Ricardo Fernandez: “Freedom is Respect” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre. (14ymedio)
Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 27 March 2016 – He moves his fingers at full speed over the screen of his phone without ceasing to talk. The modern gadget keeps him in touch with the most important part of his life: friends, other members of his evangelical congregation, and the subscribers to an electronic weekly he publishes from his own home. Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre took advantage of the inauguration of Nauta’s email service to create an informative publication with a Christian outlook. He talks about the achievements and difficulties of this project with 14ymedio.

Juan Carlos Fernandez. You were born in Camaguey but now live in Pinar del Rio and you are the editor of the digital weekly Fire and Dynamics. How did this publication come about and what is its profile?

Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre. The idea of publishing the weekly came up two years ago and was born when the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA) announced email service from mobile phones. In a first step I tried to promote this practice in all the Cuban churches. However, this proposal failed because of many denominations’ fear of government reprisals. continue reading

I decided to undertake the project on my own and in August of last year the digital weekly Fire and Dynamics was born. It is a Christian themed newspaper whose goal is to reach Cubans living on the island and supply the need for information that we all suffer from. We show the facts objectively but through a Biblical lens. All you need to do to subscribe is to send an email to maifd.revistadigital@nauta.cu

JCF. Have you suffered any kind of censorship for publishing this weekly?

RFI. Yes, I was working as a pastor for Bethel Pentecostal Church, on a mission in the municipality of San Luis. Last December, the pastor of the Pinar del Río region urged me, in front of the leaders of the capital municipality, to abandon the project. Faced with my refusal, the assembled leaders voted to expel me from the leadership.

It was something I saw coming, because of the fear that many people feel when they do something that could be interpreted as a confrontation with the State or supportive of any renegade expression. Although the weekly is not explicitly political, it addresses those issues directly and openly.

JCF. Working as an editor at this publication, directed by Pastor Bernardo de Quesada, have you realized ​​a long-standing professional dream?

RFI. I studied for a while for a degree in social communication, because I dreamed of becoming a journalist, but the college used the old trick of pressuring me to renounce that. In the end, I’ve managed to do what I like.

JCF. The fears of any independent publication, that keep officialdom up at night, seem to be centered in this case in the suspicions towards the Apostolic Church of which you are a part. Does the church continue to not be legally recognized?

RFI. We do not have the option to legalize our Church, first because they are not about to pass a law of association and religion; and also because we do not go along with the way that other churches, which are part of the Council of Churches of Cuba, are subject to manipulation in exchange for some “privileges” which should be rights for everyone.

JCF. Yet, the Cuban authorities claim that the country has religious freedom. Is that so?

RFI. According to the Cuban constitution the State is declared separate from the Church and there is no favoritism, but in reality they are trying to crush any voice that cries out for freedom and doesn’t submit to their designs. Freedom is respect.

An Hour and a Half with Big Brother / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Juan Carlos Fernandez
Juan Carlos Fernandez

14ymedio, 18 February 2016 – For an hour and a half this Wednesday I received a barrage of threats from State Security in Pinar del Rio. Like a scene out of George Orwell, four agents devoted themselves to warning me that I could be prosecuted for the crime described in Law 62 of the Penal Code, which refers to “professional intrusion.” My work as a journalist could send me to jail, promised these jealous keepers of the occupational limits of every Cuban.

In a chair bolted to the floor in a small room, I listened to the hackneyed intimidation that my work equipment would be confiscated the next time they saw me on the street “reporting something.” The agents said that both of the information projects I participate in are illegal: the daily 14ymedio, and the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence). I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to suggest to them that they allow freedom of the press and thus end the problem.

Not to mention, of course, the record of the police warning I refused to sign. However, when I left there and later hugged my wife and a friend who were waiting for me outside, I realized that I had no resentment against the threatening agents, rather they inspired pity in me.

I got home, laid down for a minute on the living room couch to gather my strength, and from the kitchen my wife shouted, “Juan! We’re out of eggs, we have to find something to eat tonight!” The reality that State Security could not deny, once again was knocking on my door.

Tobacco In Cuba, Between Pests And Mud / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Justo García Hernández working in his tobacco field. (14ymedio)
Justo García Hernández working in his tobacco field. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 9 February 2016 – The sun has barely risen and boots are sinking into land that is pure mud. In the furrows, a group of men is trying to revive the planted tobacco, but nature is working against them. Hundreds of producers in Pinar del Rio are struggling against the rain and the pests to save a tobacco crop which promises to be among the lowest in decades.

Prior to 20 January, 42,000 acres of land were planted throughout the province of Pinar del Rio, but only some 34,000 have managed to survive, and of these, some 5,000 are seriously affected. The excess moisture has also encouraged the emergence of the dreaded blue mold disease that devastates the crop. continue reading

A descendant from immigrants who came from the Canary Islands, Justo Garcia Hernandez hasn’t quit working, even at 73. He moves between the plantations and the tobacco house where the women of the family are busy hanging the leaves. In the five acres this farmer has leased under usufruct, he experiences the failed harvest with special intensity.

This year “the climate is a disaster,” complains Justo. The continuous rains in recent weeks have ruined countless fields like his. “The current weather conditions favor the appearance of fungi, bacteria, viruses and other diseases,” declared the provincial director of Plant Protection, Ariel Castillo Rodriguez.

The land that Justo and his family work belongs to the Carlos Hidalgo Credit and Services Cooperative, at Kilometer 5 on the San Juan Highway. The space allows him to plant up to 80,000 tobacco plants, but this year many of the plants will have died “having barely emerged from the ground,” says the farmer.

Still, he says he feels fortunate because his land “has not been affected by black shank or blue mold,” thanks to his having fumigated. The situation has been most difficult for the farmers in Vueltabajo region of Pinar del Rio, particularly in the towns of Con­solación del Sur, Pinar del Río, San Juan y Martínez and San Luis.

The problems started right at the beginning of the harvest. Virginio Morales, acting director of the Provincial Tobacco Group, reported to the local press last week that the combination of high temperatures and the excessive rainfall associated with the El Niño phenomenon, has caused the loss of “83,500 seedling beds, and another 27,000 have been affected.”

Tobacco farmer William Delgado shows the effects of the disease known as "black shank." (14ymedio)
Tobacco farmer William Delgado shows the effects of the disease known as “black shank.” (14ymedio)

The constant rains have greatly affected Justo’s plantings. “It’s the greatest damage my harvest has had, the tobacco is drunk, the plants remain tiny, it doesn’t grow because of the excessive rain.” More than 40% of the harvest has been lost for this reason and the only solution is “replant, even though it is not the season.”

The optimum time for planting is already over, but hundreds of producers are going to plant tobacco, even to the end of March, to make up for the damage the rain has caused to the crop. The bad news is that it is still raining and the new shoots are also starting to be damaged.

The downpours “leave the leaves without their natural fatness,” comments Justo, a man who has lived his whole life around the tobacco fields. As an example, he tells how he has harvested tobacco from very early in the morning, and “it’s four in the afternoon and I have clean hands, if the tobacco was good, I would have had to wash my hands ten times.”

Justo, like many tobacco growers in the area, does not believe that the crop insurance will repay for what was damaged. Last year he lost 16,000 plantings and they only paid him 2,200 Cuban pesos (less than $100 US).

In the Hoyo de Monterrey in San Juan y Martinez, a place where many say the best tobacco in the world is grown, Luis Brito Ajete concludes, “The tobacco is bad.” In the five acres he cultivates with his son, “the plants have leaves like tissue paper,” he complains.

The same thing is happening in Rio Feo, in the town of San Luis. William Delgado Rodriguez plants tobacco on 7 acres and, although he says he’s had a “good harvest” in other years, this one “is bad, bad.” On his land he planted 100,000 sets. “But between the water and the black shank disease, it’s making me crazy.”

To demonstrate the situation, William pulls up a fragile-looking plant and shows the damage caused by the disease on the lower stem. In the area where his farm is nestled, in the Ormani Arenado Cooperative, the plantings have stood up a little better, but in other areas “the farmers have had to pull up the entire harvest for replanting.”

The young man noted that, right now, he has very little tobacco in the drying house and knows cases of other peasants whose tobacco has rotted after harvesting because of the dampness, so he is not expecting big profits from the current harvest. “For a 220 pounds, we are paid 1,950 Cuban pesos, and the quality of the leaf here will be very low,” he predicts.

From a small battery-powered radio comes the contagious rhythm of Bob Marley singing “No Woman No Cry” and the farmer takes advantage of it to say, “well, this is the harvest of tears.”

Land Leases, a “Half-ownership” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Juan José Muñoz, 83-year-old who leases land, in the doorway of his home. (14ymedio / Juan Carlos Fernandez)
Juan José Muñoz, 83-year-old who leases land, in the doorway of his home. (14ymedio / Juan Carlos Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 14 January 2016 – The earth and the man who works it end up resembling each other. The skin becomes rough and dark like freshly plowed earth, and the face is lined with furrows where seeds could be planted. So it is with Juan José Muñoz, who at 83 has merged with the land that he recovered a few years ago, through a usufruct lease arrangement, long after they took it from him decades ago.

The old man with lively eyes can be found at kilometer 8 on the La Ceniza road, near the city of Pinar del Rio. He is one of the 2,596 farmers who, since 2012, have received lands under the usufruct form of leasing, with a total of roughly 36,000 acres now managed by private farmers. continue reading

“Planting tabacco soothes my soul, I learned it from my father as far back as I can remember, and I like it,” says Muñoz. Despire his advanced age, he still has the energy not only for cultivating, but also for cutting firewood, cooking and even making the odd joke when someone passes by his humble home.

“I was born here and I grew up working with my father, my uncles and two brothers, in the same place,” he says. However, at the end of the seventies State Planning decided to use his to grow citrus. “They forbade us to plant tobacco,” he says with regret, but affirms, “They couldn’t take it all from me and they left me 2.5 acres.”

Losing what had been the center of life as he knew it, Muñoz working in the citrus plant located in the road to La Coloma, but, he says, “I wasn’t born to spend eight hours in a factory, so I asked to be released and went back to the fields.” On his only remaining land he raised chickens, pigs and even grew a little tobacco. “They couldn’t prevent me because it was my land,” he says, with a wild glint in his eyes.

“It was a long time until they again allowed the widespread cultivation of tobacco, because the citrus never paid off; after that they approved the usufruct arrangements and I asked for the 12 acres we had always planted with tobacco,” and, he stressed, indicating the land around his house, “all of this we’d had forever, since I was tiny.”

With the adoption in 2008 of Decree Law 259, replaced by Decree Law 300 in 2012, the government of Raul Castro permitted “the delivery in usufruct [leasing] the benefits of state property to natural or legal persons.” Those interested could, from that time, request a maximum of 33 acres for a period of up to ten years, renewable for additional ten-year periods.

That’s how Muñoz as an old man returned to working the fields that had been his family’s. Now, he plants rice, corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and fruits, especially for his own consumption. “Life is hard, and the land does not produce like before,” he says, while straining a little coffee on his wood stove.

Electricity has not officially come to the house of Muñoz or the 15 other farmers who live nearby. An illegal line provides them the service, but not without setbacks. “That has brought me problems, inspectors have come to threaten us with fines.” The low voltage only allows turning on “one light bulb,” and so he hasn’t bought a refrigerator or television, “because it would just go to waste.”

This year the drought has taken its toll on the octogenarian’s fields. “All the seedlings the Fructuoso Rodriguez Agricultural Production Cooperative gave me have gone to waste. Now the land is bare, completely bare” and he has to “buy seedlings privately,” he explains.

The problems he experiences are shared by most of his neighbors. The land leasing arrangement has not worked in the region as expected and by the end of 2015 the local press reported that it 3,504 individuals in Pinar del Rio who had taken advantage of this arrangement had lost their land. According to the official version, irregularities were found, such as “the abandonment of an area for more than six months and not dedicating the land to the purposes for which it was granted.

Muñoz sees the situation very differently. Although he has been able to continue to work his piece of land, he says that most of the time he cannot get fertilizer, the tractors are broken and there is no fuel. “This year the seeds didn’t sprout,” and he complains that he can’t rely on crop insurance against natural disasters. “Three years ago my tobacco harvest was diseased, and I applied for the insurance but I am still waiting.”

Across the province 116,000 acres remain available to be leased, especially in the districts of Sandino, Mantua, Consolacion del Sur and Los Palacios. However the land is difficult to farm and infested with the invasive and very hard to get rid of marabou weed, so even the boldest decline to apply for it.

Despite the few advantages that the stubborn farmer has been found in leasing his land, he says he appreciates “tranquility” of labor in the tobacco fields. This calm, however, could be about to end. “They came to me and told me that this year if I don’t fulfill my plan they’re going to cancel the contract.” It would be the second time they took away his land.

Cuba farmer working land with oxen
Cuba farmer working the land with oxen

Burning The Old Year / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Burning the old year is one of the Cuban traditions of celebrating New Year's Eve. (JC Fernandez)
Burning the old year is one of the Cuban traditions of celebrating New Year’s Eve. (JC Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 1 January 2016 — A family in the city of Pinar del Rio burns an effigy made of old clothes at midnight on December 31 in a traditional ceremony that seeks to eliminate bad luck and enter the new year with greater fortune, health and economic development.

‘The Visionary’: A Tank Dedicated To Fidel Castro / 14ymdio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

'The Visionary', a work of Humberto ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, in collaboration with Arquimedes Lores 'Nelo'.(Juan Carlos Fernandez)
‘The Visionary’, a work of Humberto ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, in collaboration with Arquimedes Lores ‘Nelo’.(Juan Carlos Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 1 December 2015 – Pedestrians walking along Martí Street in the capital of Pinar del Rio were astonished last Wednesday on seeing a crane moving a tank. A work by the artist Humberto El Negro Hernandez, in collaboration with Arquimedes Lores Nelo, weighs several tons and has been baptized The Visionary, in homage to Fidel Castro.

After several months of labor in the bus rebuilding workshops, the installation has been installed in the middle of a public street, to the amazement of some and jeers of others. The piece, which was originally meant to be ready last August 13, the former Cuban president’s birthday, was only finished a few days ago. continue reading

The authors readjusted the schedule and decided to inaugurate the installation this 26 November, Pinar del Rio’s Day of Dignity. In the construction and placement of the piece collaborators include the Music Center, the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC), the Provincial Department of Culture, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Communist Party and the local government, and so El Negro Hernandez declares that “this is not an invention,” with the pride of someone who has done something authorized “from above.”

With regards to the similarity of the piece with a tank, the artist states, “What else is life but a tank?”

“It comes from our commander;s campaign cap,” says El Negro Hernandez, noting that he has been inspired by this object that “sustains a thought that generates peace, dignity and progress.”

Both creators cherish the idea of making a gift of the tank with their artistic intervention to the person honored, but did not explain how they would move the massive piece to Fidel Castro’s residence in Havana.

Children playing. (Juan Carlos Fernandez)
Children playing. (Juan Carlos Fernandez)

Installing of the piece in such a central place has aroused great controversy, which is whispered, without anyone daring to publically express any criticism of the mass of metal. Only Pipo, a sympathetic character who wanders here and there, has dared to say out loud that “in reality, it’s junk, nothing more.”

For now, given its volume, in the wee hoursThe Visionary provides relief for the lack of public toilets.

Pinar Del Rio, Under Siege By Dengue Fever / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Hallway in Pepe Portilla Pediatric Hospital where beds have been set up for fever patients. (Juan Carlos Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, 29 September 2015 – The fear of contracting dengue fever keeps thousands of families on tenterhooks in the province of Pinar del Rio, especially those with young children.

Problems with the water supply are among the main causes for the outbreak, said a family doctor from the Hermanos Barcón People’s Council, who requested anonymity. “People build tanks, cisterns and try to store water and that is a constant focus of vectors,” he says. “There are areas in the city that only receive water every fifteen days,” adding that the “poor state of the health centers in the capital makes many people with the disease try to hide it so they will not be forced to go to a hospital,” thereby increasing the risk of contagion. continue reading

Hospitals have reinforced their services to deal with cases of dengue fever, especially Leon Cuervo Rubio Hospital and Abel Santamaría General Teaching Hospital, which has one room only for pregnant women. It has also set up a room at the Simon Boliver Health Polytechnic and another for infants in the Turcios Lima polyclinic, while in the Pepe Portilla Pediatric Hospital the avalanche of fever cases has required them to place beds in the corridors, with mosquito nets to prevent transmission.

Although health authorities spread the word about the increase of cases in the region they have not yet provided data on infections. Dr. Mérida Morales Lugo, head of the International Sanitary Control Program, simply explained last Friday in a statement to the local newspaper Guerrilla that conditions are favorable for “accelerated vector reproduction,” referring to the Aedes aegypti mosquito. However, the specialist said, so far there are no cases of hemorrhagic dengue fever, the most feared form of the disease.

There are confirmed cases of dengue fever in the four health areas of the Pinar del Rio capital and in eight of its People’s Councils, an area that has a population of about 122,000. The disease has also reached the municipalities of San Luis, San Juan y Martinez and Consolacion del Sur, near the provincial capital.

Health authorities have urged people to go to the doctor at the least sign of fever symptoms. Medical students, staff in all the family medicine offices and public health administrative workers have been mobilized along with other workplace employees to search house to house, looking for people with symptoms of the disease.

Cachita, Francis and Pinar del Rio / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Taking the road to Coloma. (Juan Carlos Fernandez)
Taking the road to Coloma. (Juan Carlos Fernandez)

14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 10 September 2015 — On Tuesday, the Virgin of Charity – Cachita, as we call her – again traveled the streets of the city of Pinar del Río. The procession was led by Bishop Jorge Enrique Serpa and the parish priests of the city. With the support of the Provincial Concert Band and a huge Cuban flag unfurled at the head of the crowd, the procession started in the parish dedicated to the Virgin in San Juan Strett, and proceeded to the Cathedral where Mass is celebrated.

The difference this year has been marked by the approach of the visit of Pope Francis and his connection to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Perhaps encouraged by these novelties, a greater number of Pinareños attended the festivities for Cuba’s patron saint on Tuesday.

Anselmo, approaching his eightieth birthday, was one of those who would not miss the moment. “I’m here because the Virgin heard our prayers and gave us a pope who has facilitated what many Cubans wanted,” he told anyone who would listen. “Being on good terms with the United States can be a new beginning,” he said.

The speeches and Masses offered for the Bishop of Rome during his visits to Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil have also raised expectations about the words he will express in Cuba. Francis has increased in many hopes for change and renewal, not only within the Church but also in the social dimension. Pinareños also await those winds of change that surround him.

Who Has Barack Obama Betrayed? / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Raul Castro and Barack Obama greet each other for the first time at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa
Raul Castro and Barack Obama greet each other for the first time at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 18 August 2015 — The restoration of diplomatic relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States is leaving a trail of reactions. Cuban civil society on both shores shows two positions with many nuances, on the one hand those in favor of the process and on the other those who are against it.

From those against it a sharp rebuke against President Barack Obama is heard, accusing him of being “a traitor to the cause of Cuban freedom.” However, to think that the occupant of the White House embarked on such an adventure alone and on his personal initiative is crazy. continue reading

It is likely that the American president is anxious to change the direction of American policy toward Cuba. But he never would have succeeded if he had not had the support of a considerable number of legislators, both Republicans and those of his own party. So this political move represents the culmination of a strategy gestated before his arrival at the White House, and one whose principal protagonists were the so-called “pressure groups.”

Among what are also called “lobbies,” the powerful group representing commercial interests in the agricultural sector has led several initiatives of rapprochement toward the island. It has also promoted lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with the Cuban government. The reasons for this push in the direction of normalization are economic, but also political.

On the commercial side, American businesses are at a fundamental disadvantage with the restrictions against Cuba. Meanwhile, on the political side they argue that US influence in the region has declined considerably, thanks in large part to the conflict with Cuba’s communist government, and China has stepped in.

A portion of US civil society has also exerted pressure to take the path of diplomatic normalization. Involved in this crusade has been the radical left, as well as unions, cultural organizations, NGOs, religious groups and academics.

Barack Obama, however, is the person responsible for the political insight to take advantage of the hemispheric situation, with Venezuela in a free fall, and serious internal problems in Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil. Meanwhile, inside the island a profound economic crisis seems to have no end, there are grave social problems, and Fidel Castro is practically out of the political game.

Beyond that ability, Obama also responded to a demand from his people, represented by civil society pressure groups. To ignore them would represent political suicide for the next Democratic candidate. Surveys have proved him right, with more than 60% of Americans looking favorably on the initiative he has promoted with respect to Cuba.

Moreover, to accuse Obama of treason will not change what happened last 17 December and lays on him a responsibility that belongs to thousands of people. On the other hand, the fact that the Cuban leaders now shake hands with their neighbor to the north does not give them carte blanch to do whatever they want. This they know very well in the Plaza of the Revolution.

“Those Pools Aren’t for the People” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernández

The pool at the Frederick Engels Vocational School. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The pool at the Frederick Engels Vocational School. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernández, Pinar del Río, 13 August 2015 — “New movies, lots of ice cream, and a good pool,” is how a resident of Pinar del Río summarized his wishes for this school vacation. His second wish was granted at the local Coppélia ice cream shop, but his hometown has a sad record otherwise, counting only one open cinema, and no functioning pools.

Pinar del Río’s eleven pools are either dilapidated or are under some sort of renovation keeping them closed to the public. In spite of it being a particularly warm summer, with temperatures exceeding 97ºF, the people of Pinar del Río have to make do with fans in order to cool off a bit. Or they make do like Yoankys and Maykel, who use “a hose in the backyard” when the heat becomes unbearable. They used to able to take dives at the pool of the Pinar del Río Hotel after paying admission in CUC’s, but that option does not even exist anymore.

“This shows a lack of respect,” opined Yoaknys, who added that in the Galiano and Mijares Districts, adjacent to the Pedro Téllez Vocational School’s pool, the discontent is even greater. “People see the infrastructure is there, but we need the will to make it work.” That blue, waterless, and dilapidated rectangle is an eyesore for anyone who takes a peek at the school’s sports facilities. continue reading

Orestes, a longtime neighborhood resident who works on a government pig farm, said he could care less if there is a pool or not, but “the kids are sweltering, and we don’t even have a lagoon with water.” This man, who has always lived in the area, recalled that “the only recreation around here used to be the Vocational School’s pool, but since they didn’t change the water, they had to close it.”

Mariela, a housewife who moved to the neighborhood only two years ago, blamed the empty pool on the drought. “It would be a scandal if we had a pool full of water while we’re having such a hard time filling our water tanks.” Pinar del Río Province is facing the lowest precipitation in half a century. Its reservoirs are at a little more than 30% of total capacity, and seven are at critically low levels. Mariela added: “We can’t waste water for recreation when we barely have enough to wash dishes or bathe.”

Jorge, the custodian in charge of the Vocational School’s grounds said that (the Ministry of) Public Health ordered the pool closed because it was a mosquito breeding ground.” Together with the breakdown of pumping and water treatment systems, chlorine shortages are one of the causes that most often works against the safety of pool water throughout Cuba.

Bottom of the pool at the Ormani Arenado Sports School in Pinar del Río.
Bottom of the pool at the Ormani Arenado Sports School in Pinar del Río.

“This had turned into a health problem,” explained Mariela, who remembered that several “youngsters got sick from fungus, skin infections, and otitis in that place,” and said she was “relieved they drained the water, because it was a constant source of diseases.”

In her opinion, “people aren’t accustomed to pools. They don’t even shower before getting in, and they urinate or eat while in the water. And that’s not counting all those who in spite of having an infected wounds on their bodies, still dive in.”

However, Antonio Vázquez, a staffer of the city’s Ministry of Education, refused to accept that closing the pools is the way to solve health problems. “We want our children to learn how to swim, to play sports, and to spend their free time on wholesome recreation…but we have ten pools closed in this city!” he exclaimed in frustration.

Mr. Vázquez explained that “pools in the city of Pinar del Río fall under the jurisdiction of several government entities.” According to this government employee, the Vocational School’s pool is run by the Education Ministry, “but it was ordered closed by Public Health, because with the drought, they weren’t able to change the water, and after a month, it was polluted.”

A waiter at the Pinar del Río Hotel explained to 14ymedio that the closure of their pool was due to remodeling, “but it’s going to end up looking very nice. We’re opening it on August 13th *, with a ten CUC admission, of which eight covers food and drinks.” The hotel employee stressed “they had to close it, because it was in a very bad sate, but now it’s going to be perfect. We felt bad for the public, but it had to be closed.”

Like a vanquished giant, the Olympic-size pool at the Nancy Uranga Physical Education College, is deserted and waterless. “We had to empty it,” recalled the college’s custodian “because youngsters would show up with alcohol and knives, and then things would get bad. The grounds are under police surveillance, but the problem did not go away.” The custodian then explained, “The problem with the diving pool is another story. That one is contaminated.” Its green water covered with a layer of litter confirmed the custodian’s words.

Far from there, weeds cover the entrance path to the Frederick Engels Vocational School, inaugurated by Fidel Castro. It has been almost five years since any students have been able to submerge themselves in its two pools, which were once its source of pride. “No one gives a hoot about this. They were ruined because of the lack of upkeep,” complained an employee. The pool at the Medical Sciences Department is in a similar state.

The Ormani Arenado Sports School has become the last hope for the desperate swimmer. However, two of the three pools have not been filled for months, and the Olympic-size pool overflows with a liquid covered by a green film that reeks terribly.

In contrast with these bleak scenarios, the Central Home of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, located on the Central Highway, at the outskirts of the city, showcases a well-maintained pool, but it is reserved for the members of the military. The Ministry of the Interior’s Villa Guamá, located on the 4th kilometer (2.5 mile) mark of the highway to Viñales, is another one of the privileged locales enjoying the relief of a functioning and clean pool.

“But those pools aren’t for the people,” protested a frustrated Yoansky, the young man who tries beating the heat by dousing himself with a hose in his backyard. “It’s as if they didn’t even exist.”

*Translator’s note: August 13 is Fidel Castro’s birthday and the day is often marked by “special” events such as this.

Translated by José Badué

Pinar Del Rio Comes Alive With The Internet / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Several people connected to the WiFi from the center of Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)
Several people connected to the WiFi from the center of Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 15 July 2015 – For a long time the city of Pinar del Río has languished in the evening. The central Martí Street was a scene of complete desolation and only came alive Saturday with groups of young people wandering aimlessly. However, since early this month, the landscape has changed with the installation of a wireless network to surf the Internet, installed by the State Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA).

The WiFi service has changed the face of the central avenue for the four blocks from Independence Park to La Chiquita store. It is now a hive of people with phones, tablets, laptops and whatever technological device serves to access the web. At any hour of the morning, afternoon or night, the place is packed. continue reading

Entire families talk via Skype with their family members abroad. Students download information they can use in their next course, young people recently released onto the World Wide Web create their Facebook profiles, and hundreds of people, read, search and flit from one page to another. No one wants to be without their kilobytes. The tricks to it are shared outloud and if someone finds a way to optimize the connection time, the news travels from mouth to mouth.

A commotion, a jolt or a social phenomenon, the fact is that everyone agrees this city is not the same since the first of July. The park where as recently as two weeks ago only drunks and vagrants spent the night has been taken over by whole families gathered around a screen.

The park where as recently as two weeks ago only drunks and vagrants spent the night has been taken over by whole families gathered around a screen

The reduction in hourly connection costs, although still out of reach relative to wages, has motivated many to try this thing called the “interned.” (sic) Now, at two convertible pesos an hour*, residents of Pinar del Rio have been added to the many Cubans who have taken to the places where 35 WiFi points have just been unveiled throughout the country.

A month before the service was turned on in Pinar del Rio, the antennas were installed for the connection and, barely two weeks beforehand, the bandwidth was tested with 120 people connected at the same time. Last weekend the phenomenon was launched and threatens to revolutionize the entire city.

Alejandro, a young college student who has already tested the service a couple of times, told 14ymedio, “This is the best vacation gift you could imagine, this is my best summer.” With a tablet in hand, he navigates the social networks like Twitter, and watches videos on YouTube, while checking his email and looking for information on topics that interest him. The appetite for information is huge.

Like love, the Internet has no age and Leopoldina, 60, is almost crying with joy as she sees again via videoconference an emigrant son she hadn’t seen in ten years. “My son, how beautiful you are and how pretty your house is. The whole neighborhood sends you greetings and kisses,” the lady repeats, still a little surprised that this “box with keys” had returned her “little boy” to her.

Nearby a group of young girls looks for friends on Facebook. The complicit laughter and the whispers into each other’s ears complete the picture. A few yards away another girl, sitting in a doorway, chats her cellphone. “For us, who have nothing, this is very good,” explains the young woman without taking her eyes off the screen. “The price is high and many people can’t afford the equivalent of 50 Cuban pesos per hour, but I hope they’ll lower it later,” she says with enthusiasm.

Leopoldina, 60, is almost crying with joy as she sees again via videoconference an emigrant son she hadn’t seen in ten years

In Independence Park the connectivity is quite a spectacle. Loudspeakers play reggaeton every hour, while hundreds of young people are everywhere, some connected to the web, others dancing.

Baseball lovers, in Rock Forest Park now consult the web for the latest results of the Cubans playing in the major leagues. The minute they hear of the recent high level leaks against the United States their comments contrast with the silence of the government press on these matters. “They don’t have to say anything now, explain anything to us. Now we already have the news of the day,” a fan shouts loudly.

People, despite the costs, bite the bullet and live the experience of access to a vast diversity of information. “It is a sensation of freedom that I’ve never experienced before, ‘brother’,” Geddy Carlos enthuses. Seated next to eight young people who share an application through which they are all linked through a single account and so save money.

“Cubans always look for ways to overcome obstacles,” points out Andy, one of those connected to the peculiar network formed by all these guys stuck to their laptops. A young couple, next to them, jumps from El Nuevo Herald to el Diario de las Americas, and before they disconnect they take a look at El Pais. The bright flashes of the red LED on the USB memory shows they are making copies of everything they read.

“Look at what Antonio Castro is saying in Turkey!” a surprised young man murmurs, and an flood of friends come over to look at the page appearing on the screen. Midnight is approaching and the parks are still full. It seems that Pinar del Rio doesn’t want to go to sleep.

*Translator’s note: 2 convertible pesos is more than $2 US, the equivalent of two days wages or more for many workers.

The Potato, the winning candidate in Pinar del Río / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Line to buy potatoes in Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)
Line to buy potatoes in Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 20 April 2015 – On the day that Cubans voted to elect the local representatives of the People’s Power, the State markets in Pinar del Río put potatoes on sale.

Chance, someone said, is the daughter of causality and hence the suspicion of some who interpreted the sale of the highly valuable tuber as an electoral strategy to get the voters to leave their homes or to set aside possible plans to flee to the homes of friends or family who live far away. Who would allow themselves to lose a chance to buy potatoes for one Cuban peso a pound just to escape their commitment to the delegate elections. Very few. A triumph of political marketing in the best Soviet style. continue reading

The State markets are located very close to the polling stations. “Killing two birds with one stone,” as they say. Vote and from there go to the market to buy potatoes.

A gentleman of seventy said, before placing his ballot in the ballot box, “I’m going to finish with this delegate quickly, I don’t know who he is and I don’t care,” to immediately add, “I’m going to get in the potato line, there are a lot of people and they close at noon today.” With a certain tone of electoral authority, he concluded, “The potato won these elections, my friend.”

If from the mood of the inhabitants of the city of Pinar del Río it was clear that something had changed, it was because they were celebrating the victory of the absolute winner of these unforgettable elections which took place on the market stands and which had as the only candidate a food that appears very sporadically in these markets.

Meanwhile, in the balloting there was a notable boredom among the poll tenders, anxious for closing time to arrive. Indifference and apathy surrounded the process to select “the most capable.” “It’s tedious and nobody takes it seriously,” said a commentator at the Parque del Bosque Peña de Pelota in the city center.

On this “historic election day,” the potato had no rival candidate and carried the day with a resounding victory.

Rise and Fall of a Diocese / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Extension of the Diocese of Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández / 14ymedio)
Extension of the Diocese of Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 26 March 2015 – “How much everything has changed! How gorgeous the Cathedral is with those add-ons!” exclaimed a Catholic layman on returning to visit his native Pinar del Rio after three decades of exile.

The improvement of the infrastructure of the diocese, which started with the arrival of Archbishop Monsignor Jorge Enrique Serpa, is impressive. The construction work was fast-tracked and the traditional problems with permits disappeared. The cost of the strategy to sustain it, however, will be difficult to sustain.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop Serpa together undertook the task, which happened to please the Cuban authorities, removing part of the secular activity of the diocese to achieve, in exchange, benefits. continue reading

When in January 2007, Monsignor José Siro González Bacallao made official Serpa’s assumption of the Diocese, a new chapter began in the pastoral, religious and social life of the local church.

The appointment coincided with a rapprochement between the authorities and part of the Catholic hierarchy, led by the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega y Alamino. This improvement in relations culminated in the visit to Cuba of Benedict XVI, in March 2012, and the release from prison of a large group of political prisoners of the 2003 Black Spring.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba also paved the way to understanding. The two bishops most uncomfortable for the Government were about to retire for reasons of age. In Santiago de Cuba, Pedro Meurice, old and sick ceded his episcopate to his disciple, Dionisio García. At the other end of the island, José Siro retired to Mantua and left the way open for the pact.

Since the inauguration of the new bishop in Pinar del Rio, it took just three months to begin the dismantling of all the works that were considered an obstacle to improving relations with the government.

It took just three months to begin the dismantling of all the works that were considered an obstacle to improving relations with the government

The members of the editorial board of the Church magazine Vitral were forced out, and the training center and publisher were dismantled. They also dissolved the Brotherhood of Assistance to Prisoners and Their Families, the Youth Ministry, the Catholic Commission for Culture and the Diocesan Council of Laity. Thus, the lay members left the structure of the Pinar del Rio Church.

When Monsignor Serpa took over, after 20 years serving in the Bogota Archdiocese, the Pinar del Rio Diocese had only 17 priests, fewer than 30 nuns, and a large group of committed lay people. The churches were deteriorated and the difficulties in obtaining permission for restoration were notable.

Now, for the first time in more than fifty years, all the parishes have priests, the number of members by religious congregation has grown, and the entry and establishment of other orders, among them the Brigidine Sisters, have been extended from Havana.

Management has been allowed, in addition to restoring the Cathedral, to enlarge the parish house and the construction of a complex of classrooms for catechisms and meetings. The Church has been able to buy a site for Caritas located in the center of the city, less than a block from the provincial headquarters of the Communist Party.

In addition, in just eight years Sandino is the first captive people to have a temple, one of the greatest diplomatic achievements in the last 25 years of the authorities insistently denying Siro permission. The return of the religious processions in all the dioceses is also a noted achievement of Serpa.

But the negative consequences of his mandate have also been felt. The bishop complains of a lack of motivation and commitment among the faithful, including to make donations. On the other hand, the social commitment is almost zero and the pastoral is ecclesial – more severe than the so-called clerical. Except for the Bishop, there is no presence of Church members in any social environment.

“The loss of moral authority is not achieved overnight,” whispers a Pinar del Rio Catholic. “Rebuilding costs far more than any new temple,” says the layman.

The legacy the current bishop will leave when he retires, at age 75, will be a magnificent architectural infrastructure that will not need to be touched for a while. The challenge will be re-form, articulate and prepare the Church formed by laymen which was dismantled.

Chango defeats the Institute of Physical Planning / Juan Carlos Fernandez

Removing Gisel's roof (Juan Carlos Fernandez)
Removing Gisel’s roof (Juan Carlos Fernandez)

From the Tail of the Caiman blog, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 20 March 2015 — As usual, Grisel got up early, made coffee. Afterwards she looked out over the back of her apartment – on the ground floor of an ugly concrete block – where, like many of her neighbors, she had added a room thirty years ago. No family member lived in her room, rather it was the “foundation room” where many of the faithful came every day “to consult with her.”

An enormous image of Changó dominates the place. Grisel Arteaga is Santeria. After bowing before her orishas and sprinkling a little brandy on them, she began her housework.

Around noon there was a knock on her door. It was a man who presented himself as the head of the demolition brigade for Physical Planning, and he tells her he has come to tear down her added room. Grisel can’t believe it and quickly calls, on her cellphone – blessed technology, her son Idael Marquez. “Mi’jo, come fast, the wreckers are here to tear down the foundation room,” she says. continue reading

“The brigade is waiting,” claims the official, and “we also brought a police patrol unit, because that’s the procedure.” The woman can’t stand it and explodes, “Why when I built it didn’t they come and tear it down? Now because a boss gets it in his head that it isn’t sightly you want me to tear it down?” she asks, furious. And adds, “Right now my son and I are going to go into the foundation room and you’re going to have to take me out dead, you hear me?”

“Ask Changó not to hurt us, we’re not going to go on with this”

The brigade, made up of five men, starts to remove the light covering from the terrace. Meanwhile, Gisel and her son stay inside. They pray, join hands and close their eyes. One of the young men of the brigade looks on from the doorway and asks permission to enter. “I want to present my respects to the orishas, I don’t have anything against you, but I’m afraid that ‘they’ won’t think so and will skin me,” he says, fearfully. Grisel stares at him and says, “Look, my son, you are playing with fire and you are going to get burnt.”

Grisel’s son can’t remain silent. “There is a head that thinks this, and a hand that executes it. You are the hand, the head doesn’t show his face, he sends you guys to do the dirty work and make enemies. You have to choose and say no to the head.” The young man nods.

The brigade chief approaches the door and repeats that they should leave, but Grisel refuses to give in. Then he calls to the police, “You need to come and control this.” But nobody wants to mess with Changó. The officer pulls back “You’re wrong, we’re here to avoid any problems of violence and so far I don’t see any,” he says, before starting the car and taking off.

One of the workers stands there and yells, “What’s going on. If the Government wants to take off the roof, let it come and take it off. I don’t want any problems with the saints, coño,” and he prostrates himself before the statue of an Indian that Grisel has in a corner. Another approaches and whispers, “I have two little girls, please, ask Changó not to hurt us, we’re not going to go on with this.” They end up collecting all the tools and fleeing at full speed in the brigade’s old Russian truck.

1000003_20150220Ihbth9Juan Carlos Fernandez. I was born and live in Pinar del Rio and from this blog I want to defend freedom of expression.

“I am a meddlesome peasant” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Eduardo Diaz Fleitas on his farm.  (14ymedio)
Eduardo Diaz Fleitas on his farm. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Entronque de Herradura, 31 January 2015 – Entronque de Herradura is a little village in the Pinar municipality of Consolacion del Sur. I go there in search of Eduardo Diaz Fleitas, a Cuban with rapid speech, skill with the ten-line stanza and proven courage. He was among the 75 dissidents sentenced during the Black Spring of 2003, but not even a long prison stay made him lose his smile or wit.

Fleitas asserts that he is “just a meddlesome peasant.” In this interview he speaks of his life, his early activism and of that other passion, which is the land where he has worked as long as he can remember. continue reading

Question: In other interviews your work as an opponent always comes up, but I would like to speak of your personal history. What did you do before that fateful March of 2003?

Answer: As a child I worked in the fields. I had to grow up fast, and I studied auto mechanics. Later I became a driver and even drove a bus. In 1989 I started driving a taxi and later became a transport inspector. However, in 1993 I stopped working for the State, demanding that they pay me with dollars to be able to buy in the hard currency stores because the national currency had no value. Since then I have worked on the plantation with my father.

Q: Where did the ethical and moral values that guide your life come from?

A: My father taught me respect, kindness, honesty and love of work, spirit of service and help to others. From my mother, a farmer and housewife, I learned effort and integrity as well as loyalty and also love, which I have seen in them, because they have been married since 1950.

Q: What was the process that led you to be disappointed in the political and social process which, from its beginnings, said it was defending the peasantry?

A: With the triumph of the Revolution we thought, like many, that it was something good. But after three or four months things began to get bad; the executions, the land was no longer ours. The discourse ran one way and reality the other. All that was waking me up.

Q: But it’s a long way from discontent to activism. When did you begin to be a dissident publicly?

A: In the year 1988. Since then and until now I have been active in several opposition organizations and held different responsibilities.

Q: During the Black Spring of 2003 you were arrested along with other dissidents, journalists, librarians and independent trade unionists. They sentenced you to 21 years imprisonment and you were behind bars almost nine years. How hard was jail?

A: What most struck me about the Cuban penitentiary system is the great cruelty with which the inmate is treated, whether political or not. There you are not a person, you are at the mercy of your jailers. I saw extremely sick prisoners ask for medical attention, and the guards laughed in their faces. We must humanize Cuban prisons!

I also have to say that prison offered me the chance to see, to my surprise, how many people support, in one way or another, the peaceful opposition movement in Cuba. I never felt alone inside. Prison also gave me the opportunity to harbor not even a drop of hatred against my victimizers. In my heart there exists neither hatred nor rancor towards them.

Q: You have participated in several unity initiatives among opposition forces, the latest of them the Open Space of Civil Cuban Society. Do you believe consensus can be achieved in spite of differences?

A: All proposals of this type are excellent. What I do consider unjustifiable is the dismissive insult and personal attack among ourselves. That is the method the Cuban government uses against us, it is anti-democratic and not at all ethical. No activist should fall for something like that. We must have consensus on basic points, and that is what Open Space has achieved and what we have sought for years. I am happy to be able to participate in that initiative.

Q: What do you think about the intention of the governments of Cuba and the United States to re-establish diplomatic relations after more than half a century of confrontation?

A: As of last December 17 a new era for Cuba began. The government of the United States has realized that the prior policy was a dead end with no way out, and now a host of opportunities is opening for our people.

I have asked people about the measures announced by the American government, and they look favorably on them, because they mean prosperity for the people. But when I have asked them what they think of the Cuban government in the face of this challenge, they answer that they do not trust it. Nevertheless, I am optimistic. We must create awareness that dialog is best. I believe that the United States is committed to us and has intelligently confronted the regime.

We have to have the courage to reclaim democracy and to respect our rights. The era of change may be coming for all Cubans, and it falls to everyone to do it in harmony. Cuba has to flourish again for everyone and for the good of all!
Unanimity is not good. We must live in diversity. But it is good for us to be unanimous when dealing with differences. Well…better I say it in verse:

Why is it that it doesn’t matter to you
To ruin your dignity?
Because so much calamity
Will never produce heroism.
Bury that pessimism
That daily assaults you.
Raise your voice, you are able
To be the example of the titan
Awaken those who are
Prisoners of their own webs.

Translated by MLK