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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Can Hardly Sleep With the Mosquito Bombardment”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuba’s Real Estate Market Is Going Through Tough Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

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

Finding Food: The New Challenge for Cubans After the Rains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall in Tourism Impacts Cuba’s Private Sector

A cruise ship at the Port of Havana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourists in Cuba. (14ymedio)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guyana, The New Springboard to the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A market frequented by Cuban mules (Mandy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Cubans, A Week Like Any Other

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

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

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

immortalized in Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s movie was obliterated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Lines at Cuban Banks For Fear of Monetary Unification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Women, The Same Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Don’t Accept Payment In CUC Here”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers Are Replacing Other Crops in Cuban Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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