Cubans Hope For Customs Moratorium After Irma

There is growing demand for a moratorium on import tariffs for food, clothing, footwear and household appliances. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 19 September 2017 – Planning what to bring and filling their suitcases with their purchases abroad is the obsession of any Cuban who returns to the island. After Hurricane Irma, the victims and self-employed are waiting for the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) to relax customs fees so they can bring articles and merchandise into the country.

More than a week after the hurricane touched down on Cuban territory, there is growing demand for a moratorium on import duties on food, clothing, footwear and appliances. The AGR has not yet issued any official information that points to or rejects an immediate change in its regulations.

This Monday seemed like a normal day at José Martí International Airport’s Terminal 3, but travelers and their companions demanded more strongly than at other times the right to expand the amount of luggage that each passenger can bring. continue reading

“In my town, Yaguajay, there are people who have lost everything,” Raiza Rojas, 43, told this newspaper. “Getting here was an odyssey, but the return of my brother who was visiting Miami is vital for my family,” she says. His relatives, sitting on the stairs connecting the ground floor with the first floor, waited anxiously.

“My kids were left only with the shoes they had on, and in my house the washing machine and the refrigerator were ruined,” Rojas explains. Her dream is that “the Government will allow it all to be brought in from outside, because here the stores are experiencing extreme shortages and the products are very expensive.”

The list of gifts that the Rojas family hopes to receive includes “tomato paste in tubes that do not need refrigeration, detergent, soap, candles, cumin powder and reading glasses” that were lost during the storm. “We are also hoping for painkillers, aspirins and some heartburn pills because the pharmacies are bare.”

Any traveler can bring up to 22 pounds of duty-free medicines, but must pack them separately and keep them in their original containers. “That’s nothing, because in my family there are four seniors and two are chronic patients who need many medicines,” adds Rojas.

The woman hopes that in the short term “people can bring medicines, food and also cars that are needed right now to rebuild this country.”

However, customs controls continued to be governed by the standards implemented in mid-2014.

“I have two suitcases, one for food and another because I brought a drill,” a Cuban recently arrived from Cancun, where he spent the weekend shopping, told 14ymedio. “I thought that after the hurricane I would not have problems with tools and food but I was wrong,” he adds.

The traveler had to pay customs fees equal to the cost of the drill in convertible currency because it was his second import this year. “I explained to the official that this drill is for domestic use, to fix some windows that the winds of the cyclone loosened, but I still had to pay 50 CUC,” laments the man.

“It cost me more to bring it into the country than to buy it in Mexico,” he complains. “With these prices people are discouraged and in the end the loser is the country because the families have less to face the inclement weather with,” he says.

A few yards from the waiting room of the main terminal in Havana, the parcel agencies also continue to be governed by the rules in force for three years.

In the customer service office of the Aerovaradero company at the airport, an employee who identifies himself as Yasser responds bluntly: “Everything is consistent with the Official Gazette and [we have not] received any document that expands the volume of cargo that can come in unaccompanied nor its costs in customs,” he says.

The worker confirms that in the last hours he has registered numerous calls from customers interested in being recipients of personal donations from abroad to relieve the damages that the hurricane left them. However, “the General Customs of the Republic is the only one authorized to make changes” in the rates and quantities that can be received, Yasser says.

Even Pedro Acosta, owner of the Docilla Ceci private restaurant at the Havana Deportivo Casino, has gotten comments from people calling for “expanding the coverage to bring things,” he tells this newspaper. However he believes that the authorities “are not going to do it and if they take any such action it would be only temporarily because of the situation left by Hurricane Irma.”

Acosta says he feels pessimistic and has the impression that “the tendency is to close it down more and more and for people bring things from abroad individually.” In his opinion, among the reasons for strangling the mules” is the official intention to “not benefit the private sector,” he says. The mules include people who bring things into the country just for the price of their own ticket, along with others who charge by the pound and make a business of it.

Were he able to import with more freedom, this private businessman would prioritize “refrigeration articles that are very expensive here and are not of good quality,” he says. He would also like to import products such as different types of meat, condiments and other items that he can barely find in the stores.

At the end of August, Customs categorically denied a rumor about the possible implementation of more restrictive provisions for the clearance of travelers’ luggage. The state agency called the spread of this false news “erroneous and malicious.”

“Cuban Customs will always inform in advance, by all means available to us, any changes we may impose,” said the official statement.

Now, many count the hours waiting for another announcement, but this time “to open, not to close,” said Pedro Acosta.

Soup Kitchen for Havana’s Poor Can Barely Cope

Dining room of La Milagrosa parish in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 24 August 2017 – He arrives close to noon with a tin cup and a plastic bag. Roberto is one of the many elderly who eat lunch at the Milagrosa parish hall in Havana’s Santos Suarez neighborhood. The ration he receives for breakfast, lunch and a snack is the 78-year-old retiree’s main sustenance; his pension is 220 Cuban pesos (CUP) a month, less than ten dollars.

The place, managed by the Catholic Church, is packed during meal times and the nuns who manage the kitchen say they can barely help all those in need. The humanitarian service will continue, despite the recent death of its leading light, the priest Jesus Maria Lusarreta, who was 80. continue reading

Since he settled on the island in the early 1990s, the parish priest, born in 1937 in the Navarre town of Lumbier, in Spain, promoted various programs to help the elderly and disabled, as well as providing a space for children and young people with Down’s Syndrome. However, the impoverishment of the surrounding neighborhoods has limited the temple’s capacity to help all who knock on its doors.

The place, managed by the Catholic Church, is packed during meal times and the nuns who manage the kitchen say they can barely help all those in need

Lusarreta also established a system of home help to bring food to people who could not get to the parish, and he not infrequently asked for money from his own family in Spain to defray the expenses of a support system that has not stopped growing in recent years.

According to data from the Provincial Directorate of Assistance and Social Security in Havana, 335,178 retirees live in the capital city, with a monthly average income of 272 CUP apiece. Although some have relatives abroad who send them remittances, others must sell cigarettes and newspapers to survive, or live off public charity.

La Milagrosa Parish, in Havana. (14ymedio)

The center, a two-story building attached to the Roman-style temple built in 1947, also has a hairdresser offering free personal grooming, laundry and manicure services. At first there were only a dozen elderly people but today more than 200 show up every day.

In a statement to 14ymedio, a few weeks before his death, the priest regretted that the facilities where they kept some of the resources to help the most disadvantaged frequently fell victim to “robberies and vandalism.” However, he said that, despite the damage caused, he could understand “why people did it.”

One of the retirees, Roberto, separates some of the beans and rice he just received for lunch. “Next to my house is a man who has nothing and I always take him part of what they give me,” he explains.

Roberto and the other neighbors of La Milagrosa cross their fingers so that the project does not falter now that its main inspiration has died.

Cuba’s Private Taxi Drivers Are Suspicious of Government Measures to “Bring Order” to the Service

A driver repairing the classic American car he uses to provide shared fixed-route taxi service in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 August 2017 — The new measures to regulate the private sector are arriving drop by drop, with last Saturday’s announcement affecting taxi service, calling for the creation of piqueras – taxi stands/stops – fixed itineraries and prices of five pesos for each stretch of 8 kilometers.

According to the Deputy Minister of Transportation, Marta Oramas Rivero, this initiative is intended to “bring order” to the services offered by the almendrones – the classic American cars used in shared fixed-route taxi services. Saturday’s midday television news announced new regulations for private passenger transport in Havana.

“The price of the total route is the sum of these segments,” Oramas said, who also detailed that the new program could be voluntarily taken advantage of by the “private carriers who decide to do so.” However, the announcement has begun to generate suspicion in a sector that, in recent months, has experienced an increase in controls and requirements. continue reading

Last February, the government imposed prices on the 7,100 almendrones in the capital. From the time licenses were first issued for this service in the 1990s and up until now, rates have been governed by the law of supply and demand.

In response to the already imposed regulations, many drivers eliminated intermediate stops and opted only to carry passengers traveling their complete route, a situation that contributed to further complicating transportation in the country’s most populous city.

The new piqueras, which will come into operation “soon,” will be operated “by a state entity and not by a cooperative,” clarified Oramas.

Carriers, however, still lack the necessary information, since it has been explained that those who join the initiative must “establish contractual relations” with the state entity in charge but it is unknown who will manage the piqueras.

“After working for a decade in [state-owned] Taxis-Cuba, I decided to make a living with my own car,” says Walfrido, 38, a regular at Fraternity Park, where he picks up most of his passengers. “If the piqueras are going to be administered by this [new] company I won’t join because it is very inefficient.”

Walfrido fears that “they are going to start organizing the stops and end up telling you where the car has to go.” During his years as a taxi driver in a state entity he often had to “stop picking up customers to transport guests from the government, people who were going to some activity or officials,” he recalls.

Without an independent union to represent them, the chances of the drivers putting pressure on the Government are minimal. However, with the strength that they do have, they have the ability to shut down circulation in the cities.

The vice minister defines it as an advantage that those who are part of the experiment will be able to access the sale of fuel in the wholesale market at a different price, and will be able to purchase of “parts and pieces,” according to availability, to enable them to keep their cars running.

The promise to obtain gasoline or diesel at a lower cost than in state-owned service centers could be a good stimulus if it were not for the fact that many of the owners of these vehicles are now being supplied in the “informal” market. The diversion* of fuel from the state sector maintains an illegal stable supply at prices ranging from 10 to 15 CUP per liter (roughly equivalent to $1.50 to $2.25 US per gallon).

Some welcome the possibility of buying discounted parts. “If they are going to stock the stores I am interested, but as it is right now there is very little to reduce [prices on],” says Rodobaldo, a driver who serves the route to La Lisa. “The month it takes me to buy a light to replace a broken one, that month I am ruined,” he says. “So if they lower prices and have the supply,” it would be welcome.

Each botero – or “boatman,” as the drivers are calledwill be able to decide which route to work and “will be guaranteed the exclusivity of the service” offered on that route, said Marta Oramas Rivero, so that “only those designated to work on it” will be able to serve it.

The cars associated with the experiment will be marked with stickers showing their itinerary and the piquera they operate from, while those who do not join the experiment will be identified with a mark that indicates that it is a ‘free’ taxi.

But there are still more questions than answers. “They have not clarified whether the partners [in the scheme] will pay reduced taxes, who will pay the salaries of state employees who will work at the piqueras or if the government will control the expense of that fuel at a lower price according to the kilometers traveled,” says Walfrido.

“This experiment is green, green. It is going to fail and end up affecting a lot of people,” he laments.

*Translator’s note: “Diversion from the state sector” means, in Cuba, all the myriad ways workers, managers and officials steal from the state. Without this “diversion” across a wide range of resources and across the entire country, the Cuban economy would come to a standstill.

The Year Of The Lost Mangos

There are hardly any mangos in Havana markets while in the east of the country they are rotting. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 July 2017 — “Everything smells like rotten mango,” says Pascual Rojas, who lives on the outskirts of Manuel Tames, a Guantanamo municipality where part of the mango harvest has been lost, leaving a total of 2,600 metric tons of rotten fruit in recent weeks.

“The rains of May and June were already announcing what was coming to us,” explains this peasant born among the furrows and pigsties. “For years we haven’t seen anything like this, where the bushes yield so much fruit,” but “it all turns into flies and garbage,” he complains.

In the deep countryside, where the farmers know how to interpret the signs of each plant and animal, the groves filled with mango trees were a source of worry to more than one. “I told my brother that it would be very difficult to get all that fruit to the people,” recalls Rojas, who considers what has happened to be a “crime.” continue reading

“This is a area where there are different varieties of mango, but the mameyson, manga and bizcochuelo are much harvested,” with the latter being very popular for its sweetness and immortalized in the traditional songbook. “All that sweetness has become bitterness,” complains Rojas, who has seen how “mountains of mangos became black and filled with bugs.”

The rainfall of recent weeks has been a boon to Cuban agriculture, experiencing its worst drought in more than a century. Farmers in the area also managed to keep the pests such as anthracnose – a fungal disease – under control. And they have worked to ameliorate the aging of the plantations, but the faltering state framework was again not up to par.

The largest losses are found in the mango crops of the credit and service cooperatives in areas near Bayate (Popular Council of El Salvador) and Manuel Tames, which could not efficiently process the crops with the state-run canning industry .

More than a third of the 6,794 metric tons of mango that were contracted for with producers in the area ended up being spoiled during the month of June, according to a Ramón Sánchez Ocaña, a fruit specialist at the Provincial Delegation Of Agriculture, speaking to the local newspaper Venceremos.

The official explained that the factory located in San Antonio del Sur started operations 20 days after the planned date. The other plant, located in El Guaso, was also working at half of its capacity because of a shortage of cans in which to pack the pulp. To the technical problems was added the inefficiency of the state service in charge of haulage and collection.

“We had many problems with transportation and truck breakdowns,” an employee of the Acopio Provincial Transportation Base in Guantanamo, who requested anonymity, told 14ymedio. The problems were mainly due to “breakdowns and complications in fuel supply,” he says.

“We took a big hit on boxes, because if we don’t have them we can’t bring the mangos to the factory in good shape,” he adds. He blames the several factors that joined together to cause the disaster on the “bad organization” of the state company.

This opinion is shared by Manuel, a farmer living in the vicinity of the Ángel Bouza Credit and Services Cooperative, one of the most affected by the losses. “Here the pigs have had to eat mangos morning noon and night, because there is nothing else we can do with so many mangos,” he says.

“Even the children, instead of throwing stones, were throwing mangos because they became worthless when we realized that they would not be able to transport all these boxes from here,” he explains. “This happens every year, and this time the television came to film it and then shared it with the National Assembly, but it is nothing new,” laments the farmer.

Little is said about the producers’ losses. “There are people here who are thousands of pesos in debt because they had put a lot of money into this harvest,” adds Manuel. “My brother-in-law lost more than 5,000 pesos with all this and who is going to pay back that money now?”

During the last session of Parliament the heavy losses reported provoked criticism among the deputies and annoyance among the consumers in the agricultural markets who saw the news on the national media.

“In Havana I have to pay between 3 and 5 CUP (Cuban pesos) for a medium mango, but in the East they are rotting without anyone being able to eat them,” complains Clara Carvajal, 71. The images transmitted on the national television “are pitiful,” she adds.

On the island the mango has a seasonal consumption cycle, which starts after the rains of May and ends in September. “Mangos are only available for a few months and nevertheless the State gives itself the luxury of leaving them in the fields.”

Far from Guantánamo, in the municipalities of Güira and Alquízar (Artemisa province), where they produce fruits and vegetables for the capital, the situation is also worrying.

“If we don’t do some serious work it will be the same here,” said a farmer with a basket of mangos on a small cart pulled by horses. “This is the year of the lost mangos,” he says while pointing out the branches loaded with tasty fruit that rise along the side of the road.

Drugs Play Increasing Role in the Battle for Cuban Teenagers’ Leisure Time

There is no neighborhood in the Cuban capital where you can not buy or sell a wide variety of preparations, pills and “flying” powders. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 7 July 2017 — He dries his sweat and takes a drink of water from a bottle he carries in his backpack. “In my time the young people spent the holidays in front of the television,” says Ignacio, the father of two teenagers. As he moves along crowded Avenida 10 de Octubre, in Havana, he looks for video games for sale. “So that they stay at home, because in the streets there are more and more drugs.”

Ignacio’s concern is shared by thousands of parents all over the Island. The country where, decades ago, the government controlled how many cigarettes an individual smoked, has given way to a more complex reality. Authorities warn of increased drug use among young people and call on families to be alert. continue reading

In recent years the official press has also begun to address the issue, albeit with some hesitancy and clarifying that this problem is not as serious as it  is in the capitalist countries. However, there is no neighborhood in the Cuban capital where a wide variety of preparations, pills and powders for “flying” are not bought and sold.

His family life took a turn when his parents decided to take the route to the United States through Central America and he was left alone with his grandmother

Hannibal, 17, prefers to change his name to detail his relationship with narcotics. He began using at age 12 and what, at the beginning, was a game, later became an obsession. “I stopped going to school, I was only interested in getting high,” he relates to 14ymedio.

Over the last five years, Hannibal has been using and swearing off drugs. A week ago he broke his longest stretch without using drugs. “I was clean more than 80 days, but they invited me to a disco and I fell back into it,” he confesses.

His family life took a turn when, in mid-2015, his parents decided to take the route to the United States through Central America and he was left alone with his grandmother. In a short time, his consumption doubled. “I had at least two overdoses, but only once did they take me to the hospital.”

Hannibal’s friends did not want the doctors to report the case to the police and feared they “would all end up prisoners,” says the young man who, at 17, weighs no more than 110 pounds and whose hands shake all the time. “I lost interest in food and went for months almost without taking a bath.” He sold all the appliances in the house one by one to pay for drugs.

“I met others there like me and I promised to stop killing myself with all this, but in the street life is something else”

“One day I sold the bathroom mirror over the sink because I needed money and because I could not look at the face of how emaciated I was,” he says. At that moment he decided to seek help.

The young man went through the Provincial Center for Teen Withdrawal in Havana, an institution that since 2005 has been serving patients who have started taking drugs since very young ages. “I met others there like me and I promised to stop killing myself with all this, but in the street life is something else,” he says.

On weekends the wall of the Malecon becomes a massive meeting point, an open air brothel and display point for countless illegal substances. “I just have to go there and I always find something.” With the increase in tourism “the supply has diversified and there is a lot of marijuana,” although he says he prefers “faster and less adulterated” pills.

Synthetic drugs reign among the young and have become the currency with which foreigners pay for sexual favors, either in tablets or “dust,” says Hannibal. Although he says he has never sold his body to feed his addiction, he does know many who have. “Who’s going to pay for all these bones?” he asks wryly.

A confidential phone line helps those looking for information on the subject, although mistrust affects its reach. “Hello, you have contacted 103, Confidential Antidrug Line, we will soon help you,” says a voice. Claudia, 39, prefers to hang on. She has a daughter of 14 who has become “aggressive, she spends long hours in a stupor and sometimes she cannot get out of bed.”

Claudia fears the worst about what her daughter does when she leaves the house but does not want to “get her in trouble” by contacting a specialist

Data published by the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Unit report that last year 14,412 calls were received on the confidential line, most of them in Havana, Pinar del Rio, Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila and Las Tunas.

Claudia fears the worst about what her daughter does when she leaves the house but does not want to “get her in trouble” by contacting a specialist. She has thought of another kind of solution. “I spoke with a cousin who lives in Quemado de Güines, in Villa Clara, about my daughter spending some time there.” The mother believes that “being in the countryside, outside of Havana and away from her friends” will help her, although no place in the national territory seems to be safe.

The entry of drugs into the country has been increasing in recent years. For all of 2016, the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) confiscated 67 pounds of drugs, however between January and May of this year the amount seized has already reached 72 pounds, according to data offered by Moraima Rodríguez Nuviola, AGR deputy director.

Ships are the main route of entry, especially of marijuana. Although the latter is also sowed on private farms where the owners risk ending up in jail with their land confiscated.

In the pocket of his jeans he carries a small envelope with ten pills. “These are the last, I promise.”

Drug trafficking is punished in the Cuban penal code with sanctions of four to ten years, if it is considered small scale, but if it is large amounts the sentence can reach 20 years. The size of the volume is determined in practice, it is not fixed in the law. International trafficking carries up to 30 years in prison and is aggravated if minors are involved. Consumption is also seriously punished, with fines of up to 10,000 pesos or deprivation of liberty of between six months and eight years.

Despite the severity of the national legislation “consumption begins very early,” according to a psychiatrist who preferred anonymity. “In Cuba initiation into these types of substances increasingly occurs at younger ages.” The specialist, who has treated about 100 patients, finds that “marijuana, psychotropic drugs and some medications used as drugs are displacing alcohol among adolescents.”

Hannibal is determined to try. “I want to leave this garbage, go back to study, redo my life and get married,” he says. In the pocket of his jeans he carries a small envelope with ten pills. “These are the last, I promise.”

School Diplomas

School diploma in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 5 July 2017 — They arrived, enthusiastic and happy, to their party for the end of the school year. One mother brought a macaroni salad with mayonnaise, another brought from home some disposable plates and a third took on providing the croquettes. The celebration was ready in no time, while the horns played an off-color reggaeton song. This Wednesday many elementary schools ended the school year and opened the vacation season.

The parents gathered what they could, in the midst of one of the most severe shortages in the last decade, and the calls made by the authorities to ensure good food hygiene. Summer, with its high temperatures, has set off a spate of diarrheal diseases and the schools take extreme measures to prevent their spread.

However, it was not the melodies – that set everyone to dancing – nor the sanitary precautions that marked the day. The face of the deceased Fidel Castro took the leading role, being printed on thousands of graduation diplomas throughout the island.

Fortunately, between running through the corridors and devouring the cake with meringue, most of the students didn’t even notice that, like the dinosaur in Augusto Monterroso’s tale, when the party ended, “The dinosaur was still there.”

Cuban Convertible Peso Can’t Keep Up With The Dollar

The ‘alter ego’ of the Cuban peso is not the Cuban convertible peso, but the dollar. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 July 2017 – Cuba’s dual currency system has been in existence for such a long time that many young people never lived under a system with a single national peso. The rumors of possible unification of the two currencies are no longer listened to and people appear resigned to continuing to pay for things in both Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP). The promise to resolve this financial mess appears to be one more item that Raul Castro will leave incomplete at the end of his term next year.

There are at least some certainties, however, in this economic schizophrenia: the alter ego of the Cuban peso is not the Convertible peso, but rather the dollar. The so-called chavito – a slang term for the CUC – that emerged in the decade of the ‘90s, is just a substitute for the “currency of the enemy,” a camouflage to cover over Abraham Lincoln’s face or Benjamin Franklin’s head. Little by little, the bills minted by our neighbor to the north have imposed themselves in the informal market.

The terrain won by the dollar is expressed in many ways. Not only in the classified ads that specify payment is accepted in USD for the products on offer, but also in the existence of an exchange system parallel to that of the official banking system, where the “greenbacks” are quoted at a price ranging from 0.95 to 0.97 CUC. It is also evidenced in nice pictures like the one attached to this article, where the chavito is conspicuous by its absence on the man’s T-shirt. After all, the CUC is nothing more than an imitation of Uncle Sam’s money.

Cuba From The Inside With Alternative Tour Guides

Independent guides show what the state-run companies leave out.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 21 June 2017 — Economic hardships turn many Cuban engineers to work as bartenders, doctors become taxi drivers and innumerable professionals become alternative guides for tourists. Among the latter, there are the experienced or the just-getting-started, but all of them earn more money than they would working in the state sector.

“When they change a picture I know instantly,” says Natacha, a Havana city guide who says she has visited “the Museum of Fine Arts more than 300 times” with her clients. She graduated from the Teaching Institute but she left the classrooms after five years of teaching in junior high.

“I had to think about what to do with my life and I realized that I spoke Spanish very clearly, I knew the history of Cuba and I was good at dealing with people.” A friend advised her to start offering tours to foreigners who came to the country. continue reading

At first, Natacha stood in a corner of Old Havana and whispered her services to travelers. Now, after the relaxations regarding self-employment, she has been able to legalize part of her activities and form a team. “We have a network that includes rental houses, dance teachers, masseuses and chauffeurs,” she says.

With the increase in tourism, which last year exceeded 4 million visitors, the guide has “a surplus of work,” but now fears that after the announcements of US President Donald Trump that “the business will decline.”

Natacha accompanies her clients “to places where a state guide will never take them…The program is flexible according to their tastes: from exclusive areas to poor neighborhoods, trips in collective taxis, a train ride and a santería party.”

She speaks English and French fluently and recently began studying Italian and Japanese. “Japanese tourism is still small but they pay very well and are very respectful people,” says Natacha. Most of her clients end up recommending her services to a friend who wants to travel to Cuba. “This is a chain of trust that has allowed me to have up to 200 customers a year.”

The prices of a walk with the former teacher vary. “They can go from 20 to 100 CUC (roughly $20 to $100 US) depending on the place, the time and the complexity of the subject.” For years she included visits outside of Havana but now she has left these to her younger colleagues because her mother is very old and she doesn’t want to leave the city.

“This work is hard because it takes a lot of personal involvement, learning something new every day and answering many questions,” she explains. “I spend hours walking, most of the time under the sun, but I would not give up my independence by going back to teaching.” She says that being a tourist guide has allowed her to “put a plate of food on the table every day… a good plate of food.”

A growing alternative is digital sites that advertise independent guides and offer a wide variety of services or entertainment packages. Recently a team of 30-something Cuban residents in Miami launched Tour Republic, a website to sell recreational activities on the Island.

The site connects the traveler with urban guides with a marketplace – similar to Airbnb – but instead of offering lodging it markets tours of varied intensity and duration, from a ride in a classic car through Havana, to an escape through the unique natural landscape of the valley of Viñales.

Máximo, a 30-year-old Italian newcomer to Havana, was hesitant Tuesday about whether to buy a three-day package worth $58 including visits to the Ernest Hemingway Museum, the University of Havana, the old colonial fortresses of the capital, and even an encounter with the sculpture of John Lennon located in a Vedado park.

With Tour Republic the customer pays the online service and must be at the site where the itinerary begins at the agreed-upon time. In the case of the tour that interests Maximo, the guide is at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol and departs every morning at ten.

The tourist says he prefers an independent guide because “the program is more flexible and can be adjusted more” to what he wants. In a small notebook he has noted some interesting places that escape the typical tourist route: the town of San Antonio, the Superior Art Institute and the Alamar neighborhood.

“In this arena there are people very prepared and with excellent training,” says Carlos, an alternative guide who leaves the statue of José Martí in Central Park every morning for a tour he has baptized Habana Real. “I take them through the streets where tourists do not normally pass, I have them try a drink of rum in a bar where the Cubans really go,” he says.

The young man, with a degree in geography, has been “wearing out shoe leather in the city for seven years.” At first “I did not know much about history, architecture or famous people, but little by little I have become an itinerant encyclopedia of Cuba,” he says.

The GuruWalk platform has also risen to the crest of the wave of tourist interest in Cuba. The Spanish company runs an international website for free walking tours and has chosen Havana as their preferred site to begin operations.

Communications director, Pablo Perez-Manglano, told 14ymedio that “the platform is completely democratic, anyone can join and create a tour.” Site administrators check the offers one by one, but the reviews are left to users after each visit.

“We are an open and free platform, we do not charge the guide or the visitor anything, and therefore, we hope that each person understands and takes responsibility to comply, or not, with the legality in their respective cities of the world,” he clarifies.

The site already has seven free tours in Havana, one in Santiago and another in Santa Clara. “In addition, we had about 200 registered users in the last month, which is a lot for such a new platform,” says Pérez-Manglano.

Unlike Tour Republic there is nothing to pay online and the money is delivered directly to the guide.

The perspectives that the web offers for entrepreneurs like Natacha sound promising. GuruWalk does not deny “entry to someone for not having an official guide qualification.” Rather, it seeks “people who are passionate about culture and history, who also enjoy teaching and transmitting that knowledge.”

One of the strategies of the company is to make itself known among “the owners of private houses” because it is to them that more often the foreigners ask: “What should we see in the city?”

Pérez-Manglano underlines that the cornerstone of GuruWalk is the “collaborative economy.” Instead of “certificates, rules, rules, or permits,” they are interested in trust, which “is built little by little.”

Vending Machines for Alcoholic Beverages

Several of these machines are located in downtown streets of Havana, accessible to anyone regardless of age. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 23 May 2017 — The campaigns against the consumption of alcohol have met an enemy. This is not an outspoken advocate of Mojitos or Cuba Libres, but of the vending machines that dispense national and imported beers simply at the introduction of a few coins. Several of these devices are located in the central streets of Havana, accessible to anyone regardless of age.

“Go get me a Heineken from the machine next door,” a father said to his little son from the doorway of a tenement on the Malecon. A few feet away, without controls or supervision, stands the automaton that catches kids’ attention because it “spits cold cans,” said one of them. No employee of the nearby restaurant, La Abadía, seems to pay attention to who uses the service.

A recent survey found that 36% of Cuban youth drink alcohol and 12% drink and smoke. Among them an alarming number begin to consume tobacco and alcohol between the ages of 11 and 13.

A common practice among parents is to encourage their sons, still minors, to have a sip of rum because “it’s a men’s thing.” For many adolescents virility is measured in the amount of “lines” of alcohol they can consume. A trend that these vending machines, without any controls, will facilitate even more.

Across the pond, in Spain, the sale of beer through the use of vending machines has been banned since 2010, according to a law enacted that same year that limits the access of alcoholic beverages to minors.

The Era Of The Compact Disc Is Over In Cuba

A place selling CDs and DVDs in the city of Camagüey. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 16 May 2017 — Hanging from the rearview mirror, the compact disc shines with the sun and swings with every bump in the street. From being highly valued as a platform for digital content, CDs and DVDs are becoming mere decorative objects, symbols of a technological era that is ending.

“Every day I sell fewer discs,” says Julian, who for almost five years had been dedicated to the trade in TV shows, movies and musicals on CDs and DVDs in Havana’s Diez de Octubre district.

With the expansion of the private sector, the streets of the country filled with stands and stores that began to offer entertainment of every kind. Colorful shelves, filled with every kind of product, have become a part of the urban landscape. continue reading

“Most of what I sell I copy directly from the computer to the device that the customer brings,” says Julian

The outlets dedicated to the trade in audiovisuals have been an alternative to the boring and ideologized television programming, but the technological advances and the saturation of the market are forcing many to close or convert to selling other things.

The competition from the Weekly Packet is tough and the CD/DVD sellers have a hard time keeping a current set of offerings. The alternative has been to go from selling CDs and DVDs to offering customers copies of materials on removable devices such as USB drives and external hard drives, but the rules governing self-employment does not encompass that form of the business.

“Most of what I sell I copy directly from the computer to the device that the customer brings,” says Julian. In a small room, located in the portal of a half-demolished house, the shelf with the disks also houses a laptop equipped with a three-terabyte hard drive.

“Here I have it all,” he details proudly to 14ymedio, while caressing the drive that “a brother living in la yuma,” (the US) brought him. The buyers can choose the amount of content they want and the subject matter.

“In this neighborhood four other places where CDs and DVDs were sold have closed,” says Julian. “We have been kept afloat thanks to direct copy,” he says.

He makes the copies “left and right” without worrying about the intellectual property rights of national and foreign artists.

On the Island, copyright is addressed in Law 14 of 1977 and applies to “scientific, artistic, literary and educational works of an original character” whatever its forms of expression, content, value or destiny. But in practice these provisions are not upheld.

Copies are made “left and right” without worrying about the intellectual property rights of national and foreign artists

An investigation carried out at the University of Granma by Marianela Paneque Mojena concludes that “sellers of reproducible CDs violate copyright with respect to the positive faculty of disclosure of the work.” Meanwhile “the copyright holders do not receive any remuneration for the CD with their authorship.” The National Copyright Center is responsible for managing intellectual property registrations and ensuring that these rights are not violated, but in practice it is nothing more than an inventory of works and authors.

This situation coexists with “an ignorance and lack of control on the part of the government bodies responsible for overseeing the work done by the sellers of reproducible discs,” assures the study.

Julian cares less about the issue of intellectual property and more about the profits from his business. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to buy the discs, because the stores are all out of them, and even the black market doesn’t have them.” An additional reason to go with another media.

The entrepreneur believes that his work is still “a business,” because it falls within the simplified tax schedule with a fixed tax of 60 Cuban pesos a month. In addition to this he contributes to social security and pays a tax for posting a sign visible in the street.

However, he believes that the business “is no longer the same, because many people download the materials from the wifi or share them for free.” He is sure that in a short time “all these disks that are now on display, will only be the images of what can be copied from the laptop.”

“What flies off the shelves are the telenovelas, first-run feature films, musicals and reality shows,” he comments. Although he also has customers who ask for “science documentaries, courses, videogames and mobile apps.”

Julian is lucky. In Havana, inspectors are still turning a blind eye to those who copy content instead of selling it already burned on CDs, but in other parts of the country it’s different.

In Havana, inspectors are still turning a blind eye to those who copy content instead of selling it already burned on CDs, but in other parts of the country it’s different

In the city of Guantánamo these sellers have been forced by the local authorities to remove from their signs the offers to “load discs or memory devices.” Many of them continue to do it, but secretly.

The main risk is losing one’s license to be a “buyer and seller of discs.” An occupation that, under the law, only includes trade in discs that respect the author’s copyright.

“Here I have everything, except pornography,” says another seller who has his stand in Infanta Street. “I work with fixed clients and I make them a folder tailored to their tastes,” he adds.

“The discs are going downhill because every day more people have a television that you can connect to a memory device,” he laments. The informal market is filled with offers of modern flat panel televisions that enter the country with travelers or mules.

“There are still people who are using a CD or DVD reader, but they are fewer and fewer, because the world is moving forward and no one wants to be left behind,” he says.

Cuba’s Private Sector Demands “Young, White and Childless”

Of the more than 535,000 people are self-employed in the country, 32% are women. (VC)

14ymedio bigger14medio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 13 May 2017 – Three employees circulate among the tables, so similar that they seem cast from the same mold. “I want to give a good image to the place,” says the owner of a flourishing cafe on 26th Street in Havana. Like him, many private businesses are imposing a standard on female employees: “Young, pretty, white and childless.”

With the boom of self-employment, new businesses are emerging everywhere, much more efficient than state services. However, there are also discriminatory patterns that privilege the physical appearance of the hired staff, above their professional abilities. continue reading

The waiters and other employees of the most prosperous businesses in the capital are mostly under 50, thin and white, and among them there is also an abundance of single women, blond and blue-eyed. The current legislation only requires that the contractor must be more than 17 years old and be a permanent resident on the Island.

The success of a business seems to be measured not only by the number of clients or revenues, but by a refined casting to choose the faces of those who serve the public. Many prefer physiognomy over the skills to serve a table or run a cash register.

The waiters and other employees of the most prosperous businesses in the capital are mostly under 50, thin and white, and among them there is also an abundance of single women, blond and blue-eyed

 Behind the scenes, physical abilities seem to fading in importance. For the positions in the kitchens the “image” demands are less, but they don’t go away. The entrepreneur is obsessed with showing “an image of success” through appearances, often gleaned from magazines and movies.

Luisa is 59 and her monthly pension doesn’t stretch far enough to support her for one week. A few months ago she decided to find a job cleaning in some of the prosperous B&Bs in Old Havana where she lives. “I thought it was a question of being healthy and doing a good job,” she told 14ymedio.

After four interviews with the owners of several rental properties, the woman was no longer so convinced that the most important thing was her efficiency. “They looked a lot at my physical presence and one told me very clearly that she would not hire anyone with dentures.” Another potential employer asked if she was “dieting” to look “better.”

The Labor Code in force since 2014 addresses this subject, but the law is useless in most cases. The right to employment is governed by “equality” and “without discrimination on the basis of skin color, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, territorial origin, disability and any other distinction detrimental to human dignity.”

The deputy director of Employment of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, Idalmys Álvarez Mendive, says that self-employed workers “can request and receive the advice of the authorities” about their rights, but in practice very few do so.

The deputy director of Employment of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security says that self-employed “can request and receive advice from the authorities” about their rights, but very few do so

Yaimara hid her pregnancy as long as she could. “When the belly began to show the owner called and told me that I could not continue working,” says the employee, who worked for two years in an exclusive restaurant near the Habana Libre hotel. “They never made it clear to me that it was because of the child on the way, but it was obvious.”

The young woman was entitled to a maternity leave and a postnatal break period guaranteed by law, but confesses that with that money she received monthly on that benefit she could not buy “a single baby bottle.”

In the private sector, it is common to use “determined” contracts, which have a start date and an end date. When Yaimara concluded her maternity leave, she could only return to the previous job if the employer wanted her back, but her job was already occupied by another “younger and childless worker,” she said.

Of the more than 535,000 self-employed in the country, 31% are young people between 18 and 35 years of age and 32% are women, according to official data. But the figures published do not report details with regards to race and much less with regards to other physical qualities more difficult to measure.

“Many owners of private restaurants and coffee shops do not want to hire women with small children,” says Yaimara. “They are afraid that later there will be absences because the child is sick.” She recognizes that with having a family “everything becomes more difficult because in a private restaurant it is normal for an employee to work up to twelve hours each day and almost no one asks for a vacation.”

A lawyer specializing in labor issues confirmed that so far she has never received a case of litigation for the violation of the rights of a self-employed

The new Labor Code also states that “the daily working day is eight hours and on determined days there can be one additional hour per day provided it does not exceed the limit of 44 hours a week.”

A lawyer specializing in labor issues, who preferred anonymity, confirmed to this newspaper that so far she has never received a case of litigation for the violation of the rights of a self-employed. “That does not mean it does not happen all the time, but people feel that in the private sector anything goes.”

The National Labor Inspection Office has the power to impose fines of up to 2,000 Cuban pesos on offenders, in addition to closing the premises and temporarily or permanently suspending the license to operate. But, “it is not applied because workers in the non-state sector do not appeal to that mechanism,” says the lawyer.

“We must work on laws that are more closely related to what happens and that guarantee better protection for the self-employed, but the most important thing is the business culture of the owners,” she says. “They should seek efficiency and quality in employees beyond physical characteristics,” she says.

However, from dreams to reality still seems to be a very long way. “We are looking for a young, woman with a university degree with a good presence”, says an ad on a crowded classified site. In addition, they want “no children, no physical limitations.”

Cubans Are Carnivores Despite the Scarcity

While in other countries, vegetarians and vegans proliferate, many Cubans considered themselves carnivorous. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 10 May 2017 — Meat has almost magical connotations in Cuban culture. When children get sick, the grandmothers make them a good chicken soup or a broth with a piece of beef. If someone feels weak they recommend eating a steak and there is no more recurring dream for these homes than to look out for a dish where they mix the masa de cerdo, ropa vieja and tasajo.

This fascination with the meat has increased due to the shortages of the product in the last decades. The deterioration of the national livestock industry and the restrictions on farmers trading directly in beef have made this an ingredient that is missing in kitchens and highly prized in the informal market.

Families are divided between those who manage to eat meat once a week and those who only see it pass by their tables a few days a month, or even year. On this island social differences are expressed in the form of cutlets, sirloin and fillets. There are those who can barely access products derived from pork and those a little higher on the economic scale and can be permit themselves a piece of beef.

While in other countries, vegetarians and vegans proliferate, many Cubans consider themselves carnivorous. A definition that is pronounced with a certain vibe, salivating and showing teeth, especially those fangs that are used a few times a year.

A Sip Of Electricity To Keep Driving

The number of owners of electric motorcycles has grown in Cuba since Raul Castro’s government authorized them to be imported. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 8 May 2017 — The worst thing that can happen to Agustín is to have his battery go dead in the street. It is even more terrible than the failure of a headlamp or the lack of parking for his made-in-China electric motorcycle. The broken headlamp and the lack of a safe place to park can be solved with money, but the lack of energy requires more than a few banknotes slipped into the right hands.

The number of owners of electric motorcycles has grown in Cuba since Raul Castro’s government authorized them to be imported. The serious problems of transport that the island suffers have led many to choose to buy a motorina from the digital sites that ship them to the island for a price of around 1,600 CUC (roughly $1,600 US), and up to 2,500 CUC in the informal market.

However, after spending the amount, the owner must overcome other obstacles. Charging the bikes remains one of the biggest problems. Most of the service stations in the country do not yet offer the service of supplying electricity, and there are no outlets available in the streets for these purposes.

As a result, creativity explodes and entrepreneurs try to take advantage of the demand. In recent years cables have appeared to raise and lower products (and payment) from balconies, and now the sellers, instead of offering tobacco or rum, announce an hour of connection to their house’s electricity.

There are also plenty of merchants who take the opportunity to sell the thirsty driver everything from a fruit smoothie to a pizza to “recharge the human batteries,” the ones that are struggling to keep going at the controls of everyday life.

University Entrance Exams Begin With “Extraordinary Measures” Against Fraud

Most young people hope to get one of the 36,705 university slots in the regular day course. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 May 2017 — Early Wednesday morning Karel wasn’t sleeping. He spent it turning somersaults in bed and solving math problems. Together with thousands of students across the country, the young man presented himself at the Mathematics entrance exam for higher education. “It was complicated, but I answered all the questions,” he said smiling to his mother as he returned home.

As of this Wednesday, high school classrooms are filled with nervous gestures and students who are playing with their professional future on a piece of paper. Most have been preparing for this moment for months, and many have had to pay for a private tutor who prepares them to successfully pass the tests.

“I’m a little anxious, but I feel safe because I’ve studied a lot,” said a twelfth grader from Old Havana minutes before the buzzer announced the start of the first entrance exam. My strength is geometry and I didn’t like the problems at all,” he confessed. continue reading

The Mathematics exam started off the admission tests for Higher Education throughout the country. More than 45,000 high school graduates took part, the young men after finishing their Active Military Service, and the girls who completed Women’s Voluntary Military Service.

Between 2010 and 2015 the number of university students fell by more than half: from more than 206,000 students throughout the country to 90,691

Other applicants take the tests through competition. All, without exception, set their sights on continuing higher education in a country where university diplomas are less valued every day.

Between 2010 and 2015 the number of university students fell by more than half: from more than 206,000 students throughout the country to 90,691. The causes for this decline are manifold and the specialists do not agree, but economic imperatives are among the incentives for an increasing number of young people to prefer to go to work as soon as possible.

The situation contrasts with the massive admissions to higher education that characterized national education for decades. Previously, tens of thousands of professionals graduated, many of whom are now engaged in occupations not related to their specialties.

Finding a chemical engineer working as a bartender in a hotel or a biochemist driving a private taxi has become a “normal anomaly” in the Cuban system.

“My family cannot afford for me to be in a classroom for five more years,” says Rodney Calzadilla, 18, a food vendor in Matanzas province. The mother of the young man has a degree in Economics, but she “always told me that the most important thing is to be useful, not to have a diploma hanging on the living room wall,” he says.

Of the 539,952 Cubans who worked in the private sector at the end of January of this year, or for themselves, more than 3,000 are under the age of 20

Of the 539,952 Cubans who worked in the private sector at the end of January of this year, or for themselves, more than 3,000 are under the age of 20.

At the conclusion of the exams this May, the list will be drawn up, which also takes into account the average of students’ grades in high school. Those with the best grades and test scores have priority to choose one of the 83,840 places in higher education that are offered for the 2017-2018 school year, of which the most desired by young people are the 36,705 in the regular day course.

But the entrance exams are complicated. In June 2014, a fraud scandal shook the most important tests in Cuban education. The incident involved five pre-university teachers, a provincial-level methodologist at the Ministry of Education, a print shop worker, and another citizen not linked to educational institutions.

A year later they returned to the eye of the hurricane, when the Ministry of Education recognized that “the approach of the question 4 of the examination of Mathematics” was subject “to several interpretations.” Faced with the massive complaints from the students, the authorities were forced to evaluate only section A, discarding section B.

“This year we have taken extraordinary measures to protect the sanctity of examinations, ” a source at the Ministry of Higher Education told 14ymedio. The official, who requested anonymity, believes that “previous incidents have greatly damaged the image and confidence of students in this process, so we are committed to changing that impression.”

Next Monday the Spanish test will be administered and the calendar concludes on Thursday, May 11 with History, the most ideological subject in the curriculum

Next Monday, the Spanish test will be administered and the calendar concludes on Thursday, May 11 with History, the most ideological subject in the curriculum of the schools of the Island.

For the History exam the students are preparing themselves on this occasion on subjects related to the deceased ex-president Fidel Castro. “What goes, goes,” says María Julia, a teacher of the specialty that organizes private tutoring in Havana’s Playa district.

“The main question of the test almost always is related to some anniversary or historical figure that is important in the current year,” clarifies the teacher. “It’s clear there will be one or two questions about him, that’s for sure.” With a degree in History, María Julia has drilled her students in “the concept of Revolution” and Fidel Castro’s “biographical data.”

“For students who do poorly on the math test, the most difficult of all, it is possible to raise the average with History, which is easier,” admits the teacher. “For those who aren’t that comfortable with numbers, if they have a good grasp of politics, they have a chance on this test.”

New Bathrooms, Old Fashioned Marches

Fancy new toilets for Havana’s May Day parade replaced the former models made with cardboard. Slogan: “Fidel will always live in…” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 1 May 2017 — Portable toilets are a part of all the demonstrations that have proliferated in Cuba for the last half century. Away from the lights and headlines, these essential and improvised restrooms alleviate the plight of thousands of people attending the ‘Marches of the Fighting People’, the Anti-Imperialist Tribunes, and the calls to support, protest or celebrate any government campaign and, of course, are a necessity during carnivals.

This year, on May 1, new models appeared, apparently imported and made of plastic, which replaced the rustics made with wood and cardboard. The previous facilities lacked roofs and the weakness of their construction did not allow them to be used for more than one event.

The new toilets are better made although the custom remains of placing them directly over the sewer drain to evacuate the waste. But they favor hygiene and privacy.

The ones in this the photo were installed in the afternoon of April 30 in the avenue Rancho Boyeros, an artery that converges in the Plaza of the Revolution. The neighbors received them with awe and some even took selfies standing in front of their novel appearance. The most daring tried the services before the pressures of the crowd filled them with that “aroma” that characterizes popular demonstrations.