Residents Thank The Rain That Put Out The Year’s Biggest Fire

The provinces at greatest risk for fire are Guantanamo, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, and Isla de la Juventud. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 19 April 2017 – When the wind blows, the odor of burning overwhelms the town of El Guay, in the municipality of Mella (Santiago de Cuba). It is an odor that sticks to clothes, hair and food. Last Sunday a downpour put out the forest fire that burned 5,000 hectares in the eastern part of Cuba, but the worst could be yet to come.

The columns of smoke warned the community’s residents that something was happening. In the neighboring province of Holguin, the flames began April 9 and devoured everything in their path. “Nothing was said on radio or television,” Ruberlandy Avila, 35 years of age and resident of El Guay, tells 14ymedio. continue reading

Surrounded by cane fields and vegetation, the neighbors saw the tongues of fire on the horizon as they approached. When night fell, they looked daunting and ever closer to the houses. “The entire town was affected by the smoke, many parents fled with their children without knowing what to do,” recalls the young man.

News of the fire was broadcast on national media only after a timely rain put out the last flame. The official statement blamed the disaster on the August 6th Cattle Company from the town of Biran. But the later disorganization among the forces charged with controlling it did the rest.

The fire spread through the Sierra Cristal range until arriving at the Pinares de Mayari area. According to Avila, Civil Defense authorities later reported that several local administrators had not authorized delivery of the fuel necessary for getting the tanker trucks underway to the affected zone to put out the flames.

In El Guay the residents saw the fire approaching which also fed on the branches and trees that fell after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The combination of the dry wood and the disorganization produced conditions favorable to the fire’s spread. “We thought nothing could put out such a strong fire,” recalls the resident of Santiago.

Engineer Raul Gonzalez, head of the Fire Management Department for the Forest Rangers, warned last February that this year the Island could suffer between 400 and 450 forest fires, damaging some 4,000 hectares. The figure was easily exceeded by the 5,000 hectares of pastures, forests and oak that just finished burning in Holguin.

The fire destroyed more than 5,000 hectares of fields and forests in Holguin. (Archive/Telesur)

Not only dried branches and fallen trees were lost. Environmental specialists from the area classify as “sensitive” the damage caused to flora and fauna of the municipalities of Cueto and Mella. “There are no bird nests or butterflies left, and even lizards are damaged,” commented one resident of the Cueto municipality to 14ymedio.

Leonel Sanchez, Agriculture subdelegate in the Santiago de Cuba province, reiterated in the local press that most of these fires occur “in crop rows, livestock areas, areas where the elimination of the invasive marabou weed is underway, uncontrolled burning and non-use of spark arrestors in cars.”

Between January and May the conditions are most favorable for fires to start and for the flames to spread. Between the beginning of the year and the beginning of February, some 40 fires were reported, more than one per day.

The provinces at greatest risk are Guantanamo, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma and Isla de la Juventud. The human factor is the trigger in 90% of the cases.

Far from El Guay, at the other end of the Island, tobacco planter Nestor Perez also watches his cultivated fields with worry. “In this time of year forest fires are more likely,” and in Vueltabajo the farmers try to “have clean surroundings for tobacco curing houses in order to prevent those accidents.”

The Pinareno farmer recognizes that many do not complete these tasks and “that is why sometimes fires occur” because “the grass itself at this time is very dangerous.”

For Avila and his family, the drama they experienced is still very real. The days passed, the air became almost unbreathable, and in the middle of last week helicopters and small planes began to arrive to control the flames, but the situation seemed to be out of control.

A “huge downpour” came to the aid of the residents. The day that the first drops fell many watched the sky gratefully. This Monday it kept raining in Mella, a municipality that, like the rest of the Island, is suffering the worst drought since the middle of the last half century. For the moment, the residents of El Guay breathe with relief, but they know that many hard months lie ahead.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

State Security Prevents Screening Of Miguel Coyula’s Documentary ‘Nadie’


Note: The video above is not subtitled but the excerpts from Nadie here are subtitled.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 16 April 2017 – Cuba’s State Security and the National Revolutionary Police surrounded the independent gallery El Círculo to prevent this Saturday’s screening of the documentary Nadie (Nobody), directed by Miguel Coyula and featuring the censored poet and writer Rafael Alcides.

The filmmaker and his wife, actress Lynn Cruz, were intercepted by police at the corner of 13th and 10th Streets in Havana’s Vedado district. Starting several hours earlier the agents had closed the street to vehicles and pedestrians, according to a statement made from the location to 14ymedio.

Cruz and Coyula point out that without any reason and with “only a vague argument” the operation was carried out in the area, and the police asked for their IDs and didn’t let them pass. Only “four Spanish diplomats” managed to reach the gallery, according to Lia Villares, curator of El Circulo. continue reading

On 29 January Nadie received the Award for the Best Documentary during its international premier in the Dominican Global Film Festival.

“A group of uniformed men and others in civilian clothes advanced toward us. One of them took out a piece of paper with a list and compared our names with those written there”

“A group of uniformed men and others in civilian clothes advanced toward us. One of them took out a piece of paper with a list and compared our names with those written there,” said Coyula and Cruz describing the moment when the police blocked their access to the site where the documentary was going to be shown.

Cruz also denounced that State Security warned several of the invited guests that the operation was being carried out to “save” them from the “counterrevolutionaries” who had “deceptively” issued invitations to the screening.

“As authors of the work, we denounce the censorship that the government exercises because this time it went beyond the institution,” said Coyula.

“Art is also about the citizen’s right to share and discuss a film. Intellectuals and artists need to take a firm stand and defend their right to perform and display critical works, without compromise, because the attitude that that they take in life ends us being reflected in their work,” he added, speaking to 14ymedio.

Screen shot of the documentary Nadie with Rafael Alcides.

Following the police deployment that prevented access to the gallery, the filmmaker invited several friends to his home where he projected the documentary. Among the guests was Michel Matos, director of Matraka Productions, who is strongly criticized by officialdom.

The Círculo had also announced a Saturday screening of Carlos Lechuga’s film, Santa and Andrés, but the film’s producer, Claudia Calviño, refused to allow the projection and called the gesture an “illegality” saying “this and other activities are outside the traditional marketing framework.”

Lía Villares circulated an email on Sunday in which she defined the “political” character of the gallery that seeks to “promote a culture that continues to be censored despite international awareness and witnesses.” The activist also points out that it is in Cuba that artists have “a moral responsibility to the present and future.”

Lysandra Does Not Want To Be Reeducated

Lisandra Rivera was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Provincial Court. (UNPACU)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 12 April 2107 — Confined for more than 80 days in a punishment cell, without a single contact with the outside, the activist Lisandra Rivera Rodríguez of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) received her first family visit this Tuesday, in the Mar Verde Women’s Prison in Santiago de Cuba.

Lisandra Rivera, 28, was arrested after her home was raided by State Security on 31 December of last year. On that occasion, and despite having been beaten by the agents, she was accused of an alleged criminal “attack,” according to UNPACU activists. Her family had not been able to contact her since 17 January when her trial was held in the Provincial Court and she was sentenced to two years imprisonment. On 18 April she will have served four months. continue reading

She had no access to anything, no right to family or conjugal visits, or to receive calls or food brought in from outside

Her husband, Yordanis Chavez, commented in a telephone interview with 14ymedio that both he and her parents managed to be with her for almost two hours. “As of Saturday she is outside the punishment cell and is in a of maximum severity wing of the prison.”

According to Chávez, from now on they will be able to visit her normally. The next appointment is scheduled for the 17th of this month. “We saw her well, quite strong of spirit. She continues to refuse to comply with orders and or to accept reeducation.”

The authorities of the prison used this refusal to accept the “reeducation” regime as a reason to impose the isolation of a punishment cell on Rivera. “The tried to make her stand up and give military salutes to the jailers who conduct a count three or four times a day. When a high official arrived she also had to stand at attention like they do in the military and she refused to do it,” says Chavez.

During the visit, Lisandra told her relatives that the punishment cell is like that of any police dungeon, pestilent and in very bad conditions, without light. She had no access to anything, no right to family or conjugal visits, nor could she receive phone calls or food brought in from outside. “Every Tuesday I was handcuffed and taken, almost dragged, to the disciplinary council,” the activist told her husband.

UNPACU’s leader, José Daniel Ferrer, fears that, in the midst of the difficult international situation, there could be a repeat of the 2003 Black Spring

Yordanis Chavez explained that they have not appealed the ruling because they do not trust the judicial system. “Lisandra has not committed any crime, it is only because it was an order of State Security as punishment for her activism in UNPACU in favor of freedom and democracy in Cuba.”

José Daniel Ferrer, UNPACU’s leader, fears that, in the midst of the difficult international situation, there could be a repeat of what happened in the spring of 2003, when 75 regime opponents were arrested and sentenced to extremely long prison terms. That crackdown, which came to be known as the Black Spring, coincided with the United States’ invasion of Iraq, a time when the world was looking the other way. At present, more than 50 UNPACU activists remain in prison in several provinces, many of them accused of crimes they have not committed.

For its part, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation announced in its last report, on the month of March, that there had been at least 432 arbitrary detentions of peaceful dissidents in Cuba in that month. In addition, several dissidents were vandalized and stripped of their computers, cell phones and other means of work, as well as cash.

Young Cuban Filmmakers Challenge Official History

Young directors present their work in the “Moving Ideas” section at the 16th Young Filmmakers Show of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 8 April 2017 – Were the events like the books tell us? Is the official story a report of what really happened? The attempt to answer these questions inspires the documentary and two fictional shorts that were presented Wednesday in the ‘Moving Ideas’ section of the 16th edition of the Young Filmmakers Exhibition of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) in Havana.

Under the motto “Forgetting does not exist,” the filmmakers approached collective and family memory to show a point of view often ignored by the epic of Revolutionary discourse. The works probe those memories for what Cubans treasure about moments in national life, beyond the gilded frame that the institutional version attaches to them.

Economic disasters, a war on a distant continent and the drama of family separation after exile, were some of the issues addressed by this new generation of film directors, who show a special interest in looking back. Children of indoctrination and official silence seem willing to shed light on the darker areas of what has happened in the last half century. continue reading

Director Pedro Luis Rodríguez offers the short Personal Report set on the eve of the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 — when all remaining private businesses in the country were confiscated, down to the last shoeshine boy. It was a watershed moment in the economic life of the nation that brought profound effects on commerce, supply and even the mentality of those born after that massive closure of private businesses.

Were the facts as they are told in the books? Is the official story a report of what really happened?

In less than half an hour, Rodríguez shows the conflicts experienced by Ricardo, an analyst on the Planning Board, who is preparing to present a report to his boss on the consequences of the measure that is about to be taken. The protagonist defends his right to participate in the decisions that are made in the country or at least to be heard, but everything is in vain.

Personal Report presents that look from below on a historical event where the decision was taken “on high.” An offensive about which the government has never offered a public self-criticism, although a quarter of a century later the private sector was again authorized to operate. Today, more than half a million workers are struggling to support themselves despite strong legal limits on their activities and economic hardships.

Screen shot from ‘The Son of the Dream.’ (CC)

In the discussions with the audience after the screening in the Chaplin room, Rodriguez acknowledged that his film is “a wink” at the current phenomenon of self-employment. His desire is that the work serves to “reflect on this present” and to meditate “on participation and the need to be heard and to be consistent with oneself.”

The flood of memories and questioning continued with the fictional short Taxi, directed by Luis Orlando Torres. Taxi addresses another of the many themes barely touched on by the fiery speeches from those in power: Cuba’s involvement in the war in Angola and its aftermath in society; the plot centers on the physical and mental wounds left by that conflict outside the island’s borders.

‘Personal Report’ presents that look from below on a historical event where the decision was taken “on high.”

Torres focuses on the effects on families and establishes a parallel with the internationalist medical missions that now send Cuban healthcare workers around the world, and their consequences here at home. The film develops a suspense story that begins when a taxi driver picks up a passenger in a seemingly casual way. A brief conversation will suffice to call into question moral aspects of a war, one which the Government has always defended as an act of solidarity.

Meanwhile, The Son of the Dream, directed by Alejandro Alonso and filmed in 16 millimeter with a Bolex camera, relives through family letters and postcards the filmmaker’s memories of an uncle whom he was unable to know due to the separation caused by the Mariel Boatlift. The material is the result of a workshop given at the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños by Canadian director Philip Hoffman.

Beyond the aesthetic and artistic values ​​of each of the projects presented in ‘Moving Ideas’, it is clear that much of the young cinema that is being produced on the Island is not trying to please institutions or accept pre-established truths. It is an uncomfortable, irreverent, questioning and willing movement to belie an epic story that has been shaped more with silences than with truths.

‘Albertico’, Projectionist for ‘Strawberry And Chocolate’

Screenshot from the Cuban film ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 2 April 2017 — Not even the most unconditional followers of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, known as ‘Titón’, have seen the movie Strawberry and Chocolate as many times as Alberto Maceo. This Cuban with the mischievous smile worked as a projectionist at Havana’s Acapulco cinema when the film was on the marquee for a year. The movie left in indelible mark on his memory, which he still hasn’t been able, nor does he want to, get out of his mind.

From Germany, where he currently lives, Maceo, ‘Albertico’ to his friends, learned last week that the only Cuban film that managed to sneak into the Oscar competition is going to be restored. The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) announced that it was a “very complex process,” despite the fact that the film is less than a quarter of a century old. continue reading

The news of the restoration unleashed a wave of nostalgia in the émigré. In 1993, when the story of Diego and David was released, Albertico was a teenager who no longer fit in his high school desk. Not only had he reached a physical height that made him stand out above his clasmates, but his restlessness pushed him into the theater. He played his first role in Pinocchio, while the movies allowed him to make a living.

It started as a lucky break to work as a projectionist in a difficult time when Cuban film production had plummeted and the projection rooms smelled of mold and sweat. In the midst of the Special Period, the young man began in a profession about which he recalls, “if you learn it well and focus on the details” you become aware that “what you have in your hands is a work of art.”

But enthusiasm wasn’t enough. Those were hard times, times when hunger and lack of sleep were not good allies in the projection booth. Albertico developed tricks so as not to fall asleep, from listening to music to reading a book, but few of them worked. He discovered that just talking with the other projectionists helped him manage to keep his eyes open while on the screen Titon’s movie played for the umpteenth time.

Alberto Maceo, Albertico to his friends, worked as a projectionist for the Acapulco film Strawberry and Chocolate was playing for a year. (Facebook)

There were no lack of failures. One day when he was alone, sleep overcame him, and despite the cries of “done!” and “cut!” he only woke up when scrolling in front of the viewers’ eyes were “all those letters and numbers and marks at the end of the roll” that no one is ever supposed to see “in a good projection.”

“The only thing that really made our lives happy was the Film Festival every December,” he says now. It meant an oasis in the monotony of repetitive programming. “The bad thing was when the festival ended and the program was once again Strawberry and Chocolate ” he quips.

He came to know the film so well that a student asked him for a transcript of all the speeches of the characters and Albertico just needed to take a little breath to start repeating them one by one.

One day the young projectionist was transferred to the Riviera cinema, on 23rd street. He thought in this way he might save himself from watching the same movie every day, but his happiness was short lived. The National Film Distributor decided to schedule Strawberry and Chocolate at his new workplace as well. Albertico again had Titón’s famous work in his hands “like that brick Diego doesn’t know what to do with,” he jokes.

Among his most persistent memories is the music composed by José María Vitier for the film, although he remembers it in a rather peculiar way. “The material was pecked and scratched” so there were some notes of the credits that were missing. He got used to listening to it like that. Now, when he hears it in perfect quality his mind “always omits those notes.”

In those interminable replays trapped in an endless loop, from which he could not escape, he analyzed the movements of the actors, learned to know when they blinked, each one of their breaths and their pauses.” “Every frame” was recorded in his head.

In the projection booth. (Noboot)

Albertico began to detect those details which nobody noticed. “What does that actor do, out of focus there in the background? What happens to the strawberry in Diego’s spoon in the first scene in Coppelia?” He also began to notice those “microphones or cables that are accidentally seen in some scenes.”

“They are details that no one sees because Strawberry and Chocolate is a work of art that takes you along the paths of the forest,” he reflects.

“The funny thing is that in a year of screening, the film never failed to have an audience,” he recalls. “Those who had nothing else to do, who hadn’t seen it before, who came to smoke a joint, or the couple who would sit in the last row of the theater to eat each other alive,” and also those who “with Marilyn Solaya naked or a few seconds of sex on the screen, came to masturbate.”

He also recalls how the filmstrip fell apart in his hands because the material was in “very bad shape” and the projectionist comments that “in some cases you could see the gaps on the screen.”

Some time ago, Albertico bought a copy of Strawberry and Chocolate on DVD in a German market. Whenever he watches it on his TV he imagines the sounds of the roll in the projector. Although on the screen of his television the scenes shine, his eyes are enchanted to see the scars of that picture he had in his hands so many times.

Sagua La Grande, The Village Where A Glass Of Water Is A Miracle

Residents in Sagua la Grande filling containers with water.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 30 March 2017 — Through the streets of Sagua la Grande, in the province of Villa Clara, people walk around with bottles, buckets and every kind of receptacle. This month’s break in the turbine that supplies the city’s water has forced its inhabitants to carry water from different towns.

“It’s been more than a week without water,” Jaime Guillermo Castillo, a resident, told 14ymedio. “We fill the buckets at some public taps very far from the center, everyone goes to the closest one however they can. We go in horse-drawn carts, on bicycles, or whatever appears.” continue reading

The municipality is supplied by a public aqueduct system that has three basic sources: Caguaguas about 7 miles away, Chincilla about 6 miles, and Viana, nearly 10 miles. But with the acute drought affecting the whole country, the first of these sources has had to come up with most of the supply.

Transporting water by bike. (14ymedio)

The breaking of the Caguaguas turbine aggravated the situation. The equipment was taken to Santa Clara for repairs but the residents complain about the lack of information and the excessive delay. The problem has reached the point that several residents have called the local People’s Power delegate to resolve the problem as soon as possible or to make a public protest.

“First they said it was only for a couple of days, but we have been dealing with this for more than a week and the situation is getting worse,” laments farmer Jorge Pablo, who fears “big crop losses” because it’s been at least eight days without being able to put “a single drop of water in the furrows.”

According to the Population and Housing Census of 2012, the municipality Sagua la Grande has about 52,334 inhabitants, 90% in urban areas. Problems with water supply have been frequent in recent years due to poor infrastructure.

Several areas of the city have also had problems with water pressure for decades, mainly in the San Juan neighborhood, the southern part of Victoria Center and Loma Bonita. Water is almost entirely unavailable in the latter. A situation that has forced many villagers to drill wells for their homes, which has brought a deterioration of the water table.

Through the streets of Sagua la Grande, in the Province of Villa Clara, people wander about, loaded down with jars, buckets and all kinds of containers (14ymedio)

A study a decade ago calculated that water losses in the city were estimated at 30% and were mainly caused by leaks and uncontrolled consumption. Of the total water that is pumped from the sources of supply, about 410 liters per second, only about 290 reach the city.

Instead of improving, the situation has continued to worsen in the last ten years and the people’s council areas with the greatest difficulties are Coco Solo and Centro Victoria.

The driver from Caguaguas has also suffered the problems of maintenance and conservation, as well as the shortage of equipment and qualified personnel to maintain a stable service, according to local press reports.

Authorities attribute part of these problems to “unscrupulous citizens” who drill holes in the water distribution pipes to illicitly irrigate small orchards. The presence in the area of ​​numerous producers of meat with clandestine farms has contributed to the increase of the phenomenon.

A study a decade ago estimated that water losses in the city were estimated at 30% and were mainly caused by leaks and uncontrolled consumption. (14ymedio)

However, the residents point out that the promised investments have not been made to avoid the continuous breaks. “Nobody cares about this town,” laments Herminia, was was born there and who is now trying to sell her four-room property with an immense patio.

The Villaclareña puts her hopes on the sale of her house to leave what she considers has become “a place with no future.” She feels that Sagua la Grande has undergone a process of deterioration and “the frequent breakingof the turbine is another step in this fall.” Not even the 2011 declaration making the historic city center as a National Monument managed to stop the process.

“A town without water is a ghost town,” says Herminia. “Parents do not want to send children to school in dirty uniforms and older people are the ones who are worse off because they cannot carry water from afar.” She paid a water-bearer about 50 Cuban pesos (about $2 US), a quarter of her pension, to fill a tank that she only uses for cooking: “A bath is a luxury that I can not give myself,” she says resignedly.

Cuba Holds World Record For Visa Applications Rejected By The United States

Hundreds of Cubans line up every day outside the US embassy in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar/Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 25 March 2017 – Maria, 59, has a daughter in Miami she hasn’t seen for six years. Her visa applications have been denied three times and she promised herself that she would never “step foot in” the US consulate in Havana again.

Cuba is the country with the most denials of those who aspired to travel to the United States in the last two years. In the midst of an abrupt drop in the granting of visas under Barack Obama’s administration, the Department of State rejected 76% of the travel requests made by Cuban citizens in fiscal 2015, according to figures released by the US press. continue reading

Cubans are followed on the US consulate most-rejected list by nationals of Laos (67%), Guinea-Bissau (65%) and Somalia (65%). In the Americas, the others most affected, although far behind Cubans, are Haitians (60%).

According to preliminary data released by the US State Department, the situation has worsened in fiscal year 2016, with Cuban visa applications rejected at a rate of 81.85%.

Each interview to request a visa cost Maria about 160 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), with no chance of reimbursement, nor has she ever received any explanations about why her permission to travel was denied.

Places where US visa requests are most rejected (NYT)

On each occasion the woman dressed in her best clothes, added an expensive perfume that her daughter sent her, and practiced her possible answers in front of the mirror. “No, I will not work during my stay,” she repeated several times. “I want to see my granddaughter who is a little girl,” and “I can’t live anywhere but Cuba,” she loudly repeats as a refrain.

She took with her the title to her house in Central Havana, a copy of her bank statement and several photos with her husband in case they asked her to provide reasons why she would not remain “across the pond.”

Last year 14,291 Cubans received visas for family visits, to participate in exchange programs, and for cultural, sports or business reasons, among other categories. The figure contrasts with the 22,797 visas granted in 2015 and, more strikingly, the 41,001 granted in 2014.

Non-immigrant visas issued to Cubans on the island

The State Department said that the reduction of visas granted in Havana is because of no specific reason, but that because the valid time period of the multi-entry visas was extended to five years in 2013, many islanders don’t need to return for new interviews to make multiple trips to the United States.

But Maria did not figure among the fortunate in any of her three attempts.

The last time she headed to the imposing building that houses that US consulate in the early morning hours, she prayed to the Virgin of Mercedes, made a cross with the sole of her shoe and put flowers before the portrait of her deceased mother.

She went to apply for a B2 Visa, the ones that allow multiple visits to the United States to visit relatives and for tourism. It seemed like the line lasted “an eternity” before they called her name, she said. Then came the iron-clad security to enter the building.

“The interview room had an intimidating coldness,” she recalls, and was long and rectangular. Applicants talked to immigration officials through shielded glass.

The woman’s feet trembled and the clerk on the other side of the glass gave her no time to explain much. He just made a mark on the form with each answer. A man was crying ata nearby window and an octogenarian lady sighed after hearing she was not approved.

More than two million Cubans reside in the United States, with an active participation in the economy and politics, primarily in South Florida

Maria knows that the United States and Cuba have signed an agreement for 20,000 Cubans to receive immigrant visas every year. In 1995, President Bill Clinton negotiated that agreement to end the Rafter Crisis, fueled by the economic recession that hit the island after the fall of the socialist camp.

In 2016, 9,131 Cubans obtained a visa to legally emigrate to the United States, many of them under the Cuban Parole Family Reunification Program, and others through the International Lottery of Diversity Visas or the Cuban Parole program, among others.

More than two million Cubans reside in the United States, with an active participation in the economy and politics, primarily in South Florida.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, approved in 1966, allows Cubans to obtain permanent residence (a green card) if, after entering legally, they spend one year in the United States. A special welcoming policy only for Cubans known as wet foot/dry foot was cancelled in January; this policy allowed any Cuban who stepped foot in the country, even without papers, to remain, while Cubans who were intercepted at sea were returned to the island. In the last five years 150,000 Cubans took advantage of this policy to settle in the United States.

Cubans admitted to the United States — Total Arrivals

However, Mary’s intention is not to emigrate. She does not want to live in a country that is not her country, although her relatives have told her that Miami “is full of Cubans” and that Hialeah is like Central Havana.

Despite her Afro-Cuban rites and trying to maintain a positive mental attitude, in her last interview she didn’t have any “luck” either.

She received a quick denial and was given no chance to display all the answers she had rehearsed. In her opinion, the fact of being under 65 plays against her. “They approve older people who cannot work illegally there,” the lady assumes.

For Eloisa, a retired science teacher, that is not the reason, rather it is “hostility toward Cubans” by the US Government.

“The Americans want to take over Cuba. It has always been their greatest desire and because they cannot do it, they punish us by separating us from our children,” the woman says by phone. She has been a member of the Cuban Communist Party for 25 years and has had two children living in Houston for just over six years.

Although she only tried once, last year, the refusal from the consulate made her not want to try again.

“My children work very hard and I wanted to give them the pleasure of going to spend a little time with them. But hey, it’s not to be, “ she says in a voice that is brittle and resigned.

Mary, however, does not tire. This year her daughter will gain American citizenship and the woman hopes that this new condition will facilitate a positive response to her next request. Although this new attempt will leave her a little older and with almost $500 less in her pocket, in a country where the average monthly salary does not exceed $28.

A Year After Obama’s Visit, Cubans Feel Disillusioned With His Legacy / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

On March 20, 2016, Barack Obama began a historic visit to the Island that raised hopes and questions. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 19 March 2017 – It rained when the presidential plane touched down on the tarmac at Havana’s Airport. On 20 March 2016, Barack Obama began a historic visit to the island that awakened hopes and sparked questions. One year after that visit, Cubans are taking stock of what happened and, in particular, what did not happen.

The tenant of the White House evoked waves of enthusiasm during his tour of Havana’s streets. His official agenda included talking with young entrepreneurs, he appeared on a comedy TV show, he visited a private restaurant, and he met with representatives from civil society. They were intense days during which popular illusions reached historic records.

However, Obama’s decision to eliminate the wet foot/dry foot policy before the end of his term in January, caused that sympathy to plummet. Now, inquiring about his legacy on Cuban streets leads to answers mostly filled with criticism, resentment or a sense of betrayal. continue reading

“I lost my life,” Luis Pedroso, a soundman by profession, tells 14ymedio, He sold all his property to pay for an illegal trip to the United States. He left Cuba for the Dominican Republic, and then crossed Mexico and arrived at the border in Nuevo Laredo, on 12 January when the immigration policy that benefitted Cubans was no longer in force.

Cubans crowded the streets hoping to see Obama and his family. (EFE)

“What did he do that for?” asks Pedroso, about the act of the Democrat. “We Cubans gave him our hearts and he betrayed us,” he says. The man sleeps on the couch of his sister’s house waiting to “make money again to leave.” He thinks “Trump is less sympathetic,” but perhaps, “will get more loyal.”

The months following the presidential visit, the emigration of Cubans to the United States continued its growing trend. More than 50,000 Cubans entered US territory during fiscal year 2016, according to the Office of Field Operations of the Customs and Border Protection Service.

Norma works as a saleswoman in a private coffee shop in Havana’s Chinatown. She recalls that in the days when Obama was on the island, “people were going crazy all over to try to see him.” She was among the hundreds of people who crowded along the Paseo del Prado when word spread that The Beast (Obama’s armored car) would pass by with the presidential family.

The woman was especially hopeful about the economic benefits that could come from the trip. “It seemed that everything would be fixed and that we self-employed workers would be able to import and bring products from over there,” she reflects. But, “everything is stuck,” is continues.

The entrepreneur would like to bring an “ice cream machine” from the United States, and “ask for a loan or find an investor who wants to put money into a small business.” However, the customs restrictions imposed on the Cuban side make commercial imports difficult, and there is no easy way to send supplies to the island from the United States.

Nor have expectations in the countryside been met. Luis Garcia, a farmer dedicated to planting rice outside Cienfuegos believes that “everything has been greatly delayed.” The flexibilities implemented by Obama from the beginning of the diplomatic thaw were mainly directed toward the private and agricultural sectors, but “the benefits haven’t appeared,” said the farmer.

Obama in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. (EFE)

The Cienfueguero continues to plow the land with an old yoke of oxen and recalls that “there was much talk about the arrival of “resources, tractors and seeds, but everything remains the same.” Nevertheless he believes that “Obama has been the best president of the United States with regards to us, a man of integrity,” he says.

The activists, who talked with Obama on that occasion and behind closed doors, are also taking stock after twelve months.

For Dagoberto Valdés, director of the independent magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), the main result of the trip was “to show that ‘the enemy’ used as a weapon in the Cuban government’s narrative was willing to offer a white rose,” as Obama demonstrated in his speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro.

The speech, broadcast live, is considered by many as “the best part of the visit,” says Valdez, who recognizes that “a year later, unfortunately, the situation in Cuba is worsening.” He cites an increase in repression, the attacks on the United States in the official discourse, which continues to be one of “trenches and confrontation.”

The opponent Manuel Cuesta Morúa was also at that table at the US Embassy in Havana. He points out that after the arrival of the Democrat there was an emphasis on “an awareness that our problems are our problems, not problems caused by the United States.” Obama helped to defuse the “historic tension” between “democracy and nationalism.”

Obama’s trip ended with a visit to a baseball game. (EFE)

On the other hand, the regime opponent Martha Beatriz who was traveling during the historic visit, sums up the impact of Obama’s trip as “none.” While “he left everyone filled with hopes,” on the contrary, “what he did was to put a final end to the wet foot/dry foot policy.”

The former prisoner of the Black Spring believes that the visit “is not something that is remembered gratefully right now.” When it happened, “everyone was very happy and filled with hopes, but a year later it’s completely different,” she emphasized.

The columnist Miriam Celaya believes that beyond “being in favor or against” Obama’s actions toward the island “there is one thing that is undeniable, and that is that he marked the Cuban policy of the last fifty years like no other American president.”

Celaya believes that the Democrat “ended the exceptionality” of the Cuban issue “by taking away the government’s foreign enemy.” A situation that has the Plaza of the Revolution “forced to render accounts. Ending the wet foot/dry foot policy,” also contributed to ending “the emigration preference for Cubans in the United States.”

“Any policy towards Cuba framed by US politicians, as long as this system lasts, will have as an obligatory reference this parting of the waters achieved by Obama,” the independent journalist says.

Celaya believes that the population developed “tremendous expectations that are now completely deflated. Many see Obama as the beloved and the hated,” an attitude that puts “the solutions in the United States, as if they have to come from outside,” she says.

The leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Jose Daniel Ferrer, believes that Obama “did everything possible to help the people out of the deep crisis in which Castroism has plunged us,” but “the regime closed all the doors”.

The outgoing president urged Raúl Castro “to open up to his people, to allow the people to recover the spaces” but instead, the authorities remain “in their old position of controlling everything and doing nothing that endangers the total control they have over society. ”

“What’s up, Cuba?” Obama tweeted when his plane was about to land in Cuba. Today, listening to that question generates more concerns than certainties.

Cuban Journalists Demand Greater Access To Sources / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

In Cuba, where only the circulation of the official press is allowed, the illegality in which the alternative media exists makes its work difficult. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 14 March 2017 – Whether they are independent or official, reporters share the same complaint against institutions, which they accuse of hindering access to information and hiding data. And for this reason all informants have the same requirement: greater access to sources.

Gabriela Daihuela studies journalism and dreams of dedicating herself to investigative reporting, a specialty she considers missing in Cuba’s current press. Every day she likes her career more, she says, because “there are many issues that are worthy of being addressed that are not addressed.”

The student is currently preparing a reporting piece that has taken her to the Ministry of Education. “They have given us a huge runaround,” she confesses. “When we go to the institution, which is in charge and we know they should be able to tell us what we want to know, they say there is no data or they can’t share it or they can’t find it,” she complains. continue reading

Daihuela believes that “the press should have more freedom,” not only “at the time of writing” but also to investigate. “They are closing the doors to us, and given that we are students, I imagine that for a journalist already graduated and recognized it must be much worse because they must be afraid.”

In the middle of last year, a group of young journalists from the newspaper Vanguardia in Villa Clara published a letter expressing their concerns. They complained that media bosses argue that the ideas expressed in their articles “do not suit the interests of the country at the current time,” or that their reports and comments are “too critical.”

The reporters believe that “so many decades and so many uncritical media dedicated to presenting triumphalist visions of events have provoked a hypercritical avalanche in Cuba.

For independent journalists the picture is even more complicated due to the illegality in which the country’s alternative media exist

For independent journalists the picture is even more complicated, due to the illegality in which the alternative means exist in a country where only the circulation of the official press is allowed.

Freelance reporter María Matienzo agrees with other colleagues in the independent press that journalism is “a high-risk sport.” The most common obstacles she points out are the confiscation of the tools of the trade – such as phones, recorders, computers and cameras – interrogations and surveillance. “It’s a huge psychological pressure [but] we have to overcome it.”

“Losing friends and winning others” is also part of the side effects of the work of informing. “It’s the classic profession to be declared a pest in certain places.” Always try to approach ” the primary source as much as possible,” and “confirm by all possible means.”

The demand for a Press Law has risen in recent months, among journalists linked to both official and alternative media, but no legislative changes have been announced at this time. At the next congress of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC), convened for 2018, there may be an answer.

University professor Graziella Pogolotti was quoted in Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth) saying that the new law “will establish, with mandatory regulations, the institutional commitment to provide journalists with quick and pertinent information.”

In independent audiovisual media, Ignacio González has won a place with his space En Caliente Prensa Libre (Free Press in the Heat of the Moment). The reporter denounces the “ideological filter” that is applied to students applying to be admitted the faculty of Journalism, a requirement that prevents many interested people from becoming journalists. 

New technologies have made it possible to bring activism closer to social networks. 

Autonomous journalists exist in a scenario that makes it “difficult to investigate.” In addition, they are not issued “credentials or permits” to access official events and “cannot knock at the doors of any official,” he laments. Arbitrary arrests and the confiscation of the tools of the trade also add to the challenges they must overcome.

However, Gonzalez feels gratified when he does a report that ends up solving problems. In his opinion, the population “has begun to understand the importance of audiovisual journalism.” However, he must sometimes mask the face of an interviewee to avoid possible reprisals from the authorities.

New technologies have made it possible to bring activism closer to social networks. Kata Mojena is a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and disseminates different information through Twitter and YouTube, ranging from the activities carried out by the opposition organization to social problems suffered by residents of eastern Cuba.

“Twitter is a way to make complaints with immediacy so that the media can then broaden and corroborate the information,” says the reporter. UNPACU’s structure, which is “made up of cells,” facilitates “confirming the veracity of the information received,” she explained to this newspaper.

She also laments the continued telephone hackings she suffers in order to prevent her from publishing content, and the difficulties in accessing official sources to obtain their version of any event. Ultimately, her demands do not differ much from those of a young journalist sitting in newsroom of a state-owned media outlet.

With A Pension Of 240 Pesos, Raquel Survives Thanks To The Trash / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Mario Penton

With a system of unsustainable pensions in the medium term, economic recession and a foreseeable impact on social services as a result of the aging population, the country faces one of the biggest challenges in its history. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar/Mario Penton, Havana/Miami, 6 March 2017 — At age 67, struck by old age and a miserable pension, Raquel, an engineer “trained by the Revolution,” scavenges among the garbage for the sustenance of each day. Her hands, which once drew maps and measured spaces where promising crops would grow, are now collecting cartons, cans and empty containers.

“My last name? Why? And I don’t want any photos. I have children and I had a life. I don’t want people to talk about me,” she says while agreeing to tell her story with a certain air of nostalgia and disappointment. “I never thought I would end up a dumpster diver, one of those who digs through the cans in the corners and is the object of jokes.” continue reading

Cuba has become the oldest country in the Americas, according to official data. It has been an accelerated process that surprised even the specialists, who had calculated that the problem would not become acute before 2025.

With a pension system that is unsustainable in the medium term, an economic recession and a foreseeable impact on social services as a result of the aging population, the country is confronting one of the biggest challenges in its history.

The state welfare program does not include those elderly people living under the same roof with relatives. (14ymedio)

“I receive a pension of 240 Cuban pesos a month (less than 10 dollars). From that money I have to spend 50 pesos to pay for the Haier refrigerator that the government gave me [when it switched out older, less energy efficient  models] and an additional 100 pesos for the purchase of medicines,” says Raquel.

Although she is retired, the pharmacy does not subsidize the medicines she needs for her diabetes and hypertension. The state welfare program does not include those elderly people living under the same roof with relatives.

“One of the affects on the country of the aging population is a significant increase in public spending and the decline of the population of childbearing age,” explains Juan Valdez Paz, a sociologist based on the island and author of several books on the subject.

According to the Statistical Yearbook of Cuba, health spending fell from 11.3% of GDP in 2009 to 8% in 2012.

Almost 20% of the Cuban population is over 60, and the country’s fertility rate is 1.7 children per woman. In order to compensate for the population decline, it would be necessary to raise that number to 2.4 children for every female of childbearing age. In 2015 there were 126,000 fewer active people than the previous year.

Almost 20% of the Cuban population is over 60, and the country’s fertility rate is 1.7 children per woman. (14ymedio)

For Valdés, no society is prepared for the demographic difficulties such as those facing Cuba.

One solution could be to increase production or for emigrants to return, according to the specialist. So far both possibilities seem very distant.

In the country there are almost 300 Grandparent Houses (for day care and socialization) and 144 Elder Homes, with a combined capacity of about 20,000 places. The authorities have recognized the poor hygienic and physical situation of many of these premises. Many elderly people prefer to enter the scarce 11 asylums run by religious orders that survive thanks to international aid, an example of which is the Santovenia nursing home, in Havana’s Cerro district.

The cost to use the Grandparents House facilities is 180 Cuban pesos a month, and the Elder Homes cost about 400 Cuban pesos. Social Security grants a subsidy to the elderly who demonstrate to social workers that they can’t pay the cost.

Cuba had one of the most generous and most comprehensive social security systems in Latin America, largely because of the enormous help it received from the Soviet Union, estimated by Mesa-Lago at about 65 billion dollars over 30 years.

The Family Care System allows more than 76,000 low-income elderly people to eat at subsidized prices. (14ymedio)

“Although pensions were never raised, there was an elaborate system provided by the State to facilitate access to industrial products and food at subsidized prices,” explains the economist.

“It annoys me when I hear about how well they care for older adults. They don’t give me any subsides because I live with my son, my daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren, but they have their own expenses and cannot take care of me,” says Raquel.

“I need dentures and if you don’t bring the dentist a gift they make them badly or it takes months,” she adds.

With the end of the Soviet Union and the loss of the Russian subsidy pensions were maintained but their real value fell precipitously. In 1993, the average retiree could barely buy 16% of what their pension would have bought in 1989. At the end of 2015, the purchasing power of pensioners was half of what it had been before the start of the Special Period, according to Mesa-Lago’s calculations.

Raúl Castro’s administration drastically reduced the number of beneficiaries of social assistance in a process that he called “the elimination of gratuities.” From the 582,060 beneficiaries in 2006, some 5.3% of the population, the number fell to 175,106 in 2015, some 1.5% of the population.

Several products that had previously been supplied to everyone through the ration book were also eliminated, such as soap, toothpaste and matches, and now are only available at unsubsidized prices.

In the patio of her house a retiree has created a tool to crush the cans she collects in the streets. (14ymedio)

The government has authorized some assistance programs for the elderly. The Family Care System allows more than 76,000 low-income elderly people to eat at subsidized prices, although it is a small figure considering that there are more than two million elderly people in Cuba.

Some elders receive help from churches and non-governmental organizations.

“People see me collecting cans, but they do not know that I was an avant-garde engineer and that I even traveled to the Soviet Union in 1983, in the Andropov era,” Raquel explains.

When she retired, she had no choice but to devote herself to informal tasks for a living. She cleaned the common areas of buildings inhabited by soldiers and their families in Plaza of the Revolution district, until the demands of this work and her age became incompatible.

“They asked me to wash the glass windows in a hallway on the ninth floor. It was dangerous and because I was afraid to fall, I preferred to leave it, even though they paid well,” she says.

Many elders are selling products made with peanuts or candy in the streets to supplement their income, others ask for alms. (14ymedio)

For each week of work she was paid 125 Cuban pesos, (about 5 dollars) almost half as much as her pension.

Raquel now collects raw material to sell in state-owned stores, although she confesses that she wants “like mad” to get a contract with a small private canning company to sell her empty bottles and avoid the state company and its delays.

In the patio of her house she has created a tool to crush the cans she collects in the streets.

“In January I made 3,900 Cuban pesos from beer cans. Of course, you have to deduct the 500 pesos that I paid for the place in line, because I can not sleep there lying on a porch. Each bag of cans is worth forty pesos. It is eight pesos for a kilogram of cans.”

In Cuba, there are no official statistics on poverty, and the only data available is old. In 1996 a study concluded that in Havana alone, 20.1% of the population were “at risk of not meeting some essential needs.” A survey in 2000 showed that 78% of the elderly considered their income insufficient to cover their living expenses.

The 20,000 places for care of the elderly are insufficient in a country with two million people over 60. (EFE)

Most of the older adults surveyed said their sources of income were mostly pension, support from family living in the country, something from their work and remittances from abroad.

Many elders are dedicated to selling products made with peanuts or candy on the streets to supplement their income. Others resell newspapers or search the garbage for objects they can market and a significant increase in beggars on the streets of the country’s main cities has become apparent.

“It doesn’t bother me to go out in old clothes picking up cans. The one who has to look good is my grandson, who started high school,” says Raquel.

“The boys at school sometimes make fun of him, but my grandson is very good and he is not ashamed of me, or at least he does not show it. He always comes out and defends me from mockery,” she says proudly.

The Ladies In Green Can Not Sell Their Lettuce / 14ymedio, Havana

A few minutes after noon, the Lettuce Women stood at the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes streets in Old Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 2 March 2017 — A few minutes after noon, the Lettuce Women stood on the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes streets in Old Havana. They came with their unique message that promotes healthy food and a love of animals. Under the March sun, their lettuce bikinis generated more curiosity than their environmentalist discourse.

From a lime-green suitcase, activists pulled out magazines and ad sheets to promote a vegan diet. A campaign that does not stop generating confusion in Cuba, a country obsessed with meat and where the dream of many people is to eat a steak every day.

At first the activists were surrounded by more press than public, but their scanty clothing soon caused an uproar. Under the eyes of some policemen the Ladies responded to questions from journalists and those who wanted to know what it’s like to be a vegan.

Under the eyes of some policemen the Ladies in Green responded to questions from journalists and those who wanted to know what it’s like to be a vegan. (14ymedio)

The women declared that, since their arrival on the island, they have viewed the situation of the animals with “a lot of sadness,” according to Yerica Sojo, a Puerto Rican who has been doing this for more than ten years, “there are many [animals] abandoned in the street who need help.” Some national groups do “a very good job of caring for them and promoting compassion,” like the Association for the Protection of Animals and Plants.

This Friday the Ladies in Green plan to go to different schools to chat with the students.

With regards to the Cuban diet they said it “contains a lot of animals” but also “there are many fruits, vegetables and grains that can be eaten” and that one can be vegan and “keep the Cuban culture of eating rice, beans, bananas.”

Among the recipes they distributed to the public, there were some to prepare potato croquettes or mango ceviche.

Near the place where the activists engaged with the public is the San Rafael street market. This week a head of lettuces cost about 10 Cuban pesos (CUP) in the market, which is equivalent to the amount of money a retiree receives on their pension for a full day.

Eating vegetables and legumes is often a luxury that many Cubans cannot afford. (14ymedio)

Eating vegetables and legumes is often a luxury that many Cubans cannot afford.

In the final minutes of the presentation the women took out some pens shaped like fruits and vegetables from the bottom of their suitcase and tried to distribute them among those present. However, a dozen people rushed over the suitcase and grabbed all that were left.

The Lettuce Women promised to “warm up Havana” with “advice on how to save animals, be healthy and protect the environment while being vegans.” But there were more lewd looks at their bodies than interest in their message.

Cuba Announces Exorbitant Rates for Limited Home Internet / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

”Telepunto” office of the Telecommunications Company in Obispo Street, where an Wednesday rates for home internet were announced (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerLuz Escobar, Havana, 1 March 2017 — After a two month free trial, the fees for government-run home internet service, known as “Nauta Hogar,” were announced on Wednesday. The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) will charge between 15 and 115 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) for packages of 30 hours, depending on the connection speed, which varies 128 kilobytes and 2 megabytes. Thus, Cubans will pay, depending on the speed, the equivalent of roughly three weeks to five months wages in a state enterprise for one hour of internet a day.

Last January, the state monopoly chose 2,000 users in the Catedral and Plaza Vieja popular council areas for a pilot test of home web connectivity. Today, March 1, users have been informed of the ongoing costs for the service, but are not able to set up contracts because the computer system “is not working yet,” according to an employee of the Obispo Street Telepoint office who spoke to 14ymedio. continue reading

The worker explained that the new rates must be paid “within a period of seven days and if they are not the service will be cut.” Once interrupted, “the user has 30 days to pay and restore it.” Otherwise it will be disconnected.

After consuming the 30 hours of the initial package, customers can recharge their Nauta accounts under the same bonus terms used for wifi connections; users will be able to purchase more than one 30-hour package per month.

Until now, surfing the internet from home was a privilege reserved for senior officials, the most trustworthy professionals, and foreigners living in Cuba

Until now, surfing the internet from home was a privilege reserved for senior officials, the most trustworthy professionals, and foreigners living in Cuba. Most connections were made through the antiquated dial-up method, but the new connections will be served by faster ADSL lines.

Cuba is among the countries in the world with the lowest rate of internet access. Since July 2015, the state telecommunications monopoly has enabled public wifi hotspots, which now number more than 200 throughout the country. According to official figures, around 250,000 daily users are connected in these zones.

In recent weeks antennas for wireless connection have also been installed in several places along Havana’s Malecon, and the company is planning to extend the service to the entire perimeter of the coastal strip. For now, wifi is active along the Malecon at Hola Ola, La Piragua, 12 and Malecón, 3rd and B and Fuente de la Juventud.

Alexei Gámez: “Before Wifi This Was a Dead Town” / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Alexei Gámez, a resident of Jagüey Grande, got his first computer at the age of ten. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 21 February 2017– Surrounded by cables and circuits Alexei Gámez has spent his life. From an early age he became passionate about technology despite growing up amidst the rigors of the Special Period. At age ten, he had a computer, “the kind that connected to TVs,” he recalls with a mixture of pride and irony. At that time he did not imagine that the screens and the keyboards would help to awaken in him a civic conscience.

At the beginning of this month, the name of this young man of 35 years, resident in Jagüey Grande, appeared in the digital media. Police broke into his house and after a meticulous search took the devices for wireless connection that Gámez counted among his most valuable treasures. The trigger was a Youtube channel where he teaches Cubans how to set up a wifi network with routers and NanoStations. continue reading

At that moment he crossed the line. In a country where thousands of users are plugged into wireless networks every day, the authorities turn a blind eye most of the time because of the inability to control the phenomenon. But it is one thing to connect to SNet, the largest of these communities, and another to say publicly that you do so and, in addition, to teach others how to create their own virtual web.

When the eyes of the cyber-cops focused on him, it carried no weight that at the age of 19 he had been one of a contingent of computer scientists, nor that he became the administrator of the Banco Popular de Ahorro network in Matanzas. After the raid on his home, an officer warned him that the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) accused him of “illegal economic activity,” although he was never paid a penny to distribute his knowledge.

He entered the world of politics at full speed and now says, with determination, he will be involved in it “until my last day

Since then, Gámez can not leave town without asking permission, but immobilizing a computer expert is like trying to hold back the sea.

Technology has also connected him with a new life. A few years ago he obtained one of those USB memories loaded with audiovisual content that circulate from hand to hand. Thus he met Eliécer Ávila, leader of the Somos+ (We Are More) Movement. “That was the beginning of a friendship that lasts until today,” says Gamez.

He entered the world of politics at full speed and now says, with determination, he will be involved in it “until my last day,” unable to imagine any other course.

However, technology remains his main passion. “By not having access to mass media such as radio and television, because they are state media and only represent the Communist Party, we try to spread our message through a USB drive, a DVD or in the Weekly Packet,” he told this newspaper.

Computers, smartphones and tablets “have given us the opportunity to get closer to people and convey our message of how we think and how we want things to be in the future,” he explains.

For Gámez the opening of Wi-Fi zones in squares and parks of the country is still far from an efficient service. “The bandwidth is very restricted” and “clearly they have it very controlled.” With his knowledge, he intuits that navigation through Nauta service could be a more successful experience for customers, if the state telecommunications company ETECSA, that operates it, proposed it.

“I rely on the experience of whose of us who have a wireless network at the municipal level, with approximately 200 people connected and working at high speed.” Gámez says he can “watch a film” from his house even though its streaming on a computer elsewhere. “We do that with equipment of lower power” than those of the state monopoly.

“Before the wifi this was a dead town, there was nowhere to go,” he recalls.

Jagüey Grande Park is the center of the life of the municipality and the little recreation available to the residents. “When a few people get together, that’s as far as the Nauta connection goes,” complains the computer expert.

However, he believes that the installation of a Wi-Fi zone has significantly changed the life of the area. “Before wifi this was a dead town, there was nowhere to go,” he recalls. “On weekends there were several nightclubs, one for children, one for young people and one discotemba*.

Gámez played in that park as a child and evokes the times he spent amid its trees and benches. But with the passing of years, “the park was dying and was always dark,” he laments. “After the coming of the internet it’s full all the time and for the young people it’s a fixed meeting point,” he says with relief.

Like many of these netizens, Alexei Gámez manages to slip through the bars of control every day thanks to wireless networks. He does it like a mischievous child who clings to the tail of a kite called “technology.”

*Translator’s note: Discotemba = a place that plays older music for an older crowd.

Cuban Customers: Collateral Damage In The Tourism Boom / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Cuban hotels have opted to exclude Cuban tourists from ‘all inclusive’ resort deals, because they eat and drink too much. (Emmanuel Huybrechts)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 16 February 2017 – In the photo the couple smiles with one glass of beer in hand, all they were able to obtain after waiting in a long line at a Varadero resort. Nine years after the government allowed Cubans to enter hotels in Cuba (a right previously denied them in what was commonly called ‘tourist apartheid’), local customers continue to be discriminated against relative to foreign tourists in the midst of the current boom in tourism.

Eugenia and Guillermo, retirees from the transport sector, are trying to make up for lost time after decades of being unable to enjoy the tourist facilities of their own country. With the remittances sent by their son who emigrated and the profits on a house that they sold a few months ago, they decided to enjoy the natural beauties of the Island and its multiple hotels. continue reading

Nevertheless, the so-called smokestack-free industry is experiencing tense times caused by the increase in the number of foreign visitors. At the end of last year, the country reported a record of more than 4 million tourists, good news for the national coffers but which does not, however, represent a better situation for local customers.

“The all-inclusive was actually rationed. The initial times when you could eat and drink whatever you wanted are now just a memory”

Cuba has more than 65,000 hotel rooms and some 17,000 private houses that provide lodging. The tourist boom of recent years tests that infrastructure and the complaints accumulate, especially with regards to the facilities managed by the state or by joint ventures.

Eugenia and Guillermo were among the first customers to purchase an all-inclusive package back in 2008 to spend a weekend in a four-star hotel near the city of Holguin. They recall the experience as excellent. “It was like living a dream and enjoying what, before, only foreigners could have,” recalls Guillermo.

However, with the passage of time that initial joy was transformed into discomfort. “The prices have gone up and the quality of the facilities has decreased a lot,” comments the retiree. At the end of last year they booked four nights in Pasacaballo, a hotel in Cienfuegos from which they say they left “horrified.”

“The all-inclusive was actually rationed,” says the wife. “The initial times when you could eat and drink whatever you wanted are now just a memory.” Despite having paid for an “open bar,” the Cuban guests found themselves with their food and drink rationed.

For the retirees, that regulation of consumption reminded them of “the ration market bodegas,” they say. “We wanted to escape reality, to disconnect a few days but it turns out that we found ourselves in the same situation we wanted to escape,” Guillermo points out.

In the Pasacaballo restaurant “the main courses are limited,” he clarifies. You can only choose one meat, fish or chicken course. On arrival, each guest received a card that allowed them to consume a maximum of 64 beverages, including two liters of rum for the four nights of their stay.

Not even the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria, with five stars, is immune from these types of restrictions. “We had to supervise the domestic guests better because they were cleaning out the hotel”

The situation is repeated in other accommodations around the Island. Not even the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria, with five stars, is immune from these types of restrictions. “We had to supervise the domestic guests better because they were cleaning out the hotel,” a maid told 14ymedio, on condition of anonymity.

Managed by the Gaviota Tourism Group, a business arm of the Cuban military, special controls are placed on the accommodations of guests from Cuba. “We have lost huge amounts of towels, cups, glasses and cutlery,” complains the employee. She blames “the Cubans who come and do not understand how things work in a hotel, they think this is a boarding school in the countryside.”

“They want to eat at breakfast what they don’t consume in two months at home, so there are many excesses,” she says. “While a Canadian will breakfast on an omelet, a Cuban wants to put a hunk of cheese in their pocket, take twenty servings of bread for their room and carry off all the jam they can find.”

Maria del Pilar Macías, Director General of Quality and Operations of the Ministry of Tourism, told the official press at the end of last year that the fundamental challenge was to achieve a competitive service “without disregarding international standards” based on “quality and innovation.”

In 2014, the influx of domestic tourists to hotels reached 1.2 million guests, an increase of 23% compared to the previous year. On that occasion, the locals spent 147.3 million CUCs in those facilities, according to a report published by the National Office of Statistics and Information of Cuba (ONEI).

The Communist Party has urged in its guidelines “to expand and push the development of national tourism by creating offers that make it possible to take advantage of the infrastructure created in hotels and other recreational and historical tourist attractions.”

Eugenia and Guillermo prefer hotels with managers from another country. “They are much more attentive and do not seem to differentiate in the treatment of national tourists.” In those run by the state and under the control Gaviota the situation is different. “If you’re a national, they leave you with the word in their mouths or with half-service while they run off to look after a foreigner.”

The reason for that difference in the treatment lies in tipping. Although most are all-inclusive accommodations, foreign guests “always leave something,” comments the maid at the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria. Also, according to the employee, “there have been many incidents with Cuban clients who mistreat workers.”

An employee of Cubanacán who manages a tourism bureau at the Hotel Vedado denied that there has been an increase in rates. “We are in high season and prices are rising every year”

Varadero is the main beach resort on the island and Cubans have become the second largest group of guests in the resort, behind the Canadians. “Cuba’s customer today not only goes to standard hotels but also goes to the chain’s highest quality hotels,” said Narciso Sotolongo, deputy sales director of Meliá Hotels International in Cuba.

The Hotel Group Islazul gets the worst comments among islanders. “I dropped something on the floor and when I looked under the bed I was surprised at the amount of dirt,” Guillermo says. The curtains were old, there was no minibar in the room and for several days there was no water in the sink or shower. The manager never showed up for explanations, despite repeated customer complaints.

For the retired couple, the most difficult thing is to accept the price increases. “So before we paid between 70 and 85 Cuban convertible pesos (about the same value in $US) per night with all inclusive; now we can’t find it for less than 120 or 140 CUC,” the woman complains. An employee of Cubanacán who manages a tourism bureau at the Hotel Vedado denied that there has been an increase in rates.

“We are in the high season and prices are rising every year,” she explains to 14ymedio. “Now what is happening is that there is much more demand and the cheaper offers are sold abroad, through the internet and with a credit card.” But Eugenia and Guillermo have never connected to the great world-wide-web and only know about cash.

Faith Arrives to the Rhythm of Reggaeton / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Members of La Union: Left to right: Osmel (Mr Jacke), Misael (Dj Misa), Ramiro (Pucio) and Randoll (El Escogido). (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerLuz Escobar, Havana, 11 February 2017 – Sexists, hard and streetsmart, such are the lyrics of most reggaeton songs that are heard everywhere. Topics that speak about jealousy and rivalries, but that can also convey very different messages. Under the name La Unión (the Union), a group of young artists spread the Christian faith to the rhythm of this urban genre so popular in Cuba.

The group, founded in 2013, promotes their songs and videos through the Weekly Packet in the folder titled “Christian section.” A musical work that stands out in the Cuban panorama by combining two elements that seem opposed: religion and reggaeton.

Willing to break down those prejudices, Ramiro (Pucio), Osmel (Mr. Jacke), Randoll (El Escogido), and Misael (DJ Misa), compose and sing for a new generation of listeners born with this millennium. A generation accustomed to choosing a la carte the audiovisual materials they consume and who are very familiar with flash drives, Zapya and smart phones. continue reading

In times of vertigo in the exchange of content, the members of the Union release their songs under the label Kingdom Records, a handcrafted studio installed in the house of DJ Misa, in the Alamar neighborhood. In that zone of ugly buildings and good musicians, rap and hip-hop reigned in earlier decades.

In public performances of the Union, women dancing with lewd movements, twerking style, are not seen and the group members do not wear heavy gold chains around their necks. Even so the places where they perform are packed and fans sing along to the lyrics, which praise values such as solidarity and friendship.

In public performances of La Union, women dancing with lewd movements, twerking style, are not seen and the group members do not wear heavy gold chains around their necks.

In a conversation with 14ymedio during a promotional tour around La India, in Old Havana, the director of the group, DJ Misa, said that from the beginning they wanted to “take the message of Jesus to the Island’s youngest listeners” and they thought it “perfect” to use urban music “as a strategy” because “that is what is mostly heard in the streets.”

Currently, the DJ Misa is immersed in a whirlwind of preparations for a concert the group will perform on February 17 in the central venue Riviera. The launching of a new video clip also fills him with pride, although reaching the point they have now arrived at has not come easily.

The beginnings of the Union were not exempt from “some obstacles,” comments DJ Misa, because few people dared to “mix Christian music with reggaeton.” However, they found acceptance within the island’s millennials and the pastor of the Methodist Church of Alamar, Daniel Marín, who supported them unconditionally.

A recent survey of young Cubans found that their idols range from soccer players, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, to reggaeton singers, like Yomil, El Chacal and el Príncipe, who are overwhelmingly popular among those under 30 years old.

In this context, Christian musicians count on an audience interested in rhythms representing reality. But it is also an audience accustomed to the ruggedness of many reggaeton songs, which praise sexism, promiscuity and frivolity. These are the themes heard in bars, cafeterias, and taxis and even during morning assemblies in Cuban schools.

Christian musicians count on an audience interested in rhythms representing reality. But it is also an audience accustomed to the ruggedness of many reggaeton songs, which praise sexism, promiscuity and frivolity.

DJ Misa explains the support they have also received from other pastors. He says it is because many young people “who are in church but no longer very interested and about to leave,” after listening to their music return with more joy. Although he laments that due to lack of resources they can only do two or three concerts a year.

Both performances and video clips are self produced and financed, says the artist, who complains “there are still no companies that promote Christian music.” Nevertheless, they have managed to perform various concerts and in August of last year filled the venue Avenida.

The young man’s production ability was self-taught, and he counts on spreading his music through social networks, such as Facebook and YouTube.

He does not discard that the Union will be televised and is thinking about presenting his next music video, Jesus Fanatic, at next year’s Lucas Awards. DJ Misa is convinced that his audiovisuals “have the same quality as the ones presented” and show a “very professional appearance.”

As they reach the small screen, these young musicians are achieving a special place in the national urban music, a place where the heavy terrain of reggaeton manages to gain spirituality and compromise.

Translated by Chavely Garcia