René Gómez Manzano, Thank You For Your Opinion

Editor Grace Piney and lawyer René Gómez Manzano during the presentation in Miami of the book ‘Can I Comment?’ (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Miami, 22 February 2018 — Can I Comment? It sounds like a rhetorical question, but when it is formulated by a lawyer with the vocation of a journalist who has experienced political prison on two occasions, the question has new connotations.

The book by that title by Cuban lawyer René Gómez Manzano, was presented at the Altamira bookstore in Miami on Wednesday, in a presentation that took a moment to transcend the pages of the volume and interact, face to face, with one of the most important chroniclers of deep Cuba of this last quarter century. continue reading

Under the careful editing of Grace Piney, the 57 articles compiled in half a thousand pages are divided into five sections by topic. Indictment abounds, but arguments predominate. The language is direct, sometimes sharp and with a sufficient dose of humor.

Because Manzano does not beat around the bush, his prose has that direct style and sense of haste of those who feel that certain things have to be said urgently, as soon as possible, amidst the serious problems that run through the national reality.

The name of René Gómez Manzano burst on the public scene in 1997 when, with Martha Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca and Félix Bonne Carcassés, he signed the document “The Nation Belongs to Everyone.” That gesture cost him a sentence of four years in prison, at which time Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. He is the founder of a group of independent Cuban lawyers called Corriente Agramontista.

In the last decade his articles have appeared in several media of the Cuban independent press, and it is during this same decade, between 2007 and 2017, that the articles were published – particularly on the Cubanet digital site – which now appear in a book format printed in Spain by Publiberia.

At the presentation, and after thanking the attendees, Gómez Manzano explained that it was not easy to decide which articles would be included and which were excluded and emphasized “I have tried to reflect the truth of what is happening in Cuba.”

The audience at the presentation of ‘Can I Comment?’ this Wednesday in Miami. (14ymedio)

The author commented that if a scientist from another country wanted to make a study of recent Cuban history, he could not achieve it by searching only the official press. “Even if reading Granma [the state newspaper] didn’t drive him completely crazy, what he would come away with would not have any contact with reality,” he said.

For Gómez Manzano, that is precisely one of the most important obligations of independent journalism: “To offer elements to better understand the sad reality of what our country has experienced.”

René Gómez Manzano chose the title for his compilation because he does not pretend to report only a cold objectivity devoid of his own emotions. He talks about the potatoes in the rationed market, some episodes of the Second World War, the internal contradictions of the opposition, the work of the courts, the repression and whatever comes to mind.

During the conversation with the audience, he did not have to apologize for having exercised his right to speak freely. Quite the contrary, everyone thanked him.

The discussion flowed, time passed and for a moment there was a feeling floating in the air as if the launch of Manzano’s new book was taking place in Havana or another Cuban city, due to the presence of so many compatriots.

The illusion lasted an instant, but completed what was written in these pages written by the lawyer. In the end, everything he said in Can I Comment? seeks, in many ways, to help us reach that future of bookstores and minds open to the plurality of voices that inhabit the Island.

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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.

Cuba Extends Internet Censorship and Continues to Harass and Arrest Opponents

Women connecting to the internet through wifi enabled in a park in Jagüey Grande. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerEFE, via 14ymedio, Havana, 22 February 2018 – “Unwarranted restrictions” on access to and freedom of expression on the internet have been added to the traditional forms of censorship in Cuba, where the government continues to arbitrarily detain and “harass” people critical of it, according to Amnesty International’s 2017-2018 report.

The document, released on Wednesday, stresses that the extension of censorship to the online environment weakens the country’s progress in education and describes a test by the Open Interference Observatory on the Web which detected 41 websites blocked from the island, all critical of the government and with content addressing human rights or techniques to avoid censorship. continue reading

Although Cuba, the only country in the Americas that continues to bar access to Amnesty International, continues to “expand access” to the network and has reduced the price to connect, the cost – one dollar per hour in wifi-enabled parks– is still “prohibitive” for the majority of the population in a country where the average monthly salary is less than 30 dollars.

The organization also stresses that “harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention” of political and human rights activists continues, although the figures are lower than in 2016.

According to data from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation – the only organization that keeps a full count of these incidents on the Island – in 2017 there were 5,155 arbitrary detentions, compared to 9,940 in 2016.

Among the main targets of the repression, Amnesty International cites the Ladies in White, an organization of women who have relatives being held as political prisoners.

The report notes that Dr. Eduardo Cardet, who replaced the late dissident Osvaldo Payá as head of the Christian Liberation Movement and who is named a prisoner of conscience, is serving a three-year sentence imposed in March for publicly criticizing Fidel Castro.

It also cites, among others, cases such as that of graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, who spent two months in prison for writing “He left” on a Havana wall hours after Castro’s death, and that of urban artist Yulier Pérez, “arbitrarily detained after months of intimidation and harassment by the authorities for expressing himself freely through his art.”

“The authorities continued to present false charges for common crimes to harass and detain representatives of the political opposition, which means that there were probably many more prisoners and prisoners of conscience than those documented,” the report said.

The firings for “discriminatory and for political reasons” are also included in the document, which notes that the State is still the largest employer in Cuba and also regulates the incipient private sector, which it uses to “repress even the most subtle criticism,” practices that are reinforced by the absence of independent labor unions.

Despite the thaw with the United States, now reversed by the Donald Trump Administration, the report emphasizes that a high rate of Cuban migration persists, driven by the “exceptionally low” salaries and the “control of free expression.”

This bilateral change in direction also makes the possible lifting of the US embargo on the island less likely and “continues to weaken economic, social and cultural rights.”

Finally, the report’s Cuban chapter notes that in 2017 the first visit to the Island by an independent United Nations expert on human rights took place, although the expert was refuses “access to the whole country, its prisons to the majority of independent human rights organizations.”

Cuba has not ratified either the international Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2008) nor the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

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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.

Three Women Killed and 21 Others Injured When ‘Passenger Truck’ Overturns in Cuba

The truck – modified to operate as a bus – overturned between the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palma Soriano. (lagrannoticia.com)

14ymedio biggerEFE, via 14ymedio, Havana, 19 February 2018 — Three women were killed and 21 other people were injured as a result of an crash that occurred this Sunday when a ‘passenger truck’ overturned between the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palma Soriano, Cuban state television reported. It is common in Cuba for trucks to be modified and adapted to serve essentially as buses, and many of them are open air with structures that do little to protect the passengers in the event of a crash.

The crash occurred on Sunday morning when the driver of the vehicle lost control of it, according to the source. Among the injured are five adults in serious condition and a child who suffered fractures in one leg and a foot injury. continue reading

Eleven injured were referred to provincial hospitals and ten are under observation in other health institutions. It is the fifth serious traffic crash in Cuba this week.

Last Friday a triple collision between two trucks and a tractor left a dozen injured in the central province of Villa Clara, and in previous days there were three other incidents, one of them in the mountainous area of ​​Santiago de Cuba, also involving an overturned truck, leaving twenty injured.

Among the injured are five adults in serious condition and a child who suffered fractures in one leg and a foot injury

A passenger bus also overturned on the central highway of the island, causing 40 injuries, and there was another serious crash that killed six people when a car and a cargo truck collided on the National Highway as it passed through Villa. Clear.

Traffic crashes, which average 31 a day, are the fifth leading cause of death in Cuba, and in the first half of 2017 (the latest official data available) there were 1,070 of these incidents, resulting in 314 deaths and 3,478 injuries.

The main causes are related to the lack of attention of the driver, the breach of the right of way and speeding, but other factors include the poor state of the roads, and the aging vehicle fleet, in a country where cars are routinely more than 50 years old.

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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.

Social Assistance or Fabiola’s Mistakes

Fabiola decided to make use of the elderly care systems that exist in Havana. (Orden de Malta)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 20 February 2018 — In an impulse of good faith or perhaps with some excess optimism, Fabiola arrived at the social services department of the Van Troi polyclinic in Centro Habana one October morning with a medical certificate to register her mother – a bed-ridden octogenarian with senile dementia – in order to receive the support that, as proclaimed by the Cuban authorities, these terminal patients are entitled to. Making that decision was her first mistake.

Weeks before, a doctor from that same health institution had made the recommendation, considering that it was “a right due the old woman, a widow and pensioner,” and something that might help Fabiola mitigate, to some extent, the high retail costs of disposable diapers which her mother’s severe incontinence demands. continue reading

The request might help Fabiola mitigate, to some extent, the high retail costs of disposable diapers which her mother’s severe incontinence demanded

It was for this reason that Fabiola decided to go through the process, knowing that, aside from the high cost of adult diapers, there are often cyclical crises due to shortages of such an essential product.

She also knew that in the neighboring municipality of Old Havana there is a regular system of elderly care, a service introduced by the City Historian, by virtue of which the coveted diapers for elderly bed-ridden residents of that municipality are distributed, with duly accredited prior medical certification.

All this is possible, of course, “subject to availability,” a pretext coined by some astute official, which is almost as useful as “the imperialist blockade” since it can be conveniently applied by official institutions in the face of any shortage situation.

However, Fabiola thought that the public health system, and in particular social services, because of their unique and national character, would function the same way in each municipality, and decided to try her luck in hers. Her second mistake was, then, to attribute some margin of efficiency and functionality to an official institution.

Almost four months later, after a telephone call and after thoroughly confirming personal details of the patients and Fabiola – labeled “caretaker” – a kindly clinic employee notified her that “it was her turn to pick up the module” in the establishment assigned to her, where she had to go and present the “receiver of the benefits” to get the expected help.

The new ‘module’ consisted of 12 bars of soap, one and a half meter of antiseptic fabric to fashion a strap for the patient’s bed, a rubber bed pad and a thin, small towel.  No diapers.

The employee explained that “that is all there is.”  After all, she punctuated, “it’s free and it’s something.” And she also said that the modules could be accessed every six months, as long as the patient’s medical certificate was presented that would certify the patient’s status.

The new ‘module’ consisted of 12 bars of soap, one and a half meter of antiseptic fabric to fashion a strap for the patient’s bed, a rubber bed pad and a thin, small towel

With her ephemeral exercise of faith deflated, and after recognizing her unjustifiable slip, Fabiola decided to close and forget that chapter. She would continue as before, resolving everything necessary on her own, attending to her mother with the same specialist doctors, who were her friends, and made house calls to her mother, and – if necessary – appeal to her relatives abroad to get whatever medicine or help they might need.

But believing that she would be unscathed when using the system’s controls was the third and most naïve of her mistakes. Because when Fabiola – who for decades stayed out of the government’s health system – gave in to the temptation to officially register her mother’s “case,” she was not only attributing credibility to a proven ineffective institution, but was making an attempt against one of her most precious personal assets: her privacy.

It turns out that the Cuban socio-political regime is precisely designed to invade one’s privacy, to blur the individual into “the mass” and to create in the population that humiliating feeling of commune or flock in need of the Government’s protection, which favors in the first place the acquiescent assimilation of official controls disguised as “protection of the population” – invasions of private spaces by fumigators and inspectors under the pretext of eliminating vectors (which are never eradicated), or untimely and unsolicited visits from the family doctor or nurse, among other intrusions – and collaterally establishes as a social norm of mutual vigilance, promiscuity, vulgar egalitarianism, envy and mistrust among neighbors, for all of which there are mass organizations, the different meetings of the so-called People’s Power and all the institutional entelechies conceived by Castro over decades of totalitarian power.

The “third age” (14ymedio)

Now, since she applied for Social Assistance “help,” automatically turning her mother into a statistic of the system, Fabiola – who is a rare Cuban journalist who does not belong to any political or mass organization, does not vote, does not participate in neighborhood meetings or popular festivals, does not like gossiping or personal confidences, does not meddle in the lives of others or give advice and does not cause discomfort or allow the invasion of neighbors or strangers into her home – has started to feel that her house is a kind of besieged square, under the merciless harassment of state officials.

With her candor, Fabiola and her family had fallen into the system’s networks, which now tried to breach her impenetrable privacy, something that in Cuba is considered a remnant of a decadent bourgeois, incongruent with the project of eternal socialism to which we Cubans aspire, according to the Constitution.

As a result, in recent weeks the doctor and the family nurse have insisted (in vain) on intruding in her house at any time of the day to “see the patient”

As a result, in recent weeks the doctor and the family nurse have insisted (in vain) on intruding into her home at any time of the day to “see the patient,” while the municipal Social Assistance office has recently sent her an employee with an extensive questionnaire that sought to collect, in addition to the personal data of those who inhabit the house, the income of each one and its origin, the occupations, the number and brand of electrical appliances they own, how many rooms they have, monthly expenses for gas, electricity, food, and a host of intimate details that Fabiola, true to her custom, refused to answer.

“Tell your bosses that none of that is any of their business, and that it’s already very clear that I never should have and will never again request your ridiculous ‘module,’ so don’t send me anyone else because I will not see them. Do you ask all these indiscreet questions to the bunch of decrepit old men who rule this country? Or do they not need those alms? Because many of them are old enough for adult diapers. Also tell them that my mother is perfectly well taken care of, and it’s not thanks to the Revolution”.

The young official, stunned, feverishly took notes on a blank piece of paper writing, perhaps for the first time, an official report without information. She felt uncomfortable and frustrated, and probably thought that Fabiola was as crazy as her mother. Which could be true, because Fabiola has the extravagant madness of behaving like a free individual in a slave society. In fact, this has always been the greatest of her abilities.

Translated by Norma Whiting

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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.

My Experience with the Health Care System in the United States

Delivery room in a hospital in Virginia, United States. (Eliécer Ávila)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Eliécer Ávila, Virginia, 19 February 2018 — By now my first child, Elisa, has been born, after having withstood the stress and the ups and downs that we faced as a family during the first months of pregnancy in Cuba.

At the beginning we were afraid, because no one manages to completely remove himself from all of that omnipresent propaganda that suggests that anyone can die from a lack of medical attention in the United States. Despite the enouraging messages of my very dear friends, deep down we were uncertain about how it would be possible to integrate ourselves in the health care system and have the pregnancy monitored until the time of delivery. We also questioned ourselves about what would happen after. continue reading

We do not have refugee status, or a social security number, or the support of political organizations or foundations, and had less-than-sufficient money to take the expenses of the whole process on ourselves. We immediately set off for the nearest health center, and there we were given information about what we should do in this situation. After filling out three forms and being attended to by two secretaries, we were already heading off towards the clinic that would be, from that point on, our hospital center for the next four months.

The cost of birth was assumed by the State through Medicaid. Starting at that moment and continuing through the next five years, part of our daughter’s medical coverage is covered through this insurance. Apart from this, we receive alimentary support through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC, as it is abbreviated in English), which is also of a public nature and finds help for low-income women.

Given that we did not have an income and were existing on the lowest step of the health system’s standard of living, we planned to find ourselves with basic medical care that was probably lacking many comforts that an official insurance plan guaranteed.

We were tremendously surprised upon entering through the doors of the medical center. The quality of the infrastructure, where each detail ran properly, the extreme cleanliness that provided a pristine environment, and the organization of the internal processes of the place made us feel absolutely secure and comfortable.

It should be noted that, in the immense majority of cases, the patients that shared the waiting rooms with us for a few minutes were Central Americans and African Americans, some accompanied by several children and waiting for the next.

Beyond the physical aspect–the equipment used, the internet access, the instruments, most of which were disposable for safety–I have concentrated on those parts which every health system in the world should keep in mind, and I do not doubt that at one point in time these formed part of the good practices of the Cuban healthcare system, before all of the deterioration, budget cuts, and lack of incentives destroyed the quality of care until it reached the current disaster level.

Each weekly appointment is coordinated with the patient and her family to find the most convenient days and times. Once it has been set, you receive a written record. When the date approaches, you receive an email or an SMS as a reminder. There is also the possibility to reschedule the appointment.

In the consultation, everything flows naturally. Without screams in the hallway, or people sweeping your feet. No one smokes in the establishment, and the language used is extremely cordial, human, and respectful.

Each patient and her companion meet alone with the doctor or the nurse. Before each important question they consult the patient, and nothing ventures outside of this framework. In fact, before each important question the specialists ask the patient if they would like their companion, be it their husband or their wife, to be present. If any check is necessary, everyone leaves the room except for the doctor.

Experiencing this type of treatment causes me to remember when I was an adolescent and I developed two growths on my knee and my elbow, I imagine from taking baths in rivers and stagnant dams. I took quite a difficult dermatological turn and, while I was waiting in the endless line in the hallway, on foot, at three in the afternoon without lunch, the nurse who had taken my details came out and called for me, yelling: “The boy from the country, the one with the pimples!”. Everyone present, including two very beautiful girls who I had been admiring, searched for me among the crowd to know who “the one with the pimples” was. Before the third call and sweating with shame I answered with another yell to the woman: “Well, I have a wart: could it be me?” To which she responded, “Obviously, moron. How many Eliécer Ávila del Yareys do you believe there are here, son? Go on!”

Among the giggles, I entered the consultation, in which there were three cubicles and they were waiting for me in the last one to burn it off. In the first there was a woman with her legs open; in the following I recognized the voice of one of my classmates who was speaking about a fever following a curettage; and in the last there was a gray-haired man who screamed at me: “Fuck, you’re the son of a Chinese! Look at how they beat you.” All this in the midst of the laughs of the front cubicles. The whole towns knew of the works and miracles that happened in that hospital.

Here, each step of treatment, whether a lab test or physical adjustment, is explained to you in detail so that you understand it and then decide whether or not you authorize the doctor to do it. Your body is an individual temple over which you exercise complete sovereignity. In fact, many people refuse certain traditional practices and opt instead for natural and even spiritual versions of certain methods. They respect it completely, always reminding you that you act under your own responsibility.

We were not accustomed to having options, and it was difficult for us to choose. In Cuba, we have never been asked if we want this or that, if we give consent to be touched, or even if they could examine us.

Coming from Cuba, we were used to others making decisions for us, even about our health. We did not have control over what happened, and many times we were not even able to give an account if there had been any negligence. In the U.S., the opposite has happened and, sometimes, this respect toward the patient can be overwhelming for someone who is not accustomed to it, although they end up accepting it.

I do not pretend that this testimony makes a comprehensive comparison between the health care systems of Cuba and the U.S. It addresses our personal experience and I do not doubt that on the Island, at least as far as human capital is concerned, we would have received appropriate attention.

My desire is that every Cuban can enjoy true quality of medical attention on the Island, such as that which we have come to know. This is something that I believe depends on the Government that prevails in our country and on the political and economic system that we construct.

Translated by: Emilee Sullivan

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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.

Blackouts and Annoyance Continue in Camagüey

In the city of Camagüey, the blackouts, which at first were sporadic and of short duration, have become an almost daily occurrence lasting several hours. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Camagüey, 20 February 2018 — Darkness and silence envelops the nights in the city of Camagüey since the fire at the 10 de Octubre Thermoelectric Company, in Nuevitas, on 25 January. Almost a month later, blackouts and annoyance continue to affect residents.

Brigades from various parts of the country are working under the direction of the Electric Union to repair the plant’s three power-generation blocks, which supply a total of 360 megawatts. However, so far none of them have been restored and the municipality of Nuevitas is mainly supplied with generators located in the town. continue reading

According to sources from the sector consulted by 14ymedio, the complexity of the work is great, since along with the replacement of what was damaged by the fire, a security review of the equipment is being undertaken and “some unforeseen events” have arisen in the process. The work is now forecast not to be completed until summer.

In the city of Camagüey, the blackouts, which at first were sporadic and of short duration, have become an almost daily occurrence lasting several hours.

“The worst thing is that they almost always happen when it’s time to cook,” laments Hermida Suárez who lives in the La Guernica neighborhood. “At that time of the day I have my grandchildren watching television while we prepare the food.”

Many Camagüey families cook with electricity after the Energy Revolution promoted by Fidel Castro at the beginning of this century. The program included the sale of electric cooking appliances at subsidized prices, to replace equipment that used kerosene. In addition, in 2016, thousands of induction cookers were also sold in the province.

The thermoelectric towers stand out against the blue sky without their usual trails of smoke and the absence of the humming of the generators raises daily fears of a new round of blackouts.

“The cuts in the electric service are not programmed, they occur when the demand exceeds the delivery capacity of the national network,” an employee of the Electric Company of Camagüey, who preferred anonymity, explains to 14ymedio. “The shutdown of the Nuevitas thermoelectric plant complicates everything,” he concludes.

According to the official press, the fire at the plant was caused by electrical overheating. The flames reached the system of buried cables and switches, which makes restoration more difficult.

Private businesses have been especially affected. Cafeterias, service outlets and mobile phone repair points are among the hardest hit by the lack of power.

“I’m a barber and all the equipment I use is electric,” says Ariel, in the town of Vertientes. “I bought an oil-powered electrical generator thinking about the hurricanes but now it’s exactly what I need with these blackouts.”

Last September the national electrical system suffered the onslaught of Hurricane Irma which caused numerous technological breakdowns in the 10 de Octubre Thermoelectric plant, but these were repaired in a short time. In 2014 the industry had completed capital repairs that cost more than 56 million pesos.

The Nuevitas generating plant runs off of Cuban crude, which has a higher sulfur content than imported oil. The quality of the raw material not only increases the combustion gas emissions, but also requires more frequent maintenance of the infrastructure.

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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.

Cuba Opts for More Satellite Internet Instead of Fiber Optics

Cuba’s use of satellite internet means very expensive service. (EFE / File)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Havana, 20 February 2018 — Internet access on the island remains dependent on a satellite connection following an agreement signed between the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) and the SES Networks, a company based in Luxembourg that operates satellites, which aims to increase the availability of the Internet through this service.

The agreement, according to a note published Tuesday by Etecsa, will mean that connectivity on the island will not depend on the single system currently made up of fiber optic networks. continue reading

Etecsa asserts that the satellite service of the Luxembourg company, which provides communications services to telephone operators, governments and institutions, provides, in some aspects, a quality very similar to that of fiber optics.

Silvia Moschini, an expert in information technology, told the news channel CNN earlier this year that Internet access in Cuba is via satellite, which caused it to be very expensive. “But there is submarine cable that circles the Island and if the political decision to allow its use is made, access to the Internet would be as good as we can see in the United States or in Latin American countries,” she said.

In February 2011, Alba-1, a fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, was announced by the Island’s authorities as a step towards greater autonomy and connectivity for domestic Internet users.

The Cuban ambassador in Venezuela, Rogelio Polanco, assured that the island would benefit from less expensive internet access and high quality telecommunications service. Meanwhile, Waldo Reboredo, Vice President of Telecommunications Gran Caribe, described the installation as the first step towards communications independence.

The cable was delayed for two years before showing its first signs of activity, when in 2013 an expert from Renesys, an American firm that analyzes Internet traffic, reported that his firm had detected that the Alba-1  cable had started to function.

The installation of the cable cost almost 52 million euros and experienced successive delays, while the Cuban government continued to rely on the services of satellite internet providers.

In 2016, Google and Etecsa signed an agreement to improve access for Cuban users to Google’s content, such as Gmail and YouTube. However, the island’s authorities declined the American giant’s offer to extend the infrastructure for connectivity across the country, contained in a proposal made by its directors.

At the end of December Mayra Arevich, president of Etecsa, announced that this is the year the internet will arrive on mobile phones. “We have prepared ourselves to start selling the internet on mobile phones,” the official told the YouTube channel Cuba Hoy (Cuba Today). “We are working to accomplish this type of access.”

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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.

A Spanish Ambassador in the Wrong Place

Was it the decision of the Spanish ambassador Juan José Buitrago to go to the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia and lay flowers at the monolith that holds the ashes of Fidel Castro? (Sierra Maestra)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 February 2018 — Five years ago, when I visited Spain for the first time, a fake photo showing me at the tomb of the dictator Francisco Franco began to circulate. I posted a brief denial on Twitter, but the incident helped me to reflect on the need to inform oneself about the history of a country one visits, its symbols, passions and animosities.

Five years later, but this time without some crude photographic manipulation, I see the Spanish ambassador on our island posing in front of the monolith containing the ashes of Fidel Castro. Juan José Buitrago de Benito, who presented his credentials last May, appears in an image standing at almost military attention, a few yards from the headstone of someone who, for almost five decades, remained in power by force. continue reading

Like any diplomat experienced in the arts of handling situations, Buitrago de Benito must have weighed the implications of taking that snapshot and leaving a floral tribute before he arrived there. He had to know that his action was going to unleash furious passions and send a clear signal of ideological positioning and a political posture sympathetic to the ruling party.

Two questions immediately come to mind seeing him there, in his impeccable guayabera under the sun Santa Ifigenia cemetery: Was it his decision to go? Did he know the connotations his visit would have?

For those who deeply understand the skillful maneuvers of the Cuban authorities to deceive every visitor to the country, one can imagine a naive ambassador who entered the cemetery to pay tribute to José Martí, national hero and son of Spaniards, and who on arriving was almost pushed to also visit the nearby Castro monolith.

If that is the case, the lack of knowledge of this reality and its codes has played a trick on Buitrago de Benito. His not knowing how to “stand firm” to avoid a trap set with premeditation and a lot of treachery, has caused a stumbling block that will mark his entire stay with us.

However, it is possible that it was his own decision, from the moment he headed to the cemetery. Then we are left to think that he is an admirer of the deceased or at least of that biography full of falsehoods and clichés that presents him as a savior of peoples, wise and just. Or another option, even worse: that with the visit to the tomb he hoped to win the favors of the authorities, who are wounded after the fiasco of the supposed future visit, recently belied, of the King and Queen of Spain to Cuba.

Any of these options, a naivety that led to a trap or a calculated intention, present the Spanish diplomat in a bad light. His visit to Santiago de Cuba, which had begun on a very good footing with the announcement of a new consulate for the eastern area, has become an unfortunate misstep in his diplomatic career.

We have yet to hear his explanations, but a photo, authentic and without trickery, has already said more than a thousand words.

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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.

"Neither Witch Nor Swindler," Florentino Eases Medicine Shortages in Santa Clara

Florentino Cárdenas is a herbalist with a shop on the corner of Martí and Maceo streets in Santa Clara (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Carlos A. Torres Fleites, Santa Clara, 15 February 2018 — Since Florentino Cárdenas began selling medicinal herbs two decades ago, he has never seen the demand like in recent months. His clientele in the city of Santa Clara has been growing in sync with the rate at which pharmacies are running out of medicines.

More than the desire to rescue an ancient tradition, the resurgent interest in infusions and herbal teas is due to the paucity of painkillers, antipyretics and anti-inflammatories in the state pharmacy network, this herbalist with a shop on the corner of Martí and Maceo streets tells 14ymedio.

Every day, many customers visit Cárdenas in the small room where he treasures his products. They look for plants to alleviate health problems or for religious ceremonies. On the shelves, tied with leaves, are bits of branches and small envelopes with dry products. continue reading

Nearby, in a central pharmacy, the shelves have only a few products. “We continue to have a poor supply,” confirms the employee. “We do not have any of the drugs in greatest demand such as dipyrone, paracetamol, azithromycin, clobetasol, ketoconazole or triamcinolone.”

A lady who comes asking for a medicine to lower fever decides to continue on to Cardenas’s shop after receiving a negative response. “When there is no bread you have to eat cassava,” she says ironically, “so when there are no medications you have to use herbs to alleviate the problem.”

During the economic crisis of the 1990s, officially dubbed the Special Period, the lack of medications led the Ministry of Public Health to promote the consumption of medicinal plants. Some family medical clinics even had their own nurseries.

The Ministry also created a National Program of Natural and Traditional Medicine, but many patients reject these methods because they consider them archaic and prefer a commercial drug, according to several opinions collected by this newspaper.

Martha Fuentes, a family doctor in an office associated with the people’s council district of Santa Clara University, encourages the use of medicinal plants and natural products. “Whenever I can, I advise that they use them and I explain their benefits,” she says.

The specialist regrets that there is only one green medicine laboratory in the city administered by the Public Health authorities, which she believes is underutilized, barely producing some syrups.

In the center of the Island there are more than 60 species of medicinal plants, belonging to 30 botanical families, frequently used by residents. Most commonly the leaves are used, but other parts are as well, such as the bark or the roots, says Gumersindo Cabrera, a scholar of the subject.

“In families, the main promoters of these herbs are almost always grandparents and many curative uses are being lost due to the advancement of drugs,” explains Cabrera. “However, when there are times like these, the concoctions and herb plasters are used again.”

Since last year the shortage of medicines has become a source of stress for many patients on the island. The Ministry of Public Health and BioCubaFarma acknowledged that since last June they are seeing “major effects” due to supply problems, which stem from non-payment to distributors.

“People have had to choose more phytopharmaceuticals [from plants] with therapeutic, tonic, digestive, laxative, diuretic and antirheumatic properties; the use of plants with anti-inflammatory and expectorant qualities has also grown,” says Cabrera, who adds to the list of products honey and propolis (“bee glue”).

However, he recommends “consulting a specialist before consuming any of these remedies, because they can also cause adverse reactions.”

For Florentino Cárdenas plants should not be consumed only as an alternative to the shortage of drugs. With a book by Cuban researcher and botanist Juan Tomás Roig, the old man talks to several clients about the advantages of using these natural remedies instead of tablets.

The vendor is supplied by some growers from the rural areas of the province but also harvests several of the herbs in his own garden. This ensures that his product is fresh and recently collected when the customer takes it.

While listing the species he has planted in his own home, he moves between shelves overcrowded with chamomile, guava leaves, guajaca, yagruma and mastuerzo roots.

“At first it was very difficult, I was classified as a witch and even a scammer. Many distrusted me and questioned that these products were sold publicly, and I even had some enemies who came to accuse me before the authorities,” laments Cárdenas.

Time and necessity helped to make his worst critics come to accept his remedies. Now, those detractors of yesteryear also come to the shop to buy sticks of eucalyptus, guajaca, aloe or the very popular moringa.

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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.

Daniel Llorente Exchanges US flag For Poster Against “Raúl Castro Dictatorship”

Daniel Llorente is known for appearing at public events with the American flag to demand a closer relationship with the neighboring country and democracy for Cuba. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 19 February 2018 — Daniel Llorente, the “man with the flag,” was denied visits this Sunday at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital, because he is being punished for protesting with a sign in the hospital courtyard, his son confirmed to 14ymedio.

At the entrance to the Comandante Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz Ducungede Psychiatric Hospital, popularly known as Mazorra, the guards prevented Eliezer Llorente from entering the premises because of his father’s punishment status. continue reading

Last Wednesday, Daniel Llorente, who as of March 1st will have been imprisoned for ten months, went out into the hospital’s courtyard with a sign that said “No to injustice, down with the dictatorship of Raúl Castro.” The protest action occurred after he was held incommunicado for several days, unable to go to the common area or use the facility’s telephone.

Days before, Llorente had been subjected to a meticulous search in which a mobile phone was taken from him; he had managed to smuggle the phone in to maintain communication with his son. “They are also annoyed by some pencil writings he has put on the walls of his room with texts by José Martí,” the young man reports.

This weekend Eliezer Llorente demanded to speak with the institution’s higher-ups and was received by the deputy director. The official explained that his father’s punishment was only for one day and that next Wednesday he could come to visit him “without problems.”

“My father is acting like that because in locking him up there they are not complying with the law, but she told me that they already sent their request to release him to the court but it was denied,” says Eliezer.

On Thursday, the young man was summoned to the police station in Santiago de Las Vegas where they returned his phone card and threatened to take him to court and accuse him of “disobedience,” he says. He had to sign a warning document with the commitment not to re-enter the facility with the telephone card.

Daniel Llorente is caught in a legal limbo because the hospital authorities can’t discharge the activis from the psychiatric hospital without first receiving the approval of the court. However, despite not being prosecuted for any crime, the legal authorities still have not signed the authorization.

Daniel Llorente Miranda has been prominent for the activism he displayed alone after the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States. His image traveled through social networks and the covers of many international newspapers when he hoisted the US flag during the May Day parade in 2017 in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

Llorente was tackled during the May Day march when he broke into the parade with the American flag. (Screen Capture)

Seven security agents jumped on him and took him to the ground him by force. Since then he has been detained, although during the first month the authorities kept him in the State Security Operations Directorate Security (Villa Marista) and later he was transferred to Mazorra.

Considered an “independent” opponent, Daniel Llorente is known for appearing at public events with the North American banner to demand a closer relationship with the neighboring country and democracy for Cuba.

The first time he publicly waved the US flag was during the reopening of that country’s embassy in Havana in 2015. The following year he did it again during the visit to Cuba of US president Barack Obama. Later he was detained for several hours after welcoming with his flag the first cruise ship arriving from the United States in half a century.

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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.

Maduro Invites Himself To The Summit And Cuba Calls His Exclusion "Unbelievable"

14ymedio bigger14ymedio (with information from news agencies), Havana, February 15, 2018 — The President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, said this Thursday that he will be attending the next Summit of the Americas, which will be celebrated in Lima on April 13 and 14, “come hell or high water,” in order to, he added, tell “the truth” about his country.

“They don’t want to see me in Lima, but they’re going to see me. Because rain or shine, by air, ground or sea, I will arrive at the Summit of the Americas with the truth about Simón Bolívar’s fatherland,” Maduro affirmed in a press conference with international media. continue reading

Perú, as the host country, announced this past Tuesday that the presence of Maduro at the Summit “will not be welcome,” a decision supported by those known as the “Lima Group,” which encompasses several countries of the region.

Faced with this measure, on Thursday Cuba “categorically” rejected the Peruvian Government’s decision to exclude the Venezuelan President from the Summit and reaffirmed Cuba’s “unwavering” support for its principal political ally in Latin America.

In a declaration by the Foreign Minister, published on the front pages of the official newspapers, Granma and Juventud Rebelde, the Island also “energetically” condemned the Lima Group’s statement, which demanded that Maduro set a new electoral time table in rejection of the official presidential elections organized by the ruling party.

For the Island, it is “unusual and unbelievable” that a supposed unconstitutional rupture in the democratic order in Venezuela be used as a “pretext” when this country “has just convoked presidential elections, like they were demanding.”

Cuba, which was invited for the first time to the Summit of the Americas in 2015 after its expulsion from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962, still has not confirmed its attendance at the conclave in Lima.

The decision to leave Venezuela out of the Summit is based on the Declaration of Québec of 2001, “that indicates that the breakdown of democracy constitutes an insuperable obstacle for the participation of a state in the Summit of the Americas,” as the Foreign Minister of Perú, Cayetana Aljovín, said then.

Faced with this, the Chief Executive of Venezuela has stated that he received from his Peruvian counterpart, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, “several letters,” the last one “yesterday at 4:00 in the afternoon…inviting me to the Summit of the Americas.”

The President showed the attending media the letter that he said arrived yesterday afternoon, in which it can be read that Kuczynski extended the invitation to Maduro to participate in the Summit of the Americas in a missive dated November 11, 2017.

“It’s a group that exists and doesn’t exist. That brings out comunications and pretends that they are orders that we fulfill. In Venezuela we command ourselves, not Kuczynski nor (the Colombian President, Juan Manuel) Santos,” he added.

“Venezuela doesn’t depend on the Lima Group for anything. Thank God, we have a country that is totally and absolutely independent,” he said.

The Lima Group is composed of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Brazil and Costa Rica, plus the recent additions of the United States, Guyana and Santa Lucia.

This group was created in August 2017, faced with the impossibility of approving resolutions on Venezuela in the OAS, because of the blockade on the part of the Caribbean countries.

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.

“We Don’t Accept Payment In CUC Here”

The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is taking the brunt of the rumors and fears of an early monetary unification. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 17 February 2018 — “I do not accept CUC,” the driver of the shared taxi warns passengers at Havana’s Fraternity Park. It is the third time that day that Lídice, 40, has heard the same phrase. The first time was from a peanut seller and then from a barber. Both refused to take his chavitos — a slang term for Cuban convertible pesos — because of the uncertainty surrounding the CUC in the face of possible monetary unification.

A few words from Raúl Castro in the Parliament last December sufficed to unleash speculations. The president explained then that without unifying the currencies it would be “difficult to advance correctly,” and Cubans have interpreted his speech as the signal that the CUC was on the way out. continue reading

The convertible peso is taking the brunt of it amid rumors and fears. Sellers and merchants have begun to reject it in some operations so as not to be left with bills that could suffer a major devaluation when the Central Bank withdraws them from circulation in exchange for Cuban pesos, which would then become the only national currency.

In just a few months the dual currency system will be a quarter of a century old, and now, not too many weeks from the change of government, announced for 19 April, people’s fears are growing before the inevitable process of monetary unification. Those who have savings accounts in CUC suspect that their balances will be affected, although the authorities have said that those who have bank deposits will not be harmed.

This situation of uncertainty and lack of liquidity, in addition to the substantial worsening of the national economy with the substantial cut in shipments of Venezuelan oil, are causing a rise in the dollar on the currency black market.

Every morning, Armando (fictitious name) stands a few yards from the Currency Exchange Booth (Cadeca) on Obispo Street, in the historic center of the city. There, with discretion, he hands out cards to the most interested customers. His private money changing business is in high demand in the parallel market.

Armando is the person to turn to for people who receive their remittances from family members abroad in dollars and do not want to settle for the Central Bank’s exchange rate, which delivers only 0.87 CUC for every dollar, after charging a commission and a 10% tax on the American currency.

The money changer buys the dollars at a price ranging between 0.91 and 0.93 CUC and then resells them at a rate between 0.94 and 0.97, depending on the amount. His main clients are the ‘mules’, who need dollars to travel abroad where they buy merchandise to sell later in Cuba.

“Don’t wait, the chavitos are short-timers,” Armando tells those in line for the Cadeca. At least two people look interested and later stay to exchange over 1,000 dollars worth.

The economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, resident in the United States, warns that “the monetary change or unification will not increase the purchasing power of the population, for that production and productivity would have to increase,” something that has not been achieved despite the timid opening to the private sector and the delivery of lands to private operators in a form of leasing known as usufruct.

In the last five years Raul Castro’s government has taken steps to reconcile the use of both currencies, such as authorizing the payment in Cuban pesos (CUP) in the state’s chain of stores called TRD — the initials in Spanish for Hard Currency Collection Store — but the unification has been postponed.

“This is without haste and with a lot of pausing,” jokes Marieta, riffing off a phrase used by Raul Castro in a key speech talking about the necessary pace of change. Marieta works in a state company that manufactures hygiene products. “In addition to my salary in CUP I receive an additional payment in convertible currency every three months,” she explains, but “the least important thing is the color of the bills, what interests me most is what can I buy with that money and the truth is that it’s very little.”

“If the 450 CUP that I earn suddenly becomes 450 dollars, then the stores will be empty,” reflects Marieta. At the moment the low salaries, which do not exceed 35 dollars per month, don’t stretch enough to buy the products that the State sells at high prices in its commercial network. The situation would change completely if the government suddenly decided that 1 CUP equals one dollar, which is the official exchange rate of the CUC, though not what is actually collected for one.

Luis, 42, a cheese maker in Alquizar, was called to a military mobilization two weeks ago as a reservist. “They had just called me when me I told my mother to buy all the dollars she could because that would protect us under the unification of the currency.”

When a senior official of the European Union commented a few days ago in Havana that the EU was willing to provide technical assistance for monetary reunification, Luis told his barracks mates that “the thing” was imminent.

But the days passed, the Artemisan finished his mobilization and has continued to sell cheese on the side of the road. “I have to accept the convertible pesos because that is what most of the customers that stop to buy have,” he acknowledges. However, his own advice applies: “In order not to accumulate too many, I invest in goods and buy dollars.”

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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.

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.

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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