A Taxi Cooperative Proposes To Lower Private Transport Prices

Passengers getting ready to board one of the new Rutero fixed-route shared taxis operating in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 17 May 2017 — In the midst of the morning hustle and bustle, residents of Havana are trying to reach their destinations on time, a challenge because of the inefficient public transport and the sky high prices charged by the private operators of fixed-route shared-ride taxi services. On Monday a new service, “Rutero taxis,” was added to the transportation offerings, a cooperative that intends to regulate the high costs of moving around Cuba’s largest city.

With a total of 60 Lada and Hyundai cars, in addition to five buses, Cooperative Number 2 covers the route between La Lisa and the Fraternity Park. For years, this route has been the fiefdom of the boteros – or boatmen, as private taxi drivers are called – with their dilapidated but efficient vehicles. In the private taxis, the complete trip costs 20 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of one day’s pay, while individual sections of the trip cost 10 Cuban pesos, reduced rates recently imposed by the government. continue reading

The users perceive the new structure, under cooperative management, as a response the high fares charged by private operators, rates that the official media has called an “abuse on the population.” The Rutero drivers charge 15 Cuban pesos for the full route and 5 for intermediate sections.

The Rutero drivers charge 15 Cuban pesos for the full route and 5 for intermediate sections compared to 20 and 10 charged by the private drivers

The conflict between the State and the self-employed drivers has experienced tense moments in recent months. Last February, the capital authorities imposed flat rates on private taxi drivers’ journeys. The decision was a brake on the law of supply and demand that has governed the private transportation of passengers since it was authorized in the mid-1990s.

The boteros responded by refusing to serve intermediate stops and carrying only passengers who made the complete trip. Although they lack an independent union, something prohibited by law, they closed ranks and decreased the number of customers they served, to pressure local authorities to withdraw the controls.

The result was an increase in the waiting time for transport and the overwhelming of the bus stops by the avalanche of customers who could no longer travel in the private fixed-route shared taxis, called almendrónes after the almond-shape of the classic American cars commonly used in the service. For weeks, Habaneros have felt as if the most difficult days of the Special Period of the 90’s were coming back.

Now the taxi drivers are trying to alleviate that situation, with a management structure halfway between private and state.

As of January there were 397 private cooperatives on the island, active in food, personal and technical services. The state has promoted this kind of economic management since 2012, but is still in the experimental phase.

“This isn’t fair,” comments Rafael Vidal, a private driver who does not look favorably on the new service. “Those who drive these cars do not have to worry about breakdowns or getting parts, because they have a workshop with all the spare parts and several mechanics at their disposal,” protests the driver.

For Vidal, “the competition is unfair” because “the drivers do not pay for the fuel, and although I have no evidence, I can assure you that the traffic police will not come down on them like they do us”

For Vidal, “the competition is unfair” because “the drivers do not pay for the fuel, and although I have no evidence, I can assure you that the traffic police will not come down on them like they do us.” One of the most repeated complaints among private drivers is the harassment of inspectors and police officers, sometimes in the form of extortion with demands for money.

Sitting at the wheel of one of the yellow cars with a black roof that the new cooperative operates, Reinier is pleased to be part of the initiative. Previously he rendered his services through the state-owned company Cubataxi and confirmed that getting fuel is no longer a problem in his new job. “My Lada is the only one with a new engine and that is why it uses oil. Yesterday I consumed 18 liters in seven roundtrips,” he says.

The cuts in the oil supply to the state sector keeps the drivers on edge. Of the more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day that Cuba received during the years when Hugo Chavez ruled Venezuela, the supply dropped to 87,000 in 2016, and now does not exceed 55,000, according to several analysts.

The drop in fuel imports has affected the informal gasoline market and raised prices, one of the reasons that led the private drivers to increase their fares.

Reinier believes that it is too early to “assert that there are advantages” with the Rutero taxis, or whether they really relieve the transport situation in the capital. He confirms that he must give all his proceeds to the cooperative daily. “If I deposit 1,050 Cuban pesos every day, I am guaranteed a monthly salary of 800 CUP.” If he exceeds that amount he gets a bonus, and if he falls short there is a deduction.

This Monday, several of the Rutero drivers were not able to meet the standard, according to Reinier. “I did it, but I have tremendous pain in my back from the nine hours I was driving,” he explains to 14ymedio.

The new service covers the route of the P-14 bus from six in the morning until eight at night. The first section starts on 272nd Street in La Lisa municipality and runs to the beginning of Marianao; the second concludes at Avenida 26 in the Plaza district, and the last one ends at Fraternity Park.

Another driver, who preferred not to give his name, explained that it is not very clear what happens when someone rides the last 100 meters of the first leg and gets off in the first block of the second. “You could be charged 10 CUP because you crossed the border, but that is up to the driver’s consideration,” he speculates.

The Rutero drivers have a significant limitation: they can only accept Cuban pesos, the national currency, in a country where the convertible peso has become the strong currency that actually runs the economy. The drivers justify the decision because “the cooperative keeps the accounts in CUP to measure the completion of the daily minimum.”

“Betancourt, the president of the cooperative, says that we can not become a Cadeca (currency exchange),” Reinier says, laughing.

According to several drivers interviewed, for now the contract is in force for three months and many expect that “when they adjust it” they will lower the daily quota

According to several drivers interviewed, for now the contract is in force for three months and many expect that “when they adjust it” they will lower the daily quota. There is a sense among them of being part of an experiment open to modifications at any time.

The outsides of the cars are painted with the identification of the cooperative, and inside the cars there is passenger information about their rights and established prices. In addition, the telephone number 18820 is displayed for complaints and claims.

Customers agree that there should be no illusions. “It would be a miracle if it lasts for a year,” says a young woman to an official journalist who, at the stop at Fraternity Park, put a microphone through the window to survey the passengers.

A woman seated next to her limits herself to approval of the new prices. “Comparing it with the private taxis it is better, but it is still expensive. A few years ago, when the taxis had a meter, you could travel through Havana for 5 pesos and for 15 pesos you could travel to another province,” she concludes.

Readers Opine About ’14ymedio’ on its Third Anniversary

14ymedio’s third anniversary makes a mockery of official censorship in Cuba. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 May 2017 — This digital newspaper first saw the light just three years ago, on 21 May 2014. In this time the setbacks have been many, as have the gratifications from updating the site, providing a constant flow of information to our readers, and maintaining high quality standards of reporting in the articles published on this page.

Today, readers opine about the topics they prefer to see addressed, they contribute their critiques to improve the journalism prepared by the editorial team of this newspaper and its collaborators, as well as project how they imagine it will evolve in the coming three years, the amount of time that has passed 14ymedio was born.

Marlene Azor says she reads the newspaper from Mexico. “I think it is an essential information medium on Cuba and the world.” The academic values ​​the articles published as “informative and at the same time providing analysis,” and considers the editorial work “serious and rigorous,” a characteristic she considers “very gratifying for someone who is looking for information on the daily life” of the island. continue reading

The most interesting topics for Azor are those that have to do with “the economy, politics, culture and daily life” in the country. She finds the comments in the discussion area essential “for the right to free expression.” However, she regrets the “deficit of the culture of debate in [the comments] sent by State Security” to boycott the medium.

In this site the setbacks have been many, as have the gratifications from updating the site, providing a constant flow of information to our readers, and maintaining high quality standards of reporting in the articles published on this page.

Looking ahead three years, the Cuban emigre expects to see 14ymedio developing “more depth in its analysis,” because “the disinformation” exercised by the Cuban government “cannot last” much longer. Azor is extremely critical of the official press and accuses it of misinforming and disseminating “such a biased view of the world” that it can go so far as to “the reverse” of reality.

“ReyLI” comments that “the topics that interest me most are those related to Cuba and Venezuela” and he believes that commenters on the site “should use fewer bad words and generally follow the rules of the site, which are not always met by eliminating comments.” The reader appreciates the existence of this information portal.

“Gatovolador” visits 14ymedio because he finds it “very complete with regard to the news coming from the Island, its dissidence and the government’s great failures.” He would be interested in finding more articles “on universal geography, the discoveries in this field and also in the field of health,” although he acknowledges that the newspaper already dedicates space to these topics.

He also agrees with other readers that “lately confrontations and responses are taking place” in the comment area. Discussions in which there is “disrespect” from “people of the left in their crazy quest to put an end to 14ymedio.” A situation that he believes is based on a strategy to cause “other readers to lose interest and withdraw” from the site.

“I would like to see this newspaper be for sale in all the island’s news kiosks” so that it can be read by all Cubans, he says. The reader congratulates the collaborators and editors of the newspaper and hopes that on “21 May 2018 we can meet again.”

“Jesusnavacuba” has become a regular commenter on this newspaper because he wants to be aware of “the political discussion, to know the strategies” of the managers of this digital site and “to see how they react to the issues of the progressive world.” The reader thinks that the newspaper shows “great ideological flaws with regards to community issues.”

“I would like to see this newspaper sold in all the island’s news kiosks” so that it can be read by all Cubans

The reader, a resident of the United States, is especially interested in the issues “that flood us here and there, those that are reflected in Cuba as a copy of what happens here in the USA and as a practice in the rest of the world.” He criticizes that editors “are not interested in moderating” comments when language is violent, vulgar and offensive, however he believes the discussions are the “steam engine” of the site.

“Discrimination, threats to people’s lives and the apologies for crimes flood the forum,” Jesusnavacuba complains. A scenario that implies that site administrators “prefer active traffic” and sacrifice “quality and professionalism” to obtain it.

In three years, the reader projects that this journal will evolve towards “a new form of private journalism.”

Luis Vigo, a frequent visitor of the page, sees in 14ymedio a space where he can keep “connected with the Cuban reality” and “debate and exchange ideas and opinions with other readers.” He is particularly interested in “news and current issues, both nationally and internationally.”

“The debates among readers not only seem valid but necessary to create an awareness of the diversity of opinions for a future Cuba free of dictatorship,” adds Vigo. He imagines that in years to come this will be “a newspaper with much more scope” for nationals both inside and outside the island.

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Editor’s Note:

We would like to hear your views on our work. We invite you to enrich 14ymedio with your suggestions, comments and criticisms.

We Have Survived

A man reads the printed version of ’14ymedio’ circulating in PDF format inside Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 May 2017 — Three years ago this digital daily was just a dream, a project on paper and a desire in the heads of several colleagues. On that 21 May 2014, the mirage took shape on the first cover of a site that robs us of our nights, brings us frequent moments of tension, but also puts a smile on our faces when we publish a successful investigation or report.

When we joined together around that initial idea of ​​creating a newspaper from within Cuba, we had at least two pillars on which to build this informational edifice: to engage in quality journalism and to maintain our economic independence. Fulfilling those initial goals has been a difficult challenge, but we are pleased and proud to have succeeded in most cases. continue reading

For three years this newspaper has privileged opinion, has made reporting its flagship content and has opted for well written stories, carefully prepared and anchored to reality. We have managed to address opposing worlds: opposition and officialdom; ecology and industry; emigration and local entrepreneurship.

We have avoided adjectives to focus on the facts and to distinguish ourselves from activism journalism. Our compass seeks to maintain seriousness and rigor in the simplest and most complex articles. In this newsroom we repeat some phrases that reveal this premise: “it is better to be late than wrong,” “we do not work for the hits but for the information,” “being a reporter is not a good profession for making friends,” “a good journalist will always end up annoying someone”… and many others.

We have avoided adjectives to focus on the facts and to distinguish ourselves from activism journalism. Our compass seeks to maintain seriousness and rigor in the simplest and most complex articles

In this time, we have rejected all offers of economic support from foreign governments, political parties, foundations linked to power groups and figures with a marked ideological position. Instead we have chosen to “make a living” through journalism, something so distressing and difficult in these times it has put us constantly on the verge of material indigence. However, this tension has been the best incentive to produce high quality content that we can offer to media and agencies in other parts of the world.

Our editorial team is the best family you can imagine. Like all relatives, it has its headaches: there are severe parents, hypercritical uncles, grumpy grandparents, unkind brothers and fast-paced cousins when it’s time to click the button to “publish” to information. But in general it is a team united by the best possible glue: the search for journalistic quality.

Our main obstacles remain obtaining information in a country where institutions practice secrecy, the official press gilds reality and most citizens are afraid to speak with an independent newspaper. They are not insurmountable difficulties, but they demand an enormous amount of energy and patience from us every day.

The blocking of our digital site, the stigmatizing of our name and the harassment of reporters have also negatively affected the scope of our work, but we are not discouraged. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

The most important thing we are going to keep in mind today, when we blow out the three tiny candles on our digital cake, is that “we have survived.” Against all the predictions of friends and enemies, we are here, we have made a space in Cuban journalism and we will continue to work to improve the quality of this newspaper.

“We Are Not Leaving Cuba”, Say Members Of The Center For Coexistence Studies

A fierce police raid accompanied the arrest of Karina Gálvez in Pinar del Río. (Coexistence)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 16 May 2017 — In the midst of a wave of pressure from the authorities, members of the Center for Coexistence Studies (CEC) have issued a declaration of commitment to their work on the island. “We are not leaving Cuba, we are not leaving the Church and we will continue working for the country,” says the text signed by Dagoberto Valdés, director of the CEC.

The message expresses gratitude for “solidarity in moments of tough repression” and assures that the team “continues to think, propose, dream and build a free and prosperous future for all Cubans.”

The statement was issued a few hours after police stopped the vehicle in which Yoandy Izquierdo, a member of the CEC, was traveling from Pinar del Rio to Havana to board a flight. The activist was invited to participate in the Stockolm Internet Forum (SIF) in Sweden but misses his plane this Sunday because of the arrest. continue reading

Izquierdo was detained at the police unit in Los Palacios and officers asserted that they need to conduct a search to determine if the driver of the car was “charging for the shuttle service to the airport.”

CEC “continues to think, propose, dream and build a free and prosperous future for all Cubans”

The activist was not released until after his flight took off, but this Monday he managed to reach José Martí International Airport and board a plane to his destination.

The detention of Izquierdo was added to an escalation in repression against the members of the CEC that has increased in the last months; several of the organization’s managers have been object of pressures, warnings and interrogations.

Last January the economist Karina Gálvez suffered a raid on her home and has been accused of an alleged tax evasion offense. The police are keeping her house sealed waiting for the trial to take place.

The Coexistence Studies Center organizes training courses for the citizenry and civil society in Cuba. The entity functions independently of the State, the Church and any political grouping. The magazine of the same name emerged in 2008 and is published bimonthly.

Castro Regime Rushes Unfinished Business Before Raul Leaves the Presidency

President Raúl Castro considers the documents ratified as “the most studied, discussed and rediscussed in the history of the Revolution.” (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 19 May 2017 — The government rushed on Friday to accomplish some pending tasks before Raul Castro leaves the presidency. The Third Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party ratified two programmatic documents at a meeting where Marino Murillo reappeared, vice-president of the Council of Ministers removed from the family photo of power as of November of last year.

Just 40 days before the promised deadline, the Conceptualization of the Cuban Social and Economic Development Model and the bases of the National Economic and Social Development Plan were approved until 2030. The package also included compliance with the new modifications to The Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution. continue reading

A note read on the noon edition of the television news reported that President Raul Castro considers these documents as “the most studied, discussed and rediscussed in the history of the Revolution.” The approval of the texts occurs after a long process in which, it is said, more than 1.5 million Cubans participated.

The Plenum agreed to submit to the consideration of the National Assembly the Conceptualization of the Model and the Guidelines, but with regards to the Plan it only proposed to inform the parliamentarians about its approval.

Missing in the document are topics of great interest to the population such as the elimination of rationing system, the permitting of professionals to exercise self-employment in their specialties, or human rights.

The ratification of these programs comes at a difficult time for the country. Last year, the island experienced a 0.9% decrease in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first time since 1995. Stopping this drop and obtaining an increase in GDP is the government’s main economic objective for this year.

The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has caused an abrupt drop in oil imports to the island. Of the 100,000 barrels a day received by Cuba at a subsidized price during the best years of closer ties with Venezulea, analysts estimate that now only less than half as many barrels are arriving.

A Russian oil company has taken on providing an emergency supply and plans to send in the next few months about 250,000 tonnes of oil and diesel to the island where, since last year, the consumption of electricity in state entities has been rationed and cuts have been applied to the fuel supply.

The current scenario directly raised questions about what was established in the Plan for 2030.

The Conceptualization does not reference that the ultimate goal of Cuban socialism is to build the communist society; nor does it mention as a goal the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.

Missing in the document are topics of great interest to the population such as the elimination of rationing system, the permitting of professionals to exercise self-employment in their specialties, or human rights.

Moisés Finalé: When Ovaries Reign And Vaginas Rule

To connect with Finalé – and the women of his paintings – dozens of friends and followers of his art came to the imposing building of the Havana Malecon with its caryatids looking out to sea. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 May 2017 — Havana has always been female in every millimeter, edifice or cracked wall. This city could have any of the female faces that the fine artist Moisés Finalé displays this Friday at the Hispanic-American Center of Culture under the title, “The Weight Of Her Body.” A show where ovaries reign and vaginas rule.

Finalé is carried away by the female body. He represents figures with an unleashed eroticism that betrays his obsessions and his preferences. Pressed between thighs and caught between two breasts, thus appear each of the works created by the artist born in Matanzas in 1957, one of the most prominent names of the generation of the eighties. continue reading

“These pictures belong to my personal collection, they have been with me for a long time, some since the mid 90’s,” says Finalé. (14ymedio)

To connect with Finalé – and the women of his paintings – dozens of friends and followers of his art came to the imposing building on the Havana Malecon with its caryatids looking out to sea. On the walls, witness to reunions and toasting with a pinch of rum, the feminine forms concentrated on the truly transcendent: love, life, conception and death.

The artist knows well of hugs and distance. Although he frequently participates in exhibitions on the island and maintains Studio Finalé-Art in Vedado, he spends much of his time in Paris. More than once he has had to pack the eroticism and carry it in the suitcase with which he crosses the Atlantic. That is why the maidens of his paintings come a little bit from here, and others from there and many from nowhere.

In painting, as in sexuality, daring is rewarded, his brushes tell us. (14ymedio)

The painter’s references are diverse, he calls on the Japanese print as well as Egyptian symbols while drawing on expressionism and the very Cuban avant-garde. In painting, as in sexuality, daring is rewarded, his brushes tell us. So in his pictures African masks and mythological allusions appear.

“These pictures belong to my personal collection, they have been with me for a long time, some since the mid 90’s,” Finale tells 14ymedio. He says it is as if he fears that some have forgotten him. They are infinite canvases like wide and fecund sheets: beds without limits.

The curators of the exhibition, Rafael Acosta de Arriba and Yamilé Tabío, have succeeded in compiling those beloved or dreamed of women who haunt the artist. Women who look, lick, hide behind a mask, desire or copulate. Perishable bodies trapped in the immortal sensuality of a brushstroke.

”In love with her own game.” (14ymedio)

Finalé has ended up creating his own cosmogony, a universe of sensual beings that are born and perish without leaving the cycle of love. A universe caught in a spasm, where the artist takes refuge and allows viewers to enter.

The scenes of lasciviousness and desire are prolonged when, when descending the wide staircase of the Hispanic-American Center, one enters fully into a sensual and impudent Havana. A city that, like the women painted by Finalé, long ago that lost its modesty.

Miami Has It All, Even Russian Meat / Cubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez

Some of the Russian foods, toys and perfumes for sale at Marky’s in North Miami (Photo: El Nuevo Herald)

cubanet square logoCubanet, Luis Cino Alvarez, Havana, 18 May 2017—A neighbor of mine in Arroyo Naranjo recently had to ask an old friend of his who lives Miami to help him obtain some amitriptyline. A psychiatrist had recommended this medication for my neighbor’s wife to treat a nervous condition that would worsen without it.

This drug, among many others on a very long list, has been off the shelves of Havana pharmacies for months. The official excuse, aside from usual ones such as “the criminal blockade [U.S. embargo],” is that the cash-strapped Cuban state has been unable to square its debts with foreign pharmaceutical companies. continue reading

For the very astute customs officials at Cuban airports, ever on the hunt for drug trafficking and other illegal activities, it is a headache to conduct their painstaking inspections of the troves of medicines and vitamins that are brought in by travelers from the U.S.

Thus, it is no surprise that in Havana at this time, it is easier to find Tylenol than aspirin, and Centrum or Kirkland brand vitamins than the yellow multivitamin powder produced by the state, which some prefer not to use because it “whets their appetite too much.”

Cubans on the Island are evermore dependent on the remittances and packages they receive from their relatives and friends abroad, primarily those in the U.S., whom the regime demonized for decades, called traitors, and tried to cut their emotional ties to Cuba.

Many Cubans depend on the emigres and exiles not only for medicine, sustenance and clothing, and the monthly recharging of their mobile phones. They also request and obtain from them the most varied and sundry goods: from santería necklaces and white garments for the iyabó to school uniforms, and even parts for Russian-made automobiles.

That’s right. You heard it. In various Miami establishments one can find parts for Soviet-era automobile makes such as Lada and Mokvich, and for Ural and Berjomina motorcycles. In today’s Russia it is probably difficult to find these parts, they may not even be produced anymore, but in Miami, I know not how, there is an abundance of them. And obviously they are aimed at Cuba, where Russian cars compete for longevity with the Fords and Chevrolets more than 60 years old that are still circulating.

But do not be surprised by the availability of Russian products in Miami (let us hope this is not a plot by Czar Putin and his intelligence service). When I visited that city last year, I spotted on the shelves of a well-stocked bodega (it being so Cuban I hesitate to call it a supermarket), located on Southwest 27th Avenue near Coconut Grove, nothing less than Russian canned meat. Those very same cans that we would refuse back in the day, the ones we said contained bear flesh or god-knows what other greasy Siberian beast, and that today, after so many years of enforced vegetarianism, cause our mouths to water as though they were the most exquisite delicacy. It appears that in Miami, while hunger is not their motivation, there are Cubans who are nostalgic for Russian canned meat, because I doubt very seriously that the only customers for this product would be the wealthy Russians who reside in Hallandale and Sunny Isles.

In Hialeah, which is like a piece of Cuba transplanted to South Florida (but without the ration books and the CDR) it probably is not very difficult to find those damned cans of Russian meat.

Also there, and in any other part of Miami, one can hear reggaeton and watch the pigswill of Cuban TV. And don’t be surprised if the generation of Bolek and Lolek manage to get their hands on those cartoons they had to watch as children in Cuba, when Pluto, Porky Pig and Donald Duck were considered agents of the imperialist ideological penetration.

Those who cannot resign themselves to watery coffee and bland cigarettes—if they wish to smoke (to the horror of the nonsmokers, always such scolds) stronger cigarettes than American Spirit and the Wranglers sold by the Indians in Kendall—can find in Hialeah, and not too expensive, cigarettes directly from Cuba: H. Upmann, Populares and even the unsmokeable Criollos and Titanes, a.k.a. “chestbusters.”

It seems to be true what I heard from a Cuban American who, as a sort of savior-magus bearing gifts, was visiting his impoverished relatives in Mantilla: “You can find everything in Miami, anything, whatever it is.”

luicino2012@gmail.com

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit / Iván García

An old building in Old Havana is the view you get from one of the boutiques in the Hotel Gran Manzana Kempinski. Taken from the article The New Luxury Hotels in Cuba try to attract a swarm of tourists, by Ali McConnon, published in the New York Times in Spanish on May 10, 2017, with photos by Lissette Poole.

Iván García, 11 May 2017 — Scarcely a block away from the majestic Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski, whose inauguration is expected next June 2nd, next to the Payret cinema, a state-owned cafeteria sells an acidic and insipid hamburger with bread for the equivalent of 50 centavos. Workers in the neighbourhood and beggars who survive on asking foreigners for change, form a small queue to buy the inedible hamburger.

The hotel, built by Kempinski, a company started in Berlin in 1897, stands in the place of the old Manzana de Gómez, the first shopping mall on the island, at Neptuno, San Rafael, Zulueta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of Havana. Opened in 1910, throughout its history, the Manzana de Gómez housed everything from offices, lawyers’ chambers and commercial consultants to businesses, cafes and restaurants and other enterprises. continue reading

Very near to Manzana Kempinski, the first five star hotel there, will be the Cuban parliament, still a work in progress, which will have as its headquarters the old National Capitol, a smaller scale replica of the Congress in Washington.

The splendid hotel, owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military corporation, and managed by the Kepinski organisation, can boast of having the old Centro Asturiano, now the home of the Fine Arts Museum’s private collections, the Havana Gran Teatro and the Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Plaza and Parque Central hotels as neighbours.

Apart from the recently-built Parque Central Hotel, the other three hotels are situated in 19th century or Republican era buildings, and are among the most beautiful in the city. In the centre of these architectural jewels we find Havana Park, presided over by the statue of the national hero, José Martí.

In those four hotels, you will find shops selling exclusively in convertible pesos (CUC), a strong currency created by Fidel Castro for the purpose of buying high quality capitalist goods.

Incidentally, they pay their employees in the Cuban Pesos (CUP), or national currency. In the tourism, telecoms and civil aviation sectors, their employees only earn 10-35 CUC as commission.

The chavito, as the Cubans term the CUC, is a revolving door which controls the territory between the socialist botch-ups, shortages and third rate services and the good or excellent products invoiced by the “class enemies”, as the Marxist theory has it, which supports the olive green bunch which has been governing the island since 1959.

21st century Cuba is an absurd puzzle. Those in charge talk about defending the poor, go on about social justice and prosperous sustainable socialism, but the working class and retired people are worse off.

The regime is incapable of starting up stocked markets, putting up good quality apartment blocks, reasonably priced hotels where a workman could stay or even maintaining houses, streets and sidewalks in and around the neighborhoods of the capital. But it invests a good part of the gross domestic product in attracting foreign currency.

José, a private taxi driver, thinks that it’s good to have millions of tourists pouring millions of dollars into the state’s cash register. “But, the cash should then be reinvested in improving the country. From the ’80’s on, the government has bet on tourism. And how much money has come over all those years? And in which productive sectors has it been invested?” asks the driver of a clapped-out Soviet-era Moskovitch.

Government officials should tell us. But they don’t. In Cuba, supposedly public money is managed in the utmost secrecy. Nobody knows where the foreign currency earned by the state actually ends up and the officials look uncomfortable when you ask them to explain about offshore Panamanian or Swiss bank accounts.

In this social experiment, which brings together the worst of socialism imported from the USSR with the most repugnant aspects of African style capitalist monopoly, in the ruined streets of Havana, they allow Rapid and Furious to be filmed, they tidy up the Paseo del Prado for a Chanel parade or open a Qatar style hotel like the Manzana Kampinski, in an area surrounded by filth, where there is no water and families have only one meal a day to eat.

In a car dealer in Primelles on the corner of Via Blanca, in El Cerro, they sell cars at insulting prices. The hoods of the cars are covered in dust and a used car costs between $15-40,000. A Peugeot 508, at $300k, is dearer than a Lamborghini.

For the authorities, the excessive prices are a “revolutionary tax”, and with this money they have said they will defray the cost of buying city buses. It’s a joke: they have hardly sold more than about forty second-hand cars in three years and public transport goes from bad to worse.

For Danay, a secondary school teacher, it isn’t the government opening hotels and luxury shops that annoys her, “What pisses me off is that everything is unreal. How can they sell stuff that no-one could afford even if they worked for 500 years? Is it some kind of macabre joke, and an insult to all Cuban workers?” Danay asks herself, while she hangs around the shopping centre in the Hotel Kempinski.

In the wide reinforced concrete passageways, what you normally see there is amazing. With his girl friend embracing him, Ronald, a university student, smiles sarcastically as he looks in a jewelry shop window at some emeralds going for more than 24k convertible pesos. “In another shop, a Canon camera costs 7,500 CUC. It’s mad.” And he adds:

“In other countries they sell expensive items, but they also have items for more affordable prices. Who the hell could buy that in Cuba, my friend? Apart from those people (in the government), the Cuban major league baseball players who get paid millions of dollars, and the people who have emigrated and earn lots of money in the United States. I don’t think tourists are going to buy things they can get more cheaply in their own countries. If at any time I had any doubts about the essential truth about this government, I can see it here: we are living in a divided society. Capitalism for the people up there, and socialism and poverty for us lot down here”.

Security guards dressed in grey uniforms, with earphones in their ears and surly-looking faces, have a go at anyone taking photos or connecting to the internet via wifi. People complain “If they don’t let you take photos or connect to the internet, then they are not letting Cubans come in”, says an irritated woman.

In the middle of the ground floor of what is now the Hotel Kempinski, which used to be the Manzana de Gómez mall, in 1965 a bronze effigy of Julio Antonio Mella, the student leaders and founder of the first Communist party in 1925, was unveiled. The  sculpture has disappeared from there.

“In the middle of all this luxurious capitalism, there is no place for Mella’s statue”, comments a man looking at the window displays with his granddaughter. Or probably the government felt embarrassed by it.

Iván García

Note: About the Mella bust, in an article entitled Not forgotten or dead, published 6th May in the Juventud Rebelde magazine, the journalist Ciro Bianchi Ross wrote: “I have often asked myself what was the point of the Mella bust which they put in the middle of the Manzana de Gómez mall and then removed seven years ago, before the old building started to be transformed into a luxury hotel, and which seems to bother people now. Mella had nothing in common with that building. The Manzana de Gómez had no connection with his life or his political journey. Apart from the fact that from an artistic point of view it didn’t look like anything”.

Translated by GH

Cuban Professionals Are Afraid In Venezuela

”Cubans Out!” The Venezuelan opposition sees Cuban doctors as an opposition army. (Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 18 May 2017 — Seen from the Venezuelan opposition as an army of occupation and from the Venezuelan government as soldiers of socialism, tens of thousands of Cuban professionals live a situation that is complicated day after day in convulsive Venezuela. The Cuban government has asked them to stay “until the last moment,” but misery, fear and violence are overwhelming athletes, doctors and engineers.

“We are not soldiers and we did not come to Venezuela to put a rifle on our shoulders,” says a Cuban doctor from the state of Anzoátegui who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

According to the physician, who has been working for two years in the country, Havana has asked them to remain “with honor until the last moment,” in a clear allusion to the possible fall of the Venezuelan government. continue reading

“We are working under a lot of pressure because the Medical Mission is adept at continuing to insist that services not be closed and that we maintain our position here in spite of everything,” he adds.

“We are afraid every day about what could happens to us. Sometimes they throw stones at us or they yell all kinds of insults at us. Every day there are demonstrations in front of the medical unit and nobody protects us”

In Venezuela there are about 28,000 health workers and thousands of others who are sports instructors, engineers, agricultural technicians and even electricians. The model of paying for Cuban professional services through the export of oil to Cuba has never been clearly exposed by the Venezuelan government.

According to Nicolás Maduro, since Chavez came to power, more than 250 billion dollars have been invested in the so-called “missions.” The former Minister of Economy of the Island, José Luis Rodríguez, published last April that Cuba received 11.5 billion dollars a year in payment for professional services rendered abroad, most of which comes from Venezuela. Other sources consider, however, that this is a very inflated number, although Havana’s profits are undoubtedly very high.

“We are afraid every day about what could happens to us. Sometimes they throw stones at us at the CDI [Centro de Diagnóstico Integral, doctor’s offices] or they yell all kinds of insults at us. Every day there are demonstrations in front of the medical unit and nobody protects us,” explains the doctor.

“So far they only attack us with words. They shout at us to get out of here, that they do not want to see themselves like us and other atrocities,” he adds.

The doctor, however, assures that those who work in the missions also do not want to be in that situation, but they are forced by the Cuban Government, that exerts pressure through diverse mechanisms.

“If we leave, we lose the frozen accounts maintained for us in Cuba. Also, if you leave the mission you are frowned upon in the health system and you have no possibility of being promoted,” he explains.

The Cuban government deposits $200 a month in a frozen account that at the end of the three years the mission lasts in Venezuela, totals $7,200. If the professional maintained “proper conduct and did their duty,” they can withdraw that money upon their return to the island. If they return before the established period or their participation in the mission is revoked (among other reasons for attempting to escape) they lose all that money.

In Cuba 250 dollars a month are deposited that can be withdrawn when the professional on the mission visits the Island once a year. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, they receive 27,000 bolivars, less than 10 dollars a month.

“If we leave, we lose the frozen accounts maintained for us in Cuba. Also, if you leave the mission you are frowned upon in the health system and you have no possibility of being promoted”

In the case of health technicians, Cuba pays them 180 dollars in a current account and another 180 dollars a month in an account frozen until the end of the mission.

A Cuban radiologist who is in the Venezuelan state of Zulia explains that for months they have no “Mercal,” a bag of food delivered by the Government of Venezuela.

“We live in overcrowded conditions with several colleagues and we do not even have potable water,” he adds.

“Thanks to some patients we can eat, but they are having a very bad time. We are repeating something like the Special Period that we experienced in Cuba,” he says.

Although he fears for his life because of the situation in the country, he says he is determined not to return to the island. “We have to endure until the end. It is not fair to lose everything after so much sacrifice,” he says.

Venezuelan protesters with a banner that reads “Cuba Out”

Following the outbreak of the protests in Venezuela, Cuban aid workers have been directed not to leave their homes and have experienced reduced communications with their families in Cuba.

Following the outbreak of the protests in Venezuela, Cuban aid workers have been directed not to leave their homes and have experienced reduced communications with their families in Cuba

“The internet is very bad, you can not even communicate. We have been forbidden to go out after six o’clock in the afternoon, as if we were slave labor, and on television they broadcast news that has nothing to do with what we are living through,” he explains.

Julio César Alfonso, president of Solidarity Without Borders, a Miami-based nonprofit organization that helps Cuban health personnel integrate into the US system, says the exodus of professionals has increased in recent weeks.

“Even without the US Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed doctors to obtain refuge in the United States, they continue to escape because of the situation in Venezuela,” said the physician.

Alfonso added that his organization is lobbying to re-establish the Parole Program, eliminated by former President Barack Obama in January, and allowing more than 8,000 Cuban professionals to enter the United States.

Eddy Gómez is an critical care doctor who worked in the state of Cojedes in western Venezuela. He decided to escape because he was afraid of the difficult conditions in which he was forced to work.

“We had to work in dirty places, without air conditioning, exposed to the fact that even the patients insulted us because we nothing to treat them with,” recalls the doctor who now lives in Bogota and acts as spokesperson for dozens of other professionals who escaped medical missions.

“We left Cuba looking for a better life, but in Venezuela we discovered a real hell”

“After the end of Medical Parole program people have continued to escape and come to Colombia. There are more than 50 professionals who left Venezuela after President Obama’s decision to eliminate it. We hope that Trump will admit doctors again,” says Gómez.

To escape Venezuela, the Cubans have to pay the coyotes about $650 to take them to Colombia. The path, full of dangers, includes a bribe to Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard that protects the borders, and to whom they must be careful not to show their official passports issued to them by the Cuban government because they would immediately be deported to the Island.

“There are many Cubans who have died violently in Venezuela, but the Cuban government does not tell the truth to their families, nor does it pay them compensation,” explains the doctor.

“We left Cuba looking for a better life, but in Venezuela we discovered a real hell.”

Behind the ‘Information Note’

There is no permanent entity in Cuba that governs the nation’s electoral processes. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 18 June 2017 — The regular readers of the official press have learned that the most innocent headlines can hide the most interesting news. Phrases such as Notice to the population or Information note, which defy any elementary lesson in journalism, alert those initiated into the special “granmer” of the Granma newspaper that, behind the candid title, there could be hidden some threat, a hope, or the apparent fulfillment of a formality, so that no one can say that this or that detail was never published in the press.

On Thursday, the Directorate of Identification, Immigration and Immigration (DIIE) published an “Information note”in the official media in which it announces to Cubans permanently resident in the country that its offices will be open to “update the address from where they will exercise their right to vote.” continue reading

The note then invokes Electoral Law No. 72 of 1992 to specify who has the right to active suffrage.

The real information that underlies all this, is that the first steps have now been taken to initiate the elections that will result in the final departure of Raul Castro from the job of President of the Councils of State and of Ministers. Perhaps even more significant, is that this process will begin without the new electoral law having been promulgated, regardless of the fact that the coming of the new law was announced by the president himself in February of 2015, at the conclusion of the Tenth Plenary of the Communist Party Central Committee.

There is no permanent entity on the island that governs the electoral processes, so the preparation of the Register of Voters is a task that falls on the Ministry of Interior through its offices of the DIIE. This is where it is registered whether a citizen resides in the national territory and whether or not he or she is under some legal sentence that limits his or her rights.

Oddly, the Information note makes it clear that people will be able to go to the relevant offices in any of the municipalities in the country “regardless of their place of residence,” but does not clarify if voters can exercise suffrage in the specific district where they physically reside, even if that is not the legal address recorded on their identity card.

Thousands of people throughout the country are living as tenants in private homes without being “properly registered”; many of them, especially if they live in the capital and are from other provinces, are prevented from finding a job, even with private employers, because they can not show “an appropriate address” in their identification document.

In the interest of reducing the number of people who do not vote, the state might be willing to overlook – for the purposes of voting only – what it will not tolerate with regards to finding work or enrolling one’s children in school.

No doubt the upcoming elections will be as uninteresting as any others have been. The absence of a new law indicates that the Candidacies Commission will continue, and that it will be these bodies that prepare the lists of aspiring deputies, while maintaining the prohibition against any of these candidates from presenting a political platform.

As has been the case to date, voters will have to be satisfied with nothing more than biographical data (prepared by the commissions, not by the candidates themselves), along with a photo. They will have to vote for their representatives without having any idea whether or not these individuals are in favor of foreign investment, if they want to increase or decrease non-state forms of production in the country, or if they are likely to be for or against it if the day comes when acceptance of same-sex marriage is introduced. They will not even know if their preferred candidate wishes to allocate the nation’s budget to build sports stadiums or theaters.

Of course, there will be no polls speculating on what will be the name of the person who will occupy the presidential chair in February 2018. Who are they going to put forward? It is the question that the majority of those few people interested in the subject at all tend to ask. Perhaps we will have to wait for another Information Note to get a clue about this great unknown.

Cuban Government Extends Censorship To The Digital Site Somos+

The Somos+ website with an article about the death of the historian Hugh Thomas.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 16 May 2017 — The digital site of the Somos+ (We Are More) Movement has now joined the list of pages censored on the servers of the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) which supply public WiFi. The leader of the organization, Eliecer Avila, links this measure to “the growing influence” of the site among the younger generation.

The government is “very aware of the statistics of who reads our blog and from where they are reading it,” says the opponent. “They have simply detected that the site is a threat to the system’s monolithic discourse,” he told 14ymedio on Tuesday. continue reading

“The blocking is the clearest sign our site is effective,” he adds. “We are trying to make a video tutorial of how it can be accessed despite censorship” and for months “we have had a weekly newsletter that is sent by email.”

The independent movement has been subjected in the last months to strong repression that includes the arrests of its members, police operations around the homes where they meet and a raid on Avila’s house, who is being prosecuted for an alleged crime of “illicit economic activity.”

The independent movement has been subject in recent months to strong repression that include the arrests of its members,operations around the homes where they meet and a raid on Avila’s house

Officialdom maintains censorship over several dozen critical pages, as well as blogs and opinion sites that shed light on Cuba’s most serious social problems. Among the sites shuttered in this way are 14ymedio and the news portals CubaNetDiario de Cuba and Martí Noticias, among others.

Until the middle of last year the popular classified ad site Revolico.com also was blocked on the national servers, but in August access to that page was restored.

Cuban authorities have copied the Chinese model of filtering digital sites by their content. A situation that Internet users are struggling to overcome through the use of anonymous proxies, the so-called “virtual private networks” (VPNs), and other tools such as the Android operating system app Psiphon and the Tor browser.

Freedom House recently produced a report in which it identified 66 countries in which it believes that the free right to information is not exercised. Cuba ranked among the top ten, in a list headed by North Korea and Turkmenistan.

In September 2016, 14ymedio published an investigation into censorship of words and phrases in text messaging in the cell phone network. The state monopoly of telecommunications maintains at least fifty blocked terms, among which the name of the organization Somos+ stands out.

‘Uncle Ho’: A Bust And A Distant Memory

The bust dedicated to the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh is in a process of being refurbished among general indifference. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 16 May 2017 – A singular pyramidal structure – with metal bars painted red – attracts hardly any attention in a park on Avenida 26, almost directly across from the Acapulco Cinema in Havana. The composition includes a pedestal on which rests the bust dedicated to the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, virtually unknown to the youngest Cubans.

These days the monument is surrounded by the bustle of restoration in anticipation of the 127th birthday, on 19 May, of the man his supporters affectionately call “Uncle Ho.” The revitalization comes amid a climate of relaunching of relations between the island and Vietnam, following the signing this past March of a bilateral cooperation plan on defense. continue reading

Both governments, despite the differences that separate them economically, still have much in common. In April, the Vietnamese regime signed an agreement with Facebook where the social network giant committed to censoring content that violates the laws of the country and erasing accounts that publish “false content” about the authorities.

Very few nationals would spend one minute of their time on-line to find out who was the man of that lonely bust on 26th Street

On the island, meanwhile, the government of Raúl Castro gives access to the network in dribs and drabs through Wi-Fi zones with high navigation prices, censored sites and an unstable service. While Cuba lags with regards to connectivity in cyberspace, Vietnam has more than 45 million users of social networking.

In this world marked by hyperconnectivity, and despite the limitations of access, very few Cubans would spend one minute of their time on-line to find out who was the man of that lonely bust on 26th street. The most they know of him is that he had a reputation for being straightforward, that he wore sandals and that he never imagined the effect that the new technologies were going to have on the system he built.

The Era Of The Compact Disc Is Over In Cuba

A place selling CDs and DVDs in the city of Camagüey. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 16 May 2017 — Hanging from the rearview mirror, the compact disc shines with the sun and swings with every bump in the street. From being highly valued as a platform for digital content, CDs and DVDs are becoming mere decorative objects, symbols of a technological era that is ending.

“Every day I sell fewer discs,” says Julian, who for almost five years had been dedicated to the trade in TV shows, movies and musicals on CDs and DVDs in Havana’s Diez de Octubre district.

With the expansion of the private sector, the streets of the country filled with stands and stores that began to offer entertainment of every kind. Colorful shelves, filled with every kind of product, have become a part of the urban landscape. continue reading

“Most of what I sell I copy directly from the computer to the device that the customer brings,” says Julian

The outlets dedicated to the trade in audiovisuals have been an alternative to the boring and ideologized television programming, but the technological advances and the saturation of the market are forcing many to close or convert to selling other things.

The competition from the Weekly Packet is tough and the CD/DVD sellers have a hard time keeping a current set of offerings. The alternative has been to go from selling CDs and DVDs to offering customers copies of materials on removable devices such as USB drives and external hard drives, but the rules governing self-employment does not encompass that form of the business.

“Most of what I sell I copy directly from the computer to the device that the customer brings,” says Julian. In a small room, located in the portal of a half-demolished house, the shelf with the disks also houses a laptop equipped with a three-terabyte hard drive.

“Here I have it all,” he details proudly to 14ymedio, while caressing the drive that “a brother living in la yuma,” (the US) brought him. The buyers can choose the amount of content they want and the subject matter.

“In this neighborhood four other places where CDs and DVDs were sold have closed,” says Julian. “We have been kept afloat thanks to direct copy,” he says.

He makes the copies “left and right” without worrying about the intellectual property rights of national and foreign artists.

On the Island, copyright is addressed in Law 14 of 1977 and applies to “scientific, artistic, literary and educational works of an original character” whatever its forms of expression, content, value or destiny. But in practice these provisions are not upheld.

Copies are made “left and right” without worrying about the intellectual property rights of national and foreign artists

An investigation carried out at the University of Granma by Marianela Paneque Mojena concludes that “sellers of reproducible CDs violate copyright with respect to the positive faculty of disclosure of the work.” Meanwhile “the copyright holders do not receive any remuneration for the CD with their authorship.” The National Copyright Center is responsible for managing intellectual property registrations and ensuring that these rights are not violated, but in practice it is nothing more than an inventory of works and authors.

This situation coexists with “an ignorance and lack of control on the part of the government bodies responsible for overseeing the work done by the sellers of reproducible discs,” assures the study.

Julian cares less about the issue of intellectual property and more about the profits from his business. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to buy the discs, because the stores are all out of them, and even the black market doesn’t have them.” An additional reason to go with another media.

The entrepreneur believes that his work is still “a business,” because it falls within the simplified tax schedule with a fixed tax of 60 Cuban pesos a month. In addition to this he contributes to social security and pays a tax for posting a sign visible in the street.

However, he believes that the business “is no longer the same, because many people download the materials from the wifi or share them for free.” He is sure that in a short time “all these disks that are now on display, will only be the images of what can be copied from the laptop.”

“What flies off the shelves are the telenovelas, first-run feature films, musicals and reality shows,” he comments. Although he also has customers who ask for “science documentaries, courses, videogames and mobile apps.”

Julian is lucky. In Havana, inspectors are still turning a blind eye to those who copy content instead of selling it already burned on CDs, but in other parts of the country it’s different.

In Havana, inspectors are still turning a blind eye to those who copy content instead of selling it already burned on CDs, but in other parts of the country it’s different

In the city of Guantánamo these sellers have been forced by the local authorities to remove from their signs the offers to “load discs or memory devices.” Many of them continue to do it, but secretly.

The main risk is losing one’s license to be a “buyer and seller of discs.” An occupation that, under the law, only includes trade in discs that respect the author’s copyright.

“Here I have everything, except pornography,” says another seller who has his stand in Infanta Street. “I work with fixed clients and I make them a folder tailored to their tastes,” he adds.

“The discs are going downhill because every day more people have a television that you can connect to a memory device,” he laments. The informal market is filled with offers of modern flat panel televisions that enter the country with travelers or mules.

“There are still people who are using a CD or DVD reader, but they are fewer and fewer, because the world is moving forward and no one wants to be left behind,” he says.

Independent Journalism Seeks to Revive Press Freedom / Iván García

Photo: MartiNoticias

Iván García, 3 May 2017 — Let’s step back in time. One morning in 1985, Yndamiro Restano Díaz, a thirty-seven-year-old journalist with Radio Rebelde, took out an old Underwood and wrote a clandestine broadsheet entitled “Nueva Cuba.” After distributing the single-page, handmade newspaper up and down the street, one copy ended up pinned to a wall in the Coppelia ice cream parlor in the heart of Havana’s Vedado district.

His intention was not to criticize the autocratic regime of Fidel Castro. No, it was simply an act of rebellion by a reporter who believed that information was a public right. In his writing, Yndamiro tried to point out the dire consequences that institutional contradictions were having on the country’s economy. continue reading

He was arrested and questioned at Villa Marista, a jail run by the political police in southern Havana. Later that year he was arrested again, this time for having given an interview to the New York Times. That is when his troubles began. He was fired from Radio Rebelde and branded with a scarlet letter by Special Services. Without realizing it, Yndamiro Restano had laid the foundations for today’s independent journalism in Cuba.

Cuba was emerging from overwhelmingly bleak five-year period in which censorship was having an almost sickening effect. The winds of glasnost and perestroika were blowing from Gorbachev’s USSR. Some intellectuals and academicians such as the late Felix Bonne Carcasses decided the time was right for more democratic openness in society and the media. Havana was a hotbed of liberal thought.

Journalist Tania Díaz Castro along with young activists Rita Fleitas, Omar López Montenegro, Estela Jiménez and former political prisoner Reinaldo Bragado established the group Pro Arte Libre. According to the writer Rogelio Fabio Hurtado, Cuba’s independent press was born out of the first dissident organization, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, led by Ricardo Boffill Pagés and the organization’s vice-president Rolando Cartaya, a former journalist at Juventud Rebelde. In a 2011 article published in Martí Noticias, Cartaya recalled, “When we arrived at dawn at his house in Guanabacoa’s Mañana district, Bofill had already produced half a dozen original essays and eight carbon copies of each for distribution to foreign press agencies and embassies.”

No longer able to work as a journalist, by 1987 Yndamiro Restano was making a living cleaning windows at a Havana hospital. He would later be fired from that job after giving an interview to the BBC. Frustrated by not being able to freely express himself in a society mired in duplicity and fear, he joined the unauthorized Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation created by Elizardo Sánchez.

Along with other journalists fired from newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television news programs who were eager to publish their own articles without censorship, Restano decided in 2011 to form an organization that would allow reporters condemned to silence to work together. Thus was born the Cuban Association of Independent Journalists, the first union of freelance correspondents.

In 1991 — a date which coincided with the beginning of the Special Period, an economic crisis lasting twenty-six years — the Havana poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela founded Criterio Alternativo which, among causes, championed freedom of expression. In an effort to crack open the government’s iron-fisted control of the nation, Maria Elena herself, along with Roberto Luque Escalona, Raúl Rivero Castaneda, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo, Manuel Diaz Martinez, Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Manolo Granados and Jorge A. Pomar Montalvo and others signed the Charter of Ten, which demanded changes to Castro’s status quo.

On September 23, 1995, Raúl Rivero — probably Cuba’s most important living poet — founded Cuba Press in the living room of his home in La Victoria, a neighborhood in central Havana. The agency was an attempt to practice a different kind of professional journalism, one which reported on issues ignored by state-run media.

Now living in exile in Miami, Rivero notes, “I believe in the validity and strength of truly independent journalism, which made its name by reporting on economic crises, repression, lack of freedom and by looking for ways to revive the best aspects of the republican-era press.” He adds, “There was never an attempt to write anti-government propaganda like that of the regime. They were pieces whose aim was to paint a coherent portrait of reality. The articles with bylines were never written so some boss could enjoy a good breakfast. They were written to provide an honest opinion and a starting point for debate on important issues. That is why, as I found out, Cuba Press was formed at the end of the last century.”

Cuba Press brought together half a dozen official journalists who had been fired from their jobs. Tania Quintero, now a political refugee who has lived in Switzerland since 2003, was one of them.* Once a week, Quintero boarded a crowded bus to deliver two or three articles to Raul Rivero, whose third-floor apartment was a kind of impromptu editing room, with no shortage of dissertations on every topic. An old Remington typewriter stood vigil as the poet’s wife, Blanca Reyes, served coffee.

The budding independent journalism movement had more ambitions than resources. Reporters wrote out articles in longhand or relied on obsolete typewriters using whatever sheets of paper they could find. Stories were filed by reading them aloud over phone lines; the internet was still the stuff of science fiction. The political police often confiscated tape recorders and cameras, the tools then in use, and well as any money they found on detainees. They earned little money but enjoyed the solidarity of their colleagues, who made loans to each other that they knew would never be repaid.

Those who headed other alternative news agencies also had to deal with harassment, arrest and material deprivation. That was the case of Jorge Olivera Castillo, a former video editor at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television who wound up being one of the founders of Havana Press.

Twenty-two years later, Olivera recalls, “Havana Press began life on May 1, 1995. A small group led by the journalist Rafael Solano, who had worked at Radio Rebelde, was given the task of starting this initiative under difficult conditions. After working for four years as a reporter, I took over as the agency’s director in 1999 and worked in that position until March 2003, when I was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in prison during the Black Spring.”

Faced with adversity, the former directors of Havana Press — Rafael Solano, Julio Martinez and Joaquín Torres — were forced to go into exile. “More than two decades after this movement began, it is worth noting its importance to the pro-democracy struggle and its ability to survive in spite of obstacles. Those initial efforts paved the way for the gradual evolution of initiatives with similar aims,” observes Olivera.

For the former prisoner of conscience, “independent journalism remains one of the fundamental pillars in the struggle for a transition to democracy. It has held this position since the 1990s, when it emerged and gained strength due to the work of dozens of people, some of whom had worked for official media outlets and others who learned to practice the trade with remarkable skill.” This is because independent journalism began with people who had worked in technical fields or in universities but had no journalistic experience or training. They are self-taught or took self-improvement courses either in Cuba or abroad, carved a path for themselves and are now authorities their field. They include the likes of Luis Cino, Juan González Febles and Miriam Celaya.

Radio Martí was and still is the sounding board for the independent press and opposition activists. The broadcaster reports on the regime’s ongoing violations of freedom of expression, its intrigues, its delaying tactics and its attempts to feign democracy with propaganda that rivals that of North Korea.

In a 2014 article for Diario de Cuba, José Rivero García — a former journalist for Trabajadores (Workers) and one of the founders of Cuba Press — wrote, “It is worth remembering that this seed sprouted long before cell phones, Twitter, Facebook or basic computers. The number of independent journalists has multiplied thanks to technology and communication initiatives over which the Castro regime has no control.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Even without the benefit of proper tools, a handful of men and women have managed in recent years to create independent publications such as Primavera Digital, Convivencia or 14ymedio.

Currently, there are some two-hundred colleagues working outside the confines of the state-run media in Havana and other provinces, writing, photographing, creating videos and making audio recordings. But they still face risks and are subject to threats. At any given moment they could be detained or have their equipment confiscated by State Security. Their articles, exposés, chronicles, interviews and opinion pieces can be found on Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Martí Noticias, Cubaencuentro and other digital publications, including blogs and webpages.

In almost lockstep with the openly confrontational anti-Castro press there is an alternative world of bloggers and former state-employed journalists. They practice their profession as freelancers and hold differing positions and points of view. Among the best known are Elaine Díaz from Periodismo de Barrio, Fernando Rasvberg from Carta de Cuba and Harold Cárdenas from La Joven Cuba, all of whom are subject to harassment and the tyranny of the authorities.

Reports issued by organizations that defend press freedom in countries throughout the world rank Cuba among the lowest. The regime claims that there have been no extrajudicial executions on the island and that no journalists have been killed. There is no need. It has been killing off the free press in other ways since January 1959.

Since its beginnings more than two decades ago, Cuba’s independent press has sought to revive freedom of the press and freedom of expression. And slowly it has been succeeding. In spite of harassment and repression.

 *Translator’s note: Tania Quintero is the author’s mother.

‘El Sexto’ Will Stay In The US But Will Continue To Fight Against Arbitrary Detentions In Cuba

A simple message with the words ‘He left’ written on a wall of the Habana Libre hotel sent the artist Danilo Maldonado, known as ‘El Sexto’, to jail last November. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 15 May 2017 — The artist Danilo Maldonado, known as ‘El Sexto’ (The Sixth), announced his desire to reside in the United States, although he will remain attentive to what happens in Cuba to be able to denounce the arbitrary detentions.

Maldonado, whose girlfriend, Alexandra Martinez, is a US citizen, declined to respond to a request from 14ymedio to confirm his decision to remain in the United States. For her part, Martinez said that the artist was not going to give statements on the matter. continue reading

El Sexto recently concluded the exhibition Angels and Demons in San Francisco, where he staged a three-day performance in which he was enclosed in a replica of the punishment cell in Havana’s Combinado del Este prison where he was held.

The artist has been arrested three times for political reasons.

In 2014 he tried to stage a performance titled “Animal Farm,” in which he intended to release two pigs with the names Fidel and Raul painted on their sides. Although he never managed to stage the performance, it cost him 10 months in Valle Grande prison, on the outskirts of Havana.

The artist has been arrested three times for political reasons

In the dark hours of the morning after the announcement of the death of Fidel Castro, Danilo wrote “He left” on one of the walls of the Habana Libre Hotel, which cost him another 55 days in prison.

“This can not be a one-day protest, right now this is happening in many countries, even our neighbors, and we have to report it,” Maldonado told EFE in reference to repressive actions against dissidents and human rights activists.

During the 36 hours of the performance in San Francisco, titled AmnestyEl Sexto remained without food in solidarity with the Cuban political prisoners Eduardo Cardet and Julio Ferrer, among others. The artist also dedicated his hunger strike to Leopoldo López and the other Venezuelan political prisoners.

Maldonado took the pseudonym El Sexto (The Sixth), with which he signed his graffiti on the streets of Havana, as an ironic response to the Cuban government’s campaign for the return of the so-called “Cuban Five,” five spies who were then in prison in the United States.

In 2015, Danilo Maldonado, 34, received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, awarded to activists “who engage in creative dissent, exhibiting courage and creativity to challenge injustice and live in truth.”