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

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

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

University (for the Tenacious) / 14ymedio, Henry Constantin, Reinaldo Escobar

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 28 August 2014 – Henry Constantin is a native of Camagüey province, born in Las Tunas on Valentine’s Day, 30 years ago. He has been expelled from university three times for his ideas, but still believes he will obtain his journalism degree.

This slender, plain-spoken young man has founded two independent publications and has just returned from a cultural exchange program. For years he has been part of the reporting team of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), and today he invites the readers of 14ymedio to share the challenges he has faced in his classroom journey.

Question: You hold the sad distinction of three expulsions from university. What was the first time like?

Answer: One day I wrote this question on the board: Who was the Cuban nominee for the Nobel Prize? My fellow students did not know, neither did the professor, so I wrote the name of Oswaldo Payá. Continue reading

Another “Broom” Law / Rosa Maria Rodriguez

Foreign Investment Bill | First Special Session | 8th Legislature | March 29, 2014

The National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, easily approved (nothing odd for that body when the issue is something that, although not divinely ordained, “comes from above”) the new foreign investment law. One does not need a crystal ball to know that the new legislation — like the proverbial broom* — will sweep efficiently, basically for those in power and the barriers they have created.

The breathless financiers of the antiquated Cuban political model demonstrate that for la nomenklatura, the need of their wallets — or the need to upgrade,or air out, their state capitalism — is more important than to truly revive the the battered “socialist economy”.

As with all laws that “are to be (dis)respected” in post-1959 Cuba, it passed unanimously, i.e., everyone was in agreement — or at least, they all raised their hands — in that caricature of a senate composed almost entirely of members of the sole legal party in Cuba, which has been in power for 55 years and which, despite calling itself Communist, really isn’t. Continue reading

Temperamental Old Coots / Anddy Sierra Alvarez

The issue is not just about winning the argument with the United States. It’s also about a legacy created 55 years ago. Of what use to us are their perspectives, when ambitions fade with the passage of time”

The leaders of Cuba are well past working age. Small changes occur at the hands of his brother, Raúl Castro, another long-lived individual who has lived his life and realized the goals he set for himself. What are his ambitions today?

The Cuban desires progress and is at the mercy of old men. Are they perhaps different from others of their age group? As far as I know, an old man does not have the same drive as a young person who is just beginning to face the challenges of the future. Continue reading

Despicable Manipulation / Rebeca Monzo

Yesterday, July 28, I read in the Trabajadores ["Workers"] newspaper about the speech given by 6th grade pioneer Wendy Ferrer during the main event of a celebration in Artemisa marking the 61st anniversary of the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks. I could not help feeling shame and indignation over the vile manipulation that was so evident in the discourse read by this child.

To my understanding, the words and phrases used were not typical of a school-age child. If they were so, it would only be an even more lamentable proof of the terrible distortion fed to our students, a political manipulation that takes precedence over the true history of our country, and over true education. This is truly unfortunate. I believe that it is a civic duty to clarify for this girl, or actually for her teachers, some of the very sensitive aspects of her speech:

I completed my primary school studies — starting with a marvelous and unforgettable Kindergarten, as we then called what are today known as children’s camps — up to 6th grade in a public school, No. 31 of the Los Pinos suburb. Never, in our humble school, did we go without a school breakfast, as was provided in all public schools of that time. Nor did we ever lack notebooks — which I can’t forget included an imprint on the back of the tables for multiplication, addition, subtraction and division — or pencils, which were provided to all students at the start of — and midway through — each term. At that time, public education accounted for 22.3% of the national budget. There was also a private education sector, with wonderful schools founded and directed by great educators. Continue reading

What it Costs to Eat! / Rebeca Monzo

This week I invited to lunch a couple who are friends of mine.  I have among the more “respectable” pensions in this country: 340 CUP (Cuban pesos) — the type of currency which is also used to pay salaries.

I set out early in search of the necessary elements and ingredients to prepare for my friends a “criollo” [traditional Cuban] menu. They live outside the country, and I wanted to treat them to a home-cooked meal. Since there would be four of us to feed, I purchased the following:

Four plantains to make tostones, 10 CUP for the four; 1lb onions, 30 pesos; 1lb peppers, 20 pesos; two small garlic heads, 6 pesos; one avocado, 10 pesos; 2lb rice, 10 pesos; 1lb black beans, 14 pesos; 3lb pork steak, 120 pesos; one large (3lb) mango, 7.50 pesos. After that, I stood in line to buy one loaf of Cuban bread for 10 pesos.

As you might have noticed, a simple luncheon for four cost me “only” 257.50 Cuban pesos. My guests brought a bottle of wine.

The meal was a success and we had a great time, but as you can imagine, my pockets are wobbling until my next pension check. Now you see what a simple meal costs on my planet!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 August 2014

S.O.S.: Angel Santiesteban Transferred and His Whereabouts Unknown

Since yesterday, July 21, Angel Santiesteban Prats is in an unknown location.  I will now relate the events that preceded this new arbitrariness on the part of Cuban State Security.

Joining him in his helplessness is his younger son, Eduardo Angel Santiesteban Rodriguez, 16 years old, the son of Angel and the woman who plotted against him with State Security in order to incarcerate him.

The youth — once old enough to escape from the clutches of his mother — asked to tell the truth about what had happened and how he was manipulated by her and by the Castro regime State Security to testify against his father.  Here is the link to his statements.

Obviously, we are very worried about the fate that may await the boy, for we already know through Angel’s own experience that no apologies are made for harassing and incarcerating minors.  In fact, Angel learned the drama of prison at 17 when he was jailed for saying goodbye to his three older brothers who were planning to leave the Island on a boat.  The escape was thwarted, the three “deserters” were captured, along with the youngest (Angel) for “harboring” them.  After a year and a half of incarceration, he was freed because saying goodbye to his brothers was deemed “not a crime.” Continue reading

The night has witnesses: a simpler poetry / Luis Felipe Rojas

On the evening of June 5th, I had the opportunity of presenting Janisset Rivero’s book “Testigos de la noche”  (“Witnesses of the Night”) (Ultramar 2014).  Casa Bacardi opened its doors so as to let us share this lady’s work along with the poet Angel Cuadra. Rivero read entries from her wonderful book of poems. These are the words I wrote for the occasion:

Poetry books always bring me new hope. After time spent reading poetry that leaves me cold, there are poets who emerge to refresh my thoughts and point the way to understanding the mysteries of universal poetry.

Janisset Rivero has written a book that continues the narrow hereditary line of verse in Spanish, that line which unhealthy experimentations and abuses of the language have tried to erase by force. Simple versification, without needless displays and literary artifice, is perhaps the best decision, an expression of talent and the force of poetry macerated by eyes that see above the crudest reality. Continue reading

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet / Regina Coyula

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet…

…or thought I was, which is worse. In keeping with this, I would have become a “fine poet of felt verses,” as literary criticism says when it has nothing better to say. Common sense and love of writing have left me here, where I feel so comfortable. I found a very yellowed piece of lined paper bearing this text typed by an Underwood, following an interminable train ride from Santa Clara to Havana taken along with a group of youths who were returning from a rock festival. Speaking of Frank Abel, does anyone know what has become of him?

HEAVY METAL

To Frank Abel Dopico 

The rock-and-rollers love the nocturnality of trains

then

the rockers run away from home

they beg for money at the station

and they go to another province

to imagine what it’s like to travel.

In the parks

the rockers are blue

they make love and urinate in the solitude of sidewalks

all pleasure they find in the cross-eyed hands of Jimmy Page.

They have a calling to be cops, the rockers

they raise the decibels

exorcism by percussion

it’s the train and it’s Led Zeppelin

there is a monastic silence in the rockers

they tear their hair and they huddle to weep in the corner of the car.

They don’t think of the following day

they clasp their hands and kiss the crucifix.

The sweet rockers

rehearse with amphetamines and other complications

to imagine how it is

to travel.

(June 19, 1990)

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 July 2014

There Is None So Blind As He Who Refuses to See / Rebeca Monzo

For several days now I have not published a post, despite my desires to do so and the nagging thought that it wasn’t getting done.

It is true that the World Cup robbed part of my attention, but that was not what impeded my writing. Rather, it was all the tasks that were piling up in relation to an upcoming exhibition of my works. Preparing for this event takes a lot of effort and dedication, as does the negotiating required to obtain adequate materials.

Even so, with all due respect, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the recent visit of Dr. Margaret Chan, General Director of the World Health Organization, and the statements she delivered in the University of Havana’s Grand Hall, during the unsuitably named magisterial conference. Dr. Chan expressed that, thanks to the Cuban government, our people do not eat junk food. She also praised the work of our public health.

I really do not comprehend how these people, who occupy such relevant posts in the United Nations (UN), take at face value the reports provided by totalitarian regimes, without taking the trouble to check the facts through other means and compare other data.

Most of us know that these people are hosted in our country by high-level officials, and that they are taken over and over to the same places, which obviously are set up for such purposes, e.g.: a certain floor of Almejeiras Hospital, the Biotechnology department, and the La Castellana special school for differentiated teaching, among others. In addition, the visitors are customarily taken down 5th Avenue in Miramar, and they never stop at locations that aren’t set up for these political purposes.

How is it possible that the supreme body that oversees all of these organizations — the UN — has yet to take the trouble to look into these matters more deeply?

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

15 July 2014