Flowers Are Replacing Other Crops in Cuban Fields

On special celebrations, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the demand for flowers skyrockets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 14 February 2018 —  In  Hoyo de Monterrey, the place where the best tobacco from Cuba is sown, a silent battle has been going on for years. The tobacco growers of the area, forced to sell their leaves to the state companies, opt increasingly for the cultivation of flowers, a production that they can manage with greater autonomy and benefits since they can avoiding trading with the state company Acopio and instead sell independently.

The breeze tickles the roses of the Pérez brothers’ farm in the municipality of San Juan y Martínez in Pinar del Rio. Among the bushes, several members of the large family are moving with great care through the rosebuds, which must be ready to leave the field on the eve of February 14. continue reading

On Valentine’s Day, known on the Island as Lovers’ Day, there is a frantic purchase of flowers, chocolates and stuffed animals and a making of restaurant reservations. With the expansion of the private sector, the gifts available for the day have expanded, but roses continue to be first among the preferences.

“This crop has its peak moments and the skill is to take advantage of them,” says Juan Pablo, one of the producers who for years had dedicated himself to the cultivation of tobacco and vegetables, but who has also, little by little, started to plant flowers. Mother’s Day and the day dedicated to teachers, on December 22, are other times of great demand.

“We basically plant roses and, within them, the variety known as Black Prince, because they are the ones that people buy the most,” the farmer points out. “In this area there are also those who make their own crosses and grafts, but we prefer to go with the sure thing.”

The flower trade is a fight against time. The degradation of the product once it leaves the furrows is accelerated due to the lack of suitable containers and preservatives. “Our flowers have a lot of aroma but deteriorate very quickly,” adds Carmelo, another Herradura producer at Consolación del Sur.

Between 1955 and 1960 Cuba exported flowers to the southern United States but the drop in rose production in Cuba has forced the import of the flower from Ecuador and Colombia to satisfy domestic demand, especially in the tourist centers, according to data contributed by Manuel García Caneiro, a specialist in nature protection and conservation.

For Garcia Caneiro, the revival of the the sector urgently requires more technology, the introduction of more clones “of the species that are suitable for the conditions here, and prioritizing tropical flowers that are stronger and more in tune with the new trends in taste.”

Selling flowers, along with candy and sweets, is still one of the most common forms of commerce on Havana streets. (14ymedio)

The final destinations of the private flower production from the area of Pinar del Río and Artemisa are the closest cities, especially Havana. “They have to get out of here the day before so they can make the trip in the afternoon or at night and be with the flower sellers by first thing in the morning,” says Carmelo.

The producer’s son has a “spider,” the two-wheeled cart pulled by a horse typical of the Cuban fields. “We put them in the spider separated in buckets of water and covered with a thin damp cloth so that the wind does not hurt them and they stay fresh,” says Carmelo.

In his fields, papayas, malangas, tobacco and cucumbers are losing the battle for space. “Now we plant mainly flowers because it is a better business and we have sellers that we supply directly,” says the grower.

“I have roses, gladioli, Chinese carnations, lilies and jasmine.” The latter is the island’s national flower and has an intense perfume, but in the farmer’s opinion “it takes a lot of work, because it is a plant that needs a lot of moisture and its petals are very fragile.”

Herradura has become the nursery of flowers this part of the country. The reasons that have led farmers to prefer this crop range from economic issues to autonomy when marketing the final product.

“I had tobacco and even potatoes but it was all a big mess afterwards to sell the harvest to the State and I suffered a lot from their failure to pay,” says Carmelo. “Since I’ve been working with flowers, it’s money in the hand every time I do business.” This farmer also sells rose bushes  planted in polyethylene bags for gardens.

With the cultivation and sale of flowers, the producer can avoid dealing with Acopio, the state company that serves as an intermediary between farmers and consumers in the case of many products. “With this I swim or sink on my own, if a harvest fails it’s my problem but if I sell it well then it’s my benefit.”

He adds, “The farmers of this area who have managed, in addition to selling the flowers, to sell the plant are the ones who are earning the most.” On Valentine’s Day Carmelo can get up to 3,000 Cuban pesos (~$120 US) in sales to distributors, but “from that you have to subtract what you invested, which is a lot.”

The initial expense, just in seeds, amounts to 2,000 CUP, but with the adult plants you can divide them, in addition to grafting. The water pump cost 6,000 CUP and opening another well about 1,000 CUP. In addition, he has planting beds for the varieties with smaller plants and has had to invest in clay tiles for around 700 CUP.

“The flowers are very demanding in terms of water supply, so I had to invest a lot in irrigation and pumps,” says the farmer. “There has to be fertilizer and the largest proportion must be organic matter so I have even had to turn my hand to making it with farm waste”.

“Earthworm castings is the best thing to keep plants healthy and many times I have to buy it from the State or from other farmers in the area who make it to sell.”

Growing flowers is also displacing the cultivation of root crops and vegetables. (14ymedio)

Carmelo’s son hits the horse with the whip and the spider begins its way to Candelaria while afternoon falls. From there all the flowers will leave for the capital in a truck loaded with the merchandise of several producers. They have to arrive before the first rays of Valentine Day begin to illuminate the city.

At dawn in Havana, Rogelio, a mechanic who exchanged his tools for petals, takes out the tricycle that he keeps in the parking lot of a Vedado building. On the sidewalk he organizes the water containers filled with the flowers that have just arrived. The aroma floods the entire area.

The vendor distributes sunflowers, gladioli, roses, carnations, jasmines and Chinese daisies by the dozens.

“I bought double what I buy on normal days and the one that sells the most is the black prince, they buy it by the dozens, that’s why the song of twelve roses …,” he says, while humming a catchy ballad popularized on the Island by the Mexican singer Lorenzo Antonio.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for 15 years,” says Rogelio, who has his fixed sales points. His hopes are that, one day, he will be able to stop having to sell on the street and instead will supply shops or hotels in the capital. “But that doesn’t happen because those places still prefer foreign flowers,” he laments.

The markets, stores and shops that sell in hard currency are full of impeccable and stylized roses that can cost up to 5 Cuban convertible pesos each (about $5 US), the salary of a week. “People think that imported flowers are prettier but they do not smell like anything.”

Along with the sale, Rogelio offers his clients recommendations. “Carry the bouquet in your hand upside down and just put it in the vase with an aspirin in the water to make it last,” he tells a client who pays for three dozen black princes at a price that would be only enough for four flowers in the markets in convertible pesos.

“We offer a much cheaper, domestic and fragrant merchandise, even the bees come here to surround the flowers, but with those that are sold in hard currency, nothing of that happens,” Rogelio says, promoting his product.

Other entrepreneurs have taken the business of selling flowers further, such as a small store near Avenida de los Presidentes, where they prepare bouquets with decorations ready to give as a gift. This Tuesday the employee could not cope. “There are people who like to give the bouquet early and they buy it today so they can give it to someone as soon as it’s light.”

The shop has prices higher than those of the street vendors but still economical compared to the state shops. For less than 2 CUC a customer takes a bouquet of daisies mixed with wildflowers and a beautiful addition of greenery.

In the state stores and hard currency stores the flowers for sale are all imported. (14ymedio)

In spite of the prices, customers also crowd into the centrally located state flower shop in the Plaza de Carlos III. “I don’t care that they don’t smell, but they last longer and I want to make my wife a gift that she can enjoy for several days,” a man who has chosen a dozen white roses justifies himself.

Something similar is believed by the employees of the Hotel Plaza, very close to Central Park, where they have adorned the entrance of the neoclassical accommodation with a huge bouquet of imported roses. “Even at Fidel Castro’s funeral the flowers came from outside,” says a Cuban guest who lives abroad and has been eyeing the flowers.

A few yards away, an exclusive flower shop offers the buds brought from Ecuador and some tourists ask a street vendor where they can buy “typical Cuban orchids for a gift,” but the man has only black prince roses.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

US Cuts Funding for ’Promoting Democracy’ in Cuba by 50%

The cut in funds for US diplomacy responds to Donald Trump’s policy of focusing on “the United States first.” (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio (with information from news agencies), 12 February 2018 — The 2019 budget presented by the US State Department on Monday reflects the Trump Administration’s desire to focus on “the United States first” and to curb spending abroad, as evidenced by the drastic reduction of 32% in the budget for the highest level of American diplomacy.

The budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which was presented on Monday and still must be submitted to the Congress for approval, contemplates a cut of 17.8 billion dollars in funds for the State Department, reducing its budget from $55.6 billion in 2017 to just $37.8 billion in 2019. continue reading

The budget cut has not affected “funds for development and economic support,” which is proposed to increase from 4.7 billion dollars in 2017 to $5.1 billion in 2019, as reported by the State Department, but it would negatively impact countries like Cuba.

The island will be allocated 10 million dollars to “promote democracy, human rights and freedom,” a 50% reduction. Meanwhile Venezuela will be awarded, for the first time, $9 million.

The cut to funds for US diplomacy as a whole contrasts with the increase of funds destined to the Department of Defense, which has already received the approval of the Senate for 716 billion dollars for the 2019 budget.

“The budget reflects that we are facing adversaries and political, economic and military competitors that have led us to adjust our national security strategy,” Trump said in the preface to the White House budget proposal.

With regards to the State Department’s portfolio, especially significant is the cut in the US contribution to international organizations, which would go from $3.3 billion in 2017 to 2.2 billion in the next fiscal year.

The US contribution to the general budget of the United Nations would be $443 billion in 2019 compared to $593 billion approved in 2017. Agencies and activities linked to the United Nations would experience a cut of  $293 million.

In addition, the amount of funds earmarked for peace operations would be significantly reduced, going from 1.9 billion dollars in 2017 to just 1.2 billion dollars in the new proposal.

Nevertheless, Secretary of the Department of State, Rex Tillerson, said in the preface of the budget proposal that “selective investments” in this area will allow the United States and its partners “advance common interests and promote global peace.”

Tillerson added, “These investments allow the United States to maintain its position as a global leader, at the same time as other nations make a greater proportionate effort in their contributions for common objectives.”

In this regard, it should be noted that NATO will benefit from an increase in the US contribution, with an increase from $53.5 billion in 2017 to $70.2 billion in the next budget.

The Pentagon’s chief, James Mattis, who is currently in Europe, where he plans to participate in the NATO Defense meeting to be held this week in Brussels, asked last week for a greater contribution from the countries involved in the war against terrorism.

In this regard, the State Department explained through a statement that this item is being decreased with the “expectation” that other member countries of international organizations “will face their fair contribution.”

Also in the column of cuts is the World Health Organization (WHO), which suffers a considerable reduction, close to 50%, from $111.4 billion in 2017 to $58.2 billion in 2019.

Assistance for migration and refugees will also be reduced in the new budget, going from $3.4 billion in 2017 to $2.8 billion in 2019.

“The budget contemplates the necessary resources to progress in aspects of peace and security and respond to global crises, while prioritizing the efficient use of taxpayer resources,” Tillerson said in a statement.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Luis Manuel Otero: From Athlete to Dissident Artist / Iván García

Iván García and Luis Manuel Otero, photo by Yanelys Núñez

Ivan Garcia, 15 February 2018 — He’s like a character out of a dark novel by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. He turned 30 on December 2, 2017, and the life of Luis Manuel Otero has been marked by survival.

He still remembers the 12-hour blackouts when he was a kid, in the middle of the Special Period. The empty, grimy pots and the unmistakable color of El Pilar, his neighborhood in the Havana municipality of Cerro.

The section of Romay Street, from Monte to Zequeira, doesn’t even go 100 yards. It’s narrow and unpaved. The houses are one-story. The only building that had three floors collapsed from lack of maintenance. continue reading

The house of the Otero Alcántara family, at number 57, is typical of early 20th century construction, with tall pillars and large windows. Throughout the night, women are sitting in the doorway, gossiping, while the men take up a collection to buy a liter of bad rum, steal detergent from the Sabatés factory or kill the boredom with a game of baseball in the old Cerro Stadium.

Luis Manuel grew up there, on a poor block full of tenement housing, where drugs and psychotropics are a rite of passage, the young people are abakuás (devotees of the African religion) and problems are solved with guns or machetes.

His father, Luis Otero, used to be a dangerous guy. He always was mixed up in legal problems, and jail became his second home. In prison he became a welder, and the last time he left the Combinado del Este prison, he promised he wouldn’t return.

María del Carmen, the mother of the artist and a construction technician, is a “struggler,” like most Cuban women. When she was pregnant with Luis Manuel, his father was in jail.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said to herself. She acted as mother and father for a long time. Perhaps because of maternal overprotection, she opted to bring him up behind closed doors at home.

Luis Manuel Oteros, a mulatto with an adolescent expression, gestures with his mouth and mentions that to escape from that reclusive life, “I made my own wooden toys. I had this gift from the time I was little. I don’t know who I inherited it from, because there’s no other sculptor or visual artist in my family. I spent hours and hours talking alone. I created scenes and imaginary characters. And from childhood, I vowed to be someone in life,” he said, seated on a wooden stool and leaning against the wall of his studio on San Isidro in Old Havana.

Then he went to school. “I spent primary at Romualdo la Cuesta and secondary at Nguyen Van Troi. I always had a piece of wood in my hands. My grandmother was working in Viviendas, and this was during the years when Cubans decided to emigrate. The State confiscated their property, and many people gave her things, used clothing and household appliances. So we had a washing machine, but I hardly ever had shoes, only one pair that almost always was torn. I went to school wearing hideous boots or plastic shoes,” remembers Otero, and adds:

“I was nine or 10 years old, and like all the kids in the area, we were looking for a way to make money to help out at home, to buy things or go to parties on weekends. A friend and I from the neighborhood decided to remove bricks from buildings and abandoned houses. At that time, recycled bricks were selling for three pesos on the black market, but we sold them for two. One afternoon, my mother caught me doing this and beat me with a rope all the way home.”

Before getting involved with visual arts, Otero spent four or five years training as a mid-distance runner on a clay court at the Ciudad Deportiva.

“I wanted to get ahead. I appreciated the discipline and commitment of sports. I ran the 1,500 and 5,000 meter-dash. I had prospects. I was training hard to reach my goal: to escape from poverty. But in a competition in Santiago de Cuba, in spite of being the favorite, I came in fourth. I wasn’t programmed for losing. So I decided to study and try sculpture and the visual arts.”

In his free time, he and a friend sold DVDs for three convertible pesos in the streets of Nuevo Vedado, and he made wood carvings. “A cane that I made ended up at a workshop that Victor Fowler had in La Vibora. I was 17 and started to become serious about sculpture. I attended many workshops. I always had a tremendous desire to learn, study, better myself. I’m a self-taught artist and a lover of Cuban history. I also slipped into the courses offered by the Instituto Superior de Arte. It was an exciting world.

“When I went home, I went back to reality. Mediating the fights and blows between my father and mother or the problems that my younger brother had,” remembers Luis Manuel, leaning on an ancient VEF-207 radio of the Soviet era, dressed in mustard-colored pants and a white pullover with the faces of the Indian Hatuey, José Martí, Fidel Castro and the peaceful opponent, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara had an exposition for the first time in a gallery in Cerro, on the Avenida 20 de Mayo, in 2011. “I called it, ’Heroes are no burden.’ It was wooden statues of men from the trunk up, without legs. I dedicated it to the soldiers who were mutilated during the war in Angola. I personally invited a dozen combatants who had been in the struggle. I was tense, waiting to see what the reaction would be, but the show was very well received.”

The statue from which the “Heroes are no burden” exposition took its name (Havana Times)

He had already begun his political activism by then. “I had too many questions without answers. I saw that the expectations of society were not taken into account. I had no way out. Everything was a bunch of blah, blah,blah, speeches with no meaning. In private, the majority of artists recognized that things should change. Cuba is crazy. It’s also true that there’s a lot of opportunism in the artistic world. Hustling is normal in this environment. I saw that something should be done,” commented Otero, in a deliberate tone.

And he decided to work on his art with a new focus. December 17, 2014 was a date to remember. “That noon I was amazed to see Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on television. I felt that a new epoch was beginning. That the worst was behind us. That a stage of reconciliation and national reconstruction would begin. That was the feeling among most people: that there would be more negotiations, that finally we would have a better level of life. People had tremendous hope. It was a dream that was contagious.”

But the Regime put obstacles in the way. The greatest optimism passed to the worst pessimism. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. was purely an illusion. More press headlines than concrete initiatives that will improve the quality of life of Cubans.

Luis Manuel Otero remembers that Rubén del Valle, the Vice Minister of Culture, “said, and no one told me, I was still here, that they were going to need several shiploads to be able to sell all the works of Cuban culture. The feeling that many artists had was that in the biennials and events, Americans would start buying valuable artistic pieces. I wanted to make something, to be in fashion. My sin was in being naive.”

Barely one month before, on November 25, 2014, Otero performed downtown on Calle 23, on the Rampa, which was noted in the international press. “At that time I had an American girlfriend. The intention of the performance was to ask her to marry me at a wifi site that had become popular, with no privacy and people screaming and asking for money and other things from their families. I did a stripper act on the corner of L and 23, accompanied by two mariachis. On that occasion, perhaps out of surprise, State Security didn’t interrupt me.”

A little after this, he broke up with her and started courting Yanelys Núñez, who had a degree in art history, and a main piece in her present project at the Museum of Dissidence. Otero is like a box with push-buttons: hyperactive, suggestive and creative. In the middle of a conversation, an idea of his next performance came to him.

“Sometimes I take two or three days tossing around an idea for a work. And it’s in the middle of the night that a concrete idea comes to me. Then I wake up Yanelys and we go to work. With the last one, the Testament of Fidel Castro, it was more or less like that. The George Pompidou Center in Paris asked me for a sample that I was going to make. What occurred to me was the testament of Fidel inside a bottle of Havana Club rum. I implied that at the end of his life, he repented of all the harm he did,” emphasizes Alcántrara.

Right now it’s not at all clear to him. But perhaps before, during or after the succession directed by Raúl Castro, he will start a new project. April, Luis Manuel speculates, could be the month he gets lucky.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Blasts of Rafael Almanza

n his house on Rosario street, in the city of Camagüey, Almanza has woven his own cosmogony of gatherings, discussions and writing, sometimes signed under the pseudonym of Ráfaga. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Camagüey, 17 February 2018 — When the list of Cuban writers excluded from the National Literature Prize is drawn up, Rafael Almanza Alonso will have to be placed at the top.  An intellectual too Catholic in his ethics, very avant-garde in his work and excessively civic in his social activity to be promoted by cultural institutions.

In his house on Rosario street in the city of Camagüey, Almanza has woven his own cosmogony of gatherings, discussions and writing, sometimes signed under the pseudonym of Ráfaga. He has ranged from a poet to researcher of the work of José Martí, narrator, literary and art critic, opera librettist, cultural animator, curator, independent journalist, editor, videographer and teacher of writers, artists and reporters. continue reading

With no official prizes to his name, last week Almanza was awarded the Gastón Baquero National Prize for Independent Literature, which encourages “literary independence,” as explained by the organizers of the award: the La Rosa Blanca Institute, the Club of Independent Writers of Cuba and the Puente a la Vista project.

However, with a mischievous smile, the author confesses that he was not even aware that the prize existed before receiving it. “I accepted it because I have a lot of confidence in the friends who recommended me and because they told me that the prize is justified by my work and attitude towards life.”

About to turn 61, the Camagüeyano is still a child. Everything he does or says has the trace of a childish prank. “I like that it has been based on attitude, but if it includes the work, even better, because most of what I have written remains unpublished or has been published in the United States in practically symbolic editions that few have been able to read.”

He is referring to the Ediciones Homagno project, organized by friends and writers who collaborate in the nonprofit publication of their volumes and those of other authors.

The son of a baker and a primary teacher, the first things he read, starting at six, were in the pages of La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age), a children’s magazine founded by José Martí. When he was nine he was already convinced that he would be a writer. He saw Martí himself as a model to remain “attentive to the problems of the country.”

He explains, “Practically since I was a child I believed that a writer must have a civic attitude, I am not a politician and I do not think I have the qualities to be one. Had I had them, perhaps right now I would be imprisoned or dead.”

But Almanza does not confuse his lack of political ambition with indifference. “My function is to try to make good literature with enormous challenges and at the same time keep my dignity.” The mere fact of handling words and ideas, of being better informed than most people, establishes an intellectual challenge that must be obeyed.

He believes that most of the great Cuban writers have maintained a civic stance, including Gastón Baquero himself. “In my opinion he was the representative of the generation of the group [that founded Orígenes [magazine] with the higher purpose of communicating, to the people, their ideas of what the nation should be and their ideas about the ideological world of their time.”

The poet does not beat around the bush: “In a country like this where we live in total moral passivity, writers have a role to play: People like Ángel Santiesteban and Rafael Alcides have shown that it is possible to fulfill that duty, even at an enormous price, and also to remain in Cuba, instead of leaving to look for a future that may be better, but that distances us from our civic duties.”

In response to the classic question of how this prize encourages him in his work, he bluntly replies: “I will not stop writing with a prize or without a prize, but when a group of free Cubans recognizes me, that is a huge encouragement. I have chosen to be absolutely marginal, to be a stranger, but marginality does not have to be perpetual.”

With the permanent hint of a smile drawn on his face, Rafael Almanza looks like a playful elf. His house, which suffers being in the vicinity of a bustling bakery, exhibits a dilapidated 30-foot-wide facade with a wide door and plaster at the point of total collapse in several places.

Many young people with literary pretensions come to show the teacher their achievements. However, his contemporaries do not visit him. “They have a terrible fear, although in reality I have to admit that it is not convenient for them to come here,” he says, and then he proudly points out his private heraldry, formed by a series of shields that young artists have given him. He has them hanging from the eaves of the inner courtyard. He looks at them with love and proclaims: “There is my protection.”

Almanza does not like to talk about what remains for him to do, but rather what he has already done. He has now finished the multimedia version of his poetry book HymNos, which was originally published in a 536-page copy in 2014 by Ediciones Homagno.

The colossal work was close to having a more wide-reaching publisher but, according to its author, “the organizers of the International Book Fair in Miami last year did not like it, it must have been because there are hymns to the glory of God and because they did not know that there were also things that were not exactly divine.”

As he is already on the threshold of old age, some might confuse Almanza with an old fuddy-duddy, but he sees himself as “a 21st century boy” who is happy to use the tools of modernity.

The nine gigabytes consumed by the multimedia version of HymNos includes two documentaries, seven sound recordings, more than one hundred photos and 14 videos. The missing step is the financing to copy the work and distribute it. “Everything fits on three DVDs. You might think that the DVD is outdated, but that will be in New York, not in Cuba.”

For those who doubt that Almanza is still alive and kicking after so much official snubbing, the writer doesn’t mince words: “It’s as if I had creativity Viagra. I am reviewing an article for that excellent magazine called Indolence in Cuba that should appear under the title of Mulata Metaphysics or Viagra on the Ration Book.

Since humor reigns in the magazine, Almanza suggests that every Cuban man over 60 should be allocated at least two viagra pills a month on the ration book. “In what I have managed to achieve, I feel satisfied with my life, being a writer and teacher. This is how I most enjoy using my energy, writing, being useful and looking for problems.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The Virtual Wall of the Mexican Embassy in Havana / Iván García

Mexican Consulate in Havana.

Iván García, 8 February 2018 — It was Sofia’s fifteenth birthday. Between her parents and relatives living abroad, they saved $3,700, enough to pay for a week in a four star hotel in Cancún.  After finding out via international media about the brutal violence devastating nearly all the Mexican states, they decided to change their planes and go to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic.

“But the Dominican Embassy requires a guarantee from a resident in the country if you want to go there. And we didn’t know anybody there. We decided to give Mexico a try. What a business! In theory, it is a straightforward process. You make an appointment, which is free, on the embassy website  in Havana.  You download a pdf form which you can fill in at home or at an internet room. And you should get an appointment for the interview in two or three weeks from the consulate. continue reading

“But, in practice, the site is blocked. We tried at all hours up to early morning. When we went personally to the embassy, they told us that was the only way you could do it. It was then that we realised the web of corruption that had been set up between the Mexican officials and the Cubans in the area,” we were told by Pedro, father of the fifteen year old, who then added:

“People we know, who travel to Mexico as ’drug mules’, told us don’t even try to do it online, and that the surest way is to pay 300 or 350 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to someone living near the embassy, who will guarantee you an appointment and a ten year visa. I wasn’t interested in a ten year visa, or working as a mule. I only wanted a visa for a week for my daughter’s fifteenth. We ended up going to Veradero [in Cuba].”

For the last month, I have been looking into this matter, which doesn’t just affect the Mexican embassy. Some people interviewed have said that the Panama diplomats charge under the counter bribes to Cubans who want to do illegal things.

“You pay $300 or $400.  They like foreign currency, although they also accept convertible pesos. If you pay, you almost certainly will get your visa for ten years, which is fabulous for those of us who are up to this kind of ’business’, as it guarantees you enough time to be a ’mule’. You get back the cost of the bribe on the first or second trip. These kind of bribes are normal in Central America (except Costa Rica), but most of all in Mexico, where corruption is a way of life,” says Alberto, who has been earning his living moving illegal stuff around for the last seven years.

According to the news agencies, in 2016 Cubans spent more than $100 million buying things in Colón, which is a city situated at the entry to the Panama Canal.

But let’s go back to the Mexican Embassy, at 518, Northwest 12th Street and the corner of 7th Avenue, in Havana’s pleasant Miramar area in the west of the capital. An elegantly-dressed lady who says she has worked in a Cuban Ministry, thinks that “it’s a good transaction for both parties: as well as getting you your appointment at the consulate, I can guarantee you a visa for ten years. Do you know how much money they charge you for that type of visa? Seems to me that 300 CUC is cheap.”

When I ask her how much money I need to pay the consular official, she smiles before answering. “Listen honey, are you a journalist, or a policeman?” What you want is a visa. And I am the person who can help you get it.”

A source told me that at least two Mexican officials receive money for illegal activities. “In the embassy surrounds there have been scuffles between people having to wait their turn, but the police deal with it swiftly. There are people who have been swindled and there was a case of a man who complained to the G-2 [Cuban State Security]. But nothing happens to these people. They have diplomatic immunity. The worst that can happen is they are kicked off the island.”

Several times I called the Mexican Embassy on the phone to get their comments. Not one official replied.

Generally speaking, the embassies of first world countries in Cuba don’t have these problems. The government has tried to point fingers at corrupt US officials, but has never been able to show any evidence.

Someone who is friendly with Latino diplomats tells us “The US Embassy runs like an atomic clock. With the Americans, there is no sex. They are incorruptible. Even the ones who pay accounts for $20 have to get them authorised by the government. All the to-do with appointments and visas is dealt with by the embassies and consulates of the Latin American countries, the ones who tell us publicly they are our brothers, but in practice put a thousand and one obstacles in the way to stop Cubans going to their countries. But the Mexican officials are the most corrupt.”

On this site, dozens of  people, giving their names and last names, have left comments about the allegedly corrupt arrangements. That’s what Yirina Delgado did: “I know that you don’t care about my opinion here, because lots of people complain and don’t see any improvements, or even get a reply from the embassy. You are jerking people off  who want to get a visa. The web page works up to the moment when you are due to get it,  and then it is blocked … stop playing around with people and defrauding them.”

As far as she is concerned, says Elizabeth Gutiérrez, “It’s a lack of respect … I can’t get an appointment. They do that so that later they can sell you one on the side.”  Others complain they have been ripped off.

Yolanda, who is a housewife, goes to Mexico every year, where her children and grandchildren are. She makes it clear that the corruption in the Mexican Embassy in Cuba “is nothing new in a country where there is systemic corruption and the most corrupt are the politicians and the police. Once I heard about a mayor who applied for a position, who said publicly, “I have stolen, but not very much.”

Cubans who work as “mules” are ready to pay 300 CUC under the table to get a 10 year visa to Mexico. But, for Sofía, the fifteen year old girl, her parents decided not to go to  Cancún, because they do not accept the corrupt procedures.

Translated by GH

Painter Nelson Dominguez Opens Cuba’s First Rural Art Gallery in Cienfuegos

Nelson Domínguez, winner of the 2009 National Plastic Arts Prize. (Juventud Rebelde)

14ymedio biggerEFE, via 14ymedio, Havana, 16 February 2018 — As of Thursday, Cuban has its first rural art gallery, opened in the mountain community of Cumanayagua in Cienfuegos province, the fruit of a project of Nelson Domínguez, painter, sculptor, ceramists and engraver, and, winner of the 2009 National Plastic Arts Prize.

The new art gallery in the El Jobero community, designed to exhibit and market artworks and to serve as a place to celebrate events, is installed in the building that houses the theater group Los Elementos, according to the state-run Cuban News Agency.

The purpose of this initiative is “artistic and communal” and is intended to raise the aesthetic awareness and engagement in art of local residents. To this end, attached to the gallery will be a ceramic workshop, in addition to the exhibition hall, explained Dominguez. continue reading

“Working with the mountain people is exhilarating, as is enjoying the genius of the children of this community,” said the artist, who is confident that the exhibition space “will influence how art is approached in the future, due to the the beauty and comfort of this place, which is conducive to creation.”

Estudio Galería Molino Rojo, the name of the cultural institution, is part of Galerias Rurales, one of the most ambitious projects promoted by Domínguez with the aim of creating creative spaces in rural areas with a perspective towards economic development.

Domínguez said that two other rural galleries will be located in similar areas, one of them in the town of Baire, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, and the other in the town of Minas de Matahambre, in Pinar del Rio province.

This community cultural space joins other projects that the artist has undertaken involving painting, jewelry and sewing, also dedicated to stimulating the popular collection and creation of ceramic murals to donate to hospitals on the island.

The gallery is part of the Jobero Verde cultural project, installed on the 80 acres of a rural farm, where a library, a computer room and an amphitheater, attached to the side of a hill next to a river, have been built. The amphitheater is the main stage of the theater group Los Elementos.

Nelson Domínguez (1947) is a native of the rural area, having grown up in the mountains of the eastern Sierra Maestra. He graduated from the National Art School of Havana, and has participated in more than a hundred personal and collective exhibitions.

His works appear in institutions in Cuba and in public and private collections in countries such as Japan, the United States, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Sweden.

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Cubans Form "Tremendous Lines" on the Borders of Chile

Cubans showing their passports at the Chilean border. (Screen capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, Miami, 16 February 2018 — The requests from Cubans seeking refuge in Chile have multiplied by a factor of thirty in a single year. According to the information provided to this newspaper by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, 1,603 Cubans requested that status at land borders in 2017. The previous year only 56 had done so.

“Every day, migration officials collect between 15 and 30 passports to process refugee applications, and there are tremendous lines at the border,” says José Yans Pérez, a Cuban who was part of the group of rafters who occupied a lighthouse to the south of Florida in May of 2016, who were later returned to the Island. After traveling to Guyana, in a second attempt to escape from the country, he crossed the Amazon jungle and Bolivia to emigrate to Chile. continue reading

The route through these countries is “very complex and difficult,” explains Pérez, who after several months of work managed to get his wife out of Cuba for the same journey. Their two children remain on the island. “The biggest problem is that the documents take a long time. I arrived in Chile in September and I’m still waiting for my visa,” he says.

Requests for refugee status from Cuban nationals in Chile

After the end of the United States’ wet foot/dry foot policy, announced in January 2017, thousands of Cubans who had planned to emigrate to the United States changed their destination towards the south. Countries such as Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Brazil have registered a significant increase in Cubans reaching their borders.

Chile was already an attractive destination for Cubans before the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy. The Chilean government statistics show a 77% growth in the number of permanent residence permits granted to Cubans between 2014 and 2015. However, since the change in 2017 the movement has accelerated.

According to the Chilean law, people who can prove that they are persecuted for religion, race, political opinions or ethnicity may request refuge in that country. Rodolfo Noriega, Peruvian lawyer and leader of the National Coordinator of Immigrants (CNI), believes that Cubans, as a general rule, do not qualify under this rule.

“Many Cubans ask for refuge as a way to get around the migration entry controls along the land border,” Noriega explains via telephone from Santiago de Chile.

Once inside the country, refugee applicants undergo a series of interviews in order to formalize their request. The State offers them a visa for eight months that is extended until the authorities decide whether they will be recognized as refugees or not. With this visa they can work and live legally since the process takes years, according to Noriega.

José Yans Pérez, from the group of “lighthouse rafters,” in Iquique, Chile. (Courtesy)

“If to claim refugee status you assert that your country, in this case Cuba, is persecuting you, it is absurd for you to [voluntarily] return to Cuba,” says Noriega, who points out that many of the Cuban applicants may have problems with their applications for refugee status if they decide to visit the Island.

“Many Cuban professionals, after they have a job and become professionally licensed to practice in Chile, try to change their immigration status and find that if they withdraw their refugee application they immediately return to their earlier status, that is, undocumented,” explains the lawyer.

CNI is an organization that groups together more than 70 movements for the defense of the interests of migrants in Chile and that is currently pressuring the Government to award legal status to the more than 200,000 irregular immigrants now in the country. The movement, led by Noriega, has called for a march on Sunday to demand an extraordinary procedure for the regularization of all foreigners who are in the country.

“It is not how they paint it,” says Marelys Hernán, a Cuban who arrived in Chile after spending weeks stranded in Turbo, Colombia, failing to continue on to the United States.

“Cubans think that as the United States is closed, this is the second paradise, and they are arriving in packs and with a very bad attitude. They believe they have the right to receive help and to demand refuge, but that is not the case. Many Cubans end up on the street and in charity shelters because the Chilean government does not help,” she explains.

In her new life in Chile she has had to share the fate of thousands of Venezuelans and Haitians who see in this country a second chance to start their lives over. “This is hard, honestly, but we go in search of a dream and we will achieve it,” she says with hope.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Hatred of Wealth / Fernando Dámaso

Havana. (Silvia Corbelle)

Fernando Damaso, 15 February 2018 — Cuban socialism started from the premise that stripping the rich of their wealth would accomplish the elimination of poverty. An absurd premise, since the relationship is not less wealth less poverty, but quite the opposite, greater wealth less poverty.

The problem is that poverty is not eliminated by taking wealth from the rich, but by creating more wealth. However, to create wealth, we must unleash the productive forces and let them act, without a chastity belt that limits and interferes with their development. continue reading

This truth has been learned and successfully applied by most of the former socialist countries, with the exception of Cuba and North Korea, which currently are precisely the most backward and without real prospects for development.

The obstinacy of the inefficient and obsolete Cuban leadership already reaches the limits of the illogical: it prefers that the country and Cubans continue sunk in misery and backwardness, in order to maintain their absolute power until the last breath.

What happens next does not interest them in the least. Hence their excessive praise of the person most directly responsible for the national tragedy, along with his closest followers, and their insistance on presenting as victories his many and resounding failures.

However, facts and reality conspire against this false vision: it has lost all political credence and very few believe in its stories. All that sustains it is the repression and fear induced in many about the necessary changes, which, in spite of everything, will come sooner rather than later.

 

Lynn Cruz is Committed to a Theater of Resistance

Lynn Cruz in a scene of ‘Corazón azul’, a film currently in production. (M. COYULA)

diariodecubalogoDiario de Cuba, Waldo Fernandez Cuenca, Havana, 15 February 2018 — The theatrical work Los enemigos del pueblo (The Enemies of the People), whose presentation at the independent El Círculo State Security forces sought to prevent, undoubtedly marks a watershed in the career of actress Lynn Cruz. At that time she decided to create, with her partner the filmmaker Miguel Coyula, art in a totally independent and political way.

Lynn Cruz boasts an extensive career. Since 2003 she has worked in several Cuban theater groups, and had an enriching experience in German theater, in 2009. She won the David Suárez Award for Best Actress in Venezuela, and the Cayenne Short Film Festival Award in New York, in 2016, both for her leading role in the short film El niño (The Boy). She was nominated for Best Actress at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2015 for the short film Finales, produced in Ecuador. She has formed part of the cast of Cuban films like La Pared (The Wall), Larga Distancia (Long Distance), ¿Eres tu, papá? (Is That You, Dad?) and the documentary (NadieNo one, by Coyula, censored in Cuba and honored at the 10th Film Festival of the Dominican Republic, in 2017. continue reading

DIARIO DE CUBA talked to her about her beginnings and her constant search for freedom in her professional career.

“In my adolescence I did not have a defined vocation, nor did I know what to do with my life. Since I didn’t want to end up without a university degree, I chose to study for a degree in Geography, which was one of the easiest majors. On that path I discovered that what I really liked was acting,” she explained.

“I ventured into amateur theater groups in Matanzas, where I lived, but I couldn’t make my way there. In the year 2000 I moved to Havana, where I was able to enter a professional group called the Teatro del Puerto. I was there for a year. Then I worked in other theater groups, until in 2009 I traveled to Germany to work with the independent group Pig’s Appeal in that country.”

What was the experience of doing theater in Germany like?

Before that Colombia was the only other country I knew, and it was the first time I was in a developed country. That really affected me as an artist. I started to question my identity, because I worked with German playwrights and actors. I also had to deal with a text openly critical of the Cuban reality, by Carlos A. Aguilera, and my reticence to perform it. That did not mean that I was in agreement with the Cuban political system, because I have always been very rebellious, but until then I identified more with the institutions than with what was outside of them.

The experience of doing theater in Germany was so intense, from every point of view, that it totally changed me. From that moment on, I lost the motivation to work for institutions. Before my trip I had achieved the dream of every actor, which is to play a leading role in a film, in Larga Distancia (Long Distance), directed by Esteban Insausti. But in the end I felt that my life was the same, that nothing had changed. It was then that I begin to think about forming my own theatrical group, independently.

How did you manage to put together the work El Regreso (The Return), which marked the birth of the Kairós Theater in 2011?

The work La Indiana, by the Catalonian Angels Aymar, in which the Catalonian presence in the 19th century is portrayed, and the nostalgia with which those indianos (Spanish emigrants) wrote their letters, speaking of their native land, spurred me to draw a parallel with Cubans who have left and their nostalgia for a lost land. I managed to get the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation to support me financially with its staging. However, the money was not much, and we had to reduce the number of actors, from six, originally, to one.

Then came the opposition by the president of the National Council of Performing Arts, Gisela González, to the work to being presented at the Adolfo Llauradó Theater. But I was determined to stage the work, even if it was in a park. In response to that meddling, the Spanish Embassy secured a space at the Las Carolinas (theater), in Old Havana, but the technicians wanted a bonus to stage it.

This kind of payment is a standard practice when they see you’ve got foreign financing. If you don’t pay it, you pay the price I did: they sabotaged the show. It was a horrible experience because the audience came in ahead of time, because there were no doormen, among other very unpleasant incidents. For practical reasons I could not continue at the Teatro Kairós at that time. I had no money to support it, and I accepted other offers to work in cinema.

How did the play Los enemigos del pueblo (The Enemies of the People) come about. Was it your return to an openly critical and practically solo theater?

The theater director Adonis Milan found out that I had shouted “¡Viva Cuba libre!” at a show where that was not in the script. He told me that he wanted to work with me, and he showed me Charlotte Corday, by Nara Mansur.

When I saw that work, so timid, I felt that I couldn’t do it. “Cuban theatre cannot continue to bite its tongue. It must make a commitment to the era in which we live.” I expressed to him that I would rewrite the text to see how it turned out, and so was born The Enemies of the People, where the main reason why Charlotte Corday [who murdered Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution] wants to kill Fidel Castro is because the crime of the March 13 Tugboat has gone unpunished.

And, as the cause of Castro’s death was never announced, I thought I could invent a murderer and, more than Charlotte Corday, it is history that does justice.

I feel like this work was not my choice, but that it chose me, because of the emotional impact I felt when I saw the images and accounts of the survivors of that crime.

Although I had second thoughts, because of the consequences it could mean for me, I felt it was my duty to do it. From that moment on, the feeling of freedom that I have felt makes up for possible losses.

What projects are you currently working on?

For some time now I’ve been writing a series of monologues that I have titled Patriotism 3.677, inspired by the anthology Spoon Rivers, by the American poet Edgar Lee Masters. This work is a discussion about the political situation and the future of Cuba, in which five people talk about freedom, democracy and change.

The Kairós Theatre is shaping up and wants to do political theater, in which the tyranny under which we live is directly criticized. It is a theater of resistance because, as everyone knows, all the other theaters belong to the Government. We have managed to perform The Enemies of the People six more times at private homes. Each stage, because it is different, makes every show unique.

I have also been working for the last six years as an actress, co-writer and producer on the science fiction feature film Corazón Azul, by Miguel Coyula. Shooting this film is like travelling, in terms of time and intensity. Working with Coyula, due to how long it takes to complete his films, becomes a life experience. He is a director who works in an artisanal way, and we were brought together by my conception of theater, with a small team, and independently.

This is related to the part behind the cameras. As an actress I like stylized cinema and, since there is not much of it in Cuba, where more realistic films are made, working with him is a real treat.

In Corazón Azul I play Helena, a mysterious woman who has been part of a genetic experiment carried out by Fidel Castro to create the new man. She is a kind of Helen of Troy, and triggers the main conflict in the movie. We have completed 50 minutes, adjusting to the actors’ time, as the budget does not allow for a traditional production.

Note: This translation is from Diario de Cuba’s English site

Havana’s Prado Loses Some Of Its Trees

The authorities have promised that they will plant new trees to replace those  killed by Hurricane Irma. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 15 February 2018 — This week several residents of Havana’s Prado Street posted on Facebook pictures of the trees felled by a state brigade along the first 200 yards of the well-known promenade, guarded by bronze lions. Immediately the images went viral and were the subject of harsh complaints on social networks.

The criticism and insults got hotter and hotter against those who cut down the branches and trunks. Within a few hours people offered countless speculations about the reason for chopping down the trees, some of which were quite fanciful. The commotion was such that the authorities had to rush to explain what had happened and promise that new specimens would be planted. continue reading

This Thursday, at noon, a group of workers removed the stumps still remaining and explained to passersby that the decision was the result of damage to the trues caused by the floods associated with Hurricane Irma. “The salt water killed them,” said the brigade chief, “but we are going to plant others, also very beautiful,” he added.

From their balconies and doorways dozens of neighbors captured the operation in photos, ready to upload them as soon as possible to the Internet … just in case the promises of the authorities do not bear fruit.

The trees along the Prado in healthier times. (MJ Porter)
One of the bronze lions, under the trees (in healthier times), “protecting” the Prado. (MJ Porter)

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The Moderate Is Also An Enemy

In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much. (Artwork: El Sexto)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 15 February 2018 — A friend calls me sounding depressed. For years he has chosen caution and the path of moderation but even so, he wasn’t able to avoid being labeled an enemy. In his work he avoided knocking on the doors of those the government found most “uncomfortable,” rejected support that he considered “radioactive” and appealed to his own self-censorship to avoid ending up on the opposing side. It did little for him.

My friend enjoyed a period of certain advantages for not having become “a radical.” He was invited to endless embassy receptions, where he was presented as a young exponent of “a reformist tendency among the left.” There, he worked hard to demonstrate that his desires for change were within socialism and that his work contained intrinsic “constructive criticism.” continue reading

Amid the mojitos and canapés, the smiling diplomats looked on him with satisfaction, pleased that on the island there are people who don’t shout freedom slogans, who continue to work within some state institution, but who are allowed to let slip sharp accusations about the bureaucracy, the impediments of conformism and the corrupt practices, without being labeled a mercenary.

My friend was everything they needed: an artist who pushes “from within the limits,” with grace, a bit of humor and always clarifying that “Cuba is not how the dissidents paint it to be.”

Thanks to this image, he had access to funds he described as coming from foundations or entities with no ties at all Washington or the international “right.” To pave the way for such economic support, he excluded from his art those voices that he feared could “contaminate” his work and limited contact with his most “controversial” acquaintances.

Thus, stepping cautiously, like someone picking his way over broken glass, my friend managed to build a reputation as an “uncomfortable” – but not censored –artist, a citizen who demands his rights but respects the current and “authentic” Cuban system, who speaks from the shadows but also “values ​​the achievements of the Revolution.”

He never counted, so as not to break that ideal construction, the police citations he received over the last years, the arm across his shoulders from so many cultural officials inviting him to avoid certain red lines, nor the bits of evidence he was collecting about the surveillance he was subjected to.

Often, so that there would be no doubts about his loyalty to the cause, he lent his name and image to critiques, in the national media, of those who took stronger positions. Later, sotto voce, he clarified to his friends that his opinions had been manipulated by State Security while, in reality, he was sympathetic to the lost sheep.

None of it mattered. This week, the name of my friend has appeared in an article published on an official website that describes opposition leaders and moderate artists as “recalcitrant.” Years of carving a “permitted” face went up in smoke with a click.

Now he calls me, wanting to denounce the injustice to human rights organizations, crying out because he is not put in the same bag, and detailing his pedigree. It is all in vain. They never trusted him, they always considered him the system’s adversary from the moment in which he reflected, in his art, the reality and embraced, timidly, with his work, a certain plurality.

Still stomping his foot, he emphasizes in the phone call that he doesn’t want to make “a media show” of it, nor offer himself “on a silver platter to the [country to the] North,” but these explanations he is offering are not for me, but to the other person listening in on the line. In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much.

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Police Search Headquarters of Cuban Legal Association in Havana

Wilfredo Vallin says that this is “the first time” that the police have carried out an operation of this kind a member of Ajudicuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 14 February 2018 — The headquarters of the Cuban Legal Association (Ajudicuba) in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood was subject to a police search on Tuesday morning, with the agents seizing numerous pieces of equipment and materials that the Association uses in its work. Ajudicuba president, attorney Wilfredo Vallín, told 14ymedio that he has been accused of the crime of “illicit enrichment.”

“Around seven o’clock in the morning they knocked on the door,” Vallín told this newspaper. “There were two men from State Security, one of them we know because he attends the Association, and they informed me that they had an operation waiting below to search the house.” continue reading

At the head of the police operation, made up of seven agents, there was an officer with the rank of major who identified himself as José Luis. “First they searched the books in the library and then the archives with the files for the cases we have worked on,” he added.

In addition, a woman wearing a white coat was a part of the search team, and her task was to make a written list of all the objects seized. “The two witnesses they brought [as required by law during a police search] live on the same block and were a little distressed at having to participate in the search.”

The police insisted that the members of the Association are committing a crime by “exercising their profession without authorization from the State.” The officers insisted that the work of the independent attorneys “could not continue.”

The commanding officer showed particular annoyance over the advice that Ajudicuba provided to the #Otro18 (Another 2018) campaign, during the process to nominate independent candidates in the People’s Power elections at the end of last year. “They are very upset because we explain the details of the Electoral Law,” says the lawyer.

The search ended after noon and the police seized papers, documents, files relating to the cases on which Ajudicuba offers legal advice, USB memories, a printer and four laptops, including one that is broken, along with 1,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), according to Vallín.

The lawyer was taken in a police car, without handcuffs, to the station at Aguilera and Lugareño streets in Lawton, where he was told that he would be prosecuted for the alleged crime of “illicit enrichment.”

“The impression I have every time I talk to the political police is that their procedures have nothing to do with the law, because the law has not been devised for them to carry out,” says Vallín.

“They can do anything and feel above the law,” something that in their opinion is given “by the structure of the system in that there is no division of powers,” and there is “a great subordination to the executive power.”

Vallín says that this is “the first time” that the police have carried out an operation of this type against a member of Ajudicuba, but reports that in the past the organization’s attorneys have already faced several travel bans, forbidding them to leave the island.

“The last time I went to the airport to leave the country they refused to let me exit and I was not able to board the plane,” he says.

Police searches against activists have been a frequent repressive practice in Cuba, together with arbitrary arrests, confiscation of work equipment and supplies and prohibitions on leaving the country.

At the beginning of this month a police search of Havana’s independent El Círculo Gallery, managed by the activist Lia Villares and the painter Luis Trápaga, ended with the seizure of computers, still and video cameras, several hard drives, USB drives and cellphones.

Last year, the leader of the Somos+ (We Are More) Movement, Eliécer Ávila, also faced a police search in his home after a protest he carried out at the José Martí International Airport in Havana against Customs for the confiscation of several of his belongings after his return from a trip to Colombia.

Ávila was accused of “illicit economic activity and receiving [illegal goods]” but the case was dismissed in August 2017.

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Cuba Commissions China to Fabricate a Prototype Marabou Harvester

Sacks stacked with marabou coal after the disassembly of the oven. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerEFE, via 14ymedio, Havana, 9 February 2018 — Cuba has commissioned China, one of its principal economic allies, to fabricate a prototype harvester for marabou, an invasive plant also known as sicklebush which is seen as a plague on the Island’s fields, so it can be used as raw material for vegetal coal and be exported to the U.S., Europe and other countries.

The model was designed by Cuban engineers and will be constructed in a Chinese industrial park, based on an evaluation of three different machine technologies, tested in the central provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila. continue reading

After a period of testing, the definitive version of the harvester will be assembled in a factory in the east of the Island, according to the state news agency Prensa Latina.

The Director of Agricultural Engineering for the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, José Suárez, explained that local engineers also are working on the installation of a group of processing plants for the drying of rice, beans and corn.

The Island’s aspiration is that its industry can produce all the equipment and construct the different facilities that the agricultural sector demands.

It’s estimated that 20 percent of the cultivable land of Cuba is covered by marabou (Dichrostachys cinerea), an African species that was introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century. It propagated rapidly since there was no disease to curb its spread, and it is very resistant to drought and high temperatures.

Now considered “the thorny gold of Cuba,” marabou has stopped being a threat and is seen as an opportunity for export, a source of clean energy and raw material for bioelectric plants.

The fabrication of vegetal coal is not a factor in deforestation, and its processing begins in private agricultural cooperatives that cut down the marabou and process it in handcrafted ovens in a natural way.

Cuba exports annually some 80,000 tons of marabou vegetal coal, principally to European countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and also to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Israel.

This product was the first one to be exported to the U.S. in more than 50 years, after the official resumption of diplomatic ties between both countries, with a first shipment in January, 2017, of two containers with 40 tons of vegetal coal.

Last November, the State business CubaExport signed a new contract with the U.S. company, Coabana Trading LLC, for the export of another 40 tons of the product.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

London Club Offers Cuba "Significant Debt Relief"

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, (with information from agencies), Havana, 13 February 2018 — The London Club, a powerful group that offers commercial credit to Cuba, offered the Government of Raul Castro “significant debt relief,” according to the Club’s coordinator Rodrigo Olivares-Caminal, speaking to Reuters.

The London Club represents three investment funds (Stancroft Trust, Adelante Exotic and CRF) and a commercial bank to which the Island owes a sum estimated at 1.4 billion dollars. Although the details of the proposal are unknown, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, a firm specializing in debt restructuring, indicated that it contains “significant debt relief.” continue reading

The proposal comes at a very opportune time for the government of Raul Castro, who is facing serious liquidity problems due to the crisis in Venezuela, Havana’s largest economic ally and, as of the beginning of this century, its oil benefactor.

“We are trying to give the country another opportunity to reach an amicable agreement,” Olivares-Caminal told Reuters. “It is a good faith proposal,” he said.

The president of The London Club believes that this deal will improve Cuba’s relations with capital markets, relations that have been strained after the failed policies of former President Fidel Castro, who had called on all Third World countries to abandon paying their debts because they were “unpayable.”

Last December, his successor, Raúl Castro, reiterated before the National Assembly the “firm intention” to continue gradually restoring the economy’s “international credibility” by making payments on external debt. Castro said 2018 would be a “complicated year for the nation’s external finances.” However, non-payments to suppliers remain a reality and have contributed to the shortages of medicines and other essential products.

Cuba received important relief in 2014 with the cancellation of 90% of its debt with the former Soviet Union, which amounted to 35 billion dollars, and which was owed to the Russian Federation, the legatee of that debt. Havana agreed with Moscow to invest the remaining 3.5 billion in joint projects on the island.

In 2015, Cuba reached an agreement with the Paris Club whereby the Island was forgiven 8.5 billion of the 11.1 billion dollars in accumulated debt and interest since 1986, on the condition that Havana pay the rest by 2018. Cuba has made two payments so far in the subsequent three years.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Thousands of Venezuelans Flee to Colombia to Escape From Hunger

Hundreds of Venezuelans earn their living in the streets of Cúcuta carrying suitcases for their compatriots who leave Venezuela. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón/Antonio Delgado — Tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the border with Colombia every day in search of food and work. They sell candy, bread, chewing gum and contraband gasoline. They prostitute themselves or simply ask for handouts on corners. They are the new faces of the Venezuelan migration in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, the epicenter of a humanitarian crisis triggered by hunger in the neighboring country.

“The children come alone. They don’t want to speak or say anything. They are very tight-lipped about their family history,” says Whitney Duarte, a 24-year old social worker who was helping two orphans, Henry and Steven, in a social center where they come every day to have lunch. continue reading

Duarte has been volunteering for two months in the Casa de Paso Divina Providencia, a Catholic Church home in Cúcuta that shares more than 1,000 meals daily with children, women and old Venezuelans who wander through the streets of the city.

The oldest of the orphans is 15 but has the physical build of a child of eight. To help his two little brothers, who are about five years old, he works as a cart-pusher fetching and carrying suitcases for people who cross the border.

“We know they are orphans. They come from San Cristóbal, in Venezuela. They spend the day playing in the streets of Cúcuta and, of course, they don’t go to school,” relates Duarte. The children are fed thanks to the charity of the Colombians. Steven says they escaped from Venezuela hidden in a mini-bus.

“They don’t want to speak about their family history because they fear they will be separated or returned to their country,” explains Duarte, who believes that, like the rest of the immigrants, they are “very emotionally damaged.”

Henry is thin and brown-skinned. He never smiles. He says it pays about 2,000 pesos (70 cents) to carry suitcases from Venezuela and that he feels responsible for his little brothers. Steven has six brothers, but only three crossed the border. He likes to play soccer but won’t say what he wants to do when he grows up.

“The tragedy of the parents who see that their kids have to sleep on the ground and barely have enough money to bring them a mouthful of food is terrible. There is a lot of frustration and anger among the Venezuelans,” says the social worker. The Colombian government offers protection to 23,314 Venezuelan children and adolescents.

Casa de Paso Divina Providencia distributes more than 1,000 meals a day to Venezuelans, especially migrants who are passing through, elderly people, women and children. (14ymedio)

The Casa de Paso is nothing more than a back patio rented by the local Catholic church where some barracks were constructed to provide food to more than 500 migrants every day. A group of volunteers cooks the food (pasta and soup) with firewood on one side while others distribute the food and clean utensils.

“Padre, padre, come here, he collapsed,” yells a woman. On the dirt floor lies a man of 30 who can’t even stand up. Dozens of people around him are saying that “his blood sugar dropped” from lack of food.

Jesús Alonso Rodríguez, a deacon of the local church who shares lunch with the Venezuelans, explains to 14ymedio that situations like this are common in Cúcuta: “Finding Venezuelan brothers sleeping in the streets, below bridges, at the foot of trees, sometimes with a cardboard box or something to cover themselves with — this is something you see every day.”

Alonso considers that the overflow of Venezuelans in the border areas is “out of the hands” of the local authorities, who await the arrival this Thursday of the President, Juan Manuel Santos, to help them manage a situation that becomes more difficult every day.

“Last year, the cucuteña church distributed more than 300,000 plates of food in eight locations in the city to take care of the hunger of the Venezuelans,” she says. The Casa de Paso Divina Providencia is sustained thanks to the aid the church receives from the local worshippers.

Relations with the local population have occasionally been very tense. Paola Villamizar, a young Colombian of 24 who works as a volunteer in the Casa de Paso, says that the neighbors have tried to close the center. “They accuse us of filling the place with scum and say it’s our fault that hundreds of people are hanging around, looking for food. We’re only trying to help,” she laments.

In a report presented last month in Bogotá, the General Director of Colombia Migration, Christian Krüger, estimated that there were more than 550,000 Venezuelans in the country, 62 percent more than last year.

More than 50 percent of the Venezuelans who emigrate to Colombia or use this country as a transit point to third countries come across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, in the department of Norte de Santander, and, also, more than half are undocumented. Some 58,000 Venezuelans live in the streets of Cúcuta. Deacon Alonso believes that the official figures are too low.

An elderly Venezuelan at Casa de Paso Divina Providencia, in Cúcuta, Colombia. (14y medio)

“In Cúcuta there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Venezuelans. It’s a situation without precedent in the country,” he explains.

Many local businessman take advantage of the difficult conditions in which the migrants find themselves to hire them for half the minimum wage. This situation has shaken loose the phantoms and fears of immigration among some of the town’s workers.

“In Cúcuta, there’s not even work for the locals, much less for the Venezuelans. In the last months, crime has increased, and there are many Venezuelans who take over zones of the city to live,” says Francisco, a local taxi driver.

According to official statistics, Cúcuta ended 2017 with an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent, the highest in the country, and an indication of illegal workers at around 70% of the labor force.

Along the highway that connects the regional capital with the village of La Parada, adjacent to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that is shared by both countries, dozens of people brandish a plastic tube in the form of a gas pump to indicate that you can buy contraband Venezuelan fuel there.

“Gasoline costs between 4,000 and 5,000 pesos a gallon ($1.50). In Venezuela it’s cheaper to buy gasoline than water. They pass it to Colombia on trails (hidden steps in the more than 2,000 km of terrestrial border that both countries share),” explains Francisco.

Carolina Sánchez is a traveling vendor. She is 33, and her skin is burned by the tropical sun. In her hands she holds six bags of bread baked in Venezuela, which she waves every time she sees a car pass by.

“I have to go out and struggle for my kids,” she says between tears. With what she sells in Colombia, she buys food for three boys who depend on her in Rubio, on the other side of the border. “It’s hard, but God has to have pity on us,” she says while regaining composure. The Colombian police already have expelled her more than once from the highway, but she keeps coming back. “They don’t let us sell because we don’t have permits.”

The exodus of Venezuelans has been taken advantage of by some bus companies, who relocated their branch offices directly to the immediate vicinity of the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. The destinations vary: Bogotá, Quito, Lima, Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. Everything depends on the amount of money the Venezuelan is ready to pay, always in dollars or in Colombian pesos.

Gabriela and Alexander, a young married couple, share the rent of their room with 20 other people. Hoping to find a way to get ahead, they left Venezuela less than a month ago. (14ymedio)

“A trip to Buenos Aires costs 490 dollars. If you want to go to Bogotá, it’s 125 dollars, and if you go to Peru, 230 dollars,” says one of the ticket sellers who waits for Venezuelan clients on the Colombian side of the bridge.

After waiting 24 hours near the bridge, several Venezuelans start to protest because the bus line requires patience, and they will have to sleep on the ground under a tarp. “I had to buy every dollar at 270,000 bolivars before leaving Venezuela,” says Neyla Graterol.

“Venezuela’s economic model has collapsed. We’re worse off than we were 30 years ago. The politicians are the only ones who live well while the people are dying of hunger. The only thing left for us is to get out,” laments an engineer while she waits for the transport that will take her and her family to Chile, far from the hell that her country has become.

The low price of Venezuelan oil, which has contributed to worsening the crisis of Nicolás Maduro’s government, has affected those who depend on it directly. This is the case of Renzo Morales, 33, who is “fleeing the country” to go to Peru.

Morales hopes to be able to travel with another five Venezuelan businessmen who, like him, supplied jackhammers to PDVSA (the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company), but the defaults on the part of the State petroleum business hit his business hard.

“We were broke because we were contractors for PDVSA, and the Government takes almost three years to pay us, and it’s in a currency that is being devalued day by day,” explains Morales.

The migrant hopes to make money to send to his family so they can leave the country. “I left my heart in Venezuela.” The old guys and Maduro are the only ones who can stay there,” he says, speaking fast and with the conviction that the end of chavismo is near. “This Government is going to fall. We’re coming to the end. What’s sad is that we’ll need many years to reconstruct what they have destroyed,” he says.

The most varied businesses are accommodated in Cúcuta. “I buy hair, I buy hair!” yells Javier Yoandy, 16, toward the flux of people who are coming from Táchira and crossing the bridge.

“My job is to bring Venezuelans who want to sell their hair to wigmakers,” explains this intermediary who earns a commission for his services. “The price for a good head of hair runs between 25,000 and 60,000 pesos (from nine to 25 dollars).”

The adolescent carries a border mobility card authorized by the Colombian State to regulate the situation of Venezuelans who cross the border every day for work.

A Venezuelan migrant gets rehydrated after spending hours in line to legally enter Colombia in Cúcuta. (14ymedio)

Veronica Arrocera, 23, has dark skin, mistreated by the sun, and bags under her eyes that make her look older. She says that the situation in her country dragged her into prostitution six months ago, so she could get some pesos and help her family in Venezuela, like so many other compatriots.

“I studied business administration. There are many whores here who are educated: nurses, businesswomen, teachers, everything,” she says. She doesn’t want her face recorded because she’s ashamed of her situation. Veronica earns 10,000 Colombian pesos, less than three dollars, and between 10 and 100 times less than a Colombian woman, for the same thing.

To Arrocera, the Colombian authorities act xenophobic toward them. “They hit us with pistols, they jump in aggressively. They even have hit us with hoses, and they only do that with Venezuelans,” she reports.

A few yards from the corner where Arrocera works, a closed police truck is taking away a half-dozen Venezuelans. “Here they come again. Every day it’s the same shit. We play cat and mouse until they catch me; they deport me, and I come back,” she complains.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.