Dollar Stores Suffer Problems Connecting with Banks in Cuba

In line waiting for connection at a hard currency store were seniors who, aware of the store’s frequent problems, had brought their own stools to sit and wait. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 18 October 2021 — The long line to enter the central La Época store was barely moving this Saturday at noon on Calle San Nicolás y Concordia, in Centro Habana. Since nine in the morning, only 30 people had entered, because of the lack of a connection with the banks to approve payments with magnetic cards in freely convertible currency (MLC).

Very early, an employee announced at the top of his voice what everyone feared: “The system is down.” Along with the shouts of discomfort, some laughter broke out at the double meaning of the message. Then the hours passed. When noon arrived, discomfort grew in the line, in which pregnant women and elderly people were waiting; aware of the store’s frequent problems they had brought their own stools to sit and wait.

“There is no connection,” the line organizer repeated to everyone who asked her, as she held a large number of ID cards in her hand. Her clarification did not prevent protests from arising again and again from the crowd. “Again?” Said a young man aloud. “How many times is the connection going to go down today?” he questioned before the widespread support of the crowd.

“If you pay in foreign currency, the service should be better,” said a young woman who had gone to buy a few kilograms of chicken breast with money that her sister had sent her by continue reading

bank transfer. “You can tolerate this in a store in Cuban pesos, but I don’t understand it in foreign currency.”

The authorities have repeated ad nauseam about the Cuban economy’s need for fresh foreign exchange to enter the country. With this objective in mind, in the middle of last year they began selling food and cleaning products in MLC, which has generated a great popular anger among those who do not have access to remittances or payments in foreign currency.

To prevent the circulation of cash, the Government requires that customers pay in these businesses with magnetic cards issued by national banks, or Visa, Mastercard or UnionPay cards issued by foreign institutions, with the exception of the United States. But this requirement often runs into an obstacle: the fluctuations of connectivity between the terminals that read the card and the bank that must authorize the transaction.

Just a few blocks from La Época, at the Roseland store, the problem was also repeated this Saturday. Sales were stopped and people were very upset outside because the communication system with the bank is intermittent. “There is a connection for five minutes and then it’s down for half an hour. I am at the entrance from early and it is two in the afternoon, how is it possible that they do not have something of quality with the amount of money they make with these stores,” commented a woman .

Like a carbon copy, the scene was similar at Capricho and La Filosofía stores. Already in the department of electrical appliances in Plaza Carlos III, people sat on the floor and long faces were observed all over the place. The cashier swiped the card over and over, until a strip of paper came out indicating that the operation failed.

A call to the customer service numbers of the Metropolitan Bank that operates in the Cuban capital offers few details about the technical reasons for so many ups and downs in the connection. “That depends, it could be congestion problems on the lines,” explains an operator when asked by 14ymedio. “But it may also be that we are doing some maintenance, although in that case it is always announced in advance.”

Another employee, from the Banco de Crédito y Comercio in Havana, attributes the problem to the state telecommunications monopoly. “Most of the time the connectivity problems results from Etecsa failures, but of course, people point to the bank. The worst happens with those who have foreign cards, because not only must the store communicate with our branch, but we have to communicate with the bank outside the country.”

“I can only swipe it three times in a row, then I have to try another one,” explained the vendor in the Plaza de Carlos III to the troubled customers. Everyone was waiting to buy the electric rice cookers that they had just put up for sale after several days without showing up.

A young woman came forward and handed him her card: “Try this one.” This time it took a long time for the paper to come out and the girl was encouraged: “Now if it’s going to happen, I know from experience, when it takes time for the paper to come out, it works.” The clerk looked at her and smiled. “You are already an expert, you are right, you qualified!” The young woman looks at the ceiling with her hands outstretched as the receipt comes out of the device, like someone who has just won the lottery.

It didn’t take long for an uproar to form in the place when it was learned that it wasn’t her turn to buy yet, but the lucky customer had already walked away with her pot in her hands.

Outside, word spread that the system “has worked again,” but a few minutes later an employee poked her head out the door and asked for understanding because the connection with the bank had been lost for the umpteenth time.

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

Electric Bicycles Compete With ‘Motorinas’ On Cuban Streets

Users value that electric bicycles serve the same needs as a ‘motorina’ and can even carry passage behind. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 19 October 2021 – The curious and potential buyers arrived this week at the store that only takes payment in freely convertible currency (MLC) on Infanta Street, in Centro Habana, to see the new electric bicycle marketed by the State.

Gone are the days of the hated Chinese bicycles of the Special Period. Now electric bicycles are in fashion but their price is not within the reach of most Cubans. With a price of 770 dollars (more than 60,000 pesos at the parallel exchange), the LT 4209n is a luxury item in a country of relentless scarcity, but it is an economical alternative to electric motorcycles, called ‘motorinas’, which cost approximately double — up to $2,000 USD in pages like Revolico. The motorinas have reigned in the streets of Cuba in recent years due to the insufficient public transportation system, the shortage of gasoline, the job opportunities they offer and their easy handling.

“Even if I had had enough money to buy a motorina, I would have bought the bicycle anyway,” explains Ernesto, the owner of one of these items, speaking to this newspaper from Sancti Spíritus. He is delighted with his acquisition. “It is cheaper to maintain and, for that matter, it solves the same problem as a motorina: it is for short trips, just like the bicycle. I even carry my wife behind me on mine, without any problems.” continue reading

“The motorina serves the same needs as a bicycle, with either one you can move from here to there,” he said.

In addition, Ernesto continues, the parts are also cheaper and when they break down it costs less to change them. “It is not the same to buy a battery for these, which are small, unlike the one for a motorcycle. And it is not the same to buy a tire for a bicycle as it is for a motorina.”

In early September, the company Caribe Electric Vehicles (Vedca), in charge of assembling the bicycle for sale on Infanta Street on the island, published the first images of the model on its social networks and other digital platforms. During those days, Yuniel admits that he “had his eye” on these cycles, but gave up buying one due to the rise in the exchange rate for in the black market (76 pesos for 1 dollar this Thursday) and the increase in food prices.

Yuniel, age 30, had a plan to get a courier license and look for a way to earn extra money, especially since, at the moment, the Traffic authorities do not require a helmet or a driver’s license to ride this kind of bicycle. Many private businesses in Havana, such as restaurants and pizzerias, hire self-employed people with motorcycles and electric bicycles to make home deliveries.

“In addition, bicycles are easier to store and park,” a Centro Habana delivery woman who bought her electric bicycle abroad told 14ymedio. “And they go a long way, 55 kilometers, similar to a motorina,” she adds about the autonomy of the vehicle.

The technical description of the brand-new model LT 4209 indicates that it has a 600-watt motor, that its battery is lithium, that reaches a speed of up to 30 km/h and that it has a range of 65 kilometers and a weight of 35 kilograms.

Now electric bicycles are in fashion but their price is not within the reach of most Cubans. (14ymedio)

Luis Alberto, on the other hand, is one of the Cubans who prefer electric motorcycles even though they are much more expensive, but he knows that on the island it is not recommended to buy any of these vehicles that are sold in state stores and assembled in Cuba.

“They are low-cost, the batteries, the motor and the regulator box have poor quality. You see it and say: ‘how beautiful’, but they are just facades. You better think well before investing your money in them,” warns this Havanan, who belongs to the Club Moto Eléctrica Cuba. Luis Alberto ordered a motorina for $ 2,000 from an acquaintance who went shopping in Panama last year and insists that he does not regret the “investment.”

Like Vedca, another entity that is dedicated to the commercialization of electric cycles is the Ángel Villareal Bravo Industrial Company, from Villa Clara, known as Minerva. Several models of electric bicycles of this brand, assembled on the island, were among the first to be sold in the network of state stores, about four years ago.

The prices then ranged from 850 to 1,375 CUC, recalls from Sancti Spíritus another fan of these vehicles, Miguel. “The most expensive electric bicycle had a screen one centimeter high and three wide that marked the mileage,” he details. “With the advantage that I have never heard that an electric bicycle battery has exploded”, he says, referring to the frequent cases of motorina fires due to the manipulation of their electrical system.

However, Miguel has defined very well the differences between a motorcycle and an electric bicycle.” Motorinas operate at a much higher speed, while this type of bicycle reaches a maximum of 30 kilometers per hour.”

Despite this, electric bicycles are beginning to proliferate everywhere on the streets of the Cuban capital. Vedca, which began operating last year in the Mariel Special Development Zone, is one of the brands most promoted in recent months by the Government and sells electric vehicles ranging from 700 to almost 4,000 MLC.

There are more than a few complaints from Cubans, yes, about prices. “Why is everything [only sold in hard currency] in MLC? Do they pay [wages] in that currency in this country?” Asked a user commenting on a Vedca publication on his social networks where it announced the price of the bicycle. “I am an honest worker and my salary is 2,500 pesos a month. In what year could I buy this type of motor?”

According to official data, in the country there are about 300,000 electric bicycles and motorcycles, between imported and marketed within the island, and a third of that figure is in Havana.

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Buying New Shoes, Another Mission Impossible in Cuba

A display at the Sport shoe store in Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 6 October 2021 — Sandra stands at the display window of the Sport shoe store in Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall, where a long line has formed outside. On display are the two cheapest pairs of children’s tennis shoes, for $22.50 and $22.68 respectively.

They are not brand names, and outside of Cuba they would be considered inexpensive, but they are not easy to get for most Cubans because they are priced in foreign currency. But at least they are in style, easy to wash and could potentially be worn in physical education classes.

The school term just started and Sandra’s two children need footwear. She herself has not had a decent pair of shoes for a long time either but there are only thirty dollars on her hard currency debit card, which she had to buy at the exchange rate of 75 pesos to the dollar. In other words, 2,250 pesos, almost a full month’s salary. She thought about buying some handmade shoes at a craft fair but the ones sold there are expensive and the styles are more traditional.

Though she was hoping to pay for the shoes out of her meager budget, they are beyond her means. She will have to give up her place line because, for now, she cannot afford them. She will have to make do with some used ones her neighbor is selling. “There’s no other option. We’ll have to settle for continue reading

the ones Mercedes has,” she says with a sense of resignation. “They are a little big for my son but the ones for my daughter fit like they were made for her.”

Though students are required to wear uniforms until the end of middle school, differences in social status and purchasing power has always been expressed through the quality of footwear, backpacks and the snacks students bring to school. Converse brand shoes, a Vans backpack and a can of cola at recess are signs a student is from a family with financial resources or with relatives overseas.

Conversely, showing up on the first day of school wearing the same tennis shoes as the previous term, carrying books in a mended bag or having bread with oil as a snack are markers of a student from the lowest socio-economic classes in the eyes of inquisitives classmates. So much so that children and adolescents often pressure their parents to project a high-status image.

The differences could become even more accentuated in the coming months. Due to a shortage of raw materials used to make them, the Ministry of Education is relaxing rules on school uniforms. Students will be allowed to attend classes in conventional clothes, a situation that could encourage the “fashion catwalk” trend in educational centers.

With his job on hold due to the pandemic, Sandra’s husband is in limbo, neither employed nor unemployed. He collects 60% of his regular salary as he waits for things to get better. If it was hard for the couple to feed and dress their family on two worker’s salaries, it is impossible on one and a half.

When the Cuban government eliminated its tax on the U.S. dollar and expanded the sale of food and personal hygiene products in July 2020, it did so with the promise that it would be a temporary measure, that the number of these stores would be limited and that they would only sell “high-end” products, as President Miguel Diaz-Canel described them.

More than a year later, and most notably after currency unification rollout in early 2021, most the country’s major retail outlets have become hard currency stores. You can get everything there from cigars to flip-flops, from shampoo to a rice cooker. The other option is the black market but prices there are even more exorbitant.

“I bought what I need for my daughter’s school from a woman who brought merchandise in from overseas. It cost me 3,000 pesos for the shoes and 2,000 for the backpack,” recounts another customer waiting in line to buy a bag. “But now I can breath easy, at least for a few months.”

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Havana’s Eastern Beaches are Crowded With Bathers and Police

This Saturday, the people of Havana flocked to cool off at the Playas del Este. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 9 October 2021 –Despite the cloudy skies this Saturday, Havanans flocked to cool off in the Playas del Este, a coastline that was closed to bathers for months. But taking the long-awaited dip required a long line to get on the buses that travel to that area of ​​the Cuban capital or being willing to pay the high prices of private taxis.

Hundreds of people were waiting early in the line for Route 400 that starts near the Central Railway Station and reaches the town of Guanabo, one of the most visited beaches. Those who did not want to wait too long and also wanted to travel more comfortably, then had to shell out 100 Cuban pesos for a position in a private almendrón*.

Despite the cloudy sky on Saturday, many went to take the long-awaited dip on the coast, closed for months to bathers. (14ymedio)

Although a large police operation was evident on the beach, the use of the mask outside the sea was not especially observed. But the uniformed men did seem very strict with the groups of young people, especially those who were black, asking for their identity documents, checking their bags and offering harsh words about the behavior to be maintained on the beach.

The food-service offers also left much to be desired, although since the beaches were opened to the public on September 29, several private businesses have re-established table service. The limited supply of menu options and sky-high prices scared off many bathers. Others, aware of the situation, brought a snack from home, a bottle of frozen water and even music on their wireless speakers.

*Translator’s note: ‘Almendron‘ is used to designate private taxi services in Cuba. The word derives from ‘almond’ and is a reference to the shape of the classic American cars that are often used in this service.

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

Cuba’s Meat Markets to Get September’s Chickens in October

Two women buying rationed food items at a neighborhood store in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, October 7, 2021 — “In September they didn’t give us anything. Only eggs and some disgusting ground meat. One tablespoon for two people. Not even my dogs would eat it,” complains Migdalia, a housewife in Central Havana who foresees no end to the ongoing struggles to stock her pantry. Public frustration is growing ever more widespread. Every day sees another announcement of a delay, a substitution or a “failure” that prevents products ranging from chicken and rice to basic supplies such as water and electricity from reaching consumers’ hands.

In September only eggs were available in some Havana neighborhoods. Others got chicken that was supposed to have arrived in August. In some provinces, such as Santiago de Cuba, only bologna and eggs were being sold, though Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz Velazquez claimed meat was being distributed to everyone, though it was a month late.

At the end of September the minister noted that, several months earlier, there had been a steady supply of chicken which could reach the country in seven to ten days.

“Today, though we have the necessary funds and are able to purchase the product, we have had to wait for as much as fifty days or longer for it to get to Cuba. As a result, the public did not receive August’s supply of chicken until September. And in September there will be a similar delay even though the  supplier has already been paid,” she claimed.

Something similar is happening with rice. Plans to provide families with additional pounds of rice over the last few months were cancelled, a continue reading

decision that many attribute to the distribution of international rice donations that have been delivered since early August and that contain several kilos of the grain. In some Havana neighborhoods the distribution of the second batch has already begun.

Diaz had said that in October that families would receive the seven pounds of rice to which they are entitled through the ration book, but delivery of the three additional pounds intended for August and September will be postponed because the product is currently unavailable.

Migdalia, who is on a medically prescribed diet, it also frustrated by the shortage of powdered milk. In late September the Ministry of Food Production announced that, because of delayed deliveries of the product, distribution of the product through the ration system had been changed. Currently, powdered milk is not being provided to people on medical diets.

The ministry also noted that on September 25 monthly sales of the product for children seven-years-old and younger had been concluded in Havana.

The only way to get many foods such as milk is to buy them on the black market, where it sells for about 1,000 pesos a kilo. Sellers charge 250 pesos for a 2.5-kilo of packaged chicken while a ten-pound package goes for twice that.

Eggs are another product for which black market prices are sky-high. “When butcher shops get their deliveries, you can find a carton of eggs on the informal market for 350 pesos (fourteen dollars at the official exchange rate). But if you can get it through the ration book, the same amount goes for 400 pesos,” explains Henry, a resident of Havana’s Playa district.

Along with food shortages, there are also continual disruptions in utility services. The Cuban Electrical Union announced on Thursday that power outages on the previous day were due to “a significant increase in demand” and because Unit 6 at the Maximo Gomez power plant had gone out of service. The state-owned company added that it was anticipating electrical service to be impacted during peak hours. It was not an isolated incident. Beginning in June customers were without power throughout much of the summer, unable to turn on even a simple fan during the hot days and nights.

But the island’s water isn’t flowing either. The company, Waters of Havana, announced on Thursday that there would be service interruptions in some areas between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM  due to maintenance and repair work on the pipelines and equipment at Meireles Viejos and machinery at Tower 19.” Boyeros and Tenth of October are the areas to be most affected.

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

Cuban Coffee in US Dollars

Cubita, of national production, is sold in foreign currency but it is difficult to find it in Cuban pesos. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 7 October 2021– Long faces in line this Thursday at the entrance of the Plaza Carlos III shopping center to buy coffee. “Cuban coffee in American dollars,” one of the establishment’s customers, called Sorpresas, scoffed aloud. The line burst into laughter at this, but a resigned indignation was palpable.

“It is incredible that we pay in MLC [freely convertible currency] for the coffee that is produced in Cuba,” said a woman. “But nothing, we pay for it and we do nothing,” a young man responded quickly.

Coffee is one of the scarcest products in the national trade networks and in the informal market it can reach a whopping 1,000 pesos for a one-kilo (2.2 pounds) package, or 250 pesos for a 250-gram (approx. 9 ounces) package. Despite the official media announcing a supposed recovery in coffee production in the country since 2020, the improvement has not been noticed in stores that take payment in national currency, where the supply of coffee beans or ground coffee is practically non-existent.

The line joked with resignation about the fact of having to pay for the national product in dollars. (14ymedio)

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

With Hopes and Setbacks Food Services Reopen in Havana

An employee of the Coppelia ice cream parlor, in Havana, this Friday. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 24 September 2021 — “We must take advantage of today, tomorrow is only for those who book by phone,” an enthusiastic customer said this morning outside the Coppelia ice cream parlor, in Havana, one of the state premises that opened its areas with tables available to the public this Friday, after months offering only the To-go option.

Like the Cathedral of Ice Cream, other state establishments in El Vedado and Centro Habana are also organizing their operations to begin receiving customers after the authorities reported on Thursday the reopening of gastronomic services in the capital and other provinces of the country.

“Consumption within the facility was suspended, but it was possible to buy take out,” a woman who was waiting in line for take-out ice cream told this newspaper. Along with her, several people carried five-liter containers to take the product home.

Although the authorities announced that the central location would only begin by serving those who reserve a table through various telephone numbers, the mechanism still did not seem well oiled and the employees postponed the start of this type of service until Saturday. continue reading

“All this time ago, people have lined up here to buy ice cream to take home. But now things have become a bit complicated for them because they are serving very little at the tables,” Yoana, 25, explains to 14ymedio. “But that’s only a few days, you’ll see that by spending some money on the workers here, everything will be solved,” adds the young woman, who this Friday was able to enter Coppelia to consume the two sundaes allowed per person.

Yoana pointed out that the tables are well separated from each other and only two people are allowed at each one. The young woman ended up ordering two ice cream sundaes: one with almonds and another with strawberry-bonbon, for a value of 25 pesos each, which came accompanied by six sweet cookies.

Despite the reopening, this newspaper was able to verify that the line this Friday morning was like any other day and in less than 20 minutes customers could be seated at a table. All the ice cream parlor’s salons were open, except for the “4 Jewels,” which is air-conditioned and sells a creamier and more expensive ice cream. Formerly, the ice cream was sold in Cuban convertible pesos, but after the ’Ordering Task’* it went to Cuban pesos. This Coppelia location is among the most visited in the capital.

A few yards from Coppelia there are two other very busy state establishments on Avenida 23 in El Vedado in Havana: the Buona Sera restaurants, which planned to serve customers in the afternoon, and El Cochinito, where its employees could not confirm if they would receive customers this Friday.

As in Coppelia, at the entrance of Buona Sera and El Cochinito they have placed a table with a container containing bleach, and according to the hygienic sanitary measures imposed by the authorities, it is mandatory to disinfect your hands before entering any public establishment.

The governor of Havana, Reinaldo García Zapata, said this Thursday on the State TV Roundtable, when announcing the reopening, that it is essential to maintain the use of the mask, the disinfection of the hands and surfaces of the establishments, the locating of tables two yards apart, and among others, and a limited capacity depending on the characteristics of the premises.

Taking reservations by phone is viewed with suspicion by customers. “I am afraid that this is going to be allow the employees to sell the places and only accept their friends and resellers. As a 76-year-old retiree said, who is going to control whether someone actually called, or if they were put on the list for being a partner of a worker.”

“There are very bad experiences in reserving by phone. In the 80s some restaurants in Havana offered their service like this and when the number was not busy the phone would ring for long minutes and no one answered,” the man recalls. “Once part of the telephone exchange even collapsed when thousands of people called to reserve a turn to buy toys because of the rationing.”

“The measures are still the same, but I didn’t really see that anyone complied with them all: the bleach bottle on Coppelia’s door is there, but everyone passed by as if it didn’t exist, nobody took that on,” said Yoana. “Of course, everyone walks around with a facemask and some with their chlorine bottle in their backpack or purse.”

The authorities insisted that food services be reserved in advance to avoid prolonged stays while waiting fator the entrance of the premises. Private businesses such as Lolita del Mar, Mercy Bar Café, Bom Apetite and Ranchón Costa Bella, among others, have published on their social networks that from this Friday they will be offering food services at their facilities but customers will also be able to consume the orders at home because they will maintain Take-out service.

In other private businesses in the municipality of Playa, among them Tropikna Sport Café and Glamor Café, they are waiting for the authorization to open from Public Health, but the “approval” of the inspectors from the Hygiene and Epidemiology Directorate is still lacking, affirm the owners of the premises.

However, most of these businesses have told their customers that they will continue to bring the food to their homes and the main platforms that manage these purchases have extended their delivery hours throughout the capital. “Here we will continue to provide home delivery service from our premises to the door of your house so that you maintain your comfort and care,” reads the announcement.

Along with the 533 locales that will provide in-person food services, the notary services and Civil and Property registries have been resumed.

*Translator’s note: Tarea ordenamiento = the [so-called] ‘Ordering Task’ which is a collection of measures that includes eliminating the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), leaving the Cuban peso as the only national currency, raising prices, raising salaries (but not as much as prices), opening stores that take payment only in hard currency which must be in the form of specially issued pre-paid debit cards, and others.

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

Under a Strong Police Operation, Cubans Venerate the ‘Patroness of the Incarcerated’

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 24 September 2021 — Surrounded by metal fencing to control entry and with a strong police operation reinforced at each corner, this is how the Church of La Merced in Old Havana looked on Friday. Despite the rigors of the pandemic and the rain, hundreds of devotees came to this temple to place a candle before the “Patroness of the Incarcerated.”

Located in the neighborhood of San Isidro, the church is frequented by both the Catholic faithful and those who worship the greater orisha Obbatalá, with whom Our Lady of Mercy is syncretized in Santería. Dressed in white, the faithful arrived early on September 24 to pray specifically for those locked up in prisons.

The location of the church could not be more perfect. San Isidro has been the center of Cuban rebellion since Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and other activists founded the Movement that bears this neighborhood’s name and that has led loud, rebellious acts. Today, the artist is in prison, as are other members of the group, and the State Security closely monitors the area.

For many Havanans, this impoverished section of the Cuban capital is considered the site where the spark that fueled the popular protests of July 11th started. Although the first demonstrations took place in San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa, civil disobedience had begun to take shape much earlier, in a humble house on 955 Damas Street near the Church of La Merced. continue reading

San Isidro has been the center of Cuban rebellion since Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and other activists founded the Movement that bears this neighborhood’s name and that has led loud, rebellious acts

San Isidro is also a neighborhood where a thin line stands between any young person and prison. Poor, largely dedicated to the illegal market, and with fewer economic opportunities than those in other more prosperous municipalities, many neighborhood families have one or more relatives who have been convicted by a court.

In a country with more than 90,000 incarcerated people, this is not unusual; in proportion to its population, Cuba has the largest number of prisoners in the world. Increasingly worrisome, the regime has unleashed massive arrests and judicial prosecutions following the demonstrations calling for “Freedom” and the end of the current system.

Hence, so many have come today to the altar of the patroness who “liberates, consoles and protects” all who are deprived of their freedom, on this her first Feast Day after the events of July. This is also why the police appeared so nervous around the Church and why the plainclothes officers patrolling the building looked questioningly at anyone who approached.

Along Cuba Street, the fencing, patrol cars and police motorcycles blocked access to vehicles from two blocks away on either side of the Church, although these areas were open to pedestrian traffic. “They are there watching because they know that during these religious events anything can happen, such as requesting freedom for the prisoners and more so now,” a young man commented to this newspaper.

Along Cuba Street, the fencing, patrol cars and police motorcycles blocked access to vehicles from two blocks away on either side of the Church

After crossing the police fence, visitors were required to form a line to place flowers and candles on a railing at the chapel. Church staff then arranged the offerings closer to Our Lady of Mercy. It was possible to enter a second queue to get closer to the statue but “without taking photos”, clarified a young man to whomever he saw with the mobile phone in hand.

In any case, it was of little use to try to send an image or a video as the internet connection barely worked. “As soon as I arrived, everything got very slow, I couldn’t even send audio,” commented a young man who was waiting to leave his flowers. “I don’t know if it’s because it’s cloudy or because they have deliberately slowed it down in this area, in case something happens,” he added.

Along Cuba Street, the fencing, patrol cars and police motorcycles blocked access to vehicles from two blocks away on either side of the Church (14ymedio)

For those who could not reach the chapel, there were always gestures of remembrance and veneration in their own homes and on social media networks, which this Friday were filled with photos of candles, white clothing, and cotton candy or rice pudding, foods traditionally offered to the African orisha. Calls for amnesty for political prisoners also abounded.

One of those who spoke out for the incarcerated was the singer Haydée Milanés: “Today, on the day of the Mercy, Obbatalá, I ask for peace for all Cubans. I also ask for freedom for political prisoners. Incarceration, persecution, repression, censorship, will never be the way. May Obbatalá’s blessing reach us all.”

Text of Tweet: Surrounded by metal fencing to control entry and with a strong police operation redoubled in each corner, this is how the Church of La Merced in Old Havana looked on Friday. Hundreds of devotees came to this temple to place a candle before the “Patroness of the Incarcerated”

Translated by: Silvia Suárez

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The Most Violent Line in Cuba is the One for Cigarettes

A line this Wednesday to buy cigarettes in front of the El Exquisito de Fornos market, at Neptuno and Marqués González, in Centro Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 15 September 2021 — Insults and many, many shouts among the tumult, this was the scene on Tuesday morning in front of the El Exquisito de Fornos market, in Neptuno and Marqués González, in Centro Habana. The reason? The sale of unrationed cigarettes, a product that has been in short supply for months and keeps smokers and resellers confronting the drop in sales in state markets.

“They put the chicken out for sale very early and the line was very calm, but when the cigarettes arrived, there was this aggressiveness, something that is very common here in the neighborhood because of cigarettes,” a resident from the capital neighborhood, who was trying to buy meat, told 14ymedio this Wednesday.

In El Exquisito de Fornos each person was allowed to buy only one package, which contains ten packs. They sold two varieties of H.Upmann: without a filter, at 245 pesos, and the Selecto, at 280, in addition to Popular Fuerte, at 210.

“Most of those you see there are not smokers. They buy and then resell,” explains another resident who lives in Neptuno, a few blocks from the market. “For example, the Popular cigarette package is resold on the street for continue reading

800 and 1,000 pesos and a single pack of H.Upmann costs up to more than 100,” he details.

Since the end of last year, the cigarettes that were sold freely, from the Popular, Aromas, Titanes and Criollo brands have disappeared from the network of state stores and cafes. The first to disappear were those that were sold in national currency, but the shortage also reached the supply that was for sale in foreign currency.

The government of the capital announced at the beginning of last July the sale of cigarettes in a regulated manner, in the rationed market, and specified that this point had been reached “due to problems with the availability of the raw material.” The measure was extended to the whole country a few days later and the head of the Ministry of Internal Trade, Betsy Díaz Velázquez, explained that, although it is not a product that is part of the regulated family basket, its sale will be controlled, due to the “deficit of a monthly demand amounting to 37 million packs” to “avoid hoarding.”

Other officials from the ministry itself insisted that the “intermittences in production” are due to difficulties “with the arrival of raw materials in Cuba.” They explained that for this reason the volumes of this product available for sale do not ensure 100% of the country’s demand.

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Controlling People in Line Before Saving a Life in Cuba

As the passersby who gathered around the vehicle observed, the motorcycle was originally electric but had been adapted to run on fuel, which is illegal. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 3 September 2021 — A woman and a motorcyclist were seriously injured on Friday when the latter ran his vehicle over the former on the busy corner of Avenida Carlos III and Calle Infanta, in Havana.

The witnesses asked for medical help. Outraged, they tell 14ymedio that none of the many military personnel from the Armed Forces who have been controlling the lines to shop in the Plaza de Carlos III for months have come to help the victims.

“They are a mob. At that corner alone, when I arrived, there were five ’prevention’ guards, not counting the policemen, and none moved a finger,” says a resident from Centro Habana with annoyance. “They prefer to look after the lines than to look after a life, it seems.”

“The woman came out the worst,” says another witness, “they took her unconscious, although the motorist was also injured, with damage to his face.” One of the policemen who was guarding the scene of the accident tells this newspaper that the young man did not have a driver’s license.

As bystanders who gathered around the vehicle observed, the motorcycle was originally electric but had been adapted to run on fuel, something illegal according to a regulation published by the Ministry of Transport in 2019.

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Beggars Proliferate on the Streets of Havana

Some beggars captured by the lens of 14ymedio in Havana, asking for handouts or rummaging through garbage. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, August 29, 2021 — The most invisible victims of the collapse of the national economy are the homeless. Although beggars have always been part of the usual landscape on the streets of Havana, their presence in doorways, parks, plazas and vacant lots has grown in recent times, and their survival has become more difficult every day.

“It’s difficult for us to care for these people who are assigned to our medical post. Many are elderly who don’t have relatives, nor receive care from any parallel institution and, in reality, what they need is to be admitted in-house for better care of their health,” Yaneysi Ríos, a doctor at a medical office in the capital, tells 14ymedio.

Most of the beggars are usually older adults or people with a mental illness, who lost their homes and families. They are concentrated in Old Havana, Plaza de la Revolución, and Centro Habana, places where they have become accustomed to wandering in search of some coins, which they most often find among the tourists. If a few years ago it was most common to see them sitting in doorways waiting for some money, now they can be seen rummaging through garbage cans in search of food scraps. continue reading

The authorities are most likely to remember them when some VIP or international leader passes through the streets with his caravan of vehicles, or when a major event is held. But with mobility restrictions due to the covid-19 pandemic, many of these activities have decreased.

Havanans still remember the visit of Barack Obama in 2016, when brigades from the Ministry of Public Health proceeded to intern the city’s beggars in healthcare facilities to remove them from the public thoroughfares.

With Pope Francis’s first visit to the island in 2015, the retouchings of façades and the relocations of the homeless were so intense along the road that the procession would follow from the airport, that people ironically renamed the route the “Via Sacra” (Italian for “sacred way”).

During the decades from the 60s to the 80s, the so-called “lazy law” was in force in Cuba, which penalized those who neither studied nor worked. Citizens who were prosecuted for this crime were forced to accept a job, generally in agricultural work, street cleaning, and other occupations that the majority rejected because it was hard work for low pay.

With the arrival of the crisis of the 90s and the appearance of a budding private sector, the State could no longer guarantee a job for each person of working age and the legislation was repealed. Which is the reason, according to officialdom, that homelessness on the streets has increased.

Translated by Tomás A.

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Cuban Soprano Gladys Puig has Died in Havana

Puig began her studies at the Municipal Conservatory of Havana, known today by the name Amadeo Roldán. (Ubail Zamora)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, August 19, 2021 — During the night of Wednesday to Thursday, the prestigious Cuban opera singer Gladys Puig died in Havana at the age of 88 after a long fight against Alzheimer’s, close friends of the artist confirmed to 14ymedio. “For a year a person had been caring for her in her house, because she was previously in a nursing home,” said one of the sources.

Her wake is being held this Thursday morning at the Bernardo Garcia de Zanja y Belascoaín funeral home, in Centro Habana. Friends of the artist point out to this newspaper that the official cultural institutions have not sent “even a single wreath” of flowers.

In tribute to the artist, the tenor Bernardo Lichilín performed the Ave Maria at the funeral home. “My humble prayer to Our Dear Gladys Puig” he wrote when sharing a video about the moment on social media.

A teacher of several generations, the artist was born in the capital on November 26, 1932 into a family of musicians, among whom her father, the conductor Cheo Belén Puig, stands out.

She began her studies at the Municipal Conservatory of Havana, known today by the name Amadeo Roldán. Her first singing teacher was soprano Zoila Gálvez, but she later perfected her technique in Italy with continue reading

maestro Napoleone Annovazzi.

Puig’s professional debut took place at the Musical Theater, with the Gonzalo Roig Lyric Theater under the direction of Héctor Quintero. In January 1958 she performed the Cuba premier of the work El Tabardo, by Giacomo Puccini, with the Grupo Experimental de Ópera. In those years she joined the Pro Arte Musical cast in works such as The Secret Marriage by Cimarosa, Manon by Massenet, and she also participated in the first presentation in Cuba of Puccini’s Sor Angélica.

In 1961 she premiered in Cuba Giancarlo Menotti’s comic opera Amelia Goes to the Dance, playing the title role. That same year she participated in the opera seasons with the pieces Doña Francisquita and Cecilia Valdés, composed by Gonzalo Roig.

The soprano was the founder of the National Lyric Theater of Cuba, created on November 11, 1962, a project in which she developed a wide repertoire of operas, operettas and zarzuelas, almost always in leading roles. She is remembered for her participation in titles such as: The Merry Widow, Luisa Fernanda, María la O, Cecilia Valdes, Lola Cruz, and The Slave.

“Today a great one set out on an eternal journey. Having had the joy of sharing with her in her last stage work, as the old woman Alcina, was a luxury and a tribute that the Lyric Theater offered her for having given so much glory to her country. Beautiful woman, humble, professional, teacher,” wrote professor and countertenor Ubail Zamora on her Facebook profile.

“Always elegant, she was an example to everyone of how to stay beautiful despite the years. You leave us, but you will always be part of the Lyric Theater of Cuba, and wherever you go, a round of applause will sound as the best gift for the great artist, the teacher, and above all, the person we had the pleasure of knowing,” added her colleague from the Camerata Vocale Sine Nomine.

Translated by Tomás A.

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Huge Security Presence for Diaz-Canel’s Visit to Central Havana

A strong police operation on Monte Street due to Díaz-Canel’s visit to the Quisicuaba project on August 27, 2021. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 27 August 2021 – Several streets in Centro Habana woke up paralyzed this Friday morning by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s visit to the Quisicuaba center, shortly before the rain from Tropical Storm Ida began to fall on Havana. “There is a visitor,” muttered a neighbor in the area, which had more police officers and State Security agents than there were vegetables on the shelves of the neighboring market.

“The street corners crowded with of Security agents” was the preamble to the arrival of the president to the neighborhood of Los Sitio, according to the residents interviewed by 14ymedio. Even in nearby Monte Street, the informal vendors that normally abound in the portals were conspicuous by their absence this Friday, a lack that was lamented by the neighbors who had gone out in search of candles, matches and other products necessary to stay at home during the scourge of the Hurricane Ida that keeps the Cuban capital on hurricane watch.

The Cabildo Quisicuaba Sociocultural Project, located on Maloja Street, is directed by the deputy to the National Assembly of Cuba, Enrique Alemán Gutiérrez. “It is a religious association and also a community project, supposedly to help the community, distribute food, donations,” says a neighbor.

“Alemán did this religious community project and was sneaking around here and there as soon as an event started and fighting for his little bit. He spoke of the wonders of the Revolution and flattered and sucked up to continue reading

the leaders, he did not stop until they made him a deputy,” another resident of Los Sitios tells 14ymedio.

“This project raised its head extorting foreigners because that individual dedicated himself to the Yoruba religion and to making those who came from abroad holy. They made huge feasts, food of all kinds, and from that came the rivers of money he earned through these ceremonies,” the man describes. “It is a work of corruption from the very start, grabbing money from all sides.”

The neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in the capital, has for decades been an area with many housing problems, a large number of tenements and serious problems in its water supply infrastructure. Marginality, informal employment and the black market are an inseparable part of life in Los Sitios.

Díaz-Canel leaving the Quisicuaba project headquarters, surrounded by his security team. (Presidency Cuba / Twitter)

A good share of the residents in the area dedicate themselves to the purchase and resale of products from nearby stores such Ultra, the La Cubana hardware store and La Isla de Cuba. With tourism canceled due to the pandemic and mobility restrictions imposed on residents, many people have lost their way of earning a living and now survive by lining up at hard currency stores and reselling the merchandise.

“President Díaz-Canel signs the Guest Book where he recognizes the altruistic work carried out by this human sociocultural project from and to the community,” the official account of the Cuban Presidency tweeted this Friday, after announcing the visit of the president to the institution “that for more than 25 years has developed local projects” and that “includes 29 social works.”

In Quisicuaba, says another resident, “religious acts, drumming sessions and much more are held.” She speaks about Enrique Alemán Gutiérrez who is a doctor by profession and only ” practiced medicine for a short time because he had a serious problem in Public Health and was expelled,” she relates.

“Later, he was in official religious organizations and from there he ended up at the famous Summit in Panama, where Cuban civil society supposedly participated. But it was a gang of rabble, what he put together in that event was horrible, because he was one of those who led those scandals,” recalls the woman. “Oh, and also when Barack Obama was in Havana I saw him at several acts of revolutionary reaffirmation. He’s the worst.”

“They were stopping everyone who passed through that area asking what they were doing, where they lived,” a young man who walks through Monte every day to his workplace in Old Havana told this newspaper. “There were hundreds of security agents in civilian clothes sitting on the sidewalk having a Tanrico brand soda wrapped in a nylon bag and a snack, and another group was also doing the same in the Monte y Águila park,” he describes.

Shortly after Díaz-Canel left Quisicuaba, the Presidency released a video showing a group of people huddled together and not respecting the mandatory distancing to prevent contagion by covid. Along with that, where the president is clearly present, it was reported that he visited “with the population of Los Sitios, as always happens, and the population responds and accompanies him with enthusiasm and a very Cuban conga.”

The visit took place after the leader met with religious leaders and associations recognized by the Government last Tuesday. He also planned a meeting with Cuban Masons, but the Mason’s Grand Master Ernesto Zamora Fernández refused to participate. “We have decided not to attend the meeting called by the Presidency of the country, in order to preserve Masonic unity,” said the community leader in the document, released by several Masons on their social networks.

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Balcony Collapse in San Rafael Street Alarms Residents of Central Havana

The collapse happened in front of the Juan Vitalio Acuña elementary school. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 23 August 2021 — The collapse of two balconies this Sunday in the building located at number 403 A, on the corner of Manrique and San Rafael, in the municipality of Centro Habana, worries residents already concerned. The collapse did not cause casualties because it happened after nine at night, right in front of the Juan Vitalio Acuña elementary school.

“The third-floor balcony collapsed and fell on top of an apartment on the second floor and also knocked down part of the balcony of that house,” a local resident told 14ymedio, while continuing to look suspiciously at the concrete fragments that remain on the street on Monday.

The resident says that many people pass through the area and thanks to the fact that the collapse occurred late at night “there was no tragedy.” Authorities in Havana have decreed a curfew between 9 pm and 5 am for months, in response to the covid-19 pandemic, which keeps people and vehicles off the street during that time.

Calle San Rafael is one of the busiest roads in the municipality as it connects continue reading

avenues such as Belascoaín, Galiano and Prado, as well as having a strong presence of shops, private food venues and even a very popular agricultural market. But, as it is not a tourist artery, it has hardly benefited from any repairs, although most of its homes are from the first half of the last century.

The balconies were in the part of the building that faces Calle San Rafael. (14ymedio)

It was precisely the collapse in January 2020 that caused the tragic deaths of three girls in the neighboring municipality of Old Havana, between Vives and Revillagigedo streets, in the Jesús María neighborhood. The structure, deteriorated by the years and the lack of maintenance, collapsed around four-thirty in the afternoon, when the children were on the sidewalk rehearsing for the events to celebrate the birth of José Martí.

Centro Habana is one of the most populated municipalities in the capital and is an area that, for decades, has been characterized by the high presence of tenements, mostly with infrastructure problems and overcrowding. Many of its buildings were built at the beginning of the 20th century and have not received repairs beyond a facade painting for more than fifty years.

The buildings near the Malecón suffer especially from the effects of the saltpeter from the ocean and none of the various government programs have solved the problem of the frequent collapse.

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Scary Prices in Cuba: 350 Pesos for a Pound of Garlic

“Everything has risen, it is not only garlic, but also onions, taro, and not to mention pork,” customers complain. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 12 August 2021 — “Until recently they were paying for the same thing on the street, but now when they see it on the market stands, they are shouting in the sky,” a vendor at the agricultural market on San Rafael Street in Centro Habana responded on Thursday morning to the complaints about the price of garlic, 350 pesos for a pound of garlic. “I have to pay a very expensive rent and nobody gives me anything,” explained the merchant.

At the beginning of this month, and after the historic popular protests of July 11, the authorities annulled, with a new resolution, the measures taken in February and April that set maximums for agricultural products for sale in the private sector and some foods (taro, all types of bananas, sweet potato, mango, guava, papayas and tomatos) destined for “social consumption.”

After the Ministry of Finance and Prices announced that the decision was made with the “objective of recognizing the current costs of agricultural producers and stimulating an increase in production,” some products that have disappeared for months have returned to the markets, but this time with prices that never cease to amaze customers.

“This is crazy, almost 100 pesos a pound of beans, and as for garlic, don’t even look at it, there’s no one who will pay for it,” according to a buyer who ventured continue reading

into the San Rafael market, one of the most important in the Cuban capital, speaking to 14ymedio. The cost of a pound of this staple, widely used in Cuban cuisine, exceeds $14 US, according to the official exchange rate. “In addition, the heads are small and the cloves are very thin.They are not good quality.”

The merchant, however, defended himself against the criticism: “I am an easterner and for me life is not easy at all in Havana. What bothers me is the double standard that until a few days ago these same people bought garlic at that price on the street, because there wasn’t any in the agricultural market.” The seller assures that “now that it is on the stands, then they complain, but until yesterday they paid for it at whatever price.”

The explanation failed to convince those who passed near the sign with the prices. “Everything has risen, it is not only the garlic, but also onios, taro and not to mention the pork. At this rate, by the end of the year I do not know what we will be able to eat in this country,” questioned a pensioner who left the market with only a piece of pumpkin and some coriander leaves. A few meters away, another vendor exhibited grapes at 120 pesos per pound, more than two days’ pension for any old person on this island.

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