Spelling is Indeed Important on Cuba’s Black Market

Last year, an image went viral in which a teacher greeted the beginning of the course with a ’Benbenidos’ [Correct spelling: Bienvenidos] on the board. (@ SofiaJimnezMar1 / Twitter)
14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 8 July 2020 — “What is the mattress size and what quality?” It was the message that Ángel Guzmán received through WhatsApp a few hours after posting an ad on an online classifieds site. The fact that the client wrote in this way “so correct, with the accents and everything” prompted him to take the merchandise to his home even though he’d never seen his face.

“People who write me with mistakes do not look good to me and I cannot risk moving a product from one municipality to another and meet someone who’s not serious who rejects the mattress or does not want to pay me,” the sharp merchant tells 14ymedio. “Someone who writes me calling me puro, bro, asere or tío, I don’t even answer them. I don’t do business with people who write like that.”

Nothing in his education seemed to destine him to have that level of demand in the use of the language. From working-class parents, as a teenager, most of his Spanish classes in elementary school were taken through the so-called teleclasses. “No one was watching the television and the ‘emerging teacher‘ we had wrote with a lot of misspellings on the board.” He admits that he has not read much either and that in his house “there is not a single book.” continue reading

The most important language lesson of his life was learned when he lost a big transaction. “A woman contacted me through Telegram and told me that she was interested in a complete bedroom set: bed, mattress, display cabinet, chest of drawers and bedside tables. It totaled were more than 2,500 convertible pesos,” says this 25-year-old man from Havana.

It took Guzmán three days to organize the order with the help of carpenters dedicated to the private production of furniture. “I rented the truck and prepared everything, but I did not notice that all the messages that woman sent me were very poorly written. I hardly understood anything and that should have warned me she wasn’t a person capable of closing on an order like that.”

The suspicion materialized. The day he arrived in front of the customer’s door with all the furniture on the truck, she told him that she had changed her mind. “She treated me very badly, in a very rude way, even the husband threatened to call the police if I didn’t take back the entire order. They didn’t even look at the bedroom set, they just changed their minds or maybe they never had all the money. I stayed and they hosted me,” he regrets.

In 2009, the Ministry of Higher Education, alarmed by the evident deterioration of written expression in Cuba, decided to take measures to prevent future professionals from leaving the universities with serious misspellings. A national diagnosis made in the middle of the same year brought to light alarming problems with accents, punctuation and verbal conjugations.

But little has changed in a decade. Errors in writing and speaking are frequent in the national media. Recently, a presenter on the television newscast called Juan Guaidó “the intrauterine president of Venezuela” instead of using the correct word: “interim.” The headlines of the main news programs are riddled with a lack of accents, changed letters and incorrect uses of certain words.

Nely runs a thriving home delivery business that has grown significantly with the pandemic. Through instant messaging services, she offers her products, closes deals with customers and plans delivery. “They once wrote to me asking if I had chickpeas but the word was written in a way that I didn’t understand what they wanted.”

Nely admits to turning on the automatic spellchecker and asking someone close to her whenever she has a question about how to spell a word. “My business is to convince clients without having to call them, because that consumes more data and can be more dangerous, so I have to write well without excessive familiarity or mistakes.”

The popular greetings used on the street — “¿Qué bolá?” (What’s up) or “¿Cómo está la cosa?” (How’re things) — are not appreciated either. “It’s one thing in a Telegram group where people are sharing information on merchandise and prices, but it’s another thing when you’re putting in an order with a seller. Then you have to seem serious and respectful, and if you don’t see it that way, I say I don’t have any of the product left and that’s it.”

“Vusco toayas de taya grande,” [‘I’m looking for large towels’ – with 3 of 5 words misspelled], reads a merchant on her mobile phone. She imports furnishing, appliances and household goods from Panama. “I never bragged about having good spelling, because I didn’t even finish the 9th grade, but I have to ask my son to help me understand what they are trying to say in that message.”

“My son who is studying at the university told me: Mami, you don’t have to wait for Cervantes* to sell something, but be careful with those people who write with their feet,” acknowledges the informal vendor.

For “At Your Service,” a small private business that was born with the restrictions of the pandemic to bring products to the homes during the confinement, it is very clear. “The person who communicates via WhatsApp and takes the orders is a graduate in philosophy and has very good spelling, the rest of us are only dedicated to transporting orders.”

“When someone writes to us, they can be sure that we will say ‘good morning’, we will be kind and we will write without mistakes. With that we already have half the business done,” he says.

At “Your Space,” another food delivery business, they have also chosen to shore up their written communication. “Before, I worked in a restaurant and when we wanted to hire waiters, I was looking for young people with good looks, mainly beautiful people with a nice smile,” says Jorge Ángel Chang, the manager of the initiative.

“Now, when I had to look for the two people to manage our WhatsApp account, and Telegram and the messages on Facebook, I only paid attention to whether — if they were women — they had short nails, because typing with long nails is very problematic, whether they knew how to write well and treat customers with kindness, and of course, they had to have excellent spelling because that is ‘our face’’ today. In the end, I have a retired teacher and an editor working from home.”

*Translator’s note: Miguel Cervantes (b. 1547) is a Shakespeare-like figure with regards to his use of and influence on the Spanish language. See here.


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

In Times of Crisis Scams Multiply

As the shortages affect the network of state stores, many products are submerges in the informal market. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 8 June 2020 — “It was sugar water,” says a young man from Havana as he shows a container of bath gel he bought on the black market. “I contacted the seller by Telegram, we met at a corner and he showed me the merchandise of various types, with extract of melon, avocado and roses, but later the one I took was a fake.”

As the shortage runs through the state-owned store network, many products plunge into the informal market, where they are not rationed but can cost more and the customer is at risk of being scammed. These commercial operations, which are carried out illegally, are propitious terrain to deceive and cheat consumers.

It would turn around, a novelty: Since the arrival of Covid-19 on the island, the authorities have tightened controls against informal trade, which for decades has been a vital ally for the subsistence of many families. Every night the Cuban Television Primetime Newscast highlights exemplary court rulings to dissuade anyone and broadcasts images of surprise raids captured by hidden cameras that show sellers and buyers in some clandestine operation. continue reading

Sellers have found in instant messaging services a refuge from which they can establish initial contact, from WhatsApp and Telegram to the armored Signal, for the most cautious. But for customers, this pathway limits their ability to see, test, and evaluate merchandise, increasing the risk.

“Pork leg at 55 pesos a pound,” Randy read in a classified ad that referred to a Telegram account. Once in contact with the seller through that app, they agreed that the delivery of the product would be made on Saturday morning. “I don’t go into houses or climb stairs,” the merchant told him, and at the right time he would show up with two other men in an old Chevrolet car.

“The whole operation was done from inside the car and with a weight that he brought, but when I got home I realized that between the two legs I bought I had been cheated by like ten pounds,” says Randy. In other words, I lost more than 500 pesos and it did not even occur to me to take a picture of the license plate, not to mention that if I denounce him I might be the one who ends up in jail.”

According to the Penal Code, the crime of “reception” is committed by a person who buys property that “evidently or rationally suggests that it comes from a crime.” The contemplated sanction is “deprivation of liberty for three months to one year or a fine of one hundred to three hundred ’shares’* or both.” In times of crisis, authorities are much less tolerant of the black market, and the penalties for buying on the black market are multiplied by increased vigilance.

“I was on my motorcycle and a police patrol stopped me,” a young resident in the Havana municipality of Diez de Octubre tells this newspaper, preferring anonymity. “In the backpack I had a quarter of a bag of corn feed for the chickens that my mother raises in the yard. As I had bought it from a guajiro and had no papers, they took it from me and fined me.”

“I spent the whole night in a dungeon for a few pounds of animal food,” he explains. “Now I have to look for the product again, although I will have to hide it better to take it home.” His idea is to wait for a friend who has a vehicle with an official plate and who is moving personnel for the battle against the Covid-19 to transfer the feed in the trunk.

“But I have to have eyes in the back of my head because it’s not just the police, I already lost money a few weeks ago on feed that was sold to me and it was mixed with sand,” he explains. “People with a knife between their teeth cheating to get a few pesos from anywhere. When I got home and saw that, I wanted to go back and complain, but I didn’t even know what the seller was called.”

In the 1990s, the economic crisis of the Special Period not only sparked creativity to invent culinary recipes, but it was the scene of some scams that became true urban legends. Replace the tomato sauce fwithr a beet-based one, soak old blankets used to clean the floor for days in order to pass them off as breaded pork steak, and even the legendary cheese on a pizza that was actually a melted condom.

How many of those scams were real and which are the result of the imagination it is difficult to know, but the current circumstances that the Island is going through seem to be awakening some ghosts. Many adulterations are even carried out using state industry’s own infrastructure.

Among the most counterfeited products in the last half century in Cuba have been rum, cigars and tobaccos, beers — for which there are small, totally clandestine mini-industries — cleaning products such as detergent, tomato sauces and cold meats from private sellers. Among the latter, fillings with plantain or sweet potato are very frequent.

In December 2017, the authorities dismantled a network of adulterated medicines for child consumption. The counterfeit product was marketed in the island’s pharmacies under the brand name Ritalin to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Several BioCubaFarma employees replaced the active substance, methylphenidate, with a placebo substance that is used to clean the machines after each production has been completed.

“They sent me to take antibiotics for several days so that I could get a tooth removed and I could only find the pills with a vendor that a friend recommended,” says Viviana, a Havana woman who got tired of asking the pharmacies for the arrival of the drug. “I paid for it and left for the house as excited as it was, but after three days the swelling and pain wouldn’t go away.”

Viviana decided to disassemble the capsules of the supposed antibiotic and inside what she found was baking soda. “Almost 20 CUC spent on bicarbonate and now I am left without money and in pain,” she complains. But she continues to look for a “good contact that sells medicines because that risk is preferable to doing nothing and waiting for the infection to go away on its own.”

At their home in Santiago de las Vegas, the García family — a fictitious name for this report — prepares a aromatic to clean bathrooms. The extract of the product is taken out of the factory where he works by the father, and once home they prepare it by adding large amounts of water and packing it. “The trick is to apply a little of the pure product to the mouth of the bottle before closing the lid, so when the client opens it to smell it, it feels pure.”

Beyond the initial scent, when the buyer starts using the scent, he will realize that it is “more water than anything else” and that the scent it leaves in the bathrooms is very faint and does not last long. “But when he figures that out, we will not be around because we are careful not to give out any data, phone numbers or names.” The family sells on the street and each day chooses a different neighborhood.

“Yesterday we were on El Canal in Cerro and we already know that we won’t be back there for a long time,” says the García’s father. “It is not that we are cheating, it is that even with a low quality product we are selling cheaper than the State does and we deliver it to the door of the house.”

*Translator’s note: The Cuban penal code does not set specific fines, it sets a number of ’shares’. In this way the amounts of the fines can be raised throughout the penal code simply be redefining the value of one share.


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

In Cuba the Pandemic Spawns Home Delivery Businesses

Two workers at Mandao, a new courier and home delivery service in Havana inspired by Uber Eats and Glovo. (EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, May 19, 2020 — A lone motorcycle makes its way along Cerro Road in Havana. Behind the driver is a brightly colored box displaying the logo of a home delivery service, one of the few private businesses that seems to be thriving in a city paralyzed by COVID-19. Classified ad sites are full of announcements by people looking for or offering their services as couriers. Anyone with transportation and willingness is a good candidate.

“I started at the beginning of May and I already think of myself as an experienced courier because I have done it all,” says Ricky, a 22-year-old unemployed waiter who was working at a small place on Reina Street when restaurants and cafes were ordered to close. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to find work until the pandemic was over but instead I am earning more.”

Ricky took a few photos of his motorcycle, which his father helped him buy a year ago, and posted an announcement on the island’s most important classified ad sites. In it he describes himself as “serious, punctual, friendly and able to deliver to any area of the city, except eastern Havana, with a smile.” Three hours after the ad appeared, he started getting calls. continue reading

At first Ricky began making home deliveries for a pizza and pasta place but soon got a more tempting offer from an agency that handles orders from overseas to local restaurants, pastry shops and other businesses. Businesses like Mandao, which makes home deliveries of food prepared by private individuals, have flourished since the start of quarantine.

I might deliver a cake, soft drinks, flowers or a Mother’s Day dinner,” explains Ricky. “Besides the fee I get for every delivery, most customers give me a tip.” He works seven days a week, from 10 AM to 8 PM. “Once a policeman stopped me but I explained what I was doing and he let me go because I was wearing my face mask.”

Making deliveries is among the hundred or so legal occupations allowed under the island’s laws governing self-employment. A few years ago this was restricted to deliveries from markets where goods were rationed to customers’ homes, with limited ability to deliver purchases from farmers’ markets or hard-currency stores. But this has changed.

The explosion in home delivery services on the island is due not only to the pandemic but also to the growing sales in recent years of electric motorcycles, a lightweight form of transportation that requires neither registration nor a license to operate. Imported motorinas have become one of the top-selling items in the hard currency stores which the government opened last year.

“I have a crew of twelve couriers,” says the manager of one of these services, which has found a very comfortable niche since confinement due to coronavirus began. “We provide the same delivery service to families that we provide to private businesses,” he points out. “Everyone who works on this team has an electric motorcycle, looks good and is serious.”

“Your order will arrive in forty-five minutes,” says a female voice on the WhatsApp message sent to a customer who has just ordered a chocolate cake through one of these couriers, who will then have to seek out the item at a privately owned bakery on San Rafael Street. The courier calls when he has reached the destination. There are smiles, a tip and an electronic message thanking the customer for the purchase: “We hope you call to request our services again soon. Thank you very much.”

The efficiency of these drivers contrasts with the problems of distribution  of the state-run TuEnvio service, whose delays in many cases can inconvenience customers for as much as three weeks. “The state could learn a lot from us and we would like to partner with them on the distribution side but that’s not possible under their current rules,” say the courier service manager.

The “rules” to which he refers are clearly the salaries and working conditions for state employees in the distribution sector. “There are guys who work here who make as much in a week as a doctor makes in a month. No one wants to go work for the state to earn less money and have less independence,” he explains to 14ymedio. “What the state should do is contract with us and agree to our prices.”

But the drivers do not just deliver products from private businesses to homes. They also serve as links between families separated by the pandemic. “Some people called me from Playa asking me transport some cleaning supplies and food items from their house to their relatives’ house in Cerro,” says Karelia, a courier who until March was studying English in hopes of fulfilling her dream to emigrate.

“This whole situation has really surprised me. Because my brother had a motorcycle, we began offering courier services and it has worked out very well. We have some families who call us several times a week.” When asked what the most unusual item she has had to deliver, she smiles. “I had to transport a cocker spaniel puppy from Old Havana to Santiago de Las Vegas. It was difficult because the puppy was very restless.”

And the most common? Food, diapers, hard drives with the paquete* (weekly packet) and medicines,” adds Karelia. “This bike has seen it all. This is how the city works now. I hope it stays this way because then I will have a job for a long time.”

 *Translator’s note: a compendium of pirated weekly entertainment and news programming from overseas, distributed clandestinely.


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 Private Sector Looks for Ways to Survive the Crisis

Since self-employment was legalized in the mid-1990s, private businesses have created a network of contacts, support and agreements. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, May 16, 2020 — Until six weeks ago Omara had a routine. She would get up early and start making breakfast for the tourists staying at her large house in Old Havana. Its six rooms, with bathroom included and a few yards from the Plaza de San Francisco, guaranteed she had her customers year round. But with the COVID-19 crisis the hostel “is as quiet a cemetery,” she laments.

Her situation is similar to that of many small entrepreneurs and is reflected in a report just published by the consulting firm Auge, created about six years ago by four Cuban professionals. The document analyzes the effects of the pandemic on the private sector, describes the weak points for the coming months and suggests some measures authorities might take to help private businesses.

“Except for some slow periods, my income has been quite high in recent years. It was a rare week that I did not have at least three rooms occupied,” Omara tells 14ymedio. “I have no other options right now because those of us in the business of renting rooms to tourists cannot retool like some restaurants have done by providing home delivery.” continue reading

With the closure of the country’s borders and suspension of all foreign tourism, Omara has had to ask her employees not to come to work. “I paid them for the month of March, as though they were still working, because at this point we are almost like a family. But I cannot keep giving away money,” she explains. “I can only afford to pay for maintenance of the house so that things don’t deteriorate. I have to keep investing.”

Two maids, a cook and a custodian who guarded the entrance and took care of tourists’ cars parked outside are some of the workers who have lost their income. There is also the courier who delivered fruits, vegetables and other products used in preparing breakfasts and dinners. Even the local dance instructor, many of whose clients were Omara’s guests, has lost her job.

Since self-employment was legalized in the mid-1990s, a network of contacts, support and financial agreements have come to underpin the day-to-day life of small businesses. If the man who sells fish can no longer get his product from the dock to the restaurant, the number of items on the menu decreases and income drops. It’s that simple.

Chart indicating degree of impact – low (bajo), medium and high (alto) – the pandemic has had on types of businesses in Cuba’s private sector economy. (Source: Auge)

A report released by Auge, aptly titled “Private Entrepreneurship in Cuba: A Victim of COVID-19,” warns that the pandemic “can be considered the greatest threat that private entrepreneurship has had to face since the Cuban authorities decided in 2010 to allow self-employment.” It is a perception widely held throughout the private sector.

At the entrance of Mauro’s house in the Tenth of October neighborhood, the chairs have been placed on top of the tables and covered with plastic to prevent them from deteriorating from disuse. The bar is also protected by a wide nylon sheet. Three years ago, this 38-year-old entrepreneur opened a cafe that gradually became a small neighborhood restaurant with a an expansive menu featuring pork, chicken, pizzas and drinks.

“We tried to hang on and support ourselves by selling through a window to respect the public health measures for COVID-19 but in the end we had to close because we couldn’t buy what we needed,” he says. “The only way to maintain our operation right now would be to run the risk of buying provisions on the black market and we are not going to do that. I would rather do without necessities than end up in jail.”

In the absence of a wholesale market, self-employed workers have traditionally had to buy their products through a network of retail stores where, due to the coronavirus, quantities are now strictly regulated.” I spend hours in line and they only let me to buy one package of chicken or two of sausages. Who would think I could keep my business running like this?”

Auge’s report lists fourteen problems that have hit businesses hard. One of them specifically is the “shortage of raw materials. The loss of formal and informal ways to obtain supplies.” Even bleaker is the organization’s short-term forecast, which concludes that “in the next few weeks” many of the businesses that have managed to stay afloat so far will not be able to remain open.

“This is an industry based on sweat. No one is going to come to the gym because people are afraid of being infected by someone sweating and using the equipment nearby,” says Ramon, the owner of a gym on Belascoain Street in Central Havana. To make matters worse, his business is located in one of the areas under strictest quarantine due to the numerous positive cases of COVID-19 identified there.

“Early on we moved the machines further apart so customers could exercise without being so close to one another but it didn’t make much difference. At the moment anything that is not urgent or essential is not going to work as a business. Everyone is now prioritizing health care and finding food,” he adds. “Nobody wants to touch an exercise bike that was used by someone else a few minutes before, even though we make sure we clean it well.”

With the closure of Ramón’s gym, two trainers and a cleaning worker have lost their jobs, at least temporarily.

With the closure of Ramón’s gym, two trainers and a cleaning worker have lost their jobs, at least temporarily. The investments the owner was making to move into another space and renovate several pieces of equipment has been halted. The “interruption of investments to create new businesses or to expand existing ones” is another problem described in the Auge report.

In the midst of the uncertainty, Omara, Mauro and Ramon do not know what the future will bring in the short term. Nevertheless, they are not giving up and are looking for ways to save their businesses.

“My brother in Miami is willing to help by sending me new gym equipment, which would save me money that I could use to cover losses from those months,” says the gym’s owner. “But a treadmill or a dorsal exercise machine is not going to fit in a suitcase. It can only be imported commercially,” he admits.

This is precisely one of the measures Auge has suggested the government take to help the private sector: “Permit imports of a commercial nature after modifying the current customs regulations. Relax customs regulations on the importation of basic necessities.” Until now, the state has held a monopoly on commercial importing and exporting, which it does not seem willing to give up.

Another proposal in the Auge report is to “promote the use of foreign exchange in investment and job creation, and provide facilities for the digital implementation of business through preferential prices by [the state-owned telecommunication company] Etecsa.” Other proposals include granting a “tax truce,” eliminating taxes on the workforce and suspending tax collection.

Omara, the bed-and-breakfast owner, is bracing for “a long drought of customers.” That is also the conclusion of the researchers at Auge. They predict that many businesses will be “unable to resume operations” and that the inability to travel overseas will cut off the private sector from supplies such as cleaning products and ingredients used to prepare meals for tourists.

Mauro, however, is optimistic. He believes his small restaurant will be able to stay afloat once the nightmare ends.

Mauro, however, is optimistic. He believes his small restaurant will be able to stay afloat once the nightmare ends. “We might not be able to sell the same products as before — people will have changed — so I am thinking about switching to takeout, or to something more modest like a food stall that will serve more of a niche market after the pandemic.

Recently, Mauro posted announcements on various classified ad sites offering his services as a courier. “I have an electric motorcycle, can go anywhere and will make home deliveries of packages or food from other restaurants, though I do not wait in lines,” reads the ad. “It’s what I can do to survive and feed my family,” he tells 14ymedio. “When this is all over, I will try to reopen my business.”

Until that long-awaited moment comes, the chairs and tables will remain protected under their plastic.


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.

The ATMs in Havana Run Out of Cash

This Saturday the line in front of a cashier on Calle Infanta, in Havana, turned the corner and despite the risk due to the recent fall of a collapse of part a balcony in front of the bank, the remains of which can be seen in this photo. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 10 May 2020 —  In these days of confinement to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the lines in Havana are not limited to the purchase of food and toiletries. Also the lack of cash in many ATMs causes endless waiting to get convertible pesos (CUC).

“This is the third ATM I’ve tried and it has no chavitos (Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs), a retired woman lamented this Saturday as she tried to get some money to do some shopping at a store in Cayo Hueso in Havana. The area where the woman resides is under a strict quarantine and residents are not allowed to leave a perimeter marked with yellow ribbons and police cordons.

Finally, after visiting several bank branches, the retiree got money from an ATM on Calle Infanta near the corner with San Rafael, but she had to stand in line for four hours to do so. “I only had five CUC bills and shortly after I left the money ran out and those who were waiting were left empty-handed,” she tells 14ymedio. continue reading

Paying in cash is still a very widespread practice on the Island where, as of the end of 2019, 6.2 million magnetic cards were in circulation, but using them in commercial networks is usually a cumbersome task. Many small state stores do not even have a point-of-sale machine, and others suffer constant crashes in communication between devices and banks.

Wearing their masks and trying to keep the distance of one yard, more than fifty people are waiting to withdraw money at a cashier on Calle San Lázaro. Some had marked their place in line shortly before dawn and by mid-morning several official “line organizers” arrived to try to bring order to what was already turning into a riot.

“People are very sensitive in these queues because it is about the money,” says Yasmari Río, a neighbor in the neighborhood who has marked the line since six in the morning. “I have a Fincimex card that my sister recharges me from abroad and I take out the convertible pesos here,” he details. “But I haven’t been able to withdraw a penny for three days because there is no cash at the ATMs in this area.”

“Here you have to pay almost everything with hard cash,” says Carmelo, a vendor at a fruit and vegetable stall located in an agricultural market near Calzada del Cerro. “For all agricultural products, cash is needed, so people have to line up at the cashier to come here to buy,” he explains.

“We had not accepted chavitos for several months, but with all this epidemic, you have to take what you get,” adds Carmelo. “There are people who have come here almost crying because they have money on the card but there is no cash at the ATM and they cannot buy food. They have even offered me a watch to give them something, but I have not accepted.”

Although Cubans have been losing confidence in the convertible peso (CUC) in the last year, due to fears the government is going to end the dual currency system and eliminate the CUC, the crisis unleashed by the coronavirus seems to have produced a truce. Last February, the Ministry of Internal Commerce announced that food service establishments under state management could only use the national peso (CUP), and that further triggered the uncertainty, but right now a good part of those businesses are closed.

“Go to the ATM at the Ministry of Transportation to see if you are luckier,” explained a security guard from the bank on Estancia and Conill to a customer this Friday; someone who claimed to have already gone to three different ATMs without any success. “They are serving us a little money and we are running out very fast, so people are lining up early to catch up.”

The alternative to the ATM, which could be the bank branch window, is not recommended at this time either. In Havana there are 90 branches of Banco Metropolitano, but with the arrival of the pandemic in Cuba, their service and hours have been reduced. On weekends most of these banks are closed, which causes more lines in front of the ATMs.

In the informal market, vendors have long accepted the use of the US dollar in their transactions. The US currency is now trading above 1.15 CUC and may even reach 1.20. The rise in the dollar is also due to the closing of the official exchange houses (Cadeca), where the price has not moved for years from 0.87 dollar to 1 CUC because it is a market controlled by the State. The Cadecas pay out $0.87 USD for 1 CUC.

Other businesses accept payment with foreign magnetic cards to purchase home dinners and special combos for Mother’s Day. But they are the few and daily life continues to function “with money at the forefront, without so much technology,” acknowledges Luis, a young messenger who until a few weeks ago made a living by collecting pensions for various elderly people who cannot travel to the ATMs.

“My business is on hold right now because in most of the ATMs are regulated so that nothing else can be done with a card, so as not to delay the line or to run out of cash,” he explains. “The pandemic has already reached our pockets and that is a bad sign, because without money nothing works.”


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.

‘Who Is Going to Bring Me Food If I Can’t Go Out?’

The virus is more lethal to old people. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 19 March 2020 — Every morning he greets the dawn in front of the newspaper stand. Sometimes he waits a few minutes and others for hours, but Romualdo, 79, explains that he has time because he is retired and without a family. After buying the papers, he resells them through the streets of Havana. “They tell me that I shouldn’t leave the house because of the coronavirus, but if I don’t do this, I don’t eat.”

He pays 0.20 CUP (Cuban pesos) for each copy of the official newspaper,  Granma, and then offers it to customers who don’t want to line up at the kiosk for five times that value. Although it seems a high number, it is just pennies (4 cents US) that mean little in Cuba’s expensive daily life. “There are days when I make 15 [Cuban] pesos and others that I am lucky enough to meet tourists who pays me 1 CUC  (Cuban convertible peso, roughly $1 US) for a newspaper, those are the holidays.”

With a pension that does not exceed 300 CUP per month, about $12 US, Romualdo survives on the resale of newspapers and running errands for his neighbors, such as buying their products from the rationed market and delivering them to their homes. He is what is popularly called a “messenger” who, with those extra tasks manages to “eat poorly, but eat every day,” he says. continue reading

But now, his life, which seemed to have found a precarious balance, is about to change. “I am diabetic and asthmatic, the family clinic doctor told me that I have to take care not to get the virus which is already here.” The retiree is between a rock and a hard place: “I can’t stay locked in my house because if I don’t sell my newspapers and run other errands I can’t eat. Who is going to bring me food if I can’t go out?”

The call to stay at home that is traveling the world in the face of the pandemic has reached Cuba through social networks. Many parents have decided not to send their children to school even though the Ministry of Education has not yet canceled classes, and at state workplaces, employees are trying to convince their bosses to let them work from home. But there are others who know that being locked within four walls can present other risks.

Currently, 18.3% of Cuba’s 11.1 million inhabitants are over 60 years old, which places the country among the oldest in the Americas. This demographic composition makes the Island especially vulnerable to Covid-19, as demonstrated by the incidence of mortality among the elderly in Italy and Spain, where several nursing homes have become death traps for dozens of inmates.

Biologist Amilcar Pérez Riverol warned of the seriousness of the matter in a text published on his Facebook account. “Cuba has more than 1,125,000 inhabitants between 60-69 years (estimated mortality of Covid-19 in this age group, 4.5%), more than 768,000 between 70-79 years (lethality 8.9%) and more out of 392,000 aged 80+ (18% case fatality),” he wrote. Those data give a total of “more than 2,286,000 inhabitants in the ages of risk.”

Rosa María is 72 years old and makes a living preparing homemade sweets at her home in the Güira municipality, in Artemisa, and selling them to customers in the Cuban capital. Once a week, she takes the train that leads to the small station on Calle Tulipán and offers her products in the high-rise buildings in the area, where for years some residents have made a habit of buying her guava chells, dulce de leche and homemade jams.

“I am hypertensive and for five years I have been in remission from cancer, so I am in the group of people with the highest risk from the virus,” she details. Widowed for a decade, Rosa María has always been a housewife and now receives the pension of her deceased husband. “It is not enough for me, if I do not go out to sell my sweets I will die of hunger,” she says.

Many Cuban elders survive by reselling official newspapers. (B. Atkinson)

This week, several customers didn’t even open the door for her when she knocked. “They told me that they don’t want to let anyone in and have contact with people who come from far away in case they bring the coronavirus,” laments the lady. “I was only able to sell two of the 10 candies I brought so I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next few days.”

“If they cancel the train and quarantine the country, I am going to be one of the victims, but not of the virus, rather of the lack of food and soap. In my neighborhood in Güira there are many old people who are worse off than I am because they can’t even stand up on their own. If it is difficult to buy a diaper for the elderly here in normal times, imagine now,” she details.

In nursing homes, concern grows. A nun who works as a caregiver the Santovenia Nursing Home, in the Havana municipality of Cerro, tells 14ymedio her fears.

“We are an institution with about 500 elderly residents and of them more than 300 are permanent residents here.” Most of the daily chores and care “are done by the Little Sisters of the Homeless Elderly, but there are also personnel hired for other maintenance and administration tasks. Now everyone must redouble their hygiene.”

Quinta Santovenia, a stately mansion on Calzada del Cerro, also has the support of the Ministry of Public Health and receives frequent donations from abraod from the Galician Government and the autonomous governments of Asturias and the Canary Islands. More than two decades ago, the Betania dining room was created on the site, serving the elderly who do not reside in the center but are in a vulnerable situation. Those who arrive receive not only food, but also vitamins, toiletries, clothing and medical attention.

The nuns also care for several dozen people in their homes, bring them medicine and food, and ensure that they are well. “Many are old people who live alone because their children migrated or they are living with relatives who cannot provide them with the care they need due to lack of resources or time,” says one of the nuns.

In the spacious living room, many old people from the area meet at lunchtime, and not only do they eat there but, for many, it is their only chance to have some social contact and conversation.

“We must protect them from themselves because some of them come here with a tremendous desire to speak, to hug each other and to be close because they don’t have anyone in their homes,” explains the nun. “We cannot close the dining room because we know that many of them do not have the resources to achieve even one meal a day.”

“This nursing home is one of the best in the city because a large part of the management is carried out by the Church and because we receive a lot of help and donations, but the state of other centers is truly dire,” she details. “For the most part, there are serious hygiene problems that even in normal times are potential life hazards for the elderly but are now becoming even more serious.”


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 State Telecommunications Company Silent Before the Pandemic

Etecsa has not proposed any price reductions to date, should people need to be confined at home as in other countries. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 17 March 2020 — While the world implements social distancing measures and encourages teleworking to fight the spread of the coronavirus, none of this occurs in Cuba, where lack of connectivity prevents recourse to these measures that are proving effective against the spread of the epidemic elsewhere.

The support of telecommunications companies has been key in countries that have opted for people to work at home. On the other hand, on the Island this formula is practically non-existent and the high prices charged for the internet contribute to this situation.

“We do not have any [price] reduction scheduled at the moment,” an employee of the Etecsa office located on the ground floor of Havana’s Focsa building tells 14ymedio, a statement reiterated by several employees of the state telecommunications monopoly who answer the customer service numbers. Covid-19 is only alluded to on the company’s website to advertise a mobile application with information about the coronavirus. continue reading

Although the current situation on the Island is far from that experienced in Italy and Spain, the cases of infection in Cuba come from these countries. With them the Island shares a risk factor that affects the lethality of the disease, the high number of elderly people in the population.

In addition, also as in the two European States, a high percentage of the population makes a living in the service sector associated with tourism, which hinders the expansion of telework and threatens to leave many people without income, especially in the case of Cuba, where the Government lacks the financial wherewithal to borrow and offer aid.

Amazon Prime Video is another of the companies that has boosted its leisure time offerings and has made its content platform free in the areas most affected by the coronavirus in Italy. Lombardy, Piedmont, Venice and Emilia-Romagna have had access to series and movies on the streaming platform for days without having to register in advance for the company’s services. Nor is it necessary to pay the usual fee to sign up.

For its part, the Google Art Project, a partnership between the internet giant and more than 60 cultural institutions, has made available to users virtual tours of the most important museums in the world. From a mobile phone or a computer, those interested can visit these places as if they were physically on site.

“That requires a lot of megabytes and it is also audiovisual content that needs a stable and broadband connection, something that Etecsa does not manage to provide in many areas of the country,” says Mateo, a young computer engineer who is dedicated to installing applications for phones with the Android operating system. “Buying navigation packages for cell phones that could so something like this would be crazy and with the Nauta Hogar [Home internet] service it is complicated because it is not stable,” he points out.

In October of last year, official figures indicated that the Nauta Hogar service reached only 110,000 households within the Island. The price of 30 hours of navigation ranges between 15 and 70 CUC depending on speed, and beyond that users can continue browsing at a price of 0.50 CUC for each hour. A virtual visit to a museum, a movie on Netflix or watching a series on Amazon could easily cost a full day’s salary of a professional.

But through the mobile phone service, with more than 6 million subscribers across the country, it would be even more expensive. Packages of 6.5 gigabytes cost 35 CUC and 10 GB packages cost 45, figures equivalent to the monthly salary of an engineer. Both offerings are available only for the 4G network that is not yet deployed across the whole country.

At least once a month Etecsa posts a mobile balance recharge offer with an extra bonus, an option that is designed to be paid for by family or friends from abroad and bring fresh currency to the country. However, the extra bonuses that accompany the main balance cannot be used for navigation packages, only to talk on the phone and send text messages.

“Don’t even think that they are going to make an offer, if we have been crying out for internet prices [to drop] every day for months and they always have a justification for not doing it,” says Carlos Fernández, a young man who has participated on Twitter in the intense campaigns that have been carried out in the last year to try to influence the only telephone company authorized to operate in the country.

“What I fear is quite the opposite, that they take hold of all this coronavirus and cut off services so that people can’t share what is happening or report the cases of infected people they know,” he warns. “We must not forget that Etecsa is a company that does not work for the interests of its customers but rather for the interests of the Government. If the higher-ups want them to close up, they will do it  without batting an eye.”

In September of last year and when the energy crisis triggered alarms on the Island, the official media began to talk about telework. The practice is supported by the Labor Code, which went into force in June 2014, but many state companies do not try it because it demands, among other things, fluid connectivity between the employee and the center.

“They give me a number of free megabytes every month to use on my mobile,” a worker from an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Trade tells this newspaper anonymously. “Although I could do my job perfectly from home, I have to go to the office every day because those megabytes are not enough to do everything from a distance,” he regrets.

“Part of the megabytes they give me are for me to defend the Revolution in the networks, and the rest are for me to look for the data that I need for the reports, but if I tried to work from home I wouldn’t be able to connect for three days in a row,” she explains. “We have been told that we have to keep showing up for face-to-face work because the ministry does not have, at the moment, a way to guarantee teleworking.”

However, the employee fears for her health. “We are more than a dozen people breathing and moving in a closed room with air conditioning; if one has the coronavirus the others do not have any protection,” she adds. Among her hopes is that Etecsa will launch special offers in the coming days in the face of the pandemic: “It is at least what they can do with all the money they’ve earned.”


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.

The Cuban ’Chavito’ Smells of Death

Many private taxi drivers have chosen to accept only Cuban pesos (CUPs) as payment for their services. (Frans Persoon)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 6 March 2020 — “It’s 985 pesos,” the employee says when she brings the bill for a lunch for three people in a state restaurant in the municipality of Playa, in Havana. It exceeds the monthly salary of one of the customers, an engineer, who does not like the payment in CUP (Cuban pesos). “It is now more obvious than ever that prices have nothing to do with wages,” he complains.

Last week the Ministry of Internal Trade announced that the food services under state management can only use one currency, the CUP. Products that were previously sold in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) such as beers, soft drinks, cigars, water, ice cream, jams and other alcoholic beverages, have been priced in Cuban pesos.

The measure has triggered uncertainty about the possible short-term disappearance of the CUC, which has been losing ground since the authorities warned that the survivor of monetary unification was going to be the Cuban peso. continue reading

Since 1994 two currencies have coexisted and people have become accustomed to alternating between the devalued Cuban peso (CUP), which the state uses to pay salaries and people use to buy basic products and services; and the convertible peso (CUC), comparable to the dollar.

During the Government of Raúl Castro, from 2008 to 2018, there was much talk about monetary unification and that it would be done gradually, but to date the schedule or the moment of completion of the process has not been revealed, much less what the exchange rate will be.

“We are still getting used to this new situation,” acknowledges an employee of a small state-owned store that strives to apply the new directives that, since last week, prohibit her from charging customers in CUCs. In the business, located next to the Habana Libre hotel, food combos with pork, rice and some vegetable are sold, as well as alcoholic drinks and soft drinks. “The simple fact of calculating the income at the end of the day is already a problem because the numbers [in CUPs] are larger and errors can increase, especially when you have been working in CUCs for so many years.”

“The Cuban peso is easier to counterfeit because the paper used for many denominations is of worse quality, so we must keep our eyes peeled because people have already tried to pass some bills that were not authentic,” she adds. “Now I get a chill when I have to give a user a bill in Cuban pesos and the amount is greater than what I earn a whole month working here; before I didn’t realize it so much,” said the worker.

At a table, an Italian tourist talks with two young Cubans. They have each ordered a plate of fried pork dough, accompanied by a Belgian beer which is the only one available these days due to poor national production. Vicenzo, who lives in Milan, says that every year he comes to Cuba once or twice and that managing in CUPs bothers him.

“If before I had to change my euros into CUCs, now I also have to, then, change my CUCs into CUPs because there are services — like Panataxis — that remain exclusively in convertible pesos, while to eat or drink I need the Cuban currency [CUPs], and I’m confused the whole time… I have to go out and exchange money because I don’t have enough [in CUPs],” Vincenzo laments, when the bill arrives for 412 CUP.

The employee comments to 14ymedio that the scene is repeated almost every day. “There are people who do not know, they come, they eat and drink, and then they do not have the correct currency to pay.” A few meters away, a clever black market entrepreneur has found his niche in that difficulty. “I change 1 to 22 right now without having to an exchange kiosk,” he offers, instead of the 24 pesos of the official CUC exchange rate.

From this month the premises that provide food services under state management will now carry out all their commercial actions in CUP. (Martin Abegglen)

“Although the ’chavitos’* cannot be used here , they are still the strong currency in stores and other services, so it is convenient for me to have them,” explains the money changer. “Most of the people who accept this change are tourists, Cuban-Americans or people who don’t want to have to interrupt a lunch or a meal to change money to pay the bill.”

While the state sector is obliged to respect the new measure, in private businesses they are more flexible. “It doesn’t matter if you pay in euros, dollars, convertible pesos or Japanese yen,” says Eduardo Rodríguez, the driver of a private car that makes frequent trips from Havana to Varadero or to the Viñales tourist area. “As long as it is money there is no problem.”

However, drivers of collective taxis that run on fixed routes within the city prefer to be more cautious. “I do not accept the chavito,” warns the self-employed worker at the helm of an old patched-up Cadillac that carries passengers between the Capitol and the town of Marianao.

The authorities have warned that after the monetary unification only the Cuban peso or national currency will be maintained. (Josef Willems)

“I can’t risk ending up with too many convertible pesos and then they suddenly unify the currency and only allow each person to exchange a small amount ,” he explains. “The same day they announced that the state cafeterias and restaurants were only going to accept CUPs, I decided to do the same inside my car, because that is a sign that cannot be ignored.”

However, after the initial announcement, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Internal Trade, Miriam Pérez, warned that sales in convertible pesos in the establishments of the state system of commerce and food services, are not related to monetary unification but are intended to create “greater control” in that commercial network. Some statements that have failed to placate the suspicions around the chavito.

“Sure, what would they say? If they publicly announce that this currency is already a corpse, nobody will want to have it in their pocket,” says Eduardo Rodríguez. “It is a danger to be saving money in chavitos because any day we could wake up with the news that they are useless, although my children and grandchildren were born with this currency and for them they were the bills that were really worth something because the other [CUPs] weren’t good for much.”

“It is not the same to say that a pizza is worth 3.50 CUCs when you put in front of the customer and then when he gets the bill he owes almost 90 CUP,” explains Wilfredo, a waiter in a state-run restaurant in Playa specializing in Italian food. “The number in Cuban pesos impresses anyone.”

*Translator’s note: “Chavito” is a slang term for a Cuban convertible peso, of disputed origin, but it is said to be a play on the name of the former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.


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.

Only in Cuba is the Sale of Used Cars News

Independent and foreign press gathered at the site. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 25 February 25, 2020 — At first light you could see the tired yawning faces of the people who had come to form a queue. The start of the sale of used cars for foreign currency has attracted more curious people than purchasers to the shop on 20th Street, between 1st and 3rd, in the Playa district of Havana.

The first person in the line, waiting for them to call the next customers, commented,  “I thought I had come early, but at 5 am there were more than ten people, who, I imagine, turned up last night”. The person behind him was sure that “the best deals will go in the first days, and that’s why people are impatient.”

The wide lot where the cars are parked has a reception area with AC, where there is a list with the prices of each vehicle. What doesn’t appear is the year, or the mileage, or kilometrage, of the car. “If you want to know those details, you have to stand in line and go through the process”, says an employee, through a gap in the door. continue reading

In the air conditioned reception is a list of the vehicles’ prices. (14ymedio)

The independent and foreign press have also come. Lights, cameras … and cars everywhere. Some mock the excessive coverage. “This wouldn’t be news anywhere else but Cuba”, laughs a  passer-by taking his kid to school.

In order to get in, you have to show a credit card charged with real convertible currency. Someone asks if it is also necessary to have a minimum amount on the card, and this leads to some confusion and some consultation. A few minutes later, a man confirms that “If you really want to buy something, you obviously have to have money, but for the assistants, just having some plastic is enough”.

There is an automobile-expertise competition among the onlookers, who observe from far away, and then up close. “None of those cars look more than ten years old; the problem is knowing what their mileage is”, says one of the supposed experts. Another one adds, “And it would be difficult to know because you can clock the mileage and leave it at zero”.

Nearly all the cars on show are grey. Some are small, and some are more like pick up trucks or minivans.

Nearly all the cars are grey. There are small ones, and ones which are more like pick-ups or minivans. Some are covered  in dust, and none of them have licence plates.

Some point to the cheapest models, going for about $34,000, and say they will probably will go quickest, while others consider that it is “better to pay more and get a stronger car”. Nearly everyone in the line are men, although there are some women accompanied by their husbands, and a woman shouting about the trinkets she is selling.

“When they advertised it, I thought it would be for people who import directly”, says a young man who, he makes clear, has come “just to look”. His brother, who lives in Miami, has had a car for five years and wanted to send it, but he says that “there’s no way to get it here.”

Vehicle imports are controlled by state businesses, in particular, the Cimex Corporation, a commercial arm of the military. “That’s why the prices are like that, because they control the whole situation”, is the opinion of one of the customers, summing up the conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of each car.

Most of the people waiting there seem to belong to what most people call “nouveau riche”, or “flashy”. They show off their social status in their clothes, the kind of shoes they wear, they way they show off their knowledge of cars, and, make it clear they do have a credit card with thousands of dollars deposited, in a country in which the average monthly salary is no more that $50.

Halfway through the morning, not one buyer has left with his car. The process of inspection, testing and delivery is long and tedious. “You have to check it out, right down to the spark plugs, because when you leave there’s no way to complain about anything” says a man who boasts about being an auto mechanic, and who is accompanying a friend interested in Peugeots.

Although Chinese Geely cars are cheaper, some people reject them because of their bad reputation, since they have been distributed for years at subsidised prices to the military, and Party bureaucrats and leaders, as well as the police and members of State Security.

Carlos, a young man who has been in the line since about four in the morning, explains it perfectly. “I think I’m gonna go for a Kia for $40,000; although a Geely goes for $5,000 less, it’s a car that gives you a headache to get it fixed, and also my neighbours would think I was with the state security”, he says ironically.

Translated by GH


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.

The Felled Tree Sprouts

Something happened to fulfill the verses of the poet Miguel Hernández and there it is, with its exciting and brittle twig. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 19 December 2019 — The arboricidal fury chopped down this old Havana flamboyant tree without compassion, perhaps under the pretext of avoiding collisions with the power line, or to protect the sidewalks from its vigorous roots or because it blocked the cool breeze from the balcony from a whimsical powerful neighbor. Your guess is as good as mine!

But, as it still had life, something happened to fulfill the verses of the poet Miguel Hernández — “I am like the felled tree that sprouts” — and there it is, with its exciting and brittle twig, challenging those who tried to annul it, who humiliated it by turning it into a garbage can.

By some strange association, typical of the positive thoughts that emerge on the eve of a new year, this greening promotes hope. As much as an attempt has been made to curtail the vocation of freedom of a people, the ability to regenerate always remains in its original substance.

The twig is fragile and must be protected from them and from us.


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

In Addition to Being Expensive and Useless, the Cuban Passport is Not Edible

With a useful life of only six years, the Cuban passport must be extended twice during that time. Henry Constantin stands next to his passport taped to a wall with a banana beside him. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 12 December 2019 — Good art does not leave anyone impassive, especially if it mixes irreverence, mockery and everyday life, as demonstrated this December with the installation of a ripe banana stuck with adhesive tape to the wall at the Art Basel festival. The composition of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan not only attracted great attention but also sold for $ 120,000. A price that has made many internet users recreate the work in their homes with what they find most valuable or ridiculous.

This is how it came to be the turn of the Cuban passport, one of the most expensive on the planet, for which an emigrant must pay more than 450 dollars if they are obtaining it from within the United States. With a useful life of only six years, the document that proves that someone is a national of this Island must be extended twice during that time, which raises its price about 320 dollars more. Something that those who have posted photos of the blue booklet with the shield of the Republic taped to a wall have not failed to observe.

“Cattelan fell short. Poor people who believe that buying $ 120,000 a banana attached to a wall by an ’artist’ is the biggest scam,” the independent journalist Henry Constantín joked on his Facebook account. The reporter believes that it is worse to pay for a Cuban passport “that you cannot even eat, and that sometimes, as in my case, it is not useful for traveling* (or for anything else).” continue reading

“And now eat it to complete the artistic act,” said an internet user after reading Constantin’s text and alluding to the final destination of the banana in Art Basel, where a man tore the fruit from the wall and ate it to the surprise of some and rejoicing of others. Soon after, a gallery employee looked for another banana, took a new strip of duct tape and stuck it on the wall. Nothing had changed, just like with the Cuban passport.

 *Translator’s note: Cuban State Security has blocked Constantin from traveling outside Cuba.


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.

"People Go Crazy"

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 28 November 2019 — The man on the motorcycle didn’t respect the stop sign and a vehicle hit him with such force it threw him several yars. Everyone ran to help the injured man and a gentleman offered his car to take him to the hospital. On the asphalt is a huge puddle of gasoline and a few drops of blood.

As the end of the year parties approach, “people go crazy,” pedestrians comment.

Despite the announcements and warnings to take precautions and keep alcohol consumption away from the drivers, many families will see their Christmas celebrations tarnished by the loss of a family member in a traffic accident or will have to spend holidays at the hospital taking care of a son, sister or father who was injured.

An crash occurs on the Island every 55 minutes, one person dies every 15 hours and another person is injured every hour and 15 minutes. According to official data, in the first ten months of the year 7,800 traffic accidents occurred, 460 fewer than in the same period of 2018.


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.

Tomato Production in Cuba Tanks and Prices Soar

Tomato production in Cuba fell precipitously in 2019 due largely to the lack of fertilizer. (Photo: V.C. Nisida)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, November 24, 2019 — One of the products most sought-after by the throngs of people inundating the Cuatro Caminos Market has been the tomato, an essential ingredient in many recipes. With supplies scarce and prices for the product high, prepackaged tomato concentrate is the only option for customers who want to prepare pasta, season chickpeas or make a chicken fricasée.

Those anxiously searching for this popular item already know that the news this year has not been good. Domestic tomato production has been falling dramatically all year. The causes range from the inability to obtain fertilizer and seeds, difficulties with fuel and a delay in the planting season due to climate issues.

The official press reported that “the Ministry of Agriculture planned on delivering 79,940 tons of tomatoes” but produce markets received only 22,814, barely 28% of the planned total. continue reading

Far from the offices of official newspaper editors, long-time tomato farmers are feeling the impact that this is having on their lives. In Lajas (in Cienfuegos province), Remberto Godinez has had to devote part of his land, which six years ago was idle, to planting yuca and malanga instead of tomato, a crop which used to reign supreme on his farm.

“There’s no fertilizer, so it’s difficult to get a crop going,” Godinez explains.

“Also, insect infestations have plagued the crops this year and we have no way of combatting them. And thinking about growing a tomato under netting is just crazy. Where would we even get the cloth?”

Two years ago Godinez began experimenting with growing an “impaled” tomato, a technique that allows the plant to grow vertically. Though little used on the island, the strategy was providing Godinez with good yields and a more marketable product. “I had to give it up because finding the planting stakes was proving difficult,” he explained by phone.

He does not envision an optimistic forecast in the coming months. “It rained a lot in October so we couldn’t set up the seed beds and planting was very delayed. There won’t be as many tomatoes at the end of this year as in the past,” he notes. “I think that any family that can eat a tomato at Christmas should feel very fortunate.”

Tomato puree concentrate, known as “tomato paste,” is a popular option for many Cubans. (G. Bonomi)

The high prices for tomatoes listed on chalk boards at local produce markets back up Godinez’ claims. At Havana’s best-stocked markets — examples include the one at San Rafael Street in Central Habana, and the one at 21 and B in Vedado — for several weeks the price for tomatoes has not fallen below 25 Cuban pesos per pound, equivalent to the daily salary of a professional. In Artemisa province, where the plant is also widely cultivated, prices have exceeded 30 pesos per pound. And in Trinidad, a tourist area with high demand from restaurants and hostels, they go for 50 pesos.

Even Cuba’s most important tomato growing province, Ciego de Avila, has not escaped the crisis. According to figures published in the local press, 33,945 tons of the crop were harvested there in 2019 but ultimately only 12,450 tons were recovered from the fields.

The situation in Ciego de Avila is also reducing supplies of tomato-based products — sauces, purees and a wide variety of canned goods — because Ceballos, the country’s largest industrial processor of tomatoes, is located in the province and consumes a signficant portion of the local production.

“The technological supplies didn’t get here on time and, when they did arrived, we didn’t get everything we needed, especially nitrogen fertilizer,” says Nancy Palmero, a producer who, along with her husband and two sons, raises tomatoes on the outskirts of Moron. “We have trouble getting the tomato crop from the field because there isn’t enough fuel, or even crates.”

The worsening energy crisis Cuba has been experiencing in recent months is having a very negative impact on agriculture, a sector hit by other shortages. At the root of the crisis are dwindling supplies at gas stations and a resulting higher demand, which is partially met by black market diesel that has been illegally diverted from the resources of state farms and cooperatives.

The Ceballos company itself confirmed the setback in a recently published report. Last year the industry produced 4,565 tons of tomato-based products, including pasta, puree, sauce and other items. In the first nine months of 2019, however, the figure was only 1,339.

“The few tomatoes we manage to produce we sell out of our house,” says Nancy Palmero. “People are so desperate just to get tomato puree that they snatch them from our hands.”


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.

Strays and Kings

A stray dog that resisted the authorities slipped in the photo of the Kings of Spain walking through Old Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 15 November 2019 — The fact that the Zoonosis Canine Observation Center circulated its vehicles through several Havana municipalities to clean the city of stray dogs a few days earlier, was of little use.

The idea of a clean, organized city with no abandoned animals broke down in a second, when the Spanish royals Queen Letizia and King Felipe VI made their way through the historic center of the Cuban capital accompanied by a stray mutt that even the entourage of bodyguards, officials and journalists who accompanied the royals was not able to remove.

Some say that the dog that crossed their majesty’s path was simply a character intended to clean the image left behind by the massive collection and subsequent sacrifice of abandoned animals before the arrival of the royal couple. continue reading

Others prefer to interpret its presence as a symbol of resistance and claim of creatures that have suffered neglect, abuse and the absence of rights forever. For them, that mongrel represented all the dogs and cats that are waiting for an Animal Protection Law, regulations that more and more activists loudly demand.

So next to Felipe’s guayabera and Letizia’s impeccable dress, the tanned and somewhat dirty spine of this Havana mutt passed by. His daring presence in the real photos was overshadowed by the uproar caused by the dress of the Cuban first lady, Lis Cuesta, who stole the prominence of the day due to her inappropriate attire for the steamy Cuban sun. Regardless, whatever you want to call him: Spot, Rex, Lucky, Sparky or Champ… although it is very likely that he has no name, he slipped into the visit of the Spanish royals to Cuba.

They will leave, but he must continue to deal with the hard life on the streets of Cuba.


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 Authorities Blame "Hoarders" for the Incidents in Cuatro Caminos Market

State television has taken two days to pronounce, but finally it has done so, partly driven by the spread of information on the internet. (Capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 19 November 2019 — “Hoarders” and an “uncontrolled avalanche” are the adjectives with which Cuban Television described the crowd gathered last Saturday at the reopening of the Cuatro Caminos Market. The official response to the riots has taken 48 hours to appear and has come through information issued on Prime Time News and prepared by the journalist Talía González.

The official information indicates “violations of the established norms for the entrance to a commercial establishment” and “the breakage of some structures and also quarrels.” In the emblematic building, built in 1920, “there were unpleasant acts of hoarding” of people “acting with total impunity,” adds the TV news.

At least one woman suffered a fracture during the stampede through the interior aisles of the mall, reopened after five years of repairs. In addition, two doors were shattered by the crowd and there was shoving and fights that forced administrators to decree the closure of the facility for several days. continue reading

“Those who caused these unfortunate incidents did not go there only to buy products for use in their homes,” but they are “part of a phenomenon that has not yet had a solution,” said the journalist, considered a voice very close to the high hierarchy of the government.

González denounced “the hoarding and subsequent resale on the street at exorbitant prices,” a black market that for decades has been one of the main sources of supply for Cubans.

The official news attributed part of the responsibility to the market managers, who did not take the appropriate measures to control the flow of customers at the entrances.

However, according to the report, the public behaved in an “uncivilized manner” and many “dedicated themselves to recording everything with their cell phones and then showing them in smear campaigns on social networks.”

In the images that have been coming to light since last Saturday, many people are seen filming the flood of customers, the blows and shoves with their mobile phones.

The dissemination through social networks of news events has forced the official press to address issues that were previously kept under control, if not hidden. The protest of the resident of Regla against the caravan of Miguel Díaz-Canel after the tornado last January and the death of the young girl, Paloma, after being given a vaccine, are some of the information that has come to light thanks to the internet.

Cuban Television considers this immediacy an “evil that we experience these days” and regrets what happened despite the efforts of the workers who had been setting up the market for reopening to the public, the day of the 500th Anniversary of Havana.

During the last months the shortage of essential products, such as food and cleaning supplies, has worsened in Cuba. In an attempt to alleviate the situation, the authorities decreed rationing in the sale of various merchandise in stores in convertible pesos, especially frozen chicken, sausages and beer.

However, the measures have failed to prevent compulsive purchases or those that aim to accumulate products and then resell them in informal networks. “It is true that the shortage of necessities during the last months in the network of stores resulted in consumers having an expectation of accessing them in the highly stocked Cuatro Caminos Market,” it acknowledges.

“But nothing justifies what happened there,” said González, who calls for  measures “to make an example of” those who provoke situations such as that experienced on Saturday in the so-called Single Market.

According to information provided by CIMEX to the official press among the most important economic damages are the breakage of three rolling doors, one of the panels of the glass door located at the entrance, and some traffic barriers that are estimated at a cost of more than $2,000. In addition, the same sources ensure that there were “losses of approximately 5,000 CUC” in damaged or stolen products.

See also:

The Cuatro Caminos Market Closes Until Next Week Due To Social “Indiscipline”

The “Resurrection” of the Cuatro Caminos Market and Free Trade in Cuba

Why the Reopening of the Cuatro Caminos Market Failed

The Cuatro Caminos Market Will be a Museum

Without Its Market Cuatro Caminos Seems Lost


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.