Residents Thank The Rain That Put Out The Year’s Biggest Fire

The provinces at greatest risk for fire are Guantanamo, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, and Isla de la Juventud. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 19 April 2017 – When the wind blows, the odor of burning overwhelms the town of El Guay, in the municipality of Mella (Santiago de Cuba). It is an odor that sticks to clothes, hair and food. Last Sunday a downpour put out the forest fire that burned 5,000 hectares in the eastern part of Cuba, but the worst could be yet to come.

The columns of smoke warned the community’s residents that something was happening. In the neighboring province of Holguin, the flames began April 9 and devoured everything in their path. “Nothing was said on radio or television,” Ruberlandy Avila, 35 years of age and resident of El Guay, tells 14ymedio. continue reading

Surrounded by cane fields and vegetation, the neighbors saw the tongues of fire on the horizon as they approached. When night fell, they looked daunting and ever closer to the houses. “The entire town was affected by the smoke, many parents fled with their children without knowing what to do,” recalls the young man.

News of the fire was broadcast on national media only after a timely rain put out the last flame. The official statement blamed the disaster on the August 6th Cattle Company from the town of Biran. But the later disorganization among the forces charged with controlling it did the rest.

The fire spread through the Sierra Cristal range until arriving at the Pinares de Mayari area. According to Avila, Civil Defense authorities later reported that several local administrators had not authorized delivery of the fuel necessary for getting the tanker trucks underway to the affected zone to put out the flames.

In El Guay the residents saw the fire approaching which also fed on the branches and trees that fell after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The combination of the dry wood and the disorganization produced conditions favorable to the fire’s spread. “We thought nothing could put out such a strong fire,” recalls the resident of Santiago.

Engineer Raul Gonzalez, head of the Fire Management Department for the Forest Rangers, warned last February that this year the Island could suffer between 400 and 450 forest fires, damaging some 4,000 hectares. The figure was easily exceeded by the 5,000 hectares of pastures, forests and oak that just finished burning in Holguin.

The fire destroyed more than 5,000 hectares of fields and forests in Holguin. (Archive/Telesur)

Not only dried branches and fallen trees were lost. Environmental specialists from the area classify as “sensitive” the damage caused to flora and fauna of the municipalities of Cueto and Mella. “There are no bird nests or butterflies left, and even lizards are damaged,” commented one resident of the Cueto municipality to 14ymedio.

Leonel Sanchez, Agriculture subdelegate in the Santiago de Cuba province, reiterated in the local press that most of these fires occur “in crop rows, livestock areas, areas where the elimination of the invasive marabou weed is underway, uncontrolled burning and non-use of spark arrestors in cars.”

Between January and May the conditions are most favorable for fires to start and for the flames to spread. Between the beginning of the year and the beginning of February, some 40 fires were reported, more than one per day.

The provinces at greatest risk are Guantanamo, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma and Isla de la Juventud. The human factor is the trigger in 90% of the cases.

Far from El Guay, at the other end of the Island, tobacco planter Nestor Perez also watches his cultivated fields with worry. “In this time of year forest fires are more likely,” and in Vueltabajo the farmers try to “have clean surroundings for tobacco curing houses in order to prevent those accidents.”

The Pinareno farmer recognizes that many do not complete these tasks and “that is why sometimes fires occur” because “the grass itself at this time is very dangerous.”

For Avila and his family, the drama they experienced is still very real. The days passed, the air became almost unbreathable, and in the middle of last week helicopters and small planes began to arrive to control the flames, but the situation seemed to be out of control.

A “huge downpour” came to the aid of the residents. The day that the first drops fell many watched the sky gratefully. This Monday it kept raining in Mella, a municipality that, like the rest of the Island, is suffering the worst drought since the middle of the last half century. For the moment, the residents of El Guay breathe with relief, but they know that many hard months lie ahead.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Censored at the Camaguey Festival, Rapper ‘Rapshela’ Denounces “Fear of Liberty” / 14ymedio, Sol Garcia Basulto

Cuban rapper Rashel Cervantes, “Rapshela,” could not appear at the Trakean2 Festival because of not receiving authorization to reside abroad (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Sol Garcia Basulto, Camaguey, 22 March 2017 – Hip Hop has become that redoubt of rebellion that other musical genres, like rock and roll, used to embody. The Trakean2 Fesitval, which ended Monday in Camaguey, gave voice to performers who sing as if they were shooting truths at the public, but censorship against Cuban rapper Rashel Cervantes – known as Rapshela – who lives in Spain, overshadowed the event.

Also missing were rappers who sing their lyrics in marginal neighborhoods where the genre enjoys the greatest vitality. But that is what was decided by the Brothers Saiz Association, who organized the ninth edition of the event with 40 participating rappers, including MCs (Masters of Ceremony), breakdancers and graffiti artists. Cockfights, the improvised verbal confrontations between musicians, were the moments most appreciated by the public.

Rapshela could not appear before the public in spite of having travelled to the Island for the occasion. Problems with her cultural visa and reproof by the organizers prevented it. continue reading

After spending her own money for the plane ticket from Barcelona, where she lives, Rapshela ran into the cancellation of the presumed institutional promise to pay for her travel from Havana to Camaguey. She managed to arrive nevertheless, but the obstacles had not ended: as a resident abroad she did not receive authorization to appear in time.

Festival Trakean2, which ended Monday in Camaguey, gave voice to rap, hip hop and other urban genre singers. (14ymedio)

“As soon as I arrived I went to the AHS, and the organizer [Eliecer Velazquez] told me that I could not sing because I was living abroad,” she tells this daily. Nor was the artist included in the lodging and food options that other guests enjoyed. A situation that she regrets “after four months of speaking” with the event promoters.

In a gesture of solidarity, Los Compinches, a group from Pinar del Rio, invited Rapshela to accompany them to the stage. But when the artist began to sing, the Festival organizers ordered the microphone sound lowered. A little later the spectacle came to an end.

The event generated an intense debate when other musicians and the public clamored for her to be permitted to sing, but the organizers proved inflexible. Although they declined to give their version of what happened, Eliecer Velazquez justified himself to the artist, arguing that it was the first time that he had organized a festival, and he did not know “that there was so much paperwork to do.” The promoter explained to the singer that she sought the cultural visa too late and that is why they did not grant it.

Among the attendees, many considered it absurd that a Cuban had to wait for a cultural visa to appear in the city where she was born, so they saw what happened as censorship masked in bureaucratic delays.

The organization also had disagreements with some lyrics by the group Los Compinches, in which marijuana consumption is promoted and Cuba’s economic situation is criticized.

Before the microphones went mute, the spectators had shown great enthusiasm and repeated choruses like Don’t step on the herb, smoke it. A second song increased nervousness of the authorities when the singer explained that the video clip that accompanied the lyrics had been censored.

Joaquin Corbillon Perez, member of the group, does not explain what they did wrong although he argues that the Brothers Saiz Association is not responsible for the situation. “The guilty ones are much higher and are the ones who prohibit it,” he said.

The AHS director from Pinar del Rio, Denis Perez Acanda, also a member of Los Compinches, defended the lyrics of his song and characterized as an “act of repression” the fact that the organizers did not let Rapshela sing.

For Rapshela the problems that she suffered transcend the music scene. “The Cuban people are censored,” she says. In her opinion “rap is a weapon for expression” and “a window to liberty, but here they are scared of liberty.”

The organizer of the Havana female rap festival and manager of the Somos Mucho Más (We Are Much More) project, Yamay Mejias Hernandez, known as La Fina (The Fine One), showed her solidarity with Rapshela because “she is Cuban, Camagueyan, and has never performed in her land. What she wanted was to introduce herself and for her people to hear her.”

Mejias Hernandez, also a feminist activist, told 14ymedio about the festival’s other problems. “It needs a little more organization, maybe more coordination in the places where they hold the concerts at night.” She thinks that Cristo Park, a site intended to offer concerts, did not meet the requirements for nighttime performances.

“There have to be more theoretical events like discussions, meetings, book readings,” adds Mejias Hernandez. “They need more female presence because at this event only two female rappers appeared.” The singer asserts that throughout the Island there are many females who are connected to the genre.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Cement Pottery / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

Victor Rodriquez engages in the specialized trade of creating ornamental cement pottery. (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 14 March 2017 – They call it grey gold because it repairs damage, prevents divorce and builds houses. Cement is one of the most in-demand products in Cuba today where 39% of the housing inventory is defective or in a bad state, according to a report by the Housing authorities.

In the midst of pressing construction needs, a taste for the ornamental also is developing. A newly emerging class decorates its houses with friendly garden gnomes, pelicans with thin legs who appear at front doors and balusters in the shape of sexy women.

After a long period of block-shaped construction, made of pre-fabricated and undecorated pieces, many Cubans appear ready to make up for lost time. The “cement potters” industry, a self-employment occupation that is on the rise, has been made to bloom by the demand for façade decorations. continue reading

Victor Rodriquez lives in Pinar del Rio and considers himself an artist of concrete. His work day begins early when he gets the molds for the pieces that he assembled 12 hours earlier. His hands reveal panels, pedestal vases, mushrooms, lions, flowers, pine cones, pyramids, friezes and post corners.

The potter then moves to the stage of scraping, polishing and painting each piece with a solution of cement and water. He does it like someone who bathes and touches up a delicate baby. His small courtyard is crowded with the sculptures that will later adorn the homes of the province or some distant town.

Cement pottery is hard but profitable work, according to its artisans (14ymedio)

Victor has a loyal clientele, although the competition in the area is strong, and the number of self-employed workers devoted to these activities is growing. The craftsman stands out because he designs his own pieces instead of buying ready-made molds, a detail that many appreciate in an industry that lives by imitation and the repetition of motifs.

Each day, when he finishes his work near 7 pm, Victor bathes to leave behind that grey powder that covers him from head to foot. After eating, he dedicates himself to giving form to the clay that will serve as a sample for casting the cement molds. After polishing and painting, the prototypes are ready to produce new series of figures.

“It is more work, but I never liked to be anyone’s echo,” Victor proudly explains about his originality. “I have never been able to promote my business, and I live away from the city, but the clients themselves have spread the word, and the orders even come from other municipalities,” he explains to 14ymedio.

With the growing demand, Victor’s family became involved in his efforts. His wife polishes, retouches and paints, while his son helps him prepare the concrete and cast the pieces. “It is hard work,” says the young man, who decided to become a potter with his father. “But it pays, and I like it,” he concludes.

“Getting the materials is the most difficult part because there is no wholesale market,” complains the business owner. Most times he has to order from retailers who buy it from the suppliers and bring it to the house.

“Yes, I do demand receipts from them and quality products. In order to maintain my standards I only use pp350 cement, more expensive but also more durable.” The mixture also includes “artificial sand,” he points out.

The Cuban cement industry suffered with the fall of the socialist camp. Currently, the country has six factories that produce grey gold, and in 2016 they reached 1,494,000 tons of the product, of which some 400,000 were distributed in the retail market.

Cement pottery requires preparing the concrete, casting the pieces, polishing, retouching and painting, among many other things. (14ymedio)

However, they still do not produce “the volumes necessary to satisfy an ever-growing demand,” according to Cesar Revuelta, vice-president of the Construction Materials Group. Between 2014 and 2015, the amount of cement that the country had to import underwent a significant increase from 2,677 tonnes to 4,349.

At the end of 2015, the Mexican business Cemex, one of the leading worldwide cement producers, showed its interest in returning to the Island, whether through the sale of cement or the installation of a plant. However, the establishment of an industry on Cuban soil has still not materialized.

But not only the materials shortage can damage the work of these craftsmen. “Sometimes the sculptures are ruined because the molds are badly assembled,” explains Victor. “It has happened to me when I am stressed, that’s why I try to stay focused on the work.”

The pieces made by the Pinareño have had great reception not only because of their unique designs but also because of their quality and durability. But the business of cement ornaments also is rife with swindles and tricks.

“There are no quality controls for concrete construction materials, generally the only inspection carried out for individuals in that line of business is of a fiscal character,” explains Alexander Morejon, official with the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT), in Pinar del Rio.

There have been cases of manufactured balusters incapable of supporting weight or pieces eroded by humidity and saltpeter. “I ordered some vases to place on the balcony but they have fallen to pieces,” says Monica, owner of a recently remodeled dwelling in San Jose de Las Lajas.

The woman believes that in her case the artisan used “a mix with sea sand, and the cement was overcome. Placing the decorations on the upper story of her house has caused problems, and “it is dangerous because pieces fall, and children play just below.”

However, Victor’s clients attest the quality of his products. “My statue-shaped balusters have been at the doorway more than seven years and look like the first day,” Angel Izquierdo, from the Brione Montoto village, tells this daily when he shows up at the potter’s home for the purchase of patio tiles, another of the products that he offers.

“I am about to finalize a machine to make floor tiles with different mosaic designs,” says Victor as he shows the pieces of a rustic press with which he hopes to increase his earnings.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Growing Old in Cuba: Luck or Misfortune? / Cubanet, Ana Leon

Jose Vargas (Photo by author)

cubanet square logoCubanet, Ana Leon, Havana, 3 March 2017 – Jose Vargas is 85 years old and a retired musician. He lives alone in a room in a tenement in Old Havana, depending on a monthly check of 240 Cuban pesos (eight dollars U.S.) and whatever help his neighbors can offer.

For two years this old man has waited for cataract surgery in both eyes. He was “given the run around” without the least consideration at the League Against Blindness; at Dependent Hospital, the operating room ceiling collapsed, causing the indefinite postponement of the surgery; and at Calixto Garcia Hospital there were no doctors available.

In spite of Vargas’ ordeal, the official press speaks with pride of the aging population that today comprises 18% of the Cuban population. It argues that this longevity is an achievement of the socialist system and optimistically describes it as a “challenge” for the near future. But at the current juncture, the free health benefits that the Island’s high officials preach so much about in front of international agencies are not perceived. How can you plan to confront the “challenge” if a helpless old man has to wait two years for a cataract operation? continue reading

Disabled by partial blindness and diabetes, Vargas began to experience hunger. He suffered hypoglycemia more than once from not eating for long hours. Rosa, 68 years old, is the only neighbor who, in accordance with her means, has dealt with feeding him and washing his clothes. “It hurt me to see him so dirty and hungry (…) I have seen him eating things that are not good for an old diabetic,” the lady told CubaNet.

Nevertheless, Rosa could not take on that responsibility for long given that she herself is retired and has health problems; so she tried to seek help.

Trusting in Christian charity, she went to the New Pines Evangelical Church – very near the tenement where Vargas lives – which distributes food daily for some elderly loners. But what a surprise when a woman responded to her, without the least sign of compassion: “That is not our problem. Go see the delegate [to the local People’s Power], the Party and the Government.”

Rosa explained Vargas’ case to Old Havana’s Municipal Government and sought a food quota and social worker services from the Family Attention Centers. Reluctantly, they gave her written authorization that would permit Vargas to carry home, twice a day, a bowl with rice, peas, scrambled eggs and jam; all poorly made and without the necessary caloric content.

As if that were not enough, Vargas had to walk a kilometer a day or pay 30 Cuban pesos (a fifth of his pension) for a bicycle-taxi in order to collect the food. The social worker who should have taken care of this task never showed up.

Behind the suffering of a forsaken old man there is so much administrative corruption and human sordidness that right now the prospect of growing old in Cuba is terrifying. The State does not have the institutions or the specialists equipped to confront the wave of aging that is approaching. The old age shelters – with a couple of exceptions – are worse and do not accept old people with dementia, advanced Alzheimer’s or any other illness that requires care around the clock.

At the beginning of the century Fidel Castro dedicated many resources to graduating thousands of social workers who only served to squander public funds in that crazy “Summer on Wheels” campaign, where the same young people charged with regulating fuel consumption in order to protect State property wound up stealing it. The government spent millions of pesos, awarded college degrees to a gang of delinquents and today cannot even harvest the humanitarian benefit of the investment planned on the basis of political volunteerism and a lack of common sense.

In Cuba today there are not enough social workers, geriatric specialists, adequate food or medicines. Many unfortunate old people live in dwellings that are in a deplorable state. Vargas himself is in constant risk of slipping on the mold caused by leaks in the tenement’s cistern; or being killed by a piece of loose brick from the eaves and balconies of the building whose century-old structure is in an advanced state of deterioration.

In the face of official indifference, people who don’t have a place to live enter “the mansion” in an old folks’ home, to be “cared” for in exchange for staying with the living instead of the dead. While death approaches, who complains of mistreatment? Who can say if the old person accepts his new situation or is feeling threatened?

A country that does not concern itself with old adults leaves them to the mercy of bad people. That is the future that awaits Cuba, given that the State wants to subsidize everything, and it is not possible. Families have fragmented because of the exiles, and not even the Church can be counted on. It is no wonder that the number of suicides by elderly people has increased, although the government hides the statistics.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Luxury and Excess in Socialist Cuba / 14ymedio, Marta Requeiro

Photograph from February 13, 2017, during a wedding organized by the private company “Aires de Fiesta” in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marta Requeiro, Miami, 26 February 2017 – I don’t know how my mother managed always to know a little more about my friends and their customs, and even those of the neighbors, because her limited time did not allow her to gossip; but she continually warned me that things are not always as they appear.

That is how I ended up having a lover who was to her liking. I confess that he was attractive, but we had frequent differences when we talked about topics of daily life that ended up opening a breach in the relationship.

Contrary to what the Island’s Government always suggested, without being apparent except to the most rebellious or those with the “clinical eye,” the beginning of the abysmal separation that today exists between the two known population groups, the governing elite with all of its coterie, and the people, was immediately conceived. continue reading

I realized soon after beginning the relationship with him that there were people who projected an image of humility but, behind closed doors, had covered all the basic necessities that for common mortals – like me – were impossible. And more so, they came to be luxuries.

There was a segment of the population that accessed a life unknown to the majority of Cubans.

I later learned, thanks to that relationship, that there was a segment of the population that accessed a life unknown to the majority of Cubans. Ordinary Cubans who served once a month on the guard duty for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), more than anything in order not to be robbed in the night by their own neighbors and despoiled of what they had achieved with their own effort. Ordinary Cubans who marched to the Plaza Jose Marti on dates commemorating some important revolutionary event in order to sing hymns and feed their faith in the process of change (a change that still has not arrived), and who subsisted on what they would acquire through the ration booklet and who always carried the empty bag that was indispensable when leaving the house so as not to be surprised and unprepared for the arrival at the warehouse of some product among those that were distributed only sporadically and that, hopefully, would be something good.

Many families had only the ration book to count on to provide them with petty rations, which, even if they were well managed and “cultivated,” did not even allow them, at least once a day, to bring to the table a serving of decent food.

Even so, the markets and warehouses of that time were not as poorly supplied as now, and that little ration booklet meant something.

I saw for the first time live – and in full color – a domestic service team. Until then I had only seen it in foreign films.

Already by the ‘80’s the economic impoverishment, forecast only to get worse, was obvious, today inhuman for the ordinary Cuban, who is always the most affected.

As young as one was, one could tell. In most cases what was missing was enough courage to publicly say it and in a form of protest, as happens today with the internal dissidence that, in spite of the vexations that those who dare to raise a voice are subjected to, there are more who join them in order to protest their discontent.

It happened one day that a friend invited my lover to a house in Vedado that belonged to one of his cousins who would turn fifteen. My mother, knowing that I would go with him – after already having investigated his background and knowing that he was from a good family – and making him promise that we would be back early – granted me permission.

I had time to prepare my best clothes to go in accord with the occasion since he advised me several days ahead that I had to go elegant.

The day and time came and we climbed into the car of his friend who, accompanied by his girlfriend, would carry us to the party that would take place in Vedado.

We went up 23rd Street and, now well into the trip, the driver took a turn I could not say where; but there was a time when I did not exactly know our location. I was not at all familiar with that place where the car travelled.

The neighborhood that emerged before my eyes was at a glance far from my neighborhood and what was familiar to me until then. It was composed of beautiful houses with immense gardens that extended from the sidewalk to the entrances, some with tall bars of black balusters. The car kept going until it came to an immense wooden gate in a fortified wall that extended for almost the whole block.

That opulence and excess were inconceivable for what was proclaimed from the other side of the wall

We got out, and the uninhibited driver went forward to press the doorbell, which turned out to be an intercom. It was strange for me to look around and see majestic houses, well-cared for, painted, to hear silence and await a response from that artifact attached to the concrete; in my neighborhood it sufficed to yell from the sidewalk the name of the person sought for him to come out, and in the air you could always hear the mixed sound of different rhythms and someone or other calling vociferously highlighted by dogs barking in the distance.

Finally we heard a voice come from the apparatus asking “who is it” and with a simple “I,” said by the driver, the handle of the solid wooden door was magically activated so we would enter invading the immense barricade that impeded access and visibility from the streets to the dwelling.

Passing the threshold, I marveled at the beauty of the immediate area. If they spoke to me then I swear I do not remember it. I felt like and must have had the same expression as Alice in Wonderland.

Some hundred guests had already arrived, all dressed elegantly. My boyfriend, while we were there, asked me several times if I was alright. Surely my unusual quietness was making my surprise evident.

I saw for the first time live – and in full color – a domestic service team. Until then I had only seen it in foreign films. It was composed of about half a dozen women dressed in green guayabera dresses and white lace-up tennis shoes.

Golf course of one of the Melia hotels in Cuba. (EFE)

I saw there for the first time Pringles Potato Chips, and beer acquired without the well-known scavenging for the five boxes on the ration book only allocated if you were getting married or turning fifteen, and in cans. I tasted – with a grimace – the Spanish brandy Terry Malla Dorada. I felt strange before this conglomeration displaying the bourgeois behavior criticized by the Government.

The two smorgasbord tables in the middle of the immense room with a marble floor never emptied. Trays with all kinds of snacks and sandwiches were brought by the waitresses.

Outside, next to the entryway, was the bar attended by two young men with white guayaberas who asked what we wanted to drink or what we desired, including glasses for the beer.

How was there a capitalist form of existence inside Cuban territory, supposedly socialist and egalitarian?

Later the rueda de cubana dance was unleashed to the furor of the music of the Van Van hits and it reminded me how beaten up Cuba was.

I felt like leaving, I had nothing in common with the others there, nothing was familiar and known to me except my companion and the music; then I suggested that he invent an excuse and that we leave. That opulence and excess were inconceivable for what was proclaimed from the other side of the wall, although the reason was a fifteen-year-old’s party.

I asked the friend to get us out of there and take us to the nearest bus stop. He agreed after trying to persuade us, without success, and wanting to know the reason for our sudden departure.

Outside I felt relief, and I breathed comfortably. I commented on it with my fiancé, and he told me what little he knew of the mysterious family of his friend, whom he believed was from State Security or a bodyguard for someone important.

I met some people who lived in secret opulence supporting Castro-ism, which stayed in power with a public image as protector of the underdogs

How was that way of life kept in silence, how was it not criticized on television, and where did it come from and how was that luxury and excess that was not just a festive event paid for? How was there a capitalist form of existence inside Cuban territory, supposedly socialist and egalitarian?

Back then it was undercover; today we know how it is and that the behavior of the ruling leadership far from surprising us proves the existence of two social classes or poles that they themselves do not want to recognize as so disparate: The experts in training and subjugating so that the Cuban people do what they say and not what they do, and the people themselves.

We have learned about the excess expenses for recreation and tourism of one of Fidel’s sons and the carryings-on of Raul’s grandson/bodyguard.

The international press and Cuban dissidence have unveiled those two faces of those who for almost six decades have had control and power on the largest of the Antilles.

It is true, looks deceive!

I met some people who lived in secret opulence supporting Castro-ism, which stayed in power with a public image as protector of the underdogs. It’s not that I don’t like the good life but that condition is given in Cuba only to those who speak of equality without practicing it.

Opulence and abundance should belong to those who earn it, inherit it or work for it, not to those who steal it. Submission is not dignified, even less for so long a time. Let’s hope that once and for all the Cuban people open their eyes and reclaim the rights that have been denied them.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

“Those Who Do Not Help the Victims of Castro-ism Are Complicit in the Oppression,” says Rocio Monasterio / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Video not subtitled: Rocio Monasterio talks about her dreams for Cuba in Miami

14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 11 February 2017 – Rocio Monasterio, a Cuban living in Spain who became popular after starring in a televised debate at the end of November in which she confronted Castro supporters about the legacy of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, gave a talk Friday in Miami about her ideological platform and her aspirations for Cuba’s future.

This 43-year old Cuban with parents from Cienfuegos and a member of the (conservative) Vox Party in Spain defends the family and liberty as supreme values. She is a passionate speaker who strongly criticizes the Cuban government and condemns those politicians disposed to dialogue with Havana.

“Cuba raised a big wall in 1959. Since then night fell on the country, the search for liberty was interrupted. Unfortunately, 60 years later, Cubans are still in the shadows and we don’t see a light that illuminates our homeland. All those who live in Cuba are imprisoned,” she said before emphasizing, “When we see a brother imprisoned we have to do everything possible to help him.” continue reading

An architect by profession, Monasterio decided to go into politics as a result of the loss of values that, in her judgement, Spanish society has experienced. She joined Vox as a way of giving voice to hundreds of Spaniards who do not agree with the relaxation of policies by the Popular Party, currently in power, an organization to which she delivered her vote every year but about which she is singularly critical.

“It is extraordinary that a Hispanic Cuban can speak to Cuban Americans in Miami. We are united by the Hispanic phenomenon,” she said.

About those who opt for investment in Cuba in order to foster an emerging middle class that in the future will be able to demand political changes, Monasterio asserts that those politicians and businessmen are “soothing their conscience for collaborating with the regime.”

“It is being shown that investment in Cuba is nothing more than supporting Castro-ism,” she adds.

As an alternative to totalitarianism, Monasterio proposes Hispanic values.

“We have inherited from Spain the Christian values that are society’s foundation: equality, defense of freedom, right to life, belief in the individual and in his individual responsibility, also the family as a fundamental value of society. All this is this based in freedom,” she said.

One point that she emphasized was the relationship between the European Union, above all Spain, and the Cuban Government. For the Hispanic Cuban, the credibility of the institutions and the parties that negotiate with Raul Castro are in jeopardy.

“In the collective imagination of Spain, Cuba is the most beloved. The relationship of both countries is that of brotherhood,” said Monasterio. Nevertheless, she characterized as “a great betrayal” the normalization of relations without a single word about human rights violations on the Island.

“Those today who do not help the victims of Castro-ism are accomplices in the oppression and contribute to the perpetuation of night in Cuba, a night that has already lasted too many years,” she added.

The architect conceives her battle as not only against communism but against all kinds of totalitarianism, which according to her is being exported from Cuba to Spain and Latin American countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

“Totalitarianism is not only the lack of freedom, but also the elimination of the individual. All contrary to our values,” she says.

She also admitted that she fights hard against gender politics and is radically opposed to homosexual marriage:

“I don’t meddle in civil unions between people who have another view of sexuality, but that is not matrimony. Matrimony is between a man and a woman,” she says.

For Monasterio, gender ideology is “another big dictatorship of our time.” She condemns Spanish education in this sense.

“We are subjected, once again, to determined ideologues who come from big institutions. Gender ideology is contrary to the family and our values,” she said.

To oppose the proposed education in gender ideology values, Monasterio’s party proposed a platform for freedoms that defends the right of parents to educate their children according to their values.

About her dispute with “the defenders of the indefensible, that is, Castro-ism, Monasterio reminded that the Castro brothers came to Cuban government promising equality,” but what they have done is to equalize everyone “in misery and oppression.”

“A Castro military elite controls Cubans and makes them ignore freedom.”

According to Monasterio, the Cuban diaspora confronts three big responsibilities: the obligation to denounce what Castro-ism means before those who truly do not know what it is; to be effective in the use of a new discourse and new tools for telling and transmitting the values of our culture; and to create a new iconography. “We have to pass to the next generations the commitment to fight for the freedom of our land.”

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

First Group of Cuban Doctors Arrives in Miami after the End of the ‘Parole’ / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 6 February 2017 – Two dozen health professionals who abandoned their Cuban medical missions abroad arrived this afternoon at the Miami International Airport from Colombia. This is the first group to arrive in the United States after the end of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP).

“This is a triumph for the whole Cuban American community, our organization and the offices of the Cuban American congressmen who have worked so that these guys can get the right deal, and their petitions were satisfactorily answered,” said Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of the organization Solidarity Without Borders (SSF) which supports Cuban doctors.

Yerenia Cedeno, a 28-year old Cuban doctor, characterized the situation they experienced in Venezuela as “horrible.” She escaped five months after arriving at the mission, pushed by insecurity and the precarious conditions where they worked. continue reading

“You would find out that they took the phone from this one or robbed that one on the minibus. It’s horrible,” explains Cedeno.

The doctor adds that she could not go back to Cuba because there she “would be marginalized and looked at badly.”

“They put you in another place, not in your job because they look down on you because you don’t agree with what you experienced and for what you were badly prepared,” she adds.

The doctor felt exploited in Venezuela, where she shared her work with her husband, also a doctor, who accompanied her on her trip to the United States but did not want to make a statement to the press.

Their plan is to take their little three-year old daughter who lives in Guantanamo out of Cuba and resume their studies in the United States.

“I want to work as a doctor or something similar. This is the start of a new life,” she says.

This past January 12, the then-president of the United States, Barack Obama, eliminated the CMPP, a program established under the administration of Republican George Bush that in a decade allowed the flight of more than 8,000 Cuban health professionals.

Cuban Health Personnel Received through Cuban Medical Professionals Parole

 

According to the non-profit organization Solidarity Without Borders, which helps integrate these doctors into the US health system, it helps those fleeing from the biggest human trafficking system in the modern history of the western hemisphere.

Arisdelqui Mora, a young Cuban who escaped the Island four years ago on a raft, waited for her half-sister Arianna Reyes, a Cuban doctor who escaped from the mission in Venezuela. The happiness of the reunion, which included the grandmother of both, received wide media coverage.

“We have been separated but during the whole time we remained in communication through the networks,” explains Mora to 14ymedio.

“They have worked a lot,” she adds.

Celia Santana, a dentist, only spent five months in Venezuela.

“Venezuela is much worse than my country. I never imagined that it would be like that. That country is a disaster, and of course the Venezuelan people are not to blame,” explains the doctor.

She spent five months awaiting the parole in order to travel to the United States.

“It’s absurd to end the program. They should have taken other measures,” she says.

“Cubans escape because of the economic situation and also because of the politics because they want freedom of expression.”

Mildre Ester Martinez, recently arrived in Miami, appreciates the help received through the media and the service of Solidarity Without Borders.

“I did not feel right. I was disgusted, disappointed by all the work we did there. I thank God to be here,” she added.

Maikel Palacios, health professional and spokesman for the group of Cubans, reminded that although Cuba has said publicly that they can rejoin the public health system, “they don’t let defectors enter the country for eight years.”

Health worker Veidy Diaz, from Cuba, is received by her family and friends on arriving at MIA from Colombia (NH).

Palacios also questioned the supposed good will of the Island’s government when the official communication from the Minister of Public Health did not mention the frozen bank accounts that the aid workers lose once they abandon the mission.

“They don’t talk about the money. There are people who have up to 7,000 dollars, and they lose it all the day they decide to escape,” he said.

The Cuban government appropriates two-thirds of the salary earned by the Cubans abroad. They are generally sent to the most remote places in deplorable working conditions. In countries like Brazil they do not have the right to receive their family while the aid program lasts, even though the laws of that country permit it.

Solidarity Without Borders is in the middle of a campaign to re-establish the Parole program for Cuban doctors. Currently they are working with the offices of Cuban American congressmen in order to present a proposal to President Donald Trump to reinstate the CMPP.

“We will keep working so that our colleagues may reach the land of freedom and in the near future the Parole program will be re-established for professionals who are in third countries,” explained the president of SSF, Julio Cesar Alfonso.

According to statistics from SSF more than 69 Cuban doctors have been killed in Venezuela in the last 10 years. The Cuban government has divulged that currently more than 50,000 professionals from the Island are dispersed throughout more than 60 countries worldwide.

Working conditions and political pressure push thousands of professionals to accept the missions proposed by the Cuban government. Even though the salary was increased in 2014, the average salary of a doctor in Cuba is about 60 dollars a month.

The massive exportation of health services has generated income for the government on the order of 8.2 billion dollars a year in 2014 according to official sources.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

The Controller Uncovers a Rosary of Mismanagement / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The Controller General of the Republic, Gladys Bejerano Portela. (Networks)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 28 January 2017 — What Cuban has not diverted resources from his work place? Theft from the State together with administrative negligence and corruption are among the main problems detected by the most recent National Internal Audit concluded at the end of the year.

Between October 31 and December 9, 346 economic entities from all over the country, with the exception of Guantanamo, the province most affected by Hurricane Matthew, were inspected. The 11th edition of the exercise focused on the decentralization of administrative decision-making, non-agricultural cooperatives and the application of systems of payments for results. continue reading

Gladys Bejerano Portela stands out at the head of the process, the face of the Republic’s Controller General, created in 2009 by Raul Castro to deter administrative disorder. The official has become a nightmare for business administrators and managers, but her iron image does not seem to be enough to dissuade the corrupt.

For weeks the controller deployed an integrated exercise by hundreds of auditors, experts, students and university professors to find the holes through which resources leak. At the center of their focus were also the so-called idle inventories, vestiges of stagnation that cram warehouses or rot under the tropical sun.

Since the beginning of this year some local newspapers have begun publishing summaries of the most serious problems found by the audit, but the national report still has not been released. Presumably the entity will make an accounting before parliamentarians in the next session of the National Assembly.

In the Cienfuegos province, the Acopio Enterprise showed “serious irregularities in the area of accounting and in the management of resources, to the point that three suspected acts of criminality and corruption are under consideration,” asserted Elsa Puga Rochel, head controller in that central province.

In Matanzas alarms also sounded when auditors concluded that the results of the inspection “reflect a disfavorable situation” that is catalogued as a “setback” when compared to the same examination carried out in 2015.

In the Yumurino territory economic damage caused by the diversion of resources, administrative mismanagement, corruption and other economic ills are marked by “steady progress for the last five years,” according to Carmen Elsa Alfonso Aceguera, chief controller of the province.

In that province at least eight criminal acts were evident in four entities, and “operations of doubtful characteristics” also indicate four suspected acts of corruption in three of them: two in the Puntarenas-Caleta Hotel Complex, one in the Oasis-Canimao-Villa Artistic Complex and another in the Jovellanos Agricultural Products Marketer.

When auditors inspected the books of the Matanzas non-agricultural cooperatives they found “deficiencies in income and expense plans, problems with supplies and contracting with state entities.”

In the Pinar del Rio province, the Aqueduct and Sewage Company, the Electric Company, and the Pharmacy and Opticians stand out among the enterprises with the worst results. The chain of problems includes salary payments without corresponding productivity, aging accounts, and poorly performed inventories.

In five Villa Clara municipalities there were a whopping 325 economic deficiencies, and 30 disciplinary measures were applied. The controller general herself travelled there in order to warn local administrators that “internal control actions cannot be seen as something sporadic or the work of a day,” but must be taken on as “a form of human behavior that does not allow tolerance of the least neglect.”

In another of her interventions, in Holguin, the controller was blunt: “Without organization, discipline and control, it is impossible to achieve the prosperous and sustainable development that we have set out for ourselves.”

Raul Castro has been emphatic in suggesting that “without conformation to an environment of order, discipline and stringency in society, any result will be ephemeral.” The official press has also joined the battle against the diversion of resources, and in recent years it has published many reports about illegalities and corruption.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Fire, Neglect and Bureaucracy Sink the Moscow Restaurant / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Complaints about the problems caused by the ruins of the building have been repeated each year in the “Accountability Assemblies”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 20 January 2017 – A bird has his nest on a fragment of wall and a creeper peeps over what was once the sumptuous door of the Moscow Restaurant. Almost three decades after a fire extinguished the sparkle of the downtown location, its ruins are a headache for its closest neighbors and city authorities.

“I asked my wife to marry me under that decorated wooden ceiling,” Waldo, a 67-year-old retiree from the Cuban Radio and Television Institute, tells this newspaper. Like many of his contemporaries, he thinks that the Moscow Restaurant “was the pearl in the crown of this city” until the end of the 1980’s. continue reading

After Fidel Castro came to power and the nationalizations happened, the property stopped housing the famous Montmartre casino and cabaret. At the end of the 1960’s, the place was re-named Moscow, a nod to the Soviet Union. Bolero nights came to their end, and Solyanka soup and Russian salad took over the place.

“The food was good, and they had workers trained in the old style who treated customers with friendliness and without today’s cheek,” says Jose Ignacio, a nearby neighbor from 25th Street who assures that the complaints about the problems caused by the building’s ruins “have been repeated each year in the People’s Power Accountability Assemblies*.”

The place remains closed, with entrances covered and vegetation growing between its walls. With the years, the situation has become untenable for the neighbors. “There are a lot of mosquitoes, because when it rains, the water accumulates,” complains Monica, mother of a months-old baby who must “sleep with mosquito netting in spite of being in the city’s very downtown.”

Officials from the Provincial Administration Council commented this week on television news that “given the damage caused by the fire” and the years of neglect, the ruined property can only be demolished. “There is no chance of saving it for restoration, therefore it must be demolished,” they pronounced.

The work of taking down the building necessitates 260 cubic meters of wood for support, and no fewer than two full-time cranes hired for a year, specified the two interviewed officials. The total amount for the operation is calculated at four million Cuban pesos, but it is not a priority among the investment plans assigned to the city.

In Old Havana other more ruinous properties have been restored and function as hotels or cultural centers, but the Moscow seems to be cursed. “In an attack here they killed Antonio Blanco Rico, chief of Fulgencio Batista’s Military Intelligence,” says Gustavo, a nearby neighbor and one who proclaims himself “familiar with every inch of this city’s history.”

More than three decades after that event a voracious fire destroyed the place, and since then it has been closed. “I was born in the middle of the Special Period in the 1990’s, and I only heard stories about the Moscow Restaurant from my parents,” says a young shoe and wallet vendor at the 23rd Street Fair.

Next to him a lady listens to the conversation and evokes the restaurant’s golden age. “They were times when a worker could pay for a meal in such a place with his salary,” she remembers. “But shortly after the Moscow burned, the USSR also came down, and all that turned to smoke and ashes.”

*Translator’s note: Regular meetings held by deputies at different levels of government with their constituents to hear from them and be “held accountable” for their performance.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

The Drama of Hundreds of Cubans Who Have Their Bags Packed / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Hundreds of Cubans have been stranded in various Latin American countries in their flight to the US. (Archive).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Havana/Miami, 14 January 2017 – Yeny Varela cried bitterly this Thursday when she heard on national television about the immediate end to the wet foot/dry foot policy.

Repatriated to Cuba from Mexico after a long month-and-a-half trip from Ecuador in 2014, and after raising the necessary funds to leave the country again, her hopes of escape from the Island were ruined.

“I did everything to get to the United States where I have my elderly aunt and uncle. I went to the embassy, and they denied me a visa, I walked from Ecuador, and the Mexicans deported me, the last thing I had managed was a work contract in Mexico for which I paid thousands of dollars, and now I have lost everything,” she laments.

At 32 years of age, this young Havanan believes that the best years of her life are behind her.

“And now where do I go?” she says. continue reading

“They (the US government) are doing that because they believe that they are going to force a change, but it’s not going to happen,” she says. Although everyone is “sick” of that system, no one can protest because “they disappear you,” she says.

“Do you really believe they are going to give you a visa at the embassy? No one believes that. Don’t you realize that once someone has a visa he’s going to stay?” she adds.

Varela is not the only one dressed up with no place to go. In Villa Clara, Rosa, age 26, had sold her house and all her belongings to begin the dangerous trip through Guyana.

Cuban women stranded while trying to make their way to the US through Central America. (EFE)

Her intention was to make the trip that thousands of other migrants have made in recent years to get to the southern border of the United States. After the immigration policy change, she is “devastated.”

“Our intent was to leave the country in order to live a little better. There are no opportunities here,” she explains. The Villarena does not plan, however, to go to the United States embassy to seek political asylum.

“I don’t involve myself in politics, that doesn’t interest me. I wanted to leave Cuba for economic reasons,” she explains.

Now she will have to start again from scratch. Meanwhile she decided to live with her mother.

Not only in Cuba were migration plans cut short. Throughout the continent hundreds of Cubans who were headed to the United States border have seen their plans thwarted.

“I never get involved in politics at all, but Obama has been worse than Pontius Pilate, seven days from leaving the presidency, it was not for him to have done such a thing,” says Maria Isabel, a Cuban who lives in Argentina and was preparing her trip to the United States.

“I have left everything behind. I was just taking a small step here in order to continue my journey,” she says.

According to the Cuban, who spent three months awaiting papers to continue to Mexico, the most misguided thing about the Obama administration’s decision is that it “tackles the consequences but not the causes.”

“How many people have risked or lost their lives? The degree of despair and frustration is so great that we can only cry,” she laments.

The latest statistics from the US Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services calculate that 56,406 Cuban citizens benefitted in the last fiscal year from the wet foot/dry foot policy.

After the resumption of relations between Cuba and the US, a migratory crisis unfolded which had regional repercussions when several thousand Cubans were stranded in Central America after Nicaragua refused to permit the islanders to pass.

With the later closure of the Costa Rican and Panamanian borders, the crisis spread to Colombia and Ecuador when those countries took steps to prevent mass migration from the Island. Two “air bridges” arranged with Mexico allowed the evacuation of the Cubans; however, since the departure of the planes from Panama in May, hundreds of other migrants continued arriving.

More than 80 Cubans on their way to the United States are in a hostel run by Caritas, a non-governmental organization tied to the Catholic Church.

One of them, Andres, says that “Obama is abominable” and that they did not expect it.

His situation was apparently made worse by the Immigration General Director’s statements only a few hours earlier that Cubans must leave the country.

However, the migrants being sheltered by Caritas have the support of the Catholic Church, which will intervene to prevent their deportation, as explained by Deacon Victor Luis Berrio, head of the organization.

At least those in Panama have protection, says Yuniel Ramos, who together with another 40 Cubans is continuing his journey through Honduras to get to the American border.

“They will have to do something with us because Cuba won’t take us back,” he adds.

But the doors to the United States are now closed for Cubans.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Film “Hands of Stone” Excluded from Havana Film Festival / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

New Latin American Film Festival Awards program section

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 19 December 2016 – The New Latin American Film Festival ended as it began: marked by censorship. The exclusion of the film Santa y Andres stained the opening of Havana’s main cinematographic event with gray, and spectators were also unable to see the film Hands of Stone as punishment for the solidarity of its director, Jonathan Jakubowicz, with Cuban director Carlos Lechuga.

The film, based on the life of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, was initially included among the feature films that would be shown in the Festival Awards section, but it was never screened. The event’s organizers dropped contact with its director after learning of his condemnation of the censorship of Lechuga, says the Venezuelan artist. continue reading

Days before the beginning of the Festival, Jakubowicz spoke by telephone with the directors of Santa y Andres in order to assess the possibility of withdrawing his film from screening in the competition as a condemnation of censorship. After the publication of an interview with Jakubowicz in 14ymedio on December 7, the Festival’s organizers stopped writing him. “Not only with respect to the copy of the film, but about my attendance,” he says.

“As the death of Fidel Castro was announced the next day, I thought that was why, but they never wrote again. I suppose they preferred to avoid an uncomfortable situation with me in Havana, at a time of such tension for the island,” reflects the prestigious director.

For viewers who sought explanations for the absence of Hands of Stone, the Festival organization contended that the director “never sent the exhibition copy.” Although the director was planning to travel to Havana, he could not bring it personally either without confirming the trip after getting no answer from the event organization.

In the interview published by this newspaper, Jakubowicz explained that he had thought about withdrawing his film from the billing because he was afraid of becoming “that awful artist figure who supports the repressor, a frequent figure in our countries and one who has done a lot of harm to our peoples.”

However, after speaking with Lechuga and his wife, he learned that “the Festival is one of the Island’s few windows looking to the world outside,” and he decided to keep the film in the festival. But when it came time to organize sending the copy to Havana, the event organizers were silent.

“It is a shame for the Cuban public who wanted to see the film. But fine, in the end all of Cuba saw Express Kidnapping, and it is forbidden, too. Art always reaches those whom it has to reach,” Jakubowicz reflects.

Nevertheless, the director thanks the “festival for the initial invitation” and wishes it “much luck in its continued struggle to bring light to Havana’s theaters. There will be better times. The winds of changes are blowing strong and are inevitable, in Cuba as well as in Venezuela,” he asserts.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

“Cuba’s Tyrant Died,” Miami Celebrates / 14ymedio


14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 26 November 2016 – Thousands of Cubans poured into Miami’s streets in the early morning hours to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former ruler, who held onto power for almost five long decades. To the rhythm of “Our Day is Coming” by Willy Chirino and “In Case I Don’t Return,” by the late Celia Cruz, the exiles celebrated surviving the man who dominated with an iron fist the destinies of those on the Island of Cuba.

“Here we are celebrating freedom for the Cuban people. Satan has died, a man who plunged the people into misery and hunger,” said Maria Cristina Labrada Varona, member of the Ladies in White on a visit to the city of Miami. continue reading

The leader of the Democracy Movement, Ramon Saul Sanchez, explained to 14ymedio that the exiles do not rejoice at the death of a human being but “at the disappearance of a symbol that is used as a sword of Damocles against civil society activists and all who want to democratize Cuba.”

Sanchez says that “Raul and his brother Fidel Castro were responsible for making the dynastic transfer” and argues that military exercises like the Bastion 2016 were carried out in order to intimidate people and so that people did not pour into the streets.

“The Cuban is changing in his heart, he wants liberty. One day we are going to see that this happiness that is seen in the Cuban exile is going to be apparent to everyone,” said Sanchez.

Ufracio Gonzalez, a boxing trainer attending the demonstration explained that he decided to go out to the streets with his young daughter to celebrate the death of the dictator because “That man has done a lot of damage to Cubans. We have memories of suffering and bitterness.”

Not only Cubans were among the celebrators. Venezuelans and Latin Americans decided to share the joy of the exiles. Lia Fausta, a Brazilian living in Miami, says that she does not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro but a new life for Cuba and for all the countries in the Americas.

“Lula, Dilma Rousseff, Evo Morales, Nicolas Maduro, Ortega and Santos. We must free ourselves from these people who destroy the future of our young people,” she explained.

“I love Cuba. My mother was a woman who loved the Island. All my life the only thing I heard was ‘what a shame that this has happened (the Cuban Revolution) to a country that was the most beautiful in the Caribbean,’” she added.

A woman raises a flag to celebrate the end of Fidel Castro (14ymedio).
A woman raises a flag to celebrate the end of Fidel Castro (14ymedio).

Since early morning the county police have been present and closed downtown’s Eighth Street in Little Havana, the quintessential meeting place for Cuban immigrants in south Florida, estimated at about two million people.

“It is a family celebration. You find the same thing among the old and the young. No one has wanted to stay home. It is something that we owe to our parents, our grandparents, to all who suffered the worst of the Castro tyranny,” comments Elquiades Suarez, 40 years of age.

In the afternoon Willy Chirino and other famed local artists visited the restaurant Versailles.

Cuban-American members of congress also met to give a joint statement.

“We are not going to expect big changes,” said the recently re-elected Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a joint press conference with Republicans Mario Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo.

Ros-Lehtinen also threw a bucket of cold water on those who expect rapid changes on the Island with the death of Castro: “Do not expect Fidel’s death to open a door to a new chapter of liberty. It is not so easy.”

“What we need is freedom for the Cuban people, freedom of expression and everything that is written in the Helms-Burton law.”

Diaz-Balart for his part said that Fidel Castro’s legacy is “of tragedy, of repression, of corruption, of drug trafficking and terrorism.”

Fidel Castro’s public enemy number one, the militant anti-Castroist Luis Posada Carriles, described the death of the Cuban ex-ruler as “unjust” and lamented that it came “so late.”

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Political Arrests Increase / 14ymedio, Pedro Armando Junco

Reporter Sol Garcia Basulto was arrested on the night of November 3 when she was preparing to travel to Havana. (14ymedio)
Reporter Sol Garcia Basulto was arrested on the night of November 3 when she was preparing to travel to Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Armando Junco, Havana, 23 November 2016 — I learned via the internet that 14ymedio’s Camaguey correspondent, Sol Garcia Basulto, was illegally and arbitrarily arrested on the night of November 3 when she was travelling to Havana to get a visa for her passport.

As she herself relates, she had won a trip abroad for a journalism course. She would not qualify for enrollment in a Cuban university journalism school because her political ‘wood’ is not suitable for the construction of that ‘national informational edifice.’ Her case is not isolated. There are many young students of this profession whose careers are interrupted for the least ideological slip-up or who, when they manage to graduate, have doors to jobs closed on them. They are innumerable, the names of the recent graduates who have crossed the Strait or who are marginalized within the country and take on any self-employment that is often as distant from their abilities and aspirations as they ever imagined. continue reading

Sol’s case is in keeping with a repressive wave that is playing out across the Island against opponents and independent journalists in order to put a stop to that avalanche of popular dissatisfaction that is growing among the citizenry because that handful determined to complain is the only representation of the people’s discontent. The system is not content with excluding them from the official media – the only media accessible to the population – but intends to eliminate them because of new technologies that one way or another allow what’s happening within Cuba to be known.

The most significant thing about Garcia Basulto’s detention, if the objective was to prevent her trip abroad, is that they could have visited her at her home and withdrawn her passport; taken her off the bus at the Camaguey terminal before it took off; or even summoned her to the police station. However, they waited for the bus to leave the city, and then they stopped it in the middle of the road, boarded it and handcuffed her like a common criminal. This is one more kind of mistreatment that so many of the Cuban population suffers.

I know Solecito – as I call her – and I know that she is a young woman of character. She raises her daughter alone because the father is a prisoner. I am not unfamiliar with that journalistic aspiration that has not been able to develop, as I said before, because of its dissident tenets. I have seen her often and read her work in the independent magazine Cuba’s Time which, by the way, is not at all “counter-revolutionary” except when its collaborators touch a sore spot of some public official – I even think that the State could take the articles that are written there as a reference to discover the administrative deficiencies of many revolutionaries who bleed public assets for their own benefit, as is well known.

I am at once saddened and indignant that the changes of openness promised to the people are the object of a double standard – to use this phrase that they like so much – and that now that the president general assures that there are no political prisoners, they stop and humiliate those who don’t submit to the system. It is possible that there are no political prisoners in Cuba; but political arrests increase daily.

The bad time that they gave to Solecito will not change her way of thinking but will increase her condemnation of those who oppress her. Maybe a friendly and convincing attitude together with facilitating her trip would have made her change her view and respond empathetically when the time came to practice non-professional journalism. But instead, the sad and regrettable event has brought to international light a new name that will have to be taken into account from now on.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

The Informal Market Compensates for the Lack of Medicines / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Shortages in state pharmacies fuels illegal trade in medicines in Cuba (14ymedio)
Shortages in state pharmacies fuels illegal trade in medicines in Cuba (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 7 November 2016 – “There is no headache that can resist this Bayer aspirin,” says Vicky, a seller of imported medicines who offers vitamins, sedatives, flu remedies and ointments. The shortages in state pharmacies fuel illegal trade in medicines in Cuba, many of them brought from abroad.

Vicky has been “in this arena” for three years, according to what she tells 14ymedio at her house in Old Havana, which she has repaired and furnished thanks to the medicine business. She says she has regular customers whom she keeps supplied with “antacid pills, multi-vitamins and flu remedies.”

Customs regulations in force since 2014 permit the import of up to ten kilos of medications duty-free into the country. It is only required that they come in “luggage separate and independent from other articles” and that they keep “their original packaging.” continue reading

“Do you know how much Alka-Seltzer fits in ten kilos?” Vicky jokes about the commercial brand of effervescent antacid that is recovering its popularity among Cubans after decades of absence. “There are many needs, and this is a business that never loses,” she explains.

“I have several contacts who travel to Miami and Panama to supply me,” says Carlos Manuel, another medication seller, more focused on the Island’s central market. “Many are accustomed to US brands, so I try not to change my suppliers,” he adds.

“In the countryside people have a tough time getting many of these things,” says the seller, who explains that some customers do not pay him with money but with agricultural products. Carlos Manuel, in fact, already has “agreed to a pig at the end of the year” in exchange for “a nebulizer and a digital blood pressure monitor” ordered by a sixtyish farmer.

Cuba produces some 531 medications, of which 322 go to the pharmaceutical network and the rest to hospital centers, according to data from the Ministry of Public Health. The state subsidizes the sale in dispensaries and regulates the quantities that each consumer can buy, even for non-prescription medicines.

The pharmaceutical industry is going through a difficult period with the lack of liquidity that the country is experiencing. Managers of the state company BioCubafarma explained to the official media last October that the medication deficit is due to decreased availability of raw materials, a result of defaults by foreign suppliers.

“Those that sell fastest are acetaminophen and ibuprofen plus vitamin E, triple antibiotic creams and Scott’s Emulsion,” says Carlos Manuel about his alternative offerings. “There is much demand for medications by older people,” he says.

With a very low birth rate, high life expectancy and increasing emigration by the young, Cuba is on track to become the ninth oldest nation in the world in 2050 and the oldest in Latin America. Currently the elderly exceed 20% of the country’s 11.1 million residents.

“There are more requests for circulation problems, knees guards, canes, bedsore creams and disposable adult diapers.” However, the seller says that still “the medications for chronic illnesses have to be gotten here through the black market, because out there it is very difficult to buy without a medical prescription.”

In that latter category are third generation antibiotics and many of the drugs for heart disease. But also the aerosol Salbutamol for asthmatics and doses of Enalapril for arterial hypertension are scarce in the state networks and are more complicated to acquire abroad.

The imports are products with flashy labels, bottles that often promise a number of pills “free” and with variations for all tastes. “I have the same medicine in pill form but also in gum and syrup,” adds Vicky.

A bottle of 30 children’s animal-shaped, soft vitamins costs in his “private dispensary” some five convertible pesos, a fourth of the average monthly salary. A nasal decongestion spray costs twice as much, the same as a cream for combating nail fungus.

Vicky sells vitamins, sedatives, flu remedies and ointments in her “private pharmacy” (14ymedio).
Vicky sells vitamins, sedatives, flu remedies and ointments in her “private pharmacy” (14ymedio).

“Among my clients some spend up to 30 CUC per month on medicines, above all those who have young children or the physically impaired in their care,” the woman says.

The medicines distributed in the pharmacy network throughout the country mostly come in unattractive boxes, in the traditional blister packs or white plastic packages; there is no variety even if by chance there is a medicine for each illness. “It is not the same; although they may be good medicines they look outdated, old,” reflects Vicky.

“Everything that I have is quality, without adulteration,” the saleswoman promises a customer who has come to her house in search of a bottle of Omega 3 and other products. “It does not matter if you don’t have pain or corns, it is always better to invest in health,” she takes the opportunity do some advertising.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

“It’s Hard for the Government to Tolerate the Professionalism of Independent Journalists”

Ignacio Gonzalez, journalist and editor of Free Hot Press agency (screenshot)
Ignacio Gonzalez, journalist and editor of Free Hot Press agency (screenshot)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Joanna Columbie, Havana, 21 October 2016 – Ignacio Gonzalez is frequently seen in the streets of Havana with microphone in hand recording citizens’ reactions to a flood, a historic baseball game or the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States. Independent journalist and editor of the Hot Free Press (ECPL) agency, the young man aspires to continue excelling professionally and thinks that non-government media are experiencing a time of growth.

Recently Gonzalez spent 48 hours under arrest at a police station as a consequence of his work as a reporter, an arrest that is among the repressive acts carried out against independent journalism in recent months.

Columbie: How was Hot Free Press born?

Gonzalez: It comes from the idea that people are again gaining confidence in the independent press, which had lost a little due to government propaganda that says that it involves unqualified and mercenary journalists. We interview not only the regime’s opponents but also doctors, engineers, can collectors, mechanics, carpenters… people like that. continue reading

Columbie: You suffered an arrest recently. What happened?

Gonzalez: I was doing a report together with another colleague on a study of central Havana, and an operation began with a patrol car, five police officers and two agents from State Security. They took us to the fourth police unit and interrogated me in one of the offices. They made me undress and squat forwards and backwards in order to see if I had hidden any USB drives. I felt denigrated.

Then I was transferred to a police station on Zanja Street and later to the 10th of October, located on Acosta Avenue. I was detained for 48 hours, which had never happened to me, because they had always detained me between three and four hours.

Columbie. Were you accused of some crime or are you now subject to some investigative process?

Gonzalez. They told me that they had a file on me and that I am a counter-revolutionary. Although they assured me that my detention was not because of political problems, but because I was committing an illicit economic activity, since I had an agency where it was known that I paid workers and that I had no license to practice this activity nor was I accredited in the country. They also threatened me that my equipment could be seized. I did not sign nor will I sign any paper. There is no accusation as such, what I have is threats.

Columbie: Do you feel you are a “counter-revolutionary?”

Gonzalez: I told them that they were the counter-revolutionaries because they refuse progress and all kinds of democracy to our country. If they are going to put me in prison, they are going to have to do so also with thousands of Cubans who bravely and spontaneously make statements for our reports. Nor am I a mercenary. I work and get a salary for my work with my press outlet.

What they want with their threats is that I stop being an independent journalist and dedicate myself to taking photos for birthdays and quinceañeras [girls’ 15th birthday celebrations – a major coming-of-age milestone].

Columbie: How do you define yourself?

Gonzalez: I am neither an opponent nor a dissident; I am a person who practices journalism in favor of the truth. If the government does something positive, I do an interview or a report about that topic, but if it does something negative, I also bring it to light. If an opponent commits an act of corruption, I bring it to light, and if he is making a move in favor of the people, I do as well. That’s how journalism should be: impartial.

Columbie: Why do you believe that the repression against you has become more intense now?

Gonzalez: The increasing growth of independent journalism is upsetting them. We unofficial reporters have had the opportunity to attend courses, improve ourselves, and the government doesn’t tolerate it. This improvement, this professionalism that journalists are acquiring, even the audio-visual media which shows the whole world the news as it is, it is hard for them to tolerate. They are trying to accuse us of illegalities. It is a zero-tolerance policy towards the independent press.

In the case of Hot Free Press we are making reports almost of the same quality as Cuban television, but with the difference that we are not censored. We are reaching people; we have managed to make people feel a little more confident with the independent press, to give their statements. We have even found among members of the public that they say that if it’s not for national television, they say whatever they want. They are more disposed to make statements to independent outlets because they know that the national press belongs to the government and simply does not work.

Columbie: Are other non-governmental press agencies going through the same situation?

Gonzalez: I have not seen the same attitude with the rest of the new supposedly independent programs, like Bola 8 or Mi Havana TV. These just have a lot of nonsense. Supposedly they are being financed by the self-employed, but I work in this industry, and I know that the self-employed cannot pay for a production like these programs are showing. There are diverse locations and entry to places to which the independent press does not have access.

Columbie: How would you define the practice of the press in Cuba outside of the official sphere?

Gonzalez: Being an independent journalist here is like being a war correspondent.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel