenge, and this can help the authorities as well as the inhabitants value more what we have. In the case of the Government that translates into more investments, and in the case of the citizens, into more care.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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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.

Food Markets Without Refrigerators

Most of the agricultural markets in Cuba lack equipment to refrigerate meats. (Bryan Ledgard)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 October 2018 — The image of flies perched on a hind leg or hovering around some ribs is familiar to all customers of the so-called agros, where refrigerators to preserve the meat are scarce. Instead, the cuts are exhibited outdoors on pallets from where the sellers pick them up with their hands, without any protection, to weigh them and sell them.

The product that finally reaches the homes of consumers has been without refrigeration for more than 12 hours, because the animals slaughtered the night before and brought to the markets in vehicles that also lack any equipment to preserve them. If the cusotmer is lucky, nothing will have happened and the meat will be tasty, but many times the food already shows a certain degree of deterioration. continue reading

“The color was a little weird, but I thought it was nothing,” a customer at the 17th Street Youth Labor Army market in Havana tells 14ymedio. “When I got it home I realized that part of the meat was in poor condition and a piece of the bone had a greenish tone.” The result was the loss of 250 CUP (Cuban pesos), half of her monthly salary.

The complaints are constant and, although there are rules that regulate the handling of food in Cuba, the State has a hard time controlling the problem which also extendes to the network of butchers and dairies in the rationed market. “When the chicken arrives, consumers have to buy it in the first hours, because the fridge is broken,” says an employee of a state-owned store in La Timba neighborhood.

World Health Organization reports that one of the factors that lead to the diseases transmitted through food is, precisely, “the failures in the cold chain” during the transfer and storage of these products.

Need, and a demand that far exceeds the available supply, means that traders end up selling their meats despite the obvious signs of their not having been adequately preserved.

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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.

Private Sector Courier Beats Cuban Postal Service

Cubans can now enjoy home delivery (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 6 October 2018 — “We deliver products from stores to your home,” reads an advertisement for one of the most popular classified ad sites in Cuba. “No work, no walking no sweating,” the text adds in a jocular tone. In a country where access to Amazon is non-existent and most stores do not offer home delivery, the novelty of consumer products arriving at a customer’s front door is becoming more common.

Marieta and Carlos, aged 23 and 28 respectively, have been working together for more than a year on what they call “specialized courier services.” They began with a friend, selling appliances and construction materials that they delivered to wherever clients wanted them. “But we later realized that it was really a business that could deliver anything at all to your home,” says the young woman.

Thus began CHL, a small business whose initials recall those of the famous courier service DHL, “but with a C for Cuba,” notes Marieta. “We transport everything, from letters to refrigerators. And if someone wants us to buy something for him and bring the product to him, we’ll do that too.” Prices vary based on distance but, within Havana, “a combination store visit and home delivery costs between three and five CUC [convertible pesos] depending on the volume.” continue reading

“For those who are very busy or for people with mobility issues, it’s a godsend,” says Carlos. “The packages and products we transport are very well protected. Our boxes and containers will prevent even an egg from getting broken.” They note that in recent months their clientele has doubled, which they credit to “word of mouth.”

Unlicensed businesses hire them to provide delivery services to their customers. “They take care of sales and we take care of delivery, which leaves them more time for business,” explains Carlos. “It works like a chain, from classified ad to vendor to us.”

The two young entrepreneurs’ business operates on the legal fringes but fills an unmet need on the island for courier, parcel and express mail delivery services.

Correos de Cuba, the state-run postal service known for its slow delivery and damaged packages, has an abysmal reputation. At least two generations of Cubans have known since childhood not to trust it and avoid dropping letters and post cards in its mail boxes.

Nevertheless, although the state of crisis in the nation’s postal service can be a headache for some, others have decided to take advantage of its shortcomings. “We realized that many people want to send a package, a letter or a bouquet of roses but don’t trust the service offered by the Ministry of Communications,” says Abelardo, who worked as an engineer for two years before deciding, at age thirty-three, to get into the unlicensed courier business.

“My customers are mostly embassies, small private businesses and foreigners living in Cuba who want to make sure something gets to where it is supposed to go,” he explains. “We have a wide network of couriers in every province and we use Viazul or Astro buses to transport the packages.

One of Abelardo’s colleagues waits at the last bus stop, receives the package and takes it to its final destination. “In less than 48 hours the person has the shipment in his hands, almost miraculously,” boasts the engineer, who dreams of “having a fleet of vehicles, to keep growing and to one day have a plane. Why not?”

Abelardo has specialized in creating a network of buyers and “mules” who import merchandise into Cuba. He also works closely with unlicensed courier agencies who send packages packed in travelers’ luggage to their family members on the island. In this regard he is much more efficient than the state-run service.

According to Correos de Cuba, “once a package arrives by mail in Cuba, it takes seven to fifteen days to reach the provinces. In Havana it takes five days to reach the distribution center.” Abelardo boasts he can deliver a package within the capital in less than three days, or four if the package is going to the provinces. “Careful handling and secure shipping are guaranteed,” he says.

“If a customer wants us to buy something for him, we take the sales voucher to the store. And as an extra we include the ‘weekly packet.’* Those who have been with us for a while now pay a fixed monthly rate,” Abelardo says. “This is how Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce portal, was born. So no one should be surprised if in a few years this small business is taking everything everywhere in Cuba.”

Abelardo knows that “the law does not permit [people like him] to own medium-size and large businesses” but hopes that the new constitutional reforms “might finally allow entrepreneurs to grow because all of us would benefit.” After being interrupted by a phone call, Abelardo begins planning his next order: delivering a Dalmation puppy to someone’s home.

*Translator’s note: The paquete semanal, or weekly packet, is a compilation of largely foreign information and entertainment programming distributed clandestinely and for a modest price on USB devices throughout Havana.

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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.

Dengue Fever is in Havana

The authorities alert people about dengue fever with signs and advisories in public buildings> Sign: “We inform all residents that there are cases of dengue in our area. If you have any symptom or fever go immediately to the doctor.” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 3 October 2018 — In public buildings and places, health authorities in Havana are warning the population of the presence of dengue fever in numerous neighborhoods of the Cuban capital while, in hospitals, patients with symptoms of having contracted the virus crowd clinics and admitting stations.

The warnings call for a reinforcement of prevention measures against the propagation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a transmitter of diseases like dengue fever, as well as chikunguña and the zika virus. The mosquitoes have rebounded in recent weeks due to the frequent rains that have characterized this summer on the island.

“They have warned us of outbreaks of infestation in several areas,” confirms Jorge Blanco, a worker in the anti-vector campaign in the Plaza de la Revolución municipality. “The city is being fumigated with small planes and trucks that go through neighborhoods, but if the population does not get involved it is very difficult to detect where the mosquito is hiding,” he says. continue reading

As soon as the sun rises, the buzz of a plane breaks the monotony of the city, the most populated in the country, and one with many health problems that aggravate the situation. “We have too many water leaks and in the yards of the houses many objects strewn about are filled with rain and in that clean water is precisely where the Aedes aegypti female lays her eggs,” Blanco says.

Despite the posters pasted in various parts of Havana and the alarm that has spread in the health centers, the official press has been cautious when talking about the problem. So far, there are hardly any published reports on the number of cases of dengue detected or the areas most affected by the virus. Only a  local media, Escambray, reported on Friday the hygienic-epidemiological alert declared in Sancti Spíritus about the high risk and the presence of isolated but serious cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever.

As a general rule, the media, all controlled by the Communist Party, avoid offering data on health problems that affect the population. A practice with which they seek to not cause alarm among Cubans and also to prevent foreign tourists from canceling their trips to the island at a time when the arrival of visitors is stagnating.

Silvia, a fictitious name for this report, is one of the patients who has been hospitalized for suspected dengue. “Small spots appeared everywhere and I began to feel very bad,” she explains to this newspaper. “They kept me one week in the Calixto García Hospital but so far they have not given me the results of the analysis.”

The tests to detect dengue may take weeks and then the patient is notified through his polyclinic or family doctor’s office about the result. “Many times the answer never arrives and the patient does not know if what he had was dengue or not,” laments Silvia.

In the same room in which she was hospitalized, Silvia had to take additional measures to protect herself. “There were many mosquitoes and I had to spend all day under the mosquito net to avoid infecting other people*,” she says. “When I was discharged, I was very happy because the place is in terrible condition and the food is very bad.”

The Government has decreed an Action Week against these insects, in line with the campaign developed by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in the Americas. The offensive has coincided with a time when all the conditions for the proliferation of the mosquito are present: heat, humidity and stagnant water, the National Director of Hygiene and Epidemiology of the Ministry of Public Health (Minsap), Francisco Durán, explained to the official press.

In the airports, controls are being reinforced on travelers arriving from areas where Aedes aegypti is also a problem. “We are reviewing especially those who come from Central America and the Caribbean islands,” confirmed a doctor on Monday who gave a form to all passengers arriving at terminal 3 of the José Martí International Airport. “The problem is that no one reports if they feel bad, all the forms they give us say they do not have any symptoms,” explains the doctor.

The form should only be filled out by domestic passengers because “foreigners are followed up in the hotels where they stay,” says the doctor. “Each national who fills out this form will be required by his polyclinic or by the family doctor of his neighborhood to report if he has continued to feel good or if he shows any alarming symptoms.”

According to figures from the Ministry of Public Health in 2017, cases of dengue on the island were reduced by 68% compared to the previous year. The reports confirm that autochthonous* transmission of Zika was detected in 14 municipalities of the country, while Chikungunya patients were not registered.

In the same year, dengue was present in two municipalities and 11 healthcare areas in the provinces of Holguín and Ciego de Ávila, while Zika was located in 38 healthcare areas of Havana, Mayabeque, Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego of Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas and Holguín.

*Translator’s note: Dengue is not passed directly from person to person, but a person who is in infected can be bitten by a mosquito, which then contracts the virus and can pass it on to the next person it bites, likely to be someone in close physical proximity to the already infected person.

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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.

Artemisa, The Clandestine Dairy of Cuba

The transportation of fresh milk becomes difficult for many. (S. Cipido)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 1 October 2018 — The train arrives in Havana from San Antonio de los Baños and dozens of passengers disembark with boxes, briefcases and plastic bags. Among them are sellers of cheese, yogurt and fresh milk for the capital city, foods that are tightly controlled by the government and that will have been sold door to door before the sun goes down.

Artemisa province is the principal supplier of dairy products to the black market in Havana. From the glass of milk that many families have for breakfast to a good portion of the cheese used by private pizzerias, it all comes from that vast plain of red earth that has been called the garden of Cuba because of the fertility of its soils.

Osmani Cepero, 32, who lives in Artemisa, is considered a “master cheesemaker” after two decades of experience in the production of that much desired food. “I started together with my father and I have already trained my own children in these tasks,” says the producer, who every month manages to extract from his kitchen a dozen cheeses “some fresh and others more cured,” he says. He sells most of of them to restaurants, coffee shops and private homes. continue reading

“The problem is that cheese is a product with high demand but it is only sold in stores in hard currency or in some state stores in Cuban pesos,” says Cepero. “The farmers are strictly forbidden from selling it because it is a monopoly of the State.”

In the network of Cuban stores, one kilogram of Gouda-style cheese, imported from Poland, Germany or Canada, can cost up to 9 CUC (cuban convertible pesos, worth roughly $1 US each), while the product that Cepero manufactures is sold at 2 CUC per kilo. “Of course, the difference is brutal and that is why many self-employed people prefer to buy from us.”

However, the State has established strict controls over milk production in the area and the farmers are obliged to sell most of their milking to the government. “We’re just supposed to keep the amount we need for our own consumption,” Cepero says.

At the end of last year there were just over 4 million head of cattle in the island and, in 2016, 425 million liters of milk were produced, 12% more than in 2015 but still far from the figures needed to relaunch a sector that suffered hard with the fall of the socialist camp and the economic crisis of the 90s.

Last August, while transporting five cheeses hidden in several boxesin a cart, a police officer stopped Cepero and asked for an explanation. The encounter resulted in a fine and the confiscation of the cheeses. “I lost weeks of work but I came out of it OK since they did not search the house to take the rest away.”

In San Antonio de los Baños the yogurt production business has turned into a real industry of preparation, gathering of packaging, transportation and sale.

The entire family of Ernestina, 58 years old, works in the alternate production of yogurt. “We begin by collecting the liter and a half bottles, those that people call cucumbers, and in which we package the product,” she explains to this newspaper. “Before, we also sold fresh milk but the yogurt stands up better to transport.”

Ernestina’s clients are, for the most part, residents of San Antonio de los Baños and Havana with small children or elderly people in the family. “This helps them complete breakfast or have a snack,” she explains. “We have many buyers who are parents of children over 7 years of age who are no longer given milk by the rationed market.”

The milk that is distributed to the smallest ones comes, for the most part, from the private producers of the area and also from the state dairy farms. The island has about 120,000 ranchers, but their work is hampered by inclement weather, such as hurricanes and drought, instability in the supply of feed or technical problems such as poor refrigeration, which causes much milk to be lost between the producer and its arrival at the dairies.

Artemiseños complain that the rationed milk “each time it comes, it is more watered down because the owners of the cows adulterate it to meet delivery quotas but keep a bit for private business,” assures Ernestina. For a liter of milk, the State pays a producer a price that ranges between 0.15 and 0.18 CUC, while in the black market  the same amount can sell for approximately 0.50 CUC.

Next to the road that leads to San Antonio de los Baños, a young man holds in his hand a large cheese of about five pounds. “This is quite cured and has a lot of demand among people who make pizzas,” explains the artemiseño. Resident of a nearby farm, the family is totally dedicated to this production.

“In this area you live off the cheese, the yogurt and the guava bars that are offered at the edge of the road,” he explains. “Those who have more luck have already made contacts to sell their goods directly to the owners of restaurants.” Others “get on the train once or twice a week to sell in Havana.”

The train can be a real rat trap in the days of police operations. “There are many controls and when the guards see someone with very large briefcases, they quickly search them,” says the young man. “Of every ten cheeses that we make, we are losing two or three because of confiscations.”

Neverhteless, despite the risks, countless pounds of cheese, bottles of yogurt and liters of fresh milk arrive daily in the Cuban capital. “Artemisa is the dairy of Cuba,” says the young man, “a clandestine dairy, but a dairy.”

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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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.

The Remains of the Energy Revolution

A sign outside an appliance repair shop clarifies that it does not accept televisions or refrigerators with “adaptations.” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 27 September 2018 – The TV in the  living room arrived 13 years ago at Carlota’s house, during the same days that her youngest grandson was born. Now, the teenager has a girlfriend, but the old Panda brand device sometimes turns on and sometimes not. “It’s a headache  because very few workshops have parts,” laments the retired woman, who at the beginning of this century benefited from one of the last campaigns promoted by Fidel Castro, the Energy Revolution.

During the years that the offensive against high-consumption household appliances lasted, the government distributed, with installment payments and bank credit facilities, refrigerators, energy-saving light bulbs, Chinese-made air conditioners and televisions. “I spent more than five years paying for it and although it was a great sacrifice I managed it”, says Carlota, while recalling that time when “it seemed that the country was going to progress quickly”. continue reading

Beginning in 2005, the Energy Revolution mobilized thousands of people to inventory all the equipment that consumed kilowatts excessively. The social workers, a shock troop created by Castro himself and responding directly to his orders, joined the task and listed old American-made refrigerators that had conserved the food of hundreds of thousands of families for more than half a century throughout the Island.

At least 2.5 million refrigerators were replaced and few incandescent bulbs were saved from that offensive, in which most were replaced by compact fluorescent lamps (CFL). The authorities assured that this change meant an annual saving of 354 million kWh, equivalent to between 3% and 4% of the total electricity consumed in Cuba.

The fans also got their turn. The Electric Union (UNE) reported that 1.04 million of these devices were exchanged, especially those that were the fruit of popular ingenuity that, in order to cool a room, were adapted from old Soviet washing machine motors by attaching blades, a device which could waste more than 100 watts to run, almost triple what a modern device consumes.

The televisions became a symbol of that technological renovation and Carlota felt proud when she went to buy hers. However, shortly thereafter flat screen devices came to the black market and stores that accept convertible pesos and “these devices were devalued,” she acknowledges. The daughter of the pensioner bought a more modern TV for her room and Carlota’s Panda began to break frequently.

Private repairmen kept changing the parts of the apparatus. Many patches were made so it could still be watched but left the TV “rejected by the state workshops where they do not accept those that have ’adaptations’, laments the woman. The last time she tried to have it repaired, a technician sarcastically told her she should “throw away the Panda and buy a Samsung.” Although for that Carlota knows that she will have to pay “in cash with convertible pesos and without any little poster of the Energy Revolution”.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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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.

“The ‘Weekly Packet’ Looks More Like ‘Cubavision’ Every Day”

The managers of the ‘package’ claim that ‘The Lord of the Skies’ presents material “defamatory that goes against the principles of our Cuban Revolution.” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 12 July 2018 — The ‘Weekly Packet’ is not what it used to be, that space of semi-freedom where you could see audio-visual entertainment materials not offered on Cuban national television. The Government is intervening more and more in the content, imposing documentaries produced in Spanish by an Iranian channel and prohibiting productions that don’t suit it.

This week’s honor belongs to The Lord of the Skies, a thriller with drug trafficking as a backdrop whose producer, Epigmenio Ibarra, is a friend of the Cuban regime. Omega and Odyssey, the two most important parent companies on the island that assemble weekly packets, have decided to “filter” the episodes of the series, which in this new release have several allusions to the involvement of the Cuban Government in drug trafficking in ​​the Caribbean. continue reading

A brief note, placed next to this week’s video folders, entitled “Let’s avoid misunderstandings and disrespect,” explains to customers the reason for the censorship. “Our main objective is audiovisual entertainment, which is far from transmitting something subversive or pornographic.”

The packets’ managers go on to say that The Lord of the Skies presents material that is “defamatory and goes against the principles of our Cuban Revolution” and announce that they will transmit each episode with a day’s delay to allow it to be “edited” to remove the most controversial parts.

Among the most rigid rules that have been established in alternative content distribution networks, the strictest rule is to exclude criticism of the Cuban system, its leaders and government policies. On the independent Wi-Fi networks that link thousands of users throughout the island, those who transgress this norm are punished by having their service cut off.

In this case, the series alludes to connections between former President Raúl Castro and Commander Ramiro Valdés related to drug trafficking, a taboo subject on the island since the scandal of the Ochoa case broke out in 1989, which resulted in several people implicated in that crime being shot, among them General Ochoa himself, by whose name the case is popularly known.

Those who prepare versions of the weekly packet have preferred to cut to the bone and take out all the scenes that implicate the Plaza of the Revolution in the movement of cocaine in the area of the island. Customers have complained to high heaven and some distributors consulted by 14ymedio point to what happened as a bad precedent that can make them lose their market.

“The deterioration of the weekly packet has accelerated in recent months,”14ymedio hears from Roberto, a 26-year-old graduate in economics who earns a living as a messenger delivering hard disks to customers who subscribe to the audiovisual collection. “The inspectors are sticking their noses in everywhere and to survive we had to apply the scissors,” he says.

The two major production houses that copy, organize and distribute about one terabyte of materials each week for 2 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $2 US) began offering foreign films, series and magazines, but have been expanding the business towards advertising. The reporting focuses on private businesses operated by the self-employed which has been one of the highlights, in a country where ideological propaganda is allowed only on national channels, promoted and disseminated by the Government.

Among the most affected content, as the young man explains to 14ymedio, are the promotional videos of private businesses, which used to be common but have been retired. As have “the folder of Android applications that people have developed on their own and many national reggaeton videos that are broadcast on television,” he describes.

The list of excluded content is long. “They have warned us that we can not transmit anything that shows the reality of Venezuela right now,  nor any Miami television programs, particularly if they include interviews with Cuban opponents.” But the strategy of “officializing the weekly packet” does not end with the prohibition of including certain materials.

“Where I work, a man comes every week now, calling himself Mandy and riding one of those Suzuki motorcycles that all the segurosos (State Security agents) have,” says Roberto. The man “brings a hard drive and we have put our selection on it.”

Thius, the weekly packet has been filled with documentaries produced by HispanTV, an Iranian channel founded in 2011 that distributes information in Spanish. During the last weeks the content from that channel has increased, especially material critical of the United States Government and the supreme leader of that country.

“Customers don’t like it, I don’t like it, but what am I going to do? My family is able to eat because of this business and I can’t go against the apparatus,” confirms José Carlos, better known as Nico among his customers in Havana’s La Timba neighborhood, where he claims to fill between 250 and 350 hard drives a week with audiovisuals.

“Anyone who wants to engage in opposition or dissent will look for another way, because this business wasn’t born to make a revolution or anything like that, but to amuse people,” says Nico. “Now everyone is screaming to high heaven because we have to cut some scenes from a series, but the weekly packet is still much freer and better stock than what’s on national television.”

Some clients consulted by this newspaper haven’t taken well to the coup and are looking for new options, such as the one of the paketico (little packet), a compendium without censorship that was born in hiding.

“I do not buy it anymore, because every day it looks more like Cubavision,” complains Brandon, 18, a frequent consumer of the paketico as an alternative. “Now what is gaining many followers among the youngest is to copy only what matters and create our own packets, but of course, they have neither the reach nor the popularity of the other.”

“The weekly packet is not what it used to be and the people are not the same as they were a few years ago,” Brandon reflects. “Before, you were content with whatever you got, but now people want to personalize it and let everyone’s tastes define what they see, this is the death of the weekly packet, or at least as we knew it,” he says.

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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.

Huron Azul, Ten Years Since the Fall From Grace of a ’Paladar’

Before and after at the corner where the Huron Azul paladar was located. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 5 July 2018 — A few yards from the busy Rampa in Havana’s Vedado district, is quiet Humboldt Street, once filled with dozens of tourist and Cuban diners who came in search of the paladar (private restaurant) Huron Azul, now taken over by the authorities and converted into a state restaurant.

“Ten years ago they killed us in this neighborhood,” says Eduardo, a retiree who claims to have earned “plenty in tips” looking after the vehicles of those who came to enjoy one of the most important gastronomic businesses in Havana at the turn of the century.

Now, the blue facade with naval motifs that attracted attention is covered by a scaffolding and two builders are covering the old ornaments with cement. “A capital remodeling is underway to reopen it soon with a new menu,” one of them explains, reluctantly, to 14ymedio. continue reading

Since the restaurant was transfered to state management, its name disappeared from tourist guides and among customers the place has entirely lost its reputation as “a good table and pleasant atmosphere,” says Eduardo. The block has also suffered from that fall and now, he says, “doesn’t attract a single peso.”

In December 2008, the Technical Directorate of Investigations (DTI) opened a case against the owner of Hurón Azul, Juan Carlos Fernández García, then 47 years old. The accusations against him accumulated, fueled by presumed illegalities in the management of the business, as he had “acquired several homes” and had a “high standard of living.”

In the Cuba of those years, it was strictly forbidden to buy and sell homes, to have more than 12 chairs in a private restaurant, and to sell dishes based on lobster or shrimp. Some of those restrictions were abolished shortly afterwards with the so-called “Raulist reforms,” but for Fernández García it was too late.

“They started to investigate and ask the neighbors, until one day we woke up and there were a lot of patrol cars out there,” says a resident of the upper floors of the building. “As soon as we saw the police, we knew it was against Juan Carlos, because the business had prospered greatly and it was a matter of time before they acted against him,” she says.

In a Power Point presentation made by the police and filtered to independent media in mid-2009, a photo taken inside the paladar showed more tables than allowed. Fernandez Garcia had been buying part of the adjoining houses and managed to expand the space, initially small.

“What most annoyed the authorities were the trips abroad that he made with his wife to import supplies, in addition to an exhibition that he financed as an art patron in homage to Carlos Enríquez.” When some leader saw his face on television, he ensured his own disgrace,” says the sculptor and painter Mario, a fictitious name for this article for fear of reprisals.

Fernández García had developed an interesting system to attract fine artists to the place. “You gave him a work and he paid you for it in quantities of meals and diners. It was a good deal for everyone, the painter could invite his friends to a good meal, and the piece was exhibited in the restaurant,” recalls Mario.

“In five of the occupied dwellings, hundreds of works of art were found,” the investigator wrote in the report prepared after the operation. “An important part of these works were by different contemporary artists, who in many cases delivered them on consignment to write off the costs,” adds the text.

During the raid, two more paladares fell into the hands of the authorities, which, according to the officers, were also owned by Fernández García. The prosperous businessman ended up in jail and the Huron Azul began a new phase, characterized by empty tables and uneven service.

In the app ’A la mesa’, a tool that offers an extensive list of places to eat across the entire whole Island, where the former paladar converted into a state-run restaurant does not appear. “The food is bad, the rice overheated and the workers always seem tired,” says Yudiel, a 42-year-old tour guide who makes independent routes, summarizing his experience.

“The first time I went, in 2007, it was a paladar and they served us in the wine cellar, it was a spectacular night,” he recalls. “After that I came back with some tourists about four years ago and I wanted to cry, most of the paintings on the walls were gone and there was a stink of reheated fat everywhere.”

Above the premises an hand-lettered “For sale” announces that the owners who live upstairs are looking for a new place. “In this neighborhood there were several rental houses, guides, Spanish teachers and even masseuses, who all made a living from all the activity around this paladar,” says Eduardo the car-parker.

“There are many good restaurants in this area and tourists prefer to visit the private places, because the state does not have the same quality,” says a waitress from nearby Toke, a private place frequented by foreign visitors. “The Huron Azul was a reference point, we were all a little inspired by him, but now there are only memories left.”

On the streets of Havana, the case of Huron Azul provoked all kinds of opinions. “That man should have been appointed Minister of Tourism, not put in prison,” was one of the most frequently heard comments. Others criticized what they considered “hoarding” and luxury. Today, opinions are still divided.

During these years other restaurant owners have, like Fernández García, been prosecuted for irregularities. Many have emigrated in search of new horizons and a handful survive in spite of the constant difficulties.

Since last August, the authorities have launched a process of restructuring “self-employment” and temporarily stopped issuing licenses to private restaurants and tourist rental houses, among other activities, to curb illegalities and “deviations” and to “correct deficiencies.”

Almost a year later there are no signs of when these permits will be issued again, but “entrepreneurship is in his blood and Juan Carlos Fernández García left prison years ago and runs a business in Havana,” says Eduardo. “He opened a paladar on 26th Street, which has done very well.”

This newspaper tried to get an interview with him, but the former owner of Huron Azul now avoids the media. He knows that excelling has a high cost.

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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 Can Hardly Sleep With the Mosquito Bombardment”

Two young people of the Youth Labor Army with the fumigation equipment. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 18 June 2018 — “We used to complain because they were always coming and knocking on the door every week to fumigate and make sure you didn’t have standing water, or a vase of spiritual water or a water tank without a cover,” says Diosdado, 68, who lives in La Timba neighborhood a few yards from the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana.

“But this year, from the times the rains started, they have only come by once and have not finished fumigating all the houses because they ran out of the product,” he adds. “We can hardly sleep with the bombardment from the mosquitos, because this area has a lot of vegetation and there are also many places where rain accumulates, and families with small children have to use mosquito nets all night.” continue reading

The abundant rains of recent weeks have not only left Havana with hundreds of homes at risk of collapse but also plunged it into a wave of mosquitoes that residents fear contribute to the spread of diseases such as Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue. The fumigation, which a few years ago was intense at this time of year, has decreased due to the crisis that the country is experiencing.

Until last summer, fumigations inside and outside homes were common. The image of vehicles that left a trail of smoke while driving through the main avenues of the capital became part of the urban landscape. Inspections in the residential areas were also repeated several times a month in search of the feared Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector of these diseases.

A workers’ bag for the antivectorial campaign, especially the students of the University of Medical Sciences who do the work voluntarily. (14ymedio)

La Timba is a neighborhood that is densely populated with people with low economic resources, and several residents visited the nearby polyclinic April 19. “We have gone several times but the answer is that right now there is little product to fumigate and that it is very difficult for the country, which does not have the resources to carry out massive campaigns like before,” explains Diosdado.

A source from the hospital confirms with this version to 14ymedio. “The rate of infestation in this area exceeds 0.15 and we are prioritizing the most affected parts but we can’t cover everything,” explains a polyclinic worker who preferred anonymity. “Last week they sent us some liquid to fumigate and we are administering it where it is most urgent.”

“In every municipality in the city, the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito has been detected,” the source points out. “We are trying to cover the entire capital in the most effective way with what little we have,” she says. “It is not only the liquid to fumigate but also the fuel to start the ‘backpack-motors’ (as the fumigation equipment is popularly known).”

The Cuban economy is still burdened by the worsening of the crisis in Venezuela, which has led to a reduction in bilateral trade and the supply of oil to the island.

Cubans identify fumigation against mosquitoes with the era when Fidel Castro ran the country, because in those years the antivector campaigns were so intense many were annoyed by them. People complained that the inspectors constantly invaded the privacy of their home in search of Aedes aegypti, and were also concerned about the other evils associated with the frequent administration of insecticides.

“The cases of allergy and asthma skyrocketed in those years when it was constantly sprayed,” recalls Yander, a nurse who worked for a decade in the emergency room in a Centro Habana hospital. “We also had several patients who arrived because they had slipped on the liquid left behind on the floor of their house after the fumigation, and one even broke his hip.”

However, Yander says that “all those evils were minor compared to the risk we now have with Dengue and Zika.” The nurse adds that “seeing less fumigation and inspections, people lower their guard and have a lower perception of risk, which is why it is important to warn of the danger.”

Many families have decided to fight the mosquito with their own resources and use small household sprays bought in hard currency stores that promise to kill all insects, or other simpler recipes to avoid bites.

“When we sit down to watch television we put alcohol on our legs and arms to scare off mosquitoes, it’s not perfect but it works,” says Maritza, a retired resident in the Cerro neighborhood, near the well-known Manila Park, an area very affected by the presence of insects.

Orders from the Island to the community of Cuban émigrés, especially those based in South Florida, have increased, asking for incense, lotions and other repellent products and there are many ways to send parcels to the Island. The black market has a wide variety of products, but the prices are out of reach for the poorest families.

“We depend on state fumigation because we can not pay for an anti-mosquito spray that costs more than 3 CUC (roughly $3 US), which is a third of my monthly pension,” says Maritza. “That’s why we use this alcohol, which can be bought in pharmacies much cheaper but it doesn’t totally protect us.”

Hundreds of workers in the antivector campaign have been reassigned to other tasks and in the Provincial Health Department complaints pour in from the residents in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the swarms of mosquitoes. Given the lack of resources, the authorities are appealing to the discipline of the population to inspect their own homes, a practice known in the bureaucratic language as “auto focal.”

A poster stuck up at the entrances of several multifamily buildings in Nuevo Vedado calls for extreme measures, “combat the mosquito” and “immediately report any symptoms” of possible infection. However, unlike other occasions, this medical warning is not accompanied by a fumigation calendar for the area.

In 2017, an extremely dry year on the Island, there was a notable decrease in confirmed cases of Dengue fever. The infections fell by 68% compared to 2016, as reported by the official media at the time. During this period, Zika virus transmission also decreased and there were no reports of a single patient with Chikungunya.

Due to its humid climate, Cuba is a country prone to the proliferation of these arboviruses, a situation that gets worse during the summer with the rains and the greater mobility of the population taking advantage of school holidays to travel between provinces and contributing* to the propagation of these diseases.

Translator’s note: The cycle of infection for dengue and chikungunya requires a female mosquito to bite a person who is infected. Within about a week, the mosquito becomes infected and can then pass it on when it bites other people. These two diseases are not contagious person-to-person or mosquito-to-mosquito. Zika, however, although it is transmitted in the same way, can also be transmitted person-to-person through sex, and it can be transmitted to a child during pregnancy potentially resulting in birth defects than can be very severe.

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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’s Real Estate Market Is Going Through Tough Times

On the Paseo del Prado in Havana, an open-air classifiedad site, for every ten sellers there are two buyers. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymeido, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 10 June 2018 — On the web site Revolico, with more than 40,000 classified ads for houses for sale, thousands of ads are maintained for months without finding a buyer.  The lack of money, the slowdown of the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States together with the freeze on the delivery of licenses to the private sector have shrunken the Island’s real estate market.

At the end of 2011, when Raul Castro’s government authorized the sale of houses after decades of prohibition, a frenzy overtook many Cubans ready to acquire or get rid of a house.  The measure was a starting point in a country with 3,700,000 dwellings, some 85% of them the property of individuals. continue reading

Fewer than two years after the ban was lifted, the emerging real estate market reached some 80,000 transactions, according to information offered then by Aniuska Puente Fontanella, specialist from the Directorate of the Commercial Property Registry and of Assets of the Ministry of Justice.

Now the scene is different.  Although there are no new official figures about the behavior of the sector, sellers complain of less demand and buyers complain of high prices.  Real estate agents point to a deceleration of the sector.

On Paseo del Prado in Havana, an outdoor site for classified ads, for every ten sellers there are two buyers.  “There’s a lot on offer and little demand,” Luis Oscar Gomez, a permutero (broker) who ended up in real estate management.  “Five years ago it was different because there were many more people buying,” he recalls.

“Many people who were buying did it because they believed that the country was going to fill up with Americans, but that hasn’t happened.”

“Others bought in order to do business, like starting a restaurant or a guesthouse for foreigners but right now they are not giving out licenses for that, which discourages investment in houses,” adds Gomez.  The end of the US wet foot/dry foot policy also is, in his judgment, a factor that negatively influences the market.

“May people sold houses at lower prices in order to pay for leaving the country, but now that has diminished with the closing of the path to the United States and the road to emigrate is longer because the fees have increased,” he adds.  “A house that three years ago went for 50,000 dollars, now that same family wants 75,000.”

Nevertheless, Gomez recognizes that “many sellers also have had to repeatedly lower their prices because there is no money for buying.”  In his judgment, the lack of liquidity, due to the fall in tourism and “the country’s situation which does not improve and the possibility of saving money for a house is very difficult in this situation.”

A few meters from the Paseo del Prado, a wide colonial mansion with columns and arches has a “For Sale” sign hanging on the balcony.  “We have spent a year waiting, but this is the kind of house that is bought for business because it is located in Old Havana and has very big rooms, perfect for a restaurant or tourist rental,” explains Rosa, the owner.

“I had a buyer who was enchanted but last August when they stopped giving licenses for self-employed work the man changed his mind,” she recalls.  “Spending 80,000 CUC on a house like this and not being able to make money is crazy.”

The boom in private real estate firms arising from the liberalization of the section has also experienced a slump.

Many of those private offices, which operate under a manager’s license for the sale and exchange of homes, have been closed.  Some because they were left behind by the intense competition, others prosecuted in the courts when it was proven that they charged the client a commission for the transaction, something prohibited by the law.

In practice, these managers pocket between 10% and 25% of the total figure that the buyer pays, but legally they can only charge for connecting and informing people interested in carrying out these kinds of deals.

“The whole real estate market is fed also buy the construction sector,” points out Loraine Garcia, an employee of one of the real estate firms closed by the police.  “The new houses that go on sale greatly influence the dynamism of that market in any part of the world but in Cuba that is an element that suffers a lot of stagnation.”

Cuba registered a deficit of more than 880,000 houses at the end of 2016, and last year only 21,827 new houses were finished, according to data from the National Statistics Office.

“The market is tainted because hardly any new houses come on, and the offerings that have not met with success are mostly houses that are too much above the buyers’ means,” adds Garcia.

“Houses that are under 30,000 CUC did not move much at first,” but with the passage of time “those houses changed hands and those that were higher than that were left for sale and have less demand,” she points out.

Garcia thinks that the changes in the tax rates for these operations also have burdened the market.

Initially the authorities set a 4% tax on the exchange of goods and estates to those buying and on personal income of those who sold.  In practice, however, a good number of transactions were made with amounts much higher than the figure declared in order to avoid the taxes.

In 2017 the Ministry of Finance and Prices tried to correct the problem and modified the payment of taxes on the sale and donation of dwelling between individuals.  Now the value of the encumbrance is established by its characteristics, location and size and not the amount reflected as the value of the property.

“Many camouflaged a sale as if it were a gift in order to pay lower taxes, but right now that is almost impossible because the law establishes the family ties that are needed to do something like that,” explains the former real estate agent.

In spite of those setbacks, Garcia believes that the housing market “is going to raise its head.”  Her hopes are based on the fact that “these types of swings are normal, and a real estate boom cannot be maintained permanently,” but “if the country opens investment and permits small or medium businesses, sales will take off again.”

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

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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.

Finding Food: The New Challenge for Cubans After the Rains

The residents of Nuevo Vedado stand in a long line in the rain at the ration market to buy the chicken that arrived two weeks late. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 31 May 2018 — The first announcement of “Cookies for Sale!” was heard this Wednesday in Havana’s Los Sitios neighborhood, mobilizing dozens of neighbors. After more than a week of the state shops being empty and the black market paralyzed, the seller was greeted with relief, in a city where the storm Alberto has exacerbated the shortage of food.

“The downpours came at a time when we already had problems,” Eduardo tells 14ymedio. Eduardo sells products in 17th and K agricultural market managed by the Youth Labor Army, which belongs to the armed forces and is made up of compulsory military service recruits.

“The last few weeks the supply of tubers and vegetables has not been good for several  reasons, such as the controls on the roads over the trucks that bring products and the fines they are assessing,” says the merchant. “In this month of May very few farmers have been able to harvest anything from the fields because it doesn’t stop raining.” continue reading

Reality confirms Eduardo’s words. InSan Antonio de los Baños, Alquízar and Güira, three of the municipalities of Artemisa that supply the most agricultural products to the capital, the fields are waterlogged and all the harvests have stopped. “So there is no one working the land,” says Juan Carlos Ruíz, a producer of beans in Pulido, a local town.

“Working in these conditions is impossible, because most of the farmers in this area do not have waterproof boots, no raingear and no truck wants to haul the harvest out of the field with so much mud because it can get stuck,” Ruíz adds. “It’s not worth it to harvest anything, because then it just rots in the field.”

On the stands in the San Rafael agricultural market, one of the best stocked in the capital, the picture is not encouraging either. Zero fruits, few vegetables and little pork with a row of anxious buyers despite a price of 50 Cuban pesos per pound, the salary of two working days of a professional.

The market for rationed products has also suffered. This week the distribution of chicken on the ration book has begun in some of Havana’s municipalities, half a month late. Other areas are still waiting for the chicken to arrive; poultry is all that is available to Cuban adults who can’t claim special rations because of health problems, in a ration market where meat and fish were formerly also distributed.

Odalys Escandell García, vice minister of Internal Commerce, told the official media that they are working “to guarantee on-time distribution of the foods for the ’family basket’, social consumption and special diets in the territories affected by the heavy rains.”

As of May 28th the products included in the basic ration basket for the month of June began to be sold in advance: 7 pounds of rice, 4 pounds of sugar, 20 ounces of beans and half a pound of oil, but the measure has not been able to alleviate the needs. Although the authorities have said that the 4,602 centers of commerce and food service in Havana are functioning, many have empty shelves or very little merchandise.

This Thursday rationed potatoes also began to be sold in some state outlets but in several places visited by this newspaper the amount available was not enough to supply all the registered consumers. The distribution of eggs has been irregular, especially in neighborhoods on the periphery of the capital.

“It is not a question of not having supplies, but that many products had to be moved from the points of sale to stores or warehouses where they were more protected,” explains a source from the Ministry of Domestic Trade (Mincin), who preferred anonymity.

In the streets people are beginning to despair. “I have toured several agricultural markets to try to buy some taro roots because my mother can only eat puree, but there aren’t any,” a young woman on the outskirts of the 26th street market in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality said this Thursday morning.

Private businesses, from elegant paladares (private restaurants) to small food kiosks, offer bribes to get supplies. “There is no pizza or juice,” reads a poster on Infanta Street outside a small café run by two sisters.

The situation in the villages in the center of the island, where the waters caused serious flooding, is even worse. “We had to make do with what we had saved but we have lost part of the rice we had in sacks and also the corn flour,” explains Mario Pelayo, a resident of Sagua la Grande in Villa Clara, by telephone.

“The flooding has devastated the crops,” says the farmer. “Between what came from the Alacranes dam and the river that crosses the city that overflowed, here most of the neighbors have been left with very little and the bakeries have not worked for days,” says Pelayo.

“People are waiting for some food to be delivered but still nobody has come here to give us anything,” he says.

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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.

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.