Lots of Troops and Little Weaponry / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Thousands of soldiers marched in lockstep on this 60th anniversary of the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. (EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 2 January 2017 — The military parade this Monday for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces concluded without the traditional display of antiaircraft rockets, armored tanks and heavy artillery. The martial parade, presided over by Raúl Castro, prioritized the display of troops over any display of military hardware.

Still sleepy after the holiday season, many Havanans were awakened by the noise of the salvos launched from the Plaza of the Revolution. With that signal, at barely seven in the morning, the first military parade after the death of former President Fidel Castro began, in a city paralyzed by the closing of streets and the gigantic mobilization.

The display of military force comes at a difficult time for the country’s economy. The recently concluded session of the National Assembly has confirmed that GDP fell 0.9% in 2016, and forecasts for 2017 are also not favorable, a context that has increased people’s criticism of the waste represented by this Monday’s military parade. continue reading

Thousands of uniformed soldiers marched in lockstep steps, along with elementary school students with their neckerchiefs and workers from different sectors under the motto “I am Fidel.”

“They threw the house out the window,” complained Raymundo, a pensioner who collects empty cans near the National Hotel to sell them as a raw material and feels that “the way things are right now, better to save even the last centavo.”

A little more than a mile away, thousands of uniformed soldiers marched in lockstep, along with elementary school students with their neckerchiefs and workers from different sectors under the motto “I am Fidel.”

The result was a peculiar combination of troops and civilians, a mixture of military parade and people’s march that lasted for less time than in previous years, barely an hour and 40 minutes.

Raul Castro remained on the dais for the entire exercise, surrounded by senior government officials, but left the main speech to Jennifer Bello Martinez, president of the University Student Federation (FEU). The young woman, who has risen rapidly in officialdom, was named as a member of the Council of State in December 2015.

“No one can make us forget our history, nor the symbols of this people’s resistance,” bellowed Bello from the rostrum. She alluded to the words spoken by Barack Obama during his speech at the Gran Teatro in Havana last March when the US president said he knew the story of the long dispute between the Cuban and US Governments but refused to remain “trapped” in it.

Those who hoped that this Castro parade feature a proud display of military paraphernalia had to content themselves with some modernized AK47s and rifles with telescopic sight for the Special Troops. Apart from that, the Cuban Army barely showed its armament.

Long gone are the times when the country could allow itself, thanks to the free supply from the Soviet Union, to be the most well supplied armed forces among Latin American countries. The great military campaigns in Africa were also in the past, and the economic situation of the island barely allows them to maintain their obsolete means of combat.

Nevertheless, Cuba continues to spend a huge amount of resources sustaining its military apparatus. At the end of 2016, the Island ranked 79th in the list of military powers, according to the Global Firepower site, a privileged position in the Latin American context, where it is only surpassed by countries with much greater population and resources, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

At the end of 2016, the Island ranked 79th in the list of military powers according to the Global Firepower site, a privileged position in the Latin American context

In the absence of renewed armaments, officialdom has sharpened the level of ideological discourse in the last half year. A turn of the screw that has become more pronounced after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the recent death of Fidel Castro.

The younger generations are the main target of this offensive.

The daughter of Damaris, 38, is a fifth grader in Las Timba neighborhood and was chosen to be part of the pioneers who surrounded the replica of the yacht Granma. “She had to go to the three trial runs at the end of December and today is the fourth time that she is in the Plaza for this activity,” says the woman.

The participation of the girl in the parade caused some clashes in the family. The mother did not want her to do it, but she does not want an absence to “single her out so early.” She acknowledges, however, that her grandfather is very proud she was chosen for the demonstration.

As they finished passing in front of the podium, the children hurried along and continued to a school on Ayestarán Street. There they shared a snack with soda, bread with a hot dog, and some goodies that revived them after a long sleepless night. “Now we’re going to bed because we’re dead,” confesses Damaris.

Bus Terminals Overwhelmed By Hundreds Of Travelers Without Tickets / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 27 December 2016 – Hundreds of people are crowded right now in the “last hour” bus terminals, or are on the waiting lists. With the regularly scheduled seats sold out, travelers sleep in the floors of these places and eat frugally, while dreaming of a vehicle that will get them home to spend New Year’s with their families.

In mid-December, the newspaper Granma reported that the Voyager Company would put on sale new seats for interprovincial transport for the end the year. However, the tickets sold out in a couple of days and thousands of customers have been left stranded at “last hour” terminals throughout the country. continue reading

This time, unlike other years, the so-called “waiting list” was not addressed with a greater number of vehicles. The Business Group of Automotive Transport Services preferred to sell in advance the additional tickets to travel between 22 December 2016 and 7 January 2017.

The state transport company sold 9,000 seats above those offered by the regular National Bus Service, but only the most forward-thinking were able to get the tickets. The agencies that sell the tickets experienced days of huge crowds, and five days after the official announcement, tickets to Camaguey and Guantanamo were sold out.

Private transport companies provide only a little relief. Their high prices make it difficult for many travelers to use their services, because they can only afford the state rates.

The scene at a “last hour” bus terminal crowded with Cubans wanting to get home to their families for New Year’s.

“I know the face of almost everyone here, because most of these people have been here for many days,” confides the employee who takes care of the men’s toilet in the Villanueva last hour station in Havana. Chaos and discouragement reigns in the facilities, where the average stay is “four or five days” according to the worker.

“The police are coercing people to get them to leave,” he explained to 14ymedio freelance reporter Juannier Matos Rodriguez, who was waiting in Villanueva Monday to travel to Baracoa, Guantanamo. Entire families have placed cardboard on the floor to sleep and the uniformed police patrol the place.

Private carriers relieve the situation, but only for those who can afford to take one of their expensive vehicles. (14ymedio)

“Several passengers have approached the employees asking for them to arrange extra buses so that all these families can travel, but they do not respond,” says the young man. “The waiting list for Santiago de Cuba is not moving, it’s been stuck on the same numbers for two days,” he adds.

The most desperate, with the resources available, pay between 14 and 15 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) for a ride on a private truck bound for Santiago de Cuba, twice as much as the state bus. These are cargo vehicles re-configured for the transport of passengers. The best ones have cushy seats and even air conditioning, but in most cases they are uncomfortable and hot.

The National Bus Company serves 132 routes and in the first nine months of this year it moved 7.6 million people, but when holidays approach, the system collapses in the face of high demand. Most of the state-owned equipment is Yutong brand buses from China, with a decade of overuse and poor mechanical conditions.

The deterioration of the vehicles has combined this year with cuts in fuel consumption that affect the entire country. Passenger transport has been among the sectors most affected, although the government has also imposed restrictions on electricity consumption and a drastic reduction in the state sector’s quota for gasoline or diesel.

Earlier this year, a discussion on the Roundtable TV program confirmed that interprovincial transportation only meets 70% of demand.

“Why doesn’t ‘Cuba Says’ come here now?” a woman at the Villanueva last hour station complained Monday afternoon, in an allusion to the official television program critical of the bureaucracy and laziness. Several passengers recorded scenes with their mobile phones and from time to time a shout was heard over the general murmur: “A truck arrived for Holguín!”

After an announcement like this many throw themselves into the race, pushing and shoving to the point of small brawls, to board the vehicle. The police pull some people out of the melee and put them in their patrol cars. Everyone wants to get out of the hell the Villanueva station has become.

Cuba’s Ration Book Survives For Another Year / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

A bodega of rationed products in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución municipality (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 22 December 2016 — At the end of this month the ration market quotas for January 2017 will go on sale. Cubans who depend on products distributed at subsidized prices will gather outside the bodegas, in long lines, for the 55th anniversary of the ration book, whose elimination continues to be one of Raul Castro’s unmet projects.

In 2014, the average monthly salary on the island increased by 24%, to 584 Cuban pesos (some 24 dollars). Despite this increase, many families still depend on the subsidized prices maintained by the ration card. Their income does not allow them to pay the prices in the supply-and-demand markets or in the retail network of stores in Cuban Convertible pesos. continue reading

Different analysts and official functionaries have warned that the elimination of the ration book could cause a fall in the standard of living in the most vulnerable sectors of the population, among whom are the retired and families who don’t receive any additional income beyond their state salaries.

Among the Guidelines approved by the Seventh Communist Party Congress, last April, it was agreed “to continue the orderly and gradual elimination of the ration book products.” However, so far, the proposal has not gone into effect, in part because of the poor economic development experienced by the country in recent years.

Cuba’s gross domestic product will grow only 0.4% this year, its lowest level in the last two decades, as recently confirmed by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Faced with this reality, the government has not been able to improve people’s purchasing power or dismantle the rationed market.

The Government is faced with the dilemma of maintaining the enormous infrastructure and the hefty costs of prolonging the life of the ration book or suppressing it, with the consequent deepening of poverty for various social groups. Such a measure would have an undeniable political impact on a process that has been defined as a revolution “by the humble and for the humble.”

Officialdom has repeated on several occasions that it is preferable to “subsidize people rather than products,” but the rationed quota is still given to every citizen equally, even those who have reached an above average level of income. The practice has focused on removing products from the subsidized basic market basket.

Rice, grains, oil, sugar, salt, eggs, chicken and bread are some of the foods that are still subsidized, while other goods have been removed from the ration book altogether, including liquid detergent, bath and washing soap, toothpaste, beef and cigarettes.

During the 1970s and ‘80s it was virtually impossible to live without ration book products. This phenomenon resulted in, among many other ills, low internal migration and a greater control of the State over the citizens.

Currently, the mobility of the population to provincial capitals and especially to Havana has increased as a result of the easing of the policy on rental housing. The ability to purchase food and hygiene products outside the rationing system has also contributed to the phenomenon.

The emergence of a parallel market that includes state establishments and private bakeries has also been hugely important to the process of citizen independence. Ration book bread, a recurring theme in the “accountability meetings” of the People’s Power, a topic of critical analysis in the official press and a target of mockery for the majority of Cuban comedians, has lost its importance.

Families with better incomes have given up standing in the traditional lines to get bread for 10 centavos in national currency (less than one cent on the US dollar). They prefer to go to the private bakeries that offer a wide variety of products at unregulated prices.

The bodegas with empty shelves and a blackboard listing the products of the month have become, along with the old American cars that still circulate on the streets of the island and the billboards with political messages, among the photographic trophies taken by tourists as part of the social landscape of Cuba.

The disappearance of the ration book will have to wait until the completion of the gradual reforms announced by the authorities. There will probably be more who mourn its end than those who will celebrate it, but the day will come when some incredulous grandchild will listen to his grandfather repeat stories of “that era when everyone ate the same thing on the same day in the whole country.”

On Your Marks, Get Set…Trump / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Many Cubans must dispose of all their property in order to pay for a plane ticket and to migrate by air. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 21 December 2016 – Walking around the block with a suitcase in hand has been added to the rituals to mark the end of the year, as a plea to be able to travel outside the country. Many Cubans fear, however, that the situation is becoming complicated with the pending arrival of Donald Trump to the White House.

The president-elect of the United States has been so contradictory in his declarations about Cuba that no one knows what will happen between the two countries when he is installed in the Oval Office. Cubans on the island seem less concerned about a possible setback in the diplomatic thaw, than about the loss of their immigration privileges. continue reading

The debate over the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which awards benefits to migrant Cubans arriving in the United States, could put an end to the dreams of many in the new year. Foreign consulates in Havana, especially those of Latin American and European countries, have seen a surge in visa applications.

“We are overworked,” the custodian of the Mexican consulate site in the Miramar neighborhood told 14ymedio. Outside the building, Roberto, who prefers not to give his last name, managed to get a temporary visa to travel to the land of the Aztecs. This Thursday he will fly to Cancun, the cheapest flight between the two countries. “I’m working against the clock,” he says, while finishing the bureaucratic paperwork before the journey.

Roberto has a long journey ahead of him, plagued with obstacles and dangers to reach the US border, but he feels confident. “My brother who lives in Miami is going to help me and pay for the whole trip,” he explains. “It will be much more expensive, but I have to get there before January 20th,” he says.

Trump’s inauguration date has become the goal in a marathon race for thousands of Cubans. People who in recent months have liquidated their possessions, managed to get a visa and are preparing to leave.

Most consulates close their doors at the end of December for the Christmas holidays, an element that contributes to the desperation.

Departures by raft have also increased. The US Coast Guard recently reported that since last October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, around 1,000 Cubans have tried to enter the US illegally by sea. For fiscal year 2016, which ended on 30 September, the figure reached 7,411, compared to 4,473 for the same period in 2015.

With this exceptional winter, without cold and with an ocean free of hurricanes, many Cubans embark on the route to Florida in makeshift crafts. Raul Castro’s government has redoubled its vigilance along the coast lately, but the rafters choose to leave from remote places, among the mangroves or the rocks.

“I don’t know if Trump will be good for us or not, but I’m not going to stay here to find out,” says Yusmila Arcina, who worked as an accountant for a state company until she decided to “make the leap.” The young woman considers herself fortunate, in part, for having obtained a work visa for the Schengen Area (a free movement zone made up of most of the EU countries and others in the area). From Europe, where she expects it will be easier, she hopes to get a tourist visa to travel to the US, using the old continent as a springboard to realize her “American Dream.”

“Yes or no, we have to take advantage now,” suggests the young women, who has no family in the United States. Arcina has paid for the paperwork and a plane ticket in the high season, which cost her around 2,000 Convertible Cuban pesos (roughly the same in dollars), with the sale of a mid 20th century Cadillac that belonged to her father. “That car has been my ticket to freedom,” she jokes.

Arcina’s boyfriend is stranded in Colombia waiting to take the route through the Darien Gap. The challenge for both of them is to reach US territory “before that millionaire gets into office.” Both hope “to watch the inauguration ceremony on local TV in Miami,” says Arcina. Trump has fired the starting gun, and each one, on their own side, has embarked on their migration journey.

Party In A Whisper: The End Of The Year To Come / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Pánfilo’s program has not been broadcast for three weeks. In the video above Obama and Pánfilo appear in a ‘sketch’ recorded during the visit of the American president to the Island.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 December 2016 — Celebrations postponed, revelry suspended and a call not to party in the street, is the reality for Cubans at this year’s end. The sobriety for the death of former President Fidel Castro has spread to television programming and the popular comedy show, “Living to Tell the Tale,” with the lead character Pánfilo, has not been broadcast for three weeks.

“We have received a circular with details on what can be broadcast and what cannot,” a specialist from the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) who preferred anonymity told 14ymedio. “The directions are clear: everything that is programmed has to be analyzed very carefully so as not to fall into frivolities,” he says. continue reading

Throughout the country, all the centers with cultural programming have held meetings to direct their workers to show austerity and moderation, but the calls to avoid celebrations extend beyond facilities for shows, concerts and movies.

Vivian, 42, works as a nurse in a polyclinic in the city of Santiago de Cuba. She explains that in a meeting she was in last week, they were ordered not to hold the gift exchange the medical staff had organized for the last week of December. “I already bought everything,” she said.

Pedry Roxana Rojo, a LGBT activist and worker at a branch of the Cuban Book Institute (ICL) in Caibarién, Villa Clara, published on her Facebook account a protest against the suspension of popular festivities traditionally held at the end of the year.

Rojo, who is also an independent reporter, complains about the secrecy of the official media about the postponement of the festivities. “They have suspended the holidays here this year by royal edict,” she quipped on the social network, telling14ymedio that the decision affects not only residents but also tourists coming to the area for those dates.

The parrandas of Remedios, along with other popular celebrations in the center of the island, have been postponed to January 6 and 7, according to a source from the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power speaking to this newspaper. It is the fourth time in the last six decades that these celebrations have been suppressed or had their dates changed.

The first cancellation of the parrandas occurred in December 1958, when guerrilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos arrived in the area with the so-called “invading column” that brought the combat actions from the Sierra Maestra to the west of the island.

In 1969, the parrandas were again suspended in the midst of the “decisive effort” promoted by Fidel Castro’s government to achieve a 10 million ton sugar harvest. All the end of year celebrations were postponed, but the harvest did not achieve the planned figures.

A decade later, an official directive moved all the popular celebrations of the country to the months of July and August. The parrandas were not allowed to be held in that December of 1979. The measures became more flexible with time and “the waters took their course,” says Moisés Luaces, a peasant from the area who remembers every interruption of his favorite festivities.

So far, official media have not called for the moderating of Christmas parties held inside homes, but many fear that the ruling party will urge Communist Party militants and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to snitch on the most enthusiastic.

In Cuba, Remedios Suspends Popular December Celebrations / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Fireworks are a prominent part of multi-day December celebrations going back to the 1800’s in Remedios, Villa Clara, Cuba. (Flickr / Sergio Carreira)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 December 2016 — Havana has its carnivals, Bejucal has its brass bands, and Remedios has its parrandas,  Christmas season street festivals dating back to the 1800s. But this December, all end-of-year celebrations are suspended. Fidel Castro’s death has turned out the lights and shut off the loudspeakers of these festivities.

After nine days of national mourning, including a prohibition on alcohol and music, the Cuban government has also decreed that the local celebrations planned for the coming weeks will be canceled. In the center of the island, the Remedios parrandas are among the festivities most affected by the prohibition. continue reading

Considered the oldest festivals on the island, the Remedios parrandas mix the attraction of their ingenious floats with an impressive variety of fireworks. In addition, the old rivalry between two neighborhoods is played out in a battle of lights, music and wit that generate interest in the event.

After a whole year of preparation, Remedians have had to park their enthusiasm and put into storage the wide range of pyrotechnics planned for the occasion, including rockets, sparklers, fountains, firecrackers, Roman candles and others. This is not the time “to display joy in the streets,” Communist Party authorities told the festival’s organizers.

Although publicly the national mourning ended on 4 December, with the placement of Fidel Castro’s ashes in a mausoleum in Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, officialdom is intent on prolonging the austerity and is calling for an end of year marked by “tributes to the undisputed leader of the Revolution.”

The Remedios floats have been halted just when they were about to be set in motion. With their designs based on historic, literary, mythological or abstract themes, the compositions will have to wait twelve more months to be publicly displayed. The efforts of the “undercover agents” who try to uncover the other side’s “secrets,” have been absolutely fruitless this year.

In the town of Zulueta tradition has also been interrupted this December. Its parrandas are the last to be held in the country, not getting underway until 31 December. The two opposing sides, the Chivos (goats) of La Loma and the Sapos (toads) of El Guanijibes, will have to remain silent on San Silvester Day, waiting for time and oblivion to bury grief and sobriety.

Both towns in Villa Clara province are only a part of those affected by the austerity set off by the death of the former Cuban president. After his death was announced on 25 November, Cuba has not been the same in the cultural arena.

The centrally located Palacio de la Rumba, in Central Havana, has not opened its doors since the death of Castro. Its local programming remained suspended even on 30 November, the day UNESCO declared the Cuban rumba an intangible cultural heritage.

Administrators in Havana’s elementary schools have been advised that Teachers Day, 22 December, should not be celebrated with music. “There will be a morning assembly, a reading of some commitments, but no cake or dancing,” said Rosa, a teaching assistant at a school in Cerro.

Teachers Days are traditionally joyful in Cuban schools, with classes suspended, replaced by parties and, for the teachers, lots of presents. “It is our day,” the educator lamented to this newspaper. For her, the cancellation is bad news, “They’re taking away something we deserve,” she protests.

With the suspension of the Remedios parrandas and the parties for Teachers Day, Cubans are preparing for a discreet end of year, celebrated behind closed doors. “The party will be within us,” says Rosa.

The Mind, The Spirit, The Source Revived / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

After decades without working the fountain at the corners of of Xifré Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana is working again. (14ymedio)
After decades without working the fountain at the corners of of Xifré Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana is working again. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 3 December 2016 — For decades this fountain remained dry. It was built in the late ‘80s as an ornament to the entrance to the day-care center located in the corner of the Xifre Street and Carlos III Avenue, in the heart of Central Havana. The children who opened this day-care center never called the place “The Little Martís,” which is its official name, but rather the “the fountain day-care center.”

The employees of the center say that a few days ago some workers came from the Communal Works Company. “It seems the problem was simple because they had it fixed in no time.” Asked about the exact date it began working again, no one could agree. They weren’t sure if it was “after the news that Fidel Castro died…” or “a little before.” continue reading

Now, water flows in the middle of the bustle of the most populated district in all of Cuba, a piece of the city that some consider the “real Havana,” for its tough daily life, its serious housing problems and the power of the informal market over the streets. The nearby neighbors don’t fail to find coincidences between the reestablishment of the fountain and the sprucing up of the city for the for the funeral of the former president.

A septuagenarian who was walking with his dog told this newspaper that he had worked on the fountain when he was in the microbrigades. “In addition to building our houses we built many day care centers in Havana. Every time I passed by here and saw this fountain without water it gave me great sadness. Let’s see how long…”

In a city where most fountains are dry, thanks to negligence and lack of maintenance, it is beautiful news to see this source revive.

Cuban Government Imposes Mourning By Force / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The government has set out to present an image of massive remembrance, sobriety and pain (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 29 November 2016 — Eulalia has two obsessions in her life: listening to music and sitting in her easy chair in the doorway of her home in the city of Alquízar, Artemis. There, she watches the evening fall and keeps an eye on her chickens so they won’t end up “in other people’s pots.” As of Saturday she has not listened to her boleros because the police are patrolling the streets to prevent people from drinking alcohol, listening to music, or holding any celebrations that contrast with the national mourning decreed for the death of Fidel Castro.

“I was here in the doorway when they picked up the pedicab driver,” said Eulalia, a retired 80-year-old with two children in the United States. The woman watched a scene this Sunday she will never forget: a uniformed officer stopped the driver because “he had some speakers with music and they told him to turn them off.” continue reading

The entrepreneur refused to comply and the scene ended with a violent arrest. “In this town not even a fly moves,” said the elderly woman, who believes that everyone should honor their dead however they please. “But to force a whole nation… that seems like extremism to me,” she added.

The scene is repeated everywhere. “My daughter turned 15 on Sunday” — a milestone birthday in a girl’s life often celebrated with as big a party as the parents can afford — “and we had to cancel the planned party because the police came by a few hours ahead of time and told us not to do it,” explained Ramon Carvajal, a resident of Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood. “We had planned to play the music softly behind closed doors, but we couldn’t do even that.”

On the other hand, in the emergency room of Calixto Garcia Hospital one of the guards welcomes the measure because, “since they suspended the sale of alcohol it’s quiet here, peaceful.”

There are also those who want to sincerely express their sadness at the death of the man who dominated the life of this island for more than half a century. That is the case for a cameraman with the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) for whom the president “was like one of the family, like a father who has always been close and now is gone.”

This pain is shared by Humberto, who drives for the Panataxi company, and fears that Raul Castro will not follow the path of his brother, “because he is not the same and there is a great difference in terms of charisma.” He also fears that after the funeral “everything will be forgotten and the government itself with throw aside what has been achieved here.”

“We lost the Great One,” said a newspaper seller this Sunday outside the Payret movie theater in Old Havana. “That man had a power, aché, and he was protected by a powerful dead,” explained the man, referencing the Afro-Cuban religions and the energy of the universe. “But I hope that now he will look after us from the other side.”

Nights in Havana are unrecognizable. “Nobody wants to risk their neck and people are waiting for all this to be over,” says Mizzy, a transvestite who frequents Las Vegas caberet on Infanta Avenue. “What’s going to happen when they open up the sales of rum and beer again… there are going to be deaths and injuries in the lines,” he jokes. “Even inside our homes we have to be careful, because the chivatón, the snitch, is making waves,” he explains, speaking of the whistleblowers who alert the police if there are celebrations in any home.

However, it is not only amusements and drinks that are regulated. “I’m building a house and I have to haul out some debris but no trucks want to move in these conditions,” says a resident of La Timba neighborhood. “I had arranged with some friends to take the left over wood and bricks, but they say there is a lot of control on the streets.”

The government intends to present a picture of massive acknowledgement and pain. It seems to have achieved it because the foreign press doesn’t look any deeper. The scenes on national television are of mourning and homage to the deceased, the announcers are wearing barely any make-up and two well-known presenters were captured on an open camera discussing whether to open the program with the usual “Good morning.”

“I’m looking for a DVD with movies because no one can stand this,” a retired ex-official from the Ministry of Foreign Trade told one of his daughters, looking at the repetitive programming flooding the national TV channels. “This is counterproductive, television is going to lose the little audience that remains and then they won’t be able to complain that people prefer the Weekly Packet,” he added.

In Sancti Spiritus, the residents are complaining that the Rapid Response Brigades are roaming the streets and the city appears to be under a state of siege. “People stay inside, there are a lot of uniformed police and black berets,” source who prefers to remain anonymous told 14ymedio.

At dawn on 26 November, a few hours after the announcement of Castro’s death, two evangelical pastors were arrested in Manatí, in Las Tunas province. The police forcefully entered the home of Rafael Rios Martinez and his wife, Maria Secades, and arrested them for the mere fact spreading their religious message through the speakers used during their worship service.

No one wants to cross the line to disturb officialdom. “You have to sit out the weather and wait,” says Eulalia from her doorway in Alquízar. The woman says that all these controls are designed to “prevent scenes like in Miami, people are toasting and celebrating.” However, despite her age, she is determined to celebrate the event: “On New Year’s no one will forbid me from singing and getting drunk; it will be late but it will be.”

Hundreds of citizens in Havana came on Monday to say goodbye to Fidel Castro. (14ymedio)
Hundreds of citizens in Havana came on Monday to say goodbye to Fidel Castro. (14ymedio)

Cubans’ Route To The United States Passes Through Remote Guyana / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Guyana. (Youtube)
Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Guyana. (Youtube)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 15 November 2016 – He doesn’t yet know how to find Guyana on a map, but he proudly shows off a plane reservation from Havana to Panama City and finally to Georgetown. Samuel, a fictitious name to avoid reprisals, was counting the hours this Saturday before boarding his plane to the small nation, a new port of entry for Cubans on their route to the United States.

With the visa restrictions imposed by Ecuador since the end of last year, the routes islanders must follow to emigrate have been redefined. The lax entry regulations, which don’t require visas from Cubans, have made Guyana a first step on the long route of thousands of miles during which emigrants pass through at least seven countries.

“I sold everything, the apartment I inherited from my mother, my home appliances and my almost new motorbike,” Samuel told 14ymedio at José Martí International Airport. With the money, he managed to buy a ticket to the South American country, some 840 dollars round trip, although he says it will be a journey with no return.

“They explained everything to me,” says this young Holguin native. “Several friends have already taken the same route and gotten to Miami,” although they also warned him that it is “a long and complicated journey, where anything could happen.”

The line at the counter of Panama’s Copa Airlines is full of people like Samuel. A couple kissing intensely on Saturday, before the man checked his suitcases bound for Georgetown. A few yards away, Samuel bent nervously, again and again, looking over his hotel booking.

“I will not be staying in this place but I need a reservation to avoid problems when entering Guyana” he explains. As soon as he lands he will contact Ney, a Mexican woman with a Uruguayan cellphone number who will put him in contact with the coyotes who will guide him through the first part of the journey.

“I have to pay $6,000, little by little, but they guarantee I will be at the United States border before the end of November,” he says. He does not know anyone in Guyana and does not want to think about the idea of having to stay in that country. “I do not speak a word of English and I’ve had enough of little countries like my own,” he jokes, as he approaches his turn at the Copa Airlines counter.

He is carrying a suitcase that weighs almost nothing. “I have nothing, what I didn’t sell I gave away.” His only possessions of any worth are a smart phone, a watch and about 8,000 dollars that remain after getting rid of all his property in a hurry. “With this I have to get to Miami because I don’t have even a single cent more,” he says.

Samuel carries contact numbers for Paulo and Adele, a small family business that operates a bus route between Guyana and Brazil. “A cousin gave me these numbers in case I change my mind and he wants me to go to Rio de Janeiro, where he runs a gym.”

Samuel has a degree in physical culture and he believes he can have a future “in some fitnessss center because there are so many of those in Florida,” he says, pronouncing the word with a very long, almost ridiculous, “S” sound, but he is also willing “to lay bricks doing construction work in the hot sun.”

After a couple of years working as a physical education teacher, the young man is ready to “conquer the world” if he can. For now, his challenges are more modest: to get to the Cheddi Jagan Airport in Georgetown and convince the immigration agent that he’s a tourist planning to sightsee and shop, to avoid being deported.

“I will just grab my suitcase and rush to the first taxi that passes by.” The airport is more than 25 miles from the city, but Samuel predicts that he will be laughing the whole time because he will be “over there, far from this shit.”

Each day about fifty Cubans depart from Terminal 3 of Havana’s International Airport heading to Guyana, according to an employee of Copa Airlines. The numbers could skyrocket if people fear that the Passport and Visa Service of that country will be closed to islanders, as happened with Ecuador.

The victory of Donald Trump is also an incentive for emigration, with the expectations that the Cuban Adjustment Act will be repealed. “It’s now or never,” says Samuel, with ticket in hand. The young man steps toward the immigration booth, where an official will affix the stamp to leave the country. That clicking sound on the paper will be his shot to take off.

A Carte Blanche to the Market of Tourists’ Dreams / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Since early this year in the streets of Havana the best-preserved vintage cars can be seen with their yellow stickers allowing them to operate at hotels and airports. (14ymedio)
Since early this year in the streets of Havana the best-preserved vintage cars can be seen with their yellow stickers allowing them to operate at hotels and airports. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 November 2016 — For tourists coming to Cuba, one of the most cherished fantasies it is to get into a car of the last century and cruise the streets of cities and towns. A new type of permit for private carriers is bringing that dream even closer to reality, as it authorizes the drivers to operate at airports and in the vicinity of hotels.

Since early this year in the streets of Havana you can see that the best-preserved models of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Ford displaying a yellow sticker on their windshield. It is the carte blanche to park outside hotels and legally offer their services to foreigners. continue reading

Previously, the areas of the Cuban capital most frequented by tourists were a feudal estate, where the only legal operators were the so-called Panataxis and the vintage cars owned by the government. The self-employed had to settle for picking up tourists on the periphery or managing the business through intermediaries.

The mouth-watering market for tours in convertible cars for recently arrived visitors, costing between 40 and 50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) per hour (about $40-50 US), is attractive to drivers everywhere. Antonio Martinez, 52, is one of those who long to get the “yellow sticker” that would “turn a pumpkin into a carriage,” as he says sarcastically about his old Toyota jeep.

“I’m getting less and less business on the route between Santiago de las Vegas and Fraternity Park,” the driver explained to this newspaper. The entrepreneur spent more than five years working as a collective taxi driver focused primarily on domestic customers.

However, since the middle of this year local authorities have imposed price caps and “business is getting worse,” said the driver. “Many are switching to this type of work with tourists, because it always pays better and there’s the tip on the side,” he adds.

Following a decision by Havana’s Provincial Administration Council, it was established that the carriers cannot decide to raise fares on their own, and only the prices charged before July 1 are acceptable. The majority of drivers have shortened their routes and others make deals with the riders not to reveal to the inspectors the actual fares paid.

But Martinez is tired of this “cat and mouse game.” After an investment of more than 2,000 convertible pesos to make his car “as smooth as silk,” the driver has begun the process to obtain the longed-for sticker that would allow him to “carry Pepes without having to be hiding around corners,” he says.

Competition is strong, because of the more than 496,400 people throughout the island who were engaged in self-employment at the beginning of this year, at least 50,482 carry cargo and passengers. But there is a very small number who have cars “in the impeccable condition that is lovely in the eyes of the tourists,” says Martinez.

Asking around among other drivers who already have the sticker to operate in tourist areas and make “airport pickups,” led the self-employed driver to the No. 9 taxi base on Ayestaran street.

Characteristics of Cuban taxis promoted by the authorities of the sector. (14ymedio)
Characteristics of Cuban taxis promoted by the authorities of the sector. (14ymedio)

It was not as easy as he thought. The director of the state agency, Ernesto Reyes, first described to him the simplest requirements to achieve his goal, including “opening two bank accounts, one in national currency and another in convertible pesos, and taking out the operating license needed by all taxi drivers.”

To not lose the sticker, drivers must pay about 25 CUC and the same amount in national currency, the Cuban peso. “With that you will be allowed to park outside Havana hotels and may take or collect clients at the airport, but it is not valid to go to Varadero beach,” said Reyes.

The most insurmountable barrier is that with the new permit the driver is required to “consume 90 gallons of fuel monthly” that must be purchased at the taxi base on Ayestarán Street at a total cost of 360 CUC. The measure seeks to prevent the self-employed from turning to the informal market to buy their fuel*.

Antonio Martinez has decided to “leave the yellow sticker for another time” because, he said, “rather than a permission, it seems like a shackle.”

*Translator’s note: The “informal market,” in this and other cases, is essentially state resources that have been “diverted” (stolen) for sale on the black market. Much of the Cuban economy – at all levels, from households to businesses – is supported by “under the table” purchases of diverted state resources.

Drought in Cuba Doesn’t Let Up / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Many Cubans have become accustomed to relying on water tankers for their water. (14ymedio)
Many Cubans have become accustomed to relying on water tankers for their water. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 19 September 2016 — A sign announces the sale of an apartment in Havana and stresses, in capital letters, that the “water never runs out” in the area. Not far away, another sign alerts neighbors of a multifamily building: “Starting today, the water-pump will only operate for one hour.” In the last three years, Cubans have lived with drought and water shortages, and forecasts suggest that the situation will not change in the coming months.

According to a recent report released by the engineer Abel Salas García of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH), 48 of the country’s sources of supply are completely dry. Another 200 show partial affects, which means that more than 790,000 people receive water right now on a different cycle than what they were used to, and more than 50,000 receive their supply through tanker trucks. continue reading

To talk about the cycle “they were used to” alludes to the fact that in many places citizens have become accustomed, as a normal situation, to water only flowing to their homes every other day, or sometimes only three times week.

The areas with the highest cumulative rainfall between January and August were Artemisa, Isla de la Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Havana. At the other extreme, the least favored regions are Santiago de Cuba, Ciego de Ávila, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos.

In the specific case of Ciego de Avila, as detailed in the INRH report, of the 14 groundwater basins in that largely agricultural province, six are in critical condition.

In January, the reservoirs were filled to around 53% of their volume and, although up to August rains were close to the historical average in the three regions (eastern, central and west), at the end of August this rate was only 52%. In absolute terms, the country had 653 million cubic fewer meters of stored water than is usual for August.

According to experts, rainfall in the Cuban archipelago has been decreasing by around 1.6 inches annually, which they attribute to climate change and other environmental factors caused by the hand of man.

A lack of water caused by erratic rainfall is exacerbated in Cuba by wasteful leaks in the pipes, in over-wide pipes that bring more water to leak out, and in unstoppable domestic drips caused by lack of maintenance in homes where, given the high price of faucets and plumbing supplies, people find it cheaper to let the water flow uncontrolled than to fix the plumbing.

Bodyshop Workers: Artists with Metal and Torches / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Cuban mechanics working on a car. (File 14ymedio)
Cuban mechanics working on a car. (File 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcello Hernandez, 10 September 2016 – The noise drowns out all talking. There is hammering, the sound of metal being cut, and a polisher that buzzes relentlessly. In the bodyshop belonging to Manolo – called El Gordo, the Fat Guy – located in Santiago de las Vegas, Friday looks like any other day: it is full of cars needing a new fender, trunk or door. The recent authorization for the sale of industrial gases on a wholesale basis to the self-employed barely alters the routine at this hectic place.

Manolo has specialized in making parts for ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevrolets, but his workshop also attends to the “chariots of Real Socialism” as he ironically calls the Soviet-made Ladas and Moskvitches. Creating rear columns is his favorite work; three decades ago he graduated from a university specialty that he has never engaged in. continue reading

This metal artist assures 14ymedio the new commercial flexibility, focused on the activities of sheet metal work, blacksmithing and oxy-welding, “will change the current situation very little.”

“They have taken a long time to take this step, but at least it’s something,” he says.

The wholesale authorization began with the enactment of Resolution 335, of August 31, 2016, published in the Official Gazette No. 25. The move comes three years after chapistero – bodyshop worker – was approved as one of the forms of self-employment Cubans can engage in and for which they must obtain a license. During this time these “professionals of the torch” have had to continue paying retail prices or make their purchases on the informal market.

Since 2013, the retail sale of oxygen and acetylene has been approved in the TRD chains (TRD literally stands for “Hard Currency Collection Stores”), and in CIMEX stores (also State-owned), along with empty cylinders necessary to store these gases. Now the authorization also includes wholesale trade in nitrogen and argon.

However, Manolo says that “the cylinders are supposedly for sale in the hard currency stores,” but he has never been able to buy them there, because the supply is unstable and “they are always out of them.”

“It was much easier and cheaper to get it the under the table,” he explained to this newspaper. A practice common among all the bodyshops that abound across the country.

Three years ago the authorities explained that the decision to grant licenses for these and other trades was taken because they had created the conditions in the country to market “raw materials, equipment and other supplies in the store network and at specific points” but the delay in providing these resources has been a concern among those intended to benefit from the measure.

A few blocks from Manolo’s workshop is the competition. Augustine has a more modest shop with no signage, but as of a couple of years ago he has begun to carve out a loyal clientele. He cannot benefit from the new option buying his gas wholesale because he lives in Havana without the necessary permit to reside in the city, after migrating from his native Camagüey.

“Nobody knows what it costs to jump from rental to rental and the cost of renting a half-hidden place in the outback to work in the only thing I know how to do, bodywork on cars,” he explains.

Without a legal residence in the Cuban capital he can not even apply for a license to do bodywork. “Without that they’re not going to sell me so much as a match to light the wick, so I’ll have to keep paying 400 pesos for a couple of cylinders.”

He can’t even take advantage of the service that leases the empty cylinders on a monthly fee basis, nor can he contract with the state company to transport the cylinders to his bodyshop, two of the measures announced Friday, available to licensed individuals.

Augustine is concerned that the official information published by the newspaper Granma did not specify what the new “wholesale prices” will be in the “territorial units of the Industrial Gases Company.” Nor did it detail if the metal sheets of the different sizes needed to create body parts will also be offered.

“The biggest problem we have now is the tools,” complains the bodyshop worker. “They will sell the gas, but where are the shears, the presses, the good cutters, the bending and stamping machines that are lacking in any body shop?” he asks.

In the middle of Augustine’s workshop is a Chevrolet dismantled into pieces that he is beginning to restore to the gloss of yesteryear. “This is done with patience, this is a job that you must know how to wait for,” he says.

The “Comandante’s” Carnivals / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

Floats being built for the “Comandante’s” carnivals. (14ymedio)
Floats being built for the “Comandante’s” carnivals. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 12 August 2016 – After weeks of anxieties and rumors, the Havana carnivals are starting tonight. A popular celebration whose date* has again been postponed this year to make it coincide with the eve of ex-president Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday.

For several days, the floats that will parade in front of the stands, bleachers and grandstands along Havana’s Malecon, have been under construction near the site. This Friday, the official newspaper Granma published a note with the names of the streets that will be closed and warned people not to “attend the festivities carrying glass containers, knives or fire.” continue reading

The choice of this day for the start of the carnival once again alters its date, which for decades had been moved from its traditional February. The first of these changes happened in 1970, when the celebrations were moved to coincide with the celebrations for July 26 (the date of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, that is considered the beginning of the Revolution), but over the years it has been postponed again and again.

The increasing scarcity of domestic beers in the retail market and the announcements of economic setback had made many fear that the festivities would not be celebrated in Havana. However, the worst fears have not been realized and now Havana residents say, half jokingly and half seriously: “These are the Comandante’s carnivals.”

Travel, Whatever the Cost / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The "last minute" terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)
The “last minute” terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 July 2016 – “Give me the suitcase, I’m off to the countryside,” says the chorus of a tune that gets more popular during the school holidays. Many families visit their relatives in rural areas, travel to tourist destinations in other provinces, or spend some days camping far from home. Interprovincial transport collapses with the high demand in July and August, while customers’ criticisms also intensify.

Under a roof of metal tiles that converts the place into a free sauna, hundreds of people are waiting this weekend to travel “last minute” or “on the waiting list” from the terminal on Puerto Avenue in Old Havana. Some of them no longer remember when they got there, because the hours have passed one after another, without hearing the good news that their number in line can board the next bus. continue reading

The expansive hall is a place where people spend a lot of time. Friendships are created there, some play cards and others take advantage of no one looking to have a sip of alcohol to help them forget the fatigue. The most impatient end up paying a private car to take them to their destination at ten times the price of the official ticket.

Iliana has worked there since they opened the new “last minute” terminal and knows that in these summer months the provinces most in demand are those in the east of the country. A situation that is repeated “at the end and beginning of the year, on some special dates such as Mother’s Day, school holiday weeks and summers.”

Near Iliana a woman dozes on a suitcase, a little boy cries because he’s hot and a furtive peanut seller manages to sell some of his merchandise. All are attentive to the monitors that announce the numbers on the waiting list that can board the next bus, but for several hours no vehicle “has seats.”

A murmur of discontent spreads among the passengers with the first numbers on the list of routes that are longest, to the east of the island. “That’s because the drivers themselves and the conductors resell free spaces before they get here,” complains a father with three kids.

The man asserts that the buses leave from the central Astro terminal, near the Plaza of the Revolution, and between there and the waiting list terminal
“the employees themselves sell the unoccupied seats, arriving at the terminal with only one or two, to be consistent with the formalities.” No other passengers join in the customer’s outraged complaint, some look at the floor and others fan themselves mechanically, their eyes glazed over.

The most prudent travelers are not at this location. They bought their tickets three months ago from the state interprovincial bus system, but such a decision takes a lot of forethought and quite a bit of risk. “I just had to be sure of getting to Morón after my wife confirmed she’d have a vacation from work,” said Raudel, who is from Ciego de Avila but has been living in Havana for the last two decades and this weekend is waiting at the “last minute” station.

Two young men in a corner of the hall decide not to wait any longer. “I’ll buy the ticket outside, because I have to be at my sister’s wedding in Palmarito del Cauto and if I don’t leave now I won’t get there in time,“ one of them tells several customers who are seated nearby. The young man will add to the 169 peso coast of a Santiago de Cuba some 15 convertible pesos – for a total of more than three times the official price – to get there.

“It won’t fail me,” he says, and he notes a connoisseur of the “mechanism” that makes things appear even when the blackboard says they’re out. “I pay and I get on the bus a few blocks from here,” he explains. “No one sees me and it’s just an agreement between the driver and me.”

Some have listened to the call to be careful. “The inspectors are everywhere,” warns a woman heading to Trinidad. There is a lot of surveillance, but it doesn’t fix the problems with transport, what they have to do is import more cars and lower the prices of the tickets which are too high,” she says.

In the recently concluded session of the National Assembly, the deputies criticized the constant violations in the itineraries in urban and interprovincial transport in the country. Also figuring into the debate were the corruption in the sale of tickets at some terminals, irregularities in the vehicle control stations, and the poor maintenance of the roads.

The deputies also mentioned the lack of comfort in the Yutong buses – from China – which operate on the interprovincial routes of the state company Astro, the lack of information for travelers, the disconnect between ticket prices and service, the overuse of the equipment and the poor cleaning standards. But this is only a distant echo for travelers who, lately, suffer firsthand the rigors of getting around the island.

Night begins to fall in the “last minute” terminal and some get comfortable in a corner planning to sleep on their luggage. “I do this twice a month, so this place is like my second home,” says a young woman who studies at the Higher Institute of Art. The rain sounds on the metal tiles and the loudspeaker emits the lucky numbers of those who will take the next bus.

Selling the Fruit of an Avocado Bush / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The price an avocado in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, the salary of an entire working day. (14ymedio)
The price an avocado in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, the salary of an entire working day. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 30 June 2016 — He had tried everything: He sold the old family dishes, pawned his grandfather’s possessions and began renting an area in his house for parties. However, his retirement pension wasn’t enough to support Miguel Angel Garrido, known as “Gelmo,” a resident of Havana’s Calabazar neighborhood. And so it was, until one day he realized he had a treasure in his yard: an enormous clump of avocado that, every season, was covered with hundreds of the delicious fruit.

Gelmo sold the splendid tree to two pushcart vendors. He didn’t have to transplant it or move it to another place, but all the avocados will be placed in the hands of the two vendors of agricultural products. The transaction generated 200 Cuban convertible pesos for the retiree, along the phrase, “Old man, when you want you can eat an avocado, because at the end of the day, the shrub is yours,” offered by one of the buyers with a certain tone of pity. continue reading

The price of this food in the informal market ranges between 10 and 15 Cuban pesos each, a day’s pay for a laborer, so everyone wins in this transaction, especially at this time when the increase in foreign tourists has unleashed a fury of avocado consumption in hotels, private restaurants, and homes rented to travelers.

Gelmo’s avocado bush is the most desirable kind, a Catalina. Although it is “middle aged” it is fully productive. The hardest thing has been to protect it from the winds of hurricanes, because the trunk is of an almost glassy wood, which cracks easily in strong gusts. The rest is up to nature because “it grows like crazy” says the proud owner, who believes that the best investment he’s made in his life is “planting this blessed tree.”

The old man nervously awaited the first rains of the summer. “Until the water touches it, it does nothing,” he says. The rainfall in early June helped out, and now in the middle of his yard are the branches bursting with this fruit which is used in salads and is gaining adherents among those who cannot eat butter because of the cholesterol, and is also in demand in beauty salons to make skin masks.

Gelmo guards the fruit hanging from sturdy branches now, to ensure that it is not plundered by the neighborhood kids, or doesn’t end up falling to the ground as food for the pigs he also keeps in the yard. Every single one of these costly fruits that the pushcart vendors manage to sell will be one more step to selling, again next year, his avocados.