There Isn’t Enough Beer For So Many ‘Yumas’ / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

3.5 million tourists visited Cuba in 2015. (EFE)
3.5 million tourists visited Cuba in 2015. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Viñales and Havana, 6 February 2016 – First they ran out of water bottles, then packaged juices became scarce, and now it is difficult to find fresh fruit. This is how a hostess of tourist rooms in Viñales describes the situation there with the significant increase of tourism in Cuba and the problems of supplies.

During 2015, 3,524,779 foreign visitors arrived on the island, according to the latest official figures, an increase of some 17.4% over the prior year. However, the number of hotel rooms and private homes offering accommodation has not grown just as quickly. Other services, such as airports, food services and transportation, have also appeared to be overwhelmed by the flood.

The beautiful valley of Viñales, with its attractive mogotes and range of nature tourism, has experienced months of great demand. “Now we have more tourists here than locals,” exaggerates Paco, an 81-year-old who owns a house near the well-known Indian Cave. From his doorway he can see the incessant caravan of buses that brings visitors to the beautiful underground attraction.

“Before I sat down here,” he notes from his wooden armchair, “I saw at least ten To one side of his house, a family that owns a private restaurant reinforces Paco’s view. “We are struggling to maintain our menu, because between the shortages and the number of tourists that are coming it’s getting very difficult,” says Zoila, the restaurant’s cook. continue reading

The market stalls show the effects of the increased demand. Every day 5,000 tourists visit Viñales, slightly more than one-sixth of the number of residents. They come looking for products like fresh fruit, lobster, shrimp, rum, beer and, of course, the local tobacco. “Sometimes we have to go to other towns to find papayas and oranges for breakfast,” says a woman who rents rooms to tourists.

She acknowledges, however, that she is “happy” with the surge of visitors. “Bring more, we’re profiting,” she repeats a very popular phrase exuding optimism, although she would like to improve the town’s infrastructure, “to solve these bottlenecks.”

There are 60 private sector restaurants in the Viñales valley with a high demand for vegetables, fruits and meats. A good share of them are supplied by the illegal market and buy directly from the farmers. “We only have imported beer,” says a sign outside one private restaurant. The local beers, Cristal and Bucanero “are not available because the ‘yumas’ [foreigners] arrive very thirsty,” a waiter comments jokingly.

A few yards away, a young man offers horseback rides through the valley for five convertible pesos for twenty minutes. “All my animals are busy now,” he tells some Canadians want a little cross country trot. “I’m full up, you’ll have to wait for the ones making the tour now to return.” The man started with four horses, and now has nine and is expecting to have fifteen this year.

In Havana, Obispo Street is buzzing at two on a Saturday afternoon. Some pedestrians choose parallel streets such as O’Reilly or Obrapia to avoid the crowds. Tour groups walk slowly with their guides, stopping to take pictures and marveling at an old woman smoking an enormous cigar or a woman dressed up in colonial-era clothing.

The whole place seems like a great Tower of Babel with the different languages heard. Among the millions of visitors who came to the island last year were some 125,000 Canadians, 36,000 Germans, 35,000 French, 32,000 British, 30,000 Spaniards and 26,000 Italians, among other nationalities.

With the beginning of Air China flights, there are also a lot of Chinese tourists beginning to arrive. “I can’t complain,” says Lucia, who rents two rooms near Plaza Vieja in the historic center. “Last year my rooms were occupied almost the whole time. I have spent a long time in this arena and have never seen anything like it,” she said.

The problem, points out the self-employed woman, has been that “the supplies in the stores and the markets haven’t kept up.” Her family has had to search everywhere to buy toilet paper, milk, soap and alcoholic or sweetened drinks, these latter to fill “the minibars in the rooms,” she said.

“Sometimes we have to go out at the crack of dawn to guarantee that there is bread for breakfast,” details Lucia. “This neighborhood has collapsed, there is no way we can maintain quality service if we don’t have an improvement in supplies,” she points out. A simple stroll through the most important stores in the area, among them the centrally located Harris Brothers, confirms her words.

“No, we haven’t had small bottles of water for weeks,” says a clerk on the ground floor when asked about that product. “They are bought by the boxful by the people who rent rooms,” she adds. The same thing happens with “beer, large bottles of Cola, and toilet paper,” she emphasizes.

Old Havana still has its chronic problems of water supply, and with the flood of customers in state and private accommodations, the prices charged by the water trucks have also risen. “There are days when even 20 CUC isn’t enough to get my water tank filled,” comments Lucia.

For Maria del Pilar Macias Rutes, general director of Quality and Operations of the Ministry of Tourism, there is “a challenge to continue to improve quality systems in order to meet the demands of the boom in tourism,” she declared this week on national television. Among them, are “programs to improve the situation in food and beverages, entertainment and shopping,” she explained.

“Havana can’t take any more,” jokes the keeper of a private restaurant near Havana Bay when asked about the volume of foreign visitors who come to his place. “We have already renovated three floors in the place and we still can’t cope,” the man comments proudly, dressed like a gentleman of the eighteenth century to attract more tourists.

The increase in visitors is also noticeable in the availability of transport. A couple of years ago there were few people waiting at the Havana Bus Tour stops, but now the lines are almost like those “for the buses to go to work,” laughs the driver of one of these double-deck buses. For five convertible pesos, the route provides a two-hour tour of the main tourist sites in the city.

The country currently has just over 60,000 rooms, of which 66.5% are in four- and five-star hotels. By 2020 there are expected to be 85,500 rooms with international standards, according to the Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero, but the signs are that the growth will have to be faster than programmed. For 2016 barely 3,700 tourist rooms will be added, and 5,600 will be renovated or improved, particularly in Havana, Varadero and Northern Keys.

In the private sector, there is a total of 28,634 licensed housing units, rooms and spaces, but some of them are intended for Cubans or are premises rented for services.

Nor do the airport terminals escape the congestion and saturation of passengers. In the Havana airport, travelers can expect to wait between an hour-and-a-half to two hours from the time their plane lands until they get out the door with their suitcases. The lines at the passport checkpoints “at times are so long they almost stretch to the steps of the plane” says a customs worker.

Customers complain about the stifling heat while waiting at the baggage claim because the air conditioning in Terminal Three, the most modern in the country, barely cools the room. “There is no toilet paper in the bathrooms, and no place to even buy a bottle of water here,” a recently arrived Argentine tourist complained this weekend.

The situation could worsen throughout the year, during which the number of visitors is expected to exceed 3.7 million, according to Deputy Minister of Tourism Mayra Garcia Alvarez; this would be 175,200 more tourists than last year.

Just outside the Havana airport the taxi drivers no longer fight for customers, it is the latter who have to try to get to one of the Panataxis as they are approaching the terminal from the street. Two men were arguing over a cart to carry their luggage. “I saw it first,” protested one, with a French accent. Finally he managed to hang on to it, but it had a broken wheel.

Night falls and tourists are pouring out of the airport to visit a country that cannot cope with meeting their expectations.

Zapya, The Network For The Disconnected / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

In Wifi zones, like this one on Havana’s La Rampa, the use of Zapya is proliferating. Users connect, download and share files through it. (14ymedio)
In Wifi zones, like this one on Havana’s La Rampa, the use of Zapya is proliferating. Users connect, download and share files through it. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 January 2016 – From their respective corners of the bench they point their phones at each other as if they were in the midst of a duel to the death. After a few seconds one of the young men shouts, “I got it!” and both smile at the effective transmission of a file with the Zapya app, an increasingly handy application for exchanging files in Cuba.

Zapya is the tool of the hour on Havana’s streets, especially among children and teens. Its users use it to exchange – easily and quickly – photos, videoclips or applications to install on their smart phones. Its creators have described it as a utility that allows transfer rates “hundreds of times faster than you get using Bluetooth.” continue reading

With a simple and intuitive interface, Zapya is available in Android and iOS versions. Its programmers boast of having exceeded 300 million users worldwide, thanks to a Chinese version that is gaining popularity among users in the Asiatic giant.

Its intuitive design makes Zapya an easy-to-use tool, with files received at an approximate speed of 10 MB per second.

For Epiphany, the traditional Christmas gift-giving day in Cuba, many children asked for “a tablet with Zapya,” which led other Cuban parents to have to deal with installing the application on their own devices. The tool has many followers in elementary schools, where the children amuse themselves exchanging songs and videos and where many teachers have started a full-out battle against the application.

“At my daughter’s school bringing phones is banned, because they spend the whole day playing games and sending little messages,” comments the mother of a nine-year-old in Havana’s Plaza district. When her daughter heads to class she goes to the park to “zapya,” explains the mother, using the word as a verb, which is spreading in popular speech.

The most attractive part of the application is the chat function, which allows the exchange of messages free, and without needing access to the internet. “This is driving the teachers crazy, because the students use it to mock the teachers, fall in love, and even send each other the answers to the tests,” says Mirtha, the mother of a teenager in high school.

In Wifi zones the use of Zapya is also proliferating. “I come, I start to download what interests me, and I’m going to send it to several friends,” says Ivan, 19, who was connected in Havana’s La Rampa area this weekend to download “videogame tricks.”

Zapya has gained ground thanks to its distribution in the so-called “weekly packet” that circulates throughout the country. Along with anti-virus updates, and other applications for smartphones, the tool has managed to reach a wide audience that uses it as a substitute for WhatsApp, because you don’t have to be connected to the web to use it.

At the end of 2015, State telecommunications industry authorities claimed that 150,000 Cubans connect to the Internet in public wifi areas every day, but the island is still among the countries with the lowest rates of connectivity in the world; only 5% of population is on-line (and only slightly over 1% are using broadband).

Among the many ways to overcome these obstacles, Zapya is today one of the most creative and popular applications. Ease of use, privacy and its ability to operate offline are keys to its success among Cubans.

Price War in Havana / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mara

TV is blaming intermediaries as primarily responsible for the rise in food prices (14ymedio)
TV is blaming intermediaries as primarily responsible for the rise in food prices (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 21 January 2016 – The imposition of price controls in some markets in Havana has provoked contradictory reactions in the population. Although it has been a relief to consumers’ pockets in the midst of the rising cost of living, the measure has been accompanied by an unwelcome raid on the cart vendors who sell agricultural products in the capital’s neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the Youth Labor Army (EJT) market on Tulipan Street in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood dawned with a singular hustle. After more than two weeks of empty stalls and worried consumers, a dozen products went on sale with controlled prices. continue reading

The measure was expected after an experiment that started earlier this month in Artemisa province, with the sale of agricultural products at “a maximum fixed value” by the Provincial Administrative Council.

In Havana, the controlled prices have not been extended to the majority of markets managed by the state farms and cooperatives. “This market has been one of the first to test the experiment,” said a vendor at the market administered by officials of the EJT.

The young man, whose stall was selling pineapples, yucca and other products, seemed apologetic at having to charge a customer 2.80 Cuban pesos (CUP) for a pound of guavas. The same quantity of product hadn’t dropped below 20 CUP at the end of last year. “This can’t last long, because eight guavas for six pesos can’t be maintained,” the employee complained.

A very different picture was developing in the central market of Egido, managed by private sellers and intermediaries. Since the beginning of the week a pound of red beans has held steady at 16 CUP and pork hasn’t fallen below 50 CUP for months. Despite the high prices, the quality of the merchandise attracted dozens of buyers on Tuesday.

“We’ll see how long they keep it up,” comments Gerardo, a truckdriver who brings goods from private farms in Alquizar to the well-known market. “Since the beginning of the year they’re making our lives hell on the highway,” he says, referring to the escalation of police controls on all the trucks carrying farm products and trying to enter the capital.

“Now we even have to show proof that we bought the fuel legally,” complains Gerardo, who says “with these decisions prices are going to shoot up.”

Next to him, a customer was shocked by taro at 15 CUP a pound, threatening to leave “for the EJT” but ending up buying it there. “A ride from Boyeros and Tulipan costs me 10 CUP. What I’ll save on one thing I’ll spend on another. Anyway, the quality isn’t the same, here it is always better because ‘the master’s eye fattens the horse’,” she concludes.

Television has accompanied the price controls with reports blaming intermediaries for the rise in prices. An appeal recently published by the National Union of Agricultural and Forestry Workers called for the total elimination of intermediaries saying that this would “contribute to a lowering of prices.”

Havana residents are in the midst of a silent price war between the State and private vendors which has almost completely eliminated from the urban landscape an element they has already become common: vendors with rolling carts. These improvised “kiosks with wheels” bring access to agricultural markets to distant places and offer their goods house-to-house.

The Youth Labor Army market in Tulipan Street, Havana. (14ymedio)
The Youth Labor Army market in Tulipan Street, Havana. (14ymedio)

Julia, who lives at Espada and San Lazaro Streets, says she is willing to pay “when I see a cart in the street.” With a bedriddem mother, she comments that she doesn’t have “the time or money to go a long way to buy food.”

Tato, one of the cart vendors who for years has sold near the park at Infanta and San Lazaro, was sitting on a wall this Tuesday with his legendary cart. “The inspectors they send take everything, the police won’t let us live anymore,” he says. He says the suppliers have had their goods confiscated on the roads entering the city.

The old man is convinced that what is happening now has been ordered by Raul Castro. “But let’s see how long the joke of controlled prices lasts,” he says.

Meanwhile, a young employee at the EJT market cajoled a girl looking undecidedly at pineapples. “Buy them now, my girl, you don’t know when they’ll run out. It’s the right gift for Epiphany, just a little late.”

Young People In Cuba Start Drinking Earlier / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

45% of Cubans over 15 consume alcoholic beverages. (Luz Escobar)
45% of Cubans over 15 consume alcoholic beverages. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 18 January 2016 – From the bar home, from home to the bar, so passes the life of Fico, a Havanan of 65 who has struggled for more than two decades against alcoholism. His situation is frequently repeated in a society where more than 45% of those over age 15 drink alcohol, according to research by the National Unit for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention published this Monday in the official press.

Cubans between 15 and 44 are the most frequent consumers of alcohol. Differences in consumption between the sexes are also narrowing, and drinking is no longer a “man’s thing” as was erroneously believed until recently. continue reading

The most recent studies warn that Cuban women are increasing their consumption of alcohol. The share of men who drink is 47% while for women it is more than 19%. In the case of women, they suffer greater rejection, being in a macho society, and they wait longer to seek expert help.

Experts also warn that alcohol does more harm to women because they have less body fluid than men. The saturation or condensation of substances in the body is higher and the level of toxicity faster and more intense for women.

A survey in 2014 showed that consumption before age 15 is more common in men than women, with rates of 11% vs. 3% respectively.

Alcoholism is among the top ten causes of death in Cuba. In late 2015, a report form the National Transportation Directorate detailed that in that year in Cuba, 17 people had lost their lives and more than 140 were injured in traffic accidents where it was shown that some of the parties had higher levels of alcohol than permitted.

Urban areas have the highest rates of alcohol consumption, both for men and women, but overall the highest rates were recorded in the central region of the country, where 53% of men are drinkers.

Education also influences consumption, as women with higher levels of education levels consumed more alcohol, some 24% more than those with the least schooling. Among men, however, the opposite phenomenon occurs and the highest percentage of drinkers is among those with little education.

Health officials are calling on the Community Mental Health Centers and specialized consultations in polyclinics to make a call to help those in need of treatment or counseling for alcohol issues.

There are more than 200 Alcoholics Anonymous groups in the country, with the entry of that organization into Cuba dating back to 1993; they mainly hold their meetings in facilities provided by Catholic and evangelical churches.

In the Labyrinth of Taxes / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

This year the Cuban Tax Office has added the ability for taxpayers to send their statements by email.
This year the Cuban Tax Office has added the ability for taxpayers to send their statements by email.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 13 January 2016 – Several scribbled papers and a severe headache is what Claribel got this Monday, when the self-employed dressmaker started to fill out her tax form. With the recent start of the tax campaign for the 2015 tax year, doubts are arising about how best to comply with the duties to the Treasury.

Officials of the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) call on people not to delay and to pay their taxes before the 30 April, deadline. The chief of the state entity, Yamile Perez Diaz, criticized those delinquent during a press conference last week, although she added that “greater discipline and a tax-paying culture” is evident in the country. continue reading

This year ONAT has added the ability for taxpayers to send the main form, known as DJ-08, by email. The move could speed up receipt of the document and guarantee that it reaches the right hands, instead of getting lost in the inefficient Cuban postal service.

However, the improvements announced are not enough for people like Claribel, who for most of her life only heard about taxes as an evil of the capitalist past. For her, filling out the declaration presents obstacles almost impossible to overcome. “Next year I’ll hire someone to help me even though I will have to give them give part of my earnings,” she says.

Mairell Naranjo offers financial advice to small private businesses and also handles all of the license holder’s ONAT paperwork. Her specialty is the payment of monthly and quarterly taxes, plus the preparation of the tax return.

Services like those offered by Naranjo are well received among the the country’s 496,400 self-employed. Computerized tools that help keep track of a business and accurately calculate profits and taxes have also begun to be available.

Under the name Cuentapro, a tax program sold on the informal market that allows “efficient management of accounts,” according to Alexander, the young man who created it. It keeps a thorough record of payments to employees, costs for buying goods, and un-taxed earnings, letting the self-employed person know “what goes into our pocket and what we have to give ONAT,” says one of the sellers of the software.

Like every year, those who meet their tax obligations before 28 February will be entitled to a discount of 5%. Last year, only 67% of taxpayers filed for this benefit.

In 2015, the gross income declared by the self-employed totaled 3.825 billion Cuban pesos. This represented an increase of one billion over the previous year. However, 68,000 taxpayers were called to account by ONAT for declaring incomes below those estimated by the tax administration itself.

Number of Self-employed in Cuba is Dropping / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Sale and preparation of food is the sector with the highest number of self-employment licenses. (14ymedio)
Sale and preparation of food is the sector with the highest number of self-employment licenses. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 January 2016 – The number of self-employed workers in Cuba decreased throughout 2015, as confirmed by the official press on Monday. In the middle of last year there were 504,600 people working for themselves, while at the end of December the number was 496,400.

Of those working in the private sector, 65% are in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba, as detailed in a report by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. continue reading

Among the activities with the greatest weight in the private sector are preaparing and selling food, with 56,270 licenses granted; the transport of freight and passengers with 50,482 self-employed workers; and the leasing of houses, rooms and spaces with a total of 28,634 self-employed people.

These occupations are followed by telecommunication agents, which total 24,195 across the island, while contract workers total 114,000, 22% of self-employed Cubans.

In its report, the ministry states that of the total number of people authorized to be self-employed, at least 17% are paid by the state sector. Youth and women account for 30% of all self-employed in the country and retirees represent 12%.

At present, there are just over 200 activities approved for this type of non-state labor. The high taxes, the absence of a wholesale market, the excessive controls and the inability to import commercial goods, hinder the performance of the sector.

The decrease in the number of self-employed could be interpreted as hitting the “natural limit” in self-employment since the flexibilities initiated in 2010. However, specialists at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security expect the number to grow “gradually,” and that added to this form of management will be “a set of dining establishments and services to the population” that will remain under state ownership.

More Than 10,000 Food Services Paralyzed In Villa Clara For Health Infractions / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Hygiene rules require workers to protect food from human hair and not to take money with the same hand that served the food. (EFE)
Hygiene rules require workers to protect food from human hair and not to take money with the same hand that served the food. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 8 January 2015 – More than 10,000 services in Villa Clara have been paralyzed for health infractions, according to a report from the Department of Health Inspection Control published in the official press on Wednesday.

In addition, the repeated failure of 11 establishments to comply with the health regulations has led to their being brought to court. These businesses many not open again until the health violations are resolved.

Food exposed for hours, undercooked meat, and inadequate cleaning are some of the most common health infractions detected in2015 in state and private food services in the province. The inspections led to the closure of 19 food establishments in Villa Clara, the withdrawal of 1,200 licenses for self-employment, and the imposition of 13,000 fines. continue reading

As revealed to the press by Manuel Santos, a department official in Villa Clara, centers for the processing and sale of food, including snack bars, restaurants, coffee shoos and workers dining rooms, have been affected by the preventive measures.

Another of the most common infractions is committed by employees who serve food with their hands, without correctly using protective clothing designed for kitchens and food service. To this is added the placing of raw meat near sausages and smoked meats, increasing the risk of salmonella, a disease caused by a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea, vomiting and headache.

The drought affecting the country has aggravated the problems in hygiene in many places serving food, as their water supply has diminished in recent months. Other difficulties, including acquiring detergent, transport, and appropriate refrigeration equipment affect both government and private businesses.

Health standard violations storing, handling and preparation of food put consumers’ health at risk. First Deputy Health Minister Jose Angel Portal Miranda confirmed in the National Assembly, last December, that acute diarrheal diseases had decreased by 13.5% in 2015 over the previous year, but not as much as in 2014 when they were down 25.6% compared to 2013.

In recent weeks television has reinforced messages urging consumers to avoid eating foods that have not been properly protected, or that have some into contact with dust or flies. The adds alert staff not to handle food with the same hand that touches money.

Cellphones Widen Social Differences in Cuba / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

A 'clinic' to repair cellphones. (14ymedio)
A ‘clinic’ to repair cellphones. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 28 December 2015 – A house in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, a German Shepherd dog, or a Rolex watch were some of the most prestigious status symbols in Cuba some years ago. But with the new technologies, these now include having a latest generation computer or cellphone. Cellphones increasingly reflect the purchasing power of their owners.

Some 800,000 new mobile phone lines have been established in the country this year, but only 324,400 physical phones have sold through the State networks. The difference suggests that more than half of the phones in customers’ hands have been acquired through illegal networks or brought in from abroad. continue reading

The limited number of models available and the high prices for cellphones in the State stores contrasts with the diversity offered by the informal market. While the illegal networks offer latest generation models and operating systems that support the installation of apps, the “Telepuntos” of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA (ETECSA) display a limited supply of outdated models at prohibitive prices.

“We have everything, original and Chinese imitations of almost all the phone models on the market,” says “El Micky,” a technology seller exhibiting his wares in a doorway on centrally located Carlos III Street in Havana. “Most buyers are looking for touch phones, although we also have simpler models with large keys, targeted more towards older people,” the young man explains.

Prices in the black market vary according to the performance of the device. “We have them from 15 CUC (under $20), to the iPhone 6 Plus, which is hard to find for under 450 CUC,” El Micky elaborates, adding that the most popular are the ones with removable micro SD memory because customers want, “to put their own music or videos on the phone, or save files.”

State phone offerings are a very different picture. Currently the only models available cost more than 50 CUC, are made by Alcatel, and feature technology several years out-of-date.

“Few people buy these phones, because right there in the doorway there are illegal vendors selling something cheaper and of better quality,” an employee of a State Telepunto located in the Miramar Trade Center told 14ymedio. On the other side of the window two men with a backpack where whispering what they had for sale, among them the latest Samsung Galaxy phones which just appeared in the international market.

Last Tuesday, Cuban television also addressed this issue through a report presented by journalist Manuel Lazaro Alonso. Yisel Fernandez, head of ETECSA’s marketing department, said in the program that they are selling “about five different cell phone models ranging from 37 to 166 CUC.”

State prices are related to “the quality of the products we sell. Our company is charged, of course, with finding phones with better features, better benefits,” added Fernandez. Customers, however, do not feel the same.

“I also need a phone I can use to connect in the wifi zones, and these models won’t let me do that,” said a customer who, after waiting in a long line outside the Bishop Street Telepoint found that they had run out of the device he wanted.” I’ll have to check on Revolico [Cuba’s illegal “Craiglist”] to see what I can find,” concluded the young man.

The State telephone monopoly has never offered plans that include the phone when a customer contracts for service. “Here everything has to be paid for in advance, and they don’t offer any incentives,” complained José Manuel, a 47-year-old Spaniard working for a Cuban joint venture company. “I recently managed to change my pre-paid mobile for a contract plan, but I am able to do that because I am a foreigner with a work contract here, but Cubans can’t do it.”

The problems, however, don’t end with the purchase of the physical phone. Customers complain that there are few spare parts and limited services provided by the State-owned repair shops.

Since 2008, the year when Cubans were legally allowed to open a cell phone contract, prices to activate a line have been dropping. There have also been ​​some reductions in the cost per minute for national and international calls or for sending text messages, but cellphone service still remains a luxury for many people .

With the recent opening of the wifi hotspots that provide access to international e-mail and digital pages, the modernity and performance of handsets has become a determining factor. This is now the border that separates the true internaut from the disconnected Cuban.

Teacher’s Day in Cuba: Gifts and Taking Stock / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Secondary school students during a cultural activity. (14ymedio)
Secondary school students during a cultural activity. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 22 December 2015 – On Tuesday there will be no classes in any elementary or secondary school in Cuba. Educator’s Day is a time of celebration, when teachers receive congratulations and gifts. The practice does not compensate for the rigors of the profession, but at least it is a gesture of thanks from parents and students toward professionals who suffer from low salaries and the precarious material conditions of their classrooms.

In the more than 10,350 educational institutions throughout the country, this will be a day of celebration and taking stock. The 2015-2016 school year has barely made it to the end of its first semester, but since the beginning has been hobbled by the deficit of thousands of teachers at the front of the classrooms. Last September, only 95.2% of the demand for teachers was met, but the situation has worsened as the weeks have passed and more teachers have deserted the profession. continue reading

Better economic rewards would contribute to reducing the movement to other work, most education professionals agree. Teachers have been waiting for years for a pay increase consistent with the effort they expend, but its coming has been postponed over and over.

“I have been putting off retiring, waiting for a raise, but I can’t wait any longer,” says Melba, 68, a fourth grade teacher in a Havana primary school. After more than three decades of work, the educator says she stays in her job “for love of the profession.” And she adds, “Many of my students today are the children of others I’ve had in the classroom, so I owe it to them.”

In 2014, workers in the public health sector were given a wage increase, some of them seeing a doubling of their salaries to more than 1,000 Cuban pesos a month, the equivalent of about $40 US. However, personnel in the Ministry of Education have not enjoyed a similar benefit.

The authorities in the sector have seized on student volunteers to fill the void left in classrooms by the continued migration of professionals towards better paid activities. More than 10,000 students are helping to meet the deficit in classroom teachers right now, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) reported last Wednesday.

Substitutes, however, fail to resolve the problem. “They do not come with sufficient preparation and do not last long in the job,” the director of a primary school in Havana’s Cerro district told 14ymedio. “Previously teachers loved their work and prepared the students in different subjects, as well as passing on ethical values, and this is harder and harder to find,” explained an official who asked to remain anonymous.

Yosvel, who served as a teacher of Spanish and literature for a decade, now manufactures footwear for the casual market. “I loved my job, but I love my family and I could no longer bring home the little I was earning,” he says. However, he says he is willing to return to his profession if a salary increase is decreed, because “this is the most beautiful job in the world.”

On the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where thousands of Cubans throng on their way to the United States, Yordon “the prof” sleeps on a makeshift mattress. Born in Sancti Spiritus and trained in the pedagogical institute in his province, he spent four years teaching teach math at a junior high school, but now longs “to work at least in construction in Miami.”

The exodus and desertions affect the whole country, although the situation is more difficult for teachers in the capital and in Matanzas province, according to Minister of Education Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella. Education authorities call for a greater sacrifice and awareness from teachers, but the slogans do not seem sufficient to keep them in front of the blackboard.

In a message sent by the minister for Educator’s Day, she calls on teachers to march “in the vanguard embracing the future.” She adds, “The success of our socialism will depend largely on what we are capable of doing.” The text was read at the morning assembly at countless Cuban schools this morning, a few minutes before the teachers entered the classrooms to share a piece of cake and refreshments.

“Today is one of those days when I was glad I hadn’t asked to retire, but the rest of the year I think about it all the time,” says Melba, whose students, this Tuesday, have brought her gifts ranging from scented soaps to a pen-shaped USB flash drive.

A Math Test Shielded Against Fraud / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Students waiting to access the admission examination in mathematics at Havana’s José Miguel Pérez High School. (14ymedio)
Students waiting to access the admission examination in mathematics at Havana’s José Miguel Pérez High School. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunida Mata, Havana 28 april 2015 — “This is more protected than Plaza of the revolution,” a teenager joked this Monday just before sitting down for the math test for college admission. Yesterday, dozens of schools across the country held the difficult test to enter higher education. The rigor of the evaluation content has increased this year, after a string of cases of fraud that marred last year’s test.

The National Committee of Admission and Job Placement of the Ministry of Higher Education made a prior call for “discipline, punctuality and rigor” in order to carry out the process of University admission. This time, control measures have also been reinforced to deliver and protect the sheets containing the admission exams. “The chain of custody has been guaranteed,” a teacher boasted this Monday outside Old Havana High School as she answered the questions of curious parents who gathered at the site in the early hours of the morning. continue reading

Rigor has not only been expressed in greater control measures for the distribution of the exams but also in the difficulty of the tests. “They made it a difficult test,” complained a young man at the exit; for him the “math problems were complicated and the equation questions had some kind of trick.” In conversation with 14ymedio, several students expressed their suspicions that the complexity of the examination was intended to serve as a “warning” so that last year’s irregularities wouldn’t happen again.

The Municipal People’s Court of Marianao imposed, last November, heavy penalties for those responsible for leaking tests in the process of higher education admission for the academic year 2014-2015 in the province of Havana. A similar event happened at the Faculty of Medicine of Santiago de Cuba, where second year Anatomy and Statistics tests were leaked along with the fourth year English test and the well-known state test that all sixth year students must cope with.

Teachers and methodologists involved in the scandal were sentenced to from 18 months up to 8 years in prison. During the police investigation, it came out that several of these teachers trained groups of students, without legal authorization, based on the leaked test questions. The figure of the tutor – a teacher privately contracted by families, outside of the schools – has become famous in Cuba to prop up the deterioration of teaching quality in the schools themselves. 

The figure of the tutor – a teacher privately contracted by families, outside of the schools – has become famous in Cuba to prop up the deterioration of teaching quality in the schools themselves.

The events led to a new math test held on May 6, 2014, to the modification of the Spanish and history tests and to the “extraordinary repeat test for these three subjects,” as Granma newspaper explained at that time. Repeating the state test and the indefinite invalidation of the diplomas of the medical students involved in the leaking also occurred in Santiago de Cuba.

In order to avoid the repetition of such incidents in yesterday’s math exam, examination sheets were distributed to officials and managers during the weekend in sealed envelopes, requiring a signature to open them. “This year we have managed to avoid that teachers have prior access to questions; only school principals and heads of Departments are allowed to handle the exams”, assured a methodologist from the Playa municipality.

The official press echoed the words of René Sánchez, President of the National Committee on Admission and Work Placement of the Ministry of Higher Education, for whom the current round of testing is characterized by “transparency” and “purity.” As the official explained, we should now add that there is no access “to the fraudulent” in the slogan “The University is for Revolutionaries.”

This year, the majority of university openings correspond to medical, pedagogical, technical and agricultural majors. High School graduates compete for a total of 57,375 spaces in daytime course options and the so-called “encounter courses” – that is courses where students attend classes. Although there are more places than students for the examinations, much of what is offered is not of interest to young people. The pedagogical and agricultural careers are considered among the worst and students foresee them as a road to sacrifice with low wages and little social recognition.

In a few days, once the results of the tests are published, students may request a requalification process of a review of their scores.

The Spanish examination for University admission will be held on 30 April, and on May 4 that of Cuban history. In the meantime, the repeats for all these tests will take place between June 18 to 24.

Translated by Alberto