Varadero Workers Alarmed over Russian Tourist not Wearing Masks

Russian tourists in Varadero in April. (Sputnik/Miguel Fernandez Martinez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, June 28, 2021 — “Every day it’s a fight to get them to put on a mask but they refuse. The say they’re vaccinated,” says a hotel bartender in Varadero, who is worried by the behavior of Russian guests there. They are among the few tourists Cuba has seen since the decision was made to cautiously reopen the resort town. “I’m afraid to go home because all day I’m around people who are ignoring the security measures.”

There has been a steady stream of Russian visitors to Varadero since direct flights from Moscow began in April. At the time, the Cuban tourism conglomerate Gaviota wanted to promote the reopening with a simple message: “After many months, we can come together again, thanks to hygienic and public health protocols.”

But in practice, visitors are largely ignoring the guidelines.”You have to practically fight with them to get them to wear a mask. Even if we insist, they still don’t put it on. They get upset even when we just say something to them,” adds the bartender, who prefers to remain anonymous. “The ones who don’t get react badly, tell you that they’ve already been vaccinated. But the vaccine doesn’t prevent us from getting infected.” continue reading

According to official statistics released in early June, fewer than fifteen million Russians — a little more than 10% of the population — has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Another three million have received one dose.

Russia was the first country to approve a Covid vaccine: Sputnik V. It was approved in August before phase 3 trials had been conducted, along with other government approved vaccines: EpiVacCorona (October 2020), CoviVac (February 2021) and Sputnik Light (last month).

International experts view these pharmaceuticals with caution. Though Moscow claims Sputnik has a 97.6% efficacy rate, this has not been confirmed through independent clinical trials. Simultaneously, none of the vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization.

The employee claims that a significant number of hotel workers have not received the full dose of Cuba’s own trial vaccines. “The risk of getting sick is high. And we can’t even say that the fear is offset by economic benefits because Russian tourists are here on ’all inclusive’ packages and they almost never leave tips.

Even the cleaning staff, who do not interact directly with the guests, are frightened. “I see them in the halls not wearing masks, singing and talking loudly. I hold my breath when I pass them but that’s not really protecting me,” complains a maid from Cayo Coco, in Ciego de Avila province, another popular tourist destination.

However, it is in Varadero where the situation is most problematic. The city is located in Matanzas, the province where the public health emergency is suddenly the most acute. With more than 500 new Covid-19 cases reported on Monday, the region has become the focus of health officials’ concerns.

The Minister of Public Health, Jose Angel Portal Miranda, made an emergency visit to the province and met with local officials on Sunday “to analyze the complex epidemiological situation” in the region to evaluate “heightening measures to confront the pandemic” according to Twitter messages posted by health authorities.

But while the posts acknowledge an increase in infections, no reference is made to a possible link between the rising infection rate and the influx of tourists in Varadero, much less to role Russian visitors might be playing in this surge.

“Close the airport and stop letting tourists in,” writes Paulina Roques, a resident of nearby Cardenas. In a social media post last weekend, she complains, “Economic interests are taking precedence over the health risks that come with this reopening.” In a comment, another writer asks, “Will it be worth it, or will we ultimately spend more curing the sick than we earn off these tourists?”

Since June, more than 4,000 Russian visitors have been arriving daily in Varadero after the Russian carrier Aeroflot began direct flights from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport in Matanzas.

Aeroflot uses Boeing’s 777-300ER planes, which carry more than 500 passengers, for its three weekly flights. It partners with Azur Air, NordWind and Royal Flight, which began connections between Russia and its main Cuban tourist destination.

British and German tourists had been coming to Varadero in previous months but virulent waves of coronavirus in both countries led authorities to restrict or prohibit travel overseas. Russia is now Cuba’s greatest hope. Russian and Chinese tourism is the only market that is growing. Canada still accounts for the largest number of visitors but the European market is declining.

From January 2019 to January 2020, the Russian market grew 48.4%. Experts believe Cuba is poised to become a top tourist destination for Russian vacationers because it is cheaper than the Maldives, its main competitor, and the UAE.

“That’s excellent news. We believe tourism to Cuba could grow 250% based on the number of seats available on planes flying there. There’s a lot of interest from airlines,” said Juan Carlos Escalona Pellicer, the tourism adviser at the Cuban Embassy in Moscow.


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

Water Returns to a Havana Building After a Complaint on Facebook

The multi-family building is located on 19 de Mayo and Ayestarán, in the capital’s municipality of Cerro. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 9 June 2021 — After more than a week without water, the residents of a multi-family building located on 19 de Mayo and Ayestarán in the capital’s municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, were able to receive water through a watertruck, thanks to a complaint on social networks where they named the state company Aguas de La Habana.

Internet user Otane González made the complaint by sharing a company poster with the phrase “Water is like love, we cannot live without it.” With irony, the woman responded to the state company: “Very true Aguas de La Habana, without love you cannot live and without water, even less. Pay attention to what you say.”

In Gonzalez’s post also we read: “We have been a week without water and love wanes,” adding that despite the efforts made by the residents of the building they were unsuccessful. Those in charge of repairing the problem “trade in justifications and an important point is forgotten: this street is inhabited by living beings,” she said. continue reading

A neighbor who lives near the building told 14ymedio that after the complaint, a government leader saw the publication on the networks and they sent a watertruck. “Apparently there is a break [in the pipes] that they have not found, that is why the supply does not reach the residents of the building, but in the rest of the area there is water every day, from 5 am to 3 pm,” he said.

“It’s now better to write on Facebook than to call any institution to solve a problem,” explains a resident of the property speaking to this newspaper by phone. “When we were calling Aguas de La Habana and complaining to the area’s delegate, we only got the runaround.” However, “it was enough for her to go online for them to start running.”

The man adds that the lack of supply put them “on the brink of a hygienic crisis.” The high temperatures, the high incidence of the pandemic in the capital and the shortage of personal and domestic hygiene products “came together in a perfect storm,” he details. “Luckily I could go to my daughter’s house to bathe, but here there are people who have been barely cleaning their mouths all these days and that’s it.”

At the beginning of last month, the residents of the Havana districts of El Canal (Cerro) and La Víbora (Diez de Octubre) experienced cuts in the drinking water service when the capital authorities established that the supply would be provided every three days and not on alternate days as had happened up to that time.

The reason for the new supply pattern was due “to the intense drought that the country is experiencing,” said the state company, which adds that “the water tables of the main sources that supply the city are very depressed.” For this reason, there are “effects due to lack of water and low pressure in some areas and neighborhoods of the central system.”

A few days later, there was an electrical breakdown that damaged the Cuenca Sur source, affecting the municipalities that receive that water: Plaza de la Revolución, Centro Habana, Cerro, Diez de Octubre and La Habana Vieja, in addition to the Miraflores and Altahabana neighborhoods, in Boyeros.

The supply of drinking water is one of the services that, with the elimination of subsidies on January 1, increased considerably in price. In this case, from 1.75 pesos to seven pesos per cubic meter.


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

To Get a Digital TV Box in Cuba You Need a Ration Book and 1,250 Pesos

A line at the store on the corner of 11th and 4th in El Vedado, Havana, to buy the decoder ’boxes’. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 7 June 2021 — The line stretches for several blocks. There are people sitting on the sidewalk curb, others take shelter under the shade of the trees, and many others take to walking from one corner to another to stretch their legs. They joined the line at dawn, everyone has their ration book with them and they hope to buy the decoder boxes for digital television.

Known as “the little boxes,” the devices that allow you to enjoy a broader range of national broadcasts only appear in dribs and drabs in some state stores and for weeks it has been mandatory to present their rationbook to acquire them. Only residents of the same municipality are entitled to buy in these places.

“My sister-in-law called me at five in the morning, just to tell me they lifted the curfew,” a woman tells this newspaper, while waiting about 200 yards from the store that accepts payment in Cuban pesos at 11th and 4th street Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood. “They are worth 1,250 pesos each, but if I add up the number of hours I have been here it will cost me a fortune,” she laments after noon. continue reading

“No, it is not by the ration book but with the ration book”, clarifies an employee of a store of the Trimagen chain, managed by the Cuban military, which in recent months has sold these devices on several occasions. “We need the notebook to write down who has already bought and thus avoid hoarders and resellers,” he explains. “The problem is that there are households that have more than one television, even that there are several families in the same house and they can only buy one,” he acknowledges.

“Many people have been asking how long it takes between buying one box and being able to buy another, but they have not explained that to us yet. At the moment the data of those who have already acquired it is being archived and if anyone has doubts it must go to the provincial government,” clarifies the worker, who details that in the Trimagen store they are selling” the boxes for the municipalities of Cerro and Plaza.”

Digital television began its first steps in Cuba in 2013, but economic problems have slowed its progress. The authorities recently announced that they are preparing 318,000 Chinese standard digital TV decoders.

Until the arrival of these devices on the national scene, the word “box” was used in popular Cuban speech to designate a rectangular cardboard container where food is traditionally served at parties, cafeterias that sell to go, or situations where diners cannot sit in front of the plate.

With use, the expression “get a box” came to mean reaching something you want, taking advantage of a situation (even sexually) or being taken into account in some distribution mechanism. In April 1980, when more than 10,000 Cubans requested asylum at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana to try to escape from the Island, the phrase gained strength.

Squeezed into the embassy’s garden and on the roof of the building, in a short time the overcrowding of these thousands of people also turned into a humanitarian crisis that the ruling party skillfully handled. The distribution of the “boxes” with food became a moment of fights that the government cameras filmed to present those gathered there as criminals. “To get a box, you had to go over the top of others and beat each other with your fists,” one of those refugees would later recall.

Now, to get a box you need long hours in line, a large amount of money in your pocket and a ration book. Instead of food or a piece of birthday cake , you receive the right to be able to watch official television with better quality.


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

Like Coffee and Rum, Tobacco Disappears from Stores in Cuban Pesos

With the disappearance of tobacco in stores that sell in Cuban pesos, anyone who can’t pay in hard currency has to resort to the black market. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López, Moya, Havana, 3 June 2021 — On the island of cigars and cigar rag (cut tobacco), Cubans find themselves with the dilemma of acquiring packs of cigarettes on the black market or buying them in stores in freely convertible currency (MLC). In state stores and cafeterias, where this product is marketed in pesos, the shortage becomes more acute every day and huge lines get longer.

“I buy cigarettes from people who sell in my neighborhood because they are gone from the stores, but when I went to the Boyeros and Camagüey shopping center, there they were, all brands looking pretty, but in MLC. Tremendous lack of respect”, Jorge, a resident of the Havana neighborhood of Los Pinos, tells us. He adds that he should take advantage of the situation to quit smoking, but that it is quite difficult for him given the daily stress of living in Cuba.

Along with rum and coffee, two of the other symbols of Cubanness, smoking is no longer affordable for the pockets of the ordinary citizen. In addition, tobacco rose in price on January 1, with the start of the so-called ‘Ordering Task’*, but the rise was the least of the problems for some consumers who had seen the product disappear months ago. continue reading

In addition, tobacco rose in price on January 1, with the start of the ‘Ordering Task’, but the rise was the least of the problems

Many smokers have been forced to stop smoking their favorite brands. Those who preferred Hollywood, now have to turn to Rothman, which late last year replaced the former. But soon after, the Rothmans disappeared from the peso sales and can only be found at US$2.20 a pack. Consumers have had to opt for other alternatives, such as the green Popular or the H. Upmann, but now, those are also scarce and are only relatively easily found in sole proprietorship businesses for up to double their usual price.

Added to the dilemma of not finding the desired cigarettes is the complaint of many smokers about the poor quality of the product. The flavors have changed and sometimes the cigarettes come with little filler or scant glue, so the cork or filter separates from the rest. They also arrive with yellowish spots on the paper, a product of humidity, a sign of improper storage and handling.

“You may find either a stem of the tobacco leaf or a piece of plastic just as easily. It happened to me once, I noticed it because of the burnt cable stink, and almost called the fire department, but before I did, I realized that the smell was coming from the cigarette. After I performed the autopsy, I found a two-centimeters long piece of plastic.  I still wonder how that ended up in the cigarette,” a Centro Habana barber told 14ymedio.

On the other hand, the few places where they carry the odd brand, especially “strong”, are hotbeds of desperate people trying to get the product at cheaper prices. “First I went to the Sylvain and there was only blue Popular, then I arrived at the Cupet, at Infanta and San Rafael Streets but they were very crowded, it took over 2 hours to get them and quantities were limited to purchases of 5 packs per person, which means that in four or five days I’ll have to wear out my shoes in search of the darn cigarettes again,” says a worker at La Quinta de los Molinos.

The mixed Cuban/Brazilian Company, Cigarrillos S.A., popularly known as Brascuba and founded in 1995, is the one that supplies stores in foreign currency and, although some prices continue to be unchanged, it has increased others.

At the beginning of last year, company executives declared that, in order to guarantee the constant flow of production and so that “there is no impact,” Brascuba had expanded its portfolio of suppliers and the main raw material, tobacco, came “directly from the Virginia project, in Pinar del Río, and that the company’s partners have contributed to its growth and improvement.” However, months later, reality tells a different story.

Faced with such a shortage, some people who are astute and have good memories, have resorted to the homemade manufacture of cigars, the so-called Tupamaros

Faced with such a shortage, some people who are astute and have good memories, have resorted to the homemade manufacture of cigarettes, the so-called tupamaros. They use the artisanal machines to roll, manufacture and produce cigarettes from different raw materials, such as sweepings or surplus that is usually discarded at the factories, or also by creating the filling from chopped tobacco leaves. Almost any paper can be used, as long as it’s a thin sheet, as long as the glue is a mixture of flour and water.

Francisco, a neighbor of the La Corona Tobacco Factory in Old Havana, performs very well in these tasks. He has dusted off his cigarette machines not used since the late 90’s and, after maintenance, he’s gotten down to business. “The situation has become very difficult, especially for us retirees,” he explains.

“Buying food is already complicated, so being able to smoke is so much worse, that’s why I remembered that I had the little machines to make cigarettes, so taking advantage of the shortage, I started production with what I can resolve. This way, I guarantee mine and sell to people from the neighborhood to recoup the investment and earn a bit of change, although sometimes I also trade cigarettes for sugar, chopped meat or whatever they offer me.”

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

Translated by Norma Whiting

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

Little by Little, The Dollar is Imposed on Neighborhood Stores in Cuba

Every day, the list of state foreign exchange businesses grows. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 21 May 2021 — One day, they close due to a supposed renovation or the need to take inventory, and weeks later they open in another currency. That is the story of many neighborhood stores that have gone from selling in Cuban pesos to offering their products in freely convertible currency (MLC), a dollarization that spreads throughout Cuba.

The list of these state businesses grows every day. This transformation causes discomfort among the population, who perceive the change with a feeling of economic instability and monetary discrimination, but the process seems unstoppable for the authorities, thirsty to collect foreign currency at any cost.

The El Bimbón ice cream parlor, located at the intersection of Infanta and Manglar streets, in Havana, is an example of this reconversion. Until recently, the place had an attached store that sold basic necessities in pesos, but today, to be able to acquire its poor catalog of merchandise, payment must be made in dollars. continue reading

This transformation causes discomfort among the population, who perceive the change with a feeling of economic instability and monetary discrimination, but the process seems unstoppable for the authorities

“I’m the last in line, but I warn you that this store is in dollars now,” a woman in her 70s clarified this Thursday to a customer who approached the line. Inside the premises, the offer was very limited: tomato sauce, pasta, chopped meat and frozen chicken. A few months ago, more or less the same merchandise was sold in pesos.

Faced with the avalanche of complaints about the social differences that deepen these markets, the Minister of Economy, Alejandro Gil, tried to calm things down last December and assured that the opening of foreign currency stores for the sale of food and hygiene products was “a social justice and socialism decision”.

“An undersupplied market does not attract foreign currency,” the Minister explained then, referring to what many Cubans have classified as “monetary apartheid” that divides society between those who have dollars to buy products in these shops and those who must comply with the network of stores in national currency.

A few weeks ago, the El Bimbón store was closed, allegedly because several workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Days of rumors concluded with the store reopening, but this time with somewhat more assorted shelves and merchandise exclusively for sale in MLC.

After the reopening of several stores, merchandise is sold exclusively at MLC. (14ymedio)

“Now, to buy chicken or chopped meat, I have to walk at least 12 blocks and, on top of that, stand in an endless line, and I’m no longer feeling healthy enough to be doing this,” another customer complained this week. The store is a few meters from a multi-family building known in the neighborhood as “Fame and Applause” because it is home to artists and television presenters.

“All those people who appear in the official media live right here and have not said a word about this injustice,” laments Mateo, a 67-year-old retiree who lives on nearby Amenidad Street. “Since this store switched to foreign currency, the whole neighborhood is hanging on by its fingernails, but these people don’t say anything, they continue parade their faces in the news in order to support and applaud the Government”.

In mid-October, the State-run daily Granma published that the country “will not dollarize its economy” and that the stores in MLC “are necessary, but temporary”. In the article, the official organ of the Communist Party quoted Minister Gil, who assured that the monetary system “is thinking” for Cuba “to work with a single currency: the Cuban peso.”

Raúl Castro himself, in his report to the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party, acknowledged that “the stores in MLC were created to encourage remittances from abroad”. However, it does not seem that their end is near, to the contrary.

A few blocks from Infanta and Manglar Streets, on the corner of Santa Marta, another market has been closed for months. A rumor has reached the residents of the place that, when it reopens, its sales will be in dollars. “There’s a store 20 meters from the entrance to my house, but I still have to travel one kilometer to buy a piece of chicken, it is not easy,” says a neighbor.

Something similar happens in the Panamericana Aranguren store, in El Cerro, the epicenter of lines and hubbub: it has been closed for more than a week, supposedly due to an outbreak of the virus among its workers. Neighbors fear that it will reopen with an assorted stock, but in the new mode of sale in foreign currencies.

Neighbors fear that the Panamericana Aranguren store will reopen with an assorted stock, but in the new mode of sale in foreign currencies. (14ymedio)

“I asked the delegate of the Popular Power and she told me that this issue had not been discussed at last Monday’s meeting, but that, even they did not have that information because those things came from higher up,” complains a neighbor. “Sometimes I think of Cuba as a very tall building and that our leaders live in the clouds.”

“There isn’t one hardware store left that does not sell in dollars in this country. The one on Infanta and Desagüe streets previously had a varied array in convertible pesos, but now, even to buy a valve, an elbow joint or a screw you have to go with the blessed little MLC card”, comments the worker of a private cafeteria across from the store La Especial.

“Today they put up water pressurizers for sale at La Cubana (previously called Feíto y Cabezón) and no one can even enter the store: they allow 50 people a day in to buy and on top, there’s a limit of one pump per card,” warned a frustrated buyer at full volume who ended up returning on foot through Reina Street when he saw the long line in front of one of the most important hardware stores in the capital. 

Not a year has passed since their opening, and the stores that sell food and hygiene products in foreign currency are already going through a crisis

Not only do long lines and the inability to pay in national currency mark these stores. Not a year has passed since their opening, and the stores that sell food and cleaning products in foreign currency are already going through a crisis. Supply shortages and very long lines mark the days in the most criticized shops in the country, the only ones, however, that still have more than a dozen products on their shelves.

Given their elitist nature, the markets in MLC provide a new modus vivendi to thousands of Cubans who have magnetic cards in foreign currency. They buy grains, meat and dairy products, hardware, furniture and preserves that they then resell in the informal market. Eager customers pay to not wait in long lines, to avoid COVID-19 contagion.

“Lines after lines are in dollars, but with service as if they were in Cuban pesos”, a man lamented this Thursday upon exiting a market in MLC on Galiano Street. “No matter what currency you pay with, the disaster is the same.” In the lines, under the sun, some customers nodded, while others preferred to look away.


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

No Money to Finish Construction on Mariel Housing Project

Spacious houses under construction on Almendares Street, across from La Pera Park. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, May 18, 2021 — Some months ago the place was alive with construction activity. Now, however, there are no bricklayers or engineers anywhere in sight, and the din of building tools is nowhere to be heard. Construction of nine houses for senior executives of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución district has halted because the workers building the project have not been paid.

The site is located on Almendares Street, between Bruzón and Lugareño, in front of La Pera Park. The houses being built here are notable for their spacious layouts, large cisterns and multi-vehicle covered parking.

“Back when they were paying the workers good wages, everything here ran like clockwork,” a watchman at the site told 14ymedio. But after months of not being paid, the original building crew quit. “Like everything else here, it started well but ended badly.” continue reading

Gone are the days when the crew put up walls (at an unusually fast pace for a Cuban building project), poured reinforced concrete roofs and installed wood flooring. Now, the two-storey complex has hit a roadblock and no one can say how long it will take to be resolved.

Unable to pay the the workers’ high-wage salaries, the Mariel Specialized Services and Integrated Project Management Company (ESEDIP), which overseas the project, hired a much cheaper crew, which ended in disaster. “The workers would come, spend all day looking around for supplies they could sell, then sit on the park benches and drink rum,” says the watchman.

Non-payment of wages to state-sector employees has become common in recent months. It began when the government decided to do away with the country’s dual currency system, which has forced state-owned companies to try to get their internal finances in order. Since then, employees from various sectors have reported loss of income and delays in getting paid.

“The pandemic took a big bite out of our projected earnings for this year and last,” says an ESEDIP accountant who prefers to remain anonymous. “We’re trying to adjust the numbers so we can restart some projects that are currently on hold but we still don’t know when we’ll be able to do that.”

ZEDM’s earnings were below expectations and its commercial activity was 7.9% lower than in 2018 according to a report by the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Commission. Though data is not available yet, it is widely believed that the Covid-19 crisis has led to an even steeper decline.

Between January 2014 and October 2020 the port facility moved only two million TEUs (a maritime unit of measurement based on the volume of one twenty-foot long metal shipping container). Though company officials describe it as “a new milestone,” it pales in comparison to ports in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, which processed the same amount of cargo traffic in two years rather than seven.

Among the projects sidelined by the crisis are the nine units being built to house senior executives of ZEDM. Few here understand the reason for locating the project in this neighborhood, 36 miles from the port of Mariel. “Why are they being built here, an hour’s drive away? Isn’t gasoline going to be a huge expense?” asks Alfredo, a neighbor who lives a few yards from the site.

He is concerned that, given their size, the four cisterns on the site will affect the water supply to other houses in the area. “Once they start filling them up, the neighborhood will be without water,” he worries

The project remains stalled as ESEDIP tries to dig itself out of its financial hole. Meanwhile, vandalism and theft of materials threaten to further delay its completion. The growing demand for building materials also means the project (the Ministry of Construction issued building permit 130/2019 for it) must be under round-the-clock surveillance.

“They were selling me cement that I needed to finish my house but I haven’t been able to get it done,” one neighbor says. His source dried up out after security cameras were installed on the site to prevent the ongoing pilfering that consumed huge piles of sand and other aggregates before they could be used for their intended purpose.

The country has seen a huge increase in the cost of P-350 cement, a key material in Cuban building construction. In February the price of a bag rose to over 1,000 pesos on the black market and it has virtually disappeared from the shelves of state-owned stores, where the official price is 165 pesos a bag. Though construction of tourist hotels has not been affected, the shortage has led to many building projects being put on hold.

Meanwhile, progress on a building located near the ZEDM houses, which is destined to be the tallest in Havana, continues apace. Unofficially known as “López-Calleja Tower” in reference to the general in charge of military-run companies in Cuba, “it has not had any delays or labor and material shortages” reports Marcial.

“Hotels are the high priority now. Mariel is old news. Not even the official press talks about the port anymore,” he adds.


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

The Back Seats of Cuba’s Electric Tricycles are Not for Sitting

A passenger riding in the back of an electric tricycle in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, May 6, 2021 — Dayron’s first thought when he heard the police siren was that it would be a routine document check, but what he actually heard left him confused. “You may not transport anyone on the back of your tricycle,” the officer told him, pointing to the young woman who was riding in the electric vehicle’s back seat. “It’s not our fault; it’s outlawed by the Transport Ministry,” the cop added.

The restriction is an attempt to prevent owners of private vehicles from operating as taxi drivers by pretending to be transporting family or friends. At least, that is what an official at the Ministry of Transport told 14ymedio on Thursday after several attempts to contact the ministry’s offices by phone.

“We’ve asked the police to enforce this because we know that there are people profiting from delivering merchandise or transporting passengers without a license to do so,” explained the manager, who wished to remain anonymous. “Since the pandemic we’ve heard of many people trying to fly under the radar by driving without a license and we’ve gotten numerous reports of tricycle drivers doing just that.” continue reading

The official could not cite the number or quote the text of the resolution governing this restriction but did detail the reasons that have led agents to redouble their surveillance on tricycles. “Since these vehicles don’t consume gasoline, they can be very profitable for their owners, who are basically taking advantage of the emergency situation we’re in.”

Dayron’s model is one of the first such vehicles to go on sale in Cuba. For several weeks similar vehicles have been selling at prices between $3,895 and $6,900. Regardless of differences in type and cost, however, they are now all under police scrutiny.

“Why do they sell tricycles with back seats if they’re going to prevent people from taking full advantage of them?” asks Dayron. “Now, after spending all this money, you’re going to tell me I can’t use it for what it was intended? It’s ridiculous and abusive, especially since right now they’re issuing almost no work permits for messenger drivers.”

The Plaza and Central Havana Municipal Office of Employment confirms this. “We are not issuing any transportation related licenses at this time,” says an employee at the office on Zanja Street.

Last August the state’s severe restrictions on self-employment began to lessen when the limit of 123 legally permitted areas of private sector employment was lifted, something entrepreneurs had been demanding for years. The news was well received but reaction was cautious. Suspicion has been growing with each passing month as the process remains stalled by delays, lack of information and bureaucracy.

Obtaining a license to transport passengers requires, among other things, first opening a bank account, filing an application with the giant military-run Fincimex corporation for a permit to buy fuel, and confirming the vehicle meets certain technical requirements. Some of this paperwork now takes months rather than weeks to process due to coronavirus restrictions.

Technical requirements for transport vehicles — emergency exits, seats in the same position as that of the driver, adequate lighting — were not written with electric tricycles in mind.

“As usual, they changed the law and then reality upended it,” says Luis Alberto Suárez, a tricycle driver who transports produce for Havana’s San Rafael market. “A lot of times I have to transport not only what I am selling but the buyer too. But now with this latest thing, I can’t do that.”

“The Transport Ministry didn’t foresee how tricycles would be used. They thought they were going to sell these vehicles and people were just going to use them the way the manuals said,” he notes ironically. “Well, I’ve already seen them being used as an ambulance, a moving van, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them used for weddings, with a bride in a veil, or for anything else. How are they going to stop it?”

The Transport Ministry official who spoke with 14ymedio acknowledged the delay. “The issuing of licenses to tranport goods or passengers in Havana is a little behind schedule and that discourages many from completing the process,” she warns. “Those who already have a license can keep working legally under the new regulations.”

With the bureaucracy chugging slowly along, tricycle drivers, especially those who purchased a vehicle in the past year, are feeling the heat. Inspections, arrests and fines have been increasing. What was once routine now often feels like a pressure campaign on drivers of three-wheeled vehicles.

“Last week they fined me for going the wrong way. As it turns out, it was a part of the city I know well but the street sign was in bad condition and I didn’t notice it,” says another driver. “Every day they stop me for something or other but I feel this was just too much. They fined me sixty pesos and I lost twelve ’meat points’ [from the ration book].”

“But what was really interesing was when I got to the office to pay the fine, most of the people there were tricycle drivers. It was like a three-wheeled vehicle club and everyone there had been fined for one thing or another,” he says.

Many of the electric vehicles in circulation on the island were assembled at Caribbean Electric Vehicles (Vedca) in Mariel Special Development Zone. In addition to the high sticker price, owners face the additional costs of electricity, which rose early this year, and battery replacement.

“These vehicles are very easy to steal so you need a secure parking space. That adds hundreds or thousand of pesos a month to your operating costs,” notes Mauricio Limonta, owner of one of the most popular models, which includes ample cargo space. “If they don’t let us keep working, we’ll lose everything.”

Andy is another electric tricycle owner who has waited in line several times to pay a fine. “It’s not even noon and the police have already stopped me twice,” he reports. “To top it off, they tell me that I can’t have anyone in the passenger seat in front or in the two back seats.”

“I didn’t buy this vehicle in Panama or Mexico. I paid for it [in dollars] at a state-run dealership in Havana. I got it to drive my wife and parents around whenever I want,” he complains. “They don’t stop you only when someone else is with you. I’ve been stopped so they can check a box or bag I happen to be carrying and I’ve had to convince them I’m not making unlicensed commercial deliveries.

Electric tricycles are very popular with private delivery drivers, who use them to transport products such as fruits and vegetables. Not too long ago they ran on pedal power alone but in recent months electric versions have brought speed and efficiency to home delivery for restaurants and cafes.

Andy recalls his lastest encounter with the police who, for the umpteenth time, pulled him over and asked to see his documents even though he was following all the rules. “It irritated me. I told him that, instead of going after tricycle drivers, they ought to be fixing the streets, which are in very bad repair.”

The officer didn’t hold his tongue: “The potholes slow you down so you don’t speed. And if you keep questioning me, you’re going to get slapped with contempt. So you’d better get out of here while I’m still in a good mood.”


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