Cuba’s Slow Collapse, a Country that is Running out of Food

What’s not in the Frutas Selectas stand in Holguín is any food for sale. (Fernando Donate)

14ymedio biggerAmong the shelves of the Frutas Selectas Food Stand in Holguín there are photographs of the revolutionaries Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara, as well as a large poster with the slogan of this State company: “Selected Fruits: the most select from the tropics.”

What is missing is fruit for sale.

Frutas Selectas is a food market that before the COVID-19 pandemic was a provider to hotels, restaurants and other tourist businesses. Now, in the absence of foreign visitors, its clients are the almost 300,000 inhabitants of this city in the eastern part of the Island.

Although the market was completely out of supplies, a line had started to form outside. Some waited sitting on a wall or leaning against the counter with their empty crates and their arms crossed.

“We are the only country in the world where we line up in underserved markets waiting for whatever arrives”

They hoped that at some point the store would put something up for sale, anything.

“We have been in line for two days to see if something arrives,” says Hilda Lobaina, a 72-year-old housewife whose mask does not hide the frustration in her gaze.

“We are the only country in the world where we line up in underserved markets waiting for whatever arrives” adds a retiree from the commerce sector who only wanted to identify himself as Antonio for fear of retaliation.

Since April 1st in Holguín’s number one State agricultural market, there is also a sign that reads that since April 1st all fruits, vegetables or viands “will be regulated by the [ration] book.” In other words, only a maximum amount of food per person is sold each month. continue reading

Poster at the number one State agricultural market in Holguín, where as of April 1st only a maximum amount of food will be sold each month per person. (Fernando Donate)

Until the arrival of the pandemic, fresh produce had not been subject to such strict regulations. In the case of plantains, the only product for sale that day, the limit was five pounds. Hundreds of people lined up to get them.

Raciel Céspedes, a 75-year-old man, explains that despite having arrived first thing in the morning and spending two hours in line, he still hasn’t gotten the “fongos,” as this type of dwarf plantain is known here.

“In my house there is no food and if I don’t buy something for lunch I won’t eat today,” says Céspedes.

In recent months, the scenes of undersupplied markets and long lines or of those with a single product for sale have been repeated throughout the country.

Cubans, who have suffered from food shortages for years, have seen the situation worsen as the state-controlled economy plunged into a deeper crisis since the arrival of COVID-19.

With its main sources of income declining and without access to international financial markets, the Cuban State has more difficulties than usual obtaining foreign exchange

After years of slow decline in the wake of the crisis in Venezuela and the tightening of US sanctions, the pace of economic collapse now appears to have accelerated. The main symptom of the problem is a severe food shortage.

Today’s Cuba does not produce enough food to supply its population and needs to get it overseas in dollars or euros.

With its main sources of income declining and without access to international financial markets, the Cuban State has more difficulties than usual obtaining foreign exchange.

Although precise and up-to-date economic statistics are not disseminated in the country, the information available abroad highlights the precariousness of the situation.

According to official data from the International Settlement Bank (BIS), at the end of June 2020, Cuban companies had the equivalent of 867 million US dollars on deposit in bank accounts abroad.

For Cuba, this is the worst figure since the end of 2005, according to the BIS records.

In the last 15 years, Cuba had an average of 2,200 million US dollars in foreign currency at the end of each quarter, according to the statistics of the aforementioned institution. Now it’s averaging less than half.

This is translating into a drastic reduction in imports, which fell by 34% in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Each month until August, Cuba was importing about 210 million US dollars less than the previous year.

Each month until August, Cuba was importing about 210 million US dollars less than the previous year.

Among the countries that Cuba has stopped buying from are its main food suppliers, such as Brazil, the United States and Spain, according to official data from those countries.

Sales from Brazil to Cuba decreased 23% compared to last year; from Spain, 36%, and from the United States, 45%.

This translates into less chicken, oil, rice, corn or beans, and the fear is that a situation like the one experienced in the 1990’s, during the so-called Special Period, will repeat itself.

In a country that prided itself on having eradicated hunger, the government has had to resort to donations from the World Food Program (WFP) to ensure the availability of beans, rice and oil in five eastern provinces

Today, virtually all daily consumer products are subject to some form of rationing. In a country that prided itself on having eradicated hunger, the government has had to resort to donations from the World Food Program (WFP) to ensure availability of beans, rice and oil in five eastern provinces, as the organization explained in a recent report.

“Without a doubt, this is the most critical situation that has affected Cuba since the Special Period,” asserts for this report Economist and former professor at Baltimore’s John Hopkins University, Ernesto Hernández-Catá.

Other prominent Cuban economists have agreed on this diagnosis. “Cuba is suffering the worst economic crisis since the one that occurred in the 1990’s, after the collapse of the USSR,” Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an academic at the University of Pittsburgh, recently wrote.

In most countries, the prevailing perception is that the current economic crisis has a culprit: the pandemic. In Cuba, many economists present a more complex analysis.

“Cuba has arrived at a crisis in crisis” Havana University professor Omar Everleny Pérez has maintained in several interviews. In his opinion, Cuba was already going through a period of shortages in 2019 due to the country’s economic difficulties in exporting products or services, generating foreign exchange and importing food from the proceeds.

Other experts agree that, although the current crisis has conjunctural causes, the most important ones are the structural ones, related to the Cuban economic model.

The Economist even declared, in a discussion organized by the magazines El Toque and Periodismo de Barrio, that “the existing shortages in the stores where the population obtains its foods has nothing to do with the pandemic”.

Other experts agree that, although the current crisis has conjunctural causes, the most important ones are the structural ones, related to the Cuban economic model.

“Cuba suffers from a chronic currency crisis due to the insufficiency and decline of exports of goods over many years (…). Although the crisis has conjunctural elements stemming from the pandemic, the serious problems are structural”, explains economist Luis R. Luis, one of the directors of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) for this report.

“The current crisis has two elements. One reflects the effects of the pandemic. The other is the character of the Cuban economy, which is rigid, distorted and inefficient. This will not be resolved with the end of the pandemic and will require fundamental reforms of the economy”, details Professor Hernández-Catá.

Among many experts there is the feeling that Cuba has reached the end of a road and what is coming is a transition period in which the country will have to find a new model.

If the population’s standard of living did not fall further, it was mainly due to the sale of medical services, tourism, remittances from Cubans living abroad and trade with Venezuela.

In the last two decades, Cuba practically ceased to be a sugar producing country, but it failed to develop another industry of similar magnitude that would allow it to generate foreign exchange.

If the population’s standard of living did not fall further, it was mainly due to the sale of medical services, tourism, remittances from Cubans living abroad and trade with Venezuela. The latter has been, by far, the main economic activity in the country in recent years.

Cuba now faces the uncertainty of whether visitors will return en masse and whether emigres will continue to send as many remittances. But it also faces the certainty that its most lucrative activity, its relationship with Venezuela, will no longer be as beneficial as before.

This has motivated some experts to consider that the country cannot continue to think about depending on a single activity or partner.

“For the past 60 years, Cuba has been unable to finance its imports (…) without the substantial aid or subsidies from a foreign nation. That is the long-term legacy of the Cuban socialist economy,” wrote Professor Mesa-Lago in an article published last year.

“History has shown that dependence on Soviet subsidies first, and later on, swaps (exchanges) of Venezuelan oil for doctors were a serious mistake. These political agreements are unhealthy because they do not depend on the comparative advantages of their participants, but rather on the largesse of basically fragile countries like the USSR and Venezuela”, concludes Professor Hernández-Catá.

When Venezuela’s economy began to collapse around 2015, the impact on Cuba was not immediately felt. An initial slow decline of the country’s economy began then, and ended up worsening with the arrival of the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the century, Cuba has sent tens of thousands of workers, mainly health workers, to Venezuela. In exchange, in addition to cash, Cuba received oil that was refined and re-exported to Venezuela itself and elsewhere.

When Venezuela’s economy began to collapse around 2015, the impact on Cuba was not immediately felt. An initial slow decline of the country’s economy began then, and ended up worsening with the arrival of the pandemic.

All this trade came to represent 20% of Cuba’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Although the country has only published information on the benefits of its relationship with Venezuela on specific occasions, the calculations made by some economists highlight that trade with the “sister” Bolivarian Republic was the Cuban State’s biggest business.

Trade with Venezuela also allowed the State to keep pace with imports of basic products that the population needed and that are now in short supply.

According to the calculations of academic Luis R. Luis, the relationship between the two countries reached its peak around 2014. At that time, the export of doctors and other professional services reached about 7.5 billion US dollars. Venezuela paid slightly less than half, 3.4 billion, in barrels of crude oil and another 4.1 billion in cash.

But as Venezuela entered the worst crisis in its history and, as sanctions by the United States and other countries tightened against it, this trade was reduced.

Cuba, which has an abundance of health professionals, only partially reduced the size of its missions, but Venezuela found it increasingly difficult to pay for them in crude oil or dollars.

Luis estimates that the oil payment went from $ 3.4 billion in 2014 to just under $ 900 million last year, a drop of 74%.

These data are consistent with official figures released by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), which show how the value of trade in goods with Venezuela, which consisted mainly of crude and refined oil, plummeted between 2013 and 2019. The value of exports to the South American country fell almost 90%, while that of imports fell 63%.

The value of trade in goods with Venezuela, which consisted mainly of crude and refined oil, plummeted between 2013 and 2019.

With less oil to refine and sell in dollars, the country began to suffer from shortages.

“The economy has been hit by declining imports of Venezuelan oil,” noted a November 2016 report from the Embassy of the Netherlands in Havana. “As a result, foreign exchange earnings from oil re-exports fell and led to a cash shortage that is threatening Cuba’s ability to meet its payments with foreign suppliers.”

According to the ONEI, the Cuban State’s debts with foreign suppliers doubled between 2013 and 2017.

But the problem went further. As we received less and less payment in kind, the amount that had to be disbursed in cash grew. What happens to this money is an enigma, given that Cuba hardly publishes information about its economic relationship with Venezuela.

In 2019, the ONEI reported that Cuba had exported medical services valued at almost 5.4 billion dollars. It was the second time that the authorities published this data

Until now, it is not known if the cash is being paid, or in what currency the payment would be made (in US dollars or Venezuelan Bolivars, for example) or how much the debt currently amounts to.

In 2019, the ONEI reported that Cuba had exported medical services valued at almost 5.4 billion dollars. It was the second time that the authorities published this data.

But it is not clear if that sum, which in large part comes from Venezuela and represents the largest income for the country, really reached bank accounts of the Cuban State or if the money only exists, “in theory”, for the purposes of State accounting. There are reasons to doubt.

The country governed by Nicolás Maduro has suffered in the last five years the greatest economic collapse that has been registered in a country at peace in decades, and its capacity exporting oil and getting dollars in return has been declining for years.

This means that Venezuela is finding it increasingly difficult to pay off its debts to Cuba. Several Cuban economists take it for granted that the country has not received what it’s owed from Venezuela for years.

In a 2018 analysis for the Cuba Study Group, economist Pavel Vidal stated that the ONEI had not adequately accounted for the country’s economic activity, since it had reflected money as income that in reality there was no way to collect from Venezuela in the short term.

“They are assuming that Venezuela’s inability to pay for medical services is due to a temporary liquidity problem. In reality, it is a structural problem.”

“They are assuming that Venezuela’s inability to pay for medical services is due to a temporary liquidity problem. In reality, it is a structural problem,” wrote Vidal.

ASCE academic Luis R. Luis also stated in a recent article that Venezuela lacks the ability to pay Cuba in hard currency and that it could only do so with crude oil or in the national currency, the bolivar.

This constitutes a serious problem for Cuba, since Venezuela produces less and less oil, and its tankers – and specifically those traveling to Cuba – have been subject to United States sanctions since the middle of last year.

In addition, the bolivar has suffered constant devaluations that have practically turned it into a symbolic currency. Since Venezuela does not produce most of the food that Cuba needs to buy, its currency is also not good for purchasing it.

In an interview for this report, Luis assures that there are several facts that explain the current shortage situation in the country, such as the disappearance of tourism due to the pandemic, or the tightening of US sanctions, but not one has as much weight as Venezuela’s inability to pay.

“There has been a massive drop in these payments from a level of $ 6.6 billion in 2016 to less than $ 1 billion in 2019. Other crisis factors are much less important.”

“There has been a massive drop in these payments from a level of 6.6 billion dollars in 2016 to less than 1 billion dollars in 2019. Other crisis factors are much less important,” said the Economist.

So far, Cuban leaders have not publicly shown signs of the deterioration of the economic relationship with the Maduro government. But since Venezuela began to collapse, they have taken steps to seek alternatives to dependency, such as encouraging foreign investment.

At the end of 2015, they reached an agreement with the Paris Club, which groups together a series of countries, mostly European, to which Cuba owed billions of dollars. According to the deal that was reached, Cuba would open itself to investment from these countries in exchange for partial debt forgiveness.

“The deterioration Venezuela has experienced has led Cuban authorities to a repositioning process with a view to reducing the traumas associated with the possible collapse of relations with the South American country”, was the interpretation of the Paris Club when announcing the agreement.

But Cuba failed to attract significant foreign investment outside of tourism; dependence on Venezuela continued, the situation in the South American country worsened, and the United States sanctions against both governments tightened, making crude shipments even more difficult.

In the last year and a half, Cuban leaders began to prepare the population for difficult times, even mentioning the possibility of a new Special Period, which has a profound impact for Cubans, who remember that time as traumatic.

“The harshness of the moment requires us to establish clear and well-defined priorities, so as not to return to the difficult moments of the Special Period,” said President Miguel Díaz-Canel in an April 2019 speech.

A few days earlier, the first secretary of the Communist Party, Raúl Castro, made similar statements, alerting Cubans that, although the country now had a more diversified economy than when the Soviet bloc fell, they should prepare “always for the worst variant”.

As 2019 progressed, the “worst variant” took place. The statistics compiled by the BIS on deposits and loans in international banks indicate that the country has been running out of dollars and euros.

In March 2019, Cuban state-owned companies had the equivalent of 2.3 billion dollars in foreign currency abroad. By December, the figure dropped to 1.3 billion and continued to fall in 2020

In March 2019, Cuban state-owned companies had the equivalent of 2.3 billion dollars in foreign currency abroad. By December the figure dropped to 1.3 billion and continued to fall in 2020. By the end of June, already in the midst of the pandemic, 867 million were available, the worst since 2005.

Although Cuba has close ties with countries such as Russia or China, it hardly imports food from them. To buy food (except rice, which is bought from Vietnam, mainly), the country needs dollars or euros with which to pay Brazilian, American or Argentine suppliers.

The country was running out of foreign exchange and, consequently, without food.

Long lines, irregular distribution and months-long disappearance of some products have been a cyclical problem in Cuba for decades.

However, in recent years, at the same time that the Venezuelan economy has collapsed, there has been a slow decline in the stocks of everyday consumer products.

Out of a selection of 64 commonly used products, 39 experienced a drop in their availability in stores between 2015 and 2018, according to data from the ONEI. The amount of cooking oil for sale in retail stores decreased by 36%; soap and toothpaste, 30%; fresh milk, pasta and pork, 25% and powdered milk and chicken, 20%.

The amount of cooking oil for sale in retail stores decreased by 36%; soap and toothpaste, 30%; fresh milk, pasta and pork, 25%; powdered milk and chicken, 20%.

Although the ONEI has not yet released data for 2019, many Cubans agree that the availability of products continued to fall and that the shortage worsened even more during the pandemic.

Official data available abroad show that the country is importing considerably less food than a year ago.

Purchases of frozen chicken from the United States last August were 25% of the same month’s imports in 2019. Purchases of Brazilian soybeans between January and September of this year (used to make cooking oil) were half of those during the same period last year.

Another phenomenon must be added to this: last year’s decline of the national agricultural production. According to an analysis by economist Pedro Monreal, between 2018 and 2019 (last years with available information), 12 products groups for everyday consumption experienced a decline. The amount of beef produced declined by 23%, and rice by 18%.

In a recent official report, the authorities recognized that in 2020 some 30,000 tons of rice will not be harvested due to lack of fuel

Although data are not available for this year, it is possible that this downward trend has continued, since the shortage of foreign exchange has also negatively affected imports of fertilizers and fuels necessary to maintain production.

In a recent official report, authorities recognized that some 30,000 tons of rice will not be harvested due to lack of fuel in 2020. This is the equivalent of about 10% of the national production.

The shortage is significant in all the cities of the country and has resulted in long queues from the early morning hours in State stores and the rise of a digital black market in which products fetch irrational prices.

“The main problem we have is food. It cannot be that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic people have to go out and spend all day trying to buy chicken. It is something elementary,” said Economist Omar Everleny Pérez in the aforementioned meeting with independent magazines.

There are long lines In Holguín every day in front of stores or markets, especially if there has been a rumor that some establishment will put a high demand product for sale which has been absent for weeks.

In Holguín, there are long lines every day in front of stores or markets, especially if there has been a rumor that some establishment will put on sale a product in high demand or absent for weeks. (Fernando Donate)

During an August morning, María Eugenia Durán, a 67-year-old woman, had been waiting for two hours to buy cassava in a market in the city. It was the only product for sale in the establishment.

Visibly tired and with her bag empty, Durán complained that “everything is scarce and to buy very little you have to stand in endless lines. Sometimes you can’t buy anything because the products run out, there are shortages of all basic products and food since last year”.

Economist Luis assures that as long as foreign exchange is scarce, the country will continue in a food crisis. “Recent data suggest that the worst case, a nutrition catastrophe, will be avoided at a high cost by cutting imports such as medicines, fuels and other raw materials”, he states.

For Cuba, insisting on the exportation of its health services during the pandemic has resulted in a tremendous blow to its international image as a medical power.


Editor’s note: This work was supported and edited by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), an independent non-profit organization that works with media and civil society to promote positive change in areas of conflict, closed societies and countries in transition throughout the world.


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.

Lining Up and Muzzled

The only difference between the pre-Corona virus lines is the presence of facemasks, as in this establishment in Holguín.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Cynthia de la Cantera /Laura Rodríguez Fuentes/ Fernando Donate, La Habana /Santa Clara /Holguín, 17 April 2020 — One morning in early April, Carmen Rojas recalls how she made the most of laundry soap during Cuba’s so-called Special Period. “The soap chips are stored in nylon, so that the original fragrance is not lost. You can boil them or rub them with a grater over your clothes,” says this 57-year-old retiree, who lives in Santa Clara. “Then rinse with three or four buckets of water, so that your clothes are not mottled.”

“There was no detergent then,” recalls Rojas, who subsists thanks to the remittances sent by her brother from Spain. “Now we are in the same situation. Nothing catches me by surprise anymore. What worries us most is food. One can live without bathing.”

In a way, the Government’s reasoning has been similar. Faced with the tightening of the embargo and the fall in tourism, caused by the restrictive policies of the Donald Trump Administration and the collapse of Venezuela, the authorities responded by prioritizing the essentials. continue reading

In September 2019, the Minister of Internal Trade, Betsy Díaz Velasquez, ratified it: “the priority is food,” she told the state-run newspaper Granma. In a country where the population lives with chronic shortages, providing food seemed sufficient, but with the arrival on the Island of Covid-19 the essential changed. Now bathing is necessary to survive.

The virus is exposing the weaknesses of the countries it passes through, and Cuba is no exception. Although Cuba claims that its public health system is better than that of many countries in the region, and the government lacks the counterweights of a democracy (factors that helped China overcome the pandemic), hygiene and isolation recommendations are more difficult to apply than in other nations.

One of the Government’s first measures was to include a hygiene package in the ration book with three bath soaps — one for washing clothes — a tube of toothpaste and a liter of chlorine for every two people. But many doubt if this quantity is really sufficient or if it will be possible to distribute these products in all municipalities and during all the months that the pandemic lasts.

Minister Diaz Velasquez said on April 9 that washing and toilet soaps had only been distributed in 84 of the 168 municipalities in the country and that the average availability of chlorine nationally was 1.5 liters per person. Furthermore, he added that liquid detergent and toothpaste “may need to be purchased over a period of three months, depending on their availability.”

Toiletries were removed from the ration book in late 2010 and have been sold in the unrationed market since then, but in recent years they have been scarce in stores selling in national currency and often have been available only in convertible currency stores, controlled by the Army business group, whose prices are often unattainable for those who live on state wages.

Nor is it easy to comply with the measures of isolation and social distance, because getting enough food is not possible, especially for products that are distributed irregularly.

“What happens is that they give them to you a little bit at a time and you have to be aware of where they are going to put them up for sale,” says Gipsi Peña, a young woman from Santa Clara who has already spent time in three lines in April. In addition, due to the limitation of units for sale, it is common for consumers to come as a family group so they can purchase more, which increases the size of the crowds.

At a recent meeting of the Provincial Defense Council of Havana, its leaders, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar and Reinaldo García Zapata, asked for order in the lines and that the products not be concentrated in just a few points of sale. In addition, they warned that store managers who do not comply “will be judged according to legal norms in epidemic situations… You have to respect the population,” added García Zapata.

In San José de las Lajas, in the Mayabeque province, a citizen was sentenced to nine months in prison for resisting arrest after having “uttered words that violate public order,” while standing in line, according to the local press.

People with greater economic capacity have more room to maneuver, such as Mariana Álamo, a 30-year-old resident of Havana who rented rooms to tourists and bought provisions at the start of the epidemic, which now allows her to go out only to make quick purchases.

“About ten days ago they were selling chicken down the corner from the house, in the Cupet. The line was super organized, they were doing numbers, like shifts,” she says. “People were keeping their distance. They were giving out one package per person, I bought a package, whatever they had. Afterwards, we continued to buy in lines that we see are working well, not in crowds.”

But the majority of Cubans continue living day to day. For this reason, despite the fact that there are already hundreds infected on the Island, the streets look similar to usual. The only difference is in the homemade masks that have been crafted in private sewing workshops and are sold at affordable prices, between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos (50-75¢ US).

In the Puentes Grandes shopping center in Havana, on the last day of January at noon, the line was small, between 50 to 70 people, which means an average of one hour to shop. That day, there only toilet paper and hair products were available in the grooming section.

The line was organized by a worker who, every 20 minutes, distributed tickets and allowed small groups of 10 or 15 people to enter, and they had to wash their hands with the chlorinated water available at the entrance.

In addition, a patrol of four police officers supervised the area. “The man with the black pants and the yellow pullover, put on your facemask. Yes, you, don’t look behind you, it’s you,” said the agent with a loudspeaker in her hand.

At Cupet La Forestal, a few days later, the line was shorter. Five people who waited less than 30 minutes to enter and without police control. In this small store there were cleaning cloths, hair products and bath soap, at a price of between 0.35 and 0.50 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, worth roughly a dollar each) but limited to two per person. Inspectors, according to the clerk, had passed by to verify the amount of Rubis brand soap, made in Turkey, for sale.

In the Viazul Market, in Nuevo Vedado, on April 10 there was no soap, detergent, nor toothpaste. In the grooming section there were only colognes, perfumes, and hair products.

Although there were not many people in line at this market, supplied with chicken, few were strictly following the distancing measures and there were no police or any other authority to establish order.

Meanwhile, in Santa Clara the streets begin to fill up first thing in the morning. “You have to be here before nine, to take your turn in line and to see if they got something new,” says Elizabeth Llerena, who has come from the José Martí district, on the outskirts, because “there really was nothing to buy.”

At half past nine, the crowd exceeds fifty people who crowd and gossip about the food insecurity in their homes. Inside one of the stores, which does not exceed 40 square meters, there are up to three simultaneous crowds of people: for toothpaste and soaps, for cooking oil, and for chicken thighs, which have been missing for months.

“In my house there are five of us, I live with two old men and my young son,” says Hilda González, a self-employed worker who lost her job after the ice cream parlor where she worked closed. “So, I am the one who has to go shopping and I have to do it at least three times a week. In one day I get into four different lines for different things, be it for food, soap or detergent.”

Most of the state sales points are out of stock and, where there is availability, the limitation is two units per person. With the coming of the pandemic, the number two has become a constant for Cubans.

“It’s two per person,” says the clerk of a store in which the most demanded product are the bags of Piñata instant soft drink. Before starting the day, the worker had already gotten a bag for herself and another for a friend who has two children at home with “their mouths open… that are not filled with anything,” she said.

No one complains. The only concern is the two packages of Piñata and the heat, and the dampness of one’s face under a piece of cloth. “That’s why no one protests, this is like a muzzle,” says a man in line.

After half an hour waiting in line, Angélica is about to enter the currency exchange La Luz de Yara, located in the center of the city of Holguín.

“I need to buy ground turkey and toiletries,” she says. Over age 60, this retiree is among the population at risk for the coronavirus. In Holguín, of the 57 infected so far, 77% are older than that.

Angelica lives alone with her husband, who is convalescing from an illness that prevents him from waiting in lines. Although she would have liked to stay home, she knows she has to take care of shopping. “I have no one to help me buy what I need to live on,” she says.

In reality, she is fortunate to be able to buy at a hard currency store thanks to the money she receives from her children in the United States, but since the arrival of the pandemic, the store has regulated the sales per person to five soaps,and the same number for tubes of ground turkey, the only meat available.

The measure has created discomfort among customers who protest that the small amount of products offered does not compensate for so much time waiting in line, a situation that is repeated in other stores in the city, such as Modas Praga, where the line extends more than one block.


Cynthia de la Cantera is a journalist based in Havana who collaborates with Yuca Byte and Tremenda Nota.

Laura Rodríguez Fuente is a journalist based in Santa Clara who collaborates with Tremenda Nota and Cubanet.

Fernando Donate is a journalist based in Holguín who collaborates with Cubanet.


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.

Holguin’s Garayalde Market Reopens with “Free” Prices but Regulated Sales / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

The Garayalde market in the city of Holguin, at its reopening on Tuesday 19 January. (Fernando Donate)
The Garayalde market in the city of Holguin, at its reopening on Tuesday 19 January. (Fernando Donate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, Cuba, 20 January 2016 — The rain did not stop hundreds of people from gathering on Tuesday morning outside the emblematic Garayalde market in the city of Holguin, waiting for its reopening after eight months of repairs. In its second opening in less than a decade, the commercial center aims to offer a wide range of products.

The line to enter Garayalde started forming the day before and to organize it people were given numbers and allowed to enter in groups. The first to enter when the market opened had slept outside from the early hours of the morning to guarantee their place.

Most customers were carrying backpacks and big bags to fill with some of the 180 products that had been announced for sale at the market, promoted by Ana Maria Aguilera, market administrator, on the local TV channel Tele Cristal the day before. continue reading

However, neither the quantity nor the quality of the available products lived up to expectations. Several consumers interviewed by 14ymedio agreed that they hadn’t found a great deal that was new. “They are the same products they had before they closed,” said one lady a little disgusted by the long wait. She also talked about the prices, which she considered excessively high.

The first day after the repairs had barely begun when most customers headed to the meat counters. Unlike other products, pork at 17 Cuban pesos a pound (about 56¢ U.S.) was an attractive price for people who, over the last quarter, had seen the price climb above 30 CUP a pound.

Nor were there controls lacking to prevent disruptions. Outside the market it was evident very early in the police operation and the presence of troops to making discipline at the reopening.

The local administrator told the press, “We appealed to the police to organize the link and to help avoid customers hogging products for resale. We are all going to work together to ensure that this scourge of society doesn’t happen here.”

She also clarified that sales would be unrationed, but regulated, and specified the amounts that would be sold per person: two cartons of eggs, five pounds of meat and ten pounds of rice, “with the objective that everyone would get some.”

In the line there were women with children. One of them confessed that she had brought her five-year-old daughter to get “priority in buying” and to not have to wait “in such a long line.”

The managers of the shopping center, which employs 70 workers, expected to exceed 100 million Cuban pesos in sales, which depends on producers and suppliers being able to deliver the amounts committed. Most of these are local industries, cooperatives and State farms.

It is not the first time this market center, created in the early eighties of the last century, has undergone renovation. Its previous reopening was in 2009, after repairs and conversion into a market for the sale of unrationed domestic products. This time there was a general reconstruction with a reorganization of the departments to make the market work better, according to an official from the provincial Accommodation and Food Services company, which owns the market.

Expectations, however, exceeded the internal distribution of supplies. Four hours after opening this Tuesday, the market had run out of meat and canned sauces and tomatoes.

A clerk said it had been a lot of demand and that he had sold everything available to him for the day.

The only meat remaining for sale, which no one wanted, was ground hamburger and ground chorizo, at 20 and 28 Cuban pesos per kilogram respectively. Also sold out was any kind of seafood. In the candy store, of ten products only three were still on display.

Private Restaurants Rescue Cuban Cuisine / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Denia Sao Blanco, cooking teacher at Casa del Chef, in Holguin. (Donate / 14ymedio)
Denia Sao Blanco, cooking teacher at Casa del Chef, in Holguin. (Donate / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Havana, 10 December 2015 – Denia Sao Blanco has spent over 20 years teaching top level native cuisine at the Casa del Chef in Holguin, an institution created to maintain and rescue the culinary culture of the region, where several generations of cooks have trained.

As part of her work, she has visited all the restaurants in town and has offered advice on the preparation of the dishes. Now, she is surrounded by young people completing a cooking course she taught this week. The final exam is to prepare a typical Holguin dish.

In this conversation with 14ymedio Denia speaks of tradition, culture and mistakes in the culinary arts in the region.

Donate Fernando Ochoa. How is culinary research conducted at La Casa del Chef?

Denia Sao Blanco. It is the work of several cooking teachers along with the students. New generations of cooks do not know the history and Holguin recipes that are always the basis for the rescue of these dishes. continue reading

It took us a few years trying to rescue these dishes at different events, like “Young Chef of the year” and “The Flower of Cuban Cuisine,” which has run since 1992 and is only for women professionals and amateurs, regardless of age.

DFO. What traditional dishes are prepared in Holguin now?

Denia Sao Blanco. There are many, among them is the “465,” created by Ramon Carbonell, which includes chicken, ham, pork steak grilled and served with vegetables. We offer it here for 30 pesos national currency.

Another is chicken “a la Periquera” created by José Rafael Pernas Iglesias, and “Paneque” sausage created by the late Rodolfo Gonzalez Paneque, founder of our social house.

DFO. Do Holguin restaurants keep typical native dishes on the menu?

Denia Sao Blanco. Unfortunately not. Very little is being done with these dishes. On the Holguin restaurant menus international cuisine predominates at the expense of traditional dishes. For example, the customer can’t find guava in syrup with cheese, jam with cheese, rice pudding, which are some of the basic dishes of our cuisine. This shows that there is a lack of knowledge about how to make these dishes; we are losing our identity.

In most restaurants, the customer finds the same menu, there is no variety, no dishes that identify a restaurant. Cooks appeal to the easiest, such as fried chicken, roast chicken and steak.

DFO. In your exchanges with students I heard about rice with chicken…

Denia Sao Blanco. I talk to my students about rice with chicken because it is not common to see it on restaurant menus. However, when it is on the menu it is not prepared like it should be, because they do it with a by-product mixed with rice; meanwhile in other restaurants they mix shredded chicken into the rice which is a mistake. The traditional plate is chicken cut into eighths with the chicken on the base of the plate, covered in rice and a crown of hard cooked egg with strips of bell pepper. This is the real chicken with rice and it is not seen in most restaurants.

DFO. What are the consequences of turning to easy cooking?

Denia Sao Blanco. Tradition is lost because each dish is, as we say, “its name and surname”; each course was designed, studied, approved and patented in order to maintain its identity and characteristics.

Holguin has little culinary culture left and this ignorance prevents people from demanding originality in the food they put on the table.

DFO. What do think about State restaurants?

Denia Sao Blanco. They have lost their originality and identity in the dishes offered, because the administrators who run the State restaurants do not know cuisine and because they don’t know it they can’t demand it: for them all the dishes are well prepared.

DFO. Is it the same with the private restaurants?

Denia Sao Blanco. These are different, because they deliver the originality of the dishes quite well. The owners and chefs come to ask us for evaluations and suggestions, which the managers of State restaurants do not do.

Another positive aspect is that private restaurants have created new dishes that distinguish them, and this does not happen with the State restaurant. So I think that, with the opportunity to privatize the restaurants, Cuban cuisine has gained in quality, originality and variety.

DFO. What else restricts the freedom of creation in the places managed by the State?

Denia Sao Blanco. There is no freedom of creation because the cooks are required to abide by a technical chart and the products available are very limited and of poor quality, while the private restaurants are always looking for the best merchandise, the freshest produce and they maintain an original menu.

Another aspect that affects State restaurants is that the supply of spices and condiments is sometimes insufficient, forcing chefs to buy these products paying out of their own pockets.

Disgust In Holguin With Broken Induction Cookers / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Reception desk at the repair shop on Aguilera Street in Holguin (Donate Fernando Ochoa / 14ymedio)
Reception desk at the repair shop on Aguilera Street in Holguin (Donate Fernando Ochoa / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 4 December 2015 – Nearly and month and a half after the start of sales of induction cookers in Holguin, the poor quality of the product, which costs 500 Cuban pesos, has disgusted many buyers. The model sold includes a cooker, a pot, a jug, a pan with lid and a coffeemaker.

“The model we are selling is not good because the customers come to the repair shop daily with broken cookers; some of them haven’t worked since the day they were bought,” explained Mireya Almaguer Martinez to 14ymedio. Almaguer is a receptionist at the repair shop located on Aguilera Street at the corner of Martires, which is the one designated for post-sales service in the city of Holguin. continue reading

“When the cooker is beyond repair, the mechanic writes it up,” says Almaguer, and with this document, signed by the repair shop director, the customer returns the defective unit to the store where they got it and gets their money back.

The most common failure is a delay in heating up, which the technical repair shop blames on imperfections in the transistors and resistors. The coffeemakers commonly present structural problems, such deformed bases that prevent stability on the cooker.

The products are covered by a 90 day warranty but the repair shop has no way to replace defective parts.

However, Xiomara Ordoñez Rodriguez, National Director of Technical Services of the Ministry of Domestic Trade, told the official newspaper Granma that the repair shops had the necessary availability of spare parts in their warehouses to repair the broken cookers.

One of those affected is Ramon, a customer visiting for the second time with his broken cooker. “The first time I came was the day I bought it. When I got home, I connected it and it began to emit a continuous sound, and now I’m bringing it in because it does not heat up,” he lamented.

In the province, the sale of induction cookers started on 19 October. The number allocated to the territory was 27,800, an insufficient number for a province of more than one million people, causing long lines to the point that places in line were being sold for 50 Cuban pesos.

Omer González Velázquez, Commercial Director of the Commercial Business Group, announced that the sale of 27,000 more cookers in the province is scheduled for next year.

Officials Arrested For Stealing Chemical Used To Fight Dengue Fever / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

A fumigation truck in the city of Holguin. (14ymedio / Fernando Donate)
A fumigation truck in the city of Holguin. (14ymedio / Fernando Donate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 14 October 2015 — Several directors and heads of health districts in Holguin have been arrested for their links with the illegal sale of permethrin, a chemical used to fumigate against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is responsible for the dengue fever epidemic that affects this eastern province. A government source told 14ymedio that the officials must answer for the crime of “spreading the epidemic,” because the “diversion of resources” complicates the fight against the vector.

Permethrin has reached the price of 1,500 pesos per liter in the informal market, where it is sold to fumigate certain crops. Lacking permethrin, the authorities resort to petroleum in a gaseous state, which is less effective, to fumigate the mosquito foci. continue reading

After a year of an epidemic scourge of both dengue fever and cholera, Holguin continues to experience a complex healthcare situation, despite having spent 26 million pesos on local sanitation. Despite the fumigation campaigns and other hygiene measures, the number of patients suffering from dengue fever and cholera remains high, as does the prevalence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, as corroborated by Elizabeth Segura Sierra, the provincial director of health, on a local radio broadcast.

This official also reported on the same broadcast that the presence of cholera has recently been confirmed in the towns of Rafael Freyre, Cueto, Cacocum, Gibara and Holguin, with the greatest number of reported cases in the latter. Segura Sierra insisted that there is still a risk of returning to the situation faced in August, when a health emergency led to a suspension of the Carnival celebration, the closure of dining establishments and a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in bulk. These measures caused great economic damage to both the State and the private sector. “Let no one think that these outbreaks have been eliminated, the cholera virus and dengue fever still exist in the area,” the official said.

Operators engaged in fumigation are working more than eight hours a day, for low wages and in bad conditions. This has generated a shortage of personnel, forcing the mobilization of 650 officials to do this work in August and September. Of these, 450 came from the healthcare sector and 200 from municipal bodies.

The province is in a true state of alarm as is evidenced by the many emergency measures being taken. Significant resources have been mobilized from other institutions which find themselves obliged to halt their normal work and take on the economic loses stemming from the lack of productive support.

At the most critical moment of the outbreak 130 vehicles and five buses were used solely to transport patients to the two hospitals equipped to deal with the crisis at Celia Sanchez Manduley University in Holguin.

“The Family Unit in Holguín Is Very Damaged” / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Marcos Pirán Gómez, parish priest of San José Church in Holguín
Marcos Pirán Gómez, parish priest of San José Church in Holguín (Photo Fernando Donate/14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguín. 21 September 2015 — He shares both his faith and Argentine citizenship with Pope Francis, yet Father Marcos Pirán Gómez is not on Cuban soil for just a few days. He has been living on the island for fifteen years, and since 2012 has been the parish priest of San José (Saint Joseph’s) Church in Holguín.

A few hours before the Bishop of Rome travelled to this land of mountains, heat, and seas, Father Marcos met with 14ymedio to discuss his parishioners’ expectations, the difficulties besetting his community, and the role of the Church in finding solutions.

14ymedio: What did you feel when you heard that Pope Francis was coming to Holguín?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: I felt an enormous thrill because of the joy another Papal visit would mean to our people; the third one in just 17 years, such a short period of time. This is a significant event not only for the life of the Church, but also for the Cuban people. Each one of the previous Papal visits have left its mark. continue reading

Pope Francis is an exemplary and admirable person for the way he thinks, for what he does, and for his beliefs, which are consistent with how he lived in Argentina. I remember what he was able to generate around him, especially in Buenos Aires where we were neighbors living in the same area, and where we had more contact with each other. I know a lot of things from back then that are now known in the public square.

14ymedio: How will this Papal visit to the island be different?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: This third visit is also linked to the resumption of talks between the Cuban and American governments. This time stands out because it hopes to keep alive the first step taken on December 17th of last year.

Pope Francis has closely followed the history of the Cuban people. He wrote a book about John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, which undeniably signaled a before and after. It not only did so as far as the relationship between the Church and the Cuban government is concerned, but the relationship between religion and the government as well.

14ymedio: Is there special interest for Cuba in the Vatican?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Interest and worry for these people. Cuba has undergone a political and social experiment unlike that experienced by most of Latin America’s people. It’s different in the fact that Communist ideology takes precedence in Cuba, so theres a very different attitude towards religion here than in most other countries.

Starting with John Paul’s visit, an effort was made to initiate a new type of relationship (between the Church and the State) in which there would be an official recognition of the of religiosity of individuals and of our people as a whole.

14ymedio: What do believers in Holguín expect from this visit?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: On the one hand, the people of Holguín hope this visit will help them regain their enthusiasm and hope. There’re many people who due to different difficulties, such as the frustrations of life, the breakdown of families, the scarcities, have lost their will to forge ahead. The Pope can help reverse this because his message aims to break apathy and indifference.

14ymedio: Do you sense a lot of apathy?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Yes. People are apathetic because of their incapacity to react to situations they don’t agree with. When an individual stops demanding or voicing his concerns, whether it is out of fear or because he thinks it would be useless, that is worrisome, because it shows an attitude of apathy and indifference. I hope, and many others do as well, that the presence of Pope Francis will help bring about a reawakening.

14ymedio: So you are excited about the visit?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Very excited. I’ve been especially impressed by people who don’t practice any religion but who see the (Papal) visit as a very positive thing. People are hopeful this visit will bring something that’ll make them better persons.

14ymedio: The authorities have conceded that violence, drug addiction, suicide, and other social ills have increased in Holguín. Is there a spiritual crisis in Holguín?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: The family unit in Holguín is very damaged and divided. There’re a lot of difficult situations, and that affects the social order.

Family units are fragmented because of financial difficulties, and because a lot of people emigrate, and that brings suffering. People don’t know how to discuses issues, how to accept one another, how to collaborate, or how to promote solidarity within the family setting. When this starts happening to the family unit, it resonates throughout society at large, while adding to the already existing personal crises in each individual’s life.

14ymedio: The Cuban government pardoned 3,522 before the Pope’s arrival. What can you say about this?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Some have reacted happily, while others were disappointed because they thought they met all the conditions for a pardon but weren’t. The announcement (of the prisoner release) states that those convicted of “crimes against State security” would remain incarcerated. That’s why in this case it is a matter of opinion if those still being held are political prisoners or not.

14ymedio: Are there political prisoners in Cuba?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: This isn’t conjecture. The government itself has admitted there are political prisoners. Several years back, the President mentioned them. I don’t know how many there are, because there’s a lot of information I don’t know or have any access to. That’s why I can’t say for certain how many political prisoners there are, or where they are.

14ymedio: Has the Church in Holguín, or you, received a request from the opposition to meet with Pope Francis?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Up until now, that hasn’t happened. However, we have received letters from people directed to the Pope, asking him to intercede in support of freedom for their relatives serving prison sentences. Still, I don’t know if these cases are political prisoners.

14ymedio: Has the relationship between the Church and the State in Cuba been strengthened?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: The preparations for the Pope’s visit have opened the way for some dialog. Catholics in the Papal visit’s organizing committee note there have been important changes when compared to eighteen years ago while preparing for John Paul II’s visit.

Also, for some time now we have been noticing that the government has somewhat stopped pressuring mission houses or small (parish) communities from opening. Today, these houses do exist, but there was a time when the government wouldn’t allow people to gather in homes to celebrate the Word, to pray together, or to exchange ideas. The result of this is an increase in the social ills we’re now facing. When you keep something from growing over a long period of time, that has negative repercussions.

14ymedio: The Catholic Church in Cuba does not have at its disposal a radio station or a television channel. Doesn’t that limit your pastoral work?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Nowadays, having access to the media is very important. I don’t like things that are just Catholic. I’d like more diversity in the Cuban media. I don’t need to have my own radio station, TV channel, or newspaper, because that in itself is exclusionary. I’m not interested in that way of thinking. What I do wish is that there be space for other voices, other ways of thinking, and other messages that contribute to the common good, within the media that already exists.

Translated by José Badué

The Merchants In The Square / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

A group of people carry bags with food products specially offered for the arrival of Pope Francis. (Donate Fernando Ochoa)
A group of people carry sacks and bags with food products specially offered for the arrival of Pope Francis. (Donate Fernando Ochoa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, 22 September 2015 — On Monday, while thousands of people waited in Holguin’s Plaza Calixto Garcia for Pope Francis to celebrate Mass, hundreds of others took advantage of the opportunity to buy the delicacies that were offered around the site, a special assortment of cookies and other confections that many Holguineros hadn’t seen in months.

The Bishop of Rome arrived at the huge plaza a few yards from a row of sellers loaded down with sacks and boxes of the yearned for food products. The sellers had also risen in the early hours of the morning, but not to hear the homily, rather to be assured of a good place in line in front of the food kiosks. continue reading

Tamara, a young resident of the area, showed up “at six in the morning” in front of the Red Dragon tent to buy everything she could. “After that, it’s gone,” she said. Tamara needed the help of two cousins to carry her purchases home, while from the loudspeakers on the plaza she heard the Pope’s voice recalling Saint Matthew.

Nearby, an old man with the help of a briefcase was carrying plastic bag of cookies he managed to get for 60 Cuban pesos with the stated intention of reselling them in “packets of ten cookies” for five pesos each.

The merchants took advantage of the absence of the police, who were concentrated on watching the plaza-turned-temple and, for once, they were left in peace.

A special assortment of cookies and other confections that many Holguineros hadn’t seen in months

However, not everyone was under-the-table vendors looking for cheap products, there were also the faithful who had gone to Mass and wanted to put a little something in their mouths. Leticia, there with her 7-year-old daughter, doubted she would make it to the front of the long line and protested because the majority of people were buying “huge quantities.”

Further back in line, a man recalled that the motto for Francis’s visit to Cuba was “missionary of mercy” and lamented the “lack of solidarity” to ensure that everyone would get a chance to purchase the products for sale. “An absolute lack of respect to take advantage of a Mass to hoard,” he protested.

The complaints forced a Red Dragon clerk to explain himself and tell people that it wasn’t their job to “establish quotas for selling.” One of the first products to run out was pieces of fried chicken at 10.20 Cuban pesos for half a pound. Later they ran out of wafer cookies, candy and Coral soda pop. Before the Mass ended, the majority of the tents had sold everything they had.

“I didn’t even get a wafer,” an old man wearing a Vatican flag in his sombrero repeated with a mix of frustration and humor.

Holguin Starts the School Year in the Midst of a Complex Epidemiological Situation / 14ymedio, Donate Fernando Ochoa

Preschool classroom of a primary school in Holguin. (Fernando Donate)
Preschool classroom of a primary school in Holguin. (Fernando Donate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 1 September 2015 — The beginning of the school year in Holguin has been complicated this early September by the complex epidemiological context facing the region because of the outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera. The city is experiencing a declared health emergency, but authorities say they have taken all sanitary measures in order to prevent the spread of diseases in schools.

In junior high schools the school snack has temporarily been suspended, an offering that consisted of yogurt and bread with mortadella passed out free in the schools. continue reading

For this reason, the class schedule at this level now runs from 8:00 to 10:00 in the morning, with an afternoon session from 2:00 to 5:00, according to Claribel Casamayor, an English teacher at the Panchito Gomez Toro school.

Students at Celia Sanchez University are also beginning the year atypically. The vice rector, Liuska Bao Pavon, in a special program of the Radio Angulo station, informed those students that the dormitories are not available because they are being used as a field hospital for patients suffering from dengue fever. For now, the students are attending classes on adjusted hours at other universities in the provincial capital city.

The situation becomes more complicated at the primary level, according to Ricardo Ramirez, municipal deputy director of Education for Holguin. His students, between 6 and 11 years of age, are studying at centers that are severely deteriorated due to the age of the buildings and the lack of repairs. Ramirez told the local station Telecristal that of the 252 schools in the city, 130 began classes with seriously damaged plumbing and he did not rule out that some schools would remain permanently closed for lack of optimal sanitary conditions. In those cases, the students would be relocated to other schools.

These statements have contributed to keeping people in a state of fear. Maritza Avila, mother of a seven-year-old boy, Pedro Enrique Tamayo, who started first grade at the Julio Grave de Peralta primary school, confessed that she feared for the health of her son as the school is in an advanced state of deterioration in both its construction and plumbing.

The health problems are compounded by a shortage of 1,205 teachers, 444 of them in the provincial capital city.

Yaser Quintana, a math teacher at Rafael Freyre elementary school, notes that the school year has also been affected by the fact that many children and teenagers have been admitted to hospitals for cholera and dengue fever.

The health problems are compounded by a shortage of 1,205 teachers, 444 of them in the provincial capital city. Among the measures announced by the authorities to solve this problem is the reinstatement of retired teachers, contracting with students at Oscar Lucero Moya University and with graduates of the basic course at José de la Luz y Caballero Teaching University as well as with recent graduates of the University of Information Sciences.

Deputy Health Minister Calls Situation In Holguin A “Health Emergency” / 14ymedio, Donate Fernando Ochoa

Auto announcing the measures against the threat of epidemics in Holguin. (14ymedio)
Auto announcing the measures against the threat of epidemics in Holguin. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 7 August 2015 — The Deputy Minister of Public Health, Jose Angel Portal, described the epidemiological situation in the city of Holguin as a health emergency, according to a local television report. The statement was confirmed this Friday during a meeting to assess the epidemiological measures in the provincial capital to halt the spread of dengue fever in the area.

Deputy Minister Portal said that although the epidemiological situation of the country is one of the most favorable in recent years, Holguin is facing “a public health emergency in which there can be no room for carelessness and mistakes.” He emphasized that “people’s lives are at stake,” although he also said that currently, “it is more a perception of risk and we’re heading down the right path.”

For his part, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Holguin, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, criticized the directors of the state agencies for allowing there to be foci of the Aedes aegypti mosquitos in their workplaces. The official criticized that situations like this go on despite the great offensive that takes place in all social and business sectors. continue reading

The provincial Government vice president, Marcia Aguero, called for more action by the state health inspectors with regards to fining offenders – people with mosquitoes breeding sites on their property. In this regard she noted that the number of penalties applied is minuscule relative to the violations committed.

Public health directors emphasized that the high prevalence of foci persists, including uncovered water tanks and closed houses that haven’t been inspected. They also reported an increase in cases of cholera in the area.

Also present at the meeting was Ines Maria Chapman, a member of the Council of State, who called attention to the water rationing because of the drought which is expected to get worse in the coming months, and which could further complicate the situation in Holguin.

Deputy Minister Portal stated that Cuba has extensive experience in the management of dengue fever, to which he will give his full attention, and added that in reversing the situation in the province they can count on sufficient health professionals and they are the best in the country.

Dr. Jorge Luis Quiñones Aguilar, head of the provincial department of Education and Health Promotion, said that cases of fever and cases of diarrhea are continuing to appear, with most of the latter testing positive for cholera.

Quiñones Aguilar said that given the large numbers of patients flocking to hospitals it has been decided to have a fourth hospital, located on the campus of Celia Sanchez Manduley University. He acknowledged that positive tests for dengue fever continue to increase with a figure now over 90%; that is of 100 cases of patients with fever, most of them are positive for dengue.

“We should not underestimate any kind of fever in our homes. If we know a neighbor who does not want to go to the hospital we must report it without fear and anonymously,” said Quiñones Aguilar.

He said that so far Holguin has not had a lamentable loss of life from this outbreak of dengue fever, but that there are patients in serious danger of dying.

‘Holguin Nights’ Suspended Due To Increased Cases Of Dengue Fever / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Indoor spraying will start on Tuesday. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)
Indoor spraying will start on Tuesday. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, 3 August 2015 — This weekend the serious epidemiological situation in the city of Holguin forced it to suspend the first celebration of Holguin Nights for the month of August. The increase of dengue fever cases has sparked alarm among local authorities who are asking people to take extreme measures to avoid contagion.

The popular festivities were cancelled after the kiosks selling food and drinks on the Avenida de los Libertadores had already been constructed. The central street is the main stage for this festival, which mixes music, food and the sale of household products.

The Provincial Health Department has issued a report that explains that between 100 and 150 foci of Aedes aegypti are identified daily in the area. The figure has caused an increased rate of infestation of the municipality of Holguin, which stands at 3.3, versus the 0.05 that, under normal conditions, is common the area. continue reading

The worrying situation could affect the celebration of the Holguin Carnivals, scheduled for August 20-23, and international tourism. The province occupies third place in the national arrival of foreign visitors.

Several hospitals, such as the Lucia Iniguez Landin Clinical Surgical Teaching Hospital, the Octavio de la Concepcion y de la Pedraja Pediatric Hospital and the nursing subsidiary of the provincial capital, have been turned into places of isolation for infected patients. In the past two weeks 611 fever patients with nonspecific symptoms were tested of which 258 were confirmed cases of dengue fever.

The event 'Holguin nights' had to be suspended after the kiosks were already assembled. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)
The event ‘Holguin nights’ had to be suspended after the kiosks were already assembled. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)

The health areas where the most cases were reported, between confirmed and probable, are Mario Gutierrez with 1,052; Maximo Gomez, with 1,018, and Reparto Alex Urquiola, joined by Pedro del Toro, which now has more than 600 patients, according to what Dr. Elizabeth Segura Sierra, director of public health in the territory, reported to the media.

Sunday 450 workers were mobilized in the rest of the province to support the work of control and fumigation for the entire month of August.

Along with indoor spraying, intensive aerial spraying will take place starting Tuesday morning.

Holguin Hospitals Throw Away Biological Wastes in the Cemetery / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma and Fernando Donate

Broken tombstones in the Mayabe cemetery, Holguin. (14ymedio)
Broken tombstones in the Mayabe cemetery, Holguin. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma and Fernando Donate, Holguin, 11 July 2015 – Broken tombstones, open graves, dilapidated tombs, and, here and there, scavengers that devour shallowly buried remains. This is no scene from a horror movie but images from a video that exposes the serious situation in the Mayabe Cemetery in Holguin.

Released by the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in 2014, the film was produced by journalists Nairovis Zaldivar, Yainiel Diamela Escofet and Rosaida Check, and has been distributed through the illegal “weekly packet” that circulates widely in the province without any official media picking up the story.

Almost a year later, the problem has not been solved; it was caused because the Vladimir Ilich Lenin University General Hospital, the Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Teaching Clinic and the Provincial Military Hospital bury their wastes in the place, since their crematoriums are not functioning. Criticism of the mismanagement of biological wastes has been heard at various levels but local authorities have not taken action in the matter.

In the investigative work the errors committed by the medical institutions depositing the remains from surgeries, abortions, amputations and tests, without proper precautions, are laid bare. For months, those who have visited the grave of a relative in the cemetery have been overwhelmed by carrion birds and other animals that helped themselves to the hospital wastes barely covered by a little dirt. continue reading

Gate to the Mayabe, Holguin, graveyard, one of the biggest on the island. (14ymedio)
Gate to the Mayabe, Holguin, graveyard, one of the biggest on the island. (14ymedio)

Located six kilometers from the city, the Holguin cemetery has some 500,000 square meters and is one of the biggest in the country. Although there are no homes nearby, at midday the bad odor is unbearable, especially in the area at the back of the site where the three medical centers dump their wastes.

On the Cuban Medicine Blog, Doctor Eloy A. Gonzalez calls attention to the fact that “the management of hospital wastes, above all biological materials, is a problem of the highest priority for health systems and the organizations and institutions charged with management and disposal of the same.”

The doctor points out that “you cannot walk around in cemeteries throwing away biological wastes, barely buried where soon stray dogs and carrion birds notice the anatomical parts that come from a hospital. Are there no incinerators in hospitals in Cuba?” he asks. His text circulates through the email of various health professional with accounts on the Infomed service.

Specialists consulted by this daily agree that a first step to solving the problem would be to diminish as much as possible the biological wastes that the hospitals generate. Once reduced, their collection, transport and disposal must be rigorously controlled. Failure to fulfill the measures associated with the treatment of these wastes can present a serious health risk.

With the scandal uncovered by the UNPACU video, now the wastes are buried more deeply, although still without regard to the measures required for their handling. The regular edition of the February 15, 1999, Official Gazette governs the responsibility of “the heads of the entities that are in charge of installations and release areas whose operations generate dangerous biological wastes.”

Here and there are seen exposed remains in the neglected niches of Mayabe. (14ymedio)
Here and there are seen exposed remains in the neglected niches of Mayabe. (14ymedio)

Under Cuban law, wastes that may contain “biological agents, organisms and fragments of agents or organisms with genetic information, that represent a real or potential danger for human health and the environment in general” must be removed in a way that “guarantees the protection of the environment and in particular the population and workers.”

On questioning about the topic at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin University General Hospital, the employees shy away from responding about the conditions in which the wastes from the health center end up at the Holguin graveyard. Only one employee from the laboratory area, who preferred anonymity, submits: “We have problems with resources, for example with the correct bags and containers for placing the samples that we process.”

When they will repair the crematorium is a question that finds no answer in the management of the health center and much less in its administration. Nevertheless, the epidemiological risk from the wastes is not the only cause for worry for those Holguin residents who visit the cemetery. The use of an area laden with funereal connotations as a biological dumping ground bothers many, too.

Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Hospital Clinic, one of those denounced for burying biological wastes in the Holguin cemetery. (14ymedio)
Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Hospital Clinic, one of those denounced for burying biological wastes in the Holguin cemetery. (14ymedio)

Lucia, 72 years of age, often visits the family mausoleum which is located a few meters from the place where the hospitals bury their wastes. “It is a lack of respect that they do this because this is a sacred place for the dead to rest in peace,” this lady complains, and although she has not seen the journalistic report, she asserts: “I realized that something was going on when I arrived and this was full of miserable buzzards.”

The main complaint, however, lies in the fact that such a sensitive matter that involves ethical and epidemiological issues has still not been dealt with by the province’s official media. “It seems that they are waiting for something grave to happen, for someone to get sick or to protest because of this disrespect, before they put it in the press,” says Lucia.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Holguin’s First Pet Store Opens / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Red Squirrel Pet Store is the result of the initiative of a private entrepreneur. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)
Red Squirrel Pet Store is the result of the initiative of a private entrepreneur. (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 1 July 2015 — The first pet store in the province of Holguin opened in the first week of June, under the name  hasThe Red Squirrel. The place, the fruit of the initiative of a private entrepreneur, is located on Cuba Street at the corner of Jose Antonio Cardet in the provincial capital and raised the curiosity of passersby outside its door.

For now, there are more who come to look than to buy. Nor is there any lack of critics surprised by the prices and some of the products for animals that can’t be found even in the stores for human beings. In line with State-run establishments that allow payment in both currencies, all the merchandise can be acquired in convertible pesos (CUC) or its equivalent in national currency (CUP). continue reading

The offerings, for now, include the sale of four breeds of dogs. A Pekingese or a Czech Shepherd sells for 40 convertible pesos, while a Chow Chow costs 60 CUC and a German Shepherd 70 CUC. These prices reflect the investment of at least two months salary to acquire one of their beautiful pets.

In the store you can also purchase a wide range of dog accessories such as harnesses, toys, flea and tick collars, shampoo, combs, toothbrushes and toothpaste. The offerings do not end there, those who are going to travel can buy pet carriers and there are also pet beds for the home, dishes, clothes and even shoes. Among the “clothing” one can find sweaters, robes and winter coats, despite the almost always high temperatures in Cuba year-round.

Buying a pet can cost two months of the average Cuban salary

There is also a hair salon for animals, which includes bath, combing, trimming, cutting toenails and cleaning the ears.

The client, as an additional offering, may obtain training on the upbringing and care of the animal. The pets can have a clinical examination in the store and if they present a health problem, be referred to the veterinary clinic.

Luis Rodríguez Hijuelo, owner of the premises and possessor of a license as a breeder-seller of companion animals, says that there are already many people, especially children and teens, who are receiving advice for free.

Before opening the store, Rodríguez Hijuelo worked as a street vendor. Holguin health authorities prohibited his trading in squirrels, one of the animals he offered, arguing that they could be carriers or transmitters of many diseases. That experience is what gave him the idea to name his new business The Red Squirrel.

In the future an expansion of the business will allow him to increase the quantity and variety of animals, Rodríguez expects, and he also plans to sell birds such as cockatiels, canaries, exotic poultry and cats, such as Siamese cats.


Operation Miracle, Not Available to Cubans / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

In the opticians on Martí Street in the provincial capital, the supply of frames is as low as in the rest of the province (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)
In the opticians on Martí Street in the provincial capital, the supply of frames is as low as in the rest of the province (Fernando Donate / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 19 June 2015 — Operation Miracle has as its objective to return vision to or cure any ophthalmological problem for low-income citizens of poor countries. The humanitarian project was started in mid-2004 under the leadership of the governments of Cuba and Venezuela, and thanks to it about a million patients have been operated on every year. However, this medical service has not been as successful inside Cuba as it has been abroad.

The surgical waiting list extends more than 30 days in the Ophthalmology Center at the Lucia Iniguez Landin Clinical Surgical Teaching Hospital in the city of Holguin. The departure of professionals to other sectors and the exodus caused by international medical missions have contributed to the increase in service deficiencies. To this is added the lack of surgical instruments and difficulties with the air conditioning in operating rooms, sources from local hospital officials explained to 14ymedio. continue reading

Supply problems for frames and lenses in the eyeglass industry don’t help to improve the eyecare situation in Holguin, with the Provincial Company of Pharmacy and Optics continuing to experience problems since last year. The eyeglass frames that can be seen in Holguin establishments are few, outdated and uncomfortable, leading most customers to reject them.

The situation has reached the extreme that, on occasion, the customer is asked to bring their own frames to hold the lenses

The problem affects not only the four opticians of the capital city. According to Caridad Garcia, a worker at one of the establishments on centrally located Martí Street, the shortage extends to the other ten opticians in the province.

The situation has reached the extreme that, on occasion, the customer is asked to bring their own frames to hold the lenses. However, there are also delays with the graduated glass, because the lens grinding workshop lacks the specialized personnel needed, and the equipment frequently breaks down, having been in use for 20 years without renovations.

The National Directorate of Public Health has reported that the country does not have sufficient resources to meet demand, a fact for which there does not appear to be a short or medium term solution.

Currently, 4,405 Holguin health professionals are serving on international missions spread across 45 countries.

Holguin Besieged by Dengue Fever Mosquito / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

An operator fumigating a house in Holguin City (14ymedio)
An operator fumigating a house in Holguin City (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguin, 15 June 2015 — An undesirable presence has been constant these days in the province of Holguin. A severe drought has been followed by the longed-for rains and with the torrential downpours outbreaks of the mosquito Aedes aegypti increase. According to local press, some 30,000 Holguinn residents are exposed to Dengue Fever, transmitted by this insect.

In this battle the local government has invested over 1.5 billion pesos, without obtaining the expected results, as shown by the data provided by the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology. Officials say that the vector has crossed the boundaries of 26 de Julio, Pueblo Nuevo, Hilda Torres and Harlem neighborhoods, and arrived in Libertad, Alcides Pino, Palomo, Nuevo Llano and Centro Ciudad Norte, where a wide perimeter takes in the area between Frexes, Carretera to Gibara Streets, Capitan Urbino Avenue and 31st of Vista Alegre, with the appearance of Dengue Fever in all of them. continue reading

It is predicted that in June and July, months that favor the undesirable vector because of the climate and the rain, transmission could trigger an epidemic of patients appearing with Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever. The complicated situation has forced the health authorities to intensify the work of control, but there continues to be a deficit of 300 operators to support fumigation inside homes and other places.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the Municipal Health leadership has asked different state institutions for a workforce, but the answer has not been as expected.

It is predicted that in June and July the climate and rain could trigger the onset of patients with Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever

Yendri Bermúdez Estupiñán, a former operative of the anti-vector campaign, told 14ymedio that the work is every day, working more than 8 hours, most of the time carrying fumigation equipment weighing 65 pounds, and exposed to poisons through working with the cypermethrin, a chemical used to control mosquitoes.

He also complains that the lunch, guaranteed daily, is small and of low quality. The salary of 625 Cuban pesos a month (about $25 US), isn’t enough to maintain a stable workforce in the sector.

As a last resort, the municipal authorities have asked for help from the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which mobilized a weekly rotation of more than one hundred soldiers, according to what Julio Cesar Velazquez Garcia, head of the Provincial Health Vector Control Department, told local TV.