Without Tourists and With Businesses Closed, Soroa is Sunk in Crisis

As the days go by, life becomes more difficult for those who rent rooms to foreigners in Soroa. (14ymedio)

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14ymedo, Bertha K. Guillén, Soroa, 25 April 2020 — Until recently, the highway to Soroa, in the province of Artemisa, was a continuous coming and going of vehicles loaded with tourists. The travelers supported the economy of most of the families in the area, but after the closure of the borders because of Covid-19, the locals are trying to adapt to a bleak scenario.

As the days go by, life becomes more difficult for those who rent rooms to foreigners, organize excursions through the impressive nature of the area, or offer food or transportation services. Where once there was liveliness, now you only see empty paths and worried faces.

The basic necessities are beginning to be scarce, and the savings have been diminishing little by little. Not even the most prosperous self-employed in the area manage to maintain the standard of living that their businesses allowed them until recently. continue reading

Soroa, in the heart of Sierra del Rosario, has been for years an ideal place for practicing nature tourism. Just one hour from Havana, it earned the name of “the Rainbow of Cuba” for the diversity of its ecosystem, which allows visitors to choose between horseback riding, hiking in the mountains, medicinal baths, and the enjoyment of orchids or bird watching.

Amid so much beauty, residents must now look for alternatives to meet basic food and grooming needs. Santiago, 58, has spent years selling orchids, an illegal but very common practice in the area. With the number of tourists plummeting, he had to start raising turkeys and Creole chickens to ensure at least food to eat. “We have to wait until this crisis passes and tourism returns, in the meantime we will have to invent,” he says.

The houses, which until recently offered quiet accommodation in contact with nature, gradually become gardens. Neighbors who formerly knew precisely when the high season began, what nationalities were coming the most, or where fresh fish and shellfish could be bought for travelers’ table, now have other concerns.

Finishing a flower bed has become the priority of María Caridad, an entrepreneur who is in quarantine with all her children in the house that until recently she rented to tourists. For years, the family has planted their root crops, vegetables and greens around the house because they do not have any agricultural markets nearby.

Finishing a flower bed has become the priority for María Caridad, an entrepreneur who in quarantines the house that until recently she rented to tourists in Soroa. (14ymedio)

Thanks to this production, this month they have a good part of their food needs guaranteed but they have increased the planting rate in order to prepare for an uncertain summer, in which for the first time in a long time they will not have income from tourism.

“In this area there are no markets, no hard currency stores, you have to go to Candelaria,” María Caridad explains to 14ymedio. The town of Candelaria is located about 16 kilometers from her home and only a few vehicles pass by the road every day.

María Caridad’s children have helped her plant pumpkin, sweet potato, tomatoes, radish, cabbage, oregano, lettuce and bell pepper. “We have distributed seeds in the community so that everyone who has a little piece of yard also sows,” she says. However, there are products that they cannot achieve with their own efforts. “The lack of oil and toiletries like toothpaste and soap continues to hit us.”

In nearby Candelaria, for the moment, there is no positive case for Covid-19, but the pandemic has paralyzed the economic life of a mainly agricultural and swine-raising region that had been going through serious difficulties for months.

This April, the center of the small town is deserted and the fruit carts  loaded with mamey, guava or bananas that rolled through the streets are gone.

Alejandro, 35, has started stacking dry firewood to make a charcoal oven. In other times he would be renting his horses to the tourists of the nearby houses or offering to transport them. With these activities, he supported his family, although his legal job is to cut fronds to obtain the palm that feeds the pigs.

“With the problems that there are with cooking gas and soon with electricity, coal will be needed,” predicts Alejandro. The man puts his hopes in the idea that charcoal will rise in market value in the coming weeks due to power cuts and a possible decrease in the supply of liquefied gas.

“In these towns no one is selling cooking gas on the streets and the contracts are few, people bring the canisters from Havana, but now with closed borders, charcoal is the best solution.”

A sack of charcoal can cost up to 60 pesos in Candelaria and reaches 100 pesos in the towns.

For Mariana, 35, the coronavirus has also been a life change. She has started making croquettes to sell door to door in her neighborhood after the rental house where she worked in cleaning closed to tourists. “I am a single mother. I tried to offer my services to wash and clean, but with this situation nobody wants people in their houses,” she regrets.

There is an air of uncertainty. Although in the last decades the region has been hit several times by hurricanes and intense droughts, in addition to suffering the ups and downs of flexibilities and restrictions on agricultural producers, the situation that has caused the coronavirus is completely new. Unlike those moments, few now dare to predict when this crisis will end.

Like a ghost, in the minds of Mariana and many others older than 30, are the memories of the crisis of the 90s. The mere idea of reliving moments similar to those caused by the Special Period frightens. “The situation is desperate. There are days when I would like to stay in bed and sleep, just to avoid stress, but I can’t.”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

In Rincon It’s August in December

This December’s temperatures mean flowers need watering to look fresh before they are sold. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, El Rincón | 18 December 2019 — For eleven and a half months nothing happens in Rincón, a town located near Santiago de las Vegas and Bejucal, at the point where Havana, Mayabeque and Artemisa provinces meet. But that all changes when, in mid-December, thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Shrine of San Lázaro (or Saint Lazarus), where the saint is venerated and whose wounds, according to the Gospel of John, were licked by dogs.

The saint, widely popular in Cuba and known in the Yoruba religion as Babalú Ayé, attracts a large number of followers. According to organizers, 85,623 pilgrims visited the shrine on December 16 and 17. All of them are potential customers for the residents of this small town.

“A lot of people come from Oriente [Province] or from the center and their trips last a week or more. And it’s always cheaper to spend the night here than in Havana,” says Irina Rodriguez, who rents rooms for ten convertible pesos a night, fifteen if breakfast is included. Those prices are double, or even triple, what they are during the rest of the year.

Pilgrims bathe in the waters from the shrine’s fountain, which are purported to be miraculous. (14ymedio)

The most profitable days for selling flowers, religious items, clothing and plaster likenesses are December 16 and 17, although according to Rodriguez many people prefer to come before or after to show their devotion to the saint. continue reading

“Those days are really terrible here,” she says. In addition to the closure of the main traffic artery between Santiago de las Vegas and Ceiba, medical personnel and Catholic volunteers wait at the doors of the church to assist pilgrims who have spent more than 48 hours travelling.

Residents who do not have business licences see an opportunity to make some money on those days. “The inspectors are not around and the police are more concerned about controlling drunkenness and keeping order than with the vendors,” claims a 13-year-old boy selling water and soft drinks to pilgrims for a modest price.

Maria rises early to prepare bouquets of flowers for those passing by. “We ordered fresh flowers for today. Producers bring them from Alquizar and supply almost the whole town.”

The high temperatures of recent days force Maria to water her flowers every thirty minutes to guarantee their freshness and color.

“Customers want to offer the best to their saint. On days like today the price doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the flowers are the best,” she says as her son carries a cluster of sunflowers. “Those over there, those we grew ourselves,” she says smiling. A bunch of flowers can cost between 50 and 400 Cuban pesos depending on size. A single flower goes for between 3 and 5 pesos.

To conserve raw materials, some new candles are made from the melted wax of old ones. (14ymedio)

Privately owned restaurants, cafes and street vendors stock up in anticipation of those dates. The path to the church is traveled on foot and, during a hot December, the demand for cool drinks is high.

A few yards away, a boy repeats over and over, “Candles. Purple, yellow and red candles for Oshun, Shango* and Old Lazarus,” to whom the main altars of the shrine are dedicated.

His name is Rolando Garcia and he makes his own candles, which he later sells for 5 to 10 convertible pesos. “Sometimes I use the spent candles from the church instead of throwing them away. That way I save money on raw materials, which are never easy to find,” he explains.

There is also a small shop inside the church which sells Catholic themed souvenirs such as religious almanacs, images of saints, rosaries, candles… all much less expensive.

White doves, chickens and even goats are taken to the site. There are also Yoruba priests, known as babalawos, who offer religious assistance at the shrine. Others decide to camp outside all day, smoke big cigars and drink.

There are shops selling Catholic and Yoruba themed objects in a small marketplace near the entrance of the church. (14ymedio)

Yohana Maria strings beads at a makeshift marketplace next to the shrine, where several tables display merchandise. “Green, yellow, white, knot, turn. Green, yellow, white …” she mutters. As her Yoruba ID bracelet takes shape, her mother sews brightly colored clothing used in religious ceremonies and that go for 50 to 150 Cuban pesos. Sack garments, widely used during this holiday, are also available for 5 to 30 convertible pesos, depending on the complexity of the clothing.

There is also no shortage of “parking attendants,” who play an important role in managing the horse-drawn carts making the pilgrimage, primarily from the west. The animals, whose travels often last more than a week, need rest, water and food. Some attendants prefer to give them the water that flows from the fountain — “the source of miracles” — for good luck.

Natatcha, who is originally from Rincón  says that it has been hard adjusting to so much peace and quiet since beginning her studies at José Antonio Echeverría Technological University in Havana. For two days a year she can forget about that.

*Translator’s note: Two deities in the Yoruba religion, syncretized with Our Lady of Charity and St. Christopher respectively.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

In El Brujo Life Revolves Around the Guava

El Brujo is a small community dedicated to coffee and fruit production. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 18 September 2019 — Like ants gathering for the winter, a family from the El Brujo community in Pinar del Río goes out every day to tour the pastures, the trails and the banks of the roads in search of those guavas that still grow almost wild around their little village. With a sack on the shoulders and machete at the waist, they go up and down the rocky hillsides. In the afternoon they return loaded, to the house: the main anthill.

“Ana! Wash the bottles and dry them,” says the mother. The other daughter must prepare the molds where the mixture of guava and sugar will be placed, after cooking for a while, to become the popular “bars” that will later be sold on the roads, the the stands of the self-employed, or at coffee shops with a piece of bread or cheese.

The telephone coverage does not reach there. Few things betray that the family is living in the 21st century. The scene seems to  a hundred years ago, when technologies did not dominate everyday life and people still talked face to face, without mobiles or WhatsApp. continue reading

In the afternoon, the father of the family collects the herd of goats while confessing that he once dreamed of becoming a great producer of goat milk and cheese. (14ymedio)

“The well water is only for cooking and drinking,” warns the patriarch of this family of Los Brujos, which has been affected by the drought for months, a problem that has also reduced the amount of fruit available. “At the beginning we did this for personal consumption, but we were creating conditions and now we can even sell it,” says Miguel Martínez, one of the sons and agronomist.

El Brujo is a small community gathered around a Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS) dedicated to coffee and fruit production, where almost all the residents are cousins, siblings or have some degree of kinship. The town borders La Comadre, another settlement of about three or four houses whose jurisdiction is disputed by Bahía Honda and Candelaria.

The family, consisting of father and mother, and six children (two women and four men) and three granddaughters, dedicates at least two weeks a year to producing these products that are then sold among the neighbors, at a peasant fair or to the houses in Soroa rented to foreigners.

On the roads and paths that connect the towns in the area, it is common to see informal vendors offering guava bars, the livelihoods of dozens of surrounding families. Although some state industries also process the fruit, most of the products made from this fruit are produced and marketed outside the state network.

Most of it is fabricated with very precarious and handcrafted  infrastructure and few of the processed products have labels or a family brand that distinguishes them. However, consumers know how to distinguish if it came out of the hearth of the Gonzálezes or the Piedras.

“This year there was little mango because of the lack of rain, but we have more guava. Each member of the family has their function. Some peel the product, after discarding the ones in poor condition, others count the plates and bottles, until finally they place the cauldron on the firewood,” explains the mother.

While the guava boils under the care of the men of the house, the women take care of lunch or prepare some home remedy that they distribute — on request — in the community to alleviate some ailment. The nearest pharmacy is 25 kilometers away and the only means of transport they have is a Willy jeep that has deteriorated over the years and is used only for emergencies.

“Years ago some Brazilian nuns taught us to work with natural medicine, so from time to time we women get together and make tinctures, ointments and remedies with medicinal plants,” says one of the daughters.

In the backyard, there’s a bunkroom for the youngsters of the house and there is a machine, that they manufactured themselves, that helps in the process of pulping the fruits.

“This brings us work. Grinding in a blender and straining by hand would take a lot of time,” says Angel, the mechanical son who likes to carve wood, paint and sculpt. “Geographical fatalism took me. For a young man like me, it is very difficult to get from the countryside to one of the capital’s art schools,” he laments. Still, he managed to work with a craftsman on his own and comes from Candelaria to help his parents and siblings process the guava.

Once the seeds are separated and the rest of the fruit is beaten, the preparations are separated. One part is going to be bottled for juices and compotes, and the rest is mixed with sugar, lemon juice to preserve it and the occasional secret ingredient; and placed on the fire.

Once the seeds are separated and the rest of the fruit is beaten, the preparations are separated. (14ymedio)

“Now the difficult part comes,” says Juan Antonio, father of the family. “Once it begins to bubble it has to be stirred constantly so that it does not stick and curdle until it reaches a consistency thicker than the jam, but a little less than the bar to which we are accustomed.”

In each batch around 70 pounds are processed, between the guava and the sugar. They work in shifts of ten or fifteen minutes, each for two and a half hours, to alternate in front of the fire. Staying there longer is almost impossible, because the ambient heat added to that coming from the coals make the task a real torture.

The smell of burnt wood and of the guava boiling with sugar to the point of making jam flood the whole place and capture the attention of the few passers-by who dare to get close to where the barking of the dogs who have captured a hutia (a large rodent) intermingles with the song of the birds and the crowing of the roosters. On a wooden shelf, two plates with their spoons are an invitation to taste the final product from previous batches.

David, another of the sons, puts on his sunglasses, to avoid the smoke getting in his eyes and, on a stool next to the cauldron, he settles down to start the first shift. In the afternoon, the father of the family collects the heard of goats while confessing that he once dreamed of becoming a great producer of milk and goat cheese. “They say it is very good, and well paid, but the investment is also very large,” he laments.

A broken refrigerator serves as a warehouse for the membrillo — the quince paste — distributed in plastic casseroles, buckets and small bars, while the bottles with pulp are stored in sacks or in the plastic boxes themselves. “Now we just have to wait for the guava and mango season, and people come for our products or we take them to them.” Nature sets the pace in El Brujo.

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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.

More than Half of Artemisa Schools are in Bad Conditions as the School Year Begins in Cuba

The biggest constructive efforts regarding materials and labor have been concentrated in the construction of the province’s university. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, San Cristobal, September 4, 2019 — The enthusiasm to see classmates again and tell stories about their vacations has not prevented Artemisa’s students from seeing the deterioration of the schools to which they returned this Monday. The schools welcomed their students with an evident lack of paint, broken pipes, half-functioning toilets, and damaged school furniture.

The 2019-2020 school year has started in the province with 52.7% of facilities in poor conditions and a deficit of 1,347 teachers. The increase in number of students compared with the previous year, the exodus of teachers, and the limited quantity of graduates in education have aggravated the situation.

Educational authorities insist that they will try to reverse this situation with teachers contracted by the hour and with an increase in the teaching load and students per teacher, according to statements to the local newspaper El Artemiseño by the provincial director of Education, Caridad Cruz. continue reading

Combat High School in Rio Hondo. (14ymedio)

The parents of school-age children are worried because the problem is growing as the months pass and other teachers could leave the classroom, but right now, the priority is the problems with infrastructure in the schools.

Artemisa is in first place in terms of deterioration in schools. More than half of its facilities have been evaluated from fair to bad, double that in Matanzas (25.4%), Sancti Spiritus (25.3%), Havana (22.5%), and Holguin (19.7%), according to data provided by Francisco Navarro Gouraige, director of investment at the Ministry of Education.

The main damages are concentrated in the woodwork of windows and doors, the furniture, bathroom furnishings, sanitary and hydraulic pipes, electric work, and the lighting systems.

Despite everything, the school year began with 385 schools in the province taking in 80,215 students, 1,078 more than the previous year. The salary increase that went into effect in August brought back to the province around 500 teachers. However, the number of departures remains high. Meanwhile the number of graduates from education programs entering the workforce was only 46.

“I read in El Artemiseño that, with the salary increase, 102 of the 197 teachers who asked for leave at the end of last year changed their minds, but people are tired of the bad conditions in which we work, the strictness with which you have to follow orders that have more to do with politics than educating, and the indoctrination, so many leave, it’s just that those figures are barely publicized,” Magalis Rodríguez, a teacher with more than 38 years of experience who preferred to definitively retire, tells this newspaper.

“The biggest motivation to go back is the pension, with the salary increase the number is now a little higher than what we could get if we work for ourselves,” says Rosario, a primary school teacher who is trying to go back to teaching after five years of taking care of children as a self-employed worker.

With their eyes set on a pension according to the new salary scale, many teachers close to retirement age will stay for a short period in the classroom. “As soon as I have the possibility to retire with a little more money I’m leaving,” a teacher who preferred to remain anonymous tells 14ymedio.

The biggest deficit in educators is in high schools, especially in subjects like chemistry and mathematics. The latter is one of the subjects with an obligatory examination to enter any university in the country, which is why many parents have decided to turn to private teachers to complement what is learned in classes.

“Last year was chaotic, the lack of teachers almost cost the school year for a group of students. Of six classes per week in a subject they only give two, many teachers leave in the middle of the year to transfer to the Faculty of Medical Sciences, where they work less and the salary is the same. This year I’m already paying teachers [to tutor my child], we can’t risk failing the entrance exams for university,” says Felicia, mother of a twelfth-grade student.

Combat Urban High School, in San Cristobal, displays a devastating view, but not different from the rest of the municipality’s schools. More than half of the windows are totally destroyed, the perimeter area of the entrance is in bad condition, trash is accumulated in every corner, and students avoid entering the bathrooms.

Parents of the students, worried about their children’s continued stay in such precarious conditions, have taken on some of the maintenance work.

Ground level at the Faculty of Medicine. (14ymedio)

“They told us that each of us is responsible for fixing the desk and chair of our children. We have also had to coordinate to replace the missing slats on window blinds, bring in lightbulbs, paint the classroom, and try to make the environment a little nicer, because in these conditions no one studies,” explains Yusimí, one of the mothers who since Monday afternoon has already seen to these tasks.

In Artemisa, only 37 schools have been repaired, and the students of two schools have been relocated for a major repair. However, the greatest efforts regarding materials and labor have been concentrated in the construction of the province’s university and the pedagogic institutes that are opening their doors this September.

“The partial repairs have been left in the hands of the teaching staff of each school and the administration boards of each municipality, the province’s priority is educational,” insists a worker from Provincial Education.

“Without resources you cannot work. If there’s no cement, wood, or even the barest essentials to unblock the bathrooms, the brigade can’t do anything, nor the teachers, we’re not magicians,” stresses one of the brigade workers staying at Combat High in Rio Hondo.

The administrative staff tries to minimize the importance of the matter. A father worried about the situation received this response from an employee who tried to reassure him: “The school isn’t falling down.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

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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.

Artemisa Municipality Records up to 30 Admissions a Day for Dengue

Special school of San Cristóbal, Artemisa, which health authorities have equipped to hospitalize patients with dengue. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, San Cristóbal (Artemisa), 1 July 2019 — An outbreak of dengue keeps Public Health authorities on alert in San Cristóbal, in the province of Artemisa. Up until now seven people have been confirmed as carriers of the virus, but more than twenty are admitted under suspicion, as an official from the Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in the province confirmed to 14ymedio.

“We are equipping an admitting room in the special school with a capacity for 40 people, there all the conditions are set up to avoid the illness being spread, the number of admissions suspected of dengue vary between 18 and 23 people daily, although in recent weeks we have reached up to 30,” said another employee of the Institute via telephone.

The symptoms of the dengue virus include rash, muscle and joint pain, migraine, and weakness. The illness can cause hemorrhage and requires hospitalization, especially if the patient has previously suffered the same ailment. continue reading

Last year the official press reported on the presence in the center of the Island of a “serotype of dengue” of which there had not been outbreaks reported since 1977 and which required extreme epidemiological measures. In Cuba there are four serotypes transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito present in the country.

San Cristóbal is currently the municipality of the Artemisa province with the greatest number of focal centers of mosquitos that transmit the disease, with around 68 detected in the month of May and another 49 in the first twelve days of the month of June, according to a note published in the provincial newspaper El Artemiseño.

The causes of the growth of the focal centers are attributed to the rains of these months that create a favorable environment for the proliferation of the mosquito, in addition to the lack of personnel to carry out sanitation campaigns and home inspections.

“Although these focal centers are localized, we have not yet been able to exterminate them, many have left this type of work to start their own businesses or work privately, here we don’t make enough, and at this point we no longer ’invent’,” Arsenio Rodríguez, one of the fumigators, explains to 14ymedio, using a common Cuban expression for figuring how to get by on very little. “This week some workers from other nearby municipalities will have to come to help control the situation.”

Rises in the number of people infected by the dengue virus are frequent in the summer months, especially in years with a lot of rain. In addition to the intense heat, in the summer season of 2019 high precipitation levels are being reported above historic averages, according to data provided by the Institute of Meteorology.

In the past few weeks medical students have been displaced from the classrooms to cover the deficit of workers. The young people must make inquiries through the whole community, especially in the zones where the principal focal points of the vector have been located.

“They told us that we would have to be very meticulous and also report any case with fever or symptoms that would suggest a dengue infection, in addition to collaborating with the sanitation work,” explains Susana Méndez, a student in the third year of medical school.

The causes of the increase of the focal point are attributed to the rains of these months that create an environment beneficial for the proliferation of the mosquito. (14ymedio)

Despite the risks many people prefer to go through the illness in their houses and not go to the doctor to not risk being admitted. Although the institutions guarantee they are in good conditions, there are problems in potable water supply and cleanliness and the facilities are in a deplorable state.

“This is still an old woman wearing blush, as they say, now it is a special school, but side by side it’s also a maternity waiting home, a primary school, and high school, before everything was only one thing, imagine so many people together in the same place,” says one of the ex-patients of the ward.

“The truth is that the water situation is really complicated, it comes on Friday for a while and until Monday we don’t see it again,” affirms María Eugenia, one of the nurses.

The doctors do not have a record of the real number of infected persons, “Everything is a question of statistics,” says one of the doctors in charge of the admitted patients who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal.

“The patients enter with criteria for admittance out of suspicion of dengue, the follow-ups are done, and later we send specimens to the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine to do the analysis that confirms the diagnosis, but the results never reach our hands, they remain, presumably, in the National Institute of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Microbiology,” he says.

The majority of the patients find out this confirmation weeks after the illness passes or they never end up receiving the official notification that they suffered from dengue.

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

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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.

Fuel Shortage In Artemisa Leaves No Option Than to Go by Foot

Several towns in Artemesia province remain virtually isolated due to cuts in public transport services. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, June 10, 2019 — The highway connecting Candelaria with Soroa, a town in Artemisa province, is filled with pedestrians. Every day, hundreds of women with children on their backs, self-employed merchants carrying their wares and state-sector workers walk a stretch of road on which public transport is increasingly absent.

“We’re used to it. It’s nothing new for the buses to stop running because of fuel, breakdowns or because they put it to some other use,” says Maria de los Angeles, who walks about 18 kilometers to reach the nearest point where she can hitchhike. “There is no other option than by foot. There are no stores, pharmacies or even a doctor’s office up there,” complains the Artemiseña.

In the last month, the situation has gotten worse due to lack of fuel. As a result, authorities have had to reduce the number of public transport routes, working hours in state agencies and even university class periods to save gas. continue reading

The reduction in public transport services began gradually in mid May but by the beginning of June things had gotten worse, leaving the most mountainous towns located along the highways to Soroa, and from Central to San Cristobal, Candelaria and Bahia Honda, without transport.

An employee from the Candelaria’s public transport agency, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained to 14ymedio that, by Monday, fuel supplies were expected to arrive and, based on the amount alloted to the province, transport service should be able to resume. Last month’s supply of hydrocarbons barely covered the first half of May.

A large segment of Candelaria’s population lives along the mountainous Soroa road, where the development of tourism has led to a high demand for mobility between the region and its neighboring towns. In the nearby Cordillera de Guaniguanico nature reserve there are numerous privately owned short-term rentals geared towards tourists as well as local attractions such as its famous orchid farm.

But local tourist developments must still overcome the transportation problem. Communities such as Candito, Soroa and El Campismo are served by only two buses a day. Meanwhile, Los Tumbos and La Comadre, located 25 kilometers from Candelaria, have no public transport service at all.

Additionally, there are the poor conditions of the roads, which are winding in the mountainous stretches, and the price of fuel. As a result freelance taxi drivers are not interested in these routes unless they involve non-stop trips booked in advance, a service focused on tourists and recreational travelers.

“There’s a lot of tourism in this area. There is the highway between Soroa and Las Terrazas as well as a fair number of houses for rent. But taxi drivers want to charge us the same prices as tourists and we can’t afford that. We’re peasants,” says Angel Martinez, another affected resident.

The new Diana buses were a hopeful sign for residents of Artemisa but now the problem seems to be a lack of fuel. (14ymedio)

Mobility problems are not plaguing just the tourist towns; they are being felt throughout the entire province. At Artemisa’s main terminal this week, there were major schedule changes to buses traveling to San Cristobal. Though the departure board showed that only two trips had been cancelled, 14ymedio confirmed that at least half of the so-called Diana buses* that operate from of this station were out of service due to fuel shortages.

In the provincial town of Guanajay there is a factory that assembles buses on top of Russian-made chassis. When it began operations, the plant was a hopeful sign for nearby residents, who were tired of the unpredictability of public transport. Now, however, it is lack of fuel that is the problem.

Other towns, such as Bahia Honda, lack any public transport services at all. “There are no buses. Only trucks and vans for 10 and 20 pesos,” reports Rojelio Blanco, who makes the journey to and from Artemisa every day. “At the terminal up to three buses in a row don’t show up. But none of these changes are ever announced so people assume the buses are still running. The situation is really serious.”

“Our top priority is to open or close routes based on demand so that no town is completely without transport,” says Magalis, a terminal employee, who confirms that the last few weeks have been especially difficult for trips from the provincial capital to outlying towns and that, in spite of the adjustments, it has not been possible to maintain service to all the towns.

Faced with this situation, authorities have doubled the number of inspections on the roadways to prevent unlicensed drivers from operating illegally, picking up passengers and charging them for rides. Inspectors are also spot checking licensed taxi drivers to verify where they have purchased their fuel.

On the outskirts of Artemisa, government inspectors, known as azules (or “blues”), have mounted a large operation and levy fines of 1,000 pesos to unlicensed taxi drivers who charge a fare above the allowable limit and 4,000 cuotas to licensed independent drivers who do not have proof of purchase for gasoline or diesel from a state-owned service station.

Some of the inspectors pose as passengers to find out how much a driver actually charges. Most drivers of vintage cars prefer not to risk their licenses and offer only a ride to Havana, which is more profitable for them anyway.

*Translator’s note: Small buses whose parts are supplied by a Chinese company, Yutong, and assembled in Cuba. In 2014 over 930 chassis were sold to Cuba to meet the high demand of public transportation throughout 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.

"This Was a Town Without Soul and Full of Memories"

The faithful filled up the temple last Sunday during the first Mass celebrated in the church. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén / Marcelo Hernández, Sandino/Havana, 1 February 2019 — Juan Ramos is 67 years old and does not like to talk about his childhood. Yet, this week his face lit up when he remembered his mother. “If she could have seen this”, he said with reddened eyes. In the town of Sandino, Pinar del Río province — where his whole family was relocated to by force from the Escambray Mountains — the first Catholic church built in Cuba since 1959 has just been inaugurated.

At the junction of the main street and a dirt road, where more horse-drawn carriages pass than motor vehicles, stands the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The building, with a 200-person capacity, stands out in the town, with its impeccable, recently painted yellow façade. Around the church one can only see buildings made of concrete — resembling cages – that accommodate hundreds of families that are still labeled “problematic.”

“This was a town without soul and full of memories,” Juan assured 14ymedio, while he brushed off a piece of invisible fluff from his shirt. His hands are gnarled from his work sowing tobacco, the most important product in this region where he ended up at only 12 years old. Juan has spent a great part of his life longing for El Pedrero, a town in the province of Sancti Spíritus where he spent his childhood. continue reading

The facade of the new church in the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in the town of Sandino. (14ymedio)

“Over there I had roosters, a mule with which I wandered through the mountain and, in the backyard of my house, a small cemetery with all of the dogs that my family had owned”, he remembers now. “We used to go to town on Sundays to attend Mass and, from time to time, a priest would visit us. But one day the militiamen arrived and the only thing we could only carry with us was the very clothes we had on”, he says.

To prevent peasants and farmers in the area from supplying food and assistance to the “uprising” of the Escambray, a group of rebels that hoped to overthrow Fidel Castro in the beginning of the 1960s, the revolutionary government ordered for the residents of those mountains in the center of the island to be removed indiscriminately. Juan and his family among those expelled in 1964 and were taken to captive towns, or communities in which one could hardly leave or enter.

According to personal details revealed in publications of the Cuban exile community, it is estimated that a total of 21 towns were erected in this way, surrounded by wired fences and permanent guards at the entrance. Residents could neither get out nor receive visitors, and all of the correspondence was inspected.

“We were escorted by armed militiamen the whole trip and when we got here my parents were very sad because it was an ugly place, real ugly”, Juan notes. “Homes resembling matchboxes were starting to be built, all very close to one another. You could not go out into the open fields and there was no church”.

Among the things his family could safeguard during their forced relocation was a wooden cross that Juan’s mother wore on a necklace. “That was our very own church for decades. Every night we would take it out and would light a candle for it”, he describes. “We had to be careful when doing it because this town was full of informants”. His brother managed to get out when the mass exodus took place from the port of Mariel in 1980 but Juan stayed.

Last Sunday, Juan was one of the many parishioners that filled the church in Sandino during the Mass. The temple was erected thanks, in part, to funds donated by worshippers of the Church of San Lorenzo in Tampa, Florida, itself built by the Cuban exile community which contributed 95,000 dollars to the building’s construction.

The construction of two more churches has been authorized, following the normalization of relations between the Vatican and the Government of Cuba in recent decades.

“We feel so much happiness that it is impossible to describe. Just as the bishop said, a church for a Christian is like a hospital for the sickly,” recounted Rosa Martínez, one of the residents who attended the ceremony. “The tears were pouring from my eyes when I saw my church gathered in that long awaited temple”, she said, interrupting herself with a sigh.

“In all of the years that I have lived here I have never seen so many people gathered together”, Martínez commented. She lived through times when “everyone suspected each other and were afraid to talk about these things”.

People from all over the Western part of the country came for the opening ceremony despite the bad weather. The celebration was charged with emotive moments and some volunteers even transmitted the event live through the internet to their relatives outside of Cuba.

“The Mexican women of the congregation of the Little Sisters have done very important work in this community”, says Idania, an octogenarian who took flowers to the Virgin of Charity’s altar located in the new church. She prefers to not talk of the past, and a wince of pain appears when asked if the church belongs to the residents that were relocated from the Escambray. Rather, she prefers to concentrate “on the present, on the now”.

Translated by: Claudia Cruz Leo

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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.

Hundreds of Cubans will Meet with Pope Francis in Panama

The Cubans who are departing for  Panama World Youth Day are children of a generation that, for decades, could not show their faith in public. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 18 January 2019 — This Saturday is the day that Jorge has waited for months. Tomorrow he leaves for Panama along with 470 other Cuban Catholics to attend along with Pope Francis the triennial meeting of the World Youth Day (WYD).

It is the island’s largest delegation in the history of the event, which takes place between January 22 and 27, and for the first time, Cuban pilgrims are assuming their own transportation and lodging expenses. In the past, the parishes of the Island covered those expenses and that is why the Cuban delegations were small. continue reading

Jorge sold an electronic tablet and some household goods to gather the $640 that the trip costs. He has also received help from his parents, who make their living renting a house to tourists. With this amount, the youth can buy a packet of accommodation, food and insurance (at a cost of $250), while the other $390 will defray the cost of the plane ticket.

“I was a minor when the Pope visited Brazil in 2013 and I could not travel at that time, in addition there weren’t any meetings in the parishes so that those interested could pay for the trip,” Jorge tells 14ymedio.

The interest expressed by young people to attend the World Youth Day was so wide, according to parishioners from several parishes of Artemisa and Pinar del Río, that the ecclesiastical authorities decided to make a call for self-financing of the trip to all those who would like to participate.

The consular paperwork was handled through the diocesan board of Pastoral Youth. “That helped a lot because the Panamanian embassy in Havana is very complicated, the line is long and the resellers (Cubans who travel to other countries to buy goods and then resell them back in Cuba) offer more than 300 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $300 US) for a place in the line in the informal market,” says Ismael, another pilgrim who has joined the trip.

Ismael’s parents look forward to the presence of their son in Panama. Growing up under the strict atheism of the 70s in Cuba, both professionals began to show their religious faith in public when, in 1991, the Communist Party allowed membership to believers. “They dreamed of something that now I can finally do,” says the son.

Many of those who travel to Panama this Saturday are children of a generation “that could not be baptized or married by the Church,” says Ismael. “Those people had to hide the crucifix and religious images and that is why now they have encouraged and supported the young people so they do not let their religion be taken away and carry it with pride”.

To join the delegation it was necessary to fulfill the requirements of the parish, such as having an active and sacramental life and providing a letter of approval from the parish priest or another religious figure of the community.

In all the parishes of the country, young people were advised to count on having additional funds for any unforeseen event. More than 60% of those interested in the trip arranged for private funds or received help from the religious community and from parishioners who collected money so they could fulfill their dream.

“Paying for our tickets has been a challenge, in which our priest have had the principal role. Most of us are students, so we have appealed to the generosity of priests, nuns and people of good will who live outside of Cuba.” explained to this newspaper a young man from Candelaria, in the province of Artemisa.

The Candelarian has many expectations for World Youth Day, an event founded in 1985 by Pope John Paul II that has become the biggest celebration of young Catholics. “It is also a place to compare our realities, to learn other ways of living the faith and above all to fill ourselves with hope,” he says.

In Panama, they will participate in meetings with Pope Francis. “Since last October we have had formative meetings in the parishes to be in tune with the world’s youth,” explains Mónica Rodríguez, a young woman from Santiago. “It is a great responsibility to represent Cubans who are unable to go on the journey and convey the true reality of our country.”

In Cuba there will also be a digital broadcast via Facebook. “We are enabling sites in order to experience the most important moments of the journey via the Internet”, explains David Yanes. “It is the first time that we are directly connected and we are going to take advantage of it”.

Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria

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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.

San Cristobal’s Horsecart Drivers Strike in Protest Against New Restrictions

The work stoppage aggravates existing tensions between municipal managers and workers in this private sector. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, San Cristóbal | December 01, 2018 – The drivers of horse drawn carts from San Cristóbal, Artemisa, have declared a strike as a signal of protest against new restrictions imposed by the Municipal Administration Council (CAM). The coachmen have decided to battles the authorities to repeal the measures that prevent them from entering the town and force them to only travel on outer roads.

On Friday, passengers arriving at the stand from where the horse-drawn carriages depart found the drivers seated, with arms crossed and insisting that they would not work until a “favorable agreement” was reached with the local government. The strike has paralyzed a municipality where most transportation is done via this rustic means of transit.

Last week the authorities decreed that the drivers could not circulate through the inner roads of San Cristóbal due to alleged complaints from neighbors about the bad smell of urine and the animals’ excrement of the animals. A version that drivers question, blaming the new restrictions on old tensions between municipal managers and workers in this private sector. continue reading

Less than three months ago the confrontation between both parties reached a point of no return, when in September the local government forced the drivers to move to secondary streets far from the center of the town. At that time, the drivers complained widely but ended up obeying the rules. On this occasion they have decided to go a step further.

“We can’t publicly say we are on strike, because in Cuba is not allowed, but we will stop working until we reach an agreement,” 14ymedio was told by Arsenio Ramirez, one of the drivers who this Friday reined in as a gesture of protest. “It was not enough for us to move five blocks away from the main roads, now they aren’t allowing us to enter the town at all,” he complains.

The drivers are sitting at their pick-up point and have organized to make the rounds with some of their vehicles but without picking up passengers on the road. The unusual scene of the horse-drawn carriages circulating empty has generated much curiosity among passers-by who have taken countless videos and photos of the work stoppage.

“The objective is for people to see the coaches circulating and find out what is happening,” explains Maikel, a young coachman who has joined the strike. “We have to collect evidence of the number of people who benefit from our service, with a bit of luck there will be more complaints from the population in favor of us and the authorities will have to reverse the measure.”

The local government has responded so far by placing a new bus that will cover the route from the main park of San Cristóbal to the hospital, twice a day. A way to easing the tension that has been created among the passengers who aren’t able to travel in the horsecarts that traditionally cover that stretch.

The self-employed are protesting because they are forced to travel around the town of San Cristóbal without being able to access its internal streets. (14ymedio)

“We transport around 7,000 people a day,” says Rolando Martinez, “most of them go to the hospital, whether workers or patients, who often come from other municipalities.” The driver believes that without the cars providing service the pressure on the authorities becomes unsustainable.

San Cristóbal has a population of more than 71,000 and is the second most populated territory in Artemisa province. In the town there is also a hospital that covers services of different specialties at the provincial level and the difficult situation of public transport forces the use of the horsecarts to get there.

“This morning the scene was bleak, doctors, nurses, children dressed in uniforms, everyone lined up on the road while the carts passed by empty, there was no transport so we had to walk to the hospital,” Carmen María, a nurse who had to walk the route on foot, complained Friday.

The changes in the horsecarts travel routes were announced last Thursday in a meeting in which representatives participated on behalf of the self-employed drivers, along with officials from the Municipal Administration Council.

“They treated us rudely, as soon as we expressed our discontent, the deputy director began to shout,” says one of the coachmen who participated in the meeting.

Pedicabs were also regulated with this measure, however they continue working in secret, although the local government has sent dozens of inspectors into the street who are imposing fines of up to 1,500 CUP on those who contravene the measure, which can even end up with the seizure of the vehicle in the event the driver is a repeat offender.

San Cristóbal has 81 animal-drawn vehicles in service for the transportation of passengers, 56 of them are duly regulated and at least six have contracts with institutions linked to education, commerce and culture sectors. The rest of the cars circulate illegally.

“As we are a large group, we organize ourselves and pay for a truck of water every two days to clean the area where we park the animals to avoid neighbors getting upset with the smell of horse urine, which is very unpleasant,” Arsenio Ramírez details to14ymedio.

Other drivers, such as Roilán, are optimistic about the results of the strike. “We have the certainty that the situation will be fixed, as soon as the week starts and people protest about having to walk.” The Self-employed driver says that if “each municipal administration sets its rules,” with this work stoppage the drivers are asserting theirs.

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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.

Regulations Against Horsecarts Aggravate Transport Problems in Artemisa

In several municipalities of Artemisa the horsecarts and pedicabs are not allowed to use the main thoroughfare. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 15 September 2018 — While horse-drawn carriages are a tourist attraction in the streets of Old Havana, in the municipalities of Candelaria and San Cristóbal, in the province of Artemisa, the authorities impose strict regulations on this popular transport, controls that are worsening the already tense situation of passenger transport.

For more than a year drivers have been forced to travel away from the main avenues, and instead make their way through unmarked alleys in poor condition. Now they must carry out their work almost “secretly,” several of them have reported to 14ymedio.

The thousands of customers who use this form of transport every day also feel that they have gone underground. In a province where very few buses travel the streets, most Artemiseños interviewed say they use these animal-drawn vehicles at least three times a week. continue reading

In 2016, the director of the Provincial Transport Company, Juan Carlos Hernández, said that 150 public transport vehicles covering 143 routes circulated in the province, but two years later many of these vehicles have deteriorated or gone out of circulation, according to sources from the company speaking to this newspaper.

Along with this deterioration, the authorities of the area have launched a crusade against horsecarts under the pretext of avoiding bad smells and traffic accidents. The Provincial People’s Power bodies, together with the National Revolutionary Police, also want to avoid having crowds of people waiting to board these vehicles.

Among the measures adopted, carts and pedicabs have been prohibited on the Central Highway, a decision that pushes the carriers and their passengers to explore alternative routes. “What should have been something to improve the quality of life of the residents, actually has become a headache,” laments Yaima, who on Monday uses the carts to get to the polyclinic where she works.

The young woman pays three Cuban pesos (CUP — about 12 cents US) for each trip, which means a monthly cost of about 120 CUP alone in transportation to reach her job; a significant share of her monthly salary which is around 900 CUP. “If I do not travel that way, I do not arrive on time because public transport can not be trusted, it comes along when it feels like it,” says the nurse.

“The measure to kick us off the Central Highway was taken about a year ago” Eugenio, a coachman in the area, tells this newspaper. “Since then people complain because they have to walk more to get to the carts and because the prices went up because now many segments are longer and the streets where we are traveling are in worse condition.”

In the province of Artemisa some 4,567 animal-drawn vehicles have been documented so far, most of them dedicated to passenger transport, according to official sources. However, this figure only reflects those who have a license to exercise this service, while an increasing number of vehicles circulate illegally.

For their part, the self-employed workers who are licensed to work in the sector complain that their needs are not taken into account. “They almost always make us look like the bad guys in the film by charging three pesos for each segment, but nobody calculates the cost of keeping the animal fit,” adds Eugenio.

The coachman regrets that there is no state workshop to fix this type of vehicle, or a market to “buy tires and other spare parts” at a price that is within reach of their pockets. “They ask a lot of us, they control us everywhere but when we demand our rights they do not listen to us.”

So far this year, the Candelaria Municipal Administration Council together with the traffic police and other authorities have had at least two meetings with these workers to analyze their complaints and also those expressed by their passengers. In each meeting, the parties have not been able to reach an agreement.

“They claim that because they’ve eliminated the payment of 10% of revenues at the end of each month, we can charge less to passengers, but they still do not take into account the prices we pay to keep these vehicles rolling,” says Sergio Martinez, another Artemiseño coachman artemiseño.

These self-employed carriers must pay about 186 CUP to obtain the license, to which is added the transit and veterinary permits that are paid monthly. The purchase of a horse cart can come to about 10,000 Cuban pesos and each year the drivers must pay their personal income taxes.

“It does not matter if it has been a bad season, the authorities assume that someone in this job earns a lot and when the tax return is filed many of us get the fines for alleged tax evasion,” laments Mario Nordelo, with more than two decades in the guild.

Earlier this year the National Tax Administration Office (Onat) reported that it will perform 5,500 “in-depth” control actions, including tax audits, in order to detect tax evasion, and to determine with “greater rigor” the debts and penalties and request the application of administrative and criminal measures.

In 2017, Onat detected that more than 60,000 taxpayers — 35% of those who paid self-employment taxes — reported and amount lower than their actual earnings on their personal income tax declaration for a total amount of some 563,000,000 Cuban pesos (CUP).

“Taxes and fines do not let us live,” says Nordelo. “I know coachmen who have had to pay up to 15,000 CUP in fines in a single year and others who have suffered the confiscation of their vehicle and their animal.” The self-employed transport provider thinks that “although many times the responsibility falls on the coachman due to some imprudence, what the authorities are trying to do is to end this service.”

In San Cristóbal, Arsenio Ramírez repeats his routine several times each day. He arrrives at the stop where the customers wait and there he waits until ten people get into the vehicle. “Many people depend on me to arrive on time,” says the coachman in front of a row of teenagers in school uniforms and several doctors in white coats. Four primary schools, a high school and a nursing faculty are located on his route.

“When they made us travel about five blocks away from the Central Highway, we created a union to complain to the Communist Party, but they threatened us with the police and we had to give in,” Ramírez told 14ymedio. “We have organized to clean the area where we park and avoid the urine of the horses being an annoyance, but the police always have a reason to bother us,” he complains.

In recent years there have been numerous strikes and protests by coachmen throughout the island. In all cases the drivers have demanded an improvement in working conditions, tax reductions and permission to travel through the more central streets.

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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 Name Alberto is Cursed in Artemis

The greatest damages caused by the storm are to crops and homes on the outskirts of Candelaria. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 1 June 2018 — The rains of subtropical storm Alberto have focused their gaze towards the center of the country, the area most affected by the floods, but in the West the damages are also considerable. In many areas of Candelaria in the province of Artemisa residents are still “up to their ankles in water,” and are taking stock of the losses in agriculture and housing.

The town of Candelaria is mostly agriculture and the raising of small livestock, and it is one of the most important suppliers of food to the city of Havana. Along with others such as San Antonio de los Baños, Güira de Melena and Alquízar, their fields yield root crops, beans and vegetables, destined for the capital.

In mid-2017 the province of Artemisa, in which these municipalities are located, supplied about 200 food outlets in Havana, according to information provided to the official press by Tomás Rodríguez, director of the Agricultural and Forestry Group. continue reading

“When these towns can not get their produce to town, the situation becomes very difficult for them, because what is raised in these fields is what Havanans buy in their markets,” 14ymedio was told by was told by Luis Romero, the driver of a “spider,” a two-wheeled vehicle pulled by horses and used to transport goods.

Returning to normal daily routines in difficult in a village with areas still quite wet. (14ymedio)

This Thursday afternoon some anxious customers arrived in Candelaria from Havana to stock up onions, garlic and pork. “But there is not much to sell because most of the crops are still under water and others are spoiled,” laments Romero, who managed to sell some bananas before they went bad.

Among the most affected crop in the Candelarian territory is rice, with hundreds of acres still under water, while in the mountainous area of ​​Soroa crops such as corn and cassava and fruit trees, such as bananas, suffered severe damage from the heavy rains.

In the streets, sewage still mixes with the floods left by the rains and has flowed into many houses, especially in the lower lying areas. Residents have been taking their furniture and personal items outside to dry them, with the first rays of the sun in two weeks.

A family has hung a piece of plastic to prevent the leaks caused by the rain from falling on the bed. (14ymedio)

An unbearable plague of mosquitoes has joined the damages left by Alberto, and families with young children take precautions to avoid the spread of diseases. “We send to Pinar del Río for water because our well is contaminated and there are two small children in the house,” explains one grandmother in charge of her three grandchildren.

The situation of chronic patients was also complicated with the passage of the storm, because the nearest hospital is in San Cristóbal. Asthmatics, hypertensives and diabetics have suffered the most and, as of Wednesday, those who in the worst physical condition have begun to be transferred to hospitals.

Others are living with the anguish of a possible collapse of their homes damaged by excess wetness.

“Passed through the water” says Caridad, describing the situation of her family living in the center of town. They have placed a dozen cans, buckets and other containers to collect leaks that fall from their ceiling made up of wooden beams.” The downpour has not given us a break,” she says.

“We also put this nylon over the beds to prevent them from getting wet, but the rest of the things are piled up in the only corner that does not get wet,” Caridad explains as she points to the ceiling.

Although subtropical storm Alberto has already moved away from Cuba, the rains continue to fall in Artemisa. (14ymedio)

“I’m desperate, I sent my daughter with her child to my sister’s house and we stay here,” she says. “This construction is one of the oldest in the town, it was declared a heritage site and it costs a lot of money to fix it, in addition to the permits and restrictions on building that are imposed on us because it is a heritage site,” she complains.

In the neighboring municipality of San Cristóbal, the most damaged in the province according to the authorities, the local press reports that families lost an incalculable number of appliances and about 400 mattresses.

Most of Candelaria’s streets are not paved and the rain has made it difficult to travel on them. (14ymedio)

In the towns of Taco Taco and Santa Cruz, the mere mention of the name Alberto creates uneasiness among the residents. In 1982, a hurricane of the same name caused severe flooding and now the nightmare has been repeated.

“No one here is going to give any child born the name Alberto because people have very bad memories of that name,” says a resident of Taco Taco who still has water up to his knees in the living room of his house.

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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.

In Guanajay, the Editors of a Magazine Dream of Publishing in Digital Format

Readers of ‘The Thinker’ recognize the difficulties that the publication has had to go through for two decades. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria, 10 November 2017 — It has not remained seated like the famous figure of Auguste Rodin, but nor has it been able to walk as much as its editors would like. The magazine El Pensador (The Thinker) edited in Guanajay, Artemisa, is two decades old and its founders dream of being able to publish it on the internet one day.

This Thursday, the notes of the Guanajay Hymn marked the beginning of the celebration of 20 years of a magazine born in the lay community centered around the San Hilarión Abad Catholic Church. A time that has passed rapidly for some, but that others, like its director José Quintero Pérez, remember every moment of. continue reading

“Our first issue was released on 9 November 1997 and it was edited by hand, typed on a typewriter, then we cut out the articles and pasted them on a sheet, which we photocopied and that’s how it all began,” he tells 14ymedio.

On the island, publications linked to the Catholic Church filled a gap for decades that could hardly be filled by other independent magazines, due to the strict controls maintained by the Government on the distribution of printed material.

Vitral (Stained Glass) and Espacio Laical (Space Lay) were some of the most well-known magazines born from the interaction between the concerns of the church and contact with communities. However, despite institutional protection, they were also victims of censorship.

In 2010, a report by the ISP agency counted 46 bulletins and magazines plus 12 websites and seven electronic bulletins that reached four million Catholic readers on the Island and many other Cubans in exile. A phenomenon that has been enhanced with the emergence of new technologies in the country.

The popular Weekly Packet has, for more than two years, had a Christian section that is made up of Catholic and also evangelical materials. An independent television channel has also been born from the interaction between faith and the digital world.

El Pensador, still far from having even a website, “has been concerned to understand and be part of the construction of a better future for all Cubans,” says a faithful reader who participated on the anniversary this Thursday.

Thought bubble: “I dream of having water.” ‘El Pensador’ not only addresses religious and parochial issues but also addresses social issues of interest to the community. (14ymedio)

With a bimonthly frequency, the magazine issued its 119th edition this week to approximately 125 subscribers. Although it has not managed to position itself on the World Wide Web, the publication is well known in Pinar del Río and Artemisa.

“To say that it’s been easy would be to lie. They have called us a little newspaper, a little newsletter and a bulletin. We have had to adopt different formats, sometimes with more pages, sometimes with fewer,” recalls Ángel Mesa, one of its founders. “We have spent many sleepless nights to bring an issue out, but we have the support of our readers,” he declares.

With a majority of Christian topics, El Pensador also includes among its pages social issues ranging from criticism of the deterioration of popular festivities, to the serious ethical problems that surface on the island, a situation that the Government itself has had to recognize.

“We are happy because we have been faithful to the objective of communicating,” and in the pages of El Pensador there is no “exclusion of people,” points out Quintero Pérez.

Mesa reports that the name of the publication arose from the readings of Father Félix Varela’s texts where he invited people “to think first.” The initial team has had to train on the fly.

In these years, the editors have not been exempt from criticism, unpleasant situations with the authorities, and, from time to time, some have has felt an urgent desire to desist, but the group has remained fairly complete despite the difficulties, says Mesa.

“I want to congratulate El Pensador for daring, it is not easy to dare and it can become a problem, but this world has been changed by people who dare, who dared because they dreamed that things could be different,” says a Baptist pastor who participated in the celebration for the 20 years of the magazine.

The magazine “has dared to dream that Guanajay can be different, if we think about this we can make a good contribution to our country,” he added.

Flavia, one of the young readers, believes that the main challenge for the editors is to increase the number of contributors and to remain as an alternative space for the “forgotten exercise of thinking” to continue “questioning all things until the truth in them is found.”

“The State Doesn’t Pay Me, So I Sell On My Own,” Say the Candelaria Guajiros

In the informal market it is difficult to find an avocado for less than 5 CUP. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K Guillen, Candelaria, 18 October 2017 — A year ago the smell of guava filled the road where Santiago Hernandez was waiting for the state company Acopio (Collection) to sell the fruit he produced. With the passing of days the flies showed up and the smell turned to rot, but the truck never appeared. Now, like many others in San Cristóbal (Artemisa province), this private producer prefers to risk the informal market.

The streets and roads of Artemiseño towns are the scene of an economic battle of the deaf. The police control farmers in the area, which has a long agricultural tradition, not allowing them to sell their crops on their own, but forcing them to deliver them to the official entities; nevertheless illegal trade continues to increase. continue reading

The frequent delays in transportation and the Acopia’s successive failure to pay the farmers discourages them from following the legal process to market their crops. “Before I let them rot again I prefer to sell them for a few cents,” Hernandez tells 14ymedio.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP per pound”

The campesino is not only annoyed by the problems of transportation and lack of packaging that Acopio blames for each delay, but also by the prices set for his merchandise and the continuous problems of weighing the product that “always go against of the man from the fields,” he says.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP [Cuban peso, roughly 4¢ US] per pound, so a quintal [100 pounds] comes out at 100 [$4 US],” he laments. In the informal market it is difficult to find this delicious fruit for less than 5 CUP each. “Normally they don’t sell for less than 10 CUP each, but in order to earn that much money, I have to sell ten pounds.”

“In the street I can raise or lower the price according to what suits me, whether due to the quality of the avocados or because there is a lot of supply, but with the State everything is very bureaucratic,” says the farmer. The Council of the Municipal Administration meets every month to check if it should modify some of the prices, but the State has imposed maximums that cannot be exceeded.

“The more production there is of a product in an area, the lower Acopio’s purchase price, that’s how it works,” says Hernández. The campesino says he does not understand “such a simple” formula when it comes to fruits and vegetables that mostly end up in Havana, with high consumption in homes and private restaurants.

It is not only private producers and those who lease state-owned lands that feel dissatisfied with the strict provisions under which they must sell their crops. Farmers organized in Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) and Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS) must also comply with the rules requiring them to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the companies of the Ministry of the Food Industry (MINAL) that process fruit industrially.

Farmers organized in cooperatives must also comply with the rules and to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the Ministry

In the middle of this year, more than 2,600 metric tons of mangoes were lost in the fields of Guantánamo due to lack of packaging and problems associated with processing plant breakdowns. The news raised a wave of indignation among consumers and the issue was even debated in the National Assembly of People’s Power.

However, what happened is nothing new and the scenario is repeated throughout the Cuban countryside. According to a report published by Mundubat a non-governmental organization for development aid based in the Basque Country (Spain), 57% of food produced in Cuba is lost before it reaches the consumer.

The problems are worse for seasonal products such as mangoes, tomatoes and avocados. The latter has entered October in the final stretch of its harvest and it is precisely the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque that obtain a greater harvest.

In 2016 there was a drop in avocado production, which barely exceeded 90,000 tons, about 30,000 less than in 2015, while this year the abundant rains have favored the growth and ripening of the fruit. Rainfall has even managed to keep the trees growing at this time of year.

“Now the problem is not the trees, nor the climate, but the man,” complains Amancio, a Candelarian who has been “tied to the furrow.” More than a decade ago, when Raul Castro came to power in Cuba, this composed farmer thought that the problems of the state-owned company Acopio were going to be solved.

“Everybody said that the General was going to put an end to Acopio and that we could sell our crops directly, but in reality everything is still very bureaucratic and the prices they put on our products are ridiculous,” says the farmer who specializes in food crops and fruit trees.

Ignoring the established process, Amancio leaves each morning early on his tractor to sell the last avocados of the harvest. The biggest risk is being stopped by the police and having his merchandise seized and the least serious rosk is to run into an inspector and receive a fine.

Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price

“More than three months ago I sold some bananas to Acopio and they still haven’t paid me, so I prefer to go on my own,” he explains to this newspaper. The farmer also complains about the high standards that the State applies to evaluating his fruits. Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price.

“If the inspector sees a spot on a banana or that day does not feel like paying you much, he tells you that the merchandise is second rate or doesn’t have quality, then the months of work go by the wayside and you just have to wait for them to pay you, someday, an amount far below what you spent on production,” reflects Amancio.

The farmer recalls that Nelson Concepción Cruz, general director of Acopio National Union, affirmed in the parliamentary sessions of last July that “the system of collection has been reordered by new equipment and the weighing system has been gradually restored.”

With the passage of the months little has changed and the operation is still a frequent target of farmers’ criticism, claiming lack of precision in the weighing, which goes against them, the obsolescence of the weighing devices and manipulation of the scales. They also point to an excess of subjectivity when it comes to categorizing the quality of fruits, vegetables, grains and root crops.

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered. “I’m going through the nearest villages to sell what I can,” says Ramon, another producer from the region. “What I have is avocados and I sell them for up to 3 CUP, at least I do not lose all the merchandise.”

A few days ago the police gave him a warning about selling on his own. “I went out with the cart full of bananas and a patrol stopped me,” he says. “They took me to Los Palacios and forced me to sell for a few cents,” recalls the farmer. “They told me that the people needed it more, but what they do not realize is that I also have needs,” he says.

Cuba is among the countries with the lowest agricultural yield in Latin America, despite the fact that “the cooperative sector already has 80% of the land and produces more than 90% of the country’s food”, according to the Mundabat report, production “only meets 20% of the needs of the population.”

Santiago, Amancio and Ramón believe they know, from their own experience, the reason for such low numbers.

Candelaria Runs Out Of Medicines

The outskirts of the place were a hive of customers who tried to reach the counter shouting and shoving. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, 13 October 2017 — The main pharmacy in Candelaria, a city in Cuba’s Artemisa province, looks like an overturned hornet’s nest when new medications arrive. Meanwhile, the area’s chronically ill spend their days in uncertainty due to the shortage of a growing number of drugs, a situation echoed in the ‘informal’ market.

“There is no Enalapril left or right,” lamented a retiree who waited for several hours this Wednesday to find out if the pills critical to those with hypertension had arrived. “I’m going to have to continue using herbal concoctions,” she lamented. continue reading

Since 2015, the deficit of drugs has worsened due to the country’s lack of liquidity. The Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industry Group (BioCubaFarma) attributes the problems to the shortages of raw material due to the long-standing non-payment of foreign suppliers.

“We did not have the necessary financing to pay the debts incurred,” Teresita Rodríguez Cabrera, vice president of the group, told the official press in late 2016. The official said that the industry was working to improve supply, but a year later the situation has worsened.

“Six months ago we had 97 drugs missing at this pharmacy,” says an employee of the Candelaria dispensary who prefers anonymity. “In the last three months the figure has reached an alarming number and we are now lacking 157.”

According to this source, analgesics, hypertension pills, diabetes pills, antibiotics and eye drops are among the most affected, “precisely because they are the most in demand.” The employee says that the managers of the branch assured them that the situation would normalize as of September, but the expected return to normal has not materialized.

“As of today, only a few drugs have arrived and in insufficient quantities,” the employee emphasizes.

The medications sold on presentation of a control card, known as a tarjetón,

are among those in shortest supply. The State subsidizes all pharmaceutical products and regulates the quantities that each consumer can buy, even when it comes to medications that don’t require a prescription.

The police had to come to the pharmacy to calm the building commotion. (14ymedio)

In the small villages near Candelaria several pharmacies have closed their doors permanently due to the lack of supply, which overloads the dispensaries that remain in operation.

The administration of the Municipal Main Pharmacy has taken measures to avoid the crowds that form when supplies arrive. These guidelines also seek to curb the hoarding of products, many of which end up on the black market.

This Wednesday, outside the pharmacy a hive of customers tried to reach the counter, screaming and shoving. In a near brawl won by the strongest, people with disabilities, pregnant women and the elderly had to retreat to avoid getting elbowed.

The pharmacy workers responded by closing the place down and calling the police to restore order. Buyers who clustered at the small window to ask questions also received no response and for hours no employee picked up the phone.

The pharmacy administration is determined to sell only one prescription of each drug per person, a decision that bothered those like Milagros, 64, who stood in line from nine o’clock on Tuesday night and had hoped to receive enough medication to last until the next supplies came in.

A few blocks away, the Catholic church also lacks the supplies to meet the demand for medicines. For several years the parishes have supplied the needy with non-prescription products that come from donations from abroad. In the last half year, however, the arrival of these donations has also declined.

“For months we’ve gotten nothing more than vitamins and some other things and those only in small quantities,” Olimpia, the women in charge of drug distribution at the Artemis church, tells 14ymedio. Hurricane Irma has affected many provinces of the country, causing much of the aid to be channeled to those areas.

In these circumstances, many Candelarians settle for trying to relieve their skin itches or lower their blood pressure through the traditional infusions that their grandmothers abandoned years ago.

Doctors With No Right To Laptops

Dental clinic in Candelaria, province of Artemisa. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha Guillen, Candelaria (Artemisa province), 23 July 2017 — “Where is my laptop?” a dentist at the Candelaria polyclinic in Artemisa province asked Friday while attending a patient. The sale of laptops to doctors – at subsidized prices – does not include graduates in dentistry, by a decision of the Ministry of Public Health that is being strongly questioned.

As of the end of last year they have began to sell the laptops for 668 Cuban pesos (CUP), around 25 dollars, for doctors who obtained a diploma before the end of 2015. The list of beneficiaries includes those who have completed a medical mission abroad and requires that they pay the full amount all at once, not in installments.

The public health system employs a total of 262,764 workers in the island, of which 87,982 work as doctors, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook of 2015. The doctors receive the highest wages in the country, a total of between the equivalent of $50 to $70 US per month. continue reading

However, the sector is seriously affected by the desertions of professionals during their missions abroad and the exodus towards other better-paid economic spheres such as self-employment or tourism, of doctors who remain on the island. In addition, physicians must deal with long work hours, material deficiencies and the dissatisfactions of patients.

Since the beginning of this year the doctors have been able to buy laptops in the store for public health workers in the provincial capital. The offer has brought long lines outside the premises and complaints about the capabilities of the equipment.

Since the beginning of these sales, an indeterminate number of laptops has ended up in the informal market, where they are sold for a price ranging between 200 and 300 CUC, between eight and 12 times the original cost.

Recently the official newspaper Granma revealed that each year Cuba collects more than 8.2 billion CUC (roughly the same in dollars) for “the export of health services.”

This month, several meetings in the province of Artemisa notified staff working in polyclinics, hospitals and other health centers that only doctors are entitled to acquire these computers. X-ray technicians, lab workers, and even dental graduates “are not included in this offering,” ministerial authorities said.

The information has generated a barrage of criticism and discontent among dentists and other professionals in the sector. None of them, except graduates in medical sciences, will have access to the merchandise sold in stores authorized for public health personnel. Among these products are also the white coats that are currently distributed on a staggered schedule in Artemisa province.

“This has gone beyond a lack of respect,” said the dentist from Candelaria. “Now it turns out that we are not the same as doctors, but when it comes time to participate in acts of repudiation against the words of Donald Trump, we are.”

Raiza Machín, a dentist from the province, does not speak half-heartedly. “I feel offended, even the self-employed who work in coffee shops wear white coats, how is it possible that as a public health worker we cannot buy them in a store dedicated to us?” asks the professional.

According to the head of the Public Health Workers Union in Candelaria, the information came from the Ministry itself and applies to the whole country. In response to the workers’ discontent, the union representative demanded a meeting with “the highest authority” but has not yet received a response. “For the moment we are not doctors and therefore we can not use the same facilities as they can,” says Machin sarcastically.

“At first they told us that they had to wait until they finished distributing the laptops among the doctors in the hospitals, then it would be the clinics’ turn, and then finally our turn,” says Araceli, a dentist with several years of experience.

“They have strung us along and now that say that we are not doctors, that’s why we don’t get the computers,” complains the dentist. The refusal to allow dentists to buy them became known shortly after the official media assured that the dentists were “guaranteed” laptops.

“Since our title says ‘Doctor of Dentistry’ I have to consider that I am one,” Machín stresses.