We’re Eating More, We’re Eating Worse / 14ymedio, Ignacio Varona

Fast food restaurant in Havana (14ymedio)

Fast food restaurant in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Ignacio Varona. Havana. 2 September 2014 — In a few bites he polishes off the second pizza of the day. That evening he’ll dine on “bread with something,” accompanied by a shake and a sweet. For years now he has trouble seeing his feet while standing. His stomach hangs over his extremities and other, more lamented parts. Richard was slender in his youth, but a sedentary lifestyle and an excess of calories have caused his neighbors to call him “the fat man from the third floor.” His condition is shared by the more than 43% of the Cuban population which suffers from some degree of overweight.

Obesity, that 21st-century epidemic, also wreaks havoc in our country. In the last two decades, the scales have increasingly shown higher poundage. Does this mean that we’re eating more, or eating worse? Experts such as Dr. Jorge Pablo Alfonso Guerra declare that the first alarming signs of this affliction can already be seen in adolescence. Among the causes of Cubans storing more fat than they should, Dr. Alfonso points to “inadequate nutrition, a tendency towards less physical activity, and false standards of health and beauty.”

The common diet of the country, rich in carbohydrates and animal fats, is a legacy of our culinary heritage, but it is also a result of economic adversity. “There are days when all I eat is rice and hotdogs, because that’s all I can buy,” says Eugenia Suárez, who is 5ft-31/2in tall, and weighs 254 pounds. For years she has suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and severe knee pain, due to her excess weight. Today she dreams of having bariatric surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.

Eugenia’s children are highly likely to be overweight, as well. Scientific studies have shown that the risk of obesity in children is multiplied by four if at least one parent is obese. A study produced in Havana by the anthropology department, assigned to the biology faculty of the university, determined that, between the ages of 6 and 15 years, 23% of girls and 21% of boys are overweight.

“It’s the children of those who suffered through the Special Period during their adolescence,” says Eloy R. López, endocrinologist and associate of the Institute of Nutrition and Nutritional Hygiene. “Their parents have an obsession with food and pass it on to their little ones.” According to this doctor, “the nutritional hardships that we endured in the 90s have triggered a compulsion towards constant food intake which, combined with bad culinary habits and poor food choices, create a very worrisome situation.”

Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the “beer belly” and “love handles” make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.

“Sugar consumption is very high, because with it, people try to fill other needs,” López explains. “The same happens with the flour that is often used to make a food ‘go farther’ and feed several diners.” Every week, dozens of people visit his practice who want to make the needle on the scale go backward. His patients are “mostly women because among that population in our country, obesity is more common, and also because they worry more about their physique and tend to seek help.” However, he points out that “men are more difficult to convince that they have a problem. Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the ‘beer belly’ and ‘love handles’ make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.

“I always encounter difficulties when recommending a healthier diet, because these individuals will tell me, ‘Doctor, I can’t afford that type of food,’ and they have a point, to some extent.” One grapefruit costs two Cuban pesos, the healthy pineapple can cost up to 15, and right now one pound of tomatoes costs no less than 20. “When I add it all up, a healthy diet would cost in one week what a professional earns in one month,” admits the doctor. To eat healthy in Cuba is expensive – but the problem isn’t only a monetary one.

Richard, the one whose neighbors no longer call by name, explains what it is that makes him consume so much junk food. “I live with my parents, my brother, his wife and child, the kitchen is small, and there’s almost always somebody frying or boiling something, so most of the time I have to eat out.” In the dining room at his workplace there are also no options that might help him lose weight. “Almost every day there is rice, sweet potato, custard…and the choice of vegetables is limited to cabbage for a season of the year.”

I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested.

It is rare to find anywhere in the country a cafeteria whose menu is not based on sandwiches, fried foods or highly-sweetened juices. Those that attempt to offer more healthy choices have a limited clientele and are forced to impose higher prices. “I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested,” says Miguel, a chef in a private restaurant on 3rd Street in Miramar. Instead, “fried pork morsels, pizzas, and sandwiches with mayonnaise are the most popular among diners.”

Following such indulgences, the more vain among the populace try to burn those calories in the gym, or seek faster and riskier methods to drop their extra pounds.

The Weight-Loss Business

“An obese society is a society disposed towards paying to lose weight,” affirms Dayron Castellanos, who sells diet pills. He earned a degree in physical culture and sports, but now he works in the weight-loss business. He sells via catalog such products as the Chinese-made Pai You Guo pills, whose directions for use state that they will promote “appetite reduction and effective evacuation.” To his list of “miracle remedies” are added ketones (supposed fat-burning substances), and green tea capsules.

Castellanos is not licensed to sell any of these products, most of which are not even approved by the country’s pharmaceutical authorities. His business is by word-of-mouth and classified ads. All that is needed is a phone call and a few “convertible pesos” and the customer goes home with what he thinks will be the solution for his “little rolls and spare tires.”

“I have had patients adversely affected by continued consumption of diuretic tea and other weight-loss remedies,” says Dr. R. López. “People want magical, immediate solutions, but to lose weight and keep it off, it is necessary to make permanent lifestyle changes.” However, the doctor’s opinion can barely be heard within the chorus of those hawking weight-loss products of all kinds.

Castellanos’ customers are basically members of Cuba’s emergent middle class. “This doesn’t mean that there are no overweight poor people, only that they can’t afford these pills,” says the prosperous entrepreneur. Many young women looking for quick fixes answer his ads, but older people do, too. In Cuba it is estimated that among the population older than 60, 51% of women and 30% of men are overweight to some degree. The risks of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are causing many of them to be concerned about those extra pounds.

Declining health is a problem, but those suffering from obesity have a harder time emotionally with the social and familial repercussions of their condition. “I want people to start calling me by my name again, and not ‘the fat man from the third floor,’ ” Richard concludes, as he faces a cafeteria board advertising a special of ham-and-double-cheese pizza.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuban Tourists: Filling-in the Gaps / Miriam Celaya

The truth is that I don’t know all the numbers, but I have been browsing the ad pages of Cubatur, Havanatur and all the Cuban “tours” and I found that this year the “all-inclusive” offers have increased which, since the restrictions for Cubans to stay at hotels were lifted, better-off Cubans have been taking advantage of them.

I’m not criticizing anyone for wanting to enjoy a vacation –usually short– at a beach hotel due to lower prices. After all, shortages and discriminations for decades have created a thirst for consumption and pleasure in the Cuban population that manifests itself as soon as the luckier few have an opportunity to escape the everyday filth and misery for a few days.

So, the number of regular Cubans who regularly take advantage of all-inclusive packages has been creating a clientele that feeds on the assorted neo-affluent sectors, corresponding to the most diverse groups and backgrounds: owners and employees of private restaurants, professionals who often have foreign contracts, employees of “enterprises” and shops that operate in hard currencies, the managerial caste, and even black marketers. Everyone wants their piece of Varadero to live the illusion of “I can”, despite the sorrows. And, of course, “everyone stretches out his feet as far down the sheets as they will reach” like my granny used to say, so there are those who save all year to spend a couple of nights at a three-star hotel, up to those who visit a five-star hotel in the outlying resort islands several times a year. It is, definitely, the realization of a long-cherished dream.

Well, it turns out that this year the “offers” to Cubans have skyrocketed. According to an accredited source (with the obligatory reserve), although some press reports state that foreign tourist participation has increased, the truth is that, in order to increase their income and fulfill quotas, tourist operators have had to extend and enhance the offers that so many well-off Cubans purchase. Cubans also serve to fill the gaps, so they will continue to collect fees, making use of what was, until recently, taboo: enjoyment.

This is not disclosed in the press, but it is so. That’s why the media publishes an occasional report in the news and on the regular press where there is a reference to “Cuban workers who enjoy camping facilities and beaches and recreation centers”; but I am absolutely sure that they never have dedicated one to show wealthy Cubans basking in the sun at hotels in Varadero or the outlying islands: we all know that they have already decriminalized the differences among us, but they should not be displayed so brazenly. These are the conditions to enjoy the benefits of Raúl-type socialism, aren’t they?

Translated by Norma Whiting

22 August 2014

The Unknowns Behind the Cultural Exchange / Juan Juan Almeida

Before the Portuguese awning maker and salt merchant Matias Perez* disappeared in the world, already Cuba and the United States were maintaining solid ties, including cultural exchanges, which continues being today an important part of our history and identity.

Just by glancing we can find Cuban elements in American culture and vice versa, so much so that “Cuban-American” is the highest expression of that cultural ethnic fusion between both nations.

The cultural reciprocity was frequent, artists came and went constantly. The thing got complicated during the first half of the 20th century when both governments–and I’m going to tell the truth, like it or not–began to have a relationship based on political principles so conflicting that paradoxically they made the arts sector, that of the expression of the spirit and creativity, a prisoner of circumstances. Continue reading

My Experience in Coral Park: The Church-Synagogue / Mario Lleonart

The temple of the First Baptist Church of Coral Park: “The Whale”

It was my Sunday of rest in the United States (July 20), on this voyage that I made, between July 9th and August 6th, leading a small delegation that included my wife and daughters, and four other brothers of our church in Cuba. It was my day to be seated to receive the Word.

The previous Sunday I preached in the Baptist church “Star of Bethlehem,”  in Hialeah; and in the nearly two weeks of the journey that remained, they hoped that I would preach to at least four more congregations: “Jesus Worship Center (www.iglesiadoral.org)” of Doral; the “First Hispanic Presbyterian Church” of Tampa; the “Christian House: JWC” of Kissimee; and the “Hispanic Baptist Church” of Naples. It was very opportune that this Sunday was included, because I had done so much speaking in the previous day that I had ended up literally without a voice.

The stained glass window of the Star of David

First Baptist Church of Coral Park is the congregation where brothers worship deeply and with great love for Cuba that today they wanted to dedicate to us their Sunday and their church. The same church in which pastored the well-remembered Rev. Jorge Comesañas whose name, unsurprisingly, was given to one of the neighboring streets, and especially to whom they arrived from their broken isle seeking healing for their wounds. Continue reading

Pot With Missing Cord Doesn’t Come With a Guarantee / 14ymedio, Regina Coyula

Fachada-centro-comercial-Puentes-Grandes_CYMIMA20140908_0003_13

Exterior of the new Puentes Grandes shopping center (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, Regina Coyula, 8 September 2014 — Tiendas Panamericanas [Panamerican Stores], owned by the CIMEX corporation, has just launched a grand (for Cuban national standards) shopping center. Utilizing the building formerly occupied by the old towel factory, Telva, on the corner of 26th Avenue and Calzada del Cerro street, a side addition was built, doubling the space. The opening of Puentes Grandes has been well received, being that until now only small stores have existed in that neighborhood, and the closest shopping centers — La Puntilla, Galerias Paseo, and Plaza Carlos III — are located about two miles away.

Spurred by curiosity, I visited Puentes Grandes last Saturday. Hundreds of people had flocked to the place. There was a line at the handbag security station, because bags and purses are not allowed inside stores that take convertible currency. There was another line at the entrance. We were going on half an hour already. In other circumstances I would have left, but resisted the impulse just to be able to write this article. Finally, I went through a narrow entryway where, as always, are those who wait, and those other, clever ones who butt the line. The interior entrance is quite spacious, with metal shopping carts, and other cute small plastic carts on wheels for which I predict a brief, happy life, and baskets. All is set up for the customer to select his purchases; merchandise is kept behind the counter in the perfume and household appliance departments.

A large interior arcade connects the grocery and housewares area with the hardware department, where I was detained by an employee. To go from one area to the other, you have to now go outside and re-enter, even though just days before you could walk directly between departments and check out at any register. Why is this? The employee doesn’t know, but he was assigned there to enforce the trajectory. I had placed various items in my cart, then had to stand at the register line, go outside, stand in another line to leave my purchases at the handbag security station, then go stand in another line to enter the hardware area.

Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

All Exiles Are Possible / Luis Felipe Rojas

1405566194_3When I say exile, I only think of the word life. That was what happened to me at the meeting “Fight for Liberation against Castro-communism,” which the writer Julio M. Shiling generously coordinated and which was held at the West Dade Regional Library of Coral Way, Miami, last July 10.

Attending the discussion were no more and no less than the well-known former political prisoners Angel de Fana, Agapito “El Guapo” Rivera, Jorge Gutierrez “El Sherif” and others who presented an overview of the insurrectional struggle from 1959 to the present.

De Fana’s words and his hopes for a future Cuba moved me. Twenty years in jail did not seem to have put a dent in the energy of this man who confronted the torture and prison horror of the Castro regime. “We must fight, not for the Cuba that we lost but for the one that awaits us ahead,” I heard him say. Continue reading

Alert Sounded in the Informal Market / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport

Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport

Unauthorized vendors welcome new customs regulation with caution as they prepare to redefine strategies

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 3 September 2014 — “Call me from a land line” instructs the classified ad placed by Mauro Izquierdo, vendor of electrical household appliances. He has a wide range of items on offer, from air conditioning units to toasters, but his specialty is flat-screen TVs. This morning, his cautious response to all callers was: “Right now I’m in the midst of redefining my pricing structure until everything settles down with the new customs regulations.”

Mauro is but one strand in the complex tapestry of unauthorized vendors who are living through anxious moments with the new restrictions imposed by the General Customs of the Republic. Price increases are imminent in the black market, given that a good part of the merchandise offered through its networks enters the country via the flight baggage of so-called “mules.” “I have ceased all operations for the time being, because I don’t know if I will get the accounts with new prices that have been imposed on the airports,” the able merchant confirms.

His clients also have been preparing for the increase.”I’m finishing construction on my house and I had to run to buy lamps, bulbs and bathtub plumbing for the bathroom, because all of that might become unavailable very soon,” said Georgina M., looking to the future, as she concludes construction on a new residence in the western township of Candelaria.

14ymedio contacted approximately 20 vendors offering merchandise on classifieds sites such as Revolico and Cubisima. Although previously-listed products remained at their advertised prices, any orders going forward would come “with with new tariffs added to the price,” according to various distributors. Last week, Leticia was offering hair dryers, massage machines, and hair removers. However, now she is planning to raise prices by about 20 or 25 per cent on each product so as to be able to “finance the payments that those who bring the items into the country must make at Customs.”

The advance notice given of the new rules has allowed many people to be prepared. Rogelio, a Panataxi driver who makes trips from Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport, refers to how even “two days before the new restrictions went into effect, what people brought was incredible — suitcases upon suitcases.” Even so, he noted that since yesterday, “travelers seem more cautious and, among those I have transported, I have seen a decrease in the amount of baggage they’re carrying.” Another taxi driver joined the conversation, saying that “people have now been made to jump through hoops.”

Even so, for other alternative vendors, the new measures barely affect their supply chain. “I buy space in the ‘containers’ of people who are on official missions, working in the embassies and consulates throughout the world, and that is how I bring in my merchandise — therefore the new rules don’t touch me,” boasted a seller of lawnmowers and commercial refrigerators, who enhances his ads with attractive photos of each unit and the guarantee that it’s “all done with proper documentation.”

It is still too early to measure the true impact on the informal market of the new customs rules, but sellers as well as merchants are preparing for the worst.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

What Purpose Did the Dual Currency System Serve? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

"This commercial site accepts payment in national currency"

“This commercial site accepts payment in national currency”

14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 27 August 2014–The information that the Central Bank of Cuba (BCC) published on August 19th in the paper edition of the newspaper Granma about “the next issuance of high denomination bank notes (100, 50 and 20 pesos, CUP) with new security measures” brings back to the forefront the issue of the dual currency and its unification, as announced by the same official press, a change which will take place in the near future.

Security measures that will begin to appear in the above currency issues starting in 2014 consist of the placement of a watermark with each patriot’s image corresponding to each denomination placed in the upper left corner of the front face of such bills. In addition, another watermark will repeat the bill’s denomination on the upper left portion of said image. Meanwhile, lesser denomination bills will continue to carry the watermark with the image of Celia Sánchez, to the right of which will be added the corresponding denomination of the bill.

Some believe that such measures respond primarily to the large amount of counterfeit currency that, according to some, is currently circulating, which should gradually start to disappear as the new notes start to replace the existing ones in circulation. However, most of the random 50 people surveyed in Havana felt that this is a preliminary step to the announced monetary unification, which may be imminent.

This second view seems to be reinforced by the fact that just two weeks before the information of the BCC, Granma had published an article that addressed the issue of the dual currency and the need to eliminate the “distortion of the economy”, especially in the government sector. Continue reading

Liberty Costs Dearly, and Angel Santiesteban Decided to Buy It for Its Price

In the world there has to be a certain quantity of decency, just as there has to be a certainly quantity of light. Where there are many men without decency, there are always others who have in themselves the decency of many men. Those are the ones who rebel with terrible force against those who steal from the people their freedoms, which is to steal decency from men. In those men are thousands of men, an entire people, human dignity. Those men are sacred.”  Jose Marti.

Today, August 28, 2014, it has been a year and a half, 18 months, 72 weeks, 548 days or 13,152 hours since Angel was unjustly incarcerated.

In this time, not a single response from the dicatorship in answer to the requests for a Review of his rigged trial after the false complaints by a resentful woman manipulated by State Security.

In this time, his son grew enough to distance himself from his mother, the complainant, and to tell that he was manipulated to lie and testify against his father for the purpose of hurting him. Continue reading

The First Cuban Forklifts / Juan Juan Almeida

Photo taken from Granma

Nelson Espinosa, director general of MONCAR, a business located in the Havana municipality of Marianao, told the newspaper Granma that the production of the first 15 Cuban forklifts, a result of collaboration with the Chinese entity Auto Caiec LTD, distinguished his business’s performance during 2013.

With 40% national integration in terms of physical components, the equipment is in a testing phase and capable of supporting up to 2.5 tons.  We are now in 2014 and they have not manufactured one more.  I suspect that the future of MONCAR is related to the manufacture of the T-34M war tanks that Raul Castro inaugurated in 1960 and these are the holy hours when he did not build even one tractor.

Translated by mlk.

18 August 2014

To Rigola I Shall Not Return / Rebeca Monzo

Two years ago, after a lot of red tape, long lines and pointless waits at Immigration, the Spanish embassy and the Plaza Military Committee, I finally managed to get the son of a friend — a woman who lives overseas and who had granted me power-of-attorney — exempted from military service so that the family could be briefly reunited.

Then, a few days ago, she, her husband and her son decided to come here on vacation to visit family. Everything seemed to be going very well. The joy of being reunited with family and friends helped mitigate the enduring economic hardship and deterioration of the country, which are very noticeable to anyone who comes back after spending time abroad.

The night that marked the return to the “mother country” finally arrived but a new odyssey had just begun.

After checking their luggage and paying the 25 CUC per person airport exit tax, an immigration official informed the couple that they could leave but that their son would have to stay behind because he had not yet completed his military service. Of course, the parents decided to stay with their son, but this meant losing their airline tickets, the exit tax they had already paid and the time spent waiting for their bags to be returned. There was also the anxiety and aggravation caused by the incompetence of the system.  Continue reading