US Dollar Rises in Value Against CUC in Informal Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Music for Everyone All the Time

A young woman walks around Havana with her portable speaker. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 18 December 2017 — Hanging from the young woman’s bag, the small speaker radiates a trap song throughout the bus, making the trip between La Víbora and Vedado into a fun disco or an acoustic martyrdom. In Cuba, where the penal code is so strict, the lax treatment that the authorities maintain toward environmental sound pollution is surprising.

The war of the decibels has been unleashed. For decades, a status symbol has been to have powerful music equipment and devices that can play sounds with more watts. That guataje (as it is popularly called) fight becomes a real hell of a life in countless buildings, neighborhoods and public spaces.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the human ear can tolerate 55 decibels without damage to health. However, depending on the duration of exposure, noises greater than 60 decibels can cause physical discomfort, such as headaches, tachycardia, agitation in breathing and tension in the muscles. continue reading

In Cuba, the limits of what is allowed in terms of noise are generally not clearly defined. Although there is a proper standard on noise and the permitted levels in urban and rural areas, diverse specialists have denounced the “laxity” with which the issue is treated on the island.

The absence of a clear and inclusive law that covers the problem, as well as the lack of essential instruments to measure environmental pollution, make it difficult to confront the problem. Also, Cuba does not have a large number of people qualified to take noise measurements and so noise is addressed in a general way without establishing a relationship with mandatory regulatory standards.

The streets of the Cuban capital and of many provincial cities seem like a real orchestra of different sounds that range from shouting, parties at full volume without prior authorization from the police, and vehicles that circulate in the streets as if they were mobile clubs, blasting music out the windows.

Cuban law has lagged behind the times due to the growth of new technologies. The arrival in the country of wireless connection devices, powered by their own batteries and that broadcast of music, poses a serious challenge to laws that regulate the permissible levels of sounds and noise that date back to 1999.

The Environmental Law of 1997 prohibits, in its article 147, “producing sounds, noise smells and vibrations” that affect human health or damage “the quality of life of the population.”

“The technologies have advanced but the laws are still the same and that is generating a clear contradiction between the noise that an individual can make with one of those speakers and the penalty he receives, a fine of only 200 to 2,250 Cuban pesos,” Osmani Castellanos, a retired jurist, comments to 14ymedio.

For decades, a status symbol has been to have powerful music equipment and devices that can play sounds with more watts. (14ymedio)

Noise pollution violations are not subject to penal sanctions and the authorities consider noise to be of “little social danger,” a classification with which Castellanos disagrees. “When that law was established, we did not know all the negative health effects of noise, which is why it was taken as a social behavior rather than a physical aggression.”

Processing a complaint against a neighbor or state entity for generating noise can be a real ordeal for the victims of the cacophony.

“Between the terrible service and the noise this is intolerable,” a mother complained this Saturday, in a cafe near the National Aquarium west of Havana. The family, with two small children, decided to refresh themselves in one of the state’s food service businesses but ran into a “musical offering” that “doesn’t even let us hear each other talk,” laments the mother.

After several complaints, the employees lowered the volume a little of the reggaeton blasting from the café’s speakers, but even so it was almost impossible to converse at the tables located closer to the speakers. The children played in the middle of the revelry using their hands as megaphones to project their voices more strongly.

In the midst of such shrillness, the street vendors have also chosen to increase the decibels of their cries. It is increasingly common in the cities of the entire island for these merchants to have recorded the phrases with which they seek to attract more buyers.

“Ice cream bars!” is the proclamation that blares, again and again, from a small horn attached to Ricardo’s tricycle, as the ice cream seller travels the streets of Havana’s Cerro neighborhood. “I got tired of screaming and I looked for this, which is better and more professional,” he tells this newspaper.

The litany from Ricardo’s speaker sneaks through the doors and windows, awakens those who sleep, makes children demand that their parents buy them something cold to tickle their tongues and even generates the occasional shouted answers: “Turn that off!” yells an old woman from the balcony, glaring.

“In this country where so many things are forbidden, it’s a miracle that they let this invasion happen,” says the woman, her eyes still half closed from the nap that has been interrupted.


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.

Diapers and Tractors Connect With Real Needs at the Havana Fair

The Havana International Fair brings 63 countries to Cuba with plans for new products. (Fihav)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 3 November 2017 – Italian diapers and Caterpillar tractors have been the stars of the 2017 Havana International Fair (Fihav), which brings together more than 3,000 entrepreneurs from 63 countries, including the United States, this Friday. Both products will have a presence on the island if conditions agreed with the manufacturers are met so that they can set up operations in the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM).

In its struggle to raise more than 2.5 billion dollars in direct foreign investment, the Cuban Government is presenting a portfolio of 395 projects in 15 economic sectors at the fair.

Beyond the numbers, often fanciful, managed by the authorities, what catches the attention of Cubans interviewed by 14ymedio is the creation of Industria Arthis, a Cuban-Italian joint venture that will build the first factory for disposable diapers in Cuba. The factory is scheduled to begin production in the ZEDM in 2019. continue reading

It will be a relief for Cubans, tired of reusing disposable diapers and exposing their children to the possible infections that entails. Currently, the product routinely disappears from stores or is sold only in hard currency, so many families turn to the black market or import them to maintain a supply. The official media blame the deficit on hoarders and the poor organization of distribution, but the president himself, Raúl Castro, admitted in 2012 the inexcusable need for our own industry. “We have to do it, I do not remember how much it costs, it’s expensive, but we have to do it,” he exclaimed during a meeting of the Council of Ministers.

Daniela, the mother of a baby who by 2019 will no longer need diapers, is an expert in their reuse. “I buy the filling separately and I put it in the diaper, so I save money and avoid having to wash cloth diapers, which takes time and the expenses of detergent,” explains the young woman, who for now would settle for achieving the dream of “having at least one new disposable diaper for each day.”

The future Arthis facility will produce four sizes of children’s diapers, in addition to three sizes for adults, with the filling to reuse them. Due to the aging of the population, in a country with almost 20% of people over 60 years of age, demand grows at both ends of the demographic pyramid.

The slowness that distinguishes the entire investment process in the Island, however, foreshadows delays. The official newspaper Granma acknowledged last week that the project is still hampered by “excessive delays in the negotiating process.”

The economist Elias Amor analyzes the problem without equivocation: “For many years, decades, Castro’s economy works outside the inexorable laws of the market,” the specialist explains. “When they try to apply those laws and incorporate some rationality into business processes, they do it badly.”

The International Fair, nevertheless, celebrates another advance this year with the return of the American giant Caterpillar, hand in hand with Rimco, the Puerto Rican company and an official distributor in the Caribbean of the famous heavy machinery.

From Expocuba, the news has flown to the plains of San Juan y Martinez, in Pinar del Río, where the Perez clan received the news with enthusiasm. “We have an old tractor that has been with us for more than half a century and is full of patches,” says the family patriarch.

Cultivators of tobacco, flowers and papayas, the Perez have jealously guarded their small tractor, painted a fiery red and considered the family’s most precious possession. His obsession for years has been to get replacement parts to keep “the monster” running, as some affectionately call it.

Although the date when the industry will start up and if its equipment will be marketed directly to private producers is still unknown, the return of the brand, absent since 1959, is perceived as a great step.

Less than a kilometer from the Perez house another family looks forward to the day. “Most of the work is done by hand, with oxen or with tools such as knives and hoes,” says Serafin, who leases a plot dedicated to the cultivation of beans and vegetables.

“I’ve always wanted to have a small tractor that serves me mainly to prepare the land,” the farmer told this newspaper. “I do not care what brand it is, but of course if it is a Caterpillar so much the better, because my grandfather had one of those and it lasted a long time,” says the peasant, who, although he admits that the process may well be delayed, he supposes that with the new machinery he would be able to produce more and with more quality. “And even sell my products in other countries, who knows?” he asks hopefully.

A year ago, both farmers buried their dreams of improving technologically, when they learned that the US manufacturer of Cleber tractors had been excluded from the projects approved to settle in the ZEDM, with its small format models which are called Oggúns.

“We are not going to give up, this is a long-term,” said Saul Berenthal, co-founder of the company with Horace Clemmons, after hearing the decision of the Cuban authorities. Twelve months later, Cleber still has not been able to enter the Cuban market and now a bigger opponent, Caterpillar, is ahead of them.

During the five days that the 2017 edition of Fihav lasted, the agreements that have been made public have been numerous and in many sectors, but another of the most valued at street level is that of telecommunications.

United Telecommunication Services (UTS), a company of the ally Curaçao, signed an agreement with the national monopoly, Etecsa, to increase the bandwidth for internet service

Paul de Geus, president of UTS, explained that the company operates a network of submarine fiber optic cables that allow direct access from multiple global operators, especially in the Caribbean, Central America and the Andean countries.

“For us it is a great pride to formalize this agreement, the result of a process of several successful commercial missions coordinated between the ministry of economic affairs of our country and Cuba,” explains the UTS president.

The Government of Havana seems, with this agreement, to consolidate the search for new allies with which to improve its access to the network in the new context of the Venezuelan crisis (Caracas was the provider of the submarine cable to bring internet to the Island), and of the tension with the United States since the arrival of Donald Trump to power, which cools the possibilities of cooperation with the northern neighbor in this area.

Beyond these developments, the traditional allies in the commercial field have also wanted to make their mark in this edition of the fair. The first partner of the island, Russia, advanced in the negotiations for the reform of the railway network, a project that covers works in more than 1,100 kilometers of railroad and the supply of construction equipment, roads and transport. In addition, ACINOX Stainless Steel and Russian YUMZ signed a contract for more than 30.2 million dollars to modernize a factory producing wire rod for construction.

Spain, Cuba’s second commercial partner, took advantage of its remarkable presence at the fair to review the state of economic relations and deal with the renegotiation of debt, but also to contribute to the expansion of solar energy in Cuba, a sector that, well-managed, could become a key to national economic development.

The Spanish company Assyce Yield Energía SA will install, together with the German company EFF Solar, panels to generate 100 megawatts/hour of electricity in the western provinces of Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque and Matanzas. Both companies signed a contract with Unión Eléctrica de Cuba for a period of 25 years, for which Assyce will supply 55 megawatts/hour to Pinar del Río and Artemisa, while EFF will deliver 45 megawatts/hour to Mayabeque and Matanzas.

This agreement is part of Havana’s strategy to reduce its dependence on the oil that Venezuela supplies at subsidized prices but in decreasing amounts. However, renewable energies will not be able to compensate in the short-term for the oil deficit created by the fall from 100,000 to 55,000 barrels that the island receives each day from Venezuela, its Bolivarian ally.

Coming Changes Emphasize the Contradictions of Cuban Migration Policy

Outside Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 30 October 2017 – On Monday, Concepción González was waiting another day at the immigration office at 3rd and 22nd Streets, in Havana’s Playa municipality. The travel and immigration measures announced this Saturday brings to reality her old dream of reuniting with her rafter son.

On Saturday, during the IV Meeting of Cuban Residents in the United States held in Washington, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez reported that as of January 1 of a package of four measures will go into effect, among which is the elimination of special permission required on the passports of Cuban emigrants living abroad in order to return to their native country. continue reading

In addition, Cuban citizens living abroad will be allowed to enter the country on pleasure boats; those who emigrated illegally will no longer (for the most part) have to wait eight years before returning; and the children of Cuban residents living abroad will no longer have to settle in Cuba to claim citizenship.

The announcement has provoked an avalanche of questions on the street about the convoluted Cuban migratory picture, questions that are reflected in the numerous comments on digital forums and social networks.

Meanwhile, the official media present the new rules as a response to the escalation of accusations about the presumed sonic attacks against the US diplomats that the administration of Donald Trump has launched and the recent cancellation by Washington of the issuance of visas in its Havana consulate.

“It was necessary for Trump to put a firm hand on the Cuban government’s determination to loosen the retrograde immigration measures imposed on its citizens abroad for decades,” says Rolando Gallardo, a resident of Quito, Ecuador, for years.

During the closing of the event, the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared: “The government of the United States closes and Cuba opens.”

“The Cuban political elite wants to expose itself to the world as the antithesis of an aggressive Trump,” political scientist Armando Chaguaceda, a Cuban emigrant, reflected in his column in the Mexican newspaper La Razón. Chaguaceda maintains that the flexibilizations seek an economic impact because “Raúl Castro and his heirs need minor allies to sustain the nascent authoritarian capitalism.”

With the repeal of the passport special authorization, which has been in force since 2004 and involves expenses of about 70 dollars to obtain it through an intermediary, 823,000 Cubans living abroad will benefit, according to official sources. Now, to enter the island, they will only need a valid national passport, renewed every two years.

From the United States, the country with the largest Cuban community, the issuance of the passport costs 375 dollars and is valid for six years. Each of the two extensions contemplated in that time costs $180 USD. With the costs of sending and processing the passport issuance process can reach 400 dollars.

The Cuban emigrants who arrived this Sunday at José Martí International Airport in Havana learned about the news there. “It took me a long time to get the authorization and this is the first time I’ve use it, but I’m glad that next year it won’t be necessary,” Yantier, 28, who lives in the Dominican Republic told this newspaper.

“It was a bit humiliating to ask permission to enter my own country,” adds the young man. Many of his friends “have had to behave well and not talk about politics publicly to ensure that they will put this stamp on their passport,” he says, and he believes that the new measures can help more people dare to say what they think.

Just a few hours before the official announcement, the authorities did not allow the widow of opposition leader Oswaldo Payá to enter the country despite her passport having the required authorization. Ofelia Acevedo denounced that in spite of having her documents in order and complying with the law, she was forced to return from Havana to Miami without being given any explanation of why she could not enter Cuba.

One of the doubts that remains to be resolved since Saturday is whether the government of the Island will allow the entry of opposition leaders in exile and former political prisoners who left the country, as is the case of many of those prosecuted during the Black Spring of 2003.

Pablo Pacheco, one of the former prisoners of the Black Spring, a member of the Cause of the 75 released in 2010 and now living in the United States, wrote on his Facebook page, “Bruno Rodriguez, I don’t believe you, I don’t believe that all Cubans are included in these supposed benefits.”

The authorization of entry and exit to Cubans living abroad on recreational boats through the Hemingway and Gaviota-Varadero International Tourist Marinas, something that was totally forbidden for years, also generates confusion among those affected.

“If I sail on my yacht from Miami to Havana, I can enter,” a Cuban emigrant reflected on social networks. “However, if I take advantage of my stay in Cuba to do the repatriation process and obtain a Cuban identity card, what will happen? Can I be a resident on the island and still have my yacht in the Marina Hemingway?” he asked.

Nationals living on the island are forbidden to have motor boats in these exclusive recreational marinas, so the new measures highlight even more the contradictions between “the different types of Cubans,” according to this emigrant.

Emigrants who have not undergone the repatriation process still have no right to buy property in Cuba or participate in elections, traditional demands of the Cuban exile. Nor is the double nationality they have obtained in their second homeland recognized, so they must enter the country with their Cuban passport.

Concepción González’s rafter son, who left in a poor boat to Miami from the western area of ​​the Havana coast in 2012, could benefit from the measure that abolishes the period of prohibition of entry to Cuba in the eight years after emigration illegal.

“I have not seen him for more than five years and I thought we had to wait for another three,” the mother tells 14ymedio.

However, for professionals who deserted medical missions or diplomatic missions or while traveling in sports or other delegations, the situation does not change. The restriction of entry to the Island is maintained against them during the first eight years after their departure. Nor does the picture change for those who left through the United States Naval Base in Guantánamo.

Another of the measures to be eliminated as of January is a requirement for the children of Cubans living abroad, who until now have had to live for 90 days on the island to be eligible for the citizenship of their parents.

Flexibility is a “double-edged sword” for Cuban families living in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship, as Spain does with some conditions, and as is widespread in Europe. The Civil Code of that country allows granting citizenship by “simple presumption” to children of foreign parents who lack nationality but who are permanent residents.

Now, that argument will not be able to be used to claim Spanish nationality as long as the island’s consulate will process the nationalization even if the child has never set foot on Cuban territory. This situation could be repeated in other countries with similar laws.

In spite of the doubts and the situations that still do not find answers after the new migratory measures, this weekend in innumerable Cuban homes the happiness about reuniting with their relatives has allowed people to park their questions for a while.

“I count the days remaining in this year until I see my son,” Concepción González confesses. “I know that many mothers still do not have that joy, but I trust that more openings of this kind will come,” she says. “They can not close any more, so they just have to open.”

Bank Loans Do Not Fix the Lives of Those Affected by Irma

Following Hurricane Irma, which flooded part of Havana, residents tried to save their furniture and appliances by drying them outdoors. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 20 October 2017 — On a corner of Centro Habana an old sofa displays its swollen slats and next to it lie the paddles of a fan. These are the remains left by Hurricane Irma’s flooding of the area, the belongings of families that now apply for bank loans to recover, although the money barely covers a part of the damages.

At the Metropolitan Bank on Galiano at San Jose Streets, customers gathered on Friday looking for answers. News spread by several national media the previous day revived the expectations of those who lost their furniture and appliances when the fury of the sea covered the streets of the San Leopoldo neighborhood. continue reading

The vice president of the Central Bank of Cuba, Francisco Mayobre, told the Cuban News Agency (ACN) that, hours after the hurricane, survivors had been given loans totalling 28,700,000 Cuban pesos (CUP) “for the acquisition of material resources” for the construction and repair of homes.

The official pointed out that in one week, from 9 to 16 October, the total amount of credits allocated doubled “due to progress in the process of identifying the affected families, and through the intense efforts of bank workers to approve the loans within 24 hours.”

Mayobre also detailed that up to now, 9,054 loans have been paid out to people from the banks of Credit and Commerce, Popular Savings and Metropolitan. “The largest amount of money loaned out is concentrated in Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila and Sancti Spíritus,” the provinces most damaged by the storm.

According to the current exchange rate governing transactions between Cuban pesos (CUP) and convertible pesos (CUC), the amount borrowed represents only 1,195,833 CUC (slightly less than two million dollars) and amounts to an average of 132 CUC (about the same in dollars) for each beneficiary.

The majority of those affected use the money to buy construction materials because bank loans have not yet been authorized for the purchase of household appliances and other household goods, although there are those who dare to buy other types of products with the money they borrowed, despite the risk of being subject to an inspection.

In mid-September, the government announced that it will finance 50% of the price of construction materials for those affected by the total or partial destruction of their homes after the hurricane. 

However, the products this benefit can be used to purchase are only those sold by the state, where the choices are few and supply is affected by corruption and diversion of resources (i.e. theft).

“I lost the kitchen counter because of the sea,” says Luisa Sampedro, a resident of San Lázaro Street, who laments, “they tell me that they only have floor tiles, so I’ll have to do it with that or go to the ‘mall’,” (stores selling in convertible pesos, which Cubans call by the English word).

A square yard of the tiles that Sampedro needs for his counter costs about 20 CUC in the hardware stores that sell in convertible pesos, so a loan from the bank is only enough to buy fewer than seven square meters. “It’s not enough money,” he says.

It was recently announced that the European Commission has approved a $826,000 project to repair damaged houses in the municipality of Yaguajay, but Sampedro does not believe that he will benefit from the initiative to be implemented by the United Nations Development Program UNDP).

“There are too many people with problems,” he says. “I live in a low lying area where there is a lot of humidity and I have to cover the walls halfway up in tile,” he says. He has not yet decided whether to go to the bank to apply for a loan and can not do so until he has been accepted as an applicant, a long and tortuous process.

An employee of the banking branch at Galiano and San José Street told 14ymedio that “work groups have been formed for the victims in each People’s Council” area. Those affected in San Leopoldo should go to an office on Dragones street to request that an inspector visit their home and prepare a “technical file.”

“From there the process begins and here in the bank we can grant the loan,” emphasizes the worker.

The bank is the last step of a broad working group that dictates who is a victim. The loans that are given to these people charge 2.5% interest and do not require guarantors.

Meanwhile, some of those affected by the hurricane are desperate for the state to begin officially granting credit for the purchase of appliances and other household items.

A few yards from the house of Luisa Sampedro, a family shelters their old Soviet-made Aurika brand washing machine from the sun. “We spent days and days seeing if we could manage to fix it,” says the owner of the house. The woman insists that she cannot afford to acquire a new machine.

In state stores a semi-automatic washing machine is around 250 CUC and the most sophisticated can exceed 600. “I can’t ask for a bank loan to pay that,” explains the Havanan. “The only thing left is to see if I can repair the machine myself or to pay a mechanic to see what he can do.”

Children play hide and seek around the metal casing. From time to time the grandmother of the family asks a neighbor if he knows where the social workers are who are “writing down the effects. Her dream is to get the loan in her name. “I have only a few years left and no one is going to charge me on the other side,” she said.

Cemetery Vault For Sale, Deceased Included

Colón (Columbus) Cemetery in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 14 October 2017 — “In this street there are five vaults for sale,” says Boris Fernandez as he walks through Colón (Columbus) Cemetery in Havana. “That one has the granite stone but people with money prefer marble,” he explains. His business is “to guarantee rest in the afterlife,” this salesman who lives off the funeral business tells 14ymedio.

“The first time I sold a grave was almost by accident,” recalls the former engineer, now a real estate agent for the afterlife. “In 2011 I was contacted by a lady who wanted to get rid of everything to leave the country. The first thing I found for her was a buyer for the family vault,” he says. continue reading

The cremation of corpses is a strong competitor for the traditional burials managed by Fernandez. In 2013, 5,045 bodies were incinerated throughout the country. However, “there are still many people who prefer to spend eternity in a beautiful place like this tomb,” he explains as he points to a gravestone with bronze letters.

Over the years, the dealer has become a specialist in his services and each satisfied customer in turn recommends new customers. “I have learned to price tombs, vaults and ossuaries because there are many details to keep in mind.” He has studied “even a little art history” to determine styles and influences.

“This one here has rounded lines and the vault includes two art deco gardens,” he says, describing a tomb next to the central chapel of Cuba’s largest graveyard. “That is worth at least 5,000 CUC [Cuban convertible pesos, roughly the same in dollars] because it has Carrara marble, coming from Italy and is highly treasured for its whiteness.”

The sellers are mostly people who come from families of ancient ancestry who “are going through hell to survive economically and decide to get rid of the family vault,” or they might be “people who want to emigrate and need ‘to complete’ [get a certain amount of money] for the passage,” explains the funeral director.

The transfer process must be done before a notary, but the vast majority of those involved prefer to simply hand over the title deed even if it is still in the name of someone who died more than a hundred years ago. “Whoever has the papers is the owner, it’s as simple as that,” explains Fernández.

“These are exchanges often done in a rush, and all it takes is to deliver the documents for the new owner to take possession of the place,” he points out. “So far I have not had any clients who got into trouble and I have helped many people find a place for their dead.”

The cemetery authorities are aware that economic inequalities are emerging once again in one of the most luxurious cemeteries in Latin America. “There is a lot of business in sales but there are areas that are frozen because they belong to the heritage area,” explains one of the guides that runs the tours for tourists.

The cemetery authorities are aware that economic inequalities are emerging once again in one of the most luxurious cemeteries in Latin America. (14ymedio)

“We have more turnover in the tombs that are not the most striking and that belonged to families of the republican bourgeoisie,” he clarifies. “The main reason is economic, because very few people get rid of something like that because they do not have time to take care of it or they do not care anymore.”

“We have had cases of people who have sold the vault even with the deceased inside,” Fernandez notes with alarm, as he accompanies visitors on a tour of the most famous burials in the site.

This reality is confirmed by Abelardo, a resident of Columbus Street near the capital’s largest cemetery who dedicates himself to the business of selling tombstones, flower boxes and vases. “People have come for help selling a tomb but insist that the buyer must commit to leaving the remains that are in the ossuary,” he details.

“In that case a special price is set and the new owner gives his word not to remove the bones of the previous family, it is a gentlemen’s agreement,” he says.

In addition to the grave ornaments he sells in the doorway of his house, Abelardo has contacts for all kinds of tasks related to the deceased. “We offer natural and plastic flowers, demand for the the latter has greatly increased after the campaigns against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito [transmitter of dengue virus and other diseases] which has removed many vases with water from the cemetery.”

“I also have a friend who does the spiritual cleansing of the tomb so that the new owners can use it without bad influences,” he adds to his string of offers. “For Catholics he does with prayers, for the Santeros [practitioners of Santería] he has an offering that includes a cleansing with herbs, and if they are spiritualists then the ceremony can include candles and glasses with water.”

The increase in the sale of tombs is not a phenomenon that occurs only in the capital, but rather is widespread in the country’s cemeteries.

“I also have a friend who does the spiritual cleansing of the tomb so that the new owners can use it without bad influences”. (14ymedio)

Niliana is selling a family vault of five square meters “in the best area of ​​the Tomás Acea Cemetery in Cienfuegos,” she emphasizes. Because the cemetery is further away from the city, prices are lower, but still remain inaccessible to those who live off their official salaries.

For 560 CUC, the buyer can bury his relatives in a cemetery declared a “National Heritage site since 1978 for its artistic, architectural, historical and environmental values,” explains the owner.

At double that price a much more modest tomb is marketed in Colón Cemetery. “It is like with houses, the location determines the price,” clarifies Boris Fernandez. “The one with the best economic situation can choose a good street or be next to a famous vault.”

“Now I have a client who is a painter who wants a tomb with a tree that gives him shade and as close as possible to the Chapel,” he says. “My job is to please him: I bring the place and he brings the dead.”


Thousands of Cubans Despair Over Suspension of Visas to USA

Older people came to the embassy looking for news. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 3 October 2017 — Communicating by phone with the US embassy in Havana has become an impossible task. From all parts of the island thousands of people are trying to find out what will happen to the consular interviews they had scheduled before the indefinite suspension of the issuing of visas by the embassy in Havana.

María Encarnación, known as Caruca, sunk into hopelessness when her daughter called her to give her the news. “My blood pressure went up because I had my consular appointment scheduled for October and now no one knows how to give me an explanation,” this retired 67-year-old tells 14ymedio.

After several hours of attempts, Caruca managed to speak with an employee of the US consulate, which upset her state of mind still further. “All operations are canceled until further notice,” the voice warned on the other end of the phone line. “This could be solved in a week or it could take years, we do not know,” she was told. continue reading

The cancellation of consular activity returns the imposing building that houses the embassy to a condition similar to that before 1977, at which time an agreement between Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter allowed it to function as a US Interests Section in Havana. Since then, tens of thousands of people have applied for visas at its windows.

During the 2016 fiscal year, the United States approved visa applications for 14,291 Cubans, who took trips related to family, business, exchange or cultural and sporting events, among other categories. A much lower figure than the 22,797 visas granted in the same period of 2015 and the 41,001 in 2014.

A spokeswoman for the State Department explains the drastic reduction as an effect of “the extension, from six months to five years of the validity of the B2 visa for Cuban nationals.” However, since last January, when Barack Obama eliminated the wet foot/dry foot policy – which allowed Cubans who arrived on US soil without or without a visa to stay – many feared visa restrictions were imminent.

“I almost fell over when I heard what they told me on the phone. So I decided to come to Havana because I’ve been thinking that something like this would happen,” explains Caruca. She borrowed money, rented a private car from Los Palacios, in Pinar del Rio, where she lives with her husband and her son who remains in Cuba, to get to the capital as soon as possible.

“I was outside the embassy at dawn to wait for someone to come out and show their face,” she said Monday, in the small park where visa applicants have congregated for years. The place, still showing the traces of the wreckage left by Hurricane Irma, is no longer an area where hope and advice are offered “to succeed in the interview.”

Now, those who wait have a distressed look, trembling voices and their mobiles ringing constantly with calls from Miami, New York or Houston. “What do you want me to do mi’ja, if it can’t be done it can’t be done,” a man who said he had traveled from Jatibonico, in Ciego de Avila, shouted into his cell phone.

“It says that we have to check the website of the embassy, ​​that all the information will be there,” he says, his voice getting even louder. The sun burns and some of those waiting take shelter under the shade of the trees, others take off their shoes while sitting on the benches. “This is going to be a while so better get comfortable,” he says.

After eleven o’clock in the morning, a Cuban official leaves the US consulate and is surrounded by people anxious for news. “All the interviews are canceled,” she repeated emphatically. A man wants to explain that his case is urgent because his brother has been admitted to a Texas hospital and this is perhaps his last chance to say goodbye.

The cancellation of the interviews puts at risk the number of visas that the consular section is supposed deliver each year in the Island. According to the migratory agreements signed between both countries in 1994 and 1995, the US must stamp 20,000 annual immigrant visas for Cuban applicants.

“Don’t you guys listen?” the employee repeats. The phrase makes Caruca’s blood pressure shoot up, while the most equanimous of the group start to sweat and the voice of a woman breaks as she just tries to say, “No, it can’t be like this, there has to be a mistake.”

One woman, who has arrived from Havana’s Marianao municipality and had an interview scheduled for Monday afternoon, complains, “I want to know if they are going to give me back the money,” demanding repayment for the appointment fee paid by her family in the United States, but the official has no answers and again recommends to consult the web.

A small business that will fill out the visa application forms. (14ymedio)

For the surrounding businesses the news has been a blow. “We have gone out of business overnight,” says Diosdado, who helps his wife and daughter fill out the complex visa application forms. “Normally it was non-stop here, one customer after another and now nobody is coming,” he protests as he gestures to his empty room.

Some families in the area also subsisted on renting rooms to visa applicants. Some of their customers continue to arrive as they come to find out the status of their visa applications, explains the owner of a house with two rooms for rent, but “soon no one will come.”

Others have taken advantage of the stampede of Americans leaving to upgrade their furniture, appliances and food supplies. US officials returning home have held ‘yard sales’ in their homes offering all kinds of goods, with news of the events spread by email between Cuban employees of the US embassy and their friends and acquaintances.

“I bought a drill and a refrigerator,” says an embassy maintenance worker who learned of one of the sales in a mansion of Miramar. “I also managed to buy some chairs for the dining room and a battery lamp for when I don’t have electricity.” Although everything was acquired at a good price, the man regrets that now he will be out of work.

“Working with the yumas was good because they are very respectful, they give away many things and also the conditions of work were excellent,” says the employee who preferred anonymity and who says that his work helped him to get a visa when he wanted to and spend some vacation time in Orlando, Florida.

Now, the building where he worked for more than a decade has slowly been vacated. “Before the announcement on Friday many officials had already gone and this week the stampede will be great,” he says. “The consulate is one of the areas with the greatest reduction in staff and very few want to stay until everything is clear.”

The Cuban government says it has nothing to do with the acoustic attacks suffered by 21 US diplomats. In the official media the issue has been handled as something of minor importance, although on the street people aren’t talking about anything else.

A coffee vendor approaches the park a few yards from the Embassy and offers his merchandise in small plastic cups. “For the moment I keep selling because a lot of people are coming to find out about their interviews, but I do not know how long this will last.” A few yards away, the Cuban policemen who guard the diplomatic headquarters seem more tense than normal.

“They are afraid that this area will fill up with people complaining and protesting,” says the coffee vendor. “There is nothing that annoys a Cuban more than a cancelled trip,” he says. “Cubans can pass on quiet needs, lose their home in a hurricane and remain silent, but when it comes to a visa, they shout,” he reflects.

A woman of 60 asks for two coffees. She grabs them and relates that she has travelled 14 hours from Manzanillo, in Granma province. She had an interview scheduled on Monday for a residence visa for reunification with her son. Her plans have been ruined and her son insists to her, on the phone, that she approach the Embassy. “They don’t let you, I can’t,” she answers in a sob.

Afternoon falls and some are ready to stay until they receive a response. The people in the park, once envied for being close to a trip abroad, are now a bundle of frustrations and fears.

From Cuban To Cuban, National Solidarity After Hurricane Irma

Residents of the La Timba neighborhood in Havana collaborate to lift a tree trunk toppled by Hurricane Irma. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 27 September 2017 – Three families are now bathing in Bernardina’s shower. “Everyone brings their own soap but the water is for everyone,” says the 86-year-old woman at her house on Calle Campanario in Havana. After Hurricane Irma the retiree opened her doors to her most affected neighbors, a gesture that is repeated throughout the country.

The official press has been full of headlines about international donations and the state’s work to accelerate the recovery, but the most important aid is being offered by citizens themselves. From the first minute, neighbors, family members and activists turned their energies to helping the most damaged communities.

Since the first winds began to blow and some municipalities on the north coast were almost completely evacuated, civil and spontaneous relief meant the difference between life and death for thousands of people. More than 77% of those sheltered took refuge in the homes of relatives or acquaintances, according to official data. continue reading

The close neighborly relations that characterize most Cuban neighborhoods are even more intense in small settlements and were very effective in protecting private property and avoiding a greater number of deaths.

“They talk about the great hell of small towns, but here what saved us is that we all know each other well and we are like a family,” says Yania, who lives in the historic center of Caibarién and whose home was badly damaged by the winds.

“We went to the house next door and all that’s left of ours is only part of a room,” laments the young woman. Now, she is waiting for international donations and the aid promised by the government to subsidize 50% of the materials needed for the reconstruction of housing, but at least she already has assistance she can count on: “The neighbors will help us to raise the walls.”

In the East, the outlawed Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) is looking for strategies to prevent its aid initiatives from being boycotted. “We suffered a lot of persecution when we wanted to help the victims of Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa,” remembers the leader of the organization, José Daniel Ferrer.

Now, with the passage of Irma, “we are looking for mechanisms, with the utmost discretion, to see how to channel our help to these people,” says the former political prisoner. “Steps have been taken, such as sending money to affected activists to buy batteries, potable water and other things.”

On Tuesday, the official media opened several bank accounts directed to residents on the island for “solidarity contributions to help victims of Irma.” Enabling this type of aid came ten days after the International Financial Bank did something similar to “channel donations” from abroad.

The rapidity in requesting cooperation from other nations and the delay in accepting local donations has generated displeasure among many. The state-run newspaper Granma recognizes this situation by suggesting between the lines that the opening of bank accounts was done after Cuban citizens “manifested their solidarity interest in making monetary contributions.”

The Catholic Church has also tried to channel these desires to help coming from regions where the inhabitants were not seriously affected. In the first 72 hours after the hurricane, Caritas Cuba set up an emergency network to provide relief to the most affected and disadvantaged people. To achieve this, countless volunteers, parishioners and residents have worked in those parts of the country.

In the Havana office of the organization it’s a hectic time. The phones don’t stop ringing with calls from people who have lost everything or almost everything. Julian Rigao tries to deal with all these requests and explains that in every neighborhood in the capital there is a chapel where people can “leave donations.” Then the parish priests and religious congregations “will send them to the Archbishopric.”

In Catholic parishes a survey has been distributed to uncover the most critical cases. Since Monday, September 18, some churches, such as the Sacred Heart on Linea Street, are preparing breakfasts and dinners to help the most unprotected people in their community, according to a report.

Protestants are also collecting donations. In the Upper Room Baptist temple on centrally located Carlos III street, help is received “until three-thirty in the afternoon,” says Svan, who works in the temple. “It may come in a bag, in a cardboard box or however they’ve packed it.”

Little by little, people are also coming to donate mainly clothing, footwear and household goods. On the other hand, the state’s mass organizations, such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the Federation of Cuban Women, have not put out any appeals to raise donations.

“In my house we have prepared several bags with women’s and baby clothes”, says Lilian Bosque, a resident of Colon Street in the Plaza of the Revolution district. Now, she hopes to “put them together with what other neighbors have gathered and take them to the Santa Rosa de Lima chapel near here.”

Bosque is aware that “this is not going to solve the problem, but at least it will alleviate the situation of families who have been left with nothing,” and she points out that it is a silent gesture without the intention of receiving any recognition. “No one wants to earn a diploma with this or have it appear in Granma, it is the help that any human being in these situations needs.”

Irma Reconfigures Cuba’s Tourist Map

When the powerful hurricane Irma touched land, there were about 50,000 tourists on the island, according to calculations by the Ministry of Tourism. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Zunilda Mata, Havana/Varadero, 21 September 2017 — “This is what’s left of the gardens of the Blue Lagoon,” says an employee while looking at a cellphone photo of fallen palm trees and tangled vegetation. The bus in which he is traveling is responsible for distributing staff to the hotels in Varadero, Cuba’s main resort, which is trying to recover after Hurricane Irma.

The Hicacos peninsula, where the famous beach is located, is wrapped up in a recovery effort operating at different speeds. A land of contrasts, alternating luxurious resorts, mansions and fragile private houses with gabled roofs, the main tourist center of the Island is binding up its wounds on the eve of the high season. continue reading

On Tuesday, the streets were clear of the logs and debris left by the storm, but inside the hotels the damages range from light to serious. However, Varadero again has that air of a “tourist nation” – one with no flag or local flavor – that can be found anywhere on the planet where there is sun and sand.

“This beach feeds a lot of people,” Rigoberto told 14ymedio; he is an artisan by profession licensed to sell seed and pearl necklaces in the town’s most important artisan fair. “On the days we couldn’t sell, people were crazy because they lost a lot of money,” he says.

On a small table Rigoberto sets out ceramic ashtrays, carved wooden images of sensual women, and tiny clay turtles. “The worst has been for the homeowners who have suffered damages but who don’t have the resources available to the hotel managers and the state,” he says.

After days of anguish, an urgency to close the wounds has overtaken the residents and the resort employees. “We’ll all be ruined if the tourists decide to go to Cancun,” Rigoberto explains. The Mexican beach is Cuba’s main rival at a time when the Greater and Lesser Antilles have been battered by several hurricanes.

Three young men speaking Russian pass near Rigoberto wearing wrist-bands confirming their “all-inclusive” status at the resort. “Those are the first who have returned,” says the artisan. “They don’t care that much that the hotels aren’t a hundred percent ready, because what they are looking for is sun,” he opines.

Irma hit Cuba just before the high season, in a year when the authorities expected to reach the longed-for figure of five million tourists. When the powerful hurricane hit land, there were about 50,000 travelers in the entire island according to the calculations of the Ministry of Tourism.

After the weather disaster the official information has talked of devastation to describe the situation in the keys area. But at the same time a recovery in record time seems destined to appease the fears of travelers.

Wednesday’s primetime news warned of “an international campaign against Cuban tourism” that “is attempting to magnify the damages.” Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero assured that “there is no hotel that has suffered structural problems.”

However, complaints about substandard services are being felt and reported at hotel reception desks and in internet travelers’ forums. At the Royalton Hotel Hicacos about 40 guests are trying to make their vacation holiday not end in nightmare, but the conditions are not the best.

Joseph and his wife did not want to cancel the reservation they made six months ago to visit Varadero and “get a rest from so much work,” they tell this newspaper. Coming from Germany, they followed the course of the hurricane, fearing that the agency would postpone the trip or send them to another part of Cuba.

“We were scared to arrive but outside of some broken glassware in the hotel we found no major damage to the infrastructure,” says the German, although he acknowledges that the food is not good because he came looking for local flavors and even the butter is imported.

“The employees are very nervous and the hot water service still isn’t working very well.” Among the problems most lamented by the guests is that “there is no peppermint for the mojitos” and “there are few fruits at breakfast despite being in the tropics.”

For Andrés, a Colombian who spent his honeymoon in Cuba during and after Irma’s passage, the most difficult thing to deal with was what he calls “the fall in quality.” Staying at the Varadero Meliá hotel he lamented that the menu was bad. “Although they say they have two buffet restaurants, it’s not true,” he complains, and notes that the water sports services are not yet working again.

“We had to pay for the extra nights we stayed at the hotel because our flight was canceled and they didn’t give us any rebates even though the pools aren’t open and they didn’t change the sheets for more than three days,” he protests. Now, he hopes to make a claim to demand a refund of some of the money he spent.

At the moment, the management of the hotel has sent him a message stating its “total willingness to favor you with the best conditions if you return to the Varadero Meliá.”

Some hotels in the area are still closed, such as the Meliá chain’s Varadero Paradisus, which suffered severe damages. An employee of the Cubatur agency explained via telephone to this newspaper that the area known as Family Concierge was “devastated” and there were also damages to the main building and to the restaurant that was built near the beach.

Some hotels in the area are still closed like the Meliá chain’s Varadero Paradisus, which suffered severe damages. (Courtesy)

A spokesman for the Mallorcan chain, which owns a total of 27 hotels on the island, 11 of them in the keys, told the Spanish media that their accommodations in the famous resort have suffered minor damages and are re-establishing their services. In addition, he specified that the closure of the Varadero Paradisus is because of improvements being made before the high season arrives.

The head of the sales department of the Sol Palmeras hotel proudly said that on Wednesday about 200 tourists were staying at their facility. “Given how the area was left, we have recovered quickly,” he emphasized.

Dana, an employee of the exclusive Royalton Hicacos, acknowledges that conditions are still not optimal. The main damages are in “the buffet service restaurant and beach gazebo, still closed,” after Irma.

Despite this, private and government-controlled hotel authorities have not decreed any special reduction in room costs, according to a Cubanacan travel agency specialist.

Only during the hurricane itself “tourists who came here and booked directly at the hotel reception received a 40% discount,” says Dana. This rebate was offered only to clients who arrived at the accommodation relocated from the keys of the north of the Island, who were compensated for the fact that their new accommodation had no electricity.

To avoid distress, many are choosing another destination within the island where the hurricane did less damage. The largest beneficiaries are the town of Viñales, the María la Gorda beach, also in the west, and the city of Trinidad in the south.

“There is a lot of demand for the hotels in the historical center of Havana as well,” says an employee who offers tour packages in the Cubatur office in the Habana Libre Hotel. “What is totally closed is accommodation in the northern keys,” she explains to a Cuban client.

National tourism has been increasing since 2008, when Raúl Castro’s government allowed Cubans living on the island to go to the country’s hotels, from which they had been banned for decade. In 2014, about 1.2 million nationals stayed in these facilities and spent 147.3 million Cuban convertible pesos (roughly the same in US dollars), according to official data.

The trend has continued to increase and “most of the packages sold here are intended for Cubans,” says the Cubatur employee. She notes, however, that “right now international tourism is being prioritized, for those who made reservations weeks ago.”

Rebeca Monzó, who lives in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood and rents a room through Airbnb, has not suffered serious damage to her business. So far she has not had reservation cancellations and is waiting for a new customer who is arriving this week.

During the hurricane she hosted two Spaniards “who fled from the province of Sancti Spíritus” when the first winds began to blow. Her guests “experienced the hurricane from another perspective,” says Monzó.

“They helped us to store water, lined up to buy bread and experienced their days in Havana as a great adventure.” The hostess acknowledges that they survived “thanks to the pasta we had because in those days there was nothing to eat.” Her home was five days without water and electricity.

Shortages are one of the most negative side effects left by the hurricane.

In Varadero, the extensive informal market network that nourishes a good part of the area’s private businesses is also trying to recover. “In this area it was very easy to buy shrimp and lobster,” says Rigoberto, while taking some canvases painted with coconut motifs and reddish sunsets out of boxes.

“The hurricane has been a serious blow to the seafood vendors because apart from cutting off several access roads and leaving a lot of people without refrigeration, there is now more police control in the area,” he says.

The sale of these raw products is forbidden to private individuals and is strictly punished by the authorities, as is the black market in cheese and milk, also prominent in the area.

At the corners of the main street, parallel to the beach, are uniformed police officers and some state brigades cleaning the area. “Until all this goes away we have to stay quiet,” recommends the artisan. “Irma has stirred everything up and it will take time until the waters find their level,” says a Spaniard.

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.”