René, the Mattress Magician

Some mattress repairers have built electric machines that allow them to renew the wadding to fill the mattresses. (Revolico)

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14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 19 March 2019 — His hands move with agility, looking first for the scissors, then the thread and finally the needles to close the long cut made on one side. He is not a surgeon or a tailor, but a mattress repairman who, in the middle of a Havana roof, repairs that soft surface where later a couple will be sleep in peace, a child will romp or a grandmother will rest.

“There are two places in life where we deserve a good rest: the mattress and the coffin,” René Puerto reflects philosophically, like the mattress repairman with more than ten years of experience that he is. “In the coffin we do not realize it but a mattress can help us really get our rest, or it can be an ordeal.”

Puerto travels the Havana neighborhoods of El Cerro, El Vedado and Nuevo Vedado announcing his services. “I repair all kinds of mattresses.” He has in a small truck with two assistants and they bring with them all the tolls necessary tools for their work. “We know people’s embarrassments,” he says. continue reading

“Most of the mattresses that I have to repair are over 40 years old but I have been faced with some older than 70,” Puerto explains to 14ymedio, Before making the switch to this particular job he  was employed by a subsidiary of the Ministry of Domestic trade.

Ten years ago he obtained a license to practice as a mattress repairman on his own and he no longer imagines doing anything else other than straightening springs, placing a lining, and stitching and distributing the filling to make the mattress firm and fluffy.

Puerto charges about 50 CUC for repairing a mattress and claims to be able to do it in less than three hours. “That’s if I do not find surprises like too many broken springs or part of the outer wire frame split,” he clarifies. “This work requires patience but you also have to be very clever to solve problems that arise.” He considers that “each mattress is a mystery until it is opened.”

“I was always skillful with my hands and during the Special Period I dedicated myself to upholstering furniture but immediately I realized that if repairing a sofa is almost a luxury, repairing a mattress is a necessity and even people with less money are willing to spend a little bit to sleep better.”

Puerto’s team works on the most common models and types of mattresses in Cuba: bed, cradle, the so-called “three-quarters” and the enormous imperial ones. “We can repair the ones filled with wadding as well as those that are partly foam.” Although he says he prefers “the old mattresses with good springs that are no longer sold in the stores.”

“The most important thing is the mattress framework because the rest is the filling and what happens is that those they’re selling now look very nice but they do not last half as long as that mattress that my parents bought when they got married a lot of years ago,” says Puerto.

During the 70s and 80s, buying a mattress in Cuba was an almost impossible task. Through the rationed market, a few units were sold for newborns and couples getting married, but it was such a small number that it could not meet the demand. With the opening of stores in hard currency, in the 90s, the sale of mattresses reappeared.

Currently bed mattresses are for sale  in the network of state stores at about 250 CUC (the equivalent of well over half a year’s salary for the average worker). The price in the informal market can fall by half but scams and adulterations are frequent. For many families, repairing an old mattress is the only affordable way to sleep more comfortably.

Juan boasts that he has taken the mattress repair business to a “higher level,” he tells 14ymedio. “Before, I used to do it on the sidewalk, in a parking lot or on a rooftop, but since I put an ad in Revolico — an online ad site similar to Craigslist — to work in peoples’ homes, I’m doing better and with fewer risks.” Before, he says, the police bothered him a lot because although he has a license “most of the raw material that is needed can not be bought legally.”

“Strong fabric for the lining, steel wire for the springs to be replaced and the wadding itself are not for sale anywhere,” he complains. “We do not have access to a wholesale market and we have to recycle and recover everything we can so as not to waste new materials, but in any case we lack the resources to be found on the street.”

In more than 20 years dedicated to the trade, Juan says he has seen everything. He relates that once a couple getting a divorce asked him to separate a mattress to make two personal mattresses. “The most difficult thing is when we have to work with mattresses where an old man or a sick person has been bedridden because then it has spots or smells bad.” Although Juan knows that in these cases the mattress can be a health hazard, he does not hesitate to repair it if he is paid.

“The day I suffered the most was when I visited my brother in Miami and several times I saw mattresses thrown in the trash, almost new,” he recalls. “I wanted to take them all and bring them to Cuba but I could not.” His brother, as a family joke, sends him pictures every now and then of other mattresses that he sees being thrown out on the streets of that city.

Other times unforeseen events are not so negative. “Once we bought an old mattress very cheap to get the springs and when we took it apart in the workshop we found more than 1,000 CUP in a roll.” The practice of keeping money under or inside the mattress (shoved through a gap) is common on an island where many continue to distrust state banks.

“We couldn’t even return the money because the mattress had reached us through several intermediaries and when we started asking nobody knew who the original owner was.” With that unforeseen treasure Juan bought a good electric motor to fulfill an old dream.

“Between my son and I, we created an electric machine that helps to renew the wadding, which helps a lot with the old mattresses where the stuffing has gotten hard in places,” he explains. “We give a one year guarantee and the customer can stay close by the whole time to see what we do and what materials we use, there is no cheating.”

Scams are very common in that sector, which is why Juan likes to act with transparency. “I had a good mattress that I inherited from my mother, she needed to change the outer fabric because it was stained and fix a couple of springs but nothing else,” says Marilú, a client who was the victim of a hoax.

“I made the mistake of not looking at what they were doing in the parking lot of the building, which was where they were repairing my mattress,” she recalls. “The first night everything went fine but then some balls started coming out and when I couldn’t take it anymore and I opened it up I realized they had exchanged all the original stuffing with sacks of dried grass and jute sacks,” she laments.

Now Marilú is saving to buy a mattress in the stores in convertible pesos and insists that she will try to take good care of it to avoid having to resort later to the repairers. “These people are like magicians: they can  turn an old mattress into a wonder; or they can change it into a pile of garbage.”

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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.

Peanuts, A Survivor of Economic Centralization

The police do little to control the illegal sellers of peanuts because many belong to very disadvantaged groups. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 13 March 2019 — Rebaptized as “Cuban chewing gum” because of its popularity, it is a constant companion in the face of the long lines at the bus stops, the days of agricultural ‘mobilizations,’ or the poor rations in prisons. The peanut, for decades, has remained the flagship product of the informal market, it has managed to survive the iron-fist nationalization to which it was subjected and today, when it is permitted to sell it from private hands, the product resurfaces but not without certain difficulties.

After the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive, when all the small businesses remaining in private hands were nationalized, few foods continued to be available outside the state apparatus and the rationed market. This legume continued to survive and continued to be sold on the black market from the hands of roving sellers until 2008, when with the Raulist reforms of the private sector, a good part of its sellers and producers were legalized.

The national tradition of consuming peanuts, embodied in the famous musical “maní, manisero se va” (peanuts, peanut seller goes), had to go largely underground. In a whisper, only showing a few paper cones while keeping the rest safely stored in a bag, merchandise was offered avoiding the eyes of inspectors and police. continue reading

“I’ve been sowing peanuts for almost 30 years,” Leopoldo tells this daily. He is a farmer in the Candelaria area who claims to have “gone through everything” with this crop. “It takes a lot of work and we have to be very attentive to pests but later it is sold at a very good price to nougat producers,” he says.

Soil preparation is vital for good peanut production and it should not be planted in stony areas. Its cultivation requires abundant water during germination, growth and flowering, but when it is time for the fruits to ripen they may have already become scarce.

“I have all my land destined for peanuts, but now I also grow flowers and beans.”

Leopoldo owns his land, which allows him to decide what type of product to sow, in contrast to the cooperative members and those who lease their land from the State. The State controls the products that must be harvested in each region and the farmers have to accept the list of priorities designed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

“In this area, most people who have leased land have to plant beans and vegetables to sell to the State,” says Leopoldo. “I went for the peanut because I can sell it directly, it’s in high demand all year and right now it has gone up a lot of price.”

“It is a product that does very well here and it is easy to preserve the seeds, but the drying process in the field has its complexities and it is a very important moment when the whole harvest can be spoiled,” adds the farmer. “Only when it is well dried is it separated from the bush to prevent it from being damp and having a fungus.”

Among the main risks are insects and worms, which feed on leaves. They also produce diseases such as the cercosporiosis fungus, blue mold and the so-called leaf spot, which can spoil an entire harvest, something that often happens with either excess moisture or with little availability of water at the time of initial growth.

In Havana markets one pound of peanuts currently costs between 20 and 24 CUP, the daily salary of a professional. However, few producers of nougat or of the little paper cones it is sold in by street vendors buy it from the stands in these markets, rather they are in direct contact with the producer.

The harvester sells peanuts at between 8 and 10 CUP per pound to the food producer who comes to the farm to get the crop. If the farmer is responsible to deliver the peanuts, he can ask for a little more. The price is unusual. Few agricultural products, with the exception of beans and pork, are sold at around 10 pesos per pound directly from the field.

“Once a month I go to the area of San Antonio de los Baños, where for years I have an agreement with a farmer to buy several kilograms,” says Marcial, a nougat producer who offers his merchandise to sellers in the areas of Centro Habana and Cerro. “My entire house smells like peanuts because we entered this business in 1992 and we have not left it.”

From those early years, Marcial recalls that “everything was illegal” and his wife and daughters sold the cones and nougats very quietly. “One day they confiscated all the production for a week, we were taking it to the house of a cousin who supplied other traveling vendors, when the police stopped us.”

“In those years we cooked at home with the oil we extracted from the peanuts, and we even used it as a skin cream,” he recalls.

Now, Marcial has a street vendor license and his wife has another license to make prepared foods, and they have expanded the products they make and distribute. “We have the typical ground peanut nougat, the another that many people like and we have added one similar to nougat with almonds, but with peanuts, that is in high demand at the end of the year and around other festive dates.” A weak point is “the supply of sugar, which is not stable, but we have also added products with honey to the list of what we sell .”

Family earnings range between 4,000 and 5,000 CUP per month, discounting the raw material and license payments, five times more than Marcial and his wife would earn together as engineers in a state company, which is what they were doing when they met more than 40 years ago.

The dream of Marcial’s family is to launch their own brand of nougat to the market, something that other entrepreneurs have been able to do, and even to register their brand and their recipes in the Cuban Office of Industrial Property (OCPI). But the tenacious manisero (peanut seller) thinks that he still falls short of that.

“The supply is not very stable because it depends on many things, the climate, the state controls on the producers, the transportation and the police searches on the road, having the plastic to wrap them in, in short it is an obstacle course.” Now he is designing a logo for his offerings and trying to add new combinations.

Although many vendors, such as Marcial, have legalized their activity in recent years, the peanut sector remains mired in illegality.

“Most of the peanuts that are bought in the streets are still in the hands of informal sellers, who do not have a license,” says an employee of the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) who preferred anonymity. “But right now the police do little to control them because many are elderly, disabled or with serious economic problems.”

“It’s a lost case because if you fine or stop all the peanut vendors in Cuba they wouldn’t be able to pay the fines and the police stations would be full.”

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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.

"There’s No Cement"

Some bulk sales places for construction materials, such as La Timba, are closed to the public and are only serving victims of the tornado. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 February 2019 — The winds of the tornado that affected Havana just 15 days ago have not only left thousands of damaged homes and hundreds of families that lost everything, but have also deepened the shortage of building materials in the retail network, where cement, bathroom fixtures and slabs are all unavailable.

“We had planned to renovate the kitchen and got the money to buy everything we need,” Osmel Rodríguez tells 14ymedio. Rodríguez, 58, lives in the Havana municipality of Cerro, an area that suffered no significant damage from the tornado. “Now we have to hold off on the work because there is no cement,” he laments.

In the hard currency stores a sack of type P350 cement, used to set roof tiles and kitchen counters, costs about 6 CUC. Despite the price, which is the equivalent of a week’s salary for an average professional, the demand for this product is still very high in a country where 40% of the housing stock is in fair or poor condition. continue reading

“Last week we ran out of cement and they have not resupplied,” explains an employee in the area that sells heavy hardware in the centrally located Plaza de Carlos III in Havana. “We still do not know when we will have it again, because they are prioritizing the bulk sales places in the areas most affected by the tornado,” he says.

“We also have problems with bathroom fixtures, plastic tanks for storing water, floor slabs and tiles for bathrooms,” he adds. “The problem with cement started before the tornado, because for two years the supply has been very unstable and when the product comes in the quantities are low, but in this last week it has simply disappeared.”

The same scene is repeated in the most important hardware stores throughout the Cuban capital.

Since the passage of the tornado on January 27, the State is guaranteeing a 50% subsidy on the cost of construction materials for people with homes damaged by the disaster in the neighborhoods of Luyanó, Regla, Guanabacoa and Santos Suárez, and 70% of the amount of water deposits, according to Lourdes Rodríguez, general director of Institutional Care, of the Ministry of Finance and Prices.

But the volume of damage far exceeds the pace at which the country can produce or import many of these materials. The latest official figures put 3,513 properties damaged by the tornado, although the number grows every day as families sign onto the damage registry that is being prepared in several offices open for the occasion.

The tanks to store water among the product most in demand after the tornado. (14ymedia)

The national cement industry has been operating at half speed for decades, after the fall of the socialist camp and the end of the Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s. In 2016, only slightly more than 1.4 million tons of gray cement were produced, a figure that is far from the 5.2 million reached that same year in the Dominican Republic, according to a report by the Association of Producers.

“They gave me a subsidy to buy sand, steel bars, cement and a water tank,” says Moraima, who owns a house that lost part of its roof and the wall of the facade in La Colonia, a neighborhood in the municipality of Regla on Havana Bay. “We went to the bulk sales place and they have the materials, but all the workers told me to rush to buy them and move them to my house because there is instability in the supply.”

“Now the problem will be to watch over all this,” says Moraima. “Because the need is great and having all these materials outside the house will be a headache.” In the block where this Regla resident lives, the neighbors take turns to guard the blocks, the piles of cement and the metal windows that have been arriving for the reconstruction.

“We are praying that it does not rain because if it does much of this material can be lost and they have already clarified that there will be no second round in the deliveries; whatever is lost or damaged has no replenishment subsidy,” she explains.

In the vicinity of the ironworks on Reina Street at the corner of Lealtad, informal vendors whisper their merchandise. One of them, wearing a cap that says “100% Cuban” explains the list of products on offer. “Sinks, adjustable showers, vinyl paint, sand, gravel and cement.” But the price of a bag of the P350 cement that could previously be bought for between 6 and 8 CUC on the black market is now around 10.

“I can not lower the price,” he responds to a customer who tries to bargain.” There’s no cement and right now moving a bag is a tremendous danger,” he says. It is common that after the damages caused by the passage of hurricanes and tropical storms, the Police reinforce controls on the informal sale of construction materials.

“They are searching the trucks and even the pedicabs they see with bags that could be cement, sand and gravel,” the informal vendor tells this newspaper. “They have already fined two friends of mine who are also engaged in this business and confiscated all their merchandise.” Most of these “thick” materials sold in illegal networks come from the bulk sales centers.

The merchants buy them wholesale in these places, and then repackage them and resell them at retail taking a good slice. “But now things have gotten bad at the bulk sales places and they are only selling to people who come with the papers showing they were affected by the tornado,” he says.

List of materials “subsidized” by 50% by the State for sale to people with homes affected by the tornado. (14ymedio)

“We are closed to the public and we are only taking care of the victims,” the employee of the bulk sales outlet located in La Timba neighborhood, a few meters from the Plaza of the Revolution and far from the areas where the tornado passed, repeated in tone that brooked no argument on Friday. His statement set off expressions of dissatisfaction among customers who came to stock materials for their domestic renovations.

“And now those of us who are already building, what we are to do?” protests a young man who had come to buy some sand and cement. “My work is paralyzed, the contracted bricklayers and all the work of months without being able to finish because I am lacking some sacks of cement.” An informal vendor approaches, speaks to him in a low voice and, after a few minutes of conversation, they both leave in a small tricycle towards a nearby house.

In 2017, a network for the resale of building materials in Pinar del Río was uncovered and seven people were convicted of the crimes of hoarding and illegal sale of cement and steel bars, among other products. Three of them received one year prison sentences and four spent 10 months in prison.

“This business has its risks, especially when there is an emergency,” says a cement and steel vendor.” It is the moment when we profit the most but also when it is most dangerous to do it.”

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

The Plastic Bottle is Invading Us

Clogged drains, fish eating the plastic, and dirty rivers are some of the country’s problems caused by bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, February 7, 2019 — Together with her kitchenware, Dagmary has several plastic containers that once held soft drinks. “We use these bottles to hold water or save milk,” this Matanzas native living in Havana explains to 14ymedio. The so-called “cucumbers” make up part of the domestic scenery but have also invaded public roads, the coasts, and the countryside.

Clogged drains, fish eating the plastic, and dirty rivers are some of the country’s problems caused by bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Although forceful campaigns have arisen in other countries to reduce their presence, in Cuba the strategy to reduce them has not quite taken off.

“Every morning when I arrive to set up my rod, it’s a mess of plastic bottles,” laments César, a 48-year-old fisherman who arrives very early in the morning at the entrance of Havana Bay. “A few years ago having a plastic bottle was almost a luxury and families kept them to do a ton of things, but now they throw them out everywhere,” he points out. continue reading

“I’ve found little fish trapped inside these bottles and once I caught one that had eaten a piece of a cap,” remembers César.

A 2016 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms that the presence of microplastics has been found in 800 species of mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.

A study carried out in Cienfuegos by the biologist Arianna García Chamero confirmed the presence of these microplastics in Jagua Bay. “It hit me that the levels there are sometimes similar to, even greater than, the ranges found by studies in ecosystems of very industrialized places on the planet,” explained the scientist to the local press.

Currently, Cuba Law No. 1,288 obligates all state-owned bodies to deliver waste, especially plastics, to the Raw Materials Recovery Companies, but the majority of these waste products end up in garbage dumps. The same occurs in the residential sector, due to the lack of a mechanism to separate trash and the absence of recycling education.

Individual pickers dig through trash containers on public streets in search of these products in order to bring them to the more than 310 state-owned raw material collection centers in the country. In tourist areas they can also be seen gathering water bottles left by visitors and soft drink and beer cans.

“Everything that we don’t see in time to take out of the dumpster ends up in the garbage dumps,” explains José Carlos, a retiree who after working four decades at the gas company spends his days trash-diving in search of something that could be useful. “I prefer to look for cans and pieces of metal because Raw Materials pays us by the weight of the merchandise and plastic weighs much less,” he says.

“Sometimes I pick up plastic bottles that have no damage, that aren’t smashed or dirty, to sell them to yogurt producers who pay well for them,” he comments. “But if they’re not like that I don’t pick up bottles, although when there’s some outdoor concert and they sell little bottles of soft drinks…” he says with a smile.

On the island there is no restriction on the sale of plastic containers in public places, not even near nature parks like they have implemented in several European and Latin American countries. For the majority of Cubans, a plastic bottle is still a symbol of status or of economic solvency instead of an environmental problem.

“We’re passing from being a country where the only thing people had to save something in was glass bottles — sometimes they lasted years in a kitchen — to one where parents want to send their child to school with a new plastic water bottle each week,” believes César, the fisherman. “Then, all that ends up here,” he points out the trash in the water of Havana bay.

In 2017 an experimental trap was installed in the Almendares river, to the west of the Cuban capital, to trap the animals, logs, plastic bottles, and remains of containers that were floating in the water. The obstacle blocks them from reaching the mouth but the trash collection has to be done manually, so it’s not a system that can be applied on a large scale.

“A change can only come from education, from all people getting involved, not only cleaning and collecting the plastic but also using fewer disposable bottles,” explains Oliver González, a young biochemist who with a group of friends is promoting a campaign for “a coast free of plastic.” “We have to start at home because if people don’t help from their homes, little can be done.”

“We’ve gone to several private businesses to speak with the owners and tell them to buy less bottled water for their clients and offer more treated water in the same businesses,” he says. “But many respond that tourists want safe water, and so the cycle continues.”

Two years ago a study was carried out to apply in Cuba some of the recycling technologies that have been tested successfully in other countries, according to what Estela Domínguez, vice director general of businesses of the Union of Raw Materials Recovery Companies (UERMP), told the official press. The project should start in Havana and with the sorting of waste in people’s own homes, but the complex economic situation of the island has slowed its implementation.

“We had everything prepared, even a broadcast campaign in the national media to create a greater awareness and for people to start separating trash in their homes and to use less disposable plastic,” a UERMP official who preferred to remain anonymous explains to this newspaper. “But the task is titanic and requires resources that we currently don’t have, like selling domestic containers to categorize waste at a subsidized price and changing packaging concepts.”

“In the case of plastic containers we have a problem because this type of trash has grown with the increase in tourism, because they use them a lot for bottled water and soft drinks.”

“We have to take the plastic bottle down from the altar we have placed it on,” he says, “and make Cubans see that it brings more problems than benefits.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Black Friday Arrives in Cuba in the Hands of Private Businesses

Websites selling products that can be shipped to Cuba try to motivate users to join Black Friday. “Free delivery for orders over $100!” (Screen Capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 23 November 2018 — Without long lines outside stores or massive orders via Amazon or store windows decorated for the occasion, we have Black Friday in Cuba, a practice that has come  with the private sector and that this year has featured extensive offerings in the informal market.

“If you send text message with the #BlackFriday hashtag, we discount 20%,” says an ad spread across several websites offering purchases and shipments to Cuba. Benefitting from the sales are both Cuban emigrants who send products to family and friends in Cuba, as well as self-employed entrepreneurs who order the merchandise to sell on the Island. The offers are included range from dishes, through mobile phones to food supplements. continue reading

“It’s about motivating people to join this practice of Black Friday that is increasingly spreading to more countries,” says Yusimí, 40, an informal saleswoman of toiletries, cosmetics and vitamins. “This year we have had many orders and we have also offered special combos for the date.”

Originating in the United States, “Black Friday” marks the start of the Christmas shopping season and is characterized by its significant reductions in prices. Custom now dictates that  Cyber Monday is celebrated on the following Monday. Its original intention was to boost digital sales that had once taken place on “Black Friday” in physical stores, but today these borders do not exist and “Cyber Monday” focuses on selling technological products at tempting prices both on-line and in street-front stores.

As a practical matter, Cubans living on the island cannot make online purchases because very few have a credit card. For this they depend on emigrants, and thanks to them and to the sites that ship to Cuba they can take advantage of these offers. “Sales and gifts, free delivery,” read an email sent to thousands of people and intended for Cuban emigrants. The discounts were only valid until 23:59 on Friday.

Nobody is surprised by these options because, little by little, certain festivities and traditions that come directly from Cuban emigrants in the United States have entered the island reality. “We are taking advantage of the two-day opportunity because Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday is Black Friday,” explains Duaney, a merchant who specializes in footwear and appliances.

Although the state stores, the only ones that legally exist in the country, did not show a single sign that this Friday was commercially special, the private sellers filled that absence. “Two for the price of one,” “spend your black Friday here, so you do not miss the sales,” “it’s not Monday and it’s not Tuesday … it’s Black Friday,” were some of the improvised slogans of a sector of sales that officialdom limits.

Since the authorities banned self-employed workers from selling imported merchandise at the end of 2013, the inspectors persecute those who market these goods. But instead of disappearing, merchants have retreated to the black market and now widely use classified sites to place their products. A mobile phone number placed in an advertisement is the primary link to contact the sellers.

Instead of an automatic recording, José Luis, 38, repeats in his own voice the Black Friday sales every time an interested party calls. “If you want an appliance, the rebates are up to 15% this Friday and if you are looking for clothes, shoes or perfume we have discounts up to 35%,” he says on the phone to everyone who calls.

“We have to take advantage of this day when people have more desire to buy,” explains this young man who was born and raised in a Cuba where the government harshly stigmatized words such as “business,” “profits” and “merchant.” Part of a wide network of people who do not study or work in state-run workplaces, José Luis defines himself as “a great servant, who serves the clients what they need.”

However, he also takes advantage of the pull of consumption to peddle products that sell better accompanied by others or that
move slowly,” as he calls them. “We have good cologne, shaving foam and perfumes for men,” he explains and “for children there are backpacks with Wonder Woman and Spiderman.”

Others reject the arrival of these commercially focused dates of foreign influence. “We have reached a point where Halloween is celebrated more than Mother’s Day and where Cubans in Miami dictate to the family here that they should eat turkey instead of pork,” a retiree complained on Thursday, as he stood in line at a Western Union office on 3rd street in Havana’s Miramar district.

Most of those waiting to collect their remittances sent by relatives from the United States had a plan to celebrate Thanksgiving, more to please their families across the Straits of Florida than becuase of their own desires. Some also thought to set aside some of the money to spend on Black Friday.

The compulsion to buy that characterizes this Friday in other regions of the planet is still limited in the island, where in recent months the shortages of products have worsened in the network of official stores. So it is not uncommon to find “two-door refrigerators” for sale on the black market while state markets post a sign saying “out of salt.”

Black Friday has also coincided with the days dedicated to second anniversary remembrances of the late leader Fidel Castro, a bitter enemy of consumption. “With him in the Government, none of this would have been possible,” speculates José Luis, the seller. While in state markets posters with the face of the Commander in Chief are seen, the young merchant’s small illegal shop offers brands such as Adidas, Nike, Huawei and Dolce & Gabbana.

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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.

Flour Shortage Affects Thousands of Private Businesses in Cuba

The Cuban milling industry is going through a bad time because of the lack of raw material and problems with infrastructure. (Imsa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, November 18, 2018 — First eggs went missing, then it was sugar’s turn, and now it’s wheat flour that has been added to the list of products that are lacking in Cuban markets. The valuable ingredient is the basis of many recipes that are sold in private businesses, like sweets, breads, and pizzas, and so its absence puts the menus of these cafes and private restaurants in crisis.

The problems started in the middle of this year, when the lack of spare parts for mills and a drop in the arrival of raw material caused a shortage of wheat flour, as Jesús Rodríguez, first vice president of the Business Group of Food Industry (GEIA), told the official press at that time.

After the crisis generated by the deficit of the product in the markets for several weeks, authorities decided to import 15,000 additional tons to guarantee the preparation of bread for the rationed market and bread bound for social assistance. However, the hard currency stores remained secondary in the distribution. continue reading

Without a wholesale market to go to, the self-employed must buy from the network of retail businesses. “A few months ago we could still find a 5-kilo bag of flour but now not even the 1-kilo is available,” laments Jesús Ruiz, a vendor of sweets on Calle Infanta in Havana.

“For our business flour is the main ingredient, because pastries, cakes, and all the other sweets that we sell are made from flour,” the entrepreneur explains to 14ymedio. “When there is none, we can only remain open selling soft drinks and shakes, so we have a lot of losses, it’s as if they have taken away the oxygen that allows us to breathe as a cafe,” he points out.

Traditionally many owners of private businesses go to the black market to stock up on flour. The product arrives in the informal business network after being diverted [i.e. stolen] from bakeries on the rationed system and other state centers. However, the deficit of the past few months has sharpened the administrative controls and notably diminished the illegal sale of flour.

The shortage of the crucial ingredient “isn’t going to have a short-term solution,” according to an employee of the José Antonio Echevarría mill in Havana, one of the principal wheat processing centers in the country. The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, attributes the deficit to the “terrible situation of the infrastructure” of the industry.

“The spare parts that we were waiting for haven’t arrived, and the mill is far below its capacity, it’s only milling to satisfy the demand of the subsidiary services, like the one-pound loaf and whatever is bound for schools or work centers,” he clarifies. “From the 500 tons daily that we were expecting to be processing by this time of the year, we aren’t doing even a fifth of that.”

“But it’s not only a problem of parts, but also that the transporting of cereals via Cuba Railways and other methods isn’t functioning well,” adds the mill worker. “Sometimes the merchandise stays in our warehouses and deteriorates because they don’t come to pick it up in time.” Nevertheless, he emphasizes that the whole situation has worsened in the past few weeks because of the lack of raw material.

“There’s no money to buy wheat and even if we had a great industry with all new equipment, we can’t make miracles if there aren’t products to put through the mills,” he specifies. “Wheat flour is considered a strategic line of goods and it is like this for us, what will remain for other industries that aren’t prioritized,” he questions.

Something similar is happening at the Turcios Lima plant, also in the capital, which for the past few years hasn’t managed to regain the 130 tons of wheat that it obtained once a day. The other three mills, out of the five in the country, are located in Matanzas, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, all of them in a deteriorated technical state.

In the portfolio of opportunities for foreign investment is included the assembly of a wheat mill for processing 300,000 tons of flour each year at a cost of $120 million, but the offer has generated little interest until now.

“Most affected are the businesses that sell Italian food,” says Ricardo Valdés, courier at a restaurant specializing in pizza and pasta in Havana’s Chinatown. “The flour reserves that we had for some emergency are running out and we don’t know if we are going to be able to remain open by the end of the year,” he tells this newspaper.

In the Milling Factory of Havana, located in the Regla municipality, the telephones haven’t stopped ringing in the last few weeks with calls from self-employed people worried about the supply of the product. The joint-venture, specializing in flours, semolina, and wheat bran, processes the majority of the merchandise that ends up on the shelves of stores that sell in convertible pesos.

In the last year packages of flour of a foreign make, originating primarily in Italy and Spain but also Mexico, have also arrived at these businesses. “We don’t have foreign flour now, either, because we ran out even though it’s more expensive than the nationally produced kind,” assures an employee of La Puntilla market, one of the best stocked in the capital.

“When we put out a few packets they run out right away because the self-employed take them,” says the employee. “We’ve had to put limits on purchases so that people don’t take 10 or 20 packets at once, but this doesn’t solve the problem.”

A few meters away, a private business offers empanadas, pizzas, and churros. “We are going to stay open until we run out of our last bag of flour but after that we will have to close,” says the owner. The self-employed man believes that a solution could be allowing people to import the product in a private manner. “But that would be asking a lot because they don’t allow us commercial import.”

The entire vast framework of businesses, small shops, points of sale, and the most sophisticated restaurants that operate on a basis of flour wait for the state to manage to revive production or permit private people to bring in the basic ingredient from other countries.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Caring for the Elderly to Have a Home in Havana

The psychologist Indira Villavicencio says that due to the great need that exists “for caregivers right now in the country, it happens that people without preparation or who are not trained to care for the elderly in all aspects, are in charge of their care.”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 1 November 2018 — The promise to be included in the will, 60 convertible pesos a month and a roof over her head in Havana is what Rebecca, from Guantanamo, receives for taking care of an elderly couple in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood. This phenomenon, not exempt from risks, is increasingly common on the Island, where the number of senior citizens is growing.

With a deficit of residential care facilities and social workers, the authorities have recognized that elder care is riddled with legal loopholes. The Government has authorized a self-employment license to act as caretaker for the elderly, for which the self-employed person receives a payment, but any other terms of the agreement between caregivers and the elderly (or their relatives) are merely verbal, outside the law and may be breached by one of the two parties.

“I started doing this work out of necessity, because I arrived in Havana and had nowhere to live,” recalls Rebecca, a divorcee with two children, one of whom lives with her in home of the retired couple. “It is hard work because not only is it my job to ensure that they are fed, they are clean and they take their medication, but I also have to give them affection,” she says. continue reading

Working as a nurse for more than 15 years in a polyclinic in the city of Guantanamo has helped her to practice her new profession. “Most of the people who are now caring for the elderly come from the Public Health sector,” says Rebeca. “There we learn many procedures that are important when looking after a senior citizen.”

On the shelf of the living room where the elderly couple live there is a photograph from more than a decade ago where you can see the parents, who stayed in Cuba, together with the children who emigrated. The two children send money from the United States to pay the caregiver, along with packages of food and disposable diapers. “But they almost never call and haven’t come for three years,” explains Rebeca.

In the same block, six other elderly people live in similar situations, some receive remittances and others live through begging. There are also those who suffer from lack of attention or mistreatment or who only survive because the neighbors have taken charge of their care.

The practice of caring for dependent elderly people in order to obtain some benefits in return has meant that many Cubans do not live their last years alone, but it also entails great dangers when either party fails to comply with its part of the agreement, especially for dependent seniors.

“It is a common situation for old people to put in their will someone who will take care of them, but after that person has rights over the house, they often don’t do their part,” laments Iloisa who works for a notary in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality. “The risks are high if the family can not control whether everything is going well and that the elderly person is receiving good care.”

Marisabel Ferrer García, head of the Labor Directorate of the municipality of Diez de Octubre, recently acknowledged in the official press that “it is very risky to install an unknown individual inside the home, due to the risk of robbery and mistreatment,” but that it is still a very helpful solution.

At the Zanja Street Police Station in Havana, reports of elders suffering from abuse are common, an officer on duty explains to 14ymedio, showing the file where the complaints are received. “We have had cases of very old people locked in small rooms so they do not escape and even tied to beds or with clear signs of malnutrition,” he explains.

“As a general rule, when we receive these complaints, we pass them on to social workers to visit the place, but we can’t do much,” he admits. “The harshest cases we have had are with caregivers who tell the family, who do not live in Cuba, that they are taking good care of the old man, but in reality it is not like that, they mistreat him and even rob him.”

“Many times caregivers for the elderly focus all their attention on physical needs, especially for those who have mobility problems and are confined inside their homes, but that is a time when the individual needs a lot of affection and emotional support,” psychiatrist Indira Villavicencio explains to this newspaper.

For Villavicencio, due to the great need that exists “for caregivers right now in the country, it happens that people without preparation or who are not trained to care for the elderly in all aspects, are in charge of their care and without the presence of the elderly’s children or relatives to supervise their work.”

The mistreatment of the elderly is rarely reported, points out the psychologist, “because the elderly do not have the ability to tell an authority to help them, because they fear ending up more alone if they lose their caregiver or because they are afraid of suffering greater reprisals from the caregiver,” she 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.

Havana Turns 500 With its Infrastructure and Services Anchored in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey

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

Food Markets Without Refrigerators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Sector Courier Beats Cuban Postal Service

Cubans can now enjoy home delivery (14ymedio)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dengue Fever is in Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artemisa, The Clandestine Dairy of Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

The Remains of the Energy Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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